Once upon a time, Sandy Macintosh thought she would have her happily ever after with her high school sweetheart, Hank Tillman. Sandy wanted to be an artist, Hank was the only boy in town who seemed destined for bigger things, and they both had dreams to escape town together. But when Sandy’s plans fell through, she stayed in their small town in Ohio while Hank went off to Boston to follow his dreams to be a musician, with the promise to stay together. Only that plan fell through, too.
Fifteen years later, Sandy runs a successful greenhouse while helping her parents with their bed and breakfast. Everything is perfect…until Hank rolls back into town, now a famous alt-country singer with a son in tow. She’s happy with the life she’s built by herself, but seeing Hank makes her think about what might have been. There aren’t enough cliché love songs in the world to convince Sandy to give Hank another chance, but when the two of them get thrown together to help organize the town’s annual street fair, she wonders if there could be a new beginning for them or if what they had is just a tired old song of the past.
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I've imagined running into Hank Tillman roughly one million times since I last saw him years ago. Maybe he'd see me walking my Great Dane, Toby, down Main Street, my hair blowing in the wind in a casual yet gorgeous way, and he'd be rendered speechless by my beauty. Maybe he'd see me at work and be impressed that Sandy Macintosh had grown into a competent, successful, but (most important) extremely sexy business owner. Or maybe he'd see me attempting to play basketball with my best friend Honey's three kids, and he'd be mesmerized by my athletic prowess and ease with children. (Forget the fact that I can't make a basket to save my own damn life and that Honey's six-year-old, Rosie, makes fun of me every time we play because she's a bad sport.)
But never, in any of my wild imaginings, did I picture our reunion happening in the soda aisle of Tillman's Grocery with me covered in dirt, my hair twisted into a messy, lopsided bun, and the Santana / Rob Thomas song "Smooth" playing softly through the grocery store speakers.
"Hey, Sandy," he says casually, as if we see each other every day. In reality, the last time I saw his face in person was a lifetime ago, right after a kiss I wish I could forget.
And what a face it was . . . and is. I allow my eyes a moment to roam over him, to take in the lines that weren't there fifteen years ago, the crease of his forehead and the crinkles by his eyes. The way his nose is the slightest bit crooked because he broke it at football practice freshman year. Those eyelashes that made me jealous because they were longer than any boy's really had to be, and mine were always so short and stubby. I have the desire to reach my hand out and touch his face, to run my fingers over the topography there and see what's changed.
His eyes dart over my face like he's doing the same thing, and I look away quickly. I'm covered in dirt because, well, I've been in the dirt all day installing a new garden for a client. I only ran to the store because my employee, Marcia, has a monstrous Diet Coke addiction and gets twitchy if I don't keep the mini fridge at the greenhouse stocked.
I try not to wonder what he thinks of how I've changed. I don't exactly make myself easy to find-I use social media like anyone else, but mostly to keep up with everyone who moved out of Baileyville or to like the constant stream of kid photos that Honey posts. I keep my personal updates minimal and focus on pictures of gardens and flowers. Scrolling through my feeds won't turn up a single selfie.
But I've had plenty of opportunities to see Hank, of course. Album covers. A recording of Austin City Limits on PBS. A magazine article here and there. Because Hank Tillman became what he always said he'd be: a musician.
I try not to look at that stuff because I try not to live in the past, try not to think about all the things I said I'd be back then, back when we were seventeen and stupid and so, so in love.
"Hey, Hank," I almost whisper, willing myself to look anywhere but at him. I glance at the root beer and the orange soda, but I look back at him as he sticks his hands in his pockets. My eyes dart to his arms sticking out below the rolled-up sleeves of his faded red flannel shirt. They're tanned and rough, like he's spent the entire summer, his entire life, outside.
I hate this, hate that he's somehow become even more handsome and that I know all these details about him down in my bones, like they're a part of me, like I'll never be rid of him no matter how hard I try. He moved on, I remind myself. He left town and he left you and you did just fine for yourself, didn't you? You own a business. You have a house. You have employees and a dog and a front porch and a very expensive espresso machine.
