I clenched my eyes shut and pinched the bridge of my nose between my thumb and index finger. “No, Brad, forgetting to pay the cable bill is an accident. Impregnating my best friend is a string of definite choices.”
“What am I supposed to do, Lennie?! I can’t handle this rent by myself! You know that! You wanted this place not me!”
“Maybe you should’ve thought of that before YOUR DICK ENTERED MY BEST FRIEND!”
“I can’t believe you just left, after all we’ve been through…”
“I didn’t just LEAVE, Brad. I told you I was helping Maggie with the bed and breakfast this summer, just like I always do. Then I found you in bed with Ellie… so I moved out. Do you perhaps see the correlation there?”
“Brad, I have to go. I have…” Quick, Lennie! Think of something! “a job interview…”
What? I shook my head at my panicked answer. Good one, Len.
“What happened to the bed and breakfast? Why would you need another job?”
“None of your business. Goodbye, Brad, good luck with the baby and… all that shit.”
“Lenore, don’t hang up on me.”
“What? Sorry, can’t hear you. Cutting out. Damn small town. Byeeeeeee!”
Okay, so maybe I didn’t have a job interview, but my ex didn’t need to know that. I, Lennie Tyler, was officially single and ready to… go into the nearest country bar and drown my sorrows in a bucket of whiskey. Or whatever it was of age people did here. I left when I was eighteen, I had no idea.
Weird part? I wasn’t even that sad about Brad. More annoyed than anything else. The rose-colored glasses of dumb love had come off a long time ago. Bradley Richards was not my forever. I knew it, he knew it. If I’m honest, we moved in together more out of convenience than anything else. We’d been ‘together’ five years. I was thirty-three. Not like I was getting any younger so… might as well try, right?
Wrong. So very wrong.
Ladies, if you’re reading this: don’t push these things... and don’t settle. It’s not worth it. You’ll end up miserable and then come home from a songwriting session to find him in bed with your so-called best friend and all those little moments your brain told you he wasn’t the one, will become foghorns. Honestly, the only reason he was upset was because it meant paying rent on the new two-bedroom, ritzy apartment in Nashville that we literally just re-signed the lease on.
Oh shit. That was under my name. Mental note to call my lawyer ASAP.
I know what you’re thinking, but don’t worry. I wasn’t the girl who ran back home because her ex is a cheating douchebag. It actually was a happy accident. My aunt Maggie was the woman in charge of our family’s long running bed and breakfast here in Snyder, Georgia. Snyder wasn’t a tiny town, but it wasn’t real big either. We were large enough for stoplights and a few restaurants and of course some hole in the wall country bars, and we were just close enough to the bigger Georgia cities, that the bed and breakfast had been a lucrative family business for years. My parents ran it for a while, before opening their own place in some Florida retirement town. I couldn’t even tell you the name. My parents and I weren’t really close.
My aunt Maggie was my mother’s littlest sister, a good twenty years younger. She was the “Oops!” baby of my grandparents and was a mere twelve years older than I was. She was more of my older sister than my aunt and every summer I came back to help out during the busy seasons, plus it was a great excuse to leave city life and be home for a while. I might’ve moved, but I’d always be the small-town Georgia girl at heart. Her daughter, my cousin Makayla, had just graduated high school and was gearing up to move to Nashville like I had done over fifteen years ago now, so it seemed like an even better idea to be here this summer. Hopefully, I could help Makayla make a few less mistakes than I had. Lord knows I had made a laundry list of them.
I moved to the country music capital of the world with big dreams, and no real idea how to accomplish them. I knew I wanted to sing, but more than that, I knew I wanted to write songs and I knew Nashville was the best place for me to do so. I got a job as a waitress at the infamous Bluebird café, stood onstage and played my little heart out one open mic night and no less than three weeks later, had a songwriting deal at a major label. I had hit songs all over country radio for the last ten years, won myself a few awards, and made a pretty penny doing it. My personal band, The Chasers, had never really made it big. We did a few tours as opening acts, had a few mild hits, but mostly we just played in Nashville and the surrounding towns. It was fine. I wasn’t necessarily sad about it. I realized after signing my writing deal that writing was where I really stood out anyway. And the best part was I could write from anywhere, even a little bed and breakfast in Snyder, Georgia.
