Page 25 of Arrogant Devil

I basically acquire an entire wardrobe for $18.25, and then we head to the back corner where home goods and knickknacks are piled up, one on top of another.

I crack my knuckles, accepting the challenge. By this point, I am a scary good negotiator.

“Hey Robert! Robbie! There’s a little stain on the corner of this rug. I’ll take it off your hands for $5!”

Between you and me, the stain is minimal and nothing I can’t scrub out once I get home.

“How bad is it?” he hollers back, too lazy to get up from behind the counter.

“I think it’s blood! It’s probably evidence from some horrible crime—”

“Fine! I’ll give ya half off.”

I turn to Edith, eyes wide. “Edith,” I hiss. “That’s six bucks!”

I add the blue Moroccan-style rug to my growing pile of purchases, along with a little antique lamp and a worn wooden stool I want to use as a bedside table. It looks artfully distressed, which makes me laugh. I know people back in Beverly Hills who pay interior designers thousands of dollars for furniture like the stuff I’m finding in this hole-in-the-wall shop.

When I happen upon an antique mirror that looks straight out of an Anthropologie catalogue, I bring out the big guns. It was originally marked at $25, and I wear Robert down to $10 (“Think of it as a new-in-town discount!”). Edith throws me a conspiratorial thumbs-up, and I decide to call it a day. I feel like I’m basically robbing the place at this point. Besides, the cute picture frames (4 for $1) we pass on the way to the register aren’t necessary. Edith tries to convince me to get them, but I tell her we have enough stuff as is. In reality, I’m just too embarrassed to tell her I have no one I’d want to fill them with. My parents? Hard pass. A ripped-down-the-middle photo from my wedding? Yeah, I’m good. I seriously consider just keeping the generic stock photo of a family enjoying a beach day. It’s tempting, but too sad even for me. Plus, the kid’s eyes follow me wherever I move—no thanks.

We load up my purchases in the truck and then I hop in, ready for lunch.

“What are you doing?” Edith asks, standing out on the sidewalk with her hands on her hips.

I pause in buckling my seatbelt. “Aren’t we going to eat now?”

We better be. All that deal-making really worked up my appetite.

“Yeah”—she points across the street—“the diner’s right over there.”

I chuckle and hop out of the truck. Small towns, man. It’s crazy. Every place we’ve gone to this morning has been located in the town square—a sight I haven’t really admired until now. It’s another adorable movie set, just like the ranch. There’s no other way to describe how old-world and quaint everything is. The buildings are historic and stately, but they’re filled with antique shops and clothing stores, a bakery, a coffee shop, a dentist, and a handful of boutiques that are probably more hobbies than businesses. I spot an independent bookstore and make a mental note to stop there after lunch. We pass a bustling restaurant, but Edith shakes her head.

“Love that bistro—best chicken salad in town—but I’m in the mood for something greasy.”

We continue around the square toward the diner, passing a gourmet cookware store and a wine tasting room. People are everywhere, strolling through the shops and enjoying the late-morning weather before the blazing sun hits full force. Quite a few of them are gathered in the center of the square, where a well-manicured park surrounds a gleaming limestone courthouse. There are kites in the air and adorable children running around giggling. Parents are smiling. In one corner of the park, beneath a shady oak tree, an ice cream vendor sells chocolate-dipped cones as fast as he can make them. It’s all so cute, it feels slightly like the start of a thriller. Any minute now, we’ll all look up to the sky as a meteor or UFO spells our doom, or a horde of zombies will rush in and start gnawing through cowboy boots.

“Is there a festival going on this weekend or something?”

Edith shakes her head. “There’s a barbecue cook-off in a few weeks. Don’t think there’s anything special going on today though.”

“So the town square’s always this packed on a Saturday?”

She follows my gaze, not as impressed as I am. “People drive down from around the hills looking for a weekend getaway. It’s the way it’s always been—country folk make a big to-do out of going into the city, while city slickers look for an escape out here.”

She says slickers like it’s a bad word, and I can’t help but smile.

“Blue Stone has a hotel of its own, right?”

She nods. “It’s nestled beside the vineyard, booked up a year in advance these days thanks to all the weddings.”

There’s a short wait at the diner, and as we’re seated in a booth by the window, I’m still thinking about the scene I saw outside and considering whether or not I could ever live in Cedar Creek permanently. There’s no mall or movie theater within 50 miles. I haven’t seen a yoga studio, and Edith confirms there isn’t one. If I stayed here, I’d probably miss the amenities of living in a place like Los Angeles, but I still can’t help but think that people here might have figured something out. Small town life looks pretty great.

With that thought, I glance up at the adorable blonde teenager waiting to take my order.

Edith and I both order All-American Scrambles then pass off our menus.

I sit back against the cushioned booth and meet Edith’s studying gaze.

“So, you survived your first week,” she comments.

I smile. “Sure did.”

“Any scars?”

“From Jack?” I laugh. “No. He’s nothing I can’t handle.”

“He wasn’t always like this.”

“Like what?” I feign innocence.

She scowls and pours some creamer in her coffee. “Don’t bother sparing my feelings. We both know my grandson is stubborn as a mule and kicks like one too. Won’t listen to a damn thing I tell him these days—”

“What changed?”

She looks up at me, confused. “Huh?”

“You said he didn’t used to be like this.”

“Ah.” She nods thoughtfully and sips her coffee before replying. “You probably ought to be hearing this from Jack, but he’ll never tell you, so I’ll just have to do it. When he was a junior in college, his parents passed away in a car accident out on I-38. He was only 20, and I know that might not seem all that young to you, but we were a close-knit family and he didn’t have any brothers or sisters. Still a kid, really. He should have been worrying about tests and goofing off with his friends. Instead, he had to cope with their passing while struggling with the newfound responsibility he wasn’t quite ready for: running Blue Stone. I tried to do my best to soften the blow, but the fact is, the day they died, the ranch and everything that went with it became his responsibility to bear.”

“How’d he handle it?”

Her focus is on her coffee as she continues, as if she can’t look me in the eye while she divulges details about Jack’s life. “He buckled down in school, graduated a year early. He was damn near ready to drop out and move home, but I made him finish. I knew he’d regret it otherwise.”

“Was he in over his head when he got here?”

She moves her gaze out the window as if recalling that time. “You know, as crazy as it sounds, that boy hit the ground running and never looked back. It had never been the plan for him to enter the family business so young, but he’d worked with his dad enough over the summers to know how the business worked. Not to mention, his grandpa and dad never went to college, so he was actually more prepared to take up the reins than he realized.”

I’m impressed. Even at twenty-eight, I don’t think I’d be able to do what he’s done.

“It’s come at a cost though,” she continues, guilt laced in her tone. “He’s not that same lighthearted kid he used to be. I think that part of him died with his parents on the highway that day.”

I cast my eyes down to the table. “I’m sure. There’s no way that kind of loss doesn’t change a person.”