Authors: Aimee Carson
Looking unconcerned, Jax retrieved her mail from the cubbyholes lining one wall and began flipping through the envelopes. “I'll hold out until South Glade is back on its feet.”
“You haven't heard?” her coworker said.
Eyes now alert, Jax looked up from her mail. “Heard what?”
“The board held an emergency meeting. Even if we get the funds backâ”
Jax said. Mail clutched tightly in her hand, she lowered her arms a bit. “Not if.”
The blonde's face softened in sympathy. “
we get the funds, their rehiring of you depends on the outcome of your charges.”
Jax's face lost a little of its color and a lot of its usual vitality, and an unwanted stab of sympathy hit Blake. Unable to stop himself, he stepped closer, placing a reassuring hand on her arm.
“Tell Janet I said thanks for thinking of me,” Jax said, her voice strained. She sent Blake a look that was hard to interpret. “But I'll beat the charges.”
And, without a word of warning, Jax headed out of the office, murmuring a thanks to her coworker as she passed. Blake sent the woman a polite smile and muttered an “excuse me” before following Jax out of the office. He caught up with her silent form as she neared a line of lockers along the scuffed hallway. The graceful sway of her hips was marked by a slight stiffness he knew was due to tension, and this time was not of the sexual kind.
Making her way down the line of lockers, she stopped at one and worked the lock. Her fingers took several tries to finagle the combination, and Blake's sympathy soared higher.
“You should take the job offer,” he said.
She jerked the door open, the inside plastered with posters of bands and music artists, a wide assortment of country, rock, hip-hop and blues, just to name a few. Her jaw was set. “I'll wait until the club gets the money to reinstate the music program here.”
He leaned a shoulder against the wall of lockers adorned with graffiti and crossed his arms as she pulled out her guitar.
“And what if they don't get the money?” he said.
“We will.” Hand on the locker door, she turned to face him. “Because I'm going to make sure that we do.”
“Okay,” he said doubtfully, a part of him impressed by her perseveranceâa by-product of her stubbornness, clearlyâand her natural confidence.
But one thing he'd learned long ago: you couldn't change the world through sheer force of will. And he felt obligated to be the voice of reason. Because someone needed to be pragmatic and, just like with his own family, apparently that someone had to be him.
“What happens if the board doesn't approve of the outcome of your charges?” he said.
She closed the locker door firmly, the noise echoing down the empty hallway.
Her hazel eyes were steady on his, and her words left him uneasy. “I have an excellent lawyer, so I'm not concerned.”
* * *
The next afternoon, teak oil and supplies in hand, Blake headed through the shelf-lined utility room of his home, looking forward to a few moments of peace and relaxation as he applied the oil to the railing on his boat. Tinkering with his catamaran was the perfect antidote to stress. He always started his Sundaysâthe only day he took offâby unwinding with the mindless activity. But today he'd spent the morning working on Jax's case.
And any time spent thinking about Jax was always disturbing.
For the hundredth time that day, his mind drifted back to yesterday and the feel of her fingers on his mouth. Unfortunately, even sleep hadn't provided him with an escape. Because last night he'd been tortured by dreams. Erotic, scorching dreams that would make facing her and keeping his thoughts to himself much more difficult. Desperate to free his mind of the perplexing woman, if only for a moment, Blake headed out the door and onto the pool deck...and then came to an abrupt halt.
His usually peacefully quiet pool was now inhabited by five femalesâhis mother, Nikki and Jax, along with two adolescents he'd never met. Blake let out a frustrated groan.
He missed the days when retreat was possible.
He missed the days when Nikki was at college, worrying him from afar instead of from under his nose.
And he missed the days when his self-control wasn't subjected to repeated blows, the sight of Jax in shorts and a tank top, guitar in hand, revving up his heart in a manner that couldn't be good for his blood pressure.
