Authors: Diann Hunt
Ellie stared at her, willing herself to breathe.
Cole grabbed Ellie’s arm. “No problem. Any chance we could get a couple of frappecinos while we wait?” he asked with a wink.
“As a matter of fact, I just made two frappes and one latte. The two frappes were for customers who left before I finished making them. The latte is for me.” She flashed her braces.
“Great,” he said, helping Ellie to her feet.
“I’ll get the drinks. You grab the radio off the counter, and we’ll all meet in the ladies’ restroom,” Brace Girl said, practically breathless with excitement.
Why were they acting as though they were going to a party? Didn’t they know how dangerous tornadoes in Indiana could be?
Cole could feel Ellie’s arm trembling beneath his fingers as he escorted her to the ladies’ room. A reaction to the storm, no doubt. She must have a past history with tornadoes. Though she drove him crazy most days, he couldn’t help wanting to protect and calm her just now. They had that sort of push-pull relationship.
“You okay?” he asked Ellie once he helped her sit on one of the chairs he brought into the room.
Not looking at him, she nodded. He reached for her hand. “Ellie, everything will be okay.”
“I know. I’m fine,” she said, lifting her head to look at him. Her voice and her eyes told him otherwise.
“Here we go,” the employee said, bringing in a tray of drinks with all the grace of a perfect hostess. She passed them out, then scrunched down to turn on the radio.
The trio listened, quietly sipping their drinks, while the announcer told of fallen trees, downed wiring, scattered debris.
“Looks like we’ll have to stay put awhile,” the girl said. “By the way, I’m Amy,” she offered with a smile.
“Hi, Amy. My name is Cole, this is Ellie.”
Ellie raised her head and smiled. “I can’t believe we’re sipping frappes in the ladies’ room while a tornado hurls overhead. Kind of gives a whole new meaning to swirlies.” She smiled.
Cole laughed. “You mean where bullies at school dunk your head in the toilet and flush?”
She giggled and nodded.
“Don’t tell me you ever had one?”
“No. I was just hoping I don’t get one tonight.” She glanced over at the toilet and pointed toward the howling winds overhead.
Cole threw back his head and laughed some more. “Leave it to you to think of that!”
“I had a swirlie once,” Amy said. “I thought it was kind of cool.”
Ellie and Cole exchanged a glance and laughed. Amy joined them.
Just then Amy got a call on her cell phone. She went into the men’s restroom for privacy to talk.
“So you want to tell me why you’re especially afraid of tornadoes?” Cole probed.
“Oh, it’s nothing.”
“Come on, Ellie. Something happened to you as a kid.” His voice was soft and kind, seeming to offer just the encouragement she needed.
“We were at church. Dad was leading the music when someone ran into the church and screamed, ‘Tornado!’ I was about six at the time.”
“A loud sound, like a train, blared outside just before a huge wind pushed inside and forced my dad to the floor. In an instant, I screamed and Mom yanked me down under a pew with her. I closed my eyes, and held my hands hard against my ears. Mom held me tight while I wailed. I thought we were going to die.”
Cole watched her relive the past. He wanted to reach over and pull her into his arms, shield her from the memory.
“I don’t know how long we stayed there. I just remember when we finally got up, everything was deathly quiet. When Mom helped me from under the pew, I heard her gasp. Wallboard, plaster, debris everywhere. Fortunately, all the people had gathered under pews, so it didn’t look as though anyone was hurt. But then we looked on the platform where Dad had been standing. It was destroyed.” Ellie took a deep breath. Cole reached over and rubbed her hand.
“It’s okay, Ellie, you don’t have to talk about this if you don’t want to.”
“No, it’s all right. I heard Mom scream his name. Everyone started searching and there he was at the end of the church, rolled up in the carpet! He later told us when the tornado hit, it uprooted the carpet, causing him to fall right into it. The carpet rolled down the aisle with Dad inside.” She laughed. “It’s funny now, but at the time, I was terrified.” She grew serious. “They told us the carpet saved his life.” Reaching over, she grabbed some tissue and wiped her eyes. “We knew God had spared him.”
“Wow. That’s some story, Ellie.” Cole squeezed her hand. “No wonder tornadoes frighten you. I’m sorry.”
She shrugged. “I can’t hear about tornadoes without thinking of that night. Truly, it turned out to be a night of thankfulness. Miraculously, no one was hurt. Of course, our church was ruined.”
Amy stepped back into the room. “It was my mom checking on us. She said the tornado has moved on, so it looks like the worst is past. We just have to be careful going home. Don’t go near the power lines.”
