“Have you ever eaten a slice of the blackbird pie at the café?”
“Yes, indeedy,” Mr. Lazenby said. “Every day for thirteen years, give or take a day here and there when the restaurant was closed up. Quite tasty, the pie.”
“The pie isn’t really made of blackbirds …?”
“No, sir. It’s regular pie.” His old eyes twinkled. “Usually fruit.”
“No other specific ingredients?”
“It’s a Callow family secret recipe. If you’re needing the ingredients, you’re plumb out of luck.”
The reporter thumbed a drop of condensation from his mason jar. “Do you believe the local legend that the pies will make you dream messages from dead loved ones?” He scoffed. “That blackbirds actually sing those messages—notes, as the writing on the soffit indicates— into the pies?”
Mr. Lazenby stood up, straightened his bow tie, and set his hat firmly on his head, pulling down the brim. “You haven’t had a piece of pie yet, have you, sonny boy?”
“If you had, you’d know the answer to your own question and wouldn’t be wasting my time. We’re done here.”
“That bird must have gone out the same way it came in,” I said, coming down the stairs into the kitchen. It was the third time I’d done a search. “There’s no sign of it anywhere.”
“Probably so,” Bow said as he lifted a chair onto a table in the dining room. “Birds are such curious creatures.”
Jena slid a mop across the kitchen floor. “The saying is that curiosity killed the cat, not the bird.”
What looked like pain flashed in Bow’s eyes, darkening the murky blue to almost black. His salt-and-pepper beard was cut short and neatly trimmed, but he repeatedly dragged a hand down the side of his face toward his chin as though smoothing stray hairs. “Sometimes it almost does both, doesn’t it?”
“Sure enough,” she said with a wan smile.
As I grabbed a rag and a bottle of cleanser, I glanced between the two of them, wondering about the strange tension in the air. It was almost like they were sharing a memory, one tainted with sadness. “Do you two have pets?”
We’d already tackled the prep for tomorrow and were finishing up the kitchen chores. As soon as we were done, I wanted to track down Summer Pavegeau. I owed her a piece of pie, and it was a debt I didn’t want hanging over my head. I knew what the pie meant to her.
Whether that pie would bring Summer any comfort tonight when she dreamed, I wasn’t sure. I hoped so, but I just didn’t know, what with Jena having baked the pies. Tonight I’d take over the task.
“Not unless you count the fake coyote in our vegetable garden,” Jena said with a smile. “Keeps away some of the dumber critters.”
“Where do you live? Is it close by?”
“Not far,” Bow said. “A couple of blocks away.”
“It’s a small two-bedroom cottage near the bridge over Willow Creek,” Jena said. “It’s not much to look at, but the land is beautiful and the burble of the creek at night is like a lullaby.”
Her voice had softened to the point that it felt like a lullaby. “Sounds peaceful.”
“Most times, it is.” Jena reached up on top of a shelf for a roll of paper towels and let out a soft groan, dropping her arm back down.
“Are you okay?” I asked.
“Fine, fine,” she insisted. “Just an old injury that never healed quite right. Sometimes I forget, is all.” She reached up with her left arm and grabbed the paper towels.
“Maybe you should see a doctor. It’s possible something can still be done ”
“Said just like the wonderful doctor you’re gonna be someday. But I’m fine, sugar. I learned to live with this little foible of mine a long time ago.” She massaged her right shoulder. “I’m sure the Lindens are real proud that you’re going to follow in your daddy’s footsteps, to continue the Linden legacy.”
“Jena,” Bow sighed.
“What?” she said, tearing off a paper towel. She wiped a spill on the side of a cabinet. “Everyone knows AJ Linden was going to be a doctor like his daddy and granddaddy. By the way, how did your time with Doc go today, Anna Kate? I haven’t had the chance to ask.”
My mother had strongly encouraged me down the same path as my father. It made sense. Healing was in my blood, after all, and following his lead made me feel connected to him in a way nothing else did. I wanted him to be proud of me. But I didn’t want to think about what the Lindens, Doc and Seelie, thought of my career choice. I certainly didn’t want to care.
I rubbed at a spot on the counter with a rag. “Doc invited me to Sunday supper. I said no. I had to say no.”
“You don’t think you made the right decision?” Jena asked in that gentle trill of hers, obviously picking up on my conflict.
I added more cleaner to the counter, and a lemon and lavender scent filled the air. “Were you guys around when the accident happened?”
Bow dropped a chair, and the crack when it hit the floor sounded like a gunshot. “Butterfingers,” he said. “Sorry. The chair’s fine.”
Jena pushed the mop back and forth. “We’d arrived in town shortly before the accident,” she said. “Why do you ask?”
“My mother was always a little dodgy when talking about the accident and its aftermath—probably trying to spare my feelings. But I want to know what truly happened.”
“Well, I can fill in some of it,” Jena said, making her way toward me with the mop.
