Kitchi Falls, Finger Lakes, New York
“I’ve got it, Jamie. You go ahead. Your mom is waiting.”
I watched as nine-year-old Jamie bounded up the hill to the makeshift dirt parking lot. Finishing tying off the boat, I waved one last time at Jamie, who jumped into the passenger seat of an old Ford pickup truck. Refusing to cry because his mom died last year. Every time the sweet little kid mentioned his “mama” I had to hold back the floodgates.
Of course, this wasn’t unusual.
I cried at a lot of things. Always had. The other night I was watching a rom-com, one that was supposed to be more funny than sad, and needed a half box of tissues when the couple broke up. If nothing else, I was a source of amusement among my friends.
“Why do you look like you’re about to cry?”
Speaking of friends.
“Where the heck did you come from?” I asked Charlee.
“The lake, silly. I came in from the lake like a mermaid right in front of your eyes. You didn’t see me?”
Smiling, I turned back around to where Jamie’s father’s pickup had been a few minutes before. In its place, not surprisingly, was Charlee’s car.
“Funny. I didn’t even hear you pull up.”
“Probably because you were staring so intently out into the lake. Penny for your thoughts?”
“Without wine? No way.”
Charlee lifted a wine tote. “Just need some glasses.”
“Be right back.”
By the time I returned from the wooden shed where the boats were stored, Charlee was sitting on one of the Adirondack chairs opening the wine. Her fiancée had a five-hour tattoo today that didn’t require her help, so the two of us had decided an impromptu day-drinking session was in order.
I held out one of the two wine glasses, and Charlee poured.
“It still cracks me up that you keep full-on wine glasses in there.” She nodded to the shed.
“Pfft. As if I’d have us drinking out of plastic cups. Here you go,” I said, holding out the second glass.
“To impromptu day drinking,” she said, holding up her glass.
“And a beautiful spring day.” I clinked her glass before sitting down—not an easy feat, getting myself into an Adirondack chair with a full wine glass.
“That is so on-brand for you.”
“What can I say? Nature lover at heart.”
“A good quality for a conservationist.” Charlee extended her legs out and tilted her face up to the sun. “How’s your marshland project going?”
“It’s going. Mostly stalled at the moment, but that’s the story of my life.”
“Any word about that developer you were telling Zoe and me about last week?”
Zoe was the third of four spokes on our friendship wheel but couldn’t make it today courtesy of a surprised weekend getaway from her boyfriend. It was rare for the two of them to go out of town for a night, especially on a weekend, since Nate owned the local bar on Main Street. But Zoe had been so busy at work the past two months, he somehow made it happen.
“Nothing besides what I told you guys. I thought for sure the regulatory requirement report in January was the nail in the proverbial coffin. So I have no idea where all this is coming from.”
“Strange. You don’t think it will gain legs, do you?”
“I dunno. My boss seems a little more concerned than I’d like.”
“I just don’t get it. How can you purchase and develop protected land? Isn’t that, like, an oxymoron?”
The optimist in me wouldn’t let me dwell on the fact that, technically speaking, Charlee was right. “Sort of. But I have faith it’ll work out. No way he’ll be allowed to develop this.” I waved my hand to the wide-open space in front of us. “Do you remember how long it took for me to get permission to use it for the lessons?”
“Free lessons,” she added. “A give-back to the community. You’d think that would have been a no-brainer. But yeah, I remember. And have to hand it to you. I’d have given up. What a pain in the balls.”
Taking a sip of wine, I chuckled. “Lucas’s colorful army language is rubbing off on you.”
“Oh god, please no. Some of the things that come out of his mouth would make a truck driver blush.”
“And I have to hand it to you. Not sure I could date a guy like Lucas. Those military types are way too disciplined for me.”
Charlee laughed. “What’s wrong with being disciplined? That’s a good quality, no?”
“Sure. For some. But put a guy like that together with someone like me? No bueno.”
Charlee nearly spit out her wine. “I just tried to imagine it. You’re right. That would never work.”
“I bet you have to make your bed, don’t you?”
“I made my bed before Lucas.”
“Did you really?”
“Yes. Don’t you?”
