The Sweetest Thing
“There is no snooze button on life.” Tara Daniels
“Muffin?” Tara asked as she walked along the long line of people waiting on the pier to enter Lucky Harbor’s summer festival. “Have a free Life’s-A-Peach Muffin?”
The large basket was heavier than she’d anticipated, and the late afternoon June sun beat down on her head in tune to the Pacific’s thrashing waves beating the shore. Perspiration beaded on her skin, which really chapped her hide. It was the steel magnolia in her. Perspiring wasn’t just undignified, it contradicted her never let ‘em see you sweat motto.
Telling herself that she was merely glistening, and hopefully looking luminous while she was at it, Tara amped up her smile and kept going. At least her sundress was lightweight, the material gauzy and playful against her skin. She’d bought it to look sophisticated and elegant. And to boost her confidence.
It was a tall order for a dress.
“Muffin?” she asked the next woman in line.
Mrs. Taylor, the owner of the local craft and supply shop, looked the basket over carefully. “Are they low fat?”
Before coming to Washington State, Tara had spent most of her life just outside of Houston on her grandparents ranch, where holding back the use of butter and lard was considered sacrilegious. Low fat? Not exactly. She gave a brief thought to lying, but she didn’t want to be struck dead by lightning — it would ruin her good hair day. “Definitely not, sorry.”
“Do you know the calorie count?”
Tara looked down at her beautiful muffins, fat and soft and gently browned, each perfectly baked and undoubtedly overflowing with calories. “A gazillion,” she said. “Per bite.”
“I’m surprised at you,” Mrs. Taylor said disappointedly, “promoting cholesterol consumption like this.”
Tara had read somewhere that it took less effort to be nice than bitchy. And since she was all for energy conservation, she let her mouth curve into a smile. “Actually, what I’m promoting is the renovation of the inn my sisters and I are opening in two weeks–” She broke off when Mrs. Taylor held up a polite finger and pulled out her vibrating phone.
Tara had a finger of her own to hold up, but since it wasn’t a polite one, she refrained. She moved on, assuring herself that the continuous swallowing of her pride since coming to Lucky Harbor only felt like it was going to kill her, but surely it wouldn’t.
“Muffin?” Tara asked a new section of the line, handing them out as people expressed interest. “Y’all want a free Life’s-A-Peach muffin?”
Each had been painstakingly wrapped in cellophane with a folded flier for the Lucky Harbor Beach Inn tucked into a ribbon. It was part of Tara’s mission, and that mission was different than it’d been last year. Last year, she’d wanted peace on earth and a manicure to last a full two weeks. This year, things were more basic. She wanted to be able to pay her bills at the end of the month without robbing Peter to pay Paul, and maybe to feel like she was in control of her own life.
That was all.
Just a single month in which her ends met her means. Thirty days during which she wasn’t constantly in angst over the arrival of a paycheck.
Or lack thereof.
The sun continued to beat down on Tara as she walked the length of the pier. Behind her, the sharp, craggy cliffs were cast in shadow. Out in front, the surf continued to pound the beach, shuddering the pier beneath her feet. She passed the beauty shop, the Eat Me diner where she worked four nights a week, and then the arcade, ice cream parlor, and the five-story-high Ferris Wheel.
The crowd grew around her, seeming to surge in closer. It was as if the entire state of Washington had showed up for the Summer Arts and Musical Fest, but that wasn’t a surprise to Tara. The only thing the people of Lucky Harbor liked more than their gossip was a social gathering, and there would be plenty of both to be had tonight. A warm night, good music, dancing, drinking … a recipe for a good time, no doubt.
“I’ll most definitely take a muffin,” Chloe said, appearing at Tara’s side.
At twenty-four, Tara’s sister was the baby of the family, and as such had inherited all the free-spiritedness – aka wildness – of their mother, Phoebe Traeger. Chloe wore snug hip-hugging cargo shorts and a sunshine yellow tank top that required sunglasses to look at. Her glossy dark red hair was streaked with twin hot-pink highlights, one down each temple, the rest cascading down her back in a perfect disarray of waves to give her a just-out-of-bed look.
She could have been a cover model.
Well, except for the fact that she was five-foot-three in her high-tops and had absolutely no discipline nor inclination to follow instructions. Chloe was freshly back from a two-month trip traveling through Miami Beach’s high-end hotel spas, where she’d put her aesthetician license to good use while fine-tuning her own natural skin care line. And probably also finding trouble, as was Chloe’s habit.
Tara was just glad to have her back in Lucky Harbor. She’d worried the entire time Chloe had been gone. It was a new career, worrying about her troubled baby sister.