“Jena,” Bow warned.
“Hush up,” she said. “Anna Kate has the right to know.”
“Know what?” I asked.
Bow sighed and picked up another chair.
Jena’s dark eyes were full of light when she said, “To hear tell, Eden and AJ had been fighting like cats and dogs that summer, with him heading off to school down at Alabama. Eden didn’t want to be left behind. She was itching to leave Wicklow, and she always thought she’d be leaving with AJ. But they couldn’t figure out how to make it all work, between school and expenses and Zee wanting Eden to stay here—they’d been at each other’s throats too, over Eden wanting to leave.”
I’d known that last part, because that tension between them had never fully ebbed.
“Finally,” Jena said, “Zee relented for the sake of Eden’s happiness, and even offered up a small loan to help get the lovebirds on their feet. A plan came together. Eden and AJ would rent an apartment in Tuscaloosa. After getting settled, Eden would find work, eventually enroll in a nursing program, and start planning a wedding. And after their schooling, they’d go wherever their whims took them, see the world together before the winds of destiny brought them back to Wicklow.”
“Back to Wicklow?” I asked, eager to hear more. To hear it all. “Why?”
“You see, AJ was destined to take over his daddy’s practice. And your mama, well, her destiny is here, with the blackbirds. It was why Zee was willing to let Eden go and fly free for a while. She knew Eden would come back. That she had to come back or her soul would never be at peace.”
I glanced out the back windows, toward the mulberry trees.
No matter how far a guardian roams, she will always return, and while away she will never be settled, as her soul is tethered to the roots of the trees. She’ll never be truly content until she’s home among the roots, comforting and healing once again.
Jena leaned on the mop. “But Eden and AJ’s plans were derailed before they could even rent an apartment.”
“Why?” I asked.
Why was I not the least bit surprised?
“When Seelie caught wind of the plans, she threatened AJ, saying she wasn’t going to let him play house on her dime. She wanted him to join a fraternity and not tie himself down to Eden so young. Seelie gave him an ultimatum. College or Eden.”
I couldn’t imagine the pressure he’d been under, having to make a choice like that. Forced to pick between his dream of becoming a doctor—and the family expectations that goal carried with it—and the woman he loved.
Jena dunked the mop in a bucket. “AJ and Eden were on their way back from a tour of the Alabama campus when the crash happened. Seelie believes AJ told Eden he’d chosen college over her and that Eden, in a fit of madness, drove off the road.”
“Seelie’s the only one who believes that,” Bow added quickly as he set another chair on a table.
It was the first time I’d heard any of this, and I ached with the knowledge, feeling a depth of sadness for my parents. “Do we …” I took a breath. “Do we know for sure that had been his decision?”
“No, ma’am,” Bow said. “Not since Eden couldn’t remember anything from that day. Thankfully, the police declared the crash an accident, but Seelie still insists to this day that it happened her way.”
I forgave the “ma’am” in this situation. “But the police cleared my mom. Why can’t Seelie let it go?”
Jena said, “Technically, the police didn’t have enough evidence to charge Eden. And while Seelie’s voice carries a lot of weight in this town, a good portion of the community backed Eden. Everyone with eyes saw how much she and AJ loved each other. As soon as it was announced that no charges were going to be filed, Eden left town. Many expected she’d be back one day, destiny being what it is, but then, they didn’t know about you. It’s clear now why she stayed away.”
Absently, I nodded. “I think I might stop by the library after I go to the Pavegeaus’ … It’s inside the courthouse, right?”
“Yep. Second floor. Are you going to look at old newspapers?” Jena asked, eyebrow raised.
I smiled at how well she could read me. “Guilty.” I wanted— needed—to know anything and everything about that accident. Old articles were a good place to start.
“Best you hurry, then,” Jena said. “The library closes at five. We’ve got the rest of the chores covered.”
“Are you sure?” I asked.
“Positive,” she said.
I tossed the rag in the laundry room and put away the cleaner. “I don’t know how you two do this day in and day out. All this work is exhausting.”
Bow said, “For one, it’s not usually this busy.”
“For another,” Jena added, “Zee always hired day help when we needed it most. It’s something for you to consider.”
“I’ll think about it.” Hiring someone right now seemed a daunting challenge. I’d wait a few days, see if the birders stuck around, before putting a sign in the window.
Bow finished with the chairs. “You’ve got that map I drew to the Pavegeau place?”
“I do.” I pulled it from my back pocket and stared at the squiggles, trying to pretend they made sense.
“You sure you don’t want me to show you the way? It can be tricky,” he said, offering for the third time.
“I’m sure. Thanks. I need to start finding my way around here on my own.”
Jena leaned the mop against the pie case. “The Pavegeau place isn’t exactly on the beaten path, tucked off in the woods like it is.”
“I’ll be okay. And this is a great map,” I lied as I headed for the front door. “I’ll find my way, no problem.”
