Eight hours later Tyler O’Neil parked his truck in front of Pearl’s Perfect Pies. He’d spent what remained of the night mopping up the fire with the rest of the crew, dragging himself home with just enough time for a quick shower before returning to meet Ellie Markusson. A bell over the door tinkled as he entered the old brick building, and Ellie glanced up from the cash register. The tight lines framing her mouth didn’t suggest she was glad to see him. Maybe she was just tired. He sure as heck was, and his knee ached like a bear.
She nodded to one of the small tables next to the front widow. “Have a seat. I’ll be with you as soon as I can.”
Tyler hobbled over, pulled out one of the old-fashioned bentwood chairs, and sat where he could watch her. Pearl’s wasn’t a restaurant, but they had a few tables for customers who wanted a slice of pie and a cup of coffee. It was smart marketing, because the tempting aromas of cinnamon and warm fruit made it impossible to walk out without wanting—no, needing—a bite, or two, or three.
He leaned back in the chair and crossed his arms while he watched Ellie greet the next customer. Her actions were brisk and efficient, her smile friendly and genuine. He hadn’t paid much attention to his sister’s best friend when they were growing up. The girls spent most of their time playing outside or holed up in Clare’s room, giggling about some silly thing or another. If he thought about them at all, it was with annoyance. Besides, he’d spent every waking hour outside of school on the ice.
But since he’d returned to Pumpkinseed Lake, he’d noticed Ellie Markusson plenty. Fifteen years ago, she’d been a cute, snub-nosed little kid with loads of freckles. She was still petite, but now she had curves in all the right places. She wore her thick, honey blond hair in a fashionable, chunky bob, and her freckles had faded to a delicate sprinkle across the tops of her cheeks. The few times he’d tried to talk to her she’d been as prickly as a cocklebur, but then he’d never been the kind of guy to walk away from a challenge.
While he was still pondering her granddaughter, Pearl Markusson walked around the end of the counter and approached, wiping floury hands on her long white apron. Tyler started to rise, but she placed a firm hand on his shoulder. Pearl was barely five feet tall, and the white braids that encircled her head like a crown gave her an angelic air, but it was an illusion. Pearl had always been a force to be reckoned with, and her stroke hadn’t changed that. She might only work a couple of hours a day now, but her presence helped keep Pearl’s the local landmark it had been for nearly fifty years.
“Good morning, Tyler. What can I get you? The apple is as good as always, and the pumpkin…well, you know about the pumpkin.”
He lifted a hand in a gesture of polite refusal. “Nothing for me, Mrs. Markusson. I’m just here to talk to Ellie about the food bank as soon as she gets a minute.”
Pearl cocked her head and regarded him with a sharp look. “When was the last time you ate?”
He hesitated. He’d had a bowl of chili at six the night before. Was that really fourteen hours ago? It had been a long night.
Pearl didn’t wait for an answer. “I’ll bring you a big slice of apple raisin pie and coffee. You look like you need it.”
He started to object but she had already turned and bustled off.
A few minutes later she was back with the pie and coffee, steam rising from both. Tyler swallowed and his stomach grumbled.
Pearl’s faded blue eyes gleamed, and her smile held a hint of the flirtatious young girl she’d once been. “Hah! I know a hungry boy when I see one.” She patted his shoulder and headed back to work.
He stabbed his fork into the flaky pastry and brought the first bite to his mouth. He closed his eyes and savored the scent of heaven. He’d eaten half the slice when Ellie appeared with a small notebook and pen in hand.
She pulled out the chair across from him and sat. “All right. Let’s make this as quick as possible. I’ve got plenty to do, as you can see.” She began writing. “I’ve already called the insurance company to get the ball rolling on the claim. That won’t help get the food bank operational by Christmas, though.” She lifted her head to meet his gaze and pressed her lips together. “I don’t suppose you have any ideas about what we can do in the meantime.”
Still as prickly as ever.
He wondered what it would take to change her attitude and tried a patented O’Neil smile. No dice.
He decided to set it aside for the time being and focus on the business at hand. “As a matter of fact, I do.” He leaned forward and rested his elbows on the table. After we got the fire out last night, I did an inspection and inventory. With a little luck, I think we can repair the basic structure sufficiently to reopen for one day on Christmas Eve. Afterwards, they’d have to close again for a couple of months to finish the work but…” He shrugged.
She eyed him with skepticism. “That would be a blessing to the community and a huge relief to Clare and Karl, but I don’t see how it’s possible.”
“Winter is slow season for me and my crew. O’Neil Construction will donate the labor, and I’m sure I can get Hank at the lumber yard to help with materials. It’ll mean putting in long hours but we can do it.”
Pearl appeared out of nowhere with another slice of pie and a cup of coffee, which she plunked down in front of Ellie. “Here. You need a break.”
“You know I don’t take breaks,” Ellie protested.
“Maybe you need to start. Besides, it’s good for business to have a cute young couple in the front window.” She turned to Tyler with a smile before bustling off.
Tyler couldn’t suppress a grin as Ellie frowned at her grandmother’s receding back. “Pearl’s a pistol, isn’t she?”
When she faced him, her frown became a grimace. “Sorry about that. I love her dearly, but she gets these ideas.”
He liked the way her nose wrinkled when she said ideas. “What kind of ideas?”
She fumbled with her notebook and pen. “The great-grandchildren kind. Now where were we?”
It was probably childish, but some unidentifiable impulse pushed him to ruffle her feathers. “What about you? Don’t you want kids some day?”
“Sure, but right now we’re talking about the food bank.”
He speared another bite of pie. “I like kids.”
“Good for you.” Her tone was dry. “Now can we get back to business?”
He gave her an innocent smile. “That’s why I’m here.”
A tiny muscle flexed in her jaw before she returned her attention to her notes, and Tyler wondered if she was truly angry or trying not to smile.
“I’ll follow up on the insurance. You’ll get started on repairs.” She glanced up. “But what about food for the shelves? Even if we only stock them with holiday food for one day, we’ll still need enough to feed forty families. With help from the church ladies, Pearl’s can bake enough pumpkin pies, but what about everything else?”
An idea swirled around and coalesced in his mind. Tyler took a swig of coffee then set the cup on the table. “I’ve got it covered. This is a job for the Penguins.”
Ellie’s soft brown brows pinched together. “The Penguins?”
“But you’re retired.”
“I coach peewee hockey. My team is called the Penguins. We’ll take care of the rest of the food.”
She hesitated, raked him with an appraising glance, then closed her notebook. “Fine. I guess that covers it. If there’s nothing else, I need to get back to work.”
He had things to do, too, but found himself in no hurry to leave. “We should plan to meet again in a couple of days to touch base. Same time, same place?”
Before she could reply, two young women—girls, really—rushed toward the table.
“Tyler, it’s so great to see you,” one squealed.
“Are you going on the sleigh ride tonight?” the other asked, tumbling over her friend’s words. “Everyone will be there.”
Tyler gave her a rueful smile. “I’m afraid I have to work.”
The girl’s enthusiasm drained away, and her pretty young lips slid into a pout.
He sighed inwardly. He tried to be polite, but even after several years back in Pumpkinseed Lake, he still attracted an uncomfortable level of public attention. He’d grown used to it during his playing days, but how much longer would it take for people to let go of the past and accept him for what he was now?
He glanced away from the girls and realized Ellie had taken advantage of the distraction to slip away and return to the counter. When he managed to catch her eye, she froze then pointedly turned away and directed a glittering smile at her next customer—who just happened to be the town’s most eligible young attorney.Well...damn.
This story appears in the collection Small Town Christmas Tales.