Slowly, I lifted my fruit punch and took a huge gulp. “I just thought that after . . . um, everything . . .” I trailed off as he lifted me back so that my feet weren’t on the floor.

“You thought what? That I didn’t want you up here with me?” He prowled onto the bed. There was no other word for what he was doing. One leg was on one side of mine, and the other on the other side. His hands were still on my hips. “That I didn’t notice how great you looked today? And not once did you turn your cheek to the left to hide?”

Oh my God.

Fruit punch forgotten.

“You thought I didn’t want to sleep beside you again? You guessed that wrong if that’s the case.” His fingers curled into my hips, sending a rush of warmth through my veins. “I really f**king enjoyed going to sleep next to you and waking up next to you. Which is new to me. I’m not usually a big fan of that, but you . . . yeah, you’re different.”

I never wanted to be more different in my life.

His hands dragged up my sides. “Or you thought I didn’t notice that you were doing good all day, in spite of the shit we dealt with in the morning? We went to a shit hole and we almost got run over, but you still smiled afterward. You handled it, went to work. Then Aimee showed up.”

Jax dipped his head and brushed his lips across mine. “Aimee and I never dated.”

My muscles locked up as my brain called bull crap on that. “I don’t think that’s really any of my business.”

He made a deep sound of disapproval. “You’re in my bed right now, right?”

“Well, yeah.”

“And my mouth was just on you, correct?”

I nodded.

“My hand has been between those pretty legs, too?”

Oh wow. That warmth turned to a molten heat that centered between said legs.

His forehead pressed against mine. “And I’m taking you out to dinner later. So tell me, how in the f**k does some chick showing up tonight, hanging all over me, and insinuating that we’ve got a past, have nothing to do with you?”

“Okay,” I whispered. “When you put it that way, I guess it does.”

“Guess?” He drew back, shaking his head. And then he sat back, his legs on either side of mine, his hands resting on my waist. “I get that you haven’t done this before.”

I raised my fruit punch and took another drink while there was a flutter in my stomach.

“But you need to understand where this is heading. I’ve already told you that I like you. I think I’ve made that pretty damn obvious. And when we get done with this conversation, I’m going to make it even more obvious for you.”

Not going to lie. Big parts of me liked the sound of this.

“Aimee and I hooked up a couple of times,” he went on, and an ugly feeling lit up my chest even though I’d already figured it out. “She normally stays in Philly and I guess she’s still going to college up north. I don’t know, and honestly, I don’t care. Things were casual between us. She’s been to my place. Never stayed the night here. Not once. And she sure as hell never got to drink fruit punch in my bed.”

“I’m happy to hear that last part,” I admitted.

A grin flashed across his face. “Aimee is a beautiful girl. She knows how to have fun, but she isn’t the girl for me. Never has been.”

That flutter was in my chest again.

He shifted his hands as he tilted his head to the side. “And I know that what’s going on in your head is more than just some chick I’d slept with in the past popping up. It’s what she said tonight.”

I tensed all over again. “Jax—”

He placed his forefinger over my lips, silencing me. Normally, if anyone did that to me, I’d be inclined to bite their finger off, but the subject matter was too intense for that.

“I know,” he said quietly. “I know all about the fire.”

Air lodged in my throat. I planted one hand in the bed as I leaned back from him, but his hands tightened around my waist. I didn’t get very far. I couldn’t do this. I could feel the slight grip on my control slipping.

“Mona talked about it every once in a while and Clyde filled in what she didn’t go into,” he continued in that low, patient voice. “I know how it happened.”

My heart started pounding in my chest, and when I spoke, my voice was hoarse. “I don’t want to do this.”

“I know.” Jax scooted closer somehow, his pelvis above mine, but his weight was supported by his legs. He was close, too close for this. “The bar was a hit in town. Always busy. Making a ton of money. Your parents decided to build their dream home.”

I looked away from his brown eyes, my free hand digging into the comforter. “I don’t want to do this,” I repeated in a whisper.

