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On the first day of each month, Max Crawford made it a habit to compile a list of everything he wanted or needed to accomplish that month. Without a list, he tended to immerse himself in work and then wonder why he was out of mouthwash and the car payment was overdue.
As the calendar ticked over to October, he catalogued which projects he was working on and their due dates. He noted there were two birthdays on his calendar, which meant shopping for and sending gifts to his mother and niece. The furnace needed its annual checkup. And he wanted to find a wife.
After a moment of deliberation, he drew a line through the last item. Then he wrote find a girlfriend.
On a separate sheet of paper, he jotted down a list of work supplies he needed to replenish. It took a while, as he had a tendency to jot down the items running low on any scrap of paper near his workstation, including the occasional napkin. Another sheet of paper for the monthly grocery order he'd place online.
Flipping back to the original paper, he amended his list again. Marking out find a girlfriend, he replaced it with four simple words. Go on a date.
He should probably start small.
Once he was satisfied he wouldn't forget anything in October, he pinned the pages to the bulletin board attached to the side of his fridge with magnets.
Already on the bulletin board was a calendar sheet he'd printed out so he could write in the sporting events for the month. Post-season baseball. Football. Hockey. Then he'd highlighted the games he'd probably have a crowd for. With no wife and a big TV, his home was the closest thing Whitford had to a sports bar.
Making friends after moving to Whitford, Maine, seven or so years ago had started with his car breaking down. He'd called the only tow truck in town and, when Butch Benoit had shown up, the man had been listening to football on the radio. When Max had apologized for taking him away from the game, Butch had grumbled about his wife rarely giving up control of their ancient nineteen-inch television, so he was used to listening to them on the radio in his shop.
Max told Butch he had a big-screen TV, a living room full of leather furniture and no wife, and the implied invitation had spread through Whitford. Now Max had friends, and those friends had a hassle-free place to watch sports.
It was a system that had always worked well for Max in the past.
A knock drew him to the door and he opened it to let Josh Kowalski in. He was a game day regular and a good friend, so Max had been pleased when he'd called about dropping by. He was holding something wrapped in crumpled newspaper.
"Thanks for letting me stop by," Josh said, walking to the island to deposit the package. "Trying to get away from the lodge on a secret mission isn't easy."
"I know you paint model trains, but I'm wondering if it's possible to paint this." Josh unwrapped the layers of newspaper as he spoke. "You know we've done a lot of work on the property, right?"
Max nodded. The Kowalskis owned the Northern Star Lodge, which had catered to snowmobilers for decades, but had recently gone year-round with the opening of the ATV trails into Whitford. Over the last couple of years, the family had done a great deal of renovating and rehabbing around the place.
"I found this half-buried in the back of the barn," Josh continued, peeling away the last layer to reveal an old die-cast Farmall tractor. It was in rough shape, with flaked off paint in some places and years of crud built up in others. "I have really fuzzy memories of Mitch playing with this when we were kids, and it was our dad's when he was a boy."
Max leaned in to get a closer look at the toy. The tractor had definitely seen better days, but it wasn't beyond salvaging. The paint was no big deal, most of the corrosion was on the surface and the tires were still in decent shape. He was used to working with brass, not die-cast metal, but it wouldn't be the first.
"I can do it," he said.
He barely noticed Josh grabbing the paper as he examined the toy, but he heard the crunch as he shoved it into the trash and then the thump of the lid.
"Get a date?"
Max realized too late his garbage can was next to the fridge, where his bulletin board was hung. He winced as Josh leaned closer, squinting. He knew his friend was trying to read the words he'd struck out.
"Probably a good idea, breaking it into smaller steps," Josh said, and Max couldn't miss the amusement in his voice.
"Finding a date seemed less ambitious than finding a wife."
"Any particular reason why this October is a good time to date?"
Max shrugged, staring at the metal Farmall on the counter. There were still flakes of the original red paint, which would make it a lot easier to match than working from photographs. "Thirty-five seems like an average age for a man to start thinking about starting a family."
