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CHAPTER 50

Photo by Tim Collins on Unsplash

Audrey and I share the bench in front of my grandmother’s vanity, elbowing each other and giggling as we try to finish our makeup at the same time. Therese flits in and out of her closet, option upon option to lie on the bed. Beaded clutches of all colors and shapes, her favorite dressy winter coats, a couple of fur stoles and capes.

Audrey had curled and pinned our hair after a late lunch and I love the way she’d swept mine up on top of my head, loose strands curving romantically down my neck. After staying up until nearly three this morning talking, we’d slept-in, then taken our time getting ready. We’d offered to head down to the hotel early to help with the opening but Jake had refused.

“Absolutely not,” he’d intoned gravely. “Frank’s recruited his students to coat check and serve the food and we have a capable kitchen team executing Cesar and Dana’s orders. The only person working will be Marty, but you all know he’d boycott the party if I didn’t let him make the drinks.”

Therese flits behind us, bending down so all three of our faces line up in the vanity mirror. We’d chosen similar crushed velvet dresses from a costume shop in LA but in different colors. Mine was emerald green, Audrey’s a deep crimson and Therese’s was navy blue. Tight from the bodice down, the gowns flared past the waist in a fuller silhouette—Therese’s with three layers of velvet and lace reaching for the floor—Audrey’s and mine swooping up like an apron over our knees, showcasing our lace garters and black netting. “Hello there, girls,” my grandmother says, her eyes cast down. “I don’t know if I’ve ever seen so much of you all at once.”

Audrey and I burst into giggles, propping our “girls” up, posing in the mirror to best advantage. “Proper painted ladies,” Audrey says, puckering her lips. “I wonder if Jake will come as a gentleman or a cowboy tonight?”

She looks pointedly at me. “When are you going to tell him?”

I clip on a pair of my grandmother’s glittering earrings and straighten the strap of my dress feeling uncertain. “Should I? It’s such a big night for him. I don’t want to be a distraction. And besides,” I say, a wave of anxiety zapping me in the chest. “For all I know he’s already given up on me. It’s been days since we talked and you saw him yesterday! He didn’t even try to talk to me. Rich wasn’t there. Wouldn’t that tell him something had happened?”

Audrey takes me by the shoulders so we’re no longer looking at each other through the glass. “That’s not necessarily true, Livy. A lot was going on last night and everybody knows Rich wasn’t excited about helping with the party. For all Jake knew, Rich made an excuse and got out of it.”

Maybe she was right — but amid all the preparations last night, I’d realized something important.

There had never been a time when I’d entered a room that Jake’s eyes hadn’t immediately claimed mine, that his smirk hadn’t hinted at some secret joke between us. When he looked at me in those first few seconds, it was as though he’d been holding his breath until he saw me again, as though some parallel universe had frozen in time until I’d arrived to break the spell.

“Livy angel,” my grandmother says, pressing her smooth cheek against mine. “Don’t think too hard about all this. You’ll know what to say to Jake when you see him. There’s no pressure to tell him everything all at once.” She smiles, a memory resurfacing. “What did your grandfather always say about love?”

“I remember,” I say softly, his words a catechism through the years. “There’s no fear in love.”

***

“Would you look at that!” Therese says awed.

Every parking space up and down Main Street seems taken — and this of itself wasn’t surprising since our Christmas parties had been well attended in past years. But this year, there is no steady stream of people walking in and out of the town hall. Every person in attendance is waiting outside, their chatter high as they open coats to reveal costumes, crane necks toward the hotel doors and curtains which remain adamantly closed.

Beneath the line of guests, a deep red carpet is visible stretching from the hotel to the corner of Hoover and Main. A glance at the car clock shows its ten until six. Jake had instructed us to message Eli when we arrived, so I do, asking him if we should park out back.

“Eli says there’s a saved spot in between the diner and the hotel,” I tell Audrey.

As we drive toward the only vacant spot left on Main Street, I hear the level of commotion rise as Jake Hurst, in full costume, walks out of the front doors in a burst of light and heads straight for us.

I watch, tight fists of nerves squishing my insides as he nears. People touch his arm, throw out compliments as he passes.

“Freezing my nuts off here, Jakey!” One man yells.

