ow, that’s a heart attack waiting to happen.” Becca Stark eyed the overflowing plate before her, all piled high with eggs and grits and bacon. Dear Lord, bacon. The smell of the guilty meat hit her nostrils, and though she’d given the stuff up thanks to her genetic predisposition to have the cholesterol of a person who ate cheeseburgers with a side of cheeseburgers, her stomach growled.
Why couldn’t broccoli
like bacon? Or better, just make bacon healthy. Or simply make a pill that kept your cholesterol in check, and then Becca rolled her eyes at herself. “They have a pill, idiot.”
“Who you calling an idiot? And what pill?” Sage Blackson, the cook, called from inside the kitchen of the diner. Like always, a navy bandanna covered his gray head, and Becca knew if the health inspectors allowed it, he’d have a cigarette dangling from his lips, too.
Come to think of it, she should thank those inspectors the next time they were in town, if only for the lawsuit they’d saved the diner, in turn saving Becca’s job.
“Nothing,” Becca finally replied, her eyes back on the bacon, her stomach continuing its plea. Forget what was healthy or her cholesterol, she was starving!
Taking a peek at Sage through the diner’s serve window to make sure the cook wasn’t watching, she reached for the extra plate of bacon he’d set to the side for the next round of orders. But before her fingers could lock around a delicious strip, Sage popped her hand and pointed his spatula at her.
“You remember what the doctor said.”
Pouting, Becca crossed her arms. “It’s not fair; my cholesterol isn’t that high. And how do
doctor said? I haven’t eaten yet today, and I took over the morning shift so Caroline could go to her chiropractor.”
She scanned the overcrowded diner. The walls were yellow on three sides, red on the fourth. The tables and booths were all red, puffy plastic and metal trim. The floor was black and white alternating tile. Vintage posters hung around the room. It had a fifties vibe without trying too hard—very much like Sage himself. And though he refused to admit that he owned the diner, Becca knew he did.
Everyone in town came there or to Patty’s for breakfast, so the place was always packed, the food always delicious—though decidedly fattening—which had added more than a few inches to Becca’s waist and thighs over the years.
Still ... she eyed the bacon again.
“You know he’s not going to give you any, so you might as well stop drooling.” Willow, the other waitress on duty, settled in beside Becca and leaned against the counter. “That Caroline’s got herself in a pickle for sure. You know why she landed at the chiropractor’s office, don’t you?”
Becca looked around like she’d entered a completely different conversation. Then she remembered this was Triple Run, Kentucky, population 2,587, and home to at least that many conversations, all happening at the same time.
“Um, no, I have no idea why she went to the chiropractor, nor do I care. Nor should you. Or you.” Becca pointed at Sage because while Willow was a gossip, she had nothing on Sage.
Sage ignored her. “Don’t just stand there, woman, hurry up and tell us.”
Becca rolled her eyes, but there was no escaping this now.
Willow leaned in conspiratorially. “’Cause she threw out her back doing the twisted taco with Mayor Phillips.” She covered her mouth as she giggled and glanced around before continuing her story. “Rumor says they started shacking up a month ago. Even did it in the town hall, right in the mayor’s office. Said they broke his desk. Twice. And now they’ve gone and broken Caroline’s back.”
“Her back’s not broken. That’s ridiculous,” Becca said, which made all the rest of Willow’s claims about as thin as paper. But Caroline
acted strange lately, and the mayor certainly had been single a long time. Hmm . . .
Then Becca sighed heavily, annoyed at herself for falling prey to Willow and Sage’s antics. Again.
“Never would’ve suspected those two,” Sage said, shaking his head. “And he’s a widower. She should know better.”
“What does his being a widower have to do with anything?” Becca asked, then fisted her hands and cursed herself for fanning the gossip flame. The problem was there wasn’t much else to do in Triple Run than gossip.
It was Sage’s turn to lean in closer and peer around. “Them widowers are feisty.”
“And how exactly would you know that?”
The sixty-two-year-old’s eyes fell on Penny Lewis by the door, who was every bit of seventy, and suddenly Becca had lost her appetite. Such a shame, too—no one made bacon like Sage.
