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The Forever Girl

Jill Shalvis



  Title Page


  Chapter 1

  Chapter 2

  Chapter 3

  Chapter 4

  Chapter 5

  Chapter 6

  Chapter 7

  Chapter 8

  Chapter 9

  Chapter 10

  Chapter 11

  Chapter 12

  Chapter 13

  Chapter 14

  Chapter 15

  Chapter 16

  Chapter 17

  Chapter 18

  Chapter 19

  Chapter 20

  Chapter 21

  Chapter 22

  Chapter 23

  Chapter 24

  Chapter 25

  Chapter 26


  P.S. Insights, Interviews & More . . .*

  About the Author

  About the Book

  Read On


  Also by Jill Shalvis


  About the Publisher


  Three years ago

  Maze Porter was good at pretending to be fine, but since no one could see her, she dropped all pretense and stopped twenty-five yards short of her goal, unable to so much as swallow past the lump stuck in her throat.

  For nine years now, since she’d been sixteen, she’d made this annual pilgrimage, but her legs refused to go another step. As far as her eyes could see, green grass spread out in front of her like a blanket over gently rolling hills, dotted with aged, sweeping oaks.

  And myriad gravestones.

  Above her, the sky churned moodily. Thunder rumbled, and a part of her heart smiled, because Michael had always loved a good storm.

  Buoyed by the idea of her onetime foster sibling sitting on a cloud creating weather to amuse her, she managed to coax herself closer and let the strap of her beach chair slip off her shoulder. She tried to open it, but it was more stubborn than . . . well, her. “Not today, Satan,” she muttered. Not when she’d paid way too much for it at the touristy general store in Wildstone, but finally, after a two-minute battle of the wills, swearing the air blue the whole time, she got the thing open. Feeling righteous, she plopped down—only to have the chair jerk beneath her weight, making her gasp dramatically and throw her hands out, braced to fall on her ass.

  She didn’t.

  Relieved to have something go her way, she pulled a can of soda from her purse, cracked it open, and toasted to the grave. “Happy birthday. Hope that was entertaining.”

  “Oh, hugely,” said an amused female voice behind her. “And you beat us here.”

  “Of course she did,” a second female voice said. “Maze’s far too perfect to be late. There’s a reason I always wanted to be her when I grew up.”

  Maze snorted. Perfect. Right. Just one of many roles she’d played. She looked up as Caitlin and Heather moved into her view, two of the only people on earth who could both make her laugh and drive her insane—almost as if they were a real family.

  It felt like they were, thanks to the year they’d spent together running wild and free at the beach, at the lake, in the hills, having the sort of innocent kid adventures that bonded people for a lifetime . . . But in reality, Caitlin and Michael Walsh had been the only actual blood siblings. Maze and Heather, and a whole bunch of others, had been just the foster kids.

  As they’d done for nine years now, Caitlin and Heather began taking things from a big bag: a HAPPY BIRTHDAY streamer, balloons, and a small cake—all superhero themed, of course.

  Tradition for Michael’s birthday. Today would’ve been his eighteenth birthday. He’d loved birthdays, but he’d only gotten nine of them. Chest tight with memories and an almost paralyzing sense of loss, Maze stood, pulled a Deadpool action figure from her pocket, and set it on Michael’s headstone. He’d been too young for Deadpool, but she knew it would’ve been his favorite, hands down. He’d been mischievous, sharp as a tack, and had loved to laugh, and just thinking about him made it hard to breathe.

  Heather smiled at her through eyes shining with unshed tears and produced a Thor action figure.

  Cat was next with—no big surprise—Catwoman, and she took the longest, standing in front of her brother’s grave until, finally, she sniffed, wiped her eyes, and turned back to them with a smile and a nod. She was in charge of her emotions and their world, as always.

  Of course she and Heather got their beach chairs open without incident, setting them up in an informal semicircle facing Michael’s grave, leaving space for a fourth chair.

