Normally this would be a blog story day, but since it's Christmas and I'm running around trying to get stuff done before parties tonight and tomorrow (so much socializing...omg) I'm going to post the first two chapters to a Christmas book I'm writing--my first actual holiday novel! I've done short stories for Christmas, for Halloween, for a few other times, but never a genuine novel, so...yeah. Wish me luck, enjoy the offering, and happy holidays to all of you. You're my community, you're my people, you're my friends, and I wish you all the very best as we head into a new and undoubtedly tumultuous year together.
It all started with a funeral. Actually, it all started with a suit.
My first day as a newly-minted lawyer with Staller, Weisz and Coast, I wore the wrong suit. I didn’t know it was the wrong suit at the time—I only ever wore one back in Edgewood, a gift from my parents on my sixteenth birthday for when I needed to dress up for my dad’s political events. By the time I finished law school, I had a few more, but possession didn’t do much to mitigate my ignorance.
I walked into the corporate office in a black suit and tie—not charcoal, not grey, not navy—black. Shiny black shoes and a white shirt with French cuffs rounded out my look. I thought I was dapper. My mentor, Marcus Staller, took one look at me as I walked into his office that morning and immediately shook his head, got up from his desk, and asked his secretary to hold all his phone calls while he “dealt with this abomination.”
“Max,” he’d said to me, looking me up and down with a frown on his face. “There’s only one time in a man’s life when it’s acceptable to wear a black suit in the daytime, and that’s at a funeral.”
I’d frowned. “The guy at D and G said it was fashionable.”
Marcus had scoffed. “Dolce and Gabbana make most of their money selling to G-men. Do you want your corporate clients to think you’re representing the government’s best interests, or yours? No.” He’d taken me into his closet—it had made my eyebrows rise at the time having a closet in your office, but I’d learned a lot more about the kind of hours lawyers kept since then—and loaned me a midnight blue, pinstriped Canali. It was slightly too big, but “better than what you have on, son. You don’t want the other associates poking fun at you all day.” No, I damn well did not.
I’d taken Marcus’s advice to heart. The black suit, my first suit, the one I’d bought with my advance, went to the back of my closet where I kept my other fashion mistakes, like the football jersey I didn’t have the shoulders to pull off and the sparkly mesh top I’d never been bold enough to wear out clubbing. In the three years I’d worked for the company since then, I’d never touched that suit. I’d never had to. Not until today.
I wore my black suit to Marcus’s funeral, five days after he died of a massive heart attack. It was a morning service, all indoors thanks to the winter weather outside. I sat through the service led by his priest, the eulogies given by the other two named partners in the firm, listened to his children cry, and kissed his widow Clara on her pale, thin cheek after she lifted her black veil out of the way. “I’m so sorry,” I told her, feeling useless just for saying it but not knowing how to say anything else. I’d learned a lot from Marcus over the years, but his off-the-cuff lectures on case law and haute couture and fine food hadn’t extended to how to grieve.
“Thank you, Max.” She dredged up a smile for me as she took my hand between her elegantly-gloved ones. “Oh, Marcus was so fond of you. He said you were the only one of the junior associates who didn’t make him want to tear his hair out.”
I smiled weakly. “High praise.” Marcus had been so proud of his full head of hair, barely graying at fifty-five.
“I was going to ask him to invite you to our place for Christmas this year. He said you never go home for Christmas, that you always spend it alone.”
That was true, but… “I’ve got friends here in the city I’ll stay with.” Kind of. If meeting a bunch of other single associates for racquetball on Christmas Eve morning could be considered “staying.” It wasn’t even something I wanted to do, more of a “show up or shut up” kind of deal.
“That’s good.” She glanced over at Marcus’s closed coffin, lying just below the altar at the front of St. Thomas’s Church. It was a beautiful casket, sleek and shining but not ostentatious. He would have approved. If he wasn’t dead. Fuck. “I hope that your friends make you happy. I hope you—you get some happiness this holiday season, because you never—God, you never know when things will change.” Her eyes were wet, her expression haunted. “Remember to be with the people that you love, Max. Be with them before it’s too late.”
I nodded numbly, then stepped out of the receiving line and headed outside. I needed air. I needed some way to avoid the tsunami of pain that was about to wash over me. I stepped out the front door of the church into the bitter winter air and made it two steps before I doubled over, hands on my knees, and forced myself to breathe. This was the wrong place to be weak, but right now I didn’t care who saw me.
