CHAPTER 2: TRUST ME“Why are you so all-fired cheerful today?” Shaquanna asked, eyeing me.
I glanced at my watch again for probably the millionth time since I got to work at 10.
“And you’ve been looking at your watch all day. I mean, damn. What is it that you gotta do that’s so important?”
“I got a date.”
“Daniel. You know.” I lifted a shoulder, indicating the empty table where Daniel always sat.
“Hold on. You mean Scruffy?”
“His name is Daniel. And he’s very nice.”
Shaquanna grinned. “Hey Flo. Guess what? Regan is going out with Scruffy-man tonight.”
“Say what?” Flo came over, snapping hard on her gum. “You might want to leave him alone, sugar. Trust me when I say them military men ain’t nothing to play with.”
I neatly folded the towel in my hands. “He seems nice. And besides, I need a little excitement in my life.”
“Not that kind,” Flo mumbled under her breath.
“Listen Flo. I’m not talking about marriage. It’s just a date. A little fun. Someone to hang with. That’s all.”
“Is he going to pick you up from your apartment?”
I shrugged. “No. He’s going to meet me here after I get off of work.”
“I’m not stupid, Quanna,” I said quietly.
“Well good luck is all I can say,” she said, flicking me with her towel.
“Be careful.” That was from Flo.
I kept my retort to myself. I didn’t understand why Quanna was acting the way she was when she was the one saying that he liked me and I should go for it and all. Then when I did, she and Flo all of a sudden had a problem with it. Forget them. I was going to have a good time tonight. I worked the rest of my shift all the while counting the minutes until I could get off.
Finally it was time to go. Daniel had yet to show up. But I wouldn’t panic just yet that he’d stood me up. He could be waiting outside for me. Shaquanna came up to me.
“So where’s Scruffy? I thought you said he was going to meet you here?”
“He isn’t late, Quanna.”
“I bet he isn’t coming,” Flo said from behind me. “Maybe he’s thought better of asking you out. He is a bit older than you are. Still another reason not to get involved with him.”
I wouldn’t let them sow the seeds of doubt in my mind about Daniel. He’d said he was coming and I would believe him until he proved me wrong.
I looked up as the door swung open and a man stood in the shadowy doorway. My heart began to beat a little faster. And though I couldn’t see his features, I knew it was Daniel.
And sure enough, when Daniel stepped fully into the coffee shop, my heart really began to pound. He was gorgeous! He’d shaved and trimmed his hair. A gray T-shirt peeped up from the oversized denim jacket that was the same stonewashed color as his jeans. He wore a shiny pair of boots instead of the scuffed ones that he’d worn yesterday.
“I say hot damn,” Shaquanna said from beside me. “He isn’t so scruffy now.”
“Hmm,” I agreed as I watched him approach. He ambled towards the counter, his eyes never leaving mine.
“He certainly cleans up nice,” Flo observed. “But don’t let that fool you.”
Daniel stopped at the counter. He slipped his hands into his pockets. “Hi,” he said quietly. “I’m sorry I’m late. It took longer than I thought it would at the barber shop.” He ran his right hand through his hair nervously.
“It’s okay. We got a little busy in here anyway. So it would have been me that was late.”
“I would have waited for you.”
A sudden warmth spread through me at his words. Flo had to be wrong about him. He wasn’t the crazy nutcase her husband had been. Daniel was sweet. And-
Someone elbowed me. I turned glaring eyes to Quanna who was staring at Daniel. She inclined her head towards him.
“Oh yeah. This is Shaquanna McNeil and Flo Privette. Ladies, meet Daniel Bernhardt.”
Daniel shook hands with each woman. “Nice to meet you both.” He looked back at me. “Are you ready to go?”
“Oh yeah. Let’s get out of here.” I handed Quanna my apron. She was still staring at Daniel as if she couldn’t believe her eyes. I couldn’t help but smile. “And I’ll bid you ladies a good evening.”
Quanna grabbed my arm as I passed her. “I want details,” she whispered, finally finding her voice. “I mean it. You’d better call me.”
“Yeah sure.” I walked around the counter to where Daniel waited. “Let’s go.”
And he followed me out with a last wave to my still gaping co-workers. Once outside, I turned to him. “So where are you parked? I was thinking you could follow me. I want to go home and change real quick if that’s okay.”
“I think you look fine the way you are.”
“Well thanks, but I don’t feel fine. It won’t take me but a second to change.” I looked around the parking lot. “Where’s your car?”
Daniel shrugged. “I don’t have a car.”
“Ok. Well come on then. You can ride with me. You don’t mind, do you?”
He shook his head, opening the driver’s side for me. “No. I don’t mind. But you don’t need to go through a bunch of changes for me.”
I paused. I could feel the heat of his body even though he wasn’t standing that close to me. “Why do I get the feeling that no one has ‘gone through changes’ for you?”
His eyes widened and I knew that I’d hit on at least a piece of what made him always wear that sad look. “No I guess they haven’t,” he admitted softly. “And I’ve come to expect nothing.”
“Well I want to,” I said, surprising not only him but myself. “You went and got a shave and haircut for me, so why shouldn’t I give you the same courtesy?”
“You’re going to shave and cut your hair?”
I glanced at him quickly, thinking that he was being smart. But the twinkle in his eyes let me know that he was teasing me.
“No silly,” I said, smiling. “But I would like to wear something other than this uniform.”
He stood for a moment, his hand on the door, staring at me. “I knew you were different,” he murmured.