Chloe, looking tan and happy and sporting a new Chinese symbol tat on the inside of her wrist that she’d refused to translate, bit into a muffin and let out a heartfelt moan. “Damn, Tara, these rock. Can you tell me something?”
“If you’re going to ask me if the muffins are low fat,” Tara said. “You should know I’m running out of places to hide all the dead bodies.”
Chloe laughed. “No, I can feel my arteries clogging even as I swallow, and I’m good with that.” She licked the crumbs off her fingers. “Just wanted to know if you noticed Ford making his way toward you.”
Tara turned to follow Chloe’s gaze and felt her breath catch. Ford Walker was indeed headed her way, moving sure and easy, his long-legged stride in no hurry. Which was a good thing, as he was stopped by nearly everyone that he passed. He didn’t appear to mind, which made it damn hard to dislike him — though Tara still gave it her all.
“You ever going to tell me what’s the deal with you two?” Chloe was digging into a second muffin like she hadn’t eaten in a week. And maybe she hadn’t. The perpetually broke Chloe never seemed to worry about her next meal. “There’s no deal with me and Ford.”
Chloe’s low laugh rang in her ears, calling her out for the liar she was. “You know what you need?”
Tara slid her a look. “A trip to some South Pacific island with no sisters named Chloe?”
“Hmm. Maybe for Christmas. For now, you need to relax. More yoga, less stress.”
“I’m plenty relaxed.” Or she had been until she’d looked at Ford. He’d gotten stopped again and was talking to someone in but the line behind her but as if he felt her appraisal, he turned his head and met her gaze. An odd tension hummed through her veins. Her pulse kicked up as well, not quite into heart-attack territory, but close enough to be very uncomfortable. “Totally, completely relaxed,” she murmured.
“Uh huh,” Chloe said, sounding amused. “Is that why you’re hugging the basket so tight you’re squishing the muffins? Or why you compulsively cleaned the cottage from top to bottom last night?”
“Hey,” Tara said in her own defense. “There was a lot of dust, which would have aggravated your asthma. And, if you remember, it’s only been two weeks since you’ve landed in the hospital unable to breathe thanks to nothing more than a pollen storm. So you’re welcome.”
Chloe rolled her eyes and turned to the woman behind her in line. It was Lucille, who owned an art gallery in town and was somewhere between seventy and two hundred years old. Lucille wore white-on-white Nikes and her favorite track suit in hot, day-glow pink. She took a muffin, bit into it, and sighed in pleasure. “Tara, darling, you’re as amazing as you are uptight.”
“I’m not—“ Oh, forget it.
Lucille looked her over from eyes lined thickly with blue eye shadow. “Pretty dress. You always dress so nice. Ross? Wal-Mart?”
Actually, Nordstrom’s, Tara thought, back from her old life when she’d had a viable credit card. “It’s several years old, so—“
“We have a question,” Chloe said to Lucille, interrupting. “Tell me, does my sister look relaxed to you?”
“Relaxed?” Taking the question very seriously, Lucille studied Tara closely. “Actually, she looks a little constipated.” She turned to the person who came up behind her, But Tara didn’t have to look to see who it was because her nipples got hard.
At six foot three inches, Ford was pure testosterone and sinew. His build suggested one of those lean extreme fights but Ford was too laid-back to ever bother being a fighter of any kind.
He wore low-slung, button-fly Levi’s and a white button down shoved up to the elbows, and yet somehow he managed to look as dressed up as Tara. His brown hair was sun-kissed, his green eyes sharp, his smile ready. Everything about him said ready, from his tough build to the air of confidence he wore like other men wore cologne. Half the people in Lucky Harbor were in love with him.
The other half were men and didn’t count.
Tara was the odd person out, of course. Not only was she NOT in love with him, he tended to step on her last nerve.
There was a very good reason for that.
Several, in fact. But she’d long ago given herself permission to pretend that the “Thing That Had Happened” between them hadn’t happened.
“We’re trying to figure out what’s wrong with Tara, dear,” Lucille told him, having to tilt her blue-haired head way up to meet his eyes. “I’m thinking constipation.”
Ford looked like he wanted to laugh.
Tara grinded her teeth. “I’m not—“
“It’s okay,” Lucille said. “It happens to the best of us. All you need are some plums and a blender, and you—“
“I’m not constipated!” Great, and now everyone within a thirty-foot radius was privy to the knowledge.
“Well good,” Lucille said. “Because tonight’s Bingo Night at the Rec Center.”
Extremely aware of Ford standing way too close, Tara shifted on her wedged sandals. “Bingo’s not really my thing.”
“Well mine either, honey,” Lucille said. “But there are men there and lots of ‘em. A man could unwind you real nice. Isn’t that right, Ford?”
