Author: Jill Shalvis


His hands slowly stroked over her body, tender but sure. She knew he was offering comfort, but she took more, pressing in closer, anticipation humming through her. They were on their sides facing each other, and she drew a leg over his. Rocking her hips, she let the very tip of him, velvet over steel, slide into her.


He groaned roughly and tightened his grip on her, holding her still. “Maddie. You’re hurt—”


She impaled herself, and, with another groan, he rolled her beneath him, filling her so entirely she saw stars. Bending low, his lips rested on the strong pulse in her throat, and she both felt and heard her name on a whispered breath.


Restless, she ran her hands down his back, digging her fingers into him, urging him on. Lifting his head, he held her gaze prisoner as he began to move within her, long, slow, delicious thrusts, a mind-blowing grinding of his hips. On the edge, her eyes began to drift shut in sheer, numbing pleasure.


“No, look at me. Feel me. Feel us.”


Opening her eyes, she looked right at him. She saw her life, her heart echoed in his eyes, and she burst in a kaleidoscope of colors and emotion, unlike anything she’d ever felt.


When she could breathe again, he was waiting for her, still hard inside her. His forearms were alongside her face, his hands cupping her head. “I love you,” he said, honest and sure, more a vow than a confession as he thrust into her and came, sending her spiraling again.


It was the last thing she remembered before sleep claimed her.


Twice she woke them both up with nightmares, hyperventilating and caught up in the sense of being trapped. In between the dreams, she tossed and turned.


Jax would have fought her demons for her if he could, she knew that by the way he spent the hours holding her close. It was close to noon before she woke up fully, and she opened her eyes to find Jax watching her.


“It’s gone,” she said, voice still a little hoarse. She knew her eyes were puffy and red, and that her hair had to be as wild as ever. “It’s Christmas, and it’s all gone.”


Propping his head up on his hand, he used his other to tug her in close. “Yes.”


Closing her eyes, she swallowed hard and pressed her face into his chest, her scratched-up arm gliding up to hook around his neck. She felt her tears wet both of their skin, and he made a low sound of regret. “You’ll rebuild,” he said.


She shook her head.


“There’s fire insurance on the property.”


It wasn’t the words that set her off. It was the reality that he’d always known more about all of this than she did, even though it was her life. Not his fault, not her fault, she got that. It was no one’s fault, but it didn’t make it any easier.


Worse, even if they rebuilt, they’d still sell, because that’s what her sisters wanted. Majority rules.


It devastated her.


As did knowing that walking away meant walking from Jax, too. She rolled out of the bed and began jerking on clothes. His clothes.


“Let me guess,” he said. “You just remembered you’re mad at me.”


Mad? More like confused as hell. She turned to the door, wearing his sweatpants, a Henley, and her heart in tatters on the sleeve.


“Maddie.” He snagged her hand in his, halting her progress.


“I’m going to call a cab to go to the hospital.”


A muscle in his jaw ticked. “I’ll take you.”


He drove her in silence, not saying a word until she went to get out of the Jeep. Taking her hand in his, he brought it up to his mouth and kissed her bandaged palm. “You used to be afraid of me, and I understood that. But now it feels like you’re afraid of what you feel for me. Of what I feel for you. And that I don’t understand. Not one bit, Maddie.”


Her eyes misted, and she shook her head in denial, causing him to pull her over the console and into his lap, nose to nose. Though he was careful not to hurt her, he wasn’t gentle. “You think you’re losing everything,” he said, running his hands up her arms. “But it’s not true. You have the power to stop this, Maddie. To not give up. Make a stand. Make a stand and take what you want.”


Chapter 25


“Remember, it’s always better to be the


smartass rather than the dumbass.”


PHOEBE TRAEGER


Maddie sat on the dock at the marina, each exhalation a little white cloud in front of her face as she watched the sun make its route across a quiet sky. Behind her was the burned-out shell of her dream. In front of her, the Pacific Ocean was rough and churning this morning, matching the pitch in her stomach.


She dropped her head to her bent knees and squeezed her eyes shut. She’d just left the hospital. She was supposedly grabbing breakfast for her sisters and then going back to pick them up. But she needed a moment to herself, so she’d come here first. She felt empty and exhausted and defeated.


And sad.


So damn sad. It wasn’t the loss of the cottage or her things. She’d survived far worse.


Jax loved her. Her. He wanted her to make a stand. Take what she wanted.


