Authors: Aimee Carson
And as Jax had learned long ago, those were the hardest to heal.
A look she couldn't interpret flashed through his eyes, and his breath came out in a frustrated whoosh. “And here I am, whining about my past, when youâ”
Jax covered his mouth with her hand. She knew what he'd been about to say.
“This isn't a competition,” she said, sending him a softly chastising look.
No way was she going to let him belittle his past by mentioning hers, as if his suffering had somehow been less significant in comparison. Pain was pain, no matter how it was served. And his certainly affected his choices for the future.
The sensual lips beneath her fingers sent a skitter of desire down her limbs. She had no idea how long her time with him would last. And she was hit with an overwhelming need to bury her worries about where he was headed, where
were headed, and simply make love to him againâboth the former hell-raiser and the current rule-follower.
Her lips quirked into a gently teasing smile. “But if we're comparing our physical scars...” Jax sat up and slid the straps of her one-piece down to her hips, exposing her skin and the numerous marks on her belly. She sent him her best sultry look, knowing he'd get distracted by her bared breasts. He
got distracted by her bared breasts. “My scars are definitely more impressive than yours.”
As predicted, heat flared in his eyes as they traveled down her curves.
His voice husky, he said, “Is
“If it was, you'd lose.”
She sent him her best seductive smile, and his sexy gaze lit a fire low in her belly, only to be tinctured by the burn of something else when his gaze landed on her abdomen.
Her breathing grew shallow, quick, as she willed herself not to move. They'd made love multiple times since that day she'd revealed her scars to him, but anytime he'd tried to touch one, she'd moved his hand to more important, more needy areas. Hoping to sidetrack his efforts.
But he'd talked so frankly about his own wounds, the least she could do was let him
at hers. And the moment was going well, until he reached out to touch one, and her heart dropped to her toes....
Despite the hesitation on her face, Blake didn't budge as he looked up at Jax, his finger resting on her largest scar.
When she'd pulled her suit down to her waist, he was positive she hadn't been thinking about having another serious conversation, much less one about
past. He forced his gaze to remain on her hazel eyes, though he longed to linger on her bared chest. If he'd been a weaker man, her distraction would have worked.
He swallowed hard, hoping he wasn't a weaker man.
With effort, Blake dropped his gaze past the lovely, enticing curves of her breasts to the permanent marks covering her belly, rubbing the ridge of flesh beneath his finger. The moment stretched, a seagull calling overhead, and Jax shifted, as if growing uncomfortable.
She nodded at the scar he traced, the shape resembling the number sign on a computer keyboard. “You can play tic-tac-toe on that one,” she said casually, as if to lighten the moment.
“When did you make it?”
“On my fourteenth birthday,” she said, and his heart contracted so hard it physically hurt.
And it didn't take much to realize how lonely that birthday must have been for her.
He reached out to grip her hip. “Jesus, Jaxâ”
“It's okay,” she said, covering his hand with hers as if he were the one that needed comforting.
Five seconds passed as she returned his gaze, her eyes remarkably calm.
“The week before was the first time I ever cut myself, and I made the marks on my arm. Which was a huge mistake,” she said, as if sensing his need to know more. “The school noticed the wounds and notified my foster parents. And the next thing I knew they were freaking out and wanted me gone.” She inhaled slowly, the moment filled with the sound of the sail fluttering in a warm breeze. “I think they were afraid I'd do something really crazy...like hurt one of their kids.”
A curse escaped his lips on her behalf, harsher than he'd intended, and a fatalistic smile lifted her lips as she went on.
“Most folks don't understand,” she said with a resigned acceptance. “They think you're an attention seeker. Or worse, that you've gone mad.” She lifted an eyebrow. “
was the expression my boyfriend used when he saw my scars.” The cruel word made Blake wince, but Jax gave a tiny lift of her shoulder. “People just react out of fear,” she said simply, as if she'd come to grips with the truth long ago.
And he hated that she'd had to learn to tolerate such a grim reality. A boyfriend was bad enough, but family? Family was supposed to protect you, to be on your side no matter what.
They certainly should never turn you away.
The twist on his heart torqued harder, and he sat up, emotion making his voice gruff. “You are the most grounded person I know.”
Though he spoke the truth, his words felt so inadequate.
“Thank you,” she said softly as she leaned back on her hands, legs extended.
He was pleased she hadn't attempted to cover her scars again. But the frustration, the unfairness of all she'd suffered, burned through him. While he'd been dreaming of peeking down his teacher's blouse and getting into trouble with his friends, she'd been wrestling with a horrendous secret.
