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West Falls, Texas, Population 3,000.
Cassidy Blake read the sign as she crossed the town line into her hometown. "Who says you can't go home again?" she whispered as familiar places rolled into view.
Hunger pains began to roll like thunder through her belly. It served as a reminder that she hadn't eaten since this morning when she'd grabbed coffee and a muffin before hitting the road. At the moment a cheeseburger and fries were calling her name.
She took a quick glance at the clock on the dashboard. Was it really only three o'clock?
She'd arrived an hour earlier than anticipated. Mama and Daddy wouldn't be back home until five. She drove her car down a side street and turned back down Main so that the Falls Diner was on her left side. As if on autopilot, she pulled into the parking lot and parked her car. She drummed her nails on the steering wheel and bit her lip as she gazed out the window at the diner.
Don't be a chicken, she told herself as she took deep calming breaths. You have every right to sit down to a meal in the diner. With a sigh of surrender she unfastened her seat belt and got out of the car, her legs feeling like cement blocks as she walked across the lot.
As soon as she stepped inside, the aroma of food sizzling on the griddle filled her nostrils. Cassidy looked around the room with a sense of wonder. Nothing had changed. The diner looked eerily similar to the way it had looked when she was a senior in high school. The leather booths were still the same pale pink color. The parquet on the floor was still black-and-white diamond shapes. The jukebox still stood in the corner, its neon colors adding life to the diner's ambiance. A smile tugged at the corner of Cassidy's lips as she remembered playing her favorite songs over and over again on it.
A young waitress with the name tag Robin pinned to her uniform came sauntering over to her. Her lips were painted a hot pink that matched her shoulder-length hair. She was chewing her gum as if it was the only morsel of food she'd be eating all day. A big smile was plastered on her face. Cassidy determined that she couldn't be any more than eighteen years old.
"Welcome to the Falls Diner. Party of one?" Robin asked in a perky voice.
"Yes, it's just me," she answered, casting a furtive glance around the diner.
Robin gestured toward the dining area. "Take whatever booth you like." When Cassidy sat down at the nearest booth, Robin placed a menu in front of her and asked, "Do you need a few minutes with the menu?"
"No," Cassidy answered with a polite smile. "I'll have a volcano cheeseburger, curly fries and a chocolate shake."
"Sounds like you've been here before."
Cassidy nodded, deciding not to tell the waitress how many times she'd ordered that same meal. Cheeseburger, fries and chocolate shake. She'd practically lived on that meal when she was a teenager. Back then she hadn't given a thought to calories or fat content. She'd been young and carefree, filled with the knowledge that she was one of the most popular girls in town with a killer figure and a face to match.
Those were the days, she thought with a sigh. Or had they been? Had they ever been as perfect as she 'd liked to believe?
As the daughter of the town's beloved pastor, Cassidy had been forced to rise to the high expectations of her father and the entire congregation. It had been like living in a pressure cooker, and for the first eighteen years of her life she'd done it without complaint. Perhaps it would have been better if she'd objected or rebelled, she realized. Perhaps it would have been better if she hadn't tried so hard to be Little Miss Perfect.
Cassidy shut her eyes to block out the painful memories. She chose instead to focus on one of her favorite scriptures, one that continually brought her hope and made her feel as if she wasn't so alone. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
Yes, she had sinned in the past. Yes, she had brought shame to her family. Yes, she had forever altered the life of her best friend. But did that mean she didn't deserve forgiveness? She wasn't an evil person. She hadn't willingly caused anyone pain. She'd been reckless, foolish and immature, which had been a recipe for disaster. But all that was in the past. She couldn't beat herself up anymore over it. All she could do was try and make amends.
When Robin brought her order to the table, Cassidy grabbed the cheeseburger and took a huge bite, a trickle of juice dribbling down her lips as she sent a prayer of thanks to the Lord. There was no place that made cheeseburgers like the ones at the Falls Diner. She put the cheeseburger down and reached for her chocolate shake, taking a huge sip to wash some of her meal down.
As she munched on the cheeseburger her eyes darted around the diner. Thankfully the other waitress on the floor, a woman in her early forties, was unfamiliar to her. It was only a matter of time, she knew, until she ran into one of her classmates or a member of her father's congregation. The mere thought of it made her palms moisten and her heartbeat quicken.
