Bittersweet

Chapter Two

 

“You can’t come through this way, Cathy, I’m sorry.”

“Huh?” I have to shout over the whir of a buzz saw cutting through tree limbs. Jimmy Egan jogs over to me, pushing his helmet off his head and taking off his gloves.

“You can’t come through this way. You have to go around,” he calls, smiling apologetically. How the kid who lived next door to my dad ended up with a baritone voice and knots of muscles up his arms I don’t know. I can still picture him falling off a log at Tindal Creek and crying until snot came out of his nose while I cleaned him up. “We’re trimming some of these trees back; they need to get a crane in here soon for some of the filming. The, uh, title sequence I think they called it?”

Bittersweet. That damn TV show. I should have known. It was only a week ago that Maxine told me about it, but ever since then it seems like it’s all anyone can focus on in this town.

“Well, how am I going to get to the laundromat?” I glance at my watch. “You know Gladys always closes up at seven sharp. I only just got off work.”

He shrugs and bites his lip. “I’m sorry, Cathy. Guess you’re gonna have to go tomorrow.”

I sigh hard, but I don’t want to take it out on Jimmy that I won’t have clean underwear if I don’t make it to Gladys’ tomorrow night. Another nine-hour shift awaits me tomorrow too. I roll my shoulders and try to take a calming breath, nodding toward the rigs and guys with power saws.

“Summer job?”

Jimmy nods and grins at me proudly.

“All right. Well, be careful,” I say, and then turn to head the long way around to the apartment.

As I walk through the streets, looking up at the trees arching their bright-green leaves over the sidewalk in the early evening sunlight, I’m kind of irritated that a stupid TV show is making Dogwood change anything. This place may be a little lacking in the excitement stakes, but its beauty is the one thing you can’t argue about. I guess that’s why they want to shoot here in the first place, but the scowl on my face is getting cloudier than a thunderstorm as I pound along on aching feet, exhausted and laundry-less. Twenty minutes later, at last I’m back on my usual route home.

When I finally turn onto Glendale Row, I can’t help but relax my frown a little as I see Petula and Grace sitting out on their porch. The two old ladies are sisters, and were both married to the same man—one after the other. After Petula divorced him, he was with Grace for five years before he passed away. Share and share alike, I guess. The two of them moved back in together for company, and now they like to sit on their porch, gossiping about the people that go by as they eat home-made cobbler for dessert.

“Hi, Mrs. Manningtree,” I call, and wait.

“Well, hello, dear!” they both reply in unison, chuckling. It makes me laugh too, every time. They each lift a worn, brown hand to wave as I pass. I turn down onto Myrtle Street, thrilled to be only five minutes away from heaven’s own soft furnishings. I’m not even mad at Maxine for splurging on the new couch any more. If I could, I’d collapse in a heap on that thing and not consider moving again until I start to desiccate. Or have to pee, I guess.

The street is quiet tonight, bathed in the burned glow of a beautiful sunset. Since it’s summer, most folk are either on vacation or already firing up the grill in their backyards. I take a breath and try to enjoy it, and I’m just about getting over my TV-show-touchiness when I notice something’s impeding my already-slow progress. I pause, bending down to fish a stone out of my sneaker, when a voice from the other side of the street makes me jump.

“Hey!”

I straighten up and swivel around. There’s nobody else around except for a guy standing on the steps that lead down from the train station: dark-haired, lean but toned-looking, with a large duffel bag slung over one shoulder. He’s not from around here, I can tell. Though maybe the fact that he’s coming out of the train station is sort of a giveaway.

I glance about once more and realize he must be talking to me. And that he just had a full view of my ass up in the air. Great. Then again, it’s one stage above a wolf-whistle in the rudeness stakes to call out “hey” to a girl in the middle of the street, and he ought to know it. I fold my arms and glare at him. He has the beginnings of a cocky smile on his lips, but as I look at him, his face falls a little and his super-straight teeth fade from view.

The Stare must have had the desired effect.

“Um, could you help me out?” he says, coming down the steps and crossing the street to stand in front of me.

Wow. He’s tall. I have to tilt my head a little to look up at him, and when I do, I crash straight into his eyes. Huge, and piercing blue—I’m surprised they weren’t sending out light beams from across the street. I unfold my arms and clear my throat. Given his looks and his greeting, I have a feeling he’s used to getting a certain kind of reaction from women, and it’s usually more positive. Still, it seems like he really does need something, aside from a better pickup line.

He drops his duffel bag to the ground and I watch the muscles in his arm ripple under his thin T-shirt. I’m full-out staring, I realize, and I try to regain control of my eyeballs. Still looking at me, one side of his mouth quirking up a little, he reaches into his jeans pocket and pulls out a small square of paper.

“I’m looking for the, uh, the Fairview Hotel?” he says, reading off the paper, and then looking back into my eyes. His voice is deep, like I can feel it rumbling in the soles of my feet. A trickle of sweat begins to form at the back of my neck, but I tell myself that’s what happens when you’re forced to walk a half-hour out of your way on a hot evening because of all this Bittersweet hoopla. It suddenly occurs to me—he must be something to do with it too. Like a roadie, or a production guy or whatever? Seems like every day there’s some new baseball-capped, too-white-teethed arrival in town having something to do with it, and I think I heard a New York accent, which definitely makes sense.