“Stop that,” I hear a female voice. “Can’t wait to see what you’ve done, Jake,” she adds apologetically.

Audrey’s dress rustles as she prepares to leave the car. “I love you Livy, but if you don’t say something tonight, I may sacrifice our friendship for just five minutes of that fine man’s attention.” She wiggles her eyebrows at me. “Fair warning.”

Tonight, resplendent in a crimson smoking jacket and gold ascot, striped silk vest leading down to his trim waist and black trousers, Jake Hurst embodies the stealthy power and mischievous charm of Clark Gable.

He is breathtaking in all of his Wild West inspired glamour—his thick hair slicked back beneath his jaunty top hat, a fat cigar wedged between his fingers. As we exit the car, Jake doffs his hat and treats us to an elegant bow. “Welcome to the Hurst Grand Hotel. May I escort you ladies inside?”

His eyes meet mine and anything I might have said becomes elusive.

It feels like minutes pass before the world spins as it should and time tics on. Before I can catch my next breath, Jake tucks my hand lightly into the crook of his arm. Therese and Audrey grab hold of each other and we walk the short distance to the hotel doors.

“Hey,” he says quietly as my eyes meet his. “I’ve missed you.”

I know my face must be as red as my lipstick but I manage a smile before looking away. “I’ve missed you, too.” My heart beating erratically, I blurt, “Jake, could we talk later?”

He looks taken aback for a second but smiles kindly. “Of course.”

“Alright men,” Jake says to two of Frank’s students. “Let’s get our guests inside.”

***JAKE***

With the party in full swing, I can stand back and fully enjoy the scene.

Tinkling piano keys, men sneaking off to the “smoking room” with the boxes of cigars I had passed out as party favors, the women fanning themselves with theirs, the servers flitting about the costumed guests with cocktails and small bites, and most of all—Marty.

Marty, who has gone all out tonight, Sam by his side.

They are two wily bar backs with matching mustaches and red silk vests, their western-style black ties cinching high collared white shirts, silver-white hair curling down at the nape.

I chuckle every time I glance their way. “I told you I’d be a feast for the eyes,” Marty had said when he’d arrived at set-up.

“You know you’ll never be able to go back now,” I’d said. “You and Sam have single-handedly turned this resort into Disneyland.” I got the sense from their grins that they might not protest too much if pressed for a repeat appearance.

Everyone seems to enjoy themselves, including the photographer and videographer who usually shot the promo work for Hurst.

Between photos and interview clips, my guests have been plying them with food and drink. I chuckle as one of them looks worriedly in my direction. I wave my hand at her. “Go ahead,” I mouth. “Have fun!”

The sight of a parent separating two glowering kids near one of the card tables tells me this might be a perfect time to give away my last surprise of the night.

Stepping up to the piano in the center of the room, asking the player to get everyone’s attention, I wait until the sound of the keys die down and all eyes are on me before I speak.

“Is everyone having a wonderful time here in the Wild West?”

Cheers sound all around and I chuckle. “Good! I’ll keep this brief so you can get back to your card games and food.” I motion to Therese and Olivia to come forward and as they join me, my eyes linger for a moment on Olivia. Hair piled high, skin radiating, eyes as green as that tantalizing dress…

I tug on my ascot, turn to our guests. “Thank you for being here tonight to support Marty’s new bar, and to celebrate the season with us.”

I pause and smile as people clap and whistle through their teeth.

“Looking around this room tonight, I feel nothing but gratitude and frankly; relief,” I say, grinning broadly as everyone laughs knowingly, “that we are now friends and partners in Tomahawk Hill’s future.”

“Here, here!” People yell across the room.

“In honor of what Nathan Weiss started!” I say.

Therese raises her glass, tears flowing openly from her eyes.

“To our community and our future,” Olivia says. “Merry Christmas!”

“Merry Christmas!” Everyone seems to yell in unison.

“And now,” I say, “before the adults begin the dancing portion of this evening, I’d like to invite the kids and the kids at heart, to the back of the hotel for a surprise.”

Instantly, children pop up from behind their parents’ dresses and trousers, away from food tables and games, up and off the floor where they’d been busy creating their own fun.