Marcus was gone. He was gone. No more late-night pizzas while we fought to find precedent, no more booming laugh and funny anecdotes about all the places in Manhattan where he’d met a client, no more tips and hints about how to put my best foot forward in the sea of blue-bloods I was now swimming with. Marcus was dead, and he’d left a loving wife and two teenage boys behind. I didn’t have any children, or a wife—I didn’t want a wife either, given how firmly planted I was on the gay end of the spectrum—but there were people I loved. People I hadn’t seen in person in way too long.
As soon as I caught my breath, I pulled out my phone and called up Hal. Pick up, pick up… He did, on the third ring. “Max? Hey, it’s kinda early for you to call. What’s up?”
And suddenly I didn’t know what to say. How did I explain that I’d been forced into an epiphany by tragedy, that I only wanted to see him and the girls right now because I was having a panic attack over the possibility of dying alone and unloved? I couldn’t speak, just breathed for another minute, and Hal, God fucking bless him, let me. He knew my moods—he’d been putting up with me since middle school, after all. He made light conversation about his work, about his kids, and graciously didn’t mention his own personal tragedy lately, the divorce.
As soon as I found my voice, I choked out, “Can I come and stay with you for Christmas?”
“You…yeah, of course. Really?”
I couldn’t blame him for being surprised. I’d had him and his family out to visit me half a dozen times over the past decade, but I’d never, ever considered going back to Edgewood. Hal knew that, and he’d never pushed.
“Max.” Hal used his gentle voice on me, the same one he pulled out when one of his girls had a problem. “You’re always welcome with us. We’d love to have you here for Christmas, Marnie and Steph have been bugging me for months about seeing you again.”
The thread of anxiety spooled in my chest began to slowly unwind. “You’re sure I won’t be in the way? I can sleep on the couch in the living room, it’s—”
“You would kill your back the first night, not to mention ruin whatever fancy-pants pajamas you wear to bed with cat hair,” Hal said matter-of-factly. “It’s fine, you can take Christine’s room. She’s staying with her host family in Florence for the holidays.”
Oh, right. Hal’s little sister was doing a year abroad in Italy.
“And Nicky’s got his own place now, so no need to worry about him. Come, stay. We’d love to have you.”
I exhaled and ran a hand through my hair. It was stiff with product, the stuff I secretly hated but wore because slicking it back made me look more intimidating, apparently, and I needed all the help I could get with that in the courtroom. Too pretty to be a shark, I remember some of my classmates saying when they found out where I was interning. More like a goldfish. “Thank you, Hal.”
“You gonna come now, or wait until closer to Christmas?”
“I—” That was a good question. I had plenty of vacation time saved up—I hadn’t taken more than a day here and there in my three years with the firm. My skin suddenly itched with the need to get out of here, out of Manhattan, out of the city entirely. “I’ll be there by tonight.” Edgewood was only a four-hour drive. I could be there before dinner.
“Sounds good, but be careful, okay? We’re supposed to get another few inches by tonight.”
“I’ll be fine.” I actually felt like I would be, now that I had a plan. I was going—not home, for Christmas, not exactly, but as close as I wanted to get. We said goodbye and ended the call, and I practically ran back to my apartment and started throwing things into a bag.
Edgewood meant casual clothes, so I pulled out my jeans, t-shirts, a few hoodies and the shearling coat that had been my gift from Hal and his family for Christmas last year. I paused before throwing it in, running my fingers over the distressed leather sleeves. It was a nice coat, and probably cost more money than they should have spent on me, but Ariel had always insisted on quality. She’d rather own one designer jacket and wear it to death than sport a half-dozen cheaper ones.
This would be the girls’ first Christmas without Ariel. I hadn’t heard from her in months—hell, I didn’t even know if she was still in the state. It was possible that Hal was using me the same way I was using him—as a distraction. We weren’t the kind of friends who had to talk every week or month, our relationship just was after so many years of existing. But if my being around helped the girls pine a little less for their mom, then I was all for it.
I packed the jacket despite my reservations, made sure I had my work laptop just in case, left a message with Human Resources at the firm, and headed for the parking garage where I left my car. It was an indulgence, keeping a car in New York City when I could just as easily—more easily, really—afford to get rides everywhere I wanted to go. But now I was glad I had the bimmer, because I’d never find anything to rent this close to the holidays. I turned it on, told my phone where I wanted to go, and headed toward I-87.
Driving resulted in an odd kind of peace for me—I did it so rarely anymore that I had to devote all my attention to it when I did, especially when the weather was like it was now, with snow falling steadily from the gray sky. I played a lot of music—at least until I got tired of all the Christmas songs, and damn, why hadn’t I upgraded the stereo system in this car? After an hour I turned the radio off and kept my eyes on the traffic, stayed below the speed limit, and didn’t think about Marcus. It was nice, until it wasn’t.
