Exes and Ohhs!
A Thanksgiving Romance
by J.A. Coffey
The doorbell jangled a frantic greeting over the buzz of customers. The chill November wind sent a flurry of fallen leaves creeping across the black and white linoleum tiles.
“Hey, Sugar. Gimme the house special.”
To any other woman, the sobriquet would be annoying. To Sugar Dennison, it was the norm.
“You got it.”
Despite the cold drizzle making tear tracks on the fogged up row of windows, inside the packed Dennison’s diner was warm and cozy with the scents of bacon and maple syrup. Sugar put a warmer on the coffee of a city councilwoman and made change for the two teachers at the end of the counter.
“Two eggs sunny side and a side of grits, Beau,” she hollered over her shoulder.
“Table Six Order up!” Her cousin Beau set the plate of steaming flapjacks on the serving window as Sugar’s twin sister Honey moved behind the counter, the front of her cotton uniform freshly pressed.
“Can you cover Table Six for me? I need to prep the biscuits.” Honey’s dark eyes scanned the busy breakfast crowd and rested on the regulars stuffed into every booth and wobbly table. Sugar sighed and resisted the urge to smooth the creases out of her own butter-colored apron. She’d gotten ready at the ass-crack of dawn. It was barely six a.m. now but the diner was at full capacity. Her hastily gulped black coffee hadn’t even hit her system yet.
“Okay, but tell Mama I’m clocking out early today. I’ve got an interview at two.” Sugar felt her natural curls bounce as she tucked a nibbled stub of pencil behind her ear. Time to take more orders.
The doorbell jangled again as a pair of uniformed police officers made their way into Dennison’s diner, slumping in the vacated stools. Sugar felt her palms go slick, then reminded herself that she wasn’t that same stupid girl who’d gotten sprung out of the county jail last year. It had all been a misunderstanding, but she’d learned her lesson. She gulped and snatched up her notepad.
“What’ll it be, officers?” She willed herself to remain calm.
“You tell me, Sugar Pie Dennison. What’s keeping you busy these days?” Officer Frank Milhouse gave her a slow grin like burnt molasses.
Autumn always twisted her broken heart into shreds. The dead leaves clung to branches just as she’d clung to the memories of the one man who’d abandoned her in this godforsaken backwoods, country town. It hadn’t felt like home since the day Jax Brandon had been assigned overseas three years ago. She’d cried when he showed her his orders to ship out. But he hadn’t. That man might have been carved of stone, but he had more honor rolled up in his pinky than she had in her entire body. Sugar felt her cheeks burn, thinking of how Jax would’ve reacted to the news she’d been arrested.
“Just workin’ as usual.” The bell chimed again. Sugar grit her teeth. Busy season or no, there was no way in hell she was going to encourage Milhouse. She hadn’t hit rock bottom yet.
“Yeah? Think maybe you could find a little free time this Saturday?” Milhouse’s fair skin made a sharp contrast to her own, as he wrapped his fingers around hers and pulled her closer. His partner chuckled and looked away, flushing slightly. “Girl as pretty as you shouldn’t be getting dishpan hands. I don’t like ‘em rough.”
“Then maybe you should take your hands off her,” said a voice she’d never thought to hear again.
Sugar’s next breath stuck in her throat. No, it couldn’t be him. She’d just about healed from his desertion. Had forgotten the look in his eyes when he had devilment on his mind. Had forgotten the taste of his kiss.
She pulled her hand from the cop’s grip and turned. “Hey, stranger.” No way was she going to let the folks in the diner see what Jax’s arrival did to her heart.
Officer Milhouse stood with his hands on his equipment belt. “Do I know you?”
She could almost see the testosterone floating in the air between the two men.
“I know him. Excuse me for a minute.” Sugar motioned Jax to follow her into the hall that led to the bathrooms. This could not be happening. Not today. She had enough on her mind with the interview that afternoon, to say nothing of arranging extended childcare for her daughter.
“Hey, Sugar, how are you? You’re looking good.”
“I’m fine. When did you get back?” Standing this close, it took every bit of self-control not to wrap her arms around his trim waist, press against his firm chest, and inhale his scent. After all this time, just one hit of his pheromones was all it took to make her forget that he’d left way too easily. That his responses to her emails got shorter and shorter until they stopped. She called to tell him she was pregnant but changed her mind when it became clear he was too busy to talk—at eleven o’clock on a Wednesday night. She’d not called again and neither had he.
