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'Midnight at the Blackbird Cafe' Chapters 25 & 26

illustration of gray cat with lit sparkler in its mouth

Illustration by Nick Matej

 

25

 

“Hihi!”

The reporter waved to the little girl. “Your daughter is cute.”

Natalie Walker finger-combed her daughter’s hair, tucking soft waves under a turquoise-and-green headband. “Thank you. I think so too.”

“I’m hoping you can help me with the timeline of all this”—he gestured around the café, incorporating the tents in the yard— “hullabaloo. How did the blackbirds become such a thing? Around town I’m seeing T-shirts, stuffed animals . . .”

A smile twitched the corner of her mouth. “It’s all because of Anna Kate, sharing the blackbirds with us. With everyone.”

He glanced toward the kitchen, to the young woman laughing as she dished up a piece of pie. “Yet she hadn’t stepped foot in Wicklow until six weeks ago? What took her so long? Wasn’t this a family business?”

Natalie wrapped her arms around her daughter. “You’ll have to ask Anna Kate those questions, but it was inevitable that she came back, because she has Wicklow in her blood. It’s my belief that all Wicklow girls return to their roots—and their mothers—at some point or another. It just takes some more time than others.”

“Isn’t her mother dead?”

Natalie held his gaze. “If you think that matters, you haven’t been paying attention around here.”

 

Anna Kate

Early the next morning, I saw Gideon step onto the back deck, dressed in his usual biking gear of athletic shorts and moisture-wicking tee.

“Well, hi, stranger,” I said, holding open the screen door.

He gave me an uneasy smile. “I owe you an apology.”

“For?”

“Staying away.”

The door slammed as I let it go. “No need. I’m sure you had your reasons.”

“Yeah, but—”

Frantic knocking cut him off. I glanced over my shoulder at the front door.

Mr. Lazenby.

“He’s here early,” Gideon said.

Mr. Lazenby’s insistent knocking reminded me of my first days in Wicklow, when he’d woken me up to ask if there would be pie that day, desperate for a connection to his wife. I went to the door, pulled it open. “Is everything okay, Mr. Lazenby?”

When I saw the distraught look in his cloudy eyes, I knew it wasn’t.

“Miss Anna Kate, I’m right sorry to bother you so early, but I need your help.”

“Is this about the pie?”

Shaking his head, he said, “No, not pie. Tea. Do you recall offering me tea for my cough? Do you still have any on hand? Pebbles is doing poorly, and her doctors are telling her there’s nothing they can do, that the virus has to run its course. She’s having trouble sleeping, because the dry cough is keeping her up, and without rest, she’s going to have trouble getting better. You can help her, can’t you?”

“Come on inside. I’ll get the tea for you. It’s not going to work miracles, but it should help soothe the cough enough for her to rest.”

“Any little bit will help,” he said. “Thank you.”

I heard him and Gideon talking as I went into the pantry and searched the shelf of loose tea blends I’d made. I found the licorice root jar, a pack of diffuser bags, and an empty jar and brought it all into the kitchen. “This licorice tea is very sweet on its own, so it doesn’t need any sugar added to it. There’s some cinnamon in here too, which is known to help the immune system, so it should help as well.”

I made quick work of measuring out the dried blend and transferring it into the smaller jar. I wrote down brewing instructions using the diffuser bags, and put all of it in a Blackbird Café paper sack. I handed it over to him, along with a to-go box of zucchini cheddar biscuits. Apparently I’d jumped on the bread brigade bandwagon. “Give her my best, will you?”

“I can’t thank you enough, Miss Anna Kate.” His eyes softened.

“You already have just by coming here. Go on with you now.”

He didn’t need to be asked twice, practically running out the door and down the street.

“So Pebbles and Mr. Lazenby?” Gideon asked as I turned around.

I took the cup of coffee he offered. “It’s been a long time coming.”

“Speaking of a long time coming ... I’ll be starting the paperwork today to make Zee’s will official. Technically, you have a couple of weeks left on the mandated timeframe, but it’s just a waiting game at this point. Everything will be ready for you to sign when it’s time.”

He went on, explaining probate, but I barely heard half of what he said as I stared at the jar of tea on the counter. Its label, specifically. Licorice root.

For where your roots are, your heart is.

