The Sugar Queen
Emerson Pass Contemporaries, Book 1
True love requires commitment, and many times unending sacrifice...
At the tender age of eighteen, Brandi Vargas watched the love of her life drive out of Emerson Pass, presumably for good. Though she and Trapper Barnes dreamed of attending college and starting their lives together, she was sure she would only get in the way of Trapper's future as a hockey star. Breaking his heart, and her own in the process, was the only way to ensure he pursued his destiny. Her fate was the small town life she'd always known, her own bakery, and an endless stream of regret.
After a decade of playing hockey, a single injury ended Trapper Barnes' career. And while the past he left behind always haunted him, he still returns to Emerson Pass to start the next chapter of his life in the place his ancestors built more than a century before. But when he discovers that the woman who owns the local bakery is the girl who once shattered his dreams, the painful secret she's been harboring all these years threatens to turn Trapper's idyllic small town future into a disaster. Will it take a forest fire threatening the mountain village to force Trapper and Brandi to confront their history? And in the wake of such a significant loss, will the process of rebuilding their beloved town help them find each other, and true happiness, once again?
Fast forward to the present day and enjoy this contemporary second chance romance set in the small town of Emerson Pass, featuring the descendants of the characters you loved from USA Today bestselling author Tess Thompson's The School Mistress.
Content warning for stillbirth.
— scroll down to read book sample —
"There are books, authors, that pull you into their pages and make you want to come back for more. Tess Thompson can do that with her stories, with her series...Each page draws the reader, page turning, drama, sweetness, and heartache." —★★★★★ Reader Review
"...this book touched my heart, and I loved it...I am eagerly awaiting the upcoming stories, for both past and present." —★★★★★ Reader Review
"Emerson Pass is quickly becoming one of my favorite little towns...I absolutely suggest this book to anyone who loves small town romances and stories that truly take you away. This series goes from past to present and back again. It is so fun to follow the family tree and make the connections while reading. Another great series from Tess Thompson!" —★★★★★ Reader Review
"Tess Thompson has a way with her writing that wraps your heart and soul when pulls into story...All the characters and their relationships are so realistic and complex which is why I'm totally hooked in this series...All in all I absolutely loved this book even more than first one but that shouldn't be really a surprise because each new book is somehow better and better! Still in awe! Pick this series up and get hooked! It's ten stars worth!" —★★★★★ Reader Review
"Finally finished The Sugar Queen of Emerson Pass and I LOVED it!...A true story of second chance romance, with two childhood sweethearts torn apart in the midst of young love, and then thrown back together years later in very different circumstances, but in the same setting. The story tore at my heart, with loss and confusion, misplaced loyalties and rediscovered romance. Oh and the build-up to the next romance. Loved it, truly! Can't wait for the next one..." —★★★★★ Reader Review
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Tess Thompson is the USA Today Bestselling and award-winning author of contemporary and historical Romantic Women’s Fiction with nearly 40 published titles. When asked to describe her books, she could never figure out what to say that would perfectly sum them up until she landed on, Hometowns and Heartstrings.
She’s married to her prince, Best Husband Ever, and is the mother of their blended family of four kids and five cats. Best Husband Ever is seventeen months younger, which qualifies Tess as a Cougar, a title she wears proudly. Her Bonus Sons are young adults with pretty hair and big brains like their dad. Daughters, better known as Princess One and Two, are teenagers who make their mama proud because they’re kind. They’re also smart, but a mother shouldn’t brag.
Tess loves lazy afternoons watching football, hanging out on the back patio with Best Husband Ever, reading in bed, binge-watching television series, red wine, strong coffee and walks on crisp autumn days. She laughs a little too loudly, never knows what to make for dinner, looks ridiculous kickboxing in an attempt to combat her muffin top, and always complains about the rain even though she chose to live in Seattle.
She’s proud to have grown up in a small town like the ones in her novels. After graduating from the University of Southern California Drama School, she had hopes of becoming an actress but was called instead to writing fiction. She’s grateful to spend most days in her office matchmaking her characters while her favorite cat Mittens (shhh…don’t tell the others) sleeps on the desk.
SAMPLE FROM THE SUGAR QUEEN
Chapter 1: Brandi
The ghosts of Emerson Pass haunt me. Not the spirits those who built this town from bricks and dreams. They’re all resting in peace, probably sitting around a table eating my great-great-great-grandmother Lizzie’s chicken stew. No, these apparitions are the loves of my life.
They’re only memories now, replaced by gaping holes of grief. One is a secret buried in the town cemetery under a gravestone with no name. The other is Trapper Barnes, professional athlete and descendant of the infamous Alexander Barnes. The boy who left and never returned. The boy who chose hockey over me.
The boy I sent away.
Until he returned on an ordinary afternoon in August.
The bells over the front door of my bakery jingled as I was about to close for the day. I looked up, surprised to have a new customer. Emerson Pass was a small town. Everyone knew my sandwiches, muffins, cookies, and cakes were gone by three. By four, I had only a few sad scones begging for a buyer.
My heart stopped for at least three seconds. Trapper Barnes stood before me.
I blinked three times to make sure I wasn’t seeing things. But no, it was him. Tall and tanned with the same thick brown hair and big brown eyes.
“Hey, Brandi.” A deep voice, masculine yet soft. He smiled, showing his straight white teeth. Other than his dimples, all youthful roundness had disappeared, leaving chiseled cheekbones and a defined chin. The years had broadened his shoulders and chest. He was even better-looking than he’d been when we were kids. Of course he was. This was Trapper Barnes. Town hero. Hockey star. Love of my life.
I’d seen him on television and magazines over the years. Not often, as I avoided anything to do with professional hockey. If I accidentally caught a glimpse of him, the wound opened fresh, and I was wrecked for days. None of those photographs did him justice. The man was sinfully beautiful.
I couldn’t utter a sound. Instead, I stared at him. Could he see the way my chest ripped open and bled onto my counter? I stole a glance at his left hand. No ring. Thank God, nothing but one long, gorgeous finger. I’d accepted long ago that he would never be mine, but belonging to someone else? The weight of that pain would crush me.
“It smells fantastic in here.” His brown eyes sparkled as if he were on the brink of laughter. “Now that I’m no longer training, I can have a treat every once in a while. I’ll take the pumpkin one.”
I grabbed the last pumpkin from the platters. No longer training? What did that mean? I set the scone on a plate and slid it across the wide counter. God help me, I could smell his cologne. He smelled the same as the last day I’d ever spent with him.
“How much?” he asked.
I shook my head. “On the house. The scone’s dry by this time of day.”
His mouth lifted in that same drowsy smile he’d had since we were kids. “You speak. I thought maybe you’d gone mute since I left.”
“Yes, sorry. You surprised me.” The understatement of the century.
“The Sugar Queen.” He gestured toward the doors. “It’s perfect.”
“Thanks.” I’m never a woman of many words, but my dry mouth made elegant oratory even more difficult.
“Mama tells me this is the best bakery in town,” he said.
