If only . . .
Jolene had played the game in her head too many times, but that evening she did it again. If only her dad hadn’t died when she was a teenager. If only her mother hadn’t spiraled down afterward into drugs and alcohol. If only Aunt Sugar and Uncle Jasper weren’t going off on a long, long vacation in their new motor home. If only they hadn’t signed over half the Magnolia Inn to that despicable Reuben, Uncle Jasper’s nephew, who had been such a bully when they were kids. If only Jolene had the money to buy his half of the inn.
Sugar held up her shot glass. “To a brand-new adventure for me and for my darlin’.”
“Sweet Uncle Jasper.” Jolene decided to count her blessings rather than dwell on what-ifs.
“Honey, he’s always loved you so much.” Sugar patted her shoulder with her free hand.
Three shot glasses clinked against Sugar’s—all but Jolene’s. She wouldn’t touch a drop of alcohol after living through her mother’s addiction, and especially after Johnny Ray, her last boyfriend, also turned out to have a drinking problem. She clinked with her glass of sweet tea. The four older women threw back the whiskey like they were bellied up to the bar in an old western saloon. Then they slammed the small glasses down on the wooden table, and Sugar began to refill them.
Sugar raised her gray eyebrow toward her niece. “You sure you don’t want one little shot, darlin’?”
“Positive. I’ll be the designated driver for these three.” She took in Lucy, Flossie, and Dotty with one wide sweep of her hand.
“Don’t you worry about that, darlin’,” Flossie said. “Jasper will drive us home if we get tipsy.” The old girls hadn’t aged much since Jolene had seen them last. Lucy still needed rocks in her pockets to hold her down when the wind picked up in East Texas. Her dyed red hair was still cut in a chin-length pageboy, and she still used way too much blush on her thin cheeks. That night she wore gray sweats that hung on her scrawny butt like a gunnysack on a broom handle.
“To a new year full of surprises.” Flossie held up her glass, and when they’d tossed them back again, she refilled them.
“After this one, that’s enough for me.” Bright-blue eyes twinkled in a bed of wrinkles on Lucy’s face. She was partial to red pantsuits, and Jolene would bet dollars to alligators that she slept in her high-heeled shoes. The ladies threw back the whiskey again. Jolene was glad Jasper would drive them home if they drank too much. She’d been coming to the Magnolia Inn since she was a little girl, but during all that time, they’d always just visited at the inn, so she had no idea where they lived.
Dotty raised her glass in another toast. “Neither time, nor miles, nor big-ass RVs can sever our heartstrings.”
Miz Dotty was five feet tall if she tiptoed a little bit, but with that big blonde Texas hairdo, she reached Jolene’s five feet two inches. She’d barely come up to her late husband Bruce’s shoulder. And she’d never gotten rid of the deep Cajun accent she’d brought to Texas from south Louisiana sixty years ago.
“Travelin’ around the country has been mine and Jasper’s dream for forty years.” Sugar grabbed a paper napkin and wiped away a tear. “I’ll miss y’all, but I’m so excited about our new life on the road. Y’all’ve got to keep up the Friday-night gossip sessions here at the inn. Promise me.”
Jolene glanced at the mirror hanging on the wall—in roughly forty years, she would look exactly like her aunt. Sugar, born Sharlene Mae nearly seventy years ago, was short, slightly curvy, blonde, and brown eyed and held an attitude that mixed sass with independence—Jolene would be damn proud to grow up just like her.
But all the spit and sass that Aunt Sugar had bequeathed her by DNA did not pay the bills. Strange as it was since she was a teetotaler, Jolene was a bartender. She’d probably have to get a job to keep things running at the inn, and that would mean working on Friday nights. But maybe they could move their little support meetings to another night if that happened.
Jolene remembered a few Friday-night support meetings of a very different kind, where kids of addicted parents met to try to understand what was going on in their families. She didn’t go to very many of the gatherings. When her boss offered her the opportunity to pull a double shift at the all-night truck stop—well, the money meant more.
Lucy laid a hand on Sugar’s shoulder. Dotty and Flossie, sitting across the table, each reached out to hold a hand. Black mascara tears rolled down all their cheeks, settling in wrinkles on their way to their chins.
“Damn it, Sugar. Never mind that.” Flossie wiped away her tears. “It’s your dream, and we’re all tickled that you get to have it. You two just get out there and enjoy seeing the whole United States. Promise to send us pictures and call us.”
“Of course I will,” Sugar said. “And y’all will keep an eye on Jolene and Reuben here at the inn, right?”
“You got it.” Lucy’s voice cracked. “I’d rather see you going off in that RV out there with Jasper than having to look at you in a coffin like I did poor old Ezra.”