He lowered his head, pressing a quick kiss against the center of my left cheek, and my breath hiccupped. “It was the kind of house your parents dreamed of raising a family in, enough room for all of you to grow, especially Kevin and Tommy.”

Oh God.

Cold air sliced through my chest, and I shook my head. “I can’t do this.”

Jax didn’t let up. “What your parents didn’t realize is that they’d hired an electrician who wasn’t on the up-and-up. Who cut corners on the job sites so he could pocket more money. His license was under investigation for a bang-up job on the previous house he worked on. What your parents didn’t know when they moved you all in and were happy and celebrating, was that the electrician hadn’t followed the installation codes on the dimmer switch in the hallway on the second floor—the floor with all the kids’ bedrooms.”

Dipping my chin, I squeezed my eyes shut. It was a bad idea because I could see that night clearly. To the day I died, I’d be able to see that night, to waking up with my brand-new room, with its pink walls and my name spelled out in block letters attached to the wall, filled with smoke. I’d never forget that the first big breath I dragged in had scorched the very inside of my throat and chest. Panic poured into me as I’d stumbled off the bed and saw the pink paint peeling from the walls, the terror when I opened the bathroom door and the entire world exploded. Smoke had turned yellow and brown—I remembered that—a moment before it all happened. Glass shards had been flung through the air, slicing into my skin. Flames were everywhere, seeming to crawl across the floor and lick over the ceilings and walls. It was like a giant flash. And there had been screams. Horrific screams that no horror movie could even really replicate and some of them had been mine. Some of them had been Kevin’s.

“It was so hot. The paint was blistering. There was no air and . . .” I drew in a shaky breath and I didn’t realize that I’d spoken out loud until his lips pressed against my temple again.

“I know you were lucky to survive,” he said, smoothing his thumbs along the sides of my waist. “Your dad got to you first and he brought you outside. And then he and your Mom tried to get back inside, upstairs again, but it was fully engulfed. They couldn’t get back up the stairs . . . it was too late for your brothers.”

I twisted again, but Jax held on. The ice in my chest was spreading, becoming a real, tangible pain. “Tommy never woke up.” I remembered hearing Mom say that once. That after an autopsy was performed, it showed that he’d died from smoke inhalation. A blessing in disguise, because by the time the fire was put out, his room was nothing but charred cinder and wood. “Kevin . . . he was awake.”

Again, with the quiet voice, “I know.”

I opened my eyes slowly and my lashes felt damp. “Their coffins,” I whispered, squeezing my eyes tight once more and seeing them. “They were so small. You know, smaller than you think they made coffins. And yet, I know they make them even smaller, but God . . . they were so small.”

His lips brushed under the corner of my right eye, and I knew—oh God, my chest hurt—I knew he’d caught a tear, and the iciness in my chest, invading my stomach and my soul, eased off a little bit.

“They never had a chance,” I said, dragging in another deep breath. “The fire started right outside their rooms, in the ceiling and walls. It spread so quickly.”

Jax remained quiet, and a few moments passed before I spoke again. “Our family was awarded a large sum of money once it was discovered that the fire . . . it was due to the faulty wiring. Dad put some in a college fund for me. That’s . . . that’s the money Mom had drained. And she had a lot of money—hundreds of thousands that she had to have blown through.” My fingers eased off the blanket. “Dad left not even a year later. He couldn’t deal.”

“Fucker,” muttered Jax.

My eyes opened wide and I started to defend my dad, but stopped myself. Yeah, he was kind of a f**ker. I’d accepted that long ago. The next breath I took was easier. “I’ve never talked to anyone about this. Not even my friends at home. It’s not like I haven’t . . . dealt with it, because I have. I was young when all of this happened and I still miss my brothers. It’s just so damn sad.”

“It is.”

Our gazes met, and I felt my heart turn over heavily in my chest. I knew he wasn’t done.