I know I should be an adult here, make polite conversation, ask him why he's back in town . . . but every cell of my body is screaming, Get out of this store now! I attempt to walk past him, but my bare arm brushes against his bare forearm, and I gasp. It's been so long since the last time I touched him, and it's pathetic the way that simply grazing his skin brings me right back to being seventeen, the radio playing in his truck, the windows open and the breeze warm as we drove the winding back roads of Baileyville.
The case of Diet Coke slips out of my hand and crashes onto my toes. "Shit," I hiss as I bend down to pick it up.
"Are you okay?" Hank asks, reaching out to help, but I just nod quickly.
"I'm fine!" I say, pretending that it doesn't feel like one of my toes is on fire. "I gotta go!"
I turn around, attempting to make my way to the cash register as quickly as I can. From now on, I will not enable Marcia's addiction; trying to be a good boss only leads to injury and makes me run into my first love.
"Sandy . . ." he says, and I turn around.
Our eyes meet and I see it all for a moment, a flash of everything we went through when we were just kids. Passing notes in class. Promising everything. Kissing in his parents' barn. Never dreaming that things would end up this way.
"It's good to see you," he finishes.
I nod, not trusting myself to speak. Because what could I say? Well, it's not good to see you, Hank, because I like to pretend you don't exist.
Instead, I hobble to the register.
Marcia claps when I walk in the door holding the box of Diet Coke aloft. ÒThank you so much, and oh my God, are you limping?Ó
"I think I broke my toe when I dropped this case of poison liquid on my foot," I say, handing it to her. "I'll take over the register if you can go put this in the fridge."
"My hero," she says, hugging the box.
"You need help," I tell her.
"And you need medical attention," she says before heading to the break room.
I roll my eyes, then lean over the counter and take a look around me. The interior of my greenhouse, Country Colors, isn't huge-this room, with the register, is fully enclosed and full of garden tools, indoor plants, and lawn decorations. The front of the store is lined in garage-style doors that we pull open on summer days like today, letting the breeze blow through.
But the double doors open into the greenhouse proper, where we keep the plants. Not that we have any customers right now, because it's late July, and as the saying goes, the corn should've already been knee-high back on the Fourth. There's still plenty of gardening to be done, of course, but people have their eyes on harvest, not putting new plants in the ground, so we're in a bit of a slow period until things pick up for the pumpkins and mums in September.
This is mine, I remind myself. Country Colors was tiny when I started working here in college. I felt like I'd been left behind by the friends who'd gone away to school while I stayed in place, attending Baileyville Community College. I'd dreamed of being an artist, but BCC didn't even have art classes. I majored in marketing, which my mom insisted was very creative and basically the same thing as painting. She's always known how to put a positive spin on things, my mom.
When I hit my situational-depression-induced rock bottom, it was Honey who encouraged me to start working at the greenhouse. Being outside and helping things grow would be good for me, she said. As usual, she was right, and the job grew (pun intended) into something so much more. Unlike marketing, gardening actually was creative. Planting things and watching them grow was rewarding in a way that little else in my life was, and more than that, it was surprising. Flowers, as it turned out, had minds of their own.
Soon, I was spending all my free time at the greenhouse, and when my boss retired, she asked me if I wanted to take over. And so Country Colors became mine-my sanctuary, my second home, my new dream. Did I still miss art, the feeling of paint under my fingernails? Sure, but now I had dirt under my fingernails. Maybe the dream hadn't changed so much as the medium did.
And in the off-season, I spend my time designing gardens for the people of Baileyville who don't know where to start. When I'm sketching out garden beds and planning where to put trellises, I feel like I've truly ended up where I'm meant to be.
I'm happy with the way things turned out. Really, I am. If only Hank Tillman hadn't showed up to remind me of how different things could've been.
A bloodcurdling scream jolts me out of my contemplation, and I run into the break room, sure Marcia's been hacked to bits by a serial killer who targets greenhouses (which might seem unlikely, but I've watched a lot of true crime documentaries, and at this point, I assume the worst).
