Author: Jill Shalvis When the next episode of Sweet Wars aired, Leah hadn’t planned on watching, but her grandma insisted, which was how she ended up staring at herself as she created a three-tiered lemon meringue tart as if her life were a DVD. She tried to remain distant from it, but though she was good at the distance thing with others, she’d never really mastered it for herself. So she took in her relaxed, smiling self whipping a meringue under the pressure of cameras, the other contestants, and the exceedingly tough, hard-assed celebrity judges. Go her. “I don’t like the panel. They yell too much. But that host, he’s a cutie.” Rafe Vogel was also the producer of Sweet Wars, and while he was most definitely “a cutie” on the outside, he more resembled a snake on the inside. “And look at you,” Grandma marveled. “I can’t get over you,” she said, as on screen Leah moved quickly and efficiently in spite of Rafe walking around stirring up angst and tension as he barked out the clock’s countdown. “You’re the doll of the season.” “No.” Elsie scoffed and reached over, picking up the current issue of TV Guide. Spread across the front of it was the entire cast, with Leah front and center. Leah pointed to the woman next to her. “Suzie’s good too,” she said. “Not as good as you.” Elsie set the TV Guide down on the coffee table and clapped her hands in glee. “You won it. I know you did. So when do you leave? The prize was one hundred grand and your own bakery, right? In the place of your choosing? You going to give me a hint?” “You know I can’t tell you who won,” Leah said automatically, thinking how in the hell was she going to do this? How was she going to get out of Lucky Harbor before everyone saw the finals? How could she just leave the bakery, Elsie, Ali…Jack. “I’m just so proud of you, honey. I’ll admit, you had me scared for a few years there. Switching colleges and career paths like other women switch hair color. I know your daddy didn’t help, making you doubt yourself all the time. He wasn’t a good man, Leah. Watching you suffer…” She shook her head. “I should have done more for you.” “No, Grandma,” Leah said gently, putting her hand over Elsie’s. “You did everything you could. You were always there for me.” “Always will be.” She turned her hand over in Leah’s and squeezed her fingers. “You’ve made something of yourself.” If only that were true… Chapter 7 Jack followed up his seventy-two hours on shift with a day of sleep for recovery. Then he and Kevin hit the park for Jack’s weekly baseball game. Kevin was an old hat at baseball. He had a routine. Tied to the dugout bench in the shade, he usually dozed through the first few innings, and then by the bottom of the fifth he’d be nosing through the guys’ bags for snacks. If he played his cards correctly and gave the right player the puppy dog eyes, he might find a good lap to cuddle in. No one had ever told him that he wasn’t a lap dog. Today when Jack arrived, Luke and Ben were already on the bench lacing up their cleats. The three of them went way back. Luke had spent summers in Lucky Harbor at his grandmother’s house. Ben had lived with Jack and his mom when his family had detonated early on. After Jack Senior’s death, Dee had raised both boys—and also Luke—as if they were brothers. And they were brothers, in all the ways that counted, which meant that they were a perpetual pain in each other’s ass. Ben looked up as Jack and Kevin walked toward them. He took in Jack’s obviously careful gait—his knee was hurting like a sonofabitch—but didn’t say a word. Luke was much more blunt. “You look like shit,” he said and held out a fist to Kevin. Kevin lifted a paw and bumped Luke’s hand. It was his one and only trick. “I’m not the one with the flu,” Jack said. “Sam’s out, which leaves us without a backup pitcher.” “And…,” Luke said. “And what?” “And you have something else to tell us,” Luke said. Jack looked at Ben, then back to Luke. “What else would there be?” “I don’t know, maybe the fact that you and Leah are getting hitched.” Jack, who’d just taken an unfortunate sip from his water bottle, choked. Ben patted him on the back. Actually, it was more like a pounding that sent Jack forward a few steps. “So, when’s the big day?” Luke asked. Jack swore, swiping a forearm over his chin to mop up the water he’d just spit out. “Ali tell you?” Luke grinned. “You mean it’s true?” “No, it’s not true. Jesus.” “There’s a whole Pinterest thing on you two,” Ben said, sitting on the bench. Kevin immediately leaped into Ben’s lap. For years, Ben had been closed off, not wanting to be close to anyone. He was gone for months at a time, and