Zee had told me that once. Her roots were here in Wicklow. Mom’s, too.

And mine.

It was breaking my heart to think I had to leave because of a promise I’d made.

“Anna Kate? Did you hear me?”

I looked up. “Sorry. Lost in my thoughts there for a minute. What were you saying?”

“I was saying that I’m torn, Anna Kate. Real torn.”

“About?”

“A dream I once had.”

I pulled a stool out from under the lip of the counter and sat down. “A dream, you say? It wasn’t one you had after eating a piece of blackbird pie, was it?”

He pulled out the other stool. “It’s time I told you, that pie is the whole reason I’m living in Wicklow. You see, the first time I was in town, I stopped by the Blackbird Café for something to eat … That night I dreamed of my grandfather. He told me I should stay in Wicklow, set up a law practice. I didn’t think much of it, to be honest, other than it was nice to hear his voice again.”

I set my elbows on the counter and propped my head in my hands. I could listen to blackbird pie stories all day long.

“Next day, same thing. I ate at the café. Had a piece of pie. Blueberry, if I recall. Later that night, Granddaddy was back. Told me to buy Hill House for my law practice.” His eyebrows arched. “Granddaddy was never one to mince words.”

“So he wasn’t a lawyer.”

Gideon laughed. “No, he was a building inspector.”

I smiled and took another sip of coffee.

“By day three, I’d heard the rumors about the blackbird pies, and started thinking maybe there was something to the gossip. I was two years out of law school at that point, and a little lost, not sure what kind of law I truly wanted to practice. I worked at a big firm in Huntsville, and wasn’t very happy. When Granddaddy mentioned setting up a practice here, it sparked my interest. For the first time in a long time, I was excited for the future. But when I inquired about Hill House, I was told it wasn’t on the market.”

“No?”

“Nope. I had to track down the owner and beg. By the end of that meeting, I had the strangest feeling that she’d been waiting for me all along. It was Zee.”

Goosebumps went up my arm. “She owned Hill House?”

“Yep. The café used to be Hill House’s carriage house.”

I knew it had been a carriage house, but I hadn’t put it together that Hill House had belonged to Zee as well.

“We became friends—she was like another grandmother to me.”

“Do you still dream of your grandfather?”

“Not for a long time. I’d just moved into Hill House when I last dreamed of him.” His long fingers wrapped around his mug as he lifted it to his lips. “He told me that Hill House and the carriage house belonged together, and to make that happen, no matter how long it takes.”

“Wow,” I said.

“I tried to talk Zee into selling the café, but she kept telling me that decision wasn’t hers. That it was yours, and to talk to you when the time was right.”

I ran my finger around the rim of the mug, reflecting on Gideon’s messages. The dreams were supposed to be loving notes ... This was more bizarre than Faylene’s husband reminding her to pay the property taxes.

“I’ve been avoiding you lately, Anna Kate, because the last thing I wanted was for you to feel like I was using you when I finally worked up the nerve to ask you to sell to me. I swear, I didn’t get close to you for your property. I ... enjoy your company.”

He blushed, and I smiled. “Then I hope you’ll stop staying away. I’ve missed you.”

Grinning, he said, “You don’t know what you’re asking. You might not be able to get rid of me.”

I shrugged. “It’s a risk I’m willing to take.”

Gideon slid his mug back and forth between his hands. “About the land ... I’ve come to believe I interpreted my grandfather’s dream all wrong.”

“Seems to me he was plenty clear.”

“I thought so too, but maybe instead of me buying the café, maybe it’s you who should buy Hill House. There’s plenty of money in Zee’s estate for you to do so.”

I put my mug down. “Oh, no thank you. Honestly, I have no idea what your grandfather intended, but I don’t want Hill House. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a beautiful house, but it’s yours. And I’m leaving town in less than a month.”

“But, Anna Kate—”

I held up my hand to cut him off. “If you’re about to tell me I should stay here in Wicklow, you can stop right there. I don’t want to hear it.”

Because I wanted to stay.

I wanted it more than anything I’d ever wanted in my whole life. Jena had said I belonged here, and I did. I was as rooted to this café as the mulberry trees were to the beyond.

But I’d made a promise, and though I thought a dozen times a day about breaking it, I couldn’t. I simply couldn’t. Callows did not break promises.

