Sunlight from the diner windows filters through Jake’s hair, turning some of the strands nearly white. I look away as he leans back in the booth, his foot bumping mine as he stretches diagonally under the table, lopes one arm around the back of his seat. It’s hard not to stare as he reads, difficult not to pant, “what do you think?” like an eager puppy as his eyes shift from line to line.
My phone vibrates. It’s Rich’s response to my text from this morning.
Can’t wait to see you tomorrow night.
Of course, I hadn’t given Rich a play-by-play; nor would he have wanted one, but I’d meant to tell him this morning that I might not fly home tomorrow—that I wasn’t even sure if I’d fly the day after that. I know now that my departure plans depend heavily on Jake’s reaction to the letter.
I might have to stay another day or two.
I can almost see Rich twist his mouth to the side as he does when he’s thinking about something unpleasent.
Is everything ok?
I look across the table at Jake, who is surreptitiously swiping his eyes with the back of his hand. My heart leaps. I had hoped he would see the full picture: the town, my grandfather’s relationship to it, our connection to each other. And while I’d wanted to play a bit on Jake’s empathy, I am surprised by the tears. I glance down at my phone again, not wanting Jake to notice me, notice him, but then I hear him chuckle. When I look back, he’s shaking his head, eyes glued to the paper. I grin, perceiving that he’s reading the part where my grandfather refers to our private nicknames for some of the city developers including the mayor, after whom we’d sung the Oompa-Loompa song under our breaths. Coming up with the nicknames had been a way for us to vent our frustrations to each other.
I have a lot to tell you. But how much to tell him?
T dropped a massive surprise on me yesterday. In short? I own all the properties in the hill. Trying to decide what to do. The buyer Audrey found last month is still interested, but I’m not sure if I’ll sell to him. I’ll message you when I know more?
It’s no surprise when Rich says, what’s there to decide? It’s been sitting for a year with no interest. This may be your only chance to get rid of it.
A pinprick of indignation needles me in the chest as I reply. How could it have been of interest? None of the properties were listed.
Could I hear Rich sigh all the way from the coast or was that my imagination?
Liv...does it matter who wants those properties or why they’d want to buy them? Unload them! You know better than anyone else what the smart thing to do is here.
I had known, until this morning and grandfather’s Christmas gift and Jake’s wet eyes...
Do you own the bar and grill?
This line of questioning distracts me for a moment. Of course, Rich would want to know that. He wanted to make the move from residential to commercial real estate at some point this year.
No. T hired someone to help her run them.
For now, anyway. My grandfather had built a lucrative chain of eight bars, and grills called Nate’s throughout the Midwest over the years. All of them were thriving in big cities like Minneapolis, Des Moines, and Kansas City. My grandmother planned to sell her shares to the existing partners when the time was right.
I look up from my phone as papers shuffle, and Jake pulls the album closer to the edge of the table. He opens to the first page, the muscles of his arms flexing on either side of it as he rounds his shoulders over the album like an inmate protecting his food.
I’ll call you later?
Call me before you make decisions that have permanent consequences.
But I know that I won’t. I know deep down this is a decision I have to make on my own.
I drop the phone on the table face down and cross my arms, ignoring it when it buzzes with what is undoubtedly an apology. I don’t even have to read it to know what it’ll say.
Sorry if I pushed. I worry about you taking care of all this yourself. I know you, and the less you have to do with TH, the better.
That was Rich. Do what he felt compelled to do, say what he knew needed to be said, no matter how it came across. There was always time for an apology afterward. If he knew what I was planning to do if Jake’s reaction to the letter was in my favor, Rich would be on the next flight to Tomahawk Hill.
“You’re furrowing your brows and looking all pissy, and I haven’t even opened my mouth yet.”
Jake leans back in the booth again, his eyes crinkling at the corners, his foot bumping mine again as he stretches his legs beneath the table. The album is shut, the letter tucked neatly beside it, and Jake’s body seems to take-up all the available space on the other side of the booth.
I self-consciously touch my forehead, smooth the ridges.
“That’s better,” Jake says, his voice rumbly and smooth. “You okay?”
“Yes,” I say, taking a breath. “You got through the album quite fast.”
We look at each other for a moment, only silence between us. The afternoon light shifts a bit over our table and hits Jake’s eyes at just the right angle to make them look as clear and hard as marbles, green-edged amber orbs glowing beneath glass.