"Did you read that in a book?" When he glanced at Josh, his friend held up his hands in an apologetic gesture, but he was smiling. "Sorry. It just seems a little
Max was very familiar with people saying logical in a tone that suggested the word had negative connotations to it. "I just think it's time to move on to the next stage of my life."
"I get that. But I'm not sure love is something that lends itself to organizational structure." Josh helped himself to a soda from the fridge. "I know it hasn't for any of us."
"It's simply a directive to get out and start meeting people, I guess. I'm not going to meet women here in my house."
"Since the only woman I've ever seen in your house is engaged to me, you're probably right."
Josh's fiancée, Katie, was a huge sports fan and had been Josh's best friend until the guy finally got smart and realized there was a lot more than friendship between them.
"Working from home doesn't give me a lot of opportunity to meet people."
"You should go to the Trailside Diner a few times a week," Josh suggested. "You can meet people, eat good food, and pad my sister-in-law's pocketbook all at the same time."
Max laughed. "That sounds very logical."
"You're rubbing off on me." Josh pointed to the toy. "So you really think you can save that?"
"Absolutely. Do you want it to look like it just came out of the box, or do you want it weathered a little?"
Josh shrugged. "You're the expert."
"I'd recommend restoring it to like-new condition, and I'll research the original decals and everything. Then I'd give it a light weathering so it looks like it was enjoyed by two generations, if you know what I mean."
"Sounds perfect. I'd like to give it to Mitch. As thanks, you know."
Max didn't get out much, but he knew Josh's oldest brother had been the first to return to Whitford when Josh broke his leg and was laid up. When he'd seen what rough shape the Northern Star Lodge was in, both physically and financially, Mitch had rallied the family. Now the lodge was restored to its former glory physically and both the family's business and the town had seen the financial benefit of their work to bring four-wheelers into town.
Reviewing his schedule in his head, Max calculated how long the restoration would take. "I can definitely have it done by Christmas."
"This must be a busy time for you and it's kind of last-minute. I can give it to him anytime."
"This isn't my busiest time and you're a friend," Max said, and they were words he didn't take lightly. "It's not a problem."
Josh extended his hand and Max shook it. "I appreciate it. I know it'll mean a lot to him. To all of us, actually. I don't want to cut into your dating time, though."
Max recognized the teasing tone and smiled. "I think that's going to be a slow process."
"I'm telling you, you should go to the diner. It's the social center of Whitford. And they make a mean meat loaf."
"Maybe I'll stop in there tomorrow. I need to go into town, anyway." It was a start, at least. Maybe he'd get lucky and meet the perfect future Mrs. Crawford at the town diner.
The alarm on her phone made Tori Burns jump, and she cursed under her breath as she silenced it. Time to wrap up the digital designmostly of science fiction, urban fantasy and horror book coversthat was her primary income and head to her part-time job. She hadn't been on the schedule at the diner, but Liz, who worked the morning shift, had asked Tori if she could cover for her for a couple of hours.
She changed her faded flannel shirt for a Trailside Diner T-shirt and brushed her hair into a ponytail before walking up the street.
As soon as she saw Tori walk through the door, Liz untied her apron and folded it neatly. She'd been Liz Kowalski until she married Drew Miller, the Whitford police chief, who was sitting at the counter in civilian clothes. Interesting.
"Thanks so much for covering for me," she said.
"Not a problem." Tori took her apron from where she'd stashed it under the counter and took the order pad from Liz. "Got a hot date?"
Liz looked at her husband, a light blush coloring her cheeks. "Just something we have to take care of. It's been quiet today, so there's nothing to catch you up on."
"Go." It was obvious she was anxious to leave. "Enjoy the time off."
Tori watched the couple leave, hoping her suspicions were right and they were off to the city for a doctor appointment. It seemed as if the entire population of Whitford had been anxiously awaiting pregnancy news from the Millersto the point Fran at the Whitford General Store was offering bribes in the form of discounts to anybody who could confirm Liz was in the family way.
Liz hadn't been exaggerating when she said it was a quiet morning at the diner. It was more like dead. Even though the ATV trail system that had revived Whit-ford's economy was still open, four-wheeler traffic cut down considerably once school was back in session and families stopped taking weekend trips. And it would be at least a couple of months before the snowmobilers started filling the tables.
