Her knees were shaking, so she brought her arms up around his waist and held on.
Why had she thought she needed a sweater?
After another long, melting moment, he lifted his head and smiled. “I hope you don't mind,” he repeated.
Mandy didn't trust her voice. She nodded. Then shook her head.
She felt light as a feather, and she knew it was too good to be true. She might not turn into a pumpkin at midnight, but this couldn't last. A little voice in her head nagged her:
You know you can't keep this up, right?
She brushed the little voice aside with,
I can try.
“Okay,” Jake said as they edged forward in line outside the movie theater. “The truth.”
Mandy, who seemed vaguely distracted, turned with a start. “What?”
He nodded at the list of films on the marquee above. “Which ones have you seen already?”
She bit her lip, an innocent gesture that reminded him of their kiss with a pleasant rush that nearly derailed his train of thought. “None of them, actually.”
If you eliminated the movies Jake had already seen, that took them down to two out of six. But that wasn't a problem. On the other hand . . . “Not a big movie fan?”
The line inched forward. “No, I justâdon't go out much. But I watch a lot of movies at home.”
A sweet, pretty girl like her? Then again, maybe it wasn't a complete surprise. There was something sheltered about her, a sense of innocence he couldn't quite define.
He turned his attention back to the marquee. The two lines were fairly longâobviously, Tall Pine Cineplex did good business on a Saturday nightâso that bought them a little time. “Well, I can vouch for the thriller,” he said. “The romantic comedy, not so much.”
She frowned. “If you've already seenâ”
“Not an issue. A good movie is worth seeing more than once. Even a half-decent movie.”
They settled on the tearjerker dramaâone of the two movies, as it turned out, that Jake hadn't seen.
“Okay, your turn,” Mandy said. “The truth. What's your most re-watched movie of all time?”
He squirmed. “Remember, I'm an addict. My tastes go pretty far back.”
She tilted her head expectantly. He sighed.
“If I'm in the mood for a no-brainer, the original
Planet of the Apes.
If I'm in the mood for qualityâ
She responded immediately. “I love
He stared at her. “Most people I know are allergic to black-and-white.”
“It was my mom's favorite.”
Jake stepped forward to fill the gap that had opened in front of them as they continued to compare notes. Most of Mandy's favorites were more recent, but he agreed with a lot of her choices:
A Beautiful Mind, Cast Away, Erin Brockovich.
“You lose me on the musicals, though,” he said. “I know it's poetic license, but I can't get past the idea of characters bursting into song in the middle of . . .”
He'd lost her. She was studying the wall on their right, as if the posters of coming attractions were suddenly of intense interest. Jake had to nudge her when it was time to edge up in line again. When she moved forward, she kept her head turned toward the wall of posters.
“Earth to Mandy,” he said when it was their turn at the ticket window.
She blushed as they stepped forward, and Jake saw her eyes flicker toward the line of people at their left.
and Mandy didn't go hand-in-hand, or at least he wouldn't have thought so. As Jake ordered the tickets, his eyes followed the direction where Mandy's had flickered. He didn't see anything unusualâbut then, he didn't know any of the people in the line alongside them.
He suspected Mandy did.
His first, territorial instinct said
But as the girl at the window slid their tickets forward, his glance didn't turn up any likely candidates. An elderly couple, a middle-aged woman, two women about Mandy's age . . .
Jake marveled at the way Mandy kept him between herself and the people they walked past, using him as a human shield. She didn't relax until they were halfway down the corridor that led to their theater.
“See somebody you hate?” he asked.
“What?” She gave him a startled look, but her face was still flushed. Not a bad actress, but not a great one either.
“Whoever you saw back there.”
“Oh. No, just . . . it's awkward.”
She didn't elaborate. And as they made their way down the slightly slanted floor in search of seats, Jake observed that she didn't appear to be limping at all in her heels.
He decided to leave it alone for now. There could be all kinds of explanations. It could be an old hurt or a recent argument. Or, in a small town like this, maybe she didn't want to arouse a lot of curiosity on a first date.
Then again, maybe Jake wouldn't like the answer. Maybe she just didn't want to be seen with the troublemaker from the big city.
But later that night, when he took her home and kissed her at the top of the stairs leading to her front door, none of that mattered. He'd wondered if kissing her earlier in the evening might make the good-night kiss anticlimactic. It didn't.
Take it slow,
a voice in his head said.
Just because it feels right . . .
