Prologue

Eight years ago

 

Joey Greer let the night wind from the open car window whip over her bare arm. She was three days away from turning eighteen and five from graduation. The freedom looming on the horizon burned like embers inside her. Or maybe that smolder came from the driver whose hand rested possessively on her bare thigh just below her ragged cutoffs.

She shot a look at him in the dark. He looked like one of the gods in the Greek mythology section of her World Cultures book.

Jackson Pierce’s profile was just as fine as the rest of him. The perfect blade of a nose over lips that were either spread wide in a mischievous grin or attached to Joey’s mouth. His square jaw and high cheekbones gave him the same warrior-like look his older brothers shared. He was leaner than his brothers, and his gray eyes had a hint of icy blue to them. But there was no mistaking him for anything but a Pierce.

Jax was six months older and miles more experienced than Joey. But it wasn’t his fault he hadn’t fallen for her in kindergarten as she had for him. He was making up for it now.

In the end, all it had taken was for Joey to accept Bannon Bullock’s invitation to Homecoming last year. One look at the basketball captain’s wandering hands on the dance floor and Jax had finally laid claim. Joey’s virginity had lasted all of a week after that.

She loved him completely, simply, unconditionally, and knew that, as surely as her heart beat, he felt the same about her.

She felt the purr of the engine ride up her spine as Jax accelerated toward her home to meet curfew. The ’68 Camaro had been Jax’s first love, until Joey.

Everything about him—about them—was fast, dangerous. She wouldn’t have it any other way.

“I’m serious, Jojo. Think about it,” he said, his voice low and smooth. “Forget college. Let’s see what’s out there.”

Joey laughed as she always did when Jax pitched his see-the-world quest. “College is seeing what’s out there. I’ve got plans. You’ve got plans.”

Those plans included partial rides to Centenary where Joey couldn’t wait to try for a spot on the equestrian team. Jax was already guaranteed to start on the Cyclone’s lacrosse team.

He gripped her thigh tighter and she felt the thrill she always did at his touch. “Come on. There’s got to be more to the world than Blue Moon and college.”

Joey rolled her eyes and calculated how far they were from home. Her curfew was non-negotiable, set in stone. Her father didn’t like Jax. Thought he was too smooth, too charming, too rebellious. Joey’s mother, on the other hand, adored him…and had insisted on scheduling a doctor’s appointment for birth control as soon as Joey told her they were dating.

“Okay, where would we go?” Joey said, spreading her fingers as if to caress the night air. His answer was always different. One night they’d build a cabin in the hills of Montana. Another and they’d backpack their way down to Florida where they’d set sail for the Caribbean.

“West,” Jax decided. “We’ll just drive west. Pick up odd jobs wherever we stop.”

“And then what?” Joey asked, hiding her smile. A chorus of frogs serenaded them as they sped past Diller’s pond.

“L.A.”

Joey shot him an incredulous look. “You want to live in Los Angeles?” As far as she was concerned, L.A. was a horse-less wasteland of boob jobs and overpriced real estate.

“Why not, Jojo? I wanna be someone. I’m not going to be anyone but John Pierce’s son or Carter and Beckett’s brother here.”

Joey reached out and put her hand over his t-shirt. She could feel his heartbeat strong and steady under her palm. “Jax, you’re never just going to be a Pierce.”

“That’s all that’s here for me.” He said the words quietly, heavily.

Her mood shifted from quiet amusement to pissed off like the flip of a switch. She dug her nails into his chest. “That’s all that’s here for you? What the hell am I, jackass? Some high school distraction for you until you can start living your real life?”

Jax was used to her flares of temper, and was practically immune to them by now. He squeezed her thigh, hard enough to leave fingerprints until she quit stabbing him in the chest.

“Joey.” Her name on his lips had the effect it always did, goose bumps on her skin and a warm, melty feeling in her stomach…like drinking hot chocolate on a cold night.

She crossed her arms over her chest, trying to hold on to her mad.

“You’re everything to me. There’s no future without you.”

“You know I’m not going to throw away college and all my dreams to live out of a car with you and take showers in gas station restrooms, right?”

Eyes on the road, Jax grinned. “I know. And I’ll be right there with you.”

“Promise?”

“I promise you.” He brought her hand to his mouth and kissed her knuckles. “But maybe we could take a road trip this summer? Just the two of us. No parents, no brothers, no school.”

