The chipped mug really should have been the first sign that this place wouldn’t have espresso or anything other than drip coffee on the menu. I didn’t know why, but damaged mugs just said something about a place. As did the booths that had tiny rips, tears and looked like they were about one hundred years old. The carpet was in desperate need of updating, in my opinion they should swap it for hardwood…but the location wasn’t bad. I could see the entire street from my seat in the diner.
Today marked one week since I arrived in Macon, Oregon, and I was still trying to figure out exactly what I was doing here. Malibu had been my home for all twenty years of my life, and as much as I didn’t fit there, this leap that I had decided to take didn’t seem to make much sense either.
It wasn’t like I just drove up here on a whim. My brother sort of deserted his girlfriend at our parents’ house, and when I offered to drive her back, she took me up on it. So, taking a fifteen-hour road trip with Nora, I sort of just plopped myself here in my brother’s town. I just happened to pack everything I own in the back of my SUV when I left.
So, now I was here…being a dutiful sister to the one brother who never saw me as one.
“How are you doing, can I refill your coffee?” a waitress offered with a beaming smile, and a pop to her hip. Her coral lips stretched causing a few wrinkles to appear near the edges of her mouth. I hated that my first thought was how typical she seemed to fit into this entire small-town diner aesthetic.
Returning her smile, I covered my mug. “No thank you, I’m okay.”
“Well look at those nails and that hair…I haven’t seen hair that shiny since I took that trip down to L.A. I saw Hillary Duff. She was just out there walking her dog like it wasn’t a thing at all, can you believe that? A lot of people around here think I’m lying, but I saw her, and I remember her hair being so shiny that it looked like liquid gold.”
I caught sight of her name tag, pressed against a pink shirt.
“Thank you, Tammy, that’s sweet of you to say…and I believe you about Hillary Duff…she’s a national treasure and has been seen a lot around Los Angeles.”
Tammy took a seat, sliding in across from me, her pot of coffee going right in front of her.
“Isn’t she? I just loved her in that modern Cinderella movie…she did such a good job and my nephew showed me that she’s on that Tik Tok app too. I think that’s so fun to be able to see these stars on those videos. So what part of California are you from?”
Feeling a little apprehensive about being locked into this conversation, I spun the mug around in slow circles.
“Tammy, leave that poor girl alone and get back here with that pot of coffee.” A woman with a soft gray cardigan yelled, popping through the door that led to the kitchen.
“Sorry, Millie.” Tammy winced as she began to slide out of the booth.
“That’s the boss lady, she owns this place. Usually she’s real nice, but I’m new and I have been testing her patience. At least that’s what some of the staff tell me.”
Tammy rolled her eyes with a bit of a laugh.
“Anyway sorry, I have the tendency of being too nosey. I just assumed with your tan, and overall look…like you just stepped out of one of those fancy spas that you were from California. You haven’t had to endure a Macon winter yet, have you?”
Giving her a soft smile, I shook my head. “I haven’t…this is my first.”
Tammy grabbed her pot of coffee and smiled.
“Well, welcome to Macon, honey. Hope you enjoy your visit.”
Tammy gave me a wink before walking away, but her words wrapped around me as tight as a fist.
That’s what this should be…just let this be a vacation. Get to know Colson. There was no reason at all that I should be toying with the idea of staying.
Staring a hole into the seat that Tammy had just vacated, I was lost in my thoughts when suddenly a little girl slid into the booth across from me.
I blinked and glanced around in confusion.
She had big blue eyes and a round face with cute chubby cheeks. She was somewhat… familiar, but it was hard to tell under all her winter gear.
“Hey…” I said hesitantly…had she really just sat down at a stranger's table?
“Hi,” She replied sweetly.
“Uh, I think your mom or dad might not wanting you to sit with strangers.” I glanced around again for someone who might have lost a kid.
The girl nodded and grabbed the sugar shaker. “My dad says we can’t sit with strangers, but you’re not a stranger.”
Another little girl walked up, slipping into the booth with ease.
Where had she even come from?
“Hey, it’s the makeup lady.” This one had the same blue eyes but long dark hair, tucked behind her in a low ponytail.
Oh. The makeup.
It finally clicked as the third member of their group found us and slid in next to her sisters. After I had arrived in Macon and thrust myself into my brother’s life, his best friend had come over with his three little girls. Wanting a chance to spend the evening with my brother, I did the little girl’s makeup and fed them marshmallows.
