His eyes flickered with an unidentifiable emotion. “A certain amount is necessary.”

“Too much is stifling.”

“Not enough and you pay a heavy price,” he said.

Gazes locked, several seconds passed by, until Blake broke the silence. “Case in point, one night I was out with two of my college buddies when we got picked up by the police. We’d handcuffed three guys from a rival fraternity to a statue down at South Point Park.”

“You’re kidding me.” She blinked back her concerns, loving the snapshots of the hell-raiser Blake from his youth. Encouraged by his stories, the tension easing a bit, she stretched out beside him again. “Why did you do that?”

“Retribution.” He sent her a rueful smile. “They’d loosened the bolts on our derby car earlier that day, and it fell apart during our annual fundraiser race. The wreck was pretty spectacular,” he said with an amused grimace. “They were drinking heavily in celebration of their victory, which was why it was so easy to handcuff them to that statue.” He let out a soft grunt. “We weren’t completely sober ourselves.”

“I can’t picture you in police custody.”

“Dad came down, smoothed everything out and got them to drop the charges.” His mouth tipped up on one side. “It was handy having a powerful and influential father.”

“Did the incident make him angry?”

The pause was short. “It made him dead.”

The words barreled into her with enormous force, and she sucked in a breath, her chest hurting. Her heart pounding. She’d thought the price he’d paid had been his run-in with the police. His almost arrest. But she’d been wrong.

Terribly, terribly wrong.

With tremendous effort, she swallowed back the horror-stricken look.

When Blake went on, his voice was low. “If he hadn’t had to come pick me up, we wouldn’t have been out on the road at two in the morning when that car crossed the median.”

Pain cinched harder around her chest, and Jax bit back the need to touch him, to comfort him. During their previous discussion of his father’s wreck, not once had he mentioned he’d been in the car. Or that he’d been present when his father had died. She’d experienced a lot of painful losses in her life, but had never had to witness the death of a loved one.

“All I got was a cut from flying glass,” he said, his expression almost blank as he leaned back and touched the scar on his eyebrow, and the ache in her chest grew tighter. “My dad didn’t look or act too injured, either, but I learned later he was bleeding into his brain.”

Jax blinked back the sting in her eyes, her heart bleeding for him.

Blake cleared his throat, staring up at the sky, his face impassive. “He must have known something was wrong, though. He kept telling me I had to start taking my future seriously. That I had to take care of Nikki and my mother.” He let out a self-accusatory huff. “So I promised I would, but I kept telling him to quit being a worrier, to lighten up because he was going to be fine.” After another pause, he rolled his head and looked at her. “But he died. And my family lost a great husband and father,” he said. “And Florida lost one of the best United States attorneys this state has ever seen.”

Given the tragedy, his gaze was remarkably steady on hers, but the deep sadness and regret in his tone was heartbreaking. So much more than just her future with Blake was at stake. His happiness appeared to be at risk, as well.

She blinked back the tears that threatened on his behalf. “Are you trying to take his place?”

He shot her a skeptical look. “I couldn’t even if I wanted to,” he said. “But working my way up the system has been my goal since I first joined the Department of Justice.”

If so, why wasn’t he more excited about the promotion? She’d sensed his inner turmoil since their boat trip began, and now she knew it was in response to the job offer. Which should have made her feel better, but now she felt worse. Because after hearing how his dad had died, it was obvious he was still trying to live up to the promise he’d made to his father.

But no good could come from living your life trying to fill a dead man’s shoes.

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