Ava Wright didnâ€™t need to hear the excited chatter around her to know who was driving the custom jacked-up, blacked-out Dodge pickup rolling slowly past the cafĂ©â€™s windows.
Jace Morrow was back in town.
And if she was on Santaâ€™s list of good girls, that truck would just keep on rolling, right into a tree.
The exclamations quieted to speculative whispers and tsk sounds as the diners served each other some juicy gossip. Namely that Jace was back to bury the father he hadnâ€™t seen for six years, and reminders that heâ€™d broken the heart of the woman who served their biscuits and gravy and refilled their coffee mugs.
Ava had known Jace coming back was a possibility as soon as word reached the cafĂ© that Brian Morrow had passed away, but the only way sheâ€™d gotten any sleep for the last week was to lie to herself. Sheâ€™d made herself believe he wouldnâ€™t bother coming back himselfâ€”that heâ€™d send his people to take care of the details and put the old house up for sale.
But there was no mistaking that truck. Heâ€™d been leaning against it in a photograph that had been on the cover of a magazine last year. Sheâ€™d done her best to avoid reading the article, but nobody in town would shut up about it and there had been a copy next to the dryer at the salon.
It was a typical magazine profile of a country music superstar. Big house. Fancy studio. A folksy photo of him in jeans and bare feet, his acoustic guitar on his lap as he wrote his next big hit. And the obligatory photo of him on stage with rows of adoring women screaming and reaching for him.
Yeah, it was good to be Jace Morrow.
â€śHoly shit, itâ€™s true.â€ť
The voice belonged to Whitney Cassidy, which meant word had already spread to the cafĂ©â€™s kitchen. Ava had lived in Cottonwood Creek her entire life, except for those six months in St. Louis sheâ€™d wasted chasing dreams with Jace, and the efficiency of the gossip grapevine still managed to surprise her sometimes.
â€śAre you burning food right now?â€ť Ava asked, since Whitney was the only cook and there were order slips clipped to the carousel in the kitchen.
â€śProbably. But, holy shit, Ava. What are you going to do?â€ť
There wasnâ€™t much she could do. â€śI guess Iâ€™m going to take up cooking the food in addition to taking the orders and serving it, since youâ€™re not doing it.â€ť
â€śCould you see him?â€ť
Best friend or not, Ava did not want to talk about Jace in front of her customers. â€śNo. And unless itâ€™s a picture of his face on the back of a milk carton, I have no interest in seeing him.â€ť
â€śHoney, in this town, the only way youâ€™re not going to see him is if you put a bag over your head.â€ť
Speaking of heads, a lot of them were turned her way now that the truck was out of sight. She had no doubt the customers were looking for a reaction from her, but she had no intention of giving them one.
She pushed through the swinging door to the kitchen, Whitney on her heels. Only when it had closed behind them did she press her hands to her face. Her cheeks felt hot, and with every passing moment of awareness that yes, Jace was back in town, it felt as if her heart raced a little more.
â€śMaybe I was wrong and you wonâ€™t have to see him,â€ť Whitney said, though they both knew it was a lie.
â€śI have to go to the funeral,â€ť she said. â€śAnd weâ€™re the only restaurant in town. He couldnâ€™t cook for shit when he left and I doubt having tons of money gave him the ambition to learn.â€ť
â€śTake some sick days. Itâ€™s rude to go to a funeral sick because there are so many old people there. And maybe he doesnâ€™t know youâ€™re back. You could have stayed in St. Louis.â€ť After pausing for a few seconds, Whitney frowned. â€śOr not. There are probably people camped in his dadâ€™s front yard already, wanting to get his autograph and catch him up on all the gossip heâ€™s missed. Pretending youâ€™re sick could work, though.â€ť
She might not have to pretend, Ava thought, since her stomach was tied up in such tight knots, it almost hurt. Whitney kept talking as she turned her attention back to the food she was cooking, but Ava wasnâ€™t paying attention.
This was really happening.
Jace had come to take care of his fatherâ€™s funeral in person, and there wouldnâ€™t be any hiding from it. Or pretending she was sick, since she had too much pride to try that. Coming down with something right after her old flame drove into town was so transparent even an idiot would see through that.
