Author: Jill Shalvis


“Oh, Tara,” Maddie whispered. “I had no idea.”


“No one did. No one knew but me and him, and Phoebe. God, it was awful. I felt… well, there’s no way to explain how I felt, really. There’s not many missteps you can take in life that can change you the way that can.” She looked off onto the water as if there was something only she could see, and whatever it was made her ache. “And it did change me. It never left me,” she whispered. She shook her head as if disgusted with herself for going down that road. “We were young and stupid and immature, and not in any position to be parents. I knew that even then.” Her eyes were haunted. Hollow.


“I went to Seattle for the pregnancy, then gave the baby up for adoption—” Her voice broke, and she shook her head again, unable to go on.


Heart squeezing, Maddie hugged her even though they mostly showed their affection in other ways—like dying their hair green together. “I’m so sorry. You must have been so scared.”


“Yes.” Tara sniffed and searched her pockets for a tissue, which of course, she found. “I was terrified. But I knew enough to understand that I was just a kid. I… I did the right thing.”


“Well, of course you did.”


“I left Lucky Harbor and never looked back. I planned to never come back.”


“What about the father?”


“We never spoke again. I went on with my life,” Tara said. “Spending the next years purposely not thinking about it. But then…” She paused, her eyes solemn. “The baby grew up and got sick. Her heart had a faulty valve and required surgery. There were lots of medical bills, and Phoebe—” A shaky smile crossed her lips. “While I’d been doing my best not to think of what had happened, Phoebe had never stopped thinking about it. She found out that money was needed for medical care.”


“So she mortgaged the place to help.” Maddie shook her head. “I’d never have guessed that one. I never thought much of her mothering skills, but no one can deny she was a genuinely good person.”


“Yeah.” Tara dabbed at her eyes. “She made the donation to the baby’s adopted family anonymously. She didn’t want the child or her family to feel indebted.”


Maddie squeezed Tara’s hand again and smiled. “You had a girl.”


Tara’s smile was weak but proud. “A beautiful girl, and healthy now, thank God. By all accounts, she’s happy and settled, and…” Her smile faded. “And I’m not a part of her life.”


“Are you okay with that?”


“I have to be. I chose it,” she said simply. “I chose it a long time ago, and I live with it. But Mom never really accepted it. I think maybe she felt her own guilt, you know, because maybe she didn’t give her daughters up, but she sure didn’t raise us. Anyway, she arranged a trust.” She held Maddie’s gaze. “She left the resort to us, but everything liquid went to her only grandchild. She hid the details from everyone but me in order to protect all parties, but mostly to protect me.” Tara’s eyes filled again. “I’m sorry, Maddie. I’ve been holding this in for so long, and truthfully, I would have held it forever, except…”


“Except?”


“You,” she whispered. “You came here ready to accept what Mom wanted from us, what she hoped for. You came ready to accept us as a family. You maxed out your credit card to improve the inn that had been mortgaged to save my daughter.” She shook her head in marvel. “You gave this place your all, when the only thing I could think about was running like hell.” She swallowed hard and repeated, “I’m so sorry, Maddie. I’m so very sorry.”


“No.” She wrapped her arms around Tara. “You did what you had to. I’m proud of you, Tara. So proud.”


Tara dropped her head to Maddie’s shoulder, her body shuddering as she tried to keep her pain inside. Maddie held Tara tight and stroked her sister’s hair as she lost more than a few tears of her own.


Tara finally pulled back, carefully swiping the mascara out from beneath her eyes as she let out a shuddery breath. “Well. That’s never pretty.”


“Feel better?”


“No, but I will. It’s Christmas, sugar. We have to get Chloe sprung from the hospital, and you have a man to forgive.”


“There’s nothing to forgive,” Maddie said, realizing it was true. It wasn’t about what Jax hadn’t told her. It wasn’t that simple. “There’s nothing to forgive, but—”


“Nothing good ever comes out of a but. Listen, I realize I did my part in keeping you from falling for him, but I was wrong. I was acting out of my own fears and past.”


“Yes. And now I’m acting out of mine,” Maddie admitted.


“You’re afraid of him?”


“No.” She hesitated. “Maybe. Yes. But not how you think. Dammit,” she muttered, rubbing her temples.


