From the USA Today bestselling author of Midnight at the Blackbird Cafe comes Heather Webber’s next charming novel, In the Middle of Hickory Lane!
Emme Wynn has wanted nothing more her whole life than to feel like part of a family. Having grown up on the run with her con artist mother, she’s been shuffled from town to town, drawn into bad situations, and has learned some unsavory habits that she’s tried hard to overcome. When her estranged grandmother tracks her down out of the blue and extends a job offer—helping to run her booth at an open-air marketplace in small-town Sweetgrass, Alabama—Emme is hopeful that she’ll finally be able to plant the roots she’s always dreamed of. But some habits are hard to break, and she risks her newfound happiness by keeping one big truth to herself.
Cora Bee Hazelton has her hands full with volunteering, gardening, her job as a color consultant and designer, and just about anything she can do to keep her mind off her painful past, a past that has resulted in her holding most everyone at arm’s length. The last thing she wants is to form close relationships only to have her heart broken yet again. But when she’s injured, she has no choice other than to let people into her life and soon realizes it’s going to be impossible to keep her heart safe—or her secrets hidden.
In the magical neighborhood garden in the middle of Hickory Lane, Emme and Cora Bee learn some hard truths about the past and themselves, the value of friends, family, and community, and most importantly, that true growth starts from within.
In The Middle of Hickory Lane will be available on July 26th, 2022. Please enjoy the following excerpt!
January 13, 1962: Levi and I found ourselves a ten-acre piece of land near US 98 in Sweetgrass to build our first home. I knew the moment I stepped foot on it that it’s real special. I’m right proud these days at how far Levi and I have come so quickly. Newlyweds. New town. New house. New job for Levi. I’m living my dreams.
In the middle of Hickory Lane grew a neighborhood garden, a circular patch of vibrant land that fit snugly into the footprint of the wide dead-end street, a cul-de-sac. The landscaped island rose from the surrounding asphalt road, lush and verdant, beckoning for a closer look, a long stay. It was impossible for me not to notice, however, that among its gravel pathways, trees, shrubs, planter beds, trellises, and flower meadow, a secret had once been planted as well. One that was slowly being exposed with each thrust of a shovel into rich soil as a newly discovered grave was unearthed.
As I made my way on foot past police tape that roped off the top of the lane, I adjusted the strap of the backpack slung over my shoulder and kept tight hold of the large wheeled suitcase that trailed loudly behind me as it protested a missing wheel with loud scraping and a constant tug on my arm, as if begging me to turn around, that nothing good could come of being here.
It had taken every ounce of my courage and determination to make this trip south to Sweetgrass, Alabama, so I hoped the suitcase was wrong, that it was simply used to nothing good coming from anywhere I went.
While that had always been true, this move was my chance to start over and make something good of my life. I longed to plant roots, even if they were shallow ones, and I was willing to overlook a lot to make that happen, including an apparent grave site.
Pulsing blue and red in the warm mid-April afternoon were the emergency lights of six police cars, two fire trucks, and an ambulance, and surprisingly there was plenty of space for the vehicles to park. As I glanced around, it seemed to me that Hickory Lane was a misnomer. This street felt more like a quaint residential boulevard, one that had been stretched long and wide to accommodate the garden island.
I kept my chin up as I walked, trying to hide my dismay that tiny bayside Sweetgrass had such a considerable police force. If I’d known ahead of time, I might’ve had second thoughts about moving in with my grandmother, Glory Wynn. Police had a habit of looking at me apprehensively, as if knowing with a sixth sense of sorts that I was bad news.
Shading my eyes against the bright sunshine with my hand, I searched for house numbers along the tree-lined street, looking for number seventeen. This was an old-fashioned kind of neighborhood, built up with the best materials, and it had aged with pride, grace, and beauty. Mature trees shaded large yards, roses bloomed in colorful hope, and lawns were neatly kept with clean edge lines. This was the type of street where people cared. These were the types of homes where doors were left unlocked. It was the kind of place where no one anticipated anything bad ever happening to them and theirs.
