Branded by a Song: A Small-town, Rock-star Romance
From award-winning author LJ Evans comes an achingly tender, standalone romance between a country-rock legend searching for more and a solemn, single-mom determined to honor her lost husband…
“We would be art. We would be paint and chords blended together.”
Brady O’Neil tells the world he’s returning to upstate New York to help his sister. While it’s the truth, he’s also hoping to rediscover the soul of his music. When he goes to his mentor for help, he finds a woman trapped in the past instead. A woman who makes him want to stay like never before.
Losing her grandmother feels like yet another blow the world has dealt Tristan. Keeping the music store and her daughter afloat is all she can focus on, and Grams’ beloved student sauntering in doesn’t change anything. He’s just another adventure she can’t afford.
When Tristan has to concede that Brady holds the solution to her troubles, she’s determined it won’t mean giving him access to her heart. After all, she buried that bruised organ alongside her husband years ago.
Can Brady convince her that hearts aren’t limited to just one love song?
Inspired by Chris Janson's "Done,” comes a standalone, single-parent romance about the lyrical, healing power of love with vibrant characters that might just leave a permanent mark on your soul.
Release date: February 3, 2021
Publisher: LJ Evans Book
Print pages: 430
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Behind the book
If you've been reading the Anchor Novels since their inception, you'll know that country-rock legend, Brady O'Neil, has been along for the ride the entire way.
Now it's his chance to find the missing "more" in his life in his standalone novel.
Writing this story was one of the sweetest journeys I've ever gone on while crafting HEAs for you. I hope that you'll give him and his lady love a chance to show you just what forever afters and second chances are all about.
Branded by a Song: A Small-town, Rock-star Romance
WAR OF ART
“And I love the pretty girls and how they sway
In rhythm when I play.”
Performed by Tim McGraw
Written by Warren / Warren / Spillman / Miller
The jet landing on the runway in Albany jerked me out of a fitful sleep. I dragged a hand through my sandy hair and rubbed the sleep from my eyes as I fought against the exhaustion trying to pull me back under. It felt like I could sleep for a month straight and never rid myself of the bone-weary feeling gathered deep inside my soul.
It was due to much more than the long days of the world tour I’d just wrapped up. This tiredness was tangled with the twisting doubts circling through me that the critics might be right. My music was stale and repetitive.
My songwriting partner, Ava, would rant and rave at me if she heard my silent agreement with the naysayers. The lyrics, hers and mine joined together, weren’t exactly the same, but the rhythms and chords blended so precariously close to all the other songs I’d released that it was hard to tell the difference between my first album and my third. There was no growth. No hint of change.
The reviewers had heard the truth I was trying to hide from myself and the world. There was a hole in my world―in my soul―and it reflected in my music. A gaping emptiness that begged to be filled. Knowing it only made me more of a cliché than ever before.
I needed a break from it all to try and find the heart that usually drove me.
As the jet doors opened, I wondered if staying with my family for the holidays was really the smart choice. I was pretty sure it would take the utter fatigue I felt and amp it up by about a hundred watts until every single part of me ached. But I hadn’t missed a Christmas with my family yet, and I wasn’t going to start now. It was bad enough we’d all left Cassidy alone for Thanksgiving. Oddly enough, my little sister had seemed relieved we wouldn’t be there to cut the soy alternative turkey with her.
As my bodyguard, Marco, and I walked down the stairs, high-pitched screaming exploded into the chilly air. My head jerked toward the private airline terminal where a crowd was being held back by rope and security personnel I didn’t know. There seemed to be a revolving door of them these days with Garner’s company. It made me even more grateful for the man at my side, who’d been through the fires of hell and back with me.
A black SUV with tinted windows pulled onto the runway in front of us, blocking me from the crowd at the terminal.
“Your parents are in the SUV and ready to go,” Marco said, his deep voice matching his muscular frame. His black hair and dark eyes almost matched the black he always wore. He was so dark from head to toe, he could almost be a shadow if his skin wasn’t the shade of cut oak instead of deep night.
The crowd grew frenzied as we hit the tarmac. My name squealing out of hundreds of fans echoed around the space. I wasn’t sure I had much to give them today.
“How’d they find out we were even here?” I asked.
Marco didn’t respond, as unsure as I was of how the press and the fans found things out. He just stood there, waiting for my move.