He'd learned his lesson long agoâhe hopedâabout relationships built on physical attraction. Not every difference could be dissolved with a kiss.
But for tonight, it was good enough.
Mandy closed the front door behind her and allowed herself the luxury of leaning against it for a moment with her eyes closed.
Things like this didn't happen in her world. She didn't go out with men she didn't know. In fact, she hardly ever
men she didn't know, unless you counted the ones who came into the shop with their wives.
It couldn't last. She was Mandy Claus. Spotting Julie Ashman at the theater tonight had been a reminder of that.
But, with her feet barely touching the floor of her living room, Mandy wanted to keep things just like this for as long as she could. That meant dealing with certain realities.
Knowing what she was facing, she opened her eyes.
She'd let it go too far, and she'd known it for some time. It looked too much like The North Pole. A Christmas wreath still hung over the fireplace mantel, which was decorated with half a dozen nutcracker figurines, a swag of green garland hanging below. There were Christmas candleholders on most of the shelves, snow globes, snowmen . . . everything but a Christmas tree. That, she didn't have, because she always brought home a fresh one.
In the three years since her mom died, it had gotten harder and harder to put Christmas away when it was over. So, every year, more of the decorations had stayed out. This year Mandy hadn't even tried to box any of it up. She didn't want to pack away all the good memories, all the warmth they represented. She'd clutched Christmas around her like a security blanket, and it hadn't seemed to matter because she didn't really have guests here. And it was impossible to resist bringing new things home from the shop.
Mom had been the voice of reason:
“If we left the Christmas things out all year round, it wouldn't be as special.”
They'd always left a few decorations out as a reminderâthat cardinal snow globe, for instanceâbut most of the house had returned to normal the first week in January.
Mandy closed her eyes again, listening to her mother's voice in her mind. The thought of packing Christmas up made her throat feel tight, but she'd managed it until these past few years. It was what the rest of the world did. Then, she reminded herself, they had the fun of taking it out again every year after Thanksgiving.
She could do this. And if Mom could see her, she'd be proud.
Mandy opened her eyes once more and gulped. It could wait until tomorrow. But tomorrow, she had her work cut out for her.
“It fell,” Mandy explained Monday morning.
Mrs. Swanson studied her dubiously, then looked again at the wall where the framed newspaper clippings had hung.
“The glass cracked,” Mandy added. “I'll pick up a new frame the next chance I get.”
“What about the other clipping?”
Mandy followed Mrs. Swanson's eyes to the wall, where a couple of snowman prints now hung from the nails that had held the clippings.
“One clipping looked funny without the other one. It was . . . out of balance.”
Mrs. Swanson was silent.
“It's still August,” Mandy went on. “I didn't think it would matter too much.”
If she'd been hooked up to a lie detector, she was sure the thing would have smoke coming out of it by now.
“Well, get it back up there as soon as you can,” Mrs. Swanson said.
Mrs. Swanson crossed the store and turned around the OPEN sign. Mandy had painted the hanging wooden plaque herself five years ago, decorating it with candy canes at the corners and strands of holly garland around the edges.
“So,” Mrs. Swanson said, “what did you do this weekend?”
Had she ever asked Mandy that question before? Mandy couldn't remember. Then again, most weekends, the answer wouldn't have been so memorable.
“Went to the movies.”
With a date.
Mandy knew for a fact she'd never told Mrs. Swanson about her one evening with the chess-club champ. To cut off a possible follow-up question, Mandy continued, “And started a housecleaning project. It was way overdue. I accumulate too much stuff.”
“It's easy to do.”
Mandy grinned. “Especially when you work in a place like this.”
She thought of Mrs. Swanson's home. She'd only seen it when it was decorated for Christmas, but even then, it was tidy and precise . . . and probably a little less yuletide-heavy than Mandy's house had been up until yesterday. She'd left the living room at a disastrous halfway point, with most of the Christmas items boxed up, but without having tackled the problem of fitting them into the hall closet. There was space in her mother's bedroom, but she didn't want to do that. She'd never decided what to do with that room, but turning it into a storage area would be awful.
do this weekend?” Mandy asked. Okay, they had had this conversation a few times.
“Well, I saw a movie too,” Mrs. Swanson said. “But mine was on television.”
“I don't suppose it was
.” Mandy had been trying to get Mrs. Swanson to watch it for years.
“No, I told you, I think those things are silly.”
“You know what we're going to do this year?” Mandy said. “I'm going to cook Christmas dinner at my house. And before you leave I'll
you watch it.”
