Author: Jill Shalvis


She grinned. “I’m sorry. I think it’s the fresh air here. And the pounding surf. And maybe also, it’s you.”


“No,” he told her quietly. “It’s all you. Come on.” He turned off the Jeep, pulled two heavy coats from the back seat, and handed her one. When she was bundled up, they walked the pier.


They passed Eat Me, and Maddie’s stomach growled. “I could use some of Tara’s Badass Brownies right about now.”


“Badass?” he asked.


“As in they’re so badass that you turn badass just by smelling them.”


He laughed and pulled her in close for the sheer pleasure of touching her. “Do you want to go in? I’ll buy you a Badass Brownie.”


“No, Tara’s in there. She’ll be annoying.”


They hadn’t gotten five steps past the café when they heard a loud voice.


“Maddie Moore, I see you.”


Maddie jerked around. “What—”


Jax pointed to the loudspeaker on the corner of the building, just above the large picture window on the café, where several faces were pressed up against the glass, watching them.


“Step away from the good-looking man,” came the disembodied voice.


Tara.


Maddie groaned but surprised him by tightening her grip on his hand instead of dropping it. “What does she think she’s doing?”


“Amusing her customers.” Jax’s gaze locked in on their audience in the window, some shoving for better position, a few others waving.


“Madeline Annie Traeger, this is your conscience speaking,” the loudspeaker said. “We’re watching you. And—Hey, are those my Gucci boots?”


Maddie tipped her face up to the stars as if looking for divine intervention. “Some people have normal families,” she said. “They get together once a month or so and have dinner. My family? We have pancake batter food fights, steal each other’s footwear, dye our hair green, and yell at each other over loudspeakers in public.”


“Keep it moving, sugar. No loitering on the pier.”


“Everyone loiters on the pier!” Maddie yelled at the speaker.


“And especially no standing beneath the mistletoe for any reason at all.”


Both Maddie and Jax looked up at the mistletoe someone had hung on the building’s eaves. “What does it say about me that now I want to stand beneath it?” Maddie asked him.


“That we think alike?” Jax stepped closer, bent his head, and—


“Hold it!” the voice of Maddie’s “conscience” called out.


Maddie sighed. “Jax?”


“Yeah?”


“I need a chocolate shake.”


He didn’t point out the fact that it was thirty degrees or that her breath was crystallizing in front of her face. They headed toward the ice cream shop.


It wasn’t Lance serving tonight, mostly because he was still sitting in the single holding cell at the sheriff’s station. Instead, it was Tucker, Lance’s twin brother.


“Sawyer’s keeping an eye on him,” Jax said to Tucker’s unasked question. “He’ll be out in time to celebrate Christmas. He’s okay.”


“He’s an idiot. We’ll have the rent to you next week. We’re a little behind.”


“It’s okay,” Jax said. “It’s a slow time for everybody.”


Tucker nodded his thanks, handed over a chocolate shake, and Jax and Maddie walked on.


“You’re their landlord?” Maddie asked.


“Yes.”


She thought about that a minute. “Do you own the whole pier?”


“No. But I own some of the businesses on it.”


She walked to the end of the pier. Leaning over the railing, she stared at the churning sea beneath her, clearly thinking and thinking hard.


She needed answers, deserved answers, but the truth was he wasn’t sure where to start. For a man who’d made a living spinning words his way, it was pretty fucking pathetic. He came up beside her. “I own some businesses in town, too.”


“Interesting that you’ve never mentioned this, Mr. Mayor.”


He winced. “You really do know a lot about me.” Lame.


“Hmm,” she said, distinctly unimpressed.


He drew a deep breath. “You once told me some of your faults.”


“I told you all my faults.”


He smiled and played with one of her curls. “Want to hear mine?”


“I know yours. You don’t like to share yourself. You think dog farts are funny.”


“Everyone thinks dog farts are funny.”


“You make me talk during sex.”


He grinned. “You like that.”


She blushed. “That’s not the point.”


When she didn’t come up with anything else, he raised a brow. “Is that it? Because I have more faults, Maddie. Plenty of them. Like… I ate only cereal until I was five.”


“I like cereal.”