I smiled at the newcomer. She wore a black beanie over her hair, but it did nothing to hide those eyes that I was now learning were a family trait.
“Hi guys, I remember you.”
The oldest tucked a little strand of hair behind her ear. “You’re Uncle Colson’s sister, right?”
My heart warmed at her use the word ‘sister,’ it made me think of Blair. She had moved back to be near her grandbabies in Alabama, but we still talked on the phone from time to time. She had a lot of thoughts regarding me being here.
“You’re right where you should be. Cuttin’ and sharpening out all the hard edges in that family. Don’t give up on him.”
He’d rejected me my entire existence, but here I was, inserting myself into his life like a weed. Forcing him to talk to me and for once, see me as his sister.
“Yep, that’s me.” I answered the girls who had all started toying with the jams and Splenda packets in the little carousel at the edge of the table.
“We were supposed to already be going to Uncle Cole’s house, but our dad started talking on the phone with someone important.” The youngest said while getting to her knees to reach for my silverware. She slid it towards her while giving me a sly smile, almost like she was daring me to tell her no.
I covered the bundle with my hand and moved it away from my side, so she could have it free and clear.
“Remind me of your names again.” I asked, starting with the girl in the black beanie on the end.
“I’m Seraphina, but I like to be called Seraph…I’m seven.” Her face was less round, narrower, and I couldn’t see her hair at all under her hat.
“I’m Mila, and I’m five!” the youngest burst into the conversation, completely oblivious to taking turns or how loud she was being.
The oldest gave her younger sister a scathing look and straightened her shoulders. “I’m Maddy, I’m ten.”
“Well, it’s nice to meet you guys again, I’m Haley.”
“And how old are you, Haley?” Mila asked, propping her hand under her jaw.
Biting back a laugh, I brought my hands together all business and said, “I’m twenty years old.”
Right as I finished, a man I recognized approached the table. Ah, here was their dad. Leo, or Logan. Something like that.
“Hey…” his eyes bounced around, on his daughter's faces, then on mine which was when his dark brow lifted as if he wasn’t sure why I was talking to his kids. He had the edge of a man who was wary, protective and dangerous if he needed to be which was only driven home by his tall stature and lean muscle. Dark hair that looked overdue for a haircut brushed against his brow. Thick lashes coated a pair of unusually gray eyes. They were the one thing I did remember about this man that night I had met him because they reminded me of liquid mercury.
I tried to give a reassuring smile.
“They just sat down, sorry if I overstepped by letting them.”
His lips quirked in the corners, lifting the tiniest bit but his eyes stayed glacier like he was waiting for me to move away from his little family. Except I was here first, so…
I stared at him, raising a brow of my own in challenge, until finally he broke.
“No, it’s fine. Millie usually takes them in the back when I come in or if I have to take a phone call.”
Their dad’s eyes assessed me slowly, moving from my hair down my temple to my eyes, then my lips and all the way down to my folded hands.
I felt squirmy as he inspected me, so I blurted. “We met the other night at my brother’s house; I don’t know if you remember…it’s okay if you don’t. My memory is horrible when it comes to remembering people’s names. Numbers, I have down…but names? Not so much.” I let out a nervous laugh. Why was I rambling?
Because he’s watching you like a wolf watches his prey.
“Haley.” His deep voice was an unexpected mixture of tender violence. His hand was soft when he offered it to me. “Liam Croft…”
“Now tell her how old you are, that’s how it goes.” Mila sassed, sitting up on her knees again.
My face flushed for some reason. I didn’t want him to think I was trying to coax his kids into conversations about their ages.
Liam smiled at his daughter and sassed right back. “Thirty-two, Nancy Drew.”
“Whoa, you’re way older than Haley.” Seraph laughed, then smothered her smile with her hand.
“Who’s Nancy Drew? My name in MILA.” Liam’s youngest pronounced her name slow and loud like her dad couldn’t hear.
I laughed, but Liam just gave them a smirk that made his eyes crinkle.
“Girls, we were only stopping in to get out of the cold while I took the call. Let’s get going.”
“I’m actually on my way out too.” I slid out of the booth and left a ten on the table, as Liam’s girls all exited the row.
“You can walk with us, that way you feel safe,” Mila boasted, pushing through the diner’s glass door first.
I shoved my hands into my pockets as another gust of wind blew down Main Street. The sun was shining, and most of the snow had melted, but damn, with that wind, it didn’t seem to make any difference.
Liam slowed his steps, his brown boots scuffing the white sidewalk underneath us. I realized maybe he was waiting to find out if I would be joining them.
