3 months ago
“Let me get this straight. You want me to willingly climb into that oversized beach ball, roll down the hill as I attempt a slalom like I’m a pinball, and then bounce up against that wall thing and come back to Earth with a series of vomit-inducing bounces—and pay for the privilege?” I raise my eyebrows at my kid sister and her boyfriend, standing in their swimsuits, their hair wet, towels wrapped around their waists.
Just because they’ve done it doesn’t mean I’m going to.
Surely they’ll see reason.
“Come on, Marlowe. It’s so much fun, and besides, you brought your swimsuit,” Ryn, my total risk taking, youngest sibling stereotype of a sister, replies.
I eye a Zorb as it goes rolling by, the poor person trapped inside screaming their lungs out. If I was in any doubt about this whole fiasco, the frenzied screaming more than makes my point.
“I beg to differ on the fun part, Ryn.” I cross my arms over my chest and feel every inch the older sister. “And anyway, I’m sure your idea of fun and my idea are pretty much opposite.”
“Zorbing is awesome,” Ryn’s boyfriend, Gabe, announces, as though making such a declaration will spur me on to get into one of those…things.
“How about we go and have a nice cup of coffee. Seattle is famous for its coffee, you know, and I’m sure you two could do with warming up. You must be cold.” Without waiting for a response, I turn to leave the park.
Ryn gets a hold of my sleeve. “Do you always need to have a giant carrot stuck up your you know what?”
“I don’t have a giant carrot stuck anywhere, thank you very much,” I reply haughtily.
She shoots me a look that tells me she doesn’t believe me.
“Just because I don’t want to risk my life in a big plastic ball doesn’t mean I’m uptight you know.”
Ryn scoffs and Gabe shoots her look.
“Well, I’m gonna do it. We both are. Right, Gabe?” Ryn shoots me one of her defiant looks.
“Yeah, but you don’t have to if you don’t want to, Marlowe. It’s cool.” Gabe shrugs.
“If you’re happy being poultry,” Ryn adds and immediately begins to cluck like a hen.
“That’s not what I meant,” Gabe hisses at her.
Not listening, Ryn adds in the arm motions and bobs her head back and forth in her chicken imitation—just in case I missed her point.
“Would you quit that?” I complain.
“Only when you say you’re gonna do it,” she replies between clucks.
I take a furtive glance at one of the Zorbs. The woman who was prisoner inside has now climbed out, dripping wet, high fiving her friends who are all whooping and laughing along with her.
She looks happy—and alive, most importantly.
“See? They enjoyed it and they’ve gotta be at least your age,” Ryn says in my ear.
“Thanks a lot.”
“So? What do you say?” Gabe asks.
I look between my sister and her boyfriend. Despite the fact that getting thrown around like a ragdoll is hardly my idea of fun, I did agree to come here. In fact, other than the Museum of Glass, this was the only activity my weekend visitors wanted to do in Seattle.
There’s also a part of me that fears I’ve become too comfortable, too set in my ways, like an elderly lady who resists change. I’m only 28. Sure, I’m not a kid anymore, but maybe I should be a little more adventurous? More open to new experiences? Suffice it to say, I’ve never gone Zorbing before—the corporate world doesn’t really call for it—and maybe today I could take a step out of my comfort zone?
“She’s wavering,” Ryn announces as she studies me.
“I think she looks like she might throw up,” Gabe replies.
“Nah. That’s her thinking look.”
“Yup. Totally off putting, right?”
They’re talking about me as though I’m not right here in front of them.
I push out a breath, and before I change my mind I say, “Okay, I’ll do it.”
I don’t want to be old before my time.
Ryn pumps the air. “Yes! You are not going to regret this, sis.”
“Zorbing is awesome,” Gabe states for the second time.
I pull my lips into a line. “So you said.”
Fifteen minutes later, I’m stripped down to my swimsuit and climbing into the Zorb with some serious reservations, and most definitely questioning my decision to take more risks in life. In fact, right now I would say my life is pretty good as is. I’ve got a great job, a cute apartment, even if it is a little on the small side. I’ve got a wonderful boss, who incidentally I’ve been dating for the past ten months, which I know isn’t smart. I’ve had all the arguments with myself. But I know that Mike Warner is different. Our relationship is different. We are meant to be together, and the fact that we met at work—and he happens to be my boss—will ultimately mean nothing in the grand scheme of our lives once we are sitting around the Christmas tree with our grandchildren someday.
“Okay, here we go! Have an awesome ride!” the surfer looking guy, who can’t be any older than 18, says to me once I’m inside.
Before I have the chance to tell him I’m doing this under duress and a totally misguided attempt to be more adventurous, he releases the Zorb and I begin to sail down the course, water sloshing around me, the ball beginning to bounce, and me screaming my lungs out. It takes a few bounces, and swallowing some of the probably quite disgusting water, before I surprise myself and begin to actually enjoy it. Sure, it’s not my first choice for a Saturday afternoon activity, and I can’t imagine I’ll buy a season ticket anytime soon, but I’m glad I’m doing it.
As both me and the ball bounce up against the wall, indicating the end of my virgin Zorbing experience, I’m almost sad it’s over. I climb out with a grin on my face.
Ryn and Gabe are there to greet me, their grins as wide as mine. My sister gives me a hug and Gabe high fives me.
“You loved it, didn’t you? I can tell,” Ryn says with a grin.
“It was okay, I guess,” I reply, but I can’t keep the pretense up. Maybe it’s the adrenaline pumping through my body or the fact that I’m now standing on firm ground, but I can’t help but agree with her.
She nudges my arm. “Come on. You loved it.”
“Yeah, I did,” I admit, to more squeals and another hug from my sister.
“Wanna do it again? We could do it tandem,” she suggests.
