tagRomanceThe Warmest Winter, Day 15

The Warmest Winter, Day 15

byTooCleverByHalf©

The Warmest Winter, Day 15

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.

*****

Jenny's eyes snapped open, and she habitually looked at the clock. Seven twenty-six.

Six? It had been seven for years, like... well, like clockwork. Sure, she'd sometimes go back to bed or have to get up sooner, but this... something was definitely out of whack. But what?

Carefully placing the thought aside in her head, Jenny got out of bed and waited until the proper minute arrived. She felt no different. It would have been strange, to someone unfamiliar with her, to see her worry about waking up a minute early, but over the years it had become a tremendous source of comfort and familiarity. Those first couple of days out here in the middle of nowhere, when Jenny still had lingering doubts in the back of her mind, somehow the connection to all her other mornings settled her down.

And it was such an amazing thing that she had relaxed. Michael Evans was a singular man, she thought, and she felt fortunate to call him a friend. Caring, intelligent, funny... nimble in the mind, not to mention the bedroom... and there was something else about him, something Jenny couldn't quite place.

In the end Jenny decided to shrug it off. She'd figure it out eventually. For now, she thought as she dressed, she had a job to do. Charged by Mike's lawyer and friend, Jenny had to get Mike to focus his high-performance brain and figure out how to keep the house.

That could be tricky. He could see through most influences. Therefore, she had to get him to convince himself. He was competitive, and that was to her advantage. People also tend to hunker down in their own position when faced with opposition. Then again, flat reverse psychology would not work, as he'd see right through it...

Jenny's mind circled the issue, a subroutine humming along in the back of her thoughts as she went downstairs for breakfast.

*****

Cassie was back to old habits, as evidenced by the omelets awaiting her friends. They made their usual chitchat, about life, the universe, and everything. Late in the meal, as Cassie was preparing Mike's omelet for when he came down, Jenny made up her mind on the plan.

"Hey, V? Cassie?" They turned to look at her.

"Rick asked me to do something for him today," Jenny explained, "To help Mike with the case. Part of it means no distractions. Think you can come up with a reason to leave the house for the bulk of the day?"

"No need; we've got reasons," said Veronica. "Just leave it to me when Mike comes down."

Mike came down a little later than usual, which only added to Jenny's mounting undercurrent of worry. It didn't mean anything- but it might mean a lot. The trouble was, Mike was pulling away, she could feel it, and it also felt like there was nothing she could do.

"Good morning!" he greeted effusively. The women greeted him back.

"Bacon and cheddar?" Mike grinned.

"You know it," Cassie said, with a slight curtsy.

Cassie cleaned up the breakfast dishes while Veronica played some Facebook game on her tablet involving bright colors, profane reactions, and a deep, masculine voice saying "Divine!" every so often. Jenny stared at her laptop and pretended to read the same paragraph over and over.

"Hey, Mike?" Veronica finally piped up.

"Yeah?"

"Mind if Cassie and I run into town today? All this court stuff's making us twitchy."

"Not a problem. Um, what about Jenny?"

"Oh, I've uh, I've got to exercise," said Jenny. It was true, she did. She was relieved she didn't have to make an outright lie. "And I can fret here as easily an anywhere else."

"Yeah," reiterated Mike, "Take the Hummer. Might need gassing up."

"We'll manage," said Veronica, right before "Sugar Crush!" sounded from her tablet. Pumping a fist into the air, Veronica made her way up to her room to get ready to go.

After she finished the dishes, Cassie, too went upstairs to prepare. Mike smiled to himself.

"What?" asked Jenny, noticing.

"Oh, nothing. You ladies all have to go to your rooms for five minutes just to walk out the front door. I put on my shoes and a coat and I'm good to go. It's a guys-versus-girls thing, I guess. That's all."

"Ah."

Mike looked over.

"Was there something else?"

"I was wondering what exactly Rick plans on doing."

"Dunno. I didn't ask. But I trust him. He'll make it happen."

"He knows what's best for the case? Even better than you?"

"...Yeah, I'd say so. Why?"

"No reason."

*****

"You sure this is the place?" Nate asked as he pulled into the parking lot.

