The Sweetest ThingJill Shalvis
Author: Jill Shalvis Chapter 1
“There is no snooze button on life. ”
Muffin?” Tara asked as she walked along the long line of people waiting on the pier to enter Lucky Harbor’s summer festival. “Have a free Life’s-a-Peach Muffin?”
The large basket was heavier than she’d anticipated, and the late afternoon June sun beat down on her head in tune to the Pacific’s thrashing waves beating the shore. Perspiration beaded on her skin, which really chapped her hide. It was the steel magnolia in her. Perspiring wasn’t just undignified, it contradicted her never let ’em see you sweat motto.
Telling herself that she was merely glistening, and hopefully looking luminous while she was at it, Tara amped up her smile and kept going. At least her sundress was lightweight, the material gauzy and playful against her skin. She’d bought it to look sophisticated and elegant. And to boost her confidence.
This was a tall order for a dress.
“Muffin?” she asked the next woman in line.
Mrs. Taylor, the owner of the local craft and supply shop, looked the basket over carefully. “Are they low-fat?”
Before coming to Washington state, Tara had spent most of her life just outside of Houston on her grandparents’ ranch, where holding back the use of butter and lard was considered sacrilegious. Low-fat? Not exactly. She gave a brief thought to lying, but she didn’t want to be struck dead by lightning—it would ruin her good hair day. “Definitely not, sorry. ”
“Do you know the calorie count?”
Tara looked down at her beautiful muffins, fat and soft and gently browned, each perfectly baked and undoubtedly overflowing with calories. “A gazillion,” she said. “Per bite. ”
“I’m surprised at you,” Mrs. Taylor said disappointedly, “promoting cholesterol consumption like this. ”
Tara had read somewhere that it took less effort to be nice than bitchy. And since she was all for energy conservation, she let her mouth curve into a smile. “Actually, what I’m promoting is the renovation of the inn my sisters and I are opening in two weeks—” She broke off when Mrs. Taylor held up a polite finger and pulled out her vibrating phone.
Tara had a finger of her own to hold up, but since it wasn’t a polite one, she refrained. She moved on, assuring herself that the continuous swallowing of her pride since coming to Lucky Harbor only felt like it was going to kill her, but surely it wouldn’t.
“Muffin?” Tara asked a new section of the line, handing them out as people expressed interest. “Y’all want a free Life’s-a-Peach muffin?”
Each had been painstakingly wrapped in cellophane with a folded flyer for the Lucky Harbor Beach Inn tucked into a ribbon. It was part of Tara’s mission, and that mission was different than it’d been last year. Last year, she’d wanted peace on earth and a manicure that lasted a full two weeks. This year, things were more basic. She wanted to be able to pay her bills at the end of the month without robbing Peter to pay Paul, and maybe to feel like she was in control of her own life.
That was all.
Just a single month in which her ends met her means. Thirty days during which she wasn’t constantly in angst over the arrival of a paycheck.
Or lack thereof.
The sun continued to beat down on Tara as she walked the length of the pier. Behind her, the sharp, craggy cliffs were cast in shadow. Out in front, the surf continued to pound the beach, shuddering the pier beneath her feet. She passed the beauty shop, the Eat Me Diner where she worked four nights a week, and then the arcade, ice cream parlor, and the five-story-high Ferris wheel.
The crowd grew around her, seeming to surge in closer. It was as if the entire state of Washington had showed up for the Summer Arts and Musical Fest, but that wasn’t a surprise to Tara. The only thing the people of Lucky Harbor liked more than their gossip was a social gathering, and there would be plenty of both to be had tonight. A warm night, good music, dancing, drinking… a recipe for a good time, no doubt.
“I’ll most definitely take a muffin,” Chloe said, appearing at Tara’s side.
At twenty-four, Tara’s sister was the baby of the family, and as such had inherited all the free-spiritedness—aka wildness—of their mother, Phoebe Traeger. Chloe wore snug hip-hugging cargo shorts and a sunshine yellow tank top that required sunglasses to look at. Her glossy dark red hair was streaked with twin hot-pink highlights, one down each temple, the rest cascading down her back in a perfect disarray of waves to give her a just-out-of-bed look.
She could have been a cover model.
Well, except for the fact that she was five foot three in her high-tops and had absolutely no discipline nor inclination to follow instructions. Chloe was freshly back from a two-month trip traveling through Miami Beach’s high-end hotel spas, where she’d put her aesthetician license to good use while fine-tuning her own natural skincare line. And probably also finding trouble, as was Chloe’s habit.
