Read the first 3 chapters of Love’s Trial! – Melissa Storm
Melissa Storm
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Read the first 3 chapters of Love’s Trial!

You don't have to wait! Read the first 3 chapters of Love's Trial right now. Be warned there are some spoilers for the first four books in the series. If you haven't read them yet, head here for excerpts and buy links!

 

Chapter 1

And just like that, one wedding gave way to the next, much like Spring gave way to Summer. The cloying scent of sweet summer flowers hung thick in the air. The sun shone much too brightly, and the mass of people gathered to witness this spectacle stood too close together for any of them to be truly comfortable. That wasn’t the worst of it though. Not by a long shot.

“I do,” Ben said to his bride, his wife.

“I do,” the imposter wearing white repeated.

Sally shifted her weight from foot to foot, trying so hard not to flee—or worse, to make a scene—as her one true love married somebody else. She glanced around the orchard. The whole town had turned out for this wedding, even though a few last-minute disasters had changed its location from some relative’s garden, to the church, and finally to the old wishing well hill within Bryant Orchard.

People, she now knew, would go to any lengths to make Summer happy. Ben, on the other hand, had always been an outsider, lived on the periphery—just like Sally. At least until Summer showed up and staked her claim, stole every hope at true love right out from under Sally’s poor, shaky feet.

But Sally was the hero of this story, and she refused to give up without a fight. A sea of smiling faces on either side of her watched as the Sunday School teacher, Jennifer Elliot James, led Ben and Summer through their vows.

Sally was the only one to wear a stoic expression in that moment.

Nobody else knew that the day before yesterday, Sally had at long last declared her love to Ben, had pressed her lips to his for one glorious moment forever frozen in her mind, for the only place it could maintain life, truth was in her thoughts.

Right after their brief kiss, Ben had torn away from her, declared his love for Summer, and told Sally he didn’t even think they could be friends anymore. He’d ripped her heart clear in two, like it hadn’t been the greatest gift she knew how to give. Like it hadn’t meant anything when, in fact, her love had been everything.

Ben was the one perfect part of Sally’s world. And now?

Now she had to stand in silence and watch as he became somebody else’s. It was time to lay down her torch once and for all. Time to stop fighting and accept the horrible, horrible truth.

“Ladies and gentlemen of Sweet Grove,” the officiant, Jennifer, said with a ridiculously huge smile on her face. It was no small wonder she and Sally had never become friends. “I now present to you, for the first time ever, Mr. and Mrs. Davis!”

Sally looked away as Ben pulled his bride into his arms for the ceremony-ending kiss. Everyone clapped and cheered. This was the soundtrack to Sally’s world ending.

Laughter, joy, torture.

She turned to leave, but before she could, somebody flung her arms around Sally from behind. “It’s been forever,” her old friend, Scarlett, cried. Scarlett and Sally had gone to Sweet Grove High together, and later to college. They’d even done their master’s degrees in Library Science side by side. And they hadn’t seen each other since Scarlett had moved up to Anchorage and accepted a position there, leaving Sally to take over the library in their small Texas town. She’d never much cared for Sweet Grove, but at least she had Ben…

Until suddenly she didn’t anymore.

All of the sudden, Summer Smith had come and changed everything.

Ruined it.

Scarlett frowned, her fair features pinched together in concern. “Sally, did you hear me? I asked how you’ve been. Is everything okay?”

Sally shrugged. Scarlett had known of her crush on Ben growing up, but she’d never understood how deep Sally’s feelings ran. Not even Ben had known until two days ago.

Now Sally wished she would have followed in Scarlett’s footsteps and taken a job in a new town, somewhere she could start over, find someone new to love. But she hadn’t done that, and now she’d be forced to watch as Ben built his life with Summer as they honeymooned, became parents, grew old together.

Meanwhile she, the rather unheroic Sally, would be all alone. Forever and hopelessly alone. Some ending to this particular love story.

“You don’t still…” Scarlett made eyes toward Ben and Summer standing by the wishing well on the hill. “Love him?” she mouthed soundlessly.

“I’m fine. It’ll be fine,” Sally answered coldly. She’d missed her friend, but she just couldn’t bring herself to talk about what she was feeling today. If only there were a pill she could take… or even a surgery that could cut out the piece of her heart that belonged to Ben.

