MAN TROUBLES (part 5)
a short story by Alexis Morgan
A knock at the door jarred Silas awake. He went from a sound sleep to claws out between one heartbeat and the next. It took him a few seconds later to make sense of his situation and how he'd come be standing naked in an unfamiliar bedroom. Slowly, though, it all came back to him: the hunt on his heels, arriving at the restaurant, trading the coin for safety, Lydia.
He grabbed yesterday's jeans and pulled them on, taking extra care as he tugged the zipper up to avoid doing himself some serious bodily harm. Then he padded across the room barefooted, picking up his pistol off the bedside table along the way. Outside of the bedroom door, he paused to listen to see which direction he should head-the door that led back up to Lydia's office or the one that ended in the garage she'd told him about.
Another quick series of knocks had him heading for the back door. He drew in a deep breath and picked up just enough of Lydia's scent to have him lowering his weapon, but only slightly, as he reached to unlock the door. Even though he trusted her, there was always the chance that his pack had followed him to the restaurant and was forcing her to cooperate with them.
He pulled the door open and immediately retreated several steps back up the passageway to where he'd have more room to maneuver if he needed to fight. Lydia hesitated before crossing the threshold, looking a little confused by his actions.
"I had expected you to come upstairs for lunch, but now it's almost the dinner hour now." She held out a plastic bag containing several small containers. "I figured you might be hungry. I hope you like chicken saltimbocca. I also brought a cobb salad, and there are two pieces of tiramisu cheesecake for dessert." "Come on inside." Silas retreated further down the hall to set his weapon on a nearby table before returning to close the door and take the bag from her. "Thank you for this. I guess I needed sleep more than I needed to eat."
She glanced at his bandages. "How are your injuries? Do you need my help changing the dressings?"
He briefly considered it. While having her hands on his skin again held a great deal of appeal, chances were that his injuries were well on to their way to healing by now. Besides, new bandages would only get wet in the shower.
"Thanks, but I can handle it myself this time."
Lydia continued to hover in the hall, as if she wasn't sure if she should come any farther into the apartment or if she should beat a hasty retreat. Or maybe he sucked at playing host, and she simply wasn't sure of her welcome.
"Thanks again for bringing dinner. It smells wonderful."
"I hope you like it. It's one of the house specialties."
When she inched back another step toward the door, he surprised both of them when he said, "Please stay and keep me company while I eat. I could make some coffee if you'd like some."
After a brief hesitation, she shook her head. "No, I can't stay. I'm on my break, so I have to get back to the restaurant. One of my dishwashers quit with no notice, so we're shorthanded today."
At least she seemed genuinely reluctant to go by this point. He followed her back to the door. On impulse, he said, "Is there anything I could do to help? I wouldn't want to work out front in the restaurant, but I can wash dishes."
Lydia studied him for several seconds as if considering his offer. "I don't suppose you have a current food handler's permit."
He thought that would have put an end to the idea, but she finally nodded as if she'd made a decision. "In a pinch, we can get by if I can teach you the basics. After that, you have to take a class, which can be online, to get the real deal. I'd only need your help for a couple of days until I have a chance to hire someone."
"Sounds good. I'll grab a shower and be right there."
"Eat first. I don't want you to pass out from hunger." She softened the comment with a smile. "When you're ready, come to the back door the restaurant. I'll tell my chef that I called in a favor from an old friend. He'll be okay with that."
Then she was gone, leaving him staring at the empty space where she'd been standing. How long had it been since he'd done anything useful other than scrambling to stay alive? Too long if washing dishes seemed like a huge step up from where he currently stood.
Even if he stayed behind the scenes, it would still be risky. Right now, he didn't give a damn. The lady had gone out of her way to help him. The least he could do was repay the favor.
Rather than dawdle any longer, he parked his ass at the small kitchen table long enough to inhale the delicious meal she'd brought him. The combination of great food and the first good sleep he'd had in days left him feeling energized.
He dumped the empty cartons in the trash under the sink and headed for the shower. Twenty minutes later, he headed out the back door and across the parking lot to the restaurant ready to dive into a stack of dirty dishes.
As soon as Lydia told Caleb that she'd found someone to help out with the dishes for the next couple of days, he'd given her arm a pointed look. What was up with that? Then she remembered he'd noticed how often she'd been rubbing her birthmark yesterday.
"How's your arm today?"
Which was true. It had quit bothering her the minute Silas had pressed his palm holding the coin against the restaurant door.
"What's that supposed to mean?"
He wiped his hands on a towel and tossed it on the counter. "So you're telling me that as badly as your arm was burning yesterday, it was all because that lazy ass Toby was going to quit with no notice? Because I'm telling you right now, that kid never did half the work he was supposed to. If he hadn't even bothered to call, I doubt we'd have noticed he was gone."
