Sofia planted her feet at the bottom of the wooden steps leading into the diner, not knowing if she should go in or not. Seriously, did she need the face to face to remind her how inadequate her social skills were? By now, the guy was most likely thinking she was either half nuts or swimming in it. He’d stopped asking her questions—okay, he stopped talking period a couple of hours back—which meant she’d crossed some invisible line of acceptability.
Most likely it was the tone she’d used when answering his questions. The trouble was she couldn’t not snap her answers back at him. It was like she was congenitally defective—unable to lie to people, she opted for defensive measures instead.
Which meant if she wasn’t throwing her fists, she was hitting low and fast with her mouth. Both self-defense measures got her in trouble. Like now, for instance. Retreating to the safety of the woods climbed up her back and perched on her shoulder, whispering its seduction in her ear. She was just about to light-foot it out of there when she forced herself to look up.
German was holding the restaurant’s door open for her like a gentleman. Oh. She blanked her surprise before he noticed, and plunked up the worn stairs leading into the coffee and pancakes atmosphere of a popular place for the locals to eat.
The diner was packed. This time her feet planted for a different reason: she’d forgotten to pull her shirt over the gun stuffed at her lower back. German stepped up close behind her, shielding her with his body, as if he knew why she went no farther. The heat of him up against her eclipsed her dread, and she felt herself soften into the muscled contour of his chest and belly.
Gently he wrapped his fingers around her elbows and bent his cheek to her ear. “Come.” The voice rasped over her skin. “There’s a table in the corner.” He led her from behind, ushering her into a chair at the wall. As soon as he released her, she thought she’d pool all over the floor.
A waitress arrived with plastic menus and two cups of coffee, mooring Sofia into the here and now.
“Ah, thanks,” German flicked his gaze at the woman then immediately began to study the packets of creamer and his spoon, effectively dismissing the waitress with his preoccupation.
Wow. And Sofia thought her social etiquette could use some polishing? Huh. Maybe she wasn’t as inept as she thought. Or…Big fish in a little pond, and all that. It was easy to think you weren’t so bad when you were sitting across from someone a little less inclined than you were to make nice.
He wasn’t being rude, he was just—crap. She was the one being impolite. She still hadn’t muttered a single word since their stilted conversation in the woods. While she untucked her shirt to hide the gun, she wondered what to say. Ideas, sadly, hung like empty coat hangers in the vacant closet of her skull. She wasn’t a social butterfly, and had never mastered the skill required to crack the ice. Top that insufficiency off with her aversion to crowded places and she was a coveted prize.
“Look,” she started and stopped when he openly met her eyes with a candid, green-eyed gaze. Holy. Her mind romped among spring leaves, over blades of grass, blah, blah, blah, again.
Get. A. Grip. He was waiting for her to say something. Remember?
“You don’t have to buy me breakfast, you know.” Right. Because getting defensive paved the way to smoother conversation. Would she never learn?
He grinned, though, showing off a smidgen of those pearly teeth. So, he wasn’t totally put off? Sofia backpedaled, trying her level best to just be normal. To not strike first. “I mean, I’m no charity case. I can take care of myself. So, if you want…”
His voice trailed across her skin in a low growl, sawing off her excuses. “I know. You’ve already shown you can take care of yourself. So maybe, just once, you’ll let someone do for you?”
Yeah. Okay then. How freakin’ hot was that growl, huh? Partnered with the day old whisker scruff on his chin and he was…
Someone just offering to buy you breakfast.
Right. Kindness never came without strings. “What do you want then?”
He cocked his head just like he did when they were in the woods. She saved him the trouble of repeating her question and did it herself. “What are you looking to get out of this? Nobody does something nice without wanting payback.”
He had to quit grinning like that. Like he savored her candor.
She leveled him with her stare, and just as he was opening his mouth, presaged by that lovely growl, the waitress interrupted.
“What can I get you two?” She poised her pen on her pad, waiting with friendly boredom. Sofia half expected her to blow a bubble with the gum she was chawing on.
German handed back the menus without so much as a sideways glance at the woman. “Two double orders of bacon, sausage, and eggs. Hold the toast.”
The bored expression didn’t even flicker. The waitress spun on her heel as she ripped the slip off the pad, trucking it business-like for the kitchen.
Sofia, on the other hand, couldn’t mask her curiosity. How did he know to hold the toast?
