Author: Jill Shalvis
"Of course they do. For a price. And we're willing to pay it. Yes or no, Leah?"
You never finish a damn thing, Leah. Not one damn thing. And you never will…
Her father's words echoed in her head and gave her an instant jaw ache from clenching it so tight. It used to be that her father's words were in her head all the time, but she'd managed to block them more and more. Now she heard a different voice in her head. She heard Jack, brave, confident Jack.
You're letting your past rule you again. It's your life, Leah. Own it. Do with it what you want.
Oh how she wanted to be more like Jack, strong of body and spirit, sure of herself. But her mind raced. Leaving here would be leaving him.
You've already done that.
Besides, she knew the truth now. She had to make something of herself. She had to prove to herself that she could before she could let him in.
But going back to school in front of a camera? Good God. Failing herself was one thing, but failing in front of an audience? Torture.
So don't fail…
"I'm in," she said.
"Good." She heard some clicking, as if his fingers were racing over a keyboard. "The semester starts October first."
Her heart clutched. Was she really going to do this? "That's in three weeks."
"Don't be tardy, Sweet Cheeks. Or you won't be the teacher's pet."
Somehow she went through the motions for the rest of the day. She baked. She sold. She took Elsie shopping for some "hot shoes." She'd planned on an early night to crawl into her bed and crash, but Ali and Aubrey dragged her to the Love Shack, during which she managed to avoid any and all questions about her personal life by keeping her drink near her mouth.
"She's deflecting," Aubrey noted.
"Think that's a bad sign?" Ali asked.
"I know it is," Aubrey said.
"I screwed up," Leah admitted.
"Oh good," Aubrey said. "I love to hear stories of other people's screwups. It's such a refreshing change from reliving my own hundreds of screwups."
"You have hundreds?" Ali asked.
"Maybe thousands," Aubrey said.
"I've just got the one for now," Leah said. "But it's a biggie."
"We're all ears," Aubrey said, and waved for another round of drinks.
Much later, the three friends left the bar together. "Am I the only one who's on a merry-go-round?" Leah asked, world spinning.
"Yes," Ali said, hugging her. "But that's because you did all the drinking." She looked at Aubrey. "Who's driving Tipsy Girl home?"
"I can," Leah said, raising her hand.
Aubrey rolled her eyes and snatched Leah's keys. "You're Tipsy Girl," she said.
"Oh." Leah sighed. It was true. Her tongue was numb and her toes tingled, and she wasn't entirely sure but it felt like she had two heads.
She was more than tipsy.
They said good night to Ali, and then Aubrey shoved Leah into her car. Leah looked out the window as Aubrey drove through a quiet and sleeping Lucky Harbor. The shops were dark, the streets deserted. After traveling around the globe, this place should have seemed far too…quiet.
But the opposite was true. She felt like herself here. She was happy here.
And now she was leaving…
A pang hit her right in the center of her chest, but she knew it wasn't a heart attack. Nope, nothing as simple as that.
It was the thought of walking away. Again.
And yet she hadn't given herself much of a choice, had she? She'd been in such a damn hurry to get the hell out before she could prove that she was nothing but a screwup. And now she'd broken up with her pretend boyfriend-
The pang hit again. It might have been indigestion from the chili cheese fries she'd inhaled at the bar along with the alcohol, but she was pretty sure it was a certain tall, dark, and sexy-as-hell firefighter.
Yeah. This was all Jack's fault. Leah pulled out her phone.
Aubrey reached over and snatched it from her fingers.
"Hey," Leah said.
"Trust me, when it's this late and you're toasted, the only call you ever make is to do something monumentally stupid. You can thank me tomorrow. Where do you live?"
"Maybe I just want to see what time it is." Leah sighed. "Okay, so I was going to do something monumentally stupid." She gave Aubrey the address.
Aubrey didn't speak, just drove, for which Leah was grateful. She really needed to go to bed. After all, she had only four hours before she had to be up again…
Aubrey pulled up to the address Leah had given her and parked.
"You don't have to walk me in," Leah said. "I'm not that drunk
Aubrey gave Leah a long look. "Yeah you are. And this isn't your grandma's house."