Then everything would be okay. She could heal.

But no, they didn’t live in a fantasy world, although Sally spent much of her free time crafting such a land in the novel she was writing.

Scarlett placed a conciliatory hand on Sally’s back and brought her in for a quick hug. “Do you want to meet Henry? He just flew in yesterday after his exams. He’s studying to be a doctor, you know.”

Sally did know. She and Scarlett exchanged emails often, and Sally made sure to keep up with her friend’s blog even though she had very little interest in the world of dog sledding, which was the main topic of said blog.

“I’d love to meet the fire to your ice,” Sally said, resigned to the fact that she’d have to stand back and watch as everyone around her found love sooner than later, while she remained with only her housebound aunt and her favorite stories to keep her company.

Scarlett giggled and gave Sally a tight squeeze. “There’s the friend I know and love. And, actually, it was the other way around. I’m the fire.”

Although people often called Sally an ice queen when they thought she couldn’t hear, Sally knew that she, too, was made of fire.

Flames of passion, of longing, of love.

Because if she were ice than maybe—just maybe—her heart wouldn’t hurt so bad.

* * *

Tobias Lloyd missed most of the ceremony, but he’d shown up just in time to watch as the groom swept his new bride into his arms and gave her that first enthusiastic kiss of marriage.

“C’mon, don’t dilly-dally!” Mabel grumbled as she and the proprietor of Fred’s Pizza Co. worked to unfold long plastic tables on the grass nearby.

“You’re making me do ninety-nine percent of the lifting!” Fred shot back, squinting into the sun with a pained expression.

Kristina Rose and Jeffrey, the engaged couple that ran the local diner since Mabel had “retired,” rushed across the lawn with heaping armfuls of tablecloths, plates, cutlery, and basically all the fixings for this triple-catered wedding reception picnic.

“Can I help?” Tobias offered, but Mabel just rolled her eyes.

“I doubt Ernie would like that,” Kristina Rose said with a pout. “Anyway, we’ll manage just fine.”

Sure enough, Tobias’s grandfather appeared behind him, pushing a polished metal cart across the bumpy ground. “Get over here, kleiner. We’re setting up our own station on this side.”

So at the end of the day, Tobias had driven more than two hours to help his grandfather further tarnish his relationship with the other restaurants in town? What a perfect reason to miss study group.

Tobias grabbed for the cart, but the old man was too quick and too stubborn to hand over control. Gramps, couldn’t we set up beside the others?”

His grandfather laughed at this suggestion. “We’re the only gourmet setup in town for a reason, you know. And I don’t want their fumes mixing with ours.”

Tobias shrugged and tried to shoot the others an apologetic look, but they were too caught up in their own preparations. He’d never known Kristina Rose and Jeffrey well since they’d been a couple years ahead of him in school growing up, but he liked to think they could have been good friends. Maybe they still could be.

After all, he’d need friends if he decided to return to town after his law school graduation this summer. It wouldn’t be long now.

He ran his hands through his dark hair, which was long only because he hadn’t found the time to cut it between studying hard during the week and helping his grandfather with the restaurant whenever he had even a moment’s time to spare. Perhaps he could go say hello while his grandpa fiddled with their setup.

“Where do you think you’re going? I need you at the carving station,” Gramps said, pushing a heat lamp into Tobias’s chest.

Well, so much for laying the groundwork for a friendship. Gramps would make sure that nobody in the Sweet Grove restaurant business liked either of them, and somehow he doubted things would be different when he finally convinced the old man to hire a full-time staffer to help with the daily goings-on at Ernie’s.

Tobias could wonder and worry about what came next, or he could buckle down and focus on work. Work won out every time, and it did that day as well.

It wasn’t long before he had a beautiful carving station set out before him, complete with German meatloaf, pork roast, and the special red wine sauce that had made his grandpa’s restaurant a local legend. Gramps had even forced him to put on a white chef’s coat and hat as a further way of differentiating Ernie’s fare from that of the lesser area restaurants.

That was his grandpa—passionate, particular, and proud—and Tobias couldn’t help but love him for it.