Nikki and his mother sat in two chaise longues next to the poolside waterfall. Jax and the two unknown teens were engaged in what appeared to be a guitar lesson at the patio table, an open bag of caramels and candy wrappers scattered on top. The two adolescents were wearing baggy cargo pants, T-shirts and piercings that looked painful. On the basis of their age, he suspected they were attendees of her club.
“Blake!” his mother called, her salt-and-pepper hair sporting a pixie cut that flattered her lined face. “It's Sunday. Put that stuff down and do something that involves relaxation, for once.”
His sister didn't give him a chance to respond.
“He can't, Mom. He's incapable of relaxation.” Nikki, her black hair pulled into a ponytail, her gray eyes with a loaded look aimed in his direction, added an overly sweet smile to her barbs. “You know, most men spend their Sundays playing golf or watching football with a beer and a bucket of chicken wings.”
Inwardly he braced for the conflict. Keeping his cool as Nikki needled him required Herculean effort.
“And most first-year law students spend their summers interning at a firm to gain work experience,” he said drily. “Not encased in plaster from hip to toe from a zip-line accident.”
A silly prank that had almost gotten her killed. Receiving the call from the E.R. about Nikki's accident had shaved several years off his life. He'd lived in dread of such a day, but had always suspected it would be due to a car accident. Nikki had spent her childhood champing at the bit, trying to grow up too fast. Now she drove too fast.
Leaving work and heading upstate to the hospital had put a massive strain on his workweek. But nothing compared to the gut-clenching memory of his little sister, pale and laid up in a hospital room with a concussion and a complicated fracture. And the fear of losing her, combined with the horrific memories of his father's accident, had scared him senseless. According to the doctor, she was lucky she hadn't been killed.
And it was good to know her mouth hadn't been injured in the process, either.
Nikki addressed their mother. “I told you he'd sneak in another jab about my mishap.” She turned her attention back to Blake, narrowing her eyes. “You're still angry about the Times Square incident, aren't you?”
“No,” he said. “I've moved on from your participation in a prank that involved a near brush with the police.” Another incident that had required his efforts to smooth outâan incident that had been, as usual, dismissed as a kids-will-be-kids moment by his mother. “The next time you might actually get charged with something, which wouldn't bode well for your future as a lawyer, by the way,” he finished drily.
The frown on his sister's face was small, but heartfelt. “Maybe you worry too much.”
Blake remembered saying exactly those words to his father, and his gut churned.
Their gazes locked, and he went on in a low voice. “Maybe you don't worry enough.”
After several tense seconds, filled with the sound of the waterfall and five pairs of female eyes on him, his mother reached over and patted Nikki on the hand.
“Take it easy on your brother, Nikki,” his mother said lightly. “I suspect he just hasn't gotten any lately.”
Three pairs of lids stretched wide at the remark, and he ignored the small, barking cough of surprise from Jax. The Bennington siblings didn't bat an eye. His mother didn't believe in a comment being too inappropriate to share. And while he was used to her casual attitude toward...hell, toward
, it hardly set a good example for the youth among them.
“Why don't you ask that pretty lawyer out? You know, the one you were talking to at the courthouse?” Nikki said, surprising him with her words. When had Nikki seen Sara? “You two could have the perfect marriage, wear perfect matching suits and have two-point-five children together.” She lifted an eyebrow wryly. “The perfect number, of course.
Blake was intensely aware of Jax's observant gaze, taking in the family interactions. Nikki and his mother had always been a dangerous combination, just as his father had warned. The two of them with Jax by their side might just do in Blake completely. And the fact that the merry band of estrogen appeared to be training new teenage recruits was alarming.
Taking on his family with an interested audience wasn't prudent. And Blake was intelligent enough to know when to cut his losses.
“Mom,” he said evenly, “I'd appreciate it if you would refrain from making my social life a public discussion. And, Nikki...” He turned his attention to his sister. “I have enough on my hands with the family I've got.”
And after a last glance at Jax, he turned and headed for the dock, grateful his boat, at least, was devoid of difficult women. But the question was, how long would the female-free moment last?
