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Time stood still in Colton, Mississippi, or at least it seemed that way every time Dax Ellis came back to visit. Nothing in his hometown had changed since he left. Like many small towns in the South, Colton was a place where folks were afraid of letting go of the past and fearful of moving forward into an uncertain future. The only thing that changed over time was the worn welcome sign showing the population, which only went down.
Today it went up by one.
He rolled down his window taking in the cool morning air. His gaze swept over the small patch of green with a gazebo at its center. Absolem Madden Colton Park was the centerpiece of Colton’s downtown. His mouth began to water as he drove by the Catfish Café. Sometimes the fact that nothing changed was a good thing. He’d have to stop in for some of Tillie’s pecan pie if she’d let him in the door. Hopefully, it tasted as good as he remembered. The barbershop pole continued its lazy twirl on one side of the town square while the neon lights for Walker’s Pharmacy flickered a dull orange glow. The K blinked twice and went dark just as he drove past. Seven years since he came home for his father’s funeral, and the town had faded even further into obscurity since then. He’d come back to do his best to make sure it didn’t disappear altogether.
Dax nudged his charcoal-gray Ford F-150 into a parking spot next to its much older twin. A man wearing a pair of worn overalls and a huge grin stood next to the vintage truck. Dax jumped down from the cab and pulled his uncle into a bear hug.
“I didn’t expect to see you this early. Welcome home,” Uncle Robert said, his voice gruff.
Dax looked into a pair of dark brown eyes that matched his own, framed with a few more wrinkles from squinting into the sun. He rubbed his chest where a sudden ache formed. He’d forgotten how much his uncle and father resembled each other. They shared the same straight brown hair, only now more silver poked out from beneath Uncle Robert’s baseball cap than brown. If his father had lived past sixty-five, would he have looked the same? He shuddered when he thought of where he would have ended up without his uncle’s guidance.
“Once I hit the road, I couldn’t wait to get here. I didn’t even mind the speeding ticket I got along the way,” Dax confessed.
His uncle cuffed him on the shoulder. Dax grinned. “I’ve missed you, Uncle Robert.”
“Seven years is way too long for you to be gone.”
“It is.” Dax agreed, “You know it wasn’t about you.” He looked around the town square, his gaze zeroing in on one building he’d always admired. “It’s good to be back.”
“I’ve got the keys to the Barton Building if you want to take a look now.” Robert jangled a set of keys in front of him.
Dax rubbed his hands together. “I sure do.”
They walked across the park toward the building he loved since he was a boy.
“Are you positive you want to take this on? It’s a big project,” Uncle Robert asked.
“I’m ready for the challenge now.”
“The Army has given me the skills to start my own business, and the last few consulting gigs have given me the money I’ll need to fix this place up and make it my home.”
Inside the sun barely penetrated through the dust and grime on the windows; the scent of age mixed with a mustiness filled his nose. Dax coughed, waving the dust particles out of his eyes. They wandered around the main floor, their voices echoing in the empty space as they discussed the repairs Dax would need to make. The building was in surprisingly solid condition, and it wouldn’t take much to restore the main floor to get his cybersecurity business up and running. They climbed the creaking staircase to the second floor. Standing in the middle of a large open space with rotting floorboards and crumbling plaster, Dax rested his hands on his hips, admiring the large arched window that faced the street and flooded the space with light. Converting the cavernous space into apartments would be an enormous task, a challenge Dax was ready for.
Uncle Robert kicked at one of the rotting floorboards. “You’re right. It’s gonna be an expensive project, but it will be worth it.”
When his uncle mentioned several months ago that the building was going up for sale, Dax jumped at the chance to buy it. He’d loved that old brick and stone building since he was a boy. Next to the courthouse, she was the tallest building in Colton, standing proudly over the rest of the single-story buildings in the town square. Built in the Beaux-Arts style, the Barton Building once served as an office for cotton traders in the early 1900s.
