Mayor Nicki Tenney stared at the banner strung across Bartleview High’s old gymnasium. Welcome Home, Jimmy Ray. She fought the urge to hurl her baked beans right through it.
It’d been fifteen years since Jimmy had dumped her to chase country music stardom. But even now the walls seemed to be closing in at the memory of it.
The gymnasium, decorated in their team colors of yellow and purple, thrust her back to the night of senior prom when he’d walked out on her. She sighed.
Snap out of it, Nicki.
Aromas of fried chicken and Texas chili wafted from the nearby pot-luck tables. She quickly found a spot next to Danita Myers, Bartleview’s official party planner.
“Oh, you brought a dish to pass? Why, bless your heart.” Damita’s nose wrinkled at Nicki’s attempt at cooking. “I guess we’re all trying to impress our boy. But at least you get to pin him with the Bartleview key. Isn’t it great he’s taking time out of his tour to stop by?”
“What a guy.”
It’d been Danita’s brilliant idea for Nicki to present some lame award tonight, and the town council had insisted on it.
Voices echoed through the gym. Shoes squeaked on the polished floor. A DJ warmed up the sound system. Memories flooded back. She and Jimmy dancing to their favorite song, Bless the Broken Road…
Excitement buzzed near the main doors. The crowd moved closer. A voice rang out, “His limo’s here!” Nicki jolted out of her reverie and her chest tightened. She had to get out of here.
But there was no way out.
An hour later Nicki paced off-stage while Jimmy Ray finished his set, the small medal pin jabbing her palm. Somehow she’d managed to avoid him until now, but the moment to face him was finally here. Another abject humiliation.
Well, not tonight.
The music had stopped, and Danita was onstage playing MC, spinning her corn-pone banter with Jimmy. She motioned for Nicki to join them.
Onstage, Jimmy looked better than ever. Dark hair with that widow’s peak and strong cleft chin. His midnight blue eyes seemed older, though. Sadder. And right now they stared wide at her.
Danita revved up the crowd. “Y’all remember Jimmy Ray and our own Mayor Tenney were high school sweethearts, don’tcha?”
Resounding hoots and hollers made heat rise in Nicki’s face.
Danita continued. “So tell me, Madame Mayor, what’s your favorite Jimmy Ray hit? Seein’ as you’re old flames and all.”
Exuding Tupelo honey as sticky as Danita’s, she leaned in, “Gosh, I don’t know. I guess it’d have to be…Outta Sight Outta Mind.”
Jimmy chuckled, warming to her spunk. “Interesting. I’d have thought Never Had a Better Lover.”
She looked him up and down. “More like Boy, Bye.”
Guffaws broke out from the crowd. Danita intervened. “Well now, aren’t you the two love birds?”
Nausea rising, her limbs going rigid, Nicki commandeered the microphone. “Let’s dispense with the formalities, shall we?” She held high the ribbon-clad key. “A little memento to show how proud we are of our small town hero.”
Before anyone could react, she approached Jimmy and stabbed the pin into his broad chest. He ejected a satisfying grunt, but his easy-going Marlboro Man grin stayed fixed.
Danita, horrified, tried to pull Nicki back, but Jimmy raised a hand.
“Just a minute there, Danita,” he said. “I have a thing or two to say to Mayor Tenney.”
Nicki froze. The room hushed.
“Ya’ll may remember that night fifteen years ago when I cut outta Bartleview to follow my Nashville dreams. I had a fire in me I couldn’t ignore. But I always regretted the way I left abruptly, ruining Nicki’s prom and humiliating her.”
A cold sweat broke out on Nicki’s neck.
“It was Nicki who gave me the courage to follow my dreams. But that night, I realized just how in love with her I was. If I didn’t leave right then, I never would.” His gaze met Nicki’s. “I’m so sorry for all the hurt I’ve caused you over the years.”
Oh, no, we’re not doing this.
Reeling, Nicki hightailed it offstage, bumping into a wall of fans. But not before Jimmy caught up with her and dragged her into a corner behind several security men.
She pushed him away. “Are you trying to make a fool out of me all over again? Fifteen years and you never contacted me once!”
“If I made it, I was going to ask you to join me. But things moved so quickly. Once I was caught up in that world, I knew you’d hate it. There’s no excuse for what I did, but we both know Bartlesview’s the only place you’d ever be happy. Look at you, mayor and all. You’re the real small town hero.”
“So, now you thought you could just sashay back into town and pick up where we left off?”
“Maybe. Except for the sashay part. But I did have a little help.” He nodded toward Danita standing nearby. “I knew you deserved a public apology, and she put this whole thing together once I told her what I had in mind.”
Nicki didn’t know what to say. Years of thinking he’d forgotten all about her. And now all this to win her back?
“You’re really moving back here and willing to give up Nashville?”
“I’ve realized this is the only place I could be happy, too. I can make music anywhere now.”
Maybe he wasn’t all talk.
“Don’t think I’m gonna make it easy on you.”
“I’d expect nothing less.”
She stared at him, the faintest smile pulling at her lips. “I guess you do owe me a dance…”
He took her arm, grinning. “Only for about the last fifteen years.”