Authors: Tanya Michaels
I've missed him so much.
She looped her arms around his neck and leaned into him. The rhythm of his heartbeat steadied her, and as she calmed, her gratitude gave way to hypersensitivity. The plane of his chest was well-muscled from time spent in construction, hard beneath his shirt and against her body. He still used the same shampoo he always had, and she inhaled the familiar smell, letting the sense memory take her back. The soothing metronome of his pulse had picked up speed. She wasn't the only one reacting to their embrace.
Nick's breathing grew rougher. “Pam.”
One of the reasons I love writing for Harlequin American Romance is because I'm a firm believer in happy endings. I don't think that happy endings only occur in fiction or that they happen magically. I've watched real people work toward their happy endingsâwhether it's diligently pursuing a dream despite difficult odds or regularly expending the effort to keep marriages and other relationships strong. Some of the people in my life have overcome troubled pasts and addiction to create a happy ending.
I also believe in second chances, so it was very fulfilling to write about Pam Wilson. Despite mistakes Pam made in her past, she's come home to Mimosa, Mississippi, to try to forgive her estranged mother and perhaps, finally, forgive herself. Pam's trip doesn't go at all as she'd planned, though. For one thing, she wasn't expecting to see her high school sweetheart and ex-husband, Nick Shepard. And she certainly wasn't prepared to see Faith Shepard, the daughter Pam gave up twelve years ago.
Are twelve years of regret and resentment too great a divide for three people to bridge? Not if forgiveness, love and genuine effort are involved. Second chances may not be easy, but they can lead to the happiest endings of all.
As part of her long overdue efforts to become a better person, Pamela Jo Wilson tried to find something positive about every situation. Right now the closest thing to a silver lining she could muster was:
The car will probably break down before I get there.
She could hope, anyway.
Or maybe the balding tires would simply melt in the muggy August heat, a painfully plausible scenario.
Even with the windows rolled down, heatstroke seemed imminent. The air-conditioning in her four-door compact had died last year, mere blocks from the used-car lot. She'd known better than to try to get a refund. In that neighborhood, she'd been lucky to get title and registration. But the dilapidated automobile had proven as stubborn as its owner, persevering all the way from California to the delta.
Now, Mississippi sun beat through her windshield with enough intensity to make her feel like an ant on the frying end of a juvenile delinquent's magnifying glass. Though Pam wasn't enjoying the heatâor the periodic stench of baked marshes and paper millsâshe grudgingly appreciated the simple majesty of the azure sky above the rural stretches of untamed land she'd passed.
Perfect, fluffy clouds dotted the horizon, looking more like they were from a painting than real life.
As her car chugged up the incline, a cheery wooden sign came into view. The paint job was so flawlessly fresh that she imagined some civic-minded volunteer in coveralls at the side of the road at dawn each day applying touch-ups with a can of aldermen-approved acrylic. Enjoy Your Stay in Beautiful Mimosa. Perfectly welcoming. Yet every molecule in Pam's body shrieked, “Turn the heck around!”
Giving up swearing was a result of step number four. It had been dam â¦
difficult. But she'd done it, examined her many flaws and resolved to change. With a little bit of persistence and a whole lot of divine intervention, she could do this, too. When she'd left Mimosa almost thirteen years ago, sneaking away in the night to catch a Memphis-bound bus, she'd only imagined
scenario that could bring her back. The long dead fantasy now seemed both laughable and petty.
Having been assured her entire youth that she had “the voice of an angel,” she'd entertained a vindictive daydream of returning asâshe tried not to wince, the memory felt so foolishâa country music superstar. She'd pictured arriving in town, a chart-topping American sweetheart, with just enough time in her packed schedule for a charitable concert and a shrug of indifference toward her mother â¦ who would naturally beg forgiveness for all that had passed between them.
There was only one aspect of reality that even distantly matched her childish dream. Pam was indeed making this return trip to see Mae Danvers Wilson.
No matter what form of address Pam had been required to use aloud as a kid, she'd thought of the woman by her given name rather than Mom. Mae Wilson
possessed all the warmth and maternal instincts of a cottonmouth.
did any better?
At thirty-one, Pam was no longer as judgmental as her teen self; she had a boatload of mistakes to keep her humble. Possibly an entire fleet's worth.
Remembering some of those mistakes, including a disastrous flirtation with motherhood, Pam blinked hard.
Don't go there.
She hadn't driven this far just to come unglued and wrap her car around a white oak.
