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The Sweetest Thing

The Sweetest Thing

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"The Sweetest Thing is a heart-tugging tale of family and the healing power of love. Barbara Freethy has created a delightful cast of quirky yet lovable characters and brought them to full life. The Sweetest Thing is a story as enjoyable and richly satisfying as one of the heroine's chocolate eclairs!" Romance Fiction Forum

Alone in the world, Faith Christopher had always yearned for love and a man who'd make her heart pound. But her dreams of a place to call home were getting harder to hold on to.

Alex Carrigan liked fast cars, fast women and fast deals—then a tough-talking teenager arrived on his doorstep claiming she was his long-lost daughter, and his meddling grandfather decided to move in. Suddenly, Alex has to face the family he never expected.

Enter Faith. Little did the outspoken and beautiful baker know that deep inside Alex was a well of tenderness and that she might have the recipe to bring him the sweetest thing life has to offer—true love!

#1 NYT Bestselling Author Barbara Freethy delivers an emotional and poignant story with touches of humor and a cast of quirky, lovable characters in this story of love and family.


"Freethy has crafted an entertaining and moving contemporary romance. The paranormal elements are well handled and enrich the story. But ultimately, The Sweetest Thing is about the importance of love and family, for it is love that makes family sweet." The Romance Reader

"Ms. Freethy has again done a wonderful job of crafting an intriguing plot line and peopling it with fully developed characters that have all of the flaws and foibles common to human beings." Bookbug on the Web on The Sweetest Thing

"A fabulous, page-turning combination of romance and intrigue. Fans of Nora Roberts and Elizabeth Lowell will love this book." - NYT Bestselling Author Kristin Hannah on Golden Lies

"Barbara Freethy writes with bright assurance, exploring the bonds of sisterhood and the excitement of blue water sailing. SUMMER SECRETS is a lovely novel." - NYT Bestselling Author Luanne Rice


"What do you think she left you in her will?"

"Excuse me?" Alex Carrigan turned to the teenage girl sitting on the white leather couch in the reception area. In baggy jean overalls, she looked painfully thin and painfully young to be holding a cigarette between two fingers. Her brown hair was parted in the middle and hung down past her shoulders. Her red cheeks clashed with the orange tint of her lipstick, and her dark eyes blazed with defiance, anger, and something vaguely familiar.

"What do you think she left you?" the girl repeated. "That's why you're here, isn't it? To find out what Melanie Kane left you?"

Alex felt suddenly uneasy. Why was this young girl sitting alone in the San Francisco offices of Monroe and Glass, attorneys-at-law, at three o'clock on a Friday afternoon? Why wasn't she with someone? And more important, why was she looking at him as if she knew a big secret?

"Maybe Melanie left you a million dollars," the girl continued, tilting her head to one side as if considering the odds of that possibility. "Maybe she won the lottery. Melanie always said she was going to win the lottery." Her lips trembled slightly at the notion. "Or she might have left you her pink Porsche. You know, the one she got at the gas station that's as big as a cereal box. Melanie always said someday she'd get one she could drive. Course, nobody believed her. She was always dreaming a dream."

"What's your name?" Alex demanded, as the hairs on the back of his neck began to tingle.

"Don't you know?" The girl stared into his eyes for one long, breathless second. "I'm Jessie."

Alex's stomach turned over. I'm going to name her Jessica if she's a girl.

No, it couldn't be. He racked his brain trying to remember when that baby had been born. It had been summer when Melanie had gone into labor. In fact, Sacramento had been in the middle of a heat wave, the temperatures in the valley rising past one hundred degrees, even in the dark of the night.

Their tiny studio apartment over the California Grill had turned into an oven by late afternoon, and they'd taken to sleeping on a thin mattress on the floor in front of a noisy fan. Alex hadn't cared that they were living below the poverty line and about to have a baby. At eighteen, life had seemed like one big adventure.

"Melanie used to talk about you," Jessie continued. "She said you had incredible blue eyes."

He blinked against the intensity of her gaze—her brown eyes, eyes that reminded him of Melanie. But unlike Melanie, who never looked past the surface, Alex had the feeling Jessie could see right through him, into his past, into his heart.