Gideon and I sat in silence for a few moments before he said, “I’ve been thinking about our time at the movie a few weeks ago, and how it ended so ”

“Terribly?”

“Abruptly,” he said, laughter in his voice. “I think we should have a do-over. Do you have plans for the Fourth of July? You might have heard there’s a big carnival and fireworks show ”

Glancing over at him, I saw a flash of that molten lava in his eyes before he hid it by suddenly looking away. He grabbed the coffee pot and refilled our cups.

“I’ll be busy until three or so.” I was going to close the café early and take a shift selling T-shirts.

“Would you like to have another go at a picnic dinner? Same terms as before. I’ll bring the food, you bring the drinks.”

“I never did get a piece of that fried chicken.”

“You missed out. Truly.”

“Faylene’s been raving about it for weeks. I admit she’s made me jealous.”

“Then it’s a date.” He grabbed his mug and took it to the sink to rinse.

A date. I smiled stupidly at my coffee.

He left for his bike ride not long after, and I took the chairs off the tables, set up the cash drawer, and started the biscuit dough. The screen door slammed, and I thought Bow and Jena had arrived early, but it wasn’t them.

Natalie stood by the back door, wringing her hands.

She wore a Blackbird Café T-shirt, a pair of knee-length twill shorts, and flats.

If she owned a pair of sneakers, I’d never seen them.

I kept on kneading the biscuit dough and said, “I wasn’t expecting you until much later.” In fact, I wasn’t expecting her at all, despite the fact that she was on the schedule. With the way she’d run away from me yesterday, I thought she wouldn’t be back to the café for a long, long time.

She stepped up to the counter. “I’m here for my shift. I came early because I wanted to talk to you.”

The anger had faded from her eyes, but they still had sadness etched in their depths. Her shoulders were relaxed, her face soft, not hard like the last time I’d seen it. She seemed to be in a better place today, emotionally, but I wasn’t sure I could handle any lingering coldness.

Where she and the Lindens were concerned, I was already too raw.

“About?” I was proud my throat didn’t catch on the word.

“How sorry I am.”

I bent the dough in half, pushed the heels of my hands into its softness. My chin came up, and I met her gaze and saw genuine remorse. “I’m listening.”

“I run away. It’s what I do when I can’t handle the hard times. Not only do I run, I also push away people who care about me. My therapist says I do it to protect myself—I remove myself from the painful situation. It’s taken me a long time to realize that running away doesn’t protect me from anything—it just takes me that much longer to deal with the real problem. I’ve been working on new coping skills, but old habits are hard to break sometimes. You didn’t deserve my anger, Anna Kate, and I’m sorry for the way I behaved. Please say you forgive me.” She clasped her hands to her chest. “Please.”

I stopped kneading and inhaled deeply. “The thing about families is sometimes they get angry and fight. Especially our family. But that doesn’t mean the love isn’t there,” I said, paraphrasing words she’d spoken to me not so long ago. “The love is always there.”

Natalie came around the counter and threw her arms around me. She gave me a noisy kiss on my cheek that reminded me of Ollie, and I didn’t blanch at the show of affection.

In fact, I rather liked it. Floury hands and all, I hugged her back.

“Thank goodness for that,” she said in my ear. “I have the feeling that our family is going to need all the love it can get over these next few months.”

I hugged her tighter, but I didn’t have a response for what she said.

I didn’t want to think about the next few months.

At all.

 

Natalie

Ollie was upstairs reading a stack of library books with Daddy, while Mama and I prepped cocktails to take out on the patio to watch the lightning bugs dance in the twilight.

It had been a week. An emotional roller coaster, one filled with few ups and many stomach-dropping downs. I couldn’t imagine that was going to change anytime soon, not with what we as a family were facing.

But we had each other to lean on. A month ago, I wouldn’t have thought that possible.

Mama set a stack of dessert plates on the island and reached for the pie cutter. Anna Kate had sent me home from work with a blueberry tart she made at Daddy’s request along with a jar of chamomile tea.

Mama easily slid the pie cutter into the tart, took out a piece, and set it on a plate. Plump blueberries glistened against the bone-white china.

“In case you’re worrying,” I said, “this tart has nothing to do with blackbird pie. It’s just a tart, a mighty delicious-looking one at that.”

