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Copyright © 2017 by Lorana Hoopes
Cover design by Dawne Dominique
Interior design by Pronoun
Distribution by Pronoun
More by Lorana Hoopes AKA LL Hoopes
When Love Returns
THERE IT IS. THE ONE stoplight I thought I’d never see again, still blinking its irregular red pattern that no one ever paid attention to. As most of the shops are centrally located, few people drive in town. Their cars are used for driving to neighboring cities when what they want isn’t available here, so there is no real need for the stop light, but the people had decided the town needed at least one stoplight to be called a proper town, and so it had been erected.
There had been a huge ceremony the day it was christened; the whole town had shown up. The mayor had had to stand on a ladder to cut the red ribbon as someone had placed it too high. Once he was up the ladder, another member of the city board had handed him a giant pair of silver scissors. Then it had become a balancing act as the mayor tried to open the giant scissors without losing his balance – that had been comical – and we had watched in awe as it blinked, blinked, long pause, blinked, blinked. The awe had faded quickly, and a squabble had broken out among the adults about the broken light. The whole affair had been rather disappointing to a sixteen-year-old, who had been looking forward to getting his driver’s license, and I remembered that day as the nail in the coffin solidifying my idea of leaving this tiny backwards town and returning to normalcy.
Then I met Presley, and my life changed.
“Are we there yet, Daddy?”
I glance in the rearview mirror at my daughter, Joy, strapped in her car seat. Her dark curls came from me, but her blue-grey eyes are her mother’s. Joy is the one good thing that came out of this town.
She resumes her stare out the window as we continue down Main Street. The Diner still sits on the corner, probably still run by Max, the same uninspired owner who wore a ball cap and plaid flannel shirt to work every day. His choice of attire left a lot to be desired, but he was a good cook. To this day, I’m not sure I’ve had a better burger.
Next to the diner is the small Post Office. I never spent much time in it growing up, but I knew the man who worked there, Bert. He was an odd man to say the least – always trying out new ideas that never seemed to work. One year, he had tried raising chickens to supply eggs for the general store, but he had become attached to one of the chickens, naming her Stella and carrying her from place to place in a little bag like wealthy old women do with tiny dogs. The chicken had escaped the bag one day in the middle of The Diner and wreaked havoc, incensing Max. Stella disappeared after that, and I was fairly certain she ended up on Max’s menu, but I could never prove it.
The general store appears next. It carries groceries and a small selection of clothing and household goods. I had been shocked by the meager selection when I first arrived, but the town wears on you and has a way of making you forget the outside world moving on around it. By the time I graduated high school, I had been accustomed to the small offerings until I arrived in Dallas and felt like a total hick, at least three years behind the times.
“Daddy, look, cupcakes. Can we get one?”
Twisting in the black leather seat, I follow her finger pointing out the opposite window. There had been no cupcake shop six years ago, but there is indeed a shop there now, where the laundromat had been, sporting a colorful cupcake sign and logo on the window. Sweet Treats. It’s not a highly original name, but neither are most of the stores in this town.
“We’ll come back by later.” I am curious about the owner. Who would choose to put up a new shop in this sleepy little town?
Her bottom lip turns out in an adorable pout, but she does not continue to fight me. For her, this trip is like a vacation to a new and unusual place. We rarely venture from Dallas, mainly because my work keeps me too busy for vacations. For me, it’s a return to a past I want to forget. There’s too much pain, too much sadness here in this little town.
I make a right down Cooper Street, the road that leads to my parent’s house. Though it has been years since I have been back here, I could drive the route blindfolded, partly because it is a simple route, and partly because I walked it so many times as a teenager.
The two-story yellow house looks exactly as I remember it, though the paint is chipping in a few more places and faded in others. The gravel of the driveway crunches under the tires as I pull in. I park the car and take a deep breath.
“Let me out Daddy,” Joy calls from the back seat.
Sighing, I open my door and then reach in to unbuckle her. Though five, she is still too small to qualify for a booster seat, and I feel safer having her in the bigger car seat anyway. No one ever told me that when I became a parent, I would have crazy nightmares about all the ways I could lose my daughter. The car accident is always the worst.
