Josh Braxton pulled into the driveway of his childhood home and turned off the engine of his truck. Humiliation, frustration, and pain clung to his chest like a cold he couldn’t kick as he stared at the familiar two-story house with red shutters and a porch that wrapped all the way around the first floor.
This was his new life. Everything he’d ever done had led up to this moment.
Leaving this house at eighteen only to be back here fourteen years later hadn’t been his dream. But neither had being left by his now ex-wife.
It’s funny how your life can change its course without first consulting you.
“Are we here?” Jordan asked from the back seat.
Josh winced at his five-year-old’s idea of an inside voice.
“Headphones, JP,” Josh said, turning and pointing to his ears.
Jordan pulled his headphones off and glanced around. His nose wrinkled. “This is where we are living?”
Josh swallowed and took in a deep breath. Even his son knew how pathetic it was that he had to move back in with his parents.
“Yep. Aren’t you excited to stay with Nana and Papa?” Josh forced a smile.
Jordan shrugged. “They have good cookies.”
Josh snorted. That was true. His mother had won her share of blue first-place ribbons for her baking here in Honey Grove, SC. Which was a good thing. With five boys to feed, she’d needed to cook. A lot.
Josh pulled open his door and stepped out, stretching in the warm sun. He loved South Carolina in the summer. It reminded him of popsicles and trips to the beach. And, if he were honest, he was ready to share this life with his son.
Jordan slammed the door as he got out of the car. “It’s hot,” he said, squinting up at Josh.
“Get used to it, buddy. It won’t cool down for another few months.”
This was definitely different than the picturesque Colorado home he’d given up in the divorce. Josh’s ex-wife, Cindy, had decided that she wanted nothing to do with either of them and had moved her new husband into their mountain home.
Those were her terms for giving him sole custody. She’d given up her son and husband for his twenty-five-year-old partner. Man, he was such an idiot.
Heat pricked at the back of Josh’s neck, and it wasn’t from the weather. It was a feeling he got every time he thought about Cindy. How could any mother just give up on her son like that?
Staring down at Jordan’s shaggy hair and big, missing-his-front-teeth grin, Josh knew there was nothing in the world that would keep him away from his son.
“My baby’s home!” Sondra Braxton shouted from the front porch. Her greying black hair was pulled up into a messy bun and dark-red glasses perched on her nose. She was rounder than he remembered. Her flour-covered apron, wrapped around her five-foot-four frame, strained against her stomach.
“Hey, Ma,” Josh said as he slammed his door and walked across the grass.
He had to dip down to wrap his arms around her. He was six-foot-two, the tallest of the five Braxton boys. His mom wrapped her arms around his shoulders and gave him one of her signature I’m going to squeeze you like a snake hugs.
“I’m so happy you’re here,” she said, pulling back and wiping away a tear.
“Woman, stop your blubbering,” Jimmy Braxton said with a grin.
Josh smiled up at his dad, who’d appeared from around the house. He was wiping his hands on a rag as he approached.
“Jordan!” Sondra rushed to go smother her grandson with hugs and kisses.
Josh and his dad shook hands for a moment before embracing. After their quick hug, Jimmy pulled back.
“Everything is set for you. The guys are excited to have a Braxton boy working with them again.”
Josh pushed his hands through his curly brown hair and nodded. After the divorce, he’d decided to take a sabbatical from practicing law. The man his wife had left him for was his business partner, and, right now, his heart just wasn’t in the work that used to consume him from sunup to sundown.
“Great. Can’t wait to start,” Josh said, hoping his fake enthusiasm was good enough to fool his father.
Jimmy paused and squinted over at Josh. Josh could see that his dad wanted to ask another question.
“Just spit it out, Dad.”
Jimmy cleared his throat and shifted his weight from one foot to the other. “Are you sure this is what you want? I mean, you’ve always been more into the books. Are you going to be satisfied in construction?”
Josh flexed his muscles. He had the itch to move—his pent up frustration didn’t go well with sitting behind a desk. “Physical labor might be just what I need.”
Jimmy nodded. “Okay. Well, you know you can leave anytime you want. I mean, you’re not obligated to stay. Whenever you’re ready to go back to lawyering, I won’t be hurt.”