Grandfather and grandson watched side by side as the receiving line on the hill dwindled. Soon the wedding and all its myriad guests would turn their attention toward the reception and the restaurateurs waiting to serve up all their best dishes.

Tobias liked being able to help his grandfather, but sometimes he wished he could just attend local events as a guest, as himself rather than as a representative of their establishment. Maybe when he was a respected attorney, complete with diploma in hand… Maybe then he could be a part of the festivities instead of a mere stander-by.

The guests continued to mill around the meadow in one giant, pulsing throng. Tobias watched and waited, trying to mentally calculate what time he could be back in Houston if he left now… or now… or maybe now. As he struggled to work out the math, a pale figure broke out from the group, her feet flying quickly over the trampled grass.

He thought he recognized her as Sally Scott, a girl who had also been two years ahead of him in school. And he knew for sure it was her when she opened her mouth to show off the gap in the center of her otherwise perfect smile.

Only she wasn’t smiling. In fact, she looked as if she might burst into tears at any moment.

“Hey!” he called out, his voice hoarse and throat scratchy. When she paused and glanced over at him, he gestured for her to come over with a tilt of his head and his best smile.

“You look like you could use a good hunk of meat.” He grabbed his long silver fork and began to carve a bit from the pork tenderloin laid out before him.

“Is that a pickup line?” she asked with a sniff and a scowl. “Because if it is, it’s disgusting, and I’m offended.”

Of course, Tobias realized only then that his invitation to eat could have easily been construed as an invite to engage in other base desires. Heat rose up his neck and into his cheeks. If she noticed his sudden blush, he could blame it on the hot lamp casting warm light between them.

Sally continued to glower at him, waiting for some kind of response to the question he had hoped was rhetorical.

Tobias fumbled for any words that could make this exchange better. “I just meant you look sad or weak or sick or hungry. I don’t know.” Umm, maybe he chose the wrong ones.

“So now you’re saying I look ill?” She lifted one thin brow at him and crossed her arms. Her mouth closed in a frown, hiding her beautiful imperfection.

“Oops. Look. All I’m saying is…” He picked up his carving fork again and gestured toward the beautiful hunk of meat on the table. “I want to feed you.”

“Because I’m too skinny?” Sally stood in place, unflinching in her silent judgment. It made Tobias nervous. Real nervous.

“No. Ahh, no! Because it’s delicious. Here.” Without thinking twice, he picked up a bite-sized piece of the roast and pushed it past her lips and into her mouth.

Sally’s eyes grew wide, and he watched as she reluctantly chewed the meat. He knew that the moment she was able to swallow, he’d be receiving an earful.

Not good.

Was it too late to tell Gramps he couldn’t help with the reception?

 

Chapter 2

Sally knew she shouldn’t have stopped when the strangely familiar man at the chef’s station called out to her. She was already in a far too delicate state from watching Ben and Summer tie the knot, and the last thing she needed was to make small talk with some guy she scarcely recognized from her school days.

Even though Sweet Grove was a small town, she didn’t get out and around it much.

And neither did he, it seemed, or she would have at least known his name.

You look like you could use a good hunk of meat, he’d said. You look sick, tired, sad, hungry. You’re nothing next to Summer, which is why Ben chose her and discarded you like an old T-shirt—comfortable, but not something you want to let others see you wearing.

His attempts at whatever it was he meant to accomplish mixed together with her own inner critic rose her sadness to a fever pitch. She’d just about had enough when he actually had the audacity to shove a slab of meat right into her mouth!

Now as she chewed it, appreciating the savory flavor despite her anger, she knew she was equally likely to scream and slap him as she was to turn around and run away without saying another word more.

The nerve!

So what if she was skinny, pale, and had a permanent resting witch face? So what if she wore her broken heart on a sleeve? That didn’t give him—or anybody—the right to intrude on her space like that.

“I am so sorry!” he said, putting both hands up in front of him as if prepared for her to slug him before she even had the chance to swallow. “I didn’t mean to… Oh, man! I just wanted to… Sorry, sorry!”

At last she swallowed the over-sized bite and could speak. “Shut up, please.”

“I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m really…”

“Sorry? Yeah, you mentioned it. Now can you stop making a scene?” She cast a frantic glance over her shoulder, only to find that no one was paying any attention to either of them.