They follow me toward the back of the hotel and I signal to Frank. He speaks into the radio he’s holding, and as the kids gather at the windows, a flood of lights from trucks and construction vehicles light up the meadow behind the hotel: A meadow nearly stripped of snow.

There, in the middle, is a hill for sledding that no hands could have made. Kids and teenagers shriek with excitement, yelling out “thank you, Mr. Hurst!” As they grab their coats and run outside as though the snow might melt any second.

Feeling a light touch at my elbow, I’m pleased to see Olivia. “Look at you, popular with adults and kids now. Not an enemy in sight.”

While attention has been on the back of the hotel, a band has been busy setting up near the piano. Dana had recommended the quartet from a wedding reception she’d attended and they’d been happy to make some last-minute Christmas cash. “Let’s get everyone out here on the dance floor,” the singer croons.

“Dance with me?” I say, slipping Olivia’s hand into mine.

The song is The Drifter’s Doo-Wop version of “White Christmas,” which is fun enough to keep the dancing upbeat, but slow enough to make dancing close to her feel natural.

She laughs as I spin her around then back into my arms, and I ask her for her thoughts on the night.

“You’ve successfully taken us back in time and propelled us into the future Jake. It’s magical.”

I grin down into her shining eyes. “Think your grandfather would have had a good time?”

“Are you kidding? He would have ridden to the party on a horse in costume.”

I grin, “It’s not hard to imagine him, Marty and Sam galloping down Main Street like they own the place.”

When a heavy hand lands abruptly on my shoulders, I frown over the interruption. I know before I turn around who it must be.

I release Olivia as Rich, decked in full cowboy costume steps around me and slides into my place. “Thanks for taking care of her for me,” he says cooly, a stiff smile on his lips.

“My pleasure,” I say, as my gaze travels back to Olivia’s astonished face.

Something here doesn’t feel right but I realize it’s probably my disappointment that Rich has cut our conversation short.

Olivia looks from Rich to me, then back to Rich. “Rich, what are you…”

“Sorry I’m late Liv, but I have a big surprise for you,” he says, smiling confidently down at her. “Thanks again man,” he tosses over his shoulder as they walk toward my office. “I owe you one.”

***OLIVIA***

“Rich, what are you doing here?”

One minute I’m gathering the courage to tell Jake how I feel and the next, Rich, who I had thought would be celebrating Christmas Eve with his parents five hours away from here is dragging me into Jake’s office.

“I left last night after our talk,” he says in a rush, as though he is afraid of losing my attention. “But halfway to my parent’s, I had a brainwave. I couldn’t wrap my mind around your sudden insistence that things were over between us. Five years of being together and you were willing to throw it all away? My Livy, who doesn’t give up on anything?

So I knew. I knew what you wanted was a grand gesture. So here it is.” He holds his hands up dramatically. “Part one,” he says, walking behind Jake’s desk. “Well, part two because part one was me, in full costume, showing up at your party.” He chuckles but stops when I only stare.

What was he up to?

“Part two,” he says excitedly.

Bending down, he straightens up holding a sleepy ball of white fur the size of his head between his hands, a Christmas bow tied around its neck.

My heart instantly melts as Rich transfers the now squirmy bundle into my arms. His little black eyes peep out at me over a flounce of white hair, making me laugh with delight. “Oh, my goodness! You are just too cute!”

Rich clears his throat. “He’s ours. I’m sure you’ll give him some favorite author’s name, and that’s fine with me.”

The initial excitement over a Christmas puppy diminishes a little at the mention of “ours.”

“Rich…”

“And three,” he says, his tone resolved. “I need to say something.”

He touches my arm. “Liv, I realize now that I was wrong to try to guilt you into doing what I wanted. I have never known the kind of relationship you have with your grandmother, so it limited my view of things, but I understand now why you want to do this project with her. So… here.”

I shift the puppy in my arms as I hold the bill of sale signed by both Jake and Rich.

“This isn’t official.” He says now as my head swims.

I try to focus on the words on the page, typed neatly by Eli no doubt.

“Obviously the banks are closed, but it shows you my intent. This is my good faith gesture, that I want to do this with you, that I won’t drag my feet here.”

The bill says that Rich would invest money into the diner. Seeing the monetary amount, I know he must have crunched the numbers, decided to take out a small business loan.

