“That’s funny.” Carl watched Tracey head back to the kitchen. “I don’t think she recognized me.”
“Tracey knows you?”
“I used to come here now and then when I lived here before. Maybe she just forgot.”
“Maybe you look different. Was it a long time ago?”
“Not that long, but I guess I have lost some weight. I took up mountain climbing when I left here last year. I climbed a lot of mountains.” He made a face. “So tell me more about your situation. You’ve got money in the bank, but you won’t qualify for a loan, which means your job situation must be tenuous.”
“Not tenuous, exactly—I always have work—but I don’t make a lot of money at it. I work behind the counter at Fila’s Familia, a new restaurant in town. And I’m starting an event planning business. I have three events already.” Mia wondered what had propelled him to climb all those mountains. A broken heart?
Mia dropped her searching gaze. “One is free,” she admitted, “but the other two are paid.”
“Well, I haven’t gotten that far really. I mean…”
Carl tapped his fingers on the table thoughtfully. “Okay, here’s the deal, Mia. You’ve got a businessman sitting across the table from you. A businessman with a hell of a lot of money burning a hole in his pocket, and he’s taking the time to chat with you. What do you do?”
Mia blinked. “Talk to him back?”
“No. You sell him.”
“On what?” She was getting the same feeling she used to have in trigonometry at school, when the teacher would write an equation on the board and ask her to come and solve it. But at least he wasn’t treating her like just a pretty face.
He stopped tapping. “On your event planning business.”
“Like, try to get you to hire me to plan an event for you?”
“Well, that’s one way to go about it. That’s the small businessman’s way to go about it. Know what a businessman like me would do?”
Mia shook her head.
“I’d come up with a gimmick and try to sell someone like me on making it a franchise. That’s what I’d do.”
“Like McDonald’s?” She frowned.
“Exactly.” He stopped. Got a faraway look. Tapped his right forefinger twice. “But that’s not what you should do,” he said a moment later.
“Okay, now I’m confused.”
He twined his fingers together. “You know what? So am I. Maybe I shouldn’t be trying to help you. Maybe you should be helping me.”
Tracey arrived with their drinks and pastries, and another significant look at Mia. When she was gone again, Mia said, “What do you need help with?”
“Learning how to act like a human being. Like the kind of guy who can live in a small town and not piss everyone off.”
“Is that what happened before? You pissed everyone off?”
“You wouldn’t believe the half of it,” Carl said. “But I’m a changed man, I swear.”
“You must be. You haven’t pissed me off.” She smiled at him.
“Give me twenty minutes and see how you feel then.”
They laughed together over his remark, but Mia had a feeling he was serious. There was something wistful about Carl, especially when he looked at the occupants of other tables—people Mia knew well, and were part of the community. He must want some of that community for himself, she thought. And then added internally, He should be careful what he wishes for. Being known to everyone wasn’t always what it was cut out to be. People tended to pigeonhole you and not let you change.
“So I won’t hit you up to help me start a franchise,” she said some minutes later, when they’d eaten, “but I wouldn’t mind some advice. A lot of people won’t take me seriously. My friends think I can’t handle running a business. What do I do about that?”
He nodded thoughtfully. “That’s a tricky one, but building a reputation is something every new businessman faces. You don’t have to cut yourself off from your friends, or give up relationships that are meaningful to you, but you do need to surround yourself with a group of believers, or you’ll struggle to get anywhere. Pick out a group of cheerleaders and spend most of your time with them. They’re the ones to share new ideas and plans with. The people who drag you down can find out what you’re up to after you’ve accomplished it. After a while the people who don’t support you will fall away. You won’t have anything to talk to them about. You won’t want their negative energy around. Success sometimes means losing friends. Are you prepared for that?”
She wasn’t sure. But one thing she did know was that her conversation with Carl had helped her more than any she’d had with anyone else except Rose. She decided that meant that Rose and Carl were now her cheerleading team. She asked for Carl’s number and wondered aloud if he’d be willing to have coffee again sometime. He agreed readily. “I could use a friend in Chance Creek.”
“You’ve got one.” She took the business card he handed her, then entered his number in her phone—under a brand-new group, Business Contacts—and left the diner feeling more upbeat than she had in days.
Until she realized that Luke hadn’t made the cut for her cheerleading squad.
“Buddy, I hate to break it to you, but you’ve got competition.”
“What do you mean?” Luke looked up from currycombing Bullet, a roan gelding he’d had for several years. They’d taken a quick ride out to check on some pregnant cows.
Jake leaned against the side of Bullet’s stall. “Hannah heard the gossip at the veterinary clinic. Marcy Sharp came in with her cat and said she’d seen Mia at Linda’s Diner with a very handsome man. So I knew it couldn’t be you.”
“Ha, ha.” Luke got back to work. “Mia doesn’t know any handsome strangers.”
“She does now. Jolene Manning confirmed it. She says the guy was looking at properties in her office when Mia came in. The two talked and he followed her when she left.”
Luke straightened. “Followed her? What is he, a stalker?”
“A friendly stalker. They ate muffins together.”
“Hell, doesn’t anyone have anything better to do than to spy on people?” He paused. “What does this guy look like?”