I’d been completely unprepared for everything Eric had just told me and felt so bad about his life’s circumstances and everything he’d been through. The hurt he felt clearly still haunted him and I now knew the happy-go-lucky guy I’d met the night before had depths I couldn’t even begin to fathom and, if anything, I felt even more insecure in his presence.
And why was he offering to help me?
No matter where he hung his hat now, in my mind he was still some big shot Wall Street broker and I was only a high school educated waitress. Clearly we were from two very different worlds; our accents alone were proof of that and while he seemed so sincere I still had to ask; I had to know.
“Why what, doll?” he asked with his eyebrow quirking up.
“Why are you offering to help me? I don’t get it. I have nothing to offer you in return; literally, nothing. I have less than four dollars to my name and I just don’t know why you would want the hassle.” Looking around at his sparse furnishings I never would’ve guessed he had money out the wazoo, but I believed everything he’d said. If he’d been lying, it had been an Oscar worthy performance, but besides that, I recognized some of the designer labels on the clothing I’d found and the attached price tags made my eyes bug out. His wife had had more brand new clothing than I’d ever owned in my entire lifetime and while most of it wasn’t really my style and they felt a bit tight on me, I still appreciated Eric allowing me borrow them.
His eyes softened and his hand reached out towards mine with his fingertip barely brushing across the top of my knuckles before he pulled back again and said, “I’ve already given you one reason. Do I have to have another one?”
I thought about it for a moment before responding, really thought about it and decided I had to know, so I admitted, “If I’m going to stay, I need to hear something more than you needing a pass into the pearly gates.”
He’d melted my insides earlier talking about needing to do a good deed, but this seemed like too much. I would be too much of a burden. Ironically I came with too much baggage and not one suitcase to call my own, but even so it had felt nice being able to talk to him this way. It had been so long since I’d spoken so openly to someone, not filtering my words or my wants in any way that I felt a little thrill run through me and thought maybe sticking around for a while wouldn’t be so bad because the old me felt like she was slowly coming out of hiding. Maybe the old me was starting to feel safe enough to show her face again.
I hoped so because I couldn’t wait to see her again.
Eric sighed and leaned back, running his fingers through his hair, and I was again distracted a little by his good looks. I knew it was shallow of me, especially after listening to him telling me about how his life had crumbled around him a few short years ago, but I couldn’t really help it. He was visually stunning and his sincerity and charismatic personality, coupled with his accent, made him almost surreal. No one person should have that much going for them, but then again, I knew now his life hadn’t always been so great.
His voice broke through my reverie as he said, “I guess, maybe…it would be nice to have some company for a bit?” He’d said it as more of a question than a statement, so I wasn’t sure if he was being completely honest or not and when I responded with my own raised eyebrow, he smiled threw me for a loop by saying, “I thought about getting a dog but then I’d have to shovel out a spot for him to piss in and you’re already toilet trained, aren’t ya?” I wasn’t used to being around someone who was so forward; so jovial and uncensored; so alive.
I could easily become addicted to it.
When my only reply was in the form of my reddened cheeks, he laughed hard enough that the whole couch shook and lifted me up a few inches off of the cushions, saying, “Well, let me check first so you don’t make a liar outta me.” He did quick swipe with his hand of the seat I had just occupied before dropping me back down onto it, adding, “Yep, all dry, so you’re good.”
It turned out his laughter was addictive too because I found myself laughing right along with him, but I forced myself to wiggle out of his grasp and tried to look at him seriously as I entreated, “Really Eric, I appreciate everything you’ve done for me. I really do, but I feel like I’d be taking advantage of you if I stayed. If nothing else, I can always call Bill and demand he send me the money from selling my Gran’s house and from my paychecks and then go back to Louisiana.” Of course, I knew getting that money back from him was a whole other story that would likely involve a nasty fight and I’d still have nowhere to live once I got back home, but I was hoping I could track down Tara or Sam eventually.
He looked like he wanted to argue the point with me, but after a long moment he finally said, “Well, you’ll be needin’ a place to stay in the meantime, so here it’ll be.” He made it all sound so final, but it didn’t feel the same way as when Bill had said anything to me in a similar way in the past. I also knew I had issues I needed to work through and could’ve very well been trying to gloss over any highhandedness from Eric like I’d done with Bill in the beginning, but I hoped that wasn’t the case just the same. I wouldn’t delude myself into thinking Eric thought of me in a romantic sense, but I could always use a friend, no matter how many or how little I had, and I watched as he got up and headed into the bedroom, so I couldn’t have argued back if I’d wanted to.