â€śAva?â€ť Sheâ€™d been staring off at nothing, but she forced her attention back to her friend, who was holding two plates. â€śDo you want me to take these out?â€ť
â€śNo.â€ť Sheâ€™d needed a minuteâ€”or days she didnâ€™t haveâ€”to let Jaceâ€™s return sink in, but there would be no gossip about Ava coming undone and having to hide in the kitchen while Whitney did her job for her. Knowing this town, the story would be embellished and include a full-on emotional breakdown and broken dishes by bedtime. â€śIâ€™ll do it.â€ť
â€śYou know your mom will probably be here any minute.â€ť
â€śThey went to Springfield to do some Christmas shopping and have dinner, so theyâ€™re probably not back yet.â€ť Not that a phone call or a quick Facebook check wouldnâ€™t clue her mom in, but she probably wouldnâ€™t have time to descend on Ava at work, thank God.
â€śTake a breath,â€ť Whitney said, still holding the plates. â€śI know you donâ€™t want everybody talking about you guys, but itâ€™s going to happen. Just keep your chin up and ignore it. Heâ€™ll crawl back under his fancy rock soon enough.â€ť
Ava looked at her best friend, trying to center herself. Theyâ€™d been balancing each other out for yearsâ€”the tall brunette and the short blondeâ€”but she wasnâ€™t sure Whitney was going to be able to talk her through this one.
â€śI should be over it by now,â€ť she said in a small voice.
â€śHoney, even Iâ€™m not over it and I wasnâ€™t in love with him. You two were perfect together, not only as a couple, but when you guys sang. And he threw you away the first time some shiny bitch dangled a recording contract in front of him.â€ť
Ava flinched. They never pulled any punches with each other, but when it came to Jace, the sore spot was too tender for a direct hit. But she knew what Whitney was trying to do. If she was focused more on the anger than the hurt, she might be able to avoid being the target of everybodyâ€™s sympathetic clucking.
â€śI hate him,â€ť Ava said, nodding her head.
â€śWe hate him.â€ť Whitney handed over the plates. â€śHe had his chance and he blew it, so you go out thereâ€”head high, back straight, tits outâ€”and show everybody what he missed out on.â€ť
Ava actually laughed, which went a long way toward driving back the panic. â€śMake sure you save me a serving of the baked mac and cheese before it sells out,â€ť she told Whitney. â€śI know I said I was going to cut back on carbsâ€”â€ť
â€śBut Iâ€™ll be in the mood for comfort food,â€ť she finished.
In one fluid move that came from years of doing it, Ava turned and kicked the swinging door open with the bottom of her foot. Then she turned as she went through it, so she was facing forward without the plates hitting the door.
As she walked past a table of four on her way to deliver to another, she saw them bent over a phone and from it came a painfully familiar tune.
I remember the taste of her lips, the sound of her voice,
And I know I made the wrong choice.
I just want to hold her again.
Ava almost stumbled, but she forced herself to keep walking. Her mind had frozen up on her, but she went through the motions of serving the plates and asking the right questions out of sheer habit.
Theyâ€™d scrambled to stop the song when sheâ€™d walked into the dining room, but the damage was already done.
She thought of it as The Song, always capitalized in her mind. It was the song that had launched Jace into stardom and gotten so much radio playtime, Ava hadnâ€™t even been able to grocery shop in peace. There had been no escaping it, or the heartache that settled in deep every time sheâ€™d heard it.
Yeah, Jace Morrow had made a choice. And Ava had spent the last five and a half years living with it.
* * *
Cottonwood Creek, Missouri was the last place Jace Morrow expected to be, three weeks before Christmas.
Even after six years away, the roads were as familiar to him as a pair of faded and worn jeans, and he slowed as he started down the hill toward the four-way stop that constituted downtown. He kept his eyes forward as he drove, not allowing himself to look to the right at the cafĂ© where Ava had waited tables since they were fifteen years old.
He should probably feel some shame that when the phone call came about his old manâ€™s heart giving out on him, close on the heels of regret that theyâ€™d never been as close as they should have, was the thought heâ€™d have an excuse to see Ava Wright again.
