“Oh, honey, I’ve wanted to talk to you so bad, but not with your uncle Jasper beside me. He took it hard when Reuben did what he did, putting his half up for sale. He’s still down in the dumps.”

“Poor Uncle Jasper. It’s a good thing it’s against the law to shoot folks. But . . .”

“Hold on. I hear him whistling. We’ll have to talk later. When he feels better, I’ll call; we’ll put it on speaker and have a good visit.”

“Okay, but y’all take care of each other and don’t worry. A wise lady told me once that things work out for the best even if we can’t see it at the time,” Jolene said.

“Love you.” Sugar had hung up and picked up a travel brochure by the time Jasper returned with ice cream.

“Rocky road.” He held it up and smiled for the first time all day. “It always makes things better.”

Sugar went to the cabinet and took out two spoons. “Yes, darlin’, it does. And the pain gets a little less achy every single day.”

He dipped into the carton. “I hope so. Let’s talk about our destination tomorrow. We’re not far from that place where we sprinkled Elaine and John’s ashes in the water. Want to visit there?”

“Yes,” Sugar said. “I’d love to. I loved that white sand.”

Jasper seemed a little better the next day. He wanted to walk barefoot in the sand and even suggested that they dip their feet in the water. “We’ll get our toes in the Gulf and then in the Atlantic and all the way back to the Pacific before this trip is done.”

“That sounds wonderful.” Sugar removed her shoes and left them sitting on a towel. And then she and Jasper went, hand in hand, to dip their feet in the salty water.

“I feel close to Elaine, standing here where we left her ashes. She was troubled, but then she had good reason. Her mom was so full of herself—that’s the role model my sister had.”

“She was so different than you, darlin’, that I’m surprised y’all shared any genes at all,” Jasper said.

“Half genes, I suppose. From our dad—not her mother—but you know all this.” She stepped back out of the water.

Jasper draped an arm around her as they made their way back to the towel. “Yep, I do, but sometimes it’s good to drag out the memories and talk about things again. I’m just glad that she shared Jolene with us all those years. That child stole my heart from the first time we got to keep her,” Jasper said. “Her visits were the highlight of our summers.”

Back then, Jasper had boasted a full head of dark hair, but now it was mostly gray. His angular face wasn’t as smooth as it used to be, and he’d decided to grow a beard. At first Sugar figured if she ignored it, he’d soon get tired of it and shave it off, but now she’d grown to like it.

“The day that Victoria took Elaine from us, I went down to the bayou and cried until my eyes were swollen. I was afraid she’d never take care of Elaine properly. But she hired a nanny, got remarried, and . . .” Sugar inhaled a lungful of ocean air.

“And that’s why you two are so different, even as relations.” Jasper squeezed her hand. “Your stepmother and your sister both had the maternal instincts of a Doberman.”

Sugar wiped the sand from her feet and put her shoes back on. “You never said that before.”

Jasper raised his shoulders in a half shrug. “Just now dawned on me. A Doberman is a fine dog, but the females sometimes make poor mothers. One of my bowlin’ buddies had one several years ago. The mama dog got tired of her babies and wouldn’t let them eat. They had to bottle-feed those little pups until they were big enough to sell.”

“You think Jolene will inherit that?” Sugar shivered.

“No, darlin’, I don’t. She looks like you and acts like you. Every time Victoria came to get that child, I went to the bayou and cried, too.” Jasper dropped her hand and draped an arm around her shoulders. “Main difference in y’all is that you had amazing taste in men and she doesn’t.”

Without words, she cupped his face in her hands and kissed him.

Jolene was all for throwing the heavy furniture out the bedroom window and setting fire to it after she’d helped Tucker move it out into the hallway. The four-poster bed weighed as much as a baby elephant. The dresser was most likely created from concrete and only covered with a thin layer of oak. It was no wonder Aunt Sugar didn’t move the furniture around in the rooms—she didn’t own a forklift. Once Jolene and Tucker had gotten those two pieces out, she slid down the wall and panted like a puppy dog.

Tucker just grinned and went back to bring out a nightstand. He acted like it was nothing, but he didn’t fool her one bit. His biceps strained the fabric of his shirt, and the sweat on his brow told a different story.

“Little wimpy, are you?” he asked.

“That would be the pot calling the kettle black,” she said between short breaths.

