I fanned myself as I walked. Around the corner I found a Starbucks, the Chat ‘n’ Chew’s mortal enemy. Only that made it seem like Starbucks was even vaguely aware of us, as if we faced off in combat. Where I lived, the nearest one was an hour away. I was pretty sure Starbucks didn’t even know our diner existed.
“Chai tea? Macchiato?” The young woman behind the counter rattled off suggestions, clearly sensing my bewilderment as I scanned the giant marquee of options listed behind her. “Oh, you know what I’d have if I were you? A caramel ribbon crunch Frappuccino!”
“How about a large coffee and a ham and cheese?” I tried.
“Venti,” she corrected me, punching my selections into her computer. “And a panini.” She pointed down to the cold case in front of me with pre-wrapped sandwiches. Sorry, paninis. I hadn’t realized I needed to speak Italian to eat at Starbucks.
I resisted the urge to tell her that they were just a big old fast food chain, same as McDonalds and Dairy Queen. I simply smiled and pocketed my shockingly small amount of change. I guessed that was the big difference between them and the good old DQ: suckers ponied up $10 for what should cost them $5.
The coffee was pretty good, though, I had to give them that. I could feel my boss Dot’s wrath reaching across the state, her angry eyes burning into me as I not only drank but enjoyed Starbucks. The sandwich, panini, whatever it was didn’t really cut it, though. The bread was too dry.
I took a couple of bites, mostly drinking my coffee and trying to make sense of what had happened up in Declan’s office. I’d promised him I’d work hard to pay back a loan, told him that he could name the terms of the agreement.
“I name the terms,” Declan had repeated, his voice authoritative and commanding.
Why did it sound so scary coming out of his mouth? And why did it make my pulse race? When I really thought about it, he’d been an asshole. He’d actually asked me why he should bail out a failing ranch. Dick.
Outside the window, people spilled out of office buildings for lunch hour. High heels and suit jackets, iPhones and Androids, everyone looked busy talking to their coworkers, their mobile devices, or both at the same time. Fast paced, it all blurred before me. I had too much going on inside.
I was still reeling from Declan’s presence, rocked to the core. I thought I’d managed to keep it together up in his office. Mostly. But inside, I’d instantly melted into a hot mess. When I’d first walked into the room and seen him, it had felt like all the years between us dropped away.
But as much as I might feel the same way, everything else had changed completely. We now lived in totally separate and opposite worlds. While I still felt at home back on the ranch in our creaky old barn of a house, he was now surrounded by money and privilege. His office gleamed with polished woods and rich leathers. His window looked out over everything else in the city.
I didn’t know him now. He was a stranger to me. He had nothing personal in his office, no framed photos, no clues to the internal life of the man in the suit. He hadn’t worn a wedding ring, but I still had no idea whether or not he was single. His desk had been completely bare save a large computer screen and a phone.
I had to remind myself, I hadn’t known him all that well back in the day either. I’d thought I was starting to, beginning to get past that tough, gruff exterior and grow close to the man within. But I’d been kidding myself. As it turned out, sometimes you should judge a book by its cover. When a man seemed dark and dangerous, the type who’d melt your panties and make you beg for more then leave in the middle of the night without a trace? Sometimes that’s exactly who they really were.
How perfect that his company was named Obsidian Investors. The obsidian cliffs were a few hundred miles away from our ranch, but every now and then a chunk would show up on our land and you couldn’t help but be riveted by it, shining with glassy black swirls in the light. You couldn’t help but want to reach out, dust it off and run your fingers along it, exploring the smooth ridges and grooves. It drew you in, but it didn’t warm to your touch and you certainly never saw through it. It remained a cold, immovable rock. Like Declan.
Come to think of it, I remembered I’d given him a piece of obsidian I’d found back in the day. I’d been such an idiot. I’d chased him around like a puppy, giving him homemade pies and trinkets I found in the dirt, hoping that would make him notice me.
In his office when he’d said it had been a while since we’d seen each other, I’d blurted out “six years.” Sipping my coffee, I cursed myself, wondering how much I’d given away in that moment. I’d clearly missed him, felt his absence. At least I hadn’t blurted out something more precise like “five years, ten months and twelve days.” I hadn’t been counting the hours we’d been apart, I honestly hadn’t, though the sad truth was I could probably figure out the exact number of days since he’d been gone in a heartbeat.
Then the man had had the gall to taunt me. “You need to sell me,” he’d said. “You’d better bring it.”