Jena said, “Be sure to announce yourself loud and clear when you get there, so you don’t get your head shot clear off.”
I looked back at her to see if she was joking.
“People ’round here are real protective of their land.” Her dark eyes were wide with reverence. “And Aubin hasn’t been quite right in the head since his accident. He used to be real social, but he’s become a bit of a loner, practically going off-grid. I can’t imagine he’s too keen on drop-in visitors, especially strangers.”
“Aubin? Accident?” I asked.
“Summer’s father,” Bow said. “The family was in a bad wreck six winters ago. Hit an icy patch and slid down the mountain. Not a scratch on Summer, but her mother, Francie, died from her injuries. Aubin was banged up pretty badly. Head and internal injuries. Mangled leg.”
“How horrible.” I quashed my own grief for the father I’d never known, which tended to pop up at any mention of fatal car accidents, and glanced at the pie box in my hand. I was more determined than ever to get it to Summer.
“Terrible time.” Jena tsked.
“Is Aubin okay now?”
“Mostly,” Jena said. “But no denying he’s a changed man. Quiet when he used to be the life of the party. Cautious when he used to throw caution to the wind. He doesn’t come into town much except to visit his wife’s grave. He’s at the cemetery every day come four o’clock, rain or shine.”
“Does he work?” I asked, thinking of Summer selling me eggs this morning.
“Used to.” Bow pulled a trash bag out of its can. With a flick of his wrist, he tied off the bag and set it aside. “He was a mail carrier. Went on disability for a while after the accident, then was reassigned to a clerk position since he had trouble driving with his bad leg and all. But he up and quit after a month or so.”
Jena tapped her temple. “Mentally he hadn’t been ready to go back to work. Nowadays, he makes do with what he and Summer grow on their land and by selling handmade soaps and the like at craft fairs. They get by okay.”
Bow put a new bag in the trash can. “It’ll take me but a minute to finish up here. Let me go with you, Anna Kate. I can make introductions.”
“No, no,” I insisted stubbornly. I didn’t know why Summer had hightailed it out of here earlier, and I didn’t want to spring more people on her than I had to. “I’m used to figuring out things on my own. I’ll be all right.”
“But sugar,” Jena trilled. “You have us now to help you out.”
“Thanks all the same. You two have done so much for me already,” I said, trying to reassure them. “Speaking of, thanks for everything today. I couldn’t have reopened the café without your help.” I pulled open the front door.
“You’re welcome, you sweet thing,” Jena said. “Please don’t get shot dead. I’ve become mighty fond of you.”
“I’ll do my best.” I gave them a wave and let the door close behind me. I’d made it two steps before looking at the map and realizing I was heading the wrong way. I turned around, glanced into the café, saw Bow shaking his head, and waved again.
I’d barely taken two more steps when Sir Bird Nerd stepped in front of me.
“Sorry to bother you, ma’am,” he said. “I just wanted to say thank you for sending out the cold water and tea sandwiches earlier. Very kind of you. Most of us hadn’t planned to stay here the whole day long.” He held his hand out. “Zachariah Boyd.”
I shook. “Anna Kate Callow. You’re welcome, and I thought we discussed the ma’am thing.” I’d rather share the food than see it go to waste, and as the day had gone on, the birders seemed to wilt in the heat. I didn’t want any of them passing out in the side yard.
His cheeks colored. “Right. Sorry about that.”
“Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go—” I eyed the map, looking for landmarks I recognized.
“Before you do …” he said.
“I heard a rumor the blackbirds don’t come out until midnight. Is that true?”
“Yes, that’s true.”
His double chin jiggled as he glanced toward the mulberry trees, which were barely visible from this spot. “But blackbirds don’t come out at night.”
“Some things can’t be explained, Mr. Boyd. The birds are out for an hour, from midnight until one.”
He frowned at his watch. “Thank you kindly, ma’—” He cut himself off and walked back toward the fence line, where he’d used a folding chair to stake out a prime viewing spot.
The yard was crowded with people, chairs, blankets, cameras, and scopes. It seemed to me the numbers of birders had tripled during the day. Even as I stood there watching, two more people arrived, bucket hats and binoculars in tow. As I walked away, I decided it would probably be a good idea to bake a few extra pies tonight.
As I walked past the courthouse, which had a playground occupying one corner of its vast grounds, I saw a woman playing chase with a young girl. I recognized them as the pair who’d crisscrossed in front of the café a dozen times that morning—but never came inside.
“Mama’s going to get you,” the woman said, using exaggerated stutter steps as she rounded a gleaming silver teeter-totter.
I couldn’t help smiling as the toddler ran across the playground as fast as her stubby, stiff legs could carry her, her arms open wide for balance. She squealed in sheer delight. I couldn’t remember what it was like to not have a single care in the world like this little one, but for a moment it felt as though she were sharing her joy with me. A gift I gladly accepted as I pressed onward, looking for the next landmark on Bow’s map.