But I didn’t want to.
The snow never stopped, but the novelty had yet to wear off with Eric and me using that time to get to know each other better over the next few days. I’d helped him move a few things around in the spare room so we could make room for the mattress and box spring on the floor with me insisting he go back to using his own bed on my second night there. We filled our days and nights just talking with him telling me stories of his childhood and me doing the same and while I liked that he seemed genuinely interested in what I had to say, I always hated it when it was my turn to talk. I could listen to his voice for hours and would if I had my say, but it was more so because he always managed to at least make me smile, if not laugh outright and selfishly I didn’t want our time together to end even though I knew we’d have to emerge sometime.
I taught him how to make Gran’s secret fried chicken recipe and he taught me how to make corned beef and cabbage and when we were still snowed in on Thanksgiving and there was no turkey to be had because Eric hadn’t bought one ahead of time since it wasn’t an Irish holiday, we made do with something called the Dublin Coddle. It was some sort of ham and sausage cooked with onions and potatoes, served in a bowl and was delicious. I’d forgotten how flavorful food could be and almost enjoyed the time Eric and I spent in the kitchen as much as I did our talks.
The snow had let up as we woke up on day four of our seclusion and while I was disappointed our uninterrupted time together was coming to an end, I was excited to be going back to his bar again. I really had loved the look of it and was looking forward to going back to work, if nothing else because I would still get to be around Eric. I knew I was developing a crush on him, but I figured it was normal considering how nice he’d been to me. It wasn’t something I’d been used to anymore and it had taken a full two days before I stopped expecting him to angry with me at some point. I knew he had those emotions in him; I’d seen them rise to the surface whenever Bill’s name had come up in conversation, but Eric had never once directed his anger at me and was just his normal sweet self. And for all of my inner dialogue on how I should just be by myself for a while before I could even consider entering into another relationship, a part of me was still disappointed he hadn’t given me any indication he thought of me as anything more than a friend.
A pathetic homeless uneducated friend.
It took the two of us a couple of hours to dig our way out of his house and I’d barely even warmed up by the time we walked into his bar. We were the first two in, but it wasn’t long before both of his cooks showed up and I got to meet Terry and Lafayette. They seemed real nice while I helped them clear out the food that had been sitting too long and after that Eric showed me around the rest of the bar while promising to train me to help out as a bartender. I was bouncing on the balls of my feet when he finally opened up for business and since I hadn’t noticed anyone else’s name on the schedule he had posted in the break room, I asked, “Am I your only waitress?”
I hadn’t seen any other servers on my only other night there and Eric looked uncomfortable as he replied, “Yeah. I…uh…had to let the other one go.”
“Why is that?” I asked off the cuff and immediately regretted it seeing the look on his face. I’d gotten so used to just blurting out whatever was on my mind that I hadn’t even thought about the fact Eric was my boss now and quickly apologized, saying, “I’m sorry. That was rude. It’s none of my business.”
I could feel the heat in my cheeks as I tried to busy myself filling salt and pepper shakers, but Eric stilled my hands with his own, saying, “You apologize too much.”
“I’m sorry,” I said automatically and while I was sorry, I couldn’t stop my lips quirking up into a smile while my eyes still refused to meet his, but his laughter beat out my stubborn refusal because I couldn’t not look over to see it for myself.
“Well thanks for provin’ my point, but you can ask me anything you know.” He waggled his eyebrows at me and joked, “I mean, you’ve seen my underwear for God’s sake!”
As a way to at least feel like I was somewhat earning my keep, I had done a few loads of laundry in the last few days, but I looked up at him completely confused and said, “I have not! I only washed your jeans and t-shirts! There was no underwear in there.”
There hadn’t been a boxer or brief in the whole lot, not that I was looking, but he just smiled wider and winked back at me saying, “That’s ’cause I don’t wear any.”
My jaw fell open at his candid statement, but before I could do or say anything the first customers of the day started filing in and he turned me around by my shoulders towards them, giving me a little swat on my backside and said, “Now quit yer yammerin’ and get to work missy.”
