Author: Jill Shalvis


“I was trying to protect the here and now, and also you. I wanted you to refinance. With me. But your stubborn-ass pride would have reached up and choked you if you thought you were accepting anything from me that you didn’t earn. I knew that unless it was your idea, you’d go running hard and fast.”


She shook her head. “So you kept it from me to be noble?”


He grimaced, swiping a hand down his face. “Yes, but in hindsight, it sounded a lot better in my head.”


Rolling her eyes, she turned away from him, then whipped back. “And the trust outlined in Phoebe’s will. You know all about the trust, too?”


He wished she would just kill him dead and be done with it. “Yes.”


“Is it you? Did she leave the trust to you?”


“No.”


“Then—”


“I can’t tell you.”


“You mean you won’t.”


“That, too.”


She jerked at his answer as if he’d slapped her, and she pretty much sliced open his heart at the same time.


“I remember distinctly asking you if there was anything else I should know about you,” she said very quietly.


“This isn’t about me. It wasn’t my place. It still isn’t my place—”


“You’re my friend. You’re my—” She broke off, staring at him from eyes gone glossy with unspeakable emotion. “Well,” she finally said quietly with a painful pause. “I’ve never been exactly sure what we are, but I’d hoped it was more.”


“It was. It is. God, Maddie. I couldn’t tell you. I made a promise—”


“Yes. I’m getting that. And since you certainly never made me any promises, I have no right to be mad.” She ran a shaky hand over her eyes. “I’m tired. I want to go back to the inn.”


“Not until we finish this.”


“Finish this?” She let out a mirthless laugh and started walking to the Jeep, her steps measured and even, her fury and hurt echoing in each one. “I think we just did.”


Maddie tiptoed into the dark cottage. The only lights came from their Charlie Brown Christmas tree. Pressing a hand to her aching heart, she went straight to the kitchen, to the cupboard where Tara kept the wine.


It was empty. “Dammit.”


“Looking for this?”


She whirled at Tara’s voice, squinting through the dark to find her sister sitting on the kitchen counter in a pristine, sexy white nightie, holding a half-empty bottle of wine in her hand.


“I’m going to need the rest of that,” Maddie said.


“No. The sister getting regular orgasms doesn’t get to have any pity parties.”


“Yeah, I’m pretty sure the orgasms are a thing of the past.”


“What? Why?”


“Because he hid things from me. From us.” Moving into the kitchen, Maddie hopped up on the counter next to Tara. “You’re probably too drunk to retain any of this, but it’s Jax. He’s the note holder.”


Tara had gone very still. “Did he… tell you that?”


“Yes, because suddenly he’s a veritable pot of information. He knows about the trust, but he remained mum on that, the rat bastard.”


Tara stared at her for a long moment. “He probably had his reasons. Good reasons. Maybe even very good reasons.”


Maddie sighed and thunked her head back on the cabinet. “Why are you drinking alone?”


“I do everything alone.”


“Tara…” Was there no end to the heartaches tonight? “It doesn’t have to be that way.”


“Oh, sugar.” Tara tipped the bottle to her mouth. “Are you always so sweet and kind and… sweet and kind?”


“I’m not either of those things right now.”


Tara closed her eyes. “I look at you, and I feel such guilt. I’m so full of goddamn guilt, I’m going to explode.”


“Guilt? Why?”


“You maxed out your card for me. You were willing to stay here, even alone if you had to, to take care of things. And all I wanted was to leave. You have so much to give, Maddie. You’re a giver, and I’m a…” She scrunched up her face to think. “Sucker. I’m a life sucker. I suck at life.”


“Okay, no more wine for you.” Maddie took the bottle. “And we all maxed out our cards. Well, except Chloe, cuz she turned out not to have any credit, but you and I both—”


“For different reasons,” Tara whispered and put a finger over her own lips. “Shh,” she said. “Don’t tell.”


“Okay, you need to go to bed,” Maddie decided.


“See that.” Tara pointed at her and nearly took out an eye. “You love me.”


“Every single, snooty, bitchy, all-knowing inch,” Maddie agreed. “Come on.” She managed to get Tara down the hall and into the bedroom, where Chloe was still sleeping. Tara plopped down next to her and was out before her head hit the pillow.


Kicking off her shoes, Maddie changed into pj’s and crawled over one sister and snuggled up with another, both making unhappy noises as she let her icy feet rest on theirs beneath the covers.


