Jill Marie Denton
Hope Under Fire - Ch 4
Hope tugged her jacket around her tightly. Crinkled leaves flitted down from trees overhead as she made her way to work on quick steps. The northern wind whipped her ponytail, chilled her nose and burned her eyes. The backdoor to the kitchen was a welcomed sight and she finally began to thaw as she passed through kitchen to dining room.
Beyond the broad windowpanes and across the lot, his SUV was parked and powered off, his body slumped against the front seat. Every day for the past week, he’d fallen asleep waiting for Lynn’s to open. And every day, she’d hiked across the lot to rouse him once the front door was unlocked. She insisted he go home, get some real rest, but secretly, she was thrilled to have something other than work to look forward to.
Today was no exception as she welcomed in her Monday regulars, waiting until they were inside and comfortable before approaching his driver’s side window, tapping lightly with her nail. He twitched and winced at the dawn, his palms jumping to his eyes.
“You should pay me extra for my wake-up call services. I’m sure the leather interior’s real comfy, but beds are specially designed for this kinda thing.”
Hope took a step back as Tucker climbed out, slamming his door behind. He stretched hugely under a thin suede jacket. “Name your price. And I can’t sleep after leaving work. It’s a curse.”
She held Lynn’s door open for him with a snicker. “Clearly. Come on in.”
He claimed his normal spot as she whisked around the counter. The bell above the door chimed, Veronica’s voice ringing out. “I’m here.”
“You’re late,” Hope replied, on route to Tucker with the coffeepot.
Hope called over her shoulder as she filled his mug. “I was twelve when you were born. Way to degrade me first thing in the morning.” She turned to the server with a scathing glare.
Veronica mimicked the acerbic smile, headed for the kitchen to grab her apron.
“You two are adorable,” Tucker noted, laying his phone on the table. “She can’t be more than twenty. So, you’re, what, thirty-two?”
“Thirty-four, and thanks for shooting low. I was younger than she is now when I started working here. I feel ancient.”
“Hardly, and I can help with that. I’ll be forty-five in January.”
“No way,” Hope argued with lifted brows. “I’d’ve said thirty-five, maybe thirty-six. You’re in great shape despite your unwillingness to get any real rest and your caffeine addiction.”
“One feeds the other. I’ve always been a night owl.”
“Must make your job easier to do.”
His phone chimed and lit up on the table as it hummed to life. He lifted it to his ear as she excused herself, returning the coffeepot to its warmer. Veronica slid to the side to let Hope through before eyeing Tucker, his conversation too muted to eavesdrop. “How much longer you gonna circle the runway?”
Hope shook her head pitifully at the nosy server. “Seriously, this again?”
“What happened on that walk two weeks ago?”
“I told you. He paid me a compliment and went on his way. Ever since then, he’s been here every day. We chat and he’s nice enough, but I just can’t bring myself to initiate anything. He’s so busy with his life, his mom, his job. It seems like I’d just be more trouble to him anyway.”
Veronica groaned dramatically. “You know, I will never understand how you have such high expectations for people and such low expectations for yourself.”
“I’m in the service industry. And so are you.” Hope tossed a cloth to the server. “Now work.”
Dejectedly, Veronica retreated to the recently evacuated table to bus and wipe it down while Hope returned to Tucker’s table to refill his coffee. He slid his finger across the phone’s screen, ending the call.
“Sorry, Hope. I gotta run. Damn it.” He laid a twenty-dollar bill on the table and stood, swiping a palm through his hair.
She tipped her head, a sorrowful look in her eyes. “You want your coffee in a go-cup? It’s no problem. I know you’re exhausted.”
“Gotcha. Be safe, okay?”
“I will, but look,” he stepped in close, tugging her elbow as she began to turn away. “I might need your help with this. Can I call you later on, after work?”
Without pause, she pulled her notepad from her pocket, ripped out the last page and wrote her phone number on it. “Absolutely. Here. And if you’re not sure if I’m in bed yet, just send a text first. I hope everything’s all right.”