“Jake signed off on this...” I say more to myself than to Rich.

“Why wouldn’t he?”

And the way Rich says it reminds me of the time he’d heard that I was watching Mav, while Jake was out of town.

“Jake helped me with all of it. Even drove to the shelter to see about a little dog for you while I scrambled around Nebraska City trying to put this costume together.”

A single word rises large and balloon-shaped in my mind as my eyes return again and again to Jake’s signature on the page, then Rich’s: No.

“I don’t want this,” I say, feeling very cold despite the heat from the little fur-ball against my chest. I look hard into Rich’s eyes. “I meant it when I said what we have is over.”

It’s as though he can’t hear me.

“I’ve given you everything you asked and more,” Rich says in the controlled voice I’ve heard him use with difficult clients.

Feeling desperate to have him understand, I say the one thing I’d hoped to avoid. “I don’t love you in that way anymore.”

Still calm, still collected, brows lifted slightly, Rich says bemusedly, “Love doesn’t just … end.”

“No.” I shake my head, imploring him with my eyes. “It doesn’t end, but sometimes it changes.”

“Really.”

His eyes glint with the knowledge of unexpectedly recognizing what’s been in front of him all along. “You mean, it changed because now you’re into someone else.”

Rich is increasingly incredulous, his tone mocking and loud. “You are aware he is the biggest player in SoCal? If he wants you, you know it’ll be over in a few weeks. Maybe a few months if you’re lucky—I mean, its gotta be good press for the resort, right? Hurst hooks up with town patriarch’s granddaughter?”

He laughs in a way that makes me question how I could have ever considered a future with him. “Jake Hurst is the most over-privileged, entitled...”

“Rich,” I say, feeling the heat rise to my face. “It’s over. You should leave.”

***JAKE***

Don has had quite a lot to drink—that much is clear.

Thankfully Cesar has escorted Dana away at my urging. Don might never have a chance with Dana, but there was no need for her to see him unravel to the extent he was now. I turn on my barstool to observe my friends for a moment, grin as I see Cesar’s dimples appear at something Dana is saying. Huh. Maybe Cesar was seeing the enticements of small-town living?

As Don’s hand squeeze my shoulder for the third time, I regret my decision to stay and keep him company for a minute. Marty doesn’t even try to rescue me—coming just near enough to slide a tumbler of scotch my way.

Don is now in the midst of telling me how miserable he’s been: living with his dad, not having a job, not having a girl—and he had lost me there for a minute as I looked behind us for any sign of Olivia and Rich, but his next sentence snaps me back to attention.

“I’m sorry Jake...” Don again squeezes my shoulder. “What I did ta ya… even those notes. It wasn’t nice. But it made things exciting for a bit right? And now look—” he gestures wildly at the bar. “It’s all turned out okay.”

My head reels, wondering if Don is admitting to what I thought he was. Keeping my tone neutral, my shoulders hunched casually over the bar I say, “no, it wasn’t very nice. So why did you do it?”

“Oh, you know man!” Don says, slamming his glass down with force. “I was unhappy. And I didn’t know who you were. Just some hotshot… all over the news… life so easy. I know other people didn’t want you either… thought you’d run us all out of business and town. But I was the only one with the balls to do anything about it. Sorry to see Therese out there, scrubbing rotten eggs though. She’s had a haaaaardyear, you know? She’s such a nice lady. I love that lady.”

I keep my voice soft, although I am feeling more than a little alarmed. “The fire at Marty’s…”

“I didn’t mean that to happen,” Don says woefully into his drink. He grabs my arm again, stares fervently into my face. “I lit the sign… but the fire was out before I left. I know it. No one was more surprised than me to see Marty’s whole place burned down the next day. I felt so bad…”

It’s then that I see Marty standing in front of us and from the look on his face I’d say he heard all of that last part.

“Looks like I’ve found my new busboy,” he says with a twitch of his mustache.

Don looks from Marty to me, then back to Marty as his cognitive function catches up to his mouth.

I’m the one to squeeze Don’s arm this time, turn away from the bar.