“No one should grow up like that,” he said.
Jax sent him a small smile, as if trying to ease the reality of her past. “I've come a long way since those days. In high school, I found the teen center, and a music therapist taught me how to play the guitar. I graduated, received counseling in college and landed my dream job.” She followed that statement up with another tiny shrug. “Happy ending.”
A happy ending...
Palm on her hip, he studiously ignored the soft skin beneath his hand, the desire coursing through his veins. She was an extraordinary woman. Yet despite her indomitable will and her amazing ability to bounce back, there was a lingering sense of disconnect between the self-assured female who was confident of her choices...and the insecurity about her sexuality. He sensed it every time they made love.
And now was the time to change that.
Blake leaned forward and placed his lips on her neck, enjoying the responding catch of her breath and her melting sigh. Her pulse throbbed beneath his mouth. Desire clamping hard in his groin, he closed his eyes against his pounding need in deference to hers, moving his mouth lower to her collarbone.
He skimmed his fingers down to her one-piece, and Jax leaned back and lifted her hips, aiding him in his efforts as he slid the fabric the rest of the way off.
“Good call, Suit,” she murmured, as if she were glad he was dropping the subject.
But he wasn't.
Heart pulsing, he tossed the suit aside and stared at Jax. Naked, breathless and clearly anticipating another wild ride, she stared up at him with a heated gaze that definitely tested his status as a weaker man. And then she parted her legs.
With concerted effort, he subdued the urge to take her. To stake his claim. Instead, he strove to be the better man. To prove that she was gorgeous, inside
out. He traced the largest welt on her abdomen, the one shaped like a tic-tac-toe grid, and she tensed beneath him. Her pulse throbbed even harder in her neck.
Flat on her back, she lifted a brow. “Tic-tac-toe isn't the game I had in mind when you pulled off my suit.”
Despite the glimmer of concern in her eyes, she was clearly trying to keep her tone nonchalant. He ignored her attempt to keep it light and shifted down her body, his lips landing on the angrily puckered, permanent welt.
A hiss of frustrationâlaced with a hint of confusionâwhooshed from her lips.
Moving his mouth across her belly, her muscles tense beneath his tongue, he traced the long length of the scar with his lips and placed a hand between her legs. In response, goose bumps peppered her flesh and her body began to relax, the tension easing from her muscles. Encouraged, he began to place imaginary
's with his tongue and
's with openmouthed kisses, concentrating on the mark she'd carved on her fourteenth birthday.
“Nobody wins at tic-tac-toe,” she said, her voice
He looked up at her, noting the flush of desire on her cheeks.
His words came out as a satisfied rumble. “Oh, I'm winning all right.”
A sultry smile slipped up her face, and she threaded her fingers through his damp hair as she arched her back again, and need twisted hard inside him. With her hands, she urged his head lower, almost writhing beneath him now.
“Fun and games are over,” she said. “It's time to get serious.”
And he'd never been more serious in his life.
He eased his fingers into the silken heat between her legs, and Jax bit her lower lip and groaned.
“Yes,” she breathed, almost in relief.
His tongue continued to trace the marks on her belly, blazing a trail as he dedicated himself to tasting every scar on her torso. And when she whispered something to the effect that she'd die if he didn't end her agony soon, his thumb brushed hard across her nub. Jax whimpered.
Sweat broke out at the nape of his neck, but not from the heat of the sun on his back. He knew she wanted him inside her. And his body screamed to give her exactly that. It was what they both wanted. Longed for.
But, damn it, he would be the stronger man. Even if it killed him.
Mouth on her scarred skin, hand between her legs, he drove her higher, enjoying the return of the tension in her abdomen, because this time the strain was due to pleasure. As he brought her closer to the edge, her groans grew louder as she rocked her hips in time with his hand.
Until finally, he firmly flicked his thumb across her nub, and she arched her back, taking the fall.
“Blake,” she called, clutching his shoulders as her muscles clenched around him.
While the aftershocks of Jax's orgasm continued, Blake kept one eye on the beautiful sight as he quickly retrieved a condom from the beach bag and shucked his swim trunks, sheathing himself before shifting up her body. Caught up in the overwhelming need to capture a little of her indomitable spirit, to attain a bit of her amazing fortitude for himself, he cupped her face and thrust deep, burying himself in her wet, welcoming warmth.
* * *
The morning she received the fabulous news that the rap star Bulldog had decided to sponsor the South Glade Teen Center music program, Jax threw up for the third time in as many days.
