You can still have it if you’ll let me go, Melanie fussed at him again. I can’t do it for you, but I sent you the strongest messenger I’ve got today. Listen to Daddy.

He raised his head and dried his face, blending his tears with her father’s on the bandanna. “I’ll try, but it can’t be with Jolene. We’re partners. If it fell apart, we’d have a hell of a situation.”

Armed with a recipe for blueberry muffins, Jolene left her room to check and be sure that she had everything in the inn to make them. Sure enough, there were just enough berries in the refrigerator, and all the other ingredients were in the pantry.

She picked up a bottle of water and carried it to the living room with Sassy right behind her. The cat jumped up on the sofa beside her and inched her way into Jolene’s lap.

“You have a stubborn master.” Jolene rubbed her long fur.

“Yes, she did,” Tucker said from the doorway.

Jolene had never known a man who walked as quietly as he did. She didn’t answer—just shot a look over toward him. “So do you still need a drink, or did you have three or four before you left?”

“Sassy was Melanie’s cat to start with, and you’re right. She could be as stubborn as the proverbial Missouri mule. Ever wonder why one from that state would be worse than, say, one from Texas?”

“No, and you didn’t answer my question,” she said.

“I didn’t have the drink. I poured it, but . . .” He removed his coat and hung it over the back of a rocking chair before he sat down in a recliner and popped up the footrest. “I went to the cemetery to talk to Melanie. Her dad, Luke, was there. I need a friend, Jolene. Not a therapist. Not a partner. A friend.”

“Me, too,” she whispered. “So what happened with her father?”

“He told me to move on, that Melanie would want me to, but I’m afraid if I do that I’ll lose the memories I have of her,” he said.

His eyes were bloodshot, but she believed him when he said he hadn’t had a drink. She’d swear to that. She knew the difference in eyes that had been crying and those that were caused by too much liquor.

“He has a brain tumor, and he hasn’t got much longer—that was partly why he was there. He looked like hell. But he apologized and doesn’t blame me for her death.”

“That’s good, isn’t it? Not that he’s dying but that you got things settled.” She wished that she and her mother had come to an understanding before Elaine had passed on.

“It should feel good, but nothing’s different.” Tucker’s tone said that he was miserable, but at least he hadn’t gone straight for the bottle.

“Let it go, Tucker. Some of it you’ve got to do yourself, and that’s a friend talking, not a therapist. No one can do it for you. Maybe the first step would be to go to the party they’re having. It might bring you closure to remember everything, the good and the bad.”

“But . . . ,” he started to say and then stopped.

She could’ve finished his sentence for him if she’d wanted. He was about to say that there were no bad times, but she knew that was part of the letting go, too. To remember it all just like it was—black, white, or gray. There had been very few white—or good—memories in her world. Most of them had been either gray or black. Maybe it was the reverse in his, but she was learning to face it all. Like remembering the good times with her mother and her dad’s flower beds. Remembering only the good times was just as unhealthy as remembering only the bad ones—there was no closure in either.

“I’ll try,” he finally said.

“You never know when a day is going to be your last one. We’ve both got the battle scars to prove that,” she said. “Luke is dying. This could be the final time you get to spend with him and the family.”

Tucker went to the cabinet and took out the peanut butter. “You’re right, but it doesn’t make it easy.”

“Life is not easy.” She opened the fridge and set the grape jelly on the cabinet.

They’d made sandwiches and sat down to the table when giggles floated down from above. Then they heard the old pipes groaning as someone turned on the water in the bathtub.

“Are they . . . ,” he whispered.

“I believe they are reliving their honeymoon night by taking a bath together. Or maybe they’re having tub sex.” Jolene smiled. “I hope I’m still interested in taking a bath with my husband when I’m their age.”

“I just hope I don’t need those little blue pills to get in the tub with my wife when I’m that age,” Tucker said.

Chapter Seventeen

Sometimes a springlike day will sneak its way into what is still officially winter. That was the case that Saturday morning as Jolene drove into town to shop for groceries. She rolled the window down to enjoy the fresh air. But instead of driving to the store, she found herself parked outside the Tipsy Gator.