“Yeah, I didn’t mean to embarrass you or to assault you with my meat, or—oh gosh! I did it again. I…” His words trailed off, leaving a garishly bright red face behind.

She raised a finger to her lips in her classic old school librarian pose. “Hush. Stop apologizing. Stop mentioning meat. Just stop. You’re only making it worse.”

He ran his fingers across his lips in a zipping gesture and stared out at her with big green eyes that suggested he, too, was fighting back tears now. That was when she noticed.

She still didn’t know his name, but she knew his eyes.

They looked so much like Ben’s. Only these eyes weren’t filled with indignation after she’d tried to kiss their owner. These eyes didn’t betray any disgust, contempt, or derision. No, these eyes held apologies. Friendliness, even.

She could get lost in those eyes.

Sally shook her head in an effort to regain her composure. “What’s your name?” she asked, shifting her gaze to his hands.

“What? I…” He ducked his head in a subtle bow, then brought his eyes up in search of hers again. “I’m Tobias Lloyd. And you’re Sally. Sally Scott, right?”

She nodded, glancing quickly behind her to make sure they hadn’t become the focus of the guests after the whole forced meat and muttered apologies incident. Luckily, everyone remained transfixed at the couple by the well, which meant Sally had a few moments before she really needed to disappear.

She couldn’t handle the thought of Ben finding her and telling her to go away. The look of contempt that would be in his eyes, but these eyes, these eyes looking into hers now… maybe she could make them smile. Remember that, pretend they’d been Ben’s, that this had been their true and actual goodbye.

“You knew me, but I didn’t know you,” she said slowly. She’d never been one to mince words. “Why?”

“You were a senior when I was a sophomore. And I recognized the…” He pointed toward his mouth as if to indicate the gap within hers.

Sally frowned. “You know, it’s really not good form to point out people’s flaws like that.”

He turned redder still. She watched it happen in slow motion. One moment he was medium well, and the next he’d turned full-on rare. “I didn’t mean… I meant… Actually, it’s not a flaw. It’s beautiful.”

“Beautiful?” she asked again, focusing intently on his emerald eyes.

“Beautiful,” he whispered before looking away. “I’m sure it won’t be long before I’m called in to cater your wedding. Only I promise not to do the thing with the meats again that day.”

“No.” Now he had her laughing.  The ice in her heart cracked, but it didn’t melt. Not yet. “You’ve got it all wrong. There’s never going to be a wedding to cater. Not for me.”

Tobias looked confused, but broke out in an awkward, apologetic smile all the same. “Always the bridesmaid, never the bride, huh?”

“No, not even a bridesmaid. They don’t like me.” She motioned back toward the crowd of guests across the way. “Actually, I’m not even really supposed to be here, so pretend you didn’t see me, okay?”

“Wait,” Tobias called after her, but as much as she might like to stay and see how he’d manage to embarrass himself next, Sally knew it would only be a matter of time before this friendly near stranger figured out what everyone else in town already knew.

That Sally Scott wasn’t worth admiring.

She was hardly even worth knowing.

***

Tobias watched as Sally stalked across the orchard and out of sight. What a woman she was, and what an idiot he’d been!

As an almost-lawyer, he rarely found himself tongue-tied and still didn’t know why he’d struggled so much during their exchange. Sure, she was beautiful in a classic yet quirky way, and—yeah—her intelligence obviously rivaled his own, but to turn him into a stuttering moron? Now that was something else.

Sally said nobody in town liked her, and he had a hard time believing it. Then again, people often took a liking to Tobias, but it was difficult to accept their admiration when he just couldn’t understand its basis.

Oh, there he went again, trotting out his mommy issues as if they explained everything that ever went wrong in his life. And yet how could he not when he wasn’t even supposed to have been born?

Anna Lloyd had once had a blindly bright future before her. As the only daughter of German immigrants, a straight A student, and homecoming queen, it seemed the entire world would one day be her oyster. That is, until little, toddling Tobias came along and ruined everything.

During spring break her junior year of high school, his mother had taken a few too many drinks and a few too many liberties with a handsome stranger in Cancun where she’d gone for her vacation. Three months later, she found out she was pregnant, and three days after that, she’d made the decision to abort it—to abort him.

