Author: Jill Shalvis


The lot was a mess of vehicles and smoke and equipment, making it nearly impossible to see. He peeled into the area, pulled over, and barely came to a stop before he tore out of his Jeep. His pulse was pounding, and his legendary calm was nowhere to be found.


The cottage was gone. Completely gone. The second floor of the inn was on fire. It was a living nightmare. The lights from the rescue rigs slashed through the night as he passed police and fire crew and leaped over lines of hoses and equipment to come to a halt before the blackened shell of the cottage.


No Maddie.


A hand settled on his shoulder. Sawyer. Through the thick, choking smoke, his friend’s face was tight and drawn, but he pointed to the low stone wall between the inn and the marina.


Huddled there, wrapped in a blanket, face dark with soot, sat Maddie.


He took his first breath since Sawyer had called. An EMT was talking to her. Her head was tilted up, facing the still-blazing inn, devastation etched across her face.


Jax crouched in front of her, his hands on her legs. She was shaking like a leaf. Or maybe that was him. “Maddie, Jesus. Are you okay?”


She met his gaze, her own glassy. “It’s gone. The cottage is gone. And the inn—”


“I know, sweetheart.” Just looking at the charred remains made him feel like throwing up. Very carefully, he pulled her against him, absorbing the soft, sorrowful sound she made as she burrowed against him. She wrapped her arms around his neck so tight he couldn’t breathe, but he didn’t need air. He needed her. “I saw the ambulance, and then the remains of the cottage, and I thought—” He closed his eyes and held her in that crushing hug, pressing his face into her neck. “How did you get out?”


“Through a window. The flames were blocking the door, and the window was painted shut. I broke out the glass with a chair.”


He was probably holding her too tight, but he couldn’t let go. She smelled like smoke and ash, was filthy from head to toe, and she’d never looked better to him. “Chloe and Tara?”


“Chloe had an asthma attack. That’s who is in the ambulance. Tara rode with her.”


Weak with relief, Jax sat on the rock wall and held her in his lap, opening the blanket she had around her so he could get a good look at her. She wore only a T-shirt and panties. Her arms and legs were streaked with dirt and soot. Her knees were scraped and bleeding. Gently he took her hands in his and turned them over. She had a few cuts on her palms.


The thought of that stuck window had his blood running cold. A couple more minutes and it would have been too late. With as much care as he could, he wrapped her back up in the blanket and looked at the EMT. Jax had gone to school with Ty Roberts, and they sometimes played flag football together on the Rec league.


“She’s refusing to be taken in,” Ty said.


“It’s just a few cuts,” Maddie murmured. “That’s all.” She was back to watching the inn. The firefighters had a good handle on it now. The flames were nearly gone.


Ty looked meaningfully at Jax and then to the ambulance. He wanted to take Maddie in.


“Maddie.” Jax made her look at him. “Let me take you to the hospital. We can check on your sisters and get you cleaned up.”


“Not until it’s over.”


So they sat there and watched the blaze. When the flames were completely out, Sawyer spoke to the fire chief, then came over. “When the cottage caught fire, the wind carried sparks to the inn’s roof. That’s how the second floor ignited. They were able to contain it there.” He squatted beside Maddie and ducked his head until he could see into her eyes. “They’re not going to let you go in there until tomorrow. It’s okay to leave. I want you to get into the second ambulance and go get checked out.”


“No, I’m fine, I—”


“You’re going,” Jax said, willing to out-stubborn her. “I’ll take you.”


Maddie opened her eyes when the Jeep came to a stop. It wasn’t quite dawn, and the sky was still inky black.


Christmas morning.


For a minute she sat still, remembering the panic of waking up choking on smoke, the flames licking at the bedroom door, and watching Chloe fight for air…


God. Chloe was okay, or she would be. At the hospital, they’d learned she was being held overnight for smoke inhalation. Tara was staying with her, and Maddie could have, as well, but Jax had stepped in. “She’s coming with me.”


Four simple words that had filled Maddie’s head while the nurse had cleaned and dressed her wounds—no stitches required, thankfully—and then given her a pair of scrubs to wear.


She’d been too numb and tired to argue with Jax.


No, that wasn’t true. She was tired, to-the-bone exhausted, but she could have still argued. After all, she had no reason to go home with him.


Except she didn’t want to be alone in a hospital chair.


She wanted to be held.


She wanted to feel safe.