I glanced around, wondering what it looked like through his eyes. Industrial lights hung over the counter. Round bistro-style tables and chairs looked out to the street. A silver espresso machine and a refrigerator with premade items took up one side, with the register and counter on the other. A chalkboard with the menu hung on the wall, written in my neat handwriting. Every morning I set out the day’s offerings on various platters and boards in an attractive display on the counter.
“It’s the only bakery in town,” I said.
He smiled again and lifted one thick eyebrow. “Probably because no one dares compete with you.”
Trapper. Always kind and encouraging to everyone he ever met. Lifting people up was like a mission with him. He could find the best part of a person, no matter who they were. He never missed an opportunity to inspire or encourage. I’d almost forgotten what it was like to bask in the glow of his compliment. Back in the day it had been the only antidote to my mother’s criticism. And there it was. I ached with wanting him, as if no time had passed. No, I screamed silently. Don’t let him break you. Not again.
“What’re you doing here?” I asked. “I mean, here in town.”
“I’ve moved home. Didn’t Breck and Huck tell you?”
Breck and Huck and Trapper were best friends from childhood. And no, they had not mentioned that Trapper was moving home permanently. Oh God. How could this be happening? I couldn’t have him here. Not living and breathing and stopping in for a damn scone. How would I look him in the eye, knowing what I’d done? The secret I’d kept from him.
“They don’t come by often.” I came out from behind the counter and turned the Open sign to Closed. “Anyway, it’s none of my business what you do.”
As I turned to face him, he placed his hand over his heart and smiled. “Ouch.”
Damn that smile. Still melted me like butter over a biscuit.
“You look beautiful,” he said. “More so than ever.”
“Not really.” I wondered if I had any flour on my face. When I was in the zone I didn’t think twice about my appearance. In the shop, I wore my long blond hair in a braid and usually didn’t bother with more than mascara and blush, always promising myself to remember lipstick but never quite managing. Truth is, I didn’t care about what I looked like. Everyone in this town had already seen me. I wasn’t interested in romance. The only Friday night date I wanted was a television show and a glass of wine.
The only man I’d ever cared about looking pretty for had left a long time ago.
“I always knew you’d do something spectacular,” he said.
“Baking bread is hardly spectacular,” I said.
“Tell that to the customers lined up out your door every morning.”
“How do you know that?” I asked.
His chiseled features softened. I saw a hint of the vulnerable, sensitive boy I’d loved instead of the giant, confident man before me. “I’ve been by a few times. I didn’t know if you’d want to see me, so I just kept walking.”
“Why today then?” I kept my words clipped, unemotional. All I wanted was for him to leave so I could sort through what to do. I didn’t want him here. Not in my shop or my town.
“I couldn’t stop myself,” he said. “I wanted to see you.”
My stomach churned. “I would’ve thought Emerson Pass was a little small for you these days. Did you get hurt? Is that why you’re retiring?”
“That’s right. Bad knee. I lasted longer than most. It was time to come home and start a new chapter. I got some advice from my friend Brody Mullen. After my injury, he said to move back home. Start a new chapter with no regrets.”
I had no idea who that was. “I don’t follow hockey.”
His eyes widened. “Brody Mullen’s a former football quarterback. Some say the best there ever was. You don’t watch sports anymore?”
“No time. The world of professional sports is irrelevant to my life.” I motioned toward the back where my ovens resided. “Common people like me are just trying to make our rent.”
“There’s nothing common about you. Never has been.”
I ignored the praise. I’d be damned if he was going to suck me in with his effortless charm. Had I not evolved from a lovesick teenager? Remember your secret, I reminded myself. Remember what you kept from him.
“You used to love hockey,” he said. “If I recall correctly, you never missed a game.”
“I loved watching you. When you left, hockey lost its appeal.”
“Oh, okay.” He glanced down at the counter. “Guess that answers that question.”
“What’s that?” I asked, then silently cursed myself. Stop engaging. Tell him to leave.
“Sometimes when I played, I wondered if you were watching me on television.”
He flinched. “Got it.”
“What did you expect? That I was here pining for you?”
“Jeez, Brandi, you don’t have to be mean.”
The hurt in his eyes nearly undid my resolve to remain cold. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to sound that way. You had the life you dreamed of, and I’m glad for you.” His dreams had come true. I’d wanted that for him. Remember that, I reminded myself. “I’m just surprised you ever thought of me at all.”
“Do I need to remind you how it all went down?” he asked softly. “You’re the one who ended things. You’re the one who made the rules. No contact, remember? You made it so I couldn’t come home.”
“How’s that exactly?” My voice cracked. “Your family owns most of this town. It’s yours more than mine.”
“Because I couldn’t come home and risk seeing you. It hurt too much.”
His words nearly knocked me across the room. I gripped the edge of the counter to stay in place. He didn’t mean it, I reminded myself. He chose hockey. Not me. “From what I could tell, you made up for it by dating a plethora of actresses and models.”
His mouth lifted in a sad smile. “You didn’t watch my games, but you read tabloids about me?”
“It’s hard to avoid. I stand in grocery store lines.” I wiped crumbs from the counter into my apron and tossed them into the garbage.
“Most of that stuff is lies. I only dated half the women they said I did.”
An arrow pierced my chest. Half the women. Women who were not me. My lunch continued to churn in my stomach. A drop of perspiration slid down my lower back. “You were a girl magnet in high school. Some things never change.” I looked past him to the street. The wind had come up, shaking the leaves of the aspens that lined Barnes Avenue.
“I never noticed anyone but you,” he said. “I never wanted anyone but you. Surely you remember that accurately?”
I avoided eye contact by reaching under the counter for a cloth I had soaking in bleach. “Where are you living?” I wiped the counter with short, furious strokes.
“I had a house built on my dad’s property. You didn’t know?”
“I don’t exactly get updates about your life. Neither of your parents has ever set foot in this place.”
He shoved his hands in his pockets and rocked back on his heels. “Yeah, about that. What happened between our mothers? Do you know? Mama said your mom shut her out after we broke up. Refused to answer her calls or emails. They were such good friends.”
How could I explain this without telling him the truth? “After we broke up, my mom thought it would be best if they were no longer friends. Less messy that way, I guess.”
“That’s sad,” he said. “The whole thing was sad.”
“I’m sorry I hurt you, Trapper.” I hadn’t planned to say that, but somehow it slipped out of my mouth.
He shrugged one muscular shoulder. “You did. Bad.”
“We were young,” I said. “I wasn’t ready.”
“I remember your reasons.” His jaw clenched as he looked down at the floor. “Didn’t make it any easier to lose you, though.”
I fiddled with my apron strings as waves of pain slapped me. “Have you been happy?” I asked through clenched teeth. “All your dreams came true—just like you planned.” My chest ached as I waited for him to tell me. Please, I thought, say yes. Please let one of us have had the life we wanted.
“Yeah, all my hockey dreams did come true.” He ran a hand over the top of his head. “They didn’t make me as happy as I figured they would.”
“What do you mean?”
“I loved playing, don’t get me wrong. But as the years went on, I started to understand it was simply a job. Not family. Not friendship. Not love. When the docs said my knee was shot, I figured it was time to find some of what I gave up when I left. So I came home. Back to the place where I left my heart.”