But Grandpa Ernie found out and stopped the procedure. Her parents homeschooled her until graduation so they could add learning how to be a mother to her curriculum.

Only Anna had never wanted to be a mother, especially so young. Everyone had assured her she’d love the baby once it came, that even if she didn’t want the pregnancy, she would want the child. But when Tobias came, she took one look at him and knew she could never love him.

How did he know this?

Because she told him so on his seventh birthday to explain why she had to leave. She told him everything, again and again coming back to the fact that she had never asked for him, and thus the two of them just weren’t good for each other.

So Anna moved out of her parents’ house, and Tobias stayed behind. For all the love and affection his mother withheld, his grandparents gave him theirs in spades. But the damage to Tobias’s self-esteem had already been done. He never gave up trying, though, to be worthy of her even though—rationally—he knew it was she who was unworthy of him.

He mailed her copies of his straight A report cards, sent drawings he’d made of the two of them together and happy, taped video recordings of his school plays and band recitals. She rarely wrote back, and she never came for a visit.

Eventually, Tobias stopped trying to earn her love and shifted his focus toward proving he wouldn’t be a life wasted.

Someone had saved him for a reason—God, his grandparents, he didn’t know. But he was here now, and he intended to make something of himself.

Some way.

Somehow.

He kept his head down, worked hard, did the right thing whenever such an opportunity presented itself. He was cool, calm, and collected on the outside, even though inside he was a weepy, insecure mess. Appearances mattered, and people often liked the image he projected—whether or not it represented the real him.

He didn’t much care for the real him, so why would they?

And why—oh, why! —had he let that awkward, bumbling idiot out to play today of all days?

He was so close to securing his goal of finishing law school and receiving that special piece of paper that said he was worthy, that he’d earned something so few ever did. Yet when Sally strode up to his station, he’d stumbled over his words, become awkward, vulnerable. Exactly the kind of person he’d worked hard to avoid becoming.

He couldn’t afford to be vulnerable, couldn’t allow any cracks to form in the surface of his carefully crafted life.

And yet…

He turned toward his grandpa who was restocking plates and napkins at the other end of their long serving table. “Gramps?”

“Yes, kleiner. What is it?” he responded without looking up from his task.

“What can you tell me about Sally Scott?” Seeing that most of the guests were already served and that no one was approaching their station, Tobias cut off a slice of roast for himself and lifted it to his mouth with a smile as he remembered doing the same to Sally not so long again.

His grandfather grunted, returning to his side and grabbing a small plate for himself as well. “Who?”

They chewed in silence for a few moments until Tobias swallowed his bite and said, “The girl I was talking to a little bit ago, the one with the gap in her teeth. You know her, right?”

Gramps shrugged, his eyes firmly glued to the morsel on his plate. “What? Oh, yes. I suppose I know of her. She mostly keeps to herself, which is a fine thing for a young lady to do, in my opinion.”

Tobias wondered if his grandpa was thinking of the errant daughter who’d abandoned them both. He knew better than to ask, though.

“Do you know where she works?”

Gramps finished his first slice of roast and then carved off another, offering some to Tobias who quickly declined. His stomach had already filled to the brim with butterflies, and there wasn’t space left for anything else.

“The library, I think,” he said just before plopping another piece of meat onto his tongue. “But I couldn’t be one-hundred percent sure. These old eyes are too tired to read much these days. Besides, the restaurant keeps me busy.”

Yes, the restaurant. The reason they were here now. He decided not to press the old man further, instead choosing to focus on finishing out the event without any more random acts of meat-foolery. Hopefully, by then, Sally would be out of his mind and he could return to school without any niggling questions as to why she’d managed to get under his skin and stay there for the better part of the afternoon.

 

Chapter 3

Sally headed straight home after the wedding, more than ready to put the entire affair behind her.

As expected, her aunt sat in her favorite chair by the window staring blankly out into the yard. She startled when Sally latched the door shut behind her. “Oh, it’s just you,” she said, slowly letting the air back out of her lungs following her initial sharp intake of breath.

“It’s always just me,” Sally grumbled as she kicked her shoes into the small coat closet and shoved the sliding door shut.

