“This can’t be happening,” Charlie said for like the twentieth time as she walked through the flooded building. The boots the foreman lent her sloshing through the water. She’d told Trace to wait in the car, but seconds after she’d started the dismal tour she heard his voice.
“Looks pretty bad,” he said. Her feverish brain swore there was a hint of glee in his voice. If it wasn’t for the foreman, who already treated her like she was some kind of weird animal from another planet he didn’t quite understand being there, Charlie would have slapped the innocent look off Trace’s handsome face. No, actually she would have run him over again that’s what she would have done, but this time he wouldn’t be able to walk away. Maybe then he’d stay put when she told him to.
“Ms. Miss,” the foreman said even though Charlie had told him several times to call her by her first name. “Ms. Miss, this looks very bad, but it is fixable. It’s doable, see,” he said motioning for Charlie to follow. She was fuming but she wasn’t going to take it out on the well-intentioned foreman. It wasn’t his fault the piping was crap.
No, that was Betty’s fault. That damn realtor who’d coached her into using her “guys” for the inspection.
“My guys are the best,” she’d said over and over again. “They get in and they get out, but they are thorough. If they say the place is safe. The place is safe. It’s a steal I tell you.”
Yeah, right. It was a steal alright. It’s just a coincidence that two weeks after closing the entire place starts falling apart. Charlie was so outdone. She wanted to scream, to hit a wall or something, but she held her tongue until she’d been shown the full damage.
“You see, this here,” the foreman said. “This can be fixed easy peasy. We remove that, and attach this and all good.” Charlie saw what looked like a bunch of the same thing of nothing, but she nodded like she understood.
“Looks pretty clear cut to me,” she heard a voice behind her say. The foreman grinned nodding at Trace, as if everything was settled. Charlie’s frown only grew deeper in her forehead when she saw the same grin on Trace’s face.
“Trace Johnsonne,” Trace introduced himself.
“Mike Galagos,” the foreman said shaking Trace’s hand. The next five minutes the two men bonded over piping and sealant making Charlie feel like she’d suddenly gone invisible.
Men never failed to amaze her. It was as if they spoke a whole different language when they got together. Five minutes talking about pipes of all things and the two of them were best friends. Where she’d been working with Mike for the past two months and she hadn’t gotten so much as a smile out of him. Hell, she could barely get the man to look her in the eyes most days. Still he was one of the most dependable at what he did so she kept hiring him. He might not know her name, but he was honest and a hard worker. His quirks were easy enough to overcome.
Trace on the other hand could drop dead for all she cared at that moment. Just when she had started to kinda sorta like him now he was trying to poach her plumber? Charlie’s eyes screamed get out to him, but obviously he didn’t speak body language or he didn’t care. Either way he just smiled then kept talking with his new best friend.
It was about that time she knew he was full of it. The more he kept dragging the meeting out she realized he knew exactly what he was doing and how angry she was. He was taunting her is what he was doing. Immediately all of her anger transferred from Betty to Trace. Broke foot or not, their feud was now back on- officially.
“Go ahead and do what you have to do,” Charlie said interrupting the love fest. “Replace the pipes and clear out the water. I want this place ready for my equipment by the end of the week.”
“Sure thing Ms. Miss,” the foreman said before turning to bark orders at his workers. Charlie was glad to see the workers hop to work removing pipes before she even changed back into her heels.
“Good decision,” Trace said in her right ear.
“Did I ask for your approval,” Charlie said through clenched teeth. “And could you please get up off me?
“First I’m not up on you- I don’t get pressed. Second, no,” he said having the nerve to look offended. “I was just saying that was a wise choice to replace rather than patch the piping.”
“Well, if I wanted your opinion, I would have asked for it,” she said.
“What’s your problem?”
“I told you to wait in the car, that’s what I said, and that was what I meant.”
“Hold on. I’m not some,” Trace began but Charlie cut him off.
“What, some woman? Was that what you were going to say?”
“No, Gloria Steinem I was actually going to say I’m not some dog you can bark orders at. I left the car not because I was trying to piss you off. I left the car because it’s hotter than a monkey’s ass out there. I wasn’t sitting in the car with no AC sweating my butt off.”
“What little princess can’t handle a little heat?”
“I’m not a princess,” he roared. He’d said it so loud several of the workers stopped and turned to look. Charlie’s back stiffened, stunned by Trace’s outburst but even more stunned by her reaction to him.
