“That boy can strut sitting down.”
~ Grandma Dixie
“Come on now, sweetheart. Why ya gotta be a tease?”
Oh, for the love of Tim McGraw!
Closing my eyes, I took a deep breath. Calm. I needed to remain calm. I had been accused—more than once—of having a short fuse, and I was doing my best to curb that particular trait.
By this time next year, I planned on being a successful business owner. I couldn’t go flying off the handle whenever anyone pushed my buttons. Too many people in this town already doubted my entrepreneurial ability, mainly due to my age. No one thought I was ready to run my bakery—successfully—at twenty-two except Gram. She believed in me. She’d even offered to front me the money, which I had respectfully declined. I wanted to do this on my own. Sink or swim—without a life vest.
“I’m not being a tease. I just don’t want to go out with you, Brady. Now, that will be six forty-five.” While stretching my hand out, palm side up, I opened the register with a friendly (not flirty!) smile planted firmly on my face. I crossed my fingers, my toes, and my eyes—metaphorically—that Brady would take the needle off the broken record he’d been playing for the last six months and stop asking me out over and over again.
“How’s your kitty?” Brady’s eyes danced with amusement at his double entendre.
Seriously!? Do boys ever outgrow seventh grade humor?
I knew he wasn’t talking about my handsome boy, a one-eyed tabby cat I’d rescued when I’d found him behind the diner two years ago, but I chose to ignore his implied meaning.
“Captain Pickles is doing great! Six dollars and forty-five cents, please.”
Maintaining a cheerful demeanor was not always easy when you wanted to punch someone in the face. Although the knowledge that, if my never-declawed, man-hating tabby ever got his paws on Brady, he would not be using Captain Pickles as a euphemism anymore, did help to keep my spirits high.
Sniffing loudly, Brady rolled his shoulders as he opened his billfold. His lips fell open on a sigh, and I thought for sure the toothpick—which was always hanging precariously from his lips—was going to fall to the ground. Defying gravity, it stayed in place. Slow as molasses in January, he pulled a ten out and dangled it in front of me.
“Thanks,” I chirped as pleasantly as possible and extended my hand for the bill.
After snatching it away from me at the last second, Brady leaned over the countertop, his voice growing husky as he asked, “What’s it gonna take to change your mind, Red?”
“Brady Calhoun!” Tami Lynn’s sharp voice rang out as she reached past me and ripped Brady’s money right out of his hand. “You don’t have the sense the good Lord gave a goose. The girl does not want to go out with you. Get it through your thick skull.”
I stepped to the side, my cheeks burning like asphalt on a scorching-hot day as Tami Lynn took my place in front of the cash register and made change for Brady. I tried my best not to focus on the fact that every eye in the diner was now glued to the three of us. The center of attention, any attention, was my least favorite thing to be. The small consolation to this uncomfortable display was that only ten people were dining in The Greasy Spoon. Everyone in town was getting ready for either the Fourth of July festivities tomorrow or the annual Third of July party out at Briggs Farm.
“That’s just a temporary setback. She’ll change her mind.” Brady winked at me as he took his change from Tami Lynn, dropping a dollar in the tip jar beside the register. “You wait and see. I’m gonna make an honest woman out of Destiny Rose Porter.”
Tami Lynn’s raucous laughter filled the small space at the front of the diner. “Boy, what color is the sky in Delusion Land, where you appear to be livin’?”
Making a show of looking right into my eyes—my blue eyes—Brady smiled. “Blue. Baby blue.” Then, winking again as he tilted his Stetson in my direction, he drawled, “Have a nice day, ladies. Destiny, I’ll see you tonight.”
With that unwelcome promise, he spun around and left, the chime dinging as the door opened and shut.
I turned to thank Tami Lynn for stepping in, but her eyes were glued to Brady as he walked out to his truck.
After shaking her head with an exaggerated sigh, she fanned herself with a to-go menu. “That man is dumber than a sack of rocks and more stubborn than a mule but prettier than any man has a right to be. Believe me when I say you won’t always have that body and neither will he. You sure you don’t want to just have some fun, hon?”
Tami Lynn was in her fifties and seemingly unaware of the pin-up curves she was rocking. She spent a lot of time reminiscing about what a “looker” she’d been in her day. Which always led to her pointed diatribe about how she’d wasted her glory days worrying about a few pounds and being self-conscious instead of celebrating her figure and “doin’ it with the lights on every chance I got.” The last part had always struck me as TMI, but I loved Tami Lynn and had become well practiced at not letting mental pictures pop up in my head during her colorful conversations.
