When I open my eyes, Mav is in the middle of what looks like a two-legged dance in front of the window. Behind him, fluffy, sparkling flakes drift down a steel grey curtain. It’s as though he can hear me blinking my eyes. In a single bound Mav is on the bed. Laughing, I push him to the floor. He knows better than to jump up here, but it's evident that Olivia has let him get away with practically everything while I was in New York and LA. It's true she's taught him how to sit nicely and walk on a leash with some decorum, but I wasn't so sure those things made up for the way Mav jumped onto my bed every morning.
"Alright, let's get a good look at this snow," I say, grabbing a sweater and pants before heading down the stairs.
Outside, it's as though a graffiti artist has sprayed a mist of white over everything in an attempt to create a larger canvas. I wonder as I look at my sparkling backyard and my now wet but elated dog if this snow will stick.
It's been nearly a week since the fire at Marty's, and we have no more answers about who might have started it than we did the week before. No one had seen anything-- which doesn't come as a surprise. There was no reason for anyone to be out that time of night by a bar under construction, a closed antique shop and an abandoned garage.
I was hoping the fire chief would shut the investigation down so we could begin building and I meant to drive over to his office today, tell him just that. In the meantime, I aimed to solidify a construction schedule for several of the builds we had planned before ringing in the New Year. Now that Hurst is on board; I feel empowered in a way I hadn't since I left LA. Instead of feeling like I’ve given up on myself, I know as freely as I receive my family's love, that I have embraced my birthright.
"Woo-hoo!" I yell inside the cab of my truck an hour later as my steering wheel jerks spasmodically to the right. Mav barks excitedly in the middle seat as I tap the brakes. "How about that, Mav? My first time driving in snow." As if to demonstrate his lack of confidence, Mav lowers himself onto his belly, places his chin on my thigh and looks up at me woefully. "Thanks a lot, buddy," I say, easing back into drive.
Main Street looks like an old-timey Christmas card. Bright red bows stream from every street light and wreaths of pine boughs and tinsel adorn every door. As I park between the diner and my hotel, I notice that the hotel is included in the festivities (mine had been the only door without a cardboard pilgrim taped to it at Thanksgiving), and I grin.
Once inside my office, Mav lopes toward his corner where he has a pillow and mounds of chew toys. I shake my head. Eli was a doting uncle, buying Mav's love at every opportunity. Still, Mav's favorite was a stuffed monkey that Olivia had brought to him his very first week in my care. It was barely recognizable now—half its face had been chewed off, and it was missing a leg, but Mav treated it like a favorite bone—burying it under his pillow every night when we left the office and retrieving it again every morning.
Olivia. I pick up my phone, set it down again. I haven't heard from her in days. She'd even missed the Friday night hangout with Dana, Frank, and Don at my place. I'd offered it up again this weekend, and Don was making some of his "famous chili," and Dana said she'd make cornbread from scratch. Olivia had texted a reply that was characteristically melodramatic. "I'm on an intense writing streak," she'd said. "I'm on the cusp!" When I'd messaged back that I'd be happy to deliver a chocolate malt and other essentials, she'd only written, "It's okay. If I can come by, I'll see you on Friday."
I've never had trouble keeping my personal and work life separate, but there she is at the most inconvenient times, the feel of her against me as real as if I'd pulled her into my arms that night in my kitchen. There were variations of the moment that I replayed, but they always ended in the same way. My lips on hers, my hands behind her neck, her hands tugging me ever closer.
I breathe out, run fingers through my hair and tug at the ends with frustration. Worse than the fantasy is the reality of missing Olivia when she's never more than five miles from me at any given point in the day. She is the constant voice in my head, making observations-- reacting with smiles or a roll of the eyes at the things that I do or say.
I stretch my legs under the desk, brood as I read new emails. If she hadn't been with someone since the day we met, I might have been able to get her out of my system months ago by pursuing her as I always did when I found a woman attractive. Then, as work or fate intervened, my infatuation would end. When Therese's cast came off at the end of December, Olivia would be off to LA, and our relationship would naturally come to an end.
When the light shifts in front of the building, I look up from the laptop. Eli is struggling with the door to the hotel lobby, blueprints in one hand and two cups of what I think must be coffee in the other.
The sharpest underling I've ever had, and there was seldom a day that Eli didn't drop something or trip over his own feet or knock something off a desk. Before I can reach him, he's tugged so hard on the door that steaming liquid is jumping out of the lids and splattering against his chest.
I do my best not to laugh as he bursts through, seemingly unphased. Brightly he says, "morning boss!" as I take the blueprints out of his arms so he can deal with what I now recognize as hot chocolate dripping down the front of his shirt and coat. "Isn't the snow awesome? My mom made me bring these for us and..."
"Very kind of her," I grin. "But uh...starting any sentence with 'my mom made me' at your age?"
Eli flushes as he wipes his hands on his jacket. "I thought better of it as soon as the words left my mouth, but it's true. My mom did make me bring this for us because of the snow and feeling all Christmassy. I think she has a crush on you." Sharing this last bit of information out loud seems to perplex him.
I'd run into Eli's mom at the town market a couple of times, and when she'd marched up to me to introduce herself, I wouldn't have been more shocked than if she'd been Penelope Cruz claiming Eli as her son. "Your mom is hot," I say to Eli. "Maybe you should practice calling me, 'daddy' instead of 'boss.'"
"Haha," Eli says.
"Are you sure you weren't switched at birth?"
"I look more like my dad," Eli is still smiling, but I can see the glint of something wistful in his eyes. "Well, as far as I know, I still do. He left us when I was thirteen."
A moment of heavy silence, then I say, "clearly an idiot," like I'm spitting out a string of profanities. "So... you got all the charm and all the brains from your mom."
