“It means you’d better hold on tight. Guys like him don’t give up easily once they’ve found a girl like you.”
Chuck smirked, returning to the food on the stove.
“You’d better skedaddle, kiddo,” Phaedra said. “You’ve got to get ready, don’t you?”
I looked down at my clothes. “For what?”
“Are you going out with that boy in your apron?”
“No. I’m not going anywhere with that boy.”
Phaedra shook her head and tended to her last table of the night. Only a few chairs were still occupied. It was a few minutes past closing time. Kirby had already swept, and she was now breaking down the ice cream machine.
Phaedra’s table signed their check, and she waved as the small family left together to their car parked out front. I sat on the stool at the end of the bar, counting my tips. Kirby happily took a small stack of bills—her percentage for bussing tables and for her excellent hostess skills—as she passed by on her way to meet Gunnar at the door. He bent over to hug and kiss her, wrapping his giant arms around her tiny frame.
Phaedra and Chuck waved to the couple before Gunnar held open the door for his girlfriend. She passed him, and then they walked together to wherever he’d parked her car. I thought about them walking alone in the alley behind the restaurant and how Kirby probably wouldn’t think twice about it.
The door chimed again, and I looked up, half-expecting to see Kirby and Gunnar. It wouldn’t be the first time she’d forgotten something. Instead, I saw Taylor standing next to the hostess podium.
The double doors swung a few times before they stilled, a sign that Phaedra had excused herself to the kitchen.
“I came to take you to dinner.”
“I canceled,” I said, stuffing my remaining tips in the pocket of my apron.
I lowered my chin, already annoyed. “What is it with you civil servant types? You think that because, historically, women have somewhat romanticized your line of work that you’re automatically guaranteed a date?”
“No, I’m just hungry, and I want to hang out with you while I eat.”
“So?” he said, genuine in his cluelessness.
“So, you have to leave.”
Taylor shoved his hands into his jeans pockets. “Trust me, I want to. I’m not oblivious to the fact that you sort of hate my guts. Inherently bitchy women don’t appeal to me.”
“Right. You prefer the easy ones who pretend to be progressive by going Dutch, and then they are all too eager to fall in line with the hotshot-groupie stereotype by the end of the night in hopes that they’ll somehow hook you with their impressive blow jobs.”
Taylor choked, stopping just short of where I sat, and he leaned his back against the bar. “You’ve got me all figured out, don’t you, Ivy League?”
“Were you a psych student? Are you trying to maybe shake me up a bit by analyzing my violent temper and then throwing in a few Freud quotes for good measure? Trying to make me feel inferior with your academic prowess? Let me guess. You went to Brown? Yale? Big fucking deal. I might not have a graduate’s degree, but I went to college. You don’t scare me.”
“I wholeheartedly disagree. I have a bachelor’s in business and a master’s in women’s studies.”
“That’s insulting. You haven’t been within a hundred yards of a women’s studies course.”
I blew my bangs away from my face, exasperated. “Women’s studies?”
My lips parted, but I snapped my mouth shut again. He was serious.
“Okay, I was kidding about the master’s, but I have taken a couple of courses geared toward women’s studies. I’ve found the reading material is on the right side of history.”
“I might be a civil servant type, but I’m educated. I went to Eastern State University in Illinois, and it’s a damn good school for its size.”
“Wait. Did you say Illinois?” I swallowed away the sudden tightness in my throat.
“Yes, and you’re right. I also have a doctorate in bullshit, and I saw you coming a mile away.”
“Where is Eastern State University from the town of Eakins?” I asked.
Taylor grimaced, unsure about where I was going with my line of questioning. “ESU is in Eakins. Why do you ask?”
My heart sped up, booming so hard against my chest that my head began to throb. Breathing was no longer on autopilot. I sucked in air and then blew it out, trying to remain calm. “So, do you go back there very often? Reunions maybe?”
“I’m from there, so I go back all the time. You didn’t answer my question.”
By his expression, I could tell that he knew something was up. The entire tone of our conversation—along with my attitude—had changed.
I watched him watching me. I tried to keep my face smooth and the truth from reflecting in my eyes.
All the cash in my shoebox upstairs was to pay for a plane ticket to Chicago, a rental car, and a hotel room in Eakins, Illinois. It couldn’t just be a coincidence that this guy had breezed into my café and taken an interest in me.
His shoulders relaxed, but a spark still smoldered in his eyes. “I’ll tell you all about it. Let’s go.”
“I’m not going anywhere with you tonight,” I said. “You’re trying too hard. You could be a serial killer for all I know.”
“How do I know you really even work for them?”
Taylor sighed, reached into his back pocket, and produced his wallet. He picked out his driver’s license and Alpine Hotshot Crew ID. “Is that good enough?” he asked.
I tried not to take the cards too quickly or look too interested before glancing over his ID card and then his license. His driver’s license was Illinois issued. He really was from Eakins.
“It expires next month. I’ll get a Colorado one then. My boss has been on me about it, too.”
I held my breath as I poured over his address. He was telling the truth.
His address was on North Birch. I held out the cards, slowly returning them.
“What?” he asked, taking them from my fingers.
“Your driver’s license picture is atrocious. You look as bad as a hatful of assholes.”
I clicked my tongue. “Whoever told you that needs to get out more.”
His eyebrows pulled together, and he tucked his chin. “You’re either a liar or a lesbian. Which is it?”
Taylor was my way to Eakins. Quelling the urge to scream, laugh, cry, or jump up and down felt like holding on to a wild animal covered in grease.