“I’m sure.” Sticking out my bottom lip, I blew a puff of air up my face in a futile attempt to cool off. Then I picked up the coffee pot and stepped around my coworker before making my way down to the end of the counter to refill Mr. Rogers’—Mr. Fred Rogers, and yes, that was his real name—mug.
“That Calhoun boy is not gonna give up on you. You know that, right?” Tami Lynn filled two tumblers of soda for her two-top.
“I’m keeping hope alive that he will.” Tipping the coffee pot, I zoned out as I stared at the dark java filling the mug.
At the Christmas festival last year, Brady Calhoun had set his sights on me, and hadn’t given it a rest since. Honestly, I was under no illusion that it had anything at all to do with me. Quite the contrary, in fact. Boys like Brady—tall, good-looking, and charming in their own way, with bodies that would put Calvin Klein models to shame—were not used to getting turned down. So, on the rare occasions they did, it spun their worlds in a loop-de-loop. Brady saw me as a challenge. Game in his hunt. That’s all it was.
Being “game” was not good times.
“How’s that lovely grandmother of yours doin’ these days?” Mr. Rogers asked, his bushy salt-and-pepper eyebrows rising above the black rim of his thick reading glasses.
Speaking of game.
“Grandma Dixie’s doing just fine.” I grinned, ensuring that my smile did not reveal the amusement simmering just beneath the surface at Mr. Rogers’ interest.
“You tell Dixie Rose I said hello.” Mr. Rogers added a wink to his request.
“I’ll do that,” I agreed, not bothering to inform him that when I did as he’d requested, Gram wouldn’t give two hoots and a holler about his message.
Dixie Rose Porter, the woman I’d received my middle name from, did not “entertain the advances of gentleman callers.” As a kid, I used to wonder what my Grandpa Walter—who had, sadly, passed away before I was born—could have possibly done to win my stubborn gram’s heart. I’d finally asked her when I was thirteen, and I’d never forget not only what she’d told me, but also the look in her eye when she’d said it.
“That man knew how to rope a steer, ride a horse, never told a lie, and had the softest lips and heart this side of the Mason-Dixon. He stole my heart when I wasn’t lookin’.”
I’d always wanted a big family and knew that when I took the marital plunge, I needed to have the same look in my eyes, the same feeling radiating from them that Grandma Dixie had when she talked about Grandpa Walter.
You do feel that way about someone, the small voice in my head (the one I liked to ignore) piped up.
Shaking off the unwanted, sexy-as-sin visual my pesky inner voice had inspired, I returned to the crowded corner near the register to finish up my side work. Distraction. That’s what I needed right now.
Losing myself in refilling ketchup bottles and salt shakers was not as easy as one might think. My mind kept wandering to a certain professional baseball player who knew how to throw a ball and ride horses, lied whenever it was convenient, and had the sexiest lips and coldest heart this side of the Mason-Dixon. The man who’d stolen my heart before I even knew my multiplication tables…and then proceeded to shatter it into a million pieces four years ago.
Laughing at myself, I realized that, sadly, it seemed I had not inherited Gram’s “picker.” She obviously had much better taste in men than I did.
“Oh. My. God. He’s back,” Tami Lynn whispered as she gripped my wrist, her long, acrylic nails digging deep into my flesh as the chime above the door rang out.
Exasperated, my head dropped back and my shoulders slumped. I flat refused to turn around. Brady Calhoun was going to be the death of me. I decided right then and there that, on my weekly Monday morning visit to the wishing well that sat smack-dab in the middle of town square—and had inspired the town’s name—I would wish for one thing and one thing only as I tossed my penny in: Brady Calhoun to cease and desist. Or that he would, at the very least, find some other shiny thing to distract himself with.
“No. I. Will. Not. Go. Out. With. You.” Even though I was intentionally overemphasizing every word so he wouldn’t miss one, I still wasn’t sure if he would take the flippin’ hint. If I cursed, he would be getting quite an earful.
I had no idea how much clearer I could be. Did I need to take out a front-page ad in the Gazette? Put it in the church bulletin? Paint it on the brick in front of the town square? Tattoo it on my forehead?
I was seriously considering my options when a voice I hadn’t heard in four years, deeper than the ocean and smoother than butter, interrupted my thoughts.
“I don’t remember asking, Pip.”
One person dared to call me “Pip.” One and only one man had the nerve to address me with a nickname I’d always hated that was inspired by another redhead, Pippi Longstocking.
No freakin’ way. I had to be hearing things. Having auditory fantasies. Audible hallucinations.
Had the heat finally fried what few brain cells I had left? Had my daydreams just taken a giant leap in the direction of delusions?
