Turn My World Around - Kait Nolan - E-Book

Turn My World Around E-Book

Kait Nolan

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Beschreibung

The road to redemption 
Struggling single mom Corinne Dawson doesn't have time for fun. She's too busy making a new life for her son and trying to avoid being dragged down by the ghost of who she used to be. But when an accident knocks her boss out of a local "Dancing With The Stars" style fund-raiser, she finds herself face-to-face with the worst mistake from her past.

One slow step forward
Attorney Tucker McGee has always seen past the prickly exterior of this former mean girl. He knows there's more to the story than simple spite. When they get partnered for Dancing With Wishful, he finally gets the chance to act on the spark he's felt since she moved home. But getting past her regrets just might be the biggest challenge he's ever faced.

Two quicksteps back 
As the competition heats up, so do the feelings between them. Will Tucker be able to convince Corinne that she's more than the sum of her mistakes? Or will she be forced to leave town to find a new beginning without him?

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Turn My World Around

Kait Nolan

Contents

Turn My World Around

Invite

A Letter to Readers

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Epilogue

Dance Me A Dream

When You Got A Good Thing

Other Books By Kait Nolan

Acknowledgments

About Kait

Turn My World Around

Written and published by Kait Nolan

Cover design by Lori Jackson

Copyright 2016 Kait Nolan

All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this book, or portions thereof, in any form.

To everyone who’s ever felt trapped by the mistakes of their past,

This love story is for you.

With love,

Kait

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A Letter to Readers

Dear Reader,

This book is set in the Deep South. As such, it contains a great deal of colorful, colloquial, and occasionally grammatically incorrect language. This is a deliberate choice on my part as an author to most accurately represent the region where I have lived my entire life. This book also contains swearing and pre-marital sex between the lead couple, as those things are part of the realistic lives of characters of this generation, and of many of my readers.

If any of these things are not your cup of tea, please consider that you may not be the right audience for this book. There are scores of other books out there that are written with you in mind. In fact, I’ve got a list of some of my favorite authors who write on the sweeter side on my website at https://kaitnolan.com/on-the-sweeter-side/

If you choose to stick with me, I hope you enjoy!

Happy reading!

Kait

Chapter 1

IS THERE ANYTHING MORE pitiful than a man drinking alone on a Friday night?

Tucker McGee pondered that from his seat at the bar of The Mudcat Tavern. In the wake of wrapping up an ugly divorce trial and a property dispute this week, he’d wanted to unwind with his friends. But those days of regular socializing seemed to be over. Brody had been back from Portland for almost a month and they’d hung out twice—once for his welcome home party and one hurried lunch. Tucker didn’t blame his buddy for making up for lost time with his fiancée, Tyler. God knew they deserved all the happiness in the world.

But his other friends had been just as scarce. Cam was busy being half of Wishful’s power couple, saving the town alongside his fiancée, Norah Burke, the new city planner. And poor Piper was busy puking her guts up, though her first trimester was past. She and her new husband, Myles Stewart, were sticking close to home until she was more human again. Hell, even his law partner, Vivian, had tied the knot earlier this summer with her long-term beau, Darius Greeley. That left Tucker high and dry, feeling like the last single guy in Wishful, and wishing the beer in his hand was a plate of pie.

Be honest. It’s not about pie—it’s about the owner of the hand that delivers the pie. Corinne with the wounded eyes.

Tucker took another pull on his beer. When, exactly, was the right time to make a move on a woman who was busy trying to rebuild her world from the ground up? He’d been trying to figure that out for the better part of a year, which had resulted in a lot of pie and an extra six miles a week on the treadmill at the gym. No date, though. He hadn’t asked. Not because he was some kind of pansy afraid of rejection, but because he didn’t want to be the rebound guy. But biding his time hadn’t gotten him anywhere.

Irritated with himself, Tucker finished off the beer. He didn’t even like his own company tonight.

“Tucker, my darlin’, you are just the man I was looking for.”

