She closed the ledger. “I hadn’t even thought of it being a write-off—we’d have to really think about where we could shave a few feet off to set one up. Maybe the dining room?”

Tucker shook his head. “If we want to promote weddings here at the Magnolia Inn, that room needs to stay as big as possible.”

She took a deep breath and let it out slowly, as if she figured he was about to disagree with her. “We need a website first. It’s the way to do business in our day and age. Ledgers and newspaper ads are so outdated. We need a professional to set it up, but then I can manage it.”

“What would it cost to have it done?”

“Depends on how fancy we want it,” she answered.

He pulled his wallet out and laid a credit card on the table. “I’ll be working on bedding and taping all afternoon. That’s something that you can’t help with, so could you get this started? Charge whatever you think you need to this.”

“We can let folks know that we’re taking reservations starting in March. You want to advertise that we’ll be ready for weddings the first of May?” she asked.

“Do you have a bead on a photographer and a wedding caterer?” He was glad to have something to talk about with her, even if it was business. At least there was a little of that old sparkle in her blue eyes.

“I could probably ask Dotty and the girls about who’s available for that kind of thing,” she said.

“Are we okay?” he asked.

“As partners, yes.”


“The jury is still out.”

“Got any idea how long that jury is going to deliberate?”

Her eyes met his. “How long are you going to keep riding this guilt trip?”

“What’s that got to do with anything?” he said through clenched teeth.

“It’s got to do with everything in our lives. Tell me, if Melanie was the amazing person everyone says she was, do you really think she’d want you to be doing this to yourself? To sit around feeling sorry for yourself?”

“I’ll see you at noon.” There were times when he thought he liked Jolene, maybe too much. Everything she said made sense, but he still didn’t want to hear it. So he turned and left the room without a backward glance.

Jolene had just pulled up the website guru she’d used to design the site for the Twisted Rope when someone rapped on the door. Before she could push back her chair and stand up, Flossie’s voice floated across the foyer.

“Where are y’all? We were going stir-crazy.”

“And we brought a cake. I made it for the bake sale that got canceled.” Lucy carried it into the kitchen. “Chocolate with chocolate icing. I call it ‘sin in a pan.’”

Dotty hung her coat on the back of a chair and whispered, “Sugar called us. Where’s Tucker? Did y’all make up? Was there sex involved?”

Jolene’s eyes rolled toward the ceiling, and she shook her head. “Not hardly. Didn’t you feel the chill when you walked in?”

“Pay up.” Lucy held out her hand.

Dotty fished a dollar bill from her bra and gave it to Lucy.

“Y’all are bettin’ on me?” Jolene frowned.

“Honey, those two will bet on which mosquito flittin’ around will land on bare skin first. Don’t take offense. I’ll get the plates and make a fresh pot of coffee. You can fill us in on what’s happening while we eat. Is that pot roast I smell cookin’?”

“Yes, it is. And there’s plenty. Y’all might as well stay to dinner. I’ve got a raisin’ of Aunt Sugar’s hot rolls in a bowl to go with it, and you’ve brought cake for dessert.” Company would be nice to buffer the tension between her and Tucker.

Dotty held up a hand. “Yes, we’d love to stay. Flossie, put away those plates. We’ll ruin our dinner if we have chocolate cake now. Let’s just visit.”

Flossie nodded, crossed the floor, and peeked around the doorjamb into the foyer. “I think the coast is clear.”

“He works with earbuds. He probably didn’t even hear you come in,” Jolene said. “And I’m not sure this journey y’all talked about with us being more than partners . . .”

Lucy held up both hands. “Whoa now, sister. Tell us about that time right after your dad died.”

What did that have to do with today? Jolene frowned but said, “I was sixteen and planning to go to college, but that dream went down the drain because there was no money. Mama was in a downward spiral. Drinking. Pills. Most days she did make it to work, but Sundays were awful, and I was constantly afraid that she’d get fired. I didn’t know how I could support us both on what I made,” Jolene answered.

“Ever feel sorry for yourself?” Dotty asked.

“Sure I did, and I felt guilty because I couldn’t keep her in things like Daddy did, and . . .” She clamped a hand over her mouth. “Whose side are you on?” she mumbled.

