Booker Robinson sat in his truck at ten o’clock on a warm Thursday night, staring at the small rental house where Katie Rogers lived and telling himself he was crazy to be even here. He wasn’t the type to ask for anything. He’d made it a habit to never to need anyone. He’d learned as a child that showing vulnerability in any way was never rewarded.
But he’d heard that Katie and Andy Bray were almost engaged, that she was going to leave town with Andy soon. And he knew, if she did, she’d be making a big mistake. Andy wouldn’t take care of her the way he would. Andy wouldn’t love her as he did. Andy loved only himself.
Taking a deep breath, Booker cut the engine, got out and walked up the drive. He’d hoped Katie would come back to him on her own. For a few short weeks, they’d shared something that was heady, powerful and very mutual. He could tell she’d felt everything he did. But her family and most of her friends had convinced her she’d be ruining her life to take a risk on someone like him, a man with a criminal past and not much of a future. And now she was running scared and on the verge of marrying someone else.
She might end up marrying Andy, Booker told himself, but she wasn’t going to do it without at least knowing how he felt about her. He lived with enough regrets already….
It took several minutes for someone to answer his knock. When the door finally opened, Katie’s best friend Wanda peered out at him.
He could tell she was nervous to see him, so he didn’t bother with small talk. Wanda was one of those people telling Katie that he’d never amount to anything. “Is she home?” he asked, not bothering to specify Katie by name because they both knew who ‘she’ was.
“Um…I don’t think—”
He broke in before she could finish. “I saw her pull into the garage from the end of the street.”
“Right.” She chuckled self-consciously. “I wasn’t sure if she actually came in or not, but she must have, if you saw her. Just a minute.”
While he waited, Booker’s pulse raced. He’d never laid his heart open to a woman before, wasn’t sure where to start now. He hadn’t let himself love many people.
You’re a fool for even trying, you know that, don’t you?… Who are you to say you’re any better than Andy? At least Andy comes from a good family and has a college degree… What do you have to offer?
He almost turned to leave, but Katie finally appeared.
“Booker?” She sounded surprised to see him. He’d known she would be. He hadn’t contacted her since they’d had that big argument several weeks ago–when she’d told him it was over between them, that she wanted to start seeing Andy, and he’d thought he could let her go.
He took a deep breath. “Can we talk?”
“I don’t think so,” she replied. “There’s really nothing to say.”
“You’re making a mistake, Katie.”
“You don’t know that.”
Maybe he didn’t know it. But he felt it. Letting her marry anyone else was a mistake. It had taken him nearly thirty years to fall in love, but the hell of living without Katie the past few weeks had left little doubt in his mind that he was there now. “What we had was good.”
“I-I can’t argue with that, but…” she tucked her long blonde hair behind her ears in a nervous gesture and glanced over her shoulder “…I’m sorry. I’ve already made up my mind.”
The expression in her large blue eyes looked tortured. He could tell that she was torn between what she thought and felt and what others were telling her. He knew she was afraid of what he’d once been. He wouldn’t want a daughter of his to marry an ex-con, either. But he couldn’t change his past. He could only change his future….
“Katie…” Reaching out, he ran a finger along her jaw. The contact made him yearn to hold her, and she seemed to feel something similar. She closed her eyes and pressed her cheek into the palm of his hand as though she was dying for his touch. “You still care about me,” he murmured. “I can tell. Come back to me.”
Tears glittered in her eyelashes, reflecting the porch light. “No,” she said, suddenly pushing his hand away. “Don’t confuse me. Andy says I’ll feel differently after a few months away. We’re going to get married, have a family—”
“But you don’t love Andy,” Booker said. “I can’t even see you with that self-serving yuppie.”
“He’s a nice guy, Booker.”
“Why? Because he helped you raise the money to replace that old floor at the Elks Club?”
“That was no small thing. Without him, I probably wouldn’t have been able to start my singles club for seniors.”
“He only did it to impress you. Can’t you see that?”
“Booker, I don’t want to argue about Andy. I’m trying to make a good decision for my future, and yours, too. I’ve got to go—”
“Marry me, Katie,” he said suddenly, passionately. “I know I can make you happy.”
Her eyes widened, and two tears slipped down her cheeks. “Booker, I can’t. You’re not ready to be weighed down by a wife and family. You love your freedom too much. I knew that when we first started seeing each other.”