Within the official limits of Mimosa, the first two buildings were a gas station across the street that looked new and, to her right, Wade's Watering Hole, a dive older than she was. At least it had been considered a disreputable dive over a decade ago. Now the siding and roof gleamed, and parking conditions were several evolutionary steps above the previous mud pit. Of course, one couldn't make judgments based solely on an exterior. Who knew what lurked inside the belly of the beast?
she imagined with a sigh. Cold brew on tap with just enough bitterness to make a person smack her lips. And all her old friends standing in a proud line behind a teak barâJosÃ©, Jim, Jack.
Lord, she missed Jack.
Suddenly thirsty, she gripped the steering wheel and made a sharp turn toward the filling station. She could get herself a soda here. Or water, even healthier. Besides, a bucket of bolts like her car needed fuel just as much as any self-respecting automobile. As she shifted into Park, her lips spasmed in a fleeting smile of apology. She should be more appreciative of the bolt bucket. It was the most valuable thing she owned, next to a blue aluminum token and an old Gibson acoustic guitar she refused to play.
Digging through road-trip debris on the passenger seat, she located a green billed cap. Her blond hair was shorter and darker than the signature fall of corn silk it had once been, but her chin-length shag was still plenty long to be gnarled by humidity and a sixty-mile-per-hour airstream.
She got out of the car, marveling that the sensation of being slapped with damp heat even registered when she was already so hot and sweaty. It was like checking on baking biscuitsâthat first wave of unbearable heat when you opened the oven door didn't keep you from flinching further as you leaned down into it. At the gas pump, she selected the “pay inside” option, then circled her vehicle to grab a twenty-dollar bill from the glove compartment.
Inside the station she was met with the overhead jangle of a cowbell and a nearly orgasmic blast of air-conditioning. If she stayed in town any length of time, maybe she'd apply for a job here just to bask in how cool it was. Her contented sigh reached the ears of the bearded, middle-aged man standing behind the counter a foot away.
He laughed. “Hot out there, isn't it?”
She almost stumbled, nodding in response while keeping her face averted.
Until he'd spoken, she hadn't recognized him, guessing him to be older than he was. She searched her memory for Bucky's real name. Travis. Travis Beem, who'd had the bad luck to enter second grade with pronouncedly crooked front teeth. They'd eventually been corrected, but the nickname followed him all the way to graduation anyway. Change was darn near impossible in sleepy, small towns.
She remembered the day at lunch when he'd asked her to junior prom, his expression sheepish.
“It's not like I expect you to say yesâthe whole school knows you'll go with Nickâbut Tully bet me five bucks I wouldn't have the guts to ask.”
He'd grinned boyishly.
“And I could use the five bucks.”
Of course, the whole school had known she would be at the dance with Nick. She and Nick Shepard had been inseparable back then. If she wanted to, even all these years later, she could easily recall the exact timbre of his laugh, the scent of his cologne lingering on the lettered jacket she'd so often worn. Her stomach clenched and she shoved away the encroaching memories.
Thank God he lives in North Carolina.
Facing her mother would be unpleasant, but Pam had promised herself and her sponsor, Annabel, that she would go through with it. If she'd thought there was a risk of seeing Nick Shepard, however, Pam never would have willingly set foot in the state of Mississippi. And not just for her own self-preservation, but for Nick's as well. Gwendolyn Shepard's accusation echoed in her mind.
Don't you think you've done my son enough damage?
Pam grabbed a bottle of water from the cooler against the far wall and took it to the register. Her stomach growled when she passed a display of candy bars and potato chips, but snacks were a luxury item. Maybe the possibility of food at Mae's house would keep her motivated to finish her journey.
Eyes down, she slid her cash across the counter to Travis. “Put whatever's left after the water on pump two, please.”
“Sure thâ” At his abrupt halt, she reflexively raised her gaze, immediately wishing she hadn't.
His dark eyes widened.
She wasn't naive enough to think she could
be in her hometown without people finding out, people recognizing her, but she hadn't expected it to happen so soon.
Annabel was wrong, I'm not ready.
“Uh, sure thing,” Travis finally said. He glanced out the window to where her heap sat, lowering the property value just by being there.
“Thanks.” She turned to go. With concerted effort, she kept from sprinting like some overage Ole Miss student trying out for the Rebel's track and field team. After all, the one thing she'd learned in the last twelve and a half years was that she couldn't outrun her pastânot at any speed.
Behind her, Travis called, “You have a nice day, Pamela Jo.”
