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-The Complete Eagle Cove: five small town Oregon romances- Eagle Cove lies in the heart of the Oregon Coast. It’s the land of seagulls and sand pipers, of microbrewers and music, of judges who run diners and women who rebuild classic airplanes. Living alone deep in the woods here barely counts as being eccentric. Come join the romantic journey led by critically-acclaimed author M. L. Buchman (3x Booklist "Top 10 Romance Author of the Year" and many more). Let this unique collection of five charming love stories sweep you down to the stunning beaches of the Oregon Coast. These four novels (plus a short story) are The Complete Eagle Cove.
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The Complete Eagle Cove
5 small town Oregon romances
Return to Eagle Cove
Recipe for Eagle Cove
Longing for Eagle Cove
Keepsake for Eagle Cove
Lost Love Found in Eagle Cove (story)
byM. L. Buchman
Return to Eagle Cove
a small town Oregon romance
“Almost home, sweetie.”
“Oh joy,” Jessica Baxter tried to clamp down on her sarcasm. It was a bad habit that worked fine in her social set back in Chicago, but sounded more petty with each mile they drove toward the Oregon Coast. She slumped down in the passenger seat of her mom’s baby-blue Toyota hybrid. It still had that new car smell. As much as she’d dreamed of owning a hot sports car some day, she knew that she was enough her mother’s daughter that this was probably the exact sort of eminently sensible car she would buy when her VW Beetle finally gave up the ghost.
Just like her mom.
Maybe she’d get it in red to be at least a little different.
Jessica sighed again, keeping it to herself so that she wasn’t being overly offensive. Her mother was one of the many reasons that she’d gone as far away as possible for college and did her best to rarely return—she didn’t want to turn into her mother and it was too easy to imagine doing so if she’d stayed in the small town of Eagle Cove, Oregon.
They were like twins separated by twenty-two years. The two of them had been able to trade clothes since Jessica hit puberty and had shot up to match her mother’s slender five-foot-ten. Other than a very brief mistake of dying her hair black as part of a tenth-grade dare, which had turned her fair complexion past goth and into bloodless vampire, they were both light blond.
The one part of twin-dom that she couldn’t seem to pull off even though she wanted to was Mom’s casual-chic. Monica Baxter was always dressed one step above the world around her; not fancy, just really well put together. The closest Jessica ever managed was Bohemian-chic which wasn’t really the same thing, but she’d learned to make it her own. Of course, Bohemian was easier on the budget and often available in consignment stores which had only reinforced her chosen style.
Jessica did her best to not regress as they drove up into the Coast Range that separated the beach towns from the rest of Oregon…and failed miserably at that as well. She felt as if she was rapidly descending back toward being a pouty, pre-pubescent twelve from her present urban and worldly thirty-two.
Why did crossing the Oregon state line always take twenty years off her intelligence?
Maybe it was only Coast County. Because of the landscape the Oregon Coast felt incredibly far from anywhere. The Coast Range topped out at a mere four thousand feet high, but only a half dozen passes made it through the three hundred mile range of rugged hills that separated the beaches from the broad farming and industrial realm of the Willamette Valley. The interior of the state might as well be in a whole other country for how little it had in common with where she’d grown up.
“It’s so strange being back here,” Jessica rolled down the window and sniffed at the air. The scents were so rich and varied that they tickled. Bright with pine. Musty with undergrowth. Damp. A first hint of the sea.
“Well, it has been four years, honey. That’s bound to make it seem a bit odd. But I’m so glad that you came.”
“Me too, Mom.” Better. She managed to say it as if she meant it, however unlikely that might be. Chicago fit her like a…but it didn’t. The city was…something she was not going to give a single thought to for the next eight days. If she didn’t fit there and she didn’t want to fit in Eagle Cove, Oregon, then where did she belong?
Jessica breathed in deeply this time, trying to clear her thoughts with the fresh air of the Coast Range and nearly choked herself on how green everything smelled. The harsh slap of the mountains was almost an affront. The two-lane road dove and twisted along narrow corridors sliced through towering spruce and Douglas fir trees. The babies were sixty feet high along the shoulder as the car twisted up toward the pass; the mother trees behind them were much, much bigger.
And it wasn’t just the trees that were lush. As they wound deeper into the Coast Range, each branch became covered with mosses and lichens. It soothed her eyes, so used to towering concrete and glass, with a living tapestry of greens, golds, and silvers. Beneath the trees grew an impenetrable tangle of salal and scrub alder. Old barns on the roadside didn’t have shingle roofs, they had moss ones; some of them were covered inches thick. Many RVs, left unattended in front yards for too long, had a sheen of green growth on their north side.
“I really want to hate this,” the Coast Range had three times the rainfall of Chicago, often surpassing a hundred inches a year. She expected to feel the weight of all that biomass crashing down on her shoulders, but instead she noticed the start of a disconcerting lightness as if coming home was a good thing. Jessica did not like that encroachment of pending appreciation, perhaps even enjoyment, upon her true feelings. “But it smells so good. Like sunshine and new growth.”
Her mother’s laugh was amused as they twisted along the two-lane road slowly climbing up a narrow valley.
“I didn’t mean to say that out loud.”
“But you said it anyway.”
“Not helping, Mom.”
Thankfully her mother’s laugh said that she had understood Jessica’s response as a tease. Which it mostly was, partly.
Jessica didn’t want to like coming back to the coast. She didn’t have small-town dreams. That was the main reason she’d left Eagle Cove. She had big city dreams…which weren’t exactly coming together for her despite her efforts over the last fourteen years. But scurrying home wasn’t going to fix those. And the selection of men in such a tiny town was, to put it kindly, pitiful. Puffin High—
Why they hadn’t called it Eagle High in Eagle Cove was a subject of heated debate by every single class.
Puffin High’s problem was that she knew every male her age all too well. The only reason the town had its own high school was that it was too far away from everywhere else for busing to make sense. Her senior class had just thirty-four students. Grades seven through twelve numbered under two hundred. And she knew far too much about every single one of them.