“Hey, I thought I was doing it tandem with you,” Gabe complains.
Ryn wraps her arm around Gabe’s waist. “We’ve got all afternoon. We can go as many times as we want.”
I laugh at her enthusiasm, enjoying this new-found feeling of closeness with my kid sister. I’ve always been close to my family, but I share my life a lot more with our middle sister, Harper. She knew about Mike from the get-go, and of course tried to talk me out of dating my boss. Harper has a good head on her shoulders and always gives the best advice, but when she met Mike, she was totally supportive of our relationship, even if I knew she had her concerns.
Ryn and I, on the other hand, have really only started to get to know one another as adults over the past year. I’m five years older than her, and I left home for college when she was only 13. Up until recently, I always saw her as just a kid. Now, spending time together and getting to know Ryn the 23-year-old woman, I’ve learned how kind and clever she is—and how much better she is at having fun than me.
Hence the Zorb.
“What do you say, sis? Shall we do this?” Ryn asks me, her face aglow.
I let out a laugh. “Sure. It’ll be fun.”
“See? I told you Zorbing is—” Gabe begins.
“Awesome?” I finish for him.
“You got it,” he replies on a laugh.
We begin the climb back up to the start of the course when I notice a couple out of the corner of my eye. They’ve got their arms wrapped around one another as they kiss, looking every inch the loved-up couple. He’s way taller than her, which is because he’s a very tall man and she’s probably average height. There’s something familiar about him and I realize in a flash it’s because he reminds me of my boyfriend.
I smile as I think of Mike. He’s tall, 6 foot 6 1/2 inches to be precise, which not only makes him stand out in a crowd but meant that he played college basketball with the aim to go pro before an injury spelled the end of that particular dream. I’m not complaining, since it all worked out quite nicely for me, because if he had become a pro baller I would never have met him.
He had an early dinner with us last night but had to catch the red eye to Chicago for a conference. I get that he needs to travel, and that it’s part of his job, but I always miss him when he goes away—and am the first to tell him how much I miss him—probably way too often. But when you know you know, as the saying goes, and I definitely know with Mike Warner.
The couple’s kiss comes to an end and I pull my eyes away. It’s one thing to be reminded of my own boyfriend while strangers share an intimate moment, it’s quite another to be caught gawking at them like some kind of weirdo.
But something has me snapping my attention back to them. The tall man is now smiling down at the woman. It’s a familiar smile, set in a familiar face.
My stomach drops and my mouth instantly turns dry.
The man I’m in love with. Only he just kissed that other woman and now he’s holding her in his arms and gazing at her with love in his eyes and…and… Suddenly I’m light headed, my world spinning around me like I’m back in the Zorb. Only this is the opposite of fun.
“You okay, Marlowe?” Gabe asks, his voice sounding distant, muffled by my heart beating in my ears.
Da-dunk, da-dunk, da-dunk.
I can’t turn away. I can’t stop staring. My eyes are superglued to Mike and the other woman, clinched in their embrace.
A wave of nausea rolls over me.
Is Mike…cheating on me?
He can’t be. He wouldn’t. He’s mine. We’re together. We’re in love. We’ve told each other, said those very words. Many times. He gave me the necklace I’m wearing right now. My hand flies to my neck, my fingers finding the pendant. It’s still in place around my neck, but the man who gave it to me just last week is now…with someone else.
“Are you chickening out?” Ryn asks.
“No, I—” I begin, but cannot find the words.
She follows my line of sight and takes in the scene. “Oh, my gosh. Is that Mike?”
“It sure looks like him. I thought he was in Chicago,” Gabe replies. He turns to stare. “Huh. Is that his sister?”
Ryn scoffs. “I sure don’t gaze at my sisters like that.” Now they’re turning toward us and looking our way and…”—” She grabs me by the arm and begins to yank me away, up the course and away from Mike and the other woman. Whoever she is.
“Ryn, stop!” I insist, snatching my arm away. “I need to talk to him about this.”
She takes me by the shoulders and levels me with her stare. “Marlowe, nothing good can come from this. He’s clearly two-timing you.”
Mike’s two-timing me? I glance back over at him and the woman, as though I need further proof. As though the image of them together isn’t etched into my eyes permanently.
I swallow, a lump the size of a Zorb in my throat.
“And now they’re heading our way,” Gabe states.
“They are?” My voice sounds like it’s coming from someone else’s lips. “Have they seen us?” I take a furtive glance in their direction to see them walking, his arm wrapped around her shoulders, smiling and laughing.
They haven’t seen me.
“Marlowe. Look at me,” Ryn says in a commanding voice and I do as she says. “Do you want to confront that cheating, good-for-nothing jerk right now, or leave? Whatever you decide. We’ll go with you.”
“We got you,” Gabe echoes.
What do I do? I’m not prepared for this. I mean, when I got up this morning and sent Mike a message, telling him I missed him already and couldn’t wait to see him on Sunday, the last thing I expected was to see him in another woman’s arms, looking blissfully happy, as though our relationship doesn’t even exist.
And anyway, he’s supposed to be in Chicago, attending a conference. Not kissing some other woman’s face off in a Zorbing park in Seattle.
The decision is made for me.
As though in slow motion, I watch them approach, Mike’s face shifting from happy smiles to one of shock.
Gabe and Ryn stand closer to me, protecting me, acting as a buffer.
Ryn crosses her arms and glares at Mike. “Nice day for a stroll, Michael,” she says in a dry tone.
His now-panicked eyes dart from one wet post-Zorbing sister to the other, onto Gabe, and then back to me. I can almost see the cogs in his brain whirr as he works out how to handle this new and unexpected situation.
He starts by lifting his lips into a smile. “Hey there, guys. Looks like you’ve all been Zorbing. Was it fun?”