The main floor would serve as headquarters for Ellis Technologies, his cybersecurity consulting firm. He’d convert the top floor into an apartment for himself and the second floor into four apartments, hoping to convince a few of his friends that Colton was a town worth saving and that moving in would be a good investment. His mother would throw a fit when she found out that Dax bought the building and didn’t have any intention of moving into the family home, but sometimes a man just had to follow his heart.
Robert Ellis stroked his salt-and-pepper beard. “This place has sat empty for too long, and once you’re done with her, she’ll be a queen.”
“Does anyone know I’m the one who bought the Barton Building?”
Uncle Robert shook his head. “Nope, you asked me to keep it quiet and that’s what I’ve done.”
The Army had kept him on the move for the last thirteen years and he’d loved every minute of it, but it was time to settle down, and with an agreement to continue as a private contractor, he had the income secured not just to invest in the Barton Building but the town as well. It’s time to rebuild this town after everything I tried to do to destroy it.
Dax crossed over to one of the windows and looked down at the deserted street below, thankful there weren’t many people around. He wasn’t ready, not yet. He left with a reputation he was ashamed of now.
“You’re going to need help,” Uncle Robert said.
“My buddy Jacob Winters is coming down just as soon as he gets his discharge papers.”
“Does your buddy have the skills to help you out here?”
“Jacob is good with a hammer and has always been able to make something from nothing.”
Uncle Robert joined him at the window. “How do you feel about ending your career with the Army?”
“It was time,” Dax said. “I’ll be happy to have Jacob here and I’m hoping there will be opportunity for some of the guys I served with to move here. Jacob wants to set up a contracting business. He can look for other jobs while he helps me rehab this place.”
Uncle Robert studied him thoughtfully. “There’s plenty of work around here for a good carpenter. I can think of one off the top of my head, the librarian could use some help with a bookstore she’s trying to open.”
“Since when did you start hanging out at the library?” Dax asked, picturing his uncle flirting with a gray-haired lady.
“Don’t look at me like that, boy, I know how to read.”
Dax laughed and nudged his shoulder, surprised to find solid muscle beneath his hand despite his uncle’s age. His uncle would never admit it, but he was slowing down just a little bit. Dax wanted to be around to help him and repay him for all of the kindness and guidance he’d given him when he needed it. But if there was a sweet, older librarian in the picture, he’d happily share the duty with her.
“I’ve got to get back home,” Uncle Robert said, “but if you have time, you might want to go over and meet the librarian and tell her about your buddy.”
They walked back downstairs and back across the park.
“I hope the folks will give me a chance to show that I’ve changed.”
Robert swung the truck door open and climbed inside. “Remember who you are, not who you were,” he said, through the cab’s open window.
Dax watched his uncle drive away, as the soulful notes of Coltrane drifted from the truck before turning to take a closer look at the little library. The colorful display in the window stood out from the papered-over abandoned storefronts on the rest of the block, piquing his curiosity. Opened in the sixties by Richard Colton, the Colton Public Library was Richard’s pride and joy. Colton, Mississippi, started out as the Colton Plantation, the town growing out of the rubble of the Civil War. Two families dominated the town, both Coltons.
One Black and one White.
The descendants of the slave owners and the slaves still lived and worked on the same land as their ancestors. Dax frowned. Unfortunately, there were those who still remained segregated. Some by history, and some by choice. A descendant of one of Colonel Madden Colton’s slaves, Richard Colton had been a well-known figure in town. Returning after leaving for Chicago during the great migration, he’d brought a drive and determination to bring the sleepy town back to life. He insisted that the town needed a post office, a clinic, and a library—the last of which he funded with his own money. “For the young people,” he always said. He made sure all children, no matter the color of their skin, had a book in their hand when they came into town.
Downtown may have withered away over the years, but the library was the one business that never closed. Taking a closer look, Dax admired the restored brick façade on the building. Cream paint on the window had been redone, the vintage lettering proudly declaring “The Colton Public Library” outlined in gold. The windows had fresh robin’s-egg-blue trim that matched a new awning and a bench out front. On one side, another storefront had papered windows and a sign announcing, “Bookstore and Coffee Shop Opening Soon.” Dax’s lips curved slightly. He wouldn’t be alone in trying to revitalize his sleepy hometown.
