“Now what progress have we made?” Therese says, walking into the living room with a notebook under one arm and a crutch in the other. Eli trails behind her with a cup of coffee and a plate of scones; one half-eaten scone is already dangling out of his mouth like a fat cigar.
“We thought we’d wait for you and Eli, grandma,” Olivia says, scrunching herself even further into the corner of the sofa, her feet between us—probably so she can kick me away if the need arose. I grin at the thought of that.
I’d stopped by the house with Eli this morning to go over the details of the Christmas party I was throwing with Therese.
Therese had approached me two weeks ago, saying it was something she, Nathan and Olivia had done every Christmas for the last ten years, throwing it at the town hall because it was one of the few spaces in town large enough to hold everyone.
This year, she’d said wanted to do something different.
Olivia had only this morning learned about the Christmas party and I could tell news of this had bothered her.
“Why didn’t anybody tell me sooner?” she’d asked, as I followed her into the living room. Therese and Eli had gone into the kitchen.
“You had a lot going on and your grandmother didn’t want anyone to bother you with it,” I said quietly as we settled on the couch. “We want you involved if you’d like to be.”
It had surprised me when Olivia had glared, her eyes narrowing into slits. “Gee, thanks for the invite into something I’ve been doing forever. So, are you taking over my entire life now?”
Wow. So, this was how Olivia would handle her uncertainty about me.
“I don’t enjoy planning big parties,” I’d said calmly. “But Therese had an inspired idea involving the hotel, and I wanted to help. If there’s anything I can ever do to help her or you, I’ll do it.”
She’d frowned. “Are you saying what you did last night for me, was helpful?”
I’d shaken my head in disbelief and said nothing, knowing I was skirting dangerous territory. We’d waited the rest of the time for Eli and Therese to join us in silence.
I give Olivia a sideways glance—note the purple under her eyes. She must have slept little. From the way she had kissed me back last night, melting under my touch in a way that had kept me up half the night, I’d thought I’d find a slightly confused and shy Olivia this morning, not this angry, defensive woman who was itching to bite my head off.
“I’m very excited about the Sundance being open for business in time for our party,” Therese says, drawing my attention back to the task at hand.
I nod, it was essentially a long-term pop-up.
I hadn’t revealed the plans to Marty until everything was a certainty, wanting to avoid getting his hopes up. When I told him, Marty had slapped me on the back, his smile so big his beard looked like it had shrunk two inches. “My wife thanks you Jake. You don’t know what a pain in the ass I’ve been to her at home.”
“This is good news for everyone,” I’d said. “Parker can redesign the burned down Sundance from scratch without worrying over existing structures — you and I can accommodate more patrons than we thought we could at this stage because of the space we have at the hotel. And it’s great publicity overall for Hurst. It’ll give the public a taste of what we’re doing here.”
Over the last week, a crew had sealed the upper level of the hotel from the lower level to make it more energy-efficient for the temporary saloon. The old lobby to the right of the entrance would showcase the vintage 1840s wood and limestone bar and mirrored cabinets Parker had dismantled from an old dance hall in Milwaukee. He was having it shipped in a semi-truck to Tomahawk Hill this week. It would all move to the permanent Sundance Saloon location before we opened its swinging double-doors on the corner of Washington and Main Street, but until that time, operations would begin every night after six inside the hotel.
I was especially excited about the floating installation Parker had designed to hang above the bar. It mimicked the intricately designed tin ceilings of the 19th century. He’d pulled the tin tiles from another teardown–an old LA theater built in the 1860s—and enough of the tiles would float above the bar to give the room a coziness that would otherwise be swallowed by the hotel’s existing twenty-foot tall ceiling.
Therese smiles. “With that beautiful bar installed, we’ll have all the ambiance we need for our Wild West themed Christmas party,”
“And the diner will cater all the food as always?” Olivia says. “Has Dana decided on a menu yet?”
“Jake?” Therese says, handing the conversation off to me.
“Cesar says he’ll finish coordinating with Dana on Monday but so far, he’s pleased with the new spin on diner classics. He’ll fly into town a few days before Christmas to help.”
“Wonderful,” Therese says. “And Livy angel, I thought you might want to do the decorations and invites as you always do but with Rich coming to town...”
“I’ll do it grandma,” she says, a slight edge to her voice. “Don’t worry about Rich.”
When Mav barks at us, then walks out of the room, Olivia jumps to her feet quickly. “I’ll take him,” she says. “You guys don’t really need me, anyway.”