“There’s only one hotel in town, and you’re five feet away from it,” I say, jerking a thumb over my shoulder. I meant to sound businesslike, but I must seem like a loon given my too-harsh tone and the mesmerized staring. I blink a few times to rein it in, take a deep breath … and get a hit of him. He smells like soap, the tiniest hint of masculine sweat, and peppermint from the gum I just noticed he has clamped at the back of his teeth. Don’t stare at his mouth…

“Oh. OK.” His eyes drift over to the hotel’s façade, and I can see it’s not quite what he was hoping for. We hardly get any visitors, until recently at least, and the Fairview’s not exactly the Ritz. “Sort of … rustic,” he continues, blowing out a disappointed breath and raising one dark eyebrow.

“Yep. Could say that.” If you were an asshole. It’s stupid, but for some reason I can’t stand it when outsiders are down on my hometown, even if it’s only subtle, and even if that’s exactly the sort of thing I would agree with if a local had said it. I adjust my purse strap on my shoulder, ready to head off, but he keeps looking down at me instead of moving away.

“You know what, I actually never say that. Rustic? That’s like … something my grandmother would say,” he mutters, shaking his head. I can’t help smiling a little at that, and I take another breath, then realize breathing in is a big mistake. God, he really does smell good. I feel the rivulet of sweat trickle into my collar and down my spine, and I shiver a little in spite of the heat. It’s probably best I head home before I turn into a puddle at his feet. Starting to move away, I give him a quick smile and he steps aside, watching me as he slowly reaches down to pick up his bag and hoist it back over his shoulder.

“So is the restaurant the only one in town too, uh … Cathy?”

What? How does he know my— I glance down. My uniform. My name tag. My hand flies up and hovers over it, and I flush as I understand where he must have been looking to read it. Pursing my lips, I arch an eyebrow, challenging him. He looks at the ground for a split second, but then straight back into my eyes unapologetically, with the ghost of a flirty grin playing on his lips. Approaching puddle status…

“No, it’s not the only one. But it might be a little rustic for your tastes, who knows?”

He smiles a little and looks at me for a moment as if considering something, but then shrugs. “I’m Greg,” he says, holding out his hand. I take it, wishing mine wasn’t so clammy. His is warm and dry and … strong. He holds on for a little longer than strictly necessary, and I have to force myself to pull my hand away.

“OK,” I murmur. OK? OK? But I don’t really know what else to say. There are probably a million things, but I can’t think of them right now, because he’s staring into my eyes like he lost something in them. But then his jaw clenches a little.

“Gotta go,” he says, then turns and strides away toward the Fairview without a backward glance. Huh.

I finally remember how to walk, and head off toward home. What the hell was that? I roll my eyes at myself; a brief, totally generic exchange with stranger and suddenly I’m like a freaking schoolgirl? It really has been too long. Besides, he’s just passing through. How long do they shoot a TV show for anyway? And he was kind of arrogant—borderline rude. I mean, the restaurant-name-tag thing? Not so much as a thank you for your help?

Fine, he was kind of handsome.

OK, very handsome.

But it doesn’t matter, right?

* * *

When I finally get home, I find Maxine sitting cross-legged in front of the coffee table in the living room, poring over a dazzling array of fake fingernails.

“Which shape?” she asks as I sink into the bliss of the couch and kick off my shoes. She holds up a set of nails so pointed they look like they could be used as weapons, and another with long, square tips.

“How do people wipe their ass with those things?” I reply, and she grunts in mild irritation.

“I’m prepping. I’m expecting more ladies coming into the salon wanting to pretty themselves up for the Hollywood types,” she says, grinning ironically. I laugh.

“Hungry?” I gesture toward the take-out from the restaurant I’ve left on the counter. We hardly ever cook. “You’ll have to heat it up though—I had to walk about a mile out of my way because they’re setting up for filming over on Bakersfield.”

“Ooh, really? It’s getting closer!”

I should have known my inconvenience would only elicit excitement from Max. She jumps up and heads toward the kitchen to heat up the food. “You know what, I saw more trucks this afternoon too. And word is they’re starting to rent out places for the cast and crew. They must be arriving soon, huh?”

I sit up a little to see her over the kitchen island from the couch. “Yeah. Matter of fact, I ran into some guy just now who must be production crew or whatever, asking for directions to the hotel. Real tall guy. He kind of had an arrogant New York thing going on, you know? I mean, he called the Fairview ‘rustic.’ It seemed like he just expected women to be a certain way around him? And he was, like … tall. And his teeth were real straight, like, why do they all seem to have had crazy amounts of dental—”

“He was tall, huh?” Max leans over the counter and pulls a face at me, and I know I’m blushing.

“Anyway,” I say, trying to move on. “I can’t imagine Johnny Lincoln or Bethany Wheeler—”

“Bethany Keeler,” Maxine corrects me. “God, Cathy! She was only ‘one of our country’s brightest child-stars, now looking to break out of her cutesy image with what’s sure to be TV’s newest hit…’”

“Are you quoting Entertainment Weekly articles at me again?” We both laugh. “As I was saying, I can’t picture any fancy LA actors staying at the Fairview, so I guess they better figure out their accommodation soon.” I sigh. “Jeez, it’s like an invasion.”

Maxine brings the food over and sets the plates down on the coffee table. “Uh, exaggerating,” she says sternly. “Besides, I don’t get why you’re so against the whole thing. Without the show filming here, you wouldn’t get sexy, tall production crew guys asking you for directions.”

“I never said he was sexy.”

Max fixes my gaze with a devilish grin. “You didn’t have to…”

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