He swiveled on his stool to find Norah cutting a swath through the Friday night crowd. Cam was nowhere to be seen. Tucker slid off the stool and gave her a hug. “And where is your other half this evening?”

“Taking advantage of the long summer hours to finish up a job for Mamie Landon. She got it into her head to turn her backyard into a Zen garden, complete with Asian-inspired pergola.”

“Better Cam than me. The heat index was over a hundred today.”

“Welcome to August in Mississippi.”

“Buy you a drink?” Tucker asked.

“I’m buying because I have a favor to ask.”

Tucker recognized the gleam in her dark eyes. She had another grandiose scheme in the works. Norah Burke never did anything small, which meant whatever she had in mind would probably be a good distraction from his lack of a love life.

“I’m intrigued. What’s the favor?”

“Drinks first.” She lifted a hand to wave at the owner of The Mudcat, who was working taps behind the bar. “Hey Adele! Can I get whatever hard cider you’ve got on tap and another of what Tucker’s having?”

“Coming right up.”

Drinks in hand, they retreated to one of the high top tables along the far wall.

“Okay, spill it. What have you got up your sleeve?”

“You do volunteer work at the women’s shelter, right?”

Not the segue he’d been expecting. “Yeah. I offer up free legal services. Divorces. Restraining orders. That kind of thing. Why?”

“Well, you know they’re really in need of a bigger place, right? They want to be able to take in more women with children, and right now the house simply isn’t big enough.”

That was true enough. The shelter was, unfortunately, bursting at the seams—a sad testament to the need for its services.

“You want to do a fundraiser,” Tucker said.

“I want to do a fundraiser,” she confirmed.

“What did you have in mind?” Please don’t say a bachelor auction. As much as he wanted some companionship right now, the kind of women who’d be bidding on him at a fundraiser like that were not a road he wanted to travel down again.

“Well, you know how Dancing With the Stars is in its bajillionth season, right? Way more popular than the showrunners ever expected it to be.”

“Yeah...”

“I want to do a local version. Dancing With Wishful.”

Tucker frowned. “How would that work?”

“Same kind of format as the show, with some minor modifications. The Babylon is hosting the competition in its ballroom. There will be—well, I don’t know how many performances since I haven’t nailed down all the dancers yet—but maybe four or five shows. One a week. We’ll sell tickets to those. The whole thing will be streamed live online, and people will be able to vote for their favorites each week, just like on the actual show. There will be some built-in revenue on the site, via ad space and the like. And there will be a panel of three judges, like on the show, too.”

“People tune in to watch Dancing With the Stars because there are pro dancers and famous people.”

“People will tune in to watch this because we’ll be pairing beloved town figures with the town’s best dancers. That’s where you come in. I want you to be one of our pro dancers.”

“Oh really?”

“Tyler and Brody already agreed. Piper begged off because growing a human is hard. But she offered up the names of a couple of other people I should ask. You’ve been in court all week, so I haven’t made it to you until now. Think about it, Tucker. You nobly gave up your role as Phil in White Christmas to get Brody and Tyler back together. Now’s your chance to show off those happy feet of yours for all to see.”

A spark of inspiration flared in his brain. “And who would my partner be?”

“To be determined. I wanted to have all my pros lined up before I started asking local businesses to sponsor someone, so I know how many I need. Cam volunteered to sponsor himself on behalf of the nursery, so he’s dancing with Tyler.”

“And you have the double whammy of him being an elected official.” Tucker nodded. “People will tune in to see City Councilman Pretty Boy. What about you, Miss City Planner?”

Norah laughed. “Please. I know my limitations. I nearly broke your feet when you tried to dance with me last year. Surely you’ve learned your lesson.”

As it was an undeniable truth that Norah possessed not a shred of natural rhythm, Tucker was privately relieved. And that potentially left the door open to a crazy plan. He did love a crazy plan. “What about Mama Pearl?”