My eyebrows lift in surprise when I catch Therese’s glance. So this petulant side came out when Olivia felt insecure and injured. I think I preferred her hostile and verbose.
When the front door closes behind her and Mav, Therese says pointedly. “Eli and I can keep going on all this, if you’d like to get some fresh air too, Jake.”
I give her an, “I know what you’re doing,” look, but rise to my feet. “You know what? I think I could use some fresh air.”
“Lovely,” she says, giving me a wink. “Good luck…”
Eli blinks up at me, but I’m out the door before he can ask questions.
The series of footprints dotting the front lawn are the only sign that Maverick and Olivia have been there at all.
Snow hangs heavily from the pine trees circling the house, whooshing sounds seeping through the heavy gray atmosphere—cars cruising through the slush on the interstate less than a mile away.
I follow the trail of boot prints from the house to the side yard, then around to the back, where Maverick is busy tunneling and jumping through the snow as though he can smell treats buried beneath the surface.
I don’t see Olivia but I know she can’t be far. I grin as Mav sees me and starts tunneling in my direction. When he reaches me, there is a stick in his mouth, and I oblige by throwing it as far as I can. As he leaps off toward the barn, snow flying as high as his tail, Olivia appears, lugging a lawn chair from the garage. She stops at the sight of me.
“Bailing on us so soon?” I say, amused.
The bright orange hunting cap on her head droops down past her eyes and she shoves it up with a mittened hand before walking over, dragging the chair like a reluctant child behind her. “You don’t need me for the rest of the planning,” she says.
I contemplate her tone.
“We don’t need you no, but...”
She jams the legs of the chair into the snow next to me, yanks violently on the seat which doesn’t want to budge and says curtly, “yeah, that’s what I said.”
I suppress a grin as she continues to struggle. “Let me help you with that,” I say, preparing to take the chair out of her hands. To my surprise, she backs away, pulling me and the chair with her.
“I’ve got it, thanks,” and she looks pointedly at my hands still on either side of hers.
“Olivia...” I say, holding my irritation at bay. I was only trying to help for crying out loud.
“Jake...” she says, and all the hostility I’d felt in my first meeting with her at this house, what feels like a lifetime ago, smacks me in the face.
Instead of going the way of peace, which I can hear the survival instinct in my brain tapping urgently at me to do, I allow myself to feel the smallest bit of indignation. She seems to continually change her mind about me, and today, I am again her enemy.
“I’m only trying to help you open this damn chair,” I say firmly, pulling on the chair again, the metal rattling with the motion.
She yanks it back and her glower is so fierce that I let go of the thing without thinking.
The problem is, Olivia is still pulling with all her might.
Before I can reach out to grab her, she is sliding backward with a shriek and then falling ungracefully onto her backside into what looks like ten inches of snow.
I freeze. She doesn’t move.
Thinking we’re having some wintertime fun without him, Maverick comes out of nowhere, barking with wild abandon. He pounces on top of Olivia, thrashing himself onto her and around her as I run to pull him off.
“Maverick!” She protests, wriggling her face back and forth to avoid his sloppy kisses. “Get. Off!”
Reaching both my arms under Mav’s belly, I hoist him off just long enough to get a clear visual of her now very red face.
“Liv, are you hurt? Are you...” and suddenly, my legs are being swept up from under me and I’m flat on my back, sky gray and infinite above me.
Before I can catch my breath, a ball of snow hits me squarely in the face.
I hear a snort, and then a peal of laughter from Olivia as Maverick flings himself onto me in the same way he’d attacked her.
Finally, as my vision clears, snow seeping under the collar of my coat and into my sweater—I see one of Olivia’s mittens which had slipped off in the snow. I reach for it and throw it as far from me as I can. Maverick takes the bait and lopes after it. Just as I turn my head to locate Olivia, I see her reach for another fistful. Before she can aim it, I roll next to her and then sit up, grabbing her arms.
“Jake!” She shrieks, but I can see that she’s laughed all of her anger away. I swing myself over her so that while I’m not sitting on top of her stomach, my knees are pinning her arms to her sides, my own hands, free.
Reading my intent, her eyes get bigger. “Don’t you dare!” She says, but I can hear the tremor of a laugh in her voice.
Completely in control now, snow seeping into the knees of my jeans, I hold a handful of snow over her. “Tell me you’re sorry, or I’ll scrub that smile off your face with this snow,” I say.
“Tell you ‘sorry’ for what?”
“Oh, you want to play it that way?” I say, shaking my hand so snow floats onto her face, hair and neck.
