“Butter my butt and call me a biscuit. I can’t believe that just happened,” Elizabeth said as I stomped into the kitchen. “You okay?”
“I’m fine,” I muttered. My hands gripped the bus tray as I called out to the cook, “Aunt Faye, we need another fried chicken platter. Green beans instead of collard greens.”
Aunt Faye wasn’t my aunt—she was Elizabeth’s and they owned the diner together—but we all called her Aunt Faye anyway. Memaw’s Diner was opened decades ago by Aunt Faye’s actual memaw, and the building itself had been in their family since it was built in the 1800s. The place was definitely haunted, but what just happened was no ghost. That chick was off her flippin’ rocker. And no bless her heart added to that. Not in my head, anyway. I didn’t give a shit about her heart or anything else at the moment.
As I pushed my way through the swinging door, I wished I could shoot arrows out of my eyes at the girl. Instead, I remembered Grams’ words I heard every morning for years before walking out the door: “Don’t forget to put on your smile, the mos import’nt thang you can wear.” Of course, if I walked out the door with nothing but a smile, she would have eaten her words, God rest her soul, but that was the Southern way. So I grinned ear to ear as I headed for the mess on the floor in front of the table with Mr. Hawtness and his nutters girlfriend.
Even now, she wouldn’t stop staring at me.
Weirdo. I hadn’t blamed her when she thought I’d messed with her boyfriend that one time, and I actually thought she was pretty cool in a daring kind of way when I saw her dance on the mechanical bull out at Sullivan’s Bar at the truck stop. She’d seemed pretty normal then. Now? She freaked me out. Why did she keep staring at me? I swear, there was hunger in her eyes, as if she wanted to devour me rather than the food she’d pretty much thrown on the floor. Were they wanting a threesome or something? Is that what was up?
Wow. That was new for me, and I’d done some pretty kinky shit. Girls weren’t exactly my thing, although if I did do a girl, I guess I’d do her. She was gorgeous, with big green eyes, smooth, bronze skin that I would kill for, and light brown curls that fell past her shoulders. A little curvier than mine, her body was pretty hot, too. And him? Yeah, I’d taken advantage of his drunken state before for a reason—talk about a body to die for, and those blue eyes and dimples melted bones—but I’d never been rejected by a guy before, especially not a drunk one. If she hadn’t made my day go from bad to worse, maybe I would have considered a roll in the hay with both of them. Or maybe not. Damn. I was going to hell just thinking about it.
“Here, let me help you.” Crazy girl was on her knees next to me, reaching her hands out to scoop the pile of chicken, taters and gravy, greens, and broken plate.
I moved my arm in front of her, blocking her hands. The last thing Elizabeth and Aunt Faye needed was a lawsuit because she cut her hands open. Yankee out-of-towners would be all over that shit.
“Oh, no, I’ll take care of it,” I insisted. “You just sit down and don’t worry your pretty little head over it. Your food will be out in a minute.”
The bus tray was pulled away, though, as a new pair of jean-clad legs knelt down beside me.
“I got this,” said a familiar male voice that made my belly quiver and my throat tighten even though I hadn’t heard it in years. “Go get her food.”
My eyes slowly lifted, taking in the jeans that strained across thick thigh muscles, the wide belt buckle at the narrow waist, the Stu’s Bait and Tackle tan t-shirt that stretched over pecs, shoulders, and biceps that had been smaller when the shirt was bought, and up to full lips spread into a smile and hazel eyes framed by dark lashes longer than Sissy’s fake ones staring at me from under a red baseball cap. As if I didn’t have a thing for guys in baseball caps. As if I hadn’t once had a thing for this particular guy. As if I’d thought my day couldn’t get any crappier.
“Go on now,” Ty Daniels insisted. “You’re lettin’ her food get cold.”
Without a word, I stood and strode for the kitchen, and not because crazy girl’s plate was ready yet or because I was following Ty’s orders, but because I needed a moment. Lots of moments.
“What the hell is he doin’ back?” I seethed out loud as soon as the kitchen door swung closed. I leaned against the wall and stomped my foot. Yeah, I actually stomped my foot. And my hands formed fists at my sides. My eyes stung, but with tears of anger and frustration. I will not cry over him. I will not cry over him.
“Oh, baby girl, I meant to tell ya,” Elizabeth said as she wrapped her arms around me. She’d been my boss for years, as well as a friend—as good a friend as a boss could be. Since Grams died two months ago, she’d kind of taken on a mama role because my own mama had run out years ago. Well, she’d found a way to wiggle herself back into our lives recently, but she hadn’t been a real mama to me since … since I was born, really. Grams, God rest her soul, pretty much raised my sister and me the best she could. “I heard he came in overnight.”
