The Sweetest Thing Read online

Page 20

  Author: Jill Shalvis

  How many years had he wondered about the baby that he and Tara had given up at birth?


  And how many years had he wondered if that baby would grow up happy and whole and smart and sharp and then… someday show up on his doorstep.

  Christ, he couldn’t remember ever feeling nerves like this before. Not while facing forty-foot waves threatening to tear his boat apart. Not while standing on an Olympic podium accepting a medal in the name of his country. Not ever.

  Tara hadn’t taken her eyes off Mia, and she was looking nervous too, her eyes misty. “You’re so beautiful,” she whispered.

  Mia’s eyes cut to her, quiet and assessing. “I look like you. ”

  “Not as much as you look like…”

  They both turned to Ford.

  Having the woman he’d once loved with painful desperation, along with the daughter he’d dreamed about, both looking at him with varying degrees of emotion, was a punch in the solar plexus. Ford found he could scarcely breathe.

  “Can I hug you?” Tara asked their daughter.

  Mia gave a halting nod, but it was too late; they’d all seen the hesitation. Awkwardness settled over them all as Mia moved into Tara for a quick embrace. Ford was next, and he was surprised that with him Mia didn’t seem awkward at all. Anxious, even eager, but not reluctant, and as he wrapped his arms around this thin, beautiful teenager that was his—Christ, his—he closed his eyes and breathed her in. “How did you find us?”

  Mia pulled back and shifted her weight nervously, although her voice never wavered. “I thought I’d tell you after I got hired. ”

  Bold. Ballsy. Probably she’d gotten a double whammy of both of those things from the gene pool, Ford thought.

  “I only have seven weeks,” Mia said, and Tara’s hand went to her chest as if to keep her heart from leaping out.

  Ford understood the panic. Hell, he felt it as his own. When Mia had been young, she’d had heart problems. A leaky valve that had required surgery. The only reason either Ford or Tara knew about it was because Tara’s mother had donated a very large chunk of money to the medical bills, taking a second mortgage on the inn to get it—something that had only been discovered after Phoebe had died.

  “What’s the matter?” Tara asked Mia, voice thick with worry. “Your heart again?”

  “No. I’m doing my senior year of high school in Spain as an exchange student, and I’ll be gone for nine months. ”

  “Oh. ” At this, Tara sagged in visible relief.

  “So you’re healthy then?” Ford asked Mia. “Everything’s good?”

  “Yep. I haven’t had so much as a cold in years. ”

  “That’s wonderful,” Tara said. “And your parents are okay with you doing this? Coming here to meet us?”

  Another slight hesitation. “Well, they wanted to come with me,” Mia admitted. “To be sure I’d be welcome, but I wanted to do this alone. ” Something came into her eyes at that. More nerves. And a dash of defensiveness.

  And there was something else, too, Ford noticed. Whenever Mia spoke, she did so directly to him, not Tara. Almost as if Mia somehow resented the mother who’d given her up, but not her birth father.

  Worse, given the look on Tara’s face, she knew it too, and was miserable about it. Up until now Ford had caught only glimpses of the guilt that haunted Tara, but seeing it etched so deeply on her face squeezed his heart.

  “My parents know I’m applying for work,” Mia told them. “They’ve agreed that I can drive back and forth from Seattle to Lucky Harbor. If, you know, I get the job. ”

  Smooth, Ford thought. Also from the gene pool.

  “I’ll hire you,” Tara said softly. “If that’s what you want, to work for me. ”

  “Really?” For a beat, the cool, tough-girl expression fell away from Mia, revealing a heartbreaking vulnerability.

  “Of course,” Tara said.

  “But… you don’t even know my real skills. Or me. ”

  “You came all this way,” Ford said quietly. “Don’t lose your nerve now. ”

  Mia turned to him, studying his face like she’d been hungry for the sight of it as he’d been for hers.

  “You’re hired,” Tara said. “I can teach you what you need to know. And then maybe by the end of the summer, you’ll be able to write a real résumé, with real experience. ”

  “Thanks,” Mia said, looking slightly softer. Younger. “And don’t worry. I’m real organized and a big planner. My parents tell everyone I’m anal, and it’s sorta true. ”

  “One guess as to where you got that,” Ford said.

  Tara slid him a long look, making him smile.

  “I think I’m more like you,” Mia said, looking at Ford.

  Tara looked away at the quick hurt of that, and Ford felt unaccustomedly helpless, not sure how to breach the gap between mother and daughter.

  “Excuse me, Ms. Daniels?” Carlos called from the marina office door. He was in baggy homeboy jeans and a T-shirt that advertised some surf shop in Cabo. His dark hair was in spikes today, his earrings and eyebrow piercing all black to match his untied, high-top Nikes. He’d been cleaning windows in the morning sun, and his arms and face gleamed with sweat. “You have a phone call. ”

  Mia looked at him, and then kept looking.

  “Thanks, Carlos,” Tara said. “Can you take a message?”

  The teen nodded, his gaze falling to Mia, meeting her outwardly curious gaze.

  “Mia, this is Carlos,” Tara said, introducing them. “He works for the inn part time as well. ”

  Carlos smiled, and to Ford, the expression had horny teenager written all over it. A very new and entirely surprising emotion hit Ford squarely between the eyes.

  Paternal protectiveness.

  Which was ridiculous. Hell, when he’d been Carlos’ age, he’d looked at Tara just like that. He’d also done a hell of a lot more than just look.

  “I’m going to start planting those seedlings,” Carlos said to Tara. “You said it was a two-person job, but everyone’s busy so…”

  “I could help,” Mia piped up.

  “No!” Tara and Ford said at the same time. Ford let out a breath. That settled it. He was going to have to kill Carlos. He glanced over at Tara and found her wearing what he imagined was a matching scowl to his.

  Luckily, before either of them could do or say anything stupid, Mia’s stomach growled into the silence.

  “Oh, Sugar,” Tara exclaimed. “You’re hungry! Come on, come up to the inn. I’ll get you some breakfast. ”

  “But the planting,” Mia said, still looking at Carlos.

  “Maybe later,” Tara said.

  Much later, Ford thought. Like never.

  Tara hustled them all into the kitchen. Well, except Carlos. Carlos she sent on a run into town on an errand. When he was gone, Tara sat Mia at the table and pulled ingredients out of the fridge until she had a mountain of food on the island. “What would you like? Omelets? Crepes? Pancakes? French toast? I have—”

  “It doesn’t matter,” Mia said. She and Ford watched as Tara went to work, her hands a blur. “Anything’s fine. So about you two. Are you… a two?”

  “Veggie and cheese omelets?” Tara asked, looking a little desperate for a subject change. “With turkey bacon and fresh fruit?”

  “Okay. ” Mia hesitated and then glanced at Ford. “Is she always like this?” she whispered.

  Crazy? Yes. Often. “She loves to cook. ”

  Mia nodded, glancing at the newspaper that had been left on the table. “Is this for real?”

  Ford looked over her shoulder. “What?”

  Mia pointed to an article on the front page and read: “It’s neck and neck between two fine stallions in the race for Lucky Harbor’s Beach Resort owner Tara Daniels’ heart. Which sexy hunk will make it to the finish line? The NASCAR cutie