Maybe seeing her againâ€”talking to her, if he was luckyâ€”would erase the vivid memory of the last time heâ€™d seen her. Heâ€™d made the mistake of looking over his shoulder as he walked out the door of their shitty apartment in St. Louis and saw the shock and anger give way to tears as her face crumpled.
Iâ€™ll never get another chance like this, Ava. Iâ€™ve gotta go.
He went. And he felt like heâ€™d been looking over his shoulder at what heâ€™d lost every damn day since.
Jace had looked her up once, on Facebook, during a moment of weakness. And heâ€™d found her, or at least a photo of her. It had been taken on her parentsâ€™ front porch and she was laughing at whoever took the picture. Seeing her like that had hurt like hell because it wasnâ€™t him she was laughing with, and heâ€™d stared at the photograph for at least two minutes before he clicked on her name.
Maybe it was for the best that sheâ€™d locked down her privacy settings, so he had no way of knowing where she was or who she was with. And heâ€™d closed his laptop before he was tempted to start punching in the names of her family and friends, hoping to see glimpses of her in their feeds.
Heâ€™d made his choice and he forced himself to live with it.
After taking a right at the intersection, he drove past a few houses and businesses before taking another right onto a dirt road that youâ€™d miss if you didnâ€™t know it was there. A mile later, a left, and then another quarter-mile of dirt that needed grading before he spotted the same battered white mailbox and turned up the driveway to the house where heâ€™d grown up.
The one-story, with its stained and chipping stucco siding, looked smaller and even more grimy than he remembered. The scraggly lawn hadnâ€™t been mowed in a while, and the roof on the shed was starting to cave in. There had been a time when Brian Morrow had taken a lot of pride in his homeâ€”more than heâ€™d ever shown in his sonâ€”but it had clearly gotten away from him in recent years.
It was even more depressing than heâ€™d anticipated and he was having trouble forcing himself to walk up the two steps to the warped boards of the porch that wrapped around the front of the house. Since the town didnâ€™t have a motel, he was going to have to go inside eventually, but for now he just stared at the screen door and wished he was anywhere else but here.
Not quite ready to go inside, he turned and looked up the road.
If he tipped his head and squinted a little, he could barely make out the twinkle of the multi-colored Christmas lights strung around the front porch of the Wright house. Ava would have helped Joe put them up the weekend after Thanksgiving, as they had every year that he could remember.
Part of him wanted to walk down the dirt road and knock on their front door. It wasnâ€™t farâ€”close enough so the Wright family could hear his old man yelling when he was in one of his moodsâ€”and heâ€™d walked it more times than he could remember. Even before the first time heâ€™d kissed their daughter down by the creek, Joe and Beth had made him feel welcome in their home.
But that had been before he broke their daughterâ€™s heartâ€”before heâ€™d left her behind to achieve the dream theyâ€™d shared together.
He didnâ€™t imagine heâ€™d be welcome there now.
That thought was even more painful than facing his fatherâ€™s house, so he opened the screen door and turned the door handle. He wasnâ€™t surprised it was unlocked. To be honest, he couldnâ€™t remember a day in his life the door had been locked and wasnâ€™t even sure he could find a key for the lock.
Then he stepped inside, his senses assailed by the sights and smells that hadnâ€™t changed in six years.
It was a rectangle. Living room with brown plaid furniture in the center and open to the kitchen to his left, like one big room. Two bedrooms to his right, with a bathroom between them. An enclosed porch that had needed a new screen for at least a decade off the back. That was it, and it was as claustrophobic now as it had been when he was a teenager.
Jace walked into the kitchen and was pleasantly surprised. He knew a few of the women from the church had gone in and cleaned up a bit. Tossed the perishable foods and emptied the trash and other things that needed doing if a house was going to sit empty for a while. He wasnâ€™t expecting the basket on the table or the note.
There was an assortment of pods for the coffee brewer on the counter, along with a box of sugar packets and a box of those non-dairy creamer cups that didnâ€™t taste the best, but didnâ€™t require refrigeration. Some nonperishable foods.
It was the gift certificate to the cafĂ© that choked him up, though. It wasnâ€™t about the money, because they knew he had plenty of that. They just wanted to feed him, as the women from church did during times like this, but they couldnâ€™t fill his fridge and freezer with traditional casseroles, not knowing when he was arriving or how long he was staying.
