Home > If You Hold Me

If You Hold Me
Author: Ciara Knight


Chapter One



Mary-Beth Richards wiped off the residue on her Maple Grounds coffee shop counter, wishing she could wipe away the memories as easily. Memories of promised happily ever afters.

“You’re doing it again,” Andy, her little brother, shouted, as if she were the one with the Air Pods blasting music in her ears.

“Doing what?” she asked, plopping the sponge unceremoniously into the sink and wiping her hands on her apron before she retrieved five mugs for her afternoon meeting. She already knew how it would go with her four friends gossiping about wedding plans and boyfriends and past sins.

Andy pulled one white earphone out of his ear. “You’re stress cleaning to get ready for the friend attack. Why do you hang out with the girls if they make you so crazy? I mean, come on, they were childhood friends. I don’t get why the town is so crazy about the infamous Fabulous Five. Especially after Judas Jackie stole Carissa’s fiancé after high school.”

“Old news, buddy. We’re all good now that Carissa is engaged to Drew.” Mary-Beth thanked the dear Lord for that miracle. “I don’t know what you’re talking about, anyway. I’m looking forward to spending time with them. They’re like extended family to me.” She started on the drinks, closing her eyes and thinking about each girl and what she liked.

Andy harrumphed. “They’ll be your only wannabe family when I head to college next year. You’ll finally be free of your forced parental responsibilities. Yay to the ’rents for dumping me on you, huh?” He snagged his football from the chair and a muffin from the fridge before he slipped his letterman jacket on and headed for the door, probably to meet up with his secret girlfriend he refused to tell her about. Wow, did he remind her of her own epic high school relationship, the way he strutted around like the Football God of Sugar Maple.

“I wouldn’t have it any other way. Andy, you know I begged for them to let you stay with me when Dad got the job transfer.”

“Chill. Stop being such a Chad.” Andy offered a backhand wave, leaving Mary-Beth feeling like she should lay down some house rules.

“Be back here by nine when I close up.”

“See you at ten.”

“Andy. I mean it.” Did she pull off the “mom” voice?

He slipped on his Aviator sunglasses but tipped them down in that oh-so-familiar jock way and said, “Football, remember?”

“Right. Okay, see you at ten.” Feeling like she’d read the Cliff’s Notes for Parenting High School Boys instead of the five-volume manual, she sighed and returned to what she did best, making coffee. Each brew was distinctive—sophisticated for Jackie, sweet for Carissa, bitter with a hint of sugar for Stella, fresh and uplifting for Felicia.

The Sugar Maple Courthouse clock tower struck three, warning her that all four of her friends would be arriving for their Fabulous Five Operation Wedding Decorations.

Through the front window, Mary-Beth watched Jackie click across the town square in her skyscraper designer heels, like a model racing for her monthly ration of fat-free, sugar-free, taste-free chocolate-covered celery stalk. But she wasn’t a fashion model. She wasn’t racing. And she wasn’t free. Like Mary-Beth, she secretly held on to the past to avoid the future. Jackie was prickly but a good friend who loaned Mary-Beth designer clothes and constantly told her to stop wearing too much jewelry. Jackie paused at the front steps, waiting for the others to catch-up, wrapping a garland like a boa around her neck and holding a bag at her side. A sophisticated cappuccino with a hint of fresh-shaved hazelnut and a dash of Ceylon Cinnamon waited in her place by the side window, where a crisp fall breeze floated inside.

The opposite in attitude and fashion sense was Sassy Stella, who pulled up in her 1957 Chevy wearing combat boots, faux leather jacket, and heaps of in-your-face attitude. With one glance at the I-don’t-care grin on her face, Mary-Beth was sure she’d perfected the bitter coffee with a dollop of almond whipped cream stirred into a white swirl. The girl would never drink something with bling. Stella was the shield in Mary-Beth’s life. The one who always had her back and would break down doors and men to keep her safe.

She inhaled the hint of pumpkin from Carissa’s cup. Sweet, sensible creation that fit her dependable baker friend’s soul. The girl was only a call away.

In the middle, between Stella and Jackie, Mary-Beth placed Felicia, the negotiator of the group. Her London Fog made with lavender and a hint of lemon would provide a brightness with a hint of calm. The perfect pick-me-up after working at her nursery in the drizzling rain all morning.

Fall brought all sorts of weather. Most people thought of it as the end of summer, but Mary-Beth always thought of it as the beginning of hot beverage season. Her favorite season.

The bell over the door jingled their arrival, and as if staged, they each snagged their drinks for a whiff, a sip, and a smile.

“Ah, the Coffee Whisperer strikes again. Perfection.” Felicia settled in, laying out leaves in the center of the table.

Jackie dropped the garland next to the pile of vibrant oranges and yellows and placed the bag on the floor by her side. “You are too southern, girl. Always ready to please with a beverage and a smile.”

“Thanks. I’m glad you all enjoy my drinks enough to want to meet here. I needed to be available when Andy had a break between school and football.” Mary-Beth settled between Carissa and Stella. “Let’s get started.”

“You know you’re the most amazing sister-turned-parent ever.” Sweet Carissa’s diamond ring flashed under the LED-lighted chandelier overhead. The girl beamed brighter than any piece of jewelry since her proposal to Drew Lancaster.

“I try, but raising a high school boy wasn’t part of my life plans. Still, I don’t mind. It allowed him to graduate here and not have to move with my father’s job transfer. It won’t be long before he’s off for college.”

“How’s it being back around the old football field? I mean, all those memories for you and all.” Jackie didn’t even try to hide her attempt at fishing into Mary-Beth’s romantic life, but Mary-Beth wouldn’t even nibble.

“Carissa, it won’t be long before we’re planning your wedding to Drew and Stella’s to Knox.” Mary-Beth elbowed Stella, ignoring her glower.

“No making a fuss over my wedding. Knox and I’ll go to the Justice of the Peace or maybe have you all come to the garage for a ceremony.”

“Please.” Jackie rolled her eyes. “Doesn’t Knox owe it to his fans to film the wedding? He’s the number-one internet sensation in the world now. How you two ever ended up together is beyond my imagination.”

Stella shoved an orange leaf into the garland next to another orange one, sending Jackie into a panic.

She flipped her auburn hair behind her shoulder and snagged the epic error away from Stella, who had no doubt done it on purpose just to annoy Jackie. It didn’t take much to make her mad these days, though. “Not like that. Didn’t you learn patterns in kindergarten?”

“I don’t know, did you learn how to share?” Stella shot back.

Negotiator Felicia jumped into the center of the not-so-friendly friendship circle. “I think Ms. Horton is going to love all our efforts. Especially since we’re a team again. Sweet Carissa is making the most delicious cake, Jackie did the dress, Stella is helping put together the decorations at the McCadden Farm, and Mary-Beth is organizing everything at the farm.”

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