Is he serious right now?
His companion places her hand on his forearm and Mike’s entire body stiffens. “Aren’t you going to introduce me to your friends, honey?”
Any tiny shred of doubt that Mike and this woman could be brother and sister washes right away.
“I’m sorry, Cara. This is Marlowe, who works for me, and her sister, Ryn and—” he looks blankly at Ryn’s boyfriend.
“Gabe,” he says for him.
“That’s right. How could I forget?” Mike replies. “This is Gabe.”
“Yeah, especially considering you used my name several times when we all had dinner together at Marlowe’s place last night,” Gabe adds smoothly, an edge to his voice.
I want to kiss him but I’m too stunned to do anything.
Mike barks out a laugh, a weird sound that wouldn’t be out of place in a pack of howler monkeys.
Cara tightens her grip on Mike’s arm, shooting him a questioning look. “Honey?”
Ryn nudges me and gestures at Cara. I’m so discombobulated, it takes me a while to work out what she wants me to see specifically, rather than just the horror movie unfolding before my eyes. Until something glints in the sun on her left hand.
Not just any old ring. An engagement ring on her left hand, sitting proudly above a wedding band.
She’s married? Mike’s having a relationship with me and…and a married woman?
Mike appears to be frozen.
Cara unhooks herself from him and stretches out her hand. “I’m Cara Warren. For some reason my husband has forgotten his manners.”
Ryn’s the first to respond, taking her hand and shaking it with vigor. “You’re Cara Warren, you say? Married to…?”
“Well, Mike, of course,” she replies with a light laugh, as though Ryn’s question was totally out of left field.
“Do you live here in Seattle or are you just visiting?” she continues.
“I live here.”
She gestures between them. “So, you two get together a lot?”
“We sure do,” she replies on a laugh. “We live in the same house. Well, when poor Mike here doesn’t have to stay in the city overnight. I told him he needs to tell his boss that he needs his personal time, too, but he’s such a hard worker.” She gazes lovingly up at Mike.
Mike the lying, cheating jerk.
He on the other hand looks like he swallowed a plate full of overcooked Brussels sprouts.
Ryn pulls her brows together. “I don’t get it. You’re divorced but you live in the same house?”
Cara lets out a pretty, tinkling laugh as she places her hand on Mike’s chest. “Why would you think we’re divorced? We had a separation,” she says, pursing her lips,
but that’s all in the past now. Isn’t that right, honey?”
“We’ve been married five years next month.”
I blink at Cara. They were separated and now they’re back together?
No! No way. She has to be lying. Mike’s not married. He’s divorced. Everyone knows that. I’m his girlfriend. He said he loves me. I said I love him.
He gave me this necklace.
I lift my gaze to Mike’s, but he’s not looking at me—which comes as no surprise whatsoever. Why would you look at the woman you’ve been…oh, no. With a sickening jolt I realize what I am to him. Cara’s existence makes me something I never thought I’d be.
It makes me the other woman.
“Is this true?” I ask Mike, finally finding my voice, the Zorb-sized ball in my throat making it hard to breathe as tears threaten my eyes. But I refuse to cry. I refuse to let my emotions get the better of me. I need to be strong. I need to hold my head high. Even if I’m now unwittingly the other woman, I’ve got nothing to be ashamed of.
His face is drawn, his mouth pinched. “Marlowe, I…yes, it’s true. Cara and I have reconciled.”
“Three months ago,” Cara corrects with another tinkling laugh. “Man!” She shakes her head lovingly at him, as though he’s a loveable scamp.
It’s all the answer I need.
My fingers still clutching the pendant, in one fluid motion I tug at the necklace until it snaps. I thrust it at him. He takes it in his hand before I turn blindly, blinking back my tears, and walk away, concentrating on putting one foot in front of the other as my world falls apart around me.
3 months ago
The leather creaks as I lean back in my seat, half listening to David O’Neill report on the latest company financials. I gaze out the window of the 42nd floor at the deep blue waters of Elliot Bay and across to Bainbridge Island, the overhead clouds moody and gray. Fingers of light emerge from the clouds, dancing on the water below.
Moody. That’s the word I’d use to describe today.
I try to refocus on David. It’s the same story I hear the first Monday of each month, and I’ve been told since the company began some twenty-something years ago as a small, independent coffeehouse in a suburb. It’s always a story of growth, new markets, and profit profit profit.
No one’s complaining. Well, other than our competitors, that is.
The woman at the head of the table, her Chanel suit deep red with black and white trim, her dark hair perfectly styled, immaculate in the same makeup she’s worn since I’ve known her—bold red lipstick, thick black lashes— taps her gold pen against the solid wood table in impatience. She clearly has something to say, and being her minions, we’re all going to listen. That’s what you do when your boss speaks, particularly when it’s a boss like Melody Langdon.
Whatever you do, don’t be misled by her pretty, musical sounding name. Melody Langdon is all rottweiler, even if she looks like she’s a lady who lunches.
“—which of course is great news for the region’s sales figures, which are strong, up twenty-three percent from last month.” With a click, David O’Neill moves to his next slide and I pull my gaze from the sunlight fingers in the bay and back to the room.
I need to focus.
“Now, if I can direct your attention to the stats on the new branding, you’ll see that it’s been a huge success in Oregon, California, and Nevada, but it’s had a negative impact in Washington state, which has come as a surprise. I believe you’re going to pick up the narrative on that for us, Oliver?” David sits back in his seat.
“Sure. Of course. I’ve got my stats on that right here.” I pull up the relevant presentation and plug my laptop in so it appears on the big screen for everyone in the room to see.
