He drew her close and held her as they listened to Sarah McLachlan sing “Angel.” His sadness was very different from Jolene’s or the singer’s, but he could relate to the pain that it caused, because the end result was the same.

“Songs speak to me,” she whispered. “They always have. They get down into my heart and strike emotions so deep that I wonder where they come from.”

“Me, too.” He had to swallow several times for the lump in his throat to disappear.

She took a step back and his arms felt empty.

“What song reminds you of the Magnolia Inn?” he asked.

She drew the tail of her T-shirt up to wipe her eyes. “You’ll think I’m crazy.”

“Hey, we listened to music all the time when I was on the police force. You’d be surprised what songs bring back memories to me.” He wasn’t about to tell her that he couldn’t even listen to Jamey Johnson sing “Lead Me Home,” because that’s what they had played at Melanie’s funeral.

“Aunt Sugar would dance around the dining room with Uncle Jasper to Mary Chapin Carpenter singing, ‘I Feel Lucky.’ When I hear that song, I think of how much they were in love and they didn’t have to go outside this inn to . . .” She paused for a breath. “And I’m not sure how to explain.”

“Maybe the inn really is magical.” Tucker reached for her phone and brought up “I Feel Lucky,” laid it on the counter, and held out a hand. “Can I have this dance, Miz Jolene?”

She put one hand in his and the other on his shoulder. She was a very good swing dancer. When he spun her out and brought her back to his chest, she didn’t miss a single beat. By the time the song ended, they were both breathless, and there wasn’t a tear in her eyes.

In that moment, he realized that Jolene was more than a partner. She was his friend, the first one he’d made since Melanie died. With sideways glances, he studied her. She was definitely what they talked about when they said dynamite came in small packages. She’d endured so much at such a young age, and yet she was kind, sweet, and the hardest-working woman he’d ever known. She and Melanie would have been good friends for sure.

“I bet Uncle Jasper and Aunt Sugar have been dancing like that all over. I haven’t done that in a long time. That was fun,” she said as she sat down at the table.

“Yes, it was,” he said. “We’ll have to do it more often.”

Columbus, Georgia

Five days after leaving Jefferson, Jasper and Sugar reached the Georgia line. Sugar awoke in the middle of the night and eased out of bed. She poured herself a glass of milk, opened the mini blinds above the booth-type table to look at the stars, and imagined her niece sitting at the table back in Jefferson, having a late-night snack before she went to bed. Tucker was there, but she could only see him in his stained jeans and shirt, like the picture Jolene had sent. He was a good-looking man with all that dark hair.

Her phone was lying on the table, so she picked it up and brought up the photograph again. Tucker looked happy. She flipped past that one to one of Jolene with a smudge of dirt on her face. Without thinking, Sugar tried to wipe it away with a fingertip.

“God, I miss home so much. I’m so homesick I could just cry,” she muttered and then checked to be sure that she hadn’t awakened Jasper.

What had she been thinking, leaving the place where she’d been born and lived her whole life? She had roots, not wings. She didn’t necessarily want to go back to the inn, but she did want to go home.

Where are you going to live? a pesky voice in her head asked.

A few keystrokes on her phone brought up Dixie Realty. In only a few minutes she’d found several suitable places. She and Jasper didn’t need a big house. Just a small one with two bedrooms would be fine. Jolene had her own place now, and Sugar’s friends wouldn’t be coming to spend the night.

Tears flooded Sugar’s cheeks when she saw that the house next door to Flossie’s was on the market. She’d been in that place when she was a little girl. It might be an older home, but it had been well maintained. She wanted to live there, next door to Flossie, but that was all a big pipe dream. Jasper had had his heart broken when Reuben sold his half of the inn. Sugar couldn’t be the one to break it again. This gypsy lifestyle had been his dream for years, so she’d have to brace up and get over the homesickness—for his sake.

Chapter Nine

Please excuse our mess. We’re remodeling,” Jolene said as she swung the door open before the ladies even knocked. She was glad to see these old gals. That they’d taken her under their wings and made her a part of their world meant more than they’d ever know.

“That sounds just like something Sugar would say. She called me last night, and Jasper is doing better now.” Lucy carried in a box filled with something that gave off a delicious aroma. “I brought green bean casserole, rice, and salad.”

Flossie came in behind her with a slow cooker. “I made my famous meatballs. I’m still mad at Reuben for what he did, but I’m glad he’s not here.”