“Good advice, Amy. Thank you. Do you get to close shop now?”
She nodded. “My boss said when the threat was over, I could close the store.”
“Is your mom picking you up?”
“No, I drove.”
Cole looked surprised.
“I know, everyone thinks I’m twelve, but I’m really twenty-two.”
“We’ll stick around till you get everything done, and see you out to your car.”
“What do we owe for these frappes?” Cole asked.
“They’re on the house,” she called over her shoulder, already preparing things to leave.
“You want me to follow you home, Ellie, just to make sure you get there safely?”
“That’s not necessary, Cole.”
He shrugged. Knowing how independent she was, he didn’t want to push the matter. They threw away the coffee cups, gathered their things and headed toward their cars.
After saying goodbye, Cole climbed into his SUV and started the engine. Only after pulling into traffic did he realize he actually had a “date at the theater” with the elusive Ellie Williams.
rabbing her Monday-morning coffee, Ellie headed for her desk.
“I guess you heard the news?” Cole said with a bit of a bark to his voice.
“Good morning to you, too, Cole.” Ellie tossed a half smile and settled into her chair. She thought the least he could have said was that he’d had a nice time at the coffee shop Saturday night.
“Well?” He raised his hands, palms up.
“Well, what?” she asked, only slightly paying attention as she glanced through a file.
“Have you heard the news?”
“No, Cole, what news?” She really didn’t feel like playing this game. And she definitely didn’t like the edge to his voice.
“The tornado did extensive damage to the three homes in Woods Edge. Ripped roof sections off two of them, broke some windows, stripped off siding.”
She closed the file and looked up with a start.
“The one we started last week has to be totally reframed,” he said, clearly frustrated.
Ellie gasped, pulling her hand to her mouth.
He looked satisfied with her reaction. “Good thing we’re insured. Still, it’s going to put us behind in our deadlines. It will take a lot more effort on our part to get things up to speed.”
Terrific. He was stressed. She knew what that meant. More changes.
“I’m sorry, Cole. Is Jax okay?”
“Oh, sure, Jax is fine. He doesn’t want to deal with this. He—” Cole looked around. Ellie followed his gaze to see sales associates Tim Owens and Chad Brunner listening in. “Come to my office.”
Ellie grabbed a legal pad, pen and her coffee cup, then followed him to his office. Cole waited for her to step inside. He closed the door behind her. “Sit down, Ellie,” he said, nodding toward the chair.
Cole walked over behind his desk, sat in his chair and began cracking his knuckles, a sure sign he was upset. She watched him for a moment, waiting for him to say what was on his mind.
“Look, Ellie, I know you and Jax are good friends. Jax is my best friend, but the truth of the matter is, Jax wants out of this business. We both know that. He doesn’t want to deal with the tough things. That’s why he hired me.” He worked on a knuckle that refused to pop. “To tell you the truth, I don’t know that I want to handle this.”
Interesting situation, she thought. Here he was pouring out his troubles to her, a mere employee, and he the partner of the firm. She stopped her prideful thoughts. “What do you mean by that, Cole? Are you wanting to quit?”
His head jerked up. “No, I’m not a quitter,” he said, his voice sounding offended. “But I hadn’t expected Jax to ‘check out’—” he said, using air quotes, “—so soon.”
“Well, he hasn’t exactly checked out, has he? I mean, he’s still around most of the time.”
“True, but in body only. He sits in his office and studies for his classes. He leaves the decisions up to me, handling only the phone calls he’s forced to handle.”
“Well, after all, Cole, you did agree to be his partner.” Her voice sounded a little colder than she had intended. Was she basically saying, “You made your bed, now lie in it”? She knew she should feel ashamed, but there was a teensy bit of “na-na-na-na-boo-boo” going on in the darkest corners of her heart.
He glared at her. “Thanks for the reminder.”
Against her better judgment, she went soft. “I’m sorry, I just don’t know why you’re telling me this. I mean, what do you want me to do?” Sounded to her like Cole and Jax needed to talk things over.
“I don’t know,” he said with a sigh. “I’m not one to give up on a project without seeing it through to completion—”
She threw him an oh-really look, which he didn’t miss. He held up his hand. “I know I have a reputation for having a commitment problem, but I do see my projects through to completion. I
professional.” His tone was slightly defensive.
She shrugged, a smile tugging at the corner of her lips. For the life of her, she tried not to enjoy this little moment of having the upper hand, but she couldn’t help herself. He was the partner, but he was asking her for advice. She settled into her seat, sipped from her coffee cup, and decided this particular Monday had definite potential.
