It’s nearly seven-thirty by the time I reach Bluff Road, the sunset an imminent backdrop against utility lines and harvested corn fields, the scrubby mounds opposite nearly purple in the dimming light.
The greater the distance between the airport and me, the fewer the number of cars and the less tumultuous, my thoughts. Now, as I turn off the road and anticipate the glow of Therese’s place and the sweet smiles of everyone inside, I experience the most peace I’ve had in days.
My heart pounds a little harder, thinking of wrapping everyone in my arms, especially the girl with the green eyes and pixie-light touch.
I frown seeing only a porchlight. The garage door is closed, and the rest of the house lights are off. I check my phone, thinking Olivia must have messaged me with a change of plans.
“You are so full of yourself,” I mumble aloud as I turn my truck around. I’d anticipated everyone running outside at the sound of my vehicle, smiles of welcome on their faces, dinner time aromas enveloping me. “You are not the center of their universe, bro.”
I call Olivia, and then Therese, but when they don’t answer, I decided to go home and wait. There are very few places the three of them could be. I think about ordering takeout, wonder if I have anything left in the freezer that I could nuke in the microwave. I grin. If Cesar knew that the microwave had become the hardest working appliance in my kitchen, he’d have plenty to say about it.
It surprises me in the way unexpected gifts often do, the way I feel turning into my driveway. The trees on either side of me are entirely bereft of their foliage now, but it’s as though they’re gently squeezing my arms as I pass, welcoming me home.
Abruptly, I hear a series of hysterical barks coming from the right side of the house, and then I’m slamming my foot against the brakes as Maverick runs in front of my truck, Eli chasing after him with pure panic on his face, his wild pouf of hair bobbing behind him. Knowing I’d not been in danger of hitting Maverick, I begin to laugh as Eli bends over with his hands on his knees.
So that’s why no one was at home, I think. Eli has taken over dog-sitting duties.
But there are three cars parked on the far left side of my house, and Therese, Brenda, Olivia, Dana, Frank, Sam and Marty are all approaching me through the gate of a new wooden fence now circling my back yard.
Maverick is using my legs to base jump into the air repeatedly, and I’m shocked to see how much he seems to have grown in the time I’ve been away. “He did not look this big in the pictures you sent!” I say, hugging Therese. “I knew you’d be feeding him steak and potatoes every night as soon as my back was turned.”
Frank, Sam, and Marty are next with hearty thumps on the back, a warm hug from Dana and Brenda and then a brief one from Olivia, who quickly jumps back saying, “I don’t want to get any paint on you.”
I can see now that they’re all covered in white paint and that there is a welcome aroma of burgers and onions crisping on a grill, floating up from the back yard. “Welcome back boss!” Eli says as I reject his hand and pull him in for a hug.
“What do you think?” Therese says, gesturing to the fence. “Olivia thought it might be easier for you to keep Maverick if he had a place to run around without supervision, so we wanted to surprise you with it when you got back.”
“Did you all build this?” I didn’t want to underestimate their collective skill-set, especially Sam’s since he is the acting town handyman, but the fence is impressive.
“Heavens no!” Therese says, “but we did do all of the painting. We only have a patch left to finish, but that’ll have to wait until tomorrow since it’s getting too dark now.”
I’ve been having trouble keeping my eyes off of Olivia, but she continually averts my gaze.
“Thank you,” I say, looking at everyone in turn. “I’ve missed you all, and I’ve missed being here.”
“So, you’re not returning to the mothership?” Frank says, grinning. “You’ve been gone so long the gossip mills been working over-time to explain your absence. Even my students have been asking me about it. I think they’re counting on you for summer jobs.”
I shove my hands into my jacket pockets, considering. “I’ve got a lot to tell you. Maybe we could start on those burgers, and we can talk over dinner?”
In the kitchen, I find Olivia scrubbing paint off of her hands and her arms. Everyone else is outside, already opening beers and setting up the makeshift picnic table for dinner. She looks over and says, “is it really nice to be back?”
She sounds skeptical, which is a surprise. “It is.”
