When he carried the butter and milk to the refrigerator, he stopped and stared at his finger, naked where his wedding band had been. The deep indentation would take years to completely go away, but it didn’t bother him as much as he thought it would.

“You’re looking at your ring finger, aren’t you?” she asked.

He nodded. “I buried the ring at Melanie’s grave. It was time.”

“It’s part of your past, Tucker. You have to get over it, but you also need to know that it was this experience that makes you the man you are today,” she said.

“Thank you,” he said around the lump in his throat. “The same goes for you.”

She laid a hand over his heart. “We all just get a day at a time. It’s up to us whether we fight the demons that plague us or if we give in to them.”

He pushed her hair back away from her face and stared down into her big blue eyes. “How did you get so smart?”

“Living a tough life,” she answered as she tiptoed and brought his lips to hers for a kiss. “But when you kiss me, it don’t seem so rough right now.”

Jolene was a fresh start with someone who understood him. What she said about fighting demons made a lot of sense, but it was a whole lot easier to fight something if a person had a partner to watch his back. What they did with their lives beyond a few hot kisses was up to them now.

Chapter Twenty-Four

Tucker had just finished work and taken a shower that Friday evening when his phone rang. Jolene had gone to the grocery store that morning but had forgotten to get milk, so she’d run back out for it. But it was his mother-in-law, Carla.

“He’s gone, Tucker,” she said between sobs. “I found him an hour ago in his recliner with the newspaper in front of him.”

“What can I do?” Tucker asked with a heavy heart. He should’ve gone to that birthday party. At least it would have been bittersweet. Today would be nothing but sadness.

“Can you just come and sit with me and the boys awhile?” Carla asked.

“I’ll be there in half an hour.”

“Thank you.” Carla ended the call before he could say anything else.

He dressed in creased jeans, shined boots, and an ironed shirt. He threw the hood on his coat up and ran to his truck. Several cars took up the driveway at the Tillison house when he got there, so he parked on the other side of the road and sat for several minutes. Another car pulled in behind him. A man and woman got out and slowly walked across the street and up the sidewalk and knocked on the door. A few minutes later, Tucker got out of his pickup and followed them.

Carla met him at the door with swollen eyes. “Oh, Tucker, I’m so glad you’re here. Luke told me about your meetings at the cemetery. I thought we had another couple of months, but his heart played out.”

Tucker backed her up enough to close the door. “I’m so sorry.”

“The funeral will be Sunday. Luke planned it all, and last week he had me add you as a pallbearer. I hope that’s not too much to ask.” She hugged him tightly and wet the shoulder of his coat with her tears.

“That soon?” He pulled a handkerchief from his pocket and handed it to her.

“His wishes. Just graveside at the cemetery. He’ll be buried beside Melanie. No weeping, he said, but I can’t help it.” She dabbed at her eyes and gave the hankie back to him.

He shook his head. “Keep it. You might need it again. What can I do?”

“Just sit with me and the boys. It’ll be like having Melanie with us.”

“Of course,” he said.

“Four o’clock Sunday afternoon. Strange—we were supposed to meet for ice cream then. He was adamant about the time, too. It had to be at the same time we had the service for Melanie,” she said. “Maybe I shouldn’t be mentioning her so much since . . .”

Tucker draped an arm around the tall woman who had Melanie’s eyes and build. “It’s okay. I’m finally making my peace with it.”

She took him by the hand and led him into the living room. “Luke told me that talking to you helped him do the same. Now come on in here.”

A lady appeared at his elbow. “Let me take your coat. Can I get you something to drink?”

“A cup of black coffee,” Tucker said.

“It’s good to see you again, Tucker.” Melanie’s brother Will stuck out a hand.

Tucker shook with him and then turned to Patrick, her other brother. “I’m so sorry, guys. I thought we had a little more time.”

Patrick pointed to the chair beside him. “How’s the renovations at the inn going?”

“They’re going great. We should be open for business by spring.” He remembered the anger he’d pent up inside himself when people meandered around talking about jobs, family, and the weather the day after Melanie was killed. That evening, he understood it better. In situations like this, folks tended to talk about everything under the sun just to get their minds off the sorrow and the pain.

“And how’s the new partner working out? I remember her from church when we were all kids,” Patrick said.