“But I’m a little frustrated by his less-than-enthusiastic contributions to help me. I know he’s anxious to do the school thing, but I feel as if he’s dropped his baby at my doorstep and walked away.”
“I still don’t know why you’re telling me instead of Jax.”
He stared at her a full moment. “You’re right. I need to talk to Jax. I guess I just needed to vent to someone else first, and well, you’re the one who came to mind.”
She smiled, sort of. An uncomfortable feeling settled upon her. After all, Jax was her friend, and Cole, well, she wasn’t sure what he was, but she was sure she didn’t want to get in the middle of something between the two of them.
“Talk to him, Cole. But don’t worry about the houses, we’ll be all right. We’ll just put the appropriate people in place and get things moving.”
“Ellie, I don’t think you’re taking this seriously. We have contracts. Due dates on those homes. We have to get them finished. On time. Do you understand that?”
Okay, now he was getting her dander up. Seems he had a knack for that. He obviously thought she had dismissed the whole matter too easily. “Cole, I think I can understand that. I’ve been in this business awhile, even though you think I’m not capable of handling—”
“Look, Ellie, this is not about you. This is about—”
“Who said it was about me?” She rose from her chair, chin lifted a notch.
“Now hold on. Sit down, Ellie.”
Just who did he think he was, ordering her around? She swallowed hard. Oh, yeah; he was her supervisor. Reluctantly, she settled back into her chair.
“I don’t mean to argue with you. I just mean—” he ran fingers through his hair “—I don’t know what I mean.”
So the mighty partner was stumped. What was the big deal? They were under a time constraint. She had dealt with those before. It wasn’t the end of the world. “We’ll get through it. Don’t worry.” She tried to make her voice gentle and encouraging, but she wanted to bonk him on the head. Men could be so stubborn. She felt a prick to her conscience. Okay, so she could be stubborn, too, but she didn’t want to go there just now.
She stood to her feet. “Talk to Jax,” she said as she walked across the room. Before closing his office door, she glanced back. Cole stared out the window, his brows drawn together, chin resting in the palm of his hand.
Her insides went soft. Again.
Two days later, Ellie noticed Jax in his office. A textbook was opened in front of him on the desk. She decided to stop and say hello; she hadn’t talked to him in a while. “Got a minute?”
He glanced up, and a smile lit his face, his shoulders relaxed. “Sure. Come in,” he said, stretching back in his chair and yawning.
“Studying hard, huh?”
He nodded and thumped forward in his chair. “I’ve forgotten how tough it is to be in school.” He rubbed his eyes then looked at her. “So, how’s it going?” Before she could answer, he continued, “I’m sorry I’ve been kind of scarce these days.”
She waved off his comment. “No problem. I understand you’re working hard with school and all. I just wanted to see how you were doing.”
He nodded. “Thanks. It’s going pretty well.” He told her about his classes, discussing the challenges of going back to school.
After some small talk, she stood to go. “Well, I don’t want to keep you. Just wanted to say hello.” She walked toward the door and turned back to him. “By the way, sorry about the houses, but I don’t think it will be a problem to get them up and going again.”
“Yeah, you know, the ones in Woods Edge that were damaged by the tornado.”
He looked as though he’d just been doused with cold water. Uh-oh, she hoped she wasn’t out of line. “I’m sorry, Jax. I thought you knew.” She walked back over and sat down.
Jax blinked his surprise. “No, can’t say that I did. I mean, I knew about the tornado and that it hit that side of town. I just hadn’t considered it hit our houses. Now I understand why Tim and Chad got quiet when I walked in on them talking about it. I just didn’t get it. Wonder why Cole didn’t tell me.”
She stammered. “Well, he’s been working hard to get the matter taken care of. He probably didn’t want to burden you with it,” she said, meaning it.
He seemed to consider the information and rubbed his jaw. “How bad are they?”
She did not like the way this discussion was going at all. She’d assumed Cole had talked to him. Well, maybe Cole would appreciate her softening the blow. Besides, Jax had a right to know. This was his business after all. She explained the extent of damage.
“I still can’t figure out why Cole hasn’t told me,” he said, clearly perplexed.
“Look, Jax, he’s been really busy working—”
“Still.” He rubbed his jaw some more. “I don’t like being kept in the dark about things.”
“I’m sure he was trying to spare you while you’re busy with school.”