By the time I turned onto State Route 10, I could barely see through the veil of snow beyond my windshield. My wipers might as well have been standing still for all the good they did me. The road was practically abandoned—not surprising, considering the destination—which was good, because I didn’t want to hit anyone. I wasn’t going to stop, though, rear-wheel drive bullshit and poor visibility or not.
This isn’t part of “be careful,” moron. If I turned around now, I could get back to Schenectady in under fifteen minutes and find a hotel. If I did that, I’d spend the night alone, thinking about today. I was still in my funeral suit, for shit’s sake. I’d have nothing to do but eat alone and fall asleep to the sound of my own heart beating, and think about how Clara was doing the same thing tonight.
Nope. Not happening. I’d be fine. I was almost there. There were no signs, but there didn’t need to be. If you took this road for long enough, you’d end up in the center of the little town of Edgewood, population around twenty thousand—up to triple that in the summer when the tourists came to play in the wilderness areas of Adirondack Park.
I was close. I was so close. I could practically see the streetlamps in the distance. I could see the—
It jumped right out in front of my car, freezing in the glare of my headlights. I jerked my wheel hard to the right, toward the shoulder. Jump away, jump away! The deer didn’t move, but I still missed it by inches.
I didn’t miss the snowbank, though. I hit it with the front right corner of the car, which crumpled with an ear-splitting crunch and sent the rest of the car careening in a half-spin until the whole thing ended up lodged sideways in the bank. My airbag saved me from hitting the steering wheel, but I still felt like I got punched in the face as I sat there afterward, quietly stunned as my brain tried to process what my body just went through.
“Fuck,” I whispered. “Holy—fuck,” because where was my phone, shit, I needed to call someone, I needed help. There was no way I was getting my car out of this snowbank by myself, I knew that much without even trying. I’d need a tow.
I fumbled for my phone and stared at it for a moment. I should call…um…my insurance, to let them know about the accident? Hal, to let him know I’d be late? A tow company? In the end, though, the only numbers my fingers could reliably find were 9-1-1.
“Nine-one-one, what is your emergency?”
“Um…” C’mon, brain. “It’s not really an emergency, but, ah…I crashed my car.”
“Are you or anyone else involved in the accident injured, sir?”
“It’s just me, and…no. Not really. Not much.”
I thought I heard the operator sigh. “Sir, if you’ll give me your location I’ll notify the local police department to come and assist you.”
Right. Not an emergency. I passed on my information and was told to expect someone within the next ten to fifteen minutes. “It’s the best we can do in this weather, sir,” the operator informed me, and I got it. There had to be a lot of people crashing thanks to this snowstorm, and mine was a single car, non-injury accident. I wasn’t exactly a top priority.
My engine wasn’t running, but the inside of my car was still marginally warmer than the outside of it, even now that the passenger-side window was cracked. I sat down, closed the door, and did my best to stave off a panic attack.
What if you’d hit the snowbank harder? What if you’d rammed the deer? What if you died on a country road a week before Christmas and you made Hal feel guilty about you being an idiot forever? I should have turned back to get a hotel, but…I was so close to town.
I scrubbed my trembling hands over my face, wincing a little at the pressure it put on my right cheek. That was going to bruise. My jaw bristled with a five-o-clock shadow, and my hair had gone from stiff to floppy after hours spent melting under the blast of the heater. I had to look like a total disaster right now. Ha, I was a perfect match for my car.
Suddenly, like a match flaring up in the darkness, a pair of headlights appeared through the falling snow ahead of me. I resisted the urge to get out and wave them over to my side of the road—if it was the police, they’d stop. If it wasn’t, then I’d do better letting them drive on to get home to their own family anyway.
The vehicle, a Jeep with an Edgewood PD logo on the side of it, pulled in across the road from me, leaving its headlights on. A figure got out from the driver’s side and headed over to me, one hand holding up a flashlight. I tried to roll down my window—nothing. The battery must have gotten fucked up too. Great. I heaved a sigh, then opened the door and got out of the car.
“Hi there, Officer,” I said, waving a hand before crossing my arms over my chest—shit, it was cold out here. I could barely see the person behind the glare of their light. “I’m really hoping that you’re my ride.”
For a long moment there was no reply, and I wondered where I’d gone wrong. Was this not really a cop? Was I about to get murdered by a flashlight-wielding serial killer?
Calm down the lizard brain, man.
“Yeah,” the guy said at last. His voice was a little rough, like he’d just been coughing a minute ago. “That’s me.”