That was just how it was done in Cottonwood Creek.
He heard footsteps crossing the deck, startling him since he hadnâ€™t heard a vehicle, and his heart kicked. Ava.
But the tread was heavy, and so was the knock on the wooden frame around the screen door. Whoever it was felt right at home, though, because Jace heard the squeak of the hinges as he left the kitchen.
â€śJace! Where you at, boy?â€ť
He recognized the voice at the same time he saw the familiar face in the living room and grinned for the first time since getting the phone call about his old man a week ago. â€śBlue, you ugly son of a bitch.â€ť
Jace extended his hand, and Blue pulled him in for a quick hug and a slap on the back. The years seemed to fall away as he greeted the man whoâ€™d been his best friend since a day in the first grade, when Blue was still known by his given name of Keith. Their teacher, during a practice for the music program, had asked little Keith to just mouth the words because he had a singing voice like a Bluetick Coonhound baying. At lunch, Jace had teased him mercilessly, calling him Blue until theyâ€™d thrown fists. While sitting in the hallway, waiting for the principal to call their fathers, theyâ€™d struck up a friendship that stuck until Blue went off to college and Jace left for St. Louis. Those were pre-Facebook days and, after a few awkward phone calls, theyâ€™d lost touch.
â€śHow the hell did you get here so fast?â€ť Jace asked. â€śWere you staking out the place?â€ť
â€śThat car that passed you just before you turned off the main street was me. I recognized the truck from that magazine a while back and turned around. And I had a little welcome-home gift stashed for when I finally saw you,â€ť Blue said, holding up the paper bag. â€śI know the ladies from church were putting together a basket for you, but I doubt they included anything to take the edge off.â€ť
And even though it had been years since they saw each other, Blue had known there would be an edge. Theyâ€™d grown up together, so he knew better than anybody except maybe Ava how Jaceâ€™s relationship with his father had been.
The bag held a bottle of whiskey, which Blue set on the old kitchen table. Then he folded his arms and stared at it. â€śYou got any glasses?â€ť
â€śUnless the old man broke them all while I was gone, there should be some.â€ť Jace went to the cabinet theyâ€™d been kept in and, sure enough, pulled out two glasses. He set them in front of the bottle and then mirrored Blueâ€™s stance.
â€śYou got anything to mix it with?â€ť his friend asked. â€śLikeâ€¦what the hell do you mix with it? Some kind of cola?â€ť
â€śI didnâ€™t see any in the fridge.â€ť After theyâ€™d stared at the bottle for another minute, Jace looked at Blue. â€śThereâ€™s beer in there, though. The shitty cheap stuff, but itâ€™s beer.â€ť
The relief was plain on his face. â€śIâ€™ll take a beer. Weâ€™ll save the whiskey for another day.â€ť
Jace grabbed a couple of cold ones from the fridge and they took them out to the porch to sit. After popping the top and taking a long swig, he grimaced and balanced the can on the arm of the chair. â€śHe obviously didnâ€™t put a dime into keeping up the house. Seems like he could have spent a little more on his beer.â€ť
â€śSpeaking of that,â€ť Blue started, but then he stopped talking, looking uncomfortable.