The last thing I want to spend the rest of my night doing is sit here and analyze how I might have known it was Don sabotaging me all along. I imagine Olivia’s reaction to the news if I told her. “Is it bad that I think more of him now, rather than less,” she’d say.

“There you are,” Rich says, blocking my escape from the bar.

“Needed a refill before making more rounds,” I say, stepping back slightly. Rich was standing uncomfortably close.

“I told you I owed you for everything you’ve done today, so I wanted to pay up.”

“Please don’t worry about it,” I say, his tone immediately putting me on edge. “It was my pleasure to help. If it makes Olivia happy…”

“No actually, it didn’t,” Rich says, his eyes suddenly narrow. “But maybe you knew that.” And before I can figure out what that’s supposed to mean Rich’s fist connects with my face.

My head snaps back, my legs hit the barstool behind me.

I sense, more than hear the commotion around us as Rich swings his fist back for another punch. But this time, I’m ready.

I step to the side so instead of my stomach his fist rams hard into the edge of the bar.

“Shit!” He yells, bending down, nursing his hand.

“Look,” I say, aware that all eyes are on us and Rich and I are now circling each other in front of the bar. “I don’t know what’s happened but let’s talk about it…”

“You don’t know what’s happened?” Rich says, his eyes disbelieving. “You’ve got to be kidding.”

“Rich!” We both turn to see Olivia and Audrey rushing toward us, pushing through the crowd that’s now gathered around the bar. “Stop this!”

“Oh, you missed it Liv, I punched your boyfriend right in the face!” Rich laughs. “Oh did you not want everyone to know you’ve been cheating on me?”

“What are you talking about?” I say, still baffled by the exchange; but then suddenly everything clicks sharply into place. Your boyfriend?

My eyes meet hers across the room as this reality, instead of the one I’d imagined this morning, sinks into my conscience.

When Rich had called me to say he and Olivia had gotten into a fight, that he needed my help to make things right at the party, I’d felt certain she’d already made her choice.

But now, my cheek smarting where I’d taken the hit from Rich, I’m helpless to do anything but grin at Olivia—beam at her actually—with pure, unadulterated joy.

At first, she looks shocked that I’m grinning, but then she smiles too, shaking her head at me with disapproval. I can almost hear her say it. Jake Hurst, this is not the time or place…

Seeing the exchange between us, Rich goes from mad to berserk. His punching fist incapacitated from the run-in with the bar, he lets out a battle cry and comes for me, gearing up for a tackle.

In that split second, I make my decision.

No outcome was a good one but there was no need to drag it out any longer.

I shift my body back and throw a hard right that connects squarely with Rich’s jaw. The force of the punch knocks Rich flat on his back.

The entire room goes silent. And then, to my surprise, the room explodes into excited applause. I look around at my guests, marveling at the fact that they’re clapping, when Marty yells out, “Welcome to the Wild West ya’ll!”

“Hey Jake, is this what we can expect at every opening party because if that’s the case, I want to buy season tickets!” Bud Pederson calls out.

“He had it coming to him, Jake,” Frank yells.

I shake my head, feeling a sliver of pity for Rich who has moved into a sitting position. He looks dazed as he wraps his injured hand into a bandana.

“Please return to your fun,” I say, signaling for the band to play again. The crowd slowly disassembles as the band plays and it appears as though things have gone back to normal although I’m sure the conversation has changed.

Olivia and Audrey remain standing off to the side, watching Rich. They seem to discuss what to do—Olivia casting anxious glances his way as Audrey speaks to her.

Sam walks out from the behind the bar, Marty at his heels. They head straight for Rich, and each offers him a hand. Rich looks up at them like a belligerent drunk, but takes Sam’s hand and helps himself up. I consider joining them, but then Sam speaks, his voice sonorous and kind. “Looks like you’ve made your point son, I think it’s best now if you get on. You’re at the Palm?”

Rich shakes his head. “I’m not staying one more second at that Roachside motel.”

Eli, ever watchful, seems to materialize out of nowhere, holding Rich’s coat and scarf.

As both doors swing open, Rich pauses for a moment and no one seems to move. I notice his shoulders straighten as he looks out into the night— and then he’s walking out, the doors of the hotel closing solidly behind him as the room simultaneously bursts back to life.

CHAPTER 49

CHAPTER 49