Author: Jill Shalvis


“I think I know how to make burgers,” she said smoothly. “But bless your heart.”


In other words, fuck off and die.


Carlos gave him a look like “told you so.” He turned to Mia and the two of them exchanged a glance that wasn’t all that hard to interpret for anyone who’d ever once been a horny teenager.


“So… I have to run into town to get the mail and fill up the propane tank,” Carlos said casually.


“Oh! I’ll help,” Mia said quickly.


Amateurs. “No,” Ford said at the same time as Tara.


Carlos let out a breath and left through the back door. Mia shot Tara a look of perfected teenage annoyance and grabbed the two vases of flowers she’s just arranged, leaving through the double doors to display them in the front rooms.


When she was gone, Tara shook her head. “Why don’t they tell you that raising a teenager is like trying to nail Jell-O to a freaking tree?”


Ford laughed softly. “Probably because the entire race would die out.”


“He looks at her,” she fretted. “A lot. He looks at her like…”


Risking his neck, Ford came up behind her and slid his arms around her. “Like I look at you?” he asked against her ear, enjoying the way she shivered before she shoved him away.


“Stop that,” she said.


“That’s not what you were saying earlier. You were saying ‘Oh, Ford. Harder, Ford—’ ” His sentence ended in an oomph when she elbowed him in the gut.


“I have far more important things to do than relive our little…” Apparently she couldn’t come up with a satisfactory word for what they’d done because she closed her mouth and inhaled sharply through her nose. “We have a bigger problem.”


“I wouldn’t classify anything that happened between us today as a problem,” Ford said and kissed her jaw.


She pushed at him again, her mood clearly changed by the talk of the teenagers. “We have a mission, Ford. It’s called Keep the Daughter Fully Dressed.”


He grimaced.


“No, I mean it. That boy takes his job around here very seriously, and I greatly appreciate that. But there’s something else he takes very seriously and that’s our daughter. Do you hear me?”


“Honey, right now everyone can hear you.”


Tara shook her head. “It’s not happening, Ford. Not on my watch.” She pointed at him again. “Or yours.”


He arched a brow. “You don’t see the irony in all this?”


“Of course I see the irony! I don’t give a hoot about the irony!”


Ford very carefully relieved her of her weapon—the spatula—and once again wrapped his arms around her so she couldn’t get violent. Holding her tight against him, he pressed his face into her hair. He couldn’t help himself. “Even if someone had given a shit about keeping us separated, it wouldn’t have helped. We’d have found a way.”


“Maybe not.”


“We’d have found a way,” he repeated. “I was very determined.”


Tara sighed. “Smartass.”


“You like my ass.”


“Yes,” she agreed. “That’s true, though it’s not even your best part—Oh crap!” She sniffed, then sniffed again and whipped around to the stovetop. “Christ on a stick, I did it again! I burned another meal!” Shoving free, she flipped off the burners and stared in horror at the blackened burgers.


They could hear running footsteps, and then the door flew open. “Fire! Fire, fire!” Chloe shrieked, inhaler in one hand, fire extinguisher in the other. When she saw the burned burgers, she stopped and sagged in relief. “Jesus! Jesus Christ, I thought we were burning the place down again!”


Tara sank to a chair in utter disbelief. “I never burn things. And yet I’ve burned the last three meals I tried to make.” She lifted a shocked gaze to both of them. “What’s wrong with me?”


Neither Ford nor Chloe was stupid enough to answer that question. Ford poured Tara a fairly large glass of wine and turned to the refrigerator. In less than three minutes, he had the flame going again and was slathering butter on Tara’s freshly made bread and slicing cheddar cheese for grilled cheese sandwiches.


“I can’t serve plain old grilled cheese,” Tara protested, downing her wine.


“It’s not plain old grilled cheese,” he said. “It’s Jax’s Chillax Grilled Cheese. It’s the only thing the doofus could make until he was twenty-four. Damn good recipe, though.”


“You’re fixin’ this for me,” she said.


“Trying.”


“You have a habit of doing that, helping me.” There was something new in her eyes, something Ford couldn’t quite put his finger on but hoped like hell meant that she was finally beginning to see him.


All of him.


Chapter 23


“Love is when someone puts you on a pedestal and yet when you fall, they’re there to catch you anyway.”


TARA DANIELS


The summer shifted into high gear, complete with tourist surge and the long, hot, lazy days that were followed by long, hot, lazy nights.