I almost reached over the counter to touch him but pushed my hands into my apron pockets to stop myself. How could I still love him this much? “Not much has changed here.” Lame, I thought. What a stupid thing to say after he poured his heart out to me.
“Can I ask you something?” He shifted weight from one leg to the other.
“Did you ever have any intention of going with me to University of Michigan like we’d talked about, or did you know all along you wanted to stay here?” He asked this as if the words were being yanked out of him by an invisible rope.
“I’d planned on going, but I changed my mind,” I said.
“What did I do wrong?” His voice softened. He shoved his hands into the pockets of his jeans. I swear to God, he looked like the little boy I’d met on the first day of grade school. “I’d like to know that. For peace of mind.”
“Nothing. Trapper, it was never you.” The back of my throat ached. I swallowed, trying to keep my composure. “We were young. It was a high school thing—not meant to last.” Liar, liar, liar.
“I never thought it was just a high school romance. I thought we were forever. I’ve never been able to move on.” He rubbed the heel of his hand on his forehead. “I should probably stop talking now.”
We were more than high school sweethearts. I’d known it then, and I knew it now. “I haven’t either.” The words were out before I could stop them.
“Why haven’t you ever reached out to me?” His eyes filled. “I would’ve been so happy to hear from you. There’s not a day that’s gone by that I haven’t thought about you.”
“It would’ve been wrong of me. You and I just weren’t meant to be. For so many reasons.”
“I can’t think of one.” He swiped at his eyes.
I knew one. Her name was Ava Elizabeth, and she was buried in the town cemetery. Our baby. Our stillborn baby.
“I didn’t get into Michigan,” I said. “That’s why I couldn’t go with you.”
He rocked back on his heels, as if I’d smacked him. “What? How come you didn’t tell me that?”
“I was ashamed.”
He studied me for a few seconds before speaking. “If you’d gotten in, would you have gone with me?”
“It doesn’t matter. I didn’t get in. I couldn’t just follow you and make your life my life. Eventually, you would’ve come to resent me.”
“I don’t think so.”
“Think about it, Trapper. What was I supposed to do? Live in your dorm room and work at a fast-food place? Michigan was your dream, not mine.”
“I wish you’d have told me the truth,” he said. “You owed me that at least.”
“What good would that have done?” The truth? My rejection from Michigan was nothing compared to the other lie.
His cheeks reddened. “Because it would’ve helped me understand what the hell happened between us. One day we’re in love and the next day you’re breaking up with me. None of it made sense to me. It still doesn’t.”
“Do you remember the fight we had the week before we broke up?” I asked.
He nodded and shifted his gaze to the floor. “When you asked me if a circumstance demanded it, would I choose you or hockey—and I said hockey.”
After all these years, I could still feel the way those words had knocked a hole right through my middle. “That’s right.” I’d known I was pregnant by then. I hadn’t yet told my parents or Trapper. I’d planned to tell Trapper that night and see if we could come up with a plan together. However, the moment he’d said those words, I knew what I had to do.
Let go. Send him away to begin the rest of his life. At least one of us would have all our dreams come true.
He looked up at me. “That answer is the biggest regret of my life. I should never have said something so cruel.”
“It was hard to hear but necessary,” I said. “You were eighteen years old, and your whole career was in front of you. I was just the girl in high school you thought you loved.”
“I did love you. Not thought I loved you,” he said.
“No eighteen-year-old boy with the kind of drive and talent you had should ever pick a teenage romance over a college that would lead to a professional career. That would simply be stupid. Do you hear me? Don’t regret your honesty. It saved us both a lot of heartache in the end.”
“Did it? Or did it drive you away? I always felt like it was some kind of test and I failed and ruined everything between us.”
It was and it did.
“We were kids.” This wasn’t how I’d wanted this conversation to go. I needed him to leave. “What did we know about love? High school love never lasts. I was just a blip on your life. You know that.”
“I never knew that. In fact, I thought the opposite. Until you sent me away, I thought we’d get married. I thought we’d have a few kids by now.” His face twisted in obvious pain. “And then I ruined it by telling you hockey was more important than you.”
“Trapper, listen to me.” My chest hurt so much I could hardly breathe. “If I’d tagged along, you would’ve outgrown me.”
“What does it matter now?” I asked.
His voice rose in pitch. Tears dripped from his eyes. “I thought we were in love. Like epic love. The kind that lasts forever. Did you ever love me? I thought you did, and then you didn’t. I’ve never understood what happened.”
I looked at him too long. His expression changed from sad to expectant. The truth must have leaked out of my eyes along with the tears that suddenly blurred my vision. “I loved you enough to let you go.”
“That makes no sense.”
“What I needed from you was more than you could give.” My careless mistake would have cost him everything. Two nights in a row I’d forgotten to take my birth control pills. Instead of telling him, I kept it to myself. The first of the secrets I’d kept from him.
“What did you need?”
“I needed you to want to stay here and have a simple life. In the end, we simply didn’t fit together. I couldn’t leave here. I never have, you know.”
He watched me with those eyes that still drew me in like no one else’s ever had. “Well, I’m back now for good. Does that mean anything to you?”
“Too much time has passed, Trapper. We don’t even know each other anymore.”
“Fair enough.” The corners of his mouth twitched into a smile that did nothing to hide his sadness. “But we could get to know each other again.”
“I…I can’t,” I said.
“Are you seeing someone?”
My first instinct was to lie. However, this town was too small for yet more deceit. “I’m not. I don’t want a relationship. I’m too busy.”
He picked up a napkin from the counter and wiped his eyes.“Right. Got it. I feel like an idiot coming in here and talking about this stuff. If it means anything, my intention was to come in and say hello to an old friend. I didn’t plan for us to get into the past to this extent.”
“You know what they say about best intentions.” I smiled, hoping to lighten the mood.
“I guess so,” he said. “I’m still trying to find a way to move on.”
“I’m fine. You’re fine. Everything’s fine.” I couldn’t keep my voice from cracking like a burned, brittle cookie. “There’s no reason to hold on to the past.”
“I guess I should go, then.” He turned toward the door.
“Don’t forget your scone. I can bag it up for you.” Why had I put it on a plate in the first place?
“Nah, I lost my appetite. See you around.”
I watched him walk out the door. He looked left, then right, as if deciding which way to go. In the end, he crossed Barnes Avenue and hopped into a shiny black truck and drove away, just as he’d done ten years earlier.
Find a way to move on. He’d never been able to move on or get over me? As hard as this was to believe, I knew it to be true. Trapper had never lied to me. I was the liar.
If I’d gone to him back then and told him about the pregnancy, would the course of our lives have been altered but not ruined? Did my grief kill our baby? I’d never know now. Trapper could never be mine. Not after the secret I kept from him.
I sank to the floor behind the counter and cried.
Thirty minutes later, I drove out to the cemetery and parked in my usual spot. I walked down the winding cement path to the Strom family plot where my baby rested. I sat on the grass next to her. My mother had not allowed me to have her name or dates etched into the simple headstone. Only a simple outline of a bird carved into the granite marked her existence. Ava meant bird. My little bird.
I traced my fingers over the etching. “He came back. And it turns out I still love him. I know, not surprising. I never stopped. All his dreams came true. At least I was able to give him that.”
