Second Chances (Woodburn Book 1)(6)

By: Rhea Madison


“Enjoy it, honey,” the waitress said, patting her on the shoulder. “You sure as hell look like you need it.”

Ellen wasn’t prepared to dignify that with any sort of response. She’d grabbed a packet of baby wipes while at Walmart, but there was only so much that could be done with wet wipes and ponytail holders. Her still-wet hair adhered to her head, slicked back and severely knotted in an elastic band. It didn’t keep a few of her layered locks from slipping free of the hold to frame her face. With time and the proper styling products, she could have made herself look like a beach bunny popping by for a milkshake. As it was, her appearance mostly resembled drowned rat. The wipes had dealt with the worst of the raccoon mask around her eyes, but the shadows of makeup, combined with the puffiness of her grief, rendered a pathetic visage indeed.

Rather than worrying about the dubious state of her face and hair, she tucked into the biggest, greasiest burger she’d ever seen in her life. It was nearly too big for her to fit it into her mouth, but Ellen Hastings was nothing if not determined. In her day to day life, she tried to eat a balanced diet, keeping herself fit by denying her body’s cravings for junk and working out like a fiend. It almost felt like a waste. It hadn’t been enough to keep her husband interested in her body. It was depressing.

Thinking back on the last few months, she could see the cracks in their relationship that she hadn’t allowed herself to notice before. After five years of marriage, they’d fallen into a rut. Ellen’s job was less than thrilling, but as a financial manager in a flourishing finance firm, it was demanding of both time and energy. Often, she was too tired to do much more than change into sweats and veg out in front of the television with a glass of wine when she came home. Mark’s job was equally taxing, and he worked later and later every night. Their lovemaking was sporadic, at best, and the last few times they’d been together, Mark had been so aloof. Now Ellen guessed it was because the affair had begun months ago, and either guilt or the fact that she wasn’t the one he’d wanted to be with, had dampened his desire.

These thoughts had tears threatening to fall once again. With her heart in turmoil and her rage still simmering beneath the surface of her skin, she couldn’t afford to dwell on her marriage to Mark Hastings. It was over and done. Ellen had always considered herself a forgiving person, but some things were simply unforgivable. Her focus needed to be on the future and moving forward. Mark was an attorney, so Ellen would have to find a good one for herself and fast. Tonight though, she intended to finish this meal, settle in at the inn John Bramlett had mentioned, and drown herself in the cheap bottle of wine she’d purchased at Walmart.

The burger was potentially the most amazing thing that had ever passed her lips. She moaned aloud, not caring what her fellow diners thought of her. That burger was pure heaven, and dammit, she was going to find some joy in this day if it killed her. The chili on the fries was equally delicious, and she forked in a mouthful just as John Bramlett slid into the seat across from her.

“Those chili-cheese fries are the best ones you’ll ever eat,” he said, helping himself to one, then grabbing a handful of napkins to dab the rain off his face. Ellen sat blinking at him, not knowing what to think of this man. Seeing him in the light of the diner had her heart racing, and his crooked grin as he chewed on his stolen fry had her stomach flipping inside out.

“You got my car back to the garage?”

“Sure did,” he smiled again, then turned to face the beautiful waitress. “I’ll have what she’s having, Rhys.Thanks.” He offered that award-winning smile and a wink to Rhys.

“Don’t be trying to flirt with me, John Bramlett,” Rhys said, wagging an elegant finger at him. “We’ve known each other too long for that nonsense.” John’s resonant laugh sanded some of the fraying edges off Ellen’s nerves.

She hadn’t even paid attention to the waitress’ name tag, and it struck her that she’d given up the habit after becoming a part of the Hastings clan. They were old money from the heart of Atlanta and had the attitude to prove it. The more she thought about it, the less she liked the person she’d allowed herself to become over the years since she’d met Mark. Her parents had raised her to be kind and compassionate towards others, but she’d let the allure of wealth and importance - even the false importance that came from being wealthy - transform her into one of those snobby rich wives who demanded rather than asked for things. She treated people as beneath her, forgetting what her father had tried to ingrain in her from a young age. “All people deserve respect, Ellie, just by virtue of them being born.”