Joy scurries out of the car, her faded pink bunny clutched in one petite hand. On the day she was born, my mother had given her a soft pink cuddle bunny. Joy had latched onto it, sleeping with it every night. When she began crawling, she would often pick up the bunny in her mouth, dragging it across the floors. Even after she began walking, the bunny would go outside with her to play in the dirt or be flung around the room. The bunny has seen better days, but she refuses to part with it for any longer than an occasional trip in the washing machine, and of course, no one sells this bunny any longer. I dread the day when it falls apart and I can’t replace it.
As she scrambles up the wooden porch, I pop the trunk and grab the two suitcases I packed the night before. My hope is that we’ll only be here a week, but I have no guarantee and therefore packed for at least two.
Joy is banging on the door when I reach her side. She hasn’t been around my parents much, as we left shortly after her first birthday, but they did visit a few times and Joy always clung to them when they did as if she knew the time wouldn’t be for very long. Now, she has created this idea in her head of what they’ll be like while she’s here and regaled me with it the last few days. I hope she won’t be disappointed, but I’m afraid she might. My mother probably won’t be able to spend much time with her as she will be taking care of my father, at least when he gets released from the hospital.
My mother opens the door and breaks into a smile. She looks older than I remember her looking last time. There are more lines in her face and more grey streaks coloring her hair, but her eyes still twinkle the way they always have.
“Joy,” she says and bends down with her arms out.
“Nana.” Joy runs into her arms, squeezing the woman tightly about the neck. “You smell like cookies.”
A smile plays across my lips. My mother always smelled of vanilla and sugar, and while she did often have a plate of cookies waiting for me when I arrived home from school, she didn’t every day, and I often wondered how she still smelled of cookies on those days.
“That’s because I have some in the kitchen.” She taps the end of Joy’s nose, earning a giggle. “Now, come in, and let’s get you settled.”
“Then can we have cookies?” Joy asks. She is bouncing up and down, sending the lights in her pink sneakers into overdrive. Mother nods, smiling at her enthusiasm.
I pull the two suitcases into the homey entrance and shut the door behind me.
The house hasn’t changed a bit. A wooden coatrack still sits just to the right of the front door, holding Dad’s derby cap and a few coats, and the sign, announcing “As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord,” still hangs prominently on the wall. I shed my coat, adding it to the rack and then remove Joy’s as well.
“Let me show you to your room.” My mother grabs Joy’s free hand and leads her down the beige carpeted hallway. Pictures of Anna and I line the walls. My mother never let an opportunity to take a picture go by, and I’m almost certain she bought every school picture we ever had so she could display them all on the walls. I tried to remove one once and replace it with something else, but she noticed right away and forced me to rehang that picture.
Mother opens the door to what was the guest room. Though it is still the guest room, she has added some decorations for a younger child to enjoy. The daybed has been covered with a flowery pink and purple bedspread and a blond doll is propped on top. An old dollhouse sits near the dresser along with a faded toy box filled with toys.
“This is all for me?” Joy’s eyes are wide as she looks up at my mother.
The lines around my mother’s eyes are more visible as she smiles. “Yep, all for you. A girl needs proper toys.”
“Especially in this town,” I say under my breath. Not quietly enough though as my mother shoots a look full of daggers my direction. How quickly she can change from sugar to fire. I hold my hand up in silent apology.
“Where is Daddy staying?”
“Right across the hall,” my mother says, opening the door. My old room stares back at me, looking very much like it did in high school. My football awards still line the shelf, though they are coated in a fine layer of dust, and the tattered posters of my favorite bands cover the walls.
“Didn’t feel like updating this one?” I ask.
My mother shrugs. “Maybe I would have if you came around more often.”
I want to reply, but I don’t want to start a fight, so I bite my tongue and carry the suitcase inside. After dropping off Joy’s suitcase as well, we follow my mother back towards the open living room and into the country-themed kitchen. I’ve always hated the flowered wallpaper trim that circles the kitchen, but my mother hung it herself and has always loved it.
A plate of chocolate chip cookies sits in the middle of the scratched kitchen table. The usual wild flower display has been pushed to the side. Joy turns eager eyes on me.
“You may have one,” I say, holding up a finger. “I don’t want you to spoil your dinner.”
She climbs up in a chair and snatches a cookie off the top of the pile, shoving most of it in her mouth.
I shake my head at her. “You could chew more slowly.”