Even more obnoxiously invasive on her sense of right and wrong, instead of dumping rain, it was a perfect day. The sun sparkled down revealing a thousand shades of green in the living walls that lined the road. The air coming through the open window was thick with pine sap and the gentle tang of rotting undergrowth. There was so much oxygen in the air that it made her feel a little giddy.
Yes, a perfect day, if she’d been alone…and still in Chicago.
“I could have rented a car and saved you the drive, Mom.” Actually, her budget had been thrilled when her mother had offered to come and fetch her. Also, once in Eagle Cove there wasn’t a lot of use for a car, except when the rain poured down. The whole town was only a few miles long and she could walk most places she’d want to go. As if there were any old haunts that she’d care to revisit. She’d made good her escape to Northwestern University’s School of Journalism at eighteen but every now and then the town still sucked her back.
“Nonsense, honey. I’m always glad to drive up and get you. Besides, I needed a few things for the wedding.”
“How many is this?” As if she didn’t know. It took much of her journalistic skill to keep “that judgmental tone” out of her voice. Something her early teachers had dinged her on until she’d learned to eradicate it. But since she was regressing as they neared the coast, it was trying to make a comeback.
“Because I love the man.” Her mother actually glanced away from the road to offer her a scowl. “I’d have thought that was obvious.”
“It is. But you’ve divorced him three times.”
“Because your father can drive a woman bat-shit crazy without even trying.” They giggled together because that was an absolute truth about Ralph Baxter.
“I meant, why marry him again? You’re both legal age, your daughter lives in Chicago,” and wouldn’t complain if she lived on another planet entirely. “Just shack up together. Then you can lock the door whenever Daddy becomes too much like himself.”
Ralph Baxter was always getting caught up in monster projects. Without a word of warning he would suddenly rip out the entire kitchen, once on the morning before a dinner party, because he’d thought of a better way to design it. Or he’d start building a new boat from scratch in the middle of the driveway, rather than in the generous side yard, which blocked parking near the house for months.
“Oh, honey. I’m too old fashioned a girl to ‘just shack up’.”
Which was almost believable, even in the twenty-first century. To hear Aunt Gina—who despite her name was as not-Italian as a pastrami sandwich—tell it, Monica Lamont had chosen Ralph Baxter as her sweet sixteen love. She’d never even shopped around. How 1950s was that for a woman who hadn’t even been born then?
Jessica had shopped plenty, or at least window-shopped. She’d found only a few men worth the cost of trying on for size. Definitely not a one worth taking home to keep. She might look like her mom, all blond, tall, and waiflike—which she kind of hated though the men seemed to like it—but inside she wanted to be like Aunt Gina.
Luigina Lamont looked nothing like her twin sister…or Grandpop…or much like Grandma for that matter. She was a statuesque redhead, in every voluptuous sense of the word and completely lived up to her name: Luigina meant “Famous Warrior.” Her merry laugh slapped up against you at the most unexpected moments and constantly poked at your ticklish spot until you were curled up on the couch begging her to stop. Unlike Mom and her serial marriages to the same man, Gina brought home plenty yet had only tried to keep one.
That “unholy disaster” (as the family tales described it) had produced Natalya Daphne Lamont—Jessica’s three-hour-older (and Natalya never let her forget it) first cousin and best friend. Just like Gina, Natalya didn’t look like either her mom or Gina’s brief husband. Maybe that was hereditary on that side of the family to balance out how much Jessica resembled her own mom and their shared grandma. Jessica had a sudden flash of her own future daughter looking just like her…and felt the world spin just a little at thinking about children at all.
“If I hadn’t seen her come out between my legs myself,” Aunt Gina would announce loudly, “I’d have thought I adopted the kid. Maybe I signed up to be a surrogate then forgot all about it.”
Mom blushed every time Aunt Gina let that one loose in public, without understanding that if she didn’t, Aunt Gina would have stopped long ago.
“Such an exotic offspring deserves an exotic name. Natalya for the Russian Bond girl in GoldenEye and Daphne for du Maurier the romance writer, not the nymph who had to turn into a tree to escape that lusty jerk Apollo.” The fact that GoldenEye hadn’t come out until Natalya had already been in grade school hadn’t changed Aunt Gina’s story one bit.
Maybe Jessica’s own child would be lucky and take after Cousin Natalya who was slender like Jessica, but had all of the curves Jessica had prayed for throughout her teenage years but never been granted. Natya was also dusky skinned like a permanent tan and leggy like some French model. Jessica’s and her mom’s fairy light hair and Aunt Gina’s mass of red curls had been transformed to a smooth cascade of dark chestnut on her cousin. Yet she and Jessica felt like twins from different mothers: one light, one dark, but much the same on the inside.
Jessica smiled at the sign as they cleared Maxine Pass: eight-hundred and three feet according to the sign. The “three” always made her laugh. It was like Becky, her other best friend from Eagle Cove, firmly insisting that she as five-four “and a quarter” as if it made a difference.
Maxine Pass was technically Maxwell Pass. Or it had been until the day that Aunt Gina had declared it just wasn’t right for all of the passes to have male names merely because men were the ones who drew the maps back in the 1800s.
For her sixteenth birthday Jessica hadn’t received her first kiss—already happened a year before—or gotten laid—two more years until that event. Instead, she’d been recruited for a “Mission!” At two in the morning on their shared birthday, Aunt Gina drove her and Natalya up to repaint the Maxwell Pass highway sign to Maxine. It had become a tradition that every time the highway department changed it back to Maxwell, the three of them would have a two a.m. gals’ outing and change the sign once again. The highway department had given up years ago. A few of the more recent road maps had even changed the name.
“Girl Power!” they’d shout after each time they finished repainting the sign, usually about three a.m. Then they’d break out the thermos of hot chocolate and drink it from a shared cup while they admired their handiwork by moonlight.
One time Martin, the town cop, had shown up while they were doing it. Jessica and Natalya had ducked, but Gina hadn’t slowed down a single brush stroke.
