All it takes is a cluck of my tongue and the pressure of my boot heels to send Miss E flying; snow scattering like clumps of dirt behind us as she gallops through the snow in the open pasture behind Main Street. The cold nips at my cheeks and numbs my ears as my hat begins to inch up and then finally off of my head—the wind stealing it with a flourish. I tuck my chin under my scarf, hair whipping behind me, not caring that I’ll be miserable in a minute, that earlobes might be sacrificed.
I’d finished the rough draft of my novel well before sunrise this morning and squelched the desire to call Rich at three a.m. Pacific Time to toss that in his face. I reasoned he’d wake up again hours later thinking he’d just had a bad dream, which meant I wouldn’t be breaking any rules of our on-pause engagement. As the adrenaline continued to course, I’d even considered printing all three-hundred and sixty-eight pages and mailing them to him so he could feel the weight and significance of what I’d done. Instead, I’d settled for a cup of earl grey and my grandmother’s copy of Jane Eyre and waited an hour, knowing Frank would be up soon to feed Miss E and get ready for work.
I’d arrived at Frank’s house just as he was pulling out of the driveway. “I’ll be late for school if I don’t leave now, but I was trying to wait for you,” he’d said, leaning his head out the window. “See you tonight, right?”
I must have looked clueless because he’d grinned. “It’s Friday--Jake’s tonight? Chili?”
I’d shaken my head. “Maybe.” And then, feeling the urge to tell someone, “I finished the first draft of my novel.”
Frank had honked his horn as he continued to back out of his drive, “congratulations! Now you’ll have to come tonight so we can help you celebrate!”
I’d grinned back, feeling pleased with myself for the first time instead of the righteous indignation that had buoyed me all morning. “If I don’t pass out from exhaustion before then, maybe I will.”
Now, as Miss Elizabeth pounds her rhythm into the earth, I let the sensation of riding sweep away all thoughts of manuscripts and Rich and the uneasy knowledge that with my rough draft finished, I had nothing left to distract me from facing the destiny-altering questions Rich had hurled at me last week.
“Nice ride?” Dana asks, noting my coat and boots. She sets down her kitchen knife and walks over to where I’ve begun pouring myself a cup of coffee from the commercial sized machine.
“Amazing,” I say, as the rest of my face begins to tingle, “do you want a fresh cup?”
Dana glances at the wall clock and nods. I know the second wave of breakfast customers will begin trickling in soon and my rumbling stomach says I should think about joining them.
“You look terrible, by the way,” Dana says taking a seat. “Why haven’t you called me back?”
I take a sip of my steaming coffee, so hot that it burns the tip of my tongue. I add more cream and try again. “Rich and I are taking a break, and I finished writing my novel.”
Dana stares. “Wait. What?”
“I finished writing the first draft of my book?”
She smiles at me but shakes her golden head with a “you know what I mean,” look on her face. “Congratulations on the book. Of course, you finished writing it! Was there ever any doubt?” And then Dana waits; drinks her coffee, lifts an eyebrow.
I try to be nonchalant, as though it’s something all soon to be married couples did before they got to the happily ever after part. “It’s an LA thing. After you get engaged, you get to be single again for a bit.”
Dana scoffs. “You’re kidding.”
“Yeah, you know, we Californians are anything but conventional.” I give her a weak smile. “It’s like getting a reward for being so committed. You get some time off. A vacation.”
She looks down at my hand where the diamond engagement ring still gleams. I had thought about taking it off and flushing it down the toilet that first night but then reconsidered. It’d be more satisfying to throw it at Rich’s face if it came to it, or pawning it off for something he’d thoroughly disapprove of and then mailing him the receipt.
“Seriously Liv, what does ‘taking a break’ even mean?”
I remove my riding jacket and the extra sweater beneath as my body warms up. “We’re still engaged, but we can see other people. We can’t talk or text or stalk each other on social media. And it’s only until Christmas.” I stare down at my ring. “Maybe I should take it off for now— kind of makes it hard to date with it flashing out warnings to ‘stay away’.”
Dana laughs with disbelief. “No way.”
I nod grimly back. “He says I need to choose between my life here in Tomahawk Hill and my life in LA.”
Dana lets out such a string of profanities at Rich’s expense that I giggle, and then start to laugh, deep, resonating ones that make me feel almost like myself again as the insults become more and more ridiculous.
“Stop,” I gasp, leaning my head back. “You’re just as bad as Audrey.”
Dana grins, quite proud of herself. “I’ll take that as a compliment! Is she coming for Christmas?”
I grin back, relieved to know that no matter what Rich and I decided, my best friends would be by my side. “I don’t think I could stop her at this point.”
The bell dings at the counter and then Brenda is calling through, “Dana honey, I need a pork cutlet, eggs sunny, and toast.”
We look at each other. “Sam,” we both say at the same time. That’s been his order for the last fifteen years. The only thing that varied was the time he arrived to eat it.
Dana stands, takes a few more sips of her coffee before setting down her cup. “Come to Jake’s tonight. It’ll be fun.” She purses her lips. “You know, I think he’s been really worried about you. I saw him yesterday to discuss updates on the diner. He barely said ‘hi’ to me before he asked if I’d heard from you.”
“Oh,” I say, an anxious feeling stealing over me at the mention of Jake. He’d texted a couple of times, even dropped by the house to see Therese about something a couple of nights ago; but when I’d heard the familiar sound of his truck coming up the drive, and then Mav’s greetings at the front door, I’d practically sprinted away from the kitchen where I’d been making a cup of tea. He’d only stayed for about half an hour. When I’d stepped back out, my grandmother had pushed a canvas Trader Joe’s bag toward me. Inside was a bottle of California red, a coffee mug that said, “There, They’re, Their. It’ll be okay. If you know the difference.” The note inside the mug said, “another cheesy mug to add to your collection.” The final thing I’d pulled out was a little stuffed dog. The tag tied around its neck said, “let’s take a field trip to find Mav a best friend.”