“Hey! Hello! Wait up! You with the pie box! Anna Kate!” a voice yelled out.
I stopped and slowly turned around. The woman held the little girl in her arms and was trotting toward me.
“Hi,” she said, slightly out of breath.
The girl’s cheeks were flushed bright red, a mix of heat and exertion. Dirt smudged the delicate skin on the toddler’s knees and the tiny toes that peeked out of sturdy sandals.
Strands of the mother’s hair had come loose from the knot at the nape of her neck, curling loosely around gold stud earrings that glinted in the sunshine. Her pink cheeks gave her a healthy glow, and her rose-colored lipstick wasn’t so much as smudged. There wasn’t even a speck of dirt on her yellow dress. How she could chase a toddler and still look so … put together was beyond me.
“Hello?” I said back, unsure why she had called out to me.
“Hihi!” The girl flapped an arm.
“Hi,” I said to her. “I like your flower.”
Her dirty hand went to her head, where a floral headband held back damp, sweaty hair. “Pink!”
“It’s very pretty.”
I smiled and looked at the woman. “She’s adorable.”
“Thank you. She’s a hot mess right now in desperate need of a bath. I am, too. Playgrounds aren’t for the faint of heart, especially on a hot day like today.”
“Yes, bath,” she said to her. To me, she added, “I’m Natalie, by the way. Natalie Walker. And this is Ollie. Well, Olivia Leigh, but she goes by Ollie. Thanks for stopping. I didn’t mean to sound so … manic. I saw the pie box and had a moment. I really want a piece of that pie. Is that one available?”
“Sorry. It’s earmarked for a friend. Didn’t I see you pacing in front of the café this morning? Why didn’t you come inside?”
Natalie shifted her daughter from one hip to the other. “Long story. Can I ask a favor? Beg one, really?”
“What kind of favor?” I asked, suddenly suspicious.
“Down!” Ollie wriggled like she had ants in her pants.
It was becoming clear to me that she didn’t speak in anything other than exclamations.
As Natalie set her down, I was relieved to see that the pale pink polish on one of Natalie’s toenails was chipped, and that a fine layer of dust had settled on her white sandals. Maybe she was human and not some sort of Stepford mom.
As Ollie toddled toward a stroller parked near the teeter-totter, Natalie said, “Will you save me a piece of blackbird pie tomorrow? My mother keeps Ollie on Fridays, and I won’t be able to get to the café until after nine. I’m afraid you’ll sell out before then.”
In her eyes I saw a flash of desperation and something else that made me take a step back. “Are you … a Linden?”
“I am.” Her head tipped in confusion. “Natalie Linden Walker.”
I noted with interest that she didn’t sound pleased by the fact. “What gave it away?” she asked as she kept close watch on her daughter.
Ollie had plopped herself in the dirt and was happily pushing it around with a toy backhoe while making vrooming noises.
“The shape and color of your eyes. I saw almost the exact same pair a couple hours ago when Doc Linden came by the café. How are you related to him?”
It was her turn to take a step back, her expression turning wary. “I’m his daughter.”
“Daughter?” Why hadn’t anyone ever told me I had an aunt? Feeling a mix of confusion and anger, I added it to the other secrets that had been kept from me, tossing it like an old bone onto a growing pile of family perplexities.
The look in her brown eyes reminded me of a startled doe as she said, “He went to the café to talk to you? Why?”
I broke down the conversation to its most basic element. “He invited me to Sunday supper.”
“To Sunday supper,” she repeated woodenly.
She opened her mouth, closed it again. Put her hand on her chest, muttered something about Mama and stroke. She looked away. Looked back at me.
“To be perfectly honest, I’m beyond confused, Anna Kate. It’s been a day. First my mother was lurking at the café, then my father actually went into the café? And a supper invite . . . ?”
My palms began to sweat. “Your mother was at the café?”
“Yes, peeking in like a stalker, when she’s refused to even look at that place for decades. Sorry,” she said, suddenly giving me a sweet smile. “I’m rambling. It’s just that you took me by surprise. Sunday supper is reserved for family only. Always has been, at least. Inviting a Callow is—”
She shook her head as though unable to finish the thought of exactly how unheard of it was. Then her eyes flew open, and her cheeks slowly turned from pink to red.
Smoothing an invisible wrinkle from her dress, she said, “I’ve made a mess of this situation. I’m terribly sorry if I made you feel unwelcome, Anna Kate.”
I’d have laughed if she didn’t look so miserable at the thought of hurting my feelings. “I said no to the invitation, if it makes you feel any better.”
“It doesn’t. I know better than to blather on like that.”
“Like you said, you were surprised.”
Nodding, she said, “Exactly. Surprised. Confused. Take your pick. Thank you for understanding.”
It was obvious she had been kept out of the loop as well. She had no idea I was her niece. Natalie and Ollie Walker might be the only two people within a ten-mile radius who hadn’t been clued in that I was AJ’s daughter, and I wondered what rock they’d been hiding under this past week.
