Welcome to Book One in the Blessings, Georgia series of Southern contemporary romance from New York Times and USA Today bestselling author Sharon Sala. With the support of her handsome, unassuming friend Mike Dalton, LilyAnne Bronte is finally ready to put the past in the past.
It's never too late
Mike Dalton has secretly loved LilyAnn Bronte since they were all children together in the small town of Blessings, Georgia. But one fateful day T.J. Lachlan roars into town and starts showering LilyAnn with his charm, and Mike feels his dream of them being more than friends slipping away.
To find the love you missed
LilyAnn, as anyone in Blessings will tell you, let herself go after her fiancée was killed in Iraq. The attention of the handsome new guy shocks her into a revelation: she's ready to live again, and maybe the best is yet to come. The thing is, everybody in Blessings is sure it's Mike and LilyAnn who belong together-and they're willing to do whatever it takes to make LilyAnn realize the love of her life has been by her side all along.
(Originally published as The Curl Up and Dye.)
Praise for I'll Stand By You:
"An amazing story by a true storyteller...Sala once again shows why she is a master of the romance genre." -RT Book Reviews, 4 ½ stars
"Small-town romance with humor and heart and a heaping pinch of reality." -The Romance Dish
"A heartfelt and emotional love story...incredibly uplifting and gratifying." -Book Reviews and More by Kathy
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
Chapter 1Blessings, Georgia November LilyAnn Bronte already knew how fast life could change. Her past was a road map to prove it. But on this particular Friday in the first week of November, she experienced one of those déjà vu moments as the Good Lord hit Rewind on the story that was her life. She was sweeping the front sidewalk of Phillips' Pharmacy, where she worked, when she heard the low, sexy rumble of a hot-rod engine. The skin crawled on the back of her neck as a shiny black pickup truck went rumbling down Main Street. Before she could see the driver, sunlight hit the windshield, reflecting directly into her eyes. At the same time she went blind, she heard him rack the pipes on the muffler, just like Randy Joe used to do when he picked her up for their Saturday night dates. But that was a long time ago, before he went away to war in Afghanistan and got himself killed. She had no idea who was driving this truck, and when she looked again, it was turning the corner at the far end of the street and then it was out of sight. For LilyAnn, seeing that truck and hearing the pipes rattle felt like a sign. Was it the universe telling her she was living in the past? Because if it was, she already knew that. Or was it Randy Joe sending her a message, and if it was, what was he trying to say? As she resumed sweeping, a car drove up and parked in front of Dalton's Fitness Center next door. It was Rachel Goodhope, who ran the local bed-and-breakfast in Blessings. She got out wearing her workout clothes and waved at Lily as she ran inside. Lily eyed the woman's big boobs and toned body and began sweeping in earnest. Rachel looked good for a woman in her late forties, and everyone knew she liked to stay fit. She was on her third husband, and there was talk he might be getting the boot before long. No one could actually put their finger on what the problem was with Rachel and her marriages. Some said it had to do with her choice of men, while others hinted that Rachel would be a hard woman to please. Still, she obviously saw the need to stay fit in case she was ever in the market for husband number four. Lily was of the opinion that any woman with a backbone and the nerve to speak her mind should be difficult to please. Her great-great-grandma, Delia Bronte, had put a musket ball through a Yankee captain's hat during the War of Northern Aggression because he had not taken it off his head when he forced his way into her house. Lily liked to think she had a little bit of that in her, as well. Just thinking about that Yankee intruder and her great-great-grandma's gumption made her push the broom a little harder across the sidewalk. But seeing that truck had set her to thinking about the past, and before she knew it, she was knee-deep in memories long since gone. * * * LilyAnn had been a constant source of pride for her parents through all her growing-up years. When she reached high school, she lost her braces and grew boobs, hitting her stride with a bang. She became an honor student, a cheerleader, and was voted prettiest and friendliest every year by her class. When she was chosen head cheerleader her senior year, Randy Joe Bentonfield, the star quarterback, also chose her for his steady girl. She was over the moon, and her parents rejoiced in the moments in which