"It's the only church around here, "said Rick, "I did the research. Most locals attend on Sunday mornings. Those that don't can be told by those that do. And I have permission of the preacher to speak after service."

"Need me to come in with you?"

"The more faces they see in Mike's favor other than his lawyer's, the better. That's why even if the ladies didn't want to come before, I would insist. Glad I didn't have to."

Getting out, the men made their way up to the door. It was a typical rural church, one of those that would be a stand-alone sanctuary if not for the attached preacher's office and the supply room. A pavilion was visible near the treeline, evidently for summertime functions.

Nate went to open the door straightaway, but Rick held him back.

"Hang on," he said in a low voice, "We don't want to be disruptive. It's a small church -- we'll attract attention just by entering."

When the congregation inside burst into an a capella hymn, Rick nodded, and the pair slipped into the building. The noise was low, relative to the voices, and only those hit by the cold draft turned to see the newcomers. They smiled with moderate warmth as Rick and Nate found seats in the back row.

Could be worse, thought Rick.

Once the congregation sat down, the preacher stood up to finish the service. When he noticed Rick, he gave a slight nod of recognition, which Rick professionally returned.

"And now," said the preacher at the end of the service, "I have a community announcement for you. But it would be better to come directly from the source. Mister Tessaro, would you please come up?"

Rick got up and approached, shaking the preacher's hand with a smile. Turning around, he scanned the congregation's faces. A little over two dozen people, this congregation was directly connected to half of the people he wanted to reach, and could talk to the rest if he motivated them.

Nate gave Rick a thumbs-up from the back. Rick restrained from rolling his eyes.

"Thank you, Pastor Downey. And thank all of you for your time this Sunday morning. My name is Richard Tessaro, and I am a close friend to Michael Evans. Some of you may have met him over the last four years, and some of you may even know the full story of his involvement in this area. There is a situation I would like you to know about regarding his presence here, because I am also Mike's lawyer.

"When I met Mike, he was a college senior, breezing through his classes and already earning ridiculous amounts of money doing freelance consulting. My only saving grace was that I, too, was something of a prodigy, albeit restricted to the law. He saw even more potential in me, and recruited me for what, to this day, is my most interesting assignment ever.

"Mike wanted his dream house. But the property was in an unfortunate location. Twenty miles from the nearest public road, bordering a small national park. I worked with him to use multiple legal means to make tweaks to local laws and ordinances, to allow him to achieve his dream.

"Every step of the way, Mike insisted that he would help the park in exchange. The combined effect of all of the changes was that in exchange for his dream house, Mike enabled the park to stay open ten months out of the year, where thanks to cuts it had only been able to stay open for six. He cares about the area. Every winter he stays here, he lives as a local. His food, gas, and other supplies all support the local economy in the tourism off-season.

"And now, someone has done it again, someone else. If they get their way, Mike will be forced to leave his house, the one he dreamed of and worked for. It is for this reason I am here. At the county courthouse, tomorrow, at one in the afternoon, there is a public hearing for the most recent law and policy changes. I urge you to come, and voice your protests against this injustice to my friend, and yours. Thank you."

*****

Veronica and Cassie explored the town a little in the Hummer before picking somewhere to eat. There wasn't much, so exploring a little was all they could do, and there was only one good diner that wasn't filled with truckers.

The women walked inside and shook off the cold, glancing around at the place. It looked like a Mom-and-Pop cross between a Waffle House and a Cracker Barrel.

"Hi!" greeted a waitress brightly, "Any preference on where y'all'd like to sit?"

"Over here!" came a voice. Turning, Cassie and Veronica saw Rick and Nate in a booth, drinks in hand. Nate was waving them over.

"You said party of two, cutie!" cooed the server. She had to be at least twice Nate's age. Veronica was about to say something, but Cassie laughed. Joining the men in the seats, they began chatting. Cassie bunched up next to Rick, not wanting to be next to her brother.

"It's a sibling thing," she explained. Nate stuck his tongue out at her. The girls ordered drinks, hot cocoa for both of them. Even Rick was having a cup, although he declined marshmallows to limit his sugar intake.

"Well," said Rick, producing a credit card, "I think this counts as a business lunch for us, since you're my driver and you two are character witnesses. I think I can swing it."

