Chapter 2

 

     As soon as Livvy heard the car door close and the engine start, she peeked out the window and watched the truck leave before grabbing a duffle bag. Almost twenty‑one, she should’ve moved out years ago. But her mom had been so weird about it anytime Livvy brought it up, she’d relented and stayed at home. Not anymore. She couldn’t stand being under the same roof with Mom’s current boyfriend.

     She’d miss her mom, but little else would be remembered fondly. Happy memories died years ago and were buried with Dad.

     After pulling on a t‑shirt and jeans, Livvy stuffed more clothes into a duffle bag. She wrapped a blanket around her pillow and stacked it near the door.

     Before leaving, she ran back to the bed and scooped up her old, tattered stuffed elephant.

     “I can’t leave you, Snuffy.” She buried her face in the fur before shoving him in the bag.

     The smell of Dad’s cologne had long since faded. She’d used the rest of the bottle, spraying Snuffy every few months, but once it ran out she never bought more. That fuzzy, grey animal carried too many memories to be left behind.

     Hopefully her mom wouldn’t notice it missing right away—or the picture of Livvy with her dad that sat on the desk.

     It wasn’t like she was running away, but she had nowhere to go. Livvy hated the idea of telling her mom. With her, everything was personal, which would make it hard. Livvy had tried before and changed her mind, more than once. If she found a place to live first, it would make the process easier . . . at least that was what she hoped.

     She grabbed the bedding, hoisted the bag onto her shoulder, and hurried into the kitchen, where she tossed a couple bottles of water, a package of nuts, and a few granola bars into her duffle bag.

     Not wanting to linger, afraid she’d change her mind again or that the boyfriend would come back unexpectedly, she pushed open the back door.

     Blinking, she fought tears as she locked the house and climbed into her car. She wasn’t sure how she’d even concentrate in class while the professor droned on about chemistry. Worrying about where she’d spend the night would impede learning, but she still had to show up for class.

     Thanks to San Antonio traffic, Livvy slipped into class with only minutes to spare.

     Tessa rolled her eyes. “Good thing I saved you a seat.”

     “Thanks.” Livvy smiled in spite of how she felt. “Is it really Tuesday? Feels like a Monday.”

     “Some weeks every single day feels like a Monday.” Tessa pushed a newspaper toward Livvy, pointing at an engagement announcement. “Look at my cousin. Isn’t that a great photo?”

     “It is.”

     “I took it. Maybe my photography business will pick up after people see this.” Tessa tapped the photo, talking about lighting and aperture.

     Livvy hardly heard a word. In a photo farther down the page was a face she hadn’t seen in years—up until a few weeks ago—a face that appeared in her dreams nearly every night.

     Tessa waved her hand. “Are you listening to me?”

     “What?” Livvy couldn’t pull her focus away from the image.

     “What are you looking at?” Tessa followed her gaze. “You’re looking at the wrong photo. This one is my cousin.”

     “Oh.”

     “Do you know those people?” Tessa squinted at the names below the photo. “Tanner Davis? Or Angela Withers?”

     Tanner Davis. Livvy stared at the man with the soft brown eyes, short dark hair, and a beard that she found most attractive. Learning he was engaged sent a shiver of disappointment through her.

     After not seeing him for years, he’d come into the diner the last five weeks. He’d been in her thoughts on and off during the last decade because some good deeds have a lasting effect. But she didn’t want to explain any of that to Tessa.

     “Neither. Thought it was someone else.” Livvy wasn’t a good liar and avoided Tessa’s curious look, knowing she wouldn’t be able to conceal her deceit.

     Tessa pointed at the photo she’d taken. “Well, everyone says it’s a great picture.”

     Livvy stole another glance at Tanner’s photo before opening her notes. A blonde with bright blue eyes and a little too much makeup stood next to Tanner. Livvy recognized that sour taste in her mouth for what it was. How could she be jealous about a guy that came in once a week to eat pie?