"What else did Melanie say?" Damn! Why had he asked that?

"She said you had long dark brown hair, and once she made you wear it in a ponytail because she thought it was sexy."

He cleared his throat and dug his hands into his pockets. He doubted Melanie would have recognized him today. His hair was shorter, just past his ears, and he no longer lived in torn blue jeans and tank tops, but rather business suits, starchy white shirts, and silk ties—at least when he was working, which was most of the time. His business was his life.

"She also said you were a great kisser," Jessie continued with a speculative smile.

He felt even more uncomfortable. "I'm sorry about your mother. Melanie was your mother?"

"Most of the time, except when a guy came around. Then we were sisters." Jessie tapped her unlit cigarette against her leg. "Got a light?"

"Aren't you a little young to be smoking?"

"Aren't you a little late to be playing dad?"

Her words cut to the quick. He stiffened and immediately shook his head against the accusation in her eyes. "I'm—I'm not your father. I don't know what Melanie told you, but I am definitely not your father."

"How do you know?"

His mind raced to answer the question. How did he know? Because Melanie had told him the truth the day after Jessie's birth. After he'd invested nine months of his life taking care of Melanie and the baby, after he'd gone to sleep listening to the baby's heartbeat, after he'd fallen in love with the infant he believed was his—Melanie had told him he was not the father. Melanie had also told him she wanted to raise her child with the baby's real father, Eddie Saunders.

He'd been furiously angry, but he'd never doubted Melanie's sincerity. Why would she lie? He'd been willing to take care of her. Hell, he had been taking care of her, working as a clerk at a local shoe store during the day and taking college classes at night.

During their nine months together, he'd fallen in love with her and her baby, only to have his love shoved back in his face. It was the last time he'd let himself get that close to anyone.

"I just know," he said to Jessie, then shifted his feet restlessly, wishing the receptionist would come back.

He wanted someone to tell him why he'd been ordered to appear on this day, at this time, for the reading of a will of a woman he'd been married to for nine months, thirteen years earlier. It didn't make sense that Melanie would leave him anything after the way they'd parted. They hadn't spoken since the day she'd taken her baby and left him all alone.

He checked his watch. It was ten minutes past three. He was tired, hungry, and irritated. He'd just finished a grueling ten-day business trip for his company, Top Flight Athletic Shoes, and he'd been hoping to get home early. Not that there wouldn't be problems waiting for him at home. According to his part-time housekeeper, his grandfather had arrived at his apartment the day before with a suitcase and a note from his doctor stating that his grandfather shouldn't live alone anymore.

A sudden gust of wind rattled the windows, and Alex's uneasiness increased as he saw the tree branches blowing restlessly against the panes of the old Victorian house that now served as an office building in the Marina District of San Francisco. Maybe it was the wind—or the Carrigan curse, which had brought him here today. He could still hear his grandfather's deep, booming voice...

And the winds will curse your life until you return to where it began...

His grandfather had told him about the curse in the dark of the night, the wind howling through the trees like a hungry werewolf. Alex had been eight years old at the time and his mother had just left his father—because of the curse, his grandfather told him, because of something terrible his grandfather had done when he was a young man.

Alex had wanted desperately to believe it was black magic that had torn his family apart, but in the morning his father had told him that his mother was in love with another man. So much for the curse.

"Mr. Carrigan?"

He turned his head as the receptionist finally returned to her desk. A smartly dressed woman in her mid-thirties, she welcomed him with a cool smile.

"Mr. Monroe will be a few moments. He's on the phone."

Alex had the sudden urge to flee. Listening to the wind and thinking about the curse had drawn goose bumps down his arms. "Look, I've been on a business trip for the past week, and frankly I have no interest in anything Melanie Kane may have left for me. So if Mr. Monroe will be longer than five minutes, I'm out of here."

The receptionist frowned. "You really do need to wait, Mr. Carrigan. Can I get you some coffee? A soft drink?"


"Please, sit down."

"Fine." He took a seat at the other end of the couch, trying to ignore Jessie's steady gaze. He pulled his cell phone out of his pocket and dialed his office. His secretary picked up, sounding as efficient as always.