“As you can see, parts of the state have responded well to the rebranding, places like Seattle, Olympia, Tacoma, and Spokane, but we’re really struggling in the smaller towns. For some reason, they don’t want to see half naked people when they go for their morning cup of Joe.” I smile at the assembled bigwigs, and I’m met with furrowed brows and blank stares.
“Anyway, our research shows that places like Cotown and other small towns prefer more, shall we say, clothed advertising.” I flick the slides over to one containing two images: one of a good-looking man and an attractive woman smiling as they hold their coffee cups, and one of a man’s naked torso, pressed up against a woman in nothing but her bra and panties, the top halves of their faces cropped out, as their hands clutch a single mug embossed with the words Things are getting hot at Steamy Coffee.
This, people, is our new branding.
How everyone at this table doesn’t cringe every time they see it baffles me. It’s like hitting our customers across the head with sex appeal, yelling Look at us! We’re sexy! We drink coffee!
Subtle is not a word in our vocabulary.
But you know what? Dislike it as I do, it works, and it’s been working since way before I joined the company, fresh out of college.
It didn’t start out that way. As the company folklore will tell you, Melody Langdon opened her first ever coffeeshop and served a decent cup of coffee with a tasty muffin when she was a single mom of 3. It was homey and comfortable and the kind of place you could while away the hours eating delicious food, sipping your coffee, and getting lost in a good book. But all good things come to an end, and for Melody that was when she met Frank Darlington, her second husband and the person who pushed her to expand her one solitary coffeeshop into the beginnings of a chain, branding it as Steamy Coffee. The chain thrived, but Frank and Melody’s relationship did not.
Over the years, some marketing bright spark decided to take the double meaning of “steamy” and introduce the sexy couple, canoodling over their coffee. The company has been a runaway success, transforming the chain to the powerhouse it is today.
“To sum up, they’re responding positively in the metropolitan areas, and not in the rural,” I say.
“Why?” This is the one syllable response from our boss.
“Perhaps they don’t like sexy people in the Washington heartland?” David suggests.
“You may be right. Cotown and the surrounding area is a place full of lumberjacks, after all,” Sylvester Bordwood, the VP of Operations comments to titters from the room.
“No sexy lumberjacks in Washington state?” Tiffany Carlisle, the Vice President of Marketing, and the only other woman in the room, asks. “I find that hard to believe.”
Melody Langdon’s face doesn’t crack.
“Perhaps we should do a campaign with lumberjacks holding coffee cups and see how that goes?” Tiffany suggests.
“As long as there are curvy gals as well, I’m on board,” Sylvester responds.
David holds his hand up in the air to stop the conversation and I glance at Melody. I know my boss better than most and she’s not one for joking around, particularly in the boardroom. Or any room, really.
“I know it was a joke, but maybe the lumberjack thing could work in the smaller towns in Washington. We could test it?” David suggests.
Melody Langdon pulls her lips to one side. “We spent a huge amount of money on branding and it’s worked perfectly fine elsewhere. I say we choose one location and use it as a test base.”
“That’s an excellent idea, Melody,” David replies.
David O’Neill has always been a total suck up, ever since I took this job straight out of college. Well, not that I was in this job at the time. I started out managing a coffeeshop, getting to know the ins and outs of the day-to-day operations before I moved to the corporate head office, where I went from a lowly clerk, moving up through the ranks to the company nose bleed heights.
But what I loved doing was being on the ground, running the cafés. Truth be told, I miss it, and spend way too much time staring out the window at Elliot Bay these days.
“I can see it now,” Tiffany begins, an excited glint in her eye. “A half-dressed lumberjack, maybe with his shirt open and his six-pack on display, with his lumber-whatever the female equivalent is. Lumberjane?” She offers a shrug. “I have no clue. Anyway, they’re together, enjoying their first morning coffee, looking happy and super-hot. Naturally. Those small-town types will be able to relate and I bet they’ll lap it right up.”
Will they? Or will they be insulted that we’re taking an element of their small-town culture and exploiting it for our own means?
I quirk an eyebrow. “So, basically you’re suggesting we use our same advertising but with a guy in a plaid flannel shirt?”
Tiffany leans back in her seat, a self-satisfied smirk on her face. “Exactly. We could probably just Photoshop it.”
“I bet we could,” I mutter under my breath.
I receive a sharp look from Melody. “Robert created an incredibly successful brand for this corporation, and I see no reason to deviate from it just so we don’t upset the apple cart in small town Washington state.”
Ah, Robert Langdon. The man whose shadow stretches the full length of this boardroom table and beyond. The man who’ve I’ve been trying to live up to my entire professional life. The man who could do no wrong, at least until his untimely death in a car crash two years ago.
His mother has never recovered and saying anything remotely negative about him always results in her ire.
“You’re right. He did,” I say, less because I want to appease Melody and more because Robert Langdon was amazing at his job—and he did help put Steamy Coffee on the map.
Conversation continues about targeting small towns in the state, until David says, “Some of these small towns have festivals. There’s one town in particular that I visited last year. It’s called Hunter’s Creek. It’s picture perfect, nestled in this huge forest, with colonial buildings and quaint little stores. You know the kind of place. Totally Hallmark channel.”
“It sounds cute, and familiar. Why do I know that name?” Tiffany comments.
“They have this festival I went to last year where they get a bunch of kids to sing songs from The Sound of Music. It’s as cheesy as all get out but people love it. They come from far and wide.”
“To listen to kids sing cheesy musical songs from last century?” Sylvester asks with a chortle.
“Yup. It has animals for the kids to feed and carnival rides and even a pie contest. All that great, wholesome American heartland stuff people love,” David continues.
“And you think the wholesome American heartland is begging to look at half-naked men in unbuttoned flannel shirts while they drink their coffee?” I ask with more than a splash of sarcasm.
