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As the classic country ballad began to play, Savannah Greer's past came tumbling back on a white-water rush of memories. The song of love and leaving brought to mind another place and another time, a bridge long since crossed, but unfortunately not quite burned.
From her perch on a barstool at the diner's counter, she glanced over her shoulder, almost expecting to see the proverbial man from her past lounging in the back booth, weathered guitar in hand, his expression as bitter as the words he'd delivered more than a decade ago. But she only caught sight of a rotund farmer standing by the ancient jukebox, the culprit who'd unwittingly sent her imagination into overdrive with one careless selection.
Savannah turned back to the counter, took another sip of the frosted root beer and frowned. She'd never been particularly fond of the drink, or nostalgia, which left her questioning why she'd bothered to stop in at Stan's on the way to the farm. Truth was, she'd wanted to delay dealing with the grief over losing her beloved father, and being home would simply make it all too real. She also didn't look forward to seeing her mother again, yet prolonging the reunion would only fuel Ruth Greer's well-established disapproval of her daughter.
With that in mind, Savannah reached inside her wallet, withdrew two dollar bills and handed them to the waitressa fresh-faced young woman who had to be close to the same age she'd been when she'd shed this godforsaken Mississippi Delta town. The girl smiled, slid two quarters across the counter and said, "Y'all come back now."
"Have a nice evening," Savannah muttered, yet she wanted desperately to tell the teenager to get out of Placid while she still could, before the place sucked the life out of her.
She left the change on the counter and hurried toward the exit, craving freedom, only to face her past head-on when the door opened before she could escape.
He moved into the room like a shadow at sundown, all hard-shell insolence and towering height, his dark hair just long enough to be deemed disreputable in such a conservative community. He stared at her for a moment and when recognition dawned, a mocking smile lifted the corners of his mouth.
"Well, I'll be damned." Laughter rumbled low in his throat and crinkled the corners of his dark blue eyes, dredging up images of riotous storms and uncontrolled passion. He thumbed the brim of his baseball cap up from his brow and studied her from head to toe with all the cockiness of a seventeen-year-old jock. "Looks like Savvy's come back to town."
Savannah's feet refused to move from the worn tiled floor. She couldn't manage a step, not one step, for that meant she would again be moving toward him, not away.
You're not a child, Savannah. Leave.
Clutching her purse to her chest, she simply said,
"Goodbye, Sam," then brushed past him and rushed out into the humid June evening.
As she strode across the gravel parking lot toward her car, she heard the all-too-familiar voice call out, "Walking away again, Savannah?"
Ignoring the condemnation in his tone, Savannah quickened her pace. But against her better judgment, she paused to take another backward glance and discovered Sam leaning against the bed of a shiny black truck parked near the entrance, arms folded across his chest, looking as if he expected her to run back to him.
When her gaze again connected with his, Savannah's pulse beat a staccato rhythm in her ears as her nerves unraveled like an old woven rug.
What was wrong with her? She was behaving like some kid who'd gone to see the latest slasher movie, afraid to witness the terror on the screen, yet unable to resist some primitive calling to do that very thing. To face the fear. In this case, the man and the memories.
As she climbed into the safety of her sedan, Savannah attributed the unwelcome reaction to the remnants of an idealistic teenage perception of love. After all, she'd worked so hard to ignore those times when a warm breeze would blow across her face and remind her of him. She only needed to recall his parting words all those years ago to ground herself in reality.
Go on and leave, Savannah. I hope to God you never come back.
But she had come backonly to discover that if a person didn't kill all those feelings for an old love, they would remain dormant until one summer day years later, they broke through like spring grass, changing your perspective. Interrupting your comfortable life. Again breaking your heart.
Surrounded by tattered recollections of the town where she'd spent her formative years, among the place of shattered dreams, that realization pummeled Savannah like an iron fist. And so did awareness that her greatest fear had come to pass. Even after a dozen years, Samuel Jamison McBriar, her first loveher first lovercould still affect her.
As if time had done an about-face, Sam watched her drive away again, leaving him standing in front of the diner to deal with a truckload of recollections and more than a few regrets.
He had no one but himself to blame for the sudden shock of seeing Savannah Greer. He could've driven past the parking lot when he'd caught sight of the Illinois plates. He could've put off the encounter until he paid his respects at her father's funeral tomorrow. He could've waited one more day to satisfy his curiosity over how much she'd changed. The answer to thatnot much. She was probably a few pounds heavier, not a bad thing considering she'd been rail-thin as a teenager. Definitely as pretty as he remembered. Her dark brown eyes looked the same and her hair was still golden blond, but not as long as before. He'd bet his last ten acres she still had a stubborn streak, one of the qualities that had attracted him when he'd been a sucker for girls who could hold their own in a battle of wills.
So, lost in his thoughts, Sam didn't notice a car had pulled up in the adjacent space until he heard "Daddy!" followed by the sound of six-year-old feet pounding across the gravel. He barely had time to brace himself before his daughter threw her arms around his waist with enough force that he took a step backward to maintain his balance.
"Whoa there, Joe," he said as he lifted her into his arms and tugged at her dark brown ponytail.
