You’re comparing apples and cow chips. Her mother’s voice was loud in her ears. Think about it.

Jolene ran a wet cloth all around the baseboards to get rid of a layer of dust and muttered, “Why would I have to think about it? You both have or had the same problem, but at least if he dies in a sleazy hotel, he won’t leave a young girl without parents. And he’s trying to get his life in order.”

She immediately felt guilty for her tone. Why can’t I sweep the bad feelings out of my heart and soul as easily as I did the cobwebs off the ceiling?

Chapter Sixteen

Somehow Tucker managed to slide a piece of furniture into each of the other bedrooms and clear out the hallway, and they worked together to get the requested room ready. Jolene pretended she was the guests and slung open the door to get a first impression of the room. It certainly wasn’t a five-star hotel, but she’d done what she could with what she had to work with, and there was a quaint beauty to the room. She only hoped that it didn’t disappoint her anniversary couple.

Tucker’s reflection in the mirror as he stood behind her said that he was as pleased with it as she was.

“It looks wonderful. Think about what the place looked like yesterday when we came home from the auction and how it is now. You’ve done an amazing job, Jolene.”

His warm breath sent a rush of heat through her body, giving her the sudden desire to turn around and kiss him, but she wrapped her arms around her own body and said, “I’ve got this partner that helped me. You should meet him sometime. He’s pretty great.”

“Oh, really. Should I be jealous?” Tucker teased.

She whipped around, and for a split second, she again thought he might kiss her—their lips were that close—but he took a step back.

“Of course not,” Jolene said.

“What if he had more money and was a better carpenter?” Tucker asked.

“Not even then. You don’t have a reason to be jealous,” Jolene answered.

Tucker scanned the room one more time. “Have we forgotten anything?”

“Not anything that I can think of. And your idea for that little table was great,” she said.

“Thank you.” He motioned with a nod for her to go downstairs before him. “Let’s have a cup of hot chocolate while we wait for them. I hate that I’m losing time to work, but this is probably good advertising. We’ve got fifteen minutes until they’ll check in.”

“And if they’re like Aunt Sugar and Uncle Jasper, they’ll be here five minutes early,” she said.

“Word-of-mouth promotion is the best in the world. These folks will go home and tell everyone how we worked to accommodate them.”

“I hope so.” She mentally ran through everything in the room and the bathroom to be sure she hadn’t forgotten a single thing.

The older couple arrived at exactly four o’clock with one light-blue suitcase that had seen better days. The lady, tall and thin, had a magnolia corsage pinned to her white lace dress and shoes that dated back to the late seventies. Her salt-and-pepper hair was swept up in the back, and a circlet of faded silk roses held a shoulder-length veil.

“Hello, we’re Jerry and Mary Anderson. We have reservations,” the husband said.

“Your room is ready,” Tucker said.

“Please forgive the mess,” Jolene said.

“Honey, we don’t care about all that. We just want to spend our anniversary in the same room as our one-night honeymoon, forty years ago,” Mary said. “It reminds us of how much we love each other.”

“I’ll take that suitcase for you,” Tucker said.

“No, thank you,” the lady said.

“It’s our little ritual. Same suitcase as forty years ago. Same clothes. Same room. And now I carry the bag upstairs and then . . .” He kissed his bride on the cheek.

“Jerry will set it beside the door and carry me across the threshold. We’ll be in our room until tomorrow when it’s checkout time.” She tucked her hand in his.

“Since we’re remodeling, we’ll bring breakfast to your room at about eight in the morning,” Jolene said.

“How sweet.” Mary smiled. “We had blueberry muffins and the lightest pancakes. Sugar always remembered. Do you think that could be possible?”

“Of course.” Jolene nodded.

“Okay, darlin’,” Jerry said. “Shall we continue our honeymoon?”

“Yes, darlin’.”

They went up the stairs hand in hand, with the suitcase bumping the wall every now and then. Jolene couldn’t take her eyes from them, and when she heard the door shut, she sighed.

“What a beautiful tradition,” she whispered.

“I need a drink. Want one?”

She shook her head. How could he drink now?

A memory of her mother when they saw a car with “Just Married” written on the back window in shoe polish flashed through Jolene’s mind.

“It makes me sad to think of those happy days. I need a drink,” Elaine had said.

When Jolene had returned home that night, Elaine was passed out on the sofa.

