Dotty poked her in the ribs and whispered, “Ever had sex on a church pew?”

Jolene blushed. “Shhh . . . God will aim lightning bolts at us for even thinkin’ that word in church.”

“What word?” Tucker asked from the other side.

Jolene mouthed, “Later.”

She was thinking about sex with Tucker on a church pew, her pulse and heart both racing when she glanced over to find him staring right at her. He laced his fingers with hers and leaned over to whisper, “You look gorgeous this morning.”

“Thank you,” she mouthed.

She was thinking about the night before and what Dotty said about sex on a church pew when the preacher jerked her back to the present by asking Jasper to give the benediction. Not one to ever use fifty words when two would do, his prayer was short and to the point. Everyone said amen with him at the end and didn’t waste any time making their way to the doors to shake the preacher’s hand. Then they’d hurry on home or to a favorite restaurant for Sunday dinner.

Jolene remembered a side door and quickly ushered Tucker out that way so they could get to the Magnolia before everyone else. She settled into his truck and fastened her seat belt.

“That was slick,” Tucker chuckled.

“Uncle Jasper showed me how to get out quicker when I was a little girl,” she said.

He drove out of the parking lot and turned south. “So we have to do this every week now?”

“I’m afraid so. Aunt Sugar says it’s good for the business and that it won’t hurt us to be still once a week. Confession time—I didn’t listen much to the preacher, but being there was kind of nice,” she said. “I haven’t been in church in twelve years, but we have this service this morning and then we have a funeral. Seems strange, don’t it?”

“It sure does, but I’m glad you were sitting beside me this morning and you’ll be beside me this afternoon.”

Tucker dragged out his black suit, a white shirt, and a tie and dusted off his best black boots. He’d sworn after Melanie’s funeral that he’d never put that suit on again, but he’d show respect, and besides, maybe wearing the suit was moving forward still another step. He looked at his reflection in the mirror, and something different shone in his face. The tension was gone, but then Jolene had come into his life and heart.

He made sure his tie was just right one more time and then stepped out into the foyer to find Jolene pacing the floor. “Are you okay?”

“These are your in-laws and I haven’t been to a funeral since my dad died—we didn’t have one for my mother. And I’m nervous about what they’ll think of me. I work in a bar and . . .”

“Well, nervous is a word I never thought I’d hear out of your mouth. I thought you were made tough as nails,” he said.

“That’s the exterior. The interior is a mixture of jelly and mush,” she said.

He started at the toes of her black high-heeled shoes and traveled up the slim black skirt that hugged her body and on up to the cute little jacket she wore over a silky-looking white blouse. They matched—him with his black suit and white shirt and her in that pretty suit. Had she worn that same one to her father’s funeral?

“You look as beautiful in that as you did in the blue sweater this morning, but I’ve got a confession to make.” He slipped an arm around her shoulders. “I like you better in your skinny jeans and work shirts. You’re downright sexy in those.”

She looped her arm in his. “I like you better in work clothes, too. I think this kind of getup means sadness and our everyday things speak to us of happiness.”

The wind had calmed down, and although it was chilly, the sun shone brightly. It was so unlike the storm, complete with thunder and lightning, the day that they’d held Melanie’s funeral and that last day he’d gone to the cemetery to see her. Maybe this day was just a reflection of what was in Tucker’s heart. On Melanie’s day he’d been so full of anger that he felt as if he could throw lightning bolts from his fingertips. But today, even though there was sadness, he was at peace with Luke’s passing.

When they reached the cemetery, Tucker helped Jolene out of the truck and took her hand in his. Just that much gave him comfort and courage. He slowed his stride to match hers, but when they reached the hearse, she let go and went on ahead to stand beside a tall pine tree. The funeral director opened the back of the hearse, and Tucker took his place with Melanie’s brothers on one side. Three men he wasn’t familiar with served as the other pallbearers.

As they carried the casket to the gravesite, Tucker could hear the rustling of last year’s dead oak leaves in the trees above them. But once they’d positioned the casket on the stand and stood back in a line, he heard a button click and Garth Brooks’s voice filled the air as he sang “The Dance.” The words said that he could have missed the pain but he’d have had to miss the dance.

It wasn’t what most people would choose to play for a funeral. It was actually a song to a lover who had left, but it wasn’t difficult to realize that it could be written to Luke from Carla on that day. Tucker glanced over at Jolene to see her wiping her eyes. Evidently the song was hitting her the same way.