“Thought it would be you,” Martin had observed through his open car window, obviously talking to Gina.
“Out of your jurisdiction, Marty,” had been Aunt Gina’s awesomely calm reply. She had always been Jessica’s hero, but that totally clinched it. The town limits had been left far behind.
He’d joined them for the hot chocolate and had a good laugh at the “Girl Power!” chant.
Today Jessica just waved hello to the sign as they crested the pass and began their descent.
“Didn’t you ever bust out, Mom?” Jessica tried to imagine her doing so, but couldn’t quite conjure it up in her mind.
“Bust out? You mean cheat on your father? Never!”
“But what about between times, when you were divorced? That wouldn’t be cheating.”
Monica Lamont’s lips thinned as she tightened her jaw and finally shook her head in a sharp little snap. “I was only living in the other end of the house.”
“What about with Dad? You and Dad could just…you know?” The thought of her parents having sex was uncomfortable enough that she couldn’t quite say it aloud.
“Ralph says that if I feel so strongly about things that I have to divorce him, then I shouldn’t be expecting any special concessions while we are divorced.”
Jessica felt she had to side with Dad on that one. He’d become used to his wife’s antics, but that meant he didn’t get any either in the interims. No wandering for him—it had always been clear that Ralph Baxter was absolutely crazy about Monica Lamont. Jessica felt kind of sorry for him.
“Wait. You mean you haven’t had sex in two years?” This latest was their longest divorce yet.
Again that little snap that made Jessica’s neck ache in sympathy. Mom moved to the right as the road added a climbing lane to reach the six-hundred and thirty-four foot (not quite so much bragging) Rogue Pass. That name at least made perfect sense by Oregon standards…because it wasn’t anywhere near either of the two separate Rogue Rivers in Oregon. A half dozen cars roared past. Mom always drove exactly at the speed limit instead of the nearly mandatory ten over that prevailed throughout the state.
“So you’re waiting for the wedding night?”
This time her mom’s nod was a little sad.
“I’m sure tomorrow will be a great night, Mom.”
At that she smiled brilliantly. “If the past three are anything to judge by, yes, it will be. It’s just too bad we had to delay it.”
“Delay it? Wait! What?” Jessica bolted upright in the car seat and almost throttled herself with her seatbelt. The wedding was supposed to be tomorrow. She’d secretly planned on staying just one day past the wedding, and then catching the Airporter Express that wandered through the small coastal towns once a day. She’d already warned Natalya to expect her in Portland for the rest of the week until her flight back to the Windy City.
“Well, we were meeting with Judge Slater about the ceremony. As he performed the first three weddings…”
Jessica resisted pointing out that he’d done all three divorces as well. Maybe her Oregon civility was coming back. Yeah, like a toothache.
“…and he had all of the old records in a file; even had the new marriage license pre-filled out, the dear man. However, it turns out that the first time we were married was on July fourteenth, not July seventh as I had remembered. You know how your father loves the cycle of things. So we moved the wedding to next weekend to coincide properly with the original. I knew you already had your plane tickets, so I didn’t see any point in telling you.”
Didn’t see any point? She’d have moved heaven and earth to— Actually, her mother was right because she’d purchased the cheapest non-refundable, non-changeable tickets she could find.
A week! She was going to be trapped in Eagle Cove from Friday morning until Sunday morning nine days later? Oh, that was so bad.
“I can’t believe that we celebrated it wrong for all of those years,” her mother continued, completely oblivious to the panic she’d just created. “The seventh was the date that had always stuck in my head for our anniversaries.”
Mom’s dropping voice spoke volumes. She’d always been terrible at keeping a secret.
“So why did the seventh stick in your head?” Jessica kept it as casual as she could, rather than rubbing it in that her mom always gave up whatever she was trying to hide. It must be the journalist in her coming out: ask the question and then wait patiently for a reply. Not pushing was another change between them. Jessica didn’t feel as if she was mellowing with age, but perhaps she was. Being disillusioned at thirty-two was no more newsworthy than it had been at twelve or twenty-two; but a woman shouldn’t mellow until…well, maybe a hundred-and-two.
On the back side of Rogue Pass, Mom concentrated on the winding descent. Jessica waved at a massive Roosevelt elk who grazed in a small clearing beside the road. Coming back to Eagle Cove might be only one step better than a nightmare, but it was a very scenic one. The road was soon joined by a stream rushing in a deep ravine on Jessica’s side of the road; the problem was that they were both racing in the wrong direction—toward, not away from, her childhood home. The stream tumbled along almost as fast as they did down toward Eagle River which would eventually define the end of town where it opened into a broad bay before it reached the sea.
No one quite knew why the bay had been named a cove, but it showed that way on even the oldest maps. It gave the town an off-kilter personality to Jessica’s mind, as if it was always seeking to find its true identity. No bridge crossed the Eagle to the wilderness area on the other bank. To reach that required either a boat or an hour drive back up to Highway 101, across the river, and then a long crawl back to the Coast over marginal logging roads.
“C’mon, Mom, give.” Since not pushing at her mother had failed, Jessica went with regressing and shifted to the wheedling tone she’d perfected as a child. She might hate herself in the morning for slipping back into it, but it always worked. Sure enough, her mom gave in right on cue.
“July seventh was the one time we cheated. We didn’t actually wait for our first wedding night,” the blush on her mother’s fair skin was almost bright enough to lighten the dark corridor between the towering trees. “Your father made it amazing. But that’s also the day I became pregnant, though I didn’t know it until after the wedding. All those years I was celebrating the wrong date. That’s why we never fool around unless we’re married.”
“Sounds like you were celebrating exactly the right date, Mom.” She tried to pin down the exact date of her own first time, but it hadn’t been all that memorable. Good, but “earth-shattering” was just another one of those 1950s’ myths that didn’t happen in the twenty-first century. Except, apparently, for her own mother. How unfair was that.
“Maybe,” her mom admitted, “but we’re going to get married on the fourteenth anyway.”
“So, I’m a bastard?” Not that it bothered her, but she couldn’t resist needling her mother about it. Maybe she hadn’t matured all that much.