“Absolutely I do,” David continues, not catching my tone in the least. “Hunter’s Creek has two coffeehouses right now, only one of which seems to have a decent trade. It’s called something like Second Chances. I forget. It’s on Main Street. Great pies, but less-than-great coffee.”
“Oh, I remember how I know that town’s name,” Tiffany says. “Hunter’s Creek is where they filmed the movie that’s coming out this summer. The one with Leonardo Finch and Charlene Kemp. You know the one. It’s a rom com,” Tiffany says.
“Love at First Swipe,” Sylvester announces and everyone turns to look at him. “My daughters are Leonardo Finch fans,” he offers by way of explanation. “It comes out later this summer.”
“When’s the town festival?” Melody asks.
“Late summer, too. I’ll check,” David says as he begins to tap on his phone. “Huh. It looks like they’re scheduled for the same weekend. The Summer Festival on that Friday and the world premiere of Love at First Swipe on Sunday. Big weekend for a small town like Hunter’s Creek.”
“I cannot imagine a better time to open a new Steamy Coffee, complete with lumberjack branding,” Tiffany says with a grin, leaning back in her chair. “Hunter’s Creek: our test site for the region.”
Melody turns her razor-sharp focus on me. “You know Leonardo Finch, don’t you, Oliver?”
“He was my roommate in college,” I reply.
“He was?” Tiffany exclaims, her eyes wide.
“How did I not know this?” Sylvester complains. “My daughters will freak out when I tell them.”
“Oh, we could definitely use that!” Tiffany declares in mounting excitement. “You could have him do a promo at the site before the premiere, get a bunch of media there and ride on his coattails. He’s so hot right now.”
“I lost touch with him a few years back,” I reply, dismissing the notion of riding on my former roommate’s fame.
“No,” Melody replies, her eyes narrowed at me. “It’s a good idea. Use whatever we have in our bag of tricks.”
“It feels wrong to call him out of the blue after 10 years,” I respond.
Melody shoots a look that could wither the hardiest of souls. “Use whatever we have in our bag,” she repeats.
“I’ll…err…give him a call,” I reply sheepishly.
At Steamy Coffee you do what the boss says.
“Tell me about this Second Chances place,” she instructs David.
“It’s a small coffeehouse with the good trade. The food’s great, and they’ve got this bookshelf bursting with books and comfy seats where you can sit and read over a coffee and a slice of pie.”
“You make it sound quite whimsical,” Melody comments, her tone telling us she doesn’t think a lot of this independent coffeeshop.
David clears his throat. “The coffee’s drip. They’re an easy target.”
“Easy?” Melody questions. “Having been that small coffeehouse with the good trade myself, I know the locals will be loyal to them, at least to start with. We’ll have our work cut out for us, which is why Oliver’s Hollywood connection could be useful.”
“It’s not a current connection,” I interject, but no one’s listening. As far as they’re concerned, me calling in a favor from a now-famous former-roommate I haven’t seen in ten years is a done deal.
“We’ve conquered the main cities up and down the West Coast. I’m pretty sure one small town won’t derail us,” David states with confidence.
Tiffany chortles. “We’ve said it before. We’re like the advancing Roman army, conquering every town and city in our path.”
“Except in Gaul,” I offer with my tongue firmly in my cheek.
“Where’s Gaul? Out east?” Tiffany asks.
“It’s in Asterix,” I explain.
She creases her brow in response. “Where’s that? New Mexico?”
“You know, the comic? Asterix?” I say, looking around at blank stares. “It’s a classic. Set during the reign of ancient Rome, there’s one small village in the country of Gaul—which is modern day France—that the Romans can’t conquer, no matter what they do.”
“Why not?” David asks.
“Because they have a secret potion that makes anyone who drinks it super strong. The Romans simply can’t beat them.”
I remember the comics from when I was a kid. Originally French, someone had left a translated copy behind in my mom’s coffeeshop. They never came back for it, and I had my first introduction to Asterix and Obelix and all the weird and wonderful goings on in their small Gaulish village.
“You’re suggesting the people in this town drank a secret potion that means big chain coffeehouses can’t win?” David asks on a scoff.
“How obscure,” Melody comments.
“Actually, it’s incredibly popular.” I tap on my screen and pull up a quick Google search. “It’s sold 385 million copies and been translated into 111 languages, making it the most widely translated comic book series ever.”
“Oliver does enjoy a comic,” Melody says in her most acerbic tone, telling me this is not an appropriate boardroom conversation.
The thing is, these meetings can be so dry that sometimes you just have to inject something else. Otherwise, you spend the whole time discussing money and how to beat independent coffeeshops out of business and count the abs on the half-naked guy holding his cup of Joe. Asterix and his pals feel like appropriately light relief.
Melody collects her water glass from the table and takes a sip before she looks at the waiting faces. “I feel certain that Steamy Coffee can conquer a small town like Hunter’s Creek.” She turns her laser-like gaze on me. “Call Leonardo Finch.”
I let out a breath. There’s no getting out of this now. “Sure thing.”
“This is going to be amazing,” Tiffany says as David simpers his agreement.
“We’ll need someone to spearhead it. I’ll leave that in your court, Sylvester,” Melody says as she collects her papers, indicating the meeting is now over.
Sylvester looks unnerved. “I…well…of course it will be hard to find someone willing to move to a small town in Washington.”
Melody raises an eyebrow at him.
“But I’m sure I could drum someone up. Someone of high caliber who’s up to the challenge, of course,” he says.
The man is flailing.
Tiffany, David, and Sylvester make their way from the room, and I’m left with my boss.
“I’ll do it,” I surprise myself by saying.