Okay, that was an exaggeration, but she understood Caleb's frustration with unreliable help. Meanwhile, Caleb was still talking. "You're arm has never been wrong yet. If it's quit bothering you, trouble is already here."
"What makes you think that?"
His look was pure disgust. "Again, your arm never lies. What else has happened?"
Before she could think of a reasonable, but untrue answer, the back door of the restaurant opened and Silas stepped inside. Caleb gave him a hard look and then turned back toward her. "So, I guess I just got my answer. You said you called in a favor from an old friend to get us a temporary dishwasher. Am I wrong to think that friend might have been Joseph?"
Great, there went her chance to control the narrative. She had no idea how her friend could take one look at Silas and figure out there was a connection between him and their old boss. Rather than get into that discussion, she settled for performing introductions.
"Silas Varg, this is Caleb Pratt, chef and the guy that keeps all of this running smoothly. Caleb, this is Silas, who very nicely offered to give us a hand while he's in town."
The two men made no move to shake hands. "And how long are you going to be in town, Mr. Varg?"
Silas glanced at her and then back at Caleb. "I'm not sure. Not long. Is that a problem?"
Caleb crossed his arms over his massive chest. "Not for me. Better not be for her."
Okay, enough was enough. The last thing she needed was for the two of them to get into a pissing contest in her kitchen.
"Looks like your orders are piling up, Caleb. I'll get Silas started on the dishes."
Or she would if the two stubborn men would stop staring at each other. She wasn't surprised when it was Caleb who blinked first. That didn't keep him from shooting Silas one last dirty look as he picked up his favorite cleaver and checked the sharpness of the blade before turning his back on the two of them.
There was a definite hint of a sneer in the look Silas shot in Caleb's direction before once again turning to face her more directly. He looked past her to the stacks of dishes and pans piling up beside the industrial dishwasher and huge sink on the back wall of the kitchen.
His expression softened just a little. "Looks like you've got enough work over there to keep even me out of trouble for a while."
Lydia waited until he was standing right beside her to murmur, "I'm not sure there's enough dirty dishes in the entire city to do that."
"You're probably right about that." He gave her one of those looks, the kind that let a woman know a man had her in his sights. "But some kinds of trouble are worth the risk."
Then he winked at her as his deep laughter rang out across the kitchen bringing everyone else to a brief halt before once again falling back into the familiar flow of work in the confined space.
Deciding she'd never win this particular jousting match, she handed him an apron. "All right, here's what you need to know about washing dishes."
He tied the apron strings with easy familiarity. Maybe this wasn't his first rodeo. "I'm all ears."
Four hours later, Caleb finally ran out of excuses to hang around the kitchen. She should have known from his initial response to Silas that he wouldn't be the first to leave for the night. Silas knew it, too. By the time he finally waved as he walked out the front door, she was ready to take a rolling pin to their hard heads.
"Go home, Caleb."
He shrugged on his jacket. "I'm leaving."
She followed him to the door so she could lock up after him. "Did you call your wife to tell her you'll be late getting home? Or better yet, why?"
"Yes, I called her. No, I didn't tell her, but I will."
Needing something to do, she tidied up a stack of menus that had been straight to begin with. "And what exactly are you going to tell her? That you took an instant dislike to my new dishwasher?"
"I don't dislike him." Caleb's voice dropped to a low growl. "But I don't trust him. Big difference."
The hour was late and she'd been on her feet for far too long to want to argue anymore.
She patted his cheek. "But for the record, your message was heard and received. I do appreciate you wanting to look out for my best interests, but Silas won't be around long enough to be a problem for either one of us. Now, go home."
"Fine, but promise me you'll start looking for a permanent replacement for the dishwasher tomorrow."
"Tomorrow is our day off, Caleb. I plan to spend it sleeping in and catching up on errands. Having said that, I will start looking on Tuesday."
He wasn't happy but at least he didn't argue anymore. When she gave him a gentle shove, he walked out the door. After locking up, she retreated to her office to give the work schedule one last glance before e-mailing it out to all of her employees. As soon as that was done, she was going to crawl upstairs and sleep for at least ten hours; more if she could.
But as soon as she sat down at the desk, the bookcase swung out from the wall and her newest dishwasher stepped into the office. He set a mug of hot chocolate down in front of her along with one of the maple bars from the all night coffee shop down the street. How did he know that was her favorite doughnut? He set his own down on the other side of her desk and sprawled in the molded plastic chair across from her. It was too small to fit him comfortably, but he seemed settled in for a long visit.
"Was there something you needed?"
One look at the heat in his answering smile had her agreeing with Caleb's early assessment of their newest employee. Even though she liked Silas, it would be smart to not trust him.