The diner had been the local gathering place for the cool crowd in high school, and she had been in the thick of it, holding court at a table with her best friends as if they owned the establishment. The four roses. They'd been young, beautiful and popular, with promising futures stretched out in front of them. Darkness had never touched their world, until the night the accident turned their lives upside down.
"I thought these old eyes were playing tricks on me." The gritty voice brought her out of her reverie and transported her back to a more innocent place and time.
The white-haired gentleman standing before her was Doc Sampson, the owner of the Falls Diner. He still looked the same with the exception of a few more wrinkles around his forehead and eyes. Doc had been a part of her childhood and adolescence, a man who had always been there with a jovial smile and words of encouragement.
"Doc!" she exclaimed, jumping up from her seat and wrapping her arms tightly around him. Doc hugged her back, his hands patting her on the back in a reassuring gesture.
"Cassidy! I didn't think it was possible for you to get more beautiful, but you've turned into a lovely young woman," Doc said as he broke away from the hug.
"Thanks, Doc. The years have been good to you, as well. You haven't changed a bit."
"Seeing you is really taking me back. I remember you gals used to sit in that booth over there next to the jukebox. What was it they called you girls?" He snapped his fingers as it came to him. "The four roses. That's it! You were my favorite customers. Did I ever tell you that?" His voice softened to a whisper. "Shame about what happened."
Cassidy nodded her head in agreement rather than run the risk of bawling her eyes out over Doc's kindness and sensitivity. She hadn't expected to be greeted by either in her hometown.
"Would you like to sit in that booth? For old time's sake?" Doc had a hopeful gleam in his eye, as if by seating her in the booth it might erase the events of eight years ago. If only it were that easy, she thought wistfully. She knew all too well the impossibility of turning back the clock.
"No thanks. I think I'll stay where I am," she said as she sat back down in her booth. She wasn't quite ready for that walk down memory lane.
"Suit yourself, young lady." As he walked away toward the counter, he turned back to her and said, "It's nice to see you back in town. West Falls hasn't been the same without you."
"Thanks, Doc. That means a lot to me." Tears of emotion gathered in her eyes, and she sniffled a few times to rein herself in. She didn't want to surrender to a full-on sob fest. She had no desire to bring attention to herself. Although she'd known coming back home would be an emotional experience, she hadn't realized how quickly she would succumb to the flood of feelings.
The jingle of the bell heralded the arrival of another customer in the diner. She glanced up just in time to see a tall, broad-shouldered man with chocolate-brown hair step through the doorway. He was wearing a law enforcement uniform, complete with a gold badge and a cowboy hat. The nerves on the back of her neck began to prickle with awareness. Her body tensed up, while a little voice in her head urged her to run, to get away from this place as soon as possible.
But there was nowhere to run, she realized with a sinking sensation. Nowhere to hide.
Lord, give me the strength to make it past this moment.
He turned toward her and their eyes lockedshe could see a hundred different emotions reflected in his. Recognition. Disbelief. Those arctic-blue eyes that she used to love gazing into now skewered her to the spot. For a moment time stood still as they took stock of each other.
"Cassidy," he said, saying her name as if it were a question.
"Afternoon, Tate," she said with a nod of her head in his direction.
She could tell just by looking at his face that she'd caught him off guard. He hadn't had time to prepare himself for seeing her. For one brief instant she'd seen a look of joy sweep over him before it was quickly replaced with one of indifference. Off guard was putting it mildly, she imagined. After all it wasn't every day that your ex-fiancée rose up to greet you like a bittersweet memory from the past.
"Mama told me you made sheriff," she said, her voice sounding stilted to her own ears. "Congratulations."
"Yup," he acknowledged with a curt nod of his head. "After Keegan retired, I was elected sheriff."
"It was always your dream, even back when we were kids. I know what it must mean to you."
"It wasn't my only dream, Cass," he said, his eyes icy and flat. "You'd know about that more than anyone."
