Author: Jill Shalvis
Jack stroked a hand up her arm, the warmth of him chasing the chill that wracked her. "You did good, Leah. You took a bad situation and held it together." He was still tense, but she was pretty sure that was pride she heard in his voice. He was proud of her. He was also hard. "Jack?"
He pulled her tighter, his fingers trailing over her skin. "Yeah?"
"The rule," she said softly. "The one where we're done?"
He paused, clearly choosing his words carefully. "I was pissed off and butt hurt. And I was wrong. You've never misled me or tried to be someone you weren't. Life is short, Leah. Too fucking short. It took me a while to catch on to that. I'm not going to make that mistake again."
"What about the no big good-bye."
His teeth closed over her earlobe and bit down lightly, and heat spiraled through her belly.
"I remember," he said.
"So…what are we doing?"
"New rule just for tonight," he said. "I'm going to fuck you until you forget about what happened at the bakery," he said. "And then I'm going to make love to you until you scream my name again. I really like it when you do that."
She nearly came from just the words.
His fingers slid under the edge of her panties. "Still with me?"
"I want you, Leah."
Her heart squeezed at the words, given so freely. "Even though I hurt you? Even though I'm leaving? Even though-"
"Even though," he said, voice low. "I don't always agree with you, but I always understand. I want you in my life, Leah. That's never going to change."
Her breath hitched. Unconditional acceptance. It washed through her, heated her.
His cheek brushed against hers, sandpaper rough. "I know you don't want a good-bye, and hell if I do either. So this isn't good-bye. It's an until. Until our paths cross. It's happened before. It'll happen again."
Not a promise, and that was of her own making. She closed her eyes and took in the feel of him surrounding her, his heart beating at her back, his breath on her jaw. Did it matter?
His mouth was on the nape of her neck, his hands gliding over her body, stirring the desire, the all-consuming need. With a moan, she rocked back against him.
No promises. None were needed, she realized, and whispered his name entreatingly.
He dragged her panties down her legs and then his hand slid back between her thighs. She shivered as his fingers stroked, moving in a pace designed to drive her wild.
Or make her beg. Which at the moment she was perfectly willing to do. "Jack."
He pulled free and she heard him open a condom, replacing his fingers with something even better. Sliding into her to the hilt, he bit lightly into the junction of her shoulder and neck, and she came.
"More." His voice was gruff, and he thrust again, deeper. "Again."
She could barely hear him over the rushing in her ears, though she did hear her own whimper when he pulled out. Lifting his weight off her, he rolled her onto her back. "This way," he said. "I want to see you."
"You're so beautiful," she whispered.
"No, that's you," he murmured. Staring down at her, his gaze dark, determined, intense, he tugged her shirt over her head and slid back into her, making her cry out as he thrust right where she needed him. She rocked against him, her eyes fluttering closed with ecstasy.
"Leah, look at me." When she did, he thrust again. His eyes seared into her. "Remember this."
Did he think she wouldn't? He was all she remembered. Always. "Jack-"
His hand slid between their bodies and found her, and she nearly arched off the bed. She met his every move as another wave washed over her, and through it all she kept her eyes open, let him watch as everything inside her peaked and convulsed.
She took him right along with her. His control snapped and he shuddered, groaning out her name. Shifting his hips, he grinded against her, sending more tremors rippling through her. "This, Leah. I'll remember this. You. Always."
Unraveling at his words, she wrapped her arms around him, her legs, and then, she was pretty sure, her heart as well.
Two days later, Leah stood at her parked car, surrounded by…everyone.
So much for a quiet good-bye.
Jack had spent most of the past two days at work dealing with the Tim fallout. They'd had no private time at all, and now their good-bye was going to be a public deal in front of Ben, Elsie, Dee, and half the town. Nothing she could do about that, she thought, not surprised when Jack took her hand and pulled her aside.
"Not fair," Lucille called out. "We can't hear you."
Jack's amused but solemn gaze met Leah's. "So," he said.
"So." She sucked in some air. "Love me forever?"
