Julia: Small Town, Big Dreams
Julia Bourne paced in front of the metal hangar at Smitten’s regional airport. There’s nothing to be nervous about, she told herself, but her body wouldn’t comply. No amount of positive thinking would allow her to relax. Her dress, a simple cotton sheath from Tahari’s previous season, clung to her in the sticky June heat. She wished she could stay cool under pressure like one of her New York socialite clients, but Julia wore her nerves like a conspicuous piece of jewelry.
It was bad enough she’d had to endure the stares of the town as she walked about in stilettos, but to convince Devlin Stovich that Smitten was ready for an upscale spa seemed utterly ridiculous at the moment. One local coffee shop and a few dessert places didn’t exactly scream Fifth Avenue. She felt like a child wobbling about in her mother’s high heels, and her hometown felt like preschool next to the sophistication of New York City. At that moment she wanted to abandon the whole scheme and beg Devlin to let her have her job back.
Unfortunately, that wasn’t an option. Her mom still needed her. Smitten’s mill was closed now, and all that remained of the once bustling logging town were the Sugarcreek Mountain Ski Resort ten minutes outside of town and one square block of struggling but infinitely quaint shops and a few modest inns. Julia and her friends were convinced that the town’s only hope of success was to redefine itself as a romantic destination, worthy of hometown hero and country singing sensation Sawyer Smitten’s Hollywood-style wedding. Any romantic destination needed what Smitten had to offer: gorgeous scenery, outdoor activities for both summer and winter, and, naturally, a high-end spa. She tried to summon Natalie’s enthusiasm for the future as she waited.
Julia held her breath as the Leer jet glided elegantly onto the runway, the same way a flock of geese landed on a summer lake. She tugged at the collar of her fitted dress and wished she’d worn something more appropriate for life in Smitten. Devlin would know it was last season’s dress, and there was no sense putting on airs when asking for money and his support. Reality required a certain humility. She needed to stay in Smitten for her parents’ sake, and Smitten needed to find a new industry for its future. Tourism seemed the logical choice.
The private jet unfolded from its side like a metal yawn and thrust down a set of stairs. Julia’s heart pounded at the sight of Devlin’s tall, intimidating frame. He’d come without an entourage, and for that she felt grateful.
Even her best friends didn’t understand the honor of socialite Devlin visiting their town, but the full weight of it pressed on Julia. She paced some more and practiced the breathing techniques Devlin had taught her for dealing with a particularly difficult client. Breathe in, hold for three seconds, exhale deeply, forcing out her lungs. To Smitten, Devlin was just another prospective businessman. To anyone in the spa business, he was a rock star. She watched him leave the plane.
Devlin Stovich’s awkward looks worked for him. His dirty blond locks curled around his strong jawline. There was almost a comical air to him, as if he were playing a 1950s Julius Caesar role, but his charm gave him that “it” factor that invited awe and commanded respect. He always wore silky black slacks with a black turtleneck, like a theater arts major. In the summer he switched out his turtleneck with a short-sleeved knit—also in black. Whenever he left the spa he threw a gray linen sport coat over his uniform, and what seemed a lack of creativity became fashion-forward. For as trendy as he appeared in Manhattan’s Upper East Side, he looked equally ridiculous in Smitten.
She’d lost sight of him, when suddenly large hands surrounded her waist and lifted her up from the floor, twirled her around full circle, and placed her back down in her original spot.
Devlin laughed heartily, “I will never get tired of that, lifting that lithe, tiny figure. Julia, you are the picture of heath.” He kissed her on both cheeks, as was his custom. “I think country life agrees with you. Look at your skin.” He brushed her cheek with his thumb. “It’s like pure spring water. I wish I could take credit for it, but in Manhattan we can only work with what we have, and we’ll never have this clear air.”
“You can take credit for my skin. I’m using all your products, and it doesn’t hurt that I learned from the best.”
