“Just one sip, then.” Carl leaned forward again. “Come on, Mia. You’re scaring me.”
She took a sip and the tart flavor woke her up a bit. She took another sip and soon found she could drink more of it than she expected.
“That’s better.” Carl sat back. “Your color is perking up.”
“Thanks. I guess I’m dehydrated. It’s so busy at the restaurant.”
“You need to keep drinking. And eating.” He waved Tracey back. “A club sandwich and fries for Mia. I’ll have tomato soup and grilled cheese.”
Tracey hurried away again. Mia kept drinking her juice. “I can’t remember my assignment.”
“Screw the assignment.”
Mia blinked at his tone.
“Mia, you’re pushing yourself too hard.”
“Says the self-made millionaire.” She pushed the empty juice glass away. “I have to push myself hard. I have to get my business running.”
“I wasn’t pregnant when I made my millions.”
“It’s not going to get any easier for me. When I’m done being pregnant, I’ll have a newborn. I’ll need to get a sitter all the time. Then what?” She hadn’t meant to sound so angry.
“You’re right. It’s never going to be easy being a single mom.”
A rush of tears filled Mia’s eyes. “I didn’t want to be a single mom. I never meant any of this to happen. I mean—I want my baby, but…”
“I know.” Carl took her hand. “Look, you’re tired. You’re working too hard. You’re not getting enough sleep. It will get better; I promise.”
“You don’t know that. What if it doesn’t? What if I can’t do it? What if I’m a lousy mom? What if I’m a lousy wedding planner?”
Carl handed her his napkin and patted her hand. He didn’t say anything more, just let her cry, for which Mia was eternally grateful. She mopped up her face as best she could. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean…”
“You don’t need to apologize. I’m the one who should say I’m sorry. I keep trying to slow down—to stop being a businessman all the time—and here I am teaching you to be just like I used to be.” He played with his fork. “When I left Chance Creek, I spent months hiking the Sierra Nevadas. It was easy to be a different person there. Now that I’m back in civilization, my good habits are slipping away.”
“Why do you want to change the way you do things? It’s obviously worked for you.” Mia wiped away the last of her tears and pushed the napkin aside.
“Because it hasn’t worked for me—aside from the millions. I keep getting the rest of it wrong. Look at me—no wife, no children. I can’t even find a house.”
“I bet you could get a wife and kids like that if you wanted.” Mia snapped her fingers.
“I don’t want just any wife. I want a woman to love me. Me—not my millions.”
Mia nodded. “I get that, but there are lots of single women in Chance Creek. I bet you’ll find one.”
“That’s what I’m counting on.” His sheepish grin made Mia smile for the first time that day.
There was Carl Whitfield, sitting with Mia. Holding her hand. Caressing it.
The slow burn in Luke’s gut grew to a hot flame. This time he could only see the back of Mia’s head from where he sat tucked into a corner booth at the front of the diner, but he could see every expression on Carl’s face. His tender concern. His determination. The man was using every trick in the book to snare her.
A half-hour later, he ducked down and turned aside when Mia rushed from the restaurant, so when Carl dropped down in the seat across from him shortly afterward, Luke jerked with surprise.
“Buddy, you’re a lousy spy.” Carl rested his elbows on the table. “You suck as a boyfriend, too. Mia’s got to slow down. She didn’t look well at all when she came in.”
“Why are you telling me? You’re the one she wants to be with. You’ve gotten exactly what you wanted, didn’t you? You laid the trap and she stepped right in.”
Carl rolled his eyes. “How many times do I have to tell you; she doesn’t want to be with me, she wants to learn from me—about running her business. Look, if I wanted to seduce Mia I wouldn’t take her to a diner. I’d fly her to Paris or Rome. She’d never know what hit her. Like I said before—she’s too young for me. And she’s too in love with you, God knows why. Why don’t you pull your act together and do something about it?”
“Like help her, you fucking idiot. Like buy in to her dream. Like be her friend instead of spending all your time trying to get in her pants.” Carl stood up. Threw a business card down on the table. “I’m not going to make a play for Mia, no matter what you think, but if you don’t fix yourself up soon, someone else sure will. You want to have a real conversation about what you could do to help her make her business a success, you give me a call.”
“You’ve done such a fantastic job,” Rose said happily two days later as Mia showed her the menu Fila and Camila had come up with for her wedding. Rose and Cab had chosen to hold their reception in the Cruz guesthouse and the meal would be served buffet style, as befitted a casual affair.
“Fila and Camila worked hard to pick entrees that wouldn’t be too sloppy to eat.” Not an easy trick with all the sauces they served.
“Good idea.” Rose smiled. “I can’t believe it’s finally happening. And you know what? I’ve made up my mind. I’m going to exhibit my paintings after the wedding—just as soon as I can find a gallery or other space willing to show them.”
“That’s terrific! You must be so excited to see your art career take off.”
“It hasn’t taken off yet but I hope it will.”
“I’m sure it will. Let’s go over the flower arrangements one last time.”
Mia felt better today. She’d made sure to eat a full dinner—sitting down—during one of the slow periods at the restaurant the night before. Camila had called everyone she knew and found a woman looking for a part-time job who would come in today to help work the counter. Fila had bought Mia a stool to sit on, too, although she rarely got the chance. Maybe that would change with an extra person up front.
Plus she had her meeting with Luke to look forward to this afternoon at Linda’s Diner. She thought meeting in a public place was a good idea. Maybe it would force both of them to keep their tempers under control until they could talk their issues through.