Arriving for her evening shift at The Brick Oven, the sight of cars jamming the parking lot might have made Sara Mullaney’s coworkers groan. But Sara saw what no one else could: possibility. The economic downturn had hit this area of North Carolina hard, from restaurants to farmers. But with a vision for the future honed since high school, she knew how to make them both strong again.
Her plan was already taking shape.
Pulling her long blonde hair into a ponytail, she rushed to the employee entrance and pressed the buzzer. “Hey Kev.” She flashed a smile at the server who opened the door.
He closed the door behind her. “Oh good, I thought maybe everyone called off tonight.”
Hanging up her jacket, she threw a glance over her shoulder. “Not Amy again?”
He scowled. “And Jared.”
“Damn.” With that crowded dining room, she wouldn’t have a moment of rest. “Can’t we call someone else in to cover?”
He arranged six plates on a tray and hoisted it to his shoulder. “Tried. Apparently everyone’s out.”
Or checked caller ID before answering. Sometimes she hated college kids. Especially because she wanted to be one again.
“We’ll be fine.” Her false bravado drew a lopsided grin from Kevin before he pushed through the door to the dining room. It faded as he passed the manager.
Mr. Walker bustled in. “Sara, deliver these dinners before they get cold. The hostess filled in and took orders, but she can’t do it all night.”
Ignoring his slight, she grabbed a tray and stacked plates onto it. Food still steaming, she noted. Pointing that out to Walker would be a useless exercise. “Right away.”
She hustled into the noisy dining room toward Table 16, to the left of the bar. Setting the tray on the stand, she balanced four plates and carried them to the table. “Sorry for the wait, folks. Who had the steak?”
“Mierda santa,” murmured a man, who quickly added more loudly, “I did.”
The familiar deep voice wound down her spine. She froze when she met the dark stare of Ravelo Pena. That stare – like black diamonds – always cut her to the core. Especially at close range. She completely agreed with his first statement: holy shit.
What the hell was he doing back in town?
The blonde to his left leaned into him. “Mine is the shrimp scampi, if you were wondering.”
A none too subtle reminder to get moving. Sara set the dishes on the table.
Shrimp, rhyming with pimp, and trampy. Okay, that was a stretch, but with her brassy hair and Botoxed complexion, that’s how Sara would’ve remembered her order. “Here you go. Fettuccini alfredo?” As she passed the other plates, she felt the weight of his intense gaze but managed to avert her own. “Anything else?”
Ravelo’s brow spiked up. “Yeah.”
The tray slipped in her hand. The last time he looked at her that way, his hand had snaked down her panties. The next week, he’d left for college. She hadn’t heard from him since. So much for eternal devotion. “Yes sir?”
He visibly stifled a smirk and held up a beer bottle. “Another one of these.”
“I’ll have a margarita.” The blonde arched her brows too, but not in appreciation.
“Coming up.” Supressing her sigh, Sara couldn’t get away fast enough.
A man at Table 18 across the aisle sneered, “We need someone to take our order here.”
“Be right with you.” People at a few other tables watched with angry stares, the hostile-hungry look Sara dreaded.
As she passed, the man grabbed her arm. “We’ve been waiting twenty minutes.”
Shrugging from his grasp, Sara forced a polite tone. “I apologize for your wait. We’re short staffed tonight.”
The man opened his mouth, but let out only a grunt, narrowing his eyes while raising his head. She didn’t need the man to say anything else. Her body sensed every inch of Ravelo standing behind her.
Rav spoke in a low, controlled voice. It conveyed danger, but also provocation. “If you expect any service, I suggest you keep your hands to yourself.”
Yeah, like Ravelo had, she wanted to add, but blanked her expression, not revealing nervousness or annoyance. Nothing but patience. Like the boss said, the customer was always right, even if he was an asshole. It took more control than usual when Ravelo’s presence caused her body temperature to rise a few degrees.
“Now look here, boy.” The man shifted his big belly around the table as if to rise.
