The Warmest Winter, Day 11byTooCleverByHalf©
Thanks to everyone for their feedback on the previous chapters, with a special thank-you to my real-life editor. Remaining errors, if any, are mine. Reading the chapters of this story in order is highly recommended. All geek culture references are properties of their original copyright holders.
Cassie woke up to the sound of her cell phone's alarm, one of the few things her phone was good for so far out in the boondocks. She slid the soft blanket down her nude body, feeling it cares her skin and wishing it was Mike instead.
Mike, who was still such a mystery to her. He obviously wanted her – their sexual exploits left that abundantly clear. But he had yet to really take full advantage of her willingness, and she knew very well that her willingness was well-known.
Of course, there was also the matter of Jenny and Veronica. Friends for life, and had spared the occasional naughty thought in one another's directions, but only two nights ago did they act on them, having sex with each other nearly as much as with Mike. Only so much of that could be blamed on the Eiswein.
Cassie lay in bed for a minute or so, letting her mind work through the tidbits floating around within it. Okay. So that was the situation. Anything she could do about it at the moment? No. So, business as usual, taking things as they happen, until something comes along to change that. Shiny.
Something Mike had said gave her pause when it came to picking what to wear for the day. Mike had called her the hottest of the three women, but only because she was "dressed to advertise." How much would he be interested if she didn't?
She wore a pair of jeans and a t-shirt. In deference to her desire to not look like a slob in her own mind, she tucked in the shirt and wore a thin belt. In deference to her desire to have sex with Mike readily should he be willing, she forewent wearing a bra or socks. Her panties were leopard print.
After finishing her morning routine, Cassie headed downstairs to start breakfast. She'd gotten fresh supplies yesterday, and looked forward to the omelettes that would feature as today's breakfast. Cooking was an art form that Cassie found delightful. She'd been told many times that she should be a professional, but she felt that getting paid for it would sully it in some way.
Downstairs, however, felt wrong. She couldn't be sure, having only been here for a week and a half. The office door was ajar. Maybe that was it.
Cassie entered the kitchen and turned on the light. She smelled... old, burnt coffee? A glance at the coffeemaker revealed a half-pot, still being warmed as the contents continued to evaporate.
What in the world?...
Looking around for other things amiss, Cassie finally spotted Mike, stretched out on the couch. As she hurried over, concerned, she saw that he was in the same clothes as the previous day. There were dark circles under his eyes, and his shirt had what were swiftly becoming coffee stains on it. Well, that was that mystery solved, anyway.
"Mike?" she asked softly, holding a finger under his nose. He was breathing. Good. She said his name again, a little louder. He stirred.
"Mmwhat?" he said groggily. "Cassie? What're you doing up?"
"It's morning," she said softly, helping him sit up. "I make breakfast, remember?"
"Right. There still coffee?"
"I wouldn't call it that anymore. Do you have a spare pot?"
"Yeah. Under the kitchen island. What time is it?"
"Sevenish. A-M. When did you get to sleep?"
"Dunno. Thought I hadn't 'til you told me."
"Mike," Cassie said, firmly, "I'm going to ask you what's wrong, but first I'm going to get Jenny and Veronica down here. Whatever it is, we're with you. We're your friends." With a brief hug she got up and rushed off, begging her mind to shut up.
"Jenny, you dressed?" Cassie called through the door.
"Something's up with Mike." Jenny was out of her room in a flash and they went to Veronica's together.
"Veronica, you up?"
"I heard. Gimme a sec." She came out of her room a few seconds later, still straightening her shirt over her breasts. With all of the Avengers assembled, they went back downstairs.
They found Mike in the kitchen, throwing out the old pot of coffee. Not the coffee from the pot, the whole pot, coffee and all. A new batch was already brewing.
"Hey, I can clean that!" Cassie objected, rescuing the abused cookware.
"Mike," Jenny began gently, "You know us well enough by now, to know that we're not going to just let you go it alone. At least tell us what's going on."
"Not. Yet," Mike stated simply. Jenny got a little scared by the utter lack of emphasis in his voice.
