She could’ve asked him what he was doing. Where he was going. But she wasn’t stupid.
Through glazed eyes, she watched from the doorway while Aaron tossed clothes into the open suitcase in the middle of the sagging bed. His face was hard, his jaw set. Though an icy silence hung between them, Mandi sensed that hot rage simmered just below the surface. And that it could erupt her direction at any moment.
But he didn’t look at her, didn’t speak to her. Why should he? What was there to say?
There’d been no comforting each other. No arms to keep her upright, no hand to hold. With their few friends and family members watching, they’d stood side by side while the reverend spoke a few words and prayed. Once, Aaron’s arm brushed against hers. The step he’d taken away from her was almost imperceptible. Almost. Other than that, he hadn’t touched her.
Mandi pushed off from the door casing and turned away. His departure was no surprise. The glue that had kept him there, the one thing that had held them together, was gone. Hugging herself around the middle, she padded back down the threadbare hallway carpet to the front room, sinking onto the worn sofa. With her hands in her lap, her whole body numb, she waited.
A few more minutes, and Aaron clanged down the narrow hall, the suitcase banging against the walls. He stopped and picked up his keys and sunglasses from the counter. And then he did look at her. Sharp pain sliced through her – not because he was leaving, but because the glare in his eyes held such disgust.
The door slammed behind him, and Mandi’s shoulders shook along with the thin windows of the mobile home.
Lane started to shake his head, to dismiss the waitress without even looking up, but something in her voice stopped him. Drawing his gaze away from the document in his hands, he glanced at her as she poured steaming fresh coffee into his half-empty mug for the third time. Tired hazel eyes inside a pretty face met his. He guessed her to be about twenty, but at the same time, she seemed older than that. As if life had rolled over her a time or two. His eyes flickered to her nametag. Mandi. Kind of cute, but sounded like a teenage name to him.
He didn’t realize he was staring until her eyebrows arched, and she snapped at him.
“Oh. I’m sorry. Nothing. You, uh, remind me of my sister,” he covered quickly. He knew enough about women to be sure not one wanted to be told she looked worn out.
She pushed away a curly strand of hair that had escaped from the mass at the top of her head, causing round silver earrings to bob against her neck.
“Do you want anything else, or should I bring your check?”
The voice was stronger now, and she stood with a hand on her hip waiting for his answer. The look on her face told him she didn’t put up with any crap from the clientele. Maybe there was a little spunk still alive in there after all.
He flashed her a smile. “That’s all, thanks. Just the check.”
Without returning the smile, she turned and went back to the counter, her flat rubbery shoes squeaking against the grimy tile as she walked. Her faded pink uniform hung on her thin frame. Lane glanced around the counter. Didn’t they feed the help around here? Mandi looked like she could use a big greasy cheeseburger and fries. And a piece of that pie, too.
Mandi figured the man’s bill at the register, and let her eyes wander in his direction, taking in his tailored charcoal business suit and conservative striped tie. The diner got a few of his type each week, before they realized their hotel wasn’t in the finest of neighborhoods. Didn’t he see how out of place he looked?
Jimmy’s Diner sat right across the street from a Residence Inn that had opened years ago when a wave of new development was expected to revitalize the area. A new shopping center was built, but within months, it became an outlet mall. That lasted only a couple of years before it was taken over by deep discount stores. Early on, the medians throughout the parking lot had been filled with flowers or grass. Now they were filled in with rock or overtaken by weeds, and the parking lot served as a hangout for local high school kids. The only good thing about that was that it kept the cops hanging around on weekend nights, which provided Mandi a safer walk to her car.
Mandi rarely struck up a conversation with any of the hotel patrons. And avoided getting drawn into chitchat with the locals as much as possible. She preferred to keep to herself. She wasn’t interested in hearing all the hard-luck stories out there, though the late-night crowds offered plenty of material. Nor was she interested in sharing her own.
Rather than gaining her friends or sympathy, telling her story would only confirm what most people thought anyway – that a girl living in a trailer park and waiting tables at Jimmy’s Diner six nights a week was white trash.
Her life consisted of her two jobs and online classes. And her memories. There wasn’t room for anything else. That was fine with her. She’d made it her goal to fade into anonymity in public, and oblivion at home. For three years, she’d done a pretty good job of it.
Partially hidden behind the register, her eyes were drawn to the man again. He was completely gorgeous, with a tanned, clean-shaven face and wavy brown hair that fell just below his collar. His classic blue button-down shirt was all business. But his tie dangled loosely around his neck, and his sleeves were rolled up, for a definite after-five-o’clock look. And his smile was friendly, but not in a creepy way.
He’d gone back to reading his papers, and it looked as if he’d hardly touched his coffee since she last refilled the cup. It was probably cold again. Mandi twirled her pen, considering whether she should take him a whole new mug. What could it hurt?
She poured a fresh cup of black coffee, tucked his check inside her pocket, and headed back to his table. “Here you go,” she said, placing the check on the table. She set the new mug down and picked up the old one. “I brought you a fresh coffee.”
His gaze snapped to hers. “Hey, thanks. Appreciate it. Guess I let that last one get cold.”
She lingered just a beat. “No problem. We’ve always got coffee going.”
A slow smile spread across his face. “And that’s a good thing. Thanks, Mandi.”
Mandi’s face flushed at his use of her first name. Generally that was a come-on. She glanced at his left hand. No ring.
“What time does this place shut down?” he asked.