The crew of the private jet set our luggage down, and we moved toward the SUV in tandem. As Marco threw the cases in the back, the only other long-term member of my security team emerged from the driver’s seat. Trevor was as opposite to Marco as you could get. Light hair. Light eyes. Lean instead of Marco’s mean. But they were both smart, savvy, and had proved themselves over and over again, even when there had been gunfire and loss of life. I didn’t know what I’d do if they weren’t watching my back.
“Hey, Trev, enjoy your holidays,” I said, pulling him into a brief hug.
“You too, man,” he said, slapping my back before pushing me away with a fist to the shoulder. He exchanged greetings with Marco before heading off toward the main terminal and the flight he was catching home.
The back door of the SUV opened, and my dad stepped out followed by my mom. Her face lit up at the sight of me, and my heart lurched with regret at my earlier thoughts of not wanting to be with them for Christmas. My parents loved me. I loved them. Love was never a limited commodity in our household—only understanding.
Mom looked older than when I’d seen her in August, but she was as carefully put together as she always was in her tailored jeans and fitted jacket. She was in good shape for a woman closer to sixty than fifty. Her hair had once been the same dirty-blonde color as mine but was now littered with white, making it seem like she’d spent hours getting highlights in a fancy salon.
“Mo leanbh,” she said as she enveloped me in a hug. No matter how old I was, I was still her baby. It was reassuring and disconcerting.
“Hey, Mom,” I said, hugging her back tightly.
Mom let me go, and Dad took her place, wrapping me in a hug of his own. His clipped gray hair and beard made him look a bit like the Grissom character on CSI, the Basque heritage showing in his square face and square body that I’d inherited.
He patted me on the back and stepped away. “It’s good to see you.”
“Marco!” Mom greeted my bodyguard with almost as much enthusiasm as she’d greeted me.
Dad pounded him on the back.
The crowd grew frantic, screams blaring through the cold air that filled the Albany skies with clouds and pending storms.
My mom startled at the screams, glancing toward the group gathered.
“Why are they here?” Mom asked.
I wanted to laugh but kept it to myself. Mom would never get what my life was like since becoming famous. I’d tried to include my parents in it so they could see it for themselves, but they’d only been to a couple of the smaller concerts early on. They’d never seen me in front of tens of thousands of fans.
“I’ll be right back,” I said, heading toward the crowd.
“What are you doing? I thought we were leaving?” Mom called.
I ignored her, almost running to the fans who were smiling and happy to see me. They were already snapping pictures and shooting videos with their phones. Marco was at my side, straight-faced and in mission mode while he scanned the throng.
“Y’all showed up for little ol’ me?” I said to the group, and they were screaming my name in return, shoving out papers and phones.
The first person I reached was a plus-sized woman with auburn hair and brilliant green eyes. Pretty in a way I was sure got overlooked by many of the people in her life. I took the paper from her hand.
“Who should I make it out to, babe?” I asked and wanted to smack myself in the head at the word ‘babe.’ It proved just how tired I was, because it only slipped out of me when my brain and my body were beyond tired these days.
“Deena. D-e-e-n-a. Oh my God. I can’t believe you’re actually here,” she breathed out, eyes awestruck.
“Deena, your gorgeous smile and candy-apple green eyes are gonna be stuck in my head for days,” I told her, giving her back the paper and then grabbing her phone from her other hand.
I stuck my arm out as far as I could, then turned so I was placing a kiss on her cheek while taking the selfie. When I turned back, she was ten shades of red.
“You have a beautiful holiday, Deena,” I said and then moved to the next person along the rope.
I spent about fifteen minutes signing everything, including arms, papers, and CDs. Taking selfies while smiling, flirting, and reminding myself that these were the people who’d made everything happen for me. These were the people who bought my songs, not some stuffy critic, sitting behind a desk, using his words like a knife to my gut.
My phone pinged out my manager’s ringtone. It was my “Ghost” single that had rocketed up the charts off my second album—right before everything had gone to hell with Fiona, the stalker. Right before we’d upped the security details with Garner’s men and they’d given me the code name based on the song title. I’d laughed at the time and said if I was Ghost then Lee was the leader. I’d changed his name on my phone and never changed it back.
GHOST TEAM LEADER: Trevor says there’s a crowd there. Stop signing autographs and go spend time with your family.
Lee was right. I was using the crowd to delay the inevitable―sitting in a car with my parents for an hour while we drove home to Grand Orchard. Pretending for them. Wearing the cheerful face they knew as their son, Cormac, rather than the country singer, Brady O’Neil.
