“Mr. and Mrs. French feel strongly that their granddaughter needs to marry a nice boy from a good family,” Duke explained.
“And since everyone knows Duke isn’t the marrying type—” Molly added.
“Hey, hey, hey.” Duke held up his hands. “I tried, if you recall.”
“With Dana French?” Molly rolled her eyes. “Good move. No chance in hell.”
“Why not?” Charlotte asked.
“She’s more Luke’s type,” Duke said, and when Charlotte raised her eyebrows, Molly rushed in to explain.
“The Frenches just want someone who isn’t going to leave Shady Grove. They’re very close with Dana, especially now that her father passed.”
“I see.” Charlotte nodded. “And what do you think of Dana?” she asked me.
I glanced from my brother to my sister, not sure who was more deserving of my glare. “I hardly know her.”
“Unless you count every year of school from kindergarten to senior year of high school,” Duke said.
“That doesn’t mean I know her,” I insisted. “She was in my classes, but I can’t say I ever really talked to her.”
Charlotte laughed. “It’s okay, Luke. This isn’t a trial. Is Dana pretty?”
I frowned. Why did Charlotte even want to hear about what I thought of another woman? She was leaving and this was all temporary, but on the other hand—
She’d shared my bed with me. Had been with me under the bleachers. Shouldn’t some deeper, animal part of her be somewhat jealous? I tried to imagine myself in her shoes, and realized the thought of another guy touching her made me want to punch a hole through the fucking wall.
When I told Charlotte, “Not as pretty as you,” she turned her attention to her chicken, eating with even more gusto than she had with her pretzel after the football game.
“Might have to order seconds if you’re going to wolf it down like that,” Duke teased, and she grinned.
“They don’t make it like this where I’m from. So good. I’m trying to preserve the memory of the way this tastes.” In a flash, she whipped out her phone and took a picture of the half-empty plate, complete with the orange-and-white What the Cluck wax paper underneath.
“Hashtag too good not to eat,” she murmured to herself as she scrolled through the filters.
I laughed, then took a bite of my own chicken just in time for it to turn to dirt in my mouth as I looked up to find Wayne was walking toward us, his hands laden with carryout bags. He stopped at our table and grinned down at Charlotte.
“Oh. Hey, Wayne,” she said with a polite half smile.
“Hey.” He lifted the bags a little. “I was gonna call you, wanted to let you know your car should be all set around noon tomorrow. Whenever you’re ready to pick it up after, you’ll be good to go.”
I studied her face, but it remained impassive as she nodded.
“Okay, great. Thanks again for your help.”
When Wayne winked and headed for the door, I pushed my plate away, suddenly not hungry anymore. I knew there was an expiration date on my time with Charlotte—I’d reminded myself of that more times than I could count. But now that I knew the real timeline . . . now that I knew tonight was definitely our last night together?
It all felt different.
A combination of dread, doom, and despair mingled in my stomach. I looked up to catch Duke and Molly exchanging concerned glances, so this fact wasn’t lost on them, but Charlotte continued to pick away at her food, seemingly oblivious.
Was it just me? Didn’t she feel it too?
The thought that this strange sense of grief was one-sided made my temples throb.
“I guess your going-away party is going to have to be tonight then,” Molly said.
Charlotte laughed. “Going away party? I’ve only been here a week.”
“And every day has been better than the last. Come on, you can’t say no.” Molly grabbed a biscuit and took a big bite.
“Then I won’t.” Charlotte grinned from Molly to me, and I feigned a smile in return. “After all, it could be fun.”
“Absolutely,” I agreed with a little too much gusto. “Could be the best night of our lives.”
That seemed about right. Sort of like the way a death row inmate’s last meal was the most delicious one.
A couple of hours later, Luke and I splashed hand in hand through an unexpected rain shower and made it inside the bar just in time to see that when Molly said “party,” she was so not kidding.
A buffet was set up in the corner of the room, and the honky-tonk’s normal fluorescent lights had been dimmed to make way for the flashing Technicolor disco ball now hanging from the ceiling. She and Duke were sitting in the corner of the room, waiting for us, it seemed.
Everyone I’d seen or met in Shady Grove was crowded around the bar, and even a few people I hadn’t met yet were dancing or clustered around the tables, talking to one another.
Luke and I laughed as Duke pretended to be affronted at our late arrival, and then I let out a low whistle as I took in the room again.
“How did you manage it? This must be the whole town,” I said in amazement.
Molly laughed. “Just about. People around these parts love a party. Even Dana French is here,” she said with a wink.
“Don’t I know it.” Duke grimaced at his brother. “Mrs. French thought I was you and tried to get me to dance with her.”
I followed his gaze until I caught sight of the girl who had to be Dana. She was pretty and petite, with a sprinkle of freckles over her long, thin nose. Down her back, she wore a thick brown plait that was tied with a bright red ponytail holder.
“Classy,” I said. “Her ponytail matches her dress.” I knew I sounded bitchy, but damned if I could help it. She was adorable, and I hated her on sight.
That’s a lie. I’d hated her from the second they’d mentioned her at the chicken place. It was petty and small and silly, but there it was.
Molly smirked. “Someone’s jealous.”
“As if.” I rolled my eyes, but I turned so Molly couldn’t see the nausea on my face. This party was super nice of her to do for me, and I wasn’t about to be an ungrateful brat for any reason.
I made my way onto the dance floor and giggled with Molly until Luke appeared at my side, a drink in hand.
I raised my eyebrows. “What’s up, cowboy?”
“I thought we should toast. I followed your advice.”
I stopped dancing and looked up at him as Molly wandered away when a friend called her over. Luke’s green eyes blazed with a proud light I’d never seen there before.
“What’s up?” I asked.
“I followed your advice and struck a deal with Amos, the owner of the bar. Wilder is now their craft whiskey, and we worked together to come up with a signature cocktail. I want you to taste it.”
When he held the glass out to me again, I took it and sipped slowly, then held my hand to my lips. It was beyond delicious—sweet and mild in all the best ways, but also dark and smoky without being too heavy. There was a hint of fruit and a splash of something that coated the back of my throat with a slow, silky burn, which made me want more.
“Oh my God,” I murmured. “Did you come up with this?”
“What’s in it?”
“If I tell you, I’d have to kill you,” he said with a wink, and I rolled my eyes. “But it’s sort of like a blackberry old-fashioned. A mix of something new and slick, and something classic and traditional.”
When he gave me a meaningful look, I took another sip, savoring the sweet burn of the whiskey. “I’ve never had anything better.”
For once, I wasn’t sure if I was still talking about the whiskey or if it was something more, if it was all about this week here with him and these people who surrounded me. The people who cared so deeply about the Wilders that they’d gathered for a person they barely knew, just because it meant something to their neighbor.
There was a lot to be said about small towns, and that was one of them. Maybe Luke was constantly being set up with women. Maybe everyone knew everyone else’s business. But they were there for each other. If something happened or someone did something special, there was never a lack of people there who wanted to help or to celebrate.