When Nikki and her mother had decided to retreat to the kitchen, Jax declined to go, claiming she wanted to relax in the sunshine. She was grateful Dawn and Tracy had accepted their invitation, because with everyone inside, Jax could study Blake, uninterrupted, as he moved about his luxury catamaran parked at the end the dock. The boat contained a glassed-in cabin and a cockpit lined with teak wood and royal-blue cushions. The crisp white sails provided a sharp contrast against the bright blue sky, sunlight dappling the palm-tree-lined, tropical waters of Biscayne Bay.
But the view paled in comparison to her first glimpse of Blake's mouthwatering physique in bathing trunks and a T-shirt. As far as Jax was concerned, a sharp legal mind should not be paired with a finely cut athlete's body. Either brains or brawn. It wasn't fair he had both. Perfect, just like his sister had teased.
Well, all except for the attitude.
His wide shoulders looked even broader stretched beneath a red T-shirt, and the black swim trunks revealed thighs to die for, his well-muscled legs obviously engaged in an ongoing love affair with the treadmill in his home gym. He'd covered the distance to the dock in record time, his retreat most likely fueled by a need to escape the family harassment by the pool. Or maybe he figured she might do something stupid again.
Like touching him.
Jax bit her lip and contemplated the enigmatic man that held her future in his hands, realizing she hadn't thanked him for his help yesterday. The setback with her car and the news of the board's decision had been unwelcome distractions. But she needed to rectify the oversight. She refused to feel ashamed of her arrest, but bad manners were absolutely unacceptable.
With a sigh and, unfortunately, something close to eager anticipation, she pushed up from her chair and padded barefoot across the pool deck and onto the warm wood of the dock.
And this time, Jax, keep your stupid, impulsive hands to yourself.
As she strode closer to the boat, Blake continued to swipe the paintbrush along the rail with long, even strokes.
Without looking up, he said, “I see you met my mother.”
“Yes,” she said. The scent of teak wood mixed with the salty breeze as water lapped gently against the boat. All of which should have been relaxing, and would have been but for the inconveniently disturbing view of Blake's hard body. “She was instructing me on how to prepare the perfect mojito,” she said as she sent him a smile from the dock. “Apparently she grows her own ingredients.”
“She planted lime trees and mint in her yard,” he said. “She calls it her liquor garden.”
The faint quirk to his lips was a mixture of amusement and warmth, with a trace of resigned exasperation, and Jax's grin grew bigger. As unconventional as his mother was, it was clear their relationship was one of affection and acceptance.
She stepped up onto the boat, admiring the forty-foot catamaran. Shading her eyes from the sun, she studied him as he went through the motions of dipping his paintbrush into the shallow pan and meticulously stroking the brush along the rail lining the deck. His focus and attention to detail weren't a surprise, and she imagined he'd make love the same way, the thought throwing her heart into a frenzy.
No touching, Jax. No touching!
But she refused to pretend she hadn't given the matter a great deal of thought already. His past actions led her to believe he'd take his time and linger, enjoying every sensation along the way. But then again, sometimes, like after she'd leaned close while perched on his desk, and
when she'd touched his lips in his car yesterday...
Her heart thumped in her chest.
times, his eyes told her a different story, suggesting that one right move on her part and he would explode in a burst of flames that would incinerate them both.
A surge of longing started in the pit of her stomach and seeped outward, fueling the already rapid pace of her pulse. And she couldn't shake the question, was there a fiercely passionate man lurking beneath that coolly authoritative, frustratingly methodical exterior?
Blake interrupted her thoughts. “I assume you were giving those two girls guitar lessons.”
She inhaled deeply, clearing her wayward thoughts. “Yes. And when I had breakfast with Nikki this morning, she said you wouldn't mind if they came to my guest cottage.” She lightly nibbled on her cheek. Now that she'd seen the siblings in action, she wasn't so confident of his sister's assessment. “I hope that's true.”
