Of all the people I might have imagined seeing today through the windows of this graying warehouse, Seth had not made the top ten. Not even the top one hundred.
The older man next to me cleared his throat, causing me to tear my gawking eyes away from the window where a ladder had cast a long shadow across our work stations. Not to mention the man on said ladder whose unexpected appearance made my steady hands quake.
“He’ll be done soon enough, Suzi-Q.” My mentor’s voice cut into my thoughts, his designated nickname for me still startling. Fred’s round eyes peered over his wire-rims, “All those windows are a blessing to the artists, but they can be a curse too when the sea winds kick up sand and dirt.”
I nodded, my mind not completely connecting with my new mentor’s explanation of why the wall of northerly windows needed cleaning. Maybe I was hallucinating. Maybe the man on the ladder only resembled Seth, and my mind had gone too fuzzy to recognize that fact. Surely the aromatic swirl of oil paints and glossy finishes could have such an effect on a person. I drew in a carefully filtered breath and tried again to focus on the man at my side.
With his cherry red cheeks, featherlike white hair and round spectacles, Fred reminded me of jolly old Saint Nick. Considering the array of raw materials spread all around us on every shelf and table top, this drafty building could pass for a toy shop too. Without all the elves and hilarity, of course.
“Now see these here?” He pointed to a tray of metal tools in varying degrees of size and sharpness and didn’t wait for me to answer. “Each one has a purpose all its own. Here.” He placed a cold strip of metal into my hand. “Go ahead and roll it around in your palm.”
I did as I was told, glancing at the object, trying to memorize its size and shape, while also predicting the type of work I might use it for some time. “It’s heavy,” I said.
He nodded. “That it is. You’ll want to use that mainly for wood. If you try to wield it across anything lighter than that, you’ll be in danger of damaging the piece.”
Heavy. Had its own purpose. Got it. Outside, the ladder scraped across metal, sending out a high-pitch screech. It took all my will-power not to turn and gawk at the man who carried a bucket and wielded a squeegee. But if I didn’t do so soon, I might continue the notion that Seth, the man I’d left years ago, had found his way to Otter Bay. The idea was…was…well, it was crazy.
A whirling concoction of fuschia-colored fabric and cinnamon-laced perfume lofted into the studio and landed next to me. Her name was Letty and we had met less than a week before, yet who could tell? She was blunt and honest, too much so to mess with surface pleasantries. So she had given me the two-minute version of her life-story and quickly assessed me in one, long, flowing stroke. “You are a people-pleaser. And you have stars in your eyes.” She reached over then and thumbed through my portfolio, the one I’d pulled together in a valiant effort to acquire a job restoring art at the famed Hearst Castle. “Dang, you can paint, though.”
Frankly, I let her believe what she wanted. No need to tell her the gritty details of my past. In the brief time that we’d known each other, I’d decided one thing: Letty made biding my time here as a restoration artist apprentice in this warehouse much, much easier.
She stood close, her black hair wrapped in a chocolate-tinted scarf, the spicyness of her perfume tickling my nose. “You do sushi?”
I tilted my chin. “I can honestly tell you that I do not.”
“Do not what?”
“Well. It is a shame.”
I owed her a snappy comeback, but my attention stood divided. How stupid. What was I thinking? The man out there on that ladder could not be Seth. Seth’s hair had length and wave, and, well, it had always been rather moppish. A trademark look for him, but this man wore his hair short in soft spikes. To better highlight his eyes. I swallowed my own gasp and flashed Letty a grin. “But I’m happy to give sushi a try. For you.”
Letty puckered her nose and mouth. “Hey, do not put yourself out on my account.”
“Come on, Letty. You angry with me?”
She plunked herself into a chair, and twirled the fringed edge of her scarf. “Me, mad? Nah. I just like to see you squirm.” She rested her chin on the backs of curled fingers. “You’re just such a goody two shoes. I will break you of this yet.”
I laughed and slid a look at Fred who only offered a brief shrug and no comment. I glanced back at Letty. “Oh brother. Who says ‘goody two shoes’ anymore? And what does that have to do with eating sushi anyway?”
“Was that a spark of fire that crossed your face?” she asked, her voice nearly-taunting me. She turned to our boss. “I think I may have finally offended our Suz here.”
Fred scratched his head, leaving a plume of feathery hair to stand aloft on his crown. “Doesn’t look offended to me. Did you want to offend my newest apprentice?”
She leaned back and laughed into the rafters before jerking herself upright. “Okay, you and I, we are going to do some sushi. Tonight. I know the cheapest dive in town. The only place I ever dine out.”