She shrieks through her laughter. “Okay, okay, I’m sorry. I’m sorry for tripping you! But it was too easy!”
I let the snow fall harmlessly beside me, my hands tingling with cold, but keep her arms pinned against her sides. “You’d better mean it,” I say softly, suddenly mesmerized by the sight of her—rosy cheeks, dark waves of hair swirling around like some renaissance halo, eyes bright.
She sobers as she looks up at me, her expression tentative. “I know I threw a mini-tantrum back there. I’m sorry for what I said. It’s just… I feel guilty for not even knowing my grandmother wanted to have this party. And then there you are—as always—making stuff happen, taking care of her — and I just; I got annoyed that you’re involved already when I didn’t even know it was going on.”
“I know,” I say.
“And I can’t believe she wants to have the party, even though grandfather is no longer with us.”
“Because you don’t?” This bit of information is a surprise.
“No, I don’t. It’s something the three of us always did as a team,” she says. And then with more defiance than apology, “I’m mad at you, too. You... ambushed me last night and my brain was so full I couldn’t sleep.”
My mouth twitches but I keep my expression serious. “I know. I’m sorry about that,” I say gently. “My brain was too full to sleep too.”
She ignores my teasing.
“I mean, what was that last night?” She says, eyes wide with uncertainty.
I swing myself over Olivia and roll my body onto the snow, make a pillow beneath my head with my arm as I lie on my side facing her.
Keeping her eyes on me, Olivia does the same. I imagine that if someone saw us from above, our bodies would look like giant arrows, pointing toward each other; elbow-to-elbow, toe-to-toe.
“Olivia,” and suddenly, after months of denying it to myself, saying the words aloud feels easy.
“I love you.”
I let the words hang there between us, a puff of hot air floating on top of the snow — a cloudy veil in front of her bright eyes.
“You captured my attention the first time I saw you glaring at me for skipping the line at my café—do you remember that? The same day you smeared jam all over my Tomahawk Hill presentation and told me you thought I was an over-privileged, arrogant jerk.” I search her eyes for a moment, looking for any hint of encouragement.
Pops had taught me as a child that during a negotiation—in business and in life — the party who could use silence effectively always had the upper hand. And by the time I was in middle school I was a pro at negotiating things in my favor (grades, girls, allowances), but with Olivia inches away, I am a rambling amateur.
“I love your heart. Your passion for family, for this town. I love how I hear your voice in my head no matter what I’m doing.” I chuckle, thinking of the day she’d given me a tour of Main Street. “Your playfulness… the way you skip-walk; even your horrible taste in food and…” I touch her hunting cap. “Your terrible taste in hats.”
Willing her to see the sincerity in my eyes, I say as firmly as I can, “Be with me. Rich isn’t the man for you. Tell him not to come for Christmas. Tell him to stay in LA, where he belongs.”
“Jake,” she breathes, and I can’t tell if it’s a warning to stop or a precursor to her saying, “I love you too.”
Instead of the words I long to hear tumbling from her lips, tears spill from Olivia’s eyes.
I know then that I’ve said enough.
Without speaking, we both get to our feet, help each other brush the snow from our clothes. One side of me is wet and turning to ice but I barely notice.
Studying her, I feel the way I did after asking my pops to step into the resort venture with me—it was one of the hardest things I’d ever done, but it had felt like this—right.
I touch her cheek softly with the side of my hand and brush away the tears.
And then because we both need comforting, I pull Olivia into my arms and hug her tight. I couldn’t know all the reasons for her tears, but I knew one thing: She would not be crying if she wasn’t in turmoil, if my words had meant nothing.
“I won’t be taking any of those words back,” I say into her hair.
“I know,” she says, sounding more in control of her emotions. “You’re the most unapologetic person I know.”
I chuckle, despite the ache already making space in my chest.
Did anyone ever think they’d get less than an “I love you too,” when they declared those words as fervently and as many times as I had just done?
“Why do I have to be anything else when I don’t say or do things I don’t mean?” I kiss the top of her head as she looks up at me and I’m bothered by the worry I see lurking there.
“Jake, I need time to think about this.”
I nod, release her, and give her my best imitation of a Jake Hurst smirk. “Sure… take all the time you need. It’s not as though I’ve just filleted my heart before you or anything.”
My words have the desired affect as she returns the smirk—laughs a little. “Wow, look who's the writer now.”
I take her arm as we head back to the house, whistle for Mav to follow. “And his heart broke into a million little pieces as…”
Olivia nudges me with her shoulder. “Okay, I take that back. You should stick to building hotels.”