Placated, Joey relaxed in her seat. Her horse fund could probably spare a few hundred dollars for a road trip with Jax. She’d be eighteen, an adult. She would find a way to smooth things over with her dad, who’d hate the idea. Anything would be worth spending her nights wrapped in Jax’s arms, waking up to that sexy-as-hell face.

“Let’s do it,” she said.

“Seriously?” He was back to her lighthearted Jax again.

“Yeah. Let’s figure it out. Maybe we could leave right after graduation.”

“I love you, Joey.” He laid a hand on his chest over his heart.

“I know.” She smirked at the dark outside her window and he gripped her leg again.

A flash of brown on the side of the road caught her eye. It was moving fast, too fast for her to get Jax’s name out of her throat.

The headlights caught the glow of the deer’s eyes as it burst through the trees onto the road. Jax braked hard, cutting the wheel to the right. And for a split second, as the deer bounded safely across the road, Joey thought they were out of danger. But the gravel sent them fishtailing.

She had less than a second to feel the sick, icy fear in her gut as the colossal oak loomed before them. Jax’s name exploded from her in a scream of dread. His arm slammed against her chest pinning her to the seat just before the sickening crunch of metal and glass.

And then her world went dark.

 

——–

 

Pain woke her. And with it dread.

“Jax?” In her head it was a scream, but somewhere between her head and her lips it came out as a strangled rasp.

“He’s not here, honey. Remember?” Her mother’s voice and the scent of her Vanilla Fields came to her, floating on the fog of fluorescent lights and grief.

She went under again trying to remember why Jax wasn’t with her.

 

——–

 

Joey was discharged on her birthday with seventeen stitches running from wrist to elbow and fifty units of a stranger’s blood coursing through her veins. Her chest and stomach were a mottled purple from the seatbelt that had saved her life.

But there was no celebration.

Jackson Pierce was gone.

She’d heard her mother and Jax’s mom, Phoebe, talking in hushed whispers at the foot of the bed when they thought she was asleep.

He’d vanished from the farm in the middle of the night, leaving behind a note and most of his possessions.

He was heading west, the note said.

Joey’s father said in no uncertain terms that he preferred to think the boy who put his precious daughter in the hospital was dead.

So did Joey.

 

Chapter One

Jackson Pierce watched his brother Beckett straighten his tux-clad shoulders and take a deep breath. The man was nervous as hell and not doing a good job of hiding it.

The popsicle stick-width stage of the Take Two Movie Theater was getting crowded, but then again, so was the theater itself. Beckett and Gia’s wedding turned out to be the premiere no one in Blue Moon Bend wanted to miss, and the theater was the only venue big enough to hold all of them.

Jax’s oldest brother, Carter, elbowed him in the kidney with newlywed pride when his wife, Summer, floated down the aisle. Even edging close to six months pregnant with twins, she was a glowing vision in the short, rose gold dress.

Jax meant to wink or at least smile at Summer as she carefully climbed the stairs, but he couldn’t tear his eyes away from the next bridesmaid. Joey Greer, his heart and soul for as long as he could remember, strutted down the aisle. Her long legs had no patience for the slow beat of the processional and ate up the space that separated them.

He willed her to look at him. He needed that glimpse to know that walking down an aisle make her think of him.

She was halfway to the stage before those coffee-colored eyes found his and held. It wasn’t a look of love that she was shooting at him. There was more dagger than Cupid’s arrow, but it was enough.

She was incredible. Her rich brown hair hung down her back in thick waves. Gia must have talked her into letting a stylist get her hands in it, because it was partially pulled back with braids and secured with a sparkling clip. She’d given up her riding boots for heels that looked like they were made out of tiny glints of snow. They matched the sequins on the dress — which, given her height advantage, was even shorter on her than it was on Summer. She was the perfect homage to New Year’s Eve.

Her full lips, slicked with a dark gloss that made him want to sample them as he’d done so freely years before, frowned. Jax put his hand over his heart and he watched her eyes widen, those lips part.

It was a gesture they’d developed in high school. A secret “I love you” across the classroom or the dinner table. Something that was just theirs.

And he was determined to earn it back.

 

——–

 

Joey Greer was buzzed. Pleasantly, enjoyably buzzed. She took an energetic turn around the dance floor with Donovan Cardona, who quizzed her about Gia’s gorgeous younger sister and, pulling out his figurative sheriff’s cap, made her promise not to drive home.