“Did I say I was worrying? Were you worrying?”

“When am I not these days?” I said with a smile. “I mentioned it only because I know how you feel about the blackbird legend.”

Mama lifted a shoulder. “I reserve the right to change my mind about the blackbirds.”

My eyebrows went up. “You don’t say.”

“I can’t say I understand it, but I see that Anna Kate wholeheartedly believes in the folklore. Why am I being so stubborn? It would be nice to dream of AJ.” Her gaze drifted upward, to the room above us where we could easily hear the cadence of Daddy’s voice. “Even if it’s only a dream.”

I put my hand on her back and gave it a gentle rub, a gesture that didn’t quite feel natural even though I wanted to bring her comfort. All wounds took time to heal, especially when they’d been festering for so long.

“Have you tried the blackbird pie?” she asked.

“No.”

Her gaze slid to me. “Because of the mountain man?”

“Did you know Cam was a Green Beret, Mama? Served two tours of duty overseas. He’s a nice man. He’s asked if Ollie and I will go with him to the carnival this weekend. I said yes. I was hoping you and Daddy would join us to watch the fireworks.”

Mama’s eyebrows shot upward and her hand froze mid-slice. “I— We—” She finished the slice and took a deep breath. “We’d like that.”

“Did that hurt to say?” I asked, holding back a smile.

“A little bit,” she admitted.

I did smile then. “Thank you.”

She nodded.

“And to answer your earlier question, no, my decision on the pie has nothing to do with Cam. I thought I wanted to hear from Matt more than anything in the whole world. I wanted answers about his death, to put it to rest once and for all. I put off eating the pie only because of Daddy. He didn’t want me to, and I honored his wishes.”

She set down the pie cutter and looked at me. “It shouldn’t have been your father’s decision. What do you want, Natalie?”

I set forks on the tray. “What I’ve wanted since the day Matt died. Peace. Daddy said I wouldn’t find what I was looking for in pie, and he was right.” I’d been doing a fair amount of self-reflection in the past few days. “I was so caught up in the way Matt died that I forgot how he loved me. He had his secrets and vices, yes, but all I ever knew from him was love. All Ollie knew from him was love. It’s enough to carry us through our grief.”

Mama’s lips pursed as she set the pie cutter in the sink.

“For now,” I quickly added before she said something snide about Matt’s character, “I don’t plan to eat any pie. I reserve the right to change my mind.”

She glanced at me, and her lips fell out of their pucker. “Love can see one through many challenges.”

She looked like she wanted to say more on the subject, but instead she went about setting napkins on the tray. There were many wounds still to be healed, but we’d get there. I was sure of it.

With a gentle huff, she threw the napkins down and faced me. “I have something for you. Come with me.”

“But the dessert …”

“It can wait. I saw that stack of books Ollie piled next to your father. We have plenty of time.”

“What’s this about?” I asked as Mama toted me into the dining room. “Do I need dealing-with-Mama wine?”

She put her hands on her hips. “No, you do not, young lady.”

Her reprimands no longer made me want to run for the door, which told me exactly how far we’d come in the last few weeks.

“Not tonight, anyways. I have this for you.” She gestured to a big rectangular box sitting on the dining table. “It’s been a long time coming. Go on, open it.” She nudged the box then lifted her hands, steepling her fingers under her chin.

Curious, I lifted the lid. As soon as I did, my hands started shaking. “Is this what I think it is?”

“It is, indeed.”

Carefully, I lifted the quilt out of the box and spread it out on the table for a closer look. Through watery eyes, I saw that the center of the quilt was a patch of pink and tangerine fabric with the barest hint of gray detailing.

I saw a block from my baptism dress, another from the dress of my first daddy-daughter dance. One block held a monogrammed frog, and immediately I recalled wearing a dress with that frog on it the summer I turned five.

“I’m sorry it’s late,” Mama said. “For some reason, not long after you were born, I felt compelled to make your blanket from memorable events, not just from baby clothes. This,” she pointed to a patch made of rainbow colors, “was what you were wearing when you lost your first tooth. This is your first Christmas, and this was the day you got braces, and here’s the day your braces came off. And this one here was when you learned to ride your bike on your own.”

