“More coffee, hon?”
Jace Whitaker dragged his gaze away from the window and turned his attention to the waitress standing with the glass pot poised just inches above his half-empty cup.
“No, ma’am,” he said. “But thanks, anyway.”
“Well, give me a holler if you change your mind.” She accompanied the offer with a wink and a smile. “We keep it hot and fresh all day long.”
Jace just nodded. He wasn’t at Flip’s Diner for the coffee anyway. He was there for the view of the Antioch Baptist Church cemetery just across the road.
He glanced down at the obituary circled in the folded newspaper sitting beside his cup.
Helen Slater, 58, went to sit at the right hand of Her Lord Jesus Christ on May 7, 2015, after a short battle with cancer. She was predeceased by her husband, Ned, and is survived by a brother, John Short, of Dallas, and a daughter, Lily Mae Slater, of Los Angeles. Private services will be held at Garden Grove Funeral home at 11 a.m. A private graveside service will follow at noon at the Antioch Baptist Church cemetery.
Jace looked at his watch. It was noon, and as if on cue, the hearse rolled past, followed by a short line of cars. Vehicles coming in the opposite direction stopped in respect as the small procession turned and headed through the iron gates. Jace slid over in the booth so he could get a better view through the window.
Helen’s plot was near the fence. Jace leaned back against the booth, watching. The cars had stopped. He drummed his fingers as the funeral home workers opened the back of the hearse to remove a few standing flower displays and put them around the Astroturf perimeter of the open grave. One of the men turned to walk to the first vehicle behind the hearse. He leaned down, saying something through the window and stepped back. The door opened, and Jace felt his heart quicken.
It had been seven years since he’d laid eyes on Lily Mae Slater, but even from across the road Jace could see that she was still a pretty little thing. He caught just a glimpse of her delicate profile before she turned away. Her hair had been to her shoulders when he’d last seen her. Now it hung in one long braid down her back. She was wearing a fitted black dress and black heels. Time certainly changed how she dressed, and he felt a flicker of nostalgia as he recalled how often he’d teased her for wearing cowboy boots.
“When you going to dress like a girl, Lily Mae?”
“When I damn well feel like it!”
She’d been sixteen then. He’d been eighteen, but already old-fashioned enough to consider washing her mouth out with soap for cussing. The girl needed a firm hand, he’d thought. And that would come, later…
“Still nursing that cold coffee, cowboy?” The waitress was back.
“No, I’m done. Just give me the ticket, please.”
Jace turned back toward the window, irritated at having been interrupted. He was too preoccupied to even thank the waitress when she finally slapped the ticket on the table and told him to have a nice day.
He craned his neck as he scanned the small gathering assembled under the funeral home’s green tent. Lily Mae was sitting in one of the five white chairs that had been arranged in front of where the simple casket now sat over the maw of the grave. As the preacher read from the Bible, she leaned over to comfort her uncle, who covered his face with his hands. At the end of the short service, Lily Mae stood to pluck one of the white roses from the spray atop the closed casket and Jace found himself breathing in along with her as she inhaled its scent, longing for some sort of connection.
The lunch crowd was filtering into the diner as the small group of mourners headed back to the cars, leaving Lily Mae and her uncle alone at the graveside. Jace got up from the booth, paid the bill and walked outside, resisting the urge to cross the street.
Jace had tried not to take it personally, but it hurt, not being invited. He should have been, damn it. He should have been there to wipe her tears from the eyes hidden behind Lily Mae’s oversized sunglasses. He should have been there to hold her. He should have been there to bury his lips in the soft blond hair that always smelled like wildflowers—to whisper that it everything was going to be all right, because he was there, there to protect her.
But isn’t that where he went wrong in the first place?
After all this time, he remembered word-for-word the note he’d found the morning after their last night together.
Last night was a mistake. I’m ashamed of myself that I let it happen, especially after what you did to me. It’s clear that you still see me as a kid, even if you just made me a woman. It’s not easy to walk away, but that’s what I’ve got to do, for both of us. I want to be an independent woman and eventually find a man who respects that. So don’t try to get in touch with me. I don’t want anything to do with you.