Fools, all of them.
As I half rolled, half dragged the reluctant suitcase, I collected bits of information from the crowd gathered, flutters of words caught on the wind, dispatched by sincerity and sympathy and fellowship.
A human bone if I ever saw one.
Early this morning. Sinkhole. Near the gazing pool.
Took almost sixty damn years, but still.
May she now rest in peace.
I took a moment to wonder about the woman who’d been missing for so long and how she’d come to rest in the garden. I felt a twinge of sympathy, empathy, for a person I’d never known—and a surge of camaraderie for this neighborhood, which on first glance had looked picture-perfect. But now? Now I knew I’d fit in here just fine.
Hickory Lane had a dark past.
Just like me.
“Needing some help, miss?” a deep voice asked.
Up a brick walkway, a man stood on the top step of a wraparound porch, his shoulder resting against a wooden column, his arms folded, his curious gaze narrowed on me. The house, 5 Hickory Lane, was a large cottage, painted pale gray green with creamy trim, the colors perfect for a community like Sweetgrass, a speck on a map alongside Mobile Bay, just north of Fairhope. The cottage’s only visible flaw was in the emerald-green grass, where a half dozen or so shallowly dug holes marred an otherwise lovely lawn.
I took quick stock of my new neighbor. Inquisitive, I instantly surmised, noting to keep my distance from him. In my world, inquisitive meant dangerous. He was especially more so, because he didn’t look like a threat on the surface. I guessed him to be early to midthirties, and he stood a bit taller than average, with shoulder-length sandy-brown hair, a high forehead, slightly off-center nose, deep tan, and five-o’clock shadow that was just a hint lighter than his hair color. His lanky body was dressed in jeans and a tight white T-shirt. His feet were bare.
With the easy-breezy way he leaned against the porch column, everything about him screamed that he was comfortable in his own skin, confident. Approachable. Maybe for others, he was. But I knew better. I pegged him as some kind of law enforcement straight off—criminals, even somewhat reformed ones, had a sixth sense, too.
On the porch next to his feet, a white shepherd watched me with bright brown eyes, and I suspected I’d found the source of the strange holes in the lawn. A faded, ratty green tennis ball was in its long mouth, and a furry tail thumped loudly against the porch’s floorboards. The dog’s friendly gaze was the first bit of welcoming warmth I’d felt since arriving, and it melted away some of the ice-cold dread that had followed me southbound.
I lifted my chin and forced myself to meet the man’s questioning gaze. “I’m looking for Glory Wynn’s house.”
Something that looked like suspicion flared in his eyes but he shuttered it quickly, instantly revealing that he was used to— and good at—hiding his thoughts. Slowly, he uncurled his arm and pointed toward the heart of the cul-de-sac. “The middle house.”
I could practically hear his thoughts as he sized me up, much as I’d done to him.
What he saw was trouble, plain and simple.
He wasn’t entirely wrong.
I squinted against the sunlight at the house that felt like it was still a half mile away. “The white one?”
“Thanks kindly.” I smiled as innocently as I could. My mother always said a smile was one of the best weapons of distraction. She had deployed it religiously.
Giving the dog a wistful glance, I pushed on, threading through the people who’d collected on the sidewalk to gawk and gather gossip, hoarding it with the thoroughness of birds lovingly collecting twigs for nesting. These people were my new neighbors, and I was grateful that they were too occupied with being busybodies to pay me much mind. It had been a long, hot trip from Louisville, Kentucky—eighteen hours on a bus to Mobile, then a forty-minute taxi ride across the bay—and I was in no mood to field questions about myself, my raising, or my parents, all topics that deserved to be questioned.
Eleven houses—a mix of cottages, bungalows, and transitional farmhouses—lined the lane, and Glory’s place was located smack-dab at the bottom of the street. With its hip roof, three dormer windows, and wraparound porch, it sat like an old Southern lady, dolled up and ready for visitors to come calling. An American flag flapped in the wind and hanging ferns swayed in the breeze. There was a pair of white rocking chairs near the front door and another set near the side door, and suddenly I longed to sit and rock for a while.