“Uh sure, thank you.” I muttered, then ducked my neck so my mouth would be covered by my coat.
“Are you going to Uncle Colson’s right now too?” Maddy asked, turning her head slightly to the left to catch my eye.
Liam glanced over once, then focused on the street ahead.
“Nope, I actually have to call in about my work and then I’m going next door to Nora’s house, that’s where I’m staying.”
“What do you work at?” Mila asked. I smirked at the wrong use of words, but it was cute so I didn’t correct her.
“I work from wherever my laptop is.”
Seraph twisted her head my way, her face scrunching in confusion. “Why don’t you stay at Uncle Cole’s house?”
The question slammed into me harder than the wind. It was such an innocent question, but a reminder just the same. How was I supposed to explain that my brother was slowly warming up to me, but wouldn’t be offering me his spare room any time soon? Maybe if I used Harry Potter references? I was like Harry, living under the stairs, but I didn’t have any powers or owls and I wasn’t the cousin…I was the little half-sister everyone hated.
“Uh.” I started, but Liam covered for me.
“Nora is out of town right now and asked if Haley would house-sit for her.”
All three girls muttered something like, “ohhhh.”
I turned my face to catch Liam’s gaze and mouthed the words, “Thank you.”
He didn’t respond, just kept walking.
We advanced down Main Street, a little further, but Liam still hadn’t said anything. It bugged me on a weird level. He was Colson’s best friend, so it only made sense that we had some kind of familiarity, but I didn’t want to feel like I had to push for it this hard. If he didn’t like me, or want anything to do with me, it was honestly fine, but I knew his girls would be around Colson a lot and I had every intention of being around my brother just as often. We were going to have to get used to one another. I wanted to say as much to him, but now his face was drawn tight as he stared at his cell phone, so I kept my mouth shut.
Finally, we were in front of my SUV.
“Well, thanks for making sure I got to my car nice and safe,” I said mostly to Mila.
She waved, and sweetly said, “You’re welcome.”
Liam added, “Macon isn’t really dangerous though, just so you know.”
“But she’s a girl all alone, you always tell us to never be alone in the town.” Maddy asked, furrowing her dark brows.
I laughed, loving how complicated this had gotten and how fast. Kids were funny.
Opening my door, and hopefully helping end the questions, I politely said. “Bye guys, I’ll see you around.”
Then I shut myself inside and waved through the window then let out a sigh as I watched the back of Liam’s wool sweater disappear around the corner.
I felt so out of place here in this town, and Liam’s standoff attitude only hammered that home. The reminder that it had taken Colson three days to finally speak to me after I arrived in Macon resurfaced, making me blush with shame. I should have left by day two, but I had nowhere to go.
I burned a bridge with my parents by following Cole to Oregon. My dad had tried to undercut Cole in the purchase of a company…I ratted him out, then bought the company myself. Now I was here because I felt guilty about how royally, not only our dad, but my mother had screwed him over. Don’t even get me started on what my mother did to Cole’s poor garden. They were written out of my life for good, and I wasn’t going back.
While the seats and steering wheel warmed, and I worked to shake off my thoughts, my phone connected to the cars Bluetooth and began playing my voice messages.
A nasally voice filled the car as the message played.
“Hello Ms. Hanes, this is Daniel from Hush Shoes. I work with Clyde in the San Francisco Office…anyway, sorry to bother you, but Clyde is out sick, and his assistant seemed unsure of who the next chain of command aside from you is. Clyde was working on getting a management team set up, but I believe he’s still in the interview process. Anyway, can you give me a call at your earliest convenience?”
I hit call on Daniel’s contact while I began navigating out of the parking space and headed towards Nora’s.
“Ms. Hanes, thank you for calling me back so quickly.” Daniel answered on the first ring.
I had met the man last fall and he was nice enough, but I was focused. “Daniel, what happened to Bryant James?”
There was a pause and a few papers that had shuffled around. “He’s no longer apart of Hush Shoes.”
I signaled at a four-way stop, letting out a heavy sigh.
“How long has Clyde been out?”
More shuffling echoed along with a few muttered whispers. I could imagine a frantic search going on around Daniel’s desk as the junior associates tried to piece together the leadership of this new company. I had purchased Hush Shoes only six months ago, but Clyde and Bryant were already set in place to run it. As far as I knew, things were going well. We’d just checked in on a conference call two weeks ago, I had no idea how so much had gone this wrong so fast.