“Yes dear, but only by one week. I swear I didn’t know.” This time Jessica heard that her mom’s confession was a sigh at Jessica’s question rather than sounding contrite. Maybe it was time Jessica grew up a bit—even when in Eagle Cove.
“Does Aunt Gina know about all this?”
“No one does, except your father and now you. You only arrived three days early, which was actually four days late. No one gave it any thought.”
Excellent! To hell with being mature. Aunt Gina would love the extra dirt for teasing her sister and Jessica couldn’t wait to be the one to tickle her aunt’s funny bone.
# # #
It had been another long morning of assisting the Judge—always with a capital J. Monday through Friday, six a.m. to ten, Greg Slater helped his father. At first it had been something that Greg did to help out, but he’d come to like the simple routines and structure to his mornings.
“Ready?” he called back to the kitchen as he did every day. There was no real need to ask. The big old clock hung high on the wall said it was exactly six a.m. and the Judge was a very punctual man.
But Greg looked for the solemn nod before moving out into the diner and flicking on the fluorescents, “The Puffin Diner” sign, and the porch lights. There wasn’t much need for the last, sunrise was twenty minutes ago, but the sun itself wouldn’t clear the Coast Range ridge until at least six-thirty. For now, Beach Way, the town’s main street, was mostly cool shadows and darkened buildings.
The bell mounted on the back of the door rang almost right away as Cal Mason Jr. came in. Greg had already set a mug of coffee on the counter for him. Cal ran the Blackbird Bakery and was hours into his day. Five days a week he was as punctual as the Judge. Cal Sr. wouldn’t be in for a few hours yet.
“Your standard, Cal?”
“Double,” though Greg knew that was a joke. Cal was one of the few men in town big enough that he could have eaten two of the Judge’s generous portions. Six-two and as powerful as a bulldozer; his hands dwarfed the coffee mug.
Because Cal sat at the six-stool wooden counter, the Judge was less than five feet away through the broad service window that connected the dining room with the kitchen, but he waited for Greg to fill out the order slip and clip it to the spinner.
It was Greg’s own damn fault. The diner’s service had been a bone of contention, or rather “lengthy negotiation” just as most things were with the Judge.
“They can pick up their own damn plates at the window. Coffee pot is right there behind the counter where anyone who wants a refill can get their own.”
Greg had won that round by subterfuge. He’d numbered the tables and then only put the numbers on the order slips, making it impossible for the Judge to boom out with “Veronica, your order is up.” Customers had slowly adapted to not having to leave their tables for every little thing.
At least Greg thought he’d won, until a full three weeks later his father had winked at him while sliding across a short stack with bacon and hash browns for Karen Thompson, “Like I don’t know who orders what on a Thursday.”
Now the Judge wouldn’t cook a thing without a proper ticket. Well, he’d cook it, but he wouldn’t serve it no matter how busy or harried Greg was.
Cal’s plate came up less than thirty seconds after Greg hung the ticket just as it did every morning: western omelet, hash browns, farm sausage, and English muffin. The last was about the only kind of bread that Cal didn’t bake.
“Gotta have something that I can order out for and enjoy without baking it myself.”
Greg moved the plate across to the counter and refilled Cal’s half-drained mug of coffee.
There wasn’t much call for a judge in a town the size of Eagle Cove. Semi-retired for the last five years, he no longer spent three days a week in Newport to sit on the bench as he had throughout Greg’s childhood. Instead he’d set up a small courtroom in town. He mainly handled family matters like marriages and estates, and fines for drunk and disorderly tourists who soon learned that Judge Slater was a fierce protector of the town. There was only the occasional speeding ticket—no matter how hard Martin the cop tried to catch someone. The town was perched against the Pacific Ocean at the dead end of a winding two-lane that had left the coastal highway a dozen miles back; it had enough “Sharp Curves Ahead” signs to quell even the most lead-footed of souls.
So, “for something to keep me busy,” the Judge held office hours only in the afternoons because his weekday mornings were all spent working as a short-order cook. And ever since Greg’s return to Eagle Cove three years ago, he’d been his father’s front-of-house man: waiter, cashier, and busboy.
The Puffin Diner had been a near derelict before his dad had bought and reopened it. It was a classic small town place built to serve the early morning fishermen, especially those returning from a long night’s work on the offshore shoals; it was little changed over the last ninety years.
The clapboard building stood high enough on a heavy stone foundation that even the Christmas storm flood of 1964 had crested two steps below the front entry. It was one of the only structures on the town’s main street that didn’t have a street-level entry. All of the other businesses that had existed then had high-water lines drawn halfway or more up their walls. The Grouse Hardware store, the lowest spot in town close beside the docks, had a small wooden plaque of a fish screwed in just above the main door lintel. It was bright yellow with “Dec 22, 1964” painted on it in tropical blue—it was generally considered to be a little boastful, but old man Jaspar refused to tone down the color scheme that he’d painted on that fish in his youth.
The interior of the diner was so retro that it would have been ironic-modern if it wasn’t quite so authentic. The steel-edged tables of blue Formica were scuffed nearly colorless by the thousands of plates and silverware settings that had been slid across their surfaces over the years. The chairs’ red leather was sun-faded and the old chrome had pitted with rust from the salt air, making them uncomfortable to the touch without quite being painful. The linoleum floor had been replaced…back in the 1980s when mauve and hunter green had been trendy colors. The six round stools bolted to the floor at the counter squealed every time someone spun on or off them. The kitchen was authentic right down to the large service window, the steel spinner rack for order slips dangling in one corner, and the big grill and burners in the back. The scents of eggs, hash browns, and frying bacon filled the main street each morning enticing all passersby to come and find comfort food.
Ralph Baxter and Manny McCall came in and took their usual spot by the corner window. They’d have tourists out fishing off their boats within the hour and were both after black coffee and tall stacks.