“Katie, maybe it wouldn’t have come to this quite so soon if things had worked out another way, but—”
“I’m sorry, Booker. I’ve got to go,” she said. Then the door closed in his face. When she drove the bolt home, he knew he’d lost her.
Two years later…
Katie Rogers smelled smoke coming from the engine of her car.
“Come on, you can make it,” she muttered, her fingers tightening on the steering wheel of the old Cadillac, which was pretty much the most valuable possession she had left. She’d purchased the vehicle three days ago after posting a “garage sale” sign near her apartment and selling off the last of her and Andy’s furniture. Then she’d packed up what was left of her belongings and headed out of San Francisco before he could come home and plead with her to give him one more chance. She couldn’t bear to deal with Andy Bray any more. Not with a child on the way. Not when it seemed as though she was the only one between them who was finally growing up.
The smell of smoke became more pronounced, causing Katie to wrinkle her nose and remember, with longing, the nice new truck she’d owned when she left Dundee. She and Andy had used that truck to move to San Francisco. But once they’d arrived, Andy had talked her into selling it for the security deposit on a better apartment. “We don’t want to stay in a dump,” he’d said. “And we don’t need a car…We’re in the city now, babe. There’re plenty of ways to get around…As soon as I start making the big bucks we can get another set of wheels….”
As soon as he started making the big bucks… Ha! Katie would’ve been satisfied had he earned just a few bucks. Or at least used some caution in the way he threw her money around.
Because they couldn’t afford parking, she’d finally agreed to sell the truck. But it was a decision she’d long regretted. If she’d had a reliable vehicle, maybe she would’ve left sooner.
The “Welcome to Dundee, Home of the Annual Bad-to-the-Bone Rodeo, Population 1,438” sign she’d seen thousands of times in her youth appeared in her headlights. Breathing a huge sigh of relief, Katie began to relax. She was going to make it home safely. After traveling 640 miles, she was only another ten or so from her parents’ house—
Suddenly, the Cadillac gave a loud chung, and the lights on the dashboard blinked twice before going out. Katie frantically pumped the gas pedal, hoping to get a little farther, but it didn’t do her any good. The car slowed, trailing smoke.
“No!” Katie shifted the transmission into neutral so she could crank the starter. Returning to Dundee in her current situation was pathetic enough. She didn’t want anyone she knew to see her stranded on the side of the road.
But the car wouldn’t start. She was pretty sure it was dead for good.
Her tires crunched on the snow-covered shoulder as she managed to pull over without the aid of the power steering that had gone out when everything else did. Then she sat, listening to the hiss coming from the engine and watching smoke billow out from under her hood. What now? She couldn’t walk the rest of the way to her folks’ house. The doctor didn’t want her to be on her feet. Just two weeks ago, she’d started experiencing premature labor pains and he’d told her she had to take it easy.
Sitting inside a dead car wasn’t going to do her any good, though. For all she knew, the engine was on fire and the car would momentarily explode, the way so many seemed to do on television.
Wrestling her luggage out of the backseat, she dragged it a safe distance. Then she sat on the bigger suitcase and shivered in the cold night air as she watched several cars pass. She didn’t have the heart to stand or make herself noticed. She’d hit rock bottom. Life had finally gotten as bad as it could be.
And then it started to rain.
Booker T. Robinson switched on his windshield wipers as he descended into Dundee. It was a chilly Monday night, cool enough that he thought the rain would turn to snow before morning. Dundee typically saw a lot of snow in February. But Booker didn’t mind. He was comfortable living in the farmhouse he’d inherited from Grandma Hatfield. And any kind of extreme weather was good for business.
Sticking one of the toothpicks from his ashtray into his mouth, a habit he’d developed when he quit smoking over a year ago, he started figuring how much longer it would be before he had Lionel Richman paid off.
Another six months, he decided. Then he’d own Lionel & Sons Auto Repair free and clear and could buy the lot next door and expand. Maybe he’d even give the business his name. He’d kept “Lionel & Sons” because it had been that way for fifty years and the people of Dundee didn’t like change any more than they’d liked him when he first moved to town. But since he’d taken over, he’d developed a solid reputation for knowing cars and—
Sight of an old banged-up sedan, parked mostly off the highway up ahead piqued Booker’s curiosity enough to make him brake. He owned the only tow truck in the area, which was currently at his shop. But he hadn’t received a distress call on his radio. Yet.
Where was the driver? He couldn’t see anyone inside or around the vehicle. Whoever owned the Cadillac had probably already headed into town, looking for help. But, judging from the smoke pouring out from beneath the hood, he doubted the car had been sitting too long.