I handed back the paper I was signing and then smiled at the rest of the throng. “Sorry, darlin’s, that’s all I have time for today. I hope you all have a beautiful holiday, whichever ones you’re celebrating.”
I blew the mob a kiss while people continued to clamor my name, disappointment curling through their voices and me. I hated letting them down. But if I didn’t stop at some point, I’d be there for hours, and the longer I stayed in one place, the more people would show up.
On the way back to the SUV, my phone buzzed again.
GHOST TEAM LEADER: Remember they love you.
We both knew he wasn’t talking about the mob. More than just my business manager, Lee was the person who kept me on track whenever I started to derail.
ME: I’ve never questioned it.
GHOST TEAM LEADER: Remember you actually have a family to spend the holidays with.
ME: I’m one of the lucky ones.
GHOST TEAM LEADER: Damn straight.
ME: Hug your parents for me.
Like the rest of my team, Lee was going home to his family for a much-needed break.
GHOST TEAM LEADER: Mom will say you do it better.
ME: She’d be right.
GHOST TEAM LEADER: Smart-ass.
I climbed into the SUV, glancing into the back at my parents. Mom looked frustrated, and Dad looked like he’d been pacifying her—both familiar actions and reactions. Ones that went back decades and had nothing to do with the fact that I’d just made them wait fifteen minutes, although I was pretty sure it was what had started the conversation.
I did the one thing I didn’t want to do. I smiled and asked them how classes were going. It was worth it when Mom’s face changed from an almost scowl to pleasure. She dove into a discussion about the prestigious college in Ireland they were guest professors at for the year. They talked about the differences between the students and the faculty there versus the one at Wilson-Jacobs College here in the States, where they’d taught my entire life.
It was never a surprise to me that my parents were well-liked by their students. They were dynamic, attractive, and impassioned. Mom energized the undergraduates with various Gaelic and Celtic stories and legends, while Dad bestowed the gift of languages and cultures to them.
While they’d been hip-deep in the world of academia, I’d been traveling the world, wrapping up the tour. We’d coordinated our arrival back in the States so we could drive home together.
“How was Japan?” Dad asked.
“It was Paris.” Dad seemed embarrassed by my correction, and I softened it with a smile, adding on, “It was good.”
It had been good—until the critics had started tearing at me.
“When do you leave again?” Mom asked.
“I have to be in New York for the New Year’s Eve show. Then, I’ll be in L.A. for a few weeks, wrapping up the live episodes of Fighting for the Stars and attending a couple of award shows. After that, I’ll have a break.”
“I wish you’d been able to come home more over the last few months,” Mom said, her worry for Cassidy showing as it always did.
When they’d first told Cass and me about the guest professor positions in Ireland, I’d promised to come home more often. I’d promised because Cass had made me. She hadn’t wanted to be the reason they passed up a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and it had felt like a fair compromise at the time. A lie to my parents to give my sister what she craved: time to be an adult.
In my mother’s book, I’d smashed all my promises to hell when I’d extended the international tour for five more stops. It wasn’t anything new to our relationship. Mom expected me to drop the ball when it came to Cassidy. The trust she gave me was always tissue-paper thin and easily punctured.
My only solace was that Cassidy had insisted she was doing fine. As if she could hear my thoughts, my phone buzzed with a text from her.
CASS: Where are you?
ME: Just leaving the terminal. We should be home in about an hour. Miss me that much?
CASS: I’m freaking out.
Cassidy wasn’t really a freak-out kind of person. She was a buckle-down-and-get-things-done kind of person. She’d gone from graduating at the top of her class at college to spearheading a campaign on nutrition for the local clinic, all at twenty-three.
ME: Why? What’s up?
CASS: Promise you won’t take their side.
ME: Cass, now you’re freaking me out. What the hell?
CASS: I shouldn’t have said anything. Forget it.
ME: Not likely. Did you destroy the house?
CASS: God no, nothing like that.
ME: What could angelic you possibly have done that would upset them?
CASS: I’m hardly an angel, big brother.
Like it or not, our mother would always see her that way.
ME: Tell me what’s going on.
CASS: I’m just nervous. It’ll be fine. I’ll see you soon.