How had I not noticed? He lived next door to me. Was he staying somewhere else? Of course, I’d left home before the butt-crack of dawn this morning, so his trailer was probably still dark. It didn’t matter. I drew in a deep breath and forced my heart to slow to normal.
“It’s okay,” I said through another breath. “I’m not gonna let him get to me. I’m over him. His loss. I’ve moved on.”
“That’s my girl,” Elizabeth said as she gave me another squeeze before letting me go. She lifted my chin with her knuckles and scrutinized my face.
“I’m serious, Liz’beth. I’m done with him.” And I was. Ty Daniels was no longer a prickly thistle stuck to my heart.
Having grown up in the same trailer park, we’d known each other for as long as we could both remember. There’d been those couple of years Mama had moved us away, but as soon as we came back, Ty was knocking on the door, ready to play, no questions asked. That’s what I’d liked about him. We’d been buddies for years, and then in high school, it became something more. But he was never right for me and I wasn’t right for him, which he pretty much told me right after his graduation and right before he took off for the Army. He left me back home to finish my own schooling a year later, never sending word, even when he went off to Afghanistan. It took me a while to realize he was right. Ty Daniels wasn’t good for me. He wasn’t The One I was sure was out there, somewhere, looking for me.
So why did I have to react to him the way I had? If only my body would realize just how bad he is … and forget just how good he is.
“The big stuff’s all cleaned up, but I need a mop to get the rest,” Ty said as he came into the kitchen with the bus tray under one arm.
Elizabeth gave him a warm smile and took the container from him. “Thanks, Ty, but you don’t need to do that. You don’t work here anymore, remember? In fact, it’s been some time since you did.”
“Yes, ma’am, but I never forgot what you taught me. Never ignore a pretty girl’s needs.” His eyes cut over to me as one corner of his mouth lifted in a grin.
I snorted and rolled my eyes before taking the plate Aunt Faye had just placed on the counter. I’d rather put up with crazy girl than Ty and how my body betrayed me around him. My damn belly quivered with that one crooked smile. Quivered! But even with the threat of going to hell hanging over my head, a threesome with these guys would be much better for me than anything with Ty Daniels. They’d be on their way again afterward, and so would Ty, but only he would leave me with another broken heart.
Ty took a seat at a two-top table, and although Elizabeth waited on him, I was completely and fully aware of his presence. I’d barely even noticed when Mr. Hawtness and his girlfriend scooted out, although I did notice the nice tip they left me. I half expected a note to meet them at their camper, but there was none. Maybe I’d misread their intentions. Thank God and baby Jesus. The girl’s craziness had been enough to deal with when it came to those two. And with Sissy’s phone message she’d left here during this morning’s breakfast rush, then Ty’s sudden appearance, I really didn’t need anything more added to my plate today, thank you very much.
“Bethany, sweetheart,” Ty said after Elizabeth had cleared his table and disappeared into the kitchen. I’d been too busy wiping tables and checking condiments to notice we were the only two left in the dining room.
“Don’t call me that,” I said, and it came out harsher than I intended. The “sweetheart” part made my knees weak, which annoyed the crap out of me, and the “Bethany” part was like nails on a chalkboard. He was one of those bad memories tied to that name, but only a minor one. Mostly I hated it because it reminded me of the daddy I’d never really known, who’d given the name to me, and my mama, who used it against me every chance she got. I was sure she blamed me for his not being with us anymore. The way she used to draw out my name but cut it short at the same time—Bettttth’neeee—because she was too trashed to say it right still made my skin crawl. I’d gotten over it for a while—suppressed the memories, a fancy head doctor would probably say—until she called two months ago. That’s when I decided to never go by that name again. Unfortunately, in a small town, it was hard to get people who knew you all your life to change their ways. “It’s Bex now. And if you call me Bethany again, I’ll punch you in the nose.”
Ty chuckled. “I miss your feistiness.” He paused, and not until I turned to face him and he could look into my eyes, did he add more quietly, “I miss all of you, sweetheart.”
Oh, dear Lord. Don’t fall for it. DON’T fall for it.
I strode over to his table and stood across from him. I placed my hands on the edge and leaned forward. “You left me.”
He nodded. “I know. And I was stupid for it.”
“No, you weren’t. You were right.”
“I was wrong, boo. Totally wrong.”
I gritted my teeth at his term of endearment. “Ty, it took me a long time to get over the hurt—”
“I’m so sorry, Beth—Bex.” His hand reached out for mine, but I moved before he could grasp it.
“Don’t be. It sucked, and I hated you for a long time, but it was the best thing for me.”
“Don’t say that, sweetheart. Please don’t say that.”
