Maverick licks my face anxiously, wiggling his golden body as if to say, “what are we doing here huh? Huh?”
I nudge the top of his head with my chin and chuckle. “You’ll be just fine, Mav.”
Despite all the gear in my hands, I manage to ring the doorbell with my knee, and in seconds, Olivia is opening the front door.
“Maverick!” she squeals, scooping him out of my arms. He makes ecstatic whimpering noises as he licks her face, his mouth hanging open in a huge puppy smile. “Let’s take you to see Therese okay? She is just going to adore you!”
“Uh... mind if I come in?” I say to her already retreating back.
She turns, a playful smile on her face. “Oh, yeah, come on in.” And then, “Hi Jake,” like an afterthought.
“Oh, hi, Olivia,” I say in the same manner, except by the time I set Mav’s stuff down and look up, she’s already disappeared into the living room. I can tell everyone has met when I hear Therese’s loud exclamations. “Oh, my goodness! Aren’t you a handsome boy!”
I chuckle and turn the corner into the room. “I don’t think I’ve ever been upstaged by a puppy before,” I say, leaning down to kiss Therese on her upturned cheek. I note the glow on her face, although her eyes look a bit red-rimmed. I glance at Olivia who stands near the fireplace, and she shakes her head.
“I have never seen a fella this handsome before,” Therese coos, giving Maverick, who is sitting uncharacteristically still in her lap her full attention.
“And I thought he only had two speeds— dancing dervish and dead asleep. How’s the leg?”
“Oh, I think I have five more weeks to go at best?” She shifts a little in her seat, and I spot the plastic doughnut that’s been her constant companion since she fell. “Hope this tailbone heels in a week or so.”
“Jake, may I get you something to drink? I need to check on supper,” Olivia says.
“I brought a California cab with me, thought we might share that,” I say and am pleased by the way her eyes light up.
“Nothing beats a good California cab,” she says.
“Therese, you old enough to drink, by now?” I tease. Maverick has climbed partially onto her chest and is gazing up at her, head tilted quizzically to the side.
“Turned 21 today,” she says, smoothing her already perfect bob.
After I pour all of us a glass, I hand Therese hers and set Mav in his playpen which I’ve set up next to Therese. He whines until I give him a new chew toy to destroy. It’d been too late for a pair of my Italian dress shoes this morning, and I wasn’t about to let Mav take advantage of Therese’s low mobility to channel Pac-Man in her house. “I’m supposed to inform you that supper will be ready in twenty minutes.”
“That’s fine,” she says, patting my arm. “You go keep my Livy company,” and then in a stage whisper, “take the cornbread out of the oven in ten. She will forget.”
I wink. “Done.”
I take my time crossing the dining room from where I can see Olivia busy at work, chopping something on the counter. Whatever she’s making smells delicious, and the source of the smell seems to be coming from a large cast iron pot on the stove. Her dark brows are furrowed in concentration; her cheeks flushed from her efforts, hair piled on top of her head, exposing the graceful column of her neck.
When my socked foot hits the leg of a dining room chair making it rumble across the hardwood floor, it startles Olivia as much as it does me. “Ow!” she cries, her knife clattering to the cutting board as she swoops her finger away. I’m behind her in an instant, grabbing her injured hand. She’s sliced the very tip of her left pointer finger. “Oh, that stings,” she says, throwing her head back onto my chest.
“Everything okay?” Therese calls.
“Olivia’s just sliced off an important typing finger, nothing too serious,” I call back, tearing off a sheet of paper towel and wrapping it around her finger.
“The first-aid kit is in the drawer next to the sink,” Therese calls again.
Olivia squeezes her finger and closes her eyes, leans against the counter as I look for what she’ll need.
“So, this kind of thing must often happen,” I tease, opening the plastic box. “Your grandmother didn’t sound surprised at all.”
She opens her eyes only to narrow them down to slits, except her mouth is twitching with the start of a smile. “You know it’s all your fault. Were you trying to sneak up on me or what?”
“I was walking in to help you get supper on the table. What were you doing?”
Olivia’s expression grows bashful, “Sometimes I start thinking about things and get distracted...”
I chuckle as I unwrap the paper towel. “Ok... so the trick is to think about what you’re cutting, and not things.”
“So helpful as ever, Jake, thank you,” she says drily.
I assess the damage, all too aware of how soft her hand is in mine, how perfectly the back of it nestles into my palm.
“Well, if you find a red sliver of something in your salad, don’t assume it’s a pepper,” I say.
“Ew,” she says, looking up at me, and we’re so close I can smell the citric notes of her shampoo, the warm and sensual notes of her perfume. “I’m sorry for that, even if it is all your fault I cut it off in the first place.”
I don’t respond right away because I’m distracted by two dark brown freckles beneath her right eye and the sweetest little line making side-by-side pillows of her bottom lip. I know I’m acting selfishly, but I let myself gaze, feel the air thicken between us as I continue to hold her hand.
“I’ll have to make it right then, won’t I?” I murmur and because holding her hand isn’t enough, I lift it, and press her cut fingertip softly to my lips. She shudders.
Her lips have parted in surprise, and we just look at each other, barely breathing.
The questions in her eyes jolt me back to my senses.
My gaze zeros in on the first aid kit as though it might run away from me and I grab the ointment, dab it on her finger and apply a bandage in what feels like a split second.
“Still sting?” I say, releasing her hand and stepping away as though she’s suddenly wielding a knife between us.
Olivia turns toward the salad without looking at me. “I’m good now; thank you.” She picks her knife up again, and I take the opportunity to try and lessen the tension I’ve created.