Olivia goes back to scrubbing her hands with a kitchen sponge, but she doesn’t seem to be making much progress. “Oh, here,” I say, bending down and opening the cabinet under the sink. I straighten up and show her a small bristle brush. “This will work better. Here, give me your hand.” She hesitates but does what I say. I take it in mine, grinning over her obvious discomfort as my hand glides over her soapy one. I’ve never seen her act so skittish, her face nearly as red as the tomatoes on the countertop ready to be cut.
She watches as I scrub lightly over her knuckles and then beneath her nails. I take the opportunity to admire her thick lashes, the tiny freckles beneath her eye, the seductive little line in the middle of her bottom lip.
When she finally looks up, her eyes are full of veiled questions, but I’m so used to seeing declarative statements that I’m speechless. I’m not sure when I stopped scrubbing, but we stand there for a moment, our hands a soapy pile between us.
“Here,” I say almost roughly, moving our hands under the faucet in one synchronized movement. To make it less awkward, I move my body behind hers, which means my arms circle her shoulders, my chest pushing into her back, our hands over the sink like I’m teaching Olivia how to play the piano.
Did I imagine it because all the blood had drained out of my head, or had she moved almost imperceptibly against me like a cat softly nudging the palm of my hand? All I know as I twist the faucet is that I want to brush my lips softly across her earlobe and bury my nose in her hair. I can almost feel what it would be like to pull her arms up and around my neck, drag my hands down the sides of her body, circling her small waist with my hands.
The cold water is mobilizing. I lift my hands over hers and directly under the streaming water so that the soap from mine runs onto her. “Gee thanks, Jake.”
As I remove myself to a safe distance and give her a towel, I’m under the distinct impression that I’ve narrowly avoided the kind of forcefield that renders knowledge of fiancés—discernment about working relationships—and one’s shortcomings in the relationship realm—utterly powerless.
We look toward the kitchen door as it opens and Frank’s head pops through. He looks from me to Olivia as though he’s trying to decide what he saw, but all he says is, “time to eat.” And then to me, “Therese is asking for the tomatoes.”
“Right,” I say, walking back toward the sink. The entire reason I’d walked into the kitchen in the first place. “I’ll slice them up and then bring them out.”
“Therese also said something about your wine stash?”
I nod my head in the direction of the pantry as I begin cutting the tomatoes. “I’ve got a case of California reds in there.”
“I can get that,” Olivia says. “Are the glasses already outside?” she asks Frank.
“Yeah,” he says. And then the way he asks, “do you need me to help you open the bottle?” makes me wonder exactly how long he’s been standing at the kitchen door.
“I think I can handle a tiny corkscrew,” Olivia says, sounding amused. “But would you mind grabbing a few small blankets for the ladies? It’s pretty cold to be sitting out there.”
“Got it,” Frank says, walking into the kitchen. “Still in the hall closet?”
Olivia looks as if she’s about to say ‘yes’, but then she seems to suddenly remember that she doesn’t live here anymore, “Oh, good question. Jake, are they?”
“I haven’t moved too much around since I moved in,” I say. As Frank walks further into the house, I give Olivia an appraising look. “Will I find things in places I didn’t leave them two weeks ago? And most importantly, will I be able to find what I need to make coffee in the morning, or will the kitchen elves have rearranged everything?”
Olivia rolls her eyes at me.
There’s the girl I know. I grin.
“If the little people did such work while you were away, it’d only be because your current system made no sense to them.”
“And the kitchen elves may have done away with a couple of bottles of chardonnay,” she says, guiltily. “Therese and I thought payment for their services would be a nice gesture—you know—on your behalf? They did restock your fridge and build you a fence, you know. We also thought the wine might go bad; you were away for so long. Waste not and all that.”
I nod solemnly at her. “Hmm...right. Old wine is just the worst.”
“Uh-huh.” She smiles at me, then waltzes out to the porch, bottle of wine and opener in hand.
When Frank comes into the kitchen, I’m plating the tomatoes. His arms are full of blankets, so I grab the plate with one hand and the door with the other. “Here you go,” I say, holding it open. But Frank doesn’t move through it right away. Instead, he grins conspiratorially at me. “Looks like you had a good time in New York... LA too.”
I groan. I had wondered if anyone had followed the entertainment news lately. “Don’t believe everything you see,” I say. “The girl in New York is an old friend and...”
“Oh yeah, I know what that’s like. I have three Brazilian supermodel friends, myself. I might have to distance myself from one of them though. She’s what? Twenty-five now? A little old for my taste, know what I mean?”