T WASN'T THAT YOU
go home again, Pam thought as her car bounced in the exact same pothole that used to make Nick's vintage Mustang stutter after their dates.
You just have to be crazy or desperate to do it.
In her case, both.
But maybe people with closer-knit families viewed revisiting their roots in a different light.
She turned onto the long and winding gravel driveway. The Wilson mailbox was the same faded, ugly mustard yellow. An enduring copse of trees still blocked the view of the house from the road. However, the weeping willow that had once been at the front of the wild and unruly yard was gone.
Mae's 1980 LTD Crown Victoria was parked in the carport attached to the brick two-bedroom home; the rusted vehicle clearly hadn't been roadworthy in some time. Pam leaned forward, staring through her windshield. The car wasn't the only thing in a state
of disrepair. Instead of curtains or the familiar living room suite visible through the house's grimy windows, there were large flat boards blocking further view. The concrete slab generously called a front porch had cracked, and flower-topped weeds flourished in the fissures. Several roof shingles had fallen atop neglected shrubs, and another hung precariously, as if it were barely holding on and planned to give up the ghost at any minute.
Pam knew the feeling.
She parked the car, sagging back against her seat. Defeat and relief swirled in a bitter cocktail. Mae didn't live here.
No one lived here. It didn't appear as though the house had been sold, what with the Victoria parked in its habitual spot. If not for the deliberately boarded windows, she might have worried Mae had simply slipped and broken her fool neck with no one the wiser. Pam experienced a rare twinge of regret that she and her mother hadn't kept up
sort of communication over the years â¦ Christmas greetings, postcards, hate mail with a return address.
Had her mother moved into the nursing home in Mimosa? Surely not. Although the woman's lifestyle had probably aged her prematurely, she was only in her fifties. Had she perhaps moved in with her pursed-lip, disapproving older sister Aunt Julia? Pam shuddered at what that household would be like.
Poor Uncle Ed.
Pam opened her car door, though she wasn't sure why she felt the need for a closer look at her childhood home. She didn't have a key. Breaking in to the tiny residence would be relatively simple but also relatively pointless. She doubted she'd find more than spiders and field mice. Why waste time here when she should be
tracking down Mae? As much as the thought of talking to her mother ripped at the lining of Pam's stomach, that's what she had come all this way to do.
During a discussion with Annabel about making amends, she'd groused in a moment of self-pity that it was too bad Mae had never joined the program because
was a woman with some amends to make. No-nonsense Annabel had pointed out in her wry, get-a-clue way that hating Mae was damaging Pam far more than her estranged mother.
Pam had decided that if she couldn't get forgiveness from the people she'd hurtâNick's face flashed in her mindâthe next best thing she could do was to forgive the person who'd hurt her. Maybe once Pam made peace with her mother, she could truly move forward. Because right now, Pam's life was as much in shambles as this pitiful little house.
Kicking a rock out of her path, she stepped closer. The room on the corner closest to her was the kitchen. The majority of meals in Pam's childhood had consisted of cereal or microwaved entrÃ©es. Every once in a great while Mae had cooked up something fantastic, mostly to impress new boyfriends when she was sober enough to care. There had been one guy, a truck driver, who'd returned to them again and again for an entire winter. He'd taught Pam how to play guitar. It had been one of the happiest seasons of her life. She had fond memories of strumming in the living room and losing herself in the discovery of new chords.
Bittersweet were the later memories of that same living room when she and Nick, juniors in high school, had lost their virginity together on the couch. They'd been kids, completely inept at what they were doing. Yet how many times in the years since had she wished
she could once again sink into his embrace, those arms made muscular by football practices, and made safe by his love?
According to Nick's motherâfurious that Pam had the gall to phone after all these years, even if it was only to get contact information for an apologyâNick was happily remarried and raising his daughter in North Carolina.
Pam's chest squeezed so tightly she couldn't breathe. Finally a harsh sob grated out, opening up her airway and allowing her to inhale in jagged, hiccupy breaths.
The sound startled a group of grackle in the tree above her. She couldn't help envying their escape as they took to the air. One stubborn bird maintained its perch, narrowing its beady black eyes as if to challenge,
AM HAD BEEN ON THE WAY
to Aunt Julia and Uncle Ed's when her car overheated. As proof that there was indeed a God, the car sputtered to a stop right across the street from Granny K's Kitchen. Pam wondered if Granny K's, a venerable town institution, still served the best chicken-fried steak known to man.