Author: Jill Shalvis


“So,” Ford said. “About that sex slave thing—”


She rolled her eyes. “Say good-night, Ford.”


“ ’Night, Ford.”


She closed her phone, not knowing whether to laugh again or simply be touched.


Both, she decided, and shook her head, a smile breaking through. He made her laugh, always. Just as he made her feel.


Always.


Her heart knew that but her brain resisted. Her brain was capable of accessing memories and calculating odds and wasn’t ready to believe that this could work. But this time at least she fell right to sleep and slept the rest of the night.


Chapter 18


“Don’t take life too seriously or you won’t get out alive.”


TARA DANIELS


Tara woke up at the crack of dawn, disconcerted to find Chloe still wasn’t back. She got up and showered then came face-to-face with her baby sister tiptoeing into the cottage, covered in red, blue, and yellow paint. “Are you okay?”


“Yes. Barely.”


Tara looked Chloe over, marveling at the mess. “You look like a cross between a rainbow and a combat survivor. What—”


“Don’t ask.” Chloe dropped her clothes on the spot and padded naked to the shower. “There’s a delivery for you on the porch.”


Tara opened the front door. Sitting on the top step was a vase of beautiful wildflowers, obviously picked, not purchased, with a piece of paper that simply read Tara.


They were beautiful. The question was, who were they from? Neither Logan nor Ford were exactly the go-out-and-pick-wildflowers type. Tara carried the flowers across the yard to the inn’s kitchen, set them on the counter, and mixed up a batch of muffins. She was back to staring at the flowers when Maddie came in the back door with an armload of fresh flowers of her own and stared at Tara’s.


“Hey,” she complained, pointing to Tara’s surprise gift. “I thought I told you I’d get the flowers.”


“I didn’t buy these.”


Maddie eyed the pretty wildflowers. “Logan? Ford?”


Tara shrugged.


“We should all have two men after us,” Maddie said on a dreamy sigh.


“I’m not with two men.”


“I would be,” Chloe said, coming into the kitchen. She was back to her own color. Mostly. “Except probably after having both men naked and at my mercy, the ensuing asthma attack would kill me.”


There was a momentary silence as the three of them contemplated both Ford and Logan naked at the same time.


“Is it hot in here?” Maddie asked after a minute, fanning her face. “It feels hot in here.”


Chloe pulled out her inhaler and took a hit. “So who are they from? Logan?”


Tara touched the flowers. “Logan would’ve sent red roses from some fancy floral shop.”


“Maybe they’re from Ford,” Mia said as she arrived for the day. She tucked her keys and purse into the broom closet. She was in capris and a spaghetti-strapped tank top, looking cool and collected. Tara gazed at her and felt a stab of envy. She used to be cool and collected.


Until she’d come here. “Flowers aren’t really Ford’s style,” she said.


“Yes, but you said you two weren’t together,” Mia said.


“That’s true.”


“So then how do you know what his style is?” Mia asked.


Chloe smiled. “I like you, niece. I like you a lot.”


Mia grinned at her, and Tara sighed. “Don’t encourage her,” she told Chloe, arranging a pile of muffins into a basket. On second thought, she grabbed a thermos and poured it full of milk as well.


“Where are you going?” Maddie asked.


“To find my Secret Santa.” Tara grabbed the basket and flowers. “Hold down the fort; I’ll be back in a minute to make breakfast.”


“If you’re back in a minute, then you’re not doing it right,” Chloe called after her.


Tara heard Chloe yelp, probably from Maddie smacking her upside the head.


Ford hadn’t gotten to bed until three a.m. Sawyer had dumped him at the marina instead of driving him all the way up the hill to his house, then pocketed Ford’s keys to both the boat and his car.


“Don’t do anything stupid,” Sawyer had said, then paused, clearly considering confiscating Ford’s cell phone as well.


Luckily Ford had seen that coming and wisely shoved it down the front of his jeans.


With a sound of disgust, Sawyer had left.


Don’t do anything stupid. Ford had repeated that carefully to himself several times. Did that include walking up to the cottage and sneaking into Tara’s bedroom to make her pant and moan his name as he buried himself deep inside her?


Cuz he’d totally do it.


If he wasn’t half certain he’d drown himself getting off the boat. It took all of five seconds to drift off to sleep, only to wake some time later with his head pounding like a jackhammer. Dawn was streaking across the sky, and he was sprawled across the mattress.


