I was waiting tables at Anna Maria's one night when *he* walked into my life. . . .
|I was working waiting tables at Anna Maria’s one Tuesday night near the end of my shift when he walked into my life.
I was shooting the shit with Rhonda, the cashier, at the far end of the railroad car-style diner, when I heard the ding! of the bell above the door, but I didn’t immediately look up. I figured, since it was late and on the slowest night of the week, the customer was probably a regular, stopping by to get a last cup of coffee or something to take out—I called these the Counter People—and then they’d be gone. Usually Dale, the owner of the diner, was the one to take their orders, since he was the counter-man, as well.
So I didn’t jump-to when I heard the bell, choosing instead to hear the last juicy details of Rhonda’s latest fight with her sexy, but good-for-nothing boyfriend Ricky.
“. . . so I says to Ricky, I says. . . .”
I glanced over my shoulder, down to the other end of the diner, to see if the customer was being helped by Dale—who was, in fact, talking and laughing with one of the regulars, Lefty—and spotted the lone person at the counter besides them. He was sitting quietly, dead center, staring into space in the direction of the menu-board on the wall behind the counter. He was a young guy, maybe twenty-five, maybe younger, wearing jeans and a zipped-up grey windbreaker. He was tall, even sitting, and had short, spiky dark hair and pale olive skin. His profile was boyish and exotic: pixie-ish, upturned nose, a well-defined chin and jaw, and a wide, pale eye.
Holy shit, I thought as I stared at him, losing the last of Rhonda’s formerly entertaining rant about Ricky. The guy at the counter sighed heavily and looked down at his hands—at some folded papers he was holding. Then he took a deep breath and sighed again, broad shoulders slumping.
“. . . if you keep blowing all our money on that slut at the stripclub, this relationship is over. Understand? I’m kickin’ your ass to the curb with the rest of the trash, and—hey, where ya goin’, Jesse?”
“Customer,” I tossed over my shoulder as I approached the guy, smoothing my own messy, mousy hair then taking my pen and pad out of my apron pocket. Behind the counter, near the door, Dale was still chinning with Lefty, who was probably working his way up to ordering the only thing he ever got from us: a cup of coffee and the chicken and waffles to go.
No one but me seemed to have noticed the guy in the grey windbreaker.
When I was a stool away from him, I stopped, put on my nicest smile—and it was pretty nice, if I do say so, myself—and waited for him to look up. This close, I could see he had a spray of freckles across his cheeks and his cute nose. His hair was mussy and spiking out every which was, as if he’d been running nervous fingers through it.
The hands that clutched at the folded papers were large and capable-looking, clean and long-fingered.
“Fuck,” he muttered to himself in a low, slightly choked voice as he wrung the hell out of his papers. One hand went up to rub his temple, then pinch the bridge of his nose, as if trying to stave off a headache. “Fuck, fuck, fuck!”
Toning down my professional smile a bit, into one of real concern, I leaned on the counter and asked: “Hey . . . are you okay?”
Starting a little, the guy looked up and over at me, blinking wide, almond-shaped, grey-green eyes that were slanted obliquely at the corners. I wondered briefly if he was part Chinese or something.
Whatever he is, I thought, almost despairingly, he’s fucking gorgeous.
Indeed, my mouth had dropped open in a very unprofessional gape and gone quite dry.
The guy licked the most kissable lips I’d ever seen—his mouth was a perfect Cupid’s bow, mobile and sensitive—and smiled limply. It didn’t reach his melancholy eyes.
“Yeah, I’m fine. I just . . . I’m processing some stuff,” he said in his low, ridiculously sexy baritone. It sent shivers up and down my spine and made my knees think seriously about getting weak. “It’s nothing a BLT on marble rye deluxe can’t fix, I hope.”
It took me a moment, but then I smiled, too, professionally again. “Is that what you’d like to have? BLT, marble rye, deluxe?” I asked, ready to scribble it on my pad. The guy nodded, and I wrote it down. “Anything on it? Mustard? Mayo?”
