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Working in such close quarters with a woman that you could bump knees (thighs, and maybe even other body parts) was probably every man's dream job. Except Dot Morrison's knees were knobby and she was old enough to be Jonathan Templar's grandmother. And she looked like Maxine of greeting card fame. So there was no knee (or anything else) bumping going on today.
"Okay, you're good to go," he said, pushing back from the computer in the office at Breakfast Haus, Dot's restaurant. "But remember what I told you. If you want your computer to run more efficiently, you've got to slick your hard drive once in a while."
"There you go talking dirty to me again," Dot cracked.
A sizzle sneaked onto Jonathan's cheeks, partly because old ladies didn't say things like that (Jonathan's grandma sure didn't), and partly because he'd never talked dirty to a woman in his life. Well, not unless you counted a Playboy centerfold. When talking with most real-life women, his tongue had a tendency to tie itself into more knots than a bag of pretzels, especially when a woman was good-looking. This, he told himself, was one reason he was still single at the ripe old age of thirty-three. That and the fact that he wasn't exactly the stuff a woman's dreams were made of. It was a rare woman who dreamed of a skinny, bespectacled guy in a button-down shirt. Those weren't the only reasons, though. Carrying a torch for someone tended to interfere with a guy's love life.
Never certain how to respond to Dot's whacked-out sense of humor, he merely smiled, shook his head and packed up his briefcase.
"Seriously," she said, "I'm glad this didn't turn out to be anything really bad. But if it had, I know I could count on you. You can't ever leave Icicle Falls. What would us old bats do when we have computer problems?"
"You'd manage," Jonathan assured her.
"I doubt it. Computers are instruments of torture to anyone over the age of sixty."
"No worries," he said. "I'm not planning on going anywhere."
"Until you meet Ms. Right. Then you'll be gone like a shot." The look she gave him was virtually a guarantee that something was about to come out of her mouth that would make him squirm. Sure enough. "We'll have to find you a local girl."
Just what he neededDot Morrison putting the word out that Jonathan Templar, computer nerd, was in the market for a local girl. He didn't want a local girl. He wanted
"Tilda's still available."
Tilda Morrison, supercop? She could easily bench-press Jonathan. "Uh, thanks for the offer, but I think she needs someone tougher."
"There's a problem. Nobody's as tough as Tilda. Damn, I raised that girl wrong. At this rate I'm never going to get grandchildren." Dot shrugged and reached for a cigarette. "Just as well, I suppose. I'd have to spend all my free hours baking cookies for the little rodents."
Sometimes it was hard to know whether or not Dot was serious, but this time Jonathan was sure she didn't mean what she'd said. She was only trying to make the best of motherly frustration. Dot wanted grandkids. Anyone who'd seen her interacting with the families who came into the restaurant could tell that. It was a wonder she made any money with all the free hot chocolate she slipped her younger patrons.
She lit up and took a deep drag on her cigarette. Her little office was about to get downright smoggy. Washington State law prohibited smoking in public places, but Dot maintained that her office wasn't a public place. Jonathan suspected one of these days she and the local health inspector were going to get into it over the cigarettes she sneaked in this room.
"I'd better get going," he said, gathering his things and trying not to inhale the secondhand smoke pluming in his direction.
"You gonna bill me as usual?"
"Don't gouge me," she teased.
"Wouldn't dream of it. And put your glasses on to read your bill this time," he teased back as he walked to the door. He always tried to give Dot a senior's discount and she always overpaid him, claiming she'd misread the bill. Yep, Dot was a great customer.
Heck, all his customers were great, he thought as he made his way to Sweet Dreams Chocolate Company, where Elena, the secretary, was having a nervous breakdown thanks to a new computer that she swore was possessed.
The scent of chocolate floating up from the kitchens below greeted him as he entered the office and Elena looked at him as if he were Saint George come to slay a dragon. "Thank God you're here."
People were always happy to see the owner and sole employee of Geek Gods Computer Services. Once Jonathan arrived on the scene, they knew their troubles would be fixed.
