I rode home slowly. By the time I was turning onto my street, I realized that I didn't remember any of my ride home. I had ridden in a fog, oblivious to anything around me, solely focused on my feelings of confusion and hurt.
As my cottage came into sight, I saw a big truck parked in front and a figure standing on my porch. What the heck?
As I rode closer, I saw that it was Travis. I got off my bike and leaned it against my fence, picked Phoebe up and walked toward him, a confused smile on my face.
"Hey, stranger," he said, coming toward me.
I laughed softly. "I'm sorry, Travis. I'm not trying to be a stranger and I did get your messages. I've just been really busy." I met him at the base of my stairs.
He brought his hand through his hair. "I'm not trying to stalk you." He smiled an embarrassed smile. "It's just, I really enjoyed spending time with you the other night, and the town is holding a police and fire department parade in a few weeks. There's always a dinner afterwards to honor my father–it's kind of a big deal for the town… I was really hoping you'd come with me." He smiled. "Of course, I hope you'll do something with me sooner than that, but I wanted to make sure I asked you in advance about the dinner. It's important to me."
I bit my lip, not knowing what to do. And then it occurred to me–his father was the man who had shot Archer. Honor him? How could I? I didn't want to hurt Travis–I liked him. I just liked Archer more. Oh God. I did. I really, really did. But Archer had thrown me out of his house, whereas Travis was making a concerted effort to track me down to spend time with me. Even if it was for an event that I didn't feel comfortable attending. I just wanted to go inside my house and think about things. I wanted to be alone.
I smiled. "Travis, can I think about it? I'm sorry… that whole complicated thing… I just…"
A flash of something that looked like anger or disappointment flashed ever-so-briefly over his face before he smiled and said, "How about if I call you in a day or two with the details and you can say yes to me then?" He smiled.
I laughed softly and said, "Okay, call me in a couple days."
He grinned, seeming appeased, and then leaned down to kiss me, and I turned my head slightly so that he could kiss my cheek. He frowned as he straightened back up, but didn't say anything.
"Talk to you soon," I said softly.
He nodded once and then walked around me and headed to his truck. I watched him from where I stood, his broad shoulders and muscular backside filling out his jeans nicely. He really was a catch. Why didn't I feel any spark? I sighed and went inside my house with Phoebe.
I went back to my room and lay down on my bed and before I knew it, I had fallen asleep. When I woke up, the room around me was dark. I looked over at the clock. Ten eighteen. I had slept most of the afternoon and evening away. Probably because I hadn't slept well in Archer's bed… so aware of him in the room right beyond. I groaned at the thought of Archer, wondering what he was doing right now. I hoped that I hadn't completely messed things up between us.
I sighed and sat up and Phoebe came trotting into the room. "Hey girl," I said softly. "You probably need to go outside, don't you?"
I walked her to the front door and slid my flip flops on, noting that I needed to throw the rotting roses sitting on the table by my entry, into the garbage. When I opened the door, I immediately saw something sitting on the mat on my porch. Confused, I bent down and picked it up. I sucked in a breath and then started grinning. It was a "bouquet" of Almond Joy candy bars held together in the middle with a little piece of string, tied neatly in a bow.
I turned it around in my hands, grinning stupidly, happiness blooming in my chest. I guessed this was an apology? Or… a gesture of friendship? What exactly did it mean? I groaned. This man!
I laughed out loud, hugging the candy bars to me and then standing there grinning like a fool some more. Awkward boy. Sweet, silent Archer Hale.
I worked six to two the next day and was practically skipping when I entered the diner. It was my second non-flashback morning. When I had gone to bed the night before, I was slightly scared that that morning had been some kind of weird fluke. But no, it looked like it wasn't. I felt like a whole new person. A lighter person, a person filled with hope and freedom.
As the breakfast crowd was thinning out, Norm called from the kitchen, "Maggie, I gotta take a break in the back. Call me if someone comes in." He removed the plastic gloves on his hands and then he stepped away from the grill and headed to the small break room behind the kitchen.
Maggie shook her head.
"Is he okay?" I asked.
"Damn stubborn ass is sick, but of course, he won't hire another cook. He's cheap and he thinks he's the only one who can do anything." She shook her head again.
I frowned, pausing in my counter wipe down and turning to Maggie. I tilted my head, considering and then said, "Maggie, if you ever need help in the kitchen, my family owned a deli and I used to cook there. I think I could muddle through here… I mean, you know, if it ever became necessary."
Maggie studied me. "Well, thanks, honey. I'll keep that in mind."
I nodded and turned back to my counter cleaning duties.
Just as I was finishing up, the bell above the door rung and I looked up to see a woman I'd estimate to be in her mid-forties walk into the diner. She was wearing a light beige, short-sleeved pant suit that looked like it was designer, and though I didn't know a whole lot about brand names, even I knew that the large C logo on her purse stood for Chanel.
She had glossy blonde hair swept up into a chignon, with a few pieces artfully framing her face. Her makeup was impeccable, if a little too heavy, painted on a tight face that had clearly seen a plastic surgeon's scalpel.
"Well, hello Mrs. Hale," Maggie said, rushing over to her like the Queen of England had just walked through her door.
"Maggie," she said, barely glancing sideways at her as she moved toward me at the counter. A waft of expensive smelling perfume–heavy on the lilies and roses–tickled my nose. I sneezed, bringing my upper arm up to cover my mouth and nose and then bringing it down again. "Excuse me!" I laughed softly.