"Hey, Theresa, it's me. Any messages?"

"Of course. You're a popular guy these days. Did you see the spread in Entrepreneur Magazine? They picked us as one of the top five companies to watch."

"I saw it," he replied, still feeling a surge of pleasure that his efforts were finally being rewarded. "What else is up?"

"The ad guys want to know if you've signed Elijah James yet."

"No," he said with annoyance. He'd been chasing the young basketball star for three months with absolutely no luck. "I have a meeting with him tomorrow at the Coliseum. I'm determined to bring him into the Top Flight family."

"Well, you usually get your man—or woman as the case may be. There are a few other messages, but they can wait until Monday. Oh, one last thing. Amy said to tell you she just signed that young tennis star from Argentina, Rita Seranno."

"Way to go, Amy."

"And she wanted to know if you mind her taking a few days off in Rio as a bonus."

"What did you tell her?"

"To get her ass back here."

Alex laughed. "You're good, Theresa, very, very good."

"I'll remind you of that come bonus time. Oh, and call home if you're not there already. Your housekeeper left me a hysterical message about your grandfather. I didn't even know you had a grandfather."

"Unfortunately, I do. I'll see you Monday."

He hung up and dialed his home number.

"Hello? Hello? Senor Carrigan's residence."

He smiled at the sound of his housekeeper's heavily accented response. Gloria Delgado had arrived from Nicaragua six years earlier, but still didn't feel comfortable with the language. She also tended to get upset easily.

"It's Alex, Gloria."

"Oh, Senor Alex, I am so sorry."

His muscles once again tensed. "What are you sorry about?" He hoped she'd simply broken something or missed a dirty spot on the floor.

"I have lost your grandfather," she said dramatically.

It wasn't the response he was hoping for. "What do you mean, you lost him?"

"You asked me to watch him, but he doesn't like my coffee, so he go."

He winced as a torrent of Spanish followed. When Gloria finally paused for air, he said, "It's okay. I'll find him. He can't have gone far. Did he say anything before he left?"

"The wind. He say the wind is bad. There are evil spirits dancing. Me, I think I don't understand so good."

"Oh, you probably understood just fine."

"He also say he want cake. Yesterday he want cake. Today he want cake. Every day he want cake."

"Right. I think I have an idea where he may have gone."

"I can't wait, Senor Alex. My niece is sick, and my friend has no car, and—

"That's okay. I'll be home shortly. Thanks, Gloria."

The door to one of the offices opened, and Alex slipped his cell phone back in his pocket. An older man stepped through the doorway. His hair was pepper gray, the expression on his long, narrow face as somber as his navy blue pinstriped suit.

"Mr. Carrigan?" He extended his hand. "I'm Harrison Monroe, Melanie Kane's attorney."

Alex stood up and shook the man's hand, feeling tense.

"Please come in," Harrison said.

He walked into the inner office, not realizing until he was inside that Jessie had followed him. "This is a private meeting," he told her.

"Actually, Jessica is involved." Mr. Monroe gave his tie a nervous tug. "Won't you both sit down?" He waved his hand toward the leather armchairs in front of his desk.

Jessica didn't move. Alex didn't either. The ground beneath his feet suddenly felt like quicksand. "What do you mean Jessica is involved?"

"It's complicated."

"No it's not," Jessie interrupted, putting her hands on her hips. She looked Alex straight in the eye. "Don't you get it yet? I'm your inheritance."

"That's impossible." He looked to Mr. Monroe for reassurance, but he found none. "I'm not her father."

"Your name is on her birth certificate," Mr. Monroe said evenly.

"It is?" he was surprised Melanie hadn't put Eddie's name there. "Even so, I'm not Jessie's father."

"You were married to Ms. Kane at the time of Jessica's birth. Isn't that correct?"

"Yes, but I'm not her father."

"And you were married for a total of..." Harrison Monroe walked over to his desk and checked a piece of paper. "Nine months and fourteen days."

"I don't remember exactly how long it was, but that sounds about right. I'm not her biological father, though. That honor belongs to a guy named Eddie Saunders."

