Author: Jill Shalvis


“And that,” Tara said honestly.


Chloe took Maddie’s hand. “Come on. Let’s go back to the cottage, turn on our Charlie Brown Christmas tree lights, and sing bad Christmas songs. I have a brand-spanking-new facial mask to try out on you guys that takes away fine wrinkles.”


“I don’t have wrinkles.”


Chloe patted her hand. “And remind me to remind you to get your eyes checked.”


The next morning, Maddie opened her eyes and had to laugh. Once again she’d fallen asleep knitting and was wrapped in her yarn. And also once again, she was entangled with her sisters beneath their tree like a pack of kittens. She crawled over a snoring Tara and pulled herself free from her latest knitting project. She’d finished it last night, and beautiful as she thought it was, she had to admit—it was her most crooked scarf yet. “Okay, one of these days, I’m going to get the hang of this.”


Chloe sat up, and Maddie gaped at her. And then at Tara. “Why is your hair green?”


“What?” Chloe touched her hair. “What?”


“And your face is white.”


“Omigod. So’s yours! And yours!” Chloe said, pointing at Tara, too.


It was like a bad game of blind man’s bluff. They all ran to the tiny bathroom and fought for space in front of the mirror.


Each of them had green-tipped hair and a face mask that had hardened like clay, cracking across their skin.


“Oh, God,” Tara groaned, then whirled on Chloe. “This is your fault.”


Chloe tossed up her hands. “Why is it always the baby who has to take the blame?”


“Because you are to blame? You said the mask would soak in overnight.”


She’d talked them into some new conditioner she’d made out of seaweed and avocado. “It must have stained. Okay, no one panic.”


“Why, because I’m sporting a hair dye that makes me look like I should be starring in a Dr. Seuss book?” Tara yelled.


Maddie bent to the sink and scrubbed off the face mask and brushed her teeth. Chloe and Tara followed suit, then they all stared at themselves until the doorbell rang.


Maddie went to the door.


Jax stood on the porch holding a container of four steaming hot coffees. Something tumbled inside her at the sight of him, but the warm fuzzy was immediately chased by a cold dose of reality. She had no idea where they stood.


He was wearing his usual sexy-as-hell work uniform—jeans, boots, and a big, warm-looking hoodie sweatshirt. Minus his usual easy smile. He handed her a coffee. “About my father and my ex,” he said, characteristically going right to the meat. “I don’t talk about them because neither are involved in my day-to-day life anymore. I spend long chunks of time not thinking about them at all. We don’t keep in touch; we don’t have fond memories. Both of those relationships ended badly, so believe me, there isn’t anything you’d want to hear.”


Fair enough. She and her father had a very decent relationship, but her time with Alex certainly wasn’t anything anyone would want to hear, either. “I’m sorry. I overreacted.” She offered a small smile. “I guess I’m still working on those trust issues. But you can’t deny that I really don’t know very much about you.”


His warm caramel eyes met hers. “We could work on that.”


Out of everything he’d given her—his time, a sense of renewed confidence, his friendship and more—this was perhaps the most meaningful of all. “That’d be nice,” she said. “Getting to know each other even better.”


“Maybe we could start with why you have green hair.”


“Basically, it’s because Chloe’s evil. Notice my scarf matches.”


“There’s a lot of green going on,” he agreed.


She pulled off the scarf and wrapped it around his neck, holding the ends. Playfully, she went up on tiptoe and brushed his lips with hers. “It’s a little crooked, but I prefer to think of it as unique. And it’s warm.”


“Reminds me of you,” he said softly, hands going to her hips to hold her against him. “Unique and warm.”


She kissed him again. “Thanks for the coffee, and especially thanks for being so patient with me.”


He tightened his grip when she moved to pull away. “Have we negotiated a truce, then?”


“I think so. We’re…” What? What were they? She realized she had no idea what he wanted from her.


He looked at her for a long moment. “I’d like to keep going with us, Maddie. Adding in more talking, minus a few misunderstandings. You?”


She stared at him, feeling her emotions swing like a pendulum. Not only had he said what he’d wanted without a sign of panic or fear, he’d asked her what she wanted. “I’m on board with that. Though I’d add in more of what we did yesterday at your house before your dad showed up.”


With his first real smile and a soft laugh, he pulled her in and pressed his mouth to her temple. He ran a hand down her hair, tugging very lightly on the green tips, the small smile still curving his mouth, the one that tended to melt her bones with alarming alacrity.