she excelled. As the year progressed, she marked another milestone by being named homecoming queen, then another when the announcement was made that she would be the valedictorian of her high school graduating class-two more notches in a high school career on a fast track to success. But it wasn't until she won the title of the Peachy-Keen Queen that her parents broke out in full braggadocio. Lily felt as if her life could not get any better. But as the old saying goes, once you've reached the top, the only place to go is downhill. On the morning of September 11, 2001, two planes flew into the World Trade Center in New York City and another one into the Pentagon. When the fourth one was taken down by the plane's passengers, crashing into a cornfield killing all on board, the world suddenly stopped turning on LilyAnn's axis. It was no longer about her. National outrage followed the shock as young men and women from all over the country began enlisting in the army, including a lot of the young men in Blessings. Randy Joe was one of the first to sign up. She cried herself silly, after which they made love. Randy Joe was so full of himself about being a man going away to war that he gave her a promise ring before he went away to boot camp. He came back long enough to have his picture taken in his uniform and then he shipped out, returning a month later in a flag-draped casket. People said it had been a good thing he'd had that picture taken beforehand because he'd come back to Blessings in pieces, no longer fit for viewing. His death devastated Lily, but at the same time, it thrust her back into the spotlight. Now she had a new status-the almost fiancée of Blessings' first war casualty. She dropped out of college that year and wore black, which went really well with her long blond hair. She visited his grave site every day for a year, and people said what a faithful young woman she was, grieving for her lost love in such a fashion. When a new semester of college rolled around, she didn't go back. She was still paying visits to the cemetery, although as time between visits lengthened to weekly, then monthly, people still commented that LilyAnn was such a sweet thing to remember her dearly departed in such faithful ways. And because she'd lost her way and didn't know how to move past her first love or the success of her prior milestones, she took the mantle of bereavement to a whole new level. One year turned into two and then three, and going to college was something other people did as everything became a blur. Her daddy had a heart attack and died, which turned her mama into a widow, and Lily barely remembered her dreams for the future and had forgotten how to get there. The worst were the times when she could no longer bring Randy Joe's face to mind. At that point, the guilt would set her to eating a whole pint of chocolate-chip ice cream, just because it was his favorite treat. It didn't revive her memory or renew her desire to move on, but it did pack on the pounds. The years came and went without notice until Lily was eleven years lost. Now she only visited his grave when she thought about it and had unwittingly masked her emotions with a bulwark of extra weight. She had no status in Blessings beyond being one of two clerks at Phillips' Pharmacy and the daughter of Grace Bronte, the widow who married a man twelve years her junior whom she met on an online dating site and proved all her critics wrong by living happily ever after in Miami, Florida. Between the loss of Randy Joe and the abdication of her only living parent, LilyAnn had lost her way. She was stuck in a rut: too afraid to step out for fear of getting too close to someone and getting left behind all over again. * * * At least, that's how Lily had felt, until today when the sun got in her eyes and she'd heard the rattle of those pipes. She felt off-center, like she was trying to balance on one leg, and became convinced that truck was an omen of great change. As soon as she finished sweeping, she went inside and began her day. Today was Friday, which meant she would get her hair done during her lunch hour. But she had to wait for Mitchell Avery, the other pharmacy clerk, and couldn't leave until he arrived. When Mitchell finally clocked in less than five minutes under the wire, she grabbed her jacket, turned the key to the cash register over to Mitchell, and headed out the door. The sun was directly overhead, and the morning breeze had quickened to a stiff wind. She shivered, wishing she had worn a heavier jacket. She caught a glimpse of herself in the plate glass windows of Dalton's Fitness Center and then quickly looked away. It was always a shock to see what she looked like now. She didn't feel like a big girl, but she was one. She quickened her step, suddenly anxious to get off the