"What do you think is going on here?" Veronica fumed. "We. Are. Your. Friends. Of course we're here to help you, even if you're too thickheaded to accept it. So what is it, huh? The man gotta leave the women out of it? Some pride thing, where you have to do it yourself? Some big secret? Come on, Mike, what?"
Mike placed the coffee mug he was holding down onto the counter. With slow, deliberate steps, he approached Veronica. Jenny winced at the hollowness and pain she felt him radiate as he spoke, slowly and distinctly.
"Veronica," said Mike, "Everything you just said is based on a number of assumptions. Assumptions that say more about you than they do about me. Had you let me continue speaking, I would have told you that I am waiting for a call from my lawyer. What I have to say is rather involved, and I would rather not interrupt it. Besides, I will have more to tell once he calls, and I would also rather tell everything at once. Does this meet with your approval, Miss Mayweather?"
She cowed under his rising glare, and nodded. "I'm sorry, Mike. I didn't mean-"
"Yes, you did. But that's fine. Just don't do it again."
"Mike?" Cassie spoke softly. He turned, and his manner was so menacing she almost didn't continue, but she steeled her nerves and said, "Is there anything you can tell us? And, until your lawyer calls, is there anything we can do?"
Mike did seem to actually consider this.
"I don't believe so. On either count. No, I take that back. One half-cup of coffee. Black. And don't let me get away with talking to any of you like that again. I believe you'll understand later, but that is no excuse. Veronica, I apologize."
"Me, too, Mike." He seemed to be calming down now. Cassie thought that maybe having everyone confront him at once was a bad idea after all. Would she ever know the man, or just be puzzled the rest of their friendship?
Cassie went about making breakfast, as everyone being hungry was also most likely a contributing factor to the argument, such as it was. Jenny sat next to Mike, and while she said nothing, she did try to put a comforting hand on his back. He jerked away at the touch. Whatever it was, it weighed on his mind heavily, and he did not want distractions.
Some time later, Mike's cell phone rang. They didn't even see him retrieve it from his pocket, he was so fast in answering it.
No sooner than he heard whose voice was on the other end than he bolted up from the table and hurried to his office, leaving his half-eaten breakfast on the table.
"Tell me you have good news," he said, before shutting the door behind him.
Ten minutes later, Cassie and Veronica sat uneasily in the living room, while Jenny washed the breakfast dishes to take keep herself grounded. They heard Mike's office door open, and waited with expectant silence.
"That was Rick," Mike said, "My lawyer. Jenny, you may want to sit down. I know I do."
A little shuffling was in order, so that Mike had the recliner, and the girls shared the sofa.
"Rick recently noticed some funny things about the local laws. Someone had changed them, the way I did to get this house built. Only he didn't know who, or why, or what they wanted. But his gut told him it was bad. Ranger Dave recently hinted at something, too. I had nothing to go on, until around midnight last night."
"What happened?" asked Jenny.
"I got a call from Sam Harrington."
The women gasped.
"Why would the brother of your ex be calling you?" Veronica asked.
"Because he just found out his parents, Kendra's parents, are behind what's been going on."
"In short, they want me to lose the house."
Jenny unrolled a string of expletives that made even Veronica's eyes widen.
"Funny thing," said Mike, "Rick said almost exactly the same thing."
"They can't do that!" Cassie said.
"Apparently, they can," said Mike, "They'd been laying the groundwork since the day Kendra died. They've spent a lot of money to change the laws which result in an eviction from the premises, enforceable very soon."
"How soon?" Jenny asked.
"I don't know. As soon as I got off the phone with Sam, I left a message for Rick. He just called, and I told him everything Sam told me, as well as Dave's implications. He's doing some digging on his end, and he'll call back as soon as he has something, or his lunch break, whichever is sooner."
"Why this? Why now?"
"According to Sam, the Harringtons believe I am responsible for Kendra's death. They believe her story, that I broke up with her and fabricated the story of her adultery when I found out about her cancer. They seem to think that the emotional trauma of her abandonment by me left Kendra without the will to fight her cancer, contributing to her death."
"Didn't Sam try to dissuade them? Tell them the truth?"
"He's been on the outs with them for years anyway. They've all but disinherited him, and that's probably only because he's their only remaining child. They won't listen to him."
"So what can we do?"
"That is what Rick is investigating as we speak. In the meantime, we keep calm and carry on."