Fred cut in, his mouth quirked downward in defeat. “I think this would be a good time for a break, Suz. I will return in twenty minutes with a picture of the cabin, if you’re interested.” He shuffled off.
Letty leaned in. “Cabin?”
I kept my voice neutral. “I’m hoping to move soon and Fred mentioned that he and his wife own a cabin that they rent out.”
Letty’s voice rose. “The one in the woods? Isn’t that occupied?”
“The renters are leaving soon. A job transfer, I think.”
Letty seemed perturbed. Maybe she was annoyed that I’d skirted her dinner invitation. I set down the tool that I’d been rolling over and over in my hand until every bit of its cold surface had turned warm. She watched me in silence for once, her eyes piercing, as if wanting to know more about my desire for new digs. The reason was simple, but I wasn’t about to divulge it, nor anything else about my past.
I set the tool down and smiled. “Tell you what. I promised Jeremiah I’d take him to the Red Abalone Grill tonight. Not so sure about sushi being on the menu but everything’s good. Wanna come?”
She hesitated. “Sure he won’t mind me butting in on your date?”
“He’s four. He’ll get over it.”
She sighed. “The elbows on the table, the toothless grin…the eating with the mouth open. Hm, it has been a long time since I have had dinner with a man.” She slapped the workbench. “I will take it.”
“Hey, thanks for all the compliments on my parenting skills.” Even as I said it, a slight twist tugged at my insides. “See you at six?”
Before she could answer, a thump against the wall drew our attention to that expanse of windows outside. Seth’s lookalike stood at the base of the extended ladder, slid it sideways, his eyes drawn upward. And not on me. Shadows played down the length of his arms exposed at the elbows by upturned sleeves, his muscles moving reflexively.
“My,” Letty said. “I think I need to call a man about some windows.”
“Really? Thought your landlady had the whole house done last weekend.” I grinned. “Or did they miss your room?”
Letty pushed her chin forward. Her black eyes flashed. “I do not rent a room. It is a cabana, Suz. A cabana.”
She’s embarrassed about her rooming situation. Check. At least she pays her own way and doesn’t have to rely on a generous older brother to provide shelter for her. And her child.
“It was a joke. Sorry.”
She batted her hand. “No sorry. Just consider yourself lucky. If I had not committed to dinner with you and that little one of yours, I might have turned to a hottie window washer instead.”
“Well then. I must live right.”
She fixed her eyes on the windows again. “Then again…” Letty gaped at me. “Can you explain why that guy is ogling you?”
I would remember that moment for the rest of my life. Until now, I had been playing with the dream, wondering if the man outside the window could be my old love, yet unwilling to garner his attention, stare him boldly in the face, and come to a conclusion. Was it just a fanciful dream brought on by a life not working according to plan, not to mention the finger-numbing temperature in this drafty studio warehouse? Or had Seth coincidentally landed in the same small town as I had just a few months ago?
The man had stopped his work and stood, peering through the window, one strong arm still propped against the ladder. And I knew…it was him.
The diner bustled for a Tuesday night. As usual, Mimi wove in and around booths, swinging a coffee pot, but both Peg, the diner’s owner, and her niece who helped run the place, Holly, still hung around.
Holly pulled up in front of us, gathering menus. “The three of you tonight? Then follow me.”
She whisked us to an open table along the side wall where windows offered a glimpse of the sea. Nights still came too early this time of year and the sun had already begun its descent, but there was no mistaking the bubble and churn of the ocean at twilight.
“Hey there, Jeremiah,” Holly said. “Bet you’d like some hot chocolate with marshmallows on top.”
Jer looked at me for quick approval, and when he received it, he nodded vigorously.
Holly laughed. “All right, and for you, ladies? Suz, you usually like chai about now, am I right?”
“I’ve seen your friend around town but never in here before.” She smacked her order pad on the table and reached out a hand. “I’m Holly. Welcome to my home away from home.”
“Gracias. Letty. And I will have a cup of your strongest coffee. Black.”
Holly nodded then picked up her order pad again, drawing my attention to her unusual clothing. I was glad for the distraction. “You’re not wearing your uniform tonight, Holly. Pretty dress. Going somewhere?”
A blush crossed her face and she dropped in a mini-curtsy. “Thanks for noticin’. Yeah, I’ve got a date.” She glanced over toward the kitchen. “Tryin’ to get out of here, but my aunt Peg’s got a bee up her bonnet tonight for some reason.”
“Sorry to hear it.”
“Eh. It’s less and less these days so you won’t hear me complainin’. I already went home once, but she called me back. Anyway, I hope to get to the back office soon.” She patted her head. “Have to do somethin’ with this mess of hair.”