I could see a dozen questions written on Natalie’s face, but it was clear she thought better of asking any of them. I should’ve said it was nice to meet her and then been on my way, but I was sick to death of secrets, and she deserved to know the truth. “What do you know about me?”
“I don’t know anything, really, other than your name and that you’re a relative of Zee’s who’s taken over the café. Why?”
“I’m Zee’s granddaughter.”
Dark eyebrows shot upward. “Her granddaughter? I didn’t know she had a granddaughter.”
I took a deep breath. “I’m Doc and Seelie’s granddaughter too.”
“You’re wait. What?” Natalie’s mouth fell open.
“My mother—Eden—was pregnant when she left Wicklow.”
With laser intensity, Natalie studied my face. Her eyes widened, and she gasped. “Oh. My. Lord. I’ve got to go.”
Without another word, she rushed over to Ollie and started tossing all her playthings into a backpack hooked on the arm of the stroller. But before I knew it, Natalie had picked up Ollie and jogged back toward me.
“Hihi!” Ollie said as they neared.
Natalie threw her free arm around me and squeezed me tightly in an awkward hug. Ollie joined in, setting a chubby arm on my shoulder. I didn’t quite know how to react, so I stood there, uncomfortable with the affection.
Natalie smiled and said, “I forgot to say welcome to the family, Anna Kate.”
Stunned, I said, “Thank you.”
Natalie pulled back. “Now, I really must go have a word with my mother. Bye!”
Ollie flapped her arm in my direction. “Bye!”
Welcome to the family.
All I’d ever wanted growing up was to have a normal, stereotypical life. Two parents, a pet. Sleepovers at my grandparents’ houses. A house that had a growth chart penciled on a doorjamb, marking height milestones from toddlerhood to teenager. A garden that didn’t need to be planted in a container on a small balcony because apartments didn’t have yards. Sunday dinners with generations gathered around the table. Big family holidays, with everyone gathered around, laughing and squabbling and loving.
My childhood had been so drastically different from what Natalie had undoubtedly experienced, and I couldn’t help the envy that came over me. Not to say that my childhood had been bad—it hadn’t. I was loved. Clothed. Fed. I’d seen many places, learned to take care of myself. But it had always felt as though I’d been cheated out of something everyone else tended to take for granted.
As Natalie buckled Ollie into the stroller, she yelled, “Don’t forget to save me a piece of pie! See you tomorrow.” And off she went, half walking, half jogging down the sidewalk.
As I turned toward the foothills, I took a deep breath, and tried to ignore the fact that I was starting to regret not accepting Doc’s invitation.
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I was lost.
Truthfully, it wasn’t the worst place to lose one’s way. I stood in the middle of a rutted golden-orange dirt-and-gravel lane riddled with fissures that resembled cracks on an overbaked gingerbread cake. A breeze swooping through the valley cut the humidity and brought with it a burst of pure, clean air swirling with pine scent.
Soaring oaks, pines, and black walnut trees cast long shadows. Butterflies skimmed colorful wildflowers standing brightly among the tall weeds and grasses that hugged the lane. I often found peace in the woods, thanks to Zee. For as long as I could remember, whenever she would visit, she’d find a way to sneak me out to the woods to teach me the magic of nature. She lovingly shared how plants, shrubs, trees, and flowers offered alternatives to traditional medicine—all things my mother had also forbidden.
“Callows have always been healers and nurturers, Anna Kate, but you must remember that there are many ways to doctor people, physically and emotionally.”
It was a sentiment she drilled into me whenever I saw or spoke to her. My mom had shied away from holistic medicine, which had caused endless strife between mother and daughter. It was a conflict that had begun before I was born, but I’d been caught in the middle of the emotional tug-of-war between their differing philosophies.
A hawk climbed high, rising on an updraft, and a chickadee chirped a warning call from somewhere in the dense woods.
“Birdie,” I called out. “Calm down. I’m just passing through.” My assurance did little to soothe the bird. In fact the dee⫾dee⫾ dee’s seemed to grow louder.
Using my wrist, I wiped sweat from my forehead and checked the map again. I’d passed the stand of six mailboxes that leaned shakily to the right as though ready to fall over if burdened by a heavy letter. I’d turned right at the black walnut tree, split down its middle from a lightning strike. I’d gone past two dirt lanes on the right and two on the left that snaked up the hillside. I turned onto the fifth lane, on the right, which should have been the Pavegeau’s long driveway. But after walking twenty minutes, and taking two forks, back-tracking, and taking the other options, there still wasn’t a house to be seen.
There hadn’t been any signs of human life, either, except for deep tire ruts that I’d come to suspect were made by a four-wheeler.
Flecks on black rocks in the path sparkled in patches of sunlight as I trudged along, hoping something would look familiar soon, but it seemed to me the further I walked, the more everything began to look exactly the same. Every bush, every tree, every rut in the dirt.