I vaguely remembered that day. I’d been six, and Mama had made me wear a helmet, elbow pads, and knee pads—and had made Daddy run alongside me at all times.

“I’ve been working on it on and off for years. Picking it up, setting it aside. I could never bring myself to finish it, and I think that was due to us being …” She trailed off.

I waited for her to find the right word, curious to see what she’d come up with to describe our troubled relationship.

Disconnected,” she said. “The time finally came for me to finish it, which I did last night when I added this bit here.” She tapped a quilt block.

I leaned forward. “Is that … is that the duck bib I made?” It sure looked like it. The colors were the same, and it even had the striped trim.

“I bought it at Hodgepodge.”

“Why?”

“Full circle,” Mama said. She tapped another block. “This here is your first bib. I made it for you not long after you were born.”

My eyes widened when I saw the pattern. Ducklings.

“We’ve come full circle, you and me. Right now seems like the perfect time start a new circle. A new beginning. I love you, Natalie Jane. Always have, always will. Y’hear?”

I wiped away tears. “I hear, Mama.”


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26

 

Anna Kate

Much to my surprise, Gideon showed up at the café on Saturday for coffee. I hadn’t thought I’d see him this morning, because of our date later tonight.

It was hard not to smile just thinking about it.

“You cannot possibly cram one more person in that side yard.” The screen door slammed behind him, and he went straight to the mug shelf.

I grabbed a coffee pot. “I think there are people willing to challenge that theory.”

Eventually, I was going to have to start easing the birders out to reclaim the yard. I had a dozen recommendations for places to stay, with the Pavegeaus’ homestead at the top of the list.

Gideon set the mugs on the counter. “How’s Doc feeling? I heard he went back to work yesterday for a few hours.”

“He’s holding steady. He missed his patients, and being cooped up was suffocating him. He’s started the search for someone to take over the practice and already has a few good candidates.”

I barely heard footsteps on the deck before Jena and Bow came in the back door. Jena wore a red, white, and blue tunic and had flag barrettes in her hair. “I do so love this holiday,” she trilled as she flew around, putting her purse away and grabbing an apron.

“I’m sure they couldn’t tell,” Bow said, an eyebrow arched.

“The sass with this one.” She smiled fondly at him, then turned on Gideon. “Nice to see you here this morning. I was startin’ to forget what you looked like.”

He said, “I’ve been around. I was here yesterday.”

Jena faced me, then smirked. “Is that so?”

“Don’t let him get off so easily,” I said. “That was the first time I’d seen him in a good week.”

Bow slipped an apron over his head, then clapped Gideon on his back. “Don’t go giving the boy a hard time. You know he was nervous to ask Anna Kate about buying the café.”

“Wait, you knew he wanted the café?” I asked.

Jena checked on the biscuits in the oven. “Of course, sugar. He asked Zee to sell at least once a month since he had that dream to reunify the properties. Only made sense he was going to ask you, too.”

I lifted an eyebrow. “So much for your intuition.”

Her musical laughter filled the kitchen. “It wasn’t my place to tell you. It was Gideon’s. Since he’s here, I’m assuming he’s made an offer?” She tipped her head, eyebrows raised with anticipation.

“I made one,” he said.

“And?” Bow asked, looking between Gideon and me.

“I asked if Anna Kate wanted to buy Hill House.”

Jena comically stumbled to a halt. She put her hand on her chest. “What’s this now?”

He shrugged. “I think Anna Kate belongs here in Wicklow. My dream didn’t say I had to be the one to reunify the properties. Maybe it was a dream meant for Anna Kate all along.”

“What did you say to that, Anna Kate?” Bow asked.

“I said no, that’s what. And I haven’t decided what to do with the café, so don’t ask. Technically, it’s not even mine yet, so it’s pointless to even be talking about this right now. I just want to focus on running the café until the end of the month, and then I’ll go from there.”

I had a little less than four weeks left here, and I didn’t want to spend the whole time discussing the sale of the café.

Mostly because I didn’t want to sell, but I hadn’t yet figured out how to keep it.

I saw the worried look Jena shared with Bow, and sighed. I didn’t expect them to understand the bind I was in. I threw a look out the window, toward the mulberry trees. I knew the trees would wither and die without the love in the pies, but I still wondered what would happen to the blackbirds if the passageway closed.

