Elodie West pulled into the parking lot of the Back Home Diner; a popular hangout for the locals which the tourists and wannabe cowboys overlooked because it appeared like a place the Board of Health should have condemned years ago. She ascended the somewhat rickety staircase and adjusted her slim-fitting skirt, wishing she'd gone with one that was a bit longer and dowdier. Maybe she should have just stuck with her go-to jeans and paint-splattered tee. It wouldn't do to appear at all sexy around Clay Carver.
She stood in the doorway, looking at her reflection for the briefest of seconds. Small and slender, she barely came up to the former rodeo bull rider champ's shoulders. Her outfit was impeccable—a yellow blouse and denim skirt from TJ Maxx that had cost less than this meal was going to, even though it was more than she usually spent on clothing. One of her favorite straw cowboy hats sat jauntily atop her smart, shoulder-length, blonde hair; one of the few luxuries she refused to deny herself was a visit to her hairdresser every six to eight weeks, to cover the telltale gray that reminded her she was no longer in the bloom of youth.
Overall, she didn't mind being poor that much. She'd never really had a lot of money, so she didn't miss it. Elodie had grown up the second youngest of five—mostly overlooked in favor of the shining star of the family; April, the youngest. It was a big, loud, country family, and she kind of got lost in the crowd, and that was the way she liked it. She'd been cutting coupons since she could hold the scissors safely in her hands, and that hadn't changed once she reached adulthood. Her marriage at a frighteningly na?ve eighteen had had only one saving grace: she hadn't ended up getting pregnant, with a permanent tie to the scuzzball she'd given her virginity to.
But that was a long time ago. She'd managed on her own, and since she was the only single member of the family, she'd moved back in to her childhood home and taken care of their parents when no one else could—or would. The only one who had even tried to help was her sister, April. There had never been any rivalry between them; Elodie had never begrudged April the spotlight, and they were very close. April had, of course, married a wonderful man who, for all his stern, staunch demeanor—enhanced by the fact that April had once confided to her older sister that she was spanked by her husband, and not just in a playful way—worshipped the ground his wife walked on.
Her sister's life had always been charmed. April breezed through school, getting 'A's and 'B's with absolutely no effort, got a full scholarship to college, hooked up with the hunkiest bull rider bachelor in town, had a gorgeous white picket fence on a sprawling piece of land, and was heartily enjoying working on the two point five kids to complete the perfect picture.
April's life was charmed, all right. She'd found out she was pregnant after taking a late night test at Elodie's apartment, and was driving home to tell her adoring husband—but her luck ran out the moment she skidded on a patch of black ice and collided with a tree less than a mile from her home.
Now April's husband was waiting inside for a different West girl. The failure. The one who never did anything with her life, who was divorced before she could legally drink. A starving artist who could barely pay her bills, but refused to give up her dream of seeing her work hanging prominently on a gallery's wall.
Elodie opened the door and pasted a smile on her face. The restaurant choice was hers—it was the cheapest place in town, since Clay steadfastly refused to eat at a fast food joint, and she insisted on them splitting the bill. It was a battle fought and eventually won on her part, but Clay never liked the idea of going Dutch. Maybe it was because, if he paid, their casual monthly lunches would feel like a date. And a date with her deceased sister's husband was not an option… even for a hillbilly like her.