“Always my best cheerleader. It’s so dreary in the spa without your perky personality.” He gripped both of her hands. “Come back to me.”
“Is that a marriage proposal?” she answered flirtatiously.
Devlin grinned. “I’m not the marrying kind, Julia, or I might say yes. I see far too many beautiful women in a day to stay true to one. But if I were going to stay true, you’d be my girl.”
“Such an offer. To bad I’m not a gambling woman.”
“I wouldn’t say that. I saw the size of this town from the air. An upscale spa here?” He shook his head and stared across the expansive but empty parking lot. “One of my estheticians will quit eventually. You can come back to New York then.”
She frowned. “I’ve made a commitment, Dev. Smitten needs me. Manhattan needs you. We have to face that what we have is unrequited love,” she joked in her best dramatic voice.
“I miss you, Julia. You always manage to see the beauty in everyone. That’s what I saw when I discovered you behind the makeup counter at Nordstrom’s. The way you had with people. You had that old woman on the stool, do you remember?”
“No, actually, I don’t.”
“She was not an attractive woman, clearly a tourist from the heartland. She didn’t have a stitch of makeup on, and I think she was wearing sweatpants. You used eye makeup on her, and the blue of her eyes was suddenly obvious to me. I’ll never forget that. I saw her.”
Julia couldn’t help but feel sorry for Devlin and how much his prejudice kept him from seeing. “All your clients are beautiful. I don’t see what you thought I could add.”
“You saw potential in average people. It made me realize I might be missing clientele who would feel comfortable with you. You could take Quasimodo and find something about him that’s attractive. ”
She couldn’t find her voice. Quasimodo equated with a woman who didn’t dress in St. John knits and fill her face with Botox? She would never understand how Devlin saw the world—or she prayed she wouldn’t, anyway. She wanted to tell him that not noticing “normals” was pure narcissism on his part, and noticing them not any extraordinary ability at all. But that wouldn’t serve her purpose, so she kept her mouth shut.
Devlin walked outside the hangar and into the parking lot, where he shielded his eyes. “Like this place. I see the natural beauty. But Julia, what do you do here with your days in the middle of nowhere?”
“I take care of my mother. I hang out with friends. I make plans for the future of a history that’s in my blood. Life moves slower here, I’ll give you that. But it moves deeper as well.”
“If you say so.” Devlin placed his hands on his hips and surveyed the expanse of open space, his line of sight to the pine trees and mountaintops. “What makes you think there’s enough clientele here to support a spa?”
“W-well,” she stammered. “There’s not yet, but the town is changing, and our tourism is growing rapidly. Sawyer Smitten is getting married here, and that announcement alone has put us on the map. His fans will come, as if they’re on some kind of pilgrimage. Our bed-and-breakfast hasn’t had any vacancies since the announcement, our coffee shop has a steady business, and at night the town is lit up with sparkling lights. There are carriage rides, and in the spring there’ll be tours of the maple sugarhouses. All that’s missing for after a day on the lake or the slopes is a spa.”
He didn’t look convinced, so she kept talking.
“With Sawyer’s wedding, we are prepared to wipe the Poconos off the map as the East Coast romantic destination.”
“I’ve always appreciated your enthusiasm, Julia, but a spa needs steady clientele. It needs customers who value—” His critical gaze pulled away from the mountains and looked back at her as if he was ready to get back on the plane that moment.
“It’s more than my friends and me, this town project. Sawyer’s speaking out about his wedding and what his hometown means to him. This is a calling. There’s a little girl in our town, Mia, who prayed that—”
He held up his flat palm, as he always did when she said anything remotely faith based. Dev’s religion was beauty and eternal youth. He had no interest in anyone else’s belief system. “I believe in you, Julia, but there’s a long lead time and start-up capital that comes with the spa business. I’m sorry, I just didn’t see the potential here from the air. Maybe you can convince me once we get downtown. Smitten doesn’t happen to have a Ben & Jerry’s, does it?”
