“You say that every morning,” Phaedra called back to me.

“It feels like that every morning.”

“You say that every morning, too,” Chuck said. He placed a plate of pancakes drowning in syrup, topped with a small swirl of whipped cream and a sliced strawberry, onto the counter in the window between the kitchen and the main dining area.

“For the record, I can think of only one other place I’d rather be,” I said, taking my plate.

“So, the kid,” Phaedra began, a hint of warning in her tone. “He’s awfully cute.”

“Nothing I can’t handle.” My words were garbled around the forkful of pancake I’d just shoved into my mouth.

“He’s picking you up here?” Chuck asked, crossing his arms over the window counter that sat just below chest level for him.

The space was big enough to place at least five plates of food when we were busy.

He looked to his left when Hector pushed through the double doors leading into the kitchen.

“Hello, Mr. Chuck,” Hector said, sitting on a stool at the end of the bar. He prayed over the omelet he’d brought from the kitchen before shoving a fourth of it into his mouth.

Ten feet behind where Hector sat was the stairway that led to my loft.

“It used to bother me that anyone inside the Bucksaw could walk up those stairs.”

“Until you realized that I have no patience for curious patrons.”

Chuck laughed. “Not even kids. Remember the time you made the Morris boy cry?”

“Jumpin’ jacks, Chuck, he’s in middle school now. Are you ever going to let that go?”

“No,” Chuck said. “Because I love the look on your face when I bring it up.”

From his spot in the food window, Chuck faced forward, staring down the long bar lined with stools. It separated the cash register and a couple of drink stations from the main dining area. To Kirby and me, that narrow space felt like home base, a place where we could have a few seconds to gather ourselves before heading back out into the trenches.

I sat on one of the barstools, happily chewing my bite of pancake drenched in syrup.

I wasn’t particularly in a rush to swallow the sweet goodness of the spongy pancake to answer Chuck, but I didn’t want to be rude. “I’m not sure if he’s picking me up here. I haven’t heard from him.”

“He’ll come by I bet,” Phaedra said, closing the cash register drawer. She crossed her arms. “Now, if he is anything but a gentleman—”

“I know,” I said. “I’ll punch him in the throat.”

I laughed once, knowing Chuck would rather cut off his stirring hand than do anything to a woman to earn a throat-punch.

Chuck disappeared from the window and then pushed open the swinging doors. He wiped his hands on his pristine apron, leaving orangish-brown streaks behind.

“Uh-oh,” I said mid-bite, noticing Chuck’s expression. “You’re not going to give me the talk, are you? Please don’t.”

“What about this boy? I’m concerned about your motivations, but I’m even more concerned about his intentions,” Chuck said.

Phaedra beamed at her husband, like forty-six years of love had just been doubled with one question.

I finished chewing, and then I dabbed my mouth with a napkin. I wadded it up and let it fall to my lap.

Blaire’s soothing but firm voice echoed in my head.

“We do not collect our soup that way, Falyn.”

“No man worth having will want you if you’re not behaved, Falyn.”

“We do not discuss vulgar topics, such as your opinion, at the dinner table, Falyn.”

When I was compelled to use the manners so forcefully imposed on me, even after my liberation, I would use bad manners just to spite Blaire. Even if she couldn’t see it, rebellion would make me feel better.

Nearly five years after I’d left, it still made my blood boil that those habits wouldn’t die—just like my parents’ need to control me, to make me fit into their perfect mold of how Colorado’s first family should be.

“Falyn?” Phaedra said, her comforting gravelly voice bringing me back to the Bucksaw and away from my childhood. “Are you all right, kiddo?”

I blinked. “He’s, uh … it doesn’t matter what his intentions are. I just said yes to rile William.”

“Then why follow through with it?” Chuck asked.

“Because he played along when I lied to my parents,” I said with a grin. “He doesn’t care anyway. He’s just looking for an easy lay.”

Chuck stared at me with a blank expression, and then he slowly backed toward the double doors until he was out of sight.

Phaedra burst out laughing. “You’re going to be the death of that man. He loves you like his own. Let him believe you’re a virgin.” As soon as the words had left her mouth, she froze, and her eyes widened. “Oh, honey, I’m so sorry.”

“I think he already knows I’m not,” I said, making a show of dismissing her apology.

Noticeably shaken, Phaedra went back to preparing her world-famous sun tea.

I stood up and walked around the end of the bar. I hugged her from behind, resting my chin in the crook of her neck. “It’s okay,” I said softly.

I turned her around, waiting until her eyes met mine. “Damn your soft heart.”

Her bottom lip quivered, and then she pulled me to her chest for a quick squeeze. Her wrinkled hand patted my back. “We don’t have any of our own. You and Kirby are it. Now, get out of here. Get some work done, for Chrissakes,” she said, returning to her pitcher of tea.

I reached back for a napkin and handed it to her. She held it to her face, dabbing her eyes I imagined since her back was still turned to me.

“I said, get,” she said.

“Yes, ma’am.” I rushed around the bar and picked up my plate. I stuffed the remaining pieces of pancake into my mouth while walking toward the kitchen.

Pete—round, bald, and frowning—stood next to Chuck, helping with anything else prep-related as he did every morning.

Hector was already at the sink, polishing the silverware. “Good morning, Miss Falyn,” he said, taking my plate. He pulled down the sprayer and rinsed off the round white plate made of something between glass and plastic.

“Don’t say, Miss. I know,” he said with a sheepish grin.

Pete smiled. He was marinating chicken, keeping to himself.

The three of them, in addition to Phaedra whose creations had made the Bucksaw famous, made up the kitchen staff.

Chuck was mixing his special sauce with a blank stare, his mind somewhere far away. He wiped his wet cheek with the back of his wrist and continued chopping. He glanced at me then and shook his head. “Damn onions,” he said, wiping the other cheek.