The stools that pressed against the counters were permanently dented—red polyester ripped in the center, and the usually fluffy cushioning wasn’t so fluffy anymore. The booth in the farthest corner, situated next to the window had a small crack on the table top. It was thin, though, and smooth, so no one could cut their hands on it.
My late uncle, Kyle Hunter, always wanted to fix it, but the diner was full from the time it opened to the minute it closed, seven days a week except on Christmas, and he never wanted to turn a hungry customer away in favor of making the place look a little better. Besides, he’d always said if they were staring at the aging furniture, then they weren’t eating his food, and they were always eating his food.
Unfortunately, my uncle never had the chance to fix it since he’d passed away, six months ago today, in fact. It was a particularly somber day, and I couldn’t help but think of Uncle Kyle and all the ways he made the diner special.
“Stare any harder, and that table might just get up to smack you.”
I jumped, scowling as my cousin Alana hopped on the counter, wiping her hands on her apron. Her hair was everywhere, and I hoped that she remembered to wear a hair net while baking the pies since I didn’t want to have to remake them in case there were random strands of hair sticking out from the crust. Each pie I’d ever made ended up being scorched or halfway raw—the most terrible combination I could think of.
So, it was important to convince Alana to stay on and work at Kyle’s after her dad’s death. I, on the other hand, threw myself into the everyday dealings of the diner, but eventually, I realized I couldn’t handle the business on my own, and Alana felt the need to be closer to her father—working at the diner gave her that opportunity. The diner was better with the two of us teamed up—with my leadership, her personality, and Uncle Kyle’s old recipes, we were a winning combination, but again, I wasn’t a baker, and if Alana hadn’t taken on the role, I would’ve crossed baked goods off the menu altogether.
“All finished?” I asked, uncrossing my arms to shove my hands in my jean pockets before kicking my legs out in front of me.
“Yep,” she said, tossing me an egg-shaped timer, which flew past me. I lunged to grab it, catching it just before it hit the ground.
“Sorry. Anyway, just take the last few out when that goes off, and we’ll be good through Friday.”
My shoulders drooped as I offered her a quick smile. “Thanks.”
Hopping off the counter, I hugged Alana as she slipped off her apron and threw it over one of the chairs.
“Anything for you, Jadey, Jadey, Bo Badey.”
“I really hate when you say that.”
“I know.” She chuckled.
I waved goodbye—my eyes catching the broken table she passed by.
It was the table I’d always sat at when I was first shipped to the city as a teenager. It was my table—well as far as I was concerned it was. Sometimes I felt bad that I’d never told my uncle that I was the one who’d etched the design onto the table which he abhorred so much. But that was the past, and I suppose he probably knew anyway—he usually always knew everything.
“Dad would be proud, you know.” Alana threw her coat on, staring out the window.
Her lips were pursed as she shoved her hands deep in the coat pockets. We didn’t talk much about him—we didn’t talk much about anything. “He would?”
“The place is doing great, and that’s because of you.”
I scoffed, tearing my eyes from the table. It was still early enough that the sun was barely peeking above the buildings outside of the window and the streets were still pretty empty. Kyle’s wouldn’t open for another thirty minutes, but the regulars would arrive in about twenty-five.
“Time to get to work.” I nodded, before slipping behind the counter and into the back.
Letting out a breath, I was relieved when I heard the bell above the door ring as Alana shuffled out.
Alana’s boys would be awake soon, and she didn’t need to talk about ghosts before having to drop them off at school.
I grabbed a bowl and a whisk and set off to make the pancake batter. It was my daily task—shit, it's been my daily task since I started working here when I was seventeen. I could make the stuff in my sleep.
Time slipped past silently as the sound of the whisk scraping the edges of the bowl created a gentle soundtrack that I’d become accustomed to.
The pancake batter couldn’t be made in bulk, though, not if I wanted the taste to be just right, so I wrapped it carefully before shoving it into an already full refrigerator.
I was slipping the first tray of bacon into the oven when the bell jingled again. Wiping my hands on the towel thrown over my shoulder, I peeked my head into the doorway, smiling at Mattie Brown and her granddaughter.
“I didn’t realize it was Wednesday again so soon,” I called to them, winking. Mattie giggled, delighted. “Take a seat anywhere, ladies.”
“Thank you, Jade.” Mattie’s granddaughter smiled, placing a hand on her grandma’s back to lead her to her seat. “We’ll have the usual.”
Mattie Brown nodded in approval as I saluted them, heading back to the stove, flickering on the remaining lights so the diner would be officially open. Pulling out oats and brown sugar, I balanced them in one hand before grabbing the pancake batter out of the fridge.
It was always the same for those two—pancakes with blueberries and bacon for the youngest Brown—oatmeal and extra bacon for Mattie. I fixed the meals quickly, exchanging the cooked bacon with a tray of uncooked ones in the oven, then plating them to serve.
Three new patrons came in while I was grabbing syrup and juices. Taking their orders before fleeing to the back, I could hear their loud chatter bouncing off the quiet walls.
But by the time Alana came back in, I had to skirt around strollers and backpacks with the plates raised high above my head to deliver the food. The apron I’d tied around my waist was already stained, and my forearms were sore from carrying three to four plates at a time. I nearly sagged with relief when I saw Alana dart behind the counter to wash up.
I plated another stack of pancakes and gave it to her, while she poured coffee for a group who’d already set up camp with their laptops.
Alana was only a couple of years older than me, but sometimes I felt like I was twice her age.
Not that I knew what twenty-three should feel like, but I was pretty sure it didn’t feel like death warmed over. There was no point in continuing with that train of thought since I’d already made my decisions in life—decisions I couldn’t very well go back on.