Boy? Sara stepped toward him, and shot a glance at Ravelo, not long enough to get lost in his deep, dark eyes, or imagine those buff biceps locking around her. He’d grown up quite nicely. The bastard.
To Rav, she whispered, “Please sit. I’ll take care of this.” In a normal tone, she added, “Thank you, sir. I’ll be right back with your drinks, if you stay seated.” She stressed the last. To the others, she said, “And I’ll take your orders next. Can I get you anything from the bar in the meantime?”
Not that assholes improved with alcohol, but the man might temporarily forget his hunger. Her breath uncurled as Ravelo returned to his table, though not before shooting a hard glare at the man.
Though he stayed silent, Sara found it almost impossible. She’d grown tired of those who’d lived in town all their lives and leapt at any opportunity to prove their superiority. Rav used to cringe whenever anyone called him ‘boy.’
After taking their drink order and heading for the bar, her neck hairs prickled at hearing the man mutter, “Slimy jerk. I’d like to take him down a peg or two.”
Unbelievable that the same prejudices they’d dealt with as kids still existed. An uneasy glance reassured her Ravelo might have changed. Oblivious to the jerks across the aisle, he tilted his head toward the woman speaking close to his ear. His gaze locked with Sara’s, sending a shot of warmth through her sure as an injection of tequila through her veins.
No, nothing had changed for her either, dammit. Though he’d neatly forgotten her years ago.
After her scholarship ran out, she’d come home while he finished college. Waitressing paid the bills while she took night classes, but Ravelo appeared to be on the fast track to success, leaving them worlds apart.
Sara glanced at his blonde companion. Yep, he’d moved on in every way.
Delivering the drink orders, she found it ironic some might now see her as a failure, while he enjoyed success. Her parents wouldn’t see it that way. They’d made her life hell while she dated him in high school, never tiring of listing aloud the myriad ways in which Ravelo Pena was wrong for her.
At the time, she didn’t care if Rav was wrong for her. He made her happier than she’d ever been.
She brushed away those thoughts. In time, she’d turn things around. She had plans.
“Have you decided on dessert?” She swept her gaze around the table, holding Ravelo’s a little too long.
The blonde bristled. “I’ve decided I want another waitress.”
Stunned, Sara kept her tongue, and her temper, in check.
Rav leaned away. “I think we’re done.”
No need to remind her. His disappearance long ago had made it abundantly clear.
The woman’s icy glare made Sara’s blood boil. Did she view her as competition? Or white trash? She hoped for the chance to someday prove neither was accurate.
Flipping her hair behind her shoulder, the blonde sighed. “Yes, let’s get the hell out of here.”
To where? Her place? The sting of imagining their silhouettes against a bedroom window surprised Sara. “I’ll be right back with your check.”
Already, this night felt too long. Turning toward the kitchen, she instinctively swatted at the obnoxious man’s arm as he reached for her again.
“Hey bitch.” The table shook when he struggled to a stand. “If you think I’m paying to be treated like lowlife, think again. Let’s go.”
Sara could hold back no longer. “Is that your scam? Harass the waitress for a free meal?”
Hurrying toward them, panic filled Kevin’s face. “Everything all right here?” He tilted his head with an imperceptible nod toward the kitchen.
While the customer ranted at Kevin, a glance revealed what he meant to warn her: Mr. Walker hastened toward them through the aisles. Despite Kevin’s soothing tone, the customer’s voice rose. Yeah, the guy intended on a freebie, and apparently wasn’t about to give it up without a fight.
Walker ushered them all to the exit. “We’re very sorry. It won’t happen again.” He shot Sara a sharp glance. The prompt for her to jump in any time with an apology.
Steeling herself, she returned his sharp glance. Fat chance. “I won’t be manhandled.” Or belittled by management. To her disappointment, Kevin stood silent.
The manager’s chest swelled, and he spoke on a heavy sigh when the customer renewed his argument. “We’ll comp your meal. This time.”