My gaze caught on a barberry shrub, and I eyed its ashy bark, knowing it could be used in a tea to help with jaundice, which started me thinking of Doc Linden again. With a sigh, I told myself to stop worrying about him, and continued on my way, leaving the bark behind.
The chickadee’s cries kicked up in their intensity, and I suddenly picked up the sound of rustling and the awareness that it hadn’t been me causing the bird’s distress. I stopped dead still, peering into the woods. I backed slowly away from the tree line. Whatever was making the undergrowth shudder was bigger than the squirrels that had been racing around, keeping me company for most of my hike.
Waving away a black fly from my face, I walked backward, trying to distance myself as I braced for the worst. A rabid raccoon. A wild boar. Did Alabama have bears?
I’d freaked myself out so well that when a gray cat leaped gracefully out of a patch of thick fern, I jumped and screamed.
I took a moment to enjoy the hilarity of my overdramatic reaction and realized the cat, with its charcoal-gray coloring and milky blue eyes, looked like the one who’d been sitting in Zee’s garden this morning.
The cat, as if it didn’t have a single care in the world, sauntered toward me and passed on by without so much as twitching a whisker in my direction.
About ten feet from me, the cat stopped. Sat. Looked over his shoulder. He took another few steps. Sat. Glanced back. “Reow.”
It could have been my imagination, or perhaps heat exhaustion setting in, but I could have sworn there was a hint of impatience in the cat’s voice.
As I took a tentative step toward him, he took one away from me. We repeated our odd dance until he finally stuck his tail in the air and strutted off down the dirt lane.
I dutifully followed, and twenty minutes later, the path widened, flooding with sunlight. Ahead, I caught sight of asphalt.
The cat had led me back to the road I’d come in on.
“Well, okay,” I said to him. “Thank you. I should probably head back to town at this point.” Considering I knew where that was.
Instead of turning left, toward town, the cat went right. A few steps away, he stopped, sat. Waited. His ear twitched, and I noticed it had a notched scar, probably a long-healed battle wound.
“All right, I guess we’re not going back to town. Lead on.”
As we walked the berm of the road, in my head I ran down the warning signs of heat exhaustion. Confusion and hallucinations were two of the symptoms, but I wasn’t dizzy, and I didn’t have a headache. My heartbeat was fine once I realized I wasn’t under attack from a wild boar. Still, I didn’t rule out the condition at this point.
After all, I was letting a cat lead me around.
If that wasn’t confused, I wasn’t sure what was.
We’d gone only a short way when the noise of an oncoming car sent the cat darting into the woods. The rumble of an engine grew, along with the thumping bass of a loud stereo. I stepped to the side as a dust-covered red pickup truck came up the hill. The music quieted as the truck rolled slowly to a stop beside me. I recognized it immediately. It belonged to my neighbor, Gideon Kipling—he’d been the one who’d picked me up at the Birmingham airport nearly a week ago.
The windows were down, and Gideon leaned toward the passenger side. “You okay, Anna Kate? You look a little … flustered.”
I could only imagine how I looked. Hair and T-shirt sweat-plastered to my body. Flaming red cheeks. Alternating expressions of bewilderment and defeat. “I was lost for a while, but …” I glanced toward the woods. No sign of the cat. “But now I’m not. At least I don’t think so.”
A smile twitched the corners of his mouth. “If you’re looking for town, you’re going the wrong way.”
“I was looking for the Pavegeau place? I have a piece of pie for Summer.”
“Want a ride? It’s not too far from here, but it is hard to find if you don’t know where to look.”
An understatement if I ever heard one. “Sure. Thanks.”
Reaching over, he opened the door from the inside, and as he pushed aside an iPad and several jars of honey, I climbed in. I buckled up, wiped my forehead with the back of my hand, and let out a breath. “Is it always this hot and humid?”
He put the truck in gear. “Nine, ten months of the year, it is. It’s actually a little cooler up here in the mountains than it is downstate.”
“Cooler? You’re kidding. How do people survive? My skin feels like it’s trying to melt off my bones.”
His accent, which wasn’t all that pronounced in regular conversation, thickened when he said, “Some around here will feed you lines about hydratin’ and usin’ air-conditioning or fans, but the simple truth is ...”
I enjoyed the way he played up his Southern. “Is what?”
“We survive on sweet tea and complaining, plain and simple. Mostly the sweet tea, if I’m tellin’ it to you straight.”
My mom had given up a lot when she left Wicklow, but she hadn’t left behind her love of sweet tea. It had been a staple in our house, all year long. “I’ll keep that in mind.”
The cab of the truck had a small backseat that was covered with assorted fishing gear, a box of zucchini, a couple of folded shirts and pants, and two pairs of shoes—one a pair of sneakers, the other dressy—and a dusty black satchel.
