Recap of Chapter 14: Jake surprises Haze with a beautiful sunrise picnic. He picked a location within walking distance of Hazel Drive—possibly the very location where her parents picnicked when they were first married. It was in this setting, awash with the glow of sunrise, that they declared their love for each other.
Haze and Jake were in a bubble, wallowing in a state of declared love. It shouldn’t make a difference, because merely uttering the words did not alter their feelings. The feelings were there long before the words were spoken. But somehow it made every moment of every day feel as if they were under a blanket of happiness that was unique and new. With fall upon them and the holiday season just ahead, every hint of autumnal beauty held special meaning—the elk bugling, the leaves falling onto the path around the lake, the chilly evenings. Even their lovemaking took on an air of exploration and discovery. When Jake stayed the night, which was more and more often, they were reluctant to leave the bed in the morning. Instead, they lingered in warm companionship with Crowley in the middle.
“I’ve been thinking about your birthday,” Jake said, tracing her arm with his finger.
“Really? What have you been thinking?”
“Well, I was hoping to whisk you away for an adventure.”
Haze squinted at him. “When you say ‘adventure,’ it wouldn’t happen to involve rising before the sun, being blindfolded and picking my way through the woods, would it?”
“Nope. That was last month’s adventure. I have a different surprise in mind.”
Haze sat up. “Actually, I had another idea to celebrate my birthday,” she said. “You see, it falls right next to Thanksgiving, and last year, when I first arrived, I was made welcome at Sydney’s house for her annual Heathen’s Holiday. I was hoping I could bring you along to show you off.”
“Yes! It’s a gathering of artists, poets, musicians, misfits and reprobates. It’s a potluck—you know, where everyone brings a dish, only it’s international cuisine rather than the traditional turkey dinner. Everyone has to share—perform a song or read or recite a poem—or tell a story of their most wicked misdeed of the year.”
“What did you do, sing a song or interpretive dance?” he asked, giggling.
“No, I did not sing or dance, thank you. I’m glad you think that’s so funny. I told a wicked story.”
“You, wicked? I don’t believe it!” He tickled her, which caused a noisy ruckus of begging, laughing and wrestling. Crowley joined in by barking and jumping all over them and getting tangled in the covers.
Jake was eventually convinced to stop torturing her and they wound up kissing instead. Crowley got bored and left to go explore the backyard.
Days later, they found themselves standing on the porch next door with armloads of goodies. Jake was juggling a tray of Korean barbeque venison kababs and a bottle of Stranahan’s. Haze held a basket loaded with her signature macaroni and cheese, a box of truffles (since they were such a hit last time) and a bottle of wine. Before they could ring the bell, Sydney opened the door. She was wearing a handpainted silk kaftan and an ear to ear smile.
“Two of my favorite people!” she gushed, wrapping her arms around them. Then, she stepped back, spread her arms, and turned in a circle. “I was just gifted this. Isn’t it spectacular?”
“It is!” Haze said, coming closer. “Handpainted and masterfully done. Beautiful!” she said, eyeing the design with admiration.
Just then, Annie, the potter she met last year, swept into the foyer to say hello. There was a flurry of hugging, introductions and laughter.
After a few minutes, Sydney took charge. “You two catch up!” she said, taking Haze’s basket. “I’ll send someone back with a drink.” She motioned for Jake to follow her to the kitchen. He shrugged and trailed after her.
“It’s so great to see you!” Annie said. “I can’t believe we haven’t seen each other once this whole year!”
“So true,” Haze agreed. “We need to fix that.” Just then, Samuel, whom she also met last year, came in with a glass of wine and a tumbler of whiskey.
“Pick your poison,” he said, holding out both. Haze grabbed the wine. “Good choice.” He sipped the whiskey appreciatively. Drinks in hand, the conversation moved to the local art scene and its many players.
“Speaking of artists,” Annie said, “I have my daughter with me today. She’s a textile artist.”
The three turned toward the living room. “Where is she?” she said, trying to find her in the crowd.
Suddenly, they heard a squeal, followed by, “Jakey! Oh my God!” There was a parting in the crowd as a young woman ran toward Jake and jumped into his arms, wrapping her slender legs around him.
Sam laughed. “Well, that’s what I call a warm welcome.”