"And ever," he said. No smile.
Shaken, she stepped into him for a hug
. "It really doesn't matter to you that I didn't win Sweet Wars, does it?" she whispered, holding on to him tightly. "Or that I screwed up. You really don't care about any of that. You know the core of me, of who I am, and you still put up with me."
"Leah." He slid his fingers into her hair, cupping the back of her head as he pressed his mouth to her temple. "You know all of my dark places, and you accept them. You accept me. So why is it so hard for you to believe that I know yours and accept them as well? You've been a part of my life for so long, one of the most important parts. That's what I care about. Not you quitting some TV show, but that you don't quit me."
Her breath caught. Her heart hitched. "But I have to go do this."
"I know. It's okay. Whatever you want to do, school, open a pastry shop, or nothing at all… That's not why I love you. And I do love you, Leah. I want you to know that before you leave. Not to change your mind, but to take with you."
The marvel of it washed over her and was better than the straight shot of the oxygen mask had been. That he felt this way was no surprise, not really. He'd been showing her how much he loved her in one form or another since the day she'd moved in next door to him.
Having grown up as she had, she knew the expression of emotions was all in the actions, not the words.
But the words…oh, the words. They were the most amazing words she'd ever heard. Getting into her car and driving off was the hardest thing she'd ever done.
As the dust settled from Leah's car, Lucille patted Jack on the arm.
"I'm fine," he said.
"Of course you are. You're an idiot, but you're fine."
Ben, at his side, choked out a low laugh.
When Jack slid him a look, Ben lifted a shoulder. "She's right, you know. You are an idiot."
"Yeah? And how's that?"
"You let her go."
Jack buried himself in work, and when he wasn't snowed under by all the work Ronald had left him, Luke and Ben dragged him out. They ate and drank so much he had to increase his workouts, which turned out to be for the best.
Exhaustion was the only way to sleep.
Leah wrote him. She sent emails, texts, and even a few greeting cards that made him smile.
He wasn't as good with the written word, so he called. The time difference was a bitch, but they spent hours on the phone talking about…hell if he knew.
He just liked the sound of her voice.
She often asked about his mom, who was doing well, thanks to Ronald. She asked about her grandma, who was also doing well. She asked about Jack's work, and how the transition to deputy fire chief and fire marshal was working out for him, better than he could have hoped for. "Leah," he said halfway through her last semester. "I miss you."
There was a thick silence, and then her shuddery sigh sounded across the airwaves. "Miss you too."
"Wow, you didn't choke on it," he said, teasing her by mimicking her grandma's words.
"Or this," she said, and drew in a deep breath. "I love you, Jack."
He let a stunned beat pass, and then he had to swallow hard. "We pretended to be a couple for an entire town, you nearly died by the hand of a serial arsonist who wanted to date you, and then there was the big, dramatic good-bye we didn't want, and you never said a word. Now you're, what, twenty million miles away and you say it?"
"Five thousand miles." She laughed a little. "And timing was never my strong suit."
Leah did what she'd promised and committed to doing. She finished school. And surprising even herself, she enjoyed it.
She didn't have to be the best to be her best. All she had to do was be herself.
Rafe made her an offer.
"I've been asked to get you to renew your contract," he said. "The network wants to keep you on board. You're a natural in front of an audience, and the camera loves you. The network wants to follow you as you open up your own pastry shop."
It was a sweet offer. But the last time she'd truly been happy had been in Lucky Harbor, with Jack. He loved her, and she understood what that meant now.
How had she walked away from that? "No," she said to Rafe. "Thank you, but no."
"No?" Rafe sighed. "Fine. What's it going to take?" A ten percent raise?"
"Again, thank you. But I can't." She had something she wanted to do. Needed to do. For the first time in her life, she had a plan. She had revisited that plan in her mind every day for three months-knowing exactly the life she wanted for herself, and she was going for it.
"Listen," Rafe said. "I get it, okay? We're prepared to double your contract, but that's our last, cold, hard line, Leah. Take it or leave it. And let's be clear, we expect you to take it."