"No, I'm not your girl," I insist.
"Yes, you are."
"No, I'm not."
"Yes, you are."
"I'm getting exhausted," I say. "I need sustenance to keep me going."
Mack plops two scoops of ice cream onto a slice of cherry pie and brings it over to me.
"Did you remember to warm up the pie?" I ask.
"Hey, Mona Lisa didn't tell Da Vinci how to paint. So, you don't tell me how to serve pie."
But I know he's warmed the pie because the ice cream is already melting on top of it. I put a big forkful in my mouth and let the sugar calm my nerves.
"How long have you been coming in here?" Mack hovers over me as I stuff my face.
"Two years," I say with my mouth full. "Ever since I moved into the building."
"Two years. We're neighbors, and I feed you every single day. That means you're my girl."
We lock eyes. He's got a magical thing going on with his eyeballs where he's speaking to me through them. It's like some kind of Vulcan mind meld thing but instead of Dr. Spock, it's sexy diner owner psychic communication. I take another bite of pie without breaking our eye contact. I can't break away. He's got me in his tractor beam of hotness.
But here's the thing: After two years, he's never made a move. Never jumped my bones. Never taken me into his arms and stuck his tongue down my throat.
"So, we're friends?" I ask.
"I wouldn't go that far."
Of course he wouldn't. He's been feeding me for two years, but we've also been fighting during that whole time. We don't agree on anything.
I eat the last of my pie. "Yep, that would be a stretch."
"Are you done? I'm locking up early today."
"You're what?" Mack never locks up early. He's always in the diner. He's my go-to for breakfast, lunch, dinner, Thanksgiving, and the occasional midnight snack when I can't sleep.
Not that he's in the diner at midnight. After diner hours, I have to pound on his apartment door to get him to feed me, which isn't hard because he lives on the fourth floor right next door to me. He's my landlord, and so far, he hasn't made a stink about me being behind in the rent.
"Locking up early. I got places to be."
I wonder if he has a date. I don't think he's gone out with anyone since I've known him, which is odd, considering he looks like Channing Tatum and owns his own building.
"You know. Places," Mack says.
He yanks at my chair. "So, you gotta get up if you've finished stuffing your face."
"What do you mean stuffing my face? I didn't stuff my face. You stuffed my face!"
What nerve. I stand up and wag my finger at him. He's tall, and I only come up to mid-level on his chest, but I'm spitting mad with a fabulous manicure, and I figure I can probably scratch his eyes out before he has a chance to retaliate.
But he's saved by the bell. The door opens with a ding, and Raine Harper walks in. She waves a picnic basket at us.
"Sorry I'm late," she says. "What a day!"
Raine stops in her tracks. She stares at Mack and me and seems to give my finger, which is poised right under Mack's nose as if I'm going to pick it, extra attention.
"You guys will never change," she says, rolling her eyes. "You're like Tom & Jerry, but horny."
"What are you talking about?" Mack growls. "You're talking Greek. No sense at all. I'll get your order."
I think I'm hallucinating because Mack turns a deep shade of red, which is totally out of character for him. Nothing fazes him, normally. He grabs Raine's basket and storms into the kitchen with his head down.
"What's with him?" I ask Raine.
"Like you don't know." She plops down onto a chair and rests her elbows on the table, her chin in her hands. "You've got that man so tied up in knots, he's six inches shorter."
I sit down next to her. "You think so?" I ask her, hopefully.
"You should put him out of his misery and jump his bones. He probably has a major case of blue balls."
I gasp. "So, he's not seeing anybody?"
"Come on, Marion. He only has eyes for you. Is there pie around?"
"I'll get you a slice," I say. "Don't stop talking."
I grab a plate and fork from behind the counter and scoop her up a slice of pie, even though Mack hates it when I go behind the counter. But Raine stops talking, and her head slips off her hands and lands on the table with a loud thud.
For a minute, I think she's had some kind of stroke or heart attack and is slumped on the table, dead. But she moans, signaling that she's still alive. It's not a pain kind of moan; it's more of an I-hate-life kind of moan.
"Eat the pie. Quick. It'll help," I say, putting the plate next to her mouth. I find that food is the best medicine for just about everything.
"I'm not hungry. I'm never eating again. I have to lose forty pounds by next Wednesday." She moans even louder against the table. She's slumped over in total defeat.
I try to think of a diet that can melt forty pounds of fat in less than a week, but I can't think of one. No carbs can only go so far.
"Why do you have to lose forty pounds?"
"By next Wednesday."
"Why do you have to lose forty pounds by next Wednesday?"