“He’s probably worried I hate him again now that his dad wants to buyout the diner.”
Dana turns from the stove where she’s begun making Sam’s eggs. “I don’t think that’s it. But, you don’t hate him for that, do you? You know it’s not his fault.”
I shrug. It’d be so much easier if I did hate him. “Of course not. But I knew something like this was bound to happen.”
“Really?” Dana looks skeptical. “I never saw this coming. Anyway, Jake has a plan. You should ask him about it.”
“Sure,” I say, finishing my coffee. “Ugh. I’m starving all of a sudden.”
Dana thrusts her chin toward the dining room. “Get out there, and I’ll make you something.”
I walk up to Dana and kiss her on the cheek. “Love you.”
She rolls her eyes. “Fine, I’ll make you strawberry pancakes. You don’t have to beg.”
Dana had put extra cream on top of my pancakes, and I was busy adding some of it to my fresh cup of coffee when someone slides noisily into the booth across from me, making me jump.
“Strawberry pancake coffee...huh. Think that could sell?”
I gesture to the seat he’s already taken. “Sure, join me, why don’t you?”
Jake grins at me; practically smirks as he wriggles out of his lambskin coat while pinning me in place with his eyes. Before I can stop him, he’s commandeered my coffee mug.
“You’re the only person I know who can make drinking coffee look like swigging down a pint of beer.”
He sets my now half empty mug between us, clearly intent on sharing it with me. “Why, thank you, Miss Weiss. I’ll take that as a compliment.”
“Well, don’t,” I say pulling my mug toward me and to the side so that Jake will have to reach diagonally for it. “And get your own coffee. Oh, but wait, you Hurst people don’t do that. You’d rather take over other people’s possessions.”
Jake leans back in the booth as though I’ve reached out to strike him, but the look on his face (amused; cocky), doesn’t shift in the slightest. “Easy tiger, I haven’t even had my breakfast yet.”
As if on cue, Brenda appears with a cup of coffee for Jake. “What can I get you this morning? The usual?”
“Thank you, Brenda. Any chance I could get some of Dana’s strawberry pancakes with that too?”
“Of course, honey,” she says, replenishing my cup of coffee before winking at me and sailing away.
“You have a usual now?” I say, trying to remember what it was Jake ordered when I’d had breakfast with him.
“I do. I like three eggs over-easy with homemade bread, strawberry jam, and six pieces of apple smoked bacon. You, on the other hand, hardly ever have real food for breakfast,” he points to my plate of pancakes. “But I can almost guarantee it’ll be strawberry or chocolate flavored. Maybe apricot if your grandmother made it.”
Jake reaches across the table, takes another big swig of my coffee (as if he can’t see his own cup steaming right in front of him), then adds cream from the little pitcher on the table, and after that— a dollop of my pancake cream— smoothing it across the top until I can’t see the coffee beneath. “See what I did there? I took what you already had going on and made it better.”
I cross my arms, annoyed that he makes me want to laugh and kick him under the table all at once. “That depends on what you consider ‘better.’ Some things are better left alone.”
He cocks his head to the side, still lavishing me with the full intensity of his gaze. “Is that what you think?”
I feel my face flush under his scrutiny. “Stop looking at me like that,” I say, succumbing to the urge to kick him under the table.
“Ow,” he says, continuing to smirk, his eyes still fastened on my face. “What am I looking at you like?”
I roll my eyes, casting about for something offensive to say, “Like...”
“Yes?” Jake taunts, chuckling. “Use your words, Olivia.”
The best I can do is kick him under the table again before succumbing to the silliness of our conversation with a laugh. “I don’t know, okay?”
“Damn girl!” Jake says, reaching under the table to rub his shin. “Are you wearing steel-toed boots or something?”
I must look guilty because he bursts out laughing. I’d forgotten that I was wearing my riding boots, which were pointed and really did have a steel toe. “I’m sorry, Jake! I took Miss E out for a ride this morning and...”
Jake sits upright, takes another swig of my coffee, winks. “You know it would take a lot more than that little nip in the shins to hurt...ow!” He sets my coffee mug down so abruptly that some of it spills onto the table and other diners turn to stare. “Okay, that hurt,” but he looks as though he’s trying very hard not to laugh.
We smile at each other and the feelings of unease that had crept up on me after opening his gifts this week disappear as I allow myself to push into the bubble of warmth and general sense of wellbeing that being in Jake’s presence often created.
“Olivia...” he says, with a funny look on his face, but then Brenda swoops in with Jake’s breakfast plate and my phone dings with a text message from Audrey.
Call me. She says. It’s about Rich.
What? I message back, feeling starteled. In my head I’m yelling it. What is it?
He’s been on a couple of dates this week with the same girl. No big, I know you’re on a break, but Cesar sent me this.
The picture Audrey sends is a screenshot of some girl’s social media profile—someone I’ve never seen before. But the face of the dark-haired guy in her most recent post, his tan cheek pinned up against hers is heartbreakingly familiar. The caption reads, “Sundays,” with five consecutive lines of colorful heart emoticons, spewing across the screen like verbal diarrhea.
I meet Jake’s hazel eyes— alert and full of question— and then dazedly back at my phone. “I’ll be right back,” I say as his brows furrow. “I have to make a call.”
I burst into the kitchen and walk into the small pantry, ignoring Dana’s calls of surprise as I go, my eyes still glued to the picture on the screen in front of me. “They could be friends,” I say aloud to myself, leaning against a shelf filled with cans of beans and corn. But even as the phone rings to connect me to Audrey, I know there’s much, much more to the story.