At the busy diner a block away from his apartment, Kent yawned while waiting in line for his coffee. He’d stayed up far too late reading comics and now paid for it with exhaustion. A stretch of his neck revealed three more people ahead of him, at the head of them a businessman in a suit arguing with the cashier about the amount on his check.
And the situation looked far from resolved.
Kent let out an annoyed grunt. He hated nothing more than being inconvenienced. Coffee. He needed it now. Without it, he might fall asleep still standing.
His stomach grumbled. Maybe he could stand to eat some breakfast as well. A coffee to-go wouldn’t tie him over until lunch anyway. What had he been thinking?
He found an empty stool at the counter and flagged down a waitress. She was a young thing, barely out of high school if he had to guess, with bright red hair pulled back into a ponytail and freckles. She smacked annoyingly on a piece of gum. “Watcha want this mornin’, sir?”
“I don’t know. Can I get a menu first?”
She tossed him one from the pile sitting on the counter behind her. “Figure it out. I’ll be back.” When she disappeared around the corner, he turned around to read the menu but became distracted by a familiar laugh.
He’d know that sweet ring from anywhere. It piqued his interest and tickled his fancy. So his gaze searched, and he saw Lila sitting with a couple in a booth by the window. They had quite the breakfast spread before them with fried eggs, grits, bacon and orange juice. But the food wasn’t the only thing drawing him to that table.
In a way, Lila was forbidden fruit. And if he was honest with himself, which he rarely was these days, she stirred his curiosity. A pretty gal like her couldn’t be as bad as Robert made her out to be and part of him wanted to find out what all the fuss was about. Her bubbly nature warmed him like a crackling fire on a cold winter’s day.
He went to her table. “Hi-de-ho. Please tell me your waitress is nicer than mine.”
Lila’s smile widened, revealing a set of pearly little teeth. “Why, if it isn’t my favorite handyman stopping by to say hello. Are you hungry? Please, join us.”
She scooted over and patted the seat beside her, introducing her two friends in the process. He didn’t hesitate at the opportunity. Maybe he’d get better service on this side, too.
Danny leaned in and shook his hand. “It’s a pleasure.”
“Help yourself to any of this,” Susan said. “We ordered entirely too much food.”
Lila poured Kent a cup of coffee from the carafe at the center of the table. “I better get you started. If you come here often then you must know what terrible service this diner has.”
“I’m quite familiar with the misfortune,” Kent said and sipped on the hot brew. “Thanks, by the way. You’re a doll.”
She gave him a vibrant smile. “Don’t mention it. A girl knows when to act.”
Act. Is that all she did? There had to be something deeper to her than the obvious exterior. He’d been seeing it ever since she waltzed into Rex Theater months prior. There was a fire to her, dwelling in those big blue eyes and fueling her tenacity at pursuing auditions. So what if she had some extra energy? He rather liked that about her. And the red blouse she wore was loud and exciting. He could use some of whatever she had in his life.
“You...uh...” Kent cleared his throat. “Working in costumes today?”
Of course, she worked in costumes. The woman was a seamstress. Where were his words? Now that he needed them the most they evaded him and it was painful. Had he become rusty? He refused to believe such could be the case.
Lila picked at her eggs with her fork. “Not that I want to but I promised Millie the entire box of dresses would be hemmed and ready to be worn by tomorrow. I wouldn’t dream of being an eager-beaver to such an absurd waste of time if I wasn’t trying to be helpful and, you know, look good in the process.” She shrugged. “A girl has to do what she needs to in order to get ahead sometimes.”
“It’s her plan to befriend Millie,” Susan said rather proudly. “Once Lila gets in good with those directors she’ll certainly star in the next show. Right, pumpkin’?”
Danny sleepily mumbled something in his coffee cup and took a sip.
Kent stuck his fork in a piece of bacon. “I could put in a good word for you if you want.”
“To whom, exactly?” Lila unwrapped a straw and shoved it in her juice. “Oh, wait. You’ve worked there for ages, haven’t you? Perhaps Mr. Arnold might take a listen to you.”
Her luscious red lips sucked juice through the straw. And it kind of distracted him.
“I could...try,” Kent said, watching her with a grin. “Who ended up snatching the lead?”
Lila released an annoyed sigh. “Emily. She always seems to get the good roles. But you know what? I’ve heard rumors about her and Arnold I’m positively sure are true. Otherwise, why would she be in his office sitting on his desk every morning?”
A rumor he hadn’t yet heard. Personally, he liked to keep far from those but he feigned interest anyway. “Really? Well, there’s your answer. But I wouldn’t advise getting in good with him in that sort of way.”
