Laramie watched out the window as Sydney maneuvered the hills and curves of the familiar highway. Almost to Sevierville. After that, another half hour or so and sheâ€™d be home.
She loved Winter in the Smoky Mountains. Though it robbed many trees of their autumn dressing gowns, the area boasted an abundance of evergreens so even during the cold season, it didnâ€™t look completely barren. Fir and spruce trees ensured a touch of color, even in mid-December.
As they drew nearer their destination, the route became so familiar Laramie thought she could find her way blindfolded. A deep sense of belonging washed over her, even as panic beat inside her chest like a trapped thing. When they turned south off the interstate, a flood of anxiety slammed her with a physical punch. Her breath came in short gasps, and darkness teased the edges of her vision.
â€śYou okay?â€ť Sydâ€™s voice cut through the fog, and Laramie heard herself whimpering. Stinging pain in the palms of her hands drew her gaze to a smear of blood where her fingernails had dug into the tender skin.
A gentle hand touched her arm. â€śWhatâ€™s up, girlfriend?â€ť
She forced herself to breathe deeply, pulling air in, easing it out, then back in again. When she could speak, she looked at Syd. â€śI need a little time. Can we stop in Cattletsburg?â€ť
â€śSure.â€ť Concern shadowed Sydâ€™s dark eyes. â€śWhere to?â€ť
Laramie closed her eyes and leaned her head back. â€śJust pull in anywhere.â€ť
A few minutes later, they slid into a booth at Chloeâ€™s CafĂ©. Laramie hadnâ€™t prayed since the night she should have been marriedâ€”why bother? God had shown He didnâ€™t care what happened in her life. Still, for the second time in the space of a week, she found herself breathing a grateful thank you for a businessâ€™s lack of customers. She needed a chance to pull herself together without an audience of strangers.
â€śSomethinâ€™ ta drink, ladies?â€ť
They ordered coffee. The waitress poured steaming liquid into their mugs and sauntered away.
Syd reached across the table and grasped both of Lariâ€™s trembling hands. â€śYouâ€™ve got to stop this.â€ť
â€śI know.â€ť Lari drew strength from her friendâ€™s support. â€śWeâ€™re almost there, Sydâ€”less than half an hour, and Iâ€™ll be home.â€ť She blinked back stinging tears and met the other girlâ€™s sympathetic gaze. â€śIâ€™m going to run into Evan while weâ€™re here, you know that. It canâ€™t be avoided.â€ť Her stinging eyes won the battle, and she dashed tears away. â€śI donâ€™t think I can stand to see him.â€ť
Sydneyâ€™s full lips tightened, and she narrowed her gaze. Chocolate brown sparks seemed to fly from the narrowed slits of her eyes. â€śYes, you can. Youâ€™re stronger than you think, Laramie Buchanan. So take a few deep breaths, count to tenâ€”or a hundred, if you need toâ€”then chin up and do what has to be done. You hear me, girl?â€ť
In spite of the fluttering of her heart, Lari chuckled. â€śYesâ€™m, I surely do.â€ť She gently extricated her hands from Sydâ€™s grip, unrolled the napkin from around her utensils, and dabbed at her leaky eyes.
â€śGood.â€ť Syd watched her through a narrowed gaze. â€śI donâ€™t want to hear you say you canâ€™t do this. You can, and you will.â€ť Her voice softened, and she winked. â€śIâ€™ll be right beside you every minute.â€ť
Lari managed a weak smile. â€śWhat in the world would I do without you?â€ť
â€śI seriously donâ€™t know, child.â€ť Syd slung a hand in the air and raised one brow in a mock haughty attitude. Having accomplished her obvious goal of making Laramie smile through a misty gaze, she glanced around the quiet room. â€śLooks like our waitress isnâ€™t coming back. Did you want something to eat?â€ť
â€śAre you kidding? You know my Mamaâ€”sheâ€™ll skin us alive if we eat this close to home. Sheâ€™ll have more food waiting than we could put away in a week.â€ť
â€śTrue. Are you ready then?â€ť
Nodding, she set her empty cup on the table and tossed some bills down beside it. As they started out, Syd slipped her arm through Lariâ€™s and gave her an affectionate squeeze.
Just as they reached the door, it swung open to admit a tall man with a firm jawline. The bright overhead light tangled itself into wavy dark hair that grazed his collar.
Laramie gasped. Only Sydâ€™s firm hold on her arm kept her upright. She found herself unable to remove her horrified gaze from Evanâ€™s far-too-handsome face.
He tilted his head and beautiful green eyes, touched with those striking gold flecks she remembered so well, narrowed and fixed on Laramie. Then he shook his head and gave her the lopsided smile that had always turned her legs to jelly.
Except this time it didnâ€™t. She straightened her spine and held his gaze.
â€śIâ€™m sorry,â€ť he said. â€śFor a minute there, I thought I knew you.â€ť
Sydâ€™s body stiffened and her mouth opened, but Laramie jerked hard on her friendâ€™s arm. Syd clamped her lips shut, but even without looking, Laramie knew the other womanâ€™s eyes would be setting off mini explosions.
â€śI donâ€™t think so.â€ť If he could look at her as though she were a complete stranger after all theyâ€™d shared in the past, Evan had never really known her. The chasm in her heart cracked a little deeper, and she dragged her furious friend out the door before she could make a scene.
Ten minutes down the road, Laramie regained enough control to dry her tears and blow her nose. â€śWell, I guess we got that over with right up front, huh?â€ť She managed a shaky laugh. â€śNow I donâ€™t have to worry about running into him. Heâ€™ll just pretend he doesnâ€™t know me anyway.â€ť