He had some nerve calling her “Liv” after the way he’d left town. Of course he hadn’t known her situation when he left. She couldn’t tell him. No way. She could never have been one of those women who trapped a man who clearly didn’t want to be held. She’d let him go and even forgiven him over time. Well, until he showed up in town again. It was easy to have compassion for someone you thought you’d never see again.
That bottle of Chardonnay screamed for her to turn left toward home, but Mazie’s little face pushed her hands to turn the other way, circle the block and return to school. She’d just pop inside long enough for Mazie to see her and then—wine-time and maybe a hot bath. She could wash away every thought of dark soulful eyes and ginger hair.
The lights were bright for the auditions. Children and parents whispered hello to her as she slipped in the back door and circled to the left of staggered rows of seats. She leaned against the wall as Ashton Blake danced her little heart out, long blond hair flipping this way and that. Meghan O’Connor sang an ear-piercing rendition of Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star.
Mazie took the stage. She bit her lower lip and her cheeks were splotched bright red. Tugging her hair and dragging her feet, she walked to center stage. Mrs. Ward, the music teacher played the first few bars of “Smile” then nodded to Mazie, but the girl didn’t open her mouth. She stared out at the sparsely filled room, frozen with fear.
Olivia walked down the aisle until she reached the front of the auditorium. She waved up at the stage drawing Mazie’s attention.
Mrs. Ward started the music again.
Olivia nodded and clasped her hands. Her nerves were as tight as the child’s.
Mazie sang the first note, a clear “smile” and continued through the first verse of the old song. There was something so familiar in the sound. Of course it was a song Olivia had loved and sang a million times. David used to beg for her to sing it to him back when they were in high school. But it wasn’t just the song, the tone stirred a memory she couldn’t quite put her finger on. It sent a tremble through her heart.
A tug on her skirt drew her attention and she turned to find David sitting in the first row. Still in a state of shock, she sat next to him. “She’s incredible.”
He leaned close to her ear. “Yeah, she is. You came back.” His warm breath on her skin sent shivers down her spine. He was too close, too real and way too much of her past. A past she’d managed to recover from with the help of her friends.
“I didn’t want your daughter to think I don’t care.”
She had the words on the tip of her tongue. She would tell him, she cared about all the students. It was her job to care.
Mazie ran down the steps and charged into his arms. “Daddy did you hear me?”
“I did, baby. You were incredible. Even better than in the kitchen.”
“Can we go get ice cream now?”
“You have to eat real food first but then Dorothy will make you a giant Sundae.”
“Can Miss Buffenbarger come too?”
Olivia was so caught up in the sweet relationship David had with his daughter that she almost missed the invitation. “I can’t. I have to go. I’m so proud of you, Mazie. You were great.”
“Please, Miss Buffenbarger. It’s a tradition and since you helped you should come too.”
Mrs. Ward shushed them forcing the trio to sneak out the back of the auditorium.
The sun cast long shadows across the parking lot. Olivia looked for some way to get to her car without further conversation with the Ray family. “Enjoy your dinner. I’ll see you tomorrow, Mazie. You really were wonderful.”
“Liv, come have dinner with us. It’s at Dottie’s, in public. No one will think anything of two old friends having dinner together.” His soft plea stoked the burn of emotion that sparked when she’d first heard David Ray was back in town. It was too small a town to avoid him forever. Her evasion had become a rumor in itself and if she had a meal with him, they would create another one. It was inevitable. People talked in small towns.
The lump in her throat might just be from the way Mazie sang, but she doubted that was the whole truth. “Don’t call me ‘Liv.’ She’s long gone.”
“I just saw her walk down the isle of the old auditorium to help out a friend. But if calling you Olivia or even Miss Buffenbarger will get you to Dottie’s Diner for a meal, I’ll do it.” His smile warmed places inside Olivia that had been cold for years.
She sighed, beaten. “I’ll meet you at Dottie’s. Then I have to get home. I have papers to grade.”