“Uh . . . both. And onions, if you can swing it.”
“We certainly can.” I added some wattage to my smile and he blinked and gave me a once-over I most definitely didn’t miss. “Anything to drink with that?”
“Okey-dokey. And will that be for here, or to go?”
“To go, please,” he replied, and I noted it on the pad, along with everything else. I was really disappointed he wasn’t going to be staying to eat. He’d have given me something nice to (covertly) look at, instead of just the four walls, the other customers, or Dale and Rhonda.
“Alright!” I enthused brightly, to cover my disappointment. I knew it was silly, and refused to give it any credence. I wasn’t going to get all maudlin over some guy I’d probably never see again, no matter how cute and sexy and knee-weakening he was. “Let me put that order in for you, and it should be just a few minutes.”
“Cool. Thanks, Jesse,” the guy said, smiling again, a bit more genuinely, this time. For a moment, though, I was gaping once more, wondering how the hell he knew my name. I hadn’t even had the chance to give it to him (along with my phone number, my schedule, and my heart).
Then I remembered: my nametag.
Laughing a little, I said the first thing that came to my over-stimulated mind. “Aw, no fair. You know my name and I don’t know yours.”
Even as I said it, I was kicking myself and blushing. For flirting with a customer—which I never did—and for doing it so mortifyingly badly.
But the guy’s smile definitely touched his eyes, now, and lit them up. “It’s Christopher. Chris Chu.”
And he held out his hand.
Wiping mine on my apron—it was sweaty, for obvious reasons—I took it and shook it exactly three times. His grip was strong, warm, and dry. “And I’m Jesse Torrance.”
“Pleased to meet you,” he said, sounding like he meant it. I blushed and met his eyes. The temptation was to either avoid them, or get lost in them. Somehow I managed something somewhere in between those two extremes.
And we stood there, smiling at each other, still holding each other’s hands, until the bell above the door dinged again, startling us both.
I laughed and let go of Chris’s hand, my face going up in flames as I turned away. “I’ll just, uh—put your order in.”
“Not a problem, Chris.”
As I walked away, toward the back end of the diner and the little door that let one into the behind-the-counter area, I could feel Chris’ eyes on me.
Rhonda, just across from the little door, caught my eye, widened hers, and mouthed: Oh, my God! He’s hot!
I rolled my eyes toward the ceiling and nodded twice.
Once behind the counter I put the order in with Rory Abel, the night cook, then drifted back down the length of the diner to where Chris was sitting, staring once more at the papers in his hand. Now, instead of woebegone, he looked confused and upset.
I leaned on my side of the counter when I was across from him and smiled sympathetically. “Still processing?”
“Yeah.” Chris smiled a little, but didn’t look up from the papers. “Will be for quite some time.”
“Ah, it’s one of those situations,” I said, curious, but not willing to overstep the bounds of professionalism to ask. “That definitely calls for a BLT deluxe.”
Chuckling, Chris finally looked up at me. I noticed his eyes were a little red, and I wondered if he’d been . . . weepng. The thought of him weeping did strange things to my stomach, causing it to bench-press my heart. “It calls for a drink. But I have a feeling that if I got started doing that, I’d probably regret it, down the line.”
“Possibly,” I agreed, thinking of my family. Full of miserable drunks and rabid partyers. None of them in recovery or even willing to admit they had a problem, except for my mother, who’d been sober for ten years (and Born Again for eight . . . and had disowned me five years ago when I came out).
I, myself, had never touched a drink in my life. At the ripe old age of twenty-three, I was straight-edge and fearfully so. I had no desire to become like the rest of the Torrances.
“And this should—sort of—be a happy day for me, I guess,” Chris went on softly, clutching at the papers again. “I mean, I literally have twenty-seven dollars to my name, and twenty of it’s in my wallet,” he said, seemingly apropos of nothing. Then he held up the papers slightly. “This means the end of my worries for life, and all I can manage to feel is . . . numb. And resentful.”
