“Hell of a picture.” Blake jogged in place, his breath misting the air. “Would make a great movie location.”
He didn’t even sound like he’d broken a sweat. The man was a physical machine—and so good-looking he could defrost the ground. Her insides hummed with awareness, though not loud enough to mask the pain stabbing her leg. Would she ever be free of the constant reminder that she wasn’t up to par? “I doubt Quinn Sawyer’s next mission will involve a rustic lodge nestled in the mountains of North Carolina.” She scanned the distance, jogged to avoid aggravating the scar tissue. “Unless he’s going to battle the chipmunk population.”
He shot her an enigmatic look and scrubbed his hand through his hair. “You’d be surprised where Quinn Sawyer might turn up next.”
“Considering I’m working out with one of the most eligible heartthrobs in Hollywood, I’ve had enough surprises for one week.”
“I’m not the most eligible, just the least accessible.”
“Ha. What about that last starlet you dated?”
He slowed his tempo to a walk. “Arranged by the studio.”
Jessie strolled next to him toward the lodge. “Please don’t tell me you’re gay. Though I’m cool with it if you are,” she teased.
“Straight as an arrow,” he said. “Just haven’t got time for love, marriage, and kids.”
“Neither do I,” she said. And she doubted that anyone would want her now that she was damaged goods.
Ahead she spotted the resort’s assistant manager Zach Tanner leaning against a column and talking to her friend. “Kennedy had better watch out. That guy’s trouble with a capital T and an exclamation point.”
“My brother’s latest stray.” She kicked a rock, watched it skitter across the ground. “Michael brought Zach home last summer. Now he’s like the second son my mother never had—as if we aren’t always packed to the rafters with kids and pets and guests.”
“Your mother’s got a knack for sniffing out strays. One I appreciate. And she’s given Maisey and me a way to connect with our mother. The high school yearbooks, old photographs, and stories she’s shared have given us a new way of remembering our mom.”
“Point made.” Jessie couldn’t fault her mother for reaching out and drawing people in to her fold. Not when the most recent Shannon Sullivan stray turned out to be the man beside her. “But I worry about Kennedy.”
“I see her when she works the breakfast shift with Zach,” Blake said. “I’m sure she can handle anything he’s got in mind.”
Which right now was a kiss. A long, lingering, mouth-to-mouth lock that fused them into one. Tension knotted at the back of her neck. “He’s going to break her heart.” She kicked another stone.
“Yeah, and she’ll have no trouble finding another guy to replace Zach. She’s gorgeous, funny, smart.” Jessie whacked the stone again. “Everyone loves Kennedy.” Unlike her.
“Jealous much?” Blake asked.
“She’s everything I’m not. At least not anymore,” she said. “I’m not strong. I was never beautiful. And now I’m not even whole.”
Blake stopped her. “You’re a hero. A war-decorated Marine. From where I stand, I see a beautiful, somewhat snarky, damned amazing woman. Don’t ever think less of yourself because of the scars on your leg. They tell a story. I respect and admire the hell out of you for your service, your sacrifice.”
The reality of that terrible day thundered through her ears, crashed against her temples, and threatened to scatter her back to the four corners of the world. She couldn’t cross the bridge to fill the gaps in her mind. Gaps that had the power of shrapnel to shred the few remaining pieces of normalcy she’d managed to stitch back together.
Worry creased lines into his brow. “What’s wrong?”
Every beat of her heart pounded a horrible tympani in her ears. “The sad truth is I didn’t earn the medals, not even the Purple Heart. You deserve to wear it more than I do.” She couldn’t suppress the sick feeling churning in her stomach.
“Hell no.” He shook his head. “I’m just a commercial commodity who plays a military hero. But you? You’re the real deal.”
She clasped Blake’s hand, wanting an anchor. Searched his face for the strength to drag her ugliness to the surface, read the unwavering support as an opening to reveal her secret. “I’m no hero,” she whispered. “I’m just a bitch of a Marine who can’t forget that the only reason I’m standing here is because my team leader saved my ass.”