Opening herself up and making herself vulnerable to a man didn’t always end well, but even she knew that Jax was unlike any man she’d ever known. He was worth it. He was worth the potential heartache, because without him she was pretty sure her heart would cease to work anyway. “I’m not afraid of him. I’m afraid of what I feel for him—which means he was right. God, I really hate that. I mean, how do you deal with a guy who’s always right?”


Tara laughed ruefully. “Sugar, if I knew that, I’d still be married.”


The three sisters sat at Eat Me Café, which was open for a big brunch special for Christmas. Tara was mainlining caffeine in the form of a lethally strong coffee, and Chloe and Maddie were stuffing their faces.


Tara had made Bottom-of-the-Barrel Waffles, made with pumpkin and cinnamon and topped with lots of whipped cream. Heaven on earth. Maddie was shoveling them in, momentarily letting her mind go blank. It might have been the sugar high. She was keeping an eye on Chloe, as was Tara, but Chloe’s color was good and she wasn’t wheezing at all. Maddie knew Tara planned to tell Chloe about her past. She also knew that she wasn’t eager to do so.


“We look like hell,” Chloe said, eyeing herself in the reflection of her spoon, turning her head left and right.


“At least we’re breathing,” Tara said.


And breathing was good, Maddie thought, looking at her sisters, the two women who’d been like strangers to her only a month ago. “Last night in the terror and chaos, something became crystal clear to me,” Maddie said softly. “I love it here. And I love you guys, too.”


Chloe slid her a long look. “I’m not sharing my waffles.”


Tara rolled her eyes and sent a small but warm smile to Maddie. “I love you, too, sugar. Both of you.”


She and Maddie both turned to Chloe, who sighed. “Well, way to make me feel like a bitch.” She kept eating, until she realized they were still staring at her. “What, I feel it. I just can’t say it.”


“Ever?” Maddie asked.


Chloe shrugged. “Maybe I’ll work on it.”


Everyone in the café came by their table. Hell, it felt like everyone in Lucky Harbor came by, wanting to commiserate and express their sympathies and condolences. Word spread quickly, because people were bringing them stuff—clothes, bathroom essentials—things to get them through the next few days since everything they had was destroyed.


Afterward, Tara cleared her throat and told Chloe everything, every painful detail. It was no easier for Maddie to hear the second time, but there were cleansing tears and a group hug.


“Wow,” Chloe kept saying. “Wow.”


“Okay, we’re going to need a new adjective,” Tara said. “That one’s getting old.”


“Well something finally makes sense to me,” Chloe said. “Mom asking me when I was going to give her more grandkids. I never understood that.”


“You were in regular touch with Mom?” Maddie asked.


“Well, yeah. I was her soft spot, I think. You know, because I’m so sweet and adorable.” Her mouth quirked, but she looked a little shy about it. “I called her. I did it every week or so, just to check in from wherever I was. It seemed to mean something to her.”


“And it meant something to you,” Tara said softly.


“It did.” Chloe nudged Tara. “And from what she told me, you were a lot like me before you grew up and got old and snooty—you were reckless and wild.”


“Hey, I’m only eight years older than you. Not old.” She sighed. “But yeah, I was. Your point?”


“Well, that there’s hope for me, of course.” Chloe shrugged. “It tells me that someday I can get myself together as well as you have.”


“You think I have it together?” Tara asked in disbelief. “I had a baby when I was little more than a baby myself and gave her up. I have a failed marriage and a job I hate, and I’m in debt up to my eyeballs.”


Chloe laughed. “Well, when you put it like that…” She turned to Maddie. “Maybe I should covet your life instead.”


“You might want to wait until I get it together first.”


“Oh, jeez, you still holding back on the sexiest mayor in Whoville?”


“You don’t understand.”


“Let’s see… He only saved the resort when Phoebe needed a loan, then as much as promised us a refinance even though at least one of the three of us is incredibly financially unstable. He did the morally right thing and protected Tara’s secret and proved himself trustworthy over and over again. What a self-serving bastard. Do you think we can drag him to the middle of the town square and stone him?”


Maddie sighed, then went still as a shiver of awareness shot up her spine. When she looked up, Jax was coming toward them in his usual long-legged, easy stride.


“Now’s probably not a good time,” Chloe said to him when he got within hearing distance. “I haven’t quite finished talking you up.”

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