Home > Tumble (Dogwood Lane #1)

Tumble (Dogwood Lane #1)
Adriana Locke

CHAPTER ONE

NEELY

You’ve got to be kidding me.”

I hit the brakes, and my little rental car, not much bigger than a cracker box, rolls to a complete stop. The hound dog lying in the middle of the road, right where the yellow stripes would be if this were a town with more than a thousand people, lifts his head. I tap the horn. He lays his head back down and yawns.

“Hang on, Grace.” I sigh, pulling the phone away from my ear. Wincing as the window slides down and the sun washes across my face, I wonder vaguely when I last saw a morning this bright. The sun doesn’t do this in New York City.

My head pokes out the window. “Come on, Blue. Move it!”

He doesn’t. He doesn’t even bother to blink.

“Who’s Blue?” Grace asks. “Like the color blue?”

“He’s a dog.”

“I thought you were in the car?”

“I am,” I grumble. “Blue, come on, boy. Get out of the way. Please?”

“Why are you negotiating with a dog?”

Ignoring her, I watch Blue lazily yawn again and then close his eyes without a second thought to my request. His fur is sprinkled with gray, his eyes droopier than when we used to load him up in the back of a pickup truck and cruise town with him all weekend. It’s kind of sad.

“Fine,” I tell him, frowning. “Have it your way.”

Piloting the car in a wide berth around his body, I forge ahead.

“I can’t believe you just had a conversation with a dog,” Grace says. “You’ve been in Tennessee for, what, twelve hours, and you’re already losing your mind.”

“How sweet of you to insinuate I still have a mind.”

A long pause stretches between us as I heed a stop sign.

When Grace dropped me off at the airport last night to catch the red-eye back to Tennessee, I stained her new cream blazer with my mascara-laced tears. It was the first time she’d seen me cry in the handful of years we’ve been friends. Crying is not something I do well. Years of gymnastics competitions broke me of shedding tears easily.

“I know you still have a mind,” Grace scoffs. “And I know you’re okay, even if you don’t, because you’re one of the strongest women I know. But I will admit, your tears last night kind of screwed me up.”

“Oh, sure. Make this totally about you.” I shake my head, wishing we were having this discussion over coffee instead.

“I didn’t mean it like that.”

“Don’t worry about it. It was more of an angry cry than anything.” Flipping the visor down with a little more force than necessary, I accelerate through the intersection. “The tears are over.”

“They don’t have to be over, and you’re allowed to be pissed. Just promise me you’re okay.”

I consider this. It would be so easy to not be okay right now. I’m unemployed. My New York City rent is awful, and I quit my job without thinking it through and don’t even have a backup plan.

And I’m here. The one place I’ve avoided in every single way since the day I left.

As the pine trees roll by, there’s no sourness in my stomach at being back in Dogwood Lane. There’s no regret at buying the plane ticket last night and jumping on a plane to come home without telling my mother until I landed. I expected at least a little of each. It’s confusing.

“I’m not okay by any means, but I’m better this morning.” I shrug, trying to find a way to rationalize it. “You know what they say—sunshine brings opportunities.”

“Um, no one says that.”

“They should.”

“If the southern sunshine cures problems that fast, I’m on my way.”

I slow to make a turn. “My problems aren’t cured, but there is something about the air down here. It just purifies the soul or something.”

She laughs. “I’ll take credit for your purification since you going home was my idea. That’s me—the one with good ideas.”

“Hardly. The last advice I took from you got me a warning from security at a very expensive hotel downtown.”

“You should listen to me more. I guarantee you’d have more smiles, sunshine, and, quite possibly, a lot more sex. Great sex.”

“God knows I need more of all three of those. But I didn’t have time for that stuff before I decided to storm into my boss’s office and quit like some silver-spoon princess who doesn’t need money. I definitely don’t have time for it now.”

“You have time for what you make time for. We have to remember there are twenty-four hours in a day, and if we’re going to be boss women in New York, we have to use all twenty-four.”

Just hearing that feels like a weight squats on my shoulders. “I know. You’re right. I should give up the four hours of sleep I get at night and get a social calendar instead.” I fake cry at the idea. “I see now why some women are gold diggers. If I would’ve dated the stockbroker from the deli, I wouldn’t have this worry.”

“No. No stockbrokers.” The line muffles. “Hang on for a sec, Neely.”

Her voice mixes with another, getting louder and then softer before she returns. “Sorry. They’re trying to not run my article on women’s tennis, and I’m digging in my heels. It’s the best thing I’ve ever written.”

The line muffles again, and my mind wanders to the last piece I wrote for the sports magazine I work—worked—for. It followed a collegiate soccer player who came from nothing and won the starting goalie position at an elite school. A tale of hard work and overcoming obstacles, it was the type of story my soul craves.