To the right of the house, set back some and shaded by a tall hickory tree, stood a detached two-story garage, a smaller likeness of the main house. The apartment above the garage would be my home for the next little while, and even from a distance I could tell it was going to be a sight better place to live than any other residence I’d ever called home. A far sight.
The house to the left of Glory’s had a small group of older women standing on the front lawn, gathered beneath the protective leafy arms of an oak tree. I hoped the women wouldn’t pay me any mind, but as soon as I started up Glory’s driveway, I realized it wasn’t to be.
“Oh my days!” one of the women in the group exclaimed. “Emme? Emme Wynn, is that you? Of course it’s you. I dang near forgot you were arriving today. This police business has thrown me all out of sorts. It’s me—Glory!”
The woman, who looked to be in her late seventies, peeled away from the others and seemed to glow, as if sunlight and goodness shined straight out of her. As she hurried forward, her gait a bit uneven, the hem of her lime-green day dress hugged short, thick legs. Her white hair was cut into a choppy asymmetrical bob, which hinted at a playful personality, and bright blue eyeglasses sat atop her head and glinted in the light like a jeweled tiara.
Loving was the first word that came to mind as she drew closer, and it filled my heart with hope.
I wasn’t sure when my ability to identify a person’s personality at first glance had started, but it wasn’t until I was older that I became aware the talent was something special. Special because it was never wrong.
As Glory closed the distance between us, big, round apple cheeks popped up and wrinkles multiplied as she smiled. When she finally stood in front of me, her gaze searched my face, and in her eyes, I saw her seeking familiarity in my features, looking for family. Looking for her son, who had passed away years ago after being hit by a car when walking along a busy Las Vegas roadway.
One of her pale eyebrows dipped in disappointment as she said, “Spitting image of your mother,” before she opened her arms for a hug. “Get on in here, honey.”
Swallowing back the sadness at her disappointment, I stiffly stepped forward, leaning down a bit because she was a good three inches shorter. Squeezing me close to her plump body, she enfolded me in warmth, and I awkwardly accepted the embrace, letting go of my luggage and forcing myself to return the hug. I didn’t know how to return affection, but I wanted to learn, and it seemed like Glory was going to be a good teacher.
Exaggerating the motion, she rocked me back and forth and said, “It’s been too damn long.”
The sting of tears in my eyes and a rush of emotion reminded me that this was why I’d agreed to come here. This connection. I could see myself getting used to her hugs, her affection, the unconditional love I’d craved my whole life long.
Only after Glory pulled away, but still held on to my shoulders, did I realize I hadn’t uncurled my fists to return her hug properly. I clasped my hands together, linking my fingers, and hoped she hadn’t noticed.
Blue eyes flecked with green and tinged with sadness skimmed and scanned as she gave me a good look over. “So skinny! We’ll fix that. How was the trip?”
“Just fine,” I answered, then belatedly added, “thank you.”
I needed to be more open, friendlier. It was going to be a challenge, since I wasn’t an overly friendly type unless I was faking it for one reason or another. Otherwise, all my life I’d tried really hard to make myself invisible. Here in Sweetgrass, I was going to have to become part of this community in order to finally plant those elusive roots.
Sunlight sparkled prettily on delicate earrings imprinted with a design that reminded me of flower petals, the aged gold most likely antique, as the corner of Glory’s lip lifted with amusement. With a gentle squeeze, she dropped her hands from my shoulders. “I can imagine how fine it was. I sure do wish you’d taken me up on my offer to pay for a plane ticket.”
The kindness in her gaze encouraged me, and I smiled as I said, “And miss the humanity lesson? I couldn’t have possibly denied myself.”
Her eyes narrowed a fraction as if judging whether I was joking, then she laughed. “I’ll show you your room so you can drop off your luggage; then I’ll introduce you to some of your new neighbors.” She waved a hand toward the women gathered under the oak tree, who were openly watching us.