But it wasn’t that easy, not for her.


It could be, said a little voice. Angrily, she swiped at a tear, then went still when she heard footsteps. Someone steady on their feet, but not trying to sneak up on her.


Jax.


She felt the weight of his jacket as he wrapped it around her, surrounding her with warm leather and his scent.


Lethal combination.


He crouched at her side, eyes dark and full of so many things she couldn’t put her finger on a single one of them. His familiar easy smile was nowhere in sight. The lines etched around his eyes and mouth spoke of exhaustion and worry.


“What are you doing here?” she whispered.


“There are some things that need to be said.”


“Jax—”


“Not by me.” He looked over his shoulder at someone and nodded.


More footsteps sounded. Tara. She walked past Jax, and the two of them exchanged a long look. Jax’s was warm and encouraging, but Tara’s was guarded and tense, and dread filled Maddie. “What’s going on?”


Tara sat next to Maddie. She was wearing scrubs and smelled like some odd combination of hospital disinfectant and smoke, but other than that, she appeared no worse for wear from the fire. “We need chairs out here, sugar. This is beyond undignified.”


Maddie looked at Jax, who gave her a tight smile that didn’t come close to reaching his eyes. Then he turned and walked away. She opened her mouth, but Tara reached for her hand. “He brought me here. Said it was time. He’s been telling me that for weeks now, but I think he’s about done with subtleties.” She sighed. “So am I.”


“Oh, God.” Maddie stared at her, afraid to breathe. “This isn’t the part where you tell me you’re sleeping with him, right?”


“Oh, Lord love a duck. No, I’m not sleeping with him—not that he isn’t one fine man. One really fine hot man, but honey, he’s yours. He’s been yours from day one.”


Maddie started to shake her head, but Tara squeezed her hand. “I know you’re upset with him. He was holding back information you feel he should have shared, and you’re right. You’re one hundred percent right to believe that when you’re in love with a man, he should definitely tell you he’s holding the note on the property that you consider your home, except—”


“Wait a minute.” Maddie could have used some oxygen from that cute EMT about now. “No one said anything about love.”


Tara rolled her eyes. “… Exceeeeept,” she said. “It wasn’t his place to tell you. He’d made a promise.”


“But—”


“I know. In a relationship, you share things, but as it turns out, he was protecting someone.” She paused, and when she spoke again, her voice was very quiet and halting. “He was protecting someone you know.”


“Who?”


“Phoebe. And…” Tara shook her head and slumped as if the weight of the world was heavy on her back. She covered her face with her hands. “Me. I lied to you, Maddie. From the very beginning, I lied right to your face, and then I pulled a double punch by going to Jax and begging him to keep his promise, to keep this from you and Chloe.” Shame laced every word that tumbled from her mouth.


Maddie stared at her, floored. “But… why?”


“Because I couldn’t handle the truth coming out, not if I had to be here again. God, it hurt to be here again, still does.”


“You couldn’t handle what coming out? And what do you mean ‘again’? You told me you’ve never been here before.”


“No. You assumed that.” Tara rubbed at her chest absently, as though to soothe an unrelenting ache, and cleared her throat. “I should start at the beginning.”


“Okay.” Maddie nodded, heart pounding. “That’s a good idea.”


Tara stared out at the water. The air was heavy with sea salt and the acrid scent of burnt wood. It was chilly, but Maddie wasn’t feeling a thing past the icy ball of hurt in her chest.


“A few years back,” Tara said. “Someone near and dear to Phoebe needed money. Phoebe didn’t have any, but she wanted to help. She mortgaged the resort property.” Her voice seemed distant, as though she was trying to remove herself somehow from the words she was saying.


“To Jax,” Maddie said. “He lent her the money.”


“Yes. He’d grown up here and had always been kind to her, and he’d recently come back to town and had been known for helping out financially when anyone needed it. She needed it.”


“Why?”


Tara drew a deep breath. “I spent a summer here in Lucky Harbor when I was seventeen. My grandparents were going on a world cruise, and my daddy was working all the time. I was a lot like Chloe back then. Wild, spoiled, unrepentant.” She shook her head. “No one could tell me what to do, but no one was listening to me, either. I was shipped here without ceremony. I arrived with a chip on my shoulder and a bad attitude, neither of which endeared me to any of the girls my age that were around. There was only one person who’d talk to me, and he…” She closed her eyes. “I got pregnant that summer.”

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