Her ravenous munching changes to a thoughtful chewing, and I join her at the table, plucking a cookie for myself off the pile.
“How is Dad?” I ask before taking a bite. My father is the whole reason I am here. He is in the hospital after falling off a ladder and fracturing his skull. Though my mother said I didn’t need to come, I couldn’t very well stay in Dallas if there was a chance this was life threatening, and brain bleeds often can be. Plus, she might need some help with him when he gets released. I doubt he’ll be as active as he was before the accident. However, I am in the middle of a big presentation, one that could set me up for life with an even bigger company, so I left strict instructions with my assistant to keep me in the loop.
A flicker of doubt erases her twinkling for a moment before she recovers. “He is doing better today. The nurses say he only had a few instances of confusion yesterday, but they want to run another CT tomorrow.”
“Any idea on when he’ll be released?” I take a bite of the cookie, enjoying the warm chocolate goodness. I have missed my mom’s cooking.
“Probably another few days, but it depends on what the scan shows. He has a pretty big brain bleed.”
“Your brain can bleed?” Joy’s head pops up, her eyes as wide as saucers.
My mother shoots me an apologetic look and without saying it, we agree to finish this discussion later when little ears are not present.
“Don’t worry,” I say, patting her arm. “The brain is amazing and can heal itself. When does Anna get in?” Anna, my younger sister, has been away at college studying to become a nurse.
“She has finals this week, so she’s coming as soon as she finishes the last one. Oh, and guess who else is back in town?”
I raise my eyebrow at her; I’ve never been a fan of the guessing game.
Presley Hays. The name knocks the wind out of me like a sucker punch. I haven’t thought of her in years. In high school, Presley had been my best friend – the one person who had made this town bearable – but for some reason we had grown apart when Morgan entered the picture, and then one day Presley had come over to tell me she was going to France to attend Le Cordon Bleu.
“The cupcake shop?” I say the words for myself, but my mother smiles and nods.
“Who’s Presley?” Joy asks, looking from my mother to me.
“Just an old friend,” I say. Just an old friend.
AS THE LAST CUSTOMER FINISHES their treat and waves goodbye, I lock the door and smile to myself. This may not have been my original dream, but I’m starting to really like it here. There’s something about the small town feel that I have missed.
Grabbing the cleaning rag that hangs over the silver faucet of the big basin sink, I begin wiping down the glass table tops. There are only five tables; the room is rather small, but it’s big enough for my needs. Each table boasts two white wrought iron chairs – the fancy ones with the decorative backs and padded seats. They had cost me a fortune, but they reminded me of Paris, so I couldn’t pass them up.
I glance up at the Eiffel Tower. Trudy, the local artist painted it on one wall for me. It’s not the same as when I could see it out my apartment window, but it’s a close second, and she did it for a month’s worth of treats. I’m certain I came out on top of that deal, and at least this view doesn’t come with a cheating boyfriend.
My eyes narrow as I picture Pierre, the handsome Parisian I had been dating in Paris. He had seemed too good to be true and now I knew why. For all his good qualities, Pierre had the nasty habit of being unable to be faithful to one woman. When I had hinted I knew he was cheating, he hadn’t even denied it. Instead, he had played it off like philandering was acceptable in France, and maybe it was, but it was unacceptable to me, so I had packed up my things and come home.
Star Lake, Texas was never my dream, but I’m not sure what my dream was before Brandon Scott walked into my life. The day I met him, my dream began to include Brandon and a five-star dessert shop in some upscale city, maybe even Paris. We used to talk for hours how we would get away from the small town and live life in a big city, but part of that dream had ended the day he told me Morgan was pregnant.
I had hoped she would be a leaf in the wind like all the rest of the women had been. Brandon never stayed with one woman for long, and he couldn’t stay single between them for long either. It was obvious he was looking for something and not finding it. I had always hoped it was because he was looking for me, but Morgan had been different.
She had been exotic and wealthy, vacationing for the summer to get away from her busy city life. With her beautiful dark hair and stunning blue eyes, she had hooked him from the beginning, and they had been inseparable. I had lost my best friend that summer long before I left town.
I should have told him how I felt before she came along, but I had been too afraid, and I’d always thought I’d have a little more time.
An incessant rapping at the front door breaks my reminiscing, and I look up to see Trudy frantically waving from the other side.