“I’ve seen you at the breakfast table with the other workers,” he replied, as if reading her thoughts.
Warning bells should be ringing, right? Was it that obvious she preferred a protein diet? As had Sol, so they’d fit together just fine when it came to sharing meals. Except getting a regular diet of meat hadn’t been easy before she started working at the farm.
Shit, this line of thinking saddened her. Get off the train, idiot. But…
Sofia trundled down memory lane anyway, to when breakfasts in most foster homes consisted of cereal and a smack on the back of the head by the older kids. Whining for a little protein was not an option. Of course, with her metabolism, that left her hungry a half hour after slurping up the last of the milk in her cereal bowl. Lunch was always grueling hours away.
It was a wonder her growth hadn’t been stunted, as hungry as she’d always been. Her body had never felt fully nourished.
“Hey, Sofia? You with me here?” He searched her eyes with his, the green soft and shimmering, welcoming her back.
“Ah, yeah. I was just remembering, that’s all.” He was making her smile, in spite of her memories. Man, she liked this guy.
“I was thinking, if you wouldn’t mind, of course, that you and I could travel together for a while. You just left your job…”
“So did you,” she pointed out, because she would never, never, never learn.
The guy didn’t even flinch. “Exactly. So I was thinking you and I could head west. I know a place that would take us in. Give us work in the great outdoors and not ask questions.”
All right. He knew too much. Waving red flags here. She retreated behind her stare and he sat back in his chair. Right-o. She hadn’t gotten this far in her life because she was naïve. The problem scratching at her though, was the fact she still wasn’t picking up lies from his body language.
Okay, so the place in the west had the muscles in his shoulders tightening up, but that was all she was noticing. There was still truth in his words even if he did seem tense about them. Which meant the place he was referring to may not be such a great place at all.
What was it people said about the frying pan and the fire?
“Yeah. Well. I’ll have to think about it.”
The waitress swooped in with life-saving sustenance and the snarling of her stomach dominated her thinking. Eat first, figure this mess out later. She had one strip of bacon in her belly and another in her mouth before she realized German wasn’t eating. Her jaw chewed to a halt with her molars squishing the meat against the insides of her cheeks.
“You’re not eating.” Grind.
“I was enjoying the view.” Grin.
Swallow. Gulp. He wasn’t lying about that, either.
“Quit staring and eat. You were famished, remember?”
Yeah, she liked his grin lined in the scruff of his day-old beard. Now that they were sitting across a tiny table from one another, she noticed it was pewter gray like the hair on his head. Plus, every strand and whisker had a black tip, like some beautician painstakingly dabbed dye on each one.
But beautiful. The pewter color fit him, even if he was a bit young for the gray. He started eating, and she had to pry her eyes off his jaw line as the muscles bunched and relaxed, bunched and relaxed. “So, are you with me?”
What? Yikes, she’d been staring. “Ah, sure. Why not.”
Why not? How about: I like to roll alone, I prefer to sleep alone, I exist better alone. Her list of anxieties heaped on top of each other like a freeway pile-up. Heat began to shimmer off her skin, like she was a stove and all the burners had suddenly been cranked on high.
“Good. We’ll head back to the farm for my rental and you can get your stuff.”
So casual. Easy. Like he didn’t notice or care she was a social misfit, and a heat-wafting mutant, to boot.
“No.” Effing way. But she elaborated in kinder terms for his sake. Which was not her norm, if she knew what normal was. “I can’t go back there. If I so much as smell that girl…” Sure, Sofe. Go ahead and blow everything. Smell her? Good Lord, he’d think she was a freak then, for sure. “I mean, if I see her.”
He kept grinning.
“I don’t exactly trust myself, you know.”
He seemed to. She saw it in those green eyes because he was holding her with them, not looking askance like he was pretending to understand what she meant. “Yeah, I get it. But you know, at the risk of sounding like a suck-up here, that girl deserved what she got and your dog didn’t.”
Plop. Who ordered tears?
“Shit, I’m sorry.” He sat back in his chair, stuck his hands to his scalp and exhaled grandly, then leaned back in. “Look. I’m an idiot, you know? Not very good at the social thing.”
Sofia nodded at her unfinished plate as the walls closed in around her.
Then she bolted for the door and left what was left of her breakfast to the chiming of the bell over the exit.
Installment #20 coming Saturday January 18, 2014.