Cass was never nervous. Calm. Driven. But not the anxious type. So, for her to be jittery meant something big was up. But even after multiple prompts, she stayed silent. I stared out the window, wondering what the heck was going on with her. Mom and Dad were chatting in the background, oblivious to my inner turmoil, but Marco looked over at me a couple of times with a raised eyebrow.
I just shook my head. There was nothing I could do about any of it until we arrived.
My phone buzzed again, this time with a message from my friend and PR manager.
DANI: The idiot from The Reporter doesn’t know what he’s talking about.
Dani had taken a flight direct from Paris to Georgia, to the waiting arms of the man she loved, a retired Navy SEAL who’d helped with our security for a while. Together, they were carving a life for themselves on an estate that had been in his family since before the Revolutionary War. I could feel her slipping away from me as they made plans for their family-owned business’s new charity. I’d told Lee to expect her resignation any day. We had a bet going on how soon it was going to happen.
ME: Nash actually let you out of the bedroom already?
DANI: Har har. I don’t want you to obsess over the article.
ME: I have plenty of time to prove him wrong.
DANI: You have nothing to prove. You just won two more AMAs in November and are up for two more Grammys.
ME: Go make mad, passionate love with your husband so he continues to let you come play with me and let me worry about myself.
DANI: “Let me come play.” You know how bad that sounds, right?
I smiled as I typed my response, knowing it would not only change the subject, but get a reaction out of her.
DANI: *** slapping head GIF ***
DANI: I owe you at least one when I see you again.
ME: Merry Christmas, Dani.
DANI: You too. Don’t obsess.
ME: I won’t.
DANI: You will. But try not to. Just be with your family.
ME: That’s the plan.
“Does your phone ever stop?” Mom asked.
I laughed. “When I’m with the team, there’s no one else to text me, so that’s when it’s the quietest.”
“Leave him be, Arlene,” Dad said. “He’s a big rock star now. We’re lucky we get time with him at all.”
“Come on,” I said with a smile and shrug. “I’ve never missed a holiday.”
It was the truth. I’d also never missed a birthday or an anniversary without a call and a present. They were important to me, and I tried to show it the best I could amongst the nonstop life I led.
I rolled my neck and went back to staring out the tinted glass.
We were almost to Grand Orchard. The rows and rows of apple trees with their bare branches were the proof. I’d loved escaping into the orchards with my friends growing up. We’d spent many a Friday night partying with the smudge pots as a background. I smiled at the memories of me on the tailgate of William’s truck, playing my guitar, making people swoon, and ending the night with kisses. I hadn’t thought of my one-time best friend or those secret parties in years.
The orchards gave way to the college grounds, which were almost as old as the land itself. Old ivy and brick that had been modernized on the inside. The college gave way to the town, which looked like it should be cast in either a horror movie or a movie from the 1950s. Quaint and cute. Almost too perfect. A stereotypical college and tourist town rolled into one.
Marco turned down the first street past the college and was soon parked in front of the Craftsman-style home I’d grown up in. The single-story house had floors slanting in the kitchen that almost matched the angled roofline of my childhood bedroom. The room had been added on to the house a century ago, and I’d barely been able to stand up straight in it once I’d turned sixteen. No matter how old and beat-up the house was, it was still home.
The wheels had hardly come to a stop before the front door opened, and Cassidy emerged onto the porch. I’d hardly had a chance to look at her before Mom was barreling out of the back and jogging up the stairs. Mom froze on the top step, her mouth falling open, and my body stilled, taking in my sister.
Cassidy shared my tawny, thick mane of hair, and she was almost as tall as me, but whereas I had bulk, she was long limbs and no meat. Now, she looked like she was barely able to keep her center of gravity because her belly was sticking straight out from her almost too-thin frame.
Holy fuck. She was pregnant. My twenty-three-year-old sister with no boyfriend—that I knew of—was pregnant. Far-along pregnant. Pregnant enough to be showing a belly. Pregnant enough to have told us when she obviously hadn’t.
No wonder she’d been freaking out. I was freaking out seeing her like this. I had no idea how off the edge Mom and Dad were going to dive. Dad had joined Mom on the step, and they were both staring at Cassidy as if they were seeing a mirage.
I left the SUV and the bags to join them.
“Cassidy Marie. What on earth?” Mom’s voice was full of unshed tears. I didn’t know who they were for, but it wasn’t what Cassidy wanted, because her chin raised in defiance.