I’d had to lie to him, pretend I didn’t love him, and hide my pregnancy so that he might have the life he deserved. Hockey was his destiny. “When he was a little boy, all he ever cared about was hockey. You should’ve seen him on the ice. He was a sight. I couldn’t hold him back from his dreams.”
I knew if it came down to it, he’d choose the game over me. He proved me right when I asked him. Which would you choose? Me or hockey? We’d been sitting in lawn chairs at his Grammie and Pa’s house on the first warm day of spring.
“I don’t have to choose. I can have both,” he’d said, flashing me that confident grin.
“In this game, you have to choose.” I’d turned away, afraid to show him my reaction.
“Hockey. I mean, for now anyway. If I’m to give you a great life, it has to start with me playing hockey.”
There it was. The answer. I knew what I had to do.
Now I spoke to my daughter as if she were there. “When he moved away to college, I thought I might die without him.”
I didn’t, obviously. It was just my heart that had died. The rest of me was intact. After he left, I told my parents I was pregnant. My mother hatched a plan. A secret pregnancy. Adoption. No one would know, including Trapper and his parents. “I’ll be damned if I let a baby wreck your life like it did mine.”
It? “It” was me. I was her baby. And I was still here, ruining all her plans.
She’d wanted everything for me that she’d had to give up when she became pregnant at seventeen. She’d wanted a college education. She’d wanted a life with intellectuals and professionals. Instead, she’d gotten pregnant and married my dad. What had been a summer camp counselor fling had created a baby. Dad had brought her home to his mountain town in Colorado. As far as I could tell, she’d hated every moment of her life here.
Everyone seemed to understand that I lacked the brains to pursue academics except my mother. She couldn’t see me as I was, refusing to have me tested for learning disabilities, berating me that if I only tried harder my grades would be better.
In the end, it didn’t matter what she wanted for me. I was a disappointment. Even my compassionate father, who loved me more than anything in the world, was crestfallen at my failure to get into college. Then I broke his heart further when I got pregnant.
My mother had located a wonderful couple who desperately wanted a child. He was a doctor. She was a professor. The family my mother wished we’d been. Little did she know, I’d had no intention of giving my baby to anyone.
I’d been confined to the house as the baby grew inside me. To keep occupied, I’d baked bread in my mother’s kitchen. Loaves and loaves. Sourdough, wheat, oat, pumpernickel. I’d kneaded and measured and watched the yeast rise day after day. After I conquered bread, I’d moved on to cakes and cookies and muffins from the recipes from my great-great-great-grandmother Lizzie.
All the while I’d tried to work out how I was going to escape with my baby. I was a young woman with no skills and no family support unless I did exactly what they wanted. Still, I’d been determined that somehow, I would find a way to raise her on my own.
Finally, in desperation, I’d called my friend Crystal Whalen. She’d lived in Seattle during the school year and visited her grandparents during the summers. Descendants of Harley and Merry Depaul, her grandparents had continued the family’s horse breeding farm in Emerson Pass. However, her mother, Jennifer, had had different ideas. She’d chosen pottery over horses and had moved to Seattle, where she’d opened her own studio. When I told Crystal about the baby and my parents’ wishes, Jennifer had offered the baby and me a room in her home. I could stay with them until l got on my feet. She, too, had been a single mother, raising Crystal by herself. By choice, she assured me. “Who needs a man?”
Me, I’d thought. I wasn’t independent or progressive thinking like Jennifer. I had no talents or ambitions.
Sweet little Brandi Vargas. Blonde and cute in my high school cheerleader uniform, but without an ounce of brains. I’d wanted Trapper and babies and to bake bread on Sunday afternoons in my kitchen. No woman in this day and age was supposed to want such a simple life. Despite that, I had.
When it came time for the baby’s arrival, my parents had driven me to Denver, not wanting the local doctors to know about my pregnancy. In triage, the doctor’s face had blanched. He hadn’t looked me in the eye. I’d known something was wrong.
“What is it?”
“I’m not getting a heartbeat.”
No words strung together in the English language had ever been as cruel.
I’d given birth to a baby girl. A baby girl who’d died in my womb.
I’d begged my parents to let me take her home and bury her in the plot with Lizzie and Jasper and the rest of our family. They’d agreed, as long as I kept her name and dates off the headstone. We’d asked the funeral director to please keep it quiet.
For months afterward, I’d barely left the house except to go to the cemetery. I’d bring a blanket and stay for hours. Other than that, I kept to my room watching television or staring out the window. An entire season went by, then another. Finally, one day, my father perched on the side of my bed and proposed an idea.
“There’s going to be a farmers’ market in town on Wednesdays,” he’d said. “How about you bake some bread and sweets to sell?”
I’d agreed, mostly to quell the look of worry in his eyes. The very first Wednesday, I’d sold out of every loaf of bread, all the cookies, and most of the muffins. News of my delicious baked items spread, and people started stopping by the house, asking if I had anything to sell. People referred to me as the Sugar Queen.
When my mother couldn’t stand the flour on her kitchen floor one more minute, Dad encouraged me to take out a loan and open my own shop. He owned the building that used to be the Johnsons’ dry goods store back in the day. The former tenants had used it for a frozen yogurt shop that went under. I’d blamed the cold winters. Who wanted frozen yogurt when icicles hung from the rafters?
From the moment I’d walked in, even before Dad and I had installed the industrial ovens and painted the walls a cream color, the voices of the Johnson family seemed to speak to us. Offer a good product and service, and customers will come.
Dad had suggested I use my nickname for the shop. He’d painted the doors red, then we hung a sign: The Sugar Queen. I’d practically heard the Johnson sisters cheering me on as Dad and I’d given a face-lift to the front of the building. Cherry siding and tall windows with hanging baskets of bright flowers brought the storefront into this century. I’d decorated the inside with bistro tables and a wide counter made of repurposed wood from the original floors.
From that day forward, I started work every morning at 4:00 a.m. and opened the doors at 7:00 a.m. The inside always smelled of sugar, butter, and fresh coffee. Customers flocked to my little place. A hit, despite my deficiencies.
Our guidance counselor had once advised me to use my pretty face and sweet disposition to my advantage, implying I didn’t have much else going for me. Didn’t I get the last laugh? I did have a talent. A talent for which I was admired and adored. Or my products were, anyway. Notwithstanding the tears that sometimes fell in the batter, I was the Sugar Queen.
Most days, I worked so hard proving everyone wrong I didn’t have time or energy to think of all I’d lost. I made a good living doing what I loved. Crystal moved to Emerson Pass after her husband’s death and opened a kitchen shop next door to my bakery. Mom and I came to a distant truce. Dad was still my biggest fan.
A happy ending, of sorts. Until the day Trapper came home and I had to face the past, my lies piling up like sticky, messy muffins on a platter.
“What do I do, little bird?”
But my little bird didn’t answer. She never did.