Beckett sailed past them, his bride in his arms. Gia sparkled as she gazed up at her husband, laughing at some private joke. A private, dirty joke, judging by the blush on her friend’s fair cheeks.

The band slowed it down and Joey slipped out of Donovan’s arms and headed for the bar. She was looking for fun tonight. Fast and bright.

She had no intention of starting off the new year slow dancing in the arms of a friend. Maybe, just for tonight, she’d step a toe over the line, she thought. What harm could it do? A few hours of debauchery before shifting gears into a brand new year.

She ordered a beer from the adorable, attentive bartender and surveyed the scene. The reception hall was a literal circus tent. With the entire town turning out, Beckett and Gia had decided to host a massive New Year’s Eve blow out that would have Blue Moon talking for years.

The tent was erected in One Love Park and ringed with outdoor heaters to protect the guests from the icy December chill. The open bar and crowded dance floor were also doing their part in keeping spirits and temperatures high. Fran from Blue Moon’s gym Fitness Freak was rocking out on her bass with her band the Wild Nigels. Gia’s ex-husband Paul had been invited to play with them.

It said something about a woman who was confident in her new marriage to invite the ex to the party. It also said that Beckett was out-of-his-mind happy to be locking down Gianna Decker and the newest Mrs. Pierce and didn’t bother making a fuss about Paul’s presence. He was harmless, of course, but during their courtship had been a thorn in both their sides.

Joey accepted the beer and the wink from Blond Bartender Bailey.

“Some party,” he said.

“You got that right,” Joey said wryly. Weddings creeped her out. The whole crowd of people staring at you as you said some very personal things to your significant other. The months of planning all wasted on a few blurry hours of chaos. That’s not how she’d do it. If she did it.

She’d watched Summer and then Gia stress out over napkins and appetizers and the all-important white poufy dress. Although, Gia’s dress wasn’t overly poufy. The ivory lace overlay was cut straight across her friend’s chest. It would have looked almost demure if it hadn’t been for the racy open back. And judging from the way Beckett was looking at her, the dress wasn’t going to survive the night.

Summer appeared at her side and hefted herself onto a barstool. “Please let me smell your beer,” she begged, pulling Joey’s cup to her nose. “No one ever tells you how much you’ll miss alcohol when you’re growing human beings.”

Joey let her take a deep sniff before confiscating the cup. “Watch it. I don’t want the twins getting drunk on the fumes of Gia’s Red.” It had become a tradition in the Pierce family to name the brewery’s new beers after their brides. And with the grand opening two days away, the smooth, malty ale inspired by Gia was a nice addition to the taps.

Speaking of the bride, Gia glided up to the stool on Joey’s left.

“Hey there, blushing bride,” Summer greeted her friend.

“Hey there, glowing mama,” Gia laughed.

Joey rolled her eyes. Being flanked by the archetypes of womanhood reminded her that she had no idea where she wanted her life to go beyond work. She didn’t even know if she liked the idea of marriage and kids. And if she did, who in the hell would she ever want to settle down with?

Jax. The quiet whisper in her head pissed her off.

Jackson was the last man she’d trust with her future. Everyone else might be impressed with his Hollywood bank account and his follow-through with the brewery, but not her. She would put money on him leaving town in the next six months. Where others would say he’d already stuck it out in Blue Moon for six months, she knew that just put him that much closer to leaving again.

He was a wanderer, a sampler in places and in women. And he would keep on wandering and sampling until the day he died.

She, on the other hand, knew where her heart and her home were. And that was here in Blue Moon.

“So, Joey,” Gia said, drawing her back to the conversation. “I couldn’t help but notice Jax’s attention during the ceremony.”

Summer raised her glass of water. “He was mouthing something to you, wasn’t he?” she asked innocently.

Jax’s perfect lips had mouthed every word of Beckett’s vows, his gaze never leaving Joey’s face. She didn’t know what kind of game he was playing. First his hand over his heart when she walked down the aisle and then the vows. And when he took her arm during the recessional, he’d leaned in so close his lips brushed her ear.

“It’s going to be us next, Jojo. You can fight it all you want, but you know as well as I do that we’re going to happen.”

She’d been so startled by the unguarded touch and his words that she’d nearly stumbled. Jax used the opportunity to pull her in against him as they hurried the rest of the way down the aisle.

He’d thrown her and she needed to get back in control, back on top. Maybe a night of no strings sex would do just that.

