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.

 

*

 

If Ben Cooper was honest, there was a slight trembling in his arms and legs despite the outward show of calm. He caught himself putting too much pressure on the gas and slowed. It’d be awful to hurt someone on the road just because his adrenal glands were ricocheting between fight or flight. He stopped at a crosswalk for a dachshund, tugging its owner along, and inhaled a slow stream of oxygen to calm his nerves. Seeing McKenzie had startled him. That was all. He knew she still worked at the old diner and that they’d run into each other at some point. The country mouse who’d insisted she would never live in a big city had kept her word: she was still in Kudzu Creek. Still the same girl. Well, he corrected himself, she was actually prettier—in a mature, womanly way—and had retained her charming southern manners, except for the subtle dig at his new car. Ben scraped his lip with his teeth and frowned. Had nothing changed in her life since he’d left?

 

He circled the block of historic redbrick buildings in downtown Kudzu Creek and parked in the back alley of his father’s medical clinic, still unable to pry McKenzie from the forefront of his mind. He’d assumed she would eventually settle down, just as he knew she was aware he’d had a wife for a brief time. Ben thanked God every day his parents had offered to take in Megan as a baby so he could finish his residency. But that was over now, and he was on his way up in his career. All he needed was a medical fellowship to become the renowned and respected surgeon he’d always dreamed of being. Coming home to help his father through Christmas was just a detour.

 

After shutting the car off, Ben grabbed his leather briefcase and headed for the back door. The cool morning air felt nice—nothing like the chill already in Chicago. He couldn’t help but notice the clinic’s brick was faded, the paint around the door’s edges worn, and the knob tarnished from the humidity and rainstorms that had flooded over the gutters. Time had marched on in Kudzu Creek, even though he’d left as soon as he could.

 

He slipped inside. The clinic couldn’t hold a candle to his hospital in Chicago: no clean, sleek lines; no glass or steel. Let them laugh now, he thought. Unpleasant memories of his childhood seeped in like an old wound whenever he dwelled on them. Would former classmates who’d jeered at his lack of interest in sports and clubs see his car around town and recognize the name on the vanity plate? Maybe one or two of them would visit the clinic and need his expertise. Ben wondered if that would impress McKenzie, then quickly shook the thought away. Their history was irrelevant now. He’d buried that disaster long ago—and besides, he only had to survive a couple of months back home in the town he’d tried to forget, and then he could be on his way.

 

“Ben!” Thin and pale, Kudzu Creek’s senior Dr. Cooper padded down the hall and put an arm around his son. “I’m glad you made it in a little early.”

 

“What are you doing here? You’re supposed to be in bed,” Ben chided him. “Three months off—that’s what they ordered.”

 

“Three is the minimum. Don’t worry, your mother drove me over, so I wasn’t behind the wheel. I remembered a few more things I wanted to go over with you a few minutes after you left.”

 

“How’s your blood pressure?” Ben pressed.

 

“It’s fine,” Dad grunted. “I checked it twice and took a legion of pills.”

 

“Mm-hmm.” Ben knew doctors made the worst patients.

 

“I have someone’s file I need to show you.” His father motioned toward his office, and Ben felt a rush of nostalgia when he realized the room he’d spent time with his dad in throughout the years would be his now. At least until Christmas. He shook his head in quiet disbelief. When he was young, he’d actually imagined working here someday, but that was before he learned of the limitless possibilities waiting for him outside the confines of their small town.

 

“Now, in case Ms. Olivia comes in unexpectedly—” Dad began, and a chuckle spurted out of Ben before he could stop it.

 

He put a hand over his mouth. “I’m sorry… She’s still alive?”

 

“Yes, she’s still alive! Her ticker’s in better shape than mine.” His father thumped his chest. “I gave her a machine to monitor her blood pressure, but she doesn’t like it. You’ll need to follow up, even though she promised she’d have her neighbor help out if she needed it.”

 

Ben followed him into the cluttered office and sat in a vinyl chair on the opposite side of the desk. “That’s important, Dad, but your quadruple bypass was no joke. All rest, no stress—remember? I only agreed to stay through Christmas so you can heal. You’ve got to rest now.”

 

Dr. Cooper lowered himself into his creaky swivel chair and reached for a pair of thick, black-rimmed readers. “You’re one to talk,” he snorted. Thumbing through a file, he raised an accusing finger at Ben without looking up. “All those back-to-back shifts seven days a week. Traffic and crime and smog.” He looked up pointedly. “You’re already on antacids.”

 

Ben shrugged. “Comes with the job.”

 

“Not in Kudzu Creek, it doesn’t. A year or two here would do you good.”

 

“I like the fast pace of the city, and two months is the max. That’s as far out as I’m subletting my apartment, and I should be hearing about a fellowship any day now.”

 

His father glanced from beneath his thinning brows. “I know it’s temporary, but are you sure? You always seem tired or worried about something.”

 

Ben opened his mouth to disagree, but he knew his father was right. But that was life, wasn’t it? No address guaranteed happiness. He certainly wouldn’t find it playing the genteel country doctor in Kudzu Creek. That had been his father’s achievement. The career, lifestyle and respect Ben needed could only be found in a big city like Chicago. “At least I’ll get to spend some time with Megan during the holidays.”

 

“Yes, she’s happy you’re here. We all are.”

 

Ben’s heart twinged, and he hoped it was true. His six-year-old daughter had behaved as if he were a complete stranger when he’d first walked into his parents’ house, even though they FaceTimed once a week. She’d loved the doll he’d brought her…for about two days. Then her attention had returned to the menagerie behind the house that included several chickens, three dogs, two turtles and a fusty old donkey named Jiminy that brayed like the British were coming every time it wanted something to eat. “I miss Megan all the time. I appreciate everything you’ve done for her. For me.”

 

“Maybe you’ll remember what it’s like to slow down and enjoy life while you spend time together. It might improve your health.”

 

Ben leaned forward and took his father’s hand—a hand he’d held on to for days in an Atlanta hospital just weeks ago. “I will, if you’ll consider less gravy and a little more grapefruit during the holidays.”

 

“You sound like my cardiologist.” Dad squeezed back. “But I’ll do it. They have a fruit bowl of something I can’t pronounce at Southern Fried Kudzu.”

 

Ben tensed. “Do you eat there often?”

 

“They cater lunch here every other week. Other days, I bring my lunch box.”

 

Ben exhaled with relief. He’d rather pack a lunch than see McKenzie at the nearby diner so often. “Maybe I can have lunch with Megan at school one day when I have a break.”

 

His dad nodded his approval. “Don’t forget, we signed her up for dance lessons, too. I think it’d mean a lot to her if you were able to take her to her class.”

 

Panic at another familial responsibility snatched at Ben’s chest, but he remembered he was on a different schedule now—a tortoise’s pace compared to what he’d been doing the past few years. “You’re right,” he agreed. “It will give me time to get to know her better.” He stared at the calendar over his dad’s head, wanting to bring up how much it hurt that Megan had acted like she hardly knew him. But maybe if he used his time wisely until the fellowship came through, he could return to Chicago relaxed, refreshed and reassured that his relationship with his daughter was back on track. She was his responsibility, and he loved her. He just needed more time before they could be a family. Well, half of a family, at least.

 

McKenzie crept back into Ben’s thoughts, and the mortification he felt seeing her again colored his cheeks. He’d once been in love with his best friend, but she hadn’t felt the same way. He rubbed his flustered face. He needed to keep those ancient feelings back in the farthest corner of his mind. He was just here to help out his father and connect with Megan while waiting for the next step in his life to come calling. Nothing else could get in the way.