"What happened?" I ask as I burst into the room.
Marcia is standing stock-still, Diet Coke dripping off her face. She looks at me, her eyes wide in shock.
"Oh," I say. "I should've warned you not to open it yet. I guess it got kind of shaken up when I dropped it."
She slowly smiles. "This is disgusting."
"You look very sticky," I agree. "Why don't you go home and get cleaned up? I think I can handle it here until close."
"Fantastic," she says. "That shaken up can of Diet Coke was a blessing, not a curse, because tonight's my and Aimee's anniversary."
I swat her on the arm, which was a bad idea because that's also covered in soda. "You should've told me! I would've let you leave early anyway."
She shrugs, and I smile as I think about her wedding to Aimee three years ago. It happened in her backyard under an arbor covered in pink climbing roses, with the reverend from the Baileyville Unitarian Universalist Church marrying them. We all blew bubbles at the end as they got on a tandem bike and rode to their reception in the park.
As I watch Marcia now, humming to herself as she attempts to dry off her shirt with paper towels, a pang of longing hits me. It's not that I want what she has, exactly . . . it's that I want to even know what it's like to have someone waiting at home, someone I can't wait to see. I'm happy with my life-my job, my friends, my home-but it would be nice, wouldn't it, to have another person to share it all with?
It doesn't help my expectations that my family has a history of lifelong, love-filled relationships. My grandparents got married when they were teenagers and stayed married until they died, just days apart. And while my parents waited a little longer before they got married, they've been in love and working together ever since.
Dating isn't exactly easy in a small town, though. Apps have a very different vibe when everyone on them is someone you went to kindergarten with (or, in one case, is your recently divorced kindergarten teacher who wants to "get back out there").
"Okay, I'm headed home," Marcia says, tossing the soda-soaked paper towel in the trash.
"Happy anniversary," I call after her, and she shoots me a quick smile as she hurries out to her car.
I head back up to the register and look out over the shop once more. And although I don't want to, I find myself wondering again what Hank Tillman is doing back in Baileyville.
So what do you think?" I ask, peering over Honey's shoulder as I sit on the examining table at her veterinary clinic.
"In my professional opinion, your toe isn't broken," she says, standing up. "And you're surprisingly big for a tabby cat."
"Please don't mock me in my time of need," I say. "I didn't want to drive all the way to urgent care to be, like, 'Someone please help me! My toe hurts!'"
She laughs, her curls bouncing. "You know what I always say. People and animals aren't that different on the inside." She pauses for a minute. "Except for cows' stomachs."
It's not that I'm using my veterinarian BFF as my primary care physician, but sometimes in the case of an emergency or a late-night medical question, I do take advantage of her expertise. Once, she even gave me stitches when I got overzealous attempting to open a box of new seeds with a knife and sliced my hand open.
"You didn't even tell me," she says, washing her hands. "How did you hurt your toe? Stub it on something?"
I bite my lip. As my designated best friend, Honey Michaels had a front-row seat to the entire Hank Tillman situation. My initial crush. The beginning of our relationship. My intense, earth-shattering feelings. And the way those feelings sort of . . . took over when he left.
And that was all years ago-fifteen years ago, to be exact. It sounds like a song Hank might write. (Don't judge me for listening to his music . . . I try my best to avoid it, but when your ex-boyfriend is a celebrated musician who, you suspect, has written at least a few heartbreaking ballads about the demise of your teenage love affair, it's hard not to check out a song or two.) Something with a title like "Fifteen Years Without You."
Part of me doesn't want to put her through it again and make her deal with the Hank obsession I long ago boxed up and shoved into the dustiest corners of my mind. But the other part . . . well, that's what best friends are for, right? For listening to the embarrassing tale of the time you ran into your ex-boyfriend when you were covered in dirt, and then you dropped soda on your foot?
"Hank's back," I say. "And I ran into him at the store."
"Ran into him as in . . . spoke to him?" she asks delicately, drying her hands and giving me a cautious look.