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Dont Let Go, Page 2

Sharla Lovelace

Chapter 2

  Chapter 2 Johnny Mack beamed. And if I’d learned anything in the twenty-plus years since his son left town, that was reason to put your guard up. He was conversing up a customer, his normal look of disgust replaced by—was that interest? “I mean, he’s still a grouch, but he’s actually been nice to people today,” Linny said. I tried to shake off the heaviness I felt on my skin. “What’s up with that?” I asked, frowning. She shrugged. “No clue. He just keeps saying to watch the door. I don’t know what the hell the door’s gonna do, but if it makes him smile, I’m game. ” “How’s it going, Linny?” came a voice to my right, yanking me back to the real world. Becca’s whole face crumpled. While Hayden pulled up a chair I looked around for the pretty suited lady, and she was nowhere to be seen. “Another day in paradise,” Linny said, winking at him. “You putting your chili in the contest again?” he asked. “You know it’s always my favorite. ” Linny’s cheeks flushed up as she chuckled and walked away. Hayden had that way. He could make women stutter-stupid with just a smile. Not like he was some hot GQ type or anything. He wasn’t. He dressed it, but always a little messy, like maybe he needed a little help with that tie. With that shirt. With that belt. He wasn’t really a guy to lust over at first glance, but he could have you with a five-minute conversation. I think he’d had me twenty-three years earlier with a “hello” and a slow dance. But then, as Becca had so fluently pointed out, I was evidently an easy bang. “By all means, join us,” I said sarcastically as I leaned on the table and forced that thought away. I suddenly felt as if the day was hell-bent on wearing me out. “Hey, bug,” he said, ignoring my zinger and focusing on Becca. “Hey back,” she said, smiling her crooked smile. “So—did the hairdresser have to leave midway for a family emergency or something?” Her smile faltered, and I wanted to throw sugar substitute packets at him. “Yep, she did,” Becca said, meeting his gaze. “So we only paid for one side. ” Hayden nodded, I guess for once seeing that it wasn’t worth the fight. “And you’re okay with it?” he asked, turning to me. “She’s not eight, Hayden. She’s a high school senior. ” I took a deep swallow from my water glass. “If having weird hair—” “Hey!” I ignored her indignation. “—is her worst sin, then I think we can count our blessings. ” “Until I get my tattoo,” Becca said, which managed to render both Hayden and me speechless for a second. “Come again?” he said. “When I graduate,” she said matter-of-factly, holding up her Sharpie’d wrist. “Something here, don’t know what, yet. ” “Just nod, Hayden,” I said on a sigh. “It changes monthly. ” “This one won’t,” she said. Linny swung back by with a basket of rolls and extra butter because she knew Becca and I were butter whores. I slathered one up and took a bite, relishing the carbs. A hand on my shoulder turned me around. “Did you get the email?” said an elderly man with spinach in his teeth and a comb-over that never moved. I blinked. “Email—um, I haven’t had a chance to check yet today, Mr. Morrison, but—” “It went out four days ago,” he said. The spinach didn’t move. “You are supposed to have your ad and payment turned in for the flyer by this weekend. ” Of course I did. The all-important festival flyer. Priorities. “Okay, well, I’ll—check in on that. ” He patted my shoulder, shook Hayden’s hand even though he probably didn’t remember who he was, and then just kind of looked at Becca as he walked past. “Am I purple or something?” she whispered. “It’s your aura,” I whispered back, making her snicker. “So, what brings you to the dark side?” I asked Hayden, nudging him with an elbow. “I was at the courthouse with a contract, so I figured what the hell. Hey, you know the old man didn’t even give me a dirty look?” “Linny said he’s all happy for some reason,” Becca said around her own bite of gooey roll. “So who was the fancy woman?” I asked, unable to resist the jab and needing to distract myself from Johnny Mack’s issues. “Dating lawyers now?” I asked with a grin. Hayden turned to meet me dead-on, his hazel eyes twinkling. “Who was the crustacean? Dating bikers now?” A full-on belly laugh started low and worked its way up, making me realize just how much I’d missed laughing like that. In spite of our differences, Hayden could always make me laugh. And this particular time of year, with the damp cold creeping in and the crispness in the mornings making the sad in me rise to the surface, I needed to feel that release. “Touché. ” I raised the roll to my lips and the remaining chuckle froze in my throat as the door opened and in walked a couple. The small brunette woman was all in red and beautiful enough to make anyone notice, but it was the man. A man I’d last seen as a seventeen-year-old boy. Unless you counted last night’s dream. My skin went cold and tingly and my head felt like I’d been sucking helium. I felt the roll leave my fingers. “Mom?” I heard Becca say. “Mom, what’s the matter?” “Jules?” Hayden’s voice said in my ear. But it was the eyes that traveled the room, looking nostalgic but wary as they took in every detail