It took a moment for Emily to realize the car had come to a stop. She looked up from her charm bracelet, which she’d been worrying in slow circles around her wrist, and stared out the window. The two giant oaks in the front yard looked like flustered ladies caught mid-curtsy, their starched green leaf-dresses swaying in the wind.
“This is it?” she asked the taxi driver.
“Six Shelby Road. Mullaby. This is it.”
Emily hesitated, then paid him and got out. The air outside was tomato-sweet and hickory-smoked, all at once delicious and strange. It automatically made her touch her tongue to her lips. It was dusk, but the streetlights weren’t on yet. She was taken aback by how quiet everything was. It suddenly made her head feel light. No street sounds. No kids playing. No music or television. There was this sensation of otherworldliness, like she’d traveled some impossible distance.
She looked around the neighborhood while the taxi driver took her two overstuffed duffel bags out of the trunk. The street consisted of large old homes, most of which were showpieces in true old-movie Southern fashion with their elaborate trim work and painted porches.
The driver set her bags on the sidewalk beside her, nodded, then got behind the wheel and drove off.
Emily watched him disappear. She tucked back some hair that had fallen out of her short ponytail, then grabbed the handles of the duffel bags. She dragged them behind her as she followed the walkway from the sidewalk, through the yard and under the canopy of fat trees. It grew dark and cold under the trees, so she picked up her pace. But when she emerged from under the canopy on the other side, she stopped short at the sight before her.
The house looked nothing like the rest of the houses in the neighborhood.
It had probably been an opulent white at one time, but now it was gray, and its Gothic Revival pointed-arch windows were dusty and opaque. It was outrageously flaunting its age, spitting paint chips and old roofing shingles into the yard. There was a large wraparound porch on the first floor, the roof of which served as a balcony for the second floor, and years of crumbling oak leaves were covering both. If not for the single clear path formed by use up the center of the steps, it would have looked like no one lived there.
This was where her mother grew up?
She could feel her arms trembling, which she told herself was from the weight of the bags. She walked up the steps to the porch, dragging the duffel bags and a good many leaves with her. She set the bags down and walked to the door, then knocked once.
She tried again.
She tucked her hair back again, then looked behind her as if to find an answer. She turned back and opened the rusty screen door and called into the house, “Hello?” The space sounded hollow.
She entered cautiously. No lights were on, but the last sunlight of the day was coughing through the dining room windows, directly to her left. The dining room furniture was dark and rich and ornate, but it seemed incredibly large to her, as if made for a giant. To her right was obviously another room, but there was an accordion door closing off the archway. Straight in front of her was a hallway leading to the kitchen and a wide staircase leading to the second story. She went to the base of the stairs and called up, “Hello?”
At that moment, the accordion door flew open and Emily jumped back. An elderly man with coin-silver hair walked out, ducking under the archway to avoid hitting his head. He was fantastically tall and walked with a rigid gait, his legs like stilts. He seemed badly constructed, like a skyscraper made of soft wood instead of concrete. He looked like he could splinter at any moment.
“You’re finally here. I was getting worried.” His fluid Southern voice was what she remembered from their first and only phone conversation a week ago, but he was nothing like she expected.
She craned her neck back to look up at him. “Vance Shelby?”
He nodded. He seemed afraid of her. It flustered her that someone this tall would be afraid of anything, and she suddenly found herself monitoring her movements, not wanting to do anything to startle him.
She slowly held out her hand. “Hi, I’m Emily.”
He smiled. Then his smile turned into a laugh, which was an ashy roar, like a large fire. Her hand completely disappeared in his when he shook it. “I know who you are, child. You look just like your mother when she was your age.” His smile faded as quickly as it had appeared. He dropped his hand, then looked around awkwardly. “Where are your suitcases?”
“I left them on the porch.”
There was a short silence. Neither of them had known the other existed until recently. How could they have run out of things to say already? There was so much she wanted to know. “Well,” he finally said, “you can do what you want upstairs—it’s all yours. I can’t get up there anymore. Arthritis in my hips and knees. This is my room now.” He pointed to the accordion door. “You can choose any room you want, but your mother’s old room was the last one on the right. Tell me what the wallpaper looks like when you walk in. I’d like to know.”