street, out of sight and judgment. When she reached The Curl Up and Dye, she was relieved. This was a safe place, a place where people came to get pretty. If only there was a place where people could go to get their lives back, she'd be the first standing in line. The bell over the door jingled as she walked inside. The owner, Ruby Dye, who everyone called Sister, was already smiling, which prompted Lily to smile back. "Hey, LilyAnn. How's it going, honey? Boy, that wind is sharp today, isn't it?" Lily nodded as she hung up her jacket. "Yes, it's getting cold. I sure hate to see winter coming." "I kind of like it," Ruby said. "The short days and long nights give me time to den up with a good book and some popcorn, or watch old movies on the cable channel." The last thing Lily needed was more time to eat through the loneliness. "I guess," she said, as she sat down at the shampoo station. As soon as Ruby put the cape around her neck, Lily leaned her head back in the sink and closed her eyes. Getting her long blond hair washed by someone else was pure luxury. When Ruby began scrubbing and massaging Lily's scalp, the tension in her shoulders began to ease. By the time they were through and she was back in the stylist chair, Lily was two shades shy of having been put into a trance. Ruby eyed the young woman, watching the way Lily looked everywhere but in the mirror at herself. If only there was a way to get her out of the rut she was in. Ruby's eyes narrowed thoughtfully as she combed some styling gel into Lily's wet hair and then reached for the blow-dryer. "I don't suppose you're interested in a new hairstyle?" Ruby asked. Lily frowned. "I wouldn't know what to do with it." "No matter. One of these days we'll figure something out," Ruby said. Her thumb was on the Power button when they all heard the sound of a hot rod passing by. Whatever the driver had done to that engine, it rumbled like a stereo with the bass set on high. Lily's eyes widened. It had to be the driver with the truck like Randy Joe's. She swiveled her chair around so fast to get a look that Ruby got the round brush tangled up in her hair. "I'm sorry. Did that pull?" Ruby asked, as she began trying to unwind it. Lily was oblivious. "No, no, it didn't hurt," she muttered, still craning her neck to see the driver. And then to everyone's surprise, the truck pulled up to the curb in front of the salon and parked, the driver racking the pipes one last time before killing the engine. Vesta and Vera Conklin, the twin fortysomething hairstylists, had been eating their lunch in the break room and came out to see what the noise was all about. Mabel Jean Doolittle was the manicurist, a little blond with a scar on her forehead from having gone through the windshield of her boyfriend's car. She called it her reminder to never date anyone that stupid again. She was finishing off a polish for Willa Dean Miller, who ran the local travel agency, and all the women in the shop turned to look as the driver walked in. He was a thirtysomething hunk in a tight, long-sleeved T-shirt tucked into a pair of fitted Wrangler jeans. He had wide shoulders, long legs, slim hips, and a face bordering on cute rather than handsome, but he was working with what he had just fine. He immediately swept the dove-gray Stetson from his head, revealing dark wavy hair, and smiled at the room like a star granting an audience to his fans. Even though Vesta had yet to meet a man worth her time, she wasn't yet dead and buried. She handed Vera her bowl of salad and scooted toward the counter. "Welcome to The Curl Up and Dye. Can I help you?" she asked. "I sure hope so, darlin'. My name is T. J. Lachlan and I'm new in town. I inherited the old Bissler house from my great-uncle Gene and am staying there while I'm fixing it up to sell. I came in to get a haircut and learned the local barber is in the hospital. When I saw your Walk-Ins Welcome sign, I wondered if I might trouble one of you fine ladies for a trim." "Sure, I have time," Vesta said. Vera glared at her sister, then smirked. "No you don't, Vesta. Sue Beamon is due any minute." She set the bowls with their food back in the break room and sauntered to the front of the store and introduced herself. "Welcome to Blessings, Mr. Lachlan. My name is Vera, and I'd be happy to cut your hair." "Y'all can call me T. J., and isn't this something. Excuse me for saying this, but twins are truly a man's finest fancy," he said, and then flashed them both a wide grin. They didn't know whether to be insulted or impressed by the sexual inference, and Ruby could see it was about to get out of hand. "Vesta, there comes Sue, so Vera can pick up the walk-in. Welcome to Blessings, T. J. Take a seat and we'll get you fixed right up." She arched an eyebrow at the twins as a reminder that this was a place of