Welcome Home, Meri Prescott!
Roll out the red carpetMeri's back in town! But how could the jean-clad beauty fishing for crawdads be Stone Gap's every-blond-hair-in-place princess? It seems the former Miss North Carolina has had it with pageants and perfection. Meri's home to care for her ailing grandpa and realize her dream of becoming a photographer. If she could just ignore her treacherous heart when she gets her first gander at her gorgeous, all-grown-up first love
Meri was sweet fifteen when Jack Barlow gave her her first kissonly to break up with her a year later and ship out to war. The soldier who comes home has changed, just like Meri. Doesn't Jack know two can heal better than one? That it's what is inside that counts? And Meri's got so much to give to that special Barlow man.
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
Five years ago, Meri Prescott left Stone Gap, North Carolina, with a fire in her belly and a promise that if she ever came back, she'd be doing it in style. She'd imagined riding down Main Street in the back of a limo while the blue-haired ladies at Sadie's Clip 'n' Curl gawked and the fishermen who parked their butts and their one-that-got-away stories on the bench in front of the Comeback Bar shook their heads and muttered about the good old days when a two-tone Chevy was fancy enough for getting around town.
Meri had imagined a homecoming that would tell everyone in this nowhere town that she had made it, become more than anyone imagined. That she was more than just a pretty face, someone who worried about her manicure but not her grade point average. A girl, really, who had thought New York City would be the cure for all that ailed her, and that in that giant city she had finally found the person she was meant to be, not one who had been manufactured like a store mannequin.
Okay, so she'd been blinded by the stars in her eyes. The Meri Prescott who had left Stone Gap with a tiara and a plan was not the Meri Prescott who was returning. Not by a long shot. And she wasn't so sure Stone Gap was ready to accept the woman she had become.
Frankly, she didn't give a damn either way. She was here for Grandpa Ray, for as long as he needed her. To help him, and in the process help herself.
Her fingers drifted to her cheek, to the long, curved scar that had yet to fade, a constant memory of the division between her past and her present. There were nights when she woke up in a cold sweat, reliving the attack outside her crappy outer-borough apartment. She'd tried, tried so hard to stay in New York, to keep up with her photography job, but the city had changed for her, and the buildings she used to love had become like prison walls.
She needed air and space and warm sun on her face. Then maybe she'd be able to conquer the demons that haunted her nights and shadowed her days. Maybe then she'd be able to hold a camera again and see something through the lens besides the face of her attacker.
At the stop sign holding court in the intersection of Main Street and Honeysuckle Lane, her ten-year-old Toyota let out a smoky cough. The car's AC had stopped working somewhere back in Baltimore, and exhaust curled in through the open windows, a sickly sweet stench that made it seem like she hadn't journeyed very far from the congested streets of Brooklyn.
All it took to remind her that she was back in the small-town South was a glance out the window, at the wide verandas fronting the pastel Colonials lining Main Street, yielding after Honeysuckle Lane to quaint storefronts with happy flags and bright awnings, sporting first names as though they were residents, too. Joe's Barber Shop. Ernie's Hardware & Sundries. Betty's Bakery. And then one that made her slow, almost stop.
One glimpse of the blue building, fronted by a hand-painted sign fashioned out of an old tractor-trailer tire, and Meri was fifteen again and getting her first clumsy kiss from Jack Barlowand a year later, going through her first clumsy breakup. She remembered the smell of the motor oil, the dark spreading stain of it in the center of the garage floor, and most of all, Jack's blue eyes, sad and serious, as he told her they were over. That he wanted more than a beauty-queen girlfriend, he wanted someone grounded, real. The words had stung and stayed with her long after he'd shipped out for the Middle East a week later. She'd headed in the opposite direction, to the Miss Teen America beauty pageant, and vowed to forget Jack Barlow ever existed.
A horn honked. Meri jerked her attention back to the road, and a moment later, Gator's Garage was behind her. She took a right on Maple, a left on Elm, then turned again on Cherrystone and faced the house she had left in her rearview mirror five years ago.
It sat at the end of the cul-de-sac like a presiding queen, two stories of white clapboard with porches that stretched from end to end on both stories. The driveway flared out in pale bricks, laid before the Civil War and still flanked by twin willows draped with Spanish moss. It could have been 1840 instead of the twenty-first century, and in some areas of life inside that house, the world still ran as if Abraham Lincoln reigned in the White House.
The Toyota coughed again, jerked like an asthmatic, then sputtered to a stop in front of the house. Great.
Meri let out a long breath, but it did little to ease the tension in her neck, the tight band between her shoulders. With the car engine quiet and dead now, the North Carolina heat began to bake her in place.
The urge to turn around, to flee, to avoid what was coming, surged through her. Instead, she pulled out the keys and clasped them in her hand. The hard metal indented her palm with a dose of reality. She wasn't running back to New York, not today, maybe not for a long while.
