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“Shame, I wanted you to cook me up one of your random dishes like you used to do.”

Walter placed his hands against my cheeks and squeezed lightly, smiling at me as if he was a proud grandpa. In many ways, Walter was a grandfather figure to me, and I was a granddaughter to him. He never married. His business was his family, and as far as I went, I never knew my grandparents. So, we had each other. He even called me his granddaughter when people would ask. He claimed me as his family with the biggest amount of love and pride when he spoke about me to others.

“Well, who do we have here?” he asked, turning to Oliver and Reese.

“Oh, this is Reese, my daughter.” I almost hesitated saying the word, knowing that I was back in the town that knew Sammie. I wondered if they’d ever found out that she was pregnant. Then again, probably not. Mama and Dad never would’ve spread that news around. It would’ve brought too much shame to their image.

“Your daughter?” Walter exclaimed with excitement as he bent down to be eye level with Reese. “Well, how do you do, sweet thang?” he asked, holding a hand out toward Reese.

“I do good, sir,” she said, shaking his hand.

Oliver huffed. “I wish I got that kind of greeting from her.”

Walter’s eyes moved to Oliver, and he gave him a stern look. “And you’re the father?”

“Oh, no, Walter. This is Oliver. He’s my—” My what? My friend? My employer? My person that I daydream about kissing on the regular?

“Good friend,” Oliver answered, reaching out to shake Walter’s hand. Even though Walter was wary about accepting the handshake, he did place his hand in Oliver’s.

“I feel like I’ve seen you around before,” Walter said, narrowing his eyes as he tried to put a finger on how he knew Oliver.

My heart began to beat harder as worry overtook me. The whole reason to bring Oliver out to Randall was for him to be a normal human for a day, and now Walter of all people was trying to pinpoint how he knew him. Walter took his hat off and slapped it against his knee. “Gosh darn it, aren’t you Bobby Winters’s cousin from Oklahoma?” he asked.

The relief that washed over our faces was identical as Oliver replied, “Nope, not me.”

“Aw shucks, okay, my mistake. You got his ears, that’s all. Here’s the menu for you all. Oliver, I bet you’d like to know that this menu is the same exact one that Ms. Emery here created for me six years ago. All of the favorite dishes are hers.”

“You’re kidding me,” I laughed. “You haven’t changed the menu in all that time?”

“Of course not. You don’t mess with perfection. I’ll only change it when you come back to upgrade it.”

“Well, I’ll have to do that sooner rather than later,” I said.

“Good. Okay, well, let me get you some time to look over the menu while I go get this sweetheart a slice of red velvet cake,” he said, winking in Reese’s direction. Of course, her eyes lit up with excitement.

“Oh, I don’t know about cake at nine in the morning, Walter,” I argued, being my daughter’s worst enemy in that very moment.

Walter waved me off, dismissing my parenting. “Oh hush, girl. I remember feeding you cake in the morning more often than not. You know what they say: ‘A slice of cake a day keeps the grumpy away.’”

“No one says that, Walter.”

“Well, they should.”

“Yeah, they should!” Reese chimed in with spirit.

Of course she’d agree; she was getting sugar.

When I sat back down, Oliver was grinning at me. “What is it?” I asked.

“I’m just wondering if you know how amazing you are. You created a whole menu that’s being used in a restaurant today. Do you know how amazing that is?”

I blushed and shrugged. “It’s a small-town diner. It’s not that amazing.”

“No, it is. It’s amazing. You’re amazing,” he said, and the butterflies flipped upside down in my stomach. “This is only the beginning for you. I cannot wait to be sitting inside your restaurant someday.”

“Me too!” Reese turned to me and placed her hands on my cheeks very tightly, smooshing my face together. “Mama. You are somebody, and you will do great things.”

I gave her a peck on the forehead and then snuggled her nose against mine. “Love you.”

“Love you more.”

