Author: Jill Shalvis


“Ford’s going to owe you,” he said, snagging her wrist to halt her getaway.


“You could have done it if you’d worn your glasses.” She pulled free. “It was only a moderately hard one. Oh and FYI? Women think glasses are a sign of brains, and also, they’re sexy.”


Cocking his head, he took in the slight flush to her cheeks, the humor in her gaze, and felt something stir within him. She might be struggling with some demons, but she was sweet and sharp as hell and a breath of fresh air. “Are you flirting with me?”


“No. The porn thing was a dealbreaker.”


That made him laugh, and even better, so did she, and something flickered between them.


Chemistry.


A shocking amount of it. Clearly she felt it, too, because suddenly she was a flurry of movement, pulling some cash from the depths of her pockets, setting it on the bar for Ford, and turning for the door like she had a fire on her ass.


“Maddie.”


She turned back, looking a little frenzied again, a little panicked, much as she had when he’d first seen her across the expanse of highway. He wondered why.


“I have to go,” she said.


“Puzzles to solve?”


“Something like that.”


“It’s not really a puzzle-solving night,” he said, slipping her money back into her front jeans pocket, his knuckles grazing her midriff. She went stock-still while he pulled his own money out to cover the drinks. “It’s more of a make-new-friends night,” he said. “And Ford’s putting out peanuts. We can throw them at him. He hates that.”


She closed her eyes, and when she opened them again, emotion flickered there. “I’d really like that, but tonight I have to have that fight with my sisters.”


She was clearly vulnerable as hell, and he needed to get away from her before he took advantage of that. But then her bright blue gaze dropped and homed in on his mouth, and all his good intentions flew out the window.


“I’m working on a new beginning here,” she said.


“New beginnings are good.”


“Yeah.” Her tongue came out and dampened her lips, an unconscious gesture that said maybe she was thinking of his mouth on hers. Seemed fitting. He’d been thinking about her mouth on his since he’d seen her outside the bar.


It’d been a hell of a long time since he’d let himself feel something, far too long. That it was for this woman, here, now, was going to make things difficult, but he was good at difficult and wouldn’t let that stop him.


Reaching for her hand, he pulled her in, lowering his head. His jaw brushed her hair, and a strand of it stuck to his stubble. He was close enough now to watch in fascination as her eyes dilated. Her lips parted, and—


“You two need a hotel room?”


Ford, the resident nosey-body.


Maddie jumped and pulled free. “I’ve really got to go. Thanks for the drinks.” She whirled around and stumbled into a table. With a soft exclamation, she righted the spilled drinks, apologizing profusely. Then she hightailed it for the door, not looking back.


“You’re an ass,” Jax said to Ford, watching her.


“No doubt. So, you going to collect her, too?”


Jax slid him a look.


“Come on. Try to deny that out of guilt you collect the needy: the homeless dog, friends who need loans, the chick with the sweet eyes and even sweeter ass—”


“You know I’m not interested in a relationship.” It wasn’t that he didn’t believe in the concept. In spite of his parents’ failed marriage and Jax’s own close call with his ex, he understood wanting someone, the right someone, in his life. But he wasn’t sure he trusted himself. After all, his past was freely littered with the debris of his many, many mistakes.


“You don’t have to have a relationship to get… involved,” Ford said. “Not the naked variety of involved, anyway. But she did run out of here pretty darn quick. Maybe she wasn’t feeling it.”


No, that hadn’t been the problem. There’d been chemistry, so much that they could have lit all of Lucky Harbor’s Christmas lights from the electricity. And that chemistry had scared her. She’d been hurt, that was plain as day. Knowing it, hating it, Jax headed for the door, because bad idea or not, he felt compelled to get to know more about her.


“Hey, what about my tip?” Ford called after him.


“You want a tip? Learn to keep your big trap shut.” And Jax stepped out into the night.


“Rule number one of drinking without a wing man,” Maddie chided herself as she walked away from the Love Shack. “Don’t do anything stupid.”


She walked faster and found herself at the beginning of the pier, pushed around by the wind. But she hardly felt it. Nope, she was still all warm and tingly thanks to a certain gorgeous guy with a mischievous, bad-boy smile and an even better body—


You gave up men!


She had no idea why she kept forgetting that. She wasn’t ready to let one near her. Not after leaving Alex six months ago now. She hadn’t looked back. Hadn’t looked forward, either, to be honest.