Every Wednesday night, the town hosted Music on the Pier, and Ford always ran a booth for The Love Shack. He’d hired Carlos for help with the setup, and as Ford arrived, he expected that the kid would be working hard.


Instead, Ford found him working hard on swallowing Mia’s tongue.


When neither of them noticed Ford’s approach—they were pretty busy after all—he cleared his throat.


Nothing. He did it again, putting some major irritation into the sound, and the two teenagers finally jumped apart.


“Hey,” Mia said, breathless, swiping a hand over her wet mouth. “We were just…”


Ford raised a brow, curious as to how she was going to finish that sentence. Instead, she fell silent. “Checking each other’s tonsils?” he asked her.


Mia grimaced, and Carlos slid his hand into hers. A show of comfort and solidarity, and though his shoulders were a little hunched, he stood his ground right next to her. Ford stared at him, and though Carlos definitely squirmed, he held the eye contact.


“It’s my fault,” Mia said quickly. “Not his.”


“No,” Carlos said. “It’s mine. Sir.”


Ford scrubbed a hand over his face. Sir. Christ, if that didn’t make him feel old.


Mia stepped in front of Carlos. Or tried to, but the kid wouldn’t let her. “I can kiss who I want,” she said with soft steel reminiscent of Tara.


Ford looked into her earnest, sweet face. Seventeen had never looked so young. “Mia—”


“I mean, I know you’re my father, but I already have a dad.”


Intimidation went out the window. So did the wind in his sails. “Yes, I know.”


Mia stared up at him with those bigger-than-life eyes, the ones that haunted him with what-ifs. “And Carlos is a good guy,” she said, glancing up at the kid still holding her hand, smiling at him.


Carlos didn’t return the expression, but his eyes never left her face.


Ford let out a breath. “I know that, too.”


“And so am I,” she said. “I’m a good kid.”


“My own personal miracle,” Ford said with feeling.


Mia hesitated, as if she hadn’t been prepared for him to be so agreeable. “So you can trust me to live my life. You know that too, right? As well as letting me make my own mistakes?”


“Yes, but that doesn’t make it any easier for me. Mia…” Ford searched for the right words. “Do you have any idea how many times I hoped I’d get to meet you? Get to know you?”


“No.”


“Every day. Every single day.”


Her eyes softened. “Yeah?”


“Yeah.”


Her eyes filled, and she finally let go of Carlos’s hand. She stepped into Ford, wrapped her arms around his waist, and hugged him. “So it’s okay with you if after I get back from Spain, I still show up every once in a while?”


Ford tugged on a loose strand of her beautiful hair. “If you didn’t, I’d come to you.”


Mia’s soggy smile warmed the far corners of his heart.


“I still want to kiss your employee,” she said.


Carlos winced. Mia smiled brilliantly at the teen, and his mouth quirked as if he couldn’t help but love her.


Ford knew the feeling.


“I have to go,” Mia said. “I promised Tara I’d find her at five.” She went up on tiptoe to kiss Ford’s cheek, looking him straight in the eyes. “Promise you’re not going to do anything stupidly dad-like, okay?” she whispered. “No scaring off my boyfriend?”


Carlos winced again, probably thinking of his tough-guy rep and how easily she crushed it. Still, the kid said nothing as the two of them watched Mia dance off. Only when she was out of sight did Carlos turn his head and look at Ford warily.


“You got anything to say?” Ford asked.


“Would it help?”


“No. Get set up. We’re expecting a crowd tonight.”


Carlos hesitated, still braced for a father’s wrath. “That’s it?”


Ford wasn’t exactly prepared for this, although he should have been. He’d gone from having no kid to having a hormonal teenager, and he felt a little off kilter. “For now, I need you to work, but stand by later to possibly have your ass kicked.”


Carlos hopped to work so fast that Ford’s head swam.


The businesses on the pier were making a brisk living today. Tara was out there somewhere with her sisters promoting the inn.


Ford could imagine her in her heels, all elegant and sophisticated and put together, the opposite of how she was when she was writhing beneath him. He thought about that for a few minutes and realized he was no better than Carlos.


The late afternoon was sizzling. The ocean was clear and azure blue, dotted with whitecaps from the light breeze as the sun slowly worked its way down the horizon. Behind him, Carlos was still rushing to set up, sliding the occasional wary glance Ford’s way. “What?” Ford finally asked.

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