Author: Jill Shalvis


“If the shoe fits,” Chloe said. “Sugar.”


“Never mind, Miss Perky Boobs. I’ll talk to you when you’re sober.”


“And I’ll talk to you when you’re not a bitch.”


“Yeah, well, that might be a while,” Tara said.


Chloe shook her head. “And for the record, you’re thirty-four, Tara, not seventy-two.”


Maddie snatched the wine bottle, because it was going to be that kind of a night.


“And another thing,” Chloe said, taking the bottle from Maddie. “Maddie’s boobs are just as perky as mine.”


Everyone looked at Maddie’s breasts. They were full C’s, and the only reason they were anywhere even close to perky was thanks to her clearance sale push-up bra. She blew out a breath and looked at her empty wineglass. “I should stop now. Beer and wine don’t mix well.”


Tara looked at her empty glass, then over at the garbage can, confused. “How did I miss the beer?”


“She drank with Hot Guy,” Chloe said.


“Hey.” Maddie tried to find the indignation but had some trouble working around the alcohol. “He has a name.”


“What is it?” Tara wanted to know.


“It’s a really, really, really good name.”


“Can you even remember it?” Tara asked wryly. “Or did he suck your memory out along with your tongue?”


No, but he’d sure had a nice tongue. “His name’s Jax. Jax Cullen.”


Tara choked on her wine.


“Know him?” Maddie asked.


Tara set her glass aside and tipped the bottle to her mouth, taking a long time to answer. “How would I know him?” She dabbed delicately at the corners of her mouth. “And what do you see in this guy anyway?”


Chloe held up her hands about ten inches apart.


At that, it was Maddie’s turn to choke. “I didn’t sleep with him! I gave up men,” she added much more weakly. “And anyway, penises that size don’t really exist.”


“Then why did you come in grinning?”


Maddie sighed. “Has anyone ever told you that you’re a tattletale?”


“Always has been,” Tara said. “Once when I was fifteen and sneaking out the back door, Chloe told Mom on me. I was grounded for the rest of the summer.”


Chloe grinned. “Good times.”


Maddie had lived with Phoebe only until she’d gotten pregnant with Chloe. After that, Maddie’s father had taken custody. Maddie had visited during vacations or whenever her father couldn’t have her with him at work, but it hadn’t been often. As a result, she had only sparse memories of her sisters. But Tara had spent most summers with Phoebe and Chloe.


“Where were we that summer?” Chloe asked Tara. “Northern California somewhere, right? In that trailer Mom rented on some river with friends?”


Tara nodded. “Sounds about right.”


“You wouldn’t take me with you wherever you were sneaking off to. That’s why I told on you.”


“You were a baby!”


“I was five. And I wanted to be fifteen like you.”


And Maddie wanted memories with them.


Tara sighed and leaned back. “I completely wasted fifteen. Youth is wasted on the young.”


Chloe snorted.


“I’m not kidding!” Tara said. “If I was fifteen again, I’d definitely know what to do with it now.”


“Really,” Chloe said with disbelief heavy in her voice.


“Really.”


Outside, the wind battered the windows, the storm in full swing. They all paused and glanced uneasily out into the dark night. “I hated being fifteen,” Maddie said quietly, feeling the wine. “The doubts, the lack of confidence, the despair.” And damn if much had changed. She sighed and held out her glass for more wine. Tara obligingly topped her off again.


“If you’re having what-ifs,” Chloe said, “you’re still wasting life.”


“Not me.” Maddie shook her head. “I’m not wasting anything, not ever again. I’m on a new life’s lease. I’m starting over.” She emphasized this with a wild swing of her glass. Wine splashed out over her hand, and she licked it off. “No more letting anyone speak for me, roll over me, step on me, slap me…”


The shattering silence that followed this statement sobered her up a little. “See, this,” she said. “This is why I shouldn’t drink.” Ignoring the startled look exchanged between her sisters, she held out her glass. She definitely needed a refill.


But Tara gently took it away. “Somebody hit you?” she asked softly.


“Slapped.” Big difference. A slap was humiliating and hurtful, but it wasn’t like he’d punched her. Or caused her real harm. Well, except for that last time, when the corner of a cabinet had broken her fall, requiring stitches just outside of her eye. But hey, she was single now. All was good. Or as good as it could be.