I really didn’t know what to make of this new development, what with the wink and playful smack to my butt, but I didn’t have much time to think about it anyway. Eric had said the town was small and if that was the case, it appeared every last citizen had come into the bar. I shuttled food and drinks for hours, only taking enough time to grab a sip of water or a bite of the sandwich Lafayette had made me while my customers weren’t flagging me down. It was tiring, but I’d needed it after being sedentary for so long. It didn’t surprise me that everyone knew Eric or that he knew everyone and they all had a joke or story to share about him that made me feel at home there. I loved every minute, but I was truly exhausted by the time we made our way back to Eric’s house however now that I had a few extra dollars in my pocket I felt it was time to bring up the elephant in the room.
“I really do appreciate you letting me stay with you and giving me a job,” I started off slowly, so when he turned to face me I finally bit the bullet and added, “but I’d feel much better about it if you’d let me pay you rent.”
I knew him well enough by then that I could tell he wanted to argue with me, but he remained silent until we pulled into his garage when he turned to me and said, “The house you grew up in, your Gran’s, it was big, wasn’t it?”
“Big enough,” I answered hesitantly while feeling the pang over it no longer belonging to a Stackhouse. “What does that have to do with anything?”
He ignored my question and kept on with, “And if someone turned up on your doorstep, as it were, down on their luck, would you offer them a helpin’ hand only if they gave you something in return?”
“No!” I replied immediately and then realized where he was going with this. “But that’s different,” I argued. “You gave me a job, so I’m earning money now. I should pay my own way!”
“Doll,” he sighed while running his hands through his hair. Using the nickname he had for me was really unfair because my heart did a little pitter patter every time I heard it and it was only reinforced when I hadn’t heard him use it once with any of the other women who had come into the bar. Up until then, I’d tried to convince myself it was just his way of speaking to every female he came across, but apparently that wasn’t the case.
And I really shouldn’t like that fact so much.
“The house is paid for,” he said, pulling me from my thoughts. “I told you before, money isn’t an issue for me and I don’t suspect it ever will be unless I get knocked in the head and try to outdo Bill Gate’s lifestyle. I’d gladly give you the money to get home and get back on yer feet, but I suspect you’d hit me if I tried, so I’d rather you just keep yer money and squirrel it away for a rainy day.”
What was wrong with me that all I got out of everything he’d just said was that he’d pay me to leave?
“So, you want me to go?” I asked, unable to stop myself. I’d thought we were getting along pretty well and I’d certainly enjoyed his company, but maybe it had been one sided all along. It wasn’t like he was used to living with someone else, so maybe I was cramping his space.
“What? No!” he said loud enough to startle me, but seeing my reaction he added in a softer tone, “I mean…you’re a great waitress…and I had a hell of a time getting that spot filled…so, you know…really, you’re doin’ me the favor.”
He’d told me how difficult it had been for him to find someone, but it only reminded me that he’d never actually told me why he’d had to get rid of my predecessor. Since he said I could ask him anything, I started off with the obvious given our current conversation. “So then, I take it, your previous waitress lived with you rent free too?” I asked with a tiny bit of sarcasm infused into my voice.
“No,” he answered unsurprisingly.
“But you would have let her if she didn’t have anywhere else to go?” I badgered on.
He hesitated in answering that one, but his eyes finally narrowed back at me as he hissed out another, “No.”
I didn’t know if it was my foolish disappointment over his admission that he only wanted me to stick around for my waitressing skills or if it was leftover Bill baggage that got my temper going, but I sensed this was a hot topic for him and I hadn’t had the chance to let my temper get the better of me in a long time, so I pushed him with, “Well why not? If you’re so willing to let me live here rent free, why not her?”
I ignored the way my heart panged at just the thought.
“Because she was a nutter!” he exclaimed. “We messed around one time at the bar one night and suddenly she’s pickin’ out china patterns and namin’ our imaginary kids! It was my own damn fault for doin’ anythin’ with an employee, but I’ve learned my lesson. Never again!”
Of course. All of it made more sense now and even if I still saw him as a friend, I was just as much his employee. I needed that job. I needed a friend. I didn’t need any more headaches.
So why was I so disappointed with my heart hurting even more?