“Guess this old truck has a mind of its own,” she said. “I’m here, so I might as well go on in and talk to Dotty.”

She opened the door with her new key and yelled, “Dotty, where are you?”

“Thank God you’re here.” Dotty appeared out of nowhere and pulled her inside by the arm.

“Is something wrong?” Jolene asked.

“No, chère, I’m just bored out of my mind. And when I get bored I want to drink,” Dotty answered. “So come in here and keep an old woman company for a little while.” She looped her arm in Jolene’s and led her to a table. “Want a root beer?”

“Only if you’re having one,” Jolene said.

“I guess I can pretend it’s a real drink.” Dotty opened two bottles of root beer, handed one to Jolene, and then sat down.

“If you’re so bored, why didn’t you go to Flossie’s or Lucy’s to help them out?” Jolene asked.

“They didn’t even open today because of this storm comin’ in. It’s supposed to get real icy, so we’re callin’ off the dinner tomorrow at Flossie’s. She’ll have it next week. I thought about closin’ the Gator, but I figure that folks will find a way to a bar, even if they have to come on dog sleds. What’re you out doin’? Layin’ in supplies for the bad weather?”

“I was on my way to the grocery store and somehow found myself here instead, but if we’ve got ice on the way, I’d better stock up. You do still want me to come in, don’t you?” Jolene sipped the root beer.

“Of course I do. If it ever gets too bad for you to go home, my couch makes out into a bed,” Dotty said. “Now tell me about your first guests. I’m so glad you fixed things so they could stay. We heard all about their plans at church. They spent their first night there when they got married.”

“We hardly saw them. They went straight to their room. I took breakfast up to them and Mary took it at the door. They came down at exactly eleven, which is checkout time, thanked us for making the arrangements, paid us, and left.” Jolene leaned forward and lowered her voice. “They enjoyed a bath together.”

“Every year.” Dotty’s green eyes twinkled. “Mary says she don’t give a damn if Jerry has to eat Viagra like M&M’S, or if gravity has got her boobs, she will have sex in the bathtub like they did on their wedding night.”

Jolene giggled. “Tucker was just sayin’ last night that he hoped he didn’t need them when he was past sixty.”

“Oh?” Dotty cocked her head to one side. “Just what brought that conversation on?”

“What happens in the Magnolia Inn is like Las Vegas, remember? But we were talking about Mary and Jerry—sound travels along those pipes.” Jolene blushed.

“If you didn’t at least think about having bathtub sex with Tucker when all that was goin’ on, then you’re crazy,” Dotty said. “I’m thinkin’ about all the times Bruce and I did and I didn’t even hear the noise.”

The blush deepened. “Okay, so I dreamed about it last night and woke up kind of angry that it wasn’t real.”

“Then at least you’ve thought about having sex with him or you wouldn’t dream about it.” Dotty put a palm on her cheek. “Don’t blush, darlin’. We’re grown women with needs of our own.”

“But . . .” Jolene started.

“Tell me all about the ‘but,’” Dotty said.

“Until he gets over Melanie, what’s the use in even thinking about such things?”

“It’s tough to let go of someone you love, chère. You ever think that fate put him here . . .”

“Fate put who where?” Lucy arrived through the back door.

“What are you doing here?” Dotty asked. “And how did you get in?”

“You’re gettin’ dementia. You gave me a key when Bruce died so in case you passed away, the cops wouldn’t break down the door. Remember?” Lucy asked.

“Of course I remember, but I didn’t even hear the door open,” Dotty told her.

“We came to get you to go to the store with us.” Flossie hung her coat on the back of a chair. “You can’t live on what’s up there on that shelf.” She pointed to the liquor behind the bar.

“Now what was that about fate?” Lucy removed her coat and tossed it on a nearby table.

“I was telling Dotty that Tucker is having a terrible time moving on,” Jolene said.

“And before I was so rudely interrupted, I was about to say that fate might have brought him here so that Jolene could help him move on,” Dotty said.

Flossie took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “Way I see it is this: he’s got to get on with life and quit this weekend drinkin’ for good. I’m with Dotty on this one. Fate brought him to the Magnolia Inn so that y’all could be friends and you could help him.”