“I’d say,” Annie agreed. “I had no idea Jake knew anyone here.” She looked at Haze. “Did you?”
Haze blinked in disbelief as she took in the scene. This stranger with her long legs clenched tightly around Jake’s waist was fervently kissing his cheeks and neck and laughing. Jake looked surprised, but also as if this encounter wasn’t entirely unwelcome. He did catch her, after all, his hands bracing her thighs, and he had yet to put her down or push her away. When, finally, she unhooked her legs and slid to her feet, she shimmied her form-fitting sweater back into place around her impossibly small waist, flipped her hair and smiled up at Jake. She couldn’t seem to keep her hands off of him, touching his arm, even stroking his cheek. What the hell was going on? Staring, Haze’s face grew hot and her ears tingled with pins and needles. That always happened when she was met with a bad surprise. It wasn’t until she heard a splashing sound that she realized she had tipped her wine glass and it spilled on the floor. Sam grabbed a napkin from his jacket pocket to help. He could tell this wasn’t a good moment for Haze, but he said nothing. Instead, he put a comforting hand on her shoulder.
“Darling!” Annie called. “Over here. There’s someone I want you to meet.” She waved to the handsy woman hanging all over Jake.
The woman nodded to Annie, grabbed Jake’s hand, and headed toward them. When Jake saw Haze through the crowd, he blushed crimson and looked sheepish.
This was unfathomable! Just that morning, Jake had held her in his arms and kissed her tenderly. It was as if they were the only two people in the world. She downed what was left of her wine. Watching her drain the glass with a shaky hand, Sam whispered, “Refill?” Haze nodded. “Better drink this too,” he suggested, handing over his whiskey. She nodded again, downed what was left in the tumbler and cleared her throat. “Thank you,” she said in a raspy voice. He ducked out of the foyer, heading for the wet bar.
“There you are!” Annie said, as the girl approached with Jake in tow.
Now that she was closer, Haze was pained to see how beautiful she was. Her hair hung down her back in a cascade of sun-kissed golden waves. Her skin was perfection as were her expertly shaped eyebrows. Jake was pushed in the shadows as Annie pulled the girl toward Haze. “Haze, I want you to meet Simone, my daughter.” Her pretty blue eyes looked up at Haze from under a thick wall of bangs. She smiled, showing perfectly white teeth behind rose-colored lips, and thrust out her hand. Annie continued. “Simone is the artist who painted Sydney’s new garb.” She touched Haze’s arm. “Haze here just arrived in this town a year ago. She is an exceptional artist too.”
Haze stared at the outstretched hand longer than was polite, before coming to her senses. “Nice to meet you,” she said haltingly. Simone looked a little unsure of the exchange. Something was off.
Annie turned to her daughter. “And how is it that you and Jake know each other?”
“Oh, Mom… surely you know Jake!” Simone said with a giggle. She grabbed his hand and pulled him front and center. She looped her arm in his and looked up at him adoringly. “Jake and I were a thing in college.”
Just then, Sam appeared at Haze’s shoulder with the promised second round. She grabbed the whiskey and threw it back in one gulp.
“Well, of course!” Annie exclaimed. “I should have known you were that Jake, the college boyfriend. By God, I should have recognized you.” She gave him a hug.
“Mom still refers to you as ‘the one that got away,’” Simone said, looking at him adoringly. Haze coughed.
Sam mumbled under his breath, “Not far enough away, I’d say.” He nudged Haze.
Jake hung his head. He’d extricated himself from Simone’s grip, stuffed his hands in his front pockets and stood looking as if he’d like to fade into the background, maybe crawl under the rug.
Haze caught Jake’s eye. She tipped her head and raised an eyebrow. He shrugged. Was he signaling that he was helpless in this situation? He could be doing any number of things to make this situation better. At the very least, he could have pushed her off when she jumped on him like a sex-crazed monkey. He could have come to Haze’s side and claimed her. He could have done anything but what he was doing, which was absolutely nothing. Suddenly, the whole encounter felt like a slap in the face.
“I think I forgot something,” Haze said quickly, turning to dart through the front door. She scrambled down the stairs to the path that led to her house. As she rounded the hedge, she realized she was starting to feel the effects of the whiskey and sat down on the stair. Stunned and angry, she bitterly spat, “Well, bloody Happy Birthday to me!”