I offered them a small, hopefully friendly smile.
“We’ll be right back!” Glory called to them, then turned me away from the group.
Drawing back my knotted shoulders, I lifted the suitcase instead of dragging it through the velvety grass, and I swore it breathed a sigh of relief.
As Glory led me across the lawn, she said, “I was so pleased you took me up on my offer, Emme.”
Her offer. A job at her side at an outdoor market called the Sweetplace and a place to live. Here. Right next door to her.
I’d jumped at the invitation and was holding it tight.
“I have to admit I was surprised to get your call.” I still wasn’t sure how she’d found me, and I felt that darn rush of emotion again as I said, “But it came at a good time. It’s been a rough”—I wanted to say “lifetime” but didn’t want to come across as too dramatic, even though it was true—“stretch. I was between jobs.” I didn’t want to mention that I’d been recently fired. Fired because I spoke up when passed over for the promotion I’d been promised, one I’d been counting on for the financial breathing room to finally get a place of my own.
Because of that promise, I had let my guard down, laying it at the feet of hope and possibilities, and I’d paid the price. My mother would have had zero sympathy for my plight. “Trust no one, Emme,” she had always said. “Everyone lies. Everyone.”
Of all people, she would know. She wore her lies like diamonds, so brilliantly dazzling they blinded people to the truth.
Glory’s driveway was constructed of sandblasted bricks laid out in a herringbone design. Several determined dandelions had wedged themselves up through cracks into the fresh air, adding a splash of green and yellow to the muted red expanse, and I was careful not to crush any of them as we made our way along.
She tut-tutted in sympathy. “Hard to find the right fit sometimes, but I believe you’ll love it here. The gazing pool in the garden, especially. It has a way of sharing with you something you didn’t even know you needed.”
I threw a wary glance over my shoulder at the garden, at the throng of police, and looked away quickly. Despite my curiosity about what was going on across the street, I didn’t even want to mention the police to Glory in case my voice gave away something I wanted to keep hidden.
“Do you garden?” she asked as we strode along a walkway on the right side of the garage where friendly fern fronds brushed wide flagstones.
I realized suddenly that she seemed to be avoiding mention of the police presence as well. Perhaps she thought it might scare me off. Little did she know that it would take much more than that to let go of the chance at roots that she’d given me. “Not really.”
She tutted again. “We’ll fix that. I’ll teach you all I know. Glory’s Garden Lessons, coming right up.”
I liked the sound of that as we climbed a dark metal staircase flecked with spots of rust. In front of the apartment door, which was shaded by a peeling wooden awning dotted in silvery moss, Glory breathed raggedly and let out a series of barking coughs.
“Are you all right?” I asked, not sure whether I should pat her back or call for help.
Holding in a cough, she reached for the door handle. “Oh, I’m just fine, honey.”
Because her face was turned, I hadn’t been able to see her eyes, but I sensed she was lying. “I can imagine how fine,” I said, echoing her earlier words to me.
Looking over her shoulder at me, she smiled before pushing the door open. Unsurprisingly, the door had been unlocked. “Sadly, this spring chicken isn’t so springy anymore, but as long as I’ve still got some pluck, I’ll make do. As you know, pluck can see you through many challenges.”
“You think I have pluck?” I’d surprised myself by asking the question. So personal. So hopeful.
Her eyes sparkled. “You’re here, aren’t you?”
Swallowing hard, I nodded.
Glory walked inside and threw her hands outward as if making a grand reveal. “It’s small but hopefully suits your needs.”
Small? Hardly. This place was practically palatial compared to my last one—a rented room in a run-down duplex in a seedy area of Louisville.
Air-conditioning hummed, cooling the cozy living space that held a sofa, two chairs, and a coffee table. The whole room was drenched in light that accented a vaulted ceiling covered in whitewashed wooden planks and the scarred oak floor. An outdated kitchenette was tucked into an eave. A bedroom was set in the back corner along with a bathroom and walk-in closet.