“Surprise. You’re going to be grandparents.” Cassidy tried to make light of it, but her voice was tight and missing the lightness it normally had.
“Who? What? Jesus…” Dad was blustering.
“Who doesn’t matter,” Cassidy said. “I chose to have the baby, and that’s all there is to it.”
“How could you?” Mom asked, hand to her heart. And again, I wasn’t sure what she meant. How could Cassidy get pregnant? How could she do it without having a partner in her life? Or how could she keep it from my mother?
“Can I suggest we go inside?” I asked.
Mom whipped around. “You knew? You knew and didn’t tell me?”
“No one knew,” Cassidy said over me.
“The whole town obviously knows,” Mom thundered out.
“Since when have you cared about that kind of propriety, Mom?” I asked. Mom was not exactly a flower child, but she definitely wasn’t one to buy in to some nineteenth-century rhetoric about babies out of wedlock.
I pushed past both my parents and wrapped my sister in a hug. “Congratulations, Sis! I’m so happy for you. What a great Christmas present.”
That seemed to unlock my parents. They came forward, and we were suddenly tangled in a group hug that wasn’t our norm. All arms and legs and limbs, with a sniffling Cassidy in the middle of it all.
THE ONES THAT DIDN’T MAKE IT BACK HOME
“The not forgotten but gone
They're in a better place up there
But they sure left a hole down here.”
Performed by Justin Moore
Written by Stover / Moore / Digiovanni / Mcgill
Laughter wafted from the kitchen as I came down the stairs. Hannah’s tiny voice and my grandmother’s sweet one. Both lyrical and smooth, blending together. I wasn’t sure what they were chatting about, but―by the way things were banging―I was pretty sure they were already in the middle of baking.
Grams wanted to bring several dozen cookies to the Holiday Open House at the music store later. I’d promised I’d help, but for the first time in what felt like centuries, I’d actually slept in—if you could call six o’clock sleeping in. Grams hadn’t knocked on the door because she knew what it was like to barely sleep at night.
It was just one of the many ways she and I were alike. It comforted me to know she understood rather than admonished it as my mother did. Grams had lost her husband, too. She may have lost him to a stroke instead of an IED, but it was the same kind of loss. Unexpected. Unplanned.
Except, I couldn’t really say Darren’s death had been unexpected. Every time he’d been sent out on a mission as a Navy SEAL, my heart had seized up until I knew he was back safe. Now, my soul was permanently locked into a collapsed state that would never let go because he’d never walk through the door again.
Molly heard me before they did, and her nails scrabbled on the wooden floors as she came bounding out of the kitchen and jumped her furry brown-and-white body into my arms. My wiry-haired fox terrier was a bundle of energy, and no matter how well my friend Nash had trained her, we hadn’t been able to break Molly of jumping into the arms of the people she loved.
I’d barely put Molly down when a whiff of baby shampoo and a spin of a beaded shawl warned me Hannah was taking her turn. I pretended to fall to the floor with a groan as if the weight of her had caused me to collapse.
She was already giggling as my fingers found her stomach, increasing the laughter until it filled the sugar-scented air. My four-and-a-half-year-old barely weighed more than a couple of sacks of potatoes, but she still loved to pretend she was the size of the Hulk.
“Got you!” she shouted, planting a kiss on my cheek.
“You certainly did, Chiquita,” I said, sitting up to wrap my arms around her.
I picked her up, and her legs went around me like a little monkey’s. We entered the kitchen to find Grams smiling our way. Her hair, which had once been as golden as Hannah’s and mine, was now white, and her eyes that had also been our same honey color were now just a pale reflection.
Even with the faded hair and wrinkled skin, it was hard to believe she’d just turned ninety-three. She didn’t act like she was that old. She was spry and full of energy, even when she had to take shots and heavy doses of pain medication to help curb her arthritis.
“You should have woken me before you started,” I told her.
“Morning, cariño. I would never wake you when you were out cold.”
I stared at the disaster they’d made. Flour, sugar, rolled-out dough, cookie cutters, and more ingredients littered almost every available surface. It looked like a bakery had exploded in the kitchen Grams had renovated just a few years before I’d joined her permanently in Grand Orchard.
“You two have quite the head start,” I said.
Hannah squirmed, and I set her down. She ran over to the wooden steps Grams had commissioned just for her so they could cook together. Hannah climbed up and picked up a Christmas tree cookie cutter.