What? Why? I have zero interest in moving to a small town in Washington state, let alone trying to make a success of a place deemed impenetrable by the Steamy Coffee-slash-Roman Army.
Melody looks at me as though I’ve suggested we close all our branches for good and head to Cabo for cocktails. “You?”
“Me,” I confirm, my conviction to take this on growing by the second.
Hunter’s Creek, Washington state. How bad can it be?
“I’m not sure that’s such a great idea,” Melody replies dismissively.
I tighten my jaw. “I do, and I’m totally up for the task.”
She slides her eyes to mine. “I’m not sure you are.”
I don’t let her words sting. I’m used to them. Perhaps it’s because I like the idea of being in the American equivalent of a French town that’s resisted the power of the great coffeehouse chain? Or perhaps it’s because I’m determined to throw some light on that long, Robert Langdon-shaped shadow?
“I’ve opened a bunch of sites. Successful sites. It makes sense that I operate a new venture, even if this Hunter’s Creek place seems difficult. Let me prove myself with this.”
She watches me for a beat, her lips tight, her piercing blue eyes boring a hole into my skull. Finally, she speaks, “All right. Prove yourself with this site and you can be part of the international team next year.”
I allow myself a small smile. “I won’t let you down, Mom.”
Do you know what to do when your life implodes? As in totally and completely blows up in your face without prior warning and your new life bears zero resemblance to it?
You head home with your tail between your legs, your head bowed, back to where you belong to lick your wounds.
That’s what I did when my life blew up anyway. Back to good old Hunter’s Creek, Washington, where the trees are tall, the men are burly and flannel-clad, and gossip fuels the very heart of the town.
Sure, I could have stayed in Seattle. I could have toughed it out. My life may have irrevocably changed, but I still had a great apartment, a good group of friends, a life.
But here’s the thing, and I warn you, it’s a doozy. When you spot your boyfriend, who is also your boss, with another woman, confront him about said other woman, and discover that you are in fact the other woman because he is still married, well, you’re not exactly jumping at the chance to stick around.
So, I ended not only my ill-advised relationship with my boyfriend-slash-boss-slash-two-timing-slash-total-lying-dirtbag, but also my employment in his company. Because what sort of a masochist would want to stay in either of those situations?
A self-deluded, idiotic masochist, that’s what.
I blow out a breath as I turn off the main road and into a pretty, wooded area just out of town. I park the car I still owe way too much money on—because no big city job equals no cash, of course, just to add to my malaise—in the empty parking lot and do my best to push those deeply unpleasant memories from my mind. It’s something I’ve been trying to do since I moved back home two and a half months ago.
Let’s just say it’s a work in progress.
I collect my towel from the passenger seat, and in my flip flops, I pad my way down the dirt path toward the pond.
It’s a beautiful day and this is one of the spots I missed when I lived in the city. The rustling leaves overhead whisper in the warm breeze as an orchestra of birds fills the air and I breathe in the scent of pine that always reminds me of home, no matter where I am.
This is good for my soul—and for banishing horrible memories of Mike Warner.
I meander down the path through the trees until I reach the familiar clearing. The pond is deep blue and as smooth as glass, reflecting the clouds dotting the sky overhead.
I take a furtive look around. No cars in the parking lot means I’ve got the whole place to myself. Bliss. Just the way I like it.
I slip my dress over my head and kick my flip flops off. I take a deep breath and close my eyes, the late-afternoon sun warming my skin.
Hunter’s Creek may lack the excitement of a city, with all its diversions and activities, but what it lacks in excitement it more than makes up for in tranquility, and right now, I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.
I lay my towel down on the pebbled surface, adjust my bikini, and stroll down to the water’s edge. The flash of a fish’s tail and splash of water catches my eye.
“Is that you, Freddy?” I ask as the surface of the pond ripples in a growing circle.
Of course the fish doesn’t reply. In fact, he probably doesn’t even know his name is Freddy.
I’d never admit it to anyone because I’m a fully grown woman, but over the past few weeks I’ve named a few of the creatures that live here at the pond. Of course, there’s Freddy Fish, but there’s also a couple of frogs I’ve named Fiona and Fenella, and then there’s the duck family, Dion and Della Duck and their babies, Daphne, Dawson, Delia, Drake, and Diego. Henrietta Heron isn’t making an appearance today, but wait long enough and I’ll spot her, searching for her dinner along the shore.
Really, I should be a children’s book author.
I read somewhere recently that cold water is good for you. I figure I need as much goodness as I can get my hands on right now, so despite the water temperature, I take a few tentative steps into the pond, up to my knees, the coolness making me catch my breath.
I’ve been coming here after working at my aunt’s coffeeshop whenever the weather is decent. I may have read that plunging yourself into cold water is good for you, but I definitely fall into the fair-weather plunger camp. I eye the swim platform in the middle of the pond that I swim out to and back most days.
It’s now or never, Marlowe.
As I begin to wade out, there are more splashes and I look across the pond to see what’s causing the commotion. Is Freddy Fish holding a dance party, a frenzied algae-chugging affair?
It’s not Freddy Fish.
It’s not even amphibious.
It’s a person, swimming across the pond toward the floating platform from the opposite side. I watch their strong, easy strokes, the water splashing up behind them with each kick of their feet. With those shoulders it has to be a man, although it’s hard to tell from here.
I wonder who it is?
The person reaches the platform and climbs the ladder. There’s no doubt what sex the swimmer is now.
Yup. It’s a man. A well-built, chiseled man, at that.
And a stranger. I know that for a fact because if a man who looked like that lived in Hunter’s Creek, everyone would know about him, particularly the Hunter’s Creek Ladies’ Committee, as my sister, Ryn, refers to the busybody women of the town.
Oh, yeah. They’d be all over this guy.