With someone sitting at the foot of his bed.


Ford kept very still, eyes closed. “Make it count,” he warned whoever it was.


“I can do that.”


Craning his neck in surprise, he risked eyeballs popping out of his head to open his eyes.


His daughter was sitting there holding a steaming mug of coffee, which she offered to him.


“Bless you,” he whispered in gratitude. With a groan, he rolled over, then managed to sit up to take it.


Mia waited until he sipped. “Alcohol is bad for you, you know,” she said. “Kills brain cells. And sperm cells.”


He sucked in a very hot gulp of coffee and promptly choked, burning his tongue.


“Sorry.” Mia met his gaze, her own bright and intense. “It’s just that I don’t want to rule out the possibility of a brother or sister someday. You know, when you and Tara get it together and figure yourselves out.”


Just looking at her made his heart hurt, this precious kid who—by some lucky twist of fate—he’d fathered. “Honey,” he said carefully. “You do realize that things don’t always happen all clean and pretty and neat like that in real life, right? Because Tara and I—”


“It could happen.” She rose to her feet, eyes and mouth stubborn. He recognized the expression and knew he couldn’t blame this one all on Tara.


“Oh, and FYI,” she said, heading to the door. “Tara liked the flowers you delivered.”


He blinked. “She… I—What?”


But Mia was gone.


Ford flopped back on the bed and closed his eyes. When he opened them again, the sun was a little higher in the sky, and there was a different woman sitting on his bed.


Tara let herself onto Ford’s boat and made her way below deck. The boat was clean and fairly neat, if one discounted the empty pizza box on the counter and the pile of clothes on the floor by the bed.


Clearly Ford had stripped before climbing into it, which gave her a little shiver as she studied his big, very still body. He was sprawled facedown and spread-eagle across the mattress, wearing only a pair of black knit boxers and all that testosterone—which never failed to make her weak in the knees. His arms spanned the entire bed, as did his legs. And then there was the smooth, sinewy expanse of back and bitable ass…


Controlling herself, she sat at his side, watching as he began to stir. With a groan, he rolled to his back, his hands going to his head as if he needed to hold it onto his shoulders.


“Oh, Christ,” he said, his voice all morning raspy. He cracked open one bleary eye, looking like a hot, adorable mess. “Shoot me in the head. I’m begging you.”


“I’ve got something better.” She lifted the basket of banana and honey nut muffins.


He closed his eyes and inhaled. “You smell like heaven.”


“It’s the food.”


He didn’t move a muscle. “Aren’t you busy working?”


“Mia and Maddie are handling the inn for a few minutes. I thought maybe you might need me.”


He was quiet for a long moment. “I’ve never been all that good at needing someone.”


She nodded. She understood.


“But for you,” he said. “I could try.”


Her heart squeezed.


“But maybe later,” he said, wincing and rubbing his head. “Because right now I’m busy dying. Do you think you could put down the anchor? The world’s spinning.”


Tara laughed softly and shifted closer, giving in to the urge to run her fingers over his forehead, smoothing back his hair, making him sigh in pleasure. “Why did you drink so much?” she murmured. “It’s not like you.”


He muttered something about trying to prove he could be Superman if he wanted to and how no one should dance on a bar while drunk because it was a long fall down.


She laughed again and went to pull away but he caught her hand and held it to his cheek. “You feel so nice and cool.” He sighed, eyes still closed. “No idea how I got so lucky to get you both here this morning, but I’m grateful.” Very carefully, he sat up and reached for the basket, but Tara held it back.


“Both?” she asked.


“Our daughter showed up with coffee.” His arms were longer than hers so he managed to snatch a muffin. “As well as the news that I brought you flowers.”


That was so unexpected—a part of her had secretly hoped it’d been him—that she couldn’t control her surprised reaction.


Ford’s smile faded. “And,” he said slowly, “you thought they were from me.”


“No.” She shook her head, then nodded. “Okay, maybe a little.”


“Fuck.” He grimaced and reached for her hand. “I’m sorry, Tara. But honestly, I was far too impaired for a gesture like that.”


Tara shrugged. “It’s okay. I mean they’re not really your style anyway. I knew that. Now if it’d been pizza and beer on the porch…”

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