Harrison opened the file folder on his desk and pulled out a folded piece of paper. "Did you write this note, Mr. Carrigan?"

Alex had a sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach. The paper was old and faded with crease marks, as if it had been tucked away in someone's jewelry box for thirteen years.

He could still remember sitting down at his student desk, staring at the loose-leaf paper in his notebook, wondering how he could possibly be a father when he'd only just finished high school. But he couldn't let Melanie do it alone. He knew what it was like to grow up without two parents. So he'd picked up a pen and written Melanie a note.

"Take it," Harrison urged.

Alex took the paper from the lawyer's hand and slowly unfolded it.

Dear Melanie,

I want to marry you. I want to be a father to my baby. Please call me. I can't stand not knowing what you're going to do.

Love, Alex

"That is your writing, is it not?" Harrison asked.

"It's mine." He folded the note and handed it back to Harrison. "At the time, I believed I was Jessie's father. Later Melanie told me the truth. She left me to go back to Jessie's real father, Eddie Saunders. We got a divorce. Eddie should be responsible for Jessie, not me."

"I'm sorry, but Ms. Kane didn't mention anyone by that name to me."

"She married him."

"No." Harrison shook his head. "The only marriage she participated in was the one with you."

"She told me she was going to marry him."

"She didn't. And it was her wish that you take Jessica in the event of her death."

He stared at the attorney in shock, then looked at Jessie's defiant face. He couldn't take this kid. He couldn't parent this smart-ass girl. He wouldn't know what to do—what to say.

"This is not going to happen," Alex said wildly. "I—I refuse."

Jessica walked around the desk and sat down in Mr. Monroe's oversized chair. She leaned back and kicked her feet up on the desk. "I told you he wouldn't take me."

"Yes, well." Mr. Monroe looked from Jessie to Alex. "If you refuse, then I suppose I'll have to call Social Services and have them find her a foster home."

"Great, maybe I can get a smoke there," Jessie said. "I don't need you anyway. You're probably—probably a big—a big jerk." Jessie's mouth trembled, and she sniffed back a sob. "Mom said you were a good guy, but you're just like the rest. I'm glad you're not my dad."

He sucked in a deep breath of air as her words cut him deeply. He'd wanted to be her dad once. But Jessie wasn't his. She wasn't his. The words rang through his head like a mantra. But as he looked at Jessie, he wondered if he could really turn his back on her.

"Mr. Carrigan, may I speak to you alone?" Harrison didn't wait for an answer. He pulled Alex into the hall and shut the door so Jessica couldn't overhear them.

"Mr. Carrigan. Putting aside the fact that you don't believe you're Jessica's father—"

"I'm not."

"As I said, putting that aside for now, I must tell you that Ms. Kane wanted you to take Jessie. She told me you were the only person in the world who could give Jessie the kind of home she deserved. Won't you please reconsider?"

"I can't."

"San Francisco is filled with homeless children. The foster care system is stretched to the limit. Jessica just lost her mother. She's terribly alone right now, and I know she hasn't made the best impression, but underneath all that sass, she's a scared child."

He knew that. But she wasn't his child. And he wouldn't take care of her—not again.

"Jessica needs you, Mr. Carrigan."

Alex stared at him for a long moment. "You never said—how did Melanie die?"

"She had ovarian cancer. She didn't find out until the very end. She was only in the hospital a week before she died. I met with her at the request of a social worker. Melanie was very concerned for Jessie's future. I did try to find you, but Melanie thought you might be in Sacramento."

"That's where we lived together. I spent my senior year in high school there while my dad did a photo spread of the state legislature in action." Alex didn't know why he was explaining, except that it helped to prolong what he knew was coming.

"Yes, well, it took me a while to find you. By then it was too late for Melanie to ask you herself."

"There was a time when I would have gladly been that child's father. Thirteen years ago to be exact. But now I'm building a business—Top Flight Athletic Shoes. I travel a lot. I have commitments on my time. Jessica should go to someone who can give her a home."

"I'm well aware of your situation, Mr. Carrigan. I did a background check on you."

"What the hell for?"

