Sugar had a vision of her having a heart attack and panic set in. What if one of her friends died and she was too far away to even get home for the funeral?

“Are you all right? You’re panting?” Sugar asked. “Tell me everything. Is Jolene doin’ all right? She says that she loves the work at the Magnolia and sends me pictures, but you’re the closest one to her since y’all work together, so do I need to come home to take care of her?”

Dotty giggled. “I miss you like hell, but don’t come back to Jefferson for Jolene. She’s doin’ a fine job of livin’ with Tucker. And I think I can see some improvement. To my knowledge, he’s only been drunk enough to have a hangover one time. Hell, who knows? Maybe Lucy’s prayers are going higher than the ceiling.”

Sugar laughed. “So what is Lucy praying for?”

“That he stays sober, especially after the grand opening in the spring, because she thinks it’ll hurt business if he comes in drunk on the weekends,” Dotty answered.

“Well, then praise the Lord for Lucy’s prayers,” Sugar said.

“Amen to that,” Dotty said. “He don’t know that he’s fallin’ for her, and we’re tryin’ our best to let them figure it out on their own. But he looks at her like Jasper used to look at you when we were all kids. And it’s real hard for us not to play matchmaker.”

“That’s sweet,” Sugar said. “But according to Jolene, he’s not over Melanie. Sounds to me like Tucker and Jolene have been walkin’ two separate paths. But then there was a fork in the road and they’ve met up to walk a single one. They’ve kind of got the same problems.”

“You should’ve been a therapist, the way you can see inside people’s souls,” Dotty said. “Now tell me all about your travels.”

“It’s been great. We go as far as we want, stay in one place until we’re bored, and then go on down the road again. It’s like a long honeymoon,” Sugar answered.

“I wish I’d got me a driver and an RV and gone with you,” Dotty sighed. “Promise when you swing back this way, you’ll stop here for a week or two. We miss you so much.”

“Promise,” Sugar said. “And here’s Jasper with the milk so I can make fried chicken and gravy for dinner. Talk to you in a day or so.”

Chapter Fourteen

Jolene’s apartment out in West Texas had been so small that the only time Aunt Sugar came to visit, she said that she couldn’t cuss a cat in it without getting a hair in her mouth. Now Jolene lived in a huge house, and yet after Tucker left that morning, it felt empty and cold.

“What’s the matter with me?” She sat down on the top step of the staircase when she’d finished sweeping. “This kind of business is what I’ve dreamed about since I was a child.”

Thinking that a breath of fresh air might straighten her out, she went downstairs, jerked her coat on, and headed to the bayou. As a child, she’d spent hours running up and down the edge of the water. Some days she made tiny boats from twigs and floated them. Others she’d dug a few worms or caught some grasshoppers and gone fishing. As a teenager, she’d found solace in sitting with her back to her favorite old willow tree and listening to the sounds of nature.

A cottontail startled her when it ran out from a thicket of dead branches not far from the water’s edge, and she stopped to watch it zigzag back toward the house. She turned around and saw Tucker sitting against her tree, and it brought up something like jealousy in her heart. That was where she’d hidden from Reuben when she was a child. If she made herself very small, then he couldn’t find her back in the drooping branches. It was where she’d poured out her heart in a journal the summer she was thirteen. And where she’d come to search for peace after her mother’s addiction took a firm hold on her.

“That’s my tree. It’s not up for sale, not even half interest,” she said.

“Then charge me for trespassing, and I’ll pay my fine. What are you doing outside in this cold wind?” he asked.

“Same thing you are, probably. Needed some fresh air and a new perspective,” she answered.

“Want to talk about it?” he asked. “You’re not having second thoughts about the inn, are you? Because if you are, I’ll be glad to buy you out.”

She sat down beside him. “Not even for a million dollars.”

He scooted over to give her room to lean against the tree. “My mother-in-law called. I guess that’s what I should still call her. Melanie wasn’t ever my ex. Maybe I should say my late wife’s mother? She only calls once a year.”

“In January? Not at Christmas?” Jolene picked up a rock and tossed it out in the water.

“Melanie’s birthday was—is—again, I’m not sure how to even talk about this.” His shoulders raised in half a shrug. “Anyway, January 19, this coming Saturday. Her family does this get-together to remember her.”

“That’s sweet,” Jolene said.