“Lila’s nothing but a lady. She would never sleep her way to the top.” Susan dug a wad of cash out of her purse. “Darling, we gotta jive. The morning’s getting late and there’s still a ton of chores I need to catch up on.”
“Yeah, yeah.” Danny tossed a nod Kent’s way. “Good luck with your day.”
“You two can’t be leaving already.” Lila sounded disappointed. “You’ve barely touched your breakfast.”
“Kent will help you eat it all,” Susan responded with a wink. “It was nice to meet you.”
“Likewise,” Kent said. When they’d gone, he turned to Lila. “I’ll take the grits and we can share the bacon.”
But she’d grown quiet, watching him as he scooped grits onto his plate. “Can I ask you something?
Her expression wrinkled into a worrisome one. “Would you help me if I said that I was in trouble?”
Kent mixed a spoonful of butter in his grits. “I solved your lighter problem yesterday, didn’t I?”
A nervous giggle escaped her lips. “I’d be fat-headed to have forgotten. It’s why I’m asking for your help again.”
“Is someone causing you trouble?”
“No...not...someone else just...me. I caused someone I really like a whole lot of messiness and I feel terrible about it.” She scooted closer to him, the vanilla fragrance of her perfume overwhelming his nostrils in a good way. “You know who I’m talking about.”
He could take a wild guess but shrugged instead. “Got me in suspense, little dame.”
She came even closer. The soft silk of her blouse rubbed up against the back of his hand. “It’s Robbie. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve tried apologizing to him and he just won’t listen. I swear he hates me. And rightfully so.”
The smart part of him wanted to run far, far away. Yet the other half of him, the one he’d deem much less wise, was injured and intrigued at the same time. He should’ve known Robert was on her mind and that she might use him to get to his friend. It annoyed him and he failed to resist the urge to call her out on it.
“He’s engaged. Why not just let him alone?”
Lila frowned, biting down on her lip. “You don’t understand. I have left him alone for the most part. What he needs is to see that I have moved on from him so he’ll be at peace.”
Kent shook his head and endlessly stirred the grits. He’d already lost his appetite. “I can’t help you.” “Sure you can. In fact, you’re the perfect person for the job.”
He didn’t know what to think about the tone of certainty in her voice. “Look, the last thing I want is to get involved in the middle of your feud.”
“But you won’t be. You’ll be helping to ease it, actually.”
Kent bit off a piece of bacon. “If anything, my involvement will exacerbate things. I offered to talk to Arnold, not Robert.”
Her demeanor softened. She rested a hand on his arm, rubbing his elbow with her thumb. “Just listen for a moment. And if you think the idea is stupid you can tell me to buzz off. Deal?”
“I’m not agreeing to anything yet, if at all.”
“Fair enough.” She leaned back in the booth and sipped on her juice. “All I’m asking for is a chance to show Robbie I’ve forgotten all about him.”
“But you haven’t.”
“Don’t I know it? Every time I see him with her it makes me so angry. But what can I say? I was a fool to have let him go.”
“Just come out with it.”
“Ah, yes. I’ve been thinking all night about this. If you and I were...temporarily together, he could see I’ve left well enough alone. Oh, don’t look at me like that. I can’t stand it because I do really like you.”
Kent started to feel like a fool. And here he’d thought the opportunity to have breakfast with Lila had come down from the heavens. It had, but she’d turned it into a chance for revenge.
“You’re asking me to lie to my friend,” he said, not even attempting to disguise the bitterness in his tone. “What’s the matter with you?”
“A teensy, tiny, silly little lie isn’t going to hurt anyone,” she said, perking up with a flip of her blonde hair. “Besides, it’ll be fun. Come on, Kent. Don’t you want to help out a lady in distress?”
“You’re hardly in a jam.”
“But it’s not like the way you’re making it sound, which is really bad. All Robbie wants is to be free of me but unfortunately, we work in the same place. Do you know what ease you’ll bring him when he realizes that his old flame no longer cares about him and she’s happy with someone else?”
“Do you realize how insulting you sound?” He chewed on the piece of bacon, trying not to get mad but apparently not succeeding. “You’re kinda hurting my feelings.”
“Oh, no. But—”
“Yes, men do have feelings regardless of what all you women think,” he said. “And they get injured easily.”
“I think you’re swell. A true gentleman. Does that help?”
“If you really believed that then your interest would be elsewhere.”
