“You will find new things to strive for. Your sisters, your aunts, a new world for your daughter.”
“I will, but it will take some getting used to. Bella deserves to know her family and vice versa, so we’ll spend lots of time here on the coast in the future. I’ve missed it.” Her face softened. “There’s nothing like the smell of the ocean. I’ve avoided the entire coast since I left.”
“Your family will be glad to have you back.”
“Emily and I have talked, and we have a lot of catching up to do. I’ve missed so much. When I thought Harlan was about to kill me on that overlook, I was angry. Angry that he’d made me lose my mother and father and then twenty years with the family I had left.”
“Did Emily tell you she refused to search for you all that time?”
“No.” Surprise registered in her eyes.
“She was worried you were involved with your father’s death. She saw you outside that night, and then you left town. She was afraid to discover the truth of why you left.”
Tara was silent.
“Madison looked for you when she got older. She’d argue with Emily because she refused to help, but Emily never told Madison of her suspicions about your involvement.”
“That’s a heavy burden to carry for two decades,” Tara whispered.
“In a twisted bit of logic, she was trying to protect you.”
Tara sniffed and wiped her eyes.
“Both Madison and Emily are overjoyed to have you in their lives again. Bella too.”
“They’re good sisters,” Tara said. Her gaze turned curious. “And what about you? Will you be around too?”
He blinked. “I work in Portland.”
She shot him a withering glance. “I’m asking about Emily. The air crackles whenever you two are in the same room.”
He grinned. Apparently Tara spoke her mind like Emily did. “That’s up to her.”
“Maybe you should persuade her.”
“I’m working on it.”
“Are you staying for tea?”
“I wouldn’t miss it.”
“I hired two waitresses. I think they’ll work out,” Madison told Emily as they waited at the table for the aunts to finish up whatever surprise they were making in the kitchen for tea. Emily looked almost back to normal. She had crutches to keep the weight off her injured calf, and the bandage in her hair was gone. They’d shaved part of her scalp when they stitched up the cut from her accident, but her hair covered almost all of it.
Madison had almost lost another sister. Twice.
By the grace of God, she now had both.
With Emily out of commission for the last two days, Madison had stepped up at the diner. She knew how to manage the restaurant, but this was the first time she’d relished the responsibility.
An odd feeling.
“The aunties said I only should hire one—a girl to take Lindsay’s shifts—because they’d cover the floor until you were back.” Madison smirked as she rolled her eyes, and Emily laughed.
“Absolutely not,” agreed Emily. “They’re fine to fill in for a few hours here and there, but if they did it full-time, we’d be broke. They give away too much free food.”
It was true. The aunts didn’t like to charge families for all the kids’ meals or collect payment from friends they knew were struggling financially. “It’s just a little food. We can spare it,” they’d guiltily tell Madison when she caught them. The restaurant could spare food but not half of the day’s receipts.
Madison relaxed in her chair and realized this was the first time in forever that a cloud of tension no longer hung between her and Emily. “You know, Em,” Madison began, but she stopped. Her throat had constricted as long-forgotten emotions started to flow. She licked her lips and pushed on. “I was scared to death when I saw you struggling on the edge with Harlan and Tara. It felt like the time I’d seen you slide down it when we were kids. All I could do that day was scream. I was helpless.”
Emily listened, her full attention on Madison.
“But this time I could do something, and I didn’t hesitate. Zander had told me to go meet the deputies coming up the road, but something told me to follow him instead. I’m glad I did.”
“I was a split second from letting him fall,” admitted Emily. “I’m glad you were there.”
The sisters studied each other, uncertain how to handle the fresh emotion between the two of them.
Madison took a deep breath. “I was always so jealous of you.” Madison hadn’t realized she had something to say. Her words had come from nowhere.
“You were always so perfect. You looked out for everybody, especially me.” Now that she’d started, Madison couldn’t stop the eruption. “I pushed everyone away.”
Emily dropped her gaze. “It hurts that you didn’t notice how your indifference affected me or the aunts,” she said softly. “It felt as if we weren’t worth caring about.”
A wave of regret hit Madison. By protecting her heart, she’d hurt the people in her life. “I didn’t want my heart to be destroyed again,” she whispered. “First Dad, then Mom, and then Tara. It ripped me up inside. I thought it would be better if I wasn’t close to anyone again. Especially family. That way I’d never feel like my world was being devastated again.”
Emily’s eyes were wet. “You were so young when they died. I can see why you felt that way.”
“You were only three years older . . . but you handled it like an adult. I didn’t know how to do that.”
“I had no choice but to stand up,” Emily said. “Everyone was gone. I had to protect you.”
The women were silent for a long moment, holding each other’s gazes.
The enormity of the years she’d lost hit Madison. Tara isn’t the only one who sacrificed her family.
She hated the thought of being vulnerable. But to regain what she’d lost with her sisters, she would have to do just that and take the risk.
I’ve got nothing to lose. And everything to gain.
Madison smiled. “I’ve enjoyed being the boss at the diner. You should let me do it more often.”
Indecision flashed in Emily’s eyes, and Madison bit her tongue to hold in her laughter. Her sister had always struggled to relinquish control. “Let me prove it.”
Emily hesitated. “I can agree to that. Let’s see how it goes until I’m back on my feet.”
“Did Tara say how long she was staying?” Madison asked, changing the subject before Emily could change her mind.
“A few more days. It’s been nice to get to know Bella. And Wendy.”
“Bella loves the mansion,” Madison told her. “She made me show her every inch.”
“It’s like a castle to a little girl. But their home in Beaverton is very nice.” Emily gave a small frown. “Tara has been nagging me to spend a few weeks with them. Has she done that to you?”
“She did,” Madison lied. “I can’t wait.” Tara had extended an open invitation to visit, but Madison noticed Tara had focused her energy on getting Emily to commit.
Madison suspected she knew why.
Emily looked past Madison, her face lighting up. Madison turned in her chair and saw Zander helping Tara into the room. She smirked.
He is the reason Tara is striving to get Emily closer to Portland.
The aunts swarmed the dining room at the same time, talking nonstop, their hands full with the tea things and plates of colorful cookies.
“Macarons!” Madison’s mouth watered at the sight of the delicate French cookies. “Where did you get them?”
“Simon,” Dory announced, her smile nearly as wide as her face.
Zander helped Tara into a chair by Madison and then took the seat by Emily. They exchanged a pleased glance, and he leaned closer to ask a question, frustrating Madison as the aunts’ chatter kept her from eavesdropping.
She started to shoot an annoyed look at her aunts but froze at the sight of the happy women’s smiles. I’m lucky to have aunts who chatter.
She looked from Tara to Emily, her pride growing. And two sisters.
There would be no more keeping everyone at arm’s length.
They are worth it.
“How are you feeling?” Zander asked Emily. Her blood warmed at the sound of his voice as his gaze held hers.
“Better every day.”
“We need to talk.”
Her heart stuttered. Has he changed his mind? But there was no regret or concern on his face. He looked more relaxed than she’d ever seen him, his gray eyes serene and patient.
Did my toes just curl?
“Are you saying that the Fitch case is over?” she asked, curving her lips, remembering his promise to her in his SUV.
“I am.” Satisfaction colored his words.
“So now what?” Worry sparked. She had thought long and hard about whether she wanted a long-distance relationship, and the answer had eluded her. Driving back and forth for hours would wear on both of them.
Is it worth trying?
Emily’s gaze shot to her sister in conversation with Aunt Thea, a suspicion forming. “Tara wants me to spend a few weeks with her. Or more. She’s been very persistent about it.”