He sat down on the floor beside her. “At least I’m not huffing and puffing.”

“Maybe not right now, but when you get that other nightstand and the washstand out, we’ll see if you’ve got enough air left in your lungs to call me wimpy,” she said.

He brought out the other stand. “Now you can get the last piece.”

“Yeah, right! I’ll get you a can of spinach and you can play like Popeye and bring the furniture out with one hand,” she told him.

“You aren’t old enough to know anything about Popeye,” he said.

“I’m thirty-one, and Aunt Sugar had lots of old VHS cartoons for me to watch when I came to visit. You ready for that muscle-building spinach?” she asked.

“Hello!” a trio of voices yelled up from the foyer. “Jolene, where are you? We brought cookies.”

“Who—” Tucker started.

“Aunt Sugar’s friends.” She giggled as she rose to her feet. “Lucy, Flossie, and Dotty.”

She raced down the stairs. “What a wonderful surprise. How are y’all and how’d you get away at this time of day?”

“We’re on our noon break, and we decided to have cookies and milk today,” Flossie answered. “And Dotty don’t even start to work until evening.”

“And we’re mad at Sugar for going off on that trip. That’s the second stage of grief, you know.” Dotty yawned. “Sorry about that. I’ve only been up long enough to do my hair and makeup. But we’ve been talkin’, and Sugar going away hurts us almost as much as if she died. Thank God she didn’t, but it still hurts. And we’re going through the stages—so here we are with cookies.”

“We’re also prayin’ that she didn’t make a mistake. Who’s that up there?” Lucy pointed up.

“Now, Sister Lucy.”

“Don’t you sister me, Flossie. Just because I go to church don’t make me a nun.” Lucy shook her finger at her. “Is Reuben up there starting some remodeling?”

Jolene shook her head. “Reuben sold his half of the inn to Tucker Malone. He’s the one making all the noise.”

Lucy quickly made the sign of the cross on her chest. “Sweet Jesus in heaven. You aren’t lettin’ him live here, are you?”

“He owns half the place. What choice do I have?” Jolene asked. “Come on in the kitchen. We’ll have milk with our cookies while the coffee is making.”

“Of course.” Flossie removed a stocking hat and fluffed back her kinky hair. She led the way into the kitchen with Lucy right behind her.

Dotty fell in next and Jolene brought up the rear. “Don’t pay no attention to Lucy. She’s in another of her church phases,” Dotty whispered over her shoulder. “She always does this when she loses a boyfriend, whether by death or to another woman.”

“Another church phase?” Jolene asked.

“It runs in cycles. If she’s got a boyfriend, she don’t have time for church except on Sunday, when the only thing that’d keep us from sittin’ beside Sugar would be if we was sick nigh unto death. When they either break up or he dies, then she has to get right with the Lord for all her sinful ways with the boyfriend, and that means she’s at some church every time the doors open for services. Right now, she’s in the process of gettin’ right.”

“Catholic?” Jolene asked.

“Nope. She mixes all the religions up together so that she gets the right one.” Dotty giggled.

“How does that work?”

“Wait and see,” Dotty said out of the side of her mouth.

Flossie had taken the plastic wrap from the paper plate piled with chocolate-chip cookies and set them in the middle of the table.

“We remember Tucker from when he came to church with Melanie on occasion. He’s such a tortured soul. And he drinks on weekends.” Lucy brought out the milk and four glasses.

Dotty pursed her lips. “Gawd Almighty, Lucy. We’re livin’ in a brand-new world. If Tucker needs a little something to get him through the tough times, that’s his business. And if Jolene wants to sleep with him, then that’s her business.”

Lucy slapped her hands over her ears. “I can’t listen to you take God’s name in vain. I swear you didn’t used to be like this before you and Bruce left perfectly good jobs and went to keepin’ a honky-tonk.”

“Whoa, ladies,” Jolene said. “I’m not sleeping with my partner, and what’s this about a tortured soul?”

“He’s like my poor dead Ezra. He felt guilty because his wife died, too.” Lucy shook her finger under Dotty’s nose. “And don’t you giggle again, Dotty. I’m past the denial stage about our precious Sugar leaving, and I’m well into anger, so watch what you say to me.”

“Well, honey, you did your best to console Ezra when he was alive, so you shouldn’t have any regrets. He probably died with a smile on his face because he was dreaming about all the sex y’all had,” Dotty said.