I wiped the counter down absently, brushing a stray lock of hair back from my face. I’d dyed it brown not long after I left Selene, chopping almost all of it off. The longest strands brushed my shoulders, just long enough to pull back into a ponytail but short enough to suit me.
I hadn’t realized until I saw the inches and inches of hair lying on the beauty parlor floor how much I didn’t know what suited me.
Straightening, I rubbed at the ache in the small of my back, the product of ten hours on my feet. I’d taken Kelly’s shift so she could study for the SAT. Thursdays at the diner were easy and I didn’t have any plans. I didn’t have plans most nights, unless one of the other girls could convince me to go for drinks at one of the dozen or so honky-tonks clustered in the area.
Sam McDonald came out of the kitchen, wiping his hands on his apron. His huge belly jiggled with the movement, the white shirt underneath the dull brown fabric still pristine even after an entire day in the kitchen. Sam prided himself—and the Hard Luck Diner—on his painstaking cleanliness. “You about ready to head out, Cari?”
“We still got a few more hours until closing. I’ll make it.” Tossing the dish towel in the sanitizer bucket, I picked up my coffee cup, taking a long sip. “Provided I get enough coffee.”
“Thinkin’ bout closing early. Been dead all day. College kids over at State getting ready for exams, high school kids taking all those damn tests.” Sam snorted, his pitch black eyebrows drawing together on a frown. “Waste of time, you ask me.”
I sipped my coffee again, holding my tongue. Sam was fond of pointing out that he’d built a business from the ground up with an eleventh-grade education. I rubbed at my eyes, careful not to smudge the make-up around my light brown eyes. I’d grudgingly started wearing mascara and liner after a few of the girls had hinted my tips might increase if I put a little effort into my appearance.
I thought my tips were just fine, but I didn’t want to argue.
The tiny bell above the door sounded, signaling a customer. Sam and I both sighed with resignation. He headed back to the kitchen and I forced a smile on my face, brighter than necessary. “Welcome to the Hard Luck Diner. How can I….”
“Cari.” Steven Whelan hadn’t changed much in the two and a half months since I left Selene. His hair was a little longer, the golden red curling around the edges of his collar. There were a few more lines around his amber eyes, one or two new ones at the edges of his mouth.
The darks shadows under his eyes were new, but since I had a few of my own—when I didn’t layer on the make-up—I dismissed them. “Sorry to drop in.”
“Helluva drive from Selene to Manhattan, Kansas.” I drained the last bit of coffee, setting the mug down in the dish bin. “What’s up?”
“Can I get some coffee?” He settled his long, rangy frame on one of the spinning stools in front of the counter. Folding his hands on the chipped and fading laminate, he sighed. “I’ve been driving for the last sixteen hours or so.”
“Mike know you’re here?” I poured him a cup, sliding the cheerful porcelain mug to him. Before I could offer cream or sugar, he slugged back half the cup. I blinked, leaning on the counter. “That bad?”
“I hate driving in the snow.” He pushed the cup away, shuddering. “Your coffee sucks.”
“Mike doesn’t know where I am. I told him I was going for help.” Steven ran a hand through his hair, tugging on the ends. “Said I’d be gone a few days.”
I nodded, refilling his cup out of habit. Steven was the only person who knew I was in Kansas. Jamie never asked and I never told her. The same went for Michele. I guess they figured the less they knew, the better. I told myself I didn’t know why I kept in contact with Steven. Why I chose to let him out of everyone else in on the new life I’d made.
I also knew I lied to myself.
Our eyes met and for a moment there was that faint, humming sense of awareness I’d felt in my kitchen months before. He wet his lips before speaking. “We need you to come back to Selene.”
“Why?” I poured myself a glass of water, lifting it to my lips to take a sip. My hand froze, my fingers flexing on the glass at his reply.
“Because we’re dying.”
[box]Cari Gravier might have learned Selene’s big secret, but some things remain constant: the Old Town Cafe, blackberry harvesting, and the shaky relationship with her ex-husband, Mike Sullivan.
But there’s more change in the wind, the kind even half blind Old Willis can see. The seeds of the past–betrayal, violence, and heartbreak–are ready for harvest.
And some sleeping dogs just won’t stay down….
L.M. Pruitt has been reading since before she can remember, and writing nearly as long. She fell in love with New Orleans after spending one week there, and visits the city as often as her schedule permits–which isn’t nearly often enough. She is the author of New Moon Rising, Shades of Gray, the first novel in the Jude Magdalyn series, Hole in the Wall, a Jude Magdalyn short, and Taken: A Frankie Post Novel. She is currently at work on Harvest Moon Rising, the next book in the Cari Gravier series. She makes her home in Florida with two cats–one smart, one an idiot–and a puppy with a tendency to chew everything.