     “You did a great job. I bet that photo of your cousin will generate lots of new business.” Grabbing a pen out of her backpack, Livvy prepared to take notes as the instructor stepped to the front. “Hey Tessa, the library is open twenty‑four hours, right?”

     “Yep. Why? You gonna sleep there?” Tessa snickered.

     Livvy laughed, hoping the truth wasn’t etched on her face. “I’ll need to study.” And a place to sleep.

     That night, she found a secluded spot, not far from where a couple of other students were camping out, and tried to sleep. It took hours before exhaustion outweighed her fear, before she let herself close her eyes.

***

     Livvy tied on her apron and yawned. After three nights sleeping in the library, she was beyond tired. The last few days had pulled her to a new low. At least she had something to think about during those long hours awake.

     What was Tanner’s fiancée like? Was she sweet with a talent for baking pies? Was she a high‑powered attorney with impeccable taste? Whoever she was, Livvy envied the woman.

     The hostess motioned toward the back table. Putting on a smile, Livvy hurried over. “Howdy. What can I get y’all to drink?”

     The woman glanced up from her menu, and Livvy forced the smile to stay on her face.

     Angela Withers sat in the booth. Across from her sat a man Livvy didn’t recognize, a man who was definitely not Tanner.

     A syrupy smile spilled across Angela’s face. “Hello.” She ran a finger down the menu. “I’ll have a Coke. Extra ice please.”

     “Sure thing. For you?” Livvy focused on the guy, making a mental note of what he looked like.

     “Iced tea.”

     “Sweet or unsweet?”

     “Sweet.” He winked and let his gaze wander downward.

     Livvy gave a quick nod before leaving to get the drinks.

     When she approached the table again, she didn’t miss the couple holding hands. They were sharing the same side of the booth and had their hands down, but not completely out of sight. For someone engaged, Ms. Withers sure wasn’t acting like it.

     “Have you decided?” Livvy smiled despite the anger that burned inside.

     Tanner seemed so nice. He didn’t deserve to be engaged to someone that would cheat. Livvy tried to maintain an objective perspective while Angela and her hand‑holding friend ordered.

     Livvy turned in their orders and kept herself busy until it was time to take them food. After dropping off the plates, she hurried away, frustrated with the whole situation. Then she thought about Tanner. He needed to know.

     While the cheaters ate, since Livvy had no other tables with customers, she busied herself in the back room, refilling the salt and pepper shakers, wiping the tables, and eavesdropping.

     Slipping into the booth behind the couple unnoticed, she spent a few extra minutes wiping the same spot over and over.

     “Oh, Daryl.” Angela morphed the two syllables into five.

     “Just move in with me, Ang.”

     Whoever the Daryl guy was, Livvy didn’t like him.

     “In case you’ve forgotten, I’m engaged.” Angela’s sing‑song reply sent a rage pulsing through Livvy’s insides.

     Daryl chuckled. “You didn’t act like it last night.”

     Angela giggled, then cleared her throat. “Baby, I love you—you know that—but marrying Tanner is business.”

     “What about us?” Daryl sounded hurt.

     “It doesn’t have to be complicated. We’ll just have to be discreet. I’ll have to plan weekends away with my bestie.”

     Oh please. Livvy almost couldn’t believe what she was hearing. She needed to warn Tanner. That wouldn’t be awkward or weird at all.

     “Can you at least take that off, so we can pretend for a few minutes? I don’t need a reminder of him every time I hold your hand.”

     “My ring?” Angela kept her voice a whisper.

     “Yeah, that big rock that has you willing to throw away my love.” Daryl didn’t seem her type.

     “Better? Remember, if anyone comes up, you’re my cousin, and we’re catching up.”

     Daryl laughed. “I guess that makes us kissing cousins.”

     Other customers arrived, and Livvy gave up her listening post.

     She relaxed a little when Angela and Daryl finally left. She no longer wondered if Tanner would arrive early and catch them. That thought made her ill. He needed to know, but finding out that way wasn’t something she’d wish on her worst enemy, and especially not on her favorite customer.

     While Livvy served other patrons, she tried to decide how to tell Tanner what she’d seen and heard.