He entered into the air-conditioned coolness of the library. The old wood floors had been refinished and polished into a dark rich sheen. The original bookshelves were given the same treatment. A long table took up the middle of the room hugged by two long benches on either side. Two overstuffed chairs covered in a blue floral print sat in one corner with a small bookshelf and floor lamps beside each one, inviting readers to stay for a while.
The pale cream walls and schoolhouse light fixtures made the space feel warm and inviting. Dax stopped at the small counter by the door. Everything was neat and tidy. A new computer and bar-code scanner sat at one end. The old library had finally caught up with the times.
His hand hovered over the bell on the corner of the desk when he caught sight of a head of deep golden-brown curls popping through a doorway at the back of the room. Dax froze as blue-gray eyes that had haunted him since childhood stared back from a light brown face frozen in shock, her expression quickly changing to fear. The stack of books she had been carrying fell to the floor and she put a hand to her mouth.
Numbness washed over him. He wanted to leave, but his feet refused to cooperate.
She was the one to take a step back, her eyes locked onto him, wide with anxiety.
Breaking eye contact, Dax forced his fingers to wrap themselves around the warm metal of the door handle before wrenching the door open. He turned and fled.
The actions of getting in his car, of driving through town, were a blur as his heart raced from the shock of seeing her in the flesh.
Callie Colton, of all the people he’d hurt, he hurt her the most.
Rocks flew as Dax slammed on the brakes, pulling up to his uncle’s house.
On the outskirts of town, Uncle Robert lived in a two-bedroom cabin surrounded by seven acres of cornstalks that already came up to Dax’s waist. Clearly expecting him, his uncle sat in the same rocker on the wide shaded front porch that Dax remembered from his childhood.
“Damn it, Uncle Robert, you knew Callie Colton worked at the library!” Dax charged toward his uncle like a guided missile.
Robert continued to rock, a book open on his lap. Dax stood in front of him, his heart pounded in his ears, drowning out the dull chirp of cicadas in the heat. “How could you just let me walk in there like that?” he asked, voice low.
Robert closed the book and set it aside. “Wasn’t my place to tell you.”
“Bullshit, you could have given me a heads-up.”
Robert jumped up, standing toe to toe with Dax. “You’re a grown man, and I’m not here to hold your hand.”
Each poke of Uncle Robert’s finger in his chest took Dax back to the first time his uncle confronted him about his behavior on this very same porch. That confrontation led to a lot of long talks that ultimately saved him. Dax took a deep breath and let the anger drain from him. He had no right to be mad when he was the one who’d caused all of the hurt. “You’re right, I’m sorry.”
They remained silent for a minute giving Dax a moment to gather his thoughts.
Dax stepped back and leaned against the porch railing. “How long has she been here?”
“Bout a year. Her grandparents were killed in a car crash, and they left her the whole block of buildings including the library. They knew how much she loved it.”
He shifted his weight on the railing. Of all the things he was prepared to face moving home, he wasn’t ready to face Callie Colton again.
His uncle went into the cabin and returned with a couple of beers, and grabbed the bucket of peanuts by the front door, setting it at their feet before he leaned against the railing next to him.
“I expect you’re going to want to stay here tonight,” Robert said, handing him a bottle.
Dax took a long swig. He dreaded going home knowing his dad wouldn’t be there. Many things about Colton felt like home; his mom wasn’t one of them. Their relationship had always been complicated. She loved him, but it wasn’t until he left home that he realized her love was conditional.
Dax nodded and took another drink. “If you don’t mind.”
“Always happy to have you here, you know that,” Uncle Robert said, handing Dax a handful of peanuts.
Dax cracked open the nuts and threw the papery shells out into the yard. A cardinal swooped down to peck at the remains.