He liked that, liked feeling useful. So he wasn't a mountain of muscle like Luke Goodman, the production manager at Sweet Dreams, or a mover and shaker like Blake Preston, manager of Cascade Mutual. Some men were born to have starring roles and big, juicy parts on the stage of life. Others were meant to build scenery, pull the curtains, work in the background to make sure everything on stage ran well. Jonathan was a backstage kind of guy. Nothing wrong with that, he told himself. Background workers made it possible for the show to go on.
But leading ladies never noticed the guy in the background. Jonathan heaved a sigh. Sometimes he felt like Cyrano de Bergerac. Without the nose.
"This thing is making me loco," Elena said, glaring at the offending piece of technology on her desk.
The company owner, Samantha Sterlingrecently married to Blake Prestonhad just emerged from her office. "More loco than we make you?"
"More loco than even my mother makes me," Elena replied.
Samantha gave her shoulder a pat. "Jonathan will fix it."
Elena grunted. "Equipo del infierno."
"Computer from hell?" Jonathan guessed, remembering some of his high school Spanish.
Elena's frustrated scowl was all the answer he needed.
"Don't worry," Samantha told her. "Jonathan will help you battle the forces of technology evil. When Cecily comes in, tell her I'll be back around one-thirty. Try to keep my favorite assistant from tearing her hair out," she said to Jonathan.
"No worries," he said, then promised Elena, "I'll have this up and running for you in no time."
No time turned out to be about an hour, but since Elena had expected to lose the entire day she was delighted. "You are amazing," she told him just as Sa-mantha's sister Cecily arrived on the scene.
"Has he saved us again?" she asked Elena, smiling at Jonathan.
"Yes, as usual."
Jonathan pushed his glasses back up his nose and tried to look modest. It was hard when people praised him like this.
But then, as he started to pack up his tools, Cecily said something that left him flat as a stingray. "I heard from Tina Swift that you guys have your fifteen-year reunion coming up."
"Those are so much fun, seeing old friends, people you used to date," she continued.
This was worse than Dot's cigarette smoke. Chatting with Cecily always made him self-conscious. Chatting with Cecily about his high school reunion would make him a nervous wreck, especially if she began asking about women he used to date. Jonathan hit high speed gathering up his tools and his various discs.
"Are you going to the reunion?" she asked him.
"Maybe," he lied, and hoped she'd leave it at that.
She didn't. "I moved back just in time for my ten-year and I'm glad I went. There were some people I wouldn't have had a chance to see otherwise."
There were some people Jonathan wanted to do more than see. Some people with long, blond hair and
He snapped his briefcase shut and bolted for the door. "So, Elena, I'll bill you."
"Okay," she called.
The door hadn't quite shut behind him when he heard Elena say to Cecily, "He needs confidence, that one."
It was an embarrassing thing to hear about himself, but true. He needed a lot more than confidence, though. How could a guy be confident when he didn't have anything to be confident about?
By now it was time for lunch, so he grabbed some bratwurst and sauerkraut at Big Brats and settled in at one of the cafe tables in the stone courtyard adjacent to the popular sausage stand. This was a perfect day for outside dining. The sun warmed his back and a mountain breeze worked as a counterbalance to keep him from getting too hot. A cloudless sky provided a blue backdrop for the mountains.
During weekends the eating area was so crowded you had to take a number. Today, however, it was relatively quiet with only a few tables occupied.
Ed York, who owned D'Vine Wines, and Pat Wilder, who owned Mountain Escape Books, sauntered across the street to place an order. They stopped by Jonathan's table to say hello but didn't ask him to join them. No surprise. Pat and Ed had a thing going.
According to Jonathan's mom, Ed had been interested in Pat ever since he moved to Icicle Falls and opened his wine shop. But Pat had been mourning a husband and wasn't remotely interested. It looked like that was changing now. Watching Ed's romantic success kept the small flame of hope alive in Jonathan. Maybe, if a guy hung in there long enough, getting the woman of his dreams could become a reality.