“Thank you. I will,” she said as he turned and walked away from her, toward the kitchen, his steps loud in his wondrously large shoes.
Emily watched him go, confused. That was it?
She went to the porch and dragged her bags in. Upstairs, she found a long hallway that smelled woolly and tight. There were six doors. She walked down the hall, the scraping of her duffel bags magnified in the hardwood silence.
Once she reached the last door on the right, she dropped her duffel bags and reached to the inside wall for the light switch. The first thing she noticed when the light popped on was that the wallpaper had rows and rows of tiny lilacs on it, like scratch-and-sniff paper, and the room actually smelled a little like lilacs. There was a four-poster bed against the wall, the torn, gauzy remnants of what had once been a canopy now hanging off the posts like maypoles.
There was a white trunk at the foot of the bed. The name Dulcie, Emily’s mother’s name, was carved in it in swirly letters. As she walked by it, she ran her hand over the top of the trunk and her fingertips came away with puffs of dust. Underneath the age, like looking though a layer of ice, there was a distinct impression of privilege to this room.
It made no sense. This room looked nothing like her mother.
She opened the set of French doors and stepped out onto the balcony, crunching into dried oak leaves that were ankle-deep. Everything had felt so precarious since her mother’s death, like she was walking on a bridge made of paper. When she’d left Boston, it had been with a sense of hope, like coming here was going to make everything okay. She’d actually been comforted by the thought of falling back into a cradle of her mother’s youth, of bonding with the grandfather she hadn’t known she had.
Instead, the lonely strangeness of this place mocked her.
This didn’t feel like home.
She reached to touch her charm bracelet for comfort, but felt only bare skin. She lifted her wrist, startled.
The bracelet was gone.
She looked down, then around. She frantically kicked the leaves on the balcony, trying to find it. She rushed back into the room and dragged her bags in, thinking maybe the bracelet had caught on one of them and slipped inside. She tossed her clothes out of them and accidentally dropped her laptop, which she’d wrapped in her white winter coat.
But it wasn’t anywhere. She ran out of the room and down the stairs, then she banged out of the front door. It was so dark under the canopy of trees now that she had to slow down until the light from the streetlights penetrated, then she ran to the sidewalk.
After ten minutes of searching, she realized that either she had dropped it on the sidewalk and someone had already taken it, or it had fallen out in the cab when she was toying with it and it was now on its way back to Raleigh—where the cab had picked her up at the bus station.
The bracelet had belonged to her mother. Dulcie had loved it—loved the crescent moon charm in particular. That charm had been worn thin by the many times Dulcie had rubbed it while in one of her faraway moods.
Emily walked slowly back into the house. She couldn’t believe she’d lost it.
She heard what sounded like a clothes dryer door slam, then her grandfather came out of the kitchen. “Lilacs,” she said when he met her in the foyer, where she had stopped and waited for him to notice her so she wouldn’t startle him. How odd that he was the giant, yet she was the one who felt out of place.
He gave her a cautious look, like she was out to trick him. “Lilacs?”
“You asked what the wallpaper was in Mom’s old room. It’s lilacs.”
“Ah. It was always flowers, usually roses, when she was a little girl. It changed a lot as she got older. I remember once it was lightning bolts on a tar-black background. And then another time it was this scaly blue color, like a dragon’s belly. She hated that one, but couldn’t seem to change it.”
That made Emily smile. “That doesn’t sound like her at all. I remember once . . .” She stopped when Vance looked away. He didn’t want to know. The last time he saw his daughter was twenty years ago. Wasn’t he even curious? Stung, Emily turned away from him. “I guess I’ll go to bed now.”
“Are you hungry?” he asked as he followed her at a distance. “I went to the grocery store this morning. I bought some teenager food.”
She reached the first step on the staircase and turned, which made him step back suddenly. “Thank you. But I really am tired.”
He nodded. “All right. Tomorrow, maybe.”
She went back to the bedroom and fell onto the bed. Mustiness exploded from the mattress. She stared at the ceiling. Moths had come in, attracted to the light, and they were hopping around the cobwebby chandelier. Her mother had grown up with a chandelier in her bedroom? This from the same woman who would lecture Emily if she left a light on in a room she wasn’t using.