“He’s been out for five days.”
I didn’t understand why they were suddenly flaking out when Hush Shoes was their company. I merely backed them as an investor. Maybe Clyde was just having cold feet, but our projections were up, the new shoe was set to launch within a few months and from the early responses we had in a few focus groups, the product was a hit. We already had three different celebrities on board with trying the product, and at least five thousand fashion influencers. For a low-level startup, we were doing great.
“I’ll call Clyde, for now you’re acting manager Daniel. Do you know what needs to be done?”
“Yes Mam. I just need approval for a few expenditures that exceed five thousand.”
I nodded, turning into Nora’s driveway. “Send everything to me, I’ll approve whatever you need, just keep things on track.”
Shoving the gear into park, I let out another sigh.
“And Daniel, stop calling me Mam. I’m Haley or Ms. Hanes.”
“You got it, Ms. Hanes.”
Our call disconnected and I sunk against my headrest.
While the timing was terrible, there was something soothing about work. The ease and finesse of knowing exactly what to say and what to do next. I knew when I graduated that I would walk in my father’s footsteps. It came so naturally to me; it was why I began shadowing his associates and tagging along in board meetings and hopping onto all of his business calls. Why I put up with as much as I have over the years being as young as I am in an industry full of sharks and monsters.
I learned that Blair was right, I was a tool…and a sharp one at that. I trained and studied. I hustled and obtained my BBA, kept my head down and helped dad as he needed me. Then I discovered something about my father, and everything changed.
He had been opening shell companies in his children’s names for years, straining lines of credit and setting us as the CEOs without our knowledge, all to pad his ventures and expand the purse strings of his own wallet. I learned how to take control of those companies, and how to cut away the fat, just like Blair taught me.
I controlled everything, took the money in them and created an empire, all under my father’s nose. My father’s associates learned what had happened and since I had started running things at eighteen, most of them became myassociates. Gunther, one of my father’s oldest friends was my mentor and had been helping me smooth out the areas I wasn’t familiar with. But because I was only twenty years old, I leaned on him a lot.
My age didn’t prevent me for reaching for every single thing on the table in business meetings but at home, in my own life? I felt insecure, tiny. Unsure of what the future would hold and how I’d look in five years. Did I want a family? A husband…kids? My chest felt cold as the familiar numb feeling swept through me. I had no clue.
I just wanted to matter and make a difference somewhere, and for now that would have to be enough. Maybe I could carve a life out here…maybe I’d be that sharp knife Blair talked about but instead of cutting or helping my family, I’d be able to create a space where I could matter.
I had to stop overthinking things and get busy. Exiting the car, I made my way along the shoveled path to Nora’s house and eyed the one next door.
My brother Colson was home, and while he’d started warming up to me, I was still hesitant to head over unless I had something to offer him. So, I trudged inside Nora’s freezing cold house and decided to start baking.
Right as I set my purse down on the counter, my phone rang.
“Hey!” I answered.
Nora sounded like she usually did, sad.
“Hey, I just wanted to check in.”
Nora was not only my brother Colson’s girlfriend, but she was also the owner of the house I was currently staying in. She had a spare room and told me to stay as long as I wanted.
She was one of the good ones. I knew because I was practically a pro at picking out the bad ones.
Colson lived right next door. Which has given me ample opportunity to elbow my way into his life.
“Things are good, I haven’t burned anything down.” I joked, eyeing the oven. The first time I burned a dish of food, I had called her because it did sort of catch on fire. She assured me it was fine, and that I hadn’t ruined anything, but I had to keep the windows open for a long time. She doesn’t know this, but I checked into a hotel that night because it was too damn cold to stay here.
She laughed softly.
“Good, well I just wanted to tell you that I’m still unsure of my plans. I feel like it might be time to come back, but I don’t know. It’s so peaceful up here…”
We were going on seven days since she’d left. Colson was a mess, but I didn’t know either of them well enough to get involved.
“Well, do whatever you feel is right. Things are good here. I’m fine. The house is good.” I trailed off, not wanting to mention my brother.
“Okay, well I’ll text you again in a few days. I should know by then when I’ll be coming back.”
“Okay, sounds good, and Nora?”
I slammed my eyes shut, digging my fingers into the counter.
“Colson misses you, but he’s okay. Take the time you need, okay?”
She waited a second, sniffed and with a wobbly voice, replied. “Okay, thanks Haley.”
Now, how the heck did I get the house to feel a little warmer?