Author: Jill Shalvis


PHOEBE TRAEGER


Their last night together, Maddie and her sisters ended up at Eat Me Café. Silver and blue tinsel hung everywhere, and cut-outs of Santa’s reindeer were hanging from the rafters. Tara was, as usual, overdressed in designer jeans and a blazer. Maddie had gone with her decidedly not-designer jeans and her thickest sweater in deference to the chilly weather. Chloe was wearing denim leggings, kickass boots, and a long-sleeved shirt that read I MELTED FROSTY.


“Now we’re going to get along,” Maddie told them, walking through the decorated café. “Or I’m going to let my pores get big and go back to eating potato chips three meals a day.”


“I don’t believe you,” Tara said, cool as a cucumber. “You’re going to hit the Love Shack, get trashed, and do something extremely inappropriate with our master renovation expert.”


Chloe raised her hand. “Can I vote for that? I think getting mastered by our sexy carpenter is a good idea.”


Maddie’s good parts all stood up and voted for that, too.


Tara shook her head. “Bad idea, sugar. Still not ready.”


“Are you saying he’s out of her league?” Chloe asked.


“I’m saying he’s so far out of her league that she can’t even see his league.” Tara looked at Maddie. “No offense. I don’t mean he’s too good for you. I mean he’s too…”


“Hot,” Chloe supplied.


“Yes,” Tara said. “Hot. You have to work your way up to a man like that. Maybe start out with a basic model.” Her eyes roamed the bar and landed on a good-looking man who was pulling a bag of tea leaves from his plaid coat pocket and signaling the waitress for a cup of hot water. “Someone like him,” she said. “A training-bra version of Jax.”


Maddie sighed. “Subject change, please.” She lifted her water glass. “How about a toast to Mom, for bringing us together.”


Chloe and Tara lifted their glasses. “To Mom,” they said in unison.


“Aw.” Maddie smiled. “You two are so cute when you’re in accord.” Empowered, she lifted her glass again. “To our new venture, the three of us.”


Silence.


“To our new venture,” Maddie repeated, giving them the evil eye.


“To our new venture,” they murmured.


“The three of us,” she said firmly.


“The three of us,” they muttered.


“But we’re still selling,” Tara said.


“Maybe selling,” Maddie said, looking at Chloe. “You going to pick a side anytime soon?”


“Soon,” she said noncommittally.


“Admit it,” Tara said. “You like being the swing vote.”


“Well, I do live to annoy you.”


Thirty long, awkward minutes later, they still hadn’t been served. The tension was rising. Tara and Chloe had a limit on the amount of time they could spend in close quarters, and they’d met it. “So about that weather, huh?” Maddie asked.


Both sisters just stared at her.


Cripes. She searched her brain for a joke and came up empty. Desperate, she flagged down the only waitress in the place.


“Sorry,” the waitress huffed out, not stopping. “Our chef quit, and we’re going nuts.”


“Chef,” Tara said under her breath. “That guy wasn’t a chef. He was a short-order cook trained at Taco Bell, bless his heart.”


“Hey, I like Taco Bell,” Maddie said.


“You would, darlin’.”


Chloe snorted. “You are such a food snob.”


“I beg your pardon.” The South dripped from each word. Delta Burke save us. “I’d work here.”


“Right,” Chloe said. “You’d work here.”


“Absolutely.”


“Admit it, you’d never lower yourself to work in a place like this, with real people and real food,” Chloe said.


Tara’s jaw began to spasm, and Maddie’s belly matched it. Instead of pulling out the Tums, Maddie grabbed the half of a green scarf and knitting needles. True to form, this scarf was already crooked.


“Food. Snob,” Chloe repeated softly to Tara, who abruptly stood, tugged on the hem of her perfect little blazer, and strode purposely toward the kitchen, heels clicking on the chipped linoleum.


“Holy shit,” Chloe said, watching her go. “She’s going to do it.” She grinned and leaned back, like she’d just completed a job well done. “God, she’s so easy.”


“Why?” Maddie asked, baffled. “Why do you mess with her?”


“Because it’s fun?”


Tara talked to the owner and vanished into the kitchen. In twenty minutes, the bell started ringing, accompanied by Tara’s voice demanding that the waitress hustle because she didn’t want the food served cold.


In another hour, the owner of Eat Me Café was begging Tara to sign on until they could get a permanent replacement. Maddie and Chloe had left their table and were in the kitchen now, staring in shock at how fast the chaos had been organized.


