Author: Jill Shalvis


“Can you give this to Tara for me?” she’d asked. “Don’t peek.”


So, of course, he’d peeked. There’d been nothing inside but plain—and blank—3×5 index cards. “For her recipes?”


Lucille snapped the box shut, narrowly missing his fingers. “No.”


Ford recognized the spark of trouble in Lucille’s rheumy eyes. There was no bigger gossip or meddler in town, and since Lucky Harbor was chock-full of gossips and meddlers, this was saying a lot. Lucille and her cronies had recently started a Facebook page for Lucky Harbor residents, bringing the gossip mill to even new heights.


“Okay, spill,” Ford said, pinning her with a hard look that wouldn’t slow her down—she was unstoppable and unflappable. “What are you up to?”


She’d cackled and patted him again. “No good. I’m up to no good. Just see that Tara gets the box.”


So that’s what he was doing.


Delivering the box to Tara.


She wouldn’t be happy to see him, that was for damn sure. Her eyes would chill and so would her voice. She’d pretend they were virtually strangers.


And in a way, they were. It’d been a damn long time since they’d known each other, and the past was the past. He wasn’t a guy to spend much time looking back. Nope, he liked to live with both feet firmly in the present, thank you very much. He didn’t do regrets, or any other useless emotions for that matter. If he made a mistake, he learned from it and moved on. If he wanted something, he went about getting it. Or learned to live without it.


Period.


Of course, as it pertained to Tara, he’d made plenty of mistakes, and he wasn’t all that sure he’d learned much except maybe how to bury the pain.


He’d gotten damn good at that.


But lately, whenever he caught a glimpse of Tara in those look-but-don’t-touch clothes and that hoity-toity ’tude she wore like Gucci, he had the most insane urge to ruffle her up. Get her dirty. Make her squirm.


Preferably while naked and beneath him.


Ford swiped the sweat off his forehead with his arm and strode up the steps to the inn. A two-story Victorian, it’d been freshly rebuilt and renovated after a bad fire six months ago. There was still a lot to do before the grand opening: painting and landscaping, as well as interior touches, and the kitchen appliances hadn’t yet been delivered. Still, character dripped from the place. All it needed were guests to come and fill it up, and Tara, Maddie, and Chloe could make a success of it.


As a family.


To the best of Ford’s knowledge, the whole family thing was new to the sisters. Very new. And also to the best of his knowledge, they weren’t very good at it. He just hoped they managed without bloodshed. Probably they should put that into their business plan and get everyone to sign it: Murder Not Allowed. Especially Tara.


Bloodthirsty wench, he thought fondly, and walked across the wraparound porch. There were seedlings laid out to be planted along the new railings. Someone had a green thumb. Not Chloe, he’d bet. The youngest sister didn’t have the patience.


Not Maddie either, since she was currently spending every spare second in Jax’s bed, the lucky bastard.


Tara then?


Ford tried to picture her pretty hands in the dirt… and then his mind went to other places, like her being dirty with him.


Shaking his head at himself, he stepped inside. Before the devastating fire, the interior decorating had been Little House on the Prairie meets the Roseanne Conner household. Things had changed once Tara had gotten hold of the place. Gone were the chicken, rooster, and cow motifs; replaced by a softer, warmer beachy look of soothing earth tones mixed with pale blues and greens.


Not a cow in sight.


As Ford walked inside on the brand-new wood floors, he could hear female laughter coming from the deck off the living room. Heading down the hall, he opened the slider door and found the party.


Seated around a table were four women of varying ages, shapes, and sizes. At the head of the table stood Tara. She had eyes the color of perfectly aged whiskey, outlined by long black lashes. Her mouth could be soft and warm—when she was feeling soft and warm, that is. Today it was glossed and giving off one of her professional smiles. She’d let her short, brunette layers grow out a little these past months so that the silky strands just brushed her shoulders, framing the face that haunted his dreams. As always, she was dressed as if she was speeding down the road to success. Today she wore an elegant fitted dress with a row of buttons running down her deliciously long, willowy body.


Ford fantasized about undoing those buttons—one at a time.


With his teeth.


She held a tray, and on that tray—be still his heart—was a huge pitcher of iced tea, complete with a bucket of ice and lemon wedges, and condensation on the pitcher itself, assuring him it would quench his thirst. He must have made a sound because all eyes swiveled in his direction. Including Tara’s. In fact, hers dropped down over his body, and then jerked back up to his eyes. Her gaze was gratifyingly wide.