She had good reason to be here, one frail eighty-four-year-old reason. Grandpa Ray trumped everything else going on in her life.
Meri's mother came out onto the front porch and crossed her arms over her chest. Meri could have spotted the look of disapproval and disappointment on Anna Lee Prescott's face from the space station. She knew that look, knew it far too well.
Still, the masochistic hope that things might have changed rose in her chest and burned for a brief second. No, given the look on her mother's face, there was little chance Anna Lee had done a one-eighty in the last five years. The best Meri could hope for was a forty-five-degree turn in the direction of common sense.
Meri ran a quick comb through her wind-blown hair, then headed up the sloping driveway and down the brick path leading to the front porch. Beside her, the manicured lawn unfurled like a lush green carpet, flanked by precisely pruned rosebushes and strategically placed annuals. A wooden swing hung from a long thick oak tree branch, drifting slightly in the breeze. It could have all been a spread in a magazineand had been, twice, in Southern Living and Architectural Digest.
Her three-inch heel caught in the space between the pavers and Meri cursed her footwear choice. For hundreds of miles, she'd told herself she no longer cared what her mother thought.
Yeah, right. If that was so, then why had she exchanged her flip-flops for designer heels that pinched her toes and made her calves ache? Why had she spent twenty minutes smoothing the frizz out of her hair in the bathroom at a roadside truck stop?
Did I really think wearing heels and straightening my hair would make this easier?
Yeah, she had. Way to go, lying to herself.
When Meri reached the first porch step, an automatic smile curved across her face, as if she were stepping onto a stage instead of into her childhood home. All that practice had been good for something, it seemed. She could still prance around in high heels and look happier than a bird in the sky. "Hi, Momma."
"Why, as I live and breathe," Anna Lee said, emerging from the door frame to grasp Meri's hand with both of her own. "My prodigal daughter has returned."
Meri leaned in and pressed a kiss to her mother's cheek. She caught the faint scent of floral perfume, mingled with the oversweet fragrance of hair spray and the mild notes of the powder dusting her flawless makeup. Everything about Anna Lee was as manicured and perfect as the lawn. Tawny hair sprayed into a submissive bob, white cotton shirt and navy shorts pressed into straight lines, and subdued, pristine makeup.
Anna Lee drew back and cupped Meri's cheeks in her soft palms. "You look so worn-out, honey. Are you sleeping well? Eating right?" Her thumb skipped over the scar and she averted her eyes, as if pretending she hadn't seen the red line would make the whole horrible thing disappear. "Why don't you come in, splash some cold water on your face and get a little makeup on? You'll feel right as rain."
Irritation bubbled inside Meri, but she widened her smile and kept her lips together so she wouldn't say something she'd regret. "It was a long drive, Momma. That's all."
Anna Lee's thumb traced a light touch over the scar running down the left side of Meri's face. "Is it ?"
Meri captured her mother's hand and drew it down. "I'm fine, Momma. Really."
Her mother looked as though she wanted to disagree, but instead she nodded and pasted on a mirror smile to Meri's. "Let's get out of this heat. I swear, I'm about ready to melt into a puddle, just stepping onto the veranda."
Anna Lee drew out the syllables in true Southern belle tones, whispers tacked on the end of her consonants. Meri always had liked the way her mother talked, in a sort of hushed song that drew people in, captivated them.
And had captivated two husbands, both deceased now, God bless their souls, leaving Anna Lee a very wealthy woman. She had returned to her Prescott roots, the more respected name of her first husband, as if the second husband had never existed, a mistake she had erased.
Although Jeremy Prescott had come from the other side of town, he'd shed his past as if shaking mud off his boots and managed to put himself through school and make millions in investment banking before a heart attack took him down at the age of fifty. Meri had never understood why her father hadn't wanted to be like his simple, homespun familythe very people Meri loved the most. Grandpa Ray was one of the most real people Meri had ever known, living in his cabin by the lake, a planet away from the son and daughter-in-law who had made their life in this over-manicured mansion.
Meri let her mother hustle her in and down the polished hall, because it was easier than trying to stop the tidal wave of Anna Lee. They took a left and entered the rarely used formal sitting room, where cushions held their shape and dust motes held their breath.
In five seconds, Meri realized why her mother had led her here. The room glistened with gold and silver, shining on glass shelves mounted against two walls. A rainbow of ribbons hung from a custom-made display rack, while a thousand rhinestones sparkled their way through the rows and rows of crowns.
Meri sat on the stiff white love seat, its curved lion's feet pairing alongside her nude pumps. Her mother perched on the rose-colored armchair across the room, divided from her daughter by an oval mahogany coffee table and an Aubusson carpet that had cost more than a small car. The antique grandfather clock in the corner ticked away the moments with a beat of heavy, unspoken expectations.