“I suppose I could stay a little longer,” Tara said. “If they get me real garlic, no more of this dried crap.”


“So you’re not leaving in the morning?” Maddie asked.


“No.” Tara was chopping onions at the speed of light. “I’m not leaving.”


“But your husband. Your great job. Your perfect life.”


Tara never even looked up as her hands continued to move so fast they were a blur. “Truth?”


“Please,” Maddie said, confused.


“I don’t have a great job. I do inventory for a chain of hotel’s cafés and restaurants, and I hate it.”


Maddie blinked. “And Logan?”


Pain and wistful regret came and went in Tara’s gaze. “He’s driving NASCAR, he’s on the road 24/7. I gave up traveling with him two years ago. I was jealous of his career and bitter about being relegated to third place in his life behind his car and crew. I divorced him. I’m alone and have been for a year and a half.”


“There’s been no one else?”


“Well, for a little while I thought maybe I could start a thing with a close friend, but someone else got in the way.”


“Me,” Chloe said softly. “I got in the way.”


Tara sighed. “I don’t blame you for it. I was still missing Logan. It wouldn’t have been right.”


“Excuse me, girls.”


The three of them turned to face Lucille. She wore her eye-popping pink track suit, minus the white headband. Today it was a rainbow-colored knit cap. Maddie introduced her to her sisters.


Lucille smiled at Chloe. “The wild one.”


Chloe saluted smartass-like, but with a genuine smile. “At your service.”


“And you,” Lucille said, pointing to Tara. “You’re the Steel Magnolia who sometimes forgets to breathe. Just wanted to say that was the best turkey club I’ve ever had, thank you. You’re gifted. Oh, and I hear the inn’s coming along. Looking forward to working for you girls.”


Tara blinked as the older woman smiled and walked away. “I don’t forget to breathe.”


“Sometimes you do,” Chloe said. “Can we rewind a minute? Back to the you-don’t-blame-me thing? Cuz I gotta tell you, it feels a little like you do.”


Tara took a deep breath, her fingers still chopping, chopping, chopping. “I might have a few anger issues.”


“No,” Chloe said in mock disbelief.


“And maybe some misplaced resentment.”


“How long is it going to be misplaced?”


Tara grimaced and stopped chopping. “I’ll let you know. But I am sorry for being a bitch, if that helps. And I’m sorry for any future bitchery.”


Chloe cupped a hand behind her ear. “I’m sorry, what was that?”


“I’m sorry! Okay? I’m very, very sorry!” she yelled.


Chloe grinned. “I heard you. I just like hearing you say sorry.”


Tara narrowed her gaze and tightened her grip on her knife, but Maddie stepped between them. “We’ll just get out of your hair now,” she said quickly, grabbing Chloe by the back of her shirt. She turned and bumped into Jax.


Ford was with him, and they were both eyeing the mountain of food with interest. “Heard there was a new chef,” Ford said and met Tara’s shocked gaze.


An awkward silence filled the kitchen. Maddie decided it wasn’t the mouse who needed to fill it, but the new, improved, strong Maddie. So even though Tara and Ford obviously had some connection, she went with the benefit of the doubt. “Tara” she said. “Have you met—”


“Ford,” Tara said calmly, her eyes anything but.


“Tara,” Ford said just as calmly.


“So you two do know each other,” Chloe said.


“No,” Tara said.


“Yes,” Ford said.


Maddie could have cut the tension with the knife in Tara’s hand, the one that was currently looking a little white-knuckled for her taste. She reached out to try to take it, but Tara began slicing a tomato.


Actually, slicing was too gentle a word for what Tara was doing with deadly and lethal precision. More like making ketchup.


“Everyone who wants to keep all their body parts needs to get the hell out,” Tara drawled coolly.


“Tara,” Ford said quietly.


“No.” She pointed the knife at him, not threateningly, necessarily, but not exactly gently, either. “No talking in my kitchen.”


Ford’s jaw bunched as he turned to Jax. There was some silent communication thing, and Jax opened the kitchen door, nudging Maddie and Chloe out ahead of him.


Ford shut the door.


On the other side of it, Maddie looked at Jax, who shook his head. “I don’t know,” he told her. “I don’t know any more than you.”


“Yeah, well, I hope you weren’t that fond of him,” Chloe said.

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