Leah bit her lower lip. "How did you know?"
Aubrey didn't answer for a long moment, just stared at the duplex. "Let's just say you're not the only one who's done something monumentally stupid in this lifetime."
Leah's stomach sank. "You and Jack…?"
"No," Aubrey said. "No. Not Jack."
Which meant… "Ben?"
"It's not what you think," Aubrey said cryptically and got out of the car.
Leah knew she wanted to follow this conversation, but at the moment she didn't have the brain capacity. So she got out of the car. "I'm good from here," she said.
"Oh, I know."
Leah watched Aubrey head toward the porch. "Then what are you doing?"
"I don't want to miss the monumental mistake."
Leah sighed and followed. She knocked softly on Jack's front door in case he was sleeping and was startled when Ben's front door opened instead.
Ben stood there in faded jeans, a T-shirt, and bare feet.
"Sorry," Leah said. "Did I wake you?"
His hair was rumpled but his eyes were sharp and on Aubrey. "No."
Aubrey met his gaze evenly. "Hello, Ben."
Ben didn't say a word, but his eyes were saying plenty. Leah just couldn't tell what they were saying plenty of, though the tension was thick enough to cut with a knife.
Then a huge shadow shoved its way past Ben.
A bear that was white with black spots and looked like Kevin, greeting Leah with a snuffle and a warm, wet nose that he pushed into her belly.
She fell backward to her butt on the porch.
"Shit," Ben said. He scooped Leah up and set her back on her feet, pausing to peer into her eyes. Still holding on to her, he turned to Aubrey. "She's drunk."
"Tipsy," Leah said.
Aubrey shrugged. "Not her keeper."
Ben shook his head, eyes accusatory. "You okay?" he asked Leah.
"Yep." She put her hands on her butt. "I've got plenty of padding. Where's Jack?"
"Out back in the hot tub," Ben said. "Take Kevin the killer guard dog here. He just drank my last beer, and we're no longer friends."
Leah smiled at the dog, then turned to Aubrey. "Thanks for the ride-"
But Aubrey was halfway back to her car. Ben was watching her go, eyes dark and unreadable.
"I'm going to go visit Jack now," Leah said. But her feet didn't move.
Ben sighed as he took her hand and began to lead her around the back of the house.
"You don't have to walk me," she protested. "I can find my own way-"
"But I don't want to intrude." She paused. "And I'm not at all sure why I'm here. He's not going to be happy to see me, you know. He's tired of pretending."
Ben smiled in the dark. She could hear it in his voice. "You think he's pretending to like you?"
"I think he's pretending that he doesn't want to wring my neck."
This gave her the rare pleasure of hearing Ben laugh. By this time they were around the side of the house and coming up on the back deck, Leah could hear the drone of the hot tub's jets running. Ben guided her up the wood steps to the edge of the tub.
Jack was in it; big body sprawled out, an arm on the edge on either side of him, head back, eyes closed. There were ear buds in his ears, leading to an iPod on the bench behind him.
Also on the bench-three empty beer bottles.
"He's probably tipsy too," she whispered to Ben.
"You two are a pair," Ben agreed.
"No," she said. "That's the thing. We're pretending to be a pair. Or we were. I screwed that up too."
Ben shook his head and let out a sound of amusement. "Like I said, you're a pair."
"A pretend pair," she said. Jeez. And she'd always thought Ben was so smart. "And I don't want to really be his girlfriend anyway."
"No. He's bossy. And he likes to have his way. And he thinks I'm just playing with him." She sighed, not taking her eyes off Jack's form.
Jack's very fine, very built, very wet form.
She couldn't see much below the bubbles, and she wondered if he was wearing a bathing suit. She hoped he wasn't. "Can't blame him," she whispered. "I've played with him before, you know. Just last night in fact."
Ben laughed again. "And I'm sure he hated every minute of it. Listen, Leah, you have to wake him up before I leave. I can't leave two drunks out here alone."
"Tipsy. I'm just tipsy."
"Right," he said and gave Jack a nudge. Actually, it was more like a shove.
Jack didn't jump. He didn't react at all except for the one eye that cracked open.