“It will be,” he smiled dimly. “Thanks, Hope.”
She stepped back, watching him dash to his car and from the lot. When she turned, Veronica was grinning like a fool.
Hope laid her paperback on the coffee table, stretching as the sitcom on her flat screen ended. It was almost nine. If she wasn’t asleep by ten, getting up at four-thirty was a disaster.
She checked her phone again. No missed calls. No texts. She shrugged off the disappointment and rose to begin her nighttime routine.
He didn’t owe her a phone call or an explanation. He’d just left in such a hurry, with such a terribly dreadful look in his eyes, that she couldn’t help being concerned. And she knew he had a lot on his plate, even if all the details hadn’t been shared.
Filling the tub with balmy water and salts would ease her mind a little, relax her muscles enough to sleep. These cold nights were particularly lonely in the three-bedroom rowhome she barely kept afloat. Scott had made enough to pay the bills with no problem, but alone on a server’s salary, she’d had to cut out a lot of the luxuries. Hank kept her fed on shift and her mom helped with sudden expenses but living paycheck to paycheck taxed her prudent soul.
Dropping into the warm water, she closed her eyes. She could worry or she could relax and accept the life she’d taken back for herself. She could’ve begged to stay with him, to keep him around to make life easier, but he would’ve battered her until she couldn’t hide the marks anymore. She’s accepted his apology once after the first swing, had genuinely believed he wanted to change, but the second punch was enough. And fortunately, he hadn’t cared enough to make that decision difficult. It was her loss, in his own words.
Alone was better than miserable.
She exhaled a cleansing sigh, the lavender-scented wisps of steam tickling her nose as her eyes closed. The melodic drip of the spigot to the bathwater below was her mantra as she wiggled her toes and tipped her head back. Another five minutes of soaking and she’d be right on schedule.
Wrapped in cozy bedding, she set her phone’s alarm clock. Paging through social media, she liked a few statuses and watched a few viral videos before yawning deeply. Setting the phone to the side, she rolled over and closed her eyes.
Just as she began to slip away, her phone lit up like a Christmas tree, buzzing on the nightstand. She grunted, grabbing at it to stop the noise. An unknown number had texted and she winced as the bright screen blinded her dark-adapted eyes.
She laid on her back and lifted the phone high, swiping quickly in reply.
A moment later, the phone rang in her hand. The same unknown number was on display. She cleared her throat, accepting the call with a swiping finger.
Tucker. His voice was deeper, more resonant than in person. Her eyes closed instinctively. “Hey there. Is everything okay?”
“Yes, now. It’s been a horrible day. I’m sorry if I interrupted your evening.”
“No, don’t apologize. I wouldn’t’ve given you my number if I didn’t want you to call me. Do you want to talk about it?”
He sighed into the receiver, raising the hairs on the back of her neck. “It’s work stuff. Nothing that’ll destroy me, but it will make things more difficult for a bit.”
“I’m sorry to hear that. I know you’ve already got it pretty rough. You know, we talk about my work a lot. You can talk about yours. I don’t mind.”
“I’m still here, holed up in my office. It’s busier than it should be, which is a good thing, but I’m afraid I’ll fall asleep if I don’t have something to keep my mind busy.”
“I’ll do what I can. What happened with work?”
“One of the best left with no notice. And it’s one I depend on a lot. She was a gem and she stepped up recently in a big way so I’m even farther in the hole.”
“I’m sorry, Tucker. How long will it take to replace her?”
“Not long, hopefully. I have interviews scheduled already, but I’m doing her job while the hiring goes on. No one here can fill her shoes, myself included, but it falls on me.”
“Selfishly, I wonder what would happen if I walked away from Lynn’s. I’ve been there since I was nineteen. I know that place inside and out. And the owner’s absentee, with too much on his plate already. Hank and I are the impromptu managers.”
“And I’ll bet that, in keeping with your industry, you’re not paid more to manage, to do the ordering, to run the place.”
“Of course not. Hank and I compared notes not long ago. He makes more than I do in a normal week, but when we’re super busy or around the holidays, I make more. Even then, it’s not anything to write home about.”