"What, just ignore it?" Veronica said.
"No," Mike snapped, getting up and starting to walk away. "If they are going to succeed in taking this house, then all of the time we have left here is limited and should not be wasted. If they are not going to succeed, then we have no reason to behave differently. Now, I could use some mindless fun right about now, preferably involving comical violence. Are we playing MarioKart or what?"
They raced until the edge had been taken off of Mike's stress levels. They even saw him crack a smile or two. Mario Party was up next, as a single game can occupy an entire evening if need be. Every so often, Mike would just repeat to himself, "We don't know enough to react yet." The mantra seemed to help.
The call came during lunch.
"Rick, I'm going to put you on speaker. The women have been fully informed, and you may speak freely in front of them. In fact, Cassie is in real estate development. She may be able to help. Veronica's a business major, if that's needed."
"Thanks, Mike, but we're not there yet. Hello, ladies, normally I'd love nothing more than to talk to you but right now we're on the clock. Mike, they already have a court date."
"WHAT?!" all four shouted.
"That's my ear. Ow," said Rick, "Samuel and Martha Harrington, right?"
"Yeah, they pulled some strings and got an emergency court hearing to get the laws enforced as quickly as possible. The way they changed the laws, the park stays open for the full year, with money for expansion and amenities and whatever, as long as these laws are enforced, but it's a package deal. All or none. They're going to frame it as concern for keeping the park open as opposed to being for 'private interest.' They even made their own money untouchable by them, they are that committed. As long as the government sufficiently enforces the new laws, the money is there."
"And if I stay, the park gets only what it had before."
"Less," said Rick, "They undid part of what you gave them."
"So what's the plan?" Mike asked.
"The hearing is Monday. I'll fly out Saturday, get a read from the locals on Sunday. In the meantime, remember whatever you can about the Harringtons. I need to know who I'm dealing with."
"Okay, I'm getting back to work over here. My cell phone is with me and charged from now until your house is safe. Day or night, got it?"
"Bye." They hung up. Mike looked around at the others. "Thoughts?"
"Gimme your phone." Cassie held her hand out. Intrigued, Mike clapped it into her palm.
"Be right back." She went into the dining room, and dialed.
"Hi, Nate, it's Cassie."
"Hey! Something wrong?"
"Sort of. How much time off of work could you get?"
"A full two weeks. I figured I'd be on the safe side."
"Oh, good," Cassie sighed.
"What's going on?" Nate asked firmly.
"Some legal tangles have developed with Mike and his house, and we've decided to stay long enough to help him. His lawyer is flying in on the same day you're planning on getting here. Think you could give him a lift?"
"Mike must be a hell of a guy."
"Why do you say that?"
"You're asking me for a favor – not for you, not for your friend, but for his lawyer. You in love with him?"
"Just trying to see what's spinning in your head, sis. You're not usually this gung-ho."
"Look. He's a really great friend. And we're all planning a business together, a real one. His idea. And, well, yeah," Cassie lowered her voice. "I like him. But you know it's more complicated than that."
"Oh, don't tell me this is about those damn rules. Cassie, I've always told you those were a bad idea."
"Put it this way: Mike is convincing me of that."
"Wow. So, some serious potential."
"Maybe. But come on, I've known the guy a week and a half."
"Fair enough. Let me see if I have this right. You want me to pick up the lawyer on my way in to Mike's."
"The legal trouble is I take it not Mike's fault?"
"Sorry. Had to ask. And clearing up these legal troubles will benefit Mike, the prospects for the business, and therefore you?"
"Yeah, I guess."
"All right. I'll do it. I don't know him or his lawyer from Adam, but for you, anything."
"Do I need to pack my Taser?"
"You can borrow Mike's." Between a brother and sister, that response told Nate everything he needed to know. "You available to call later?"
"Working out the details with Rick. That's the lawyer."
"Oh, so it's 'Rick,' already?"
"Oh, stop it! You are so mean!"
"I have to be. You're too nice. Talk to you later."
Cassie walked back in and tossed Mike his phone.
"Nate's going to pick up Rick from the airport on his way in. We can call him later with the details."
Mike was silent for a second as he absorbed the information. This was hampered by the backlog in his head of things to sort through.