She popped a kiss on his chin and grinned, displaying the blank space where her top two teeth had been the last time he'd seen her a month ago. "I'm not Joe, Daddy. I'm Jamie."
"I know that," he said as he set her back on her feet. "I'm the one who named you, kiddo. And it looks like you left a couple of your choppers at home."
She touched her bare gums. "The tooth fairy brought me five bucks, Daddy."
"Which she spent on candy even though I strictly forbade it."
Sam turned toward the sound of the voice belonging to the other blonde in his life. Correction. The second blonde who'd left him. But when it came to his ex-wife's parting, he'd played a major role. "Hey, Darlene. I thought you weren't going to be here for another hour."
She set a miniature purple suitcase down onto the ground at his boots. "From the minute she climbed out of bed this morning, Miss Jamie kept bugging me, so we started out early. Luckily I spotted your truck before we drove all the way out to the farm."
Jamie tugged on his hand to get his attention. "Can I get a chocolate shake, Daddy? I had my dinner."
Normally he'd give his permission without a thought, but he'd learned to defer to her mother to keep the peace. "It's okay with me, as long as your mom says it's okay."
Darlene waved in the direction of the diner. "Fine. Your sweet tooth is going to be your dad's problem for the next few days."
Sam caught Jamie's arm before she took off. "Sit by the window so I can see you, and don't talk to strangers." As if that were going to happen. Strangers were a rare occurrence in Placid, but he preferred to err on the side of caution. "I'll be in as soon as I say goodbye to your mom."
"Okay, Daddy," she called out, then headed at a dead run into Stan's, slamming the door behind her.
Once he made sure Jamie had followed orders and climbed into the designated booth, Sam turned back to Darlene. "I could've driven to Memphis and picked her up."
"I told you I planned to stop by Mom's and Dad's, remember?"
Right now Sam had trouble remembering anything except seeing Savannah again and the lingering bitterness mixed with the same stupid spark of lust.
"Are you okay, Sam?" Darlene asked when he failed to respond.
"Because when we pulled up, you looked like you'd seen a ghost."
Not so far from the truth. A ghost from his past. She'd come and gone so quickly, he wasn't sure she hadn't been a figment of his imagination. "I just ran into Savannah Greer. She's in town for her father's funeral."
Darlene's expression went cold. "Well, that explains a lot."
He didn't have to ask what she'd meant by that. During their years together, she'd often accused him of carrying a torch for his former high school sweetheart. Not true. Savannah's disregard still burned like a brand, and ultimately the end of his and Darlene's marriage had come when they'd both discovered they made better friends than spouses.
Recognizing a subject change would prevent more speculation, Sam pointed at Darlene's swollen belly. "Are you sure that baby's not due until October?"
She laid her palm on her abdomen and scowled. "That's exactly what my husband said to me last night. Today he's not walking straight."
Sam laughed. "Tell Brent he has my sympathy, and warn him that your mood doesn't get any better until about thirty minutes after you deliver. But you do have some fine moments when your hormones kick in."
She reluctantly smiled. "I think he's already figured that out. And speaking of Brent, I need to go. I'll see you Friday."
"You bet." He hesitated a moment, feeling as if he needed to reaffirm that she'd made the right choice by leaving him behind. "I'm glad you and Brent are happy, Darlene. You deserve to be."
Finally, she smiled. "I am happy, Sam, and I hope you find someone who makes you happy, too. But that's not going to happen in this town. All the women are either underage, have a foot in the hereafter or they're married."
Didn't he know it. But he wasn't inclined to go too long without company and he did have a couple of local gals who readily accommodated him when he called. "I've got the farm to keep me busy. I'm doing okay."
She sent him a skeptical look. "Right, Sam. I don't know a man who doesn't want a woman's company every now and then, especially you. But then again, since Savannah's back in town, maybe you can remedy that."
She was determined to take hold of that old jealousy and shake it like a hound with a hambone. "That's ancient history, Darlene. I haven't seen her or talked to her in twelve years." Twelve long years. "I don't have a clue what she's up to now."
"My guess is she's probably married."
Darlene cracked a cynic's smile. "No clue what she's been doing, huh?"
The longer this conversation went on, the greater the risk for revealing that he'd kept up with Savannah through her parents. "I better get inside before Jamie orders two chocolate shakes and downs them both."
"True." Darlene climbed into her sedan and powered down the window. "Make sure she wears shoes most of the time."
"I'll try," he said as she backed out of the space and drove away. But he wouldn't force the issue. Nothing better than curling your bare toes in some good old black Delta dirt, exactly what he'd told Savannah during their first introduction. As if it had happened yesterday, he recalled exactly what she'd been wearinga pair of leg-revealing white shorts, a fitted navy blue tank top and no shoes. He'd been a goner from the moment he'd laid eyes on her.
Strange that he remembered those details. Maybe not so strange at all. He remembered a lot of particulars about their time together, especially that day in this very diner when he'd intentionally stomped on her heart the moment she told him she was leaving.
Long ago he'd learned that everyone eventually leaves. Still, even after all this time, he couldn't stop the resentment that boiled just beneath the surface. And if he had any sense at all, he'd steer clear of her. Unfortunately, he'd never had much sense when it came to Savannah Greer. But he wasn't that kid anymore, and the man had no use for her.