Dotty brought up the rear. “I like to bake more than I like to cook. Like I’ve said before, I can cook, just like I can clean the bathrooms in the bar, but that don’t mean I like either one. Anyway, my job is always dessert. Today we have chocolate cake.”

Tucker took the box from Lucy. “Well, it all smells amazing. I’m starving. All Jolene would fix me for breakfast was a few scrambled eggs and some toast.”

“I don’t feel a bit sorry for you. You should have learned to cook,” Lucy declared.

“I never learned to cook because I was learnin’ how to put up drywall and repairin’ floors and workin’ all kinds of crazy hours as a detective.” Tucker’s drawl was more pronounced than ever. “I didn’t have time to do everything, and besides, I ate a lot of fast food. Anyway, I’m real grateful for sweet ladies from Texas like y’all who bring Sunday dinner to me.”

“Don’t you try to sweet-talk me, boy.” Lucy shook a forefinger under his nose. “And I wouldn’t even give that recipe to Sugar, so don’t ask. It’s an old family recipe from down in southern Cajun country.”

“What if he was a preacher? Would you deny the recipe to a man of the cloth?” Dotty asked.

“I wouldn’t deny God anything. He’s saved my soul,” Lucy declared.

“I’ll give you my recipe for the meatballs. Sugar found it in an old cookbook of her mama’s, and we been making them for years.” Flossie grinned.

Dotty cocked her head to one side. “I’m surprised that you’re goin’ to partake of them, Lucy. You know they’ve got half a can of beer in them, and if you’re goin’ to fuss at us about our sins, then you should practice what you preach. And by the way, was that a virgin daiquiri that you drank in the Gator last night?”

“Oh, hush!” she growled. “Just because Ezra’s death caused me to reevaluate my standing with the good Lord does not mean I can’t have a mixed drink or eat meatballs with a little beer in them.”

“You didn’t mourn long. You’re already eyeballing another man,” Dotty argued.

She stuck her nose in the air. “Ezra would want me to be happy.”

“Lucy, you’ve been doing this for the past twenty years,” Flossie said. “You get a boyfriend. He dies or breaks up with you. We have to go to every church in town so you can be right with the Lord. It’s time for it to stop. We like our own church, where we’ve all gone since we were little kids.”

“But what if it’s not the right one for the Lord to hear my repentin’ for bein’ a loose woman with a man?” Lucy asked as she helped get the food on the table.

“God could hear you if you were prayin’ in the ladies’ room at the Gator. And when you repent, you ain’t supposed to go out and do the same damn thing again,” Dotty said.

Lucy shook her finger at her. “You haven’t got any right to preach to me. We had to have an intervention to get you off alcohol after Bruce died.”

“That’s what gives me the right, chère.” Dotty dragged out the endearment.

“Miz Lucy?” Tucker pulled out a chair for her.

“Thank you, and Jolene, I’m sayin’ grace,” Lucy said.

Tucker seated Flossie, Dotty, and Jolene before he took his place at the head of the table.

The moment he sat down, Lucy dropped her head to her chest and rested her forehead on her hands.

Dotty rolled her eyes toward Flossie, who just winked and smiled.

“Our most gracious heavenly father in heaven’s glory,” Lucy started, and she went on for a good two minutes before she finally blessed the food with an amen.

“If this food is cold, then it’s your fault,” Dotty said.

“But God is happy that we graced it,” Lucy said.

Flossie pushed her chair back, went to the kitchen, and returned with a bottle of wine. “Almost forgot this. Jolene, darlin’, would you pour for us?”

“Wait a minute,” Dotty said. “This is our first Sunday dinner with Jolene at the Magnolia. Let’s do it up right.” She went to the china cabinet in the corner of the dining room and brought out four stemmed glasses.

“Be glad to.” Jolene poured for all three ladies. When she reached Tucker, he put a hand over his glass.

“Not much for wine, but I’ve got beer in the fridge. Anyone else want one while I’m up?” he asked.

“Lucy can’t have one. And she shouldn’t have the wine. I’ll drink it for her. She might not get her wings and halo if she has wine and beer both,” Dotty said.

Lucy glared at her. “You can shut up about that now so we can have a nice, pleasant dinner. And Tucker, I would love a beer. Wine with my dinner and a beer with the chocolate cake.”

Flossie whispered into Jolene’s ear, “She can’t hold her liquor worth a damn.”