“As far as I'm concerned, my home is your home for as long as you're here.” He shot her a look she couldn't interpret, but was loaded with warnings and meaning. “Within reason, of course.”
There was a pause, his gray gaze fixed on hers, and the moment shifted to one filled with an awareness that was growing day by day. But in an effort to stick to her hands-off rule, she chose to ignore the undertones.
“Who chose the time and location of your flash mob?” he said.
Jax bunched her brow in surprise at the abrupt change in topic. “We all were bandying about ideas, but ultimately we went with Nikki's suggestion.”
At her words, the truth suddenly became obvious, and Jax closed her eyes.
Of course. Why hadn't the idea occurred to her before?
Lifting her lids, she met his gaze. “You think she placed us there that day on purpose.”
“Absolutely,” he said. “Nikki overheard my phone call with Sara earlier in the week.”
“Sara?” she said, remembering the gorgeous woman in the gorgeous suit. “You mean the lady you're supposed to somehow have half of a perfect child with?”
His eyes crinkled in humor. “That's the one. She agreed to meet with me at the courthouse Friday to give me some information in reference to a case I'm working on,” he said, and then his brow bunched in aggravation. “And when my sister spied us coming down the steps, she turned on the music, effectively starting the event.”
Jax pondered this for a moment and then tipped her head curiously. “Why would she go to such lengths to ensure you were there to see our flash mob?”
The tension around his eyes was impossible to miss. “To rub her participation in my face,” he said. “To get back at me.”
“And what did you do to warrant the payback?”
At her direct insult, he went completely still, and Jax wished she could take her words back. Not that she didn't mean them. However, insulting her current employer probably wasn't the best way to proceed. But living with her foot in her smart-ass mouth had almost become a way of life.
The lines of humor around his eyes returned. “Why are you so sure I deserve a payback?”
Since her mouth would only get her into more trouble, she elected to answer with a meaningful lift of her brow, hoping he'd recall every autocratic tone he'd used with her along the way.
In response, an amused scoff escaped those sensual lips, and he set his paintbrush in the pan, turning to face her. “I warned Nikki taking a spin on her friend's homemade zip line was dangerous,” he said. He looked across the water, squinting into the sunshine. But he clearly wasn't focused on the view, his voice reflective. “So she's annoyed my prediction proved accurate. She's angry that she ruined her summer plans. Worse, her only choice was to either move in with my mother at her expensive retirement village with all her cronies, orâ”
Jax bit back a smile at the suggestion, and Blake went on. “Exactly,” he said drily, apparently agreeing with her unspoken comment as he continued. “Or move in here under the, and I quote, âtyrannical eye of my big brother.'”
“I guess that's what siblings are for.”
“To drive each other crazy?” he said with a skeptical look.
She struggled to keep a straight face. “Yeah. And not that you'd be surprised,” she went on, “but when you're not around, Nikki calls you her big brother and her capitalized Big Brother, in the Orwellian sense.”
The eyebrow bisected by the tiny scar shot higher in amusement.
“If it's any consolation,” she said, “Nikki says you're the guy every law-enforcement officer wants trying their cases. She thinks you're a brilliant lawyer.”
The praise seemed to surprise him, and he leaned back against the unpainted part of the rail, crossing his arms. The full-on sight of his beautiful biceps and the shirt stretched across the lightly muscled chest almost sent her into the deep end of the bay. Every atom in her body adjusted to peer in his direction.
Jax cleared her throat. “And given my predicament, her belief in your brilliance is reassuring.”
The brain she needed. The brawn was a distraction, begging to be explored.
“I spoke with Sara again this morning,” he said, interrupting her mutinous thoughts. “She offered to help with your case. As a former public defender, and a brilliant one at that, she's well qualified to offer advice.”
Jax bit back a frown. She was incredibly grateful he was going out of his way to do a good job, but a very tiny part of her was disturbed he was consulting with his perfect other half. But despite the fact that Blake was conferring with the beautiful lawyer, or maybe even because of it, he still deserved Jax's gratitude.