My chest ached as it swelled with emotion. I had the uneasy feeling that if the trees were left to die that the blackbirds would never return to Wicklow. Why would they? They’d have no songs to sing if there were no pies being made.

Blinking away a sudden sheen of tears, I wished for more guidance from the blackbirds. I wanted to know what would happen to them and not just guess at their fate. I needed to ask them—and could only hope they would somehow provide an answer.

Gideon rinsed his cup, put it in the dishwasher. “I’ll pick you up at four, Anna Kate? That good with you?”

“Perfect,” I said, glad my voice hadn’t cracked.

“Pick you up?” Jena said, curiosity lifting her voice an octave.

“Anna Kate’s been begging for a taste of my fried chicken,” he said.

“I thought I’d indulge her. We’re going to have a picnic at the courthouse before the fireworks.”

Bow nodded approvingly. “I’ve had your chicken. I can see why she’d beg.”

I shook my head at their teasing and went for a coffee refill.

Jena said, “You know, Gid, I’ve been thinking on that dream you had.”

“What about it?” he asked.

“What if the dream was meant for you and Anna Kate?” She took hold of my hand and dragged me toward him, tucking me right up close to his side. She put my hand on his, then covered our hands with her own. “There’s another way to unify these properties you two haven’t given thought to yet.” Clearly pleased with herself, she smiled broadly. “If I was a bettin’ woman, I’d lay odds that your granddaddy was planting seeds in that dream, Zee watered them, and now it’s up to you two to see if they take root.”

Later that afternoon, I sat cross-legged on the stone bench in the garden, staring at the mulberry trees. A male cardinal, a wren, and the phoebe with the crooked wing picked at the ground under the trees, probably hoping to find a wayward berry. What Summer and I hadn’t harvested had eventually fallen to the ground. Squirrels, chipmunks, and birds had feasted. The remnants had eventually broken down and seeped into the earth, spreading love back to the roots of the trees.

Now it’s up to you two to see if they take root.

I wished Jena had kept her comments to herself. As soon as the words had come out of her mouth, Gideon and I had jumped apart as though poked with a cattle prod. We bumbled goodbyes and he left quickly. It had taken everything in me not to lash out at Jena.

As much as she was only trying to help, I had enough pressure on me without throwing my feelings for Gideon into the mix.

“I don’t know what to do,” I said to the mulberry trees. “How do I decide?”

If I stayed, I’d let down my mother.

If I left, I’d let down Zee and the blackbirds.

“What happens to you if there’s no pie?” I had the awful image of the tips of the blackbirds’ wings browning and curling. Suddenly queasy, I banished the image forever.

The leaves of the lemon balm shuddered, catching my attention. I glanced over and saw Mr. Cat sitting there, flicking his tail back and forth. I immediately grew concerned for the birds under the trees, but he seemed disinterested in them. His focus was on me.

“I don’t suppose you have any answers, do you?”

The phoebe flew over and landed on a lemon balm stalk and started singing.

Mr. Cat tipped his head, looked at the bird, then turned and walked away.

I heard a creaking noise as Gideon came through the back gate, a basket in his hands. He called out a hello to Mr. Boyd, who sat by the back fence, his nose in a book. Mr. Boyd lifted his head and waved. He had plans to join Faylene later on to watch the fireworks. I’m not sure they needed to watch, because there were plenty of sparks shared between them. They’d been spending a lot of time together, and it had been sweet to see them falling for each other.

“How’d the T-shirt sales go?” Gideon asked me as he came closer.

“Sold out within an hour.”

“An hour? That’s amazing. Which one went first? Come on, it was the ‘Flock Off’ tee, wasn’t it?”

I laughed, thinking of Seelie’s horrified expression when she’d seen that particular logo. “Actually it was the Blackbird Café shirts.”

He dipped his head in acceptance. “I shouldn’t be surprised by that.” He held up the basket. “Are you ready to go? The sooner we leave, the sooner you’ll see what I packed.”

“There’s more than chicken in there?”

“So much more.”

I quickly grabbed the cooler that I’d left on the deck, bid goodbye to the zucchini plants, and said, “Then let’s get going.”