Devlin’s sweet tooth would keep him from getting directly back on the plane.
“We have a shop called Sweet Surrender that would give Serendipity a run for its money. I’ll take you there as soon as I’ve shown you the location possibilities. We also have Piece of Cake and the Vermont Creamery. Smitten is a sweet lover’s paradise.”
He didn’t look convinced, which only made Julia speak faster and her dress feel stickier.
“I know when you see the potential of our downtown, you’re going to be impressed. You have vision, Devlin, and that’s why I called you here . . . because I think this is an incredible opportunity.”
“Somehow I doubt that, but for you I’m willing to take a look.” He brought his lips near to the crook of her neck and whispered the rest. “For you, I’d do a lot of things. Just say the word.”
She forced a smile, but shivered involuntarily at the reminder of how uncomfortable Devlin could make her. She’d invited him, so she put on her game face and focused on his strengths. Devlin knew how to run a successful spa, and he had the money to invest. In fact, the amount she needed was less than his annual summer rental in the Hamptons. She suddenly wondered if she wasn’t selling the soul of Smitten for money.
“So who is this Sawyer person, and why should his wedding make any difference to this town’s tourism?”
Julia’s mouth dangled, but she snapped it shut when she realized he really didn’t know. “He’s a country singing sensation. Well, maybe not a sensation, but he’s on his way. ‘You Turned My Heart to Sawdust’? ‘Sugar, You’re Sweeter than Maple Syrup’?”
“Are you singing me a song? Or is this some strange mating call of Smitten folks?” He laughed. “I’m kidding. Tell me about this sensation I’ve never heard of.”
“He crossed over into pop after winning The Country’s Best on television. He’s had concerts in New York, too.” She felt protective over Sawyer’s image. He’d been the most popular boy in her high school when she was a freshman and he a senior. He wasn’t the cocky type at all, and though music was never “cool” in school, Sawyer possessed that star quality that would have made it cool if he played on the badminton team. “He won a talent show and became an international sensation!”
She felt an urge to tell Devlin how ignorant he could be about pop culture, but it wouldn’t have done any good. Dev wouldn’t serve Madonna at his spa because he found new money vulgar. He catered to the elite of Manhattan and made no secret of his disdain of the self-made man.
They’d been standing outside of her car for several minutes now, and at some point, she’d have to admit to owning the Subaru. She should have borrowed Shelby’s car for the occasion. Shelby’s classic styling may not have been practical when they were hiking outside of town, but her Lincoln would have proven infinitely more upscale and appropriate for Devlin’s appearance in town.
“We need four-wheel drive here,” she explained, rather than saying Yes, this is my beat-up Subaru, get in. “For the winters.”
“A four-wheel drive and everything. You’re a regular Sarah Palin.”
She knew he hadn’t meant it as a compliment, but she ignored that fact. Unlike Dev, she could camouflage herself in either place, the city or Smitten. There was something to be said for not carrying your location on your person.
“We’re not going to shoot our lunch, are we?” he quipped.
“Get in the car, Dev.”
Once inside the car, she turned the ignition, and Third Day blared from the stereo system. Considering the band also sang Sarah Palin’s theme song from her reality show, Julia thought it best just to shut off the music.
As they approached the town, her heart swelled with pride. Smitten’s Main Street belonged on a post card. Its brick Main Street and sidewalks ended at the old-fashioned, whitewashed church, where the traditional steeple and cross rose high into the bright blue sky. In the afternoon, the cross displayed its shadow across the village, as if Smitten’s church stood sentry over the town’s history and future.
“You say there’s skiing in the winter?”
“We have a lake. There’s water skiing in the summer as well, but yes, both downhill and cross-country in the winter. Mountain biking on the fire trails. It may not look like much yet, as far as the shopping and conveniences go, but the women of Smitten have our minds set. We come from a long line of tough stock, and I daresay nothing will stop us.”