After a while, Walter returned with Reese’s cake in hand and set it down in front of her. “There you go, sweetheart. Are you all ready to put down your orders?” Walter asked.

“Definitely are.” I gave him the orders, and he wrote them all down, then paused for a second and looked my way.

“You sure you don’t want to hop in the kitchen and whip these up on your own?” Walter offered, and for a moment a spark of excitement shot through me at the opportunity to work in the first kitchen I’d ever stood in.


“Of course, get back there,” he said, waving me in the direction of the kitchen.

I looked over to Oliver, and he gave me a knowing look. “Don’t worry, I’ll just eat this cake with Reese,” he told me.

“No way, Mr. Mith. You’d better get your own cake,” Reese said with a mouthful of food.

I left the two of them to fight over the dessert and headed to the kitchen to get to work. The moment I slid on one of the diner aprons, it was as if my body went into muscle memory. Without even thinking about it, I knew what to do. Luckily, Walter had kept almost everything in the same exact place. I began preparing our breakfasts, and the excitement I felt came rushing back to me.

I knew cooking was my passion. I knew I had to finish my degree at some point soon, and I couldn’t thank Oliver enough for giving me the chance to be his personal chef to relight that fire in my soul.

After our meal, which Walter refused to let us pay for, we walked over to the town square to explore the farmers’ market. Oliver sported a nice baseball cap and sunglasses to hide his appearance the best he could, and luckily for us, no one really called us out, even though I ran into a few familiar faces.

I loved watching Reese and Oliver explore everything together. I loved how free they both looked, how free Oliver seemed to be. At one point, he lifted Reese onto his shoulders as they bought me flowers.

Each passing day, I was falling more in love with the man standing in front of me, and I doubted I’d ever be able to stop that fall.

The day was smooth throughout, without a hitch in sight. We explored all day and made our way back that night for some food trucks and street music.

Everything was going better than I thought it could, up until I came face to face with the people I feared most in Randall.

After we finished the slushie drinks that Reese had to have a part in, I tossed our cups into the trash can, and when I looked up, I met a pair of eyes that matched mine.

“Mama,” I muttered, stunned to see her standing in front of me with Dad right by her side. They were holding bags from the local grocery store, and they were clearly just as stunned to see me as I was to see them.

“What are you doing here?” Mama snapped at me. “I thought I made myself clear on our last call that I didn’t want to hear from you again, let alone see you.”

Her stare was intense and cold. For a moment, I felt as if I were that same little girl who’d taken on so much of her verbal abuse. For a moment, I went back in time and stood frozen in fear as my father stared at me as if I were a monster.

Then, a hand landed on my lower back. Oliver approached me with Reese, and he gave me a small smile. “Everything okay?” he asked.

“Who are you?” Mama asked, her eyes going directly to Oliver, and in that moment, I found my confidence again.

“None of your business,” I said, standing up straighter.

“Mama, who is that?” Reese asked as she moved to stand behind my leg. She was hiding behind me, which was so outside of her normal. My little girl wasn’t one to be bashful. My protective instincts went up the moment I realized she was afraid.

My mother’s eyes widened with surprise. “Is that . . .” Her words trailed off as she shook her head back and forth. “It can’t be . . .”

I stepped backward, moving Reese back with me. Already I could tell where the direction of the conversation was unfolding, and I didn’t want my daughter to take in anything that my mother was going to toss out at her.

Dad hadn’t spoken one word at all, but his stare was on Reese’s every move. Studying her entire existence. I hated how it felt whenever I was around him. I hated how we could have been so close, yet he felt so far away.

“Well, I’ll be damned, if it isn’t Emery Taylor. It looks like it’s a Taylor family reunion,” a voice said with excitement. I looked over my shoulder to see Bobby, my high school friend, walking in my direction. If only he knew how bad his timing was in that very moment. “It’s been too damn long, that’s for sure,” he said the moment his eyes locked with mine.