“Maybe you should let a pro finish the cutting,” but the barb comes out flat, guilty.
“I can do it. Would you mind helping Therese to the dining room?”
By the time I’ve helped Therese to her seat and brought Maverick’s pen into the foyer, Olivia has placed serving platters full of food on the table.
“The chicken in adobo sauce looks amazing,” Therese says, sipping her wine. “But I think I smell burnt corn...”
Olivia’s eyes fly to the kitchen, and I see a faint whisper of smoke rising from the oven. I’m a step ahead of her as she cries, “Oh no!”
I grab an oven mitt and motion for Olivia to stay back as I slide the rack out and take out the tins of now blackened cornbread.
I flip the bread upside down onto the cutting board, poke at the impossibly hard crusts. “If we cut the top and bottom off and a little around the edges, I think we could...”
At the sound of Olivia’s laughter, I look up. She’s leaning her elbows against the counter, her face relaxed. “My mind was elsewhere, and I forgot to set the timer,” she says.
“Jake Hurst,” Therese says from the dining room, “Did I not warn you about this very thing?”
Olivia looks at me, eyes wide with disbelief. “My grandmother warned you that I would forget about the bread and you forgot to remember I’d forget?”
I chuckle. “Guilty,” I say. “Let me also admit up front that it’s my fault if either of you finds a fingernail in your salad.”
Olivia stands next to me on the lawn, shivering in her blanket. Before I kissed her finger, I would have easily wrapped my arm around her from the side, knowing she would think nothing of it, but now, I hesitate.
Instead, I watch Maverick as he makes his usual rounds, finally committing to the spot where he will relieve himself. “You sure you and Therese are up for this? He’s a handful. You’ll have him for a full week while I’m in New York and Nashville.”
“Did you see how happy she is in there? Even if Maverick does destroy some things, seeing her distracted will be worth it.”
“What about your writing? Won’t he take you away from that?”
She smiles. “Not at all. Mav might make that easier. He can take some of the responsibility of entertaining her while I work, and I’ll take breaks to get them both to eat and potty.”
“Sounds like you’ll be running a nursery while I’m away.” I let Mav pull me a little on his leash as he takes advantage of our conversation to explore the front lawn further. Olivia follows right behind me.
She says quietly, “I was thinking that if this week goes well, I could look into getting a dog for her when it’s time for me to go back home.”
The thought of her leaving catches me by surprise. “Right...when she’s out of her cast.” I look back at Olivia, but her eyes are on Maverick. He’s found something under one of the rose bushes. She walks over to see what it is, and I take this moment to let the fact of her eventual leaving sink in. Her home was in LA, with Rich.
I clear my throat. “So, what do you think about my soda fountain idea?”
She stands, holding what looks like a dirty gardening glove in her hand. “Honestly? I love it.”
“But the malt idea?”
She grins. She’s let her hair down, and it shines softly under the light from the porch. “Give you my super-secret family malt recipe for your soda fountain? I don’t know.”
“And making your diner a part of my resort. Don’t forget about that.”
Olivia looks thoughtfully up at me. “I love the idea of making a personal investment, but I’ll have to run it by Rich.”
I’d told myself I wouldn’t ask, but I need it spelt out for me, the unacknowledged barrier between us or I would continue to ignore it. “That’s right. You are affianced. I had no idea congratulations would be in order until I saw you on Tuesday.”
“Oh. My grandmother didn’t tell you?”
“Honestly, I don’t know who else knew besides her and Sam before you came to town.”
Olivia looks genuinely taken aback. “I guess...with Therese falling and breaking her leg; she’ hasn’t been herself.” She tucks her hair behind her ear, holds the blanket closer. “Well, remember how I told you about my writing trip up to Santa Barbara? Rich came up and proposed. We spent a few extra days there to celebrate.”
I scowl as a thought occurs to me. “He came up during your writing trip?”
“Basically, yeah,” she trails off. “Anyway, we’ve talked about getting engaged since college. My grandfather loved him.”
“It must feel good to know that.” I swallow. “So, it’s been a couple of weeks now?” I feel bad that it feels so stiff between us again, knowing that it’s my fault.
“I guess so.”
All those days I’d been thinking about her, texting her, she’d been planning a future with Rich.
As though reading my mind she says quietly, “I didn’t know how to bring it up. I mean...” she sounds at a loss for a moment. “We’re friends but, we’re not close, right? I mean, in some ways I feel that we are but; It would have been weird of me to message you out of the blue with, ‘I’m engaged!’ And you’re like Jake Hurst so...”
I glance warily at her. “Ah...right. I have a big reputation, and you’ve seen a lot of TVE segments dedicated to my MO with women and my dating history.”
I cringe when she looks down and shrugs. Her reaction confirms why she hadn’t let my kissing her be weird. “Well, yeah. Why would you even care that I was engaged?”
When she looks up at me, I do my best Jake Hurst impersonation, cocky smirk and all. I pull her in for a side hug and kiss her firmly on the top of her head.
She laughs. “You are the worst flirt and so touchy feely with everyone.”
I make myself chuckle too. “Wow. You make me sound like a total creep. Did I tell you that Eli practically begged me to teach him how to ‘get girls’?”
“Oh Jake, you have to help him! I think he has a crush on one of the waitresses at the diner.”
I tell myself that I’m happy when she leans into me, wraps both her arms around my middle, trusting that I am who the world says I am. But what I am is mad. Mad at myself, for not telling her the truth, that this time, everyone has it wrong.