I was halfway through a plate of meatloaf and mashed potatoes at Dinah’s Diner when I got the call from dispatch with word of a car accident on Route Ten. No injuries, but the car was undriveable, from the sound of things, and the guy needed someone to come and pick him up.
I sighed and put my fork down. I was the only person in the diner tonight other than Dinah and her husband Troy, who doubled as the line cook. It was only seven-thirty, but with this weather, nobody else was dumb enough to be out and about. I was Edgewood’s officer on call until tomorrow morning, which meant that this and whatever any other unlucky soul or drunk dumbass decided to do in the next twelve hours was all on me. Dinah, a plump redhead in her fifties wearing a handmade gingham apron over her Metallica T-shirt and jeans, patted my on the hand before pointedly filling my travel mug with coffee.
So much for catching up on my reading.
“What’s the name of the guy I’m off to rescue?” I asked over my radio as I set a twenty down on the table. Dinah scowled at me, but I put my plate on top of it and resolutely didn’t let her pull it out and bring me half of it back as change.
“Uh, hang on…looks like a Mr. Max Robertson.”
If I’d had coffee in my mouth, I would have done a spit-take. As it was, I about swallowed my tongue. Max Robertson? Back in Edgewood? Or, you know, on the road five minutes outside of it. Shit, I hadn’t thought about him in…
Days, at least. It had been days. It wasn’t reasonable to think about your first crush any more often than that, and I was a reasonable guy.
Calm down. It might not even be the same Max Robertson. There are probably hundreds of them. Thousands.
Yeah, but how many of those thousands would bother heading here?
“Max Robertson?” Dinah put one hand on her hip as she frowned thoughtfully at the snow. “You think she means Maxfield Robertson? Max Senior’s boy?”
“Maybe,” I said, trying for non-committal. Judging from the look on her face, I hadn’t quite managed it.
“Wasn’t he best friends with your brother?”
“He still is, as far as I know.” I got up from the booth and grabbed my thick, puffy down jacket. “Hal and the girls go to visit him in the city every year or so.”
“Has he been back to visit before this?”
“I don’t know.” I’d only been back in town myself for about six months, and four months of that had been absolute chaos after Ariel left.
“Huh.” She looked at me. “You should bring him by for some supper.”
Oh boy. “I’m sure he’s got somewhere to be, Dinah. Probably Hal’s.”
She rolled her eyes. “Like Hal’ll have anything edible going at home. Face it, honey, your brother cooks from boxes. I’ll make enough for the boy to take with him. On the house, of course.”
“It’ll just take five minutes.”
I sighed. There was no gainsaying Dinah sometimes, especially when her ultimatums involved food. “I’ll see what he wants. He might not be hungry.”
“If it’s Max Jr., I know he’ll be hungry for my cooking.” She shooed me out the door, the bell clinging merrily as I walked out into the snow. Christ, it was coming down hard. I blew once on my hands, then grabbed my gloves as I headed for my Jeep.
It might not be the same guy. I clung to that as I drove down Route 10, keeping my eyes open for any sign of the car accident. After what had happened with Max—with his family, more specifically—I don’t think anyone expected him to come back here, especially not with his father still living on the outskirts of town. Mayor Robertson had been a great guy: extroverted, garrulous, and a good money manager. Everybody had loved him, until he’d put his weaknesses on display in the worst way possible.
That had been Max and Hal’s senior year, back when I was just a freshman. I remembered the week that Max had spent at our house, and how he’d barely said a thing the whole time. I remembered his shouting match with his father in my parents’ driveway, and how his dad had forced him into the car. That had been the last time I’d seen him, apart from Everly’s funeral. He and his mom had left Edgewood right after that. Hal didn’t like to talk about it, so I hadn’t brought up Max more than once.
Aha. There, up on the right side of the road, just past the bridge. The car’s lights were out, but I could see the shadow of it, dark against the wall of snow it had crashed into. Damn. I hoped he really was uninjured, and not just in shock while he’d talked to 911.
I parked on the righthand shoulder, grabbed my flashlight and got out of the car. The silhouette of a man greeted me, resolving into a familiar face as I got the light up.
Oh, shit. It was him, it was Max “Don’t call me Maxfield” Robertson. Same dark blond hair, same oddly bright blue eyes—like someone had opened up a fresh can of aqua blue paint and infused it with sunshine. He’d always looked like a movie star to me, only he’d gone from teenybopper dreamboy to A-list icon. He was ridiculously handsome. He also looked ridiculously cold—why the hell wasn’t he wearing a coat?
