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"I'm going to see Joe," Dixie Callahan announced to the woman standing at the bottom of the staircase watching her. Maebelle "Nana Mae" McCoy was leaning on her purple cane, studying Dixie's face. Dixie hoped she didn't look like she was about to face a firing squad, although she felt like it.
"I'm glad you finally called him. It's time." Nana Mae waved an arthritic finger at Dixie. "I saw it coming yesterday at the wedding, you know. My grandson couldn't take his eyes off you."
Ah, yes. The wedding—Dixie's fifth trip down the aisle in two years. At age thirty, she'd become a living cliché: always a bridesmaid, never a bride. The wedding had brought home how she should've been married long ago—to Joe. She'd barely slept last night thinking about it.
"He called me" Dixie admitted, correcting Nana Mae's misperception, wondering how much more she should say. Even though she felt closer to Joe's grandmother than her own, confiding about her grandson was tricky. "I don't know what he wants," Dixie said finally, settling for a simple truth.
Like Nana Mae, Dixie had also caught him eyeing her a lot at his brother's wedding yesterday. Had he realized then, as she had, that it was a year to the day since they'd broken up? A year usually marked an end to a mourning period. And she'd mourned plenty.
"No matter what happens today, it is time, Dixie," Nana Mae said gently, patting her cheek.
"I know. I'll see you later."
She left Nana Mae's cozy house, Dixie's home for the past six months, got into her car and let it warm up, her thoughts on what was ahead, possibilities bombarding her. Hope also seeped in, against her efforts to block it. Had the wedding made him reconsider? Did he want to try again? Set a date this time?
With the car heater blasting, she backed out of the driveway. Any other time, she would've enjoyed the crisp mid-November day. The small Sierra foothills community of Chance City, California, smelled of fireplace smoke and fallen leaves damp from an overnight rain. A few hardy leaves still clung to branches, specks of gold and brown against the gray sky.
Dixie barely acknowledged the scenery, except to consider how her curly blond hair would be uncontrollably curlier in the humid air, just when she wanted to look her best.
Her heart thundered as she drove the three blocks to Joe's house. In the driveway sat his new pickup, Four Seasons Lawn and Landscaping painted neatly on the doors, mobile advertising for the business he'd started when they were both sixteen. What had begun as a one-man, one-mower operation had grown into a thriving enterprise with twenty employees.
She'd heard that he'd been branching out this past year, too, his dedication to eco-friendly landscaping techniques garnering attention outside of their small community, enough that he'd created a second company, LandKind. His drive and business sense had taken him far.
Dixie didn't park in the driveway next to his truck, her spot for the eight years they'd lived together, but on the street. As she walked toward the house, she realized she should have met him somewhere else, or even have come on foot, so that she might slip inside the house with less chance of anyone seeing her. Instead, her parked car was like a neon sign announcing she was here. One phone call from a neighbor to a McCoy would set the rumor mill in motion.
"Too late now," she muttered. Hearing the distinctive sound of leaves being raked, she made her way to the backyard. The space was awash in yellow, orange and white—mums, marigolds and nasturtiums, and other flowers she couldn't name.
He apparently couldn't hear her approach over the sound of his raking, even though she didn't tiptoe. In the forty-degree weather he wore a long-sleeved T-shirt bearing his company logo, jeans and boots, his compact body solid. His long brown hair was secured away from his face, as clean shaven as always.
Joseph McCoy was as much a temptation to her now as he'd been when they were teenagers. She had no illusions about that ever changing.
She stuffed her hands into her jacket pockets. "Hi," she said.
He spun around. "Dix. Thanks for coming."
She couldn't read his expression. For most of her life she'd been able to read him.
Because he let you.
True. Now he didn't.
"Let's go inside," he said, leaning the rake against a rock wall he'd built the first week they'd moved in.
They headed to the back door, which led into the kitchen. She followed him through it, then the dining room, ending up in the living room, where embers glowed in the stone fireplace. She didn't look around, not wanting to see if he'd changed anything. They'd remodeled the entire house and yard—together.
"Can I take your coat?" he asked.
"I'm okay." She wrapped it tighter around her and sat in a rocking chair that had belonged to her great-grandmother. When Dixie had left Joe, she'd taken only her clothes with her, leaving behind material goods and shared memories, and those tumbled through her mind now as she watched him hunker at the fireplace, adding tinder, then some small logs.
"So, what's up?" she asked, linking her fingers.
"You know what yesterday was."
"Your brother Donovan's wedding," she said lightly, wanting him to just say it, whatever it was. He'd called her, after all. It was his show to run.
"A year ago yesterday you returned my engagement ring." He set the fireplace screen in place then sat across from her, making and keeping eye contact.
It was as if he was blaming her, when he was the one at fault. "After fifteen years of being together, you wouldn't set a date," she reminded him.
He nodded, took a moment, then said, "It's time, Dix." His words echoed Nana Mae's.
Hope leaped in her heart. He'd seen the error of his ways? No. His expression wasn't full of love. "Time for what?" she asked, but already knowing the answer.
"To move on." He leaned his elbows on his knees. "Everyone keeps waiting for something to happen between us. We need to finish it."
She thought she'd been prepared for the words. Still, it shocked her to the core.
She also knew he was right, but it was so hard to admit it. After being Joe-and-Dixie for sixteen years—even this last year when they hadn't been together—they wouldn't be two halves of a whole anymore, but individuals.
"What do you want me to do? Make some kind of announcement?" she asked. "Does it need to be official in order for everyone to stop expecting us to get back together?" Including me? She hadn't really realized how much she'd still been hoping, not until this moment.