Aunt Fiona rose from her chair and took measured paces toward Sally. Although she was hardly middle-aged, her shoulders hunched forward, belying years of bad posture. Her eyes were rimmed with red, and her clothes were badly wrinkled. Her straight blonde hair, though, was impeccably kept. She brushed it several times per day, one hundred strokes each session. Aunt Fiona’s hair was her pride and joy… even though no one ever saw it except for Sally.

“How was the wedding?” her aunt asked.

“It was a wedding,” Sally snapped back, unwilling to recount the heartbreak she’d had to suffer alone and definitely unable to live through it a second time.

“Tell me about it,” her aunt persisted.

Normally Sally was happy to play her part, but today she just needed a break. “If you want to know about it so bad, then why didn’t you just go yourself?”

Aunt Fiona cleared her throat and shifted her gaze back toward the kitchen.

A surge of guilt swept through Sally. She’d broken the most important rule of their relationship—the rule that stated they were always to act as if their lives were normal, that they weren’t supposed to address the fact that Aunt Fiona hadn’t left the house in years, that she couldn’t bring herself to venture past these four walls, and that Sally was to be her eyes and ears to the town.

Nothing about it was normal, but this was their life.

Aunt Fiona’s agoraphobia had crept up on them slowly. She’d once been a successful realtor, had maintained a thriving social life and had even had boyfriends. All that had ended, however, when she got the call that her sister and brother-in-law had perished in a car accident and she was now the guardian of their little girl, Sally.

Sally had been five, still so young but also old enough to see that things were changing—and not for the better. It started with driving. Every time Aunt Fiona got behind the wheel of her little sedan to drive Sally to school or a playdate, she would start breathing fast and turning a bright lobster shade of red. She’d then say she was too dizzy to drive and would tell Sally to arrange to have her friends’ parents pick her up the next time.

They drove so rarely that eventually Aunt Fiona sold the car, and they began walking everywhere instead. As Sally got older, her aunt had less and less of a reason to leave the home. She hadn’t always been afraid, but her anxiety became reinforced by habit, and soon the world was too big a place for her to be a part of it.

Sally could still clearly remember the last time Aunt Fiona had left the house. It had been for her high school graduation more than eight years ago. She hadn’t come to Sally’s college ceremonies because she could neither drive such a long distance nor bring herself to board a plane.

Sally had hoped to break free once she had her degree in hand, but her aunt had retreated even further into herself during Sally’s absence. She couldn’t just abandon the woman now, not when she had taken little Sally in when she had no one else to love her.

And so this was Sally’s world—library, home, library, home. She so badly wanted it to be different, but life was something that happened, not something you could choose. Until recently she’d foolishly allowed herself to believe she could select a different path for herself with Ben, but that had only led to the complete and utter destruction of any lingering hope that life could be better someday, somehow.

“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to snap. I’m just tired from all that time in the sun,” Sally said, placing a hand gently on her aunt’s shoulder before she could turn away. “It was a beautiful ceremony. They ended up holding it in the orchard at the old wishing well. Everyone threw pennies into the well to make wishes for Ben and Summer’s married life.”

“That sounds nice.” Aunt Fiona closed her eyes, and Sally knew she was picturing the scene for herself.

Sally couldn’t hold back her sudden laugh that bubbled to the surface. “It was nice. Well, until one of the caterers assaulted me with meat.”

Her aunt’s eyes blinked open again, the dull browns searching for some kind of explanation in Sally’s face.

She smiled to allay her aunt’s fears. “It’s a long story, but I’m fine. Hey, shall we make some tea and listen to another chapter or two?”

Aunt Fiona let the tension out of her body, a noticeable loosening and letting go. “That would be nice, dear. Thank you.” She headed to the kitchen to prepare a pitcher of raspberry iced tea while Sally brought out the speaker and scrolled through the selections in their shared Audible account.

They’d both always been big readers. It was her aunt’s way of having adventures out in the big world while remaining safely ensconced in her home, and it was Sally’s way of having friends, of belonging, of being really and truly normal. Sometimes make believe was the only way to replace the things you just couldn’t have. They both understood that quite well.

A few years ago they’d decided to start sharing the activity by listening to audiobooks together in the living room while Aunt Fiona worked on puzzles and Sally sat with her eyes closed and allowed the story to wash over her.

