“Seems fair enough. Are you about to tell me that you are going to continue to be an investor and do the work on this place, but you can’t live in the same house with me?” She got the table ready and poured coffee for them.

He moved the pan from counter to table. “Don’t put words in my mouth.”

“We need new paint, then?” she asked.

“Yes, but this is something else. I need to apologize about last weekend. There’s no excuse or reason for that kind of behavior, and if the roles had been reversed, I would have sold my half, or even given it away, and walked away that night.” He paused, biting off the corner of a piece of toast, giving himself time to put into words what he needed to say next.

“Apology accepted.”

He swallowed and sipped his coffee. “Melanie pops into my head every so often, mostly to fuss at me, sometimes to remind me of the good times. Lately all she says is that it’s time to let her go, but I don’t know how, Jolene. Last night I saw her in a dream, and she kept getting dimmer and dimmer. All she would say was that if I couldn’t let her go, then she’d have to take care of it on her own. I woke up in a cold sweat and grabbed her picture from the nightstand. For the first time, I had to turn on the light to see her face. Before, if I just touched the picture, I could get a clear vision of her. I don’t know how to handle life without her.”

Jolene took a deep breath and let it out very slowly. “Three years after my dad died, I was a mess, too. I’d basically lost both my parents, and I didn’t know how to handle life, either. My mom was barely staying sober enough to hold down a job. Of course, according to her, nothing was her fault. She blamed my dad for dying and leaving her with bills she couldn’t pay, and most of all for leaving her a kid to raise by herself. I used to sit outside on the porch of that run-down trailer and beg Daddy to tell me what to do. The first night she brought a man home from the bar, I threw a cussin’ fit. Two years later, when I was a senior in high school, I just hoped whoever she brought home would leave before breakfast so our food would last all week.”

That empty, helpless feeling that Jolene had felt at Lucy’s grabbed her heart again. It seemed that all the emotions she’d buried were surfacing since she’d returned to the inn.

“Did you get over it?” he asked.

“When I moved out into my own place, a trailer not much different than the one you’ve got parked in the backyard, it got a little better. But my mother was constantly calling me for money. I couldn’t tell her no. I felt guilty for leaving her when she needed me, but at the same time, it was a relief to be away. Then she died in a two-bit hotel room from an overdose. If I’d been living with her, maybe I could have prevented it. If I’d made her get help, maybe she wouldn’t be dead. If she hadn’t had a daughter, maybe some rich guy would have come along and married her, and given her back the lifestyle she was used to having.” Jolene realized she’d only packed the feelings away, putting them in a place where she could forget them. Talking about them brought back the hurt, and yet at the same time, she felt like she was letting go of some of it.

“Are you over it, even yet?” Tucker asked.

“I don’t think you ever get over it, but you can get through it.” Jolene could hear the hollowness in her voice and hoped that she was finally ready to get through it.

“What’s the first step?”

“Get up in the morning and make the decision to take a step forward instead of two backward for that day. Let go of the guilt, and stop feeling sorry for yourself. Don’t let the what-ifs drive you crazy, because they will if you let them. I’m speaking from experience. Some days it’s still all I can do to stay positive.”

He started on a third slice of cinnamon toast. “You didn’t mention the step of not getting falling-down drunk.”

“That’s a by-product of the guilt and taking backward steps instead of forward ones,” she told him.

“What was your by-product?”

“Trying to find someone to love me. Making bad choices in men. Settling into a rut instead of working to better myself,” she admitted out loud, and even that relieved part of the heavy burden of guilt.

“Want to elaborate?” He picked up another piece of toast.

“Number one and two are pretty much the same answer. I needed to be loved for me, just the way I am, not the way someone wanted me to be. Mama wanted me to be a social butterfly, but I’m not. Johnny Ray wanted me to be a party girl, and I’m not. I worked in the same bar for the same grumpy old boss for ten years. In that time, I could have taken online courses and done something better with my life. But . . .” She paused.

He raked his hands through his hair. “But our choices, whatever and however bad they were, have brought us to this point in our lives. And who knows? Maybe we need each other to take all those steps you talked about. I damn sure know I need help.”

She held out her hand. “Friends help friends.”

He took it in his, but instead of shaking it, he brought it to his lips. “I’m glad that we’re friends, Jolene. It’s been a long time since I cared about anyone, since I felt like I needed anyone, or gave a damn what anyone thought about my lifestyle. But after this past week, I figured out that I like having a friend.”