Letty’s eyes flashed wide. “Tell me you are kidding! Don’t you know how much women pay to have hair like that? No, no, no, do not give in to the comb and brush. Just leave it as is.”
Holly smiled. “You think?”
“I do not think—I know.”
“Well, then. Thank you. Considerin’ he’s pickin’ me up here any sec, I’m relieved to hear it.” Her smile brightened her face. “I’ll be back in a New York minute with all your drinks.”
Letty glanced at me. “That was fun.”
I nodded. “She’s a character, isn’t she? Holly’s known for being able to snag all the eligible surfers in town, but she’s too precious to resent.” I jerked my head up. “Not like I’m into chasing surfers or anything.”
Jer, as I liked to call him, giggled. “She’s nice. She makes good pancakes—with whipped cream!”
Letty’s eyes grew wide again. “Whipped cream? Maybe I will have to order that for my dinner.”
Jer dropped his head in an avalanche of giggles. “You can’t have whipped cream for dinner.” He poked me with one tiny forefinger. “Tell her, mama. Whipped cream is only for dessert.”
“And breakfast?” Letty asked.
Jer smacked himself in the face with his hands. “Oh yeah. For breakfast!”
Holly appeared with three drinks on a tray. “Here we go. Jer, your chocolate is just the right temp’rature for you.” She spoke while serving us. “I’ll be takin’ your orders now, and Mimi will be bringin’ them to you. Now don’t you worry, you’ll be in good hands.”
After scribbling down our orders, she took off in a hurry. I played with the handle of my mug, but didn’t take a sip. Jeremiah ate two marshmallows off the top of his drink.
Letty stared. “You want to talk about the window washer with the sizzling eyes?” She leaned into the table, zeroing in on me. “The one who ran off like a wounded buck after taking one long look at you?”
Jer slurped his chocolate. “What’s a buck?”
Letty patted his hand. “A wild animal. Drink your chocolate, honey.”
I took a sip, allowing myself time to answer, but I knew she wouldn’t let up. “He’s…he was an old friend.” I sighed. “We didn’t part on very good terms, though.”
“But I thought you weren’t from around here.”
A coy smile upturned the corner of her mouth. “So, perhaps he has followed you.”
I shook my head. “Not possible. He didn’t know I was here. It’s all just a…a fluke.”
Jer had already emptied half his mug of chocolate, much of it on his upper lip. “What’s a fluke?”
Letty shook her head. “Phwee. There is no such thing, young Jeremiah. Everything is part of the plan with a capital P. The man up stairs—he knows what he’s doing.”
Jer scrunched up his face. “What man’s upstairs?”
“I meant God, Jeremiah. He knows what he is doing. And he has his mother, Mary, and all his saints to help him. You know that, right?”
I rubbed my lips together and peered at my son whose furrowed soft brow displayed his confusion. Fluke, or chance, whatever we earthlings called it, was a deep concept to explain to a four year old, especially when mixed with theology. “She means that God is in complete control of our lives and that we shouldn’t worry about things that happen.” I looked to her. “Isn’t that right, Letty?”
“Yes. Amen. So. You going to talk to him?”
“You mean like make amends?”
“That’s one way to break the ice, I guess. Hey, I’d stick an olive branch in my teeth if it meant I’d be invited up close and personal.”
“You are so weird!” I sighed. “It’s been so many years. That look you saw on his face told me all I needed to know.”
“And what might that be?”
“That of all the places he could have landed in this great country of ours, why’d he have to pick the one with the most wretched woman from his past?”
Jer’s cup fell over. Fortunately, it had already been drained. “What’s wretched?” he asked.
Mimi blew toward us, a full tray of steaming food on her tray. “Here we are,” she said, as she began placing the food before us. “Can I get you anything else…oh, looky here.”
We all turned. Seth had just walked into the diner, looking tall and sharp in dark pants, a denim blue shirt, and a casual blazer. He was alone.
Letty grabbed my hand and hissed. “Invite him to sit with us!”
I jerked my hand away and dropped my gaze to the chopped cob salad in front of me. Twice in one day? What was he doing here? Lord, I’ve prayed for you to show me the transgressions that have gotten me to this place in life. Could he have chosen this public place for me to make amends with a man I once hurt?
Letty’s sudden, deflated, “Oh,” pulled me from my thoughts.
Holly greeted Seth. They exchanged some words, and although I tried, I couldn’t make them out. Then he held the door open for her. Just before leaving, Holly turned her head toward us and with a wide smile mouthed the words: This is him.