But at this time of year, there tended to be what passed for a breakfast rush and then a crowd for lunch. The in-between was very, very slow.
Tori didn't mind, though. She hadn't taken the part-time job at the diner for the money. It had been her way of getting out of her apartment so she didn't turn into a total hermit, and a way to get to know people in her new town. Now, a couple of years later, she was still working there. It was good exercise, she enjoyed the work, and she not only had family in Whitford, but now good friends, as well.
Today, she was restless. Even if she wasn't worried about missing out on tips, being busy made the time go by. Not being busy made it seem like the hands on the clock were moving in slow motion. Working that morning had thrown her off a little, too. She usually did her computer work during hours that aligned more with a second shift, but a lot of authors were trying to get books ready to release for the rush of readers who'd get new devices and gift cards for Christmas. While she was choosy when it came to taking on new customers, just keeping up with her existing clients meant working extra hours. Her hours at the diner were usually a nice break, but standing around straightening sugar packets just so her hands had something to do seemed more like a waste of time than anything.
Her mood perked up when a tall, blond and very hot guy walked through the door. He was dressed in jeans that were just the right amount of faded and a cream cable-knit sweater, and he was alone.
Max Crawford, Whitford's very own man of mystery.
She watched him pause, scanning the empty restaurant, before taking a seat at the counter.
"Are you looking for somebody?" she asked, setting a napkin and silverware in front of him. Maybe he was meeting somebody for lunch. Somebody who hadn't shown up yet.
"No. I was just expecting it to be busier. There isn't anybody here."
"People will start coming in for lunch soon. And, in the meantime, you get all of my attention."
His eyes widened a little and she noticed they were a soft green color. "I
don't know what I want yet."
"Here's the menu." She pulled it from the rack and set it in front of him. "Do you know what you want to drink? Coffee?"
"A chocolate frappe?"
"Coming right up."
While she made the frappe, Tori watched him study the menu. She'd seen Max Crawford before, but always in passing. Walking by each other on the sidewalk didn't give a girl a chance to really appreciate looks like his.
While the blender whirred, blending milk and ice cream and syrup, she watched him unwrap the silverware rolled in the napkin she'd set on the counter. He folded the napkin precisely in half and then lined up the knife, fork and spoon, fiddling with them until they were just so.
She'd heard a lot of gossip about Max Crawford, but nothing of substance. The whole rumor about him being a serial killer because nobody knew what he did in his basement that required its own security system was more a joke than anythinga crazy story that probably started because people didn't know anything about him.
What she did know was that he hadn't been in the diner during any of her shifts before, so she wondered what brought him in today. And, since she wasn't shy, maybe she'd find out.
After pouring half the frappe into a glass, she set it and the frosty, metal mixing cup in front of her customer. Then she pulled a straw from her apron pocket and handed it to him.
"Thank you. I think I'm going to have a salad with grilled chicken and Italian dressing, please."
"That's not very adventurous."
"I'm not an adventurous sort. Especially when it comes to food."
He said it so seriously, she almost laughed at him. "I'll give your order to Carl. Luckily, he's a great cook, but not very adventurous, either. My cousin Gavin cooks for the afternoon and evening crowd and he's the adventurous one."
She pinned the order slip in the carousel and yelled for Carl, who was probably sitting at the break table doing word searches, then went back to her customer. "So what brings you in today?"
"I was hungry."
If there was any hint of sarcasm or hostility in his tone, she would have taken the hint and walked away. But he had simply answered the question asked of him, and she was nosy. "You came to the right place."
"Made more sense than going to the post office." She laughed and his expression relaxed a little. "It's early yet, but the Patriots are looking pretty good this year."
"I've heard that rumor, but I don't really follow sports at all."
"Oh." He actually looked disappointed.
"No, I'm sorry. I'm not very good at small talk."
Despite her curiosity, she decided to let him off the hook. "Somebody left this week's paper by the register if you'd rather read."
"No." He smiled, and she was struck by how it transformed his face. He had a great smile. "I'd rather talk to you."
She leaned back against the island where the cof-feemaker sat. "What do you like to talk about, Max Crawford?"