The bell on the diner door rings emphatically, and I don’t look up. Just grab my biggest cup and flip it over in time for Lorelai’s purse to slide onto the counter with that big huff of an exhale she always lets out when she makes it to the barstool.
She dips her chin and smiles up at me, eyes on full thousand-watt twinkle. “So. A little birdy told me you were on damsel-rescue duty last night.”
“Not much of a rescue since her spare was flat.” I nod to the side of the diner. “Car’s out there.”
Lorelai tips her head, her smile going a little funny. “You fixed the tire and got the car already this morning?”
No shit I did. If I left it to Rory she’d try to do it herself. If she couldn’t get the lugnuts off last night, she probably couldn’t get them on tight enough to keep a tire in place. She’s just like her mother: a will of steel her tiny little arms can’t quite keep up with.
I had to get Gypsy out of bed to fix the tires, and pay her twenty extra bucks to get her to stop cursing at me and do some actual work, and then I opened an hour late so I could get the tire back on and Cesar could follow me back in my truck. But whatever. People can drink their coffee an hour later. It won’t kill them as fast as all that coffee will. It’s certainly not worth all the whining they’ve been doing about it this morning.
“It’s a tire, not rocket science. You going to order? I’ve got other customers.” I gesture, but I’m in no actual hurry to get back to their complaining. It just makes me itchy when Lorelai looks at me this long without talking.
She props her chin on her hand, bemused lines appearing at the edge of her smile the way they do when she’s struggling not to look sentimental.
“Why aren’t you drinking your coffee?” I scowl at her full cup.
“I was just admiring your shiny, shiny armor.” She flutters her eyelashes and it does something funny to my pulse. “Wondering what you’d look like if you took it off.”
I grunt, deciding it’s best to stay behind the disguise of the counter for an extra second before I check on my other customers. No need for Lorelai to get cocky about the physical consequences of her flirting.
“Still sleeping.” She finally picks up her cup and takes a sip. “Keeps college hours now, which means she hangs upside down from the rafters from four to eleven and wakes starving for O positive.” She finishes her coffee and passes it over for a refill. I haven’t put the pot back yet, because unlike Christopher, I am not a stupid man. I fill the cup and only then put the pot away because her second usually goes a little slower.
When I turn around, she’s toying with the cup’s handle, looking down like something’s up.
“Hey, uh, why didn’t you come in last night?”
I take this morning’s receipts off the spike and start sorting them. If I look up when she’s trying to hide her hurt with one of her super-casual expressions, I’ll crack and tell her the truth and the truth will bleed even more hurt onto her beautiful face.
“Having Rory home for a surprise sleepover…” I shrug. “Figured you’d be excited and want to do girl things. I didn’t want to get my toenails painted in the crossfire.”
“Luke…” She reaches across the counter and totally disregards my receipt sorting, sneaking her fingers up inside my sleeve and caressing the inside of my wrist. Lorelai has absolutely no regard for the fact that my counter can only hide so much. “You know you’ve always got a spot saved in our girly nights, right? I even made you your own pillow for pillow fights, embroidered with your name and hearts and everything.” When I don’t rise to the bait, she waggles her eyebrows. “Stuffed with extra feathers because I know you like to be…vigorous.”
I toss down the receipts, sighing. “You can’t mix flirting with invitations to hang out with you and Rory. It’s weird.”
She cups her mug and fake-pouts. “But the flirting is part of why you’re hanging out with us more now, so that makes no sense.”
I start sorting with a vengeance. This is exactly why I didn’t come in last night. Lorelai would have made a big fuss over me helping out, which would have made it look like it was all for her. And it wasn’t.
The bell on the door jangles and I automatically gauge my level of erection. Thankfully it’s deflated to safe-for-non-counter-customers size.
Rory slides onto a stool next to her mom and looks for a spot on the counter where she can fit the flat white box she’s carrying without disturbing my neat piles of receipts, the pie display, or the line of ketchup bottles I was filling before Lorelai messed up my whole assembly line while trying to grope me.
I grab all the receipts, stuff the piles together, and ram them back onto their spike so she has somewhere to set the box down. The top of the box has a floppy blue plaid bow with sparkles on it. I glare. What kind of imbecile mixes plaid with sparkles?
And then I remember who has been following Rory around with gifts that have bows on top.
