Mildred has worked at our restaurant for as long as I can remember. She’s a terrible waitress—I think my mother just keeps her on out of charity. Legend says that she was once a beauty queen—Miss Kentucky, or Louisiana, or something like that. But she lost her looks and her zest for life when her fiancé played chicken with an oncoming freight train. And lost.

Now she lives in the apartment complex downtown, and smokes two packs a day.

But she’ll probably live to be a hundred and seven—compared to the thirty-one-year-old mother of three who’s never touched a cigarette a day in her life, yet somehow still dies from lung cancer.

Like I said, God? he’s a real sick son of a bitch sometimes.

Waitressing skills are like riding a bike—you never really forget.

Though there are a few close calls, I manage to get through the morning without vomiting in any of the customers’ cheeseburger deluxes or French onion soups.

Golf clap for me.

The toughest part is the questions. About New York—about my handsome boyfriend who came here with me to visit three months ago. I smile and keep my answers short and vague.

By noon, I’m pretty much wiped out. Physically and mentally.

I’m just about to retreat to my room for a nap when the bell above the door rings, and a voice comes from behind me.

A voice I would know anywhere.

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Chapter 10

“Katie Brooks in a cowgirl uniform. Is this for real, or some freakishly vivid acid flashback?”

I was six years old the first time I laid eyes on Billy Warren.

Around the same time that Joey Martino was abandoning Amelia in that hotel room? her younger sister, Sophie, was being kicked out of the house.

Because she was pregnant too.

Apparently the elder Mrs. Warren subscribed to the Mommy Dearest style of parenting—wire hangers and all. Anyway, five years later, Sophie died in a drug den from a meth overdose. The state took custody of Billy until they were able to track down his only living relative, Amelia Warren.

Delores stayed with us for the weekend while her mother drove to California to get him. Amelia walked into the group home and saw a small, hollowed-eyed little boy in a ripped black T-shirt. And from that moment on, Billy was hers—even though she hadn’t given birth to him.

For the first four months that Billy lived with Amelia and Delores, he didn’t speak. At all. he followed us around, did everything we did. When we played school he was the chalkboard, when we dug for buried treasure, he was our pack mule.

But he didn’t talk.

And then one day Amelia was running errands on Main Street, and they passed a pawn shop. Billy stopped in his tracks. And stared into the front window.

At a shiny red guitar.

Amelia went in and bought it for him. By this time I was pretty good at playing, so she figured my father could give Billy lessons too. But—here’s the thing—before my dad got around to giving him even one lesson? Billy already knew how to play. he was a prodigy, like Mozart. A true musical genius.

he can be really annoying about it sometimes.

“Billy!”

I throw my arms around his neck. he squeezes me tight at the waist and my feet leave the floor. My voice is muffled by his shoulder. “God, it’s good to see you!”

I know you think he’s a dick. But he’s not. Really.

You’ve only seen him through Drew-colored glasses.

Billy pulls back, his hands on my upper arms. It’s been about eight months since I saw him last. he’s toned and tan—healthy.

he looks good. Except for the beard. I’m not digging the beard. It’s thick and shaggy—reminds me of a lumberjack.

“You too, Katie. You look . . .” his brow furrows. And his smile turns into a frown. “God damn. You look like day-old shit.”

Yep, that’s Billy. he always did know just what to say to a girl.

“Wow. With lines like that, you must be beating them off with a bat in LA. By the way—you know there’s a rat hanging off your face?”

he laughs and rubs his beard. “It’s my disguise. I need one now, you know.”

On cue, a boy who looks to be about ten approaches us hesitantly. “Can I have your autograph, Mr. Warren?”

Billy’s grin widens. And he takes the offered pen and paper.

“Sure thing.” he scribbles quickly, hands the autograph back, and says, “Don’t stop dreaming, kid—they really do come true.”

After the starstruck boy walks away, Billy turns back to me, eyes sparkling. “how f**king cool is that?”

he’s the hottest thing in music these days. his last album stayed at number one for six weeks—and there’s big Grammy buzz for this year’s awards. I’m proud of him. he’s right where I always believed he could be.

Still, I tease, “Careful. You still have to get that big head back out the door.”

he chuckles. “What are you doing here? I was supposed to come to the city to see you guys next week.”

Before I can answer, a face appears out of thin air on the other side of the glass door.

Scaring the ever-loving shit out of me. “Ah!”

It’s a light-haired woman with huge, unblinking brown eyes.

Kind of like ET in the blond wig.

Billy turns. “Oh—that’s Evay.”

“Evie?”

“No, E-vay. Like eBay. She’s with me.” he opens the door and ET girl walks in, hands folded tightly at her waist. She’s wearing black leggings and a Bob Marley T-shirt. The word skinny doesn’t even come close. She reminds me of one of those skeletons in biology class, with a thin, flesh-colored coating.

She’s kind of pretty—in a concentration camp kind of way.

“Evay, this is Kate. Kate—Evay.”

In the professional world, handshakes are important. They give prospective clients a sneak peek at how you do business. They can make or break a deal. I always make sure my grip is firm—strong.

Just because I’m petite and a woman doesn’t mean I’m gonna get stepped on.

“It’s nice to meet you, Evay.” I hold out my hand.

She just stares at it—like it’s a spider crawling out of the shower drain. “I don’t make direct female-to-female contact. It depletes the beautification cells.”

O-kay. I glance at Billy. he seems unperturbed. I hook a thumb over my shoulder. “So . . . do you guys want to eat? how about a booth?”

When Evay answers, her tone is airy, dazed, like a concussion victim. Or an acting coach— be the tree.