Chewing thoughtfully on his toothpick, he pulled up behind the stranded vehicle, left his lights on so he could see and got out. If the car was unlocked and he could get beneath the hood, it would probably be smart to take a look while he was here. Chances were the car had a busted hose–a problem he could solve easily enough without going to the trouble of towing the Cadillac to his shop in the middle of town.
The moment he stepped out of his truck, however, he realized he wasn’t as alone as he’d thought. A woman, judging by her size, peered at him from around the front of the car. She was wearing a man-sized sweatshirt with a hood that shielded her face and head from the rain, a pair of faded jeans with bottoms a little wider than he typically saw in these parts and—his eyes darted back to her feet—sandals? In February?
The car had California plates. Leave it to someone from sunny California to run around in sandals all winter.
He shrugged on his leather jacket as he walked over, stopping well short of her. He didn’t want to frighten her. He only wanted to get her car going so he’d be able to meet Rebecca and Josh for a drink at the Honky Tonk and not be interrupted later. “Having trouble?” he asked above the sound of the wind.
“No.” She pulled the hood of her sweatshirt farther forward. “Everything’s fine.”
The wind whipped her words away and made it difficult for him to hear. He took the toothpick out of his mouth and stepped closer. “Did you say everything’s fine?”
She moved back a distance equal to his advance. “Yes. You can go on your way.”
Booker cut his eyes to the smoke rising from her car. He might have thought it was just steam coming off a warm engine on a cold night. Except steam didn’t explain the luggage or why this woman was standing on the side of the road in a sweatshirt so wet it dripped along the hem. And it sure as hell didn’t explain the distinctive scent of a burned up engine.
“Everything doesn’t smell fine,” he said.
“I’m just letting the engine cool.”
The engine was going to need a lot more than a good cooling. He could tell that without even looking at it. But Booker didn’t say so because this time when she’d spoken, something about her voice had sparked a flicker of recognition.
The California license plate flashed through his mind. He didn’t know anyone from California, except… God, it couldn’t be…
“Katie?” he said, trying to make out her face despite the shadow of her hood.
He thought he saw her shoulders droop. “It’s me,” she said. “Go ahead and gloat.”
Booker didn’t respond right away. He didn’t know what to say. Or how to feel. But gloating was pretty far down his list. Mostly, he wanted to leave so he wouldn’t have to see her again. Only he couldn’t abandon her, or any woman, on the side of the road in the cold rain. “You need a lift?”
She hesitated briefly. Then her chin came up. “No, that’s okay. My dad’s good with cars. He’ll help me.”
“Does he know you’re out here?”
A slight hesitation, then, “Yeah, he’s expecting me. He’ll know when I don’t show up.”
Booker put the toothpick back into his mouth. Part of him suspected she was lying. The other part, the stronger part, felt immediate relief that she was somebody else’s problem. “I’ll take off, then. Your dad can call me if he has any questions.”
He strode briskly to his truck, but she followed him before he could make good his escape.
With a sigh, he rolled down his window. “Is there something else?” “Actually, I’m here a little earlier than planned and…” she rubbed her arms, shivering “…well, it’s possible that my parents won’t miss me for a while. I think I’d be better off taking that ride you offered, if you don’t mind.”
Everything’s fine… She’d said so when he first pulled up. Why couldn’t he have taken her at her word and let her remain anonymous?
The pain and resentment he’d felt two years ago, when she’d closed the door in his face, threatened to consume him again. But, considering the circumstances, he had to help her. What choice did he have?
“What’s with the sandals?” he asked.
Hugging herself for warmth, she stared down at her soaked feet. “I bought them in the heart of San Francisco. They’re one of a kind, designed especially for me.”
They were still only sandals, and it was raining, for Pete’s sake. She must have realized that he didn’t understand the full significance of what she’d just said because she added, “The day Andy and I bought these was the best day of the past two years. And the only day that turned out anything like I’d planned.”
So they were a symbol of her lost illusions. Well, thanks to her, Booker had a few lost illusions of his own. Not that he’d possessed many to being with. His parents had taken care of that early on. “Hop in,” he said. “I’ll get your luggage.”
Katie sat without talking, listening to the hum of the heater and the beat of the windshield wipers as Booker drove into town. Of all the people in Dundee, he was the last person she’d wanted to see. So, of course, he’d been the one to come along. It was that kind of day—er, year.