Norah clapped her hands in glee. “Dinner Belles is the center of everything in this town. If you can talk her into dancing, the public would love it!”

“Oh, so I’m on recruiter duty now, am I?”

“You’re the one who brought it up. Besides, you’re a smooth talker, Tucker. If anyone can do it, you can.”

He was, and Norah was falling right into his hands. “You could do it, too. I’m reasonably sure no one has actually said no to you about anything since you moved to town.”

“True, but I’ll be busy sweet talking everyone else. Can I count on you? To dance and to work on Mama Pearl?”

Tucker loved to dance, loved to perform, and it would give him yet another legitimate excuse to drop into the diner. And if he could get Mama Pearl on board, it just might give him the opportunity to break this stalemate he’d been in with her sad-eyed waitress. He lifted a hand in salute. “I’m your man, General Burke.”

“Only twenty more minutes and we are done! Girl, give me a high five.”

Corinne Dawson slapped Malika Hobbs’s uplifted hand before returning to her patient charts. The next twenty minutes were all that stood between them and the completion of the clinical hours required for their nursing program. With finals finished, this was the last requirement for graduation. Thank God. The last two semesters of juggling online classes, clinical hours, and her job as a waitress at Dinner Belles had meant little sleep and even less time with her son. But the end was in sight.

“We should totally go out for drinks to celebrate. Or ice cream. A big ass banana split,” Malika continued. “And then a three hour nap.”

The idea of that nap almost made Corinne whimper. “I wish. I’ve still got a shift at the diner when I leave here.” Another eight hours on her feet after eight here at the hospital. She’d forgotten what it was like not to operate past the threshold of permanent exhaustion.

The younger woman stuck out her lip in a pout. “With clinicals done, when am I going to see you?”

It gave Corinne warm fuzzies that her classmate still wanted to see her. She hadn’t exactly been welcomed back to Wishful with open arms when she’d come slinking home, a divorced single mom, eighteen months before. Friends had been hard to come by.

“You could both apply for jobs here at the hospital.” Rosemary Newsome reached past them both to pluck a chart out of the rack.

Corinne looked at the charge nurse. “I didn’t think they were hiring.”

“They weren’t. But they will be. It’s a good gig. Hard work, but part of the job perks is that the hospital will pay for you to continue your education. You come in as LPNs, you can work your way up. Two years working here for every year of schooling.”

A means of furthering her education without going deeper into debt? With that kind of option, she could afford to finally move out of her mom’s house, get her own place and start paying off all the debts she’d accrued trying to get back on her feet since the divorce. “Where do I pick up an application?” Corinne asked.

“The posting will go up in a few weeks. You can swing by HR then, put in an application. They’ll have it online, but better to have your face seen. We’re old school around here. Then the board will interview candidates,” Rosemary said.

“The hospital board?” Corinne asked.

“That’d be the one.”

Damn it. Of the nine board members, Corinne knew at least three of them would turn her application down on the spot. She’d been back long enough to know nobody had forgotten high school and no one cared about giving her a chance to make up for her less than sterling behavior. But maybe it didn’t have to be a unanimous decision. She’d just have to make sure she was the best candidate for the job.

“I’m going to go check on Mr. Lennox in 104,” Malika announced.

As her friend hustled down the hall, Corinne turned to Rosemary. “I know clinical hours are over, but is there any chance I can continue volunteering?”

The older woman blinked. “You need to be studying for your NCLEX exam.”

“And I am. But I’m serious about going for that job.” She needed it to make a better life for her son. “It seems like going above and beyond would help set me apart from the crowd.”

“Your work should speak for itself. You’ve done a good job here, Corinne.”

She’d worked her tail off. But Corinne had her doubts about whether it would be enough. In all likelihood, she’d end up having to leave Wishful to start a new life for her and Kurt. As difficult as coming home had been, going somewhere entirely new was a mountain she wasn’t sure she had it in her to climb.