Chapter 2: Trapper
An hour after I saw Brandi, I walked under the melodic rustle of the aspens that lined Barnes Avenue. Not much had changed in our quaint tourist town since I’d lived here as a child. Baskets with vibrant displays of begonias, lobelia, petunias, and creeping Jenny hung from the retro streetlamps. Higgins Meat Shop, Puck’s Bar and Grill, and Al’s Diner remained in the same brick buildings they’d been in all my life. A high-end grocery store that sold fancy cheese and organic produce had replaced the more pedestrian one of my youth. One of the original brick buildings had become Emerson Pass Brewery. A French bistro and a pizza joint shared another. Next to Brandi’s bakery, a kitchen shop, new since I was last home, had a sign in the window advertising gourmet cooking classes.
Emerson Pass was built in the valley between two mountains. The northern sister, as we called her, was brown and bare in patches where ski paths had been cleared. Once ski season arrived, it would be covered in snow. Our southern sister remained wooded, other than roads and a peppering of homes.
I stopped in the town square, a grassy area where a statue of Alexander Barnes and his wife, Quinn, hinted at the influence my family had had on Emerson Pass for over a hundred years. Alexander had built the town in brick on his own dime after a fire destroyed it in the latter part of the nineteenth century. They stood strong and proud to this day. I ran my fingers down the bronze rendition of the man I’d come from. When I was a kid I’d often come here to stare into the image of his face, wondering if I would ever be the leader and man he had been.
Today, as I looked into those lifeless eyes, the weight of my failures haunted me. Alexander had believed in love, family, and community. Legend said he fell in love with the beautiful schoolteacher Quinn Cooper the first moment he set eyes upon her. He spent his life making sure she knew she was loved. Alexander would never have told his Quinn that he would choose something over her.
Her question that day had been a test. She’d needed me to say I would choose her and instead I’d blurted out the words of a selfish young man. Brandi would not have asked me to choose. She simply needed to know that I would. I’d let her down, and she’d never forgiven me.
After seeing her today, I knew only one thing. I still loved her. As much as I’d wanted her to be someone I once loved—a fond memory of my high school sweetheart—it simply wasn’t true. I loved her the same as I always had.
I’d had such plans for us. First, college together, and then a wedding before I was drafted onto a professional team. I’d play for however long my body lasted, and then we’d come back here together and start a family. Some of the guys I’d played with were the type to take advantage of the women who offered themselves. Many of the married ones slept around just because they could. That wasn’t me. If I’d still had Brandi, I would have remained faithful to her despite the fame, money, and attention. From the first time I kissed her, I’d known she was the one. I’d never loved anyone else. Would I ever be able to? God, I wanted to. I wanted someone to fill this hole she’d left in me.
Was moving back here a mistake? This was a small town. I was sure to run into her frequently. Would it be too painful? I’d never be able to see her without this awful ache in my gut and a craving to touch her, be with her, make her laugh.
I turned to Quinn’s statue. The artist had carved her famous thick blond hair under a jaunty hat. She’d been good to Alexander and his five children, rescuing them from the heartache of losing a wife and mother. I knew from reading her journals how much she’d loved them all. Maybe that was my mistake. Reading those journals had made me too much of a romantic. Not everyone wins the one they love. Some of us are too stupid to keep them.
I’d thought from the time we had our first kiss that she and I were a love story like the one Quinn and Alexander had shared. For whatever reasons, we were not. Would I ever find anyone who would push aside her memory? I wanted that more than anything. At the moment it felt like a farfetched dream.
My phone buzzed from my pocket with a message from my real estate broker.
The ice rink and property are officially yours. We just closed.
Temporarily cheered by this great news, I sat on a bench and typed back a response.
Fantastic. Can’t wait to get started.
My broker, Bill Schaefer, handed me a ring of keys. “It’s all yours. For better or worse.” A good friend of my father’s, Bill handled all our real estate deals. My mother called him a “silver fox” and was endlessly trying to fix him up with eligible widows.
We stood in what used to be the lobby of the ice rink. Remnants of the old carpet remained in shaggy sections of hideous red and blue. Paint peeled from the walls. The place smelled of mildew and decaying wood.
I peered through the clear plastic that separated the actual skating area from the lobby. What had once been covered in ice was now rotting floorboards. “I can’t believe they let this place get this bad,” I said.
“The Morrison family couldn’t afford to keep it up and running,” Bill said. “They shut it down about eight years ago. No one’s touched it since.”
“I’ll make it shine,” I said. “This town needs its rink back.”
When I’d learned the old place where I’d learned to skate was in foreclosure, I’d made an offer a few months before I moved home. I’d gotten it for a steal and planned to completely renovate. I’d restore the inside rink and add an outdoor one for the winter months. Not only would it be ideal for recreation, I wanted to create a youth hockey training program here. Boys and girls with the talent and drive but not necessarily the funds would be invited to participate in camps.
For years I’d thought Emerson Pass should have an outdoor rink for recreational purposes, like the one that used to be here downtown back in Alexander’s days. I’d grown up hearing stories of my forefathers wooing their women while skating. Now that we were a tourist town, I planned to bring that pastime back with a seasonal outdoor rink.
My great-great-grandfather Flynn had loved to skate and ski. Like me, he loved competition. My father says I must have inherited his love of sports and competition, because I came out kicking. After World War I, Flynn had become obsessed with skiing for recreation. While overseas, he and his twin, Theo, had seen the ski mountains in Europe and had been inspired to bring the sport home to Colorado.
The Barnes family cleared the mountain of trees, creating downhill ski routes. Using the logs, they built the first lodge, securing our fate as a ski town. Without that industry, I suspected the town would have died a natural death. People need commerce to thrive. Since then, every Barnes generation had run the mountain. My sister, Fiona, still at college, would someday come home to take over from my dad. Her passion, like his, was skiing. Skating and hockey, though, had my heart. As Bill had said, for better or worse, I’d added the rink to our list of family enterprises.
I shook Bill’s hand. “Thanks, Bill. I’ll be sure to invite you to the opening.”
“I’ll look forward to it.” He adjusted his blue tie as his forehead crinkled. “But don’t tell your mother.”
He shook his head slowly. “She means well, but last time I attended one of her parties, I was trapped in the corner with one of her female friends who apparently had been encouraged by Rose to pursue me.” He shuddered. “She was scary.”
“My mother or the woman?”
“I was referring to the woman, but same goes for your mother.”
“I feel you. Trust me.”
I squinted into the brilliant blue as I left the grocery store with a bouquet of flowers and a bottle of wine. Mama had invited me to dinner, and I knew better than to go emptyhanded.
I rolled the windows down as I traveled the country road toward my parents’ home. Wildflowers in purples, reds, and yellows peppered the meadows. Their sweet scents drifted through my open windows. I draped my right arm over the back of the seat the way I’d done in high school. Only then, Brandi had been next to me. What I wouldn’t give to go back to those days.
I turned down the Barneses’ gravel road. There were several houses on the fifty acres, built by various offspring of Alexander and Quinn. Two years ago, long before retirement seemed a possibility, my parents had asked if I wanted to build a house somewhere on our land. I’d agreed, knowing that someday I would want a place of my own in Emerson Pass. After all, this place was part of my DNA. Five generations of Barneses had spent their lives here. I knew it was my ultimate destiny to return.
