Warm water eased over my hands and I graciously let my arms sink into the bubbles. Washing dishes soothed my tired muscles this morning. Supporting Brendon last night hadn’t been easy given he was nearly twice my size. I supposed I was able to handle the weight given my workouts with Billy.
At the thought of my ex, I frowned. Billy had called nearly a half-dozen times but each time I let the phone ring to voicemail. I didn’t want to speak to the “cheating bastard.” The way he treated me still stung. I wasn’t ready to face him. I continued to move my arms around in the water, gently cleaning each piece of silverware with my sponge. I knew the pieces would need to go through a cycle in the industrial dishwasher, but there was something grounding about rinsing each piece by hand first.
My stomach grumbled, and I remembered I had worked until midnight, dropped Brendon at the trailer, and then returned to Casa de la Esperanza for several hours of sleep before reporting to duty at eight o’clock. I didn’t have time to eat breakfast. Rosalie had assured me as I passed by the front porch of her residence that I could take my time today and Benny would be happy to cover my shift since he finished at eleven, but I needed to work. It kept my mind off other things. I enjoyed working at El Sombrero Festivo, and the mornings were usually slow and quiet.
“Buenos días, Kass,” Rosalie said as she stepped into the tiny restaurant kitchen.
“Buenos días,” I repeated. “I am cleaning silverware before I place it in the dishwasher. Some food got almost cemented to the forks.”
“You are a hard worker, Kass,” Rosalie complimented in her usual soft tone. “Gracias.”
“De nada,” I replied. “How’s the restaurant this morning?”
“We only have one customer thus far,” Rosalie remarked. “Looks like all the guests are still sleeping.”
“How are the SZV patients?” I inquired.
“Noel and Brad are tending to them this morning. I am going to walk Juanita to school,” Rosalie explained. “Eight hours of sleep did them some good.”
“That’s good,” I remarked. “I am so grateful for what you’re doing for my dad and I, Rosalie, you know that, right?”
“Of course, chica,” Rosalie said, her face lighting up as she reached to embrace me. “You and your father are good souls.”
“Thank you,” I flushed.
“We caught your dad’s illness early enough so I think he will make a full recovery. I wish I could say that about our other patients upstairs. The blood moon can have devastating effects or speed up the deterioration. We will be attending mass this evening if you should wish to come. We can say prayers for their souls.”
“I’ll think about it,” I shrugged.
“Bueno,” Rosalie beamed and squeezed my shoulders.
I lifted my hands out of the soapy water and let the sink drain as I wiped my arms on a towel.
“You have a visitor out there,” Rosalie informed me. “From Califorsimia.”
“What?” my eyes widened in surprise.
“Sí, cariño, he says he is friend from Califorsimia,” she replied as she walked out. “Take a half hour break and go visit.”
“But… I just got here,” I called after her in vain as she was already humming and walking down the back steps through the garden.
My heart was pounding as I dried my hands on the towel again. It couldn’t be Billy, but maybe Davis. I hadn’t spoken to my other ex in months either. I shook my head. It was a silly fantasy. I was only thinking of Davis because he treated me well and I was missing my first love. My first love. I gripped the side of the door frame. Yes, he was my first love, but I didn’t fall for him the same way I fell for Billy. Loving Davis was sweet and innocent, to a point. Billy was wild and passionate. I wasn’t sure I ever loved Billy. We never once told each other how we felt.
Gage? Suddenly the thought of seeing my ex best-friend sounded just as terrible as seeing either one of my ex-boyfriends. Stupidly, I had called him in a panic when leaving Lucky Palms and left him a message. I had pathetically sobbed. I never heard from him, but perhaps he had found me. I pulled down on my apron, straightening the edge. Time to get this over with!
I walked out into the restaurant. The stereo was playing a soft, Sunday-morning-kind-of-jazz and the candles were lit on the tables despite the time of day. I looked around and didn’t see any customers as Rosalie had mentioned. I took a step forward to walk down the steps when I saw him. His table had been hidden by a plant.
“What are you doing here?” I inquired, narrowing my eyes.
Brendon Shore, dressed in a loosely buttoned tan shirt and clean khaki slacks, stood up, pushing back the chair and holding the edge. “You said to meet you for breakfast.”
“No,” I cocked my head to the side. “I left a note saying you should come by in the morning and eat breakfast. It’s good for a hangover.”
