Jace Whitaker dragged his gaze away from the window and turned his attention to the waitress standing with the glass pot poised just inches above his half-empty cup.
“No, ma’am,” he said. “But thanks, anyway.”
“Well, give me a holler if you change your mind.” She accompanied the offer with a wink and a smile. “We keep it hot and fresh all day long.”
Jace just nodded. He wasn’t at Flip’s Diner for the coffee anyway. He was there for the view of the Antioch Baptist Church cemetery just across the road.
He glanced down at the obituary circled in the folded newspaper sitting beside his cup.
Helen Slater, 58, went to sit at the right hand of Her Lord Jesus Christ on May 7, 2015, after a short battle with cancer. She was predeceased by her husband, Ned, and is survived by a brother, John Short, of Dallas, and a daughter, Lily Mae Slater, of Los Angeles. Private services will be held at Garden Grove Funeral home at 11 a.m. A private graveside service will follow at noon at the Antioch Baptist Church cemetery.
Jace looked at his watch. It was noon, and as if on cue, the hearse rolled past, followed by a short line of cars. Vehicles coming in the opposite direction stopped in respect as the small procession turned and headed through the iron gates. Jace slid over in the booth so he could get a better view through the window.
Helen’s plot was near the fence. Jace leaned back against the booth, watching. The cars had stopped. He drummed his fingers as the funeral home workers opened the back of the hearse to remove a few standing flower displays and put them around the Astroturf perimeter of the open grave. One of the men turned to walk to the first vehicle behind the hearse. He leaned down, saying something through the window and stepped back. The door opened, and Jace felt his heart quicken.
It had been seven years since he’d laid eyes on Lily Mae Slater, but even from across the road Jace could see that she was still a pretty little thing. He caught just a glimpse of her delicate profile before she turned away. Her hair had been to her shoulders when he’d last seen her. Now it hung in one long braid down her back. She was wearing a fitted black dress and black heels. Time certainly changed how she dressed, and he felt a flicker of nostalgia as he recalled how often he’d teased her for wearing cowboy boots.
“When you going to dress like a girl, Lily Mae?”
“When I damn well feel like it!”
She’d been sixteen then. He’d been eighteen, but already old-fashioned enough to consider washing her mouth out with soap for cussing. The girl needed a firm hand, he’d thought. And that would come, later…
“Still nursing that cold coffee, cowboy?” The waitress was back.
“No, I’m done. Just give me the ticket, please.”
Jace turned back toward the window, irritated at having been interrupted. He was too preoccupied to even thank the waitress when she finally slapped the ticket on the table and told him to have a nice day.
He craned his neck as he scanned the small gathering assembled under the funeral home’s green tent. Lily Mae was sitting in one of the five white chairs that had been arranged in front of where the simple casket now sat over the maw of the grave. As the preacher read from the Bible, she leaned over to comfort her uncle, who covered his face with his hands. At the end of the short service, Lily Mae stood to pluck one of the white roses from the spray atop the closed casket and Jace found himself breathing in along with her as she inhaled its scent, longing for some sort of connection.
The lunch crowd was filtering into the diner as the small group of mourners headed back to the cars, leaving Lily Mae and her uncle alone at the graveside. Jace got up from the booth, paid the bill and walked outside, resisting the urge to cross the street.
Jace had tried not to take it personally, but it hurt, not being invited. He should have been, damn it. He should have been there to wipe her tears from the eyes hidden behind Lily Mae’s oversized sunglasses. He should have been there to hold her. He should have been there to bury his lips in the soft blond hair that always smelled like wildflowers—to whisper that it everything was going to be all right, because he was there, there to protect her.
But isn’t that where he went wrong in the first place?
After all this time, he remembered word-for-word the note he’d found the morning after their last night together.