"Wow," he managed, "You three really can manage a crisis, can't you?"
"Sadly, practice," explained Jenny.
"If it isn't one thing, it's another," added Veronica.
"All right," said Mike, seemingly reaching some internal conclusion. "Regardless of residential status, I still have work to do today. That's my afternoon. Cassie? When should I be expecting dinner?"
"Um... since we got a late start today, and a late lunch, call it seven."
"All right. See you at seven."
"It's a date," she said. She hadn't meant for that to slip out. Even without the current situation, it tipped her hand too much. But Mike appeared not to have noticed.
"I have dinner to prepare," Cassie said. "What're you two up to?"
"I was going to check online," said Jenny, "See if maybe I can't dig up something on the Harringtons. Maybe there's a skeleton in a closet somewhere we can use."
"You really don't like them, do you?" asked Veronica.
"They're hurting Mike," Jenny replied through gritted teeth.
"Well, I am just going to sit and think for the afternoon. You remember that meditation thing you taught me a couple years ago?"
"That. I'll do that."
None of them knew it, but as they parted ways for the afternoon, they all had the same thought.
If want to get to Mike, they're gonna have to first get through me.
Mike was in the middle of typing a letter which explained why high turnover is not a good idea, despite rising costs for long-term employees, when Rick called.
"What's the buzz, Rick?"
"Well, now that they know where to look, the paralegals, bless their hearts, have actually turned up some useful information."
"The Harringtons have spent a not-insignificant amount of their money to provide for the park. However, part of this deal meant that the park should have a hospitable environment. That is to say, you can't build anything in the immediate surround. Roads and train tracks only, if anything. You want anything else, you have to go through all sorts of red tape."
"The part that gets me is how they could have it enacted retroactively. I'm already here."
"That's what the hearing is about. If enough people object to the enforcement, it will happen gradually."
"Weren't they required to notify people of it?"
"They did. Only you don't spend that much time in town, the townspeople probably didn't see what it really was about and ignored it, and the flyer sent in everyone's mail got thrown out for the same reason."
"And I never got one at all because I don't have an address."
"They didn't have to call? I remember that hoop being one we had to jump through."
"That law got changed. Two years ago."
"Two years- those bastards."
"Yup. They've been planning this for a long time."
"Well, at least the cavalry's coming."
"Well, actually, it's you and another guy now. Cassie's brother, Nate. He's driving up the same day you're flying in. Feel like hitching a ride?"
"I guess. Let's get him on the phone, work out the details."
After a few minutes of button pushing, Mike was finally able to give Rick Nate's number, and Rick initiated the conference call. Rick was still in Denver, Nate in New York City, and Mike at the corner of No and Where.
"Hello, is this Nathan Fox?"
"Hello. My name is Richard Tessaro. I'm the lawyer for Michael Evans, here with him on a conference call."
"Hello again, Mike."
"Hi. You still up for chauffeuring Rick?"
"As a favor to Cassie, yes."
"I can also make it as a favor to me," said Rick, "If I'm not in my own vehicle, I will need to drive your car or be driven by you wherever I need to go. You would have to stay at the hotel in town, in the room next to mine. Winter's slow, so getting adjacent rooms will not be a problem. And, since it is a business expense which saves me from renting a car, I can pay for your room and board while you do so."
"Well, I was hoping to see the girls a bit more than that," said Nate, "But I suppose it'll be often enough, and I could use the compensation, as this is an unpaid vacation for me."
"I can pay you back for that if you need," offered Mike.
"No. This is family. I agreed for Cassie, not for money."
"Okay, just want to be sure you're not hurting if you don't need to be."
"Thanks. What airport, what time?"
From there, the conversation was all business. Nate was relieved to find out that Rick had been to the house before, and remembered the directions. Nate would pick up Rick from LaGuardia, and as soon as they'd left the city, stop for lunch and for Rick to stretch his legs. After that, road trip as needed to Mike's house. After stopping by in person, they'd go back to town and check in at the hotel.
"Okay. Mr. Fox-"
"If we're going to be one another's road trip buddies for hours, call me Nate."
"Fine. Nate. I understand you're not doing this for us, but thank you nonetheless."