Perched in a Dairy Queen booth, scanning the parking lot for Danny’s truck, Katie Edwards took a sip of Pepsi to settle her stomach. She hadn’t been to Old Town, Florida in six years and the memories of that summer—watching the boat parade wind down the Suwannee River, riding next to Danny in his Chevy Nova, cooling off at one of the local swimming holes—frayed her nerves.
What the hell am I doing here? she thought as she glanced across the table at Lisa Taylor, recognizing the same narrow cheeks and wide-set eyes that Lisa shared with her brother Danny. He was the real reason Katie had driven three hours from Jacksonville. Now she was having second thoughts about seeing him after such a long time. “Does he know I’m going to be here?” Katie asked, twisting the napkin she held into a thin paper string.
“No,” Lisa said. “I told him I wanted to see the boys without having to go through his new woman.” At the mention of Danny’s latest live-in, both women rolled their eyes. “I guess he’s trying to do the right thing by having a mother figure for the boys, but he moved her in way too soon.”
“But she has to be better than their mom,” she said, not sure if Lisa’s opinion of Crystal Brady Carter, Danny’s ex-wife, mirrored her own. “I mean,” Katie continued, “what kind of woman walks out on her own children?”
“Well, if I’d had my druthers,” Lisa said, “you know I’d have Danny with you. They all three deserve better than what they’ve had.”
Katie smiled at the remark, knowing that it was Danny who had kept them apart all these years, not her. If I’d had my way, she thought, those boys would have been mine from the beginning. An old-fashioned cow bell clanged against the restaurant’s glass door, ushering in a wave of summer air and the smell of warm cotton and salt water. Katie glanced over her shoulder and was again struck by memories of a bittersweet summer she couldn’t forget.
Danny Carter stood just inside the door, with a small child on his hip and an older boy at his side, clutching his hand. Katie’s heart clenched at the sight of the man who had shown her the simple joys of first love. His dark blond hair, though shorter, still curled at the collar, but his steel blue eyes were now hidden behind sunglasses. His boys, baby Chris and Brady, the toddler, were beautiful, though they didn’t look much like each other.
When Brady saw Lisa, he broke from his dad’s grip and ran to her. “Aunt Sissa!”
“Brady bunch!” Lisa held out her arms, scooping him up in a hug and settling him on her lap.
“Who’s dat?” Brady asked, pointing to Katie.
“This is a friend of mine and your daddy’s,” Lisa said. “Her name is Katie. Can you say, ‘Hey, Katie’?”
“Hey, der Kay-dee.” The boy waved at her then leapt from his aunt’s lap to run to the counter and stare at the ice cream pictures.
“Well, you just gonna stand there scowlin’ or are you gonna say hey.” Lisa fixed her gaze on her brother.
“Hey.” Danny nodded, shifting Chris to his other arm. He tucked his shades in his collar, his initial unease softening under Katie’s smile.
“Sit down, you doof,” Lisa said. “Katie didn’t come all this way just to watch you brood.”
“Daddy, can I haf some ice ceam?” Brady asked, pulling on the man’s pant leg.
“I ceam,” Chris mumbled in his small, baby voice.
“I’ll get it for them.” Lisa stood and reached for Chris. “You, sit. Talk.” She motioned toward her empty seat.
Danny slid into the booth, his eyes darting around the store before lighting on Katie. Her gaze fell to her hands as she willed herself to meet his rigid stare that always put her on edge.
“Your boys are precious,” she said, unsure of where to start. Her heartbeat competed with her stomach to see which one would make her hurl first.
Danny’s sharp expression softened at the compliment. “Yeah, well, no thanks to me.”
“That’s not true,” Katie said. “Brady has your eyes. But Chris, he must look like—”
“Yeah,” he interrupted. “He’s Crystal all over. The dark hair, the dark eyes, the wild streak.”
“He’s only a baby. He can’t be that bad.” Katie looked over at the small boy Lisa held. The clerk handed the woman ice cream that Chris struggled to reach. As if on cue, he shrieked at not being allowed to hold the cone.
“Don’t you start,” Lisa said. “Or you won’t get any.” With a last whimper, the boy grew quiet.
“See,” Danny said, as if proving his point. Katie was about to disagree, but Danny continued, “Where’s your baby?”
“Charlotte’s at home with my sisters and Grammy,” she answered. “I didn’t know if I was staying just for the day or if I would be able to talk Lisa into letting me spend the night, so I asked Wendi to keep her.”
Danny glanced at his sister. She hefted Chris higher on her hip and held the cone at his lips. “You can stay the night,” she said, smiling at Katie. “Mark won’t mind and we have two spare bedrooms.”
“Are you going to the Fireworks Festival?” Danny shifted in the booth leaning closer to Katie. His hands stretched in front of him, his fingers interweaving.
“I, uh, I didn’t know that was tonight.” Katie bit her bottom lip. The recollection of her first Gulf Coast Fourth of July was bittersweet. It was the night she realized that loving someone didn’t mean they were right for you at the moment. Time, though, had given them both the chance to grow up some.
“How about I take the boys tonight,” Lisa said, drawing Katie from her thoughts. “Mark and I can take them to see the fireworks then you can pick them up later.” She paused, looking from Danny to Katie, as Chris squirmed on her hip. “It would give you and Katie a chance to catch up.”
Katie waited breathlessly for his response. A chance to see if he still felt the same way she did was all she wanted, the reason she’d returned to Old Town after all these years.
“Sure,” Danny said, glancing up at Katie. A grin played on his lips. “We need to talk anyhow.” He raised his eyebrows at her in question. At her nod, he rose from the booth and kissed Chris on the forehead. “You be good for Aunt Lisa.” He pulled Brady into a hug and added, “You, too, big boy. Mind Aunt Lisa and Uncle Mark.”
He watched as Lisa led the boys to her car, then turned to Katie.