The clanking of dishes and chatter of customers in the hopping diner filled the gap of momentary silence between them. He should’ve known Robert had been right about Lila all along. What a shame. Such a beautiful girl who reminded him of a sweet cherry cola really should have been better behaved. She shifted uncomfortably in her seat. “Darn it. And I thought you could help out of the kindness of your heart.”
“What would I even get out of such a joke?”
“Do you need your house cleaned or a meal made? Mama taught me how to tend a proper home and it’s not like Susan appreciates my efforts. I could always cook you a nice dinner or organize your things.”
“I already have a mother,” he said.
“Of course you do.” She sighed and searched in her purse for a stick of lipstick. “But what you don’t have is a girl.”
“How do you know?”
“Because you told me so last night, remember?”
All of a sudden, he hated having gotten her the matchbook. “You know what? Have you ever considered the way you approach people might be too much? I mean, you could have played me along and I would never have known it was Robert you were really after.”
She opened her porcelain compact and applied a fresh shade of red to her lips. “You’re mistaken. He’s already taken. Do you honestly believe I’m so stupid as to think he’ll dump Chloe for me? Besides, he’s been eating off that plate for months and I don’t want him anymore after it all.”
Kent raised an eyebrow. “So if he’s tainted why do you still care?”
She erased the excess lipstick off the bottom of her lip with a napkin. “Because feelings die hard. But that’s where you come in. Maybe you could help me forget.”
“Quit toying with me. There’s nothing more annoying than a dame who plays games.”
“Not even fun ones?” She spritzed perfume on her wrists. It smelled like powder and vanilla. “I’m just joking. Seriously, stop giving me such a hateful look.”
“It’s more of an injured one.”
Lila stretched her arm to rest on the back of the booth, crossing her leg close to him. “I’m sorry for hurting your feelings. It was the last thing I wanted to do and apparently, I’ve blown it.”
“We could’ve had a nice breakfast, you know?”
She stared at him for a moment, a too long of one, her eyes boring holes into his soul. “Think about it, will you? A favor for a favor. I don’t have a lot of money since Daddy cut me off but—let’s not talk about that. I can offer you my time cleaning or a hot meal. Do any of your shirts need hemming? I’m a pretty good sewer, too.”
“Pretend relationships aren’t my thing,” he answered. “I prefer real ones.”
“We do have a real friendship. Or have you forgotten our little chat last night?”
He pushed aside the bowl of grits, annoyed his coffee had gotten cold over the past several minutes. “We hardly know each other more than a few mere waves or helloes in the hallway.”
True as it was, he’d had his eye on her for months. Those long legs and intoxicating smile of hers had hooked him. Sure, he pretended not to care when Robert was around but he only did so to keep the peace. What fault or choice did he have in who he was attracted to? And she’d always been nice to him up until this point. Now he was beginning to regret he’d ever had an interest in her.
Sweet Lord, why? Another one bites the dust...
He added: “What would I get out of a fake romance, huh?”
She twirled a soft, blonde curl around her fingers. “Well, if the satisfaction of helping out a friend isn’t enough then I guess something else will have to do. Suppose I could always call up Daddy and sweet talk him. Not that I want to. It’d be nice to be independent for once.”
“I don’t want your money.”
Kent pondered for a second if telling her the truth was even fair. Exposing himself would get him nothing but more hurt feelings. Still though, getting her back would feel even better. “I don’t like being used.”
“It’s not using, it’s partnership. And we’d always still be friends.”
It was her last statement that set him off. He fished out a few bucks from his wallet and tossed them on the table.
“Robert was right about you. Nothing but an act.”
Her jaw gaped open. “Oh, dear. I didn’t mean to offend you. I think you’re super swell and an absolute sweetheart. I honestly thought you might want to help me clear the air up with Robbie. Please, don’t be angry with me.”
Kent stood and buttoned up his jacket, not liking at all the large frown on her face. He couldn’t tell if she felt bad or if she was kidding around again. Trying to gauge her threatened to drive him mad. “You wouldn’t know a good thing if it hit you.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“That you let that inside of yours taint the prettiness on your outside. You’re a beautiful woman, Lila. But you’ve gone and ruined it.”
She blinked. “Between us?”
He gulped a mouthful of cold coffee and set the cup down hard on the table. “Yeah. Today could’ve been the start of something.”
Lila slid to the edge of the booth. “Saints alive. If you’re leaving then so am I. Honestly, I’ll be damned if I sit here alone looking like a loser.”
She grabbed her coat and purse.
“Don’t follow me out,” he said.
“We’re going to the same place. Or did you want me to quit my job, too?”
“You should’ve kept that stupid plan to yourself.”
But as he walked away, he heard her say, “I’m sorry. I didn’t know.”