Mama had spent the better part of a year working with the architect and contractors on my house. We’d corresponded throughout the whole process via email and phone calls, but I’d trusted her to make decisions about furniture and paint colors. Mama was a woman of exquisite taste, which sadly had not been passed on to me. I could barely tell the difference in shades of blue she presented as possible wall colors for my bedroom. I’d asked her for a house filled with light and airy rooms, comfortable over formal. A home where family and friends could gather on the patio or in the kitchen for parties. She said I leaned toward a modern farmhouse feel and favored light colors and traditional lines. I had no idea what that meant. All I knew was the sanctuary she made for me was now my favorite place on earth. I guess it’s true that no one knows you like your mama.
I hadn’t expected to be back here full time by now, hoping to play for at least a few more years. After my knee injury, I knew it was time to come home. Mama’s hard work had made sure I had an actual home to soften my landing. The house had been completed two winters ago, but I hadn’t spent much time there until recently. I’d come home during a few of my breaks, but our team schedule kept me on the road. I’d made sure not to go into town for fear I’d run into Brandi. My instincts to stay away were right. I should have done so today.
Besides the master, my house had five bedrooms. Mom had decided it would be best if I had a place for out-of-town guests, like former teammates. Given the popularity of Emerson Pass as a ski destination, she said, it was best to have places for friends. I’d agreed. In general, it wasn’t wise to question Rose Barnes. She was always right in the end. When my dad brought her to Emerson Pass for the first time, she’d offended her future mother-in-law by suggesting that the decor of the lodge needed an update. Two years later, the entire place had been redecorated. Grammie Harriet was not one to stay mad for long and quickly forgave my bossy and energetic mother. Grandfather Normandy always said Grammie was the sweetest woman he’d ever met. She couldn’t hold a grudge to save her life.
I parked in the gravel driveway and grabbed the wine and flowers. My parents lived in the original Barnes home, built around 1900. Over the years, it had been remodeled, bringing the kitchen upstairs from the basement to the main living floor. The original wood floors had been replaced, but the vaulted ceilings and large windows remained. Having inspected photos of earlier times, I knew the outside had remained pretty much the same as the original—red brick and beams of hardwood made from trees on the property. Family lore told us that Alexander Barnes took several years to build the house. Had he imagined it would remain over a hundred years later?
My father’s roses were in full bloom. A slight breeze brought their scent as I headed across the yard and walked in through the unlocked front door. White wainscoting, put in by my mother, contrasted nicely with the original dark wood of the foyer and stairs. Off to the right of the entryway, what had once been called the library was now the primary family room with comfortable furniture and a large-screen television. The basement where the old kitchen and staff quarters were was now my dad’s man cave. He’d installed a pool table and bar, where he entertained his buddies during sports events.
“In here,” she called from the back of the house.
I scurried down the hallway, passing family photos placed decoratively on the wall. Many were of my sister, Fiona, and me during every stage of our lives, as well as my parents’ and grandparents’ wedding photos. There were also a few of longago relatives, including one of Alexander and Quinn Barnes with their seven children. I stopped to look, drawn to it for some reason during times of uncertainty. Seeing Brandi had shaken me. I needed to look at the photo of a happy family.
This one had been taken in 1918 before Flynn and Theo had joined the army to fight in WWI. They’d been only seventeen and had lied about their ages. Josephine, a striking blonde and the eldest, was tall and slender and stared unsmiling into the camera with a fierce intelligence. Her sisters, Cymbeline and Fiona, both with dark curls and delicate beauty, smiled, but I could see the fear in their eyes as they contemplated the dangers of war. The two younger children, born to Quinn and Alexander after their marriage, were around five and seven in the photo. Both girls looked like their mother, with dark eyes and massive amounts of wavy blond hair. The beauty of the Barnes women was legendary in this town. One had only to look at the photographs to know it wasn’t unfounded.
I poked my head into the library—we still called it that a hundred years later—to see if my father was there, but the room was empty. Often, during the off-season from the slopes, he spent time reading or watching sports in the early afternoons. I wandered over to a cabinet where Dad kept the journals, letters, photographs, and marriage and death certificates of the Barnes family, dating back to Alexander. One of the leather-bound journals was on the chair next to the cabinet. Dad had been piecing together family stories for a few years now, hoping to compile everything into one volume for the family.
I picked up the journal. From the loopy handwriting, I knew this was one of Quinn’s. She and Alexander had kept detailed notes about their family. This passage was from 1914.
It’s been months since I’ve written here in the pages of this journal. The children keep me so busy that it’s hard to find time for an entry. I promised myself when Alexander and I married that I would include passages at least once a month on the state of the children and any other news of our friends and family. Thus far, I’m failing miserably.
I told Alexander last week that we’re going to have another baby. With Adelaide being almost three, I didn’t think I would have another. Given how amorous we are at night, I didn’t imagine this much time would stretch out before another pregnancy unless I was incapable of producing another. I thought perhaps, given the difficult birth of our Addie, that something had gone wrong inside me. Alexander was overjoyed, as I expected he would be, although not surprised. He said I have the same glow I had with Addie. I’m quite certain he’s lying about the glow. I’ve been nauseated from morning until night for the past week. He would have had to be blind not to notice my green complexion.
Alexander seems to have no concerns over the number of children we have! Which causes me to love him even more than I did yesterday. I think often of the time before I came here. The hunger and worry seem from another time, another life.
We’ve agreed I will not go back to teaching in the fall. Handing over the school is harder than it probably should be. Many women dream of having the opportunity to simply run a house and raise children. I see myself, despite being the mother of six, as the schoolmistress of Emerson Pass. However, I know it’s better for me to be home with our children. Luckily, Martha Johnson has returned from her time at university and is anxious to take over for me. She’s grown into such a fine young lady, pretty, capable, and smart. I’m proud to have been her teacher. Her sister will begin her second year at university in a few months. Soon, perhaps, both the Johnson girls will teach together. Alexander wants to add another classroom to meet the needs of our growing town.
Mother saw our new doctor, Leo Neal, yesterday. He’s a great deal better than Dr. Moore, understanding modern techniques and caring for his patients with compassion instead of as a nuisance who pull him from his chair at the bar. Dr. Neal is amazed at Mother’s recovery and says it’s the mountain air that’s made it easier to breathe, not the powder Dr. Moore prescribed.
On another note, young Dr. Neal asked if Martha had a beau. I had to hide my amusement at the way his ears turned bright red when he asked. I wouldn’t be surprised to see the two of them dancing together at our social this Friday evening. Seeing young love turn into marriages and families gives Alexander and me much satisfaction. We can’t help but feel pride to see our little town grow and our young people blossom. I can remember clearly the first day of school when I looked out on the frightened faces of my class. To see how far they’ve come is nothing short of miraculous.
Josephine and Poppy have begged us to allow them to attend the dance this weekend. They’re both seventeen now, so I suppose it’s time. I’d rather keep them young for a while longer, but that’s not my decision. God has a plan for each of them, I’m sure. Jo remains resolute
about opening a library in town. Last week, she sent a letter to Mr. Carnegie. Bold, that one. Especially when it comes to books. Poppy wants to become a veterinarian and look after all the farm animals. I worry if either of them will be given a chance in this man’s world. This is the crux of motherhood—this mixture of worry and love and pride until it seems my heart might explode with the enormity of it all.