Joey held up a hand to catch Bailey’s attention. “Can I get a shot? A really big, strong one?”

“Make that two,” Gia added.

“You remember what happened last time we did shots together?” Joey warned Gia.

“Ugh, Ed’s Erasers. Don’t remind me. I ended up giving Anthony Berkowicz a Monthly Moon cover story about how dumb I thought Beckett’s face was.”

Joey grinned. “On second thought, maybe we should have some Erasers.”

She felt a tingle at the base of her spine and knew that Jax was watching her. Whether he was joking with his brothers, taking his mother for a spin around the dance floor, his gaze always returned to her.

Joey bided her time until just before midnight. Without looking in his direction, she sauntered outside, leaving the liveliness inside.

It was a night so crystal clear and cold that she could see her breath. Thankfully the perfect amount of booze in her system kept her warm. She hadn’t drank enough to make any bad decisions, just enough to loosen a few inhibitions.

She carefully followed the side of the tent looking for a quiet, secluded spot. Joey felt him before she heard him. That awareness of his presence she’d always had. His return to Pierce Acres had woken her from a sound sleep. It was as if the shadow had slipped off the face of the moon, finally bringing the light. But in the last eight years, Joey had grown accustomed to the dark.

“You’re not leaving without dancing with me.” It wasn’t a question or a request. Jax didn’t ask for permission.

Joey turned to face him, bracing for the familiar hum that vibrated through her blood every time she looked him in the eyes. She’d avoided him for months when he came back, not certain she could resist her body’s baser instincts.

Looking at him now, she knew the caution had been warranted. Even in her painful, pinching heels, he still had a couple of inches on her. His hair, dark and thick, curled a bit at the top. The ever-present stubble, something she’d always found irresistible, had been shaved off for the day. At one time, she’d been convinced that fallen angels had carved his face. Now she was fairly certain those dangerous planes were the work of the devil.

His gaze, despite a color akin to icy seas, warmed her blood to a simmer.

Even after all this time, she still remembered what if felt like to have his hands on her. She’d told herself that it was puppy love, that her sex life couldn’t peak during her teenage years. But, so far, her carefully selected ventures into the physical since then had held none of the thrill she’d experienced with Jax.

She walked to him, thankful that she didn’t trip on the uneven sidewalk, and put her hands on his shoulders.

Joey almost smiled at the suspicion that lit his eyes. He probably thought she was going to kick him in the balls. But she had something more mutually satisfying in mind. A fling. A one-night stand. She could enjoy scratching an itch and putting him back in his place, reminding him of what could have been his had he stayed.

“What are you doing?” he asked on a gravelly whisper.

“You wanted to dance,” she smiled slyly.

Jax hesitated for a beat before shrugging out of his jacket and draping it over her shoulders. She felt claustrophobic surrounded by his heat, by his scent. But two could play at that game.

Joey let him bring his broad palms to her waist. She wound her arms around his neck and let her hips sway to the beat of the slow rock ballad the Wild Nigels were playing the hell out of.

She felt his hesitation and relished it. Back in control. God, it felt good. And so did being in his arms again. But she wouldn’t dwell on that. Joey shook her hair back and wet her lips. She wasn’t going to lose her nerve now.

As if he read her mind, Jax’s fingers tightened on the curves of her hips. He pulled her in closer so they were touching everywhere. The heat that pumped through his crisp white shirt should have scalded her hands, but instead it just drew her in.

Her breasts were flattened against his chest and she felt his belt buckle digging into her stomach. It wasn’t the only thing hard against her. Somewhere between exiting the tent and pulling her in, Jax had gone raging hard.

She swallowed a heady combination of desire and fear. She could control this, couldn’t she? She could be the one to walk away this time.

His breath was hot against her face. They were too close. Her heart was thumping like a hammer and she hoped he couldn’t feel it.

“Joey.” There it was. Her name on his lips. A prayer and a curse.

She was saved from responding by the crowd in the tent.

“Ten, nine, eight, seven …”

She tried to step back and get an inch of space to breathe, but Jax wasn’t having it. One hand trailed up her back to cup her neck, the other slid dangerously low on her hip.

“Six, five, four …”

Her heart was pounding out of her chest now. She could still win, just needed to keep her head.

“Three, two, one!”