She reached over and pulled some of her clothes from the floor and buried her face in them. They smelled familiar, like her mother’s incense. She squeezed her eyes shut, trying not to cry. It was too early to say this was a bad decision. And even if it was, there was nothing she could do about it. She could survive a year here, surely.
She heard the wind skittering dried leaves around the balcony, something she realized sounded remarkably like someone walking around out there. She moved the clothes from her face and turned her head to look out the open balcony doors.
The light from the bedroom illuminated the closest treetops in the backyard, but their limbs weren’t swaying. She sat up and crawled off the bed. Once outside, she looked around carefully. “Is anyone here?” she called, not knowing what she would do if someone actually answered.
Something suddenly caught her eye. She quickly stepped to the balustrade. She thought she saw something in the woodline beyond the gazebo in the overgrown backyard.
There! There it was again. It was a bright white light—a quick, zippy flash—darting between the trees. Gradually, the light faded, moving back into the darkness of the woods until it disappeared completely.
Welcome to Mullaby, North Carolina, she thought. Home of ghost lights, giants, and jewelry thieves.
She turned to go back in and froze.
There, on the old metal patio table, sitting on top of a layer of dried leaves, was her mother’s charm bracelet.
Where it hadn’t been just minutes ago.
Too much wine.
That’s what Julia would blame it on.
When she saw Stella in the morning, she would say, “Oh, and that thing I said about Sawyer last night, forget it. It was just the wine talking.”
As Julia made her way up to her apartment that evening, she felt vaguely panicked and not at all mellow—as summer wine on the back porch with Stella usually made her. She only had six months before she was free of this town again, six months that were supposed to be easy, the downhill slope of her two-year plan. But with one tiny slip of the tongue, she’d just made things infinitely harder on herself. If what she said got back to Sawyer, he wouldn’t let it rest. She knew him too well.
She opened the door at the top of the staircase and stepped into the narrow hallway. Nothing had been done to the upper story of Stella’s house to make it look like an apartment. There were four doors off the hallway. One led to the bathroom, one to Julia’s bedroom, one to a second bedroom that had been converted into a kitchen, and another to a tiny third bedroom that Julia used as a living room.
Years ago, after Stella’s ex-husband had spent his way through Stella’s trust fund, he’d decided they should bring in renters for extra money, so he’d put a long curtain at the top of the staircase and said, “Voilà! Instant apartment.” Then he’d been surprised when there were no takers. Men of thoughtless actions are always surprised by consequences, Stella always said. The last year of his and Stella’s marriage, he’d started leaving a fine black dust on everything he’d touched, proof of his black heart, Stella claimed. When she’d discovered the black dust on other women—sprinkled on the backs of their calves when they wore shorts on summer days, and behind their ears when they wore their hair up—Stella had finally kicked him out. Afterward she got her brother to put a door at the top of the staircase, and a sink and an oven hookup in one of the bedrooms, hoping something good might come from finishing something her lousy ex-husband had started. Julia was her first tenant.
Initially, Julia had been uneasy about renting a place from one of her old high school enemies. But she’d had no choice. Stella’s apartment had been the only place Julia could afford when she’d moved back to Mullaby. She’d been surprised to find that despite their pasts, she and Stella actually got along. It was an unlikely friendship, one Julia still didn’t know how to explain. Stella had been one of the most popular girls at Mullaby High, a member of Sassafras—what the elite group of pretty, sparkly girls had called themselves. Julia had been the girl everyone avoided in the hallways. She’d been sullen and rude and undeniably strange. She’d dyed her hair bright pink, worn a studded leather choker every day, and used eyeliner so thick and black that she’d looked bruised.
And her father had tried so hard not to notice.
Julia walked down the hall to her bedroom. But before she turned on the light, she noticed a light coming from Vance Shelby’s house next door. She went to her open window in the darkness and looked out. All the time she’d lived in Stella’s house, all the sleepless nights she’d spent staring out this window, and she’d never once seen a light in the upstairs bedrooms next door. There was a teenager on the balcony. She was just standing there, as still as snow, staring into the woods behind Vance’s house. She was willow-branch thin, had a cap of yellow hair, and a sad sort of vulnerability was wafting from her, making the night smell like maple syrup. There was something familiar about her, and that’s when Julia suddenly remembered. Vance’s granddaughter was coming to live with him. This past week at Julia’s restaurant, it was all anyone could talk about. Some people were curious, some were fearful, and some were outright mean. Not everyone had forgiven this girl’s mother for what she’d done.