â€śI figure people spent a lot of time feeling sorry for poor Brian Morrow, whose son got famous and never called or bought his daddy a mansion.â€ť
â€śPretty much. Not me, mind you. I wouldnâ€™t have sent him a dollar.â€ť
â€śI sent him a dollar,â€ť Jace said. â€śOr rather a check with enough zeroes so it needed a comma. He signed for it at the post office, but never cashed it.â€ť
Blue was quiet for a few seconds, considering that. â€śIt was generous of you, whether he cashed it or not. He didnâ€™t deserve it.â€ť
â€śHe never hit me, though. He was mean, but it couldâ€™ve been worse. And he fed me and kept a roof over my head, so I felt like I owed him for that. I guess he thought differently.â€ť
â€śSo tell me what itâ€™s like to be a country star.â€ť
Jace was surprisedâ€”and thankfulâ€”heâ€™d managed to wait that long before asking. â€śI ainâ€™t gonna lie, Blue, the tour was exhausting and Iâ€™m glad itâ€™s over, but Iâ€™m living a pretty good life. What have you been up to?â€ť
Blue took a swig of the shitty beer before answering. â€śIâ€™m living a pretty damn good life, too, though my truck ainâ€™t as sweet as yours. I married Kira.â€ť
It took Jace a second to put the name to a face, and then he rocked his chair back onto two legs. â€śNo way in hell. She wouldnâ€™t give you the time of day back in school.â€ť
â€śHey, Iâ€™m a persistent bastard. And patient.â€ť He shrugged. â€śGot three kidsâ€”a girl and twin baby boysâ€”so you know sheâ€™s giving me the time of day now.â€ť
â€śCongratulations, man. When did you move back?â€ť
â€śAfter I got my degree, I spent a few months in the city and it took me about two weeks to realize Iâ€™m a country boy at heart. I lucked out and I can do most of my job remotely, and I spend a couple of days in the city every two or three weeks.â€ť
After a moment, Jace snorted out a laugh and shook his head. â€śI canâ€™t believe you have a family. I guess I know how much time has gone by, but it doesnâ€™t feel like it sometimes.â€ť
Except when it came to Ava. Every day heâ€™d been away from her felt like a year, although she was still as clear in his mind as the last time he saw her. And that hurt, because the last time he saw her, sheâ€™d had tears streaming down her face while she called him names that would have made her mama wash her mouth out.
â€śItâ€™s been a minute, for sure,â€ť Blue said, drawing him back to the present. â€śYou seen her yet?â€ť
â€śNo. I came straight here, so youâ€™re actually the first person Iâ€™ve seen at all.â€ť Heâ€™d done nothing but think about her, but he hadnâ€™t actually seen her.
â€śYouâ€™ll see her drive by, more than likely, since her parents still live up the road. Sheâ€™s got a sweet red Wrangler, with big old tires and the top off more often than not, even though itâ€™s getting cold.â€ť
That made Jace smile. She always was a country girl. â€śItâ€™s inevitable that Iâ€™ll run into her at some point.â€ť
â€śSheâ€™ll be at the funeral. Everybody will. And unless you plan on cooking for yourself, youâ€™ll see her at the cafĂ©.â€ť
Jace turned to frown at him. â€śSheâ€™s still waiting tables?â€ť
â€śJoe and Beth bought it a couple years back, when Elmer decided he didnâ€™t want to do it anymore. Bethâ€™s there quite a bit, but Ava and Whitney basically run the place together. You remember her?â€ť
â€śOf course.â€ť Whitney Cassidy had been Avaâ€™s best friend basically since birth, so it was nice they were still close.
But it hurt to think Ava was still doing the same work sheâ€™d been doing since she was fifteen, and probably hating him a little more every day since heâ€™d left her in St. Louis.
Heâ€™d called her one time, the day he signed his record deal. High on optimism, heâ€™d given her the news and told her heâ€™d have money soon and heâ€™d send her a plane ticket because he missed her.
Sheâ€™d told him what he could do with his plane ticket and reminded him he made a choice before hanging up on him. When he worked up the courage to try again, hoping sheâ€™d cooled down and would at least listen to him, her number was no longer in service. Heâ€™d gotten the message.
â€śYou teaching those kids of yours to fish?â€ť Jace asked, needing to change the subject from Ava.
Blue gave him a knowing, sympathetic look and then nodded. â€śYou know it. The twins are just babies, of course, but my little girl can already bait her own hook.â€ť
They talked about Blueâ€™s kids for a while, their conversation illustrated with what felt like three hundred pictures saved to Blueâ€™s phone. Jace didnâ€™t mind, though. He was happy for the guy, even if the picture of a tiny blonde girl holding up a fish and grinning at the camera gave him a pang of sadness.
He had everything a man could want. He was living his dream. He had more money than a man needed. But he didnâ€™t have a little girl of his own to teach to fishâ€”a little girl with Avaâ€™s eyes and tumble of dark hair.
Jace knocked back the rest of the beer and tried to decide if he wanted another. It tasted like piss, but it was going to be a long and lonelier than usual night.