“Hell no. So that I could mess it again at night?”
“No, so you can come into your bedroom with the sense of calm and order a made bed gives you. Plus, they say it’s a small accomplishment that sets the tone for the day.”
I pointed to the lake, where a duck and her ducklings swam past. “Look at that. And their wake, the way the water ripples behind them. Nature. The only sense of calm I need.”
Like a good friend, Charlee watched the ducks for way longer than she probably wanted to. “To each his, or her, own. But yeah, you and Lucas probably wouldn’t make it. Speaking of. . .”
“How did you know what I was going to ask?”
“Are you kidding? I’m surprised it wasn’t the first thing you asked me.”
“It was that bad?” she asked of my date the night before.
“Worse. I deleted every single dating app on my phone.”
“No you didn’t.”
“Ugh. Swiping was so much fun.”
“For you, because you don’t actually have to go out on dates with these assholes. For me, pure torture. I’m over it.”
“So what’s the new plan? Meet someone in Kitchi Falls as if you don’t know every single guy in town already?”
“Maybe a tourist?”
“Yeah, cause they’re great long-term boyfriend material.”
“I’ve done the long-term boyfriend thing and am over it. So yeah, that’s the plan. Weekend flings with hot tourists.”
She laughed. “There are soooo many of those too.”
“Maybe I’ll hang out with you and Lucas at the shop on weekends. There’s bound to be hot tourists getting tattoos at some point.”
“Sure. Even better plan.” Charlee shook her head at my ridiculousness as we fell into a companionable silence. Why couldn’t finding a man be as easy finding girlfriends? It was so much less complicated. “Tires or a dick,” I said out loud.
“I was just thinking of the saying, if they have tires or a dick, they’re bound to give you trouble.”
I might not have a boyfriend, but at least I had wine, my lake and the ability to make my friend laugh. All good enough for me.
“Shut. The fuck. Up.”
If there was anyone I didn’t expect to see in a town the size of Kitchi Falls, it was Gian DeLuca. But sure enough, there he was behind the bar.
“You’ve got to be shitting me,” Gian said, holding out his hand. I shook it, sitting down on a bar stool. “What the hell are you doing here?”
“Me? What are you doing bartending here in the Finger Lakes? Don’t you own a marketing firm or something?”
“Still Yuengling?” he asked.
“I do own a marketing firm.” He turned to a woman who’d just come out of the kitchen. “Can you get the bar for a bit? Old friend,” he said, gesturing toward me.
“Sure,” she said. Before happy hour, this would typically be a dead time for a bar. But on a nice day like this one in a tourist town? People were here to unwind, and it was busy, but not packed.
Pouring himself a beer, Gian joined me.
“A friend of mine owns this place. He took his girlfriend out of town for the night. Doing him a favor by helping out.”
“You talk like you live here.”
“I do. Moved up from Bridgewater.” My old friend smiled. “For a girl.”
“Ahhh, now the pieces are coming together. Where’s the girl?”
“Mazzie has her own bar down the street. Sort of a honky-tonk, live music and all.”
“So your friend owns a bar down the street from where your girlfriend owns another bar?”
“Small towns. You get it.”
I did. Grew up in the town next to Gian, and we met playing football. Hit it off right away and hung out all through high school. We stayed friends through college despite going to different schools but drifted apart when I enlisted.
“Unfortunately, I do. Still live in Maplewood. Like you, I moved back for a girl. But unlike you, it didn’t work out.”
“So what brings you to Kitchi Falls? Last I knew you were some big deal in the army. A Ranger, right?”
“Ranger in the 75th. Stayed in for eight years, but the last deployment nearly killed me. Literally. Was time to get out.”
“Shit. Were you hurt?”
“Repeatedly.” Rather than talk about a raid gone bad followed by an IED that nearly took me out, I changed topics. “Moved out near Pittsburg. Broke up with the girl when I caught her fucking her boss. Came back to Maplewood. Had a few good deals as a land developer, another long story. And here I am. Looking at acquiring some property on the lake.”
“Jesus. Her boss? Tough break.”
“For him, yeah.”
Gian smiled into his beer. “How does a business major and sergeant first class in the army get into land development?”