Mrs. Swanson pursed her lips. “We'll see.”
Mandy wondered if Jake would like it or not. Their discussion hadn't gotten around to much fantasy, although he'd confessed a fondness for the old monster movies from the thirties and forties. The Frankenstein monster, he maintained, was a nice guy. Just really misunderstood.
And just like that, an idea blossomed in her head.
Mandy got busy rotating the stock of greeting cards, trying to keep her mind occupied, but the idea kept growing, and the more she thought about it, the better it sounded.
She waited for her break to call him, so she wouldn't use Mrs. Swanson's time. She used her cell phone, so she could make the call outside.
Jake's phone rang. One thing about Mount Douglas compared to Tall Pine: the cell reception was much more consistent. He stepped out of the path of a passing couple to answer it.
“Jake? It's Mandy.”
There was no denying, or fighting, the lift he felt at the sound of her voice. He tried not to grin like a sap in the middle of the sidewalk. “What's up?”
“I've got an idea.”
He waited for her to go on. She didn't. “That sounds mysterious.”
“I think it'd be better if I took you to see it. Is there any chance you could come by the store a little after five?”
They shouldn't close so early,
his mental accountant interjected. “Sure.”
“Your four-wheel-drive might come in handy.” He was pretty sure he heard a smile in her voice, too.
More mystery. “Okay, you're on. I'll see you five-ish.”
Jake disconnected the call and glanced around at the main street of Mount Douglasânamed, imaginatively enough, Main Street. He felt absurdly guilty, as if he'd been cheating on Mandy. Or on Tall Pine.
After her warnings about the problems he might run into with the town officials, he'd decided this morning to look into a Plan B for the hotel location. His boss didn't know he was here, and Jake thought he might keep it that way. Nearly an hour farther up in the mountains than Tall Pine, Mount Douglas was substantially larger. It had a ski resort, multiple hotels and numerous fast-food franchise restaurants. He only saw two national chain hotels, but that told him if they decided to open a Regal Hotel up here, they probably wouldn't get any argument from the city.
It also felt less like a picturesque mountain town, and more like Anywhere, U.S.A.
It'd be an easier undertaking. And it would make less of a difference. Whether they liked it or not, the fact was, a town like Tall Pine could use the additional business a place like a Regal Hotel could bring in.
Jake checked the time on his phone. Twelve-thirty. Plenty of time to do some exploring here, just for the sake of argument, and still get back to Mandy's store by five o'clock.
Instead, he went back to the truck and drove through McDonald'sâit might be the last one of those he'd see in a whileâthen headed back to Tall Pine.
Mandy watched the businesses thin as the pickup traveled down the main highway through the far end of Tall Pine. She saw Jake watching the road ahead, from time to time casting a curious glance at her.
As dry, grassy fields started to appear between the businesses, Jake quirked a smile at her. “This must be a field trip in the literal sense.”
“We're almost there.” Mandy spotted the road sign up ahead. “Make a quick right up here.”
Seconds later, Mandy spotted it. “Over here on the right.”
Jake's eyes followed, and she watched recognition dawn. He stopped the truck. “Would you look at that.”
His expression was everything she'd hoped for, maybe more. A kid's expression of discovery and near awe.
About five hundred yards across the field, facing away from the main highway, was a worn old drive-in movie screen, half-concealed by trees and brush.
“We can get closer if you want,” she said. “That's why I thought of the four-wheel drive. It's pretty overgrown.”
With a grin, Jake turned right and drove toward the screen, the truck taking a bumpy series of small hills and dips as it went.
“The rises are still here,” he said. “You'd park your car on sort of a hill, and the older drive-ins had posts for these tinny-sounding speakers you'd hang on your car window.”
Even in the pickup, which sat higher than the average car, Mandy could feel the tall brush scraping the bottom of the vehicle. Several hundred feet from the screen, they reached the last of the rises. The ground in front of it scooped a little lower, and the dry grass between the truck and the screen grew lower, more level.
Jake came to a stop, facing the weather-beaten screen head-on. “Front-row seats.”
“It's less than ten minutes from Evergreen Lane,” she said. “There's a ton of space, it's right off the road, and it's sat for so long, I think your company might be able to get a really good deal on it.”
She wasn't sure if Jake heard her. His eyes were still devouring the sight before him as if it were the ruins of an ancient civilization. “This is awesome,” he said. “Want to get out?”
As Jake climbed out, Mandy started to open her own door, then remembered to wait while he rounded the front of the truck to open it for her. He was nice about those things, and she enjoyed it.