You didn’t tell a woman who’d grown up on a ranch in the middle of one of the toughest states in the entire union to bring it. There was a reason no one in their right minds lived in Montana. It wasn’t a fluke that we only had about six or seven people for every square mile of land. The average person couldn’t hack it. Me? I loved it. I’d lived through droughts, wildfires, flash floods, and 24 of the coldest damn winters a person should ever have to endure. Oh, I knew how to bring it.
Coming to see him had probably been a huge mistake. But I was in it now. There was nothing to do but see this through. I’d meet him tonight for dinner. At some restaurant named after foods people never really ate, persimmon and pomegranate, some kind of crap like that.
I took one last sip of my coffee, finishing the final drop. I tossed the paper cup in the trashcan along with my uneaten lunch. There was clearly only one thing to do tonight: deliver a knock-out punch. He’d told me to bring it? I’d bring it. I’d make him fall right out of his chair I’d bring it so hard.
I had a mission to accomplish. Step one: shopping.
Out in the sunshine, my boots clipped along the sidewalk, fueled now by bright, intense defiance. I’d get my truck and drive over to the upscale shops, the kinds rich tourists shopped in, the ones that sold dresses that delivered a mean KO.
So what that I didn’t have a penny to my name? I still had one credit card that wasn’t fully maxed out. And goddamn it I was tired of living like a nun, scrimping and saving and staying up late every night with nothing but my grief over my father’s death and debt-ridden ledger books to keep me company. I was 24 for Pete’s sake. When was the last time I’d bought something new for myself? It had to have been a few years ago, before my dad had gotten sick.
Yup, that was it. I remembered the pretty cotton shirt with the little flower sprigs I’d bought at Walmart for a date with a rancher from one town over. Two and a half years ago. That had been an awesome night, all paws and tongue and bad breath. We hadn’t gone out again.
Honestly, even before my dad had gotten sick it wasn’t as if I had a lot of inspiration to get myself gussied up. My dating pool was pretty limited. When you lived out in the middle of nowhere you were basically looking at a bunch of guys you’d gone to high school with. You’d known them when they’d gone through that gangly awkward phase with the acne. You’d heard all about their attempts to get into your friend Mandy’s pants after that football game. So when they sidled up to you at a bar Saturday night your heart didn’t exactly go pitter pat.
My high school boyfriend, Bruce, had returned to town about six months ago. He’d made it clear he’d be more than happy to pick up where we left off. I’d made it clear I had no interest.
The June sun beamed down and I tilted up my face to bask in the warmth, full-on like a sunflower. Who knew, maybe tonight would go well? Maybe Declan would help me out and I’d be able to turn things around? Maybe there was a chance for a fresh start?
Not between us, of course. Even i
n my most hopeful moments I didn’t allow my heart to go there. The man was deep in a new world with money and the women who chased it. But tonight I’d show him I wasn’t such a hayseed. I could play with the best of them.
Two hours later I was feeling a whole lot less brassy. Apparently dresses could cost over a thousand dollars. In one white-on-white boutique the price tag I’d touched had nearly burnt my fingers. In another shop the price of a simple black dress had made me snort, drawing vicious glares from both of the praying mantis-like salesgirls. I’d figured on spending maybe a hundred total on a dress and shoes—money I could save by not booking myself into a hotel and just driving home through the night. But in the shops I’d seen, I’d be lucky if that could buy me a button and half a zipper.
I’d about given up hope when I came across a storefront that spoke directly to me: Deals ‘n’ Steals. A consignment store, the upscale cousin of the thrift shop.
I walked in and out from behind a clothes rack a large woman appeared, wrapped in layers of silks and what appeared to be an ostrich feather popping out of a headband. “How can I help you, dear?” she asked with a sweet smile.
I mumbled about needing to look amazing that night but not having enough money to do it.
“A date tonight?”
I nodded. “At the restaurant at the Stanyon Hotel.”
“Fig and Fennel!” The saleswoman clapped her hands together, her feather bobbing around, her eyes sparkling with excitement. “The nicest restaurant in Billings? You have to knock ‘em dead.”
The nicest restaurant in the city? And Declan had asked me if I’d heard of it, like I made it up there every weekend to go out for fine dining. Fig and Freaking Fennel. What was fennel anyway? It wasn’t on the menu at the Chat ‘n’ Chew.
I shrugged, my earlier fire down to a wisp of smoke. “Knock ‘em dead would be nice, but I’d settle for something that doesn’t look like I bought it off the sale rack at Walmart.”