This afternoon I was meeting my childhood best friend, Cora, at Snyder’s most popular bar: Culprit’s. Her family owned it and, even when we were kids, it was where we hung out. It was exactly the dirty kind of hole in the wall that you’re imagining and that was part of its appeal. You didn’t have to dress up, you didn’t have to be anything but what you were. It welcomed you, no matter what. They hosted karaoke at least two nights a week and you could buy a bucket of Bud Light for ten dollars. Didn’t get much better than that in the south.
As I reached out for the door handle, it swung open, nearly knocking me flat on my ass into the dirt. I waited for impact, but instead felt a tight grasp on my forearm.
“Shit, I’m sorry.”
I opened my eyes to find the most darkly handsome man I had ever seen: 6’2”, dark brown, shaggy hair, eyes almost black, and a well-kept dark beard covering what I could only assume was the most chiseled jawline Snyder had ever seen. He looked at me for a moment, as if he was trying to figure out if we knew each other, but a beat later, he gave his head a wave.
I snapped out of my appreciative daze and looked at his hand still around my arm. His arms were covered in brightly colored tattoos, giant silver rings on two of his fingers. “Um, yeah. Guess I wasn’t paying attention,” I replied with a sheepish giggle.
“No, it’s my fault. Leaving in a bit of a rush,” he stated simply. He had the deepest, sexiest timber of a voice I had ever heard. I’d pay good money that this man could sing. “Sure you’re okay?”
“Didn’t even hit the ground,” I stated, flashing my best, brightest grin as I finally brought myself back to standing like a normal person. “You’re a real prince.”
He scoffed and shook his head, a wry grin just barely curving the left side of his mouth. “Well, I gotta run. Have a nice afternoon, ma’am.”
He tipped his head a bit and didn’t wait for a response, just walked away, his black jeans tight on what was one phenomenal ass.
Goddamn, it was a good ass. The kind you sort of wanted to use as a pillow… or, maybe that was just me.
Well, damn, Snyder. You’re pulling out all the welcoming stops.
I laughed to myself and opened the door safely stepping inside instead of into another hunk.
I barely made it inside before I heard my name shouted shrilly. Before I could even get my bearings, I was nearly tackle-hugged by a petite, yet very strong black-haired beauty.
“Cora!” I giggled, hugging her tightly. “God, I missed you.”
“I can’t believe you’re home. I’m so excited!” Cora practically squealed. “It’s been forever.”
“I’m here every summer, you dork.”
“Yeah, but it’s never long enough.” Cora released her hold and looked me up and down. “God, you look good. Nashville’s been treating you well.”
I scoffed and gave my head a wave. “Yeah, well, maybe not well enough…”
“Uh oh. I think we need some drinks.”
“You think right.”
“Come on. I got us a booth in the back.”
She looped her arm through mine and began leading me to the back of the bar. The place looked the same as it always had: wood floors, wood walls, a giant wood stage. The only thing that wasn’t wood were the seats, and they were a dark burgundy upholstery that honestly needed to be replaced. It had that warm, musty, slightly smokey smell that most hometown bars managed to have.
“Hey,” I began as I slid into booth seat that gave a bit of a groan as it took my weight, “did you see that guy that went rushing out of here?”
“What guy?” Cora asked, sliding in across from me, her face scrunched in confusion.
“All like… beard and tattoos. Ruggedly handsome as hell. Looks like he walked out of some southern romance novel.”
She stared at me silently for a moment and then laughed. “You’re joking, right?”
“No…” I questioned her, definitely not picking up on the joke. “You know him?”
“Len, what're you talking about? YOU know him.”
“I assure you, I do not. I would remember that face.”
“You’re talking about the asshole that went running out of here about a minute before you walked in, right?”
“Yeah… he didn’t really seem like an asshole. I mean, he was perfectly friendly to me…”
“Len, he IS an asshole. You KNOW he’s an asshole. That was Colt.”