“They’re very lucky to have you. You could work at any restaurant anywhere with the amount of experience you have. Not to mention your outlook and demeanor. Hell, you even upsell to the regulars. I’ve gotten worse service at five-star hotels. You’re a superstar.”
She blushed in the cell phone’s gleam. “Thanks, that means a lot. I assume your position is pretty lucrative. Your work must be way more stressful than mine. I enjoy what I do but it’s so routine. It’s only fun because of the customers nowadays.”
“Oh, I enjoy my job, too, and it affords me some luxuries. I’ve been doing it almost as long as you’ve been alive. Days like today make me wish I was a peon rather than the one in charge, but we’ll pull through. We always do.”
“Good management makes that happen. Morale starts at the top, work ethic starts at the bottom. Lynn told me that years and years ago.”
“Wow, that’s insightful. Maybe I should use that line in our next team meeting.”
“Make sure you credit Lynn Dougherty if you do. She’s living it up in Florida and enjoying the hell out of her retirement. Jake will struggle the rest of his life to live up to her standards.”
“She must’ve passed those high standards onto you. Lynn’s is the cleanest place I’ve eaten in in a long time.”
“The kitchen is just as spotless. Hank’ll pull out your fingernails if you leave anything out of place. I guess we both learned from her.”
He snickered before releasing a deep breath. “Thanks for answering. This has already helped a lot. I can only fake a smile for customers for so long. These ones now are genuine.”
“You’re welcome. For the record, I’m now twelve minutes off-schedule. That’s how much I was looking forward to your call.”
A gasp of shock echoed in the earpiece. “Twelve whole minutes? My God, what a catastrophe! Unforgivable. How will you function tomorrow? Actually, I bet you have a contingency plan in place.”
“It would be hilarious if it weren’t true. Predictability got me through a lot of rough years. There’s nothing wrong with being prepared. It’s reliable, comforting.”
“It’s safe. That’s control, pure and simple. What happened, Hope?”
Her eyes clamped shut. “Nothing. I’ve always been this way. It’s just how I am.”
His voice softened, almost a murmur in reply. “All right. Well, it’s a beautiful way to be. Nothing wrong with reliability. You’ve become a welcomed bit of routine in my life.”
“I’m glad we’ve found a place in your hectic schedule.”
“Who is we?”
“Us. Lynn’s. We’ve become part of your routine.”
“Hope,” he breathed. “I’m not talking about anyone else. Just you. Not the restaurant, not the other workers, just you.”
“Oh,” she replied quietly, tucking the phone against her cheek and rolling onto her side. “Well, either way, we’re all happy to see you every day anyway.”
“Sure, whatever. Hope, can I ask a question before I go?”
“Who hurt you? Seriously?”
She shifted her gaze through the slits of the blinds. Darkness had settled over the town, the glow of a streetlamp casting a halo on the ground below. Other than the occasional tumbling leaf, the world was still, peaceful. His rhythmic breathing through the receiver and her beating heart were the only sounds on the air.
Her eyes clamped shut again, her forehead wrinkling. “It’s a long story.”
“Have dinner with me.”
He laughed aloud, the brilliant peal snapping her back to reality. “Hope, you are something else. I said, have dinner with me. You don’t have to tell me your life story, I won’t make you. But there’s this amazing place I want to take you to. I think you’ll really like it. How much more do I have to sell this?”
Her lips curled unconsciously. “I’m not sold yet.”
“All right. It’s real Italian food. Third generation owners. I know you like family legacy in the industry. They handmake everything in-house, including shipping in their own San Marzano tomato. They grow their own basil out back. Real linens. You’re going to love it.”
“Eh, maybe. Keep going.”
“Bread delivered daily from Rosario’s, the finest Italian bakeshop in Newport. Hand-pulled mozzarella, infused olive oil on the tables, and there’s a new special dessert, pumpkin spice tiramisu.”
She sat up straight, her eyes bright. “When are we going?”