“Your side, of course. We’re always on your side, but that don’t mean that we can’t help you see things better,” Dotty said. “The heart doesn’t know age, race, creed, or colors. It just knows happiness or pain. And when your partner is in pain, then you have the responsibility to help. Now, that said, I think a little tough love is good.”

Lucy patted her hand and lowered her voice. “But that doesn’t mean you should put up with him getting so drunk that he passes out on the floor.”

“So since I didn’t pamper him—” Jolene started.

“You did the right thing for sure,” Flossie butted in.

“I swore when Mama died I’d never put up with that kind of thing again,” Jolene said.

“So what are you going to do now?” Dotty asked.

One shoulder popped up in a shrug. “He’s my partner. That can’t change. He’s a damn fine carpenter and a hard worker. I appreciate that. But . . .” She paused.

“And are you willing to make a few adjustments? Friendship is give and take,” Lucy said.

Jolene cocked her head to one side and narrowed her eyes. “What do I need to change?”

“If he wants a beer or a shot, don’t give him the old evil eye,” Lucy said. “Practice tolerance and patience.”

“But don’t enable or put up with jack crap,” Dotty said. “Did y’all hear that Alison Drummond finally left that cheatin’, beatin’ husband of hers? He’s done blacked her eye for the last time.”

While they dissected poor Alison’s story, Jolene thought about the way she’d handled things since Sunday. She wouldn’t change a danged thing about that, but then, Tucker hadn’t had a beer after supper on Monday or Tuesday nights. Would she have given him the evil eye, as Lucy said, if he had?

She slowly shook her head. It wasn’t the fact that he drank a little that bothered her. It was when he went past that into the drunken stage that left him passed out on the floor. And they really should have a serious talk about that, even just as financial partners.

Flossie patted her on the shoulder. “Honey, are you okay?”

“Of course,” Jolene answered.

“I asked you if it wasn’t time to make out those hot rolls for lunch.” Dotty grinned. “And I bet you were thinking about this whole thing with Tucker, weren’t you? Y’all will be all right. You just got to get over this hurdle.”

Jolene slid her chair back and went to the cabinet. “You really think so?”

“Oh, yes,” they all chimed in at once.

She uncovered the bread dough, shook a little flour in the bowl, and kneaded the dough a few times. “Why do you think that?”

“Because of the way he looks at you. He’s just got to get past his problem, and you’ll help him with that.” Lucy got out a pan and greased it with butter.

Jolene pinched off a dozen rolls and placed them in the pan.

The sound of Tucker coming down the stairs shushed them all. The ladies found something to do while Jolene slid the rolls into the oven with the pot roast. She checked his expression when he walked into the room. He was smiling brightly—as if nothing at all had happened in the past few days.

“Well, hello. What a nice surprise. Is that chocolate cake? Now I’m really glad y’all are here. Can you stay and eat lunch with us?” He shifted his gaze toward Jolene. “I got to a stopping point. I’ll wash up and set the table.”

“We’ve got it,” Jolene said. “But you could put that sheet up over the hole. Sassy pulled it down this morning, and a lot of cold air is coming through there.”

“Sure thing.” He smiled.

Chapter Twenty

Tucker awoke Sunday morning with a clear head and Sassy in her spot on the pillow beside him. The world felt right again for the first time in many months. He crawled out of bed, and the sunlight coming through the window didn’t blind him. He’d worked on the third bedroom until after two the night before and had still been awake when Jolene came in at three. But he hadn’t gone to the kitchen to meet her.

Now it was after ten, and he was hungry. He padded to the kitchen in his socks and put on a pot of coffee. His cooking expertise ended with hot dogs made in the microwave and cinnamon toast in the oven. There were no hot dogs in the refrigerator, but there was plenty of bread. He buttered a dozen slices, shook a thin layer of brown sugar on the tops, and then sprinkled that with cinnamon. He’d just shoved the baking sheet into the oven when Jolene appeared, looking cute as always in a pair of pajama pants that were too long and a T-shirt that would have been big on a three-hundred-pound wrestler.

“Smells good. So you cook cinnamon rolls?”

“Cinnamon toast. But in a pinch I can make really good bologna sandwiches,” he answered.

“I love cinnamon toast.” Jolene poured a cup of coffee and sipped on it for a few minutes.

“We need to talk.” He pulled the toast from the oven and set it on the top of the stove. “I cooked. You set the table.”