     As she collected her tip from Angela’s table, light glinted off something tucked under the edge of a plate.

     Livvy gasped.

     A ring with a diamond the size of Mt. Rushmore had been left on the table. The engagement ring.

     She turned, ready to run after Angela, but hesitated. It could be used to convince Tanner.

     Just give it back to Angela.

     Livvy ran out the door but didn’t see either of the cheaters. Unless he changed his pattern, Tanner would be sitting in his favorite booth in a few hours. She’d give it to him then.

     It completely ruined her plan for the evening. She was going to tell him about how much his good deed ten years ago had meant to her and thank him, but that didn’t pair well with breaking the news that his fiancée was cheating on him.

     The diner filled with customers and kept Livvy busy. She didn’t have time to think about the ring.

     As the night wore on, the crowds thinned. With less than an hour before closing, the diner was almost empty. Only one couple chatted at the counter, sipping coffee.

     The hostess and the other waitress were somewhere in the back, leaving Livvy to keep tabs on the dining room.

     Tanner was late. Or maybe he wasn’t coming at all.

     She sent a text to her mom: I’m spending the night with a friend. If the books in the library counted as friends, then it wasn’t a lie. Livvy had used almost every excuse possible for not being around the house. Soon, she’d have to be honest.

     A customer stepped in while Livvy refilled coffee for the couple at the counter.

     “Sit anywhere. I’ll be with you in a sec.” She stayed focused on not spilling the hot liquid.

     Once the coffee pot rested safely back in its spot, she scanned the room.

     Tanner sat in his usual spot.

     Livvy swallowed the lump in her throat. All resolve to tell Tanner about what she’d overheard melted away as she moved toward his table. “Hi. I wondered if you were coming in tonight?”

     A dejected‑looking Tanner glanced up and flashed a weak smile. “I made it.”

     “Everything okay?”

     “Found out that my fiancée is cheating on me.” He didn’t even glance at the menu.

     “I’m so sorry. That’s horrible.” Inside, she breathed a sigh of relief. She didn’t have to break the news.

     “I haven’t eaten yet, so I’ll have chicken fried steak with a side of hash browns. And a tea.”

     “Sweet?” Livvy wanted to hug him.

     “Please.”

     She trotted off to the kitchen and hurried back with a glass of tea. “Here ya go.” She slipped a straw out of her apron and dropped it on the table. In a moment of bravery, she took a chance. “Want some company? My shift will be over soon. I can sit with you if you want.”

     Tanner studied her then motioned toward the empty bench. “Thanks, Livvy.” He extended his hand. “I’m Tanner.”

     “Nice to meet you.” After chatting for a bit, she’d give the ring back, explaining what she’d heard—just as soon as she worked up the nerve. That was her plan.

     He used his straw to submerge an ice cube. “How long have you worked at the diner?”

     “A couple years. Only part‑time, until about a year ago.”

     “Pies are good.”

     “The best.” Her ability to ask questions and spark conversation disappeared. “So, um, what do you do?”

     He pulled up the straw and watched the ice pop back to the surface. “Let’s talk about something else.”

     Why had she asked such a stupid question? “Okay. Hmmm. What’s your favorite pie?”

     That question pulled a small smile out of him. “Pecan. You?”

     “Lemon Meringue.”

     He continued to play with his straw. “I work in the family business.”

     She didn’t linger on the business topic since he’d hesitated to give even that much info. “Sounds exciting, but not as exciting as waiting tables. I get to meet all kinds of interesting people.” Nervousness had her rambling, and she sounded like an idiot. “That was a joke.”

     He laughed, but it sounded courteous. “What do you do when you aren’t meeting all kinds of interesting people?”

     “I take classes.” Overcome with insecurity, she willed the cooks to hurry.

     Tanner sipped his tea. “I’m not great company tonight, sorry.”

     “That’s okay. I’m sorry about what happened.”

     He stared at the condensation pooling on the table. “Yeah.”