Brow furrowing, I bounced up on my toes for a moment. My feet were always killing me by the end of shift and even a few moments of relief was welcome. “Why numb? If I’m understanding you correctly, you’ve got financial stability in your hand. Isn’t that a good thing?”
Chris snorted and looked down, placing the papers on the counter in front of him. “It is, it’s just that . . . there’s so much bullshit baggage that comes with it—baggage I have to pick up because . . . it’s the only choice I’ve got.”
Without thinking, I reached out and covered his left hand with my right. Chris looked up at me again, his eyes still confused, still miserable. “There’s always another choice. Other choices.”
“Not for me. Not now that I’m . . . not now that I’m a Stanhope.” Chris shook his head, seeming baffled at what he’d said. I, for my part, was baffled, as well.
The Stanhopes were the premiere family in this city. Hell, in the entire region. They had the money, the prestige, the bloodlines, the everything. They were called the Kennedys of the Midwest.
“You’re a Stanhope?” I asked, confused, and Chris smiled self-deprecatingly.
“Wouldn’t think it to look at me, would you?” he snorted ruefully. “But I am. I’m Leo Stanhope’s bastard. Something I didn’t find out until I got this.” Chris smoothed the papers in front of him and leaned on the counter. “My mom took the secret of who my father was to her grave—not for my lack of asking. My father, however, told his eldest son—”
“Junior Stanhope,” I said, nodding, my eyes wide. This was better than any story Rhonda had to tell—even if it wasn’t true. But I had a feeling it was. Stanhopes were infamous for philandering, and it wouldn’t surprise me one bit if the late Leo Stanhope had a dozen bastards out there.
And Chris did have the Stanhope-look about him, now that I knew to search for it. The strong jaw and chin, the wide, wide-set eyes—the long, solid body and broad shoulders.
“Yeah,” Chris was saying with false enthusiasm as I stared and stared. “Junior Stanhope . . . my half-brother.”
“Fuck,” fell from my lips, and Chris snorted again.
“He’s known about me for practically my whole life. Apparently Leo told him twenty some-odd years ago about knocking up my mother—his fucking secretary—and told him not to tell anyone,” Chris said bitterly.
“But if he told Junior not to tell anyone . . . why’d he tell you, now?” I asked hesitantly. Chris closed his eyes for a moment, and took a deep breath.
“Leo Stanhope died a few weeks back. It was all over the news—”
“Yeah, the boating accident,” I said, nodding again. I hadn’t paid much attention to the coverage following the accident, nor had I watched the televised funeral, but I couldn’t have missed hearing about it at least a little.
“Well, turns out dearest dad left me part of his estate,” Chris said, holding up the papers again and meeting my eyes. “And it’s stipulated in his will that I—essentially—become a Stanhope. Participate in family gatherings, take the Stanhope name—the whole magilla.” Chris made as if to crumple the papers, but stopped himself before he did. He contented himself with slamming them on the counter, his face scrunched up in rage. “All the years,” he said, his voice tight and angry. “All the times I asked my mom who my dad was—or how she could afford to send me to those expensive private schools on a secretary’s salary. How she could afford the house I grew up in. All the years I missed of having a father because they were both . . . I dunno. Ashamed of their affair. And the result. . . .”
And Chris hung his head, sighing.
My hand, still covering his, squeezed it without my say so.
“I doubt they were ashamed of you, Chris. But Leo Stanhope had a name to protect. If it’d gotten out while he was alive, that he’d had a child out of wedlock, no matter how wonderful that child was, it might have ruined his political career.”
“And that’s what it comes down to, doesn’t it?” Chris wiped at his eyes impatiently, roughly. “Keeping his career afloat was more important than his flesh and blood. And now that he’s dead, and can’t be hurt by bad press, he wants to make me part of the family. He’s essentially paying me to be a Stanhope when a month ago, I’m sure he’d have paid me to keep my mouth shut, had I known.”
Chris sniffed and wiped at his eyes again, and I bit my lip and squeezed his hand.