until they landed on me and stuck. I felt their weight. And went back to the last time we’d locked eyes. The day I gave our baby away. “Noah. ” • • • Twenty-six years. A lifetime ago. And yet in that moment, with Noah Ryan standing fifteen feet away from me, I was suddenly the seventeen-year-old pregnant senior, holding his hand in the hallway and trying to get through the day. The swollen, hormonal girl at the Copper Falls Halloween picnic, leaving yet another fight with my mom to go meet up with my boyfriend and talk about visions of marriage. The waddling, back-gripping girl at Christmas, and the conflicted young woman at the cursed Winter Carnival, arguing with her fiancé by the river, going into labor and rushing to the hospital through tears. And then an empty girl, giving some very lucky couple a beautiful treasure, while the boy she loved left crying. Left town, left the country, left her completely. For twenty-six years. “There he is,” sang Johnny Mack from the kitchen in a voice that was more upbeat than I’d heard maybe ever. The old man came around that counter with his duck-headed cane, barely needing it as he held his arms open. “There’s my boy!” He wasn’t a boy anymore. Gone was the lanky frame, and in its place was solidity and muscle. His dark hair was cropped short, with a smattering of something lighter. His face was more filled out, as was his whole body. And the black pullover shirt he wore loosely over jeans showed all of it. Dear God, the military had been good to him. Johnny Mack Ryan’s face broke into a grin as he embraced Noah, and Linny came running from the restroom. “Jesus Christ, Noah!” she said, tears in her voice. “What the hell?” She nearly knocked her father over to get to him, and he laughed as she wrapped her arms around his neck. “You worm! Not telling us you’re coming?” “Dad knew,” Noah said, and the sound of his voice after all those years sent ripples over my skin. I gripped my napkin like it could keep me together. “He wanted to surprise you. ” She let go of Noah and shoved at her dad as he laughed a wheezy laugh I hadn’t heard in decades. “You—ornery old goat!” I realized I was still staring when Noah’s gaze found me again. Something there hit me like a cannonball to the chest, and I forced my eyes back down to the half-eaten roll on my plate, listening to myself breathe. Hayden’s voice reminded me that there were still people at my table. “Julianna. ” He only called me my full name when he wanted to get my full attention, so evidently he’d been talking to me for a while. “Yes?” I said, a little too loudly, my voice cracking. At the pause, I looked his way. “That’s him?” he asked. Under all the turmoil whizzing through my head, I felt his true questions, saw them in his eyes. But I wasn’t going to go there in front of Becca. I just nodded, not trusting my voice with all my insides turned to Jell-O, and then hating myself for acting stupid over a man from two decades in my past. I felt Becca’s gaze on me and chose to look past it. I intended to check out the fastest path to the door. I didn’t care about the food, I’d get it from Linny later. I just needed to leave before my nerves got the better of me. “Dad met Shayna when he came to Italy,” Noah was saying, pulling my eyes back his way. “But, L
inny, I want you to meet her. ” He reached back where the stunning woman was standing slightly behind him and gently pulled her forward, his hand on the small of her back. “This is my sister, Linny, babe. ” The woman smiled warmly and extended her hand as Linny’s large ones swallowed it. “Linny, this is my fiancée, Shayna. ” Fiancée. My blood burned as the word bounced around. Oh, I was such an infant. Who cared if he was engaged, or married, or shacking up. People ran into old boyfriends and girlfriends all the time. The difference was that usually you saw them living life in the meantime. The last time I saw Noah—I was his fiancée. I reached into my bag and pulled two twenties blindly from it, handing them to Becca. Knowing it was probably thirty dollars too much and not caring. She could call it a score. “Go ahead and eat, baby. Visit with your dad. ” “What?” she said, looking genuinely disappointed and breaking what I could feel of my heart. “Where are you going? We don’t even have our food yet. ” “Back to um—something’s come up,” I said. “I need to go. You and Daddy have lunch on me. ” “Um, I need to go, actually,” Hayden said. “Visit with your daughter,” I said slowly, pinning him with each word. I turned back to Becca, who was looking at me like I was traitorous. “Eat your lunch. Box mine up. Drop it by on your way back to school. ” “Wait, hang on,” Hayden said, narrowing his eyes at her. “How are you out of school?” “Have a good chat,” I said, patting him on the back as I rose from my chair. I kissed Becca on the top of the head. “Loves,” I said into her hair. “Loves,” she said, although I didn’t feel love. I felt her hate spewing out all over me. Another parental fail moment I’d have to own up to, but it was better than melting down in my chair. Fortunately, I managed to pass the happy couple on my way to the door without tripping on anything. “Jules. ” “Oh, shit,” I said under my breath, turning around. At least I thought it was under