I stood up and shrugged, even though my heart was pounding painfully against my ribs. Saying this all out loud was much harder than I thought it would be, but he didn’t need to know that. “Why not? It’s the truth. You made me realize we weren’t right for each other. We never were and never will be.”
“I don’t believe that. Not anymore.” He stood and reached for my hands again. I stepped backwards, and something in his eyes seemed to crack with the rejection. “I came back for you. For us.”
I swallowed against the lump that had formed in my throat. “Well,” I said, my voice barely more than a whisper, “you shouldn’t have. It’s over, Ty. There is no us.”
“Be-ex, please, boo.”
My eyes closed for a brief moment before I opened them to look into his. I had to clench my jaw and make my spine like a steel rod to say my next words. “Don’t beg, Ty. You’re not a dog.”
He stared at me for a long moment as multiple emotions passed through his expressive eyes. Then he pulled his cap down further over his forehead, threw some money on the table, and strode out the door. I stood there for a moment, trying to pull myself together. Hopefully, that was the end of the suck for the day. I’d had enough, and I needed it all to follow him out that door. But if it did, it blew right back in with the next person to walk through. Sissy.
“Ty Daniels?” she asked as she looked over her shoulder at the old, beat-up, black Ford truck leaving the parking lot. She turned back to me with her dark brows raised over big blue eyes that were just like mine. Her raven hair was pulled back in a clip, and she wore little makeup, revealing the purple half-moons under her eyes. I couldn’t believe she was out in public like this—that wasn’t the Sissy I knew. She looked as exhausted as I felt. She may have been younger than me, but she’d always had an old soul, and right now, no way did she look only nineteen years old.
“Yeah, he’s back home, but don’t worry. I sent him packin’, at least from me. You look like hell.” My sisterly way of trying to change the subject.
She didn’t take my eggin’, though. “He’s probably the best thing for ya, sis. You probably shouldn’t let him go a second time.”
My eyes narrowed at her as she stepped to the table nearest the door and hesitantly sat down. She’d seen the hot mess I’d been when Ty left. She’d claimed to hate him as much as I had.
She looked up at me and rolled her eyes at my expression. “Oh, come on, sis. Settlin’ down with Ty is a lot better than you runnin’ around and gettin’ it on with a different guy every month. Aren’t you tired of that yet?”
My nostrils flared as I blew out an angry breath before yanking out the seat in front of her and dropping into it hard. I crossed my arms on the table and leaned toward her.
“I do not get it on with a different guy every month! Quit makin’ me sound like a two-bit whore!”
She only stared at me with her brow raised again.
“Four guys, Sissy. I’ve been with four guys since Ty left me three years ago.”
She still stared silently. I squirmed and leaned back.
“Okay, maybe it was five. That’s still a long shot from one a month.”
“And is that countin’ the carnie from Atlanta?”
“I didn’t get it on with him! We made out a little, but that’s all. He kissed like a fish attacking a worm on a hook.” I shuddered at the memory.
“Still another man. And what about the surfer from Daytona? The cowboy whose truck broke down on the way to the PBR finals? Oh, and let’s not forget Punk Roberts.”
I sighed. If she counted them, her list could go on, but I’d actually slept with Punk. I really thought he’d been The One. He’d graduated as Michael Roberts several years before me and went off to become a nearly famous rock star. No doubt he would be there one of these days. He’d come home for a break for a couple of months, and we’d hit it off right away. I’d never told Sissy because she would have talked me out of it immediately, but I’d been ready to pack my bags and hit the road with him, glad to say goodbye to this Podunk town forever. Until I found out he’d succumbed to the typical rocker lifestyle on the road, fueled by drugs that hyped him up and more that forced him to sleep. I’d had enough of that bullshit in my twenty years at the time. I wasn’t about to go there with him.
Sissy fell silent, and when I looked up at her, sadness filled her eyes. She reached out for my hands and took them into hers.
“I’m sorry, Be—Bex.” That was the first time she’d called me that, so she must have meant it. “I didn’t come here to pick on you. I’m just worried about you, is all. And I know you hate Ty for what he did to you, but maybe you can find it in your heart to love him again.”
The problem was I’d never stopped loving him. But only as a friend. He’d been the rock in my life, but now I couldn’t count on him anymore. Maybe that was it—I couldn’t trust him. And if there’s no trust, there’s no relationship.
“So you knew he was comin’ back home and you didn’t tell me?” I asked, bitterness filling my voice. I yanked my hands away from her. “Left Mama’s side and came all the way here to convince me to take him back? Did he put you up to this?”
Sissy pressed her hand to her chest and shook her head.