“I hope for all your sakes you have enough capital to keep going until the town finds its footing.”
She pulled her car up alongside the coffee shop. “This is my girlfriend’s coffee shop. There’s open retail space alongside her there.” Julia pointed. “Natalie is very proactive and always searching out the latest coffee-roasting techniques. Anyone in Manhattan would be quite comfortable having a hot cocoa or an organic green tea in there. Don’t you think that would be a nice location for a spa?”
He shook his head. “Coffee fumes aren’t right for your location, and I can tell from here there’s not enough water available for a spa. It would cost you a fortune to get that place piped.”
“H-how can you tell that?”
“Easy. It’s what I do. And what if your friend burns the beans? Have you ever smelled that? It could ruin the day’s profits for you.”
She didn’t want to admit that she had.
“Aromatherapy is going to be a part of your business, so you have to take that into account. Drive up the road here, away from the church. I think off the beaten track would be better. Like the latest nightclub, it’s almost a well-known secret. I know you can take the ugly duckling and turn it into a swan, Julia, but you can’t pretty-up strong smells that don’t belong in a spa experience. What’s up this way?” He pointed to the end of the street.
“Natalie’s an excellent chef!” She didn’t want to mention some of Natalie’s infamous “tries” at the perfect, gluten-free cookie. “Maybe you’re right. Off the beaten track might be more relaxing.”
“Drive up here a little bit. The downtown is perfect, might be under ‘quaint’ if you looked it up in the dictionary. We want to make the most of that aspect. In Manhattan, you want to be right in the midst of things, but not here.”
“No,” he answered firmly.
“I’m so excited you see the potential. It confirms what we’ve thought all along. Smitten’s an old logging town, you know. The idea of bringing anything feminine into this town is offensive to the men, but we know this is our future. We can’t cut down trees any longer, so we’ve got to create a green economy out of the beauty here.”
“Stop!” Dev said as they reached the end of Main Street. “What’s that building?”
He pointed to a rustic, log cabin-looking building that defied the rest of Smitten’s idyllic downtown, like a permanent stain on its cuteness.
“That? That’s the Smitten Grill.” She said it as if she had a bad taste in her mouth. “It closed a little while after the mill, but he opens it during ski season generally.” One side of her lip lifted. “If you think upscale clientele would despise the scent of brewed coffee, imagine what they’d think here with scorched meat.” She let out a nervous laugh and hoped he’d join her, but he was still mesmerized by the restaurant.
He put his hands in the shape of a picture frame. “No, this is it, Julia! I can see it here. There’s so much potential. You realize that you can’t copy a Manhattan spa and plop it here in the country.”
“Naturally,” she said. “No plopping.”
“You have to know what would work here in Smallville. All this enchanting nostalgia is money in the bank if you know how to take proper advantage. Pull over.”
She steered the car to the curb. Devlin didn’t wait until the car was at a full stop before he leapt out and walked along the boardwalk sidewalk under the shingled overhang.
Can we go now?
“That’s another thing,” she yelled out the window. “Everywhere else in town has brick sidewalks. Those old planks probably have dry rot, and you’d be looking at a lot of extra costs on the building.”
“Nonsense.” He jumped on the wide wooden planks. “They’re in perfect condition.”
Dev’s sleek black image looked wrong against the rustic wooden lodge. As though Matt Damon strode into a Yosemite Sam cartoon. She shuddered as she stepped out of the car.
“The Smitten Grill isn’t exactly a place the women in town frequent.” The dark-stained wood exterior made it the town’s eyesore and something the girls and she hoped to eliminate with enough time. It was nowhere to be seen on their future maps.
“All the better to bring in some masculine energy into the mix. Couples business is going to be tantamount in a tourist town. You do realize that?”
“We have an appointment up the street in ten minutes.” She turned her wrist toward Devlin.
“We’ll be there. Let me just see inside here. Humor me, if you will.”
