The Sweetest Thing Read online

Page 49

  Author: Jill Shalvis

  “No. ” Even as Mia said it, her eyes filled. She sniffed and swiped angrily at her eyes. “I’m not crying. ” And then she burst into tears.

  Crap. Shit. Damn. Tara very gently took the knife out of Mia’s fingers as the teen babbled something in a long watery string. The only words that Tara caught were “stupid ass,” “thinks he knows what’s best,” and “going to hunt him down. ”

  Tara nudged the knife farther out of their way and risked both her heart and the silk of her dress by hugging Mia in close.

  Mia slumped against her. “H-he said that when the s-summer’s over and I go to S-Spain, we won’t see each other anymore. Ever. ”

  Ah. Carlos. “Well, Spain’s pretty far away and expensive to get to, but I’m sure when you’re back in Seattle, you’ll—”

  “No, it’s not the distance. He says that he’ll hold me back. That I need to go and have the whole college experience. He thinks it’s unrealistic to expect… he says it’s easier to break clean now. Like ripping off a Band-Aid. ”

  “And you said…”

  “I said that’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard! That he’s just a big chickenshit! That if he loved me, it wouldn’t matter how far away I was; we’d make it work. ”

  Oh God, the irony, Tara thought. “Maybe he’s trying to protect you. Maybe he wants to make sure you get everything you deserve out of life. And the only way he thinks he can make sure you do that is to push you away. ”

  “Well, that’s just stupid,” Mia cried. “I’ll get what I want out of life on my own. It’s not up to him to get it for me, or to make my decisions. ”

  Tara hugged her as the girl sobbed with the abandon of a despairing teenager. God knew Tara herself had cried buckets when she’d been this age, but then again, she’d been in a different situation.

  Sort of.

  She thought about Carlos trying to protect Mia and felt her heart squeeze for him. For the selflessness…

  And then closed her eyes as her heart nearly stopped beating. Back in Ford’s hospital room, when she’d been eavesdropping on him and Mia, all the reasons he’d given their daughter for the two of them not being together—they’d all been for Tara.

  To protect her.

  His answer was like a knife to Tara’s gut. His unselfish answer. She’d accused him of letting her go because he hadn’t cared enough, but that hadn’t been it at all. He’d let her go, thinking she deserved better.

  What was it that she’d told Mia way back when? That she’d never spent any time in a small town, that she was used to more… God. All her reasons for leaving Lucky Harbor had been about herself.

  She was made for better things than being stuck with me, Ford had said.

  Carlos was doing the same thing, cutting off what he wanted and yearned for in order to give Mia the life he thought she deserved. Because in his eyes, she deserved more, not realizing that he deserved it, too.

  She thought of Ford and physically ached. Because what about now? They were no longer seventeen, and she could decide for herself what she wanted, what she deserved.

  What they both deserved.

  How about we give each other everything we can and not blame each other for what we can’t, he’d said. She’d assumed he’d been talking about himself, that he didn’t want her to blame him for what he couldn’t give.

  But he’d meant her, she realized. He wouldn’t blame her for what she couldn’t give.

  Tara waited until Mia was reduced to hiccups before offering her a kitchen towel to mop her face.

  “Mascara check,” Mia said, lifting her raccoon eyes to Tara’s. “Am I a wreck?”

  Tara took back the kitchen towel and swiped beneath Mia’s eyes herself. “You’re beautiful. ”

  There was a knock at the back door. Carlos stood there wearing his baggy jeans and tight T-shirt, piercings glinting, eyes hooded, holding a case of cranberry juice. “Jax sent me over with this from the bar. They got a double shipment. He thought you might get use out of them. ” He glanced at Mia, and his mouth went grim. “You’ve been crying. ”

  “Yes,” Mia said. “It’s what happens when a stupid guy dumps me. ”

  Still holding the case of juice, he grimaced in misery.

  Tara pulled Carlos the rest of the way into the kitchen. “Could you load that into the pantry?” She turned to Mia. “He’ll need your help. ”

  Mia looked surprised. “But the other day you said I couldn’t be alone with him in the pantry except over your dead body. ”

  “You have three minutes,” Tara told her. “And if you don’t emerge exactly as you are, there will be a dead body—just not mine. Take it or leave it. ”

  Mia was staring at Carlos. “Take it,” she said softly.

  Tara watched Carlos wait for Mia to go ahead of him before he looked back at Tara.

  “There’s always a way to make things work,” she told him quietly. “If you want it bad enough. ”

  He nodded and followed Mia into the pantry.

  Tara looked around at the empty but chaotic kitchen and for once realized she didn’t feel an ounce of the usual panic and anxiety over the mess. Instead, she felt…

  Utterly at home.

  She stepped out the back door and drew a deep breath of the salty air. She bent and picked a pesky weed out of the flower bed. Then she looked at her watch. Their three minutes were up. Back inside, she moved to the pantry and knocked.

  No answer. Dammit. Give teenagers an inch, and they’d take a mile. She should know; she’d taken hundreds of miles when she’d been a teen. Thousands. “Hey,” she said, knocking harder, “I wasn’t kidding about the dead body. ”

  “It’s okay, Mom. ”

  Tara whirled around, her throat locked at the word “Mom. ” Mia and Carlos stood there, holding hands. “Oh,” she breathed, scarcely able to talk. “You called me Mom. ”

  “Yes. Is that okay?”

  “So okay,” Tara managed. “Did you two work it out?”

  “No,” Mia said softly, looking at Carlos.

  He looked at her right back, not smiling, but with a world of warmth in his eyes.

  “We’ve decided to enjoy the rest of the summer,” Mia said, never taking her eyes off of him. “Take it as it comes. When I leave and then come back…” She lifted a shoulder. “We’ll see. ”

  “Sounds very grown up,” Tara managed, nearly losing it at the look on Carlos’s face as he watched Mia. He was doing his best to be cool. Calm. Collected. She recognized the technique.

  But he was hurting, and her heart ached for him. He’d wanted to rip the Band-Aid off as much for him as he had for Mia. But he’d agreed to wait, knowing the painful sting was coming eventually. Very likely, he didn’t believe in good outcomes for himself. That was okay. She had a feeling that Mia believed enough for all of them. “How about helping me out in here?” she asked them.

  They chopped. Sautéed. Stirred. Tasted. By the time the food was finished, Tara was red-faced and sweaty, which she knew because Mia forced her to view her own reflection in a spoon.

  Mia was grinning. “You look…”

  Tara stared at herself. “Like a mess. A complete mess. ”

  “I think you’re beautiful,” Mia said.

  That afternoon, Tara had her first real success right there in the kitchen, both with the meal and her time with her daughter, and she realized it was because of love.

  If she cooked with love, things came out right.

  So maybe if she lived with love… same thing? With love maybe she could be a real chef, a mom, a sister, a lover.

  She could be anything she wanted.

  She could have anything she wanted.

  God, she really could. She looked at Mia. “I have to go for a few minutes. Can you man the phone?”

  “Of course. Maddie and Chloe are here, too. ”

  Tara grabbed her k