One episode was easy to dismiss as a fluke. With two, she'd prayed hard it was the beginning of a debilitating stomach flu. But three times, without the rest of the symptoms of a virus, could only mean one thing.
Heart pounding, one hand propped against the bathroom wall of the guest cottage, Jax tightened her grip around the phone. A phone still pressed against her chest from her attempt to block the sound of her breakfast making a surprise reappearance. As Jax grappled with the ominous implications, her mind spun. But she was mostly busy struggling to keep her wobbly knees from collapsing. Holding an intelligent conversation with Blake's mother at the same time was really asking too much.
“Jax?” Abigail's muffled voice called out from the phone, “Are you still there? What was that horrible sound?”
Me. Upchucking. Because I think I'm pregnant with your son's baby.
Good God, did the Fates love to stir things up or what? A week ago Blake had kissed her scars, and at first she'd been desperate for him to do something,
, other than lavish attention on the part of her body that, every day, was a reminder of her past. But his mouth had been soothing, reassuring, and his touch between her legs had set her on fire. Burning away the last of her resistance, as if proving she were beautiful, scars and all.
He'd given her a gift. Because now when she looked in the mirror, instead of unhappy memories, she could choose to remember her time with him. Darkness replaced with light. Pain replaced with pleasure.
Who could resist such a fantastic deal?
Even better, since their return from their trip to the Keys last week, Blake had been coming to the guest cottage every night. Life had been the best ever.
Hence the reason, Jax was sure, the Powers that Be had deemed it couldn't last.
Jax lifted the phone back to her ear, remembering Blake's mother was expecting an explanation for the awful sound of her vomiting. “Sorry, Abigail.” She pinched the bridge of her nose. “I was straining mightily to move the couch,” she said, wincing at the lamest lie ever.
“And what was the splattering noise afterward?”
Jax closed her eyes. “I spilled my cup of tea in the process,” she lied again and then cleared her throat, forcing herself to remain coherent despite her panic.
At least for the remainder of the phone call.
Jax scrambled to return to their previous conversation. “How did your friend get Bulldog on board?” Jax asked.
“Franklin sent him the YouTube video of your flash-mob dance,” Abigail said, happy to go on with the good news of her musical coup. “He was seriously impressed with your group's talents and the work you do at South Glade. He attended a similar teen club while growing up in Miami.” Jax could almost hear the pleased smile in Abigail's voice. “And it didn't hurt that your routine at the courthouse was set to his latest hit.”
Though it was heartfelt, Jax's return smile felt weak. “This really is good news, Abigail. I couldn't have raised the funding without you.” Her heart softened and her lids stung with emotion. “You're the best.”
“Don't worry, Jax. You can return the favor sometime,” Abigail said, and Jax's stomach rebelled at the thought of trying Abigail's peppermint scones. “And speaking of favors,” Blake's mother continued, “don't forget my friend's breast-cancer benefit starts tonight at eight. I'll have her leave yours and Blake's tickets at the door.”
At the reminder of the event they'd promised to attend in exchange for a weekend alone, Jax smothered her groan. How would she manage an evening in a floor-length gown while suppressing the urge to toss her cookies? All the while accompanied by the father of the baby, the man who had no idea he was a father. And would Blake prefer that the mother of his kids be litigator Sara? The lady who was reasonable and practical and sane? The one who could pull off fractional children with perfection?
Jax's stomach roiled again, and she pressed her lips together, wondering if she would last through the incubation of a whole one.
Heart rate escalating, she forced herself to focus on the rest of the conversation with Abigail. After a little more talk about the benefit, the dress Jax had bought to wear and how to move forward with Bulldog's offerânone of which penetrated her preoccupied thoughtsâJax signed off. She blew out a breath, relieved she'd survived the call, and tossed the phone onto the couch. Desperate for a retreat, she padded barefoot down the hall and into her bedroom, flopping onto her bed. The covers were still rumpled from last night's activities with Blake as she stared up at the ceiling, a single word echoing in her thoughts.
She blinked and fought to control her heart rate, struggling to sort out her jumbled emotions. Fear. Apprehension. Confusion. There was plenty to go around. And the feeling of inadequacy clamped hard around her throat. But mixed in with all of the racing thoughts was a tiny bud of intense hope. Of happiness.
Jax pressed her lids closed, fighting the urge to contain the emotion. In an attempt to self-soothe, she placed a hand on her belly, absently rubbing the scars that Blake had traced while making love to her. Somewhere beneath her marked-up skin was her son or daughter. A little imp already bound and determined to make its presence known. Her lips quirked, and Jax could no longer fight the feeling of elation.