Julia didn’t like the thought of what the girl was in for. It made her feel stiff and anxious. Living down your own past was hard enough. You shouldn’t have to live down someone else’s.
Tomorrow morning, Julia decided, she’d make an extra cake at the restaurant to take to her.
Julia undressed and got in bed. Eventually the light went off next door. She sighed and turned on her side and waited to cross another day off her calendar.
After her father’s death almost two years ago, Julia had taken a few days off work to come back to Mullaby to get his affairs in order. Her plan had been to quickly sell his house and restaurant, then take the money and go back to Maryland and finally make her dream of opening her own bakery come true.
But things hadn’t gone exactly the way they were sup- posed to.
She’d quickly discovered that her father had been deeply in debt, his house and restaurant mortgaged to the hilt. Selling his house had paid off his home mortgage and a small part of his restaurant mortgage. But even with that, she would have barely broken even if she’d sold the restaurant then. So she came up with her now-infamous two-year plan. By living very frugally and bringing in more business to J?’s Barbecue while she was there, in two years she would have the mortgage paid off and could sell the restaurant for a tidy profit. She’d been perfectly up-front about it with everyone in town. She would be staying in Mullaby for two years, but that did not mean she lived here anymore. She was just visiting. That was all.
When she took over the restaurant, J?’s Barbecue had a modest but loyal following, thanks to her father. He had a way of making people feel happy when they left, smelling of sweet yellow barbecue smoke that trailed behind them like a dress train. But Mullaby had more barbecue restaurants per capita than any other place in the state, so competition was fierce. With her father’s personal touch now gone, Julia knew the restaurant needed something to set it apart from the rest. So she started baking and selling cakes—her specialty—and it was an instant boon to business. Soon, J?’s Barbecue was known not for just fine Lexington-style barbecue, but also for the best cakes and pastries around.
Julia always got to the restaurant well before dawn, and the only person there before her was the pit cook. They rarely talked. He had his job and she had hers. She left the day-to-day running of the place to the people her father had taught and trusted. Even though the barbecue business was in her bones, stuck there like spurs, she tried to stay as uninvolved as possible. She loved her father, but it had been a long time since she’d wanted to be like him. When Julia was a child, before she’d turned into a moody, pink-haired teenager, she used to follow him to work every day before school and gladly help with everything from waitressing to tossing wood into the smokehouse pit. Some of her best memories were of spending time with her father at J?’s Barbecue. But too much had happened since then for her to ever believe she could be that comfortable here again. So she came in early, baked that day’s cakes, and left just as the first early-bird customers arrived for breakfast. On good days, she didn’t even see Sawyer.
This, as it turned out, wasn’t a good day.
“You’ll never guess what Stella told me last night,” Sawyer Alexander said, strolling into the kitchen just as Julia was finishing the apple stack cake she was going to take to Vance Shelby’s granddaughter.
Julia closed her eyes for a moment. Stella must have called him the moment Julia left her last night and went upstairs.
Sawyer stopped next to her at the stainless steel table and stood close. He was like crisp, fresh air. He was self-possessed and proud, but everyone forgave him for that because charm sparkled around him like sunlight. Blue-eyed and blond-haired, he was handsome, smart, rich, and fun to be around. And he was disgustingly kind, too, as all the men in his family were, filled to capacity with Southern gentility. Sawyer drove his grandfather to Julia’s restaurant every morning just so he could have breakfast with his old cronies.
“You’re not supposed to be back here,” she said as she put the last layer of cake on top of the dried-apple and spice filling.
“Report me to the owner.” He pushed some of her hair behind her left ear, his fingers lingering on the thin pink streak she still dyed in her hair there. “Don’t you want to know what Stella told me last night?” he asked.
She jerked her head away from his hand as she put the last of the apple and spice filling on top of the cake, leaving the sides bare. “Stella was drunk last night.”
“She said you told her that you bake cakes because of me.”