“All this work and they won’t even use the living room or the dining room.” She changed the subject and glanced toward the curtain and cornice that Tucker had hung in the dining room to cover up the huge hole where he’d torn out the wall to get to the plumbing.

“It don’t matter. You sure you don’t want a shot of whiskey or a beer?” he asked.

“No, I don’t, and it matters to me, Tucker,” she said.

“I had what they’ve got,” he said. “Nothing’s filling that hole.”

“I assume we’re talking about your heart and not the wall. What makes you think drinking will help?” She snapped, “You’re a lucky man, you know. You had what I want so bad I can taste it, and instead of being grateful for what you had, you drown your good memories in a bottle.”

“Don’t preach at me,” he growled.

“Don’t make me.” She flounced off to her room to find Sassy sleeping at the foot of her bed.

He wanted to slam the door to his room so much that it took all his willpower to shut it without a sound. Sassy wasn’t anywhere in sight, so he didn’t even have a cat to talk to. He went to the dresser and poured a shot of whiskey in a plastic cup. Sitting on the edge of the bed, he stared through the cup out the window toward the bayou. Nothing was in focus, just like his life. He set the glass on the nightstand without drinking from it, went back out into the foyer, got his coat, and tucked his keys into his pocket.

He drove to the Marshall cemetery and went straight to Melanie’s grave. He sat down in front of the tombstone and ran his fingers over the engraved name. “I love you, Melanie Malone. Always will. You’re my soul mate. You understood me.”

“Hello,” a deep voice said right behind him.

He didn’t have to turn around to know that it was Luke Tillison, Melanie’s father. Without being invited, the man sat down beside Tucker. Luke had been a big man the last time Tucker saw him—at Melanie’s funeral. He’d lost at least forty pounds and aged twenty years.

Tucker started to get up. “I was just leaving.”

“Don’t go, Tucker. Life hasn’t been good to either of us, has it? You’re still grieving and I’ve got an inoperable brain tumor. They gave me a year and it’s been nine months, but the upside is that when I’m gone, I’ll see Melanie again.”

Tucker eased back down to a sitting position. “I’m sorry.”

“I’m not. I’ve missed her so much, Tucker. I’ve got two sons, and I should be focused on giving them support and love, but she was my baby girl. She stole my heart the day she was born, and she took it with her when she died.”

Tucker took a blue bandanna from his hip pocket and handed it to the man. “Mine, too.”

“Don’t let this . . .” Luke wiped his eyes and handed it back to Tucker. He cleared his throat. “I’ve wanted to talk to you for a long time. She loved you, Tucker. And it was plain that you adored her. I’m sorry. But don’t let her death define you. You are young. Move on and live a long and happy life. Don’t wallow in misery like I’ve done. I’ve cheated my wife out of my last years and my sons out of a father. I hear you’ve bought interest in the Magnolia Inn. I’m glad to see that you’re trying to move on.”

“I should have gone into town that night. I should have spent more time with her. I shouldn’t have worked late,” Tucker said.

Luke laid his hand on Tucker’s knee. “Could have. Should have. Would have. That’s all in the past. Take a lesson from an old man who’s made too many mistakes. Move on out of the pain and be happy. It’s too late for me now, but you’re still a young man. And accept my apologies for trying to talk Melanie out of marryin’ you because you were a cop. You gave her years of happiness and joy, and I’m grateful to you for that.”

“Accepted, but it’s hard to move on after everything you had was so perfect,” Tucker said.

“Sounds like a country song,” Luke said. “It would sure be nice if you’d come to the dinner on Saturday. Bring your partner with you. We’d like to meet her. You know I’ve got two sons that still aren’t married.” He managed a weak grin.

“Can’t make any promises—we’ve got plans. But if we get through early, we might pop in for a few minutes.” Tucker laid a hand on the tombstone and then stood up. “How often do you come here?”

“Every day. Sometimes more than once. I’ve begged for her forgiveness for tryin’ to talk her out of marryin’ you, but I don’t feel like it’s happened yet,” Luke said.

“In my opinion, she forgave you years ago.” Tucker gave Luke’s shoulder a gentle squeeze. “Take care of yourself.”

Tucker drove a few blocks away from the cemetery and pulled into the parking lot of a trucking business. He laid his head on the steering wheel. The sobs racked his body and tears dripped onto the legs of his jeans. “Why couldn’t we have forty years, darlin’?”