I chuckle. “She’s like my little sister. And all the appearances in LA were my dad’s request. Audrey Cho helped him stage all that. That’s what I wanted to talk to you all about over dinner.’
Frank looks like he’s having trouble believing anything I’m saying. I’m sure he’s hung up on the idea that any straight male can take one look at Fernanda and think, “sister!”
“You want to talk about how your dad wants to adopt me?” Frank says. “Let’s tell him right now that I’m immediately available for all appearances.” And he hands me his phone.
Many of the faces around me are encouraging despite the questions and worry I see lurking in their eyes, and I am grateful for these people who have adopted me into their family. I see no judgement in any of their expressions, no disappointment.
I lean back in my chair a little, let out a long exhale. “I know you must have questions.” I laugh. “I’m sorry this ‘welcome home’ party has become a town hall but, I’m glad I had the chance to tell all of you at one time.”
“We’re glad too, son,” Sam says, running his hand over his moustache. “I think I speak for us all when I say that we know you have good intentions, that you’re not here to turn this place into some fantasy resort or a Renaissance Festival.”
Frank smiles, “But couldn’t you see Sam, strolling down the middle of Main Street like John Wayne, double fisting pistols?”
“The day I see that kind of play-acting is the day I move out of here and in with my daughter in Omaha!” Marty says, nodding.
I grin, “I don’t think we’ll go that far, although I’m sure there will be guests of the hotel who will want to dress the part while they’re here.”
“As long as you’re not asking any of us around the table to play dress up, it’s okay by me,” Sam says.
“I’ve got to admit, when I look at you Sam, I see a vest, a great coat, a Stetson—the whole works, wither you’re wearing your cowboy hat or not, my mind fills in the details.”
Frank and Marty, both roar with laughter, cheers my beer bottle. Sam just waves his hand in front of his face, grins.
At the side of the table where the women are sitting, they’re casting meaningful glances and having their own conversation. Maverick has fallen asleep on Olivia’s lap, his chin resting on the table top like a toddler in a food coma. When Olivia catches my eye, she says quietly, “What does all of this mean for the diner, Jake? It’s hard for us to believe Hurst will want it. It’s nothing like the kitchen Cesar runs.” She pauses, takes a look at her grandmother. “We’d just like not to be run out of business.”
When her eyes search mine again, I wish I could reach over the table and touch her in some way, reassure her with more than my words. My father’s response to making the diner a part of our resort had been discouraging, but I was determined to find a way that would make keeping it lucrative for Hurst, and them.
“You won’t be out of business,” I say firmly, “I’m still working on what a partnership with Hurst Hotels will mean for the diner, but I won’t let anything bad happen to you.”
My tone of voice sets off Mav’s instinct to protect because he sits up, starts barking at me. Everyone laughs.
“You mean, you won’t let anything bad happen to the diner,” Franks says, a slight edge in his voice.
A phone alarm begins to ring, making everyone jump. “Cookies!” Olivia says, hopping up with sudden energy. “I forgot.”
“Let’s get this table cleared and move the party inside,” Dana says, with the authority of someone used to running a kitchen. “It’s too cold to stay out here much longer. Liv, you rescue the cookies, grandma, why don’t we get some coffee going? Men? Table and chairs?”
Sam helps Therese to her feet, hands her a crutch and his arm. “I’ll be back out to help,” he says to us as we all scatter.
Marty and I fold up the two card tables that had been joined as one beneath the table cloth and carry them toward the shed while Frank deals with the chairs. It’s difficult to see anything beyond the reach of the back-porch light, but the dark shadow of the shed is easy to spot against the freshly painted fence.
When our cell phones begin ringing at the same time, we both jump, then laugh. “What are the chances,” I say.
“This is why I don’t like carrying a damn cellphone,” Marty complains, squinting at the blindingly bright face of his phone. “My wife insisted we get it for emergencies, but it’s going to cause me to have an emer...” he trails off. “It’s the Sheriff’s office!”
I let mine go to voicemail, thinking it was probably my mother making sure I’d made it back safely. I worry over the disbelief etched into Marty’s face as he listens to whoever is speaking to him on the other line. “We’re coming down,” he says. He drops the phone from his ear and stares at me. “The Sundance is on fire.”