Julia knew it was coming, but she stilled anyway, the icing spatula stopping mid-stroke. She quickly resumed spreading the filling, hoping he hadn’t noticed. “She thinks you have low self-esteem. She’s trying to build up your ego.”
He lifted one eyebrow in that insolent way of his. “I’ve been accused of many things, but low self-esteem is not one of them.”
“It must be hard to be so beautiful.”
“It’s hell. Did you really say that to her?”
She clanged the spatula into the empty bowl the filling had been in, then she took both to the sink. “I don’t remember. I was drunk, too.”
“You never get drunk,” he said.
“You don’t know me well enough to make blanket statements like ‘You never get drunk.’?” It felt good to say that. Eighteen years she’d been away. Look how much I’ve improved, she wanted to say.
“Fair enough. But I do know Stella. Even when she drinks, I’ve never known her to lie. Why would she tell me that you bake cakes because of me if it wasn’t true?”
“I bake cakes. You have an infamous sweet tooth. Maybe she got the two tangled up.” She walked into the storage room for a cake box, taking longer than necessary, hoping maybe he’d give up and go away.
“You’re taking a cake with you?” he asked when she came back out. He hadn’t moved. All the crazy-hot activity in the kitchen—waitresses going in and out, cooks going back and forth, the constant thump of barbecue being hand-chopped—and he was so still. She had to quickly turn away. Staring at an Alexander man too long was like staring at the sun. The image became imprinted. You could close your eyes and still see him.
“I’m giving it to Vance Shelby’s granddaughter. She got in last night.”
That made him laugh. “You’re actually giving someone a welcome cake?”
She didn’t realize the irony until he pointed it out to her. “I don’t know what came over me.”
He watched her as she put the cake in the cardboard box. “I like this color on you,” he said, touching the sleeve of her white long-sleeved shirt.
She immediately pulled her arm away. A year and a half of avoiding this man since she’d been back, then she had to go and say to Stella the one thing that would draw him to her like gravity. He’d been looking for this excuse since the moment she came back to town. He wanted to get closer to her. She knew that. And it made her angry. How could he even think of picking up where they left off after what happened?
She reached over and closed the window above her table. It was always the last thing she did every morning, and sometimes it made her sad. Another day, another call unanswered. She picked up the cake box and took it with her out into the restaurant without another word to Sawyer.
J?’s Barbecue was plain, as most genuine barbecue restaurants in the South were—linoleum floors, plastic tablecloths on the tables, heavy wooden booths. It was an homage to tradition. As soon as she’d taken over, Julia had pulled down the tattered NASCAR memorabilia her father had tacked to the far wall, but she’d been met with such protest that she’d had to put it all back up.
She set the box down and picked up the chalkboard on the diner counter. She wrote the names of the day’s cakes on the board: traditional Southern red velvet cake and peach pound cake, but also green tea and honey macaroons and cranberry doughnuts. She knew the more unusual things would sell out first. It had taken nearly a year, but she’d won over her regulars with her skill with what they already knew, so now they would try anything she made.
Sawyer walked out just as she set the chalkboard back on the counter. “I told Stella I’d come over with pizza tonight. You’ll be there?”
“I’m always there. Why don’t the two of you sleep together and get it over with?” Sawyer’s Thursday pizza courtship of Stella had been going on ever since Julia had moved back to Mullaby. Stella swore there was nothing going on, but Julia thought Stella was being naïve.
Sawyer leaned in close. “Stella and I did sleep together,” he said into her ear. “Three years ago, right after her divorce. And before you think that sounds indiscriminate, I try to keep my actions regret-free these days.”
She gave him a sharp look as he walked away. His casual, almost flippant, mention of it took her by surprise and made her feel cool and tart, like tasting lime for the first time.
She couldn’t blame him for being a scared teenager when he’d found out she’d gotten pregnant from their one night together on the football field all those years ago. She’d been a scared teenager, too. And they’d made the only decisions they were capable of making at the time. For better or worse.
But she resented how easily he’d gotten on with his life. It had been just one night to him. One regretful night with the freaky, unpopular girl he’d barely even talked to at school. A girl who’d been madly in love with him.
Oh, God. She wasn’t going to fall into this role again. She couldn’t.
Six months and counting and she would leave this crazy place and never think of Sawyer again.
With any luck.
From the Hardcover edition.