I froze, my green gaze widening to the size of silver dollars as my beer stopped moving halfway between the tabletop and my mouth. “You’re shittin’ me…”
Cora laughed loudly as her head waved from side to side. “No. I’m not kidding, Len. That was Colton.”
Colton Hayes was Cora’s twin brother and the first boy I ever wanted to marry, the first boy I ever loved. We dated or whatever you called it when we were in middle school and broke up freshman year because he left me at a school dance to go rescue the pretty popular girl who had gotten dumped by her star football player boyfriend. You know how they say that the first cut is the deepest? That rang true, because we never really spoke again, maybe a ‘Hi’ in passing, but nothing substantial.
We continued growing up together, Colt always around because he was Cora’s brother, but things were different. I did my best to ignore him, and the hurt that seeing him with the cheerleader caused. There were slumber parties where he was just upstairs, and proms that we stood on opposite sides of the gym for. There were football games that he played, and I sat and watched in the band and family vacations where I pretended not to watch him as he grew older and even more devilishly handsome than I’d always thought he was. As far as I knew, they were still together when I left town. I’d written countless love songs about the boy I had grown up with. In some of them, I’d changed history and imagined that we’d never parted ways. In others, I poured out the heartbreak that I’d felt in more adult terms than I’d been able to at thirteen.
“That was NOT Colt.”
“I assure you it was. He was stormin’ out cuz I’d just finished giving him hell.”
“Why were you fighting with him?” I asked, looking at my chipped baby blue nail polish to pretend I wasn’t REALLY interested. But I was. I most definitely was.
“Because he’s a jerk?” Cora stated with a shrug. “Not like that’s changed.”
“Huh…” I was still too stunned by her revelation to say much more.
I couldn’t believe I hadn’t recognized him. Though… he hadn't seemed to recognize me either. I suppose not being in each other’s lives for the last twenty years would do that. I had no idea what he’d done, what he’d gone through, and I don’t imagine he had kept tabs on me. Sometimes I felt so silly about how I’d reacted back then, but everything was always more dramatic when you were a teenager, ya know? It always seemed like the world was ending. But we had no idea what forever or love or any of that shit was back then, we were kids. All I knew was that it hurt like hell, and I hated Colton Hayes. And sadly, and a bit immaturely, that was where my feelings had stayed.
“He didn’t recognize you either, I take it?”
“Apparently not.” I took a long drink, the cold beer feeling fantastic in this Georgia May heat. Okay, it was barely eighty. Maybe the heat I was feeling had more to do with the tall, dark and handsome not-so-stranger than the actual temperature. “I think we just had more of a conversation than we’ve had in twenty years.”
“Surprising, considering he’s more of an asshole than he was twenty years ago.”
“What happened?” I asked, glancing at the door while I remembered the handsome face that had damn near taken me out. “That is… not what I pictured Colt growing into.” I wasn’t sure what I pictured but what I had just collided with certainly wasn’t it.
Cora sighed. “Colt’s been through a lot since you left. Since HE left. I’d need the rest of the day to explain it all.”
“He actually left Snyder? That might be the most surprising part of all,” I said with a scoff. Cora didn’t show an ounce of humor and my teasing grin quickly slipped away. “What happened, Cor?”
She sighed and ran her finger along the condensation of her glass. “Well, Colt and Rachel stayed together after high school…”
I let out a quiet, but snarky scoff. “No surprise there.”
“I don’t know about that,” Cora sighed. “It definitely ain’t the love story you’re thinking it was.”
I arched an eyebrow. “What do you mean?”
“You remember Whiskey River?”
“Of course. Colt and his damned band played every street dance we ever went to. They got signed shortly after we graduated, right?”
“Yeah, Colt and the guys and Rachel moved to Atlanta about a as year after you left. Things were going really well, they had a couple of hits, opened for Luke Bryan and some other folks and they were gearing up for their own tour and their album release…”
“I don’t remember their actual album. EPs sure but…”
“That’s because it never came out,” Cora interrupted. I watched her throat bob as she swallowed and took a deep breath before continuing. “So, when things were really getting hot, they found out Rachel was pregnant and Colt didn’t like the idea of leaving her in Atlanta alone, nor did he really think bringing her on the road was a good idea, so he sent her back here so she could be around family that could help when he was away…”
“That doesn’t sound like something the Rachel Davies I knew would like.”