Tucker thought about everything he and Jolene had been through and realized he was ready to do more than just share a bed with her. He was ready to share his life with her.

Home was Magnolia Inn in a physical sense. But home was Jolene Broussard in an emotional sense. He’d fallen in love with the woman, and now all he had to do was give her enough time and room to fall for him.

Jolene felt every word of Garth’s song, and as the words sank into her heart, she let go of the guilt and the pain of the past. She might have missed the pain, like he said, but she would have missed the dance. The good times with her father in his flower garden. The shopping trips with her mother when she was a little girl. She’d hang on to the good memories, however scarce they might be, and do her best to let go of the others.

There was a pause when the song ended, and then a woman in a bright-red dress stood up. She had a microphone in one hand and a hankie in the other.

“Saying goodbye to my precious husband is not easy, and y’all might think that song is crazy for a funeral. But it was our song. We had a rough year in our marriage the year that song came out. We lost both sets of our parents. The kids were young, and Luke had lost his job. We used up all our savings before he finally got another job. We were fighting a lot in those days about money and kids and everything else. One day he came into the house, put a cassette in the player, and held out his hand to me. He wasn’t a romantic man, so I was a little shocked, but I thought maybe . . .” She paused and dabbed at her eyes before she went on. “I thought maybe that he was ready to try a little harder, so I put my hand in his. He pushed the button on the cassette player, and that song started playing. We danced and wept all the way through it. That was the turning point in our marriage. He still wasn’t romantic, but sometimes he’d come in and put on that song again, and we’d dance. He didn’t want a funeral. He didn’t even really want this much. He just asked to be buried by our daughter, Melanie, and for me not to grieve too long. I can do it all, and maybe when the grief gets to be too much, I’ll just put on this song and remember that if I didn’t have this horrible pain today, I would’ve had to miss the dance with a fantastic man. Thank you all for coming—the song as you leave was his choice for today. It’s the one that we danced to the night before he went to be with our daughter in heaven.”

Jolene didn’t even try to keep up with the tears dripping on her jacket as Vince Gill sang “Look At Us.” She watched Carla kiss a single red rose and lay it on the casket. Then Carla sat down, and her shoulders began to shake with sobs.

Tucker left his place with the pallbearers to hug her. “Call me anytime. I’m here for you and the boys.”

“Thank you,” Carla said.

He took a few steps toward Jolene. She met him halfway, and their tears blended together, washing away the past.

He handed her his handkerchief. “I need to say something right now, Jolene, because we might not have anything but this moment. I’m falling in love with you.”

“I never believed that love conquered everything. But maybe, in our case, it could be right.” She wiped her eyes and handed it back to him. “I feel the same about you. Do we go home now?”

“We should go to the house,” he said. “Carla wants to meet you.”

Chapter Twenty-Six

Conversation flowed in low tones as they reached the house. Tucker kept her by his side for a while, and then Carla looped an arm in hers and said, “You boys go on in the living room and talk. I want to show Jolene something.”

Jolene sent a frantic look toward Tucker, begging him to make an excuse to take her home, but he just nodded and went into another room with Will and Patrick.

Carla led her into a study, shut the door, and slumped down in a chair. “I love my family, but I need a moment. Please sit down and let’s catch our breath.”

Jolene sat down next to her and crossed her legs at the ankles. She was reminded of how she’d sneaked away after her father’s funeral. All those people milling around. Her mother in tears. She’d felt the walls closing in on her and gone outside. Uncle Jasper had finally missed her and had come out to sit beside her. He didn’t say anything at all, but just held her hand for a long time.

Now it was her turn to be the one to comfort someone—a complete stranger, and yet grief is no respecter of persons. She reached across the distance and laid a hand on Carla’s arm. “Your eulogy was wonderful. So heartfelt and personal. More funerals should be like that,” Jolene said.

“Thank you so much. I want to say something to you, but I’m not even sure where to begin.” Carla fidgeted with the handkerchief in her hands.

“It’s only awkward if we make it that way, so let’s don’t,” Jolene said. There wasn’t going to be anything left of that hankie if Carla kept wringing it. “It’s okay. Tucker told me all about Melanie and how he and her father had made peace with each other the week before he died.”