Standing as far away from him as I am, I can’t help but throw my gaze over him. I might have had my heart cut into tiny pieces by Mr. I’m-a-Big-Fat-Cheater, but I’m still a woman, and this man is fine.
From his broad, defined shoulders and arms to his glistening six-pack abs, his physique exudes masculine strength and athleticism. His skin is sun-kissed, his hair dark, and although I can’t make out his features from this distance, from the confident way he moves, I bet he’s handsome.
Not that him being handsome, ripped, and confident should have any effect on me. Far from it. He’s intruding on my purposefully solitary sanctuary.
But he is mighty good to look at.
I watch as he runs his fingers through his damp hair, pushing it back from his face before he turns toward me.
That’s my cue to leave.
With a tentative step back, my foot lands on a sharp rock. I let out a gasp and stumble backward, landing firmly on my butt with a splash of cold water.
“Ow!” I exclaim and immediately clamp my hand over my mouth as my eyes dart to Mr. Hot Body over on the platform.
Did he notice?
“That was gwideadadoob!” he calls out.
That was gwideadadoob? What is he talking about?
I rise to my feet, wiping the pebbles from the damp skin of my butt. “Excuse me?” I ask, somewhat indignant. Is this stranger passing judgment on my accidental fall?
I mean, how rude!
“I said, that was quite a dance move!” he calls out again, this time with his hands cupping his mouth, annunciating clearly.
Right. Got it. Falling on my butt. He saw and he’s making a joke.
“I’ll be here all week!” I reply with a self-effacing smile that he probably can’t see.
He lets out a laugh. “You’re a talented dancer and you’re funny!”
“I try!” I shrug, beginning to almost enjoy my interaction with this guy, mainly because he is literally too far away from me for anything other than shouting.
“Wait right there. I’ll swim over to you!”
“Oh, no need! I’m just leaving—”
“But you only just got here.”
Who is this guy, Sherlock Holmes?
I squint my eyes. He’s got a touch of Robert Downey Jr. to him, I guess. But I’m not sticking around to actually meet the guy.
“Really, I gotta go. Have a nice swim. Bye now!” I lift my hand in a wave to signal that despite the fact we both know I arrived a mere two minutes ago before landing painfully on my butt, I am in fact leaving.
My words are lost in the splash as the guy dives into the pond and begins to swim toward me.
If I were in an isolated area in the city, I would not be waiting around to be murdered by some random stranger. But this is Hunter’s Creek, and although I don’t recognize the guy currently gliding through the water like a freaking Olympic swimmer, he’s probably a friend’s brother or husband or dad from my sister’s school, or even someone I went to high school with. Possibly all of those things.
What can I say? Hunter’s Creek is a small town.
I grab my crumpled dress, throw it over my head and wiggle into it. He might have witnessed my embarrassment as I landed inelegantly on my butt a moment ago but there’s no need to meet him in my bikini.
It doesn’t take him long to reach the shore. By the time I’ve pushed my hair back from my face and turned to him, he’s wading through the water toward me. He’s all wet, glistening muscles, his swim shorts plastered to his strong, sculpted legs.
Seriously, throw a sheathed dagger on his hip and he’d be James freaking Bond.
My belly does a little leap in appreciation.
Not that I’m looking for a man.
But, as I’ve previously stated, I am a woman, and I’m sure I read it in a magazine that gazing at such manly perfection is good for the soul. Or something. Whatever. Don’t judge me. I’m looking and it’s a great view.
“You changed your mind about a swim? The water’s beautiful today,” he says in a deep, melodious voice that completely matches his physical hotness.
“It sure is,” I reply brightly. “My…err…ankles appreciated it. You know, for the short time they were in.”
The corners of his lips quirk into a smile. “Your ankles?” His eyes sweep down my body and then back up to my face and I swear it’s like his vision has some kind of magical power, sending shivers across my skin wherever his eyes land.
“You’re not coming in for a dip?”
I scan his face. He’s handsome all right. I don’t recognize him, and this guy sure has the kind of face you don’t forget. He’s got that dark five o’clock shadow thing down pat, framing his brown eyes and aquiline nose, his thick dark hair sending rivulets of water down his face. Like he did on the platform, he pushes his hair back and I try my best not to gawk at his muscular arms.
He’s a total doppelgänger for Ian Somerhalder from the vampire show we used to watch, only with the way he’s looking at me right now, this version could definitely give old “Smolderholder” a run for his money. And yes, that really was his nickname. Given to him by his fans, not himself. Obviously.
It’s not every day you go to your local pond for a swim and meet Hercules.
“I think it might be a little cold for me today,” I reply, forcing my eyes not to drift south.
His smile grows and it lights his whole face up. “You’re totally missing out.”
I give a wave of my hand. “I’ll come back tomorrow.”
“Do you live here in Hunter’s Creek?”
“I do,” I reply after a beat.
His lips quirk. “You’re not sure?”
“No, I’m sure. It’s just that I moved here recently so I had to think about it for a while.” I offer him a smile, feeling like some kind of ditzy blonde. And I’m not even blonde.
In my defense, he’s towering over me, with his wet, glistening muscles, looking ridiculously hot—Smolderholder, remember?—and staring right at me with those baby blues of his.
I’m amazed I can string a sentence together at all.
“Do you like it here?” he asks.
“I love it here. I’m Hunter’s Creek born and bred, you see. This is home. I moved back from Seattle where I lived for a while. A few years, you know, after college. Not that I went to college in Seattle, but it was where I got my first big job. And my promotions. But it,” I search for the right words, “ended…recently. Which is why I’m back here now. Which is great because I’ve got a job I love and I get to go swimming here at the pond and my family’s all here and, well, I love it.”
Why am I telling this guy the story of my life?