At first Greg had resented serving the Judge’s fare—it was as invariable as his father. Scrambles, omelets, pancakes—no waffles because the iron had broken the same day Mom had died and he couldn’t seem to fix it and wouldn’t let Greg try. The pancakes were big and fluffy. The very crispy hash browns were not an option; they were on every single plate, even with the pancakes. Farm fresh sausage or bacon was the other staple on every plate—not that it was a choice. Everyone received whichever Carl Parker had delivered the day before along with the eggs.
All of Greg’s efforts to vary the oatmeal recipe, served with bacon or sausage and hash browns of course, had been in vain. The Judge served only rolled oats—not steel cut—with sliced, not diced, dried apricots and diced, not sliced, fresh apple. Whether brown sugar or maple syrup was used to sweeten it was wholly up to the customer; local honey was also available.
Omelets were the Judge’s real specialty and by six-thirty there were already a dozen slips up for them. Omelets were the only dish where variations were allowed. He offered them with cheese, mushrooms, or smoked salmon fillings. Never all three of course, because there were limits to what was proper.
The Puffin Diner mostly served coffee. Greg’s sole triumph at adjusting the menu had been when he managed to switch from Dad’s “fresh ground” granules purchased in large plastic tubs to fresh-ground French roast. Tea or hot chocolate were the only other options, but asking for marshmallows with the latter was frowned upon unless you were a kid—the whipped cream came out of a spray can.
They’d fought royally over the Judge’s inflexibility, but of course fighting over things was a tradition in the Slater household. Not that voices were ever raised, because that would never do. The few times Greg had tried that tactic he’d been ruled “Out of Order” and banished from the dinner table: the sole forum for Slater “discussions.” With Ma gone to cancer three years before—Greg’s original reason for returning to Eagle Cove—he didn’t have the heart to “force” the Judge into driving him from the table after that first time. When he’d been remanded to the kitchen two weeks after Mom’s funeral, he’d made the mistake of glancing back as he’d moved off to finish his meal. His father had looked old, sad, and impossibly alone.
Greg hadn’t been able to face living in the big old house out on the beach, so he’d moved into the guest house. Once he finally understood that no number of cogent debates were going to sway the Judge, Greg had let the menu go. It had been unchanged in either content or price in the last decade—other than the wavy black line of magic marker through the “Waffles (with blueberries when in season).”
Greg had been on the verge of leaving town when the Judge sat him down at the big house’s dining room table. Ma Slater had been in the ground for a month. Greg knew he didn’t really have anywhere to go, he’d learned all he was going to from the banquet chef at the Sorrento Hotel in Seattle and there weren’t any top positions open for an untested executive chef wanting to make his mark. He didn’t have the capital to make his own splash, not in the insanely competitive restaurant markets in the big cities. But he’d find something.
“Been watching you, son. Been tasting your food,” the Judge had tapped a fork on his dinner plate. Greg had roasted a pair of fresh-caught trout in hazelnut butter with a dressing of spring greens and homemade basil vinegar. Though Greg had cooked half the meals since Ma’s funeral—“fair is fair” the Judge had declared—it was the first time his father had spoken of it.
“Uh-huh,” Greg had gone for a neutral acknowledgement. He knew the Judge hated such prevarications, but Greg didn’t know where this was heading and went for caution.
“This is good. Damn good.”
Greg hadn’t been able to offer even a neutral grunt over his surprise at the Judge’s remark.
“Still needs some work, though.”
Before Greg could snap at him about what did a man who scrambled eggs and ruled on law know about fine cuisine, the Judge continued.
“You need more seasoning,” and he aimed a fork at Greg’s chest, “and I’m not talking about salt. Your technique is the best I’ve ever seen, but I don’t taste anything special. There’s nothing here that isn’t in any other fine restaurant. You need time to find your own voice, not some other chef’s.”
“My own voice?” But he didn’t need to ask, he’d heard it a thousand times growing up.
The Judge looked down at the trout, one of the only times he’d ever said anything without looking at whoever he was addressing straight in the eye, “Your mother taught me that.”
Ma had been a painter, a good one. Her seascapes had sold in galleries up and down the coast. Tillamook, Newport, Gold Beach, they all snapped up as much as she could produce and was willing to let go of—Grosbeak Gallery in town had always gotten first pick though. She’d often talked about finding your voice in your art so that it didn’t look like everyone else’s.
“So, here is the deal I’m offering you.”
Greg knew that it wouldn’t be open to negotiation; no one negotiated one of Judge Slater’s “deals.”
“The diner is mine on weekdays from six to ten every morning. I’d like you to stay as my assistant because you’re good at it. That pays rent here at the house, a small salary, and we split the tips. What you do with the diner for the rest of the time, that’s up to you.”
And for three years, Greg had stayed in Eagle Cove and searched for his own voice. In the first year, he’d never cooked for anyone but himself and his father—who never again spoke about the food itself. Then one night Greg had invited a couple of buddies from high school who were still in town to the diner, as a test audience. Word got out about how good it was and folks had started asking when he’d do it again.
He’d eventually started “Irregular Friday Dinners at The Puffin.” He only opened when he had a new meal to test. It was all prix fixe, fixed price—a twenty in the jar—and a set menu. After two years of those he felt almost ready to take his cooking out into the world; maybe spend a while as a pop-up restaurant—there and gone—rather than a full launch. He’d been saving his half of every morning tip and every goddamned cent for when he went back to the cities. At first he’d simply been trying to be better by the time he left Eagle Cove, but he’d become obsessed with finding and perfecting his “chef’s voice.” He wanted it to be so clear that it was undeniable. When he went back to Seattle, no one would label him the protégé of Charlene at Maximilien’s or Angelo at The Tuscan Hearth. He’d be his own—
The old brass bell screwed into the top of the diner’s front door rang like a small ship was coming into port. Morning service peaked as usual around eight and had now tapered off to just a few lingering diners.
Greg glanced at the big-face clock above the cash register—9:57—and suppressed a groan. Judge’s rule was that if you were in the door by ten, you could take as long as you wanted. If it was ten sharp plus a second, you were turned away—“Fair is fair.” Maybe they’d be quick; he’d had an idea for a savory roulade that he wanted to try out.