“What do you meant?”
“I’ll tell you later. Get in.”
I slid behind the wheel and stared up at him through the window, a sudden fierce longing going through me. How was it that I could feel this way for a man that I hardly knew? And as he settled into the seat beside me, I knew what it was. Both of us were lonely. Him perhaps more than me. And that’s what called to me, what drew me to him. I wanted to erase whatever it was that had made him unhappy. I wanted to see him smile.
“What?” he asked, noticing that I was staring at him. “Have you changed your mind? Do you want me to get out?”
“N-no,” I stammered.
And then understanding passed over his features and he leaned towards me to whisper. “It’s why I came to the coffee shop every day when I don’t much like coffee. It’s why I asked you out tonight. I feel it too. And I want to see how far it can go.”
I frowned. “How-”
He tapped his fingers over his heart. “I believe that kindred spirits find each other. I believe that. Or at least I used to.”
He shook his head. “Life and war have a way of making you lose your faith and not letting you believe in anything again.”
“You have to believe in something,” I said as I pulled out into traffic. “In yourself at least.”
“I don’t even trust my damn self.”
I glanced at him quickly before turning my attention back to the road. “You had to have believed in something at one point,” I said. “You risked your life to protect us here and the people where you were. You risked your life to save the men in that tank.”
He stayed quiet and I knew he was remembering again. A flinch ran across his face and he turned his head, looking out of the window.
“I’m sorry, Daniel,” I said, reaching to put my hand on his arm. “We shouldn’t be having discussions. We’re supposed to be having a good time, right?”
He nodded, looking down at his hands folded in his lap.
“No more heavy stuff,” I grinned. “Especially on an empty stomach.”
The corner of his mouth turned up just slightly.
I swung into the parking lot and pulled into my parking space. Daniel got out and leaned against the car. I turned back to look at him as I went up the stairs. “You know you’re welcomed to come up if you want,” I said. “You don’t have to wait out here. I’ll only be a minute.”
He followed me up the stairs. I left him in the living room, looking at my sketches and went into the bedroom to change out of the shirt and shorts I’d worn to work.
“These are really good,” he called from the living room. “Excellent in fact.”
“Thanks,” I answered. “I just hope they’re good enough to graduate.”
“I’m sure they will be.”
I pulled the brush through my hair and went out to find him looking at the portrait I was working on.
“Who is this?” he asked, gently running a finger over the sketch.
“My dad,” I said, coming over to stand next to him. “He died two years ago. Heart attack. I miss him so much. I figured this would keep him nearby.”
“I’m sorry,” he said, still looking at the picture. “I guess he liked boats, huh?”
“Oh yeah. He was retired Navy. All he’d ever loved were his boats and the ocean. This boat,” I pointed to the sketch. “Was his baby. He had a water taxi service. He’d take people back and forth across the river or on tours along the historic waterfront.” I smiled fondly at the memories. “He used to say that water ran in his veins and that I was born in the river.”
“It’s a beautiful portrait. Your dad would have been pleased.”
For a moment more, we stood looking at the picture. It was nice to have someone appreciate my work. I felt again the stirring of feelings for this man beside me. It was scary and exhilarating. And I could no more stop it than to command myself to stop breathing.
I swallowed hard. I’m not usually a shy person but a part of me was afraid that he’d reject me. “Do you like boats?”
“Maybe, maybe we could go sailing sometimes. If you want to, I mean.”
Without looking at me, he reached out and took my hand. I laced my fingers with his and he squeezed my hand.
“There are many things I hope we will do together,” he said quietly.
So he must have felt something too. Good. That was good.
We found a nice seafood joint near the waterfront. After we’d ordered, we sat staring at each other. Once again, I suddenly felt nervous.
“So?” he answered in return. He took a swallow of his beer. “Tell me about you.”
I shrugged. “You already know my story. I go to the university by day and serve caffeine fiends at night and on days when I don’t have class. Then I draw and paint in the wee hours of the morning.” I chewed the lime and took a healthy sip of my own beer before continuing. “Both my parents are dead. No siblings.” I held up my hands. “Just me.”
“How old are you?”
“26. I started college late. I wanted to work for a while and see what I could teach myself with my drawings.” I smiled. “And I wanted to ride the river with my daddy. He taught me to navigate the boats and get my boater’s license.”
“You really loved your dad, didn’t you?” Daniel asked, almost sounding surprised by that fact.
“Of course I loved him. Why does that surprise you? You loved your dad, didn’t you?”
“At least your mom?”
“Will you tell me why?”
His jaw tightened. “I’ll tell you later.” He rubbed at his head in an effort to relax. “Tell me about your boat.”
I decided not to press him for details right now. The last thing I wanted was to make him feel bad again. So I told him about my boat.
When the food arrived, we ate in companionable silence. Daniel kept sneaking looks at me when he thought I wasn’t looking.
“Are you going to tell me anything about yourself? Because I’ve run out of things to tell you about me,” I said, popping a shrimp into my mouth.
“What would you like to know?”
“Anything and everything you want to tell me.”
One corner of his mouth turned up ever so slightly. “You don’t ask for much, do you?”
I shook my head.
“Okay. Well, I’m 36. I joined the Marines when I was 18. I hold a degree in Military History and I am a certified tank instructor.”
“Impressive. So, why are you willing to bust suds or sling coffee, tend bar or something instead of teaching?”
He chewed thoughtfully for a moment, then said, “I guess sometimes things happen that unravel the best laid plans.”