His smile doesn’t drop. “That’s a lot of information.”
I clear my throat. “I guess.”
“Thanks for sharing.”
I decide to ride it out. “I thought it was important that you know, in case we meet here again sometime.”
I’m rewarded with the crinkle of his eyes as his lips pull up into a fresh smile. It tugs at my belly, reminding me that it’s been a long time since I’ve enjoyed talking with a man that gets my blood moving, which this guy is.
“But you’re back living here now that things ended in Seattle?”
I can’t help a smile from claiming my face. It happens whenever I think about what I’m doing for a job these days. I’ve gone from working in marketing for a tech firm in Seattle with a strong career path and nice expense account, to running a coffeehouse in a small town. I should be bereft. I should be mourning the loss of my stellar career.
I’m not. I’ve found that I love it here. I love my job. It’s as though I needed that life implosion to lead me to where I was always meant to be: at home in Hunter’s Creek, running the Second Chance Café.
I see it as the shiny silver lining to the horror story of my life.
“Yup,” I reply happily. “It’s great here. So much more chill than a big city.”
He takes in our surrounds. “It sure is. What do you do? Are you at the mill? I heard most people here work at the mill.”
“They do. I run my aunt’s coffeehouse down on Main Street. You might know it. The Second Chance Café?”
“That’s your aunt’s place?”
“Oh, so you’ve been there?”
“I dropped in there this morning. Take out.”
How did I miss this guy? It was probably when I was in the kitchen or balancing the books in the back.
“You should eat next time. Best coffee in town, and the best pies. Award-winning, in fact. My aunt is real proud of that.”
“I didn’t eat, but the coffee was fine.”
“Perhaps I met your aunt?”
“Oh, no. Aunt Sheila isn’t working there these days. She’s away for a while and I’m running the place for her.”
I don’t mention my aunt being in Seattle, supporting Uncle Johnny as he undergoes cancer treatment. No need to overshare to that extent. No one ever mentions the c-word while they’re flirting with a hot new guy.
“You enjoy running a coffeeshop?”
“I love it. Hey, you should definitely drop by for a slice of apple pie. Or blueberry. Or pecan. Or strawberry and rhubarb. Any pie, really.”
Am I seriously going to list all the flavors of pie?
I give a self-deprecating shrug. “Or not. Totally up to you.”
His eyes haven’t left my face and I feel my cheeks heat under his gaze. “I’ll be sure to do that. I didn’t grow up here or get my first big job in Seattle, but I am visiting and this place sure is beautiful.”
There’s something in the way he says this place that makes me wonder whether he means more than just the pond. That he means me.
It makes my belly do all kinds of weird things.
You see, I haven’t felt anything for anyone since I broke up with Mike months ago. But I’m not going to dwell on that. Perhaps it’s time for me to move on? Move on with a guy who’s not my boss and not secretly married to another woman?
That would be a great place to start.
I throw my gaze over Mr. Hercules. He’s new in town, he’s gorgeous, he’s looking at me the way he’s looking at me, and—I do a quick check of his left hand—he doesn’t appear to be married.
Perhaps I need to step up and ask this guy out? Men do it all the time. Just last week Cody, one of the lumberjacks from the mill, asked me if I wanted to catch a movie with him. I turned him down. I’d been his babysitter in middle school and although I’m all for older women dating younger men, I couldn’t picture myself going on a date with a guy who once told me about how he wanted to build a house out of Lego big enough to live in with his pet guineapigs.
And besides, my sisters, Ryn and Harper, are always going on about how I need to put the Mike disaster behind me and get back on the wagon. Ryn has reminded me on more than one occasion that at my age my eggs are at risk of shriveling into microscopic raisins. So helpful.
“Why don’t you come by the café tomorrow?” I ask before I chicken out. Sure, it’s not exactly asking him on a date, but it’s showing him I’d like to see him again. Baby steps.
“I’d love to, but I’m leaving first thing,” he replies, and my heart sinks. “I’ll be back soon, so I’ll come by then.”
“You must really like it here. Visiting twice in a short period of time.”
“Something like that,” he replies elusively. “Well, I’d best swim back to my car.”
“Where did you park?”
“In the trees over there on the side of the road.” He points across the pond.
“Why didn’t you park in the lot?”
“There’s a parking lot?”
I laugh. “We do have cars here, you know. It’s up that path.” I gesture behind me.
“Good to know. I won’t have to go all Discovery Channel in the wilderness next time I feel like taking a dip.”
We share a smile, and my belly does that weird flip thing again.
“Well, it was great to meet you—” He tilts his head. “I don’t even know your name.”
“It’s Marlowe. Marlowe Cole.”
“Hey, Marlowe, Marlowe Cole. I’m just plain Oliver.”
There is absolutely nothing plain about this man.
“Oliver. Nice name.”
His smile crinkles his eyes oh-so attractively. “Had it all my life.”
“Names kinda work that way, you know.”
“I’ve heard that. I’ll be sure to stop by the Second Chance when I move to town next week,” he says with a smile as he turns away, heading for the pond once more.
He’s moving here? This just gets better and better.
“It’s a date,” I call out and then scrunch my eyes shut in embarrassment. “Or not a date. Just a pop in to say hi. Or you know, whatever.”
Why do I allow myself to speak?
He turns and directs his smile at me, this babbling woman at the side of the pond. He wades through the water, sunlight bouncing off the defined muscles in his back and strong legs before he dives under and begins his strong, rhythmic swimming stroke once more.
I’m not afraid to admit it. I watch him. With every stroke, my eyes are trained on this gorgeous, god-like man as he glides through the water.
Who can blame me? Oliver is quite something to look at. And he’s moving to Hunter’s Creek.
Want to read more? Faking It With the Guy Next Door is out on October 10th