Greg turned back and had to blink, then blink again. The morning sunlight shone through the front window and silhouetted two dazzling blondes, their hair practically set afire by the sunlight streaming in from behind them.
Then his eyes adapted as they moved farther into the room.
Mrs. Baxter who was soon to be Mrs. Baxter once again.
And a woman he hadn’t seen since the day she’d left for college, but he’d know anywhere.
Jessica matched his own five-ten and her hair, instead of being the waist-long waterfall he’d remembered, now floated about her shoulders in choppy wisps that framed a face of high cheekbones, full lips, and eyes that sparkled with mischief.
Halfway across the old linoleum floor, she stopped and looked at him.
“Greggie’s gaping, Mom.”
And he couldn’t do a thing about it.
# # #
“He is, dear,” her mother replied cheerily.
“Does he do that to you a lot?” It was starting to get unnerving. In very short order, it would start pissing Jessica off. He’d been three years behind her in school. She’d dated his older brother for a while—he’s the one who earned her first kiss at fifteen, but not all that much more. Her prior visits home hadn’t overlapped with either brother being here, though she’d eaten the Judge’s breakfasts before and had been looking forward to some comfort food since they’d turned west across the Willamette Valley. Her lemon-curd brownie from Loretta’s in Chicago was many hours behind and much too far away.
“I don’t think he’s doing it to me, Jessica.”
“Well, it had better be us and not just me. We are two fairly dazzling women after all. Besides, if he does it much longer, he’s likely to get a dinner plate cracked over his skull.”
Greg Slater shook himself like a wet dog and replaced his gape with a cautious smile. He’d done a lot of growing up since she’d last seen him. The gangly kid—who’d spent large portions of his freshman year in the principal’s office—had turned into such a decent-looking guy that she might not have recognized him if they’d passed on the street.
“Jessica.” Her high school nickname was one of the things she’d left behind along with Eagle Cove. She and Jessie Hamilton had been in a lot of classes together and everyone had called them both Jess despite their opposing genders. “I’m not a man, so don’t expect me to answer to a male nickname.”
“No you’re definitely not—” she could see where his eyes were going, along with his smile. She gave him a second to recover, then two. She didn’t give him three.
Jessica picked up a dirty plate from a freshly vacated table. It had a pool of syrup and a large splotch of leftover ketchup on some crispy hash browns. With a quick grab, she captured both the front of Greg’s apron and his belt—maybe his underwear as well but she wasn’t going to think about that. She tipped the plate into the space over his flat abs and managed to shove it half down his pants for good measure.
Jessica ignored his squawk of protest, letting go as he backpedaled away and almost landed on Cal Mason Sr.’s lap right in the middle of eating his tall stack.
“Let’s sit over there, Mom,” she waved hello at the Judge before they sat down. He flapped a spatula back in her direction.
The Judge never whispered, so she and the half dozen other late morning diners could hear him clearly when he told Greg, “Lady’s got your number but good, son.”
Did she ever.
Greg had been a real slouch, the classic underachieving little brother. A decade and a half later and he was still in town working as a waiter for his dad. He’d grown up lean and dark. His neat black hair hung to his collar and the close-cropped beard accented a strong chin. He’d have looked Keanu Reeves’ dangerous if it wasn’t for the easy smile that still hadn’t quite gone away. Greg Slater had come a long way from being fifteen…other than being another Eagle Cove failure-to-launch kid.
The last time she’d seen him, he’d been just starting his sophomore year in high school and panting after Dawn something—the hussy of the class. They probably had a trailer down at the end of Shearwater Lane that was slowly returning back into forest in a state of semi-decay, with a half dozen little Greggies bouncing about.
Maybe she should track down Greg’s big brother Harry when she returned to the real world. Last she’d heard he was still single and practicing law in New Orleans…not that she was that interested in living in New Orleans, but it was a great place to visit. Maybe have some fun while she was there. She could even set up a few interviews in the jazz clubs and then write off the trip as well as selling a couple of articles to the trades. A couple of human interest stories, maybe find something unique enough to turn into a feature as well.
Though that was getting harder and harder. A few years ago she’d been able to get an article by the Rolling Stone Magazine editor way more than twice a year. And AAA used to give her bimonthly space in their magazines, but that had dried up as well. The collapse of print journalism was finally catching up with her.
Maybe if she’d been a straight newsie, she’d have stood a chance, but she wasn’t. She’d always enjoyed the special interest story. Someone or some place that had found a way to be exceptional. A hot band, an innovative inventor, an amazing kid…those were the stories that had fascinated her. They’d shaped her career. And now they were “fringe” stories that didn’t command much share in the shrinking print journalism bucket.
E-magazines were worse, paying crap. The Huffington Post had offered her a regular blog column, for no pay at all, which said too much about the state of that part of the industry. Maybe she should do a piece on The Puffin Diner; there was a laugh. That was probably below even HuffPo’s standards.
“So…” she took a deep breath and decided that since she didn’t have a choice about being in town for the whole week that she’d agreed to come for anyway, she might as well put a good face on it. It wasn’t like the editors of the world were in a bidding war for her next story.
She and her mother settled at a clean table beneath a watercolor painting of The Puffin Diner, one of Ma Slater’s last, based on the date. “Not for Sale” was in bold type on the little card taped to the wall close beside the frame.
“So, tell me about the dress, Mom.”
# # #
Greg retreated. Hell, he didn’t retreat, he ran away. The old Monty Python gag about “That’s one nasty rabbit” came too easily to mind. Jessica Baxter was beautiful and looked all sweet and…fluffy.
Then she shoved a plate of cold food down his pants, ramming it right down inside his underwear in front of everyone. Cal Sr.’s howl of laughter had followed him right back through the service door into the side hall.
The one bathroom was occupied, so he detoured through the service door into the kitchen, his only other option.
Judge Baxter kept tending his omelets, “temperamental things omelets, can’t look away from them for a second.” But Greg also knew from experience that the Judge missed nothing of what happened in his restaurant.