“She didn’t. She hated it. She was miserable no matter how much Momma and I tried to help out. She started accusing Colt of cheating and all this ridiculous shit that I KNOW he never did and … honestly, if she hadn’t gotten pregnant, I’m pretty sure they would’ve broken up because things were not good for a long time,” Cora explained, “but you know Colt. The second there was a baby coming, it was time to put a ring on it and be a real family.”
I sucked in a sharp breath. Why did the thought of Colt marrying his high school sweetheart sting so much? “They got married?”
Cora shook her head and started picking at the wet napkin under her glass. “He proposed but it never happened. They had some vague plans, but... no follow through. And then, a couple of years after Beau was born…”
I smiled. “Beau,” I repeated. “They named him after your dad.”
Cora and Colt’s dad had died when we were kids. It was one of the things that really made us all close. Their momma would send them to the B&B, and we’d just run around and play and do stupid things on the grounds until it got dark. I remember wishing Beau Hayes was my daddy when I was little. He was a good man.
She smiled sweetly. “Yeah, Colton kind of insisted…” She took a deep breath as if she had to steady herself for the rest of the story. “Anyway, one night when Colt was working on the album in Nashville, they got in a really big fight over the phone. Rachel was out with her friends, and she was drunk. Momma already had Beau and… Rachel just went home and packed up and took off…”
“Wait, what? She just left her son? Her family?”
Cora nodded. “But… she shouldn’t have been driving. She was really drunk, and she was with Jessica Waters and… they wrapped her car around a tree… she didn’t make it… neither of ‘em did.”
I felt my heart shatter a bit within my ribs and my hand flew to my chest. “Oh my God, Cor.”
Cora nodded and gulped. “Colt… Colt never really got over it. He instantly quit the band and moved back here and… kind of lost himself. He’s never been the Colt we knew. He’s all… dark and angry and… I think he blames himself, even if it was obviously her stupid decision to drive…”
“Oh, God. He must be so heartbroken… how long has it been?”
“Like… ten years now? Beau’s almost twelve so…”
“Goodness…” I let out a sigh and shook my head. “I can’t even imagine.”
“Me either, but… he won’t talk about it. Like ever. Not even when it happened. He just buckled down and did what he had to do for Beau. Quit the band, gave up the deal, moved back home and he’s been here ever since. He just… works here. He’s got a cover band he plays with every once in a while, which is good because for a long time he wouldn’t even touch a guitar…”
“Music was his first love,” I stated sadly.
“Music and you.”
I rolled my eyes. “Cora, we were children. Literal children. We weren’t in love.”
“So? You telling me it didn’t hurt when he ran off that night?”
“Oh, it hurt. It hurt plenty. At the time it was the worst thing that ever happened to me. I thought my world was ending,” I stated, “but aging twenty years tends to put things like that into perspective.”
“I suppose so,” Cora sighed as she sank her back against the booth. “I always wanted you two to end up together. That way we could really be sisters.”
I laughed and laid my hand on top of hers on the table. “Oh, Cora. We’ve always been sisters.”
“Okay, so tell me all about Nashville. What happened to that drummer of yours?”
I rolled my eyes so hard; I could’ve sworn they fell out of my head. “Girl. I don’t even know where to begin…” But I began and told her every last detail.
It felt good to be back with Cora, to be back in Snyder. Coming home was always one of my favorite feelings, and that hadn’t changed. But I suddenly had a much bigger interest in my childhood love than I had any of my other trips back, and that worried me a bit.
But it didn’t matter. We were adults now, right? Certainly, we had drastically changed since we were children. We had become completely different people. The old feelings, old hang-ups, there was no way they still existed. They couldn’t have. There was no way, no matter how tingly even his hand around my forearm had made me feel. It was a fluke, at best.
We’d found out long ago that we weren’t meant to be.