Keeping her hands clasped in her lap, Katie stared glumly out at the familiar buildings they passed. The Honky Tonk, where she used to hang out on the weekends. The library, where her friend Delaney, who was now married to Conner Armstrong, used to work. Finley’s Grocery, where Katie had once knocked over a whole display of Campbell’s Soup trying to get a better look at Mike Hill, a boy she’d had a crush on all the time she was growing up.
“You warm?” Booker asked. She nodded even though she was still chilled, and he turned down the heat.
“So,” she said, hoping to ease the tension between them, “how’ve things been since I went away?”
She could see the scar on his face that ran from his eye to his chin—something he’d obtained in a knife fight, he once told her—and the tattoo on his right bicep. It moved as his hands clenched the steering wheel more tightly. But he didn’t respond.
“Don’t pretend like we’re friends, Katie,” he said shortly.
“Because we’re not.”
“Oh.” Booker’s list of friends had always been short. He regarded everyone, except maybe Rebecca Wells–Rebecca Hill since she’d married Josh–with a certain amount of distrust. So Katie knew, with the history between them, she shouldn’t be surprised. She’d lost his good opinion along with everything else. If she’d ever really possessed it. Even when they were spending so much time together before she left, she’d never felt completely confident that he cared about her. He’d driven her around on his Harley and shown her one heck of a good time. But he was somewhat remote, and she’d always approached their relationship with a sense of inevitability that it wouldn’t, couldn’t, last. Then he’d shown up at her door and proposed! She didn’t know how to explain that, except that his widowed grandmother, Hatty, had just died. He and Hatty had been so close throughout her final years that Katie could only suppose his sudden marriage proposal was triggered by his loss.
Now he was obviously holding a grudge that she’d turned him down at a difficult time, or been the one to cut things off between them. “I make a left at 500 South?” he asked after several minutes.
She pulled her attention away from the rain beading on the windshield. “What?”
“Your parents still live in the same place, don’t they?”
Last she’d heard they did. But she didn’t know. She hadn’t talked to them since a year ago last Christmas when they’d told her not to call again. “They’ve been on Lassiter nearly thirty years,” she said, infusing her voice with as much confidence as she could muster. “Knowing them, they’ll be there another thirty.”
“Seems like I heard your father say something not too long ago about building a cabin a few miles outside of town.” He shifted his gaze from the road to study her. “They gave up on that?”
Apprehension clawed at Katie’s insides. Her folks had the same telephone number. She’d definitely heard her mother answer when she used the payphone yesterday. She’d wanted to tell her family that she was on her way home. Only she’d lost her nerve at the last moment and hung up.
“Yeah.” Having the same number didn’t necessarily mean they hadn’t moved within a certain geographic area, but Katie was sticking with the gamble. Doing anything else would reveal a rift she preferred to keep private. “They like living so close to their bakery. That bakery is their life,” she added.
The Arctic Flyer came up on the right, evoking several bittersweet memories. Katie had worked there the summer of her junior year, because she’d wanted to try something besides her parents’ bakery, and she’d broken the ice cream machine her first week. Harvey, the owner, had complained every day about the money she was costing him, until the part to repair the darn thing finally came in.
Booker turned up the radio, causing her to glance surreptitiously his way. Her memories of him didn’t hail back nearly as far as her Arctic Flyer days. She’d heard tale of him visiting for several months when he was about fifteen, because he’d raised enough hell that the entire town still regarded him as trouble. He’d mentioned a few things about that visit himself, like stealing Eugene Humphries’ truck and driving it into the river. But Katie was only nine years old at the time. She hadn’t met him until a years later when he moved in with Hatty.
“Aren’t you curious to know what I’m doing back?” she asked, turning to conversation to staunch the memories.
He glanced pointedly at her two suitcases, which he’d wedged into the backseat of his extended cab. “I think that’s pretty obvious.”
“Actually, it’s probably not what you think. San Francisco was fabulous, for the most part,” she said. Which was true–if she confined her comments to the city itself.
When he made no reply, she plunged ahead. “It’s just that I’m a country girl at heart, you know? I decided that San Francisco is a great place to visit, but nowhere I’d want to stay.”
He slung one arm over the steering wheel, and she supposed it was his rebel attitude that made it possible for him to look both bored and on-edge at the same time.
“Don’t you have anything to say?” she asked.
His toothpick moved as he chewed on it. “Where’s Andy?”
“He—” she scrambled for something to crack Booker’s tacit reserve “—he’s laid up and couldn’t come along.”
