He looked up as soon as she entered the dining room, and her breath hitched.
Shannon waited on him almost every shift. She knew his name from the credit card he dropped on the table at the end of his meals.
They never talked about anything other than what he wanted to drink and how he didn’t like mayonnaise on his sandwich. He always reiterated that fact.
Shannon never explained that she didn’t need his reminders. Every favorite dish, every request was rooted in her mind.
But he still reminded her, and she would smile and say, “Yes, sir.” In the beginning, he would smile back and then bend his blond head back over his phone. Lately, though, he added a wink, then steadied his startling platinum gaze on Shannon until heat prickled her cheeks and she ducked away.
As best as Shannon could tell, he was a lawyer or accountant or something like that. He wore precisely tailored suits and carried a tobacco-colored messenger bag with his tablet computer and all sundry of other expensive devices.
His hands were smooth and neatly manicured. They were almost feminine in their grace. The rest of him was more masculine.
Jonah Moran stood just over six feet tall—built like a runner with well-honed, compact muscles. When Shannon looked into his pale gray eyes, she felt both the urge to run and the urge to run her finger over his perfect bow lips or his strong, clean-shaven chin—all at once.
For a while, she wondered if he could even grow a beard. But once, a few weeks ago, he stopped in at the bistro for dinner and picked up a club sandwich to go. A smattering of stubble had appeared on his face.
“You’re getting it to go? You can go to the bar next time.”
“If I did that, I wouldn’t get to sit in your section.”
His lips parted slightly as he smiled. Then came the wink—a shot of adrenaline that never failed to elevate her vital signs. The patches of stubble stimulated unasked questions about his day. Shannon’s eyes lingered on his roughened cheek, fantasizing about the feel of his nascent beard against her skin. Then, she darted away to put in his order.
He could grow a beard, and pretty quickly. Obviously, that was unacceptable to him so, under normal circumstances, he kept it strictly at bay. Refined and finely handsome, he was obviously rich.
All of this is why Shannon vowed never to speak to Jonah Moran about anything except his sandwich.
Regardless of his winks and the panty-dropping looks he’d started giving her, he was out of her league. She had experience dating out of her league. Those men never stayed, and on their way out the door, they took a little more of her confidence with them. Of course, even her shitty boyfriends did that. The last one had been the worst.
Although, Kid hadn’t been a boyfriend. He’d been a husband. Even making him an ex-husband hadn’t stopped him from wreaking havoc.
Shannon sighed and poured Jonah a refill on his coffee, working to steady her hand. She needed to swap out her nicotine patch.
Cigarettes weren’t the only thing Shannon had decided to quit. She and men weren’t a good mix. She needed to focus on her own life and nothing else.
Men were trouble, and she finally had a stable job, making decent money. She finally had a relationship with her daughter, Olivia. This was the height of her aspiration.
* * *
Jonah smiled up at the cute waitress pouring the refill on his coffee. One of her honey-blonde curls had slipped from the ponytail pulled back taut above the nape of her neck.
That’s what her name tag said. At one time, she’d been a stunner. Jonah frowned. That didn’t sound right. She was still a beauty, but she looked tired—the sort of tired that doesn’t evaporate with a good night’s sleep.
Her ready smile didn’t quite reach her eyes, which feathered lightly at the corners. He supposed that working on your feet slinging lunch plates and coffee probably did that to a woman. Did she feel forced to smile at him? He hoped not.
Jonah realized he was staring. Examining her face had become a daily hobby, and seeing her, a kind of ritual.
“Is something wrong?” When she asked the question, her nose turned up toward the crinkle between her brow.
“No. The roast beef is great, as always.”
She looked relieved and turned to walk away. Jonah cleared his throat.
Her ponytail bobbed as she turned back around. “You need something else?”
“No. I wanted to say thank you.”
The furrow of her brow deepened.
“Thank you. For the coffee.”
“Oh.” Her blue eyes widened, and the left corner of her mouth lifted into a crooked half-smile. “You’re welcome.”
Jonah grinned at her and winked reflexively. He thought he saw a tinge of pink wash over her cheeks, but he didn’t have the opportunity to look closer.
She walked briskly to another table where a perturbed patron snapped his fingers. All Jonah could see was the side of her face and half of a forced, broad smile. She was apologizing. For what, Jonah didn’t know.
He passed the restaurant every day between the office and his house. Sometimes, he stopped in for breakfast, and she’d be here. Then, maybe when he picked up dinner, she’d be here again, working a second shift. What did she do when she wasn’t on her feet in this place?
Jonah had never worked that hard. He could admit that to himself. He worked in his father’s investment firm, Moran Financial. They financed companies and bought and sold them.
His work had more tedium than difficulty. He hated it most days, but it was lucrative.
His sister, Vivienne, pestered him to quit and find something more meaningful to do with his life. The problem was, he had no idea what that would be. Vivienne was in the mode for everyone to “live their bliss” as she kept saying.
Ever since coming out as a lesbian, she felt compelled to have everyone make bold declarations and step away from convention. But she was the artistic one. The free spirit. Or she was as free a spirit as any child could be growing up as they did.
Their primary job as children had been to walk a straight line. Get good grades. Don’t cause trouble at school. Be mannered and congenial at every turn. Never do anything that would put a wrinkle in their parents’ plans.
They had a series of nannies and a mother, Sheila, who seemed in constant need of rest and spa vacations, despite having a complete household staff and no job. Their father worked and travelled constantly. A born wheeler dealer, Thomas Moran once missed Christmas traveling to Japan to close a business deal.
“The world doesn’t stop because we want to eat honey ham and sing Jingle Bells.” The elder Moran had then slung on his coat and motioned for his driver to take his suitcase.
Jonah had been nine. He shook his head. He had no reason to complain. His parents had loved him and given him every advantage, including a greased path to his current vice president position in a company with his family name on the door.
He looked again as Shannon bounced from table to table. What she did was work. He shifted in his seat. He couldn’t imagine dealing with the rotten customers and sore feet every day.
He wondered what dreams Shannon might have had. No one dreams of being a waitress.
* * *
When Shannon finished her late shift at the Scarlet Maple, she grabbed her purse from the employee storage room in the back of the bistro and said goodbye to Jimmy, the night cook, and her boss, Penny Gerber. She pushed open the back door, and the heavy air of Texas summer sank over her.
She lived within walking distance of the restaurant, but always brought her car. Double shifts waiting tables made another fifteen minutes on her feet more than she could take.
She worked six days a week most weeks, doing doubles at least three of those days. Despite the constant fatigue, Shannon loved the growing pool of extra money.
That’s how she’d been able to move out of the aging apartment a suburb away and into the top floor of a two-level apartment building in an up-and-coming neighborhood nearby.
The move saved her a mint on gas and cut her commute from twenty minutes to two. Plus, in another year or so, the rental manager told her, it would be a fashionable address.
In another year of working extra shifts, she’d also be able to start school. Shannon kept a brochure for the art trade school affixed to her refrigerator as a daily reminder of her goal to study interior design.
Every morning and every night, she parked her car in the crumbled drive next to her apartment and reminded herself of where she wanted to go.
Only a dim porch light flickered in her path as she felt around in her purse for her mailbox key. She crossed her fingers that the bundle of collected mail finally had her important documents.
Swinging open the front door of the building, she sighed at the sight of her final bit of effort for the day—the flight of stairs up to her place. Somehow, she dragged her heavy legs to her door and let herself in, flicking on the light.
She plodded over to her new, garage sale couch, collapsing on it and thumbing through the mail. Her eyes went to the awaited envelope, which contained her new driver’s license with her new name, Shannon Clifton.
She’d been Shannon Nelson after making the mistake of marrying Kid. She’d been Shannon McConnell after she got herself pregnant and had a shotgun wedding with her ex-husband, Jeff.
Before that, she’d been Shannon Clifton, having taken the name of her last foster family. She didn’t much care about being a Clifton, but it seemed as good a choice as any if she didn’t care to be a Nelson or a McConnell anymore.
New job, new name, and she’d finished her probation on a drug charge. Shannon could hit the reset button on life. She whooped loudly to her empty apartment and kissed her old self goodbye.