"So does that make you a swinger?" Cassie asked. Nate nearly swallowed his straw. Rick raised an eyebrow at his seat companion.

Veronica wisely changed the subject. "So how did it go?"

"Well, I gave them the speech," Rick said, "It seemed to go over well enough. It got them thinking, at least. That's all I can expect on such short notice. Took a few questions, but most people hadn't heard much about it and didn't know what to ask. Stan and Tina were interesting, though."

"How's that?" asked Cassie.

"Well, Jenny apparently said something yesterday, and that got Tina motivated. Apparently the Wives' Club around here is strong and active. A lot of husbands are going to find their beds cold indeed if they do not plan on attending tomorrow. Like I said, interesting."

The drinks arrived, and the ladies ordered. The conversation flowed, and the food was good. Sometime later, as they waited for the check to be processed, talk circled back to the day's plans.

"So what's next?" asked Veronica.

"Next stop is the park itself. I had Ranger Dave set up a meeting with as many rangers as could make it. The park should have a say, shouldn't it?"

"Ooh, I've wanted to see the park since-" Cassie paused. "Well, since I knew it was there! Can I come with?"

"It's pretty boring," said Rick. Nate nodded his agreement.

"Oh, I'm sure we can find something fun to do," said Cassie. Nate looked intently at the bottom of his cocoa mug.

"What about you, Veronica? Won't you be bored by yourself?"

"Hey, if she's going with you, you don't need me to drive. I'll keep Ronni company."

"Actually, now I... never mind," Veronica said. She realized she didn't mind it so much when Nate said it.

"Glad that's settled," said Rick, producing a quarter. "Okay, Nate. You and me. Winner gets to pick between the Hummer and the Camaro. I'll be flipping onto my hand. Call it in the air."

*****

After about three minutes of haggling the fine points of a coin flip, Nate and Rick agreed that Cassie would take Rick in the Camaro and Nate would drive Veronica around in the Hummer.

"So, what should I expect?" Cassie asked between directions from the GPS.

"Just me and the rangers, talking about the deal," shrugged Rick, absentmindedly riffling through papers in the briefcase on his lap. "Probably nothing new to you."

"What would you like for me to do for you?" she asked. Rick looked askance at her. Was she aware of the double meanings her questions could have? Or was his attraction to her just playing tricks on him?

"Umm... I'm meeting them at the Visitors Center, so I guess you could look around," he suggested. "Keeping that place well-staffed was one of our contributions, so it's a not-so-subtle reminder of all we've done for them."

"Turn left in... point... five... miles..." the GPS interrupted.

"We're almost there," said Rick, "Game time."

Upon getting out, they saw a number of cars and trucks outside the building -- a good sign. Inside, Rick saw the rangers gathered, a couple in uniform, near the information desk, where there were benches and chairs.

"Rick, good to see you again," said Dave. When Mike made his original deal, Rick and Dave got fairly familiar with one another, Dave being the liaison to the park rangers. Dave turned to his co-workers. "Guys, and gals, this is Rick Tessaro. He helped Mike put together the original deal that helped us out so much. Now some people are trying to kick Mike out. I, for one, am supporting Mike, but Rick is here to answer any questions we have, so we can all make better informed decisions."

The question-and-answer session began, first with some background questions, and then with specifics in regards to how various law and policy changes affected the park. These rangers were committed to their work, and certainly not fools. This worried Rick. He didn't want to pull the wool over their eyes, but the full truth could inadvertently cause more harm than good.

Cassie got bored quickly, so she took Rick's suggestion and wandered around. Wandering from glass case to glass case, she learned more than she expected about the park.

Rick fielded most of the questions with ease. He'd guided enough witnesses in testimony that he could roll with the punches. Cassie, however, managed to be distracting, even though he only occasionally saw her between the display kiosks. The first time, she was taking off her hat, shaking out her hair and running her hand through it. The scarf came off next, then her gloves. A couple of minutes later, she happened to stop right behind a gap between the rangers, and peeled off her coat, bending her arms back to let it drop, which just so happened to arch her back and accentuate her breasts.

Rick became more and more thankful that his briefcase was concealing his groin from public view. If the fabric of his pants was stretched anymore, they would rip and he'd be in very public view. Damn it all, did she have to do this right now? Hell, did she even know, or was she just this innately sexy?

