Author: Jill Shalvis


Maddie shot Chloe a dirty look and, in doing so, realized the entire café had gone silent.


Everyone was listening.


“I was just listing all of your positive attributes,” Chloe told him. “Leaving out the parts where you didn’t tell her shit and kept yourself from her, of course. That was your bad.”


Jax never took his eyes off Maddie. “Okay, first, I never kept myself from you. Maybe I didn’t tell you enough about who I used to be, but Christ, Maddie, I hated that guy. And I guess I was hoping the man I am now would be enough for you.”


“Aw.” Chloe’s head whipped back to Maddie. “Did you hear that?”


Maddie’s heart swelled painfully, pressing against her ribs. “I’m right here, Chloe.”


“Sounds like a reasonable request to me,” a guy from two tables over said. Maddie recognized him because he worked at the gas station. “And I can vouch for Jax being a good person. He gave my sister a loan when the bank wouldn’t. She’d have lost her business and her house otherwise.”


“And he did our house addition,” a woman called out. “And when my husband lost his job, Jax accepted small, irregular payments. He didn’t have to do that.”


“Jesus,” Jax muttered, hands on hips, eyes closed.


“And he donated new flak vests for the entire PD,” Sawyer said, having just come inside.


“That was supposed to be an anonymous donation, you jackass.”


“It looked to me like you were sinking fast. Thought I’d toss that in.”


Shaking his head, Jax grabbed Maddie’s hand and pulled her out of the booth and toward the door, moving so fast she had to run to keep up.


“Where are we going?”


“To talk without the entire fucking town throwing in their two cents.”


He opened the café door, and they ran smack into a man wearing a rain slicker and carrying a clipboard with the name of a national insurance company on the front. “Excuse me,” he said. “I’m looking for the owners of the Lucky Harbor Resort.”


“That’s me,” Maddie said, very aware of Jax at her back, protective. Steady. “Give me a minute?” she asked the insurance guy, and at his nod, she pulled Jax aside. “I’m sorry,” she whispered. “We have to have this meeting before any of us can leave town.”


“Leave?”


“Yeah.” She met his gaze, her chest so tight she could scarcely get the words out. “I’m pretty sure that’s what Tara and Chloe are planning on doing now. We have no place to live, and they’ve been wanting to get back to their lives for weeks now.”


“And you?”


“It’s majority rules.”


“Bullshit.” He shook his head and said it again. “You came here a fighter, Maddie. Maybe you’d lost a round or two, but you were on your feet. You want to stay in Lucky Harbor? Fight for it. You want a relationship with your sisters? Fight for it.”


“What about you? What about a relationship with you?”


He pulled back to look into her face as if memorizing her features. His voice, when he spoke, was low and gravelly with emotion. “I’m already yours. Always have been. All you have to do is step into the ring.”


Chapter 26


“My motto was always: never chase after person,


place, or thing, because something better will


come along. Turns out I was wrong.”


PHOEBE TRAEGER


The insurance adjuster slipped out of his rain slicker and introduced himself as Benny Ramos. He was tall and lanky lean, wearing cowboy boots, a matching hat, and Wranglers that threatened to slide right off his skinny hips. It was impossible to tell if he was barely twenty-one or just really good with a razor.


Jax had led both Maddie and Benny back to their table. Jax gave Maddie a quiet, assessing look that she had no idea how to read and then left.


Her head was spinning. He’d given everything he had, and he wanted the same from her. He wanted her to fight for what she wanted.


Made sense. Made a lot of sense. It’s what any good, strong leading lady would do.


“So,” Benny said. “The cottage is a total loss.”


“No duh,” Chloe said. “Now tell us something we don’t know.”


“The fire department believes the fire originated with a set of old faulty Christmas lights that were strung…” He consulted his clipboard. “On a dead plant of some sort in the living room.”


Tara snorted.


Maddie closed her eyes. Poor Charlie Brown Christmas tree, may you rest in peace…


“Anyway,” the adjuster went on. “The inn isn’t as bad as it looks. The bedrooms upstairs need a complete renovation, new carpeting, walls and bathroom replacement. New roof. But the downstairs is all cosmetic and can be cleaned. You’re in decent shape there.”


They were in decent shape. Good to know.


Step into the ring.


