Not quite an hour after we’d sat down, Tyler reached down and lifted my legs, lowering them over his lap. He settled back against the sofa cushions, looking sleepy but content.
“All done?” Tyler said, watching me close my laptop.
We rode into town in Tyler’s truck, his ridiculously loud exhaust pipes announcing to everyone within a three-mile radius that we were back. He stopped in a small café I’d never been to, but where he seemed to be familiar.
The waitress looked both surprised and overly enthusiastic about seeing him, but Tyler didn’t seem to notice.
“Uh, just waters for now. You want OJ, Ellie?” Tyler asked, still reading over the menu.
“Two,” Tyler said, holding up his index and middle finger. When the waitress left, he lowered his index finger, leaving me a charming gesture for a few seconds before putting it away.
“Back atcha,” I grumbled. I pretended to be annoyed, but it was hard to stay mad at him when his dimple was working its magic.
“Orange juice. Two,” the waitress said, setting down two glasses. “Who’s this, Tyler?”
She was smiling when she asked the question, but a familiar glint was in her eye. She took in my clothes, my hair, even my jagged fingernails and chipped polish, wondering what it was about me that had enticed Tyler Maddox enough to buy me breakfast.
“This is Ellison,” Tyler said, the grin on his face breaking out into a full-blown smile.
I cringed, wondering which story she’d heard and how satisfying to her it would be to realize I wasn’t competition after all.
“Yes?” I said, trying to meet her condescending gaze. Life was a collection of stories, and I couldn’t let her judge me for a few chapters.
“You know my cousin, Paige. She talks about you a lot.”
“Oh. Yeah. Tell her I said hi,” I said, surprised at how relieved I was.
“Hi? That’s it?” the waitress said, her voice tinged with disdain.
“Emily, c’mon. Can we order?” Tyler said, impatient.
Emily pulled out her pad and pen, her lips pursed.
“Peanut butter and whip with warm maple?” she asked.
“Oh, uh … I’ll have two eggs, over medium, and bacon. Burned.”
She shook her head. “I’ll tell the cook. Anything else?”
“That’s it,” I said. Emily walked away, and I leaned against the table. “She’s going to spit in my food.”
“No. I’m not sure if she hates me because of something she thinks I did to Paige, or because I’m with you.”
“Maybe both. Girls are weird that way.”
“Oh my fuck, Tyler. Could you be more of a misogynist?”
“About what? I’m not even sure I know what you meant.”
“But you knew enough to be offended.”
“I can tell,” he said. “I would say you need a drink, but…”
“No. My luck, we’d get called to a political fire, and I’d be puking my guts out.”
Tyler smiled at the jargon. A political fire was anything big enough to make CNN, something everyone was dispatched to, and the only reason I would ever know that was by living with the twenty-man crew who would be sent to one.
“I didn’t realize you knew that term,” Tyler said.
“I sort of have to pay attention for my job.”
“You’re really good at it, Ellie. I’m glad Jojo gave you a raise, but I saw on the Internet the other day that they’re paying photographers six figures a year to shoot pics of national forests.”
“I was looking into National Geographic, too. That seems a little harder to get into, but not impossible.”
I arched an eyebrow. “You trying to get rid of me, hotshot?”
“No fucking way. Not even a little bit.”
We looked at each other for a moment in a silent exchange. We had an understanding that I needed, and Tyler was satisfied with whatever it was that we were doing. Part of me wanted to thank him for not pushing, but that would defeat the purpose of our rule to avoid labels, or really to even discuss the nature of our relationship—if it could even be called that.
Emily returned with our plates, interrupting our little staring contest. “Waffles. Eggs,” she said, turning around before Tyler could ask for a refill.
“Okay, then. Not sure what you did to Paige, but her cousin is pissed about it.”
“No. As a matter of fact, I was very clear. Many times.”
Tyler chuckled, finishing his waffle. He paid, and we walked downtown, stopping into various shops. It was strange to see something I liked and not buy it. I found myself looking at price tags for the first time, and once, when I came across an exceptionally soft black turtleneck, calculating my bank balance and upcoming bills in my head to see if I had the extra cash to spend. I didn’t.
I walked around the store, peeking at Tyler through the shelving. He had a few items in his hands, so I waited for him to check out, and then we popped into a candy store. We spent the day walking around, talking about the crew, a lot of playful bickering, trading family stories, and trying to one-up each other on what shocking illegal activities we’d participated in.
The day wore away, and as the sun ducked behind the green mountaintops, I felt myself already mourning The Day Tyler and I Did Nothing. Wandering aimlessly in downtown Estes was one of my best days.
After a light dinner, Tyler and I walked down the block toward a familiar alley. He casually reached for my hand, at first swinging our arms, and then gently squeezing my fingers when he realized I wasn’t going to pull away. He was wearing jeans, black boots, and a short-sleeved white T-shirt with something about a motorcycle in black ink. It went well the tattoos covering his arms, and I smiled when I thought about the reaction my parents would have if they saw us.
“What do you think? Want to share a Shirley Temple?”
“I thought you said you were tired of the bar scene.”
“We don’t have to go. I don’t want to encourage old habits.”
I pulled my hand away. “I’m not an alcoholic, Tyler. I can be around liquor without drinking.”
I squeezed his hand, tugging him forward. He resisted for the first few steps, and then gave in. A woman pushed through the door, her heels clicking down the concrete the same way we’d come. Her ankle rolled, and she nearly fell but regained her balance, grumbling curse words until she turned the corner.
Tyler pulled back as I reached for the door with my free hand. I stumbled backward, leaning against him before pushing him away.