Last night was a mistake. I’m ashamed of myself that I let it happen, especially after what you did to me. It’s clear that you still see me as a kid, even if you just made me a woman. It’s not easy to walk away, but that’s what I’ve got to do, for both of us. I want to be an independent woman and eventually find a man who respects that. So don’t try to get in touch with me. I don’t want anything to do with you.
He’d gone straight to her mama’s house, only to have Helen tell him she’d not seen her daughter since the graduation party. Jace had gotten a knot in his stomach as he’d rushed to the home of Janine, her best friend at the time.
“All I know is that she said she wanted to see you, and now you’ve obviously run her off.” Janine had glared accusingly at Jace. “What the hell did you do, Jace? Did you hurt her? What did you do?”
“Nothing! I’d never hurt her,” he’d shot back angrily. “I…” But he couldn’t finish. If he’d told Janine how he’d turned a drunken Lily Mae over his knee for the spanking she’d needed for years, he’d just be accused of being a woman beater. So he’d turned away.
It was weeks later when Jace heard through a friend that Lily Mae had gone straight to the train station and used the money she’d been given on graduation night to buy a bus ticket to California. He’d immediately rushed to the station, and was at the ticket window when the voice of reason had talked him out of it. The drunken girl he’d spanked and fucked the night before was right, even though it all but killed him to admit it. She was a legal adult and had the right to make her own choices.
She hadn’t wanted him. He had been sure she’d felt the same, but obviously she hadn’t. What’s more, she hadn’t understood if she thought the spanking he’d given her meant he saw her as a child. Of course he saw her as a woman, but one who needed guidance. But that was apparently something she hadn’t wanted.
An independent woman.
Somewhere along the way, she’d grown into the role. He ducked into an alley between the diner and another building, watching as Lily Mae walked gracefully on her heels back to a midsized SUV with California plates. She was just about to get in when she stopped, opened her purse, and pulled out a cell phone. Jace wondered who she was talking to as she got into her vehicle. A handsome boyfriend back in L.A.? The thought made him jealous, although he had no reason to be.
“Get over yourself,” his inner voice chided, but he continued to stare as she got into the SUV, one toned leg resting outside for a moment as she finished her conversation. Then she pulled it inside and shut the door, and Jace turned away and walked down the alley to the parking lot behind the diner.
They were living different lives now, he thought as he approached his dust-coated Dodge truck with its farm tag on the back. Creosote posts stuck partway out of the bed, wedged tight against a spool of barbed wire he knew he’d be stringing at that moment if he’d not come across Helen Slater’s death notice in the paper.
He’d left his own phone on the seat and could see now that there were several text messages from his ranch foreman, Lyle. Jace cranked the truck, letting the air conditioner fill the cab with cool air as he read the messages.
“Great.” Jace rubbed his square jaw with one hand before sighing in exasperation. It wasn’t good news. The new auger Jace just bought had a busted pin, halting the work of drilling postholes for the pastureland he and his ranch hands were planning to fence in by the weekend.
So instead of turning right when he pulled out of the diner parking lot, he headed left to Mason’s Hardware for the part he needed. Jace flipped the visor down as he drove. Even with the AC running full blast, the heat beating through his windshield made him feel flushed. His mind drifted back to Lily Mae, looking cool and elegant in her black dress and heels.
Probably better that you didn’t see her, he thought. She’s probably running in classy circles. What would she want with a rancher?
Had he made the right choice by coming back to run the ranch after his father died? He wondered now. It was his leaving that had caused the best and worst night of his life.
“You never cared about me, Jace Whitaker…” He could still hear the accusation in her voice, slurred from too much drink. “If you had, you wouldn’t have up and left…”
The words had hurt, partly because he’d felt so guilty for leaving for college. A couple of times, the rumors of her wild behavior had almost had him buying a train ticket home to straighten her out. Even his father had said time and time again that what ailed Lily Mae Slater wasn’t anything a good licking couldn’t cure. And his pa had been right.