Booker arched an eyebrow. “Laid up?”
“He was hit by a cable car.”
She’d hoped to elicit a smile, but the line of Booker’s lips remained as grim as ever. Slowly, he moved the toothpick to the other side of his mouth. “You mean life in San Francisco wasn’t the nirvana you were looking for.”
She resisted the urge to squirm in her seat. “We all make mistakes,” she muttered as he pulled in front of her parents’ white-brick rambler.
He easily yanked the suitcases she could barely lift out of his truck, carried them to the door and punched the doorbell. Then he pivoted and headed back, leaving her on the doorstep without so much as a “good-bye” or a “good luck”.
“Haven’t you ever done anything you regret?” she called after him. She knew he’d done plenty; she just didn’t know if he regretted any of it. He certainly had never acted as though he felt any remorse.
But she didn’t listen for a reply. The door to her parents’ home opened almost immediately, and her stomach knotted at seeing her mother’s face for the first time in two years.
“Hi Mom,” she said, praying that Tami Rogers would be more forgiving than Booker.
Her mother’s expression didn’t look promising. And when Tami glanced at Booker and his truck, her features became even more pinched. “What are you doing here?”
Katie peeked over her shoulder at Booker, too, wishing him away, well out of earshot. “I…” The pain inside her suddenly swelled. She couldn’t even remember, let alone recite, the eloquent apology she’d prepared on the way from San Francisco. All she wanted was for her mother to reach out and hug her. Please…
Her mouth like cotton, she searched for the right words. “I…I need to come home, Mom…just for a little bit,” she added because she thought it might make a difference if her mother understood she didn’t expect any long-term help. Just a place to stay and some kind of welcome until she could find a job that wouldn’t require her to be on her feet.
“Oh, now you want to come home,” her mother replied.
“I know you’re angry—”
“Andy called here looking for you,” she interrupted.
“He told us you never married.” She folded her arms and leaned against the lintel. “Is that true?”
“Yes, but only because—” “He also said you’re five months pregnant.”
Instinctively, Katie’s hand went to her abdomen. She hadn’t gained any weight yet, so the pregnancy wasn’t apparent, especially in Andy’s baggy sweatshirt. But had she been standing naked, her mother would’ve been able to detect a small bulge forming below her bellybutton. “It-it wasn’t something I planned. But once it happened I thought that maybe Andy would finally see—”
Her mother put up a hand to stop her. “I don’t want to hear it. I raised you better than this Katie Lynne Rogers. You used to be a good girl, the sweetest there was.”
Katie tried not to blanch as her mother’s rejection lashed a part of her that was already terribly raw. “I’m still the same person, Mom.”
“No, you’re not the girl I knew.”
Katie didn’t know how to combat that statement, so she switched topics. “Andy had no right to tell you anything. He’s the one who—”
“He’s a bum, just as we thought. Right?”
Andy was handsome and debonair. He certainly looked like a stand-up guy. But he was full of empty promises and false apologies. She couldn’t refute that, so she nodded.
“We tried to tell you,” Tami went on. “But you wouldn’t listen. Now you’ve made your bed, I guess you can sleep in it.”
The door closed with a decisive click.
Katie blinked at the solid panel, feeling numb, incredulous. Home was the place that had to take you in, right? She’d hung on to that thought for miles and miles. She didn’t have anywhere else to go. She’d spent nearly every dime she possessed reaching Dundee.
She thought of the last twenty bucks in her wallet and knew it would never be enough to get a room. She couldn’t even walk back to town, where there was a motel, without risking the baby.
Slowly it dawned on her that she hadn’t heard Booker pull away from the curb. Which meant he’d probably heard the whole thing.
Embarrassment so powerful it hurt swept through her as she turned. Sure enough, he was standing at the end of the walk, leaning against his truck with the rain dripping off him, staring at her with those shiny black eyes of his.
For him to learn about the baby this way, for him to see what Andy had reduced her to—it was more humiliating than Katie had ever imagined. She’d broken off her relationship with Booker because she wanted more than what he could give her. And here she was….
A lump formed in her throat and her eyes began to burn. But she had a few shreds of pride left.
Bending, she picked up her small suitcase. She couldn’t lift the large one. It was too heavy to carry with any kind of dignity, and she wouldn’t get far trying to drag it. So she sucked in a quick, ragged breath in an effort to hold herself together a little longer, threw her shoulders back and started down the street.
She didn’t know where she was going. But, at the moment, anywhere was better than here.