Maybe this was why she’d had no luck as a writer. She loved books and wanted to add her voice to the great literary canon, to see her name in print, to touch readers’ hearts and imaginations. But she’d always used books like friends, as a way to feel normal, and now that she sat to write her own stories, she found that she didn’t have the slightest idea how to go about it. She needed the stories to stay sane, but every time she opened her imagination to something new, all the pain flowed out onto the page into a hideous mess of words that no one would ever want to read.

Especially not Sally herself.

***

The interviewer smiled at Tobias and leaned back in his chair. The buttons of his shirt strained against the girth around his midsection, suggesting a recent weight gain. But if the man was under an undue amount of stress these days, he certainly didn’t show it. “And what would you say is your greatest strength?” he asked, tapping his pen at the edge of his large cherry desk.

Tobias rattled off the same answer he’d given to every other perspective law firm employer. “My perseverance in the face of adversity,” he answered with a nod, mimicking the interviewer’s posture as all the job prep guides had insisted he do.

They exchanged a few more questions, answers, pleasantries, and in no time at all, the interviewer had stood and was extending his hand toward Tobias. “This went great, really great, but we still have several more interviews to conduct before making our decision. Either way, it was great to meet you, Mr. Lloyd. We’ll be in touch.”

Tobias shuffled out of the office, keeping his head held high in feigned confidence. He’d done so many interviews, but still he had no offers on his plate. Did that mean he was fundamentally unhireable despite graduating near the top of his class at Thurgood Marshall? And what did it mean that the interviewer had used the word great three times in such rapid succession? Perhaps he was just humoring Tobias. Perhaps it hadn’t gone “great” at all.

Whatever the case, he needed to find some kind of job and quick. Soon there would be bills to pay, including his excessively lofty student loans. Law school was supposed to be the difficult part, not what came next.

Still, he would persevere in the face of adversity like he always has—his greatest strength wasn’t just corporate speak. It was true to life, too.

As Tobias walked down the long corridor that led back to the outside, he felt his phone buzz in his pocket. Who could it be? Someone with a job offer, he hoped.

But, no, he’d received a text from his grandfather’s phone.

This is Liam James, the message read. We were at the restaurant when your grandfather fainted, headed to hospital now. Any way you can come home for a few days?

Tobias felt his heart drop. His grandfather was the only person in this world he truly felt close to, truly loved. He couldn’t afford to lose him now… or ever, for that matter.

“Please don’t be a heart attack, please don’t be a heart attack,” he mumbled to himself over and over again as he worked up the nerve to call Liam and demand more information.

He’d already lost his grandmother five years back. She’d always been the healthier of his two grandparents, but one day she’d had a massive heart attack and, well, that was it. There was nothing anyone could do. Tobias was studying for his midterms when his grandfather called to deliver the news, and nothing had been the same since.

Back then, Tobias had half expected his gramps to drop dead of a broken heart, too—but the old man proved too stubborn to leave the world behind just yet. Hopefully, that surliness was still flowing through his veins. Tobias could not lose him. He couldn’t even think about that possibility.

Liam answered on the first ring. “Tobias,” he answered breathlessly. “I was hoping you’d call back.”

“How’s my grandpa? Is he okay?”

“He’s awake now and insisting he doesn’t need the hospital.”

Tobias chuckled with relief. “Sounds about right.” Gramps murmured something in the background, but Tobias couldn’t make it out. “What’s he saying?”

“He’s saying not to come. That he’s fine.”

“I’m already on my way,” Tobias answered, shoving the key into the ignition. Maybe stubbornness was a trait that ran in their family. After all, wasn’t that just another word for perseverance?

“Figured you’d say that,” Liam said. “We’re almost to St. Joseph’s. I’ll call you when we learn something more.”

They said goodbye, and Tobias headed for the highway. Thoughts sped through his mind like crazed drivers, all racing to reach their destination first.

What if his grandfather was seriously ill?

What if he was going to die?

What if he wasn’t?

What if Tobias got a job offer outside of Texas and ended up moving too far to visit his grandpa on a regular basis?

Would Gramps be willing to leave Sweet Grove and his restaurant behind?

Could Tobias ask that of him?

By the time he reached the turn off for St. Joe’s, Tobias had already decided.

He was coming home.

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