“Maddie—”


“It’s over and done.” She dropped her head and studied her shoes. Sneakers, scuffed and battered. That had to be symbolic somehow, she thought unhappily.


Chloe was wearing cute ankle boots, not a scratch on them.


Tara was wearing stylish heels, so shiny they could have been used as a mirror.


“I need new shoes,” she said out loud.


Chloe reached out and squeezed her hand. “New shoes rock,” she whispered, sounding like her throat was too tight.


Maddie squeezed her fingers back while her wine-soaked thoughts rambled in her head, not quite readily available for download. “Oh! I forgot to show you guys something.” She pulled the recipe box from her bag and told them about Lucille. She flipped through for a random card. “Bad decisions make good stories,” she read.


“Lord,” Tara said.


“Not ‘bless her heart’?” Chloe asked, grinning until a gust of wind hit so hard that the entire house shuddered.


This was followed by a thundering BOOM. The ground shook, the lights flickered, and all three of them jumped.


“Holy shit.” Chloe scooted over on the counter until she was right up against Tara, nearly in her lap.


Maddie hopped down and opened the back door, flicking on a flashlight that didn’t do much for cutting into the utter blackness of the night.


“Where did that flashlight come from?” Chloe asked.


“My purse.”


Chloe looked at Tara. “She carries a flashlight in her purse.”


“For emergencies,” Maddie said, trying to see into the yard.


“You have any chocolate?” Chloe asked hopefully. “For emergencies?”


“Of course. Side pocket, next to the fork.”


“You’re good,” Tara murmured, holding out her hand for some.


“Are you of age?” Chloe asked snidely.


Tara growled, and Chloe hastily handed her a piece.


“You are a lifesaver,” Tara said to Maddie, who smiled. She’d learned at work to be prepared for anything and everything. She’d never given it a second thought, but sensing her sisters’ relief, and maybe just a little bit of admiration, as well, felt good.


Even if they were chomping on her secret chocolate stash.


But she’d always wanted a true family, wanted to be counted on. Oh, she loved her dad, and he loved her, but she had always yearned for more.


That her family could be here after all this time, right here in front of her, gave her a warm fuzzy in spite of the frigid, windy night, slapping her in the face as she started outside. Sweeping her flashlight from right to left, Maddie stopped when she came to the newly fallen tree bisecting the yard. “We lost a tree,” she called back to her sisters. “A big one.”


“Come back before one of them falls on your head,” Tara called out.


Maddie kept going until she stood where the very top of the fallen pine tree had landed, trapping a scrawny baby pine tree beneath it. And damn if the sight didn’t break her heart. It took her a moment to free it, and then she hoisted the tree into her arms, turning back to the porch, where both her sisters still stood.


“Found us a Christmas tree,” she said.


Chapter 6


“Obeying the rules might be smart,


but it’s not nearly as much fun.”


PHOEBE TRAEGER


They decorated the tree with what they had on hand, which turned out to be some kitchen items and a string of chili pepper lights left over from what Chloe claimed to remember as a wild block party in the nineties.


Tara found a stack of twenty-year-old National Enquirers. “Phoebe’s gospel,” she said with a fond smile, holding up one with Mel Gibson on the cover. She cut out the picture and hung it on a branch. “What?” she said when Chloe and Maddie just stared at her. “I’d do him.”


“You do realize he no longer looks like that, right?” Chloe asked.


“Hey, my fantasy.”


They spent the next half hour drinking another bottle of wine and cutting out pictures of all the guys they’d “do.” Turned out there were quite a few. Maddie claimed Luke Perry and Jason Priestley—pre all their horrible movie-of-the-week specials. Chloe went for the boy bands. All of them.


“It can’t be just a hottie tree,” Tara decided.


Chloe nodded and hung a serving spoon, then cocked her head to study it critically, moving it over an inch like she was creating the Mona Lisa. “I once dated a guy who had a face like this serving spoon. He was ugly as hell, but man, oh, man, could he kiss. He gave me a nightly asthma attack for the entire week we dated.” She sighed dreamily. “Ugly men make good lovers.”


“Logan’s gorgeous and good in bed,” Tara said. “What does that mean?”


“Um, that you’re lucky to be married to him?” Chloe asked.


“No.” Tara shook her head with careful exaggeration. “Gorgeous men are flawed. Seriously flawed.”


“Not all of them,” Chloe said.

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