Our mother taught us girls if you can't say something nice, don't say anything at all. But Momma wasn't
trying to make it as a food blogger in New York City.
Negative reviews got a lot more clicks than positive ones. And I still had three hundred more words to
A distant burst of car horns drifted up the fire escape to my apartment, the rush of traffic like the city
breathing. I tightened my ponytail. Typed: The food at Earl's Eats in the East Village is not your
momma's cooking. And not in a good way. Neither original nor authentic, the stereotypical menu
clings to cliché without delivering either the heart or soul of true Southern home cooking.
My phone chirped on the table beside me. A comment!
Nope. A phone call.
"Hey, Jo. Whatcha doing?"
I smiled at the sound of my sister's voice. In the last few weeks, my circle had shattered. The friends I
laughed and bickered and shared everything with had moved away. My roommate Ashmeeta had
followed a job to Boston. My pal Rachel had followed a boyfriend to Portland. But I could always count
"I thought you were off today," Meg said.
A siren whooped in the distance. "From the restaurant, yeah. I'm writing."
"Oh, your blog." I could hear one of the twins-two-year-old Daisy or maybe that was DJ-chanting in the
background: "Mommy. Ma. Mamamama." "How's it going?"
I smiled. "Good."
Okay, not Julie & Julia or Smitten Kitchen good. Mine was not a success story. Or an interesting story
of failure, like the gritty novels admired by my faculty advisor, where the small-town girl falls into a life
of drugs and prostitution. Or even a Hallmark screenplay, where the heroine goes home to embrace
her small-town roots and marry her high school sweetheart, finding love and purpose along the way.
There was no big book advance, no movie deal, no guest appearance on the Food Network, in my
immediate future. Nope. The blog was more a fallback position than the fulfillment of my Life Plan. But
I was slowly picking up readers. Instagram followers. E mail subscribers. Even a few advertisers,
which helped pay the rent since I'd been laid off from the newspaper. "Last hired, first fired," my editor
had explained regretfully when he let me go.
My dismissal had come as a shock. Yeah, yeah, I knew all about the dismal decline of print
journalism. But I was supposed to be the smart one. The successful one. Certainly back when I wrote
the school play, the school paper, graduating summa cum laude from Carolina and earning an MFA
from NYU, I never imagined a future as an anonymous food blogger.
But I was determined to make this work. I earned a little money as a prep cook. The experience-and
the insider's view of a top restaurant kitchen-were great. I hadn't given up my dream, I explained to my
father on my last visit home. After all, I was still writing, getting comments (reader feedback!) on a
daily basis. The book deal would come. After, you know, I scraped together a book. I just had to
survive until then.
"I tested a new recipe yesterday," I said. "For mac and cheese. Did you see it?"
"On your blog?"
"No. I mean, not yet. Sorry," Meg said. "No, Daisy, that's DJ's cup. This is your cup."
"That's okay," I said.
"It's just I've been so busy with the twins . . ."
"I understand," I said.
And I did. Why should my sister read about my life when we talked almost every day? No one back
home in Bunyan followed my blog. They went out for barbecue or home for Sunday dinner. They
weren't interested in the restaurant scene in New York City. Or in the people who ate there. Or in the
person I'd become. Fortunately for me, New Yorkers searched for "places to eat" almost as frequently
as "the Mets" or "rent-controlled apartments."
"How are my adorable niece and nephew?" I asked.
"The kids are great," Meg said.
A crash, followed by a wail.
"Oopsie," Meg said. "I have to go. Daisy threw her milk."
"It's okay." I pushed back from my desk, almost bumping into the opposite wall. My Chelsea studio on
the fringes of public housing was half the size of my attic room back home. No real stove, no storage,
no homemade curtains framing a view of pasture and pine. Since Ashmeeta moved out, I struggled to
pay the rent. But I was still living on my own in New York City, epicenter of the food scene and the
publishing world. The capital of reinvention, where being a single woman over the age of twenty-seven
was not an aberration. "I'll hold."