my breath. By the expression on his woman’s face, it might not have been. She was even more beautiful up close, I noticed, with no crinkles or zits and perfectly lined eyes. I forced myself to meet his eyes instead. “Yes?” And that was a bad idea. He was two feet away. I could see the deep blue of his eyes, smell him. Feel the heat of his body. Okay, maybe not that, maybe that was just my anxiety and rage and anger and hormonal imbalance going ape-shit. He opened his mouth to say something, but he looked nearly as floored as I felt. Why was he floored? He at least knew he was coming. He knew he’d see me eventually. I, on the other hand, was just fine with him on the other side of the world, and didn’t realize that gap had closed. Especially not now. He swallowed back whatever thought was there, and I didn’t let myself analyze it. Not all these years later when I couldn’t even say I knew him anymore. I just nodded. “Welcome home, Noah. ” I was so proud of myself for forming words. He just blinked and let himself be pulled back into the chaos as his dad stepped between us and turned his back to me, slapping him on the back as Noah’s fiancée slipped a hand into the crook of his arm. “Everyone!” Johnny Mack hollered out to the entire diner. His face was transformed from grouch to grin. “My son is here!” At the murmurs and curious looks from people who didn’t know why that was holler-worthy, he waved his hands impatiently. “From Italy! Noah’s home from the Navy. He’s finally home!” At the smattering of claps and amused expressions and welcome home’s from the clientele, Noah smiled stiffly and visibly reddened. He still wasn’t one for the spotlight, I noticed, as he backed up a step and put a hand on the back of the brunette’s neck, eyeing the room. I felt the discomfort with him, backing slowly toward the door so my exit wouldn’t be analyzed by any town gossips. As much as I wanted to bolt, I couldn’t quit looking at him. It had been such a long time. Most of the people in there were too young to remember the juicy story or the boy who’d left Copper Falls to be a career Navy man. The few old-timers sitting around the lunch counter got up and shook his hand, as they remembered him and knew what he’d been—what he was. They’d kept up with Johnny Mack’s stories of Noah’s adventures over the years, when he joined Special Forces and when he made master chief. “You here for a visit, Noah, or home for good?” Spinach teeth asked him. Noah took his hand in both of his and smiled. “I’m home, Mr. Morrison. I’m getting too old to keep moving around. I’m home. ” I pushed the door open with my back and slipped out, welcoming the brisk breeze on my flushed skin. “He’s—he’s home,” I whispered, echoing the words. I leaned against the scratchy door for a moment, letting the crispness of the air cool me down. I blew out a slow breath, and ignored an odd look from a passing couple. “It’s okay,” I said to them, smiling, squeezing my own fingers to stem the shaking. “It’s okay,” I repeated, softer, to myself. “Quit being a child. ” I pushed off the door when I heard group laughter inside and started the twenty whole feet to my own door. Ruthie was laughing in her singsongy way as I pulled the door open and the little bell jingled overhead. Mrs. Chatalain was on her way out, a little gold sales bag held against her pukey pink outfit. “Have a good day,” I managed, holding the door open for her. “Enjoy your book. ” “What kind of sale you going to have for the Winter—” she began, nodding back toward the inside. “No idea,” I said briskly. “What would you like?” “Buy one, get one free would be nice,” she said, squinting up at me. “Yeah, it probably won’t be that,” I answered. “Figures,” she muttered, holding her bag against her as if it would block the wind. “Your mother would have done that for an hour or so,” she said. “With hot chocolate or something. ” “Good to know,” I managed, what my mother would have done or not done being the least of my concerns. A couple was at the counter finishing up a large purchase of self-help books when I went in, and the guy was flirting shamelessly with Ruthie as the woman laughed a little uncomfortably. I smiled as they left, swiped a sprinkled cupcake from a platter Ruthie had brought out, and landed in a nearby chair, suddenly spent. “Anyone in here?” I asked, resting my head against the back with my eyes closed. “Not now,” she said. “That was a fast lunch. Becca already headed back?” I lifted my head and focused on the cupcake, trying to unpeel the paper with fingers that had forgotten how to function. “No,” I said, the word coming out raspy. I cleared my throat and tried to push his face from my vision. “Jules? Is everything okay,” I heard Ruthie say. I set the cupcake down and closed my eyes, shaking my head just slightly. The air felt thick and quiet around me, the ticking of a nearby clock being the only sound. He was back. “Jules?” she asked again, her voice coming closer as the curiosity beckoned her. With my eyes shut and my other senses heightened, I heard the wariness and concern in her words. I opened my eyes and stared straight ahead, blowing out a breath slowly. A tiny laugh bubbled up my throat that had nothing to do with anything being funny. “Noah’s home. ”