Josh reached out and clapped his hand on his dad’s shoulder. “I appreciate that.”
“Stop trying to push my son out of my house. I just got him back,” Sondra said, walking up to them.
Jimmy raised his hands. “I warned you. Once you’re back in her nest, this momma bird isn’t going to let you go that easily.”
Josh laughed. “Heard you loud and clear.”
“I’ve got to pee,” Jordan announced, so Jimmy excused himself to show Jordan to the bathroom.
Josh turned his attention to his mom. She was smiling up at him.
“What?” he asked, moving back across the lawn to his truck. He pulled the tailgate open and started unloading boxes.
“I’m just glad you’re home, that’s all. It’s been too quiet since y’all left.”
Josh nodded. Growing up with five siblings made every day pretty eventful—never a dull moment. But they were all grown up now and were doing different things. At least, everyone else was. Josh was coming home. Starting back at the beginning.
But his mom looked so happy that he was home, he didn’t want to crush her spirits. So he gave her a smile as he pulled a box labeled Jordan’s Toys out of the back.
“Have you heard from any of them?” he asked, wanting to take the attention off himself. He was pretty close to cracking, but breaking down in front of his mom was the last thing he should do if he wanted to maintain his sanity.
Sondra sighed as she leaned against the truck. “Well, Jonathan is still in Pittsburgh. I think he’s planning on coming home before the season starts up again. James is as elusive as ever. I thought getting out of the military would finally bring him home.” She grew quiet and Josh looked over to see the sadness in her eyes.
“Ma, you know James. That’s just his personality. We could never tie him down.”
Sondra patted her cheeks. “I know, I know. I just worry about him.”
Josh nodded. That was something he hadn’t understood until he had a son of his own. The constant worry of a parent.
“I talked to Jackson last week. He’s buying an apartment in New York.” Sondra continued.
Jackson Braxton—also known as the rich Braxton brother. Josh smiled. “Why am I not surprised?”
Sondra chuckled. “And Dean is here. He’s coming for dinner tonight. The charity he set up in his mom’s name has really taken off. It’s keeping him busy.”
Dean Diego, the foster boy his parents took in to finish his senior year in Honey Grove. Even though he wasn’t blood, he was still a Braxton and a brother.
“What about Jenna?” Josh asked, his chest swelled with concern for his little sister. She was the youngest Braxton and the only girl.
Sondra’s lips tipped up into a smile. “She’s doing well. Finishing her internship in Seattle. I think she’s planning on coming back if the county doesn’t give her a job.”
Josh lowered the last box to the ground. He missed his little sister. Even though they were eight years apart, he’d always taken it upon himself to protect her and look out for her.
A yellow bug drove by and slowed as it pulled into the Johnson’s driveway across the street. Intrigued with who was driving, Josh straightened and squinted. The parking lights turned off and the driver door opened.
“Oh, and I didn’t tell you. Beth is back.”
Josh’s ears pricked at the name of the girl who’d grown up across the street. The one who had once proclaimed her love to him. He chuckled.
“Beth’s back?” Last he’d heard, she was dating some business man and had moved to Philadelphia.
Sondra nodded. “And single.”
Josh shot his mom an exasperated look. “I’m not—why does that matter?”
Sondra shrugged and they both turned to see Beth step out of her car.
Josh’s heart picked up speed as she flicked her long, blonde hair off her shoulder and shouldered her purse. She was wearing a pair of cutoffs, and Josh was trying really hard not to notice how long and tan her legs had gotten. Or the fact that her white tank was filled out quite nicely.
She was definitely not the short, thin girl he remembered.
“Beth,” Sondra yelled, raising her hand.
“Ma,” Josh said under his breath. This was the last thing he needed—his mom meddling in his love life.
Startled, Beth glanced up, and Josh thought that he saw her cheeks redden when her gaze fell on him. But, when he blinked, she looked much more relaxed.
Josh gave her a small wave and he cursed himself for thinking she’d had any reaction to him. It must have been his imagination. But then he felt even more like an idiot. Why was Beth blushing something he would imagine? Why did he care?