With nowhere else to go, Greg moved over by the clean-up sink and shed the apron and his pants. At least his underwear had caught most of it. He shed those, wiped himself down with a couple of wet paper towels and pulled his pants back on commando. Greg wasn’t really a commando sort of guy.
His shirt had taken the brunt of the attack. He stripped it off over his head and chucked it into the laundry bag along with his underwear and yesterday’s service apron. He crossed to where he kept a spare shirt on one of the dry good storage shelves, but had never thought to keep underwear there as well. Greg yanked on the fresh shirt and buttoned it up.
“Not a word,” he muttered at the Judge as he wound a fresh apron about his waist.
“The court will maintain a respectful silence at this time,” the old man said with a tone as dry as week-old toast.
Restored to some semblance of order, Greg returned to the dining area. Cal Sr. gave him a smile he wished he hadn’t seen. “Don’t know what you did to piss her off, boy, but you did it good.”
Greg considered telling Cal a thing or two, except he and the Judge had been friends since before Greg was born, and Greg knew that was dangerous ground.
Plastering on his best maître d’s smile, he grabbed two menus and returned to the Baxters’ table. Yes. That was a safer way to think of it. Not Jessica’s; the Baxters’.
“Good morning. Welcome back to town, Jessica.”
If she had any remorse for her abrupt action, she wasn’t showing it in the least. “Thanks, Greg,” she took the one-sheet menu and turned to study it without saying anything else. He’d swear there was a laugh lurking somewhere below the surface, but with her face turned down, he couldn’t see it.
“Can I get you anything to drink?” He already knew Mrs. Baxter’s preference for black teas before noon and herbals after lunch and had brought that to the table with the menus.
“Hot chocolate. No whip. With marshmallows if you have them.”
“What? Are you a child?” And Greg could have shot himself. The Judge’s crazy rules about what people should and shouldn’t want had ruined his brain.
Jessica looked up at him with steady eyes the light blue of an ocean wave with the sunlight shining through…just before it crested and broke, smashing the unsuspecting rocks.
“No,” her look was very cool, but her tone had a laugh hidden in it somewhere. “Are you?”
“Am I what?”
“A child? Still twelve maybe?” The last added with a wry smile.
Greg opened his mouth, saw Mrs. Baxter’s widening eyes—perhaps at the danger zone he’d just flown into. A quick glance to the side revealed that the Judge was watching him intently.
“Um, that would be no. I’m not still twelve. Nor thirteen.”
“Fourteen then?” Jessica’s smile lit her face, as if bantering with him was the best part of her morning. This wasn’t Jessica Baxter of eighteen. He was now facing a formidable woman who absolutely knew that she’d totally unnerved him.
“Not fourteen either,” was the best rejoinder he could come up with. Before he could lose even more ground he said, “I’ll get your cocoa,” and turned for the wait station. Greg did his best to ignore his father’s courtroom stare—the one he used when the defense counsel was making a particularly specious argument fabricated from too many Internet searches.
“Chicken!” Jessica whispered just loud enough for him to hear. “Buck-buck-bu-caw!”
Then she and her mother broke into a flurry of giggles that he did his best to ignore.
Cal Mason, who’d been leaning over to hear the exchange, added another of his loud guffaws.
# # #
Jessica listened and made appropriate sounds in the right places about this time’s wedding dress.
But she was having trouble focusing. The last time she’d seen Greg Slater he’d been a pimply underclassman. When she’d been dumping the plate’s contents down his shorts, she’d found a flat stomach with no give. He was now a handsome man awesomely in shape.
That was a point that had been emphasized when he’d stripped off his shirt. She could only see him from the midriff up over the edge of the steel service shelf that separated the dining room from the kitchen, but Greg clearly worked out and, loser or not, it looked very good on him. She wasn’t that shallow, not really. But she was less certain about how shallow her Coast County regression might ultimately make her.
When he delivered her hot chocolate, with the marshmallows, she kept her head down and pretended she was paying more attention to her mother than she actually was. He was nothing more than a Puffling—a baby puffin being the lamest sports mascot on the coast if you didn’t count the UC Santa Cruz Banana Slugs. Greg might be a Puffling who hadn’t had the skills or drive to get out of town, but he was a very attractive one. That utterly shallow part of her double-checked for the ring or a tan line as he set down the cocoa. Nothing. Didn’t mean he wasn’t—she’d learned the hard way—but it didn’t mean he was either.
Not that she could possibly care.
Nine days and she’d be gone again, Friday through next Sunday.
A glance out the window showed that day one was almost half done already which she’d count as a good omen. The sun was almost due south, lighting the length of Beach Way brightly. She could see Cal Jr.’s beat up red pickup parked right next to Cal Sr.’s beat up blue pickup alongside the Blackbird Bakery. By the speed the people on the street were moving, they were locals running errands. They moved much slower than a Chicagoan but with purpose—like crows walking over to see if something was edible. The few tourists who were checking out the taffy and kitsch shops moved slower but with a frenetic energy—like sparrows never quite coming to roost.
Eight and a half days to go. It wasn’t enough time for anything to happen, even if she was interested. Flings had stopped working for her before she got out of college. Since then it had become a slightly depressing quest for what she was starting to fear she’d never find, someone who loved her the way that her dad loved Mom.
She’d make sure to hit Cal’s bakery while she was here. And see if Maybelle had any particularly good used books in Early Bird Books. At least one lunch at the Plover Bay Inn… Jessica turned away from the street with the sad realization that she could do everything she wanted to in the town in about a day and she still had eight to go.
Greg kept his fifteen-year-old thoughts to himself as he served them a pair of the fluffiest mushroom omelets available anywhere. She turned to nod her thanks to the Judge—he didn’t cook fancy fare, but it was always the very best.