“Sorry buddy, didn’t mean to fool you,” Dax muttered, throwing a peanut next to the shell. He glanced toward Robert. “I didn’t think she would be here.” He studied the pattern of squares on the peanut shell in his hand for a moment before he threw another treat to his new friend. “I wasn’t ready. If I had known—”
“Would it have made a difference?” Uncle Robert cut him off. “She’s here, and the two of you would’ve run into each other sooner or later.”
“You’re right, I know that, but I would have preferred later.”
“You’ve had plenty of time to prepare for this day. If you weren’t ready why did you come back?”
“Because I realized even after all of the trouble I caused, Colton is home. I want to be a part of a community and do my part to…to help the town survive. Too many small towns are dying, disappearing, only remembered as a forgotten spot on an old map.”
The cardinal flew back, hopping a little closer to the porch. Dax threw another peanut, and with a flash of red, the bird caught it before it hit the ground. It never occurred to him that Callie would feel an attachment to a place she’d only visited during the summer. He squeezed his eyes shut, trying to block out another wave of memories. They weren’t easy memories, either.
“Let it go, son.” Robert’s voice washed over him.
“What do I do? How do I…?” Dax rubbed his hands over his face, trying to get the image of stormy-gray eyes out of his head, but they were burned into him. “She has no reason to forgive me—no one in the town does—but Callie…” How could he explain the way he treated her haunted him through the years?
Dax jumped up and paced the porch. The cardinal hopped a little closer, tilting its head to look up at him, waiting, while Robert sat forward with his hands clenched. Like a baseball player standing in the outfield waiting for the pitch. Years ago, his uncle sat in the same position waiting for Dax to decide which path he was going to take in life.
“How am I going to avoid her?” he asked, turning to face his uncle.
“Colton is too small. You can’t avoid her so you’re going to have to figure out a way to talk to her.”
“Easier said than done. You didn’t see the way she looked at me.”
Robert’s eyebrows shot up. “No, but I can guess.” He glanced at Dax, adding, “She’s grown into a beautiful young woman hasn’t she?”
Dax swallowed hard “You’re not helping.” Beautiful was an understatement. The luminous gray eyes were still there and still looked at him with weariness, but the gangly arms and legs were gone, replaced by soft curves. Daily life in the southern sun had turned her skin a tawny brown and the curls that cascaded over her shoulders a deeper shade of golden brown. Callie Colton was a stunning woman. “I need to figure out how I’m going to approach her again and start with an apology.”
“She’s not going to want to talk to you at first, so start by being a part of the community and show you care.”
“Any suggestions?” Dax asked.
“There’s a meeting next week you might want to go to, for a start.”
Dax frowned. “Meeting? What kind of meeting?”
“Book club? What the hell are you talking about?” Years working for the CIA had made his uncle a master manipulator, a skill that had always driven Dax crazy.
Robert went inside and returned a few moments later carrying another book in his hands, which he handed to Dax. “The next meeting is Tuesday night. You better catch up.”
Dax arched a brow. “The Barista Mysteries: M is for Macchiato?” He held the book up. “This doesn’t seem like something you’d read.”
“You need to be more open-minded.” Robert sat down in his rocking chair. “The book is good, but that’s not important. Book club meets at Callie’s house.”
Dax turned the book over in his hand, reading the back cover blurb. “I’ve heard of this author before. She’s popular.”
Robert nodded. “Katherine Wentworth books are always popular with the book club.”
Dax thumbed through a few pages and then flipped it over, reading the back copy. The cardinal flew back, landing at his feet. “Sorry, buddy, I don’t have anything more for you.” The bird cocked its head, as though believing that if he waited long enough, Dax might change his mind. Instead he held up the book. “Besides, it looks like I have some reading to do.”
Uncle Robert left him alone on the porch, and Dax sat down, opened the book to the first chapter and began to read. The chaos of his first day in Colton gave way to the quiet calm of the end of day. The leaves of the giant oak tree began to rustle in the evening breeze. Reading a romantic mystery on his uncle’s front porch wasn’t how Dax expected to spend his first night back in Colton. But this was home—the good and the bad—and he knew he was in the right place.
It was also the only place where he could make amends.
End of Excerpt