“Did he follow you to the house?” If he’s bothering her, so help me I don’t care if she shares his blood, because I’m going to leave a whole lot of his on the sidewalk out front. Along with maybe a tooth or two.
Rory’s eyes widen and she sits up straight. “No, no, Dean didn’t give me this. And he didn’t follow me anywhere. I’m pretty sure he’s done with me, so you don’t have to worry about that.” She gives an awkward chuckle.
Okay, so we’re not telling Lorelai about Christopher. Which is fine with me because the woman is totally irrational where he’s concerned. She’s as bad as Rory. Totally incapable of picking a guy who will treat her the way she deserves to be treated.
My neck flushes with the heat of old anger. I grab the coffee pot, sloshing some over the side of Rory’s cup as I pour too vigorously.
“Good. Well, Dean better keep his distance. He doesn’t get to dump you over and over again and then come whistling back into your life like nothing happened.”
“Hey.” Lorelai pulls her referee face on. “There’s more to the story than that, and you really shouldn’t pass judgment before you—”
“Hey, look!” Rory interrupts. “I brought you a present, Luke.” She nudges the box toward me. “For your help last night.”
I frown. “You don’t have to get me a present.” I don’t want to be the kind of guy you have to get stuff for just because he does one thing for you.
Lorelai snorts. “Mr. Grateful, ladies and gentlemen. Watch out, because when he gets into the part of the speech about puppies and world peace, it’s a real tear jerker.”
I glare harder. “I’m not ungrateful. I’m just saying, she didn’t have to get me anything. It was just a tire. Wasn’t a car or anything.”
“Which is what Dean got her. You know. The guy who you think treats her like crap, as opposed to your nephew, who gave her a broken wrist while crashing aforementioned car.”
“I never said Jess was any better,” I growl. “If you remember, it was me who kicked him out of town for bothering her. Twice.”
Rory rips a napkin out of the holder and waves it like a white flag between us. “Truce! I’m not dating either Jess or Dean, so you don’t have to argue about which of them you hate more.” She tosses down the napkin with a sigh. “Jeez, if this is how you two are about opening one present, remind me to have your Christmases separately this year. We’ll be mopping blood off the floor for sure.”
“Which would require buying a mop.” Lorelai shudders and takes a sip of coffee. “Nobody wants a mop for Christmas.”
I pull the box slowly across the counter. “Should I open it here?”
“Why, is it something dirty?” Lorelai leans in with interest. “Hey, wait, how did you have time to buy Luke a present? Your bedroom door was closed and the coffee maker was empty, so I thought you were still sleeping.”
“I knew the coffee maker would wake you up. So I got up early and snuck out, pre-coffee.”
“See that? It is scientifically possible for a Gilmore to move and talk before coffee. So you won’t be needing this anymore.” I go to slide Lorelai’s cup away from her and she narrows her eyes.
“Not unless you want to lose an appendage, pal.” She pats my bicep. “I happen to like that one, but another look at my coffee and the arm gets it.”
She gives me one of her adorably overblown winks and turns her attention back to Rory.
“Why didn’t you wake me up? I can get up early if shopping is involved, and I could have helped you pick out the perfect Luke present. I have experience.”
Rory fusses with her cup. “I wanted to pick it out myself. And um, I wanted you to sleep, since I kept you up late.”
“Aww, that’s nice.” Lorelai smoothes her daughter’s hair, then smiles at the package. “And you even made them put a plaid bow on it.”
I look at the bow with new eyes. Did she really do that? I guess it’s not that odd to have glitter with plaid if it’s on a bow. Bows mostly always have glitter. I pull the box over to me, taking out my pocketknife to slit the ribbon. The box pops open as soon as it’s cut, the puffy coat inside expanding to push the lid off.
I examine the garment. It’s a perfectly acceptable black and filled with inches and inches of down insulation.
Rory squirms happily on her barstool, leaning forward with a grin. “You looked so cold last night.”
Lorelai pulls it out and gives it shake and a discerning look. “This is hideous.”
Rory gasps. “Come on, Mom, he’s had that army coat forever. I don’t remember a time when he didn’t have that coat.”
“Right, because Army Coat is sexy,” Lorelai says. “It’s a manly shoulders, slim waist, don’t need a real coat ‘cause I’m a tough guy coat. This is a Michelin man special.”