  The last member of their ragtag group hadn’t yet arrived. Hell, maybe he’d be a no-show this year. The thought made Maze ache. She’d given a quick thought to not showing up either, but guilt was a huge burden, and no one felt the weight of it more than she did, seeing as she was the one responsible for Michael’s death.

  “Stop,” Caitlin said quietly, carefully balancing the cake in her lap as she cut it into three pieces. “I can hear your self-destructive thoughts from here.”

  Like Caitlin knew about self-destructive thoughts—she’d never had a moment of doubt in her life. She was the perfect one, the real deal perfect. Two years older than Maze, Cat had her shit together. She’d been born with her shit together. Her hair was a long, shiny blond silk that never frizzed, her smile could draw in even the most hardened soul, and she had the sort of willowy body that looked good in every damn thing, even though her idea of exercise was lifting her Starbucks coffee cup to her lips. Maze could hate her for that alone . . . except Cat was one of the most intensely loyal, fiercely protective, caring people who had ever come into her life.

  “You can’t just tell someone to stop angsting,” Heather said, taking a piece of cake. Heather was petite, barely coming up to Maze’s chin. But what she lacked in height, she made up for in grit. Today her black hair had bright magenta highlights that gave her an implied attitude to mask the fact that she was the sweetheart kitten of the group, the one who never used her claws.

  She didn’t have to. Maze used hers enough for everyone. People said it was her red hair. It wasn’t red, it was auburn, thank you very much, but still, there was no getting around the fact that her hair—a bunch of uncontrollable waves and the bane of her existence—did tend to match her bad ’tude. She hadn’t needed the shrink from Child Protective Services to tell her it was because she’d never really had a sense of belonging. That’s what happened when you were raised like a wild tumbleweed in the wind, tossed in directions against your will. Whatever. She was long over it and took another pull of her soda to hide all the annoying feelings bombarding her.

  Caitlin, their self-appointed den mother, handed her a piece of cake. Maze had just taken her first bite when she felt it, a shift in her force field, along with an awareness tingling at the back of her neck. Her body knew what that meant even if her brain pretended not to, and the frosting went down the wrong pipe. While she went about choking up a lung, Heather pounded her on the back until she could suck in air again.

  Walker Scott hadn’t made a sound in his approach. No footsteps, no rustling, nothing. The man was silent as the night.

  Walker the boy hadn’t been silent. He’d been feral, and there’d been nothing calm or quiet about him.

  Maze should know. They’d all spent a year together in Caitlin’s parents’ Wildstone home, and if she was being honest with herself, that year had been the best of her life.

  And the very worst.

  She watched as Walker set out his chair. It didn’t dare misbehave, opening for him with a flick of a forearm. He then set a Batman action figure next to the others on the gravestone and, with a hand braced on the granite, stood still for a moment, staring down
at Michael’s name.

  When he finally turned to them, both Caitlin and Heather lifted their arms in greeting, and he obligingly bent to hug them one at a time, murmuring something too low for Maze to hear. Whatever it was seemed to comfort them both, and it did something deep inside Maze to see their honest emotion, something she herself had a hard time revealing on the best of days—which this wasn’t. Didn’t stop her from soaking up the sight of Walker. He wore dark jeans, work boots, an untucked blue button-down stretched taut over broad shoulders . . . and a sling holding his left arm tight to his body. Dark aviator sunglasses covered his eyes, but she didn’t need to see them. That sky-blue gaze of his was burned onto her soul.

  There’d been a time when he’d smiled at her with warmth, affection, and hunger. There’d been even more times when he’d made her laugh—back in the days when she still could. All of it long gone now, as around them the air went thick with memories.

  Maze did not lift her arms in invitation.

  And he did not reach for her.