One step at a time, she reminded herself. It had been the mantra echoing through her head for a long time now. It had gotten her away from Lance, found her a job, gotten her back in school. It would get her a little bit further.

At the end of their shift, she and Malika walked out to the parking lot together.

“Oh! Oh! Final grades are posted!” Malika furiously punched at her smartphone. “Thank you, baby Jesus, I passed.”

“Could I borrow your phone to check?” Corinne held up her dumb phone. She hadn’t been able to afford anything with a data plan.

Malika handed over the iPhone. Nerves danced in Corinne’s belly as she logged into her own account on the student portal and scrolled to check her grades. Her breath wooshed out.

“All A’s.” She’d been terrified with all the extra hours she was pulling at the diner that she’d tank her classes.

“Damn, girl! You kickin’ my ass. Making my A’s and B’s look shabby.”

Corinne handed the phone back. “The important thing is we’re both officially graduating!”

The pair of them executed a little happy dance, ending with a hip bump and a tight hug.

“Come by the diner to see me, now, you hear?” Corinne ordered. “I’ll be there until I finish my test and find something else. We can get in some more study sessions for the NCLEX.”

“I will. See you on the flip side.”

With a wave, Malika slid into her little Nissan and headed out. Corinne took a long look at Wilton Memorial Hospital before climbing into her ancient Toyota and pointing toward downtown Wishful.

The town green was edging more toward brown in the late summer heat. Rather than parking behind the diner as usual, she took a space across from City Hall. She felt foolish as she made her way up the path to the huge fountain that was the town’s pride and joy. Over a hundred and fifty years old, the fountain was central to Wishful’s identity. People came from far and wide to toss a coin into the basin and make a wish. Fed by nearby Hope Springs, local legend had it that most of them came true—though not always the way the wisher expected.

Corinne had never been one for wishes. But under the circumstances, she didn’t think it could possibly hurt. Standing at the edge, she dug in her purse for a coin. The biggest one in the handful she pulled out was a nickel.

Well, nobody ever said denomination counted.

Holding the coin tight, she pressed her fist over her heart. I wish for the chance to be seen as who I am now, not who I used to be. Please don’t let my past mistakes negatively impact my son.

She tossed the nickel. It flipped end-over-end, flying through the air to ping off the central stone pedestal, before dropping into the water with a splash.

Well, that was that. She’d finished her LPN classes with a 4.0. She’d finished her clinical hours. And she’d made a wish of the Universe. The only thing left to do was study her butt off for her certification exam. With one last look at the fountain, she turned toward the diner with a bit more of a spring in her step.

Chapter 2

TUCKER TIMED HIS VISIT to Dinner Belles when he knew Corinne wouldn’t be on shift. He chose to believe the fact that he knew this was simply due to his superior powers of observation and frequent patronage of the diner, rather than a slight edge toward stalker behavior. The Saturday lunch crowd was thinning. He scanned the restaurant, nodding at a few clients and former classmates. None of his friends were here, and thank God for it. He didn’t want any opining from the peanut gallery regarding what he was about to do.

Squaring his shoulders, he headed for the counter.

“Tucker McGee!”

His feet did an automatic redirect at the hail before he’d registered who the speaker was.

Aw hell. The Casserole Patrol. The trio of elderly women, who provided home-cooked sustenance to everyone in town in the name of joy, illness, or sorrow, were clustered in a corner booth. Empty plates with crumbs of pie crust were shoved to the center of the table, testament to the sugar fueling their current knitting session. Skeins of yarn spilled over their laps, needles clack clacking away, except for Betty Monroe, who’d paused to crook her finger in his direction.

“Afternoon Miss Betty. Miss Delia. Miss Maudie Bell.” Tucker nodded to each of the women in turn.

“Hear you’re dancing in this newfangled fundraiser Norah’s cooked up,” Miss Betty said.

Word traveled fast. He suspected Norah had done everything she could to make it travel faster. For a transplant, she’d certainly learned how to make the most of the local grapevine.