“Mommy, come see all the trees I’ve made,” Hannah said.
I gave Grams a sideways hug, and her peppermint scent washed over me before I turned to join my daughter at the counter. There were at least thirty trees in all sizes spread amongst the dough. “Wow, why just trees?”
“They’re the most fun to decorate,” she said with a shrug.
Her shawl filled with purple geometric shapes and black beads was covered with flour and dough. It was keeping the bright-fuchsia silk pajamas underneath it clean, but it was an expensive, irreplaceable garment to use as an apron.
As if reading my mind, Grams whispered in my ear, “It’s just material.”
The shawl had been one of hers before Hannah had borrowed it from her closet a few months ago. It was my grandmother’s fault that Hannah was shawl obsessed. She’d been the one to introduce Hannah to Fleetwood Mac and Stevie Nicks. These days, it was hard to get Hannah out of the house without a shawl draped around her just like her musical idol.
Hannah had even insisted on getting her bangs chopped in a fringe and her long hair shagged so that she was like a little mini-me of the ‘70s version of the superstar.
We spent a couple more hours cooking and decorating. Grams looked tired before we’d even left to open the music store at ten, but she hid it behind a grin that matched Hannah’s. When we got to the store Grams had owned for over half a century, we turned on all the lights and the three trees she’d insisted we put up before we set out the treats and drinks.
The day before Christmas Eve, all the shops on Main Street held a Holiday Open House. It was harder and harder to attract people to the shops these days as they opted for the box stores, malls, and now the online giants. Grand Orchard drew enough tourism during apple season for the boutiques and antique shops to stay in business, but by the holidays, the crowds had trickled away again. The stores would go through a dry spell that would last until the orchards were in full bloom and people returned to take pictures of the beautiful flowers.
Once the college kids from Wilson-Jacobs went home for the summer, the town would shrink back up again, and the stores would have to survive on what they’d made during the better parts of the year. At least my grandma’s Bi-Annual Apple Jam Music Fest would give them a little kick of extra cash this May.
Helping my grandmother with the planning for the festival for the first time, I’d realized how much work it was. I’d realized how much she’d done for so many years on her own. It was almost ludicrous. I wasn’t sure who I was more frustrated with: me for being so caught up in my own world for so long, my parents for letting Grams handle it without their support for decades, or Grams herself for not asking for help.
With the lights on and holiday music filling the space, people started filtering into the store. Hannah stood on another stool behind the counter, greeting them all by name. My heart tugged at the sight of it. We’d become embedded into this small town in a way I’d never been in any other town, not even the one in Delaware I’d grown up in.
In the early afternoon, my grandmother disappeared for a while to go visit the other stores and chat with the owners who’d been her friends since my grandparents had moved to Grand Orchard in the ‘60s. When Grams came back, she had a wrapped package in her hand. She gave it to Hannah.
“Merry Christmas, Chiquita,” she said.
Hannah’s eyes grew big. “But it’s not Christmas yet.”
“Close enough. When Irma saw this come in, she put it behind the counter for me. She knew you’d want it.”
Irma was the owner of the antique store across the street. She was one of Gram’s line dancing pals. It was hilarious and fun to watch the group of gray-haired women breaking out their cowboy boots and keeping up with the younger crowd at Mick’s bar on country night.
Hannah hugged Grams without even opening the present. “Thank you.”
I smiled at the image they made. I loved that my daughter was a hugger. She was better at giving them out than I was on most occasions. I’d had to have several talks with her about asking people for permission first, because she would routinely hug other kids she’d just met, which sometimes upset their parents. It was sad, but at the same time I understood it. I wouldn’t want people touching Hannah if she didn’t want it, but it was just a damn hug—from a four-year-old.
Hannah opened the paper to reveal a top hat in almost pristine condition, and I couldn’t help the chuckle that escaped as Hannah’s eyes grew to the size of galaxies. She took in the hat reverently.
“Is it hers?” Her voice was breathy and shocked.
Grams chortled. She had a beautiful singing voice, and somehow it came through when she laughed. Like a melody you knew by heart.
“No, Chiquita, it didn’t belong to Stevie, but it looks a lot like hers,” Grams said, referring to the picture behind the counter. The one with my grandparents and the entire Fleetwood Mac crew at one of the very first Jam Fests they’d ever thrown.