“Hi there, Officer,” he said, and fuck, yep, I hadn’t misremembered that voice in the ten years it had been since I’d seen him. Max was an average-sized guy, but his voice had broken low and stayed that way. “I’m really hoping that you’re my ride.”
It took me a second to realize that he hadn’t used my name. Could he not see my face? Did he just not recognize me? Not the time, I muttered internally. “Yeah, that’s me,” I said after a moment, pausing to clear my throat. “Are you all right, sir?”
“Apart from some wounded pride and a kiss on the cheek from my airbag, I’m fine.” He glanced at the car. “It won’t start, otherwise I’d have moved it further off the road.”
I took a look at the car—a four-door BMW sedan—and decided it was okay as-is for now. None of it was sticking out into the lane, and that was the important part. “It’ll keep,” I said. “How did the crash happen?”
“I did a great job of dodging a deer but a really crappy job of dodging a snowbank.” He rubbed his hands along his arms. “Can we talk more about it in your car? I don’t mean to push, but I’m freezing.”
Jeez, of course he is. “Sure thing,” I said. “Do you have anything with you that you want to bring, Mr. Robertson? A bag, maybe a coat and hat?”
His eyes shut for a moment. “Right. Yes, let me grab that.” He opened the back door, and I heard a zipper swoosh up and down for a moment. When he straightened up again, he had a suitcase at his feet hand and was shrugging a thick leather jacket on over his shoulders. He looked a little sheepish. “I forgot all about it.”
Yeah, there had definitely been some shock happening here. I decided not to press, just nodded and led him back to the Jeep. His shoes slipped on the snow—he was in a pair of black, shiny loafers. Loafers, seriously. I grabbed his arm to help keep him upright, but let him get into the Jeep himself. “I’ll be right back,” I said. “Don’t drive off without me, okay?”
“Very trusting, Officer,” he replied, amusement lacing his voice despite his obvious cold and discomfort.
“Nah, you just look like the kind of guy who knows when he’s beat.”
Max laughed. “You’d be surprised.”
His laugh sent a shiver down my spine. I wanted to hear it again. All of a sudden, I was grateful to Dinah for offering up her diner. It would give me a little more time to spend with Max, and I wanted as much time as I could get. Hal would understand.
I put reflective neon tape on the edges of Max’s car and made sure the doors were locked. Odds were nobody would break into it out here, but I didn’t want the guy coming back to find a raccoon had made a nest out of his leather interior. Once that was done, I hustled back to the car and got into the driver’s seat. Max had his seatbelt on, his hands still folded under his armpits. I turned the heater up to high, then drove until I found a spot to turn around in.
“Thanks for the rescue,” Max said once we got headed the right way.
“It’s my job.” I wanted to smack myself as soon as I said it—I mean, it was my job, but right now it was also completely my pleasure.
“Still, I appreciate it, Officer…” He glanced at my jacket, but my ID tag was on the shirt underneath it. Once he saw it, though, once he realized I had the same last name as his best friend…
“Dominic,” I blurted. “My name is Dominic.” Would that be enough to clue him in? I held my breath.
Max chuckled. “No standing on formality, huh? Nice to meet you, Dominic. I’m Max.”
Oh, I know.
We drove in silence for a while, before Max made a noise and suddenly pulled a phone out of his pocket. “Shit, I should call Hal—my friend. I was supposed to be at his house over an hour ago, his kids are probably going to bed soon.”
“Not on a weekend,” I said without thinking about it, then winced. Had I just given myself away? Did it even matter if I had—it wasn’t like I could expect to remain incognito forever, not with Max actually staying in Hal’s house. I went over almost every day to visit and make something edible to stick in the fridge, I was definitely going to be seen.
To my relief, Max just nodded. “Right, of course. He lets them stay up late on Saturdays. Still, I should call him, let him know what happened and that I’m okay. I’m sure he can come and pick me up if you need to leave me somewhere in town and get back to work.”
Nothing else had come in over the radio, which meant that nothing else was pressing, but since there was a place to go, and Dinah was waiting for us anyway… “How about Dinah’s Diner? It’s a local place right downtown.”
Max’s smile brightened his face somehow, despite both of us being completely surrounded by darkness. “Dinah’s is still around? I used to love that place! She had the best pie, and a couple of pinball machines in the back corner. Are those still there?”
“The Pac-Man one is,” I said. “Medieval Madness broke beyond repair a couple of years ago, Dinah had to get rid of it.”
“Aw, seriously? I had the high score on that machine for years.”