"I told Ms. Kane I wouldn't feel comfortable sending Jessica to a man, even if he was the father, who hadn't bothered to pay child support or maintain contact with Jessica over the years."

"This is unbelievable." Alex shook his head in amazement that the conversation continued despite his innocence. "I didn't pay child support because I wasn't the father. How many times do I have to tell you that?"

"Ms. Kane did say that she hadn't wanted you to support her," Mr. Monroe conceded.

"Thank God for that. So what did you find out about me?"

The attorney sent him a steady look. "Your athletic footwear business is very successful. You employ over three hundred people in San Francisco and throughout the country. You mingle with sports celebrities on a frequent basis. You are considered to be a very eligible bachelor, although you aren't known for long-term romantic relationships. You don't appear to smoke or do drugs, and you run several miles a day, probably to balance the enormous amount of junk food you put into your system."

"Very good. Did you find out what brand of toothpaste I use?"

"I didn't consider it necessary."

"You only considered it necessary to invade my privacy."

"For the child's sake, yes. Let me give you the bottom line, Mr. Carrigan. In the eyes of the law, unless proven otherwise, you are Jessica's father and thereby required to support her. Now, if you wish to put her up for adoption, I must tell you that twelve-year-old girls are not very adoptable. Jessica will more than likely end up in the foster care system until she's eighteen. Then she'll be on her own. Of course, she may run away before then. She's not unfamiliar with life on the street. She and her mother were homeless most of this past year."

Homeless? Melanie with the beautiful brown eyes and the big dreams had ended up living on the streets with her baby? He felt a sudden thrust of guilt. But Melanie had made her choice. She'd picked a life without him.

"I'm not her father," he said one last time, knowing even as he said the words that it was futile to protest. "I'll take a DNA test to prove that."

"DNA tests take time, but that's certainly your prerogative. In the meantime, you may wish to pursue Eddie Saunders. If he is in fact Jessica's father, perhaps he'll want her. In fact, I can recommend an excellent private investigator."

"I'll bet."

"Until then Jessica needs a home."

He thought for a long moment. Once again, Melanie wanted him to care for her baby until the real father showed up.

How could he do that again?

How could he not?

"Fine. I'll take Jessie, until we find her real father." It would be okay. He'd get Gloria to come more often, and his grandfather would be there, too, he thought dismally, suddenly realizing how crowded his simple life had become.

"Good." Mr. Monroe opened the door to his office. "Jessie? Mr. Carrigan has agreed to take care of you."

Jessie shrugged. "Whatever." She got up from the chair and sauntered over to Alex. "Can I have five bucks?"


"So, I can buy a lighter."

He plucked the cigarette out of her hand. "I live in a nonsmoking apartment."

"Oh, shit."

"And non-swearing."

"Where do you live? A fucking church?"

He stared at her defiant face in amazement. "Did your mother let you talk like that?"

"All the time."

"Okay, well off you go," Mr. Monroe said, ushering them out of his office before Alex could change his mind. "I'll have my investigator call you, Mr. Carrigan."

"You better," he grumbled as he walked out of the office with Jessie. The hall was empty. He pushed the elevator button and crossed his arms in front of his chest. Jessie did the same, her expression of disinterest as deliberate as his own.

"If you're not cool, I'll just leave," Jessie said, her gaze fixed on the wall.

"And go where?"

"Wherever. I don't need you. I don't need anybody."

Her words rang through to his heart. They were his words, and he'd said them over and over again, growing up in his own shattered family.

"Why don't we just try to get along, Jessie? It will make it easier on all of us. By the way, where are your things?"

She pointed to her worn backpack, still avoiding his eyes. "Right here."

"Is that it?"

"I travel light."

He had liked to travel light, too. Only, now he was acquiring baggage by the minute.

The elevator doors opened, and they stepped inside, riding down to the first floor in silence. They crossed through the lobby, and Alex opened the front door for Jessie. A gust of wind blew her hair up in an arch, and Alex was suddenly blinded by a swirl of dust.

"It sure is windy," Jessie proclaimed.

"It sure is," he muttered.

And the winds will curse your life until you return to where it began...

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