Leann hurried through the back door of the restaurant and tossed her purse on top of the coat rack. “Sorry, sorry,” she said as she rushed over to punch her time card. “I know I’m late.” She’d barely looked at her boss, but she could see her standing there in the doorway to her office. “I’m sorry,” she said again, tying the apron around her waist.
“It’s ten minutes, Leann,” her boss said, stepping out from the doorway and reaching for her shoulder. “I’m not going to fire you for ten minutes.”
“It’s becoming a habit though.” She didn’t look up as she stashed her order pad and pen in her pocket.
Leann sighed and finally looked up. “He said he got held up at work. He just likes to make me wait. He doesn’t seem to realize it’s Lisa he’s hurting with these games.”
“I doubt he cares,” the other woman muttered. “Anyway, you already have one table. I got them drinks, but he said they’d wait for you to order.”
She could feel her cheeks warm as her boss smiled at her. There was only one customer who regularly insisted on being seated in her section. It was one reason she looked forward to these weekend shifts even though it meant counting on her ex to watch Lisa. “Guess I’d better get out there then.” But, she grabbed a piece of candy from a bowl on her way through the kitchen.
It didn’t take her long to spot them at a table almost in the corner. And she felt the smile slip across her face. The man’s eyes met hers as she came up to the table, and she saw the sparkle in them as she slipped behind the boy. His head came up when the candy hit the table in front of him. The smile spread across his face instantly, taking some of the sadness out of his eyes. She always liked when she could do that.
“What can I get for you gentlemen this evening?”
That brought a laugh from the boy. That was even harder than a smile that pushed out the sadness. “Hello, Leann,” the man said.
Why did her name from his lips always make her heart speed up? Her breath catch? Her skin warm? It shouldn’t. She should know better than to fall for those things. Again. Kenneth had done that to her once. She pushed those thoughts from her head and smiled at him.
“Rick.” Then, she turned to his son. “Hello, Todd. How have you been?” It was always easier to talk to him than his father.
She would almost think he was a carbon copy of his father. If it wasn’t for those brown eyes. No, they weren’t even brown, closer to golden. Rick’s were just as deep, but green. Like his darker coloring, the eyes must have come from Todd’s mother as well. She didn’t know where the woman was, but she’d never seen her. She hoped she hadn’t just skipped out on the two of them. She didn’t understand how anyone could. Granted, she only saw the two of them for a couple hours a week at the most. She only found herself wishing for more time.
Stop being ridiculous, she reminded herself. They weren’t hers to have. No matter how much flirting her and Rick did.
“How have you been, Leann?”
Rick’s voice brought her attention back to him. She wished she’d kept her eyes averted. She could see the serious look in his eyes that meant he was studying absolutely everything about her. She tried to school her features before he noticed she was upset.
And failed. Miserably.
He reached out and took her hand, rubbing his thumb over her skin. “What’s going on? You okay?”
She didn’t want to, but she drew her hand back. “Fine. Everything’s just fine.” She could hear the hard edge to her voice. It’s not like she wasn’t used to it. Kenneth had never put her or their daughter first. Especially when he could use it to keep control. She should be resigned to it. But, the concern she could still see in Rick’s eyes was about to undo her. “Can I get your orders? I was late and don’t want to get caught loitering at one table.”
“Amber’s never cared before.” But, Rick handed her their menus. “We’ll have our regular.”
She nodded and wrote down their typical order before taking the menus. “I’ll have your basket of rolls out in just a few minutes.”
She started to turn away, but Rick reached out and grasped her hand. “If something was wrong, you’d tell me, right?”
“Why would I, Rick? It doesn’t have anything to do with you.”
He dropped her hand, and she turned away before he could see the hurt in his eyes. But, it had only been the truth. It didn’t have anything to do with him. And it wasn’t his job to try to protect her.
No, what she had to worry about was protecting her daughter. She’d been hurt enough by her own father. There was no way Leann would bring another man into her life to hurt her. And she had to protect herself too. Because she didn’t think she could handle having her heart shattered again.
Rick watched as their waitress headed back to the kitchen. He ran a hand over his chin. Something was definitely wrong there. He’d seen the anxiety in her eyes before she’d pasted that smile over her face. She hadn’t acted any differently with him and Todd, but there was definitely something going on. He wanted to know what it was. He wanted to help her.
He wanted her.