“How did your first day with the café go?” he asked.
I thought of the last time I was in this truck. Gideon’s low, smooth voice telling me the terms of Zee’s will. Of how, in order to inherit her estate, I had to live in Wicklow and run the café for a full sixty days. After that time was up, I’d inherit. From there I could do what I wished with the property, and I’d already asked Gideon to start putting out feelers to real estate agents.
I still couldn’t believe the terms Zee had laid out. What if I had already been in school? Or had a full-time job? Had she really no qualms about expecting me to put my life on hold for two months?
I laughed inwardly. Of course she had no qualms. Zee had been trying to get me to Wicklow for as long as I could remember. Through her will, she’d made sure it would happen.
Zee was anything but a quitter.
“It had its challenges,” I said, thinking of Mr. Lazenby’s tirade and of all the dishes I’d broken, “but overall, it went well.”
“I imagine it’ll get easier over time.”
“By the time I get used to it, it’ll be time to leave.”
“I wouldn’t be so sure about that. Wicklow has a way of holding on to you once you’re here.”
Why did that sound like a warning of some sort? One I didn’t need. I was starting medical school in August. My deposit had been paid. An apartment had been rented—my move-in date was August first. My destiny, as Jena would call it, was all mapped out. It wasn’t a confusing hand-drawn map from Bow, either. It was Garmin-worthy, even though I’d taken an unplanned detour through Wicklow along the way.
“That’s what happened to me,” he said. “I came over from Huntsville six years ago to do some mountain biking, and Wicklow didn’t let go.”
Up close, I could see he had some age on him. I guessed early to mid-thirties. Shallow crow’s feet spread from the corners of his eyes even when he wasn’t smiling, and strong lines bracketed his mouth under the hint of a five-o’clock shadow. His hair was short, sandy blond with a patch of silver near his right temple, and his eyes were nearly the same color as the amber honey sitting between us.
“I heard Doc Linden stopped by to see you earlier. So he knows about you?”
I didn’t even pretend to be surprised Gideon had already heard. I knew how fast news traveled in this town. “He knows.” I held up a jar of honey to change the subject. I didn’t want to think about Doc, let alone rehash the conversation. “Do you keep bees?”
He slid an assessing look my way. “No, a client does. She pays me by way of honey.”
Grateful he hadn’t pushed the Doc subject, I turned the jar, warm from the heat of the day, examining the way the sunlight played on the color. “It’s not going to pay the bills, but it’s a form of payment I wouldn’t mind. It’s beautiful.”
“Take a jar. Two. I have plenty. Do you need any zucchini?”
“No! I mean, no thank you. Zee’s garden has a couple of plants.”
The blinker ticked as he turned right onto a dirt strip nearly hidden by sweetgum branches arching across the driveway. I wasn’t sure I would have seen the turn even if I had made it this far up the hill.
“No one had a green thumb like Zee.”
Branches scraped the truck’s roof as we bumped along the lane, and I swallowed back the sorrow that bubbled up, thick as the honey I still held. “True.”
A dog’s bark carried into the truck, and he said, “That’s Ruby. She’s sweet but also a jumper, so brace yourself.”
The driveway stretched into a clearing, and a milk chocolate–colored dog bounced around. I’d been expecting a small cabin and was surprised to see a rather large cottage with a wraparound porch and a pitched metal roof topped with solar panels. A man stood on the front steps, a fancy, hand-carved walking stick in one hand. No sign of a shotgun. Thank God.
“That’s Aubin. Have you met him yet?”
“No, but Bow and Jena told me a little about him.”
“I’ll introduce you.” Gideon cut the engine. “Do you want me to stick around to give you a ride back to town?”
“You don’t have to do that—I’ll find it easy enough now that I know the way.”
“I wouldn’t want you melting into a puddle on my account.”
I pushed open the door. “I’ll be okay. Thanks.”
“All right, then.” He hopped out of the truck and Ruby made a beeline for Gideon, jumping all around him. He gave her a good petting, and then came to stand by my side.
Aubin spoke around some sort of stick in his mouth. “Wasn’t expecting you, Gid.” He glanced toward me and gave a firm nod. “Ma’am.”
I bit back a sigh at the salutation and nodded back.
Ruby rushed toward me, sniffing and bouncing. I kept the pie box out of reach and tried to keep her from knocking me over.
Aubin took the stick out of his mouth, tucking it into his back pocket as he whistled sharply. Ruby immediately ran to his side and sat. Her tail swished the ground, stirring up a cloud of dirt.
“Hope you don’t mind us dropping in. Anna Kate is looking for Summer.” Gideon made quick introductions before saying to me, “You sure you don’t want me to wait?”
I turned to him. “I’m sure. Thanks for the rescue.”
“Anytime, Anna Kate.” He gave Aubin a wave and hopped in his truck. Ruby took off after him as he drove off in a cloud of dust.
Aubin studied my face with light, troubled eyes. “Come up on the porch, out of the sun.”