“Me, too.” She blinked back the tears.

It turned out that Flossie lived right at the north edge of Jefferson on two acres of land. As Jolene and Tucker walked up the eight steps from the ground to the wide porch with its four huge columns, she could imagine Flossie, Sugar, Lucy, and Dotty as little girls sitting on a quilt and playing with dolls over there at one end.

She wondered what her life would have been like if her grandmother Victoria hadn’t taken Elaine away from Jefferson. Would Elaine have married someone local and been a different person? Would she have had friends to play on the porch with her? Jolene had kept her childhood friends until her father died, but they’d drifted away when she and her mother had to move to a trailer park. After that, she didn’t have time for friends, and besides, she could never invite people to her house anyway—not with Elaine’s problems.

It startled her when Flossie threw open the door. “I thought I heard someone knocking, but it takes me a minute to get from the back of the house. Sorry I kept y’all waiting. Come right in and make yourselves at home.”

Jolene and Tucker followed her and Flossie into the house and into a huge living room with a fireplace alight at one end.

“Y’all go on and have a seat. I’ve just got a couple of little things to do,” Flossie said.

“Can I help?” Jolene asked.

“Nope. Got it under control,” Flossie answered.

Jolene started to remove her coat, but Tucker was instantly behind her, helping her. He tossed both his and hers on a rocking chair and warmed his hands by the blaze in the fireplace.

Jolene waited for some emotion to overtake her, but nothing brought back memories of her mother or of Johnny Ray—thank God. The place made her think of Aunt Sugar, though. The fireplace drew her like a moth to a flame. She’d love to put one in the dining room of the inn.

Tucker turned to face her. “Nothing warms like an open fire. I’ve always wanted one of these.”

“So did Aunt Sugar.” Jolene smiled.

“Think we should put one in the dining room? That would be a nice addition if we had a winter wedding,” he said.

“And when Aunt Sugar comes to visit, she and Uncle Jasper could enjoy it, too.” Jolene’s smile widened.

“We’ll have to think about that while we’re remodeling,” Tucker said.

“Yoo-hoo!” Dotty carried in a long dish of what looked like a yummy cake of some kind. “Sorry we’re a little late. Lucy is right behind me with the salad and bread.”

“Can I help y’all carry anything?” Tucker asked.

“No, we got it,” Lucy said as she came in behind Dotty. “Glad y’all made it. Follow us to the kitchen and we’ll get dinner on the table.”

“Oh, my!” Jolene exclaimed when she looked out the kitchen window. “That is one huge garden. Do you sell fresh produce at the store or something?”

Lucy rolled her eyes toward the high ceiling. “If it wasn’t for Otis—that’s the neighbor who lives next door to her—she couldn’t have a half-acre garden. She’s only one person. She could grow enough vegetables to feed herself in a flower box, but oh, no, she and Otis have to harvest enough to feed half of Jefferson.”

Flossie yelled from the dining room, “Remember that when all y’all reap the harvest with me, so stop bitchin’ and come to dinner. Lucy, you can say grace, but it better not take forever.”

“Where’s the restroom so I can wash up?” Tucker asked.

Lucy pointed. “Down the hall to the left.”

The minute they heard the bathroom door close behind him, all three women circled around Jolene. Dotty was the first to whisper, “How’s it goin’ with Tucker?”

“We had a talk this morning. Things are lookin’ up,” Jolene said.

“Did he get drunk over the weekend?” Lucy asked.

Jolene shook her head. “Nope.”

Flossie whispered, “He’ll know we’re talkin’ about him if we’re all right here. So what did you talk about?”

“Pretty much everything,” Jolene answered.

“Did he kiss you?” Dotty asked.

Jolene blushed. “No, but I wanted him to. Is that wrong?”

“Of course not. He’s a good-lookin’ guy. If I was younger, I’d want him to kiss me,” Dotty said.

“Well, I’m never doing the relationship before friendship again,” Jolene said.

When they heard the door open and close, all the women suddenly took their places at the table. While Lucy said grace, Jolene opened one eye and glanced around the table. Tucker had his head bowed and eyes closed tightly. Lucy’s hands were clasped together under her chin as she prayed. Flossie looked over the table as if she was making sure she hadn’t forgotten anything. When Jolene looked toward Dotty, the old gal winked at her.