The argument was stupid, she knew that. What surprised her was the passion that she felt whenever she was around Trace. He was infuriating but also fine as hell, and smart, and funny. The realization made her run for the door into the bright sunshine which pissed her off anymore.
Normally she was a fighter, but this was different. She wasn’t quite sure whether she wanted the prize or even what the prize was. Either way she needed to breathe. It took a second for her eyes to adjust but by then she was already starting to sweat.
Trace was right, it was hot as a monkey’s ass out here, but was she going to admit that him? Hell, no. Charlie hurried to her car wanting to leave the busted pipes and Trace behind her.
How could she have been so blind? It was so obvious. She needed some space, some room to catch her breath before she said something really stupid. For once she was glad, he was on crutches to slow him down.
She needed a second to pull herself together and sort through the emotions that were playing havoc with her brain. She needed something to make her forget he was fine with a capital F.
“Hey,” Trace said from behind her. He grabbed her arm to turn her.
“Real man, huh,” Charlie said frowning until he let go.
“Oh yeah,” he leaned closer. “100 percent, baby,” Trace said, but suddenly he was mere inches from her face. He was getting good on those crutches.
“Is that what all the muscles for? Dreamed of being a big strong lumberjack as a kid did ya?”
“What? You don’t like the muscles?”
“You sound surprised.”
“Chicks dig the muscles.”
“They do?” Charlie asked opening her car door. “Since when?”
“Since, like, forever. At least that’s been my case,” he added winking with one eye.
“What was that?” Charlie asked.
“What? My wink? It’s sexy.”
“Ok,” Charlie said sliding into her front seat appearing much calmer than she actually felt as the truth of her real feelings made her brain do backflips. She was feeling things she really didn’t want to acknowledge.
She watched him in the rearview mirror as he made his way to the passenger seat. Even on crutches she had to admit he was sexy. Sighing, she started the car as she let the truth sink in.
She wanted Trace Johnsonne. She wanted him bad.
He was cute, honest, smart and now she knew he was just the right amount of goof to boot. He was just her type. Yup, shit just got real.
“Can I speak to Betty?” Charlie said as she drove down Highway 90 on her way back to the Honeybee. She had a bone to pick with her realtor. Deal or no deal this was no way to do business. She felt blindsided and someone was going to have explain to her what the hell happened. Recently inspected pipes weren’t supposed to magically burst. If the universe didn’t hate her it was doing a pretty good job of telling her it was displeased with her.
She couldn’t help but think that maybe this was payback for cutting in on Trace’s deal. Just as quickly she changed her mind. Naw, God didn’t work like that, Charlie thought pushing the idea to the side. This was just someone not doing their job.
“Hiya Charlie, que pasa?” Betty said through the speaker phone. Charlie had already dropped Trace off at his place so she was in the car alone.
“Oh nothing much just that we had a flood down at the Honeybee too.”
“What? Oh no,” Betty said the surprise heavy in her voice. “How is it? The damage isn’t too bad, is it?”
“It’s repairable, but the foreman told me this was a long-term issue. Like it didn’t happen in the past two weeks.” There was silence on the line. Betty was a smart woman and Charlie had laid it all on the line. A good Southern woman would apologize and do everything she could to make it right. She just wondered what Betty, transplant that she was, would do about it.
“Charlie, I don’t know what to say,” Betty said. “My guy has never let me down before.”
“Well, it seems like this time he has unfortunately. The entire lower level had about a foot of water in it today. I could only imagine what would have happened had it burst at night instead of in the middle of the day when I had workers on site.”
“I am so sorry, Charlie,” Betty said sounding truly at a loss for words. Charlie felt sympathy for the woman but not enough to let her off the hook.
“I need some assurance that nothing else like this is going to happen again.”
“For sure, for sure,” Betty said. “Just tell me what you need.”
“I need another inspection,” Charlie said point blank.
“You got it,” Betty said. “Charlie I apologize. I don’t know how this happened but I will make it right. I’ll get someone else in there pronto. Would tomorrow or Friday be alright?”
“Friday would be fine. It’ll give them time to dry the place out and make sure it’s fully accessible.”
“Great, I’ll set it up. You mind if I stop by and take a look at the damage myself?”
“Sure,” Charlie said. The workers will be there the rest of today and tomorrow they’re coming for the afternoon. I can let you in anytime.”
“How about tomorrow afternoon?”
“Sounds perfect,” Charlie hung up the phone once they’d settled on a time glad to know that Betty wasn’t as shady as she was beginning to think. The woman truly seemed torn up about the faulty inspection and ready to make amends.