when he came back, he rarely talked about the things he’d seen and done. Jack and Luke had long ago given up revealing their worry to Ben; it just pissed him off. And no one wanted Ben pissed off. But they did worry. A lot. But Ben, who rarely let anyone touch him, simply wrapped his arms around the huge dog and kept talking. “Lucille’s been pinning ideas for your wedding and inviting others to do the same.” Jack stared at him. “What the hell is Pinterest?” he demanded. “Hell, I’ve been on the other side of the planet in a country without running water and even I know what Pinterest is,” Ben said. “What the hell’s going on with you and Leah?” Jack blew out a breath. “Leah told my mom we were a thing.” “Ah.” Ben nodded like this made perfect sense. Which was good. It should make perfect sense to someone. “I’m fucked,” Jack said. “Yes,” Ben said. “If you’re very, very lucky.” Jack gave him a level-eyed gaze. Ben shrugged. “She’s smart, funny, and wears really hot shoes that make her legs look a mile long. You should’ve done her a long time ago.” “It’s Leah,” Jack said. What the hell was wrong with everyone? Ben had been there growing up. He knew what Leah had gone through; he’d heard the yelling every night. He knew Leah had sought comfort—platonic comfort—from Jack all through his high school years. He knew that they were just friends. Of course, what he didn’t know, couldn’t know, was how on so many of those nights that Leah had sobbed all over Jack, he’d done his best to give her what her parents wouldn’t. “Love you, Leah,” he’d whisper. She’d clutch at him tighter. “Forever?” “Forever,” he’d promised, always. But that had been a damn long time ago. Before she’d walked away and not looked back. “It’s not a real thing,” he said now. “Only because you’re stupid,” Ben said. Luke started laughing and couldn’t stop, so Jack shoved him and then sat down to exchange his running shoes for cleats. Since Luke was still cackling like a hen, he tugged his hat down lower over his eyes and stalked off toward the field. He was first baseman, and since no one else could be bothered, he was also team captain. And their best player. Usually. But not today. As he discovered the hard way, a bad mood apparently made his game shit. First he missed an easy fly ball and then a line drive. And then, to make his humiliation complete, he struck out. Lucky Harbor enjoyed its baseball as much as he did, and the stands were full. He could see Danica on the top row. They’d talked about having drinks at her place sometime this week. He wondered if it was possible they were still on. She waved at him. He started to wave back, but then he saw his mom two rows below Danica. Sitting with… Leah and her grandma. His mom was beaming. Jack couldn’t be sure from this distance, but he thought maybe Leah was squirming. She had good reason to squirm, since he was going to kill her later. To make sure she knew, he pointed at her. She slunk down a little and pretended not to see him. From the dugout, Kevin whined. He loved Jack’s mom, and he loved Leah. Basically Kevin loved the ladies, period. But not a single woman had ever enjoyed Kevin’s way of greeting, which was a nose to the crotch. Which is why he was tied up in the dugout. At the top of the third inning, Luke, their catcher, called a time-out and jogged out to Jack. Ben strolled over from the pitcher’s mound. “What?” Jack said. “You tell us what,” Ben said. “I suck today. So what? You two were both pussies last week. Maybe it’s just my turn.” “You’re not usually a pussy,” Ben said. “You’re usually more like your dad.” Solid. Steady as a rock. Never faltering, never taking a misstep. Well, except for the one that had killed him. “Get the hell off my plate,” Jack said. “Touchy,” Luke noted. “Needs a Midol,” Ben said. They played the rest of the game with a minimum of errors, but it was too late. They got their ass handed to them. Afterward, they hit the Love Shack, the local bar and grill. They were halfway through a pitcher of beer and sliders when Lucille walked by and snapped a picture of Jack. “Hey,” he said. Lucille might be meddlesome, but she also sometimes kept Jack’s mom company when she was in treatment and he was working. “What are you up to?” “Who, me?” She smiled and slid her dentures around some. “Nothing at all. I just needed a picture for—” “If you say Facebook…,” he warned. She smiled a little broader. “Ah, don’t get all alpha on me. I just wanted to put up a pic of you and Leah side by side. Unfortunately, Leah’s not nearly as accommodating as you.” She thumbed through her photo album on her phone and then showed him a picture.