The woman looked at me like I might be contagious. Geez, a God bless you wasn't a lot to ask, was it? Wow, I was getting really good vibes here.
"I'll wait while you wash your hands."
"Uh, right, okay, I'll be right back to take your order."
"I'm not ordering."
I paused. Okay…. but just nodded and hurried to the back where I washed and dried my hands and then hurried to the front. As I was walking toward the counter, it suddenly occurred to me to ask myself why I was taking orders from this person anyway.
"How can I help you?" I asked, keeping my distance from the counter, not wanting to go into a sneezing fit again. I was pretty sure I was allergic to her.
"I'm Victoria Hale, I'm sure you've heard of me."
I looked at her blankly. "No, I'm sorry, I haven't," I lied, taking some small measure of pleasure from the look of anger that briefly flashed over her face. What a bitch.
But then she quickly recovered. "Well, then I'm glad I came in to introduce myself. I'm Travis Hale's mother. I understand you're seeing him socially?"
"Uh, I… " I paused. What the hell was going on here? "I went on one date with him," I said, furrowing my brows and studying this brazen woman. I wouldn't be going out with Travis again, but this woman didn't need to know that.
"Yes, so I've heard," she said. "That's fine, I guess. Travis chooses the women he wants to… see. What I'm not fine with is that you've apparently made a friend of Archer Hale."
My eyes widened and my mouth dropped open. How in the hell did she know that? I crossed my arms over my chest. "As a matter of fact," I said, "he's more than a friend." I raised my chin, looking down at her. Okay, so that wasn't exactly true–at least as far as Archer was concerned–but I wanted to see the look on her face when I said it. Her disdain for Archer was obvious, for what reason I had no idea. And the best way I could think to defend him in that moment was to tell her that I was seeing him.
She looked at me for a couple beats and then laughed, making a bolt of anger spear through my body. "Well, isn't that familiar? Another little girl leading the Hale boys around by their male parts?" Then her eyes narrowed. "That boy has a violent side. Has anyone told you?"
My mouth dropped open. "A violent side?" I laughed. "You're wrong about that–"
She waved her hand, silencing me. "You ask him, little girl. I've heard you know sign language and are teaching it to him. Ask him about how he tried to assault me several years ago." She nodded, as if agreeing with herself.
I said nothing, staring at her, not correcting her in her assumption that I was teaching Archer to sign.
"Stay away from him," she continued. "Nothing good can come of it. And for a girl who isn't a stranger to violence, I'd think you'd heed my warning. There's no telling when he's going to crack and do something to hurt you. Mark my word. He's done it before. Have a good day."
And with that, she turned around and headed for the door, nodding very slightly to Maggie who was now sitting at the break table trying to look like she wasn't eavesdropping.
I was floored. That woman had looked into me–had looked into who I was and what was in my past? Why? And of all the bitchy, condescending… bitches! Who were really bitchy!
When the door had closed, Maggie rushed over to me. "What in the heck was that about?" she asked, eyes wide.
I was still standing there frowning. "I literally have no idea. Who does that woman think she is?"
Maggie sighed. "Tori Hale has always been high and mighty since the day she strode into town–even more so after she married Connor Hale. She's uppity and a little hard to handle, but what do you say about a woman who owns the whole damn town, including all the businesses, and has more money than God?"
"That she needs to purchase herself a better personality?" I offered.
Maggie chuckled softly. "I won't disagree with you, but…" she shrugged. "She mostly keeps to her various social clubs on the other side of the lake. I have no real reason to interact with her. Of course, she's not making any new fans with what she's planning to do with the town."
I looked at Maggie. "Will that affect you and Norm?"
She shook her head. "We don't know yet. No one's seen the final plans. The only thing anyone knows for sure is that condos are going up on the shore."
I looked back out the window where Victoria Hale had disappeared around the corner a couple minutes earlier. "Hmm."
"Now what's this about you seeing Archer Hale?" Maggie asked, interrupting my thoughts.
I breathed out, looking over at her and resting my hip against the counter. "That may have been a slight exaggeration, but… I've been going out to his property and spending time with him. I like him."
"I always thought he was simple minded."
I shook my head vigorously. "Not at all. He's intelligent, and funny, and sweet. He's really amazing," I said, blushing slightly and looking down when Maggie looked curiously at me.
"You really do like him," she said, looking shocked. "Well, who would have ever guessed? Hmm."
"I do," I said. "There's a lot to like. Anyway, what was Victoria Hale talking about–Archer being violent?"
Maggie shrugged. "No idea. I never saw anything like that. Like I said, I always thought he was simple. Of course, I wouldn't be too surprised either. It's in the genes, I guess. His father was a mean drunk. That poor wife of his tried to cover up the bruises, but we all knew…"
I leaned my hip against the counter. "Did anyone do anything?" I asked, feeling a heaviness in my heart for Archer's mother.
Maggie nodded. "Connor Hale, his brother, was always out there. It came to blows with those two several times from what I know." She shook her head again.
I bit my lip, wondering again what had really happened between those two brothers so long ago.
"I better go check on Norm," Maggie said. "Gotta make sure he didn't croak back there in the break room. Wouldn't be good for business."
I laughed softly and got back to work, my mind full with questions about brothers, and secrets, and a girl that they both loved, and a bitchy widow. I wondered how the whole puzzle fit together, and where Archer fit in amongst it all.