Biting her lip, Sara couldn’t hold back a frustrated breath before brushing past. “I have to ring up a bill for a paying customer.”
His tone cool and snide, the man called, “The one you’d rather be manhandled by?”
Heat flashed across her face. The son of a bitch.
Only the manager’s glare held her in check, but she silently challenged Mr. Walker to defend her. He didn’t.
Humiliation burned deep.
She kept her focus on the floor while delivering the slip to Ravelo’s table. “Thank you. Have a great night.” Hers was shot to hell, with no hope of improvement. It worsened when she cleared a table in the next aisle, watching in her peripheral vision as Ravelo and company moved toward the exit. Allowing herself a full glimpse, tension left her when he aimed a warm smile at her. The plate she held slipped onto the floor, shattering.
“Damn.” Bending, she swept the bits with a napkin.
Kevin appeared with a broom and dustpan. “What’s with you tonight?”
Not Ravelo. The sudden image of her sitting beside him at the table where the other blonde had sat arrested her. No, he obviously preferred his women a little more brittle these days. She let the movements of Kevin’s sweeping clean away that thought too.
“Good question.” She thought she’d put the past behind her.
She never expected it to slam home again.
Just past midnight, the last customer left the restaurant.
“Finally.” A hot shower to strip the stink of this place from her, and a warm bed, and Sara would be content.
Kevin helped her clear the last two tables. “Throw your dishes in my bucket.”
Her head snapped up when the manager called “Sara,” from the front desk.
With a good-natured wink, Kevin scooped up the last of the silverware. “Can’t escape the lecture.”
Unfortunately. Sighing, she wiped her hands on the rag. “Don’t wait for me.”
His grin faded. “Are you sure?”
After Sara had mentioned how dark the employee parking spaces at the back of the lot had grown since spring filled out the tree branches and blocked the light, Kevin had walked Sara to her car.
Tossing her napkin atop the pile of dishes, she sighed. “Yeah. This could take awhile. Have a good one.”
Hoisting the bucket, he grinned. “Good luck.”
Patience would be better. She might unleash her frustration on this jerk. “Yes?”
His chest billowed, but he only briefly met her gaze. “I’m disappointed in your behavior tonight.”
“My behavior?” Anger flashed to the surface.
He sharpened his tone. “We can’t afford a bad reputation. I’m going to have to let you go.”
“You can’t be serious.” No other decent-paying restaurant in twenty miles would hire her. They weren’t hiring, period.
With finality, he stressed, “Completely serious.”
He held up a hand. “Clock out. We’ll mail you your final pay.”
“You prick.” The words escaped before she could contain them. “You stood there and apologized to that asshole knowing full well he was wrong.”
“Clock out, Sara.” Walker looked down his nose at her. “Now.”
“Gladly. If you can’t treat your workers with any respect, I don’t want to work here.” Striding to the kitchen, she tried not to think of the bills waiting to be paid.
Leaning against the stainless steel counter, Kevin straightened. “How’d it go?”
About the same as the rest of this night. After inserting her time card into the machine, she filed it into the rack for the last time. “He fired me.”
“No way.” Frowning, Kevin fell into step with her.
His kindness made the rest of the ugliness appear worse. “I was going to quit anyway.” After a year or so.
“Hey, if you need a place to crash, you’re always welcome at my place.”
Putting on a brave face, she felt her smile go crooked. “Thanks.” She pulled him into a hug, which turned awkward when his release came slower than hers. “I guess I’ll see you around.”
Lightning streaked across the sky as they stepped outside. Spattering drops quickly turned to a downpour. Pressing the button on her keychain, she sprinted toward her car’s headlights and climbed inside. Shifting into first, she honked the horn and pulled out, trying not to notice the gas gauge hovering at a quarter of a tank. One more thing to worry about.
Too much had been left to chance lately. Maybe being fired was a good thing. Her plans would either work, or not. But now she’d be forced to learn the truth, either way.
Just the Right Amount of Wrong