Chapter 1: The Stranger
CHAPTER 1: THE STRANGER“There’s that guy again, Regan. Look.”
I looked up to see the guy Shaquanna was referring to. He was the same guy who’d been coming into the coffee shop where I worked as a waitress every day. I didn’t think anything of it. He was probably new in town or just passing through.
He shuffled in and sat down in a booth near the window. He carried a green duffel bag that he dropped on the booth seat next to him. I figured he must be military because his green looked Army issue. I took a moment to study him. His medium brown hair was thick and in need of a haircut. Dark stubble marred his jaw and from this far away, I couldn’t tell what color his eyes were.
“He’s sitting in your section, Regan. As usual.” Shaquanna grinned suddenly. “Why, I think you got yourself a secret admirer,” she said in a fake southern drawl. She gave the man a closer look. “Your mystery man could seriously use a shower, shave, and a haircut.”
I waved a hand dismissively. “It ain’t even like that, Quanna. He probably isn’t even thinking about me.”
She pursed her lips. “So explain to me why he comes here every day and sit in your section? Coincidence? I think not.”
I shrugged, picking up a coaster for his table. “He’s probably a drifter. Just passing through.”
“Well go get him, girl,” adding a growl like a female tiger.
I grinned at her, sneaking another look at the stranger. “Might be interesting though. God knows I could use a little excitement these days.”
I slowly approached the table where the man sat staring at his folded hands. He had large hands with long, slim fingers. The collar of his jacket was turned up, hiding his face from my view. Shaquanna said that he was average looking, handsome even. But then, her idea of handsome wasn’t the same as mine. I suddenly wish I could see his face.
“What can I get for you?” I asked as if I hadn’t been standing there staring at him.
He didn’t look up, but I knew that he’d known that I’d been there the whole time. “Coffee, please,” he said softly.
Something in the tone of his baritone voice made my heart catch a little in my chest. He seemed sad, lonely. Or maybe all that talk Shaquanna was doing about him being my secret admirer was making see things that weren’t there.
“Sure. Anything else?”
He shook his head. “No. Thank you.”
I went back behind the counter. As I poured his coffee, Shaquanna came up beside me. “So? What does he look like?”
I shrugged. “I don’t know. I didn’t really get to see his face. He has a really nice voice though.”
“But you were right there,” Quanna said. She glanced over at the man. “How could you not see him?”
I wiped the side of the cup. “Well he didn’t exactly look at me either.”
“He’s weird if you ask me.” This came from Flo, the older waitress I worked with. She was your typical career waitress with her teased blond hair swept up into a bun, too much makeup and forever popping her gum. She’d been working here at the coffee shop since it opened and all the customers loved her. I even remember coming here with my parents as a kid and seeing Flo. She was ancient but sweet.
“Nah, Flo. He looks harmless,” I said, grabbing a saucer for the cup.
“Don’t let that quiet demeanor fool you, sugar.” Flo said, tucking her pen into her hair. “I’ve seen that same look he wears on his face on some Vietnam and Korean vets. They all seem to have that same quiet, haunted attitude.” She pointed a manicured finger towards the man who sat still staring at his hands. “And if he’s a military man, and I suspect that he is, he’s a killer.”
I couldn’t believe that about the man. “Nah, Flo,” I said again. “He seems too sweet to hurt anyone.”
She picked up the plates for her order. “He’s seen too much or had too much happen to him in life. Don’t get no romantic notions about him, girls. He’s probably as mean as a rattlesnake and just as deadly if cornered.”
Shaquanna and I looked at each other after Flo walked away to deliver the food to her customers. I was sure that she was wrong about the guy.
“She’s crazy,” Shaquanna said softly, saying it for the both of us. “She thinks everyone in the military or police is nuts and gonna snap because her old man did. Shoot, I say go for it, if you want to.”
I glanced at the man again. “Go for what? He’s probably too old for me anyway. Besides, I’m just taking him some coffee. Stop planning my wedding.”
Quanna grinned. “I was only up to the second date, thank you very much.”
“Shaquanna McNeil!” I exclaimed in mock anger.
She shrugged her shoulders. “What? Take your man his coffee.”
With a sigh, I scooped up a handful of creamers and made my way to the table where my customer waited.
“Here you go,” I said, placing the cup in front of him. “Here’s some creamers. Sugar’s right there.” I straightened. “Do you need anything else?”
For the first time since he’d been coming to the shop, he looked up at me. I was entranced by his eyes. They were an odd shade of blue-green with flecks of brown. And very, very sad. A straight nose and high cheekbones added to the lost look he wore. His lips looked soft and inviting but drawn as if he didn’t smile often. His green jacket was open, revealing the red, white, and blue button down that he wore. The shirt was unbuttoned to the third button, revealing a small glimpse of tanned skin dusted with dark hairs.