Eli grins, and I think this must be something his mom always tells him.
"Let's get some breakfast," I say, "you get cleaned up, and I'll get Mav squared away."
It's nearly eight by the time Eli and I are placing our orders with Brenda and having our morning briefing.
"Conference call with the LA team in an hour," Eli says, his eyes looking too big behind his lenses.
"You have nothing to be nervous about Eli," I say. "You know what you're doing. And I almost forgot." I reach beside me for the large rectangular box I'd grabbed from my truck before walking inside and thrust it toward Eli from the side of the table. "I was going to give this to you later but since that hot chocolate didn't come out of your shirt..."
Eli makes quick work of the package, pulling the collared shirt and then the black suede jacket out of the box. Both items have Hurst stitched in gold across the upper left side. He looks at me, grinning from ear-to-ear. "I'm a Hurst man now," he says almost reverently.
I chuckle. "You can order several more winter shirts and sweaters from the company website later. You'll get spring and summer stuff too."
Eli slides awkwardly out of the booth clutching the shirt. "Thanks, boss. I'll be right back."
I'm sipping my coffee and making additional notes in my phone when I hear footsteps behind my booth, the hesitant squeak of a rubber stub on tile, and then the unmistakable sound of Olivia's voice; sweet and quiet. "You sure you're okay?"
"If I need anything, I'll just tap Jake Hurst on his broad shoulders," says Therese loudly, aware that I'm right behind her.
Heart pounding, I turn around, my eyes latching onto Olivia's like opposingly charged magnets. But the pleasure I feel over seeing her is eclipsed by worry when I note the twin smudges of purple beneath her stormy green eyes. And while she isn’t the kind of girl to concern herself with makeup for a quick dash to the diner, I’ve never seen her such a mess. Sweatpants are visible behind her long wool coat and her typically silky waves are bunched haphazardly into the kind of bright orange hat someone might wear so as not to be mistaken for game.
I raise my eyebrows and shoot her a dry smile to mask my concern. "Rough morning?"
“Just an early one," she says stiffly, with none of her usual sass. "And you don't have to worry about Therese. I'll be over there working," and she points to a booth nearest the kitchen which already has a laptop and bag on it. "Grandmother's bridge friends are meeting her for breakfast this morning so they can be the ones to help her if she needs anything for the next couple of hours." And then with a tired smile, "don't play the damsel in distress just to show Jake off to your friends, okay?"
Therese flutters her lashes at me, which makes me chuckle. "You don't mind though, do you, Jake?"
"Me? I’m a moth to a flame around distressed damsels."
"Okay, well, I'll see you in a couple of hours grandma." And with that, Olivia walks away.
My eyes trail after her; surprised when she settles into the booth with her back toward us. She’d told me once that facing the wall as she wrote was like personally inviting writer's block to keep her company.
"So, she's not working on her book today?" I ask quietly. “What’s going on with her?”
Therese adjusts the sparkling broach on her pale gray sweater, fidgets with her hands. “She might tell you if you ask.”
Our eyes meet, and she gazes at me with the startling intensity of a paparazzo's lens. She doesn’t speak at all for a moment, but then softly she says, "you love our Livy, don't you?"
The clarity in her eyes pins me in place even more than her astonishing words. A lump rises in my throat, the uncategorized feeling I’d continually pushed aside over the last month manifesting in a powerful surge of emotion.
Warm hands slide over mine, rub the tops of my hands. "You'll be alright," Therese says with a sigh, but I feel an unreasonable desire to run out of the diner, run all the way back to LA.
When she releases my hands, it's as though a heat lamp that's been “on” too close to my face has been switched “off” and Therese turns toward her menu as though she hasn’t already memorized this month’s offerings. "Hmm," she says. "I think pancakes drizzled with caramel apple butter will be just perfect."
"Yoo-hoo! Therese!" a chorus of voices cries out. And then I'm inundated with gentle pats on the shoulder and not so gentle squeezes around my arms by taught and eager fingers. The intensity of my conversation with Therese diminishes like a passing thought as her friends coddle and coo. "This is what youth and vitality feel like," one tidally dressed woman says, her white hair curling around her ears, her eyes shining in a way that insinuates she isn't a day past twenty-five. "I am free for dinner anytime," she says, as her friends giggle.
Brenda swoops in at that moment with a carafe of coffee, her voice carrying above her friends' tittering. "You let poor Jake alone Helen, all of you," she says. "He's going to be too busy reopening the bar and saving this diner to take any of you to dinner."
She plants a meaningful look on me as Eli rejoins us, looking proud in his company shirt. "We'll do our best not to let you down."
She squeezes my forearm. "Your breakfast is coming right out, just the way you like it."
I'd never thought about what being on Brenda's bad side might be like, but I suddenly wonder in what state my breakfast might arrive if I told her my father planned to replicate the diner's ambience within our resort while serving Wagyu Beef burgers made by a celebrity chef.
Eli and I give each other a wary glance. We had to convince my father to change his mind about a couple of things this morning. Eli says, "maybe we should find another breakfast spot, just in case."
I shake my head, but I concede, "although maybe we should reconsider installing those surveillance cameras around the hotel."
If my pops didn't change his mind about driving the current diner out of business; living and working in Tomahawk Hill would become far from idyllic and worst of all, Olivia would go back to hating me. She’d been convinced that all I cared about was making a profit when we first met, and it had taken weeks for me to convince her otherwise, weeks to earn her trust and friendship. And now, just when the town was ready to accept me too, I was in danger of losing everything. And everything, was a lot more than I thought I had to lose before stepping into the diner this morning, because as Therese had so sagaciously said, I loved Olivia.