“I’ll say,” he tapped the side of his head. “I certainly feel like a freight train has been through my brain. Please sit…” he motioned to the chair.
I noticed the stacks of waffles on the table, two convenient plates with fresh fruit from Rosalie’s garden, blueberries, strawberries, and mango slices, and a dollop of cinnamon butter. I also noticed the two conspicuous striped blue mugs with hot coffee.
“Um… no… I can’t eat…” I said, and at that precise moment, my stomach rumbled loudly. I flushed, embarrassed. “I…I… have to work.”
“Sounds like you’re hungry,” he winked at me, motioning to the chair once more. “And your boss gave you a break. I asked her.”
“You said you were my friend,” I narrowed my eyes.
“Well, this is our second encounter so we’re more than just strangers and I’m buying your breakfast so we’re more than acquaintances. Please have breakfast with me,” Brendon requested.
There was no ire or insincerity in his tone. I sighed heavily and plopped down into the chair.
“Okay,” I said reluctantly.
“Excellent,” he smiled, sitting down across from me. “I took the liberty of asking your father how you take your coffee.”
“You met my father?” I said, my eyes widening.
“A little milk for color and two sugars for tasting,” he replied. “And a pinch of cinnamon, swirl of honey, and extra hot.”
I lifted the mug to my mouth and took a sip. The brew was piping hot and strong, and Brendon had somehow excellently crafted the additional flavorings.
“Thank you,” I said, impressed. “So you met my dad?”
“Howard?” Brendon nodded, drinking his coffee. “He seems like a nice guy.”
“Why did you tell him I was a friend? Why did you tell Rosalie that?” I asked, genuinely curious.
“Of course, any woman who lets an insensitive, inebriated guy like me sleep things off in her trailer is someone I would consider a friend,” he said, rubbing his forehead. “Thank you by the way. Do you happen to have an aspirin, my beautiful dining companion?”
“No,” I shook my head, nursing my coffee, and conveniently blocking my face as I was feeling self-conscious. “Um…” I lifted my mouth momentarily. “Try ginger.”
“Ginger?” he quirked a brow.
“Rosalie swears by crystallized ginger for a hangover,” I replied. “She’s an herbalist.”
“That tiny woman drinks?” he said, his voice squeaking a bit.
“Hey, don’t judge,” I set down my cup. “Tiny women drink with the best of them.”
“I see. My mistake,” he smirked. “I’ll have to witness this for myself. We’ll go out tonight for drinks and dinner. I hear there’s an amazing cantina in town.”
“Um…” I looked down at my hands. “I don’t think so. I just got out of a bad relationship and all.” I twisted my apron ties in my lap. “I don’t really think dating’s a good idea.”
“Who said anything about dating? I was inviting a friend for dinner and drinks,” he replied, his purple eyes twinkling.
“Oh,” I was certain my face grew a thousand shades of red. “Of course not…” I straightened in my seat. “I can go get that ginger.”
“We’ll have the waitress bring some by later,” he caught my hand, and I immediately retracted it.
“You should eat…” he said slowly. “…your waffles before they get cold. Your dad made them for us.”
“Great,” I picked up my fork and focused on my plate.
The music changed to a romantic ballad. The lighting was far too dim for mid-morning, more ideally suited for a date than a harmless breakfast. And Brendon Shore made me very nervous.
“So last night I was trying to guess all about you,” he said between bites. “Did I hit anything on the mark?”
I looked up at him in surprise. “I think you were on the rightish track.”
“Good,” he grinned with devilish charm. “Then I’ll keep trying to get to know you since you won’t fork over details about yourself.”
“Hey, I resent that. You never asked.”
“True, but it’s much more fun to guess.”
“Fine… guess away,” I picked up a strawberry and shoved it in my mouth, immediately feeling unrefined since the bite was much too big.
I coughed and cleared my throat after swallowing. He either didn’t notice or politely ignored my awkwardness. Thankfully, my father appeared.
“Dad?” I said, suddenly feeling weird about being at a table with a man I hardly knew in an empty restaurant at my workplace in a manner that looked like a date. “This is not a date,” I rushed out.
Dad chuckled. “Hi Kass, and yes,” he winked at me. “I know. Brendon says he’s a friend of yours from Califorsimia.”
