The Sweetest Thing Read online

Page 21

  Author: Jill Shalvis

  “No,” Tara said. “Yes. Wait a minute. ” She pressed her fingertips to her eyes. “Can you rephrase the question?”

  “Until about six months ago, Tara lived in Texas,” Ford told Mia. “And I lived here. ”

  “So you two were never together?” Mia asked. “Not even when… you know. When I was conceived?”

  Ford drew in a deep breath. This part was going to suck. “We were seventeen,” he said.

  Mia nodded. “Like me. ”

  Yes, and he wasn’t proud to say that he’d been far too experienced for his age. He’d lost his virginity two years prior, after being seduced by a sexy waitress who’d promised to rock his world. She had. For one entire glorious spring break, she’d rocked everything he had.

  But Tara hadn’t been experienced. At all. He had no idea how, but she’d seen something in him that had inspired her trust. “We were too young for the kind of relationship that we found ourselves in,” he said carefully. Please read between the lines and never have sex.


  “Yeah,” Mia said quietly. “I figured I was an accident. A really big one. ”

  “No,” Tara said fiercely.

  “It’s okay,” Mia said. “The whole giving-me-up thing was a dead giveaway. ” She shrugged as she looked at a stricken Tara. “You needed to fix a mistake quick, so you gave me up. Easy enough. ”

  Christ, those eyes, Ford thought. The both of them were killing him. “It wasn’t easy,” he said, hoping to God that Mia believed him. “And it wasn’t about us giving you up to make things better for us. It was about making things right for you. ”

  Tara had turned to blindly face the window, completely ignoring what she was cooking.

  Ford imagined she was feeling sick over the same thing. Heartbreaking to hear that the child they’d given up was thinking that it had been an easy fix. More heartbreak that she’d felt unwanted, even for a minute.

  “I think I forgot to do the dishes this morning in the cottage,” Tara whispered. “I should go check. ”

  Ford would bet his last penny that she’d done every dish in the place and he stood to go to her, but, eyes glittering, mouth grim, she shook her head.

  They’d been kids when she’d gotten pregnant. Stupid kids. That was no longer the case, and yet the situation was bringing back all the emotions from that time—the fear, the stress, the anxiety.

  The utter helplessness.

  And that overwhelming, ever-present, life-sucking guilt. Looking at Tara, Ford saw it all. He knew that she felt that they’d done the right thing. She’d always felt that way. But any woman would still feel the pang of giving up her own flesh and blood. She’d carried Mia, had been the one to feel her wriggle and kick, to feel her every hiccup.

  And then had been left with little choice but to sign her away.

  “I smell something burning,” Mia said, and pointed to the stovetop, which was now smoking.

  Yep, something was burning all right. Ford stepped behind Tara, took the spatula out of her hand, and turned off the burner. He carried the pan, and the blackened omelet in it, to the sink, where it hissed and smoked some more when he added cold water to the mix.

  “I burnt it,” Tara murmured.

  “Yeah,” Mia said, eyeing the pan. “You killed it dead. ”

  “I never burn anything. ”

  “No biggie,” Mia said quietly. “I wasn’t that hungry anyway. Should I go?”

  “No. ” Tara straightened, seeming to come into herself again. “Mia, my burning breakfast was an accident. Like forgetting to go to the dentist. Like running out of gas on the highway…” She paused and swallowed hard. “But having a baby, that would never be classified as an accident. Not by me. I want you to know that. I’m not good at this. At revisiting the past, or talking about things that—I’m not good at emotions and feelings. But I want—I need you to know that I never thought of you as an accident. And I want you to stay. ”

  Mia didn’t look away as a myriad of emotions crossed her face. After a long beat, she swallowed hard. “Okay. Thanks. ”

  In the heavily weighted silence, Ford went to the refrigerator. Time for improvisation, and his eyes locked on a big, juicy-looking strawberry pie. Worked for him. He grabbed it, carrying the tin heaped with brilliant red strawberries and dripping with glaze to the table.

  “That’s my Kick-Ass Strawberry Pie,” Tara said, surprised.

  “Yes, and now it’s Kick-Ass Breakfast. ” Ford pointed to the chairs. “Sit. ”

  Tara shocked him by actually following his direction. Mia followed suit, and he cut the pie into three huge thirds.

  Tara choked. “I can’t feed our daughter strawberry pie for breakfast. ”

  “Why not?”

  “Yeah,” Mia asked. “Why not?”

  “Because…” Tara appeared to search for a reason. “It’s not healthy. ”

  “It’s got fruit,” Mia said.

  Tara looked at her. The awkwardness was still there. The air was filled with it, as well as unspoken questions and answers. But finally she nodded. Kick-Ass Breakfast it would be.

  Mia gazed down at her third of the pie, her pretty hair sweeping into her eyes—which might be Ford’s own green but they were guarded like Tara’s.

  His daughter, he repeated to himself. God. His daughter. She was careful. Controlled. Smart. And when she reached up and impatiently shoved her hair out of the way, he couldn’t hold back the smile.

  “What?” she wanted to know.

  “You remind me of Tara at your age,” he said. “Ready to tell us how you found us?”

  “My dad helped me. ”

  Ford couldn’t help it: he flinched at the word dad, something he’d certainly never been to her. Tara met his gaze, and the understanding and compassion in her eyes were far too much for him to take. Getting up from the table, he poured three glasses of cold milk.

  “I’d tried to find you before,” Mia said, “but I couldn’t. Then when Phoebe Traeger died, she left me some money. ” She looked at Tara. “I’m sorry about your mom. ”

  “Thank you,” Tara said quietly. “You got the money around Thanksgiving. ”

  “Yes, and with it came a letter from her. She said she wasn’t supposed to make herself known to me. That she was breaking rules and promises all over the place, but that she was dead and if people didn’t like it, they could suck it. Her words,” Mia added with a small smile. “She included your contact information in case I ever wanted it. For both of you. ” She paused. “I’ve always wanted it, but it took me a little while to find the nerve to do anything with it. ” She looked at Tara. “It said you lived in Texas, so I was surprised when I saw that ad to find out you were here. ” She paused. “I have a good life only half an hour from here. Two parents who love me very much. It should be enough. ” She paused. “I wanted it to be enough. ”

  “It’s natural to be curious,” Tara said quietly. “It’s okay to be curious. ”

  “Yeah, well, at first I told myself I didn’t care, about either of you. ” Mia pushed a strawberry around on the plate. “You gave me up, right? So I didn’t care. I wasn’t going to be curious. I refused to be, natural or not. ”

  Tara looked devastated. Ford reached for her hand and gave it a squeeze. “I’m glad you changed your mind,” he said.

  “Who says I did?”

  “You’re here,” he pointed out. “That indicates a certain level of caring. Of curiosity. ”

  She sagged a little. “Yeah. I always was too curious for my own good. ”

  “And now that you’re here?” he asked. “What do you want to happen?”

  Mia very carefully cut a large strawberry in half with her fork. “I realize I really should know, since I came to you, but I don’t. At least not exactly. ” She looked at Ford’s hand. He was still holding Tara’s fingers in his, and had been stroking his thumb across