Shit. I didn’t have my car. It wasn’t the first time I’d woken up without my wheels, so I grumbled on my way out, planning to take an Uber, but when I opened the door, there it was. Holy fuck, Beau had gotten my Beamer home.
A smile pulled at my lips, and again, I wasn’t surprised. That was Beau. He’d always been the first in line to help someone, only usually that someone wasn’t me. He reserved frowns and scowls for me, not that I could blame him.
And then, before I realized what I was doing, I’d driven straight to Campbell’s Confections, the bakery Beau’s mom owned. Or at least she had ten years ago. It had been a favorite spot for our friends to go. Mrs. Campbell had often given us free goodies after we won a football game.
Warmth spread through my chest at the thought. I’d loved playing ball at Fever Falls High—lived and breathed it along with Beau, Wyatt, and our other friends. Playing in college had been an adjustment for me at first, because it had been so different from playing with the guys I’d grown up with. I didn’t know them the way I knew Beau and Wyatt, the way I’d known the whole team. There had been comfort in that, familiarity. But I’d smiled, played it off, because that was what I did. I smiled and partied and worked my ass off on the field, trained in ways I hadn’t known were possible, and eventually the ache in my chest had subsided, buried itself deep where I could forget it had been there and no one had to know.
Frowning, I wondered where that had come from, what made me think of those early days I did well pretending never existed. Being home, losing my career, was fucking with me in ways I didn’t want to comprehend, so I pulled on my sunglasses, got out of my car, and went toward the building.
The white paint on the front looked fresh. They had a new pink-and-gray awning, and a few tables and chairs on the patio. None of that had been there ten years ago.
The bell over the door jingled when I walked inside. It was empty except for Kenny behind the counter. I almost stumbled seeing him. He was a few inches shorter than I was now, but holy shit, Kenny had grown up. Well, obviously, Kenny had grown up, but it was different knowing those things happened than seeing them.
My pulse sped up in a strange way as I took Kenny in—Beau’s brother, the person he’d always cared for more than anyone in the world.
“Good afternoon, welcome to…” Kenny looked up at me, and his eyes widened. “Ashton Carmichael…Ashton Carmichael…Mom! Ashton Carmichael is here!”
My pulse jumped again at the realization that Kenny remembered me. It was a strange thought. Kenny was ten when I left; of course he remembered. Plus, I didn’t mean to brag, but I was Ashton Carmichael. Most people knew who I was, but definitely people in Fever Falls.
“Hey, Kenny. Long time no see.” I stepped up to the counter.
“Hi, Ashton Carmichael.”
I smiled. “You can just call me Ash.” I reached over and held my hand out for him. Kenny shook it.
“Okay, Ash. I think I’m supposed to be really happy to see you…everyone else in town makes a big deal about you, but I think you’re just a person like everyone else, even if you do play football. We should all be happy to see someone else, no matter who they are, because everyone deserves that. It shouldn’t matter what you do for a living. Do you mind if I treat you like everyone else?”
If it wouldn’t have been strange, I would have hugged him. A weight fell off my chest that I hadn’t realized had been there. It likely always was until I knew I could let my guard down. “It would make me the happiest person in town if you treated me like everyone else.”
“Good!” Kenny gave me a huge smile. “Welcome to Campbell’s Confections. I’m happy to see you, and I say that because I’m always happy to see people and not because you’re Ashton Carmichael.”
Joy burst in my chest, a giddy feeling I hadn’t experienced in a long time showering me. “I like that attitude. I’m happy to see you too.” Likely more than he knew. I’d done a lot of research on Down syndrome in high school because of Beau’s brother—not that anyone would know that. Down syndrome had always been my charity of choice over the years. No one knew that either. But I’d always known how important he was to Beau, and that made me curious, especially because Beau was so protective of him.
I knew Kenny was high functioning, but I hadn’t known he had a job. And when he smiled, I felt it in my chest because it was genuine in a way I didn’t often see in the world. It always had been, and I’d forgotten.