I turned to see Sterling standing behind me. He looked like a banking executive, trying his best to emulate his father, the CEO of Aerostraus Corp. He was wearing a dark wool trench coat, a scarf, a three-thousand-dollar watch, and to offset his stuffy look, a blue button-down with no tie—top button undone. He had managed to walk down the snowy sidewalk without getting a single speck of moisture on his Italian boots.
“Kiss me, asshole. Right now. A good one. You owe me.”
Sterling grabbed each side of my face and planted his mouth on mine, slobbering all over me, but making the scene I’d wanted. The truck passed by, and once it sounded far enough away, I pushed Sterling back.
He wiped his mouth, disgusted. “Why did I have to do that?”
“Stalker or mooch?” Sterling asked, smoothing his dark hair to the side.
“Are we still doing brunch?” he asked. He wiped his mouth again, looking mildly disgusted.
“Yes,” I said, pulling him toward Winona’s Café.
We chose a table by the window, and Sterling immediately checked the menu. He ran his fingers over each line, paying attention to every ingredient. He wasn’t allergic; he was a snob.
I rolled my eyes. “Why? We eat here all the time.”
“I haven’t been here in three months. They might have something new on the menu.”
“You know they never do.”
I smiled, checking my phone while he searched the decade-old menu. Sterling’s family had a home down the road from ours, one of many around the country, left empty most of the year. I knew Sterling was my people when I saw him getting drunk, fourteen and alone, next to a tree beside our property line. He was just another trust fund baby—lamenting how hard life was with millions at his disposal but without an attentive family to anchor him to the real world.
Sterling had invested his entire worth in his father’s opinion of his success on any given day, and that made my friend somewhat moody. Sterling’s father, Jameson Wellington, changed his mind about his son’s significance regularly, depending on the stocks, the attitude of the board of directors, and if his wife was pissing him off that day.
“How did the party go?” Sterling asked without looking up.
“Oh. I meant to invite you. It was sort of impromptu.”
“I heard it was a bunch of locals.”
Sterling glanced up at me for just a few seconds, and then returned his gaze to the menu. He wasn’t reading it anymore. “Don’t tell her about the kiss. I just did it because I owed you one.”
“I won’t. She’d hate me because whether she admits it or not … she loves you.”
I leaned in, annoyed. “You know she does.”
He seemed to relax.
“I invite you to parties all the time. I needed to … I needed something…”
“You’re a terrible kisser. You’re probably doing that guy a favor.”
I glared at him. “Order your eggs-fucking-Benedict and shut your hole. I’m an excellent kisser. That is precisely why I had to scare that guy off with your slobber box.”
“Who are you fooling? You didn’t just kiss that guy.”
The waitress approached, wearing an olive and cream striped apron and a smile. “Hi, Ellie.”
“Chelsea, if you had to guess what Sterling was going to order—”
I sat back, handing Chelsea my menu. “I’m not judging you. Those are some damn good eggs.”
“No, I’ll have the Southwest omelet and some OJ. Do you have vodka? A screwdriver sounds great right about now.”
Chelsea wrinkled her nose. “It’s ten thirty in the morning.”
Sterling held up two fingers, ordering orange juice for himself.
Chelsea walked away, and I pressed my lips together, trying to keep from looking too concerned. “You look tired, Sterling.”
“Sterling,” I warned. “She’s not changing her mind. She loves you more than she loves anyone else.”
“Of course except me. But she loves you. She just can’t be with you until she takes over Edson.”
His face fell, and his eyes lost focus.
“I’m sorry,” I said, reaching across the table to touch his arm. “We should have picked a place that has vodka.”
My mouth suddenly felt dry. Wanting a drink and realizing it wasn’t immediately available created a subtle pang of panic.
Sterling pulled away. “Careful, Ellie. You’re beginning to sound like me.”
The door chimed, and a family of four walked in, already arguing about where to sit. It was tourist season, and although Sterling and I could be considered tourists, we’d both had homes there for more than eight years. Long enough to be annoyed by the non-resident tourists. We were what the locals called part-time families, and most of the time, if we shared the name of our neighborhood, they didn’t even have to ask. Only one of our neighbors was a full-time family, and that was only because they were from Arkansas and moving to Estes Park was a dream not a vacation.
The two waitresses scurried between tables that were filling by the minute. Chelsea’s sneakers occasionally squeaked on the apricot and white tiled floor while she collected orders and rushed to the back through the swinging doors of the kitchen. She would reappear with a smile, stopping on her way back to fill large plastic glasses at the drink station behind the bar lined with stools for the snowboarders who frequented the café.
Body heat filled the room, and I noticed everyone peeling off layers. Chelsea was working up a sweat while tourists walked on the other side of the wall of windows bundled up in coats, scarves, knit hats, and gloves. The door would open, offering a blast of cool air, and Chelsea let everyone know when she would walk through a nice breeze with her sweet sigh.
Snow had just begun to fall in delicate pieces for the fourth day in a row. The resort was happy, and business was booming, but there was a storm coming, and I worried about Finley trying to make it in.
“Oh?” Sterling wiped his nose with his knuckle and sniffed, a telltale sign that he was attempting to be nonchalant.
“You’re so far inside the friend zone, Sterling. Time to give up.”
He looked appalled. “I haven’t tried to get her back in a long time.”