He suddenly became aware that Dave was talking to him.

"...very much for your time and candor. We appreciate it. We'll talk among ourselves now, and you can count on at least me being there tomorrow."

"Thanks, Dave. Always a pleasure."

"Anytime."

"Cassie?" Rick called. "We're ready to go." The whole thing had taken close to an hour, not including the drive, which had been close to half an hour with all of the twists and turns in the roads.

"Cool. Let me get my stuff."

She turned away from him, bending over to retrieve the items she had stowed under one of the benches. Rick tore his gaze away before she caught him staring.

"Where to next, boss?" she asked innocently.

"My hotel room," he said, "I need a shower."

There. Two can play that game, Rick thought.

*****

It didn't take Veronica and Nate long before they got bored and decided to just hang out in Nate's hotel room, next to Rick's.

"Hey, Ronni?" Nate asked once they had settled in.

"Yeah?" Veronica was at the table, shuffling a deck of cards in the hopes of getting some kind of game started. Nate always had one on him, just in case.

"Recognize this?"

Veronica saw Nate hold it up as he sat down on the edge of the queen-size bed.

"It's a piece of confetti?" Veronica guessed.

Nate laughed. "No. It's one of the 'numbered slips' you used to determine who toyed with whom last night. I couldn't help but notice that it's blank."

"Well, Jenny and Mike are, well, it's obvious, right?" Veronica babbled nervously, "And Cassie seems to have the hots for Rick, so that left me and you, it doesn't mean-"

"Stop right there," Nate said calmly. There was a timbre in his voice that he used on the job and rarely in personal matters, but this was important. "If that were true, you would have sent them in first, then gone last. No sense in taking a chance the show might be stopped before your intended results occur."

"That's not necessarily true," Veronica objected, "Besides, you know I'm a flirt. I date all kinds of different guys all the time. You, I mean, have you still not gotten a girlfriend yet? Do you even like girls? What's this to you?" She was grasping at straws, at anything that might help her figure out what was going on. The cards lay in a pile on the table.

"Almost everything you just said or implied is not true," Nate continued.

"That's-"

"Ahem. You are a flirt. Correct. You do not, however, date all kinds of different guys. I've known you since I was in third grade, and you have yet to have a serious relationship. Boytoys on speed-dial, yes. Relationship? No. Have I gotten a girlfriend yet? Still working on it."

"What does that-"

"I'm not done. Technically, I do not like girls."

"I knew-"

"I've only ever liked the one. Just one girl. Now a woman."

"Who-"

"Don't be dense. I know you're smarter than that." Nate stopped, remembering the bit from The Replacements where Gene Hackman and Keanu Reeves talk about being a duck on a pond, all calm on the surface, but underneath the feet are kicking like mad. Thank God for his cop training, he thought, to keep a cool front when your heart feels like it's attempting a jailbreak from your ribcage.

Veronica was silent, confused, catching up to the conversation for a while. Suddenly her eyes widened.

"ME?!"

Nate laughed. "Yes, you, silly. You want the whole story?"

"Uh, yeah," Veronica said, still stunned. She got up and sat next to Nate, who held her trembling hands in his own.

"Do you remember when you were in seventh grade, and you were upset that nobody you liked was asking you to the Spring dance at your school? When I heard you say that, I realized how much I wanted to take you, and how dumb the other boys must have been not to see how awesome you are, et cetera, et cetera. That's when I knew I liked you."

"I think I would have said yes," Veronica said softly.

"Alas for me, I was basically a brother to you already. But to me, you were definitely not a sister. Recall, if you will, what happened after your senior prom."

"I'd rather not."

"I mean, after you finally got away from the guy."

"You kicked his ass. Nearly hospitalized him."

"Afterwards, I had to ask myself why. Because it wasn't just defending a friend. It was even more personal than that. I was... territorial. It was my job to comfort you, protect you, be there for you, as a partner, you know? And you gave that role to another guy, fine, I could accept that. But when he betrayed that trust... I lost my cool. Not because he hurt a friend, but because he hurt you."

Veronica wanted to remind him that the rat bastard never actually succeeded, but her throat was choked up. She tried giving him a look to convey her feelings, but tears were filling her vision.

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