Or maybe the guy was just wasting his life dreaming. Jonathan crumpled his napkin. Time to get back to work.
His next client was Gerhardt Geissel, who owned and ran Gerhardt's Gasthaus with his wife, Ingrid.
Gerhardt was a short, husky, fifty-something man with gray hair and a round, florid face. He loved his wife's German cooking, loved his beer and was proud to celebrate his Tyrolean heritage by wearing lederho-sen when he played the alpenhorn for his guests first thing every morning.
He played it even when he didn't have guests. Recently he'd gotten carried away celebrating his birthday and had decided to serenade his dinner guests after having one too many beers and had fallen off the ledge of the balcony outside the dining room. He'd fallen about twelve feet but fortunately had broken his arm instead of his back.
"Jonathan, wie geht's?" he greeted Jonathan, raising his castencased arm as Ingrid showed Jonathan into his office. "I hope you are here to solve all my problems."
"That is an impossible task," said his wife.
Gerhardt made a face. "See how she loves me."
His wife made a face right back at him and left. But she returned a few minutes later with a piece of Black Forest cake for Jonathan. "You're too skinny," she informed him. "You need to eat more."
"You need a wife to cook for you," her husband added.
"My youngest niece, Mary, lives just over in Wenatchee, and she's very pretty," Ingrid said.
"And very stupid." Gerhardt shook his head in disgust. "Jonathan's smart. He needs a smart woman."
"Mary is smart," Ingrid insisted. "She just makes bad choices."
"Well, uh, thanks," Jonathan said. "I appreciate the offer." Sometimes he wondered if everyone in Icicle Falls over the age of fifty wanted to match him up.
Heck, it wasn't only the older people. Even his sister had been known to take a hand, trying to introduce him to the latest someone she'd met and was sure would be perfect for him. Of course, those someones never were.
Gerhardt's computer problem was simple enough. Jonathan reloaded his operating system and he was done.
"You'd better get out of here before my wife comes back with Mary's phone number," Gerhardt advised after he'd written Jonathan a check.
Good idea. Jonathan left by the side door.
After leaving Gerhardt, he fit in two more clients and then headed home.
May's late-afternoon sun beamed its blessing on his three-bedroom log house at the end of Mountain View Road as he drove up. He'd originally planned for two bedrooms, but his folks had talked him into the extra one. "You have to have room for a wife and children," his mother had said. Good old Mom, always hopeful.
Fir and pine trees gave the house its rustic setting, while the pansies and begonias his mother and sister had put in the window boxes and the patch of lawn edged with more flowers added a homey touch. Someone pulling up in front might even think a woman lived there. They'd be wrong. The only female in this house had four legs.
But Jonathan often pictured the house with a wife and kids in itthe wife (a pretty blonde, naturally) cooking dinner while he and the kids played video games. He could see himself as an old man, sitting on the porch, playing chess with a grandson on the set he'd carved himself. The house would've, naturally, passed on to his own son, keeping the property in the family.
His grandpa had purchased this land as an investment when it was nothing more than a mountain meadow. Gramps could have made a tidy profit selling it, but instead he'd let Jonathan have it for a song when Jonathan turned twenty-five.
He'd started building his house when he was twenty-seven. A cousin who worked in construction in nearby Yakima had come over and helped him and Dad. Dad hadn't lived to see it finished. He'd had a heart attack just before the roof went on, leaving Jonathan on his own to finish both his house and his life.
Jonathan had become the man of the family, in charge of helping his mom, his grandmother and his sister cope. He'd been no help to his widowed grandmother, who had tried to outrun her loss by moving to Arizona. He hadn't been much help to his mom, either, beyond setting her up with a computer program so she could manage her finances. He'd tried to help Julia cope but he'd barely been able to cope himself. He should never have let Dad do all that hard physical work.
"Don't be silly," his mother always said. "Your father could just as easily have died on the golf course. He was doing what he wanted to do, helping you."