This had better be good. She knows I close at six.
“You’ll never guess what I just heard.” Her excitement is punctuated by the squealing of her voice. Her trademark overalls are covered in paint splotches and a few random splatters dot her face and outer coat as well. A red bandanna covers up her dark hair. She must have been painting recently, though it is too dark for her to have been painting outside.
“What?” I ask, though I’m not very curious. In Star Lake, people get excited if Max puts a new dish on the menu. Well, some get excited. The old, crotchety people complain that the menu isn’t the same, and they can’t find their favorites.
“Paula said she saw new blood come into town today. A hottie.”
I take this with a grain of salt. For one thing, Paula is the town’s gossip, and if she doesn’t have truthful tidbits, she tends to make them up just to have something to share. For another, Paula is in her forties, but still dresses like she’s twenty in tight skirts and cleavage baring tops. She is so man hungry that she thinks anything male on two legs is a hottie. She once tried to date the preacher who must be close to seventy.
“Well, then good for Paula.”.
Trudy shakes her head. “No, Paula said he was young. Like your age.”
Trudy isn’t much older than me, but she has decided she is too artistic for men. She doesn’t want to be tied down with a relationship or a man wanting her attention when she wants to be painting.
“Then I’m sure I will meet him eventually.” I’m not taking her bait. Ever since I returned a few months ago, the town has been trying to set me up with the few remaining single men I’m not related to. It’s not a big town, so that has consisted of Justin, the recent high school graduate who bags groceries at the general store and hasn’t decided what he wants to do with his life yet, Bert, the odd mail carrier who is single for very good reason – the man tried to establish a chicken petting farm for the elderly, and of course the seventy-year-old preacher. Most of the other people Brandon and I went to school with either moved away like we did or stayed but got married. Star Lake is great for families, but it is not a hopping singles spot.
“You’re hopeless,” she says, but she helps me turn the chairs over on the tabletops so I can sweep the floor. “You need to get back out there.”
“What do you want me to do?” I ask, grabbing the broom from behind the counter, “Camp on a rooftop with a pair of binoculars scanning for this hottie? It’s a small town. If he does exist” – I emphasize the word does, drawing it out to two syllables to make my skepticism unmistakable – “then he’ll come in here sooner or later.”
She sticks her tongue out at me, but drops the subject and continues turning over chairs.
Though I’m not looking for a relationship after the disaster with Pierre, I can’t help thinking that a man wouldn’t be a terrible thing to have around. The limited dating pool is the one thing I don’t like about this small town.
After the floor is swept, Trudy ducks out – citing the need to finish her masterpiece, but really it’s because she doesn’t like menial work, and I take the remaining pastries out of the display case and wrap them up. They can only keep for another day, but I’m hopeful they’ll sell tomorrow. Business hasn’t been booming since I started, more like a steady trickle, but it’s been good enough to keep the lights on so far. However, if something doesn’t change soon, I may have to close the doors, and I have no idea what I’ll do then.
Sparing one final glance to make sure it’s tidy, I don my coat and hat. The December air has chilled considerably the last few days, and by the time I leave at night, it’s almost always near freezing. The first snow must be right around the corner. Shoving my hands in my pocket, I begin the walk home.
My breath creates tiny wisps of smoke as I exhale, and the tip of my nose grows cold. I’m glad I don’t live far from the shop. Glancing down Cooper street as I pass, I can just make out Brandon’s parent’s house.
I don’t know why I bother to look when I know he isn’t there, but it’s a gesture I can’t seem to stop. Maybe it’s from so many times of looking down the street when we were younger. The few times we snuck out, we would meet on this street corner before driving to nearby Mesa for a party, and every time after leaving his house, I would stop here and turn back, hoping to find him running after me to sweep me up in a kiss.
I’ve heard his father is still in the hospital after his fall, and I wonder if Anna will come back to see him. I know Brandon won’t, as the last I heard, he hasn’t been home since moving away. Probably too busy with his business and his family.
Unbidden, thoughts of Brandon fill my head, and I wonder about his kid. Is it a boy who looks like him or a girl with the beauty of Morgan? The child would be about five now, possibly even in Kindergarten. I picture him sitting with the child at a table and doing homework. In my mind, it is always a girl with Morgan’s eyes who will hold a piece of Brandon’s heart that no other woman will ever touch.