I’d been picturing Aubin Pavegeau as an old man for some reason.
His name, maybe. But by the looks of him, he was mid-forties at most. A shock of dark, thick hair drooped onto his forehead. A head taller than me, he was lean but muscled, wearing a tight blue tee. His jeans seemed extra baggy, and I wondered if he’d lost weight recently or if he preferred a looser fit because of his damaged leg.
“Your name is Callow?”
I followed him up the steps. “That’s right.”
“How old are you?” he asked.
I could practically see the mental math he was doing as he pieced together the truth of who I was. “Twenty-four.”
He walked steadily and surely despite a marked hobble. Part of the porch was screened in, and he held open the door for me. I went ahead, noting the small tears in the screen, the blistered, peeling paint on the frame, the sagging ceiling panels, and the loose deck boards. A small wooden table was flanked by two white rockers, not a speck of dirt on them. On the table was a library-loaned cookbook, a pitcher dripping with condensation, half-filled with purplish-red tea, and a mason jar full of ice.
“Have a sit-down. I’ll be right back—I need to grab another glass.”
A set of hand-carving tools were lined up on a workbench pushed against the wall. An assortment of walking sticks and canes in midproduction leaned against one of the porch columns.
Aubin returned a moment later, a tall glass clutched in the palm of his big hand. He set his cane against the house, then sat and went about pouring the sweet tea.
“Beautiful work,” I said, motioning toward the carvings. One cane had a handle that looked like Ruby’s face.
“Thank you. My father taught me. He was a woodcrafter, had a shop in town before it became too pricy to keep open. He’s been gone a few years now.”
He tipped his head in acknowledgment, and handed me the glass he’d just filled.
I glanced around. “Is Summer here? I have a piece of pie for her— she accidentally left it behind at the café this morning.”
“She’s out picking blackberries this afternoon.”
“Oh. Then I’ll leave this with you if that’s okay and let you get back to your day.” I set the box on the table.
“No need to rush off,” Aubin said, motioning to the glass in my hand. “That sweet tea isn’t going to drink itself, and you look like you could use some hydration.”
I could probably drink a whole gallon of water right now and still be parched. “Thanks.” I took a sip, unsure at first what I was drinking, and then I decided I’d never tasted anything so good. “Blackberry? It’s delicious.”
“Took me nearly a month to perfect the recipe.”
“Worth every minute.” I took another sip, trying to deconstruct the flavors. “Is there honey in there?”
“Yes, ma’am. But what gives it that extra something,” he said, listing forward and dropping his voice, “is grenadine.”
I took another sip, and now that I knew what I was looking for, I could taste it. “I wouldn’t have thought to use grenadine. It’s a perfect complement.”
“I have a few pomegranate trees out back, and I make my own syrup. Out here in the woods, you tend to use what you have on hand.” He pulled the stick from his pocket and started chewing on it again.
It was a sweetgum twig, I realized. Nature’s toothbrush, Zee had once said, but it seemed to me Aubin’s chewing was more habit than anything.
“I should be taking notes. I’d love to serve something like this at the café.”
“You’ve taken over the Blackbird, then?”
“For the time being. I’m going to medical school soon back in Massachusetts.”
“Medical school. You don’t say,” he said, not sounding surprised at all. He peered at me over the rim of his glass. “You’ve got your mama’s eyes. The coloring, that bright green is all Eden.”
“You knew my mother?”
He broke eye contact, turning his attention to Ruby, who was galloping across the yard. “A long time ago, I did. Knew your daddy, too. No denying you look like AJ.”
I held on to the glass tightly, its chill seeping into my palm. My parents, if they were alive, would be forty-four years old this year. Aubin, if I figured his age right, would be about the same. “How well did you know them?”
“AJ and I grew up together. When he and Eden started dating, we three would hang out from time to time.”
“So you were close friends, then?” I would love to find someone who knew them well, who could share stories with me. Someone other than the Lindens. I wanted to get to know the people my parents had been.
“What is friendship, really?” His voice was strained, and he wouldn’t look my way. He just sat there, running his hand along the thigh of his bad leg.
I saw pain in his eyes and wondered where it originated—in the past or with his injury—but I couldn’t bring myself to push for an explanation. Feeling suddenly bereft, I set the tea glass on the table. “I really should get going.”
Aubin didn’t seem the least bit sorry to see me go. He grabbed his cane, walked me to the screen door, and held it open.
“Thank you for the tea.”
I was barely off the porch steps when Aubin said, “Anna Kate?”
My chest ached as I glanced back at him, standing there leaning on his beautiful cane, his eyes looking like dark reflecting pools of remorse.
He said, “You … Did you grow up happy? Was your mother happy?”
I didn’t want to think too hard about the answer to those questions. But my voice gave away my emotions, nearly breaking flat open as I said, “What is happiness, Mr. Pavegeau, really?”
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