business, then turned Lily's chair around and the blow-dryer back on. Because LilyAnn's hair was so long, it always took a while to dry. She began working the round vent brush through the lengths while keeping an eye on the clock. Lily only had a limited amount of time, and Ruby didn't want to make her late. It wasn't until she was about through that she realized Lily was staring at the stranger as if she'd seen a ghost. Ruby paused. "Hey. Are you okay?" she whispered. Lily blinked, and when she met Ruby's gaze in the mirror, her eyes were filled with tears. "I'm fine, Sister. He just reminded me of someone." Then she shook her head and looked away. Ruby's eyes narrowed. This was the first time she could remember the woman even showing an interest in another man. Even if it was a negative interest, it was better than nothing. "How about we do something a little different with your hair? Maybe pull the sides away from your face and fasten them up here at the crown...or maybe at the nape of your neck? Hmm? What do you think?" She pulled the sides back and held them up at the crown to show Lily what she was talking about. Lily frowned. Pulling her hair away from her face like that only emphasized her double chin. "I don't know. I guess," she muttered. "Good," Ruby said. "A little change never hurt anyone." With an eye still on the clock, she quickly finished Lily's new look. "There you go. Look how pretty you look like this, and just in time to get back to work before Mr. Phillips can complain." Lily frowned again. She felt naked-like she'd revealed too much of herself. She didn't much like it, but it was too late to change it. She slipped into her jacket and grabbed her purse before scuttling toward the front like a crab going sideways across a beach. Her head was down and her shoulders slumped, operating on the theory that if she couldn't see the hunk, then he couldn't see her. "Same time next week," she said, as she handed Ruby her money and bolted out the door like the place had just caught on fire. But what had caught fire was LilyAnn's lust. She hadn't felt stirrings in her belly like that since the last time she'd seen Randy Joe naked. Only then she'd been just as naked and proud of her body, not like now. Not once in the last eleven years had she given her changing shape much thought. It had never been an issue to her existence until today. The stranger was hot like Randy Joe and drove a fine fancy truck, just like Randy Joe. And once upon a time he would have looked at LilyAnn and wanted her...just like Randy Joe. But that man sitting in Vera's styling chair would never give her a second look. So the question was...what, if anything, was she going to do about this? She sailed past the fitness center without looking at her reflection and hurried into the pharmacy, anxious to get something else on her mind besides wondering what T. J. Lachlan looked like naked. She'd heard some men looked good in their clothes but not so much without them, and knew it had to do with the size of their stuff. While she wasn't one to judge a person on looks, she was seriously giving some thought to "what if?" Her boss, Mr. Phillips, saw her coming in and waved her over. "Hey, Lily, we just got in a new shipment. As soon as you can, come back to the pharmacy. You can check them against the invoice for me." "Sure thing," she said, and stowed her purse and jacket, then got to work. By the time five o'clock rolled around, she was exhausted in mind and body. She hadn't given her life this much thought since the day after Randy Joe's funeral. "I'm leaving now," she said. "Have a good evening, LilyAnn," Mitchell said, and waved good-bye. Lily waved. "You too, Mitchell." The air was even colder now than it had been at noon. She pulled the collar of her jacket up around her neck, ducked her head into the wind, and started home. Even though it was only ten blocks from here, she was wishing she'd driven. She was almost at the corner when someone honked, then shouted out her name. "Hey, LilyAnn!" She paused. It was Mike, her next-door neighbor, who'd braked out on the street. "Want a ride, honey?" She nodded and ran out into the street, circled the back end of his car, and got in. "Thanks. It sure got cold today, didn't it?" Mike Dalton nodded, but he was eyeing her new hairstyle. "I like your hair pulled back like that." She blinked. "Oh, thanks. I'd forgotten all about it. It was Sister Dye's idea." "Well, it was a good one," Mike said. "Were you busy today?" "Yes, were you?" He nodded. "Yeah, when it gets closer to the holidays, people always come in more often. I guess they want to lose a little extra because of the holiday food and parties." "Right," Lily muttered, and pulled her jacket a little closer around her stomach. Mike sighed as he accelerated. He wanted to grab LilyAnn