“And that’s my cue to exit this absurd conversation.”
But as Becca carried over table three’s order, she found she was no longer jealous of the eggs and bacon and grits they were about to enjoy. No, she was jealous of Caroline, which had to be the most ridiculous thing she’d thought all day. Maybe all week. So what if Caroline had injured herself doing the twisted taco? So what if even Caroline had a better sex life than she did? What did it matter? She had things going on, lots of things, epic, big things.
Only that was a lie.
She had nothing going on; so little, in fact, that her life played out like one of those boring commercials for at-home medication delivery. And then, to add more yuck to her life’s blandness, Becca’s dating life revolved around the town’s belief that she wasn’t one of the girls but rather one of the guys. Or, more specifically, one of the Hamiltons. And there was one great problem with that belief—no, two problems.
Problem one: She wasn’t a Hamilton.
Problem two, which made problem one super important: She was in love with Nick Hamilton.
See, Becca might have spent her childhood cutting through the woods behind her house, which led to the Hamiltons’ farm. She might have helped them toilet paper all of Crestler’s Key after they claimed to be the home of horse racing, when everyone knew that title belonged to Triple Run. And she might even have taken their dare to climb to the top of Triple Run Baptist and ring the church bell ... naked. But none of those things made her a Hamilton.
No, Becca would now, and unless the tides changed, forever be, a Stark—the very opposite of the Hamiltons.
The Hamiltons were royalty in Triple Run. They owned Hamilton Stables, the renowned Thoroughbred breeding and training farm. They had trophies and titles with their name on them. And they weren’t just richer than God, they were respectable and civilized.
The Starks had no idea what either word meant.
The Hamilton brothers ruled not only all of horse racing but all of Triple Run. They were kings, and though Becca knew all three of the brothers, and she knew middle brother Nick better than anyone knew him, she would never really exist in their world. And she was fine with that fact. Completely and totally fine. Now if only she could convince her heart of as much.
But then her heart had never been safe where Nick Hamilton was concerned.
Her mind drifted through the years of friendship, always being there for each other—Nick holding her hand when her grandmother died, her comforting him through his mother’s death, holding him close as he cried after his fiancée’s death. And then Carter Hamilton, his father, had died, and something inside Nick seemed to die along with him. Like maybe he couldn’t take anymore.
Becca went back to the counter, grabbed the next order, and continued around the diner, smiling and handing out food until she came to the booth in the back corner, a very pregnant Kate Hamilton working to slid into the booth, though her swollen belly had other ideas.
“Need some help?”
Kate’s head lifted, her face flushed, and Becca had to fight off a smile. “Can you get this baby out of me? Because then yes, I’d love some help. Right this second, in fact.”
“Aw, honey, I’m sorry, but I’m no help there. When were you due?”
“Eight days ago.”
Becca cringed. She knew from her sister that pregnancy was almost never fun, but certainly not in those final weeks and days. To go past your due date had to rank high on the list of living the most miserable existence on the planet.
“I’m sorry. Maybe you should be lying down at home?”
“My mama’s there with the kids so I could get out for a bit. I’m supposed to meet Alex here, but they were running a new colt this morning, and Nick and Trip were both there to see how he did.”
At the mention of Nick, Becca’s gaze snapped up. “Nick? I thought he was still out of town.”
Since Carter had passed away and Nick took over Hamilton Industries, he’d been traveling more often than he’d been home, all in an effort to keep up faith in the company and build new connections. And if Becca knew Nick at all, she suspected he hated every minute of it.
The Nick Hamilton Becca knew wasn’t a businessman at all. He was an outdoorsman, who used to talk about fishing professionally and sponsorships, but then he went to Northwestern, met his fiancée Britt, she died, and everything changed.
Now Kate’s eyes sparkled and she smiled wide. “He just got home today. Want me to text Alex to bring Nick with him?”
Becca jerked back. “What? No. Not at all. Why would I want Nick to come to the diner?” She had taken to smoothing her apron and checking her long brunette ponytail, which did nothing more than make Kate’s smile widen.