# # #
It’s evident that something is upsetting her, but by the way she’d dropped her phone onto the table, I gather it’s something personal and therefore none of my business.
“Your food will be out in just a few minutes honey,” Brenda says, swooping past our booth and claiming my gaze. “And your chocolate malts are ready--you can pick them up from the fountain if you don’t want to wait on me to drop this tray of sandwiches off first.”
I see a swish of ponytail, and then I hear the gentle smack of tennis shoes on tile as Olivia practically bounces toward the marble slab soda fountain in the center of the diner. She’s sliding back into her side of the booth with tall, perspiring glasses before I realize I never ordered a malt.
“This malt is the entire reason the diner has not gone under in the last thirty decades.”
“Excuse me?” Dana approaches our table with what looks like a Ruben on rye, a hamburger and a basket of fries.
Olivia smiles at her friend. “The malts and Dana’s uh-mazing skills in the kitchen of course.”
Olivia scoots over so Dana can sit, but her friend motions to her that it’s unnecessary. She picks up a butter knife from the tray and beings to cut as she addresses me. “If you aren’t a fan of Rubens you can eat the burger and if you like both, you can share the other half of the Ruben with Livy. She likes to eat a little of everything.”
“That, I do,” Olivia says, grabbing a French-Fry and popping it into her mouth. She looks from Dana to me, then back to Dana, and I can practically hear the wheels in her head turning.
What is she thinking?
She says, “Hey, want to come over for dinner tonight, Dana? Therese already invited him, so you’ll round out the party.”
Dana looks at me from under her lashes, but shakes her head. “Shane called-in sick tonight so it’ll just be grandma and me back there. I’d be tempted to come up for dessert, but it’ll be pretty late. How long are you in town?”
Olivia’s gaze settles on me, and I catch a tremor of uncertainty riding beneath her glib words. “I’m not sure yet. It all depends on this guy.”
“Well,” Dana says, laughing a little. “Sounds like you two have a lot to discuss.”
“I guess we do,” I say, looking at Nathan Weiss’s granddaughter with not a little bit of wonder. So I’d been right about why she’d let me read the letter. A part of me had hoped for a different explanation—but this was still a win for me, all things considered.
Olivia Weiss was going to sell it all.
“You knew I’d say ‘yes,’ didn’t you?” I barely notice when Dana leaves us.
“Did I?” Olivia tilts her head to the side, takes a bite out of the hamburger. I guess she takes me for a guy who likes Rubens. That, or she doesn’t care what I like.
“It’s all falling into place now,” I say, doing my best to look suspicious.
“What is?” Olivia says, looking down at her sandwich. I find it strangely endearing that her previous hostility toward me has been blanketing all of her uncertainty.
“I see what you did… you knew how to play me, didn’t you? You pretended to hate me, acted like you weren’t going to sell, let me sweat it out overnight... made me cry… and now I can’t say no.” I shake my head. “Damn it.”
Now she knows I’m teasing, and I’m relieved when her whole body perks up like a flower after its morning drink of dew. “You can’t?”
“Nope. I can’t.”
“Of course you want to buy it, but…with the conditions attached. Why would you accept them? You barely know me. And my grandfather’s wishes are insane…”
“I know what I need to know about you,” I say.
She looks stunned. I feel the urge to grab her hand again, give her a reassuring squeeze.
“So... you’ll invest, and you’ll sign all the final approvals on the plans over to me and Therese?”
It was a crazy request. No investor in their right mind would agree to such an impractical and unorthodox plan, but I’d always trusted my instinct when it came to business and despite how personal this all was, my gut said yes.
And that’s what contracts were for.
My attorneys would ensure that Olivia would act more as my compass in unchartered territory than a driver with any real power. She would be my true north, just as she had been for her grandfather.
It was the way Nathan Weiss had written to his granddaughter, with such love and trust and confidence that had made me open to her involvement at all. It had made me curious about her. Who was this woman? What was she truly capable of? She’d been shrewd enough to show me the letter and the album after all.
As she studies me from across the table, I think, besides. How much trouble could she be? I had little doubt that after the initial plans had been made and approved, Olivia would only be too glad to get her head back into her life in LA. She was already conflicted about all this. In a matter of months, she would be out of my hair and I would be free to build the team I needed to make my own mark on my family legacy.