I felt like sticking my head in a bucket of ice. My father looked amused rather than concerned about a man who was probably at least ten to fifteen years older than me.
“Uh… yeah… kind of,” I shrugged.
“Brendon, can I get you more coffee?” Dad asked.
“Absolutely, thanks,” Brendon said. “Kass?”
“Oh,” I gulped down the final sips of my coffee. “Uh… yes… but Dad…” I slid off the chair. “I can get it.”
“Nonsense,” Dad shook his head. “You enjoy your breakfast date that isn’t a date, Kass.”
I could’ve died right then and there. Brendon looked bemused, eyeing me closely across the table as my father went to get a pot of hot coffee to replenish our beverages.
“You’re enjoying this, aren’t you?” I spit out, feeling disgusted with myself.
“I’d be lying if I said no,” his eyes danced in the candlelight.
Dad returned, pouring the liquid into our cups and stayed to chat small talk for a few minutes before returning to the kitchen area. I figured he had to be doing this on purpose. He must’ve run into Brendon when entering the restaurant, and then stuck around, in his blue track suit, no doubt, to humiliate me. I looked around frantically for the waitress on staff, but she was conveniently no where to be found. I figured Rosalie probably already left to walk Juanita to school, and the chef had arrived in the kitchen, that, or Dad was taking over breakfast and lunch today. Brendon stood up and walked over to the condiments bar, again measuring the appropriate amount of milk, sugar, honey, and cinnamon for my taste. He set the cups down in front of me. Relieved, I took a sip, grateful to have something in my shaking hands.
“You know if you like cinnamon and honey in your coffee, you should try a Mexsimican mocha,” Brendon suggested.
“Oh? What’s in it?” I asked.
“Do you like chocolate?” he inquired.
“Do I like chocolate?” I repeated, loudly, and laughed awkwardly. “Psssssh! Of course, I do.”
Oh wow! Cut it out, Kass.
Brendon just smiled. “And spice? It doesn’t bother you.”
“No,” I shook my head, drinking more of my coffee.
“Then you’d like it,” he nodded his head.
“Okay,” was all I could think to say, and then quickly added, “I love waffles.”
Random! Seriously, what’s wrong with you, Kassiopeia?
“Good, your dad said they were your favorite so I ordered them for us,” Brendon said.
“Yeah, I remember when I was a kid and Dad would make waffles every Sunday morning and I’d wake up super early and rush downstairs to help him, and when we were done, he’d say, ‘give yourself an applause, Kassio‘ because they were the best waffles ever.”
I lightly clapped my hands as I recalled the memory.
“Didn’t matter what I made or if I accidentally added too much milk to the batter or too much flour or not enough eggs. To him, they were always the best waffles,” I beamed.
“Kassio?” he arched a brow.
“Yeah, it’s Kass,” I glared at him as if challenging him to say otherwise.
“Okay, Kass, sounds like you and your dad were… I mean… are close,” Brendon said, cutting his waffle.
“We are,” I said with a genuine smile. “We haven’t always been that way, but we’re getting to know each other again.” I took a few bites of food. “What about your dad? Your parents?”
“Oh, they’re in Sim Union,” he said and continued eating.
My feet slipped and touched the top of his shoes. “Oh, sorry,” I bumbled.
“No worries,” he looked up at me. “It’s not every day a pretty lady steps on my toes.”
“So where were we?” he rubbed his chin thoughtfully. “I was going to guess more about you.”
“Right,” I twirled my fork in the air before stabbing into a waffle piece.
“Bad relationship, you said, and I bet a pretty woman like you falls passionately in love,” he stated.
“Really?” I rolled my eyes and sighed.
I wasn’t sure I knew the meaning of love, or if I had ever fallen passionately into anything, let alone love.
Brendon stared at me intently before continuing. “Bad relationship. Not interested in dating…” he pieced things together. “He hurt you, didn’t he?”
My cheek twitched as I frowned. He was right, but I didn’t want him to be. Was I that obvious?
“He hurt you and that’s why you’re here in Mexsimco trying to get over him,” he assumed.
“Yeah, sure,” I stabbed at a piece of fruit with my fork.