“Yes ma’am. You heard right.”

“Who’s your partner?” Miss Delia wanted to know. The Casserole Patrol’s favorite pastime was poking into everybody’s love life. He’d heard a rumor earlier this summer that they were trying to talk Norah’s old intern into teaching them how to blog so they could put in for a weekly column in the local paper. So far Myles was maintaining a firm “No” in his editorial capacity at The Observer, but Tucker only gave him another few months before they wore him down.

“Don’t know yet. I’m here to sweet talk Mama Pearl into joining the competition. Norah wants to showcase some of the major business owners in town.” The truth. It’s always safest to stick to the truth.

Miss Maudie Bell pouted. “When’s she gonna do a good bachelor auction? Got all these handsome, single men floating around town that need to find a good woman.”

“You just want to win the bid so you can have one of them work shirtless in your yard for your ogling pleasure,” Delia cackled.

“Well, why not get some fun out of things until they manage to find that good woman?” Miss Maudie Bell sniffed.

Tucker wasn’t sure whether to laugh or run. Schooling his face in neutral lines, he said, “That sounds like an interesting idea. Maybe you should take that to Norah directly.” And by the time they convinced her, maybe he’d be off the market.

“I do believe I’ll do that,” Miss Maudie Bell said.

Spying his quarry behind the counter, Tucker grinned. “Ladies, y’all have a good afternoon. I need to go have a chat with Mama Pearl.”

When he escaped the encounter without having his ass pinched, he decided he’d received his quota of miracles for the day.

Mama Pearl turned from where she’d slid a fresh pie into the rack. “What can I get for you, Tucker?”

He eyed the rack. “Is that coconut cream?”

“It is.”

His afternoon was free. He could squeeze in an extra workout. “A few minutes of your time. In private. Then a slice of that and a cup of coffee.”

If she thought the request odd, she didn’t show it. “All right then. Come on back to the office.”

Tucker skirted the counter and followed her through the swinging door into the kitchen. The scents of grease and sugar hit him like a fist, making his mouth water. Oh yeah, the workout would be worth it. At the grill, Mama Pearl’s youngest son flipped burgers with precision.

“Hey Omar.”

“Tuck. Usual?” he asked.

“Just your mama’s pie today. How’s it going with the lovely Simone?”

Ahead of him, Mama Pearl made a grunting noise. She clearly hadn’t made up her mind about Omar’s girlfriend, the new reporter for The Observer.

“Lay off, Mama,” Omar warned.

“What’s the matter, Mama Pearl? Marrying Vivian off this summer didn’t satisfy?” Tucker teased.

“Still got three more to go,” she said.

“Then focus your attention on Violet. She and Reuben are a lot closer to the altar than I am,” Omar suggested. “Simone and I are fine, just as we are.”

With a fulminating glance, Mama Pearl shuffled into the office. Tucker followed her inside and shut the door.

“I’m not going to insult you by asking if you’ve heard about Norah’s latest fundraising scheme,” he began. Mama Pearl was the undisputed queen of gossip in Wishful. If the Casserole Patrol knew, she definitely did.

“You wanna pull me in. How?”

He explained what Norah wanted to do.

“You want me to dance,” she repeated dubiously.

“People in Wishful would love to see that. Everybody loves you.”

“Doesn’t seem like the best exposure for my sponsorship. You may be good, but you can’t make these old bones move like young ones again. Don’t expect we’d last past the first week.”

“You would get more long-term exposure from a longer run in the competition. There’s no rule saying it has to be you. The diner is free to sponsor anyone it likes if you have someone else in mind.” Look at him being all blasé about this.

“Mmmhmm.” Those two syllables belied her bland expression. Mama Pearl was not a stupid woman. No judge Tucker had ever faced made him sweat like that single, raised eyebrow.