  “Maze,” he said simply, and gave her a single curt nod. She got it, but even after all that had happened between them, a small part of her yearned to see that old spark of pure trouble in his eyes, accompanied by that bad-boy smile, the one that promised a thrill and had never failed to deliver. It never got easier to see him, but Cat gestured them in like they were her ducklings for birthdays and holidays and anything else she could think of. Maze pretended to hate being dragged back into their tight circle, but the honest-to-God truth was that she didn’t know what she’d do without them.

  Caitlin pulled something from her bag.

  A bran muffin.

  Walker didn’t do cake—or any junk food, for that matter—never had. He ate to fuel his body, which of course showed, since he looked like a lean, hard-muscled fighting machine. Food wasn’t a pleasure button for him like it was for her. Nope, Walker had other pleasure buttons, ones she sometimes relived in the deep dark of the night.

  Taking the muffin, he let out an almost inaudible sound of amusement before turning to stare at the gravestone while slowly, and clearly painfully, lowering himself to the chair.

  “What happened to you?” Maze asked him softly.

  He shrugged with his good shoulder and took a bite of the muffin.

  She turned to look at Heather and Caitlin.

  Caitlin looked pained but said nothing.

  Heather was biting her lower lip like she was trying to hold back, but finally burst out with “He got shot.” Then she slapped her hand over her mouth.

  Maze sucked in air. “Shot? When?”

  “Two weeks ago, on the job,” Heather said from between her fingers. “He’s on leave.”

  Walker sent Heather a long look, and she tossed up her hands.

  “Whatever, Walk. You all know I don’t keep secrets anymore, not for anyone.” She began to chew on her fingernails, painted black and already down to the nubs. She switched to waving a hand in front of her face. “And now I’m sweating.”

  Heather, Maze, and Walker had all come from vastly different, but equally troubled, backgrounds by the time they’d landed in the same foster home at ages nine, fifteen, and sixteen, respectively. Caitlin’s parents had welcomed them with open arms for one perfect year, until the Event, which had scattered them all far and wide. Still minors, Heather and Maze had been fostered by new, fairly decent families within a few months of each other. Walker had ended up in a group home, aging out of the system when he turned eighteen. From there, he’d gone into the military and then the FBI. The rigorous discipline had molded him, given him a sense of purpose and a way to channel his demons. It’d toughened and hardened the already toughened, hardened kid.

  But Maze knew him better than most, or at least she had. Very few understood that beneath the edgy shell he wore like armor beat a heart that would lay itself down for the people it beat for. Once upon a time, she’d been one of those people.

  “The leave is temporary,” Walker said. “I’m going back next week.”

  Heather’s eyes filled. “You almost died.”

  “But I didn’t.”

  Maze’s gut clenched. As kids, they’d all had hopes and visions of what they wanted to be when they grew up. Walker had wanted to run a bar or restaurant. He’d wanted to be surrounded by friends and be able to take care of them by feeding them. Simple dream, really, but it spoke of his deep-seated need to have those few trusted people in his life close to him. That was all that mattered.

  He’d ended up going in a very different direction. Maze wasn’t sure why exactly, but her working theory had always been that he figured giving a shit had never gotten him anywhere, so why try.

  “You almost died?” she asked softly.

  He looked pained as he swallowed the last of his muffin. “I’m fine.”


  “Drop it, Maze,” he said in a warning tone that she imagined probably had all the bad guys’ balls retreating north.

  She opened her mouth to tell him that very thing, but Heather pointed to the carefully tended gravesite and said quietly, “I love the wildflowers you planted last year, Cat, they’re all blooming now.” Ever their peacemaker. At nineteen, Heather was the youngest and therefore remembered the least about that long-ago night. She’d never been able to process bad stuff, and the rest of them always shielded her the best they could.

  Caitlin smiled at Heather, but it wasn’t her usual two-hundred-watt. If Heather was the group’s soul, Caitlin was its heart, and she’d been the closest to Michael. His loss had changed her immeasurably, taking her from sweet and fun loving . . . to sweet and completely, unbendingly bossy and tyrannical with those she loved—quite the combo.