"Are you sure?" Meg asked.
"Me, Mommy, me." I smiled at the imperious tone on the other end of the line. Definitely Daisy this
time. "I talk with Auntie Jo."
"Give her the phone," I said.
"You don't mind?" my sister asked.
I wandered the two steps into my two-burner kitchen. Reached for the bottle of wine I'd brought home
from work the night before. Was it too early to start drinking? But no, it was almost . . . Well, not
dinnertime, but definitely after lunch. "Are you kidding?" I asked. "Put her on."
I adored my niece and nephew, the warm, sticky clasp of their starfish hands, their cries of "Auntie Jo!
Auntie Jo!" whenever I visited home. Not that I was ready for babies of my own. Meg was the maternal
one. But I loved that while my sister cleaned the spilled milk on her kitchen floor, I could pour my wine
and listen to her children on the phone. First Daisy ("I haz bangs," my niece announced with glee) and
then DJ's earnest, heavy breathing, like an obscene phone caller or Dan, the homeless guy in front of
the bodega where I bought my morning coffee.
"Sorry," Meg apologized breathlessly, coming back on the line.
"No problem. So . . ." I took a sip of wine. How a customer could leave a sixty-nine-dollar bottle of
cabernet sitting half-full on their table, I'd never understand. "Daisy has a new haircut?"
"They're working on scissor skills in preschool," Meg said ruefully.
I snorted with laughter. "Let me guess. Daisy decided paper wasn't enough of a challenge."
"When I went to pick her up, all her beautiful baby curls were gone. I almost cried."
"Look on the bright side," I suggested. "She could have an amazing future as a surgeon. Or a
"Or a hairstylist."
"At least hair grows," I offered.
"That's what John said."
"How is my favorite brother-in-law?"
My only brother-in-law, actually, but I liked my sister's solid husband. I really did. When they got
married, I thought Meg was awfully young-only twenty-six-but by Bunyan standards she was practically
an old maid.
"Oh, he's fine. Everything's fine," she said. Which is what she always said. Living the dream in
Bunyan, North Carolina.
Her dream, anyway.
Meg had planned her life in careful steps, from a sensible major-business-to a practical career as a
loan officer at the bank. Managing risk. She was good at that. She dated John for a year before they
got engaged and produced two adorable children only a little ahead of schedule.
I waited for her to tell me again about her handsome husband, her fantastically satisfying life, her yard.
"Guess who's coming to Thanksgiving dinner?" she asked.
I blinked at the change of subject. "Um . . . Aunt Phee?"
Our great-aunt Josephine spent most holidays with our family. No one else would have the old bat.
"Who else," Meg said.
"Mr. Laurence." Our next-door neighbor.
"Both the Laurences," Meg said. "Trey's home."
My wine sloshed. I set the glass down hastily. "I thought he was in Italy. Driving Maseratis or
something for his grandfather."
Theodore Laurence III-Trey-was old Mr. Laurence's grandson. We'd practically grown up together. I
hadn't seen him since July, when he had a layover at JFK on his way to Florence. We'd
fought-again-both of us too stubborn to change our minds and too proud to apologize.
"Ferraris. He got back last week," Meg said. "He was asking about you, John said."
Trey was John's boss at the Laurences' car dealership. I was vague on the details. "I hope John told
him I was great."
"Well, of course." A pause, while I listened to a jackhammer across the street. "Trey didn't know you'd
left the newspaper."
Sweet Meg. She made it sound as if my being let go were my decision.
"We kind of lost touch over the summer," I said.
He'd stopped following me on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Snapchat, and Pinterest. We
were still friends, though. His face showed up occasionally in my various newsfeeds, usually tagged in
a photo by some unknown Ashley or Jennifer. I told myself that was a good sign he was over me.
"So, do you think you two will ever get back together?" Meg asked.
"There is no together," I said. "We never were together."
Which wasn't, strictly speaking, true. Trey was my buddy, my oldest pal and coconspirator, one of the
few friends I'd kept in touch with after high school.