The twins had their thirteenth birthday yesterday. They wanted a picnic down by the creek for their party. The weather’s warm enough to swim, even in that frigid water, so we all dressed in our bathing clothes and headed across the meadow. Last summer, Flynn and Cymbeline managed to make a pool for swimming by damming up a section of the creek with rocks. They worked on their project steadily for a month. Keeping up with Flynn has given Cymbeline muscles like a boy. The spot is a good five feet deep and perfect for a refreshing swim.
For our picnic, Lizzie and Mrs. Wu made the boys’ favorites: fried chicken, potato salad, and pound cake. Alexander and Jasper have a fascination with the new ice cream maker and made another batch to go with our cake. Even I managed to eat a little and keep it down. The Cole family, Li and Fai, and even Mrs. Wu joined us. Flynn is thick as thieves with Noah and Roman Cole. They run wild in the meadows and forest, creating worlds of make-believe. Li and Theo, the intellectuals of our clan, are inclined toward books and quiet games. They have an ongoing chess game here in the library. Since the Wu family came to live with us, Fai and Li have become as robust and lively as the rest of our enthusiastic bunch. Mrs. Wu has learned some English. She and Lizzie share duties in the kitchen, which has been a blessing since Florence came.
Harley and Merry have had their second son since I last wrote. Jack’s a fat, happy baby and looks exactly like Harley. Henry just turned four and is his father’s shadow. He loves horses like no child I’ve ever seen. Even more so than Flynn and Cymbeline, which I didn’t think was possible. Alexander gave Harley two colts for Christmas a few years ago and they’ve bred them twice now, producing fine horses, which they’ve sold for a handsome profit.
Lizzie and Jasper’s little Florence, born a month before Adelaide, has finally recovered from her fever and cold. We fretted for a week. I don’t believe Lizzie or Jasper slept the entire time she was ill. Even Mrs. Wu’s miraculous tea didn’t work. Today, however, Florence is well and playing out in the barn with the others. They’re all excited because we’ve had another litter of piglets. She’s quite the character. As pretty and pink as a cherry blossom like Lizzie, but with the personality of her father. By that I mean wickedly smart with a propensity for dictatorship. The other day I observed Florence, Jack, and Addie playing with toys in the nursery. Florence had sorted the toys by type and had a system for who could play with what, like her father with the wine inventory. Lizzie and I had a good laugh over that one.
Rachel Cole has finally stopped wearing all black. It’s been four years since her husband’s death, and she seems to be ready to live again. We had a nice talk yesterday, just the two of us, with our feet in the creek. She insists she’ll never remarry. I hope and pray that the right man will come along to give her a second chance for love. Her brother, Wilber, has gone back to Chicago, making it even more lonely out there by herself with just the children. Rachel says he’s gone to find a woman. She suspects he’ll show up one day with a bride by his side and stay for good.
Fiona’s as bubbly and sweet as always and soaks up learning like a sponge. Her brothers call her the Sweetheart of Emerson Pass because wherever she goes, people flock to her. I suspect it’s her positive and loving character that attracts others to her. It’s as if they feel her sunny presence will somehow rub off on them. Theo says she is magical. I have to agree. Of course, I think that about all my children.
Cymbeline, albeit smart and good at her studies, has a temper and a competitiveness I worry will get her into trouble later in life. It never occurs to her that she’s a girl and therefore not capable of doing anything a boy can do. That said, thus far, it seems she can do everything a boy can do. She’s sassy and opinionated yet has a heart as vast as the Colorado sky. I pray for the man she marries. He will have to be a patient, good-natured fellow and willing to marry a woman with her own accomplishments and will. I imagine a man as strong as an ox, with the mind of a fox and a heart like the most loyal puppy.
Adelaide’s had a growth spurt finally but will be small like me, I suspect. She’s shy and reserved, like my father, and is the pet of the household. I was afraid she wouldn’t learn to walk because the others carried her around for the first two years of her life. She worships Fiona and follows her all over the house begging to be included in whatever game her older sister is playing. Fiona, bless her, is patient and loving. Perhaps she remembers how she did the same with Cymbeline when they were younger. I can still remember her crestfallen face that first day we all went off to school.
My sister and Clive will marry in the spring. Mother has finally agreed that she’s old enough. Poor Clive has worked awfully hard to win Mother over. I never knew the woman could be so stubborn. Meanwhile, Annabelle has been hired to sew five wedding dresses in as many weeks. She’s working out of a room in Alexander’s office in town, using the new sewing machine we bought for her last year. We were all surprised when she started getting orders from Louisville! Soon, she’ll have a wedding dress empire.
Ah, well, this entry must come to a close. The children have all come in from outside, where they’ve been doing Saturday chores. I can smell them from the library! As it did with Adelaide, my sense of smell seems to have heightened during pregnancy. I’ll have to send them all upstairs for their baths or toss them back outside.
As was always the case when I picked up one of the journals from my relatives of long ago, I was transported back in time. It must have been peaceful to live in a simpler era. Children these days were always on their phones or computers rather than playing outside or being delighted by a litter of piglets. Sometimes I wished I’d been born in a different era. Then again, I wouldn’t have been able to play hockey. I might be a frustrated competitor like Cymbeline.
I set aside the journal and headed down the hallway to the kitchen. Mama was chopping carrots and humming along to her favorite country station. I set the flowers on the counter and moved aside a section of blond hair to kiss her on the cheek. “Hi, Mama.”
“Hello, doll.” Mama had a Southern drawl that elongated every word with extra syllables. A former gymnast, she was short but strong. Dressed in yoga pants and a tank top, she darted around the kitchen. Mama had two speeds—full throttle or asleep.
“Open that wine. We can have a glass before dinner.” She tossed the carrots into a salad bowl and wiped her hands on a towel.
I obeyed. Mama said what she wanted, and most people gave it to her without question. I both feared and adored her in equal measure.
She put the flowers in a vase, then reached into the cabinet for wine glasses.
I poured us both a generous glass of the red blend I’d found at the grocery store. “That new store is kind of fancy. I’m not sure I like it.”
“Oh, you Barnes men and your insistence on keeping everything exactly as it was in the past is completely unrealistic.”
“Grammie thinks so, too,” I said.
“That’s because she’s from here, too.”
“You like it here, don’t you, Mama?”
“I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else. Why do you ask?”
“I don’t know. I wonder if you miss Georgia and your sister,” I said as I handed her a glass of wine.
“My sister, yes. But I go home to Georgia twice a year, and my sister comes here often.”
“I was thinking about what it’s like to be from here—how it tugged at me the entire time I was away. I was wondering if it’s that way for you.”
“Not every place is like Emerson Pass that way,” Mama said.
“Anyway, when I agreed to marry your dad, I knew Emerson Pass came along with the package. In fact, how I feel about him is wrapped up in this place. Even this house. This became my new world the first time he brought me home to meet Grammie and Pa.”
“I’m glad to be back, Mama.”
She clinked my glass. “I can’t believe you’re really here. I’ve missed you more than you can know.”