“I met a guy in Ranger school whose father made millions doing it. Seemed like as good a gig as any.”
“You can buy protected land?”
“Under the right circumstances, yes.”
“Hmm. Seems like that would upset a lot of people.”
“I’ve seen shit and dealt with some real scum over the years. Not upsetting a few tree huggers isn’t high on my list of priorities.”
“This is the Jamiee Jax who got his ass busted for being a candy striper at the hospital in college because he wanted to help people?”
I laughed. “First of all, motherfucker, I wasn’t a candy striper. I was a hospital intern. Second of all, I only got into it when Gram died and her roommate was alone. Or would have been if I hadn’t sat with her. It was a good deed. And third of all, I’m the Jamiee guy. Just a little more realistic.”
Gian looked skeptical. I could tell him I started a program at our local hospital when I moved back home, bringing volunteers in to sit with and read to lonely patients dying, but I knew I’d get my ass busted so I didn’t bother.
“Fair enough. So how long are you in town?”
“As long as the deal takes. A few weeks probably. Hard to say.”
“You’ll stay here the whole time?”
“Sure. I can afford to and it just makes things easier. Most of what I do is remote anyway.”
Gian’s genuine smile reminded me why I liked the guy so much. You couldn’t find a bigger bust-ass than him, and back in the day he was a cocky bastard too, but he seemed to have mellowed out a bit.
At least that made one of us.
“I’m happy to show you around town. Where you staying?”
“I rented a house on the lake less than a ten-minute drive from here. Nice place. I can see the appeal up here.”
“You’ve never been to the Finger Lakes before?”
“Once as a kid, but I think it was one of the other lakes. I’ll have to ask my mother.”
“How is she doing? And your brothers?”
We talked about my two brothers, one older and one younger, and Gian’s family, and shot the shit for long enough that the other bartender started to give Gian the evil eye.
“I better get back behind the bar. Don’t leave without giving me your number.”
I winked at him. “And I didn’t even have to buy you dinner.”
“You can buy me dinner.” She came from behind me. Generally I sat where no one could come from behind but there wasn’t a great spot at the bar for that. Plus, I knew she was there already. Her perfume smelled way too strong. And floral.
I wasn’t a flowers kind of guy. But exceptions could be made. This one was a beauty. Legs for days and tits I could happily bury myself in.
“Now why would I do that?” I teased her.
“Lots of reasons,” she said. Though I didn’t look away, from the corner of my eye I could see two of her friends sitting at a hightop watching us. “I’m Christina. What’s your name?”
There was absolutely nothing wrong with her. Slamming body. Pretty face. Probably a very good time, and it had been a few weeks courtesy of a job that never quit. But the monotony of it gave me pause. We’d fuck. She’d beg to see me again. I’d give her the slip. And if she was local, probably see her again out and about somewhere.
“Do you live here?” I asked without answering. “Or just passing by?”
“Local,” she said. “How about you.”
Figured. Just my luck.
“Just passing by. And unfortunately going to have to pass on the dinner too. Catching up with an old friend tonight,” I said, nodding to Gian.
She pouted. I hated women who pouted. One thing none of them realized? My discipline game was stronger than their tease game. This one was going to be a no. A good fuck wasn’t going to be worth the trouble in her case.
“You sure? I think we’d have a lot of fun. At. . . dinner.”
“I’m sure,” I said. “But thanks for the offer.”
She hesitated. I really didn’t want to go harder on the “no” but would if I had to. Thankfully, she made a face and walked away, back to her friends.
Gian came back to me.
“I’ve never once seen a man turn down Christina. Clearly you didn’t get the memo that she’s the hot ticket in town.”
“Oh, I got the memo alright. She all but read it to me.”
“You have a girlfriend now?” Gian asked.
I shook my head. “Nah. Just not my type.”
“Hmm.” Gian took my glass to refill it. “The military has changed you.”
“In more ways than one, buddy,” I said aloud. And then softer, to myself, “In more ways than one.”
PS. For my B&B readers…if you’re curious about Jax being inspired by, well, THE Jax…here’s what was in my head as I wrote the book.