He had? I thought back to the bright pixels of the scoreboard, and the initials of the number one player—the score had been over seventy-five million, which was damn good. MAR. Maxfield A. Robertson.
“Oh wow,” he said, leaning forward a little, and I came back to the conversation too late to chime in that I’d had the score right below his, because we’d just hit the outskirts of town. “Christmas lights on every lamppost?”
“It gets better, you just can’t see the tinsel shapes with all the snow. There are Santa faces and candy canes and menorahs up there too.”
“Holy shit, that’s merry.” He sat back and looked out at the passing lamps like they were signs in a language he didn’t understand. “How did the city council ever vote to spend the money on this?”
“Mayor Clawson is very convincing when it comes to holiday aesthetics.”
“Clawson…Mary Clawson, the lady who owns the fabric store?”
I nodded. “She’s branched out to include all kinds of crafts, and she does scrapbooking classes on weekends and after-school projects for kids. You can’t go into her store without slipping on glitter and glue some days.”
“Huh.” He was silent after that, and as much as I wanted to I didn’t know how to break it. It had to be strange, coming back to the place you’d grown up and finding out how much it had changed. I’d been gone for years myself, but it was different for me. I’d always known I was coming back.
I parked in front of Dinah’s Diner. “You want to make your call before we go in?”
“Hm? Oh, yeah.” He glanced down at his phone. “Yeah, do you mind if I—I’ll be right behind you.”
“No problem.” I got out of the Jeep and left him in the car as I headed into the diner. The steps leading up to it had a fresh layer of salt on them, and I could smell an apple pie baking as soon as I opened the door.
“I see how it is,” I said to Dinah as I stamped the snow of my boots onto her mat, then hung up my jacket on the rack. “Us regulars have to suffer through cold pie, while fancy newcomers get the special stuff.”
“You don’t have to suffer through any of my pie if you don’t want to,” Dinah huffed. “Where’s the guy?”
“He’s in my car calling Hal.”
Her eyes lit up. “So it’s Maxfield, then?”
I shook my head. “Don’t call him that, Dinah, you know he always hated it.”
“Don’t teach your grandma to suck eggs.” She looked outside again. “Ah, here he is!” The door jingled, and before it had a chance to stop Dinah was on Max like white on snow. “Well, look who the storm’s blown in!” she crowed, opening her arms. Max, to his credit, went from startlement to smiles in the blink of an eye.
“Dinah!” They embraced, and she pounded his back so hard my own ribs hurt just from watching it. “Whoa, easy,” Max said, breaking away with an apologetic wince. “I’m still a little tender from the seatbelt.”
“Oh, you—of course! Damn it.” She looked at me. “Why didn’t you stop me from hugging him if you knew he was hurt?”
I opened my mouth to defend myself—because honestly, what—but Max was already all over it. “No, don’t blame Dominic. I only just realized myself that I’m a little sore there.”
“Still.” Her ire faded as she looked at him, holding him at arms’ length and staring him up and down. “Good lord, you’re skinny. Is food so expensive in the city that you can’t afford to eat more than one meal a day?”
“It’s more that everything tastes like disappointment compared to your cooking.”
Dinah chortled and smacked his arm. “Still charming, I see. Just like your—” She paused, caught herself, but Max clearly knew what she’d been about to say, if the way his smile dropped off his face was any indication. “Just like you used to be,” she finished gamely. “Go on, you two, go sit down, I’ll get you some food. Do you still like burgers, Max?”
“Who doesn’t like burgers?” Max asked as he hung his coat up next to mine.
She shook her head sadly. “Vegans, that’s who. I’ve got a whole vegan section on the menu now, just in case.”
“Well, I’m not a vegan and I’d love a burger, thanks.”
“I’m still full from the meatloaf earlier,” I said when she looked at me.
“Nonsense, you didn’t even finish it. How do you take yours these days, Max?” she asked as he settled into one of the diner’s gold-vinyl booths.
Max tilted his head slightly, and—yeah, shit. That plus the smile was pretty charming. “Cooked medium, with lettuce and tomato, please.”
“Cheese? Cheddar, pepperjack, american, swiss, monterey jack, feta, goat cheese?”
He wrinkled his brow comically. “What were those last two, Dinah?”
She wagged a finger at him. “You laugh, but we get all types here, all types. I did a big business in goat cheese burgers with tomato relish and pomme frites last summer, I’m tellin’ you. Now c’mon, I don’t have all night.” Lie. She’d be here all night if it meant she got the scoop on Max Robertson Jr’s return.
“Good choice. Fries? Salad?” Her tone of voice said you better pick the fries, buddy.
“Fries are good.”