  “I was out here last week to pull the weeds,” Cat said, “without using Daddy’s tractor.”

  Everyone looked at Maze, who sighed. “One time. Jeez. You borrow”—still holding her fork in one hand and the paper plate in the other, she managed to use air quotes for the word borrow—“a guy’s tractor one time, and no one lets you forget it.”

  “That’s because thanks to you, it’s now illegal to drive a tractor without a permit in the state of California,” Walker said.

  Maze would’ve sworn she’d heard a dry amusement in his tone, but she couldn’t tell past his dark sunglasses. “That’s a total exaggeration. I didn’t even get arrested.” Though his implication that she’d been wild and impulsive wasn’t exactly wrong.

  Caitlin smiled and reached out for both Heather’s and Maze’s hands, waiting for Heather to take Walker’s so they were all connected. “Damn. It’s been what, like two months since we were all together for Heather’s birthday? Missed you guys. I love you.”

  “I love you too,” Heather said softly.

  “Love you,” Walker murmured in his low baritone without a single beat of hesitation.

  There was a beat of silence, and when it wasn’t filled, once again everyone looked at Maze.

  “Me too,” she said.

  Heather shook her head.

  Caitlin rolled her eyes.

  Walker didn’t react at all.

  “What?” Maze said defensively.

  “You never say the actual words,” Caitlin said.

  “Of course I do.”

  “Never,” Heather said.

  Fine. She didn’t. But as she’d learned the hard way growing up with an emotionally unavailable mom, no dad, and a few too many foster homes, those three little words held way too much power.

  Caitlin eyed her watch and craned her neck to look behind them at the parking lot a good hundred yards back.

  “What are you looking for?” Maze asked.

  “Mom and Dad should’ve been here by now.”

  Maze’s stomach dropped. “You invited them?”

  Heather raised her hand. “Actually, that was me. I was checking in with them the other day and I mentioned our annual thing.”

  “You mean our secret annual thing?” Maze asked.

“Again,” Heather said slowly and clearly, “I don’t keep secrets anymore. And you know why.”

  The cake soured in Maze’s belly. Yeah, she certainly did know why Heather no longer kept secrets. She turned to Caitlin. “Why didn’t you tell me Jim and Shelly were coming?”

  At the use of her parents’ first names, annoyance flickered over Caitlin’s face. She probably thought Maze was still mad at them, but that wasn’t it. It was more that she felt like she didn’t deserve to call them Mom and Dad.

  “I didn’t tell you they were coming,” Cat said, “because I knew then you wouldn’t.”

  Was she that stubborn? Unfortunately, yes. “It should’ve been my choice to make, not yours.” And great, now her voice was trembling. “You don’t get to boss me around and make choices for me anymore.” It was a low blow and she knew it. But she wasn’t sweet like Heather, and she sure as hell couldn’t be rational like Caitlin.

  “Michael was their son,” Cat said. “Their baby.”

  See? Rational. “Believe me,” Maze said, chest too tight to breathe. “I get that.”

  Disappointment joined the annoyance on Caitlin’s face. “You know that’s not what I meant. I’m just saying that they have every right to be here at their son’s grave.”

  While Maze did not have that same right. Got it. She started to stand up, but Caitlin tugged on her arm. “Don’t you dare go. They’ll want you to be here. And Michael would want that too.”

  “Did you ask them?” Maze met her gaze. “Or is this a complete surprise for them as well?”

  Caitlin winced, giving her away. Dammit. Maze shook her head.

  “See, this is why it’s easier to not be part of a family.”

  “A family?” Caitlin asked. “Or this family?”

  Contrary to popular belief, Maze did have a few social skills and could read a room. She knew she was treading in dangerous territory here and was about to seriously piss off the only people who’d ever remained at her back. But a funny thing happened to her when she felt cornered. It made her . . . feel, which in turn made her even more stubborn than usual, and that was saying something.

  Heather was already crying. But to be fair, Heather cried at the drop of a hat.