He barely bit back a groan. He hadn’t wanted a woman like this in over four years. Not since Tessa. He glanced across the table at his son. Damn, he looked so much like her. Sometimes he thought that was what kept his heartbreak so fresh. He couldn’t blame the boy. None of it was his fault. And he hoped he’d never given him the impression he thought that. He’d seen that sadness come back into his eyes at the beginning of the school year. Had watched him start to withdraw again. Had almost called the therapist back. But, Todd hadn’t done well with those therapy sessions the first time. He wouldn’t open up. Hadn’t opened up to anyone but his grandparents.
He just missed his mother. Rick couldn’t blame him for that either. He missed her every goddamn day.
Leann seemed to draw something out of him too. He didn’t know how. They’d been coming here every Friday for dinner, even though there were plenty of places back in Canon City they could eat. They’d met Tessa’s parents here so they could take Todd for the weekend. That was the first time he’d seen Leann even though she hadn’t been their waitress that night. He’d brought Todd back each week, sometimes even on Saturdays, since then.
But, he couldn’t remember ever seeing her like that before. He’d wanted to wipe away whatever had put that shadow in her eyes. Of course, he couldn’t do it if she wouldn’t tell him what was going on. And who was he to think he had the right to do it. She was right. It didn’t have anything to do with him. But, he wanted it to.
And how ridiculous was that? He’d gone out a few times in the last few years. His mother kept telling him it was time. That Todd could use more of a womanly influence in his life. He couldn’t imagine having another woman in their life again. And he couldn’t imagine anyone wanting to share him with a dead woman. Oh, Tessa. Shit. Four years later, and he still missed her so much.
He pushed away those thoughts and looked across the table at Todd. “What is it?”
He was fiddling with the wrapper of the candy the waitress had brought him. It brought a smile to his face. She did that every time they came in. She always had a smile for his boy and asked how he was doing. Like she really cared. And she barely even knew them.
“Leann looked sad. Why did someone make her sad?”
Rick was a little surprised that the boy had noticed. He supposed he shouldn’t be. His son may look more like his mother, but he was his son through and through. There’d been way too much evidence of that through the years. And the calls from his teachers saying he was always arguing and analyzing every word that was said in class. A grin nearly broke through at that. The boy wasn’t even ten and he was already following in his footsteps, a lawyer in training.
“I don’t know, Todd. Maybe she just had a rough day.” This could be his opening with the boy. “What about you? How was your day?” He’d had a call from his teacher, so he already knew. He just wanted his son to be the one to talk to him about it.
The boy just lifted one shoulder then let it drop again. “It was fine. Just another day of school.”
But, Rick saw the slight shake of his hand as he reached for his drink. He closed his eyes for a moment, trying to hold onto something that would help him get through this. Tessa, I wish you were still here. If she was, they probably wouldn’t even be having this conversation. “Are you sure? Because I got a call from your teacher today.”
Todd groaned and laid his head on the table. “It’s nothing, Dad. Really.”
“Fighting with who I thought was your best friend certainly isn’t nothing, Todd. We’ve talked about the fighting before. It doesn’t solve anything.”
The boy finally looked back up at him, and his eyes were so serious. Damn, he looked so much like Tessa then. It felt like his heart just cracked in two. “He was picking on a first-grader, Dad. There was no reason for it. I told him to stop taunting her, and he wouldn’t.”
Rick wasn’t sure most of his son’s peers could use taunt correctly. It wasn’t the biggest word the boy knew though. It was a hazard of being a lawyer’s son. “You should have gone to a teacher then.”
“I just wanted him to stop.”
His son’s ears were getting red. And Rick started to think there might be more behind this fight. “Who is she, Todd?”
“No one.” But, he had his eyes trained back on the table, and Rick felt the table shake as Todd kicked a foot back and forth.
Rick barely bit back a smile. “Okay. No more fighting though. I don’t want you getting suspended.”
He saw Leann heading back toward their table. He met her gaze and searched her face for any of those signs he had seen just minutes ago. Nothing. A smile spread over her face making even her eyes shine. Maybe it really had been nothing. But, he didn’t believe it.
“Here are those rolls for you,” she said, setting the basket on the table. She reached out with her other hand, and he thought she was going to ruffle Todd’s hair. But, she stopped herself at the last minute and set it on the back of the booth.
His son was already tearing into the first roll. There was definitely nothing wrong with his appetite. Rick glanced up at Leann and saw that look again. When she caught him looking at her, a shutter came down, blocking him out. “I’ll have your salad out in a minute,” she told him before turning away.