Which was why she'd risked coming to talk to the deliciously disruptive, infinitely touchable man.
“In that caseâ” taking extra-special care
to touch him, she held out her hand for the paintbrush with an appreciative smile “âin thanks for all of your hard work, I'll finish this section while you take a moment to relax.”
Wariness flickered through his eyes. As if trying to decide if he wanted her continued company or not, Blake gave a cautious glance down at her waiting hand, which was then followed by a small frown of discovery on his face. His eyes zeroed in on her arm, and her stomach dropped. When he lightly grasped her handâsending a jolt through her bodyâand pulled her arm closer to better visualize the tattoo on the inside of her wrist, her stomach rolled...
Oh, hell. Keeping her hands to herself was the least of her worries now.
“I never noticed the scars under your tattoo,” he said in a low voice.
The sensation of his hand on her skin combined with the scrutiny of her battle wounds made speaking impossible. Heart pumping hard, she willed herself to remain calm, making sure her voice was light. Or as light as she could manage, anyway. Because one scar could easily be an accident.
Two parallel ones were definitely suspicious.
She fought for a breezy tone, falling just short of the mark. “I didn't try to kill myself, if that's what you're thinking.”
“I'm well aware people cut themselves for other reasons,” he said.
And the unspoken knowledge in his gaze, the understanding in his expression, set her pulse pounding harder. There was no denying the look on his face. He knew the wounds had been self-inflicted.
He knew she'd once been a cutter.
Her chest seemed to shrink to half its size, trapping the breath in her lungs. It was one thing to come to thank the man for his help. Baring her history to those probing, all-seeing eyes was another. But now that the tumultuous mindset of her adolescent years had been exposed, she refused to offer up excuses or cower meekly in the corner, pretending he'd misunderstood. She curled her fingers against her palm.
Because, damn it, she'd battled those demonsâhad waged a war against the crippling insecurities of her youthâand
“It was a long time ago, when I was just a teen,” she said simply, hoping he wouldn't interrogate her further. After the Jack fiasco, she wasn't ready for that kind of reveal again. “The parallel marks reminded me of part of a musical staff. So a couple of years ago, I had the extra lines tattooed on and added musical notes.”
The lengthy pause was filled with warm sunshine, a salty breeze and the sound of lapping waves and ruffling sails. Jax couldn't move, couldn't think, couldn't
, dying to hear how he would respond to her admission about the origin of her scars.
Until Blake finally said, “Musical notes to which song?”
Stunned, she leaned back and cocked her hip, staring up at him. Of all the questions she'd expected, that one had never crossed her mind. Two years ago Jack's disappointing reactions to the marks on her body had inspired the tattoo and choice of song. Since then, no one had ever asked her about her choice. Leave it to the astutely observant Blake to suss out that they weren't just random notes she'd chosen on a whim.
Curious how he'd react to the news, and hugely relieved by the change in topic, she said, “They're the first phrase to Madonna's âLike a Virgin.'”
A small grunt escaped his lips, a combination of shocked surprise...and amusement.
“You don't approve of my choice?” She fought a smile, struggling to maintain the deadpan face as she went on. “Or maybe you think the song doesn't suit me?”
“I have nothing against Madonna, per se,” he said.
He cast an eye over her short shorts and the tank top displaying the local rap artist Bulldog. Blake's assessing look was electrifying, prickling the hair at her neck. Her shirt emphasized her breasts in a way that could hardly be described as modest.
Blake hesitated, as if considering the rest of his answer, and then dropped his gaze back to the arm still cradled in his hand. He lightly touched the line of one scar, and a searing bolt of nerves nearly crippled her body. The simple caress was sensual. Seductive.
And as scary as hell as he traced the marks that had come to symbolize the fight to achieve peace with her past. Her warrior wounds were a visible reminder of the inner conflict she'd battled. Profoundly disturbed, she resisted the urge to splay her hand on his hard chest and stroke lower....