“I know this isn’t the only thing.” He lifted a hand and trailed a finger along the length of my scar. “I know you have other scars.”

I couldn’t look away. Damn if I didn’t want to, but his gaze held me, and his eyes were warm, they were focused.

“And I know you were burned, Calla.” At that, my chest clenched with a mixture of embarrassment and relief. “I know you had surgeries and I know those surgeries stopped before they were supposed to.”

“Mom . . . she . . .”

“She got caught up in her own shit. She forgot or she couldn’t deal,” he confirmed. “She never really said why, and I know this doesn’t make anything better, but she felt a hell of a lot of guilt over it. That much is obvious.”

Yeah, that didn’t change anything. It never would. I didn’t know if that made me a cold bitch or not, but some things couldn’t be easily forgotten. They weren’t designed that way.

“I’ve never . . . no one has ever seen the scars,” I said in a voice barely above a whisper. “They’re not pretty.”

“They’re a part of you.”

I nodded slowly. My thoughts where awhirl again as my gaze searched out his. He’d known from day one that there were a lot of scars I was hiding. Hell, he’d known before he even laid eyes on me, because of my mom and Clyde. I wasn’t sure what to think of them telling someone who had been a virtual stranger to me, but I couldn’t muster up the anger over that. I couldn’t dredge up any more emotion as I stared at him. “You like me.”

His lips twitched. “Not a news flash, honey. I like you, knowing that the scars are a part of you.”

“But how?” It wasn’t the first time I asked him this.

“I’ve already told you how.” Both hands were back on my waist again, and my breath caught. “I think it’s past time for me to just show you.”

My brows rose. “Show me?”

“Yeah, show you.”

His hands curved under my arms as he lifted me up, and I tightened my hold on my drink. He moved me until I was closer to the headboard, smack dab in the middle of the bed. He reached between us, took my fruit punch, and placed it on the nightstand.

Then he got down to the business of making it real obvious that he was into me.


Morning sunlight streamed in through the large square window when I blinked open my eyes, and I came awake with a mouth on my neck, trailing tiny, hot kisses down the side of my throat.

Oh wow. My lips curved up at the corners, and then I gasped as his tongue flicked over the sensitive spot just below my ear. My back arched on its own accord when his hand smoothed from where it rested on my stomach, over my shirt to the curve of my hip.

That was a great way to wake up.

Last night was . . . well, it was literally orgasmic, and although we hadn’t been asleep that many hours, I woke up feeling like I’d slept for a year. Though I doubted the orgasm he’d given me with his clever hand had anything to do with that. It was the fact that last night, something happened. A bit of the weight lifted off my chest. There wasn’t this wall between us.

Was there ever one?

Funny thing was, the wall might have never been there, at least not on his side. He’d known about the fire, about my brothers and the money, the scars and how horrible all of it was. He’d known before he’d even seen me face-to-face. And he didn’t care. I didn’t fully get it. Probably would never really understand, but when he set out to proving he was into me last night, with all the kissing and the touching, like I had decided before, I was going to stop trying to figure it out.

My shorts were off, lying forgotten somewhere on Jax’s bedroom floor, and when his hand drifted below the thin strap of my undies and glided over my bare skin, I bit down on my lower lip. His other hand had made its way down my upper thigh and curled around the back of my knee. He lifted my leg up, forcing my behind into the groove of his lap.

There was definitely more than a flutter between my legs at the feel of him pressing into me from behind. The heaviness was back in my br**sts, and with a wet, sensual kiss against my pulse, I was already damp, and it took everything not to immediately start squirming.

Last night, Jax hadn’t . . . he hadn’t gotten off. After he’d done his thing to me, he’d tucked me to him, my back to his front, and that had been it. I’d wondered then how he could give and not get anything in return, but I’d been too thrown off by everything to question it—and a wee bit blissed out to move—and I hadn’t had the courage to change it. Mainly because I had the general idea of what to do to rectify that problem, but I probably needed a learner’s curve.

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