But when I left for New York, Trey, instead of being happy for me, had sulked for months.
"You're not seeing anybody else," Meg said.
I took a deep breath. My sister only wanted me to be happy. In her world, as in Shakespeare's
comedies, marriage was the restoration of the social order. I couldn't get her to see that my staying
single was not a tragedy.
I went out a lot-to keep an eye on the competition, to gather grist for the blog mill, to indulge in the
usual late-night, postshift rituals of kitchen workers everywhere. But I didn't date. Nobody outside the
restaurant industry understood the insane, pressure cooker hours, the nights-and-weekends
schedule. And dating someone on the inside . . . Well, aside from the drama, I didn't want to risk
writing, even anonymously, about someone I'd had sex with.
"I don't have time for a relationship," I said.
"Or you haven't found anyone you can love like Trey," Meg said.
"Of course I love him. As a friend. But if we had to live together, we'd kill each other."
"You were best friends in high school."
"You're my best friend." We had always been close, paired together in age like Jane and Elizabeth
Bennet. (In my imaginings, of course, Meg was Jane, and I was snarky, independent Lizzy.)
"Aw. Love you," Meg said. "I wish you could be here for Thanksgiving."
This year, I wouldn't be going home. Or taking New Jersey Transit from Penn Station to Summit,
where Ashmeeta's parents lived. No Thursday turkey with a side of palak paneer and naan. No Friday
night Girls marathon and martinis on the couch with Rachel.
This year, I was alone for the holidays.
"At least you'll see Beth," I said. Our sister Beth, after a couple of false starts, was back in college at
Greensboro, studying music. But she went home every holiday. Most weekends, too.
"And Amy," Meg said.
"I thought she was going back to Paris. Doesn't she start that job this month?"
Amy, after sweet-talking Aunt Phee into giving her a trip to Europe as a graduation present, had
schmoozed her way into an internship with Louis Vuitton.
"She put them off until after Thanksgiving," Meg said. "She feels bad enough about missing
Christmas with the family."
I took another sip of wine. "How's Dad?" I asked.
"Dad's fine. He's going up to Walter Reed this week to visit some of his old battalion."
So that was good.
After 9/11, our father had left his congregation to join up as a military chaplain. After his first
fifteen-month deployment, he'd re-upped again. And again. Even after he got out of the army, he had
rejected assignment to another church, instead founding a nonprofit that worked with returning
veterans, helping them reintegrate into civilian life, providing counseling for PTSD.
I was so proud of his service. Even when it took him away from us.
"Mommy, down," Daisy demanded in the background.
"Hang on, sweetie. Let Mommy wipe your hands first," Meg said.
"Done. Down now."
"DJ, don't you want more apple?" Meg asked.
"He's not hungry, Mommy."
"Okay," my sister said in a cheery voice. I was impressed by her patience. Not to mention her ability
to conduct two conversations at once. "Let's get you both cleaned up and-"
"Done. Done. Down." An escalating wail.
"If you need to go . . ." I said.
"In a little while. DJ needs a clean shirt." A pause. "Possibly a bath. He's got peanut butter in his
I laughed. "I think you're amazing," I told my sister honestly.
"Thanks, sweetie. Some days I don't feel so amazing. This morning when I left the house, I didn't even
put on makeup."
I grinned. "Oh, the horror. Appearing in public without mascara? They're going to revoke your
Southern Woman card for sure."
"So funny. I know you don't care about stuff like that. But I do."
"I remember." Back in high school, borrowing clothes from each other's closets, fixing each other's
hair for prom. Okay, sometimes Meg loaned me her clothes. She declared she wouldn't be seen
dead in mine. And after that time I singed her hair with the straightening wand, she refused to let me
near her head.
"Maybe you should get John to take you out," I suggested idly. Not that there was anyplace to go in
Bunyan. Not like New York. "Like a date night."
"Maybe. Usually we just collapse on the couch and watch This Is Us. Well, I watch. He sleeps. He
works so hard."