He looked at her a moment, then his face brightened. “Yeah, you’re probably right. I just don’t want Cole to think I’m not available, and well, I’m not ready for him to take over entirely just yet. I have school bills to pay.”
“I don’t think he wants to do that.”
“I’d better go talk to him.”
She thought a moment. “He was going to the Barnes’ job site, and said he’d be back this afternoon. Besides, you’d better let him come to you. I don’t want him to think I was going over his head or anything. I just assumed he had already talked to you.”
Jax looked down at the pencil he tapped nervously on his desk. “I’ll give him till tomorrow,” he finally said, looking up.
Ellie nodded and stood to her feet. “Well, I’d better get back to work,” she said with more calm than she felt.
She smiled, but her stomach felt as if she’d been to an all-you-can-eat burrito buffet. Stepping out of Jax’s office, Ellie turned in the hall, nearly running into Cole. “Oh, hi.” One look at his hardened face and angry eyes told her he wasn’t feeling sociable.
“You want to tell me what that was all about?” he asked, folding his arms across his chest.
Had he overheard them? “I don’t know what you mean, Cole,” she answered, mad that her voice was trembling.
He tugged her arm, edging her farther down the hall, away from Jax’s door. “What did you talk to him about?”
She felt herself tense. Boy, try to help somebody and all you get is heartache. “Look, Cole, I thought you had told him about the houses—”
“I didn’t,” he groused.
“Well, I found that out after—”
He smacked his forehead. “Great. Just great.” He glared at her. “I don’t believe you! I take you into my confidence, and you go running off to tattle the first chance you get.”
Her jaw dropped. “I was not tattling! I thought you had told him.
rational person would have thought the same. I was just assuring him the matter was taken care of.”
“I don’t need you, Ms. Williams, to back me up. I can stand on my own, thank you very much.”
“I was trying to help.”
“Don’t do me any favors.” He looked so deep into her eyes, she thought he’d bore a hole through her head. “Next time, I’ll be more careful in choosing someone to talk with.” He turned to go.
“Oh, Mr. Preston, about the theater?”
He turned back around to face her.
“I won’t be going.”
Ellie adjusted the earpiece to her cell phone and started her car engine.
The phone rang twice. “Hello?”
“Hey, Cheryl, do you have a minute?”
“Sure, I’m on lunch. What’s up?”
Ellie could hear Cheryl unwrapping her sandwich. “Tuna salad today?”
“No. I splurged. Roast beef sub. And before you say anything, I’ve been good for the past two days, so I’ve earned it—and the candy bar.”
Ellie laughed. “I’m not one to cast stones, believe me. If someone would come up with a chocolate diet, I’d be their poster child.”
“I hear ya,” Cheryl said as mannerly as possible while chewing her sandwich.
“Listen, I had to talk to someone. Cole is making me crazy.” Ellie waited for Cheryl to finish chewing. She thought a moment how thankful she was to be able to spend time with her best friend. She could talk to Cheryl about anything. Last year, when Cheryl had decided to attend night classes after her day job as a paralegal, they had hardly seen each other. So when Cheryl had announced school was not for her, though feeling a bit selfish, Ellie was relieved.
“Him again? What’s up with you two? One minute, you’re friends, the next minute, well—” She stopped and Ellie could hear her take another bite.
“Oh, I know it.” Ellie turned left at the traffic light. “I messed up big-time today. I didn’t mean to, though.”
“Uh-oh, doesn’t sound good. Want to meet for coffee tonight?”
“Could we? I really could use someone to talk to.”
“You got it.”
“Will Mark mind?” Ellie asked, though she knew Cheryl’s husband probably wouldn’t.
Cheryl took a drink of something. “Sorry,” she finally said. “No, he won’t mind. He has a church board meeting.”
“Oh, great. Meet you at six-thirty, Tasty Grounds?”
“See you then.”
Ellie clicked off her phone, thankful for a friend who was always there for her.
After picking up their coffee, Ellie and Cheryl made their way to the table.
“Mmm, I love this place,” Ellie said.
Cheryl smiled. “Yeah, me, too. And to think I didn’t even drink coffee until they started with all the flavored stuff. Now, I’m a caramel latte junkie.”
“Tell me about it. Who would have thought chocolate and coffee would fit like tea and sugar?” Ellie laughed before taking a sip of her mocha. “I say chocolate plus anything equals a delightful experience.”
“You should do a commercial. And speaking of delightful experiences, you want to tell me the problem with you and lover boy?” Cheryl’s eyes twinkled.
“For crying out loud, Cheryl, don’t call him that,” Ellie snapped.