Meri shifted in her seat. God, it was like being in a mausoleum. "Momma, wouldn't we be more comfortable on the back porch?"
Her mother waved off that suggestion. "There are men out there."
She said the word men as if referring to a plague of locusts. Anna Lee never had liked to be around those who performed manual labor. Maybe she was worried they might put a broom or a hammer in her hands.
"They are building a gazebo," Anna Lee went on. "You know me, always changing this, fixing that."
"Making everything perfect, especially your daughter." The words sprang from Meri's lips like a cobra waiting to strike. And she'd tried so hard to be polite and dutiful. That had lasted, oh, five seconds.
Anna Lee's brows furrowed. "All I ever wanted was for you to be all you could be. You were always such a beautiful girl, so capable of"
"I am not here to talk about might-have-beens, Momma. I'm no longer a beauty queen."
"You will always be a beauty queen. That's something no one can take from you. Why, look at all these crowns." Anna Lee gestured toward the sparkling tiaras, the ribbons, the trophies, all reminders of a different time, a different Meri. "They prove you are the most beautiful girl in all the world."
Meri sighed. "I'm not that person anymore, Momma."
Anna Lee went on, as if she hadn't heard Meri speak. "You could have been Miss America, if you had " She pursed her lips. "Well, that's neither here nor there."
They'd had this argument a thousand times over the years. Some days Meri felt like she was arguing with herself, for all Anna Lee heard. "Momma, please. Let's not get into that again."
Anna Lee reached a hand toward her daughter's face, toward the pale red scar that arced down Meri's cheek like an angry crescent moon. "If you'd just let me take you to Doc Archer, he could fix you up and make you perfect again."
"Don't start, Momma. Just don't start."
Anna Lee let out a long sigh. "Well, you think about it."
Meri had thought about it almost every day for the past three months, since the attack that had left her with the scar, changed in a thousand ways. But her mother still saw her as the same girl who had won a hundred beauty pageants, the one who had been destined for Miss America before she ran out of town and ditched everything and everyone.
She should have stayed in the car, kept driving, and avoided this senseless argument. When was she going to accept that her mother was never going to change?
Meri got to her feet and summoned up a little more patience. If she could have avoided stopping here, she would have, but after talking to Grandpa Ray a couple days ago, she'd been hell-bent on getting home and seeing him again. Which meant, for now, dealing with her mother. "Can I please get the key to the cottage so I can get settled in?"
Her mother waved behind her. "It's in the same place as always. Though I don't understand why you'd insist on staying in that shack when Geraldine made up the bed in your old room."
Meri didn't answer that. She crossed to the antique rolltop desk, pulled out one of the tiny drawers on the right-hand side and retrieved an old skeleton key. When she was a little girl, her daddy would use the guest cottage on the weekends for fishingand, Meri suspected, time away from Momma and her endless list of expectations. A few times, Daddy had taken Meri along. She'd reveled in those dayswhen she could get muddy and messy, with no one around to straighten her hair or fuss over her meal choices.
As soon as Meri curled her palm around the heavy key, she was sixteen again in her mind, on a starlit night at Stone Gap Lake. She'd snuck down to the cottage with Jack, nervous and excited and completely infatuated. She'd been too foolish, too eager to prove she was mature and ready for what Jack wanted. In the end, she'd sat alone on the bank of the lake, confused and heartbroken.
Her cousin Eli had found her and driven her home, and helped her sneak up the rose trellis to her room before her mother found out she was gone.
God, how could he be gone? Just being here, it seemed as if her cousin, with his giant personality, was still alive, that she'd see him at Sunday church or hanging out in the drive-through of the Quickie Burger. He was her best friend, one of the few people who could tease her out of a bad mood or a bad day, and more like a brother than a cousin. But in her head she could still hear that heartbreaking call from her aunt last year, telling Meri he was gone. The realization hit her anew with a sharp ache.
Meri drew in a breath, then tucked the key in her pocket and turned back to her mother. All Meri wanted to do was go see her grandfather, the most sane person on her father's side of the family. "Have you seen Grandpa Ray?"
"I have had a number of commitments. Something I'm not sure you remember, Meredith Lee."
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
It was a great romantic story & loved the relationship between Jack & Meri. These are characters that I could relate to.
Great modern romance, very relatable and down to earth humor but also moments that you probably need a box of tissues handy! The title of this book may have you thinking you know how the story will go but once you dive in, there is much more under the surface. That's what I love about romances written by Shirley Jump-- she has her stuff down that despite it being released by a well-known publishing house, one can see it being a stand-alone novel. Being a novice photographer myself, I was able to connect with Meri and also with Jack Barlow who was trying to deal with the guilt he had over his best friend's untimely death overseas in the armed services.