A smile twitches at the corner of my lips. She likes my coat, huh?
Rory rolls her eyes. “You can objectify him after he takes the coat off, Mom.”
I clear my throat, because it’s best to head Lorelai off topics like that in public. “I got you something, too, Rory.”
She looks confused. “Really? It’s not my birthday. And I didn’t do anything except get you coated in slush and your jeans all covered with that black tire stuff. What do they even put on those tires, coal?”
“Yup, what else would they do after Christmas when all the bad little boys and girls have emptied out their stockings? They donate it to the tire factory.” She’s talking even faster than usual and not looking at any of us.
I pull the tire iron out from under the counter and pass it to Rory. “I didn’t think to wrap it, sorry.”
She takes it, a tiny frown at the corners of her mouth. “It’s…good. A really good, heavy stick. Thanks, Luke!”
“It’s a tire iron. It’s got a lot longer handle than that four-way you had. For leverage so you can get the lug nuts off. Not that you need to do it yourself,” I hurry to add. “Better just to call me, in case something else goes wrong or the tire’s heavy or something. It’s just in case you get a flat where there’s no cell service or something.”
Lorelai’s being even weirder now, messing with her eye and Rory’s wadded up napkin-flag.
I lean my elbows on the counter and frown. “What’s wrong with you?”
“Nothing! Just got an eyelash.” She clears her throat, still dabbing. “When they’re as long and lush as mine, it really does some damage when you knock one loose.” She sniffs quickly.
“You coming down with something?” I turn and fill a cup with orange juice. God knows the woman probably hasn’t had any Vitamin C since the nineties. I pass her the orange juice and she looks at it like there’s a roadkill hair floating on top.
“I’m fine, I just got an eyelash. Why don’t you go play with your tire iron or something?”
“My tire iron,” Rory says, hugging it into her lap.
The corner of my mouth kicks up, because I’ve never seen anybody so excited over a tire iron. But then, it is a really quality tire iron.
“Hey, Luke, we’re going to go check out the indoor swap meet today,” Rory says. “It’s mostly antiques but sometimes they have really cool sets of old tools. I bet you could find something you liked. Wanna play hooky and come along?” She smiles. It’s got the glow of hopeful innocence, not a hint of manipulation, but you can still tell she’s her mother’s daughter because it yanks on something in the direct center of my chest.
There’s not a chance I’ll say no even though I hate all that musty garage sale crap. Besides, they’ll probably buy too much to carry and pull a muscle or something rather than leaving behind a single vintage do-what-ever-they-are.
“Come on,” Rory cajoles, because unlike her mother, she actually waits for my agreement after she invites me someplace. “I know a girl looking for some extra hours to buy a new bass drum pedal. Bet I could get you off work in a flash if I called her.”
I shrug. Sundays are pretty busy, but Lane can handle it. “Yeah, okay.”
“You can wear your new coat,” Rory says.
“Or not,” Lorelai puts in, batting her eyelashes like mad. “I mean, since we’ll mostly be inside and Army Coat’s better for inside. And for manly carrying of things.”
I pick up the box containing the coat Rory bought me.
Has she ever gotten a present for Christopher? She must have, at some point, but the idiot probably didn’t even keep it. I doubt he has any keepsakes from his daughter. Not even something as small as children’s paper menus, all colored in. I didn’t keep them all, of course. I’m not sentimental and the kid colored hundreds of the things, two or three meals a day in here for years. I just found one under the counter one day, and you could see how in a few short months she’d gone from scribbled primary colors to a more thoughtful, complimentary palette. It was crazy, how fast the girl’s brain grew. So every few months, I’d toss a new one in an old potato crate in the closet. If you flip through them now, you can see the colors slowly reining in until they stay neatly within the lines, then bursting outside the given shapes to draw pictures of her own and color those in, too, with a flurry of colors as big as her expanding world. I only have a few after that, with absent doodles in the margins and names of boys written and then scratched vigorously back out.
I take the coat out of the box and put it on. It’s so thick it makes me look nearly twice as wide as I am, and I immediately start to sweat. I zip it all the way to the collar. “You girls ready to go?”
Lorelai snatches up a new napkin. “Hold on. I think I’ve got another eyelash.”