Jax thought she was a fighter. That hadn’t always been anywhere close to true. She’d let life happen to her. She’d gone with the flow.


She hated the flow. The flow was working like a dog at a go-nowhere job, trying to please too many people who didn’t care. She was done with going with the flow. She wanted to be a fighter. “Excuse me,” she said to Benny. “But the downstairs is water damaged, so we’re not in ‘decent’ shape there. We expect proper compensation.”


Tara raised a brow, like Go, kitten. Show him those claws.


Chloe out-and-out grinned and gave her a thumbs up. “You heard my sister,” she said to Benny. “We expect proper compensation. You go back and tell your people that.”


“Actually, we’re on the same side,” Benny said and made some more notes on his computerized clipboard. Maddie was dizzy. She was heartsick. She was out of control, but she was having some serious clipboard envy. She needed a clipboard like that. She also needed to fight for her new life. “We’ll need rental compensation, as well.”


“Of course,” Benny said.


She blinked. Was it really that easy? Say what you want, get what you want? Jax had suggested it was, and it’d always seemed to work for Tara.


Benny looked over his clipboard. “I figure we can get all the paperwork taken care of by next week and get you a check to get started.”


“And I figure today or tomorrow would be better,” Maddie said smoothly. “Bless your heart.”


Tara grinned. Grinned. Maddie took in the rare sight and returned it.


Benny went back to his clipboard, his ears red. “Tomorrow. How’s tomorrow?”


“Fan-fucking-tastic,” Chloe said. “Thank you.” She beamed at him.


Benny looked a little stunned. “Uh… You’re welcome.”


Chloe walked him to his truck, then came back with a piece of paper in her hand.


“Are you kidding me—you got his phone number?” Tara asked. “He’s barely twelve. I bet they haven’t even dropped yet.”


“Hey,” Chloe said. “Don’t talk about my future boyfriend’s balls. He was cute, and Maddie scared the hell out of him.”


“I thought you thought Lance was cute,” Tara said. “And his brother.”


“Uh-huh. And your point?”


“And Officer Hottie. Sawyer, right? You were looking at him the other night like you wanted to eat him up alive.”


“If I was looking at him at all, I was planning his slow, painful death. Did you hear what we were just told? We’re getting a big fat check tomorrow.” Chloe looked at each of them. “Our plan?”


“Big fat checks divide into three nicely,” Tara noted.


“True.” Chloe nodded. “I guess that means by this time tomorrow, we’re cut loose.” She smiled. “You guys will miss me. Say it.”


Maddie tried to sit there calm and in control, but suddenly it was all too much. The fire. The terrifying escape. Tara’s revelation, making her realize that she’d misdirected her emotions. Her sisters all gung ho to take the check and run. Jax saying those three little words that she’d never heard before, three words that meant so much more than she’d imagined they could. Her heart clenched hard. “I’m the middle sister,” she said softly, then repeated it more strongly.


“Very good,” Chloe said. “Can you say the alphabet, too?”


“As the middle, I’m the logical choice for mediator. We have decisions to make, and they get made right now. Majority rules.” She looked at each of them. “We walk away or rebuild. We’re voting, now. Youngest first.”


Chloe pulled out an iTouch, which Lance had lent her in the hospital, and brought up a Magic 8-Ball application. “Magic 8-Ball,” she intoned with great ceremony. “Should I stay here in Lucky Harbor?”


Maddie was boggled. “What? You can’t leave your vote up to a Magic 8-Ball!”


“I can’t?”


“No!” But Maddie bit her lip, trying to see the iTouch screen. “What did it say?”


Chloe looked down and sighed. “Outlook not so good. Just as well. I’m ready to blow this popsicle stand anyway.”


Disappointment practically choking her, Maddie turned to Tara.


Tara held her hand out for Chloe’s iTouch. “Let me see that thing.”


“You aren’t serious.” Maddie’s throat felt like she’d swallowed shards of glass. “Please say you’re not serious.”


“Okay. I’m not serious.” Tara reached for Maddie’s hand, her smile a little watery. “I vote we stay here.”


“Me, too,” Chloe said. “I was only kidding before. We can’t leave now. Things are just getting good.”


“Two yeses,” Tara said. “Maddie?”


She was dizzy, overwhelmed, and confused as hell.


“Aw, look at her,” Tara murmured. “Like a long-tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs.”

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