“Great!” She turned toward the kitchen. “Troy! Walk a couple of cows through a garden and put one in a pepper patch! Frog sticks for both!”
“I said—lord.” She shook her head. “He’s taken his damn hearing aids out already. I’ll be back with some coffee and water in a minute, boys.” She headed back for the kitchen.
Max caught my eye and grinned. “I don’t remember her being so…colorful with her orders.”
“It’s totally a schtick,” I confided. “One of the mayor’s marketing schemes involves really playing up the ‘small town charm’ of Edgewood, or so she says. Dinah has interpreted that in her own special way.”
“I like it.” He unrolled his set of silverware from the napkin and smoothed it out in front of him, like his hands couldn’t quite stand being still. “And how has the police department pumped up their ‘small town charm’?”
“We make sure to rescue a cat stuck up a tree at least once a day in the summer,” I replied, doing my best to keep a straight face. “We really make a big deal out of it. Why should the fire department get all the good press, after all?”
“Solid effort. What else?”
“Officers and other city workers take turns dressing up in the town’s mascot uniform for holidays and parades.”
A crinkle of puzzlement developed between Max’s eyebrows. “Town mascot?” he asked as Dinah showed up with the drinks.
“Oh yeah. Mayor Clawson got the idea when she visited her son and daughter-in-law in Japan. Apparently, a lot of Japanese towns and cities have mascots, and she thought it would be fun if we did too. So Edgewood is now the happy home of Edwina the Blissful Beaver.”
Max almost dropped his water glass. “Hold on, what? Edwina the Beaver?”
“Yep.” I was really enjoying the look on his face. Maybe a little too much. “The mayor made the costume herself. It’s basically a big brown beaver with manga eyes wearing an apron.”
“Creepy as hell,” Dinah grumbled, adding her two cents as she poured the coffee. “She tried to get me into it for the Fourth of July parade last year. I’ve never been so glad to be a size twenty in all my life.”
“Nobody really likes wearing the costume, but it has been really popular,” I said. “Like, there was actually a Buzzfeed article about it. So now the mayor and Lauren—she’s my partner—and the DMV’s office manager take turns being Edwina.”
Max’s eyes were comically wide. “And your partner doesn’t mind?”
I shrugged. “She gets overtime pay to do it, so no.” Lauren actually hated dressing up in the thing—“Does Mary not get what beaver is slang for?” she’d demanded more than once—but with four kids at home and a disabled husband who couldn’t work, she jumped at any chance to make a little extra money.
“Edwina the Beaver. Wow.” Max sat back against the booth, holding his coffee mug but not drinking yet. “Does Edgewood still do the big tree downtown? And the nativity scene at the church?”
“Yes to the tree, no to a permanent nativity. Baby Jesus was stolen two years ago and we still don’t know who took him.” I held up my hands when he looked at me incredulously. “Hey, I wasn’t even here two years ago, don’t look at me! And there’s now a nativity play, one that takes place outside where everyone can watch, on Christmas Eve. We get live animals brought in and everything.”
“Mary tried to get a real camel for it last year.” Dinah shook her head. “I told her you can’t just rent a camel, they’re a specialty item, but she tried until she was blue in the face. She finally settled on dressing her Labrador up in a camel costume.”
Max was laughing now. He was gorgeous when he laughed, his eyes brighter than ever, lines appearing in the corners as his grin stretched wide. “What’s she using for camels this year?”
“Blow-up dolls, I think.”
I couldn’t help it—the thought of Mary, Joseph and Baby Jesus surrounded by a bunch of open-mouthed porno blow-up dolls was enough to make me lose it. I put my coffee down and laughed, covering my face with one hand. Me cracking up just made Max laugh harder.
“Why are you—oh my god!” Dinah slapped her dishtowel across the edge of our table. “You filthy things, get your minds out of the gutter! They’re in the shapes of animals, not people! They’re cartoon-like!”
“That—that doesn’t make it better,” Max gasped. “That kind of makes it wo-worse…”
I had to put my head down on the table, I was laughing so hard. With any luck, our little church would have the filthiest nativity display on the East Coast this year. Maybe Buzzfeed would do another article on it.
The bell on the kitchen counter rang. “Order up!” Troy shouted like it was the middle of the lunch rush. I glanced his way—he’d gone all out for the holidays, which meant he was using a red Santa hat instead of a net to hold back his long, grey hair.
Thirty seconds later my second dinner of the night thunked down onto the table, followed by bottles of ketchup, mustard, and whatever hot sauce had been on sale at Costco this week. “You boys eat up and enjoy,” Dinah said with a smile. Lipstick had seeped into the wrinkles in the corners of her mouth, stretching it out into more of a rictus than a grin. She looked tired, and I felt guilty for keeping her here.