Hannah put the hat on, and my throat closed up. She looked stunning. A smiling, happy child with her father’s eyebrows and chin but with my eyes, hair, and smile. Darren had missed it all. He’d barely seen her as a tiny six-month-old baby crying as she teethed. He’d never gotten to see her larger-than-life personality or the pure joy radiating through her whenever she was at a piano.
And he was missing another Christmas just like he’d missed her very first one.
Some days, the pain inside me was as large and sharp as the very first moment when they’d told me he was gone. The knock on the door and the sad eyes of his unit commander still haunted me. I’d lost my legs at his words. I’d collapsed on the floor, holding my gut, crying. But I’d also been filled with anger. Anger directed at Darren for leaving me. Leaving us.
Most of the time now, the pain was just a constant ache inside me. A hole that couldn’t be filled. Until moments like these. When Hannah did something that took my breath away, and I couldn’t share it with him. Reminding me that my soulmate was gone.
As if sensing the pain filling me, Gram’s eyes met mine. She made her way over to me and wrapped me in a hug so strong you would doubt she was in her nineties. “Let it wash over you. It’s okay.”
Four years later, there was barely anyone in my life who could handle the fact that I still grieved. Almost everyone I knew expected me to somehow have moved on, to have put it behind me. And no one seemed to understand I never would.
Grams was the exception. She got it.
“Better?” Grams asked.
I nodded. I was. I just had to let it flow over me before I came back to the present—to Hannah, with a top hat on her head and a blue, gauzy shawl wrapped around her jeans and sweater. She picked up one of the mics Grams had behind the counter, pulled herself up onto the scratched wooden counter, and started singing with Aly and AJ as their upbeat song, “The Greatest Time of Year,” filled the store.
Love and admiration replaced the heartache. I pulled Hannah off the counter, and the three of us danced and sang and laughed as the holiday music streamed through the room, my strangled-cat voice mixing with their two beautiful ones. I let the joy of it settle in my bones because Darren had shown me one thing: these moments were supposed to be lived and felt and remembered. And I would.
♫ ♫ ♫
It was seven thirty when Grams sent me packing with a drooping Hannah. Grams herself seemed to have caught a second wind somehow. Maybe it was the coffee from the bakery three doors down or the energy she gathered just by being a happy extrovert. Whatever it was, she didn’t look tired. It wasn’t uncommon for her to stay until the store shut at nine o’clock as she scraped every last nickel from the holiday.
Hannah and I bundled up in our snow gear and left the store to walk the small distance from Main Street to Gram’s house a few blocks over. Hannah refused to take the top hat off, and it began collecting flakes of snow as they drifted to the ground, shimmering in the holiday lights strewn across the store windows.
By the time we got to the house, the hat wasn’t the only thing with a small layer of snow. We were almost covered, but I wasn’t ready to go in yet. Instead, I grabbed Hannah’s hand and twirled with her for a minute, sticking out my tongue and catching the first flakes, loving the idea that we would have a white Christmas. Hannah copied me, the soft fluff melting as fast as it landed in our mouths.
“It looks like sugar, but it tastes like water,” Hannah said with a hint of disappointment.
“There’s a pretty famous quote that goes something like, ‘The simplest things are often the most beautiful,’” I told her.
She looked doubtful and shivered as the cold finally set in to both of us.
We walked up the steps and removed our wet gear in the entryway. I sent her upstairs to put her pajamas on while I started the fire and let Molly out of the laundry room. The dog hated the snow and barely made it off the back steps before returning to me so that I could wipe her tiny paws. She settled down next to Hannah’s top hat by the fireplace.
I banged out a quick text to Grams.
ME: Will Irma and Floyd bring you home? It’s snowing, and I don’t want you to slip.
GRAMS: They already rang to insist.
At least I wouldn’t have to worry about her trying to traipse home over icy ground.
When Hannah came down, she was in a pair of fuzzy footie pajamas, making her look like the little girl she was rather than the mini-adult she often acted like. We curled up together on the armchair with a pile of books as the flicker of the fire and the lights of the Christmas tree sparkled over us.
Tomorrow, the rest of my family would arrive, and the house would be chaotic, filled with my parents, my sister, her husband, and the triplets who had recently turned three. But for tonight, it was peaceful. And I let the pleasure of it settle over me so it would be another moment of joy I had stacking up against the wall of pain. Someday, the wall would be completely hidden behind the better memories, and my body would release itself from its seized position. Maybe then, I would truly feel like part of the world again.
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