The Jeep’s heater had been on her full blast as they left the hospital, but she was still shivering. She felt like her teeth were going to rattle right out of her head. Jax had driven with his left hand, keeping his right hand on her, rubbing up and down her thigh, squeezing her icy fingers with his warm ones.


The passenger door opened, and she jerked.


“Just me,” Jax murmured, having exited the Jeep and come around for her. Crouching at her side, he unhooked her seat belt and held her for a moment, fiercely, before lifting her into his arms.


“I can walk,” she said, even though she made no attempt to do just that.


“Pretend you still believe I’m that superhero.”


With a sigh, she looped her arms around his neck and pressed her face to his throat, breathing him in. The scent of him filled her, and her burning throat tightened.


She already missed him. Letting out a shuddery breath, she kept her eyes closed as she heard him open his front door and make a low comment to a sleepy Izzy. A few moments later, he let her feet slide to the floor.


Because she was still barefoot, she could tell she was on tile. But this tile was deliciously warm thanks to his heated floors.


Keeping one arm around her, he leaned away for a beat, and she heard the shower go on. “You’re shaking,” he said.


“I think that’s you.”


“Maybe.”


She opened her eyes and found his, dark and shadowed with concern.


“Do you know how fast that fire moved?” he asked. “How much of a miracle it is you all got out?” He ran a hand over his eyes. “Christ, Maddie. If you hadn’t woken up when you did…”


Her heart caught at his raw voice. “But I did,” she whispered, reaching for him. “I’m okay, Jax. Look at me. I’m indestructible, apparently.”


“Resilient,” he said and tilted her face up, looking at her from fathomless eyes. “Strong and giving and resilient.”


She thought about the things that meant so much to her and could count them with the fingers on one hand. Her sisters. The inn.


Jax.


And all of it was in jeopardy. “I’m still mad at you,” she whispered.


“I know.”


She pressed a hand to her heart, which ached more than her cuts and bruises, and then to his. “I don’t want to be alone tonight. Today. Whatever it is.” Words failed her past that. She wanted comfort, and she wanted to feel alive, and she knew he could provide both.


“You need to get in the shower and warm up.”


“With you.”


Pressing his forehead to hers, he let out a slow breath. His hands, when he lifted them to her, were careful on her body as he stripped her out of the scrub top, taking in each and every one of her cuts and bruises. Then he slid the bottoms down her legs and paused at the sight of her Supergirl bikini panties. “Did I ever tell you,” he murmured, dropping to his knees to press a kiss to her bruised hip, “that I’m pretty convinced you have your own superpowers?”


Bending her head to take in the top of his, she gave him a shaky smile that she knew didn’t make it to her eyes. “What are they?”


“The power to get past all my walls…”


“Jax.” She closed her eyes as he hooked his thumbs in the sides of the undies to slowly drag them down. She gasped when her world tilted as he picked her up and deposited her into the shower. He stepped in behind her and, without a word, washed her hair and then her body, quickly and efficiently.


She could feel him behind her, hard and aroused, but his touch remained gentle and soothing. It was just as well. With exhaustion sneaking up on her again, she could do little more than lean against him.


The next thing she knew, the water was shut off, and he wrapped her in a big, soft towel. He redressed her cuts, drew one of his own big, soft Tshirts over her head, and placed her on his bed.


She heard him move to the door. “Jax—”


“Sleep.”


“ ’Kay.” She listened to him moving around the house for a while. His phone rang, and she heard him quietly telling someone he had her.


He had her.


It was true, she realized. He had her heart and soul…


No. That wasn’t right. He’d held back from her. Was still holding back…


Or was that her?


God, she was so confused, and tired…


“Sleep,” he said again, back in the room now, running a hand down her arm.


She caught his fingers in hers. “Stay,” she said, tightening her fingers on his.


“Always.” The mattress dipped beneath his weight, and then she was carefully scooped up against his big, warm body. Their legs were entangled like it was the most natural thing in the world, as if they’d been sleeping together for years. His touch slid over her like a soothing balm, making her ache from deep inside, making her shiver for more. “Just for tonight,” she whispered, snuggling in, feeling the steady beat of his heart beneath her ear.


Just for tonight.


Another lie, of course. She’d fallen for him, just as she’d fallen for her sisters, for the inn. And she was losing them all, one by one. She felt the sting of tears against her closed eyelids and, to hide them, buried her face into his throat.

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