He took her hand to help her down, and she landed on both feet, knee-deep in brush.
He kept her hand. “Is your ankle okay?” His eyes were fixed on her face.
She felt herself flush.
“It's fine,” she said. “It was a false alarm.”
He held her gaze long enough to tell her he didn't buy it, knew she'd made it up. She wasn't any good at this lying business. Mandy could imagine what it would be like to be someone opposing Jake at a business meeting. He didn't seem likely to be the first to back down. That might help him when it came to the town council. It sure wasn't helping Mandy right now.
He turned back toward the screen. “How long has it been vacant? Did you ever go to the movies here?”
“Once or twice. It would've been almost twenty years ago. I came here with my parents when I was little.” She would have had to be really little, if her dad had still been around. “My father left when I was eight, so I was maybe six or seven. I don't remember when it closed down.”
Jake's fingers curled slightly around hers, and Mandy felt a reaction she would never have expected: a lump in her throat. Her father had left her. That was old news, a fact of life, not something she gave much thought.
“What movie did you see?”
She wasn't ready for the softness in his voice, either. But she didn't want him feeling sorry for her. She let his hand go and stepped toward the screen, trying to picture the details in her mind. “I can't remember. It wasn't a cartoon, and it didn't have animals in it, so I must have been pretty bored. I know I fell asleep.” She thought about the dark backseat and remembered: “They had me wear my pajamas. We even brought my pillow along.”
He stepped past her, examining the screen. “I didn't go to my first drive-in till I was nineteen. They still have a few of them in Pennsylvania, but nothing too close to where I lived. We drove over an hour to get there, and my girlfriend thought I was nuts. She didn't get it at all.” He turned toward her with a grin. “It really was a lousy way to see a movie. The sound's terrible, the picture's dim . . . but it's all about the experience.”
“A dark, lo-fi movie?”
“It'sânostalgic. Americana. You see the movie in your car, and it's your own private environment. Families could bring their kids in their pajamas and not worry if they were too noisy for the people in the next row. And drive-ins were huge with teenagers. Lots of making out in the backseat. People used to call them âpassion pits.' Kids didn't always see the movie.”
Mandy couldn't resist. “So, what about you? Did you watch the movie?”
“I was nineteen.”
“Still a teenager.”
“Barely. And remember, I went there as a film connoisseur.” One corner of his mouth twitched up. “Plus, like I said, my girlfriend was annoyed.” Taking longer strides through the brittle weeds, Jake picked his way across the now-imaginary front row. “Any idea of the lot size? Or who owns it?”
A late afternoon wind blew thick brown hair into Jake's eyes. He shook it back. “It's a little far from town. . . .”
“But not too far.” Mandy had tried to anticipate the drawbacks. “Your hotel has the name recognition factor, and people could find it online. The local hotels would still have a shot at customers, too, and the town council would like that.”
“Cooperative competition. Set it up as a win-win.” Jake squinted thoughtfully and nodded. “It might fly.”
“I hoped you'd like it.”
“It'd need a lot of work. The land would have to be leveled. . . .” He shook his head. “Isn't this dumb? I almost hate to mess with it. It's like an archaeological site or something.” He flattened a section of brush with his shoe and peered down. “Is that what I think it is?”
He knelt to brush aside more of the dead grass. Mandy hurried over. “Watch out for snakes.”
“Now you tellâlook at this!”
She bent to see what he'd found. Based on Jake's reaction, it could have been a million dollars, or at least a gold brick.
Barely visible through the weeds, still half-buried in the dirt, a rusted metal speaker poked up from the ground.
“They never got around to renovating this theater,” Jake said. “That's the coolest thing ever.” He looked up at her with a self-conscious grin. “Okay, maybe not
But still. Later on drive-ins had these wires that clipped to your car antenna, or they just broadcast the sound at a low frequency, so you listened through your car radio. Lots of dead batteries by the end of the show.”
Jake brushed at the dirt again, then straightened. “However. It's good and buried in there. An excavation project for another day. And I should probably get you away from here before we find one of your snakes.”
This time he took her by the elbow, rather than her hand, as they walked back to the truck and got inside. After Jake climbed up beside her, he started to put the keys in the ignition, then stopped and turned to her.
“Thanks for this. It was really nice of you to bring me here. I'll need to look at some other spots, too, but this has definite possibilities.” He smiled. “Although part of me kind of wishes I could turn it back into what it used to be.”