Shaking my head to clear the traitorous thoughts, I continue walking. Though I haven’t spoken with his mother recently, I decide to bake the family something special to let them know I’m thinking about them. After all, for years they were a second family to me.
Half a block later, I reach my apartment. It’s actually a mother-in-law suite attached to my mother’s house, but as it has its own entrance. I like to call it my own apartment, and my mother works so much that I rarely see her anyway. Entering, I toss my coat on the rack before calling for my cat, Niko.
He really is the perfect man – considerate, always happy to see me, and shares my bed without taking it over. If only he were a man and not a cat. He climbs up on my lap as I sit on the couch and flick on the TV. The images flash in front of my eyes, but my mind is on the hottie. Whether he lives up to his title or not, I’m curious as to who he is and why he’s here.
Our big tourist season is usually in the summer, when rich families from the city decide to test out a rustic life for a few weeks, though a small handful do come in the winter as we typically get at least one good snowfall. Maybe he’s a food critic who’s heard about my shop and come to taste the wares. Smiling at the thought, I allow myself to be sucked into the dream.
“So, it’s true. The prodigal son has returned.”
Dropping my fork, I turn to my sister, who is staring at me, a bag still slung over her shoulder. She must have just gotten in. Her blond hair, so unlike my darker shade, skims her thin shoulders. All our lives people have wondered how we are related as she inherited my mother’s pale skin and blond hair while I got our father’s darker Italian skin and hair.
“Hey Anna.” I cross to her and envelop her in a hug. She is taller and thinner And a flicker of regret at the years I haven’t seen her rises inside me. When we first moved to Star Lake, the two of us had joined forces in trying to convince our parents to move back. It was only after meeting Presley that Anna and I started to grow apart.
“How long are you staying?” She drops her bag and grabs a plate from the cupboard, joining me at the table. Her fork stabs three pancakes, and she douses them in Maple syrup before taking a giant bite. She is either not eating at college or has taken up a grueling exercise regimen to be able to eat like that and stay thin.
“Until Dad is better, but I’m in the middle of a huge presentation deal right now, so I’ll have to get back soon.”
“Look who I found,” my mother says entering the kitchen with Joy attached to her hand.
“Morning, Bug.” I open my arms, and she runs into them.
“Who are you?” she asks when she notices Anna.
“This is my sister Anna. She’s your aunt.” Due to school, Anna had only come with my parent’s once, so Joy hasn’t seen her as often.
“Aunt Anna?” Her nose wrinkles, and she shakes her head. “That doesn’t sound right. I’ll just call you Auntie Anne, like the pretzels. Can we have a pretzel Daddy?”
“Not right now,” I say, depositing her into her own chair. “Right now, it’s breakfast time, and your grandmother made pancakes, but maybe we can go into town later and check out the new bakery.”
“The bakery or the baker?” Anna asks between bites of pancake, a teasing glint evident in her eye.
I shoot her a warning glare while placing a few pancakes on Joy’s plate, but wonder at the question myself. I haven’t seen or spoken with Presley in over five years, so why I am so curious about her now?
After breakfast, we load into the car to drive the few miles to the hospital. It sits just outside of town, and unlike Star Lake, it is state of the art. In fact, most of the towns near ours are more up to date. It’s like our town got stuck in a time warp or something.
Mother always said it was because the leaders of Star Lake enjoyed the slower pace of life in a small town, but it baffled me how anyone could enjoy our town. Or maybe I am disillusioned because once I thought of settling down in this town, until Morgan left.
My throat begins to close as we pull into the parking lot. I haven’t been in this hospital since Joy was born, and while that was a happy event, it relates to Morgan leaving, which was not. Thankfully, Mom and Anna are here with me.
My mother offers to take Joy to the family waiting room as we enter the hospital. The look on her face tells me my father is evidently still bruised up. I mentally prepare myself for what I’ll see, but I am still shocked when we enter the room. His left eye is swollen shut and colored a bright purple. There is a monitor hooked to his finger and an IV pumping fluids in his arm. He hears us enter and opens his good eye.
“Brandon? Is that you?” His voice is clear, which gives me hope that he is better than he looks. I’m not sure if it’s his injuries or the hospital bed itself, but he appears old and frail as he lays beneath the white sheets. I bat away another ping of regret. Even if I lived closer, I couldn’t keep my parents from aging or falling off ladders.