Unable to meet his gaze, Cassidy looked down and began twirling her fingers around and around. Although she wanted nothing more than to look into those eyes and to remember what it felt like to be loved by him, she couldn't bear to see the coldness in their depths. Not when his cool blue eyes had once burned so brightly for her. Not when there was so much that remained unsaid between them, things that had been buried and lost in the aftermath of tragedy.
"What brings you back to town?" he asked with a frown.
Cassidy looked up and met his steely eyes.
"My mother has breast cancer. She's scheduled for surgery next week. I'm here to help her with her treatment and recovery."
Tate's jaw clenched, and his features tightened. "I'm real sorry to hear that. Your mama is a good woman."
"Please don't share this with anyone," she blurted out. "I mean it's private, at least for now. Until she decides to tell everyone."
"You know me better than that, Cassidy. I won't tell a soul. That's a promise." His voice rang with conviction.
She knew better than to question Tate's word. He was as reliable as the rising sun in the morning. As far back as she could remember his word had always been bond.
"Tate, how is Holly doing?" she asked softly, the words tumbling out before she could rein them back in.
Tate's eyes widened and his face instantly hardened into a cold mask as she watched. His eyes flashed dangerously. "You've had eight years to ask that question. But you never did. You could've called, written, sent a text." Tate's lip curled upward in disgust. "But you did nothing, Cassidy. Absolutely nothing. So please, don't ask about my sister. You lost that right a long time ago."
Shame washed over her like a tidal wave, making her feel unworthy of even sitting in this booth eating a cheeseburger. It was strange, since she'd once thought she couldn't feel any deeper shame than she'd already felt. With a few scathing words, Tate had just proven her wrong.
For years she'd prayed to God to make these feelings go away, to wash away the shame so she could move forward with her life. And, for a while, she'd believed that her prayers had been answered. Until now. Until Tate rid her of that notion with his icy blue eyes and no-nonsense talk.
"You're right," she acknowledged as pain seared through her. "I'm sorry if I made you uncomfortable."
"Uncomfortable? Is that your take on it?" Tate let out a harsh laugh and shook his head as if in disbelief. "You have yourself a nice afternoon, Cassidy."
Cassidy watched him turn his back on her and walk away. The heels of his cowboy boots tapped noisily against the floor as he made his way to the other side of the diner. Heat seared her cheeks as Doc shot her a look filled with pity. The cheeseburger turned to sawdust in her mouth, and she found it near-impossible to swallow past the huge lump in her throat. With shaking fingers she reached into her purse and pulled out a twenty dollar bill, placing it in the middle of the table where Robin couldn't help but spot it. She gave Doc a shaky wave before she hustled herself out the door and into the sultry May air. For the first time since she'd locked gazes with Tate Lynch she allowed herself to breathehuge gulps of air that did nothing to quell the anxiety holding her in its grip.
Tate was sitting at the counter in the far left corner of the diner. His insides had churned at the thought of sitting in close proximity to Cassidy Blake. A hundred times or more he'd imagined coming face-to-face again with his ex-fiancée. None of his fantasies had come close to the stark reality. His heart had practically stopped beating the moment he'd realized that she was back in West Falls. He'd walked into the diner for his usual coffee and slice of pie, expecting to do nothing more than sit at the counter for a spell and listen to Doc's congenial chatter about the goings-on in town.
And then it had happened. Pow. He'd looked over and seen her at a booth, enjoying the best cheeseburger in the entire state.
She was still jaw-droppingly beautiful. West Falls High hadn't voted her prom queen for nothing. In mere seconds he'd taken it all in. The heart-shaped face. The strawberry blond hair that hung in waves past her shoulders. The sea-green eyes that always seemed to be full of mystery. Full, ruby lips. A smattering of freckles crisscrossed the bridge of her nose and extended to the landscape of her cheeks. She was all woman now, he realized. No longer the eighteen-year-old girl, fresh out of high school.
She hadn't changed much over the years, unless you counted the wary expression in her eyes that had replaced her youthful exuberance and zest for life. He supposed he couldn't blame her for being wary. Coming back to West Falls after all this time was bound to be an explosive experience, not only for Cassidy, but for everyone in town who'd been affected by her actions. Considering everything that had gone down before she'd left, she'd be dodging land mines the entire time she was here.