He hadn’t planned to do it. But, he reached out for her hand, his fingers grazing her wrist. Her pulse hammered beneath his fingertips, and he glanced up at her. His own heart scrambled in his chest. Then, he released her, and she hurried back to the kitchen. Rick watched her quick retreat. Something was definitely going on here. And he was determined to find out what it was.
Leann stepped into the kitchen and had to take a moment to compose herself. Why did even being around that man do this to her? It had been almost two years since she divorced Kenneth. And no man had made her want to go back on her promise to put Lisa first. She didn’t date. She didn’t even flirt. Not until the first time Rick had come into the restaurant.
And he had a son. So, he had to know how she felt about that. She’d never seen a woman. Just that one time, that first time, when they’d met another couple and Todd had gone with them. She’d figured them for the boy’s grandparents though.
She shook away those thoughts. It was none of her business. They weren’t hers. She had more to worry about now. Like whether or not Kenneth would “forget” to bring Lisa back at the appointed time again. He didn’t keep her long enough for Leann to do anything about it. Just long enough to send her spiraling into panic. Then, he showed up like nothing was wrong. She wanted to strangle him.
Rick’s salad was ready, but she didn’t think she could handle being so close to him. Not yet. Not when she was still so unsettled. “Lizzie, can you take this salad out to table 5?” She wouldn’t be able to keep avoiding him, but she needed a few more moments to steady herself.
“Leann.” Amber called her from the doorway of her office.
Leann cringed. She hoped passing off the salad to the other waitress wouldn’t get her in trouble. She’d just needed a minute. With a deep breath, she headed toward the office. “What is it?”
Amber just stepped back and let her enter the office then shut the door. This was bad. Amber never shut her door. Leann swallowed past the fear. She couldn’t lose this job. It was the only thing keeping her and Lisa in their apartment. She had another job, but it didn’t bring in enough money. She swallowed past the fear constricting her throat, ready to say anything to keep from being fired.
Amber spoke before she could even open her mouth. “Is that man bothering you? If he is, I can have Lizzie switch sections with you for tonight and let him know he’s not welcome back here again.”
She should be relieved, so why did this feel so similar to panic? “That’s not necessary. He’s not bothering me.” Why did her voice sound so frantic?
“We’re family here, Leann. I take care of my family.”
She shook her head. “Really, Amber, it’s fine. He’s not harassing me or anything.”
“Then why are you passing off his food to Lizzie? She has tables to see to as well.”
Leann let out a breath. “He just-”she blew out another breath. “He unsettles me. He sees too much. I just needed a moment to balance myself again. I won’t pass off my duties again though. I promise.”
The smile playing at Amber’s lips surprised her. What did the woman find so amusing? “Maybe you need someone who sees too much of you. I think it’s been too long.”
Leann shook her head. “The divorce hasn’t even been final for two years.”
“And how long before that since Kenneth actually saw you? You forget I knew you before.”
Leann sighed. She did forget. Amber was a very distant cousin of her mother’s. So distant they considered themselves more friends than relatives. And she was closer to Leann’s age than her mother’s. “You’re right. It’s been a long time.” Her gaze shifted to the door, and she swallowed. “You think that’s all this is? Just that he’s the first one who’s paid attention to me since Kenneth?”
“I think you’re going to have to figure out what it is. Now, go on and get back to work. Maybe you should let him see the real you.”
She wiggled her eyebrows and made Leann laugh. “I have a seven-year old, Amber. The last thing he wants to see is the real me.”
“What does that have to do with anything? He has a boy. I’m sure he’s seen what a mother looks like.”
That was just one more reason she should stay away. “And where is she? There has to be a reason we never see her.”
“Maybe you should ask him when you go ask him out.”
Leann nearly choked at that and shook her head. “No. No way. I can’t do that, Amber.”
“You two have been dancing around each other for weeks now. One of you will have to take the next step.”
“Why do either of us? Flirting isn’t a relationship. It’s better to stick to the first.”
“Isn’t that what I said? There’s nothing wrong with safe. I have a daughter to think about.”
“Doesn’t mean you can’t think about yourself as well. Now, go on. Get back to work. I’m not paying you to talk to me all night.”
Leann laughed and turned for the door. She did feel lighter after talking to the woman. She just hoped that feeling would stay throughout the night. It wouldn’t, but she could wish for it. Just like she wished being with Rick would be as easy as Amber assumed. She knew it could never be easy. Kenneth wouldn’t let it be.