Tara was just glad to have her back in Lucky Harbor. She’d worried the entire time Chloe had been gone. It was a lifelong thing for Tara, worrying about her troubled baby sister.
Chloe, looking tan and happy and sporting a new Chinese symbol tat on the inside of her wrist that she’d refused to translate, bit into a muffin and let out a heartfelt moan. “Damn, Tara, these rock. Can you tell me something?”
“If you’re going to ask me if the muffins are low fat,” Tara said, “you should know I’m running out of places to hide all the dead bodies. ”
Chloe laughed. “No, I can feel my arteries clogging even as I swallow, and I’m good with that. ” She licked the crumbs off her fingers. “Just wanted to know if you noticed Ford making his way toward you. ”
Tara turned to follow Chloe’s gaze and felt her breath catch. Ford Walker was indeed headed her way, moving sure and easy, his long-legged stride in no hurry. Which was a good thing, as he was stopped by nearly everyone that he passed. He didn’t appear to mind, which made it damn hard to dislike him—although Tara still gave it her all.
“You ever going to tell me what’s the deal with you two?” Chloe was digging into a second muffin as if she hadn’t eaten in a week. And maybe she hadn’t. The perpetually broke Chloe never seemed to worry about her next meal.
“There’s no deal with me and Ford. ”
Chloe’s low laugh rang in Tara’s ears, calling her out for the liar she was. “You know what you need?”
Tara slid her a look. “A trip to some South Pacific island with no sisters named Chloe?”
“Hmm. Maybe for Christmas. For now, you need to relax. More yoga, less stress. ”
“I’m plenty relaxed. ” Or she had been until she’d looked at Ford. He’d gotten stopped again and was talking to someone in the line behind her, but as if he felt her appraisal, he turned his head and met her gaze. An odd tension hummed through her veins. Her pulse kicked up as well, not quite into heart-attack territory, but close enough. “Totally, completely relaxed,” she murmured.
“Uh-huh,” Chloe said, sounding amused. “Is that why you’re hugging the basket so tight you’re squishing the muffins? Or why you compulsively cleaned the cottage from top to bottom last night?”
“Hey,” Tara said in her own defense. “There was a lot of dust, which would have aggravated your asthma. And, if you remember, it’s only been two weeks since you’ve landed in the hospital unable to breathe thanks to nothing more than a pollen storm. So you’re welcome. ”
Chloe rolled her eyes and turned to the woman behind her in line. Lucille owned an art gallery in town and was somewhere between seventy and two hundred years old. She wore white-on-white Nike
s and her favorite track suit in hot, Day-Glo pink. She took a muffin, bit into it, and sighed in pleasure. “Tara, darling, you’re as amazing as you are uptight. ”
“I’m not—” Oh, forget it.
Lucille looked her over from eyes lined thickly with blue eye shadow. “Pretty dress. You always dress so nice. Ross? Wal-Mart?”
Actually, Nordstrom’s, Tara thought, back from her old life when she’d had a viable credit card. “It’s several years old, so—”
“We have a question,” Chloe said to Lucille, interrupting. “Tell me, does my sister look relaxed to you?”
“Relaxed?” Taking the question very seriously, Lucille studied Tara closely. “Actually, she looks a little constipated. ” She turned to the person who came up behind her, but Tara didn’t have to look to see who it was because her nipples got hard.
At six-feet-three inches, Ford was pure testosterone and sinew. His build suggested one of those lean extreme fighters but Ford was too laid-back to ever bother being a fighter of any kind.
He wore low-slung, button-fly Levi’s and a white button-down shoved up to his elbows, yet somehow he managed to look as dressed up as Tara. His brown hair was sun-kissed, his green eyes sharp, his smile ready. Everything about him said ready, from his tough build to the air of confidence he wore like other men wore cologne. Half the people in Lucky Harbor were in love with him.
The other half were men and didn’t count.
Tara was the odd person out, of course. Not only was she not in love with him, he tended to step on her last nerve.
There was a very good reason for that.
Several, in fact. But she’d long ago given herself permission to pretend that the thing that had happened between them hadn’t happened.
“We’re trying to figure out what’s wrong with Tara, dear,” Lucille told him, having to tilt her blue-haired head way up to meet his eyes. “I’m thinking constipation. ”
Ford looked as if he wanted to laugh.
Tara ground her teeth. “I’m not—”
“It’s okay,” Lucille said. “It happens to the best of us. All you need are some plums and a blender, and you—”
“I’m not constipated!” Great. Now everyone within a thirty-foot radius was privy to the knowledge.