and shake her. She talked to him, but she never looked at him. How could one woman be so oblivious? He'd loved her since the tenth grade and every day of his life since, but she'd never seen him like that. When Randy Joe Bentonfield finally got to first base with her in high school, every boy knew it just from the smirk he wore the next day. And when Randy Joe finally hit a home run, Mike seriously considered beating the hell out of him just to wipe that smile off his face. As it turned out, he didn't have to. An IED in a foreign land wiped Randy Joe straight off the earth. Back then, Mike was sorry as he could be that Randy Joe was dead, but he wasn't going to lie and say he wasn't sorry she was free again. Only it had done him no good. He'd spent the last eleven years living next door to the woman of his heart, hoping one day she would really look at him and knowing if she did, he wouldn't have to say a thing. It would be impossible for her to miss the love on his face. He stopped for a red light. "Are you doing anything special tonight?" She glanced at Mike. "No, are you?" "It's all-you-can-eat shrimp night at Granny's Country Kitchen. I don't have any leftovers. Wanna go eat with me?" She shrugged. "I guess. But I need to shower and change clothes first." "Me too," Mike said. He would have loved a little more enthusiasm, but he'd take what he could get. "Wear something warm, for sure." "Yeah, for sure," she muttered, and then saw Willa Dean waving at them as she locked up the travel agency for the night. She smiled and waved back. "Ever want to travel?" Mike asked. "Hmm? What? Oh, I don't know. Once I thought I would like to see Jamaica, but I never thought much about it since." "Your mom is in Florida. Why don't you ever go see her?" LilyAnn shrugged. "I don't much like her husband, and he doesn't much like me." Mike frowned. "How do you know he doesn't like you?" "Last time they came to visit, he made the comment that I was nothing like my mother. It felt like a dig." Mike's face flushed a dark, angry red. "You never said anything before." "So? What could you do about it?" "I could have punched his damn face," Mike muttered. Lily gasped. "Well, of course you could not. That's Mama's husband." "Yes, and you're her daughter, and he owes you some respect." She sighed. "I know, but don't ever say anything to her, okay? She's happy. I don't want to spoil that." The light turned green. Mike drove through the intersection, still fuming. By the time they got home, it had started to rain. "Yucky weather," Mike said. "Are you still okay with going out?" "Sure. I won't melt." He laughed. "You're the best. You've got an hour to make yourself gorgeous, and then I'll be knocking on your door, okay?" She rolled her eyes as she opened the car door. "It would take longer than an hour to make that happen." Mike grabbed her by the wrist, stopping her exit. "Don't talk like that, okay?" She frowned. "Like what?" "Like putting yourself down. You're beautiful, LilyAnn." "Not anymore," she said. "I'll be ready when you are." She got out and ran toward the house. As soon as she unlocked the door, she waved and went inside. Mike just sat there. What the hell kind of a spell had Randy Joe put on her that she'd willingly died with him? What was it going to take to dig her out of that grave? He backed up, pulled into his own driveway, and got out. The cold rain was a slap-in-the-face wake-up call to run, but he didn't. He was so pissed at her and at himself for being such a hopeless romantic. He needed to cool off, and this was as good a way as any. He thought about putting up a sign in his front yard to get her attention but was afraid it would be ill-received. There wasn't anything wrong with a gentle nudge, but he was afraid that an "I love LilyAnn" sign would be more like a slap in the face, and he wouldn't risk rejection. Whatever. He stomped into his house, shedding clothes as he went. By the time he got to the bathroom, he was carrying an armload of wet clothes and was naked as the day he'd been born. He caught a glimpse of himself in the mirror and stopped for a judgmental scan, ticking off the pros and cons. Good six-pack, check. Lean muscle mass, firm body, check. Brown hair, but in need of a haircut, check. Green eyes, still in pissed-off mode, check. And then there was his face. In need of a shave, but otherwise okay. His features were even. His nose wasn't too big or too small. Except for the bump on the bridge from being broken twice, it was fine. He had what his mama had called a stubborn chin, which probably explained why he hadn't quit on LilyAnn. He was just stubborn enough to believe that if he waited long enough, she would finally love him. He dumped the wet clothes on the bathroom tile, grabbed the razor and shaving cream, and got down to business.