“And the bitch of it is, I’d have given up all the money for a chance to know him, you know? To have a dad. That was all I ever wanted. My father. Even if he was a womanizing creep and a hypocrite.” Chris shook his head and laughed mirthlessly. “Now, it’s like he’s trying to buy me, for whatever reason, and that doesn’t sit too well with me. He couldn’t be bothered with me while he was alive, but now that he’s dead, he wants to bring me into the fold. With all the perks that go with it.”
I could understand where Chris was coming from. Sort of. I had never known my father, either, though my mother had told me he was a jerk and no-good. I doubted, however, that my father was a Stanhope or the equivalent. If he had been and I’d found out . . . I couldn’t imagine what that would be like. But I’d probably be angry at all the time wasted and opportunities missed. Maybe angry enough to wash my hands of his money, his family, and his name. “You could always say no to it—the money, the name, all the bullshit that comes with it,” I said softly, hesitantly. And Chris met my eyes again, this time wryly.
“Would you?” he challenged, and I smiled.
“Hells, no,” I said quietly, but firmly, and Chris laughed. “I’ve been poor all my life. And that’s not likely to change, short of a miracle or a winning lottery ticket. I’d use that money to go to school, to travel, to help people. All that jazz. I’d leave my mark on the world with the Stanhope name. Use it to do good. I’d rather be anything than another poor, uneducated Torrance.”
Chris’ eyebrows shot up. “Your family’s that bad?”
“Professional drunks and ignorant sowers of mayhem,” I agreed chirpily. Chris whistled, giving me a commiserating half-smile.
“The Chus are entirely respectable. Very upstanding, mid-middle class citizens. Keep their heads down and never do anything exceptional or attention-grabbing.” Chris turned his hand over under mine and squeezed my hand back. It sent a thrill up my arm, like electricity, and my hand was a-tingle. His eyes were steady on mine. “We’re very ordinary and lackluster.”
I was the one to snort, this time. “You strike me as many things, Chris Chu, but none of them are ordinary and lackluster,” I said, blushing, but not looking away from Chris’ intent gaze.
“Is that so?” he asked softly, his low voice getting even lower as he leaned closer.
“That’s so so. The most so thing for miles in any direction,” I practically gushed, leaning closer, myself. Chris’ eyes seemed to flash as he searched mine.
“Listen,” he said after nearly a minute of us staring at each other. “Listen . . . I know that this is probably a skeevy—not to mention dick—move, and you probably get hit on by creepy customers all the time, but . . . would you—?”
“Yes,” I said, and Chris’ eyebrows shot up again.
“You don’t even know what I was going to ask,” he murmured, chuckling again. I shrugged.
“Doesn’t matter. The answer’s yes.”
“Hmm . . . a guy could take a lotta license with that. . . .” Chris mused. I leaned a little closer.
“One could only hope. . . .”
Now Chris was the one to blush. “But I’m a gentleman, so I’ll content myself with coffee, tomorrow, at the Java Cave, around one, if you’re free?”
“I am,” I said, my heart beating faster. So fast it started to skip beats. When Chris grinned, charming and boyish, and that didn’t help matters.
“Super,” he said, squeezing my hand again before letting go. His eyes darted over my right shoulder. “Looks like my order’s up.”
I glanced over my shoulder and indeed, the take-out box was bagged, with the check stapled to it.
With a brief, blushing smile for Chris, I retrieved his order and handed it to him. “Oh, wait!” I took the bag back and grabbed my pen from my apron. I quickly scrawled my name and phone number on the side, then handed it back to Chris, who turned it to look at it.
“That’s me . . . in case you wanna call to cancel . . . or just to talk, maybe,” I said shyly, and Chris’ gaze landed on me, as warm as honey.
“I wouldn’t cancel on you for the world, Jesse Torrance.” He winked and stood up. “Anyway, I’m gonna head home. Thanks for the dinner and for . . . listening.”
“Not a problem, Chris . . . I’ll see you tomorrow?”
“I’ll be there with bells on.”