She also noticed that the Judge hadn’t missed a single jot of his son’s shortcomings. She’d always liked Harry and Greg’s dad, but she wasn’t so sure that she liked the look in his eyes at the moment. Jessica had learned the day after her first kiss with Harry that she could read Judge Slater’s facial expressions far too easily, even if everyone else in town declared him to be wholly inscrutable. It was a skill that had served her well in journalism, too. She’d always been able to tell exactly what topic the interviewee was doing their best to avoid.
However, right now the Judge was looking at her as if he was having an idea that he found both interesting and curious. The last shift in his expression surprised her, partly because it was clear enough that anyone except a dunderhead like Greg would be able to see it.
Judge Slater had just decided that whatever he was thinking was pretty damned funny and that worried Jessica.
Not much amused the Judge.
# # #
Greg kept to the shadows after locking the door behind the last customers. It was almost eleven; the Baxters had taken their time. Jessica and Monica Baxter walked across Beach Way. Except Jessica didn’t walk. She…
He wasn’t sure what she did, but it was doing strange things to his thoughts.
Her sudden reappearance had hit him as hard as any slap—and he’d earned a few before he’d learned decent manners while still a high school sophomore. Seeing her so out of the blue took him back to when he was in seventh-grade and she was already an over tall and impossibly sophisticated fifteen; even then she’d had an amazing sense of style that set her apart from all of the other girls. That was the age when he’d started thinking that girls weren’t just different than boys, but that the differences were very interesting.
Today she wore light slacks and a blouse that looked loudly…Hungarian, though he had no idea what a Hungarian blouse might actually look like. Perhaps it was the blue scarf loosely knotted about one wrist that made her look a bit like a blond gypsy.
Half of the fights he and Harry had as kids, and there’d been plenty, didn’t have a thing to do with being brothers. Though he’d forgotten the reasons until this moment.
He’d seen Harry kiss Jessica Baxter, and a need to pummel his brother had burned to life inside him. They’d battled often enough over the next three years before Harry went to college for Greg to completely forget the reason behind it. Even after he’d grown up enough to stop getting into fistfights with his own blood-kin—an offense the Judge had curiously left completely for them to work out—Greg had never been able to explain why he’d begun in the first place. By the time he and Harry had discovered that they actually liked each other, about the same time Greg graduated from the Culinary Institute of America, Greg hadn’t remembered the Jessica-based origin.
He did now…and felt incredibly stupid. He’d have to apologize to Harry the next time they talked. Jealousy, deep and dark green as the Coast Range forest. Impressively stupid, even on his personal, deeply sad scale of stupidity.
Out the window, Jessica slid into the far side of her mother’s blue Toyota hybrid. Just before her face disappeared below the roofline, she looked back toward the diner. No—she looked right at him. Without noticing, he’d moved up to the diner’s front window until his nose was practically pressed against the glass between the black-and-gold “e” and “C” in “Eagle Cove.”
He could feel her laugh like a blow to his chest even if he couldn’t hear it through the glass. Her sparkling laugh had him retreating once more into the shadows.
When he turned, his father was watching him watch Jessica, the grill’s wire brush clenched in one yellow-gloved fist and a large sponge in the other.
The Judge offered one of his thin, unreadable smiles.
“What?” Greg was sufficiently aggravated with himself for getting caught staring that the word came out loud and sharp. He half expected to be banished from the room.
Instead his father simply raised his eyebrows in mock surprise and said softly, “You always did have a soft spot for that girl.” Then he turned back to cleaning the grill.
Greg didn’t have a “soft spot” for Jessica Baxter.
She’d been his first mad crush and just now he’d learned that he’d never gotten over it.
It had been almost a decade since the previous wedding between her parents, and four years since Jessica’s last visit to Eagle Cove. Her life had kept her busy and the time had slipped by too easily to notice.
To push back the guilt, she concentrated on the view out the car window as they drove through town.
It was amazing how little yet how much Eagle Cove had changed. Or rather how little it had changed and how much she noticed each detail that had. The Flicker movie theater across from the diner still had a massive chainsaw carving of a northern flicker woodpecker clutching the marquee, but it also sported a fading sign which proudly declared: “Now in Digital!” They were running The Big Year. She’d bet that they reran the birding film every year for the summer tourists coming to Eagle Cove for fair weather coastal birding. They’d probably bring it back in the spring too.
Grouse Hardware still had a pile of wheelbarrows stacked up out front that might be the same stack old man Jasper had rolled out there each morning since she could remember, but they also had a riding lawnmower parked in the next-to-the-door place of pride. She tried to think who in town had a big enough spread to justify a riding mower—coastal lots tended to be small and grass rarely thrived in the heavily salted wind. Then she realized that the town was growing older. The Judge’s hair had mostly gone silver. Cal Mason Sr., in the diner eating his tall stack, was even rounder and balder than before. Maybe there was more demand for things like riding lawnmowers.
Jessica glanced worriedly at her mom, but she looked the same. Some lines around the eyes and mouth, but they made her look like she smiled more rather than less which Jessica knew to be true. With her good eye for clothes, and her automatic slap that dropped her cell phone into the hands-free mount every time they got in the car, Mom definitely looked in charge. However, Jessica’s journalistic eye didn’t miss that even in July, Eagle Cove Real Estate wasn’t too busy for her to run up to Portland to fetch her errant daughter.
Mom wore her hair shorter than she had a decade ago, a neat, chin-long cut that looked good enough on her that Jessica might have to try it next time she cut her own hair. Of course Jessica also wore her own hair shorter than a decade before, so maybe that change didn’t count for much.
The center of town stretched six blocks from the docks to the Rusty Pelican, the town’s dive bar in both senses of the word. The Pelican looked even more disreputable than usual. Alistair Thomlinson had clearly found even more crap. An import from Cornwall, he was fascinated by “beach décor” beyond even cliché. The tired porched was curtained by a line of battered fisherman floats hanging from a beam. Old crabbing pots, a mostly deflated rubber raft, fishing poles, and chunks of driftwood added to the look. His pièce de résistance had always given Jessica the creeps. It was an old style dive suit with the sagging rubber body and the bulbous helmet now rusting in the coastal air.
Maybe she was okay with not being here so much.
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