“Or maybe that’s not the full reason. You’re here with your dad, but it’s part of it, I think. And you’re close to your dad so he’s a symbol of protection to you, and I take it he’s sick because Casa de la Esperanza is known for helping the sick. Plus I noticed the lack of hair, the slow muscle movements… so mid-stage EXCES or cancer, I’m guessing. And that means, you’re here helping to take care of him. It’s a mutual care…” Brendon leaned across the table, taking my hand before I could protest. “You feel good taking care of people. It empowers you. You care about things a little too much sometimes, and not enough about yourself.”
I flinched, trying to retract my hand, but he starting massaging my skin gently.
“Caring for people is your safety net, and it protects you from unpleasant things,” he let go of my hand and looked me dead straight in the eye. “…that’s the real reason why you won’t date right now, isn’t it?”
I shifted uncomfortably in the chair. How did he read me so well? My lower lip wavered, and I resisted the urge to bit it as I swallowed hard.
“Are you a psychiatrist?” I asked, trying to avoid a direct answer to his question.
Brendon shook his head.
“A psychologist or counselor?”
Another head shake.
“No,” he replied. “You’re very cold.”
“I am?” I rubbed my arms instinctively, and then I stiffened and relaxed once I realized he meant my guesses were far away.
I laughed. “Well, I’m guessing you just know a lot about people.”
“I’ve spent a large portion of my life watching and observing people. We’re less mysterious than we think,” he shrugged. “I can look at a person and tell a lot about them. Everyone has a story, and it’s my job to find it.”
“I know!” I threw up my hands. “I know what you are. Your statement makes you sound like a writer.”
“Of sorts,” he admitted, concentrating on his food.
“What about you? I mean, I hardly know anything about you. Let me try” I rested my hand on my chin, eager to steer the conversation away from myself. “You’re on vacation and you say your birthday is this weekend. You’re too old to be an average college student…”
“Hey!” he protested, wiping his mouth on his napkin.
“And too young to be a dad, and I’d wager from lack of wedding ring, you aren’t married, and from your confident flirting, I’d say you aren’t engaged or in a serious relationship either,” I guessed.
He nodded, confirming my suspicions. I reached for his hand.
“You aren’t going to read my palm are you?” he grimaced.
“No,” I laughed, and then my voice dropped into a softer tone. “There’s a tan line on your ring finger… in the shape of the ring… so…” I looked up at him, startled. “You were once married?”
“Yes actually, does that bother you?” he said with a smile, but he had lost some of his bravado.
“The blue streaks in your hair, the bright colors from yesterday, the unbuttoned top…” I tried to avoid looking at his chest hair as I spoke. “…the Bondesque persona are all part of your way of retaining your youth, but I suspect it’s more than that,” I remarked, returning my head upward and locking my gaze on his face. “…I suspect… you are trying to hide the pain of a failed marriage and a relationship or two and picking up women makes you feel confident and…” I hesitated. “…even sexy again.”
I blushed after speaking the last few words, returning my eyes to my plate. I couldn’t believe I had just said those words aloud to a man I barely knew, a man who was much older than me, and a man I wasn’t remotely interested in.
“You’re observant,” he stated simply.
“I have to be,” I replied.
“You’re too young to be an attorney.”
“You don’t know how old I am.”
“True, but you’re not a lawyer.”
“You’re right, I’m not.”
He rubbed his chin thoughtfully. “An artist.”
“Of sorts,” I replied with a smile.
“You know I think this is a first for me,” he said as we both finished our waffles.
“The first time a beautiful woman saw through my charming facade. I have to commend you,” he said seriously.
I flushed. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to pry.”
“I let you,” Brendon reassured. “And I’d let you again. I’m an old guy who needs to get knocked off his feet sometime.”
“You don’t seem that old.”
“Oh? So you don’t mind my age.”
“I don’t know your age.”
“I’ll be thirty-three on Thursday and if we were back in the states, it would be Black Friday.”
“Really?” my face lit up. “That’s cool. Perfect day to go and buy yourself a gift.”
“I guess,” he said, looking uncomfortable. “If you’re into the whole consumerism bit…”
“True,” I replied.
“When’s your birthday?” he asked.
“And you’ll be.”
“Old enough,” I replied coyly.
He grinned. “Old enough to date legally.”
I frowned and laughed wryly. “Like you should care.”
“Just wondering,” he admitted.
“Do you always date younger women?”
“Do you always ask intrusive questions?”
“Well… I am curious by nature.”