“Her mother always invites me.” His voice sounded hollow.

“Have you ever gone?” she asked.

He shook his head slowly. “I can’t. Her father didn’t want her to marry me. He thought she deserved better than a cop. Said I’d get killed on the job and leave her with a broken heart.”

“That’s real positive thinking.” The wind whipped down from the north and blew Jolene’s hair across her face. She dug around in her coat pocket for a rubber band and finger combed her hair up into a ponytail.

“I didn’t come from such good stock, either. My grandparents were good people and they raised me. I don’t know that my parents were ever married, so you know what that makes me.” He went on to tell her more about his background.

She could hear more pain in his voice and reached across the distance to lay a hand on his shoulder. “You don’t have to talk about it.”

He picked up a twig and toyed with it. After a couple of minutes, he went on. “I kind of felt abandoned my whole life until Melanie. My grandparents were wonderful, don’t get me wrong. Gramps was a cop and I adored him, but I already told you that. I thought I had a lot to prove, and so the reputation kind of followed me around,” he said. “I usually don’t talk about this to anyone but Sassy, and then only when I’m drunk.”

He tossed a rock into the middle of the bayou, and they watched the water ripple out from it, first in little circles and then in bigger ones until the surface was smooth again.

“Did Melanie tell you what her dad said?” Jolene asked.

“No, he did.” His tone had turned bitter. “I kind of understood where he was coming from. She was his only daughter. I assured him that I loved her and would take care of her, that he had nothing to worry about. I broke my promise.”

“Hey, you can’t carry that burden. That wreck wasn’t your fault,” Jolene told him. “You think she was a daddy’s girl?”

He skimmed the water with another flat rock. “Oh, yeah. Big-time.”

“She must’ve loved you a helluva lot.” Jolene had been close to her dad, but she’d have told him to go to hell on a rusty poker if he’d talked to her like that about the man she was about to marry. She’d been a daddy’s girl, too, but she’d never know the joy of walking down the aisle on her dad’s arm.

“Why would you say that?” he asked.

“Come on, Tucker, think about it. She went against her daddy’s wishes and married you. That takes courage, and from what I see on television cop shows, living with a detective ain’t all that easy, either, so it wasn’t a bed of roses after she married you,” Jolene answered.

“I could have been a better husband,” he whispered.

“Yep, and if the situation were reversed and you were the one who died in that car wreck, she would be saying that she shouldn’t have nagged you to take out the trash. Or fussed at you because you had a beer with the other cops after work, or forgot to pick up milk on your way home. Let it go and move on. She loved you enough to marry you, Tucker. She would hate for you to be punishing yourself all this time,” she told him.

“You sound like the therapist I had to see at the station,” he said. “I should be getting back to work.”

“You should’ve listened to that therapist you talked to when you were in the service.” She wondered if she was talking to him, to herself, or to both of them. The therapist she’d seen had told her that she had to realize she’d done all she could, but she hadn’t believed him. Now she wished she’d worked harder at overcoming her own guilt. She’d buried it like a dog did a bone. And then she’d gone back every few months and dug it up again. Tucker was doing the same thing—only he never buried it to begin with. He carried it around with him, slept with it, and kept it close by his side.

“I probably should have, but talking about it with you sure helps.” He leaned a little closer to her and their eyes locked.

For a minute, she thought he might kiss her, and she moistened her lips with the tip of her tongue. But then he turned away, focusing on the bayou again. She felt heat rise from her neck to her cheeks.

“Well, it helps me to talk about things, too. I’ve never been real comfortable tellin’ anyone about my mother or Johnny Ray,” she said.

“We’re sure a couple of misfits, aren’t we?” Tucker muttered.

“Yep, we are, and I for one am a hungry misfit. Want to share that cobbler we brought from Flossie’s yesterday? We could heat it up and top it off with ice cream.”

He stood up and offered her a hand. “Sounds great. And thanks for listenin’.”

She took it and popped up to her feet. “That goes both ways. Sometimes we just need to get things off our chests.” Chemistry sparked when he touched her, making her pulse race. “I talked to Aunt Sugar this morning. They’re having a great time. You should sit in on her next call. She wants me to send pictures of us, not just the work we’re doing. I thought maybe when we got into painting, we’d send one of us in our work clothes. Maybe we can even FaceTime and actually give her a tour of what’s going on rather than just pictures.”