“If we hurry, maybe we’ll have time.”
Devlin pressed down on the spring button, and to her dismay the unlocked door sprang open. “After you.”
She stepped gingerly onto the cracked cement floor covered by sawdust, which crept inside her peep-toe heels. Like a cat on a hot sidewalk, she lifted her feet gingerly, anxious to get the tour over with as soon as possible. She searched the room with wide eyes. Stuffed animal heads stared at her from the walls, burned-out neon signs surrounded them, and primitive wooden stools set at burl-wood tables dotted the room. “Well, you’ve seen it. Not exactly a place Smitten is proud of, and you can see why.”
“If it’s closed, I can’t imagine the owner wouldn’t want to rent it out. Make some money.” Devlin walked toward the bank of dirty windows. “Is that a pond in the back?” He fluffed a gray handkerchief from his pocket and wiped the window.
“Whitetail Pond. Named for the deer that came to drink there before the sludge from this place probably poisoned the water.”
“Julia.” Dev pushed off from the windowsill and stared at her with his intense blue-green eyes. Eyes that had broken lesser women’s resolve. “I think you’re totally missing the vision, and that’s not like you. You take ugly things and make them beautiful. That pond alone is sheer, feng shui perfection. Imagine a rock waterfall just over there.” He pointed to the corner, then turned on his heels. “Or a fireplace back there where clients wait or relax after their treatments in their white, fuzzy robes. The gentle, soothing sound of trickling, clear water, the warming scent of maple syrup. Soothing couples’ massages out on the deck in the summer. Think like one of my students. Think outside the box and you’ll see there’s no other place in town for this spa than right here. I don’t understand how you’re missing this.”
“Outside the box? I can’t think at all in here. All I want to do is grab myself some bleach and grease-cutter. Do you mind if we get on to the next building? I had an appointment.”
“Julia, forget the appointment. Work with me here. You’ve got all the elements built in.” He took her by the hand and walked around the expansive room. “Wood . . . water . . . fire would be easy enough to put in . . . metal . . .”
Devlin went on in his Eastern meditation trance, and she questioned his involvement for the first time. She could handle his flirtatious passes, but not actually meddling with the location or “feel” of the spa. Maybe she had been in New York too long. She certainly knew Devlin’s belief system to be different from hers, but for the first time, she questioned if she’d truly relied on faith for Smitten’s future rather than Devlin’s money. She slipped off a heel and emptied it of sawdust.
“Can we talk about this after we’ve seen the other building? I told Ms. Draper we were coming. She owns the sweet shop and keeps the key.”
She didn’t want to mention that the people of Smitten didn’t bow out of appointments. It simply wasn’t done.
Besides, she wanted to get out of there before— “Zak!”
She felt the blood drain from her face at the imposing sight of Zak Grant. He hadn’t changed at all, and she willed herself to lose the swirl in her stomach that made her feel like a prepubescent girl at a Justin Bieber concert.
Zak Grant, with his sleepy-eyed gaze and stretched, taut T-shirt. She searched for an excuse as to why she’d entered his antlered, Medieval lair. He raked his hand through his thick, boyish curls, and she noted that being out of business had apparently left Zak plenty of time to build up his muscles. He was built like a Vermont maple: tall, filled-out, and sturdy. She felt sawdust invade her shoe again and twitched her leg trying to get it out.
“Julia,” Dev’s smooth voice chastised. “You look like a dog being tickled on its belly.” He chuckled.
She glanced at Zak, who bit his bottom lip. “Do you own a broom, Zak?”
“I do. You looking for a job? I was just thinking I should hire someone.”
“You two know each other, I assume,” Devlin said, eyeing what he must have seen as competition. The truth was, any normal fifty-year old man would know he was no match for the athletic perfection that was Zak Grant, but Devlin’s delusional view of himself trumped his reality.