“I landed yesterday, spent the night at my folks. They told me you still worked here.”
“Yup, still slinging hash. And as you can see we’re busy as hell, so…”
“They also told me you had a run-in with the police last year.”
Oh, the joys of small town living. She bet they all knew when she got her period too because Mrs. Hennigar at the drug store would notice when she bought tampons, and the checkout clerk at the grocery store would notice when she stocked up on chocolate.
“It was a misunderstanding, all cleared up. What else did your parents tell you? You must have had a long conversation, catching up on everything over the last three years.”
“You have a child, a daughter. How’d that happen?”
She smirked. “Based on my experience, you know exactly how that might happen.”
“How old is she?”
Well, shit. Luckily Sophie was petite, so some fudging on her age wouldn’t be too hard to pull off. “She’s two.”
His eyebrows lifted. “Who’s the dad? Anyone I know?”
Sugar’s stomach plummeted. She hated lying. But Jax had made it abundantly clear he wasn’t interested in maintaining their relationship when the going got rough. She didn’t want him back if it was just because of some sense of responsibility. He hadn’t loved her three years ago, at least not enough. And she wouldn’t settle for anything less.
“No one important, just a guy who left and never came back.”
By Aubrey Wynne
Jax Brandon looked at her through hooded eyes, catching the jab aimed at his failed communication. How could he explain? The memory of her tears the day he left had haunted him every night since. Before each mission, he would look at her picture, running his finger over her smiling face. Yet he knew the chance of a safe return became slimmer with each assignment.
He’d stopped all contact because of his love for her. The pain she’d felt that day would have been nothing compared to her misery if he’d been killed in action. And Jax cared too much for Sugar to cause her that kind of grief. But he also knew she would never understand.
“You look damn good.” The words were out of his mouth before he could stop them. Jax had intended on avoiding her while he was in town for the holidays. Somehow, he had found himself walking by the diner and there she stood in the window, taking an order. When he’d seen the cop putting the moves on her, he couldn’t help himself.
“Yeah, right,” she said as she pushed those silky, dark curls away from her face. He fisted his hands to keep from reaching out and tucking one stray lock behind her ear. “Looks like the Marines have been good to you.”
“Well, they didn’t kill me,” he answered lightly in the hopes of seeing a smile.
“That’s not funny.” Her blue eyes flashed with anger. His stomach clenched with remorse; his crotch tightened with three years of pent-up desire. Had he really thought he could let her go?
“You’re right,” he said and reached out to brush her cheek with his thumb. “War is a serious game and I’m very lucky to be here.”
Sugar’s eyes closed briefly and her slight tremble told him that her feelings had not changed. Did he have a chance? It would take a lot of convincing. This woman still held a grudge from a fifth grade romance.
“Please don’t do that,” she whispered. Shaking her head and backing away from his touch, she continued in a tight voice, “I have to get back to work. It’s been nice seeing you again.”
“I deserve that.” Jax didn’t want to end the conversation quite yet. He hadn’t heard that sweet southern drawl in three years. “Are you going to the tree lighting Thanksgiving weekend?”
“Of course. Sophie and I will be there with my parents.” Panic shone in her eyes then she quickly turned and walked away.
Sophie. The name they wanted for their first girl. Sam for a boy. He suddenly had a few more questions for his parents.
“So, Stranger, I don’t seem to recognize your mug.” The cop who had been flirting with Sugar stood in front of him, invading his personal space. “How do you know my girl?”
“Your girl? You’re dating?” Shit. Had she met him when she got arrested? He still needed to find out more details on that tale. When the man hesitated, Jax had his answer. “I’m Jax Brandon. My folks run the hardware store. I don’t seem to recognize you, either.”
“I transferred here from Atlanta a year ago. And I was about to ask Sugar out when you interrupted.” He puffed out his chest like a rooster, as if trying to make himself bigger, then fondled his holster. Jax towered over him by at least a foot and enjoyed the man’s obvious disadvantage.
“Thanks for the warning, but Sugar and I have a history. And the ending hasn’t been written yet.” He brushed past the officer, winked over his shoulder at a grinning Honey, and walked out the door.