"So do you," I pointed out.
"Anyway, I've never left the kids with a babysitter."
"Okay." I took another sip of wine. But it seemed a shame my pretty, sociable sister couldn't get
dressed up and go out for one night. "I bet Momma would watch them if you asked her."
"I can't. She's still having that back pain. Especially at night. And now that her legs are bothering her-"
I set down my glass. "What back pain?"
"Didn't she tell you?"
"No, she never said a word." And neither did you. "How long has this been going on?"
"I guess . . . Three weeks?"
"Three weeks," I repeated, stunned. Stung. Yes, I had sworn never to return to Bunyan. But Meg
always kept me in touch. "Has she been to see a doctor?"
"Dr. Bangs." Who had been our family doctor since before I was born. "He wants her to get an MRI."
Wait. What? "Is she going to be all right?"
"She says she's fine."
"Right. And if she chopped off her arm, she'd tell you she had a hangnail," I said. This past summer,
when she'd gashed her shin almost to the bone on portable paddock fencing, she'd bandaged it up
herself and gone back to herding goats.
"Don't worry," my sister said in her warm, reassuring Meg way. "I'm here."
I felt a wave of love along with the teensiest surge of guilt. She was the best sister. The model
daughter. "Never a minute's trouble," Aunt Phee liked to say. Usually with a glance at me. Not like that
one, her look implied.
"Is there anything I can do?" I asked.
"You want to come home?"
"Haha," I said.
Bunyan, North Carolina, could have been the setting for a Lifetime channel movie or a romance novel.
Stuck in the middle of miles of farmland, past hand-lettered signs offering pine straw delivery and
tarot readings, the small town clung to the bank of the Cape Fear River like a patch of daylilies, sturdy
and bright. The lampposts all had flags, the front porches all had rockers and deep eaves. There was
a bandstand on the river walk and a farmers' market on Saturdays. The main street boasted a library,
a bank, a struggling art gallery, and three churches. A jumble of storefronts sold postcards and ice
cream and secondhand clothes, bait and paint and appliances. It was the kind of place you wanted to
raise a family in or move to in retirement. A good place to come from.
But not where I was going.
"I'll see you at Christmas," I promised. "Only six weeks away."
"We'll miss you at Thanksgiving."
"I'll miss you, too," I said.
But not enough to jeopardize my job, I thought as we ended the call. Not enough to disrupt my life.
They would all have to get along without me, Meg and John, Daisy and DJ, Momma and Daddy. Beth.
Amy. Even Aunt Phee and old Mr. Laurence.
My heart tripped. My decision to stay away had nothing to do with Trey.
I scowled into my wineglass. Nothing at all.
I was fifteen the summer Trey Laurence came to live with his grandfather.
"The boy next door," Amy called him, which I thought was ridiculous, since he lived a mile away up the
Our big orange barn cat, Weasley, had gone missing the day before. Beth was making herself sick,
worrying it had encountered a coyote. More likely a truck, I thought, but I'd promised her to keep an
eye out when I went for my run.
So when I saw the orange shadow slink through the gap in the hedge by the Laurence place, I was
relieved. Well, relieved and annoyed, because now I was going to have to break pace, and it was
going to be really hard to get my body moving again. Also, I had no idea how I was going to get the
cat home. But I pushed through the bushes anyway, scratching my arms, whistling the way Beth did
when she was calling the cats to feed them.
Naturally, Weasley ignored me, streaking toward the antebellum-style house.
I jogged up a long gravel drive through an avenue of trees like a dirt-scratch farmer come to beg a
favor at the Big House. Growing hotter and sweatier and more exasperated by the minute. Damn cat.
If I hadn't promised Bethie . . . I whistled again, following the flick of the cat's tail as it rounded a corner
of the porch.
And there, sitting on the back steps, was a boy, scratching our cat under the chin.
I stopped, eyeing him warily. He was about my age, with dark curly hair and faintly golden skin.
He looked up at me and smiled. "It's not a dog, you know. It won't come when you whistle."