"That's when Wade Gates is coming back to town," she moans again. Her face is in profile, and she's talking out of one side of her mouth. Her arms are hanging down under the table, and her hair is flopped over. She hasn't taken a bite of the pie, and I'm sorely tempted to eat it for her.
Wade Gates is the best-looking man to ever come out of Esperanza. And the richest. He's a big corporate attorney for one of the Silicon Valley monster companies. He grew up next to Raine's family's ranch by the lake, and Raine has had a crush on him since she learned to walk.
"You don't need to lose any weight for him. You're beautiful." I'm not lying. She's beautiful. Piercing green eyes, thick black hair, flawless skin, and a button nose. But she's also chubby, and Wade goes for the stick-thin model types. He's a total jerk. He's not an annoying jerk like Mack. He's just a plain old jerk. Mean.
"No, I'm not beautiful. I'm drooling on the table."
"You're drooling on my table. There's a whole puddle of it next to your face," Mack growls. He's returned from the kitchen, carrying Raine's basket, and it's filled with burgers and fries and other lunch food. I can smell it, and it's giving me a hankering to eat something more than just pie.
Raine's family owns several vacation properties at the lake, and Raine handles most of the catering and deliveries. Some vacationers request Mack's food, and I don't blame them. Raine is an excellent cook, but Mack is the best at everything diner food.
"Sorry," she says, sitting up and wiping off the table with a napkin. "I was just contemplating burying myself alive."
"That sounds like a lot of work. The ground around here is clay. Very hard to dig," Mack says.
"Shut up," I hiss. "Don't you see that Raine's in crisis? You're such an oaf." I punch him in the shoulder for emphasis.
"Don't worry, Raine," I continue. "I'll come by next week and do your hair and give you a manicure. You'll look amazing."
"Wade's a jerk, anyway," Mack says.
Raine hops up, and the chair falls back onto the floor. She's fighting mad. I half expect steam to come out of her nose. Nobody bad-mouths Wade Gates in front of Raine. She's got it bad.
She stomps her foot and grabs the basket out of Mack's hands. "What the hell do you know? You're a jerk. You've got blue balls!"
She throws open the front door, knocking the bell off its perch to land with a clang onto the floor, and storms out. I catch Mack adjusting his pants. His face is red, again, and I wonder just how blue his balls really are, and if he really has eyes only for me.
Mack reattaches the bell onto the door. "That was pleasant," he says. "But it won't upset my day."
"It won't?" I ask. If it were me, I'd be pretty upset if someone yelled about my blue balls in the middle of the diner.
"Nope, because I'm going fishing."
"Oh..." So that's where he's going. Mack has his own fishing boat. He's talked about it, but I've never actually seen it. He's a fanatic fisherman. Half of his place is devoted to fishing gear. I like fish sticks and the occasional tuna sandwich, but I don't see the attraction of getting seasick while I wait to hook some poor, unsuspecting fish through its mouth.
I shudder. Blech. The thought of it makes me nauseated.
"Oh my God!" I yell, suddenly remembering my audition. "I'm going to be late! I need to get dressed in a hurry."
I push Mack out of the way and make a beeline for the back door of the diner. "Hold on. I'm coming with you," Mack calls out.
I keep walking. I hear him close up the diner and jog toward me. We walk out the back door together, and he turns to lock it. "Can't be too careful," he says.
I think you can be too careful. Esperanza isn't exactly a hub of criminality. I think we've had one murder, and that happened in 1863. Since then, most people keep their doors unlocked.
We walk through the tiny hallway toward the elevator. The building is quiet. I'm Mack's only resident while he renovates. He doesn't seem to be in a hurry to finish, and he's doing all the work himself, renovating from the bottom up.
"After you," he says, letting me enter the elevator first. I push number four, and the door closes with an ominous creak.
"One of these days, this elevator is going to die, and I think it's sooner rather than later," I say.
"I'll bet you a million dollars this elevator outlives us all. It's built to last. Not like stuff is built nowadays. There's no place safer than right here."
The elevator is small, and Mack stands very close to me. I can feel the heat bouncing off of him, or maybe it's just that we're in an enclosed space without any air conditioning.
Nope. It's definitely him.
Mack traces my cheek with his finger and tucks a strand of hair behind my ear. "It was in your face," he croaks.
I nod. Time freezes. He leans over until our faces are almost touching, and I'm sure that he's going to kiss me. I'm torn between excitement and panic. If we finally do something about this attraction, what will happen if it all goes kablooey? All of my relationships go kablooey sooner or later. It's sort of a sure thing.
If that happens with Mack, where will I get my coffee? Where will I find another landlord who won't mind if I'm behind in my rent?
And what will I do without my daily dose of Mack?