I slid the backpack from my shoulder and rested it on top of the suitcase. “It’s beautiful.”
“You’re the picture of kindness, Emme. It needs a lot of TLC that I meant to have done before you arrived—some updating, some paint—but I haven’t had the time, between work and . . . life.” Her cheeks plumped as she grinned, and I instantly knew I’d never tire of seeing her smile.
“I have time. Just tell me what you want me to do. I’m happy to help. Truly. I’m fairly handy.”
Assessing me with the lift of one pale eyebrow, she said, “I’ll take your offer under consideration. Do you need any help unpacking? When are the rest of your things arriving?”
I nodded toward the two bags at my feet. “This is all I have.”
Before I left Louisville, I’d sold what big items I owned: a table, chair, small desk, and a bookcase—all items I’d salvaged from other people’s trash and fixed up. What few household items I’d accumulated while living on my own I’d donated to the homeless shelter where I’d once lived.
Shadows crossed Glory’s eyes, darkening those green flecks, before she said, “It sure will be easy to unpack, won’t it? Take your time putting up your luggage. I’m going to make a few calls. Come on down once you’re ready, and I’ll introduce you to some of my dearest friends.” She took a deep breath and gave me a warm smile. “I’m sure glad you’re finally here.”
I couldn’t stop myself from saying, “Thank you for being so nice to me. You don’t even know me. Not really.”
“Nonsense,” she said. “My heart knows you just fine.”
With that, she gave me another quick, awkward hug and was out the door and plodding down the steps, her footfalls echoing on the metal treads.
Once I watched her disappear into the main house through the side door, I locked the apartment’s front door, then carried my bags into the bedroom. I lugged the suitcase into the walk-in closet, laid it down on the floor, and pushed it into a corner under a silver rod full of empty wooden hangers. I twisted numbers on the luggage lock’s dial until the hinge popped open, and I then pulled the lock free. I unzipped the frayed canvas, pulling strings from the zipper teeth, and opened its top, leaning it against the wall.
I stared at all my worldly possessions, packed neatly, almost obsessively. Travel light, my mother had always cautioned when I was younger, and I hadn’t yet broken the habit.
I closed and locked the bag again, then hurried back into the bedroom, not wanting to keep Glory waiting too long. A tall chest of drawers stood between two oversized windows that gave broad views of the beautiful backyard. I opened the bottom drawer of the chest and placed the backpack in it, taking a moment to unlock and unzip it to take inventory of its contents—my most important and prized possessions.
Inside was a tattered hardcover copy of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe stolen from a library in Georgia, a Winnie the Pooh night-light, a crossword puzzle book, an old switchblade, a thin envelope that mocked my life’s savings, and a zippered folder that held my general education diploma, my social security card, and my birth certificate.
I opened the folder and let my gaze linger for a moment on my birth certificate. Emme Halstead Wynn. I ran my finger over the raised seal, across my parents’ names—Rowan Dean Wynn, Kristalle Fay Halstead—and along the two strips of Scotch tape that held the torn paper together. Finally, I put everything away, zipped the backpack, and gently closed the drawer.
Trying to ignore the guilt needling me from the inside out, I walked into the living room and looked out toward the culde-sac. With my bird’s-eye view, I could see that the intricate garden was clearly a labor of love, with its gravel pathways that twisted and branched throughout the island, which was divided into four sections with a ring of green space set smack-dab in its center.
My vision blurred with unshed tears, and I took a deep breath, let it out slowly.
Since I’d been on my own, I’d worked so hard to change my life. To unlearn all the lessons my mother had taught me. To become a better person. A deserving person. I’d struggled. I’d gotten therapy. I’d dared to dream.
And with just one phone call, I had been willing to sacrifice it all.
Simply because Glory had offered me everything I’d ever wanted in life.
Spitting image of your mother, Glory had said earlier.
And though it pained me to consider it, maybe she wasn’t wrong.