“I had no idea he was back, I pinky swear. I just saw him and thought he’d be good for you. He’s always been a good friend to us, and we kinda need that right now.” She folded her hands on the table and dropped her gaze as she picked at her fingernails. “But no, there’s somethin’ else. Did you get my message this mornin’?”
“Yeah, Liz’beth told me. I was goin’ to call you back before I went to my other job.”
Sissy’s face lifted, looking even more exhausted than she had before, and I felt bad for my jab at her. Sorta bad. I thought she sometimes forgot who was working her ass off to support us and pay for at least some of Mama’s medical bills. Someone had to do it after all, and sometimes she became quite the martyr, never letting me forget who does the caretaking of Mama.
“You need to see her,” Sissy said, her voice soft and quivery.
“I’ve got no need to.”
“Beth …” She sighed. “Bex … she only has a few more weeks. Maybe a month or two, but the doctors reckon it’ll be shorter.”
I stared at her for a long moment, and then looked away, out the window, although my mind barely registered the trucks and cars passing by on Central Street. It was trying to process everything that Sissy’s words meant, but failed.
“She’s your mama,” my baby sister reminded me.
“We may have came out of her hooha, but she’s never been a mama,” I whispered. Sissy was only eighteen months younger than me, but she may as well have been five years sometimes. She’d been younger enough to not remember a lot, and I’d sheltered her from most of the rest. And, I’d admit, she had a bigger and more forgiving heart than I did.
“Don’t be like this. Not now. Mama needs you, just to see you again, to say her apologies and goodbyes, so she can go peacefully.”
My heart squeezed, and my throat suddenly felt like a peach pit had lodged in it. I didn’t know that she deserved to go peacefully, but I also knew that was a shitty thing to think.
“I don’t think seeing her will give either of us peace,” I managed to say.
Sissy reached for my hands again and grasped them firmly. “I need you to do this. If you can’t bring yourself to do it for her or for yourself, then at least do it for me.”
My gaze came back to Sissy’s face and her pleading eyes. My heart contracted again. I’d always done everything I could for her, but I didn’t know if I could do this.
“I don’t know when my next day off is,” I said. “Working three jobs doesn’t really give me time to drive all the way to Orlando, you know.”
Sissy closed her eyes and inhaled a long breath that caused her ample chest to lift—at least Mama had given us something to work with. Our looks and figures came from her. Of course, they hadn’t really been her gift, since she had no say in the matter. That was all God’s doing.
Apparently, Sissy’s calming method didn’t work. She stood up and glared at me with her hands on her hips. “Where’s your common decency? Your mama is dying! Maybe you should make your family a priority for once!”
I jumped to my feet, too, knocking my chair over. “Oh, hell no! Don’t you pull that one on me. The only reason I work three jobs is for you and that bitch who’s done nothing but hurt us and leave us for dead. You really think she’d give two shits if the tables were turned?”
Sissy huffed out a breath then stomped for the door. As soon as she grasped the handle to pull, she looked over her shoulder at me. “Well, in a few weeks, she’ll never be able to hurt you again. And for that matter, I’ll be outta your hair, too.”
I stared after her as she left with my mouth hanging open.
“You tryin’ to catch flies?” Elizabeth asked behind me. I snapped my jaw shut and went back to work cleaning tables and checking condiments.
Elizabeth stepped behind the register and flipped through the lunch tickets. “She’s right, you know.”
I let out a low growl. “I don’t need it from you, too.”
“I know how you feel about your mama, including that you’re torn right now on what to do. Which means you know what’s right, but you just don’t wanna do it.”
She crossed her arms over her chest and tilted her head, daring me to call her a liar.
“There’s been a dark energy around this place for months,” she said.
“Maybe it’s Papaw Willy angry at your music again,” I half-joked, trying to relieve the tension. Papaw Willy was the original owner of the building and one of the ghosts that hung around to mess with us. That’s what Elizabeth thought, anyway. We’d all witnessed a few bizarre happenings that convinced us someone was around who shouldn’t be, but only Elizabeth could feel his presence and put a name to him. He tended to throw his fits when Elizabeth played her heavy metal rock.
“It’s definitely not Papaw Willy. I don’t know what’s causin’ it, but it’s heavy and full of sorrow. And I’m sure any of us showing some extra love and forgiveness wouldn’t be a bad thing. Maybe give a little light to the blackness hanging over us.”
I had no idea what she spoke about and figured she was just trying to take a different angle to talk me into doing the right thing. The dinner shift distracted me well enough, at least until afterward, when I went into the bathroom to clean it. A little, red plastic dinosaur sat on the edge of the sink, left by one of the kids who’d been in earlier, and it taunted me with its reminder of childhood. I picked it up, turned it around in my hands, and blinked back the tears that threatened.