“Oooh, kinky,” I said, and he laughed and, with a wave, made his way back to the cash register, and Rhonda.
And I—set about wiping down the counter and minutely rearranging the items—brownie tray, napkin holders, and condiments—thereon. Anything to keep me from staring and gawping after Chris. When he went by again, however, on his way out, he caught my eye and winked again. I blushed and grinned back.
I only stopped starring after him when the door shut behind him and he turned west on Bramwell Boulevard.
“Oh, my God!” Rhonda suddenly squealed in my ear, startling me as she grabbed my arm and bounced up and down next to me. “Yous guys were so intense! So into each other! Who was that guy? Do yous know each other, or—know each other? Spill!”
I laughed a little. “His name is Chris, and before tonight, I never met him.”
“Really?” She sounded and looked quite doubtful. “Then what were yous two talkin’ about that he was holdin’ ya hand and what-not?”
“Family,” I said simply, and Rhonda looked even more doubtful, but let it lie with a shrug and a whatever, be like that, Jesse. Just invite me to the wedding. Then she was resuming the tale of Ricky and the Stripper, right where I’d cut her off earlier.
“. . . so, then, Ricky’s like: “I just go there to relieve stress.” And I’m like: “I’m your girlfriend! You should be relieving stress with me. . . .”
I listened with half an ear, nodded in all the right places, and basically counted down the seconds until the end of my shift. Until one p.m. tomorrow afternoon. I’d think of Chris Chu’s wide grey-green eyes, and the way he’d looked at me when I’d flirted with him—like I he was surprised someone would flirt with him . . . and like he was glad that that someone was me—and I got goosebumps. I couldn’t stop myself from grinning like a loon.
Don’t pin all your hopes on this, Torrance. He might not even show. The dude’s not just way out of your league, he’s a fucking Stanhope. He can do better than a waiter at some hole-in-the-wall diner, I told myself. But myself wasn’t having any of it. Myself insisted that there’d been a real connection between Chris and I, and that I wasn’t the only one who’d felt it. Hell, even Rhonda had felt it.
By the time shift ended, I was a wound-up ball of nerves. I stepped outside of Anna Maria’s, into the cool fall night and turned left, toward home, when a voice from a little ways behind me stopped me.
“So . . . I kinda couldn’t wait till tomorrow,” Chris Chu said apologetically, startling the bejeezus out of me. I spun around to see him standing there, smiling, his hands held up nonthreateningly. “Sorry . . . didn’t mean to scare you.”
“No, you—you didn’t scare me. Just startled me a little. Uh.” I paused, puzzled, as the wind whipped around us on its own business. “What are you still doing here?”
Chris’ smile turned chagrined and self-deprecating. “Like I said, I couldn’t wait till tomorrow. I mean, I went home and ate my BLT deluxe . . . but then I kinda wanted to see you again.” He cleared his throat and shoved his hands in his pockets, but his eyes were hopeful. “I was thinking—if you’re not too tired and it’s not too late—you might wanna get some coffee now.”
Surprised, I blinked slowly, and said the first thing that came to my mind, as seemed to be my habit around Chris Chu. “If I drink coffee now, I’ll be up all night.”
“Oh. Oh, I—yeah, there is that,” Chris said, his smile gone, now as he backed up, shaking his head. “Sorry, I wasn’t think—”
“But I’d love a cup of hot chocolate,” I offered hopefully, and Chris stopped back-pedaling and backing up.
“Really?” That hopeful, boyish grin was back in a flash, and suddenly the night wasn’t as chilly as it had been just a few moments ago.
“And truly,” I said, grinning, too, and blushing. “The Java Cave should be open for another forty minutes, or so, if you wanna go there. . . .”
Chris nodded. “Sounds good to me.” He was still grinning when he offered me his arm like an old-fashioned gentleman. “Shall we?”
Amused, but blushing even harder, I drew even with him and took his arm. “I suppose we shall.”
He smiled down into my eyes and I smiled up into his, and we started walking.