Before he could say anything to further his cause, the office door burst open. And there she was. Corinne Dawson, former Homecoming Queen, student body president, and head cheerleader. The girl who was wrong for him on every possible level. One fist shot into the air in a posture he’d seen a thousand times at pep rallies and football games when they’d been teenagers.

“I did it!” Her blue eyes sparkled until she realized Mama Pearl wasn’t alone. She dropped her arm and pulled back a bit.

He was sorry to see any of her happiness dimmed. Happy had never been Corinne’s default state and he wished boatloads of it for her.

“Did what?” Mama Pearl prompted.

“Oh, hey Tucker. Sorry to interrupt.”

“Not interrupting at all. Good news should always be shared. What’s up?” He thanked God for all his hours in a courtroom and on the stage. It kept his voice from reverting to the awkward tremble he hadn’t been able to shake around her back in high school.

“I’m done. I officially passed all my nursing classes and finished my clinical hours. I am graduated!” Tucker hadn’t seen her smile like that since he handed over her bouquet of roses for the homecoming parade. The sight of it sucker punched him right in the gut.

“That’s awesome,” he said, and meant it.

He’d watched her clawing her way back to something since she’d come back to Wishful. She’d fought tooth and nail against less than friendly odds. It was good to see her finding some success.

Mama Pearl rose to hug her. “That’s wonderful, child. And there’s pie to celebrate.”

There was no such thing as a celebration in Wishful that didn’t include Mama Pearl’s pie.

Corinne squeezed her back, gratitude written clear on her face. “Thank you. But pie can wait. I’ve got tables.”

With a quick wave at Tucker, she was gone again.

He stared at the empty doorway as the last flash of her long, dark hair disappeared.

“Mmmhmm,” Mama Pearl said again.

Tucker pokered up, but not before she shot him a Look that made it clear she’d noticed him noticing Corinne. “So how about it? Will the diner be a part of the competition?”

After a long, assessing study that had him wanting to squirm in his chair, at last Mama Pearl nodded. “I’ll do it.”

Exhaustion dogged Corinne’s steps as she slipped quietly into her mother’s house after ten that night. Automatically, she avoided the third and eighth steps as she went up for bed, knowing the old wood would creak beneath her weight. That skill had been mastered well before she’d finished high school, back when she’d ruled the school, before the Universe had proved she’d been a big fish in a microscopic pond. One easily chewed up and spat back out.

Quiet as she could, she opened Kurt’s door and looked in on him. In the glow of the firetruck night light, she could see the crescent of his dark lashes closed in sleep. His limbs stuck out at all angles in a forest of stuffed animals, with the stuffed Chewbacca doll tucked tight in one arm. For long minutes, she stood in the doorway watching him, her heart aching. She hadn’t seen him at all today—gone before he woke, back after he’d gone to bed. There’d been far too many of those days in the past several months.

It’s not forever, baby boy. I swear it.

A door opened down the hall. Corinne held in a wince. No luck sneaking in tonight. Shutting Kurt’s door, she turned toward her mother. Marianne Dawson stood in a silky, floral robe, arms folded, annoyance etched on her face. It was her default expression these days.

“Hey Mama.”

“You’re home late.”

Corinne didn’t bring up the fact that she’d already reminded her mom that she’d be working a full shift at the diner after winding up at the hospital. “I know. I’m sorry. Did I wake you?”

“I was watching The Tonight Show. Julia Roberts was on talking about that new movie of hers.”

Corinne made a noncommittal noise. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d actually been to a movie. That kind of frivolity called for money and time she didn’t have. Though she had been planning to take Kurt to the next big animated flick now that he’d settled down enough to sit all the way through one.

“How was Kurt today?”

Her mother grunted and moved past her, toward the stairs. “Come sit with me while I have some tea, and I’ll tell you.”

All Corinne wanted was a horizontal surface for longer than a span of six hours, but she dutifully followed to the kitchen. She was more starved for news of her son than she was for sleep.

Because it gave her something to do with her hands, and therefore kept her vertical and conscious, Corinne took the kettle from her mom’s hand. “Why don’t you let me do that?”