Out on the main street large groups of people walked toward the courthouse with blankets and coolers and folding chairs. There was an electric energy in the air, one full of excitement and anticipation.

Most of the shops along the street had closed early, but colorful awnings flapped in the breeze, adding to the joyous feeling. Most of the awnings were new—added during grand openings and reopenings. There were two new restaurants and at least a half dozen shops, including a book shop, a candle shop, and a yarn store.

“You’re quiet,” Gideon said.

“Just thinking.”

“About what Jena said earlier?”

I practically gave myself whiplash turning to face him. “No, about the town. How it’s come alive. It almost feels like it’s exhaling a sigh of relief.”

“Oh.”

I set my hand on his arm. “Did you want to talk about what Jena said earlier?”

“I mean, we don’t have to. She was just hypothesizing.”

“Right. Exactly. Hypothesizing.”

Fireworks went off in the distance, a high-pitched whistle followed by distinct popping noises—people were overeager to get the party started.

“But …” He looked at me. The molten lava was back in full force.

“All I’m going to say is if Granddaddy and Zee were matchmaking, they did a really good job.”

I went as warm as that lava in his eyes. “I—”

A flash of quick-moving light on my left snagged my attention, and I stepped aside near a row of knee-high shrubs separating two storefronts.

“What is it?” he asked, following my gaze.

“Did you see that?”

“See what?”

“This is going to sound crazy, but I could have sworn I saw Mr. Cat run behind those buildings with a sparkler in his mouth.”

Gideon didn’t hesitate to jump the shrubs to take a look. I waited for him on the sidewalk, and a moment later he was back. “I took a good look around, but I didn’t see anything. Are you sure it was Mr. Cat?”

“Hard to tell because of the building shadows,” I said. “Do you think we should go look for him? I mean, that can’t be safe.”

Gideon said, “A cat isn’t going to hold on to something that would burn him. He’d drop it real quick if the sizzle got too close for comfort. Wouldn’t he?”

We were still debating whether to form an all-out search party when we saw Mr. Cat walking toward us on the sidewalk, no sparkler in sight. About ten feet away, he took an abrupt right, turning up a narrow alleyway that ran between the ice cream shop and new arts and crafts store.

“I guess there’s no need to worry after all,” I said as we turned toward the courthouse.

Gideon looked over his shoulder. “That is one strange cat.” I laughed. “He is, but I’ve grown fond of him.”

Ahead, four food trucks were parked at the curb in front of the courthouse, and at least two dozen booths had been set up on the lawn, selling everything from popcorn to fresh vegetables. A firework whizzed into the air, exploded, and filled the sky with colorful glitter that would have been much prettier if it were dark.

Gideon and I took our time browsing booths, lingering over small talk with the vendors, who were excited by the turnout. We didn’t pick up our earlier conversation on what Jena had said, and I was grateful for the reprieve.

As we made our way toward the amphitheater, I spotted Faylene waving her arms, trying to get our attention.

“Yoo-hoo! Anna Kate, Gideon! Over here!” she yelled.

“Annkay!” Ollie shouted, mimicking Faylene’s tone of voice.

I was happy to see that Natalie and Ollie shared a blanket with Cam. Natalie hadn’t spoken too much about the mountain man, but I knew she was fond of him. Whether it was only friendship between them or something more, it was nice to see her smiling.

Ollie jumped to her feet as Gideon led me toward Faylene’s landing zone.

“Hi!” Ollie said as I scooped her up to give her a hug.

I looked at Natalie. “Don’t tell me she’s dropped the second hi.”

“It vanished a day or two ago,” Natalie said.

I rested my forehead against Ollie’s. “First the full-arm wave and now this. I can’t handle you growing up so fast, Ollie.”

She cupped my face with her soft hands and smiled. “Hi!”

“Hi, Ollie.” I hugged her close and didn’t let go until she started wiggling.

She’d grown so much in only six weeks. How many of her milestones was I going to miss while I was away? In a blink, she would be graduating high school. I glanced at Natalie, and she immediately stood up when she saw the tears in my eyes.

She was on her way over to me when someone yelled my name. I turned.

“Anna Kate!” Mr. Boyd huffed and puffed with exertion as he beckoned. “Come quick.”

“What is it?” I ran toward him.

“The café’s on fire!”


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