“This is Smitten. Everyone knows each other,” she said. “I’m sure Zak has lots of work to do. We’d best get out of his way.” She grasped at Devlin’s elbow. “Zak, this is my former boss from New York, Devlin Stovich. Devlin, my brother’s best friend, Zak Grant.”
The two men shook hands.
“Julia’s going to open a spa here in town.” Devlin’s eyes thinned.
“So I heard,” Zak said. He rubbed his three days’ worth of stubble. “What kind of treatment would you give me?” He bent toward her and rubbed his jaw. “Do I have sun damage?”
“Can we get out of here now?” she asked Devlin. “There’s no texture here. Wood on wood. Oh, and while you’re at it, add some wood.”
“That’s part of the beauty of it. You could so easily add the other elements. This pond, it’s positively picturesque. Manmade?”
“God-made,” Zak clarified.
“I can see the brochures now. From across the pond, we see the massage tables on the deck in the distance. Can’t you see it, Julia?”
“No.” She crossed her arms in front of her.
“A few orchids in the background, some rock water features . . .”
“Sounds like you have big plans. That right, Julia?” Zak, with his barrel chest and dark, earthy green-brown eyes stared at her with his meaty hand wrapped around some blueprints. His muscles bulged out of his dark gray T-shirt, and she wondered if he had added to his wardrobe at all since high school.
She thought all those nasty things rather than remember his stinging rejection as one of the popular boys in school to her quiet, pensive geek. She used to spy on him when he’d play basketball in the backyard with her brother, but he’d never noticed her. Just like that woman in Nordstrom, she’d been invisible to Zak.
“Looks like you’ve plans of your own.” She nodded at the blueprints in his hand. “Sorry to have bothered you.” She hooked her arm into Devlin’s.
“Are you renting the place out?” Dev asked Zak.
“Only half of it. I’m using the other half for my office. I live upstairs.”
“Unemployed body builders need an office?” Julia regretted her words immediately, but she couldn’t take them back.
Both Zak and Devlin gazed at her as if she were the devil himself.
“Still as charming as ever, huh, Julia?”
“What do you plan to rent the place for?” Dev asked him.
“More than she can afford.” His steely gaze rested on her in a silent challenge.
“I’m considering investing in her business,” Dev said, handing Zak a business card from a jacket pocket. “But only if she’s smart about it.”
“It’s more than either of you can afford.”
“I doubt that. I take it you two don’t care for one another,” Devlin said. “But you seem to be a businessman, Mr. Grant, and I’d consider it a great favor if you’d reconsider Julia as a tenant. I wholeheartedly and enthusiastically believe in her abilities as an esthetician.”
“An esta– what?”
“Julia, look here. These cabinets are already built in. I’m seeing earthy-browns under soothing candlelight, cedar and sandlewood as signature scents. Or perhaps maple, if you want to go for that local flair. Muscle repair massages after skiing, with mountain arnica extracts and oregano . . . surely even you can see the need for that, Mr. Grant.”
“Nope. Oregano goes on food, not me. If Julia wants to make me spaghetti sauce with it, we can talk.”
Zak’s refusal seemed to ignite Devlin’s competitive nature. “Mr. Grant, wouldn’t you like to see the women of Smitten looking younger with anti-aging facials after a day in the sun? It repairs the collagen with licorice extract.”
“What? Food on people instead of in people isn’t right for Smitten. We don’t go for all that frou-frou stuff you city people like.”
“Detox? Surely a body builder knows about detox. Julia could do the best detoxifying treatments there under the crackling fireplace.” He pointed toward the corner.
“There is no fireplace,” Julia said dryly.
“There will be. An exfoliation treatment with the local maple sugar scrub. Julia, Zak, this is a gold mine. What’s it going to take to get you two to see it?”
“A miracle,” they said in unison.
“I need to get back to work.” Zak tapped his blueprints against the wall. “Let yourselves out when you’re done.”
Julia watched him stride to the back room, untouchable as ever.