As she filled it, set it on the burner, Marianne sat at the kitchen table. “We did our school shopping today.”

Corinne’s hand froze with a mug halfway to the counter. “What?”

“Went ahead and got all the supplies and some new school clothes.”

Corinne choked back the bitter words wanting to spill out. Her baby was starting kindergarten in a few weeks. She’d been looking forward to taking him shopping. To letting him pick out his backpack and lunch box. He wanted Star Wars everything. Did her mother know that?

“I was going to take him next week.”

“Didn’t figure you’d have time. You’ve hardly seen him the last few months.”

The guilt stabbed deeper, made her want to lash out. But she bit back the impulse. “I know. And I don’t know what I would’ve done without you, while I juggled school and work and my hours at the hospital. I really appreciate all your help, Mama.” Corinne did her best to inject as much legitimate gratitude into the statement as she could. Because for all her faults, her mother had been there for her when Corinne had come crawling home.

“Wouldn’t be having to do all this if you’d finished school the first time instead of going off and marrying that man.”

That man. Lance Lindau. Bane of her existence and the worst mistake she’d ever made. Except he’d given her Kurt, and she could never, ever regret that. He was the best part of her world, and she’d become a better person because of him.

Corinne could have reminded Marianne that she’d been in favor of the marriage at the time. That she’d seen Lance’s money and position and thought her daughter had made a smart match. She hadn’t changed her tune until Corinne had ended it. And then only after considerable effort was made to place the blame for the disaster of a marriage squarely on her daughter’s shoulders.

“You’re right,” Corinne said, because agreeing with her mother was the quickest way to end this conversation. Ending it was the only viable option. There was no winning an argument with Marianne Dawson. “But I can’t change the past. I’m working really hard to give Kurt a better future. I’m done with clinicals and school. I’ll have more time now that I’m down to the diner. Once I pass my licensure exam, I’ll start applying for nursing jobs.”

Marianne shook her head sadly. “You could’ve been so much more, Corinne. All that promise, all that momentum you built in high school, just thrown away.”

And this, this was the price she paid for her mother’s help. A perpetual recitation of her failings—which were many. Corinne said nothing, wishing desperately for a cigarette and the quick hit of nicotine to dull the edge of anxiety. After almost a year without them, these conversations with her mother always brought the craving roaring back.

She’d learned long ago that there was no meeting her mother’s expectations. Her father had finally conceded that a few years before and divorced Marianne. He’d since remarried and moved to Florida. When her own marriage had fallen apart, he’d made it clear she and her son wouldn’t be welcome additions to his new life for longer than a brief visit. So she’d taken the only option she’d had, returning to the house she’d married young to escape.

Hand trembling, Corinne poured boiling water over the teabag. “I’m sorry I disappointed you.” Setting the mug on the table, she straightened. “Thank you for all your help with Kurt. I need to get to bed.”

As she climbed the stairs again, hitting both the third and eighth steps this time, Corinne wrapped an arm around her middle and wondered that words could hurt just as badly as fists.

Chapter 3

ON WEDNESDAY MORNING, TUCKER slipped in to Dinner Belles to tell Mama Pearl about the orientation meeting for the competition. Norah had pulled off her usual organizational miracle. Not that he was surprised. As he wasn’t due in court until eleven, he had ample time for a hot breakfast. And he wasn’t above admitting—to himself, at least—he hoped to run into Corinne.

Having Mama Pearl agree to be his partner wasn’t exactly what he’d had in mind when he’d approached her. But maybe she thought Corinne wasn’t ready. Or that he wasn’t right for her. Or, hell, maybe that Corinne just flat wasn’t interested—in him or the competition. Tucker wasn’t about to fault the older woman for watching out for her employee. Corinne had few enough allies in her corner. But he’d hoped for the chance to be one of them.

Luck was with him. Moments after he slid into a booth, Corinne was at his elbow filling his coffee cup.