“I don’t mind. Yes, I usually date younger women if you want to know.”
“Not really. Sorry. I didn’t mean to pry.”
“Do you always date older men?”
“How would you know if I’ve always dated older men?”
“You strike me as someone who likes older guys.”
I scoffed. “Like you. In your dreams.”
“Good, then we’ve got that out of the way and we can be friends.”
“Friends is best. I can be your friend, but I promise you, I want nothing more.”
He looked at me as if assessing how serious I was about the statement. I held my ground, pressing my toes inside my sneakers and keeping a straight face. He smirked.
“I find your…” he paused as if about to say something else, and then continued, “…candor is refreshing.”
“Well,” I leaned back in my chair. “I find that honesty is the best policy.”
I looked up, noticing more customers had arrived. The waitress appeared to seat them at a table around us. We finished the remaining breakfast on our plates and our coffee.
“So an artist?” he crossed his arms. “Do you draw?”
“Terrible,” I confessed.
“Good, me neither,” he laughed. “Are you a sculptor?”
“Do I look like a sculptor?” I wrinkled my nose.
“You’re right. You don’t strike me as one with patience to sculpt,” he answered.
“I can be patient,” I retorted. “…just not when it comes to forming things with my hands. I mean, who wants to spend their days molding clay for statues and making a living squishing stuff together?”
“Excuse me!” a woman at the table across from us exclaimed.
Brendon and I stared at each other, and tried not to laugh.
“Ten to one guesses she’s a sculptor,” Brendon said, cupping his hand over his mouth and leaning in.
“I didn’t mean to insult her,” I laughed, biting my lip. “Sculpting just isn’t for me. I guess I should be quieter about my opinions.”
“Are you a painter?” he inquired.
“No,” I said forcefully, and shook my head, feeling uncomfortable again as thought of Billy flitted through my mind.
“Ah,” he leaned back and interlaced his fingers behind his head. “The ex was a painter, wasn’t he?”
“I find it irritating how good you are,” I narrowed my eyes.
“I was right,” he smiled teasingly. “So your ex was a painter, probably a good one, but a lousy boyfriend?”
“I don’t really want to talk about him. Do you want to talk about your ex-wife?” I inquired.
“No, not really,” he said casually. “Are you a musician?”
“No, not really, although I would like to learn some day if I have the time,” I replied.
“Oh right. Miguel is going to teach you guitar,” he rolled his eyes. “Can the guy play? I heard him last night. He wasn’t all that great if I could recall.”
“I think it’s sweet he offered,” I said defensively.
“If you want to learn an instrument, I know classical piano,” Brendon offered.
“Really? You play piano?”
“Don’t look so surprised.”
“I’m not… not really… I guess… you just don’t strike me as someone with patience either.”
He laughed. “Many moons ago, I did.”
“Okay, okay, you still haven’t guessed correctly.”
“This is becoming like a game of twenty questions.”
“You started it.”
“True. If I guess right, can I have that dinner and drinks with you? Maybe a movie?”
“Don’t push your luck.”
“I’m serious. I need a good friend to go with me to the movies.”
I thought about my answer for a moment before standing up, and lifting our plates. I had shirked my duties for too long, despite breakfast being… fun… I couldn’t stay.
“If you guess correctly, I’ll even go star gazing with you.”
He pulled a newspaper out of his back pocket. He opened up the pages and started to read, but he was smiling.
“I’ll look for movie times,” he said.
“Oh, you’re so sure you’ll be right!” I laughed. “Thank you for breakfast, Brendon.”
“Thank you, Kass,” he nodded. “I’ll take that ginger now. Though the coffee and food is helping.”
“Good,” I said, before thinking, and realized that may have sounded a little patronizing. “I’ll be right back.”
I walked up the steps about the carry our plates back to the kitchen and request a bowl of Rosalie’s crystallized honey ginger candies.
“I know what you are,” Brendon called after me.
I glanced back over my shoulder, but he wasn’t looking at me.
“I knew the whole time,” a smile played coyly at the edge of his lips as he continued scanning the movies. “For any woman who can keep up with me and has wits like you do is a writer.”
Author Note: I had fun writing this chapter and describing the food, and of course, the banter between Kass and her future boss, mentor, and friend, Brendon Shore. This got much, much longer than I intended, but it was too much fun to cut the length. Hope you enjoyed.