“I didn’t think it would happen this fast. I’d hoped for a few more years, but now that I’ve accepted it, I’m at peace.”
“For real?” She peered at me with bright green eyes almost too big in her small heart-shaped face.
“It’s an adjustment to be without the routine of practice and games, but I’m actually all right. I knew this day would come eventually.”
“I remember the first year after I was done with gymnastics felt strange and empty,” Mama said. “At first I didn’t know what to do with myself, but after a time my days were filled with new passions.”
“Speaking of which, I closed on the rink today. We’re starting the renovation next week.”
Her face lit up as she smacked the counter. “Wonderful news. I’m proud of the way you’ve handled forced retirement. Jumping right in on the next season of life is exactly what you should do.” She sipped from her glass before setting it aside to shred lettuce.
“You don’t think it was impulsive?”
“I think you can be impulsive, but this one feels right. I’d say it’s about time someone took the rink into the current decade. The carpet in there must be older than me.”
“You’ll have your decorating skills put to the test.” I perched on one of the stools at the island and watched Mama season three steaks.
“I’m not worried as long as you don’t insist on carpet with geometric shapes in psychedelic colors,” she said. “Like they did the last time someone renovated the place.”
I chuckled. “You have my word.”
“What else did you do today?”
I hesitated to tell her I’d stopped by to see Brandi. My mother had loved her when we were dating but after she abruptly broke up with me, Mama’s allegiance had vanished. She’d been the one who had to pick me off the floor the night I’d come home devastated.
“What is it?” she asked. “You have that look on your face that you used to get when you, Huck, and Breck had done something you weren’t supposed to.”
I laughed. “No, nothing like that. I went by to see Brandi today.”
My father came in from the patio with a book in one hand and an empty beer bottle in the other. “Brandi, huh?” He set aside the book and tossed the bottle into the recycle bin. “How did it go?” Dad, tall and broad-shouldered, had skied and played hockey competitively in high school and now participated in triathlons for fun. We shared the same dark hair and eyes and olive complexion.
“I made an idiot out of myself.” I dropped my forehead into one hand as I flushed with heat.
“How so?” Mama asked.
“I basically told her I’d never gotten over her,” I said. “And then she dropped a bombshell. She didn’t get into Michigan.”
“Really?” Dad said. “Why didn’t she tell you back then?”
“She was ashamed, I guess. She also said she wouldn’t have gone with me, even if she had gotten in, so it doesn’t really matter. To her, we were just a high school thing. Not meant to last—I think those were words she used. Which is not how I experienced it.” I rubbed my eyes with the back of my hand. “I guess I’m still trying to figure out what happened.”
“What happened,” Mama said, emphasizing every word, “is that she broke your heart.”
“Now, Rose,” Dad said, running a hand over the top of his salt-and-pepper hair. A gesture we shared. “It was all a long time ago, and they were young.” He turned toward me. “Too young to have made a life decision to get married. You kids needed to grow up a little before you could be together.”
“She could’ve done it in a kinder way,” Mama said. “To break up with you before prom and never speak to you again was uncalled for. Especially given how close you were.”
“Honey, I thought we talked about this,” Dad said.
“About what?” Mama widened her eyes, as if she were completely innocent.
“Not to talk harshly about the girl he loved,” Dad said. “I thought it was a good decision on her part. She couldn’t just follow you wherever your path took you. She needed to find her own way.”
I nodded, thinking through what he said and how it stacked up against what she’d shared with me this afternoon. What would she have done if she’d followed me to college with no skills or plan? She would have been miserable. I wiped the rim of my glass where my lip balm had made a smudge. “You’re right, but damn, it hurt.”
Mama reached into the cabinet for another glass and slid it over to my father. “I can see her point, I suppose. No woman wants to follow a man around.”
“You came here when I asked you to,” Dad said.
“We were already finished with college and had jobs,” Mama said. “That’s different.”
“I don’t understand why I’ve never gotten over her,” I said.
“It’s been ten years.”
“It’s time to move on, honey,” Mama said. “She made her choice a long time ago.”
“You’re right. I need to spend time finding the right woman instead of crying over the wrong one.” I scratched the back of my neck. “The moment I saw her all the same old feelings rushed back. Being with her was like no time had passed.”
“Well, it has passed,” Mama said. “She was your high school sweetheart. Now maybe she can be an acquaintance you remember fondly. You have a beautiful home and a new passion.”
I nodded. She was correct. However, my heart didn’t seem to know what my head did. Brandi Vargas was not my past, present, or future. She was just a girl I used to date back in high school.
I looked up from my glass to find my dad watching me. “What’s up, Dad?”
“What is it you’re not telling us?” he asked.
I hesitated, embarrassed. “A week before she broke up with me, she asked me if the circumstances were such that I had to choose between her and hockey, which would it be.”
“You answered hockey,” Dad said.
“Well, of course you did,” Mama said. “You couldn’t choose a girl over your career. Hockey was your focus, as it should have been when you were eighteen years old. Not a girl.”
“I don’t know. I’ve thought about it so many times since then. It wasn’t like she was asking me to choose. The question was more hypothetical. Like a test.”
“She knew by then she hadn’t gotten into school,” Mama said. “Maybe she wanted you to stay.”
I shook my head. “I don’t think so. She said today that it would have been foolish for me to give up my scholarship for her. In fact, she said she would never have asked me to.”
“Which makes the question confusing,” Dad said.
“Right,” I said.
Mama tucked her hair behind her ears and glared at my father, then me. “What’s confusing is why we’re talking about this instead of grilling steaks. I’m telling you—let this go. Move on. There are plenty of nice, smart women in this town,” Mama said. “One of them will be just right for you. As a matter of fact, the wedding planner we hired at the lodge is adorable. She’s from Nebraska. Very pretty and sweet as sweet tea.”
“Are you talking about Tiffany?” Dad asked.
“That’s right,” Mama said. “I’m certain she’s single.”
“I’m not sure she’s Trapper’s type.” Dad narrowed his eyes and studied me, as if I were a stranger to him.
“Why’s that?” I asked, chuckling. “Should I be offended?”
“She’s very prim and proper,” Dad said. “I don’t think she’d been off her parents’ farm until we hired her. She moved here for the job. I could see her with someone like Breck.”
“What’s Breck got that I don’t?” I asked.
“He’s gentle,” Dad said. “Soft-spoken and considerate. You’d probably scare her to death.”
“He’s a veterinarian. She’s not a cat or dog,” I said. The way Breck held a kitten in his big hands was enough to break your heart.
“He’s a special boy,” Mama said. “Always has been.”
“What about me?” I asked, feigning hurt. “I want to be special.”
“You’re special.” Mama laughed as she rolled her eyes. “Just not in the same way.”
“Might I remind you that I was a superstar in the world of hockey?” I asked.
“That’s all fine and dandy, but you’re home now.” Mama pointed at me with a salad tong. “We all knew you before braces fixed your teeth.”
“This is a rough crowd.” I grinned at my mother.
Dad leaned closer and clinked his glass with mine. “We better grill those steaks before we get her any more fired up.”
“Yes, sir.” As I had so many times before, I followed my father out to the patio. Regardless of Brandi, it was good to be home. I’d made the right choice.