“Hi Dad. Anna’s here too.”
She steps around from behind me and crosses to the other side of his bed. “Hi Daddy. You look awful.” The words are her defense mechanism. Fear is evident in her eyes as she grabs his hand and holds it tight.
A labored laugh escapes his mouth before he grimaces in pain and grabs his stomach. “Sorry, broken ribs.”
“What were you thinking Dad?”
His one good eye focuses on me. “I guess I wasn’t. I thought I was standing on something sturdy until I tumbled off it.”
Anna’s sniffle grabs both of our attention.
“Don’t worry, honey, I’m going to be fine.”
She nods, but a few more silent tears snake their way down her cheek.
“Joy is here too, and I’ll bring her to see you, but I’ll need to explain your face first,” I say.
My father has never given up hope that Morgan and I will get back together. Though he wasn’t a fan of hers in the beginning, he is a strong believer that a home consists of two parents.
“Morgan’s not coming back, Dad. She’s moved on to bigger things.”
In truth, I have no idea what Morgan is doing. We haven’t heard from her since the day she walked out. She has sent no cards, no gifts, nothing. It’s like she has erased us from her memory completely.
“I’ll keep praying,” he says.
I’m about to tell him he can keep his prayers for himself when a nurse walks in and says she needs to take him away for more tests. We each lean down to give him a hug and then watch as he is wheeled out of the room.
“Do you think he’s okay?” Anna wipes the last tear from her cheek. She’s always been the more emotional of the two of us.
I wrap my arm around her shoulders. “Yeah, he looked strong though bruised, and his speech sounded okay to me.” Mother had told me last night they were keeping him for observation because his brain bleed wouldn’t stop. They were hopeful it would clear up on its own after a few days because the other option involved drilling a hole in his skull.
After stopping at the nurse’s station for directions, we continue down the hall to find Joy and Mother. Neither of us speaks, and I’m certain we are both entertaining the thought of what we will do if Dad doesn’t come home. It’s a sobering thought, and not one I want to dwell on very long.
The playroom isn’t very big, but it has a small play structure, a few old computers, and a table with puzzles, which is where Joy is parked. I smile, watching her. The girl has loved puzzles since she was three. Often, I would realize how silent the house was and go searching for her only to find her at a table in her room turning pieces and sticking them in formation. At almost six, she is now working five hundred-piece puzzles.
“That was short,” my mother says when she sees us.
“They took him for more tests. How was Joy?”
My mother smiles and points. “She’s been there since we got here.”
“Hey, Bug, you want to go get that pretzel now?”
Her head pops up, but there is indecision in her eyes. She bites her bottom lip, her telltale sign of concentration as she tries to decide between the puzzle and a pretzel. Food wins in the end, and she places the piece in her hand back on the table. That is a trait she got from me. Morgan hardly ever touched food, but that’s probably how she stayed so thin.
I make a mental note to check the general store for a puzzle for her. There isn’t much to do in this town, and at least that will keep her busy when I need to be working.
I park the car in front of Max’s, and we file out. “It is still okay to park here, right?” Max had always lived above his diner, and though he has an old beat up truck, he had always parked it in the alley.
My mother nods. “Yes, Max hasn’t changed much, though I hear he’s seeing someone now.”
“Who?” Anna asks. I could have cared less about any town gossip, but Anna ate it up. She had always liked to be in the know. “Oh, please tell me it’s Layla. I’ll just die if it’s anyone else.”
“It is indeed Layla. They finally got together after she almost married Mr. Jones, remember him?”
“Daddy, can we go see if they have pretzels now?” Joy is tugging on my pant leg and eagerly pointing to the shop across the street. I’m glad for the distraction and the ability to focus on something other than Max’s love life.
After checking both directions for traffic, though there almost never is any, I let her scurry across the street. “I’ll be right behind you. As soon as these two yentas stop yakking.”
My sister punches my arm, but they follow Joy across the street.
“I’ll be right there. I’m just going to check the store for something.” Hurrying to the general store, I hope not to run into anyone. It’s not that I don’t like the people of this town, but when you’ve been gone for a while, everyone wants to hear your entire life story.
THE SILVER BELL ABOVE THE