“Ezra?” Jolene asked.
Dotty moved her hand away from Sugar’s and patted Jolene’s. “Her last boyfriend. The only reason she’s drinking tonight is because she’s in mourning and because Sugar’s leaving us in the morning. She’ll wear calluses on her knees tonight prayin’ for forgiveness over these shots.”
“Go to hell, Dotty,” Lucy growled.
“Only if you go with me,” Dotty giggled.
“Okay, no fussin’ and no more tears,” Sugar said. “Jolene, we’re ready for it.”
“Yes, ma’am.” Jolene pushed back her chair, went to the refrigerator, and brought out a container of rocky road ice cream. She set it in the middle of the table and then handed out spoons to everyone.
Sugar removed the top. “This has gotten us through good times and bad.”
“Yep, through funerals and farts,” Dotty laughed. “Flossie, remember when you ate chili at Bruce’s wake and . . .”
Sugar dipped her spoon into the ice cream first. “And I had to sit beside you.”
Jolene got so tickled that it was her turn for tears to run down her cheeks. She’d missed the banter during the past few years, but there hadn’t been time to make many trips all the way across the state of Texas.
Even though she hadn’t visited Aunt Sugar as often as she’d wanted, when she thought about home, her mind always went to the Magnolia Inn. The best memories of her childhood were of the times she’d spent there, and she’d always looked forward to summers in East Texas—except those years when she and Reuben were there at the same time.
Flossie dug into the ice cream. “Well, I was doin’ the whole lot of you a favor by letting go of all that gas. Nobody lingered in that church after the last amen was said.”
“Good thing no one lit a match. Poor old Bruce was terrified of fire. I used to tell him that he’d better be nice to me or I’d have him cremated and bury his ashes right beside my mother’s grave. They never did get along,” Dotty said as she got her first bite of ice cream.
“Speaking of fire—to PMS and hot flashes,” Sugar said.
“We’ve put on our wading boots and conquered it all, haven’t we?” Flossie nodded.
“And we went through it together. I couldn’t have survived any of it without you three to support me.” Lucy dropped ice cream on her sweatshirt. “Well, dammit!” She rolled her blue eyes toward the ceiling. “Forgive me, Lord, I’m still transitioning from a sinner to a saint.”
“That means her halo isn’t fully formed yet,” Dotty said.
“If we peeled back all that Dolly Parton hair of yours, we’d find horns hidin’ under it,” Lucy smarted off.
“With gold glitter on them,” Dotty shot right back.
“Y’all excuse me. I can’t laugh again or I’ll have to go find some dry underwear,” Jolene said. “Don’t talk about anything fun while I’m gone.”
“Oh, honey, at our age, we have to talk about it the minute it hits our minds or we’ll forget it,” Sugar giggled.
“You sure you and Jasper can find y’all’s way to forty-nine states in that RV?” Flossie asked.
Jolene could hear the bantering continue as she went from the kitchen to the bathroom at the end of the foyer. She looked at her reflection in the mirror and tried to smile, but it didn’t work. Tears streamed down her face. She’d always said that the walls in the Magnolia were magic, because that’s the way she felt when she was there. It didn’t matter what was going on her life—there was always fun at Aunt Sugar’s inn.
The inn was now half hers. The title had been transferred, but it wouldn’t feel real until tomorrow morning, when her aunt and uncle drove away in the big-ass RV sitting in the backyard. Uncle Jasper had left the other half to his nephew, Reuben, who’d always been referred to as her cousin, although he really wasn’t blood kin at all. It wasn’t the best of situations, but Jolene was determined to make it work.
She’d miss Aunt Sugar and Uncle Jasper, but Reuben could suck the life right out of the magic the inn had if he was as obnoxious as he’d been as a kid. Hopefully, he’d changed and he had some savings. Surely he did—after all, he’d been a college professor for years. He might have been a bully when they were kids, but he must have put back some money. If he was willing to invest it in the inn, they could do some remodeling and be ready to reopen by Easter weekend. She had the figures all worked out on paper, and he wouldn’t even have to live there or run the place. She’d be glad to split the profits with him, even more so if he stayed far, far away.
Tucker Malone pulled the painter’s tape from the edge of the crown molding, made sure everything was cleaned up, and locked up when he left. Job finished—year done. Tomorrow was New Year’s Day. He stopped by his favorite liquor store on his way home, but the parking lot was full. That meant people were standing in line, and Tucker was too tired for that after working fourteen hours to finish up the job. He drove to a smaller store on the other side of town and found only half a dozen cars in the parking lot.