I looked up to see him regarding me with those pretty eyes. He gave my face the same slow inspection that I’d given his. When he raised his gaze back to mine, I found myself caught up in the intensity of his stare and I stuttered a little.
“Did you want anything else?” I could have kicked myself. I’d already asked him that. Leave, I commanded myself silently.
He shook his head. “No thank you.”
“Okay. Let me know.”
He nodded and I found myself lingering by the table. I just wanted to keep looking at him. I tried to think of something else to say to keep talking to him.
“You can join me if you like.”
With a start, I realized that he was talking to me. “What?”
“I said you can join me if you’d like to,” he repeated, pointing at the empty booth seat across from him.
It was tempting to give in and sit down with him. But I knew I couldn’t. “I can’t. I’m still working.”
The man seemed to sink down into his jacket. One hand slid up to rub at his hair as if embarrassed. “It’s okay. Forget it.”
I realized that I may have hurt his feelings without meaning to. “It’s not that I don’t want to,” I said quickly. “It’s just-”
“Some other time maybe,” he said quietly.
I nodded slowly. “Yeah. Sure. Some other time.”
As soon as I got back behind the counter, Shaquanna was all over me. “You were over there a while. What did he say?”
I shrugged, folding a rag and pretending to wipe at a spot on the counter. “Nothing. I just asked him if he wanted anything else. He said no.”
“He had to have said more than that. You were over there way too long.”
I lifted a shoulder absently. I watched the man as he sipped his coffee and looked out of the window for a minute then stared down into his cup as if it held the answers to the universe. Loneliness radiated from him in waves and I wondered what had happened to him to make him feel that way.
“So you aren’t going to tell me?” Quanna pestered me.
“He asked me to join him.”
“And you declined?” she squealed loudly, causing the man to look up and over in our direction.
“Quanna!” I hissed. “Be quiet! I had to refuse him. You know Joe would have my job if he caught me sitting with a customer on the clock.” I glanced over at the man. His eyes met mine and held. He raised one eyebrow and looked out the window again.
“Damn,” Quanna murmured from beside me. “He’s cute. I bet if he shaved and got a haircut and a change of clothes, he might even be gorgeous.”
I pulled my pad from my apron. “I got an idea.”
“What?” Quanna asked, trying to see what I was writing.
I didn’t answer as I ripped the page from the pad and walked over to his table. “Would you like more coffee?”
He looked up at me and shook his head. “No. Just the check please.”
Smiling, I lay the paper with his order on the table and scooped up the empty cup and saucer and walked away. From my perch behind the counter, I watched him shrug on his jacket before picking up the receipt and reading it. His eyes widened and he turned his head to look at me. He gave me a slight nod of his head and slipped the paper into his pocket. Dropping a few bills on the table, he walked out of the coffee shop.
“What did you write on the paper?” Quanna wanted to know.
“Dang, you’re nosy,” I said smiling. “I just told him his coffee was on the house.” I tossed my rag onto the counter. “Hey Joe, I’m going to take a cigarette break!” I called.
“Yeah sure,” he called back.
Quanna smirked at me. “And since when do you smoke?”
I shrugged. “Maybe I’ll start today.”
Her eyes widened. “And maybe you’re going outside to meet him. Am I right?” When I didn’t answer right away, she grabbed my arm. “So that’s what you wrote on the paper. Oh that’s good. I’m going to have to use that.”
“Feel free. I’ll be back in a few minutes.”
“I want details. I mean it.”
“Sure. There won’t be any.”
I went outside, pulling on my jacket. Almost wearily, I leaned against the wall of the coffee shop. I let my mind stray to the pretty eyed stranger. Would he take the bait and come? Or had I been too forward and scared him off?
Seconds later, I heard soft footsteps and the man came around the side of the building. He paused for a moment, looking around. When he saw me, he slowly began walking towards me.
“Hi,” he said softly, stopping a few feet away from me.
“Hi,” I answered.
He moved to stand next to me and set his bag on the ground at his feet. Leaning back against the wall, he watched me with those amazing eyes, I found that I was unable to look away. Even as scruffy as he was, he was still handsome.
“What’s your name?” I asked quietly.
“Daniel. And yours?”
Regan. Regan Masters.”
He extended his hand and I took it. A jolt went through me as my hand sank into his warm palm. “Nice to meet you,” he said, holding my hand a bit longer than necessary. “Are you from around here?”
I nodded. “Born and raised on the river. What about you?”
“The same as you.”
“You look like a-”
“I wasn’t going to put it quite like that,” I said, looking away from him.