“Better than I could have ever hoped.” Tucker took a sip of the coffee that the lady put in his hands.

Patrick took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “I’m happy for you.”

“And Melanie would want you to move on,” Will said.

“Life is tough,” Tucker said.

Patrick clamped a hand on his shoulder. “We don’t mean to get all up in your business, but we’ve learned that we don’t get guarantees in life. Be happy. And don’t be a stranger around here. We’ve missed you.”

Tucker swallowed twice to get the lump in his throat to go down. “Moving on hasn’t been easy.”

“Not for any of us,” Will said. “Melanie would’ve been real happy that all her favorite people were here.”

Tucker managed a weak chuckle.

Carla sat down on a nearby sofa. “I’m glad that Luke met you at the cemetery and you two got things straightened out. You’ll understand when you have a daughter.”

He got a fleeting vision of a little blonde-haired girl with blue eyes. She wore bibbed overalls and handed him a hammer when he asked for it. Carla was right—no man would ever be good enough for her. Suddenly, he understood Luke better than he ever had before.

The lights were on in the inn when Jolene arrived home at three in the morning. Sassy met her at the door, and the smell of cinnamon floated through the foyer. She hung up her coat and started to the kitchen but noticed that Tucker was sitting in the living room in the dark.

She flipped the switch. His hands went to cover his face, and when he removed them, she could see that his eyes were bloodshot and he looked like hell.

“Something is wrong. I can tell. Please tell me it’s not about Aunt Sugar.” She plopped down on the sofa beside him.

“Luke died this afternoon. Melanie’s dad. Funeral is Sunday, and they’ve asked me to be a pallbearer. Would you go with me?” He looked absolutely miserable.

She moved closer to him and slipped her arms around his neck. “I’m sorry, Tucker, but I’m glad that you made peace with him before he died. That will mean a lot as time goes on. Of course I’ll go with you. I’m just sorry that I didn’t make things right with my mother before she died. The last words between us were said in anger. I told her for the gazillionth time that I wasn’t ever coming back to see her if she didn’t get her life in order. She told me to get out and go to hell.”

“We’re a sorry pair, aren’t we?” he sighed.

“Maybe, but we make a damn fine whole person when you put us together.” She kissed him on the cheek.

“Think so?” His big, strong arms went around her, and he rested his face in her hair.

“Oh, yeah,” she said. “We make a great team.”

“I had my doubts at first about us working together, but . . .”

“But what?”

“I was wrong.” He stood up and held out his hand. Her eyes locked with his when she clasped his hand. He pulled her against his chest and looked down into her face. Slowly his eyes fluttered shut, and his mouth closed over hers. Then she was floating as he scooped her up like a bride and carried her toward his room. He started to the bed with her, but she put her hand on the wall and shook her head.

“Sassy is sleepin’ on your bed. Let’s take this to my room,” she whispered.

He stopped just inside her bedroom door. “Are you sure about this, Jolene? Is our relationship ready for this step?”

She put a finger over his lips. “Can I trust you with my heart?”

“Yes, darlin’, you can.” He kicked the door shut with the heel of his boot.

Chapter Twenty-Five

Church services on Sunday morning. A funeral planned for the afternoon. That was a lot in one day, but Jolene would do both. The first because Aunt Sugar wanted them to go to church in Jefferson with her. The second because she wanted to support Tucker.

But churches and funerals reminded her of when her dad died. The service had been in a huge church. She’d sat flanked by Aunt Sugar and Uncle Jasper. Her mother had been on the same pew, but it was Aunt Sugar who comforted her through the whole ordeal.

When Elaine passed away, there hadn’t been a service of any kind. Aunt Sugar had offered to pay for a memorial or a full-fledged funeral if Jolene wanted, but it had seemed more than a little hypocritical on Jolene’s part to do something like that. Especially since she and her mother had been at cross-purposes for years. So when the funeral home called her to claim the ashes, she’d done so and mixed them with those of her father.

She loved the congregational singing that morning. Tucker had a fine voice, and the ladies would most likely be after him to join the choir if he came to services regularly. But when the preacher read some verses from Psalm 37 about not fretting, she quickly tuned him out. Living with her mother, she’d learned early on to focus on something other than what was being said, so that morning she turned her thoughts to everything that had happened in one short month.