And suddenly she knew what he would say next….
"I think we should sell the house, Dix. Or one of us buy the other out."
Joe said the words quickly, needing to get them out. He wished there was some other way to tell her, didn't want to see her expression, her hurt.
"Your timing couldn't be more perfect," she said firmly, setting her hands on her thighs. "Let's do it." She stood, headed for the door.
"Do you want to buy my share?" he asked as she pulled open the door.
"No. I need the money." She turned her head slightly, not looking at him. "Are you going to leave town?"
"It's my turn."
She nodded in understanding. "What about your business here?"
"I'm learning to delegate."
"Good for you. Well, let me know what I can do," she said, then she was gone, her strides long and purposeful.
He stared after her, caught off guard at the speed of her exit.
"I'm doing this for you, Dix," he said into thin air as her car pulled away. She hadn't let him explain why. And what did she mean by the timing being perfect? He hadn't heard any rumors about her, not that she was leaving town or renting a place of her own, rather than helping out Nana Mae in exchange for room and board.
He finally had a chance to do what he'd wanted forever—to broaden his world. He was in big demand all over the western states, could very well be gone for months at a time. Dixie never dreamed of traveling, was always content to be home. It was where she belonged, whereas he'd known his roots weren't as firmly planted, for all that he loved his family and work and town. He'd had his own dreams, and he finally had a chance to fulfill them, just like his brothers had. Now they were back home—and it was his turn.
And part of his moving on was setting her free, too, because even though they hadn't been together for a year, neither of them had made significant changes. Hadn't started dating. Someone had to end that stalemate, even if technically she had by throwing his ring in his face.
They'd both lived in limbo ever since, given their history of breaking up and reconciling a few times through the years.
He stared into space. He should be happy. He'd gotten what he wanted—her agreement that they should sell the house. Why didn't that make him happy?
Because once again he'd hurt her. Even though she'd tried to hide it, she had not been prepared for his news. It didn't matter that he'd endured a lot of long, lonely, painful hours, too. He didn't want Dixie to be hurt anymore.
Joe looked at his watch, grateful he had a reason to get out of the house. He'd be a little early for his appointment, but it was better than staying here, where he could still smell her perfume.
He drove to the heart of town, to the Take a Lode Off Diner, which would be packed for brunch with the after-church crowd.
When he stepped into the noisy restaurant, a silence gradually came over the place, leaving it quiet enough to hear competing songs from the individual jukeboxes in the red leatherette booths. Every customer's gaze fixed on him.
Well. That didn't take long. Obviously, word had spread that Dixie was at the house this morning.
"Hey, Joe!" called the Lode's owner, Honey, as she came out from behind the counter, a plate in each hand, her long, gray braid swinging. "Lemon meringue pie just came out."
"I'll take a slice, thanks, after lunch. You know what I want."
Conversation picked up again as he made his way to the last booth, where the man he'd asked to meet him sat, drinking coffee. Everyone either grinned or winked at Joe. He ran a hand down his face, then addressed the crowd. "Dixie and I are not getting back together, so whoever called you or you called, please set them straight."
Cell phones came out almost as one. He laughed—how could he not?—and was still laughing when he reached the man he'd come to see, who also apparently had nothing better to do, since he'd arrived early, too.
"How's it going?" Joe asked, addressing Landon Kincaid, whom everyone called by his last name. He'd graduated from high school only a few years before Joe, but they'd never been close friends.
"Everything's great, thanks," Kincaid said after shaking hands. "You've got me curious, though."
"Did you already order lunch?"
"Yeah. What's going on, Joe?"
"Dixie and I want to put our house on the market."
Kincaid's brows went up. "Now?"
"Your chances are better in the spring."
"Can't wait. Thanks," Joe said to Honey as she poured him a mug of coffee.
She started to leave, then touched his shoulder. "We were only hoping for a reconciliation, you understand. It wasn't malicious."
"I get it. It's Chance City. It's okay."
A few seconds passed, then Kincaid said, "Why me? There are plenty of Realtors around. My guess is one of your enormous extended family works as one."
"Actually, no. Seems like we've got every other trade covered but that. Look, I know selling houses is the least of what you do, but I was hoping you'd handle this one. Have you got the time?"
"Sure. Winter's coming up. Everything slows down."
He sipped his coffee. "I haven't been inside your house, but I know you've invested a lot of sweat equity in it."
Labors of love. "I think you'll find it turnkey for a new buyer. I don't expect to be in town very much in the near future, so you'll probably have to work with Dixie on this most of the time."
A memory flashed then of Kincaid and Dixie dancing at the wedding reception yesterday, more than once. They'd talked the whole time, mostly looking serious. But then, Kincaid generally seemed serious. When he wasn't being a Realtor, he scooped up properties and renovated them, sometimes reselling, sometimes renting. He was driven and motivated—and a mystery ever since he'd moved to town, alone, as a high school junior. Legally emancipated, he'd lived by himself and worked as much as the law allowed. Now he owned half of Chance City—or so it seemed.
Honey delivered their meals. By the time they were eating dessert, they had a plan for the sale and a gentleman's agreement, paperwork to follow.
Joe's cell phone rang as he finished eating. "Hey, Mom."
"I need a favor. You know we're throwing a dinner for the out-of-town wedding guests. Ethan's in need of some attention while we put the meal together. Poor kid. He's surrounded by women."
"Give him ten years and he won't complain about that. I'll be right there."