I could feel him smiling though his facial expression never changed. “I just got back into town a few weeks ago. I was looking for someone.”
Damn. I should have known that someone with such pretty eyes would be married. “You’re married?” I asked, trying not to let him hear my disappointment.
“No. No, I’m not. Not anymore that is.” He reached into his pocket and pulled out a picture of a cute little blond boy about a year old. “I haven’t seen him in more than a year. I was deployed a week before he was born and I was only able to get two weeks of leave to see him after he was born.”
So he was military. Flo had been right in her assessment of Daniel. At least part of it. “Where is he now?”
“I assume he is still here.” He sighed heavily. “She won’t let me see him.”
I felt sad for him. “I’m sorry, Daniel,” I said quietly.
He shrugged as if it didn’t bother him. But I knew it did. I glanced down, seeing his left hand for the first time. His index finger and part of the back of his hand were discolored as if someone had peeled the color from his skin.
“Daniel, your hand,” I said. “What happened?”
Instantly, he covered the deformity with his right hand. “I-I got burned. It was an accident.” He leaned forward to make himself more comfortable against the wall and his dog-tags fell free of his shirt. I reached out and took hold of them.
“Sergeant Daniel Bernhardt. Wait. You were the one who won the Medal of Valor, right? For pulling those men out of that burning tank?”
He nodded slowly, not meeting my gaze. He seemed to be having trouble breathing and he closed his eyes as if to ward off the unpleasant memories.
“Are you okay?” I asked softly, putting a hand on his arm. I hurried over to the cardboard disposal bin and pulled two flattened boxes from the top. “Here,” I said, tugging at his arm. “Sit down. Take it easy.”
He sat down next to me, pulling his bag closer to his side. “Sorry,” he mumbled. “I guess I don’t like to think about it.”
“Or talk about it?” I asked, keeping my hand on his arm. He nodded, still not meeting my gaze. “We don’t have to talk about it.” I gave his arm a squeeze. “Are you okay?”
He nodded. Gently, he put his hand over mine. “I thought this was your cigarette break?” he asked. “Won’t they assume you smoked a whole pack by now?”
I grinned. “It is.” When Daniel stared at me quizzically, I continued. “I don’t smoke. And I think it’s unfair that the people that don’t smoke can’t get a break like the people who smoke do.”
“I see your point.”
I noticed that he hadn’t let go of my hand yet. I didn’t mind. His skin was warm against mine. Suddenly, I felt a bit sheepish about lying to my co-workers. “And then I felt bad for not joining you when you offered. It was rude of me. And I wanted to make it up to you.”
“By sharing your smoke break with me? That was nice of you. But I understand why you couldn’t sit with me.”
I smiled relieved that he wasn’t put off by my actions. “Okay.”
“Do you live near here?”
I nodded. “I have an apartment near the school where I take classes.”
He glanced at me. “What do you study?”
“Nice. What do you want to do with it?”
“I think I might like to teach. But what I really want to do is do portraits and stuff. People will pay pretty good for painted portraits. But until I get established, I’ll teach and sling coffee. How about you? What do you do in the Corps?”
“All I know how to do is drive a tank. I was an instructor until I was deployed. I’ve been back about six months. Most of that was spent in the hospital.”
“And you don’t want to do that anymore? Be an instructor I mean?”
That haunted look passed across his face again. “Maybe one day. When I can think about the accident without losing my breath.”
“I understand,” I said. I wanted to change the subject. The sad look on his face was pulling at my heart. “So where are you staying?” I asked to change the subject.
“I rent a room over on Fuller St. You know the place that used to be a hotel? Well now it’s a tenement house. It’s adequate. I’ve lived with less.”
I glanced at my watch. “I’d better get back before they come looking for me.” What I really wanted to do was keep talking with him. But I needed my job too. “Will you come tomorrow?”
“Will you have a cigarette break tomorrow?”
He nodded. “Then I will come tomorrow.” He stood and offered his hand. I let him pull me to my feet. For a moment, he held me close. Close enough to stare into his pretty eyes. His gaze flickered down to my lips and back. “Can I see you again?” He looked around the alley where we’d been talking. “Not here. Somewhere nice where I can get to know you.”
I nodded slowly. “I’d like that.”
I frowned. “I get off at 7. Maybe we could walk along the boardwalk down by the pier?”
His thumbs were making small circles along the backs of my hands. “Okay,” he agreed. “Whatever you want to do is fine with me.”
My hands suddenly felt cold when he let go of them. Stooping, he picked up his bag and together we walked back to the front of the coffee shop.
“See you tomorrow?” I said, suddenly shy.
He nodded, his lips just curving slightly. “See you tomorrow.”
Looks like I had a date for tomorrow.