It’s the kind of article I became a sports journalist to write.

It would’ve been the perfect story to kick off the new division at the magazine.

Forcing a swallow in an attempt to quell the bitter taste in my mouth, I flip my attention back to my friend.

“You still here?” Grace asks.

“Yup.”

“Okay. Had to do a little ‘my balls are bigger than yours’ show to the boys. You know how it goes.” She sighs. “I love when they think they can make decisions and not include me. Imbeciles.”

That hits home a little too hard. I force another swallow. “Totally.”

Grace must hear the slight wobble in my voice, because her tone lowers. “You know what? I’m gonna steer this conversation in another direction.”

“It’s fine,” I promise. “You’re allowed to talk about your job.”

She ignores me. “I’m stuck at work dreaming about a vacation and dealing with office politics. You, my friend, are free. You should totally live it up for a few days.”

“Livin’ it up in good ole Dogwood Lane,” I say with a laugh. A little yellow-painted building with a patched roof passes on my right. “Maybe I’ll pull into the Bait Shop over there and count the worms.”

“Worms? Gross. But on the bright side, I bet there are cute country boys in there, probably even in flannel.”

“Flannel?” I laugh. “That’s random.”

“Yes, flannel. Your job is to find a hot country boy in flannel and roll around in some hay. Drink some lemonade in mason jars. Ride around in old pickup trucks. Do whatever it is you do down there and forget life for a couple of days. I’ll be working some angles around here.”

My spirits slip, just like the sun slips behind the clouds. My life in New York City was anchored by my position at the magazine. My entire routine was centered around my job. The stories. The people.

The magnitude of the situation, of starting over from scratch, combats the feel-good energy from the pine-scented air. I cringe. “Remind me again I didn’t just screw up my life.”

“Stop that,” Grace warns. “You didn’t screw up anything, and this will all work out for the best. I know it.”

“I hope so, but, man, now that the adrenaline has worn off . . .” I try to laugh, to play it off as a joke, but no sound comes out.

“Look, I have friends in high places. Getting you a job will be as hard as the musician I slept with last night. And trust me, that’s a good thing for you.”

“I gather he wasn’t amazing since you’re calling him by his job instead of by his name.”

“He told me it was Gabriel. But since I told him mine was Lydia, who knows if that’s true. But now you’re distracting me.” She shouts at someone before coming back to the phone. “I have a list of people I’m going to call this week to see if anyone is looking for a brilliant sports journalist.”

My fingers grip the steering wheel. Grace is a bloodhound: once she sets her sights on something, there’s no turning back. We met a few years ago at a conference and realized we lived the New York equivalent of “right around the corner” from one another. We bonded over cereal from the box, afternoon movies, and ballpark hot dogs. Grace decided we were friends, and that was that. I love her for it.

“I know you want to help,” I tell her. “But I’ll find something. I already sent my résumé out this morning to a couple of places. I got this.”

“Okay, but I can’t be blamed if something just falls in my lap while you’re on vacation.”

“I wouldn’t call this a vacation,” I note. “More like a chance to see my mama.”

“Well, I still think you should make the best of it. Just don’t fall back in love with your hometown too much, because you aren’t leaving me.”

I drive through the center of town and take in the quaint buildings and the kids riding bicycles on the sidewalks. There are no drive-through coffee shops, no chain restaurants. The closest dry cleaner is two towns over, and if you want more than the cheap toilet paper, you’re out of luck. Nothing has changed in the decade I’ve been gone. Not physically, anyway. My stomach bottoms out as I think about the people and the things I’ve avoided all my adult life. My spirits sink as I consider the topics I’ve forbidden my mom from even mentioning over the years.

Shoving them out of my mind, I sigh. “Trust me. I won’t fall in love with this place. I’ll be home before you know it.”

“Why? What’s wrong with Dogwood Lane, Tennessee?” she asks in her best southern voice.

“Your New Yorker attempt at a southern drawl is pathetic.”

“I’ll work on it. Now, tell me what you see. Paint me a picture of whatever you’re looking at. Bonus if it includes flannel.”

I take in the first building on my right. “The post office was built a hundred years ago and has needed a new coat of paint for at least the last twenty years.” I flip my turn signal on. “Across the street is a church with musket balls from the Civil War lodged in the steeple.”

“You’re joking.”

“I’m afraid not,” I tell her. “The whiskey barrels lining the main drag are filled with pansies because the first year they planted those, the high school football team made it to the state finals. That never made sense to me because they lost, but apparently that’s close enough and no one wants to rock the boat. Superstitions and all.”

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