There were a couple of gasps from the others, and several “oh my’s” mixed in with a single, heartfelt “good Lord,” prompting him to look down at himself.


Nope, he wasn’t having the naked-in-public dream again. He was awake and wearing his favorite basketball shorts—admittedly slung a little low on the hips but covering the essentials—and running shoes, no socks.


No shirt, either. He’d forgotten to replace the one he’d stripped off. “Hey,” he said in greeting.


“What are you doing?” Tara asked, her voice soft and Southern and dialed to Not Happy to See Him.


And yet interestingly enough, she was looking at him like maybe he was a twelve-course meal and she hadn’t eaten in a week.


He’d take that, Ford decided, and he’d especially take the way her breathing had quickened. “I have a gift for you from Lucille.”


At the sight of the small wood box, Tara went still, then came around the table to take it.


“It looks just like the one we lost,” she murmured, opening it. When she looked inside, a flash of disappointment came and went in her eyes, so fast Ford nearly missed it.


“What?” he asked, ignoring everyone else on the deck as he took a step toward her. “What’s wrong?”


“Nothing.” Tara clutched the box to her chest and shook her head. “It’s just that we lost the original in the fire. It was filled with Phoebe-isms.”


“Phoebe-isms?”


“My mom. She’d written these little… tidbits of advice, I guess you’d call them, for me and my sisters over the years. Things like ‘A glass of wine is always the solution, even if you aren’t sure of the problem.’ ”


The four women at the table, each of whom had known and loved Phoebe, laughed softly, fondly.


Ford had a soft spot for Phoebe as well. She’d been in Lucille’s “gang” and one of Ford’s best customers at the bar. As he smiled at the memory, Tara did that pretend-not-to-look-at-his-bare-chest thing again, then quickly turned away.


Interesting reaction for someone who’d exerted a lot of energy and time over the past months not noticing him.


“Get him a chair, honey,” one of the women said—Rani, the town librarian.


Tara turned to Ford, panic growing in her eyes at the thought of him hanging around.


Yet another interesting reaction. “Ford can’t stay,” she said, eyes locked on his. “He’s… busy. Very busy. I’m sure he doesn’t have time to bother with our little meeting.”


“I’m not that busy,” Ford said, looking around the table. Each woman had an assortment of plates in front of her, filled with what looked like delicious desserts that Tara must have baked at the diner since the inn’s kitchen wasn’t yet functioning.


They looked good, real good.


There was also wine, mostly gone now, and everyone but Tara was looking pretty darn relaxed for a meeting. “Besides,” he said, “this looks more like a party.”


“It’s the Garden Society.” Tara was still blocking his way from moving farther onto the deck. “The ladies here were gracious enough to come and sample some snacks that I hope to have available for our inn guests upon request.”


His belly stirred, reminding him he’d skipped lunch. “I’m an excellent taster,” he said with his most charming smile.


“But you’re so busy,” Tara said, with her most charming smile, although her eyes were saying Don’t You Dare.


“Aw, but I’m never too busy for you.” Ford had no idea why he was baiting her. Maybe because she’d spent so much time pretending he didn’t exist, and this was much more fun. Plus there was the added benefit that he knew her Southern manners wouldn’t allow her to say what she really wanted to, not in front of company, anyway. Heaven forbid we be rude in front of guests.


Tara was now giving him the look that assured him that she was indeed imagining wrapping her fingers around his neck. He smiled wider. He couldn’t help it. For the first time in too damn long, he was feeling alive. Very alive.


Admitting defeat with her usual good grace, Tara never let her smile falter as she shifted to the railing, where she had supplies stacked up. She grabbed a spare plate and loaded it with her goodies before wrapping it in foil.


Ford was getting the to-go version.


“He looks thirsty, too, Tara,” Rani said.


Ford loved Rani.


“Yes, dear,” another of the women said. “Pour the poor, overworked man a glass of tea. You don’t let a man of this caliber drink from a garden hose.”


“Thank you, Ethel,” Ford murmured, and since he was watching Tara’s arresting face, he saw the flicker of surprise cross her features. Yes, he knew Ethel, too. She ran the Rec Center. She’d been there when, twenty years ago now, he’d hit a baseball through her office window, nearly decapitating her. Good times.


“Please stay,” Ethel said to Ford, and patted an empty chair right next to hers.

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