“I jumped off Mooner Cliff into the water when I was ten. I thought I could fly, but I broke both legs.”


“So you were all boy. Big deal.”


“I got laid in the USC law school library when I was nineteen and nearly got arrested for indecent exposure. I failed the bar exam the first time because I had a hangover.” He paused and let the big pink elephant free. “Then I took a case where an innocent woman got trapped between both sides. I tried to warn her, breaking my oath as a lawyer to do so, and instead of using the info to get herself out of a bad situation, she took her own life.”


He paused when she inhaled sharply. He couldn’t read the sound and had no idea if it was horror or disgust. But he’d gone this far—he had to finish. “I stopped practicing law after that. It’d sucked the soul right out of me.” He paused. “I haven’t gotten it back yet.”


She stared at him then, and he held the eye contact. He figured she was going to walk away from him in three, two, one—


She moved, but not away. Instead she came close, her hand on his chest, gently stroking right over his heart. “You have a soul,” she whispered, her voice shaking with emotion. “And a huge heart. Don’t ever doubt it. You have a superhero heart,” she said fiercely.


He shook his head. “I’m not a superhero, Maddie, not even close. I’m just a guy, with flaws. Lots of them. I do the restoration and the furniture making because I love it, but neither is all that profitable.”


“But you have that big, beautiful house. How could you…” She paused. “Your father,” she breathed.


“No. No,” he said firmly. “Not my father. I’m good with investments.”


She searched his face. “This bothers you,” she said.


He shook his head, unable to put it into words. He’d tried to give back some of what he felt he’d taken by his years at the firm, but instead he’d profited.


“You know, you’re standing right here,” she said softly. “And yet I feel like you’re far away. You hold back so much. Do you do it on purpose?”


“Yes. I’ve done it on purpose for so long I’m not sure how to do it any differently. You know me, Maddie. You know what I do, where I like to go—”


“I know that about a lot of people, Jax. I know that about Lucille, about Lance. Hell, I know that much about Anderson.” She poked him in the chest. “I want to know more about you. I want—” She was toe to toe with him, getting mad, standing up to him.


She wasn’t afraid of him. She was in his face, holding her ground, and he’d never been more proud of her. “You know more,” he said quietly. “You know my friends, and that I have a screwed-up relationship with my father. You know I drive a beat-up old Jeep so that my big lazy dog can ride with me wherever I go. You know that I don’t pick up my clothes and that I like to run on the beach.”


She made a soft noise, and he stepped closer and brushed his hand over her throat, where, to his chagrin, she had whisker burn. “You know how much I like to touch you.”


Her eyes drifted shut. “And I like all those things about you,” she admitted. “Especially the last…” A soft sigh escaped her, and she met his gaze. “But you’re still hiding—I can feel it. What are you hiding, Jax?”


With a long breath, he took her hand. “Telling you would involve breaking a promise. I can’t do that.”


“Because of what happened to you when you were a lawyer?”


“Nothing happened to me,” he corrected, voice rough with the memory.


She slid a hand up his stomach to his chest, holding it over his heart. “You were trying to help her, Jax. You didn’t know what she’d do. You couldn’t have known.”


“I failed her.” He closed his eyes, then opened them again. “And now here I am, back between the rock and a hard place.”


“I don’t understand.”


“I know you don’t.” He looked into her face, so focused on him, so intent, and drew a deep breath. “Your loan on the inn. I know who holds the note. I know that if you’d make contact, your refinancing would be approved.”


Her brow furrowed. “You can’t know that for a fact.”


“I do. I know it for a fact. I’ve tried to get you to look into it, but—”


“Oh, my God.” Her mouth dropped open, and she stepped back from him. “It’s you. You hold the note.”


He reached for her, but she slapped his hands away. “No. No,” she repeated, her chest rising and falling quickly. “Is it you?”


“Yes.”


She stared at him. “Why didn’t you tell me? All those times we talked about it—”


“And every single time, I tried to steer you—”


“You tried to steer me. You tried to steer me.” Her eyes were filled with disbelief. “I’m not a sheep, Jax. I was lost and stressed and overwhelmed and freaked out, and you… you had the answer all along.”

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