The heavy weight of responsibility threatened to crush him. He was tired of being the one to clean up everyone else’s mess. Of being the only one to think of the consequences. For once he’d like to live the fun and carefree life of his college years, the kind Nikki and his mother and Jax seemed to be enjoying every day.

And why had everyone else’s good sense died and left him in charge?

The thought of Nikki ruining her future, carelessly limiting her career before it had even begun, still burned in Blake’s gut. Learning to live with his role in his father’s death had almost crippled him, and he hated the thought of Nikki permanently paying for a momentary lapse in judgment. He’d promised his father he’d take care of his sister, and he damn well was going to follow through. And that meant helping her steer clear of the kind of regrets that caged your soul.

But Jax wasn’t family, so why was he just as disturbed by her choices?

Fear made his words hard. “If you want to sabotage your career, that’s your business,” he said, fighting to ignore Jax’s freshly scrubbed beauty, the lightly tanned legs bared beneath a pair of libido-disturbing cutoffs. And those sexy cowboy boots.

Man, was it the woman’s purpose in life to drive him insane?

“But I will not allow you to ruin my sister’s future as a lawyer by dragging her into your fight.”

A flash of concern flickered through her eyes, and he knew the emotion was real. He’d watched them together; he’d seen the growing affection. Jacqueline Lee might not care if she risked her own future, but he knew she cared about his sister’s.

Which was what made her actions doubly frustrating.

Her mouth twitched with self-doubt. “I would never do anything to hurt Nikki.”

He stared at her beautifully flushed face, refusing to look away. Anything to keep his gaze from those seductive legs and the disturbing memories of them wrapped around his waist. “Then leave her out of your fight.”

Her voice was harsh. “Fine.”

As their gazes continued to clash, he tensed and his jaw hardened, dismayed that he found little satisfaction in her agreement. Dismayed that he cared that Jax was intent on taking foolish risks.

Dismayed that he cared...

He took a step closer to Jax, unable to prevent himself from going on. “And stop jeopardizing your case by continuing to create a public stir,” he said. “You need to quit with the I’m-a-free-spirit attitude and start thinking about how your actions will be viewed by others.”

The look that flashed through her eyes made it clear he’d chosen his argument poorly. Damn the fickle nature of human emotion. The woman should come with a warning label. The already heavy air pressed in around him as the moments ticked by and he waited for Jax to choose her defense.

“My actions are none of your business,” she said.

“You made them my business.”

“Fine,” she huffed. “Then I don’t want your help anymore.”

“You need my help,” he boomed. “I just want you to stop threatening your case by going out of your way to be such a bloody nonconformist.”

The pause that followed was thick.

Until she held up her wrist, displaying the two linear marks decorated with ink. “Do you see these scars?” she said, and his chest grew tight, sensing bad news was coming.

“As a teen I carved them because it was better to feel the pain physically than to bear it in my heart,” she said.

The words struck him hard, burning through his gut. His heart thundering, he opened his mouth to offer words of comfort, but she held up her hand to stop him.

Their gazes locked, his breath froze, his throat tight.

“You want me to change?” A few moments later she dropped her arm to her side, her eyes still flashing, her gaze inches from his. “Well, too bad. Because I spent years being shuffled from foster home to foster home. Depressed that others thought I wasn’t good enough to fit with their family. After a while it was impossible not to believe that there was something really wrong with me.”

She hiked her chin proudly. “But I don’t buy into that self-esteem-destroying crap anymore. Because with the help of the teen club and an incredibly kindhearted volunteer—” she placed a hand on the image of Aretha Franklin plastered across her breasts “—I learned that I am a beautiful, intelligent woman who deserves respect. And I do not need you—” she jabbed a finger at his chest “—to tell me how to live my life.”

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