I spun around slow-motion style, the rubber soles of my work shoes squeaking against the tile. My heart was doing its best Thumper impression, thump, thump, thumping against my rib cage as my mouth dried up like the Sahara Desert. When I lifted my gaze, it locked on large, brown eyes I could easily drown in.
“Hey, Pip.” A half smile appeared on full lips that could inspire a nun to sin, and that caused the indentation of the deepest dimples in the South to make an appearance beneath stubble so sexy that my fingers itched to reach out and touch the prickly hairs, and my once-dry mouth to suddenly water like Niagara Falls.
It was the damn butterfly effect of seductive smiles.
The tiny hairs on the back of my neck stood straight up, and goosebumps rose on my skin. My body’s reaction had nothing to do with the overhead fan I was standing beneath and everything to do with the tall drink of water that had been my childhood, teenage, and adult crush.
That voice, those eyes, those lips—they’d all haunted my dreams, both day and night, since before I’d started wearing a training bra.
Wait. Maybe that’s what was happening now. I was dreaming. That was the only reason that that voice, those eyes, and those lips would be here in Wishing Well, much less in the Spoon.
Closing my eyes, I ordered myself to wake up, snap out of it. When I forced my lids open again, I was met with the same soul-crushing, panty-melting stare of the very specimen I’d been trying to distract myself from with ketchup and salt and pepper moments ago, the only man who had ever sent my body into overdrive—Jefferson James Briggs. He was my best friend Harmony’s older brother and a pitcher for the Long Beach Waves. The boy who I’d shared my first kiss with when he’d crashed a game of spin the bottle. The boy who’d stepped in to take me to prom after Chester, my high school boyfriend, had dumped me the day before the dance. The boy who’d almost popped my cherry that same night and then disappeared from my life. Except…he was no longer a boy.
Okay, if I wasn’t dreaming, maybe this was a mirage? It was really hot in there, so that was a possibility. Had my senses decided to play cruel tricks on me?
I was only vaguely aware of Tami Lynn scooting around me to the register and booming, “Well, well, well. Look what the cat drug in. Hey, JJ. I haven’t seen you in a month of Sundays.”
Okay. Not a mirage. Not a dream. Not a delusion. This was real. A real-life nightmare.
“Hey there, Miss Turner. How’s Emmitt doin’?”
“He’s lazier than a pet coon,” Tami Lynn sighed dramatically, “but despite myself, I still love that man somethin’ fierce.”
The rumble of the hands-down-no-contest sexiest chuckle in the world came from deep inside JJ’s chest, and my stomach did so many flips and flops that you’da thought it was a politician during an election year.
Grinning from ear to ear, JJ shook his head before running his hand through his thick, chestnut-brown hair. “Well then, that Emmitt is one lucky S.O.B.”
That laugh. That voice. Those eyes. Those lips. That hair.
A shiver rippled through me from head to toe as I stepped back against the counter and wrapped my fingers around the edge. It was all I could do not to swoon.
“Believe you me, I tell him that every day,” Tami Lynn joked, but I was pretty sure she actually did remind Emmitt of exactly that.
“Order’s up!” Stan yelled as he dinged the out-of-date buzzer on the see-through window.
“Quit your hollerin’. I’m right here.” Tami Lynn’s shoulder brushed mine as she grabbed the plates and headed down the counter. “Good seein’ ya’, JJ. Take a seat anywhere ya’ like. Destiny will take care of you.”
JJ’s half smile turned into a smirk as he lowered his chin and directed his gaze straight at me. Placing his large hands on the counter, he leaned slightly towards me, which made his eyes appear even larger and more drown-able as they stared into mine. A clean, fresh musk scent I hadn’t smelled in years drifted through the air, and I closed my eyes for a moment and inhaled deeply.
“Is that right? Will you take care of me, Pip?” JJ’s question was dripping with so much cockiness that I was surprised he wasn’t choking on it.
His words cut through my momentary lust paralysis and snapped me out of my swoon haze like a slap across the face. My shoulders straightened as clarity—which had escaped me just moments before—washed over me like a baptismal reality check.
Hell must have frozen over and pigs must have been flying, because JJ Briggs was home. In Wishing Well. And he was even hotter than he had been the last time I’d seen him in person four years ago—the night he’d humiliated me and crushed my heart into tiny pieces of dust. And I refused to waste even one more second of my life dwelling on either of those facts.
“No,” I barked as I turned around, grabbed the first thing I saw—which was my handy-dandy coffee pot—and hightailed it down the counter, not looking back, not even once.