Her sisters appeared on either side of her, green hair and all. Jax offered them coffees, which were gratefully received.


“You need a clone,” Chloe told him and sipped. “To share with the rest of the female population. What are we doing today?”


Maddie knew what she wanted to do. Jax.


But clearly his superhero powers of ESP were broken. “Painting,” he said to Chloe. “An entire day of painting.”


Damn.


They painted.


And painted.


Well, Tara and Maddie painted. Chloe worked on her skin care line.


Jax worked outside and away from them on the wood trim. By the time Tara and Maddie quit at sunset, Maddie’s arms felt like overcooked noodles.


Chloe, restless as usual, rode off into the sunset on her Vespa.


“Stay out of trouble,” Tara called after her. Shaking her head, she sighed. “She’s not going to stay out of trouble.” She turned to Maddie. “I’m going in for my dinner shift. Come over when you’re hungry, and I’ll feed you.”


“Will do.” Maddie stood in the middle of the living room of the inn and took stock as if she were looking at the place for the first time. The floors were looking good, and without the rooster and cow wallpaper, the rooms looked bigger and more airy. Even so, there was still something almost antiquated about the place, which was okay, because it fit like an old glove. It had character. And charm. It felt like a place that she could get comfortable in and stay a while.


Too bad that wasn’t going to be the case. For her entire life, “home” had been transient, a place to hang her coat, to rest her head, but not a place to stop for any length of time. Now she’d finally found a true home, one that embraced her, comforted her, and gave her peace.


But just like everything else in her life, it hadn’t worked out. She’d been trying to keep that thought at bay, but the Denial Train was leaving the station.


And soon, all too soon, Maddie was going to have to leave, too.


Chapter 22


“Catch and release when you’re fishing,


and catch and release when you’re dating.”


PHOEBE TRAEGER


Jax spent the next few days installing the bathroom vanities and finishing the floors. The painting was done, as well. Tara had wielded a paintbrush with predictable meticulousness. Maddie had painted as she did everything else in her life. She’d started out tentative but had ended up giving her entire heart over to the process.


She made him smile.


And ache. He had no idea what would happen—if and when she’d be leaving, if she’d ever let herself fully trust him—but he knew what he wanted to happen.


He wanted her to stay.


As darkness fell on Christmas Eve, he stood outside the inn in the blustery, frigid air, cleaning up his tools, watching as first Tara sped off in Maddie’s car, and then Chloe on her Vespa.


He turned to take in the single light shining into the dull, foggy dusk from the marina building. Setting down his tool belt, he headed that way and found Maddie at her desk. She was lit by the soft glow of the lamp, the rest of the marina in shadow. She had her back to him in her chair, feet braced up on the wall, computer in her lap, fingers clicking away.


Helpless against the pull of her, he stepped in a little closer. She’d showered and changed from the day’s work and wore a pair of bright red sweats, snug enough to show her curves, yet covering her from head to toe. The hood was edged in white and had two white tassels hanging down, dangling to her breasts like two arrows. Along one leg were white letters spelling out “Mrs. Claus.”


Her hair was piled messily on top of her head, held there with her knitting needles, and she was frowning, looking tousled and annoyed and beautiful. “Hey,” he said.


She didn’t budge, and he realized she wore earphones, the cord trailing to her pocket, a tinny sound giving away her iPod. Smiling, he pulled out his phone and IM’d her.


(JCBuilder): Busy?


(ILoveKnitting): Trying to relax.


(JCBuilder): I could help with that.


(ILoveKnitting): Yes, you could. By telling me something about you. Your favorite childhood memory, your most embarrassing moment, what makes you tick—something.


(JCBuilder): Eating ice cream on the Ferris wheel, plowing my first truck into Lucille’s mailbox, and living for the here and now. Now you.


(ILoveKnitting): Making s’mores on a movie campfire set with my dad, every single second of that first time we met, and knowing that there’s always tomorrow to get it right.


(JCBuilder): It?


(ILoveKnitting): Life. You got a recipe for life that I can follow?


(JCBuilder): Feeling brave?


She laughed when she read that one, and Jax felt a weight fall off his shoulders.


Tugging out her earphones, she leaned back even deeper in her chair. “If you only knew…” she murmured.


“What?” he asked her, stepping closer. “If I only knew what?”

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