He was rusty at this whole needing to interpret what women were thinking bit. It’d been years since he even needed to think about flirting. And if his past experience with love was any indication of his future, he should just throw in the towel now. Love wasn’t worth that kind of pain.
“Hey, Mrs. B,” Beth said, raising her hand and waving. “Josh.”
“Come over here, sweetheart. Look who’s come back home.”
Josh shot his mom an annoyed look, but if she noticed, she didn’t care.
Beth glanced down at her watch and then back up at them. “I’m—I should really—”
“Nonsense. I’m sure whatever you have going on isn’t as important as greeting an old friend.”
Josh parted his lips to come to Beth’s rescue, but closed his mouth when he saw her nod and make her way toward them. After crossing the street, she walked up, pausing a few feet away.
“Did you know that Josh is back to stay?” his mom asked, peering up at Beth.
Beth turned her gaze up to Josh and nodded. Her blue eyes were as bright as ever, but there was something about them. Age had made her more beautiful than he remembered. Or, perhaps, it was the light dusting of freckles across her nose or her full, red lips…
“Josh, say hi to Beth.”
Realizing that he was just standing there, staring, Josh took a deep breath and extended his hand. He needed to get a grip. “Right.” He gave her a smile. “Hi, Beth.”
She chuckled, and the sound of her laugh did strange things to his insides. “Hi, Josh.” She pinched her lips together as she glanced up at him. “It’s nice to have you back.”
He wasn’t sure if she meant it or if that was something she said to everyone, but from the way his stomach lightened, he couldn’t help but hope that she meant it.
“It’s good to be back,” he said. For the first time in a long time, hope grew in his chest. Being home might not be so bad after all.
When he realized that he was still holding her hand, he dropped it and gave her an apologetic smile. Her lips were tipped up at the corners as she glanced at Sondra.
“I should really get going,” Beth said apologetically.
Sondra nodded. “Of course. You promise you’ll come over for our celebratory dinner?”
Beth’s lips parted, and she looked as if she were searching for a polite way to reject his mom’s offer.
“Ma, she probably has plans,” Josh said, giving her a sympathetic smile.
“Nonsense. She has nothing to do that’s more important than my pot roast. Come. It will be fun to catch up. You two have lots to talk about, I’m sure,” Sondra said, wiggling her eyebrows.
Beth studied her for a moment, her eyebrows knit together. “I’ll try to come.” Then her gaze rose to meet his. There was a shy hint to her expression. “It might be nice to catch up.”
Josh swallowed from the unexpected heat that flushed his skin. Instead, he tried to focus on his mom as she told Beth the time and extended the invitation to her parents as well.
Beth thanked her, shot one last look at Josh, and headed back across the street.
Turning, Josh glared at his mom. “What was that?” he asked as he heaved a box up onto his shoulder and headed for the apartment over the garage. The Braxton Hotel, his mom called it.
Sondra shrugged. “I’m sure I don’t know what you mean.”
Josh turned the handle and stepped inside. “What are you trying to do? Why were you so insistent that Beth come for dinner?”
Sondra opened her mouth in mock surprise as she held her hand to her chest. “I’m choosing to ignore the fact that you think I had ulterior motives. There is nothing devious about asking an old friend to dinner.”
Josh chuckled. “Right.” He stuck his finger out at his mom. “You’ve never tried to play matchmaker for your sons?”
Sondra’s face contorted as she tried to keep a straight face. “I don’t know what you are talking about.”
Josh watched his mom and then sighed. “Just don’t go crazy, Ma. I’m not ready for any of that yet. Or maybe ever.”
Sondra’s expression grew serious as she crossed the room and gave him a hug. “I know, honey. I wouldn’t dream of pushing you when you’re not ready. It wouldn’t be fair to you or the girl.”
Josh wrapped one arm around his mom and nodded as he rested his chin on her head. “Thanks.”
She gave him one last squeeze and then hurried toward the door. “My cookies,” she said in a panic. Right before she disappeared down the stairs, she turned. “I’m really glad you’re home.”
Josh straightened and looked around at the familiar, dated furniture. She was right. For now, this was his home, and he was glad to be back. “Me too.”