And yet she’d let Jax near enough to touch her.


Since going into the bar, dark had fallen. The main street was lit up like a Christmas card, and the quaint historical architecture was a great distraction.


She passed a beauty shop. It was open, the front chair filled with a client, the hairdresser behind her, and the two of them talking and laughing together like old friends. On the corner, where the pier met the street, came the delicious, mouthwatering scent of burgers from a little restaurant.


The Eat Me Café.


Her stomach rumbled. With good reason, as all she’d given it in the last few hours were chips and beer. She thought about a loaded burger, fries, and maybe a pie…


Instead, she had to go back and face her sisters.


Past the lights of the town stood a set of craggy bluffs, nothing but a dark, shadowy outline in the night sky now, most likely teeming with coyotes and bears. With a shiver, she turned and took in the coast, lined with impressive ancient rock formations and granite outcrops.


She hoped those coyotes and bears stayed up there and kept away from the beach. The pier was lit up by twinkling white lights strung on the railings. Someone had added red bows and mistletoe at regular intervals.


It could have been a movie set. Well, except for the realistic icy wind. Waves slapped at the pylons beneath her, far more real than any sound effect. She shivered in just her sweatshirt, but she shoved her hands into her pockets and kept walking because she needed another moment.


Maybe two.


She stopped at the base of the Ferris wheel and looked up. And up. Just thinking about riding it, sitting on top of the world, had the bottom falling out of her stomach.


Stupid fear of heights.


One of these days she’d conquer that fear, but it would have to get in line behind all the others, the ones she was letting rule her life—like her fear of being a mouse forever.


She passed the arcade and came to an ice cream shop. Just what the doctor ordered, she decided, and in spite of the chilly night, she requested a chocolate shake.


“How about a chocolate–vanilla swirl?” the guy behind the counter asked. He was young, early twenties, and had a smile that said he knew how cute he was. “It’s our bestseller.”


“Okay.” But as soon as he turned away to make it, she smacked her forehead. “Don’t let people make decisions for you! Dig deep and be like… Thelma. No, wait. Louise. I want to be Louise.” Crap. Which one had Susan Sarandon played? And did it matter? If she couldn’t be strong, she was going to have to fake it until it sank in. “I’m Louise.”


“Ah, a fantasy. I like fantasies.”


Heart in her throat, she whirled around and came face to face with Jax, looking dark and delicious, and instead of fear, something else entirely quivered low in her belly.


“But probably we should wait until after our first date to role-play,” he said.


Jax and fantasy in the same sentence made her shiver. Jax slipped out of his jacket and offered it to her, leaving him in just a long-sleeved black shirt. She opened her mouth to tell him she wasn’t cold, but then he drew the ends closed around her and her nipples pebbled as if he’d touched them, and she promptly forgot what she was going to say.


The leather held his body heat, wrapping her in it like a cocoon, and she murmured her thanks. “When I first heard you walk up behind me, I had visions of a wild animal from the cliffs dragging me off to its den to eat me, so I’m glad it was you.”


“What makes you think you’re safer with me?”


A laugh escaped her. “Well, it is true that you aren’t looking so Clark Kent–like right now, not out here in the dark.” Nope, he seemed much more like a superhero, all tall and dark and focused on her. It made it difficult to breathe, in fact. “I need to walk.”


He gave her a single nod.


Apparently that meant he was coming along, because he kept easy pace with her. The back half of the pier was empty except for the occasional bench. There were no stars visible through the clouds, and, other than the pounding surf and gusts of wind, no interruptions. She slurped on her shake, then offered some to Jax.


He searched her gaze a moment, his own quiet and reflective. Then, instead of taking the cup, his hand enveloped her own as he leaned in to draw on the straw. Her fingers itched to run over his stubble to see if it would feel rough or silky. And then there were those sinfully long, dark eyelashes, practically resting on his cheekbones, wasted on a man. But her gaze locked in on the way the muscles of his jaw bunched as he sucked the shake. When his tongue released the straw, she actually felt an answering tug deep in her womb. She must have made a noise, because he sent her a curious glance.


“It’s nothing.” Well, nothing except she was all alone with a complete stranger on the far end of the dark, nearly deserted pier. No one to save her from herself.


“It’s a different pace out here, isn’t it?” he said quietly.

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