“We’ll be out of your hair soon,” I promised her.
“Aw honey, are you kidding me? What’ve I got to rush home for, huh?” She patted my shoulder. “I’ll box up the pie for you to take with you.” She vanished into the back.
“She hasn’t changed much.”
I glanced at Max, who was staring after Dinah with a strange, sort of wistful expression on his face. “I kind of worried,” he said slowly, “that everyone I used to know would be completely different, but I could pick Dinah out of a lineup any day. She’ll probably die with that fire engine hair.”
“She will if she has anything to say about it,” I agreed. “Uh…are you…” I wanted to ask if he was okay, if he really didn’t recognize me or if he just didn’t care, and half a dozen other questions flashing through my mind, but I worried that anything I said would break the spell.
Max sighed. “Sorry, I know I’m being weird. Don’t listen to me. It’s just…I haven’t been here in a really long time.” He resolutely bit into his burger, and his expression of forced calm melted into pure happiness. “Ohmmgdd,” he muttered around his bite.
“Right?” What the hell, it wasn’t like I’d gotten to finish the meatloaf. I poured a pool of ketchup out onto the edge of my plate and began to eat. Silence reined for another few minutes as we worked on our plates.
“So,” Max said once his burger and half of his fries had been annihilated. He sat back and undid the buttons on his black jacket, and—damn. It was all I could do to keep my food in my mouth. “Tell me about yourself.”
Oh god, open-ended inquiries. I swallowed, then took a sip of my water. “What do you want to know?”
Max didn’t quite smile, but there was a hint of interest in his face that even someone as blind to subtlety as I usually was could see. “Whatever you want to tell me. Seriously, it’s not a trap, it’s just…I’ve got some time to kill before my ride gets here, and you’re not rushing off, so we might as well get to know each other better.”
He’s flirting with you, my brain screamed unhelpfully at me. HE’S FLIRTING WITH YOU! DO SOMETHING DO SOMETHING DO SOMETHING! The pressure was on, and I’d never been good at handling interpersonal pressure. So I said the first thing that came to mind, which was—“I think my house has rats.”
Max’s flirty face became a slight frown. “What?”
“I just bought a house, and it’s really in need of remodeling, and every night I hear noises in the walls,” and now I was babbling but I couldn’t stop, “and I’m actually hoping it’s rats because if the place is haunted, I’m burning it to the ground.”
“That wouldn’t be a very good return on your investment.”
“That’s why my fingers are crossed for rats.”
“I get that.” He looked thoughtful. “Are you doing the remodel yourself?”
I shrugged. “All the parts of it I can. Not the plumbing or the electrical work, but the walls and floors, yeah.”
“What do you think you’ll tackle first?”
“Ugh, it has to be the kitchen. I’m dying to get a dishwasher put in, but I’ve got to break down a wall first to open the space up.”
To my complete amazement, the rats didn’t kill the mood. Max actually knew quite a bit about construction—which wasn’t too surprising, since his dad had owned the largest construction outfit in the county before the “trouble” went down. We talked about appliances, about flooring, about the devil that was wallpaper and how to deal with it—we even talked about where I might look for a farmhouse sink. Our conversation was so engrossing, I totally forgot my brother was due to pick Max up until the door jingled and he walked inside the diner.
“Hey Max!” he called out, and Max was on his feet, grinning and walking into Hal’s embrace before I even finished my wince.
“Where are the girls?” Max demanded as the two hugged hard.
“They were already in their pjs, so I asked out neighbor to watch them until we get back.” Hal pounded Max on the back once finally letting him go, then over at me. “Shit, you didn’t tell me it was Nicky who picked you up!”
Max frowned. “Nicky? It’s not, this is Dominic.”
Hal looked between the two of us like we were crazy. “Max, Nicky is Dominic. You can remember every article and amendment of the constitution but you can’t remember my little brother’s name?”
“No, of course I remembered Nicky’s name, I just—” He turned to me, and this was it. Playtime was over. I was about to go from Dominic the competent cop to Nicky, Hal’s little brother.
“I didn’t recognize you at all,” he marveled, looking me over with a fresh perspective. “At all. Jesus, you’re taller by a foot. And you’re so…different.”
“Uh…surprise,” I said, hating that I sounded so small saying it. This was it, now he was going to—
And then he blushed, blushed as he stared at me, and I thought—oh. Hey. Maybe this isn’t over before it begins after all.