Free Excerpt

Chapter One

 

A crimson-red sports car zoomed into a parking spot in front of Southern Fried Kudzu, ruffling a few droopy mums slumped over a barrel on the sidewalk. McKenzie Price threw a glance over her shoulder at the noise, then turned back to watch Barney prep the day’s beef patties through the pass-through window. “At least they were playing a good song,” she teased.

 

“I’d rather hear ‘Jingle Bells,’” the old cook grunted.

 

“When I buy this diner, we’ll play ‘Jingle Bells’ year around,” she promised. The bells on the front door jangled, and someone chatting on a cell phone dashed inside. McKenzie grinned at Barney as footsteps approached the register. The phone conversation stopped, and she turned with a bemused but polite welcome on her lips. Her heart did a back flip when she locked eyes with a familiar bronze gaze.

 

“Hey, I’m in a hurry and need a cup of—Mac?” Rustic copper locks the same shade as the mums outside the door stopped McKenzie’s usual greeting from reaching her lips. The blood drained from her cheeks as a man with an expensive watch stared at on her name tag. If she imagined him thinner, added gold-rimmed glasses and a generous smattering of freckles, she’d be seventeen again. And so would he.

 

“Ben Cooper.” She found her words as she wrestled with a confused feeling of pleasant surprise. “I go by McKenzie instead of Mac these days.”

 

“Well, other than that, you haven’t changed.” Ben smiled, but  McKenzie’s response caught in her chest. She knew they’d meet again one day. And with his father ill, she’d recently suspected it would probably be sooner rather than later. “You still wear your hair in a ponytail,” Ben said,  as if he didn’t know what else to say.

 

It’d been twelve years, but McKenzie knew what he was thinking despite the friendly charade. This was the same place she’d worked at during high school, and the only thing new about her was she’d changed her nickname back to her full name to feel more adult. But the truth was, she was the same. No family. No career. Not even the little bookstore she’d always said she would own someday. And as Ben had just pointed out, she still wore her hair like she had all her life. Ben was a big successful doctor in Chicago now. Suddenly, McKenzie felt like someone had a heat lamp aimed at her head, and she was tempted to inform him she’d be buying the old diner soon.

 

“Yes,” she said instead, “a ponytail works best for food service. How are you, Ben? Welcome home.” His freckles had faded, his orange-red hair deepened to a gorgeous shade of auburn, and he was no longer skin and bones. It was a startling metamorphosis. “Is that your car?” She motioned toward the front window, trying not to show she approved of his new look despite the big-city inclinations .

 

“Why, yes, it is,” he answered in a teasing tone. “The new Porsche. All electric. Would you like to go on a ride sometime?”

 

McKenzie gaped. Was he flirting? Ben Cooper didn’t flirt. He studied. He worked. He avoided girls like the plague. At least, he had once upon a time. But he had a daughter now—sweet little Megan, who lived in Kudzu Creek with his parents. That meant he’d quit avoiding girls some time ago. “Um, no,” McKenzie blurted out.

 

“Okay, but let me thank you for watching Megan while my dad was in the hospital.” Ben’s eyes looked darker than they used to be. Richer. “Mom told me you’ve picked her up from school a few times, too. Thank you.”

 

“It wasn’t a problem. She’s friends with my niece.” McKenzie suddenly needed to turn away to collect herself. The old diner that had been her rock for so long was now spinning.

 

“Are you sure you don’t want to go for a drive?” Ben pressed. “It’s been a while.”

 

It’d been a long while because he’d left. Hurt strummed down McKenzie’s spine. “It’s not my idea of a relaxing ride through the countryside,” she stammered with an echo of her old stubbornness. “Not in a car like that.”

 

“I don’t live in the country,” Ben reminded her. The corners of his smile tightened. “Trauma centers don’t grow like cabbages and cantaloupes do around here.”

 

“Neither do race cars,” McKenzie returned. They stared at one another, a thousand words swirling in a whirlpool of yesterdays and way-back-whens.

 

Ben cocked his head. “Do you still drive that old beat-up sedan?”

 

“My dad’s car?” Snapped out of her memories, McKenzie countered, “No, I drive a new beat-up sedan. Compact, actually.”

 

Ben’s eyes flickered, and silence dropped between them like a piano from the sky. “So,” said McKenzie, when it became apparent neither one of them was going to bring up the past, “did you want to order something?”

 

“Yes, a coffee,” he answered in a tight voice. It sounded artificial. Not like her Ben.

 

McKenzie whirled around and bulged her eyes at the coffee machine. Her Ben? He’d been a dear friend, but he’d never been hers. His family was well-to-do, educated, and his parents had stayed together. Her family had been a train wreck. So they’d never been anything more than friends. Good friends. Until… A strange ripple of regret washed through McKenzie, uncovering small, sharp stones best left unturned. Ben broke the awkward silence by saying hello to someone on his cell phone. McKenzie exhaled. Surely doctors had voice mail.

 

When his coffee was topped off and sealed to prevent spills, she punched the order into the register as he waved a credit card in the air without breaking off his phone conversation. McKenzie ran the card, tore off the receipt and handed it to him with a stucco smile plastered on her face. He chuckled at something the caller said and gave her a quick wave goodbye with his pinky finger, like they saw each other all the time. “Bye,” he mouthed. Seconds later, the flashy car outside growled to life and screeched away.

 

McKenzie’s mind raced as she wiped off the counter in a robotic motion. Seeing her former best friend after all these years shouldn’t have felt so uncomfortable, even if their last conversation had been tense and awkward. They’d spent almost every day of their childhood sharing their hopes, dreams and deepest secrets. They used to lean on each other through hard times. She shuddered, her nerves a tangled mix of interest and remorse. Ben had left for the city with big ambitions. She’d stayed in Kudzu Creek because leaving hadn’t been worth the risk—not for a relationship. She hadn’t been ready when he’d announced his feelings had blossomed into something beyond friendship.

 

The door jangled again, and McKenzie broke into a grin, anxieties forgotten. She waved at Ms. Olivia, her oldest and most faithful customer, who’d come for her sweet tea. Ms. Olivia always had a funny story, and McKenzie liked to make sure she was doing okay since she lived alone. She would have to worry about Ben later. Hopefully, Dr. Bentley Cooper of the big city of Chicago had forgotten and forgiven her for rejecting him all those years ago. He was just in town to visit his parents and little girl for the holidays and would be racing back to the fancy, prestigious life he’d left Kudzu Creek for in no time at all. She probably wouldn’t even see him again.