The door chimed, and without a second thought I darted to table five with a plate of waffles and scrambled eggs, dropping them off before glancing over at the new customers.
One of the men was very tall, taller than anyone in the diner today. He frowned as he panned the diner, his face pulling to make the expression.
What the fuck is his problem?
He slid into my corner booth, and his friend plopped down in the chair across from him. I grabbed the order pad from my back pocket and stopped beside them—the first man continuing to scowl while his friend watched him do it. My eyes darted between them, waiting for someone to say something.
I sighed. “Well?”
“We just got here,” the second guy huffed, looking up at me.
“Right,” I tapped my pen against the pad.
The tall man, who was wearing a beanie pulled tight over his head with tufts of brown hair sticking out, didn’t say anything. From what I could see, he looked familiar, but I couldn’t place where’d I’d seen him before.
The slope of his nose was perfectly straight, with a smattering of freckles decorating the apples of his cheeks, meeting at the tip of his nose.
I looked away quickly. If I could see the man’s goddamn freckles, I was definitely staring way too hard. Shaking my head, I cleared my throat, trying to catch his attention. I had other customers to serve, and I didn’t have the time to stand there and wait.
The guy looked up at the sound of me clearing my throat—his face relaxed a bit—the hard lines of his forehead smoothing, and his lips pulled in what wasn’t quite a smile, but wasn’t quite a frown either. It suited him.
“What do you recommend?” he asked in a deep voice, as his head tilted to the side.
A strand of dark brown hair peeked out from the beanie, dipping in front of his eyes. I wondered if the hair bothered his eyelashes because they would certainly bother mine.
Fuck, why am I even thinking this shit?
I liked the way his eyes seemed to pierce too harshly for the situation, but I was surprised by the feeling, swallowing the lump in my throat.
“Umm. The—my pancakes.”
The man closed his menu, and the other followed suit. “Two?” I asked them both.
Both men nodded. I scribbled their orders down onto a ticket before ripping it off the pad to hand to Alana. I grabbed a few plates from her before rushing out of the kitchen.
“We’re out of batter,” she said, gesturing toward the empty bowl. “I threw in more bacon, though.”
“Dammit,” I called after her.
I mixed the batter quickly, spilling salt and vanilla into the bowl without paying much attention, unable to stop thinking about the men at my table. We didn’t get new customers often, even though the diner was popular, it was more of a mom and pop shop, and the customers we got were considered our usuals.
I jumped when I heard the bell above the door ring. I don’t really know why I should’ve been used to the damn sound. Looking down at the batter, I realized I had whipped the batter a little too much, probably because I was distracted by the mesmerizing customer, and now there wasn’t any more time to make up a whole new batch.
I had to rush out and help Alana, who was darting around the room with an expression just shy of panic. Pouring four large dollops onto the skillet, I watched the batter spread to the correct size and prayed they would cook quickly.
The signature bubbles began to form, so I flipped them, then plated some of the bacon from the oven. In my head, I counted off the exact amount of time it took for the pancakes to reach the golden-brown color that Uncle Kyle expected.
“Want me to take those, boss lady?” Alana deposited a stack of dirty plates into the sink, flipping on the water and squirting soap on top of them.
I grabbed the plates and stepped back. “I’ve got it.” I left the kitchen, gripping the plates before Alana could even reply.
“Pancakes,” I said, skittering to a stop at the cracked table with the handsome man and his friend.
He’d taken his beanie off, setting it on the seat next to his jacket. The pancakes nearly slid off the plates when my hands slacked—surprised by how gorgeous he was.
“Those look great,” he said, raising an eyebrow when I didn’t make a move to set the plates down.
His eyes, too bright and blue for his dark features, were hypnotizing, and I couldn’t pull my stare away from them.
They reminded me of the beach, the day I moved in with my uncle and Alana after my mom’s accident. The water was so blue that day. The man blinked, and the watery, cerulean color disappeared before narrowing at me.
My heart stuttered a bit, and I forgot, briefly, the importance of breathing. Gawking for a moment too long, he sighed at me, letting me know his patience was running out.
“It’s always nice to be recognized, but sometimes—shit,” he muttered, sharing a look with the annoyed, shorter man across from him.
“Listen, diner girl, don’t cause a scene,” the shorter man said in hushed tones, his glare pointing at me.
I glanced down at him, my brows pulling together. “A scene?” I asked in a low tone, my voice scraping against my tongue as my throat forced the words out. “What the hell are you talking about?”
The short man let out a sound of annoyance. “I told you to keep your hat on.”
“I know you did, Chris.”
The taller man stretched his hands out, wrapping his long fingers around a mug of coffee that Alana must’ve brought him. He wasn’t as annoyed as his friend was. All I wanted to do was throw the plates on the table and walk off, but that’s not what Uncle Kyle would’ve done.
“Your pancakes!” I said, a bit too loudly.
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Alana look up with a frown from the other side of the diner where she was taking an order. I cleared my throat and gently set the pancakes down.
“Thank you,” the tall man said, smiling.
Chris, however, said nothing but grumbled under his breath as he cut into the pancakes. I stepped back and turned, trying to hide my flaming cheeks from the handsome customer.
“I’ll be back,” I told Alana, who nodded absently.
I slipped into the supply closet—my sanctuary. I flicked on the light and shut the door, trying to drown out the noise of forks scraping ceramic and chairs scratching the floor.
I know I didn’t have time to take a mental break—not when the diner was full of customers, but it needed to happen. For everyone’s sake, it needed to happen.
I sat down on the cold vinyl floor, crossed my legs, uncrossed them, and then crossed them again.
What the fuck am I doing?
I recognized the tall, handsome stranger. I knew I did. But from where? From when?