“Maddie?” It was Tara, whispering loud enough for the people in China to hear. “I’m sorry.”


“For drinking all the wine?”


“No. For making Jax hurt you.”


“What?”


Tara didn’t answer.


“Tara, what do you mean?”


Her only answer was a soft snore.


Maddie bolted awake sometime later, fighting for breath. Gasping, she sat straight up as horror and smoke filled her lungs. “Oh, my God!” she cried, fear clenching hard in her gut. Fingers of smoke clouding her vision, she shook her sisters. “Get up, there’s a fire!”


“Wha—” Tara rolled and fell off the bed.


Chloe lay on her back, eyes wide, wheezing, hands around her throat, desperately trying to drag air into her already taxed lungs.


Maddie leapt off the bed and dragged a suffocating Chloe with her. God, oh, God. “Who’s got their phone?”


“Mine’s in the kitchen,” Tara rasped through an already smoke-damaged voice.


So was Maddie’s.


Nearly paralyzed with terror, they turned to the door and staggered to a halt. There were flames flicking in the doorway, eating up the doorjamb, beginning to devour their way into the room.


No one was getting to the kitchen.


Tara ran to the window and shoved at it. “It’s jammed!”


Chloe dropped to her knees, so white she looked see-through, and her lips were blue. Maddie grabbed a T-shirt off the floor, dumped water from the glass by the bed onto the material, which she then held over Chloe’s mouth. “Inhaler. Where’s your inhaler?”


Chloe shook her head. It was clenched in her fist and clearly hadn’t given her any relief. By the way she was fighting for air, she was deep in the throes of the worst attack Maddie had ever seen.


“Maddie, help me get this open!” Tara cried, straining at the window.


Maddie already knew that window was a bitch. The sill and window frame had been heavily painted over several times, the last being a decade ago at least. They hadn’t worried about that before because it’d been too cold to open it.


“Air,” Chloe mouthed, no sound coming out of her, just the wheezing, her eyes wide with panic.


Her panic became Maddie’s. The window wouldn’t budge, and they didn’t have time to fight it. Chloe was going to pass out. Hell, Maddie was going to pass out. The smoke had thickened in the past sixty seconds, the heat pulsing around them and the fire crackling at their backs.


Maddie grabbed the small chair in the corner, dumped the clothes off of it, and swung it at the window. She used the chair legs to smash out the last of the sharp shards and grabbed the blanket from the bed, tossing it on the ledge so they wouldn’t get cut on the way out.


They shoved Chloe out first, and she fell to the ground, gasping for fresh air. Tara went next, holding on to Maddie’s hand to make sure she was right behind her.


Maddie hit hard and took a minute to lie there gasping like a fish on land. From flat on her back in the dirt, time seemed to slow down. She could see the stars sparkling like diamonds far above, streaked with lines of clouds.


And the smoke closed in on the view, clogging it and blocking out the night.


Sounds echoed around her, the whipping wind, the crackle of flames, and, oh, thank God, sirens in the distance.


“Good,” she said to no one and closed her eyes.


Chapter 24


“If you’re always saving for a rainy day,


you’re never going to get out of the house.”


PHOEBE TRAEGER


At two o’clock in the morning, Jax was lying in bed attempting to find sleep when his cell rang. Hoping it was Maddie saying that she’d changed her mind, that she wasn’t dumping his sorry ass, he grabbing the phone.


It was Sawyer, and Jax took a long breath of disappointment. “Been a while since you’ve called me in the middle of the night. Ford need to be bailed out again? Or are you just that excited for Santa?”


“You need to get out to the inn, now. There’s been a nine-one-one fire call.”


Jax rolled out of bed, grabbed his jeans off the floor and a shirt from the dresser. He jammed his feet into boots, snatched up his keys, and was out the door before Sawyer got his next sentence out.


“—Fire and rescue units have been dispatched. Do you have Maddie?”


“No.” Christ. He sped down the highway, heart in his throat. “I dropped her off an hour and a half ago.”


“I’ll be there in five,” Sawyer said.


“I’ll be right behind you.”


It took him an agonizing seven minutes to get into town, and when he passed an ambulance racing in the direction of the hospital, his heart nearly stopped.


He flew down the dirt road, his heart taking another hard hit at the sight of the inn with flames pouring out of the windows and leaping high into the night.

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