     Livvy shifted. “I can’t imagine anyone—” A bell dinged in the kitchen, and she jumped up. “Lemme grab your food.” She added an extra glass of ice and a pitcher of tea to the tray before returning to the table.

     “Everything looks delicious.”

     “If you’d rather just eat alone, I won’t be offended.” Livvy waited before sitting down again.

     Sad brown eyes surveyed the room. “The company is kinda nice, but I don’t want to keep you from anything.”

     “You aren’t. Let me ring up that couple, and I’ll be back.”

     He tapped her hand before she stepped away. “Thank you.”

     Washing her hands was a requirement of the job, but now she didn’t want to. “My pleasure.”

     The couple, who decided to share their weekend itinerary, kept her at the counter for ten minutes or more. Livvy maintained politeness even though she wanted to be chatting with Tanner.

     As soon as the door closed, she rushed back to the table.

     “You always so nice to people?” He ran a piece of chicken fried steak through the white gravy.

     “The truth? No.” She put her finger to her lips. “But let that be our secret.”

     “Deal.” He flashed a genuine smile. “So, tell me about the interesting people you’ve met.” He mixed his hash browns with the leftover gravy.

     While he’d given her the perfect opportunity to tell him about Angela, Livvy couldn’t do it. It would wipe the smile from his face, and she couldn’t do it. “Mr. Thorn comes in every Monday night. He is aptly named. He brings a thermometer to make sure his coffee is hot enough.”

     “Oh boy. That doesn’t sound fun.”

     “Mostly, I think he’s lonely and misses his wife. She used to come in with him, and he was much nicer then.”

     “Did she . . . uh . . .?”

     “She died about a year ago. Her name was Rose.”

     “Rose Thorn?”

     Livvy crossed her heart. “No joke.” She took a long sip of tea, trying to think of anyone else that would qualify as interesting. “Once I had a woman show up and sit in that booth until closing. She was here for hours.”

     “Did you keep her company?”

     “No, got the sense she didn’t want to talk. I just kept topping off her coffee.” Livvy realized that the people she found interesting didn’t sound quite so interesting when she talked about them. “Tell me about you.”

     He pushed his plate to the side. “I work for my grandfather. I’m guessing he and the widowed Mr. Thorn would get along quite well.” Dragging his fingers through his hair, he sighed. “I love him, but when he sets his mind on something it’s almost impossible to tell him no. And I need to figure out how to do that.”

     “I’m sure he’ll still love you.”

     Tanner wrinkled his nose. “That makes one of us.”

     “Need pie?”

     “Sure. Bring me two slices of lemon meringue.”

     “Will do.”

     When Livvy carried the pie and coffee to the table, Tanner pointed to the other bench. “Have a seat. The other slice is for you if you want it.”

     “Thanks.” She never turned down a slice of lemon pie.

     “Everything okay with you? You seem . . . different.”

     Again, Livvy had the perfect opportunity to spill the story. Instead she filled her mouth with meringue and nodded.

     Once they’d both finished their pie, Tanner glanced at the time. “I should go.”

     “I’ll check you out up there.” She walked to the counter, trying to think of any way to extend the conversation. Wanting to be around him longer, she contemplated a crazy, stupid, risky idea. She couldn’t keep the ring all night. “I hope your night gets better.”

     “Me too. I’m going to hide from the world for a while. That’ll help.”

     “I hope so.” After ringing him up, Livvy untied her apron and poked her head into the kitchen. “Maxine, last customer is headed out.”

     “Run along. I’ll close up.” Maxine always treated Livvy kindly.

     She turned, surprised that Tanner hadn’t left.

     He held out several bills. “For you. Thanks for the great service and the company.”

     His tip was extravagant, twice what he left on a normal Friday night.

     “This is too much.”

     “Night, Livvy.”

     “I enjoyed talking with you.” She appreciated the extra funds more than he would ever know. It was the little extra she needed to get a hotel room and truly sleep. But not until after she’d done what she should have done when he first came in.


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Next Door to the Billionaire (Bluebonnets & Billionaires, #1)