“Whatever you say. But yes, he’s home. I imagine he’ll call you soon. Don’t y’all talk every day or something? He’s always saying ‘Becca said this’ or ‘Becca said that.’ I bet the man can’t make a decision without you.”
A smile found its way across Becca’s face before she could pocket it, and Kate turned positively giddy. “You know—”
“Hey, babe, sorry I’m late.” Alex rushed up to the table, kissed his wife, then pulled back to examine the damage. “Scale of one to ten, how pissed off are you?”
A strange look crossed Kate’s face as she stared at her husband, seriously considering the question, and Becca had to laugh at the nervousness on Alex’s face. She never would have guessed the wildest Hamilton would now be such a worried husband and father. “At you or God? Because right now it’s neck and neck. You know I can’t get into these booths without your help or a solid crowbar, and I forgot my crowbar at home.”
“I’m sorry.” He kissed her again and then whispered something in her ear that had her smiling again. “Does that smile mean I’m forgiven?”
“That smile means you’re dirty. But yes, forgiven.”
Alex released a breath, then, spying Becca there, walked over. “Sorry, Bec, I didn’t see you there. Was too distracted by my imminent death, but looks like I’ll survive another day.” Becca laughed, and he kissed her cheek before slipping into the booth across from his pregnant wife, who had pushed the table as far away from herself as possible and still had to sit sideways, her feet stretched out across the booth’s seat. Kate gained forty-plus pounds with each child, ballooned up like an inflatable, and then shrunk back down immediately after birth, like all the air had been let out of her. It mystified Becca, and she suspected she wouldn’t be so lucky in her own pregnancy. If she ever became pregnant, or married, for that matter.
“You talked to Nick yet?”
Becca took out her order pad and shrugged. “No, but I’m sure he’s busy.”
Alex and Kate both watched her curiously, and Becca wondered if she’d gotten some of the maple syrup from the bottle she took Pastor Wilkins on her hand, then touched her face or hair, and she was now slathered in the stuff.
It wouldn’t be the first time that had happened.
“Um . . .” Becca glanced around, unable to handle the scrutiny. “Is there a sign over my head or something? What are y’all staring at?”
Alex opened his mouth to speak, but Kate slapped his hand and his head snapped over to his wife instead. “Hey! I didn’t say anything.”
“That’s right, you didn’t. And we need to keep it that way.” Kate pointed at her husband, and Becca laughed because pointing and spouting out orders was a Triple Run thing, and to see Kate doing it meant she’d become one of them.
Becca tried to let it go—surely whatever they were talking about was none of her business—but she’d always been more curious than a cat, and that curiosity had stung her more times than she could count. Still . . . “Say anything about what?”
“Nothing,” Kate said. “It’s a stupid thing.” She said this with the sort of laugh that sounded less like a laugh and more like a struggle not to choke.
“All right.” Becca felt like she’d entered yet another random Triple Run conversation, but this time something told her the conversation involved her.
“It’s just—” Alex started, and Kate slapped his hand again. “Good God, woman, stop it.”
“Well, we talked about this.”
“And I don’t agree with where we left it.”
“It’s not your decision to make.”
“No one else’s making a damn decision, so might as well be me.”
Becca was genuinely perplexed now. “Guys, I’d love to stand here and try to work out ... whatever this is. But I have other tables, so if you could get to the ordering part.” She smiled, and Kate smiled, but Alex still looked offended at his wife’s antics.
Kate handed over her menu without looking at it, like most everyone else in Triple Run. In a town where everyone was a regular, she could predict orders before they were spoken. “Three pancakes, scrambled eggs, side of bacon and grits. Oh, and toast. And do you have any fresh apple butter or honey?”
, Becca thought. So she could normally predict orders, but she never would have expected Kate to order quite that much food. Surely it wouldn’t all fit inside her, but then, Becca had never been pregnant before. Maybe the baby inhaled food the way the rest of us inhaled air. A shudder worked through her, the thought scaring her more than it should. She would have to rethink the whole having-a-baby thing—the insane hunger coupled with hulklike mood swings and then the pain of actually delivering made the whole thing seem this side of crazy. But then, Becca didn’t even have a husband or boyfriend. The last thing she should be worrying about was a baby.