With that off her mind, Charlie sped her car towards the Honeybee to check in. When she walked in the store she was assaulted by the smell of fresh lemons and sugar. Once again everything was right in her world.
There was nothing she loved better than working out her frustrations in the kitchen. It was better than any massage or spa date as far as she was concerned.
Within minutes she had her arms in flour elbow deep prepping for the treats they would serve tomorrow. She loved this. Working with her ingredients and mixing the dough just perfectly. Knowing that the product she spent so much time on to perfect was going to bring a smile to her customer’s faces. There was no better feeling she could think of.
With each passing minute she felt the tension leaving her body as she did the prep for tomorrow morning and prepared packaging for future orders. It was a lot of work, but because she knew the payoff it didn’t feel like it. By the time they closed the doors after another successful evening, Charlie felt lighter than she’d felt in weeks.
“Hey Rome what you got planned for tonight?” Charlie called out. The young man was busy finishing his cleaning routine. It was his job to make sure the back of the house was ready for the morning crew.
“Ahh, a little of this a little of that,” he called out as he did a little spin in the middle of the aisle. He’d been in an even greater mood since switching from the morning crew.
The morning crew came in at five a.m. to bake the majority of the food they served daily. They made sure everything was set up each day. Their job was an integral one. It wasn’t just a courtesy it was a necessity.
Everything in a restaurant worked like clockwork from prep to cook and if someone didn’t do their job everything else fell apart. Romeo was doing well with his new level of responsibility and Charlie had noticed.
“Me and some friends are supposed to go to dinner. My girl wants to meet them.”
“Your girl, huh? You giving her a title? That’s a pretty big step.”
“What’s a big step,” Sue said walking in a shiny red apple in her hand.
“Looks like our Romeo has found his Juliet,” Charlie laughed.
“Ha ha, like I haven’t heard that a million times in the past twenty-five years,” Romeo said leaning on his broom. “Nah, it’s not even like that. She’s just- I don’t know. You know how it is,” Romeo said getting flustered.
“Words,” Charlie said smiling. “Use your words.” Sue joined her in laughing at the young man’s distress.
“I don’t know. It’s like she started pressing me recently. Who am I to you, Romeo? What are we doing here, Romeo? Where are we going, Romeo? What am I Socrates? I’m supposed to know the meaning of life? I didn’t know what to say.”
“First of all nice reference,” Charlie said impressed. “Second of all she’s human, of course, she’s wanting to know where your head is at. Welcome to being an adult.”
“How long y’all been going out,” Sue said between bites.
“A couple of years, but it’s not like that,” when both Charlie and Sue pursed their lips in response. “See that’s exactly how she be looking at me. We’ve been dating a couple of years, but we weren’t exclusive all those years. We actually never had a conversation at all about our relationship. Ugh, relationship, I hate even saying the word. It’s like she woke up one day and expected me to start acting like she my wife or something. Introducing her to people, man, it ain’t even that serious.”
“Two years, man. That’s a long time. I mean after two years either you know or you let go,” Charlie said. “Hey, that rhymed.”
“You’re a poet and you didn’t know it,” Sue said and both of the women burst out laughing.
“But shouldn’t there at least be a conversation about what both people want,” Romeo said a dejected look on his smooth brown face.
“Sorry buddy, this is the conversation,” Charlie said. “You introducing her to your friends is all the conversation anybody needs to hear.” Charlie patted his broad shoulders, but she didn’t have any sympathy for him. He’d been chasing girls for as long as she knew him, it wasn’t like he was some newbie. Like his namesake, he was a player through in through, but even a player had to know when the game was over.
“Maybe this is a sign, Romeo,” Sue said crunching down on the apple in her cheek. “Maybe it’s time for you to give up your player card.” Romeo’s face showed his dislike of the idea but then his focus shifted.
“Huh, I ain’t never seen an apple like that before,” Romeo said walking closer to Sue. Sue held the apple to the light to get a better look and her eyes bugged out right before she dropped the apple and ran to the sink.
“What is it?” Charlie said as Sue spit in the sink. Picking up the apple Romeo recoiled in disgust before turning it for Charlie to see. There was half of what looked like a fat green worm still twitching inside the apple as Sue vomited into the sink.
Romeo smirked before he slam dunked the apple in the trash can. “Talk about signs. What kind of sign you think that is, Boss lady?”