“Eleven tonight. Midnight Fridays and Saturdays.”
“Really? That late? That must make a long day for you.”
She shrugged. “I’m used to it.” Keeping busy was a good thing.
“You always work until close?”
Mandi sucked in her breath. Was this guy hitting on her? Was that his way of trying to figure out when she got off work? Wouldn’t be the first time, that’s for sure. Hardly a day went by when some asshole didn’t proposition her. But it usually came from some drunken sleazebag, not a good-looking businessman with a nice smile. And she usually wasn’t the least bit interested.
Pulling her gaze back to his gray-blue eyes and raised eyebrows, she gave him a vague answer. “Not always.”
“Hope you don’t mind if I hang out here a while and get some work done.”
Mandi glanced at the clock above the cutout between the dining room and the kitchen. Only nine-thirty. Surely the guy wasn’t going to sit there for another hour and a half. Not that she would mind. He definitely improved the view. Unsure what to say or think, she shook her head, and scooted back to her station behind the counter.
At ten-fifteen, she saw him shove his papers into his briefcase and reach for his wallet. She turned and pretended to be busy until she heard the bell on the door. A few minutes later, she picked up his ticket from the table. He’d left her a five-dollar tip for a ten-dollar ticket. She examined the bill, front and back, sure there’d be a phone number written on it somewhere. Nothing. Huh. Apparently it was just a nice tip. She slipped it into her apron and let her gaze drift across the street, following the tail-lights into the parking lot while her mind replayed the image of those warm blue eyes smiling up at her.
At home, Mandi grimaced as she removed the stained uniform and tossed it onto her bed. Who was she kidding? No guy in a business suit would look twice at her wearing that old rag. She unclipped her hair, slipped into a comfy T-shirt and boxers, and padded barefoot to the kitchen. Another night of her ordinary routine. She opened the fridge and took out a can of cheap beer. After snapping it open, she turned on the television and flopped onto the couch, closing her eyes.
It was the worst time of day, the time when memories and unwelcome thoughts pressed in – when there was no escaping the emptiness of her life. But tonight, thoughts of a man drifted through as well. A complete stranger. She took another long drink of beer, then leaned forward, resting her elbows on her knees. So what? A decent guy had been nice to her. Didn’t matter. He’d probably checked out of the hotel the second after he left Jimmy’s. She’d never see him again.
This wouldn’t be easy. Lane tucked his notepad under his arm, and shoved a hand in his pocket as a chilly March breeze tossed leaves and trash around the parking lot, its asphalt so deteriorated that it resembled a NASA shot of the lunar surface. With a shake of his head, he took in the scene. The area had so many issues, how could the city possibly meet the needs of everyone who lived and worked there?
More to the point, how could he? He planned to sell himself to the city on the idea of a streamlined operation. Just him. Him and his master’s degree in urban planning from Stanford. No committees, no management or chain of command to run things by. The expert on site, taking care of all the details. He fingered the new business card in his pocket, and the doubt disappeared in a rush of adrenaline. Not only would he do it, he’d do it better than anyone else. By the time it was done, the project would make news, would probably win elections. The city would be kissing his ass.
His primary concern was whether he’d need an assistant. He didn’t want one. He’d parted ways with both his partner and his secretary six months ago when he discovered they’d been having an affair and siphoning money out of the company. Of course, they’d denied it. But the evidence proved otherwise, and the trust was broken. If there was one thing he couldn’t stand, it was a liar.
At some point, he’d need some bookkeeping and organizational assistance, but for now, he enjoyed the freedom of being on his own. He figured it’d take two or three weeks to get the lay of the land, conduct some interviews and get a feel for what the area needed. The hotel, while not the nicest, was in a good location. It’d serve as his home base for a while.
When his stomach rumbled, Lane’s eyes shifted to the small diner across the street. The flickering green neon sign in the window almost spelled out the word ‘open.’ The burger and coffee he’d had last night had been decent. And he couldn’t ask for a more convenient option. He locked his BMW and jogged across the street.
Although only a few cars and trucks dotted the parking lot, nearly every table was filled inside the diner. Lane took a seat at the counter. He looked around, and noted several sets of eyes sizing him up, but didn’t see Mandi. Maybe she had a day off and could get some rest. He gave the older woman who shoved a menu at him a friendly nod, and his thoughts returned to the young waitress who’d been there last night. Could be she only worked nights. He sipped his Dr. Pepper. Hell, she was probably in college. Just a kid. And too young for him to be concerned with.
Still, he couldn’t help wondering, and when Judy came back with his club sandwich, he smiled and asked, “Is Mandi working today?” He picked up the sandwich, then glanced at the woman. His hands stilled at the scowl on Judy’s face.
“Who wants to know?” she asked, sticking her pencil behind her ear.
Lane shook his head. Jesus, the people around here were prickly. “Nobody. Forget it.”
“I won’t, but you should,” Judy told him. She leaned in, her eyes narrowing. “Here’s some free advice, young man. Leave that girl alone.”
To purchase a copy of "Something Good" please go to Amazon.com. To learn more about the author, please visit www.darlenedeluca.com. You can also find Darlene Deluca on Facebook and Goodreads.
Something Good is the 2015 recipient of a Maple Leaf Award for Best Ending. It also received honorable mention in the categories of Best Novel, Best Misty Moment, and Best Hero. The annual competition is sponsored by TransCanada Romance Writers to recognize outstanding work by published authors.
Relationships, Family, Pregnancy, Mistakes, Starting Over