“Happy birthday to you!”
The familiar refrain rang out from a small group gathered around a table directly across from me. The restaurant was nearly empty; Thursdays were usually slow and I had commandeered a corner booth with my newspaper and tea.
Lowering the editorial section, I watched as my head waitress Gina carefully sat a cake down in front of an auburn haired woman seated at the table. It wasn’t unusual for customers to include a request for a birthday cake in their reservations. I estimated that nearly eighty percent of the time the cakes were topped with an equally frightening and embarrassing amount of candles. This one however had a single candle flickering in the middle of the whitecaps of frosting.
The woman’s face was slightly flushed, whether from laughter or nerves I didn’t know. She looked around her circle of companions, spoke a handful of soft words that I couldn’t hear, and in one quick breath extinguished the flame. Her friends applauded their approval and smiling, she glanced up in my direction and caught me staring. Startled at the unexpected eye contact, I could only shrug my shoulders, grin like an idiot and mouth happy birthday.
I was about to raise my paper again as an effective barrier when a voice close to my ear caused me to jump a good three inches off my bench.
“Whatcha looking at?” Gina whispered as she leaned over my shoulder. My eyes darted from Gina to the birthday girl, who judging from her wide smile was obviously amused by my antics.
Snapping my newspaper back in place, I raised one eyebrow at Gina. “Nothing,” I replied.
“Musta been something. I asked you twice if you wanted me to reheat your tea.” Gina leaned one hip on my booth and looked utterly too pleased with herself.
“No, you didn’t.”
“Yes, I did.”
“Want to do it now?” I slid the cup towards her.
“In a minute.” She jerked her head to the left. “Know who she is?”
I sighed. Trust Gina to have come away with a name and social security number in exchange for that cake. I sometimes wondered if she was a former CIA operative from her ability to gather information. But she didn’t look the part with her soulful brown eyes and five foot two frame. People just naturally opened up to her. If I owned a bar and Gina tended, we’d be rich.
Lowering my paper a fraction of an inch, I studied the woman in question as she stood slicing pieces of cake for her friends. She was slender but not thin, and a mint green sweater outlined the perfect swell of breasts and tapered down to the trim waist of her slacks. A few tendrils of copper hair fell forward and she absently reached up to push them back. Beautiful, I thought.
“Nice to see you’re human after all,” Gina said as she nudged my shoulder and brought me back to my senses. “Now, wanna know who she is?”
“You mean besides someone I’ll probably never see again?” At that, Gina snatched a section of newspaper and whacked my leg.
“I swear, Kai, fate could be knocking and you’d stop to catch the rinse cycle to add softener before answering.”
I had to laugh at that because it was pretty much the truth. Since my uncle retired eight months ago and sold Brody’s to me, I had focused all of my energy here. Having my own restaurant was more work than managing one for someone else, but certainly worth it to me. Plus, how could I pass up the opportunity to see my last name in lights every night? Had to keep it in the family, I reasoned. Unfortunately it left little free time in the evenings and my social life had become less of a priority.
“Her name is Riley O’Fallon,” Gina continued. “She’s the host of that radio talk show I told you about. You know, Confessions After Midnight.”
“Oh, you mean the station that has the ’alternative lifestyle format’? The one where women call in to see who has the most depressing love life?” I knew that would get Gina riled up. I braced myself for the inevitable paper slap but it never came. Instead, Gina tossed the newspaper onto the table and narrowed her eyes at me.
“It’s a lot more than that, Kai. Don’t knock something you don’t understand. People call into that show just to have someone to talk to late at night when maybe there’s no one else who’ll listen.”
“OK, OK,” I held my hands up in surrender. A thought occurred to me then and I asked, “Have you ever called the show?”
“Yeah, I have,” she answered, not meeting my eyes.
I reached out and tugged on her sleeve. “Hey, you know you can call me any time.”
Gina met my eyes then and the corner of her mouth quirked up in a grin. “I know, but this was before I knew you were home every night. Now why don’t you go do that thing you do and ask them how their meal was?” She pushed off the bench and strolled away.
Picking up my newspaper again, I tried to concentrate. After reading the same paragraph three times and not remembering a word, I gave up. Refusing to admit defeat, I stretched and unfolded myself from the booth. Slipping my charcoal blazer back on, I ran my hand through the black curls that just brushed the back of my collar and crossed the otherwise empty dining room to the only table left occupied. Four pairs of eyes, including two incredibly green orbs, all settled on me.
“How is everyone this evening?” I launched into my automatic speech. “We hope you enjoyed your meal and look forward to having you with us again.”
“The fettuccini was excellent,” a twenty something man replied enthusiastically. “Are you the chef?”
“No, that would be Stephen,” I smiled. “My name is Kai Brody, I’m the owner. But I’ll be sure to pass on the compliment.” My gaze was drawn again to those green eyes as the woman whose name I already knew introduced herself.
“Nice to meet you Kai. Riley,” she said as she offered her hand. “We really enjoyed ourselves.”
As I took her hand in mine, the sensation was so acute I wondered if every nerve in my body had suddenly become hotwired to my palm. Dimly I realized I hadn’t released her hand and I quickly broke contact. I gestured towards the remainder of the cake with my wayward digits.
“Gina can box up the rest of that for you when you’re ready to leave.” Disconcerted, I turned to go when Riley’s voice stopped me.
“Would you like a piece?” Her question caused all eyes to once again focus on me. The unintentional double meaning to that simple question flashed across my mind and I was acutely embarrassed by my train of thought. I opened my mouth to decline, but Riley continued. “My friends need to call it a night but I actually start work in about an hour. I’d like another cup of coffee before I go if I could impose upon you to keep me company.” She paused, then, “Or I could play the sympathy card since it’s my birthday.”
“There’s the Riley we know and love,” the fettuccini man chimed in as he picked up the check, accompanied by good natured laughter around the table. Everyone rose, taking turns to embrace Riley and then suddenly we were left standing in silence. I spied Gina and the busboy waiting in the kitchen doorway and I motioned them over.