She didn’t hear the roar of the crowd. She didn’t see the fireworks display happening at the front of the tent. The only thing that existed to her at midnight was Jax’s mouth. There was nothing soft or sweet about the kiss. There was a repressed violence about the way his lips moved over hers, crushing, bruising.

The years apart had mellowed nothing. Joey dug her fingers into his shoulders, holding on for dear life as her mouth voluntarily opened to him. His tongue breached her lips and invaded with aggression.

He was using the kiss as a brand, reminding her who she belonged to. But Joey Greer belonged to no man. She stole back the lead, only partially aware of what she was doing. She pushed them away from the white walls of the tent, the only thing separating them from the merriment of a few hundred people, until his back met a tree.

Joey shoved her knee between his legs and felt him tense. She smiled against his lips when he flinched.

His hands were roaming now. One slid around to cup her breast through the fabric of her dress. She purred and he growled.

“Be with me tonight.” She bit his lower lip and sucked it into her mouth. He wasn’t the only one who could make demands.

“How much have you had to drink?” he groaned out the words as she pressed her hips into him. She felt him flex into her, grinding his erection against her lower belly.

“What?”

He pulled back from the kiss, fisted his hand in her hair.

“How much have you had to drink?” he repeated.

“What are you, my mother?” she asked, trying to get her body under control. She shoved against his chest, but he didn’t loosen his hold on her.

“You’re drunk.” He sounded out of breath and accusatory.

“I’m not drunk. I have a nice little buzz going. I know what I’m doing,” she told him.

“We can’t do this, Joey,” he was pulling her hands away from him. “You’ve had too much to drink.”

“I’m giving you permission.”

“Not like this.” Jax’s tone left no room for argument and it pushed her over the edge.

All of the heat from their kiss evaporated into the bitterest of anger.

She bit her tongue and spun around, intending to march off, leaving him and his spectacular hard-on alone. But his hand snaked out and grabbed her by the elbow. “Joey, I’m trying to be the good guy here.”

“Have fun with that,” she bit off the words. “You don’t want me, I’m sure there’s someone else inside who won’t have any problems going home with me tonight.”

She’d gone too far, hadn’t actually meant it. But before she could take the words back, which she wouldn’t have anyway, he was whirling her around. Now it was Joey who had her back to the tree. Jax stepped in on her, robbing her of her personal space. His hands gripped her arms hard.

“Don’t ever say that again.” The tic in his jaw, once only visible on the lacrosse field, flared to life. He gave her one good shake. Rather than fear, Joey felt fury race through her system.

“You have no say in what I do with my life. You lost that privilege a long time ago.”

“I’m back, Joey,” he gritted it out. “And I will fix this.”

“Not this way, Ace.” Joey stomped on his foot and shoved away from him. She thought about running back to the party, but that would only result in two broken ankles from the ice picks on her feet. At least they served her well on Jax’s foot. She settled for a steamed stomp toward the tent. But it wasn’t fast enough. She heard him coming and barely had time to brace for the impact. He was on her like a freight train, manhandling her over his shoulder. She landed hard enough to knock the wind out of her, if not the fight.

She got in a half-assed punch to his kidney and a weak kick to his stomach before he slapped her on the ass hard. Handprint hard.

Joey gasped in shock. Her dress had ridden up scandalously high, showing off her very small underwear. Jax’s hand settled over her ass and she froze, not willing to move a millimeter in case it would make his palm press even harder against the part of her that, a minute ago, had been a rainforest of lust.

“Where are you—”

“I’m taking you home.”

“I’m not ready to go home.” She was pouting. She was hanging over a man’s shoulder and pouting. Maybe she had had a little too much to drink. Joey Greer didn’t pout. She punched.

Jax set her on her feet next to his car. “Get in.”

“No!”

He yanked the passenger door open so hard she thought he might rip it from the frame. “Get in the fucking car, Joey.”

She took a page from Summer’s book and primly slid onto the seat, refusing to look at him as he slammed the door shut. It wasn’t the first time she’d been in Jax’s car. The Nova was a sweet ride. He’d even let her drive it once after Summer had stupidly broken up with Carter and they all convened at his house to cheer Carter up with greasy food and zombie TV.

Jax certainly wasn’t going to let her take the wheel this time. He slid into the driver’s seat and slammed his door. The tic in his jaw was pulsing.

“You know, it’s rude to leave without saying good-bye to the bride and groom,” she said icily.

Jax didn’t bother sparing her a glance.

“Shut up, Joey.”