I crossed my arms over my chest. "It's my cat."
"I've been feeding it."
I noticed the open can of tuna on the ground beside him. "Which explains why Weasley hasn't come
home for two days."
"Weasley, huh?" The cat leaned into his fingers. "Ron, I presume."
A fellow Harry Potter fan. "Well, he's definitely not a Ginny. Eighty percent of orange cats are male."
He raised an eyebrow in acknowledgement.
I uncrossed my arms. "I'm Jo March. I live down the road."
He nodded. "I see you sometimes. You and your sisters. I'm Trey."
Trey. Theodore Laurence III.
I'd heard of him, of course. In the country, you might not see your neighbors every day, but you talk
about them plenty. Even I knew about old Mr. Laurence's son, who ran off to Miami and married a club
singer. He'd died a couple months ago, along with his Cuban-born wife-a boating accident, the
"You're old Mr. Laurence's grandson," I said.
I didn't know what to say. I'd never known anybody before whose parents had died. Our dad was in
Iraq. If something happened to him, it would be like the sun had gone out of our sky, but our lives
would basically go on as usual, anchored in our routine orbits by our mother's steady gravity.
"Sorry about your folks," I said.
He nodded once, shortly, his black-lashed gaze sliding away.
"Well . . ." I shifted my weight from foot to foot. "It was nice, uh, meeting you. I gotta run." Like, literally.
He uncurled from his seat on the porch. He was taller than me, strong and lean. "What are you, in
training or something?"
I stuck out my chin. "Yeah, actually. I'm on the cross-country team."
"What's your time?"
"Twenty-three minutes." Give or take a minute.
"Pretty good." His smile flashed, exposing nice white teeth. "For a girl."
I grinned back. "Whatever. I don't see you running."
His dark eyes met mine. "Maybe you will."
We stood a minute, awkwardly. Something about the way he was looking at me in my sports bra and
running shorts made my face get even hotter.
"So." I refastened my ponytail. My hair was thick and curly like my father's, either my best or worst
feature, depending on my mood and the humidity. "I guess I'll see you around."
"What about old Weasley here?"
I looked at the cat hunkered down at the tuna. "It's fine. I mean, it's not like I can carry him home with
me. At least now I can tell Beth not to worry."
"Beth. Is that your sister?"
"My middle sister, yeah."
He nodded again.
With a little wave, I turned and loped away, aware of him watching behind me.
I finished my run-four miles in twenty-nine minutes with time out for the cat, not bad-thumped up our
front steps and into the house. Meg was in the kitchen making a salad while Amy set the table.
I grabbed a pitcher of water from the fridge.
Amy wrinkled her nose, moving away. "Get away. You smell."
I ignored her. "Guess what? I just met our new neighbor."
"You mean Trey?" Meg asked. "Seriously, Jo, you should take a shower before dinner."
"Oh my God, he's so gorgeous." Amy sighed dramatically. "Like Edward Cullen."
"Language," Meg said. The Reverend Ashton March's girls did not take the name of the good Lord in
Leastways, not when anybody could hear.
I lowered the pitcher. "Wait, you saw him?"
Trey's hair was black, not bronze. But I could see how my Twilight-obsessed little sister could
compare him to a sparkly vampire. There was that golden skin. That tall, lean build. Those almost
black eyes, like he was hungry for something.
"He stopped by while you were gone," Meg said. "To drop off Beth's cat."
"Oh." I felt oddly deflated at having my big news scooped. "Well, good."
It wasn't like Trey was my exclusive property or anything.
But the following Monday at school I discovered that we were in the same grade. We took the same
classes, Mrs. Ferguson for AP English, Mr. Clark for chemistry, even if Trey never exerted himself the
way I did. "Suck up," he'd tease when he came over to our house to study. "Slacker," I'd retort. We
both went out for the school play, both ran cross-country in fall and track in spring. We were friends.
Which was why it was such a mistake to complicate our relationship with sex.
I saw that now. Why couldn't Trey?
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