“Yes, ma’am,” Ford said with an utterly straight face. “Real nice.”
“See?” Lucille said to Tara. “Sure, you’re a little young for our crowd, but you could probably snag a real live wire maybe two.”
Tara had seen the Bingo Crowd. The “live wires” were the mobile ones, and using a walker qualified as mobile. “I don’t really need a live wire.” Much less two.
“Oh my dear,” Lucille said. “Every woman needs a man. Why even your momma – God rest her soul — used to say it was a shame you can’t buy sex on eBay.”
Beside her, Ford laughed softly. Tara very carefully didn’t look at him, the man she’d once needed with her whole being. These days she didn’t do ”need”.
Chloe wisely and gently slipped her arm in Lucille’s. “I have friends in high places and can get around this line,” she told the older woman. “Come tell me all about all these live wires …” She shot Tara a you-owe-me smile over her shoulder as she led Lucille away.
Not that Tara could think about that because now she was alone with Ford. Or as alone as one could be while surrounded by hundreds of people. This was not how she’d envisioned the day going when she got up this morning and made that bargain with God, the one where she promised to be a better person if he gave her a whole day where she didn’t have to face anything from her past. But God had just reneged on the deal. Which meant she didn’t have to be a better person …
Ford was looking at her. She could feel the weight of his gaze. She kept hers resolutely out on the water. Maybe she should take up knitting like her other sister Maddie. Knitting supposedly was very cathartic and Tara could use cathartic. The late afternoon sun sank lower on the ocean as if it was just dipping its toes in to cool off. She stared at it until long fingers brushed hers.
That was it, just her name from Ford’s lips, and just like that she … softened. She had no other word for what happened inside her body whenever he spoke to her. She softened, and her entire being went on full alert for him.
Just like old times.
Ford stood there, patient and steady, all day-old scruff and straight white teeth and sparkling eyes gorgeous, bringing out feelings she wasn’t prepared for.
“Aren’t you going to offer me a muffin?” he asked.
Since a part of her wanted to offer far more, she held her tongue and silently offered the basket. Ford perused his choices as if he was contemplating his life’s path.
“They’re all the same,” Tara finally said.
At that he flashed a grin, and her knees wobbled. Sweet baby Jesus, that smile should come with a label. Warning: prolonged exposure will cause yearning, lust, and stupidity. “Don’t you have a bar to run?” she asked.
“Jax is there, handling things for now.”
Ford was a world class sailing expert. When he wasn’t on the water competing, or in Cosmo listed as one of the year’s Fun Fearless Males of all things, he lived here in Lucky Harbor where, with his best friend Jax, he co-owned and ran The Love Shack, the town’s most popular watering hole. He did so mostly because, near as Tara could tell, he’d majored in shooting the breeze — which he did plenty of when he was behind the bar mixing drinks and enjoying life.
She enjoyed life too. Or enjoyed the idea of life.
Okay so she was working on the enjoying part. The problem was that her enjoyment kept getting held up by her reality. “Are you going to take a muffin or what?”
Ford cocked his head and ran his gaze over her like a caress. “I’ll take whatever crumb you’re offering.”
That brought a genuine smile from her. “Like you’d settle for a crumb.”
“I did once.” He was still smiling, but his eyes were serious now, and something pinged low in her belly.
Memories. Unwelcome ones. “Ford—“
“Ah,” he said very softly. “So you do remember my name. That’s a start.”
She gave him a push to his solid chest. Not that she could move him if she tried, the big, sexy lout.
And she’d forgotten nothing about him – nothing. “What do you want?”
“I thought after all this time,” he said lightly. “We could be friends.”
“Friends,” she repeated.
“Yes. Make polite conversation, maybe even go out on a date.”
She stared at him. “That would make us more than friends.”
“You always were smart as hell.”
Her stomach tightened again. He wanted to sleep with her. Or not sleep, as the case might be. Her body reacted hopefully to the mere thought. “We don’t—“ She closed her eyes to hide the lie. “We don’t like each other like that anymore.”
“No?” In the next beat, she felt the air shift as he moved closer. She opened her eyes just as he lifted his hand and tucked a strand of her hair behind her ear, making her shiver.
He noticed – of course he did, he noticed everything – and his mouth curved. But his eyes remained serious, so very serious as he leaned in.
To anyone watching, it would look like he was whispering something in her ear.
But he wasn’t.
No, he was up to something far more devastatingly sneaky. His lips brushed against her throat, and then her jaw, and while she fought with a moan and lost, he whispered, “I like you just fine.”
Her body quivered, assuring herself she returned the favor whether she liked it or not.
“Think about it, Tara.”
And then he was gone, leaving her unable to do anything but think of it.