It had taken her showing up blitzed out of her head, brokenly blaming him for abandoning her to make him realize how his going away to school had affected her. But it had taken a beer bottle whizzing past his head to get him to act on the long-standing temptation to tan her hide. She’d been wearing a short little flowered dress with a crocheted lace hem. He’d pulled it up to expose a round bottom in tight white panties. It was such a sweet little ass that he nearly got derailed from his plans to spank the tar out of her, but her string of cuss words had reminded him why she was facedown over his lap, the toes of her cowboy boots hitting the floor as she kicked wildly in a vain attempt to escape.
He’d blistered her good, but they both knew she had it coming. Hell, even now Jace had all ideas that was why she’d showed up at his place on her graduation night in the first place. The little spitfire was all but begging for somebody to take her in hand. Her mama sure hadn’t, and the girl never had a dad around to make her mind. Jace, who was a couple of years older, had always been something of a big brother figure. Friends joked that he was the only one she’d listen to. She was right; he’d left her without guidance. Well, he’d decided it was time to pay the piper. By the time he’d finished, that round little ass glowed pink through the white fabric barely covering those punished cheeks.
He’d only meant to comfort her afterwards. But that had turned into something more as he’d cuddled her on his lap. He was aiming to plant a brotherly kiss on her tear-stained cheek when she’d turned her head, her lips meeting his.
Jace had protested. “No, Lily Mae,” he’d said. “I don’t think of you that way. You’re just a kid to me…”
She’d persisted. He’d continued to resist. But Jesus, the girl was sweet. So he’d given in as the need for her consumed him, burning away his common sense with the fire of passion. He’d taken her virginity, and so many times since had wondered if she’d have stayed with him if he’d not made her feel like a kid before doing so.
He’d been her first. Had he been her last? He felt a surge of jealousy as he considered how unlikely that was.
The past was the past, and right now he had business to attend to. At the hardware store, Jack Mason apologized for the faulty auger pin and offered to replace it free of charge. As Jace waited, he felt a tap on his shoulder and turned, smiling when he saw who it was.
“Miss Emma!” He leaned down to hug the small sprightly woman. “How are you?”
“I’m doing good,” she said. “Just come from Helen Slater’s funeral.” She paused. “I guess you heard she passed.”
“Yes, ma’am, I did.” Jace wasn’t about to tell the former schoolteacher that he knew about the funeral because he’d watched the graveside service from across the street, so he just took his hat off as a show of respect.
Miss Emma shook her head sadly. “Well, sugar, just between you and me, I was really shocked when I heard that Lily Mae hadn’t invited you to the funeral. I know Helen would have wanted you there if she’d had her say in the matter. You were always so helpful to her where Lily was concerned.”
He smiled. “Thanks, Miss Emma.” Then he paused. “I suppose Lily Mae’s headed on back to California now that the funeral’s over.”
“Yes, she sounded kind of in a hurry to get back. She cut out before the grave was even filled in.” The older woman sighed. “Did you know she’s already putting her mama’s house on the market? Selling it as-is, with the furniture and everything! Said she didn’t want or need anything that reminded her of this place. Don’t that just beat all?”
Jace twisted the rim of his hat in his hands. “Yes, ma’am, it sure does. It beats all.”
“Here you go!” Jack Mason’s cheery voice boomed through the room, diverting Jace’s attention. With the part in hand, he bid a polite farewell to the shop owner and Miss Emma before heading out.
The rain started as soon as he got in the truck, doing nothing to improve his mood. He’d once told Lily Mae that she reminded him of weather in Texas—sunny one minute, stormy the next. He squinted as he looked toward the horizon. Tall thunderheads towered over the flat landscape as he headed toward the ranch. Wind whipped the trees along the roadway, exposing the silvery underside of leaves. Beside him the weather alert went off on his phone. The entire region was now under a severe thunderstorm watch.
“Great. Just great,” he muttered, and gunned the engine, hoping to beat the worst of it to the ranch.