Trusting Starlight – Part 12

She knew before she rose to her tip toes and looked through the peephole who would be on the other side.  She opened the door. “Hey.”

Carlos stood on the dimly lit front porch, his hands stuffed into the pockets of the thick canvas jacket she’d helped him pick out. “Can I come in?”

“The kids are asleep,” she whispered, holding the door open as he walked past her. Her body tingled with an awareness that, if she were honest, had always been there. She followed him into the living room where he prowled around the tiny perimeter, pausing to glance at pictures he’d seen dozens of times. His energy was contagious. She didn’t want to sit, but join him in pacing. She wished, for the first time, that the kids weren’t at home so she could suggest a walk, a way to distract them from the conversation she knew they were about to have.

He stopped to pat Santiago absently on the head. The dog stretched and rolled to his back, the demand obvious. Carlos knelt next to the couch and rubbed the rangy mutt’s stomach.

“Do you want something to drink?” Sami asked, wishing she could snag her glass from where it sat, inches from the man and dog.

Carlos shook his head. “I’d better not.” He gave Santiago one last scratch and stood. “Look, Sami. You’re right. We need to talk.”

Sami crossed her arms in front of her, bracing herself for the emotional onslaught.  She knew how these talks went. Hadn’t Franklin had the same one with her? With a world shattering variation?

“I like you, Sami. A lot.”

Sami nodded her head, not trusting herself to speak. She waited for the but.

Carlos stepped towards her and set his hands on her arms, rubbing them gently. “Don’t freak out on me.”

“I’m not.” Sami wanted to cringe at her tone.

“You are. Look. I can wait. It doesn’t have to be now, but  the thing is, I need to know if I even have a shot or if I’m wasting my time on something that isn’t going to ever happen.”

Sami closed her eyes. Silence blanketed the room, as she struggled with fears and old pain. Carlos’s hands continued rubbing her arms, soft, soothing strokes anchoring her to the present. She opened her mouth, whispering the words her heart wanted her to speak. “I like you too. A lot.”

“Tell me that with your eyes open.”

Sami lifted her lids and looked into Carlos’s warm brown eyes. “I like you too.”

Carlos raised his eyebrows expectantly.

“A lot,” she finished.

His face split into a smile, relaxing the lines of worry and stress she hadn’t even realized were there. He pulled her too him, gripping her in a hug tight enough to make her ribs ache.

“But,” she whispered into his neck, “I’m scared.”

Carlos pulled back, unlocking her stiff arms and running his hands down her arm to grip her fingers. “I’m scared, too.”

Sami snorted. “You’re young and hot,” she flushed, “and I’m, well…” she pulled their hands to the side, exposing her body. “I’m not.”

Carlos stepped closer until his chest touched hers and the air seemed to leave her lungs. He stared at her steadily. “I could kill that man for making you doubt yourself. Trust me. You are sexy as hell and I’m trying really hard not to kiss you senseless and drag you off to bed.”

Sami’s stomach dropped somewhere below where the butterflies were fluttering. “The kids,” she said, not caring that she sounded breathless.

“I know I can’t do the second thing, but I think we’re long overdue for the first.” Leisurely, as if he was giving her time to back away if she wanted, he lowered his head. Sami closed her eyes and leaned toward him, giving in to the feelings she’d been trying to deny.

His lips were gentle on hers, moving across them with aching slowness. She felt tears prick her eyes at the love she felt behind the kiss. His lips eased her insecurities and dimmed the years of begging for a crumb of affection into the past. His thumbs rubbed her palm, the shaking of his arms telling her more than words that he wanted her. He pulled his head back and looked at her. “Okay?” he asked, his eyes scanning her face.

Sami took a breath, her heart hammering. “Oh, yeah,” she said with a smile. She tugged on his hands, bringing him back down for another kiss. This one wasn’t so gentle. He released her hands and wrapped his arms around her body, the muscles in his biceps flexing under her hands as she lifted her arms around his neck and let go of the past to hold tight to the future.

**

Santiago stretched and yawned as the two humans kissed in front of the Christmas tree. He climbed off the couch and walked down the hallway toward the smell of sugar and children. He nuzzled the youngest one’s face, cleaning his cheek with a quick lick. The little boy opened his eyes and with a sleepy smile moved over so Santiago could climb onto the bed. The youngest humans are my favorite, he told the angel checking on the children.

Don’t discount the older ones, dog. They’re all my favorites.

Santiago sighed as a little arm landed across his body. His eyes closed to the vision of cream puffs as the angel disappeared. He knew there was more work to be done. After his nap.

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Trusting Starlight – Part 11

“Alone at last.” Sami gave a crooked smile to Santiago. The dog’s head tilted in acknowledgment while wide brown eyes stared steadily. “Well, come on, then.” She walked over to the love seat positioned next to her Christmas tree and sat down, tucking her legs beneath her as she reached for a half-finished glass of wine.

It was late, too late to be up when she knew the kids would rise with the sun. She sipped the wine as Santiago lay his head on her lap. Absently, she rubbed the top of his head, her fingers playing in the rough fur while she stared at the ornaments decorating the tree. Green painted popsicle sticks formed frames around curling photos of a chubby-faced Ben. Glitter mixed with plaster caught the light as Penny’s hand print twisted on its ribbon. Chunky beads filled a star shaped pipe cleaner, spelling out Archie’s name. Franklin hadn’t wanted any of the handmade ornaments, preferring to keep the crystal collectibles they’d decorated with before kids. She hadn’t complained. Those bits of glue and paper and glitter were far more valuable to her.

Her phone chimed. She frowned and set down her glass. It was after midnight. Who could be texting this late?

You still up?

Sami’s fingers hovered over the keypad while she read the three words. A month ago, she wouldn’t have hesitated to reply to a text from Carlos, no matter how late he’d sent it. A month ago, a text after midnight wouldn’t have been filled with a minefield of meaning. Santiago sighed loudly and set his head on the ground between his paws.

“You’re right,” she told the dog. “I’m being ridiculous.”  She thought for a moment, staring absently across the room. Something sparked a bit of mischief. She grinned and sent off a reply.

I am. Hanging out with a good looking guy and having a glass of wine.

Flirting had never come naturally to her. She’d met Franklin in college. Their relationship had been a whirlwind romance, flirting unnecessary.

Things had been different since their date and tonight, during the only time she’d found to talk to him, things hadn’t gone as well as she’d hoped.

Anyone I know?

She smiled.

You know him. He comes into the restaurant sometimes. 😉

She snuggled into the pillows of the love seat and took another sip of wine.

Should I be jealous?

The butterflies in her stomach reminded her that there was an undercurrent that hadn’t been there before their date, a sense that she was dangerously close to moving beyond playful flirting and into something more serious.

Nah. He’s only here for a few days. He just needed a place to crash. 

Sami waited for a reply, the clock ticking away the seconds while the gray bubble appeared and disappeared.

Okay. Have fun.

Sami sat straight up, her mouth dropping open. “What?” Santiago lifted his head. “Have fun?” She looked at the dog in disbelief. “What does he mean by ‘have fun’?” The dog seemed to roll his eyes. “Exactly!” Sami said. She held up her phone and snapped a picture of Santiago, sending it with a terse, “Will do.

She threw the phone down on the cushion next to her and picked up the wine again. Have fun? She fumed. Santiago sighed. “Don’t take his side,” she said sharply. Her words snapped her out of her anger. What was wrong with her? She was being ridiculous.

She picked up the phone and read over the short exchange, scrolling back over the weeks and then months. Years of messages rolled down the tiny screen. Sami stopped reading and let the words fly until she got to his first message.

This is Carlos. Got your number from Mark. Heard you need help moving. Let me know what time I need to be there.

Thanks! That is amazing. I can’t pay much, but I appreciate it.

If you grab a pizza and beer, we’ll call it good. 

Sami read further.

I dropped off soup at your front door. Brie said you called in sick. Didn’t want to wake you up if you were napping.

The man is an ass. I think you’re beautiful.

How did your test go? I’ve got a bottle of wine with your name on it.

I have Saturday off. What time is Penny’s soccer game?

She scrolled through movie dates, dinner plans, and pictures. Her hand shook as she put the phone down, gently this time. It was all spelled out in bubbles of blue and green. Years of building a friendship and under it all, more than simple kindness and companionship.

There was love.

She jumped at the sound of a soft knock on her door.

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Trusting Starlight – Part 10

Sami carried Archie through the front door, his sleeping body limp in her arms. “Okay, you two. Bed,” she whispered. She didn’t get an argument as her two oldest shuffled their way to the bedroom the three shared. Penny crawled onto her bottom bunk and closed her eyes, falling asleep in the seconds it took Sami to shift Archie in her arms and flick on the bedside lamp. Ben climbed to the top bunk, turning and sitting with his feet dangling over the edge.

“I’m too tired to take off my shoes.”

“I got you, bud. Just give me a minute.” Sami pulled back the covers on Archie’s bed with one hand and lay him on the clean sheets. She pulled his shoes from his feet, wiggled his body out of his pants, and covered him up, tucking the blanket around his little body. She leaned down and kissed a cheek still crusted with cinnamon and sugar.

She walked to the bunk bed and took Ben’s shoes off, letting them drop to the floor beside the ladder. “Did you have fun?”

“It was awesome,” Ben said with a yawn. He tugged at his shirt. Sami climbed up a rung on the ladder and helped him take it off. “Carlos has the best family in the world.”

“They’re pretty fantastic,” Sami agreed, climbing another rung as Ben crawled up the bed to his pillow, wiggling out of his pants. She took them from his fingers as he rolled over, his eyes closing before she’d had a chance to cover him. She pressed a kiss to her fingers and transferred it to his forehead.

Stepping down, she dropped his clothes next to Archie’s pants. Lifting a sleeping Penny, she leaned her against her chest, holding her while she unbuttoned the back of her dress. Penny mumbled in her sleep, but didn’t protest as Sami slid the dress of her, adding it to the growing pile on the floor. She tucked Penny under her covers, pressing her favorite stuffed rabbit next to her on the pillow.

She collected the pile of clothes and put them in the hamper, turned on the night light, and paused with her hands on the lamp switch.

She looked at her babies, all snug in their beds, their faces stained with ponche and churros and felt a lump rise in her throat. How she wished she could have them every Christmas. How she hated Franklin for tearing their family apart.

She turned off the light and walked into the silent living room. She didn’t usually mind the quiet, but it was disjointing after spending the day with the warmth and noise of the Hernandez family.

She turned on her laptop, saw the Christmas messages from her mom and Franklin, and closed the screen again. She walked aimlessly to the tiny kitchen that would have fit in the laundry room at her old house and poured herself a glass of wine.

Her phone chimed as she took a sip of the petit syrah. Picking it up, she opened a message from Brie before dialing the Buchons’ number. She didn’t know what could be urgent on Christmas.

“Sami?” Brie’s voice continued without pause, “I’m so sorry to call you this late, but I thought you might be home and we need a favor and I know it’s Christmas.” Brie took a breath. “Can you take Santiago for a couple days?”

Sami didn’t think before saying, “Of course. When?”

“Now? Mark can be there in a few minutes.”

“Now?” Sami ran through the mental list needed for housing a dog. Her landlord worked in animal rescue, so she knew that wasn’t a problem, but, she looked at the clock, it was nearly midnight.

“The thing is,” Brie’s voice choked, “we’ve had a call from the adoption agency.”

“Oh, Brie,” Sami knew how desperately her friends wanted children.

“I’m trying not to get too excited,” Brie whispered. “The situation is a little weird, but we need to go.”

“I’m the last person to judge weird,” Sami said with a laugh. “Bring him over.” She disconnected the call and smiled as the clock changed to midnight, bringing Christmas – and her quiet evening – to an end.

 

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Trusting Starlight – Part 8

“Mom! Look! It’s Carlos.”

Sami turned in the direction Ben pointed. Carlos’s unmistakable silhouette stood almost a full head above the crowd gathered in the town square waiting for the snowfall heralding the opening of Winter Wonderland.

The Christmas Eve festival promised hot cider, lights, caroling, and the new family traditions Sami was determined to create. “I think it is,” Sami said, tightening her grip on Archie’s hand in the crowd. Penny leaned against her side.  Her suggestion that they go say hi froze on her lips as Carlos’s head bent down to the petite brunette next to him.

The woman turned and laughed up at him, her profile perfection and her face filled with love. Unexpected jealousy churned Sami’s stomach.

It had been two week since their disastrous date that had ended in with a smile and a hug. Two weeks of working together, talking as if nothing had occurred between them. If she’d been worried about losing his friendship, the last two weeks had proven that he felt nothing to her except friendship.

Which is why she’d noticed nothing except his broad shoulders, his easy grin, the warmth in his eyes.

Sami sighed. She was being ridiculous and she knew it. “Let’s go say hi,” she told her children. They wove through the crowd until they were within arm’s reach.

“Sami!” Carlos leaned to give her a kiss on the cheek. “I didn’t know you would be here.”

Sami eyed the beauty at his side. She was exactly what she’d envisioned Carlos’s girlfriend to be: trim, gorgeous, young.

“This is Arabella,” Carlos said, pulling the woman forward with an arm wrapped around her shoulders.

Sami pasted a grin on her face and wished she wasn’t wearing an oversized flannel and jacket and instead looked half as stylish as the woman reaching for her hand with a grin.

“It’s nice to meet you.” Sami had perfected the art of the false greeting while married to Franklin.

“I’ve heard so much about you,” Arabella gushed.

Sami’s cheeks warmed. What had she heard in the secret conversations between lovers? She wanted to say she’d never heard of the woman, but pettiness was ten years and three children ago. Instead she smiled.

“Bella has always wanted to check out the snow,” Carlos said.

Instantly, Sami’s shoulders relaxed. Bella. “I’ve heard so much about you too,” she said honestly, smiling fully at Carlos’s favorite cousin.

Penny, not to be ignored, pushed her way between the adults. “Mama said it was going to snow, Carlos!”

Carlos laughed and lifted her high above his head, setting her on his shoulders. Sami bit back a protest that she was too big, realizing that to him, she’d always be small. Bella wrapped her arms around Sami in a tight hug, whispering in her ear. “I’m so glad to meet you, finally.” Bella pulled back and leaned down. “This much be Archie. Have you seen the snowmen?” Archie shook his head, his natural shyness evaporating in the warmth of her voice. “Come! I’ll show you.”

Archie looked to her with hope in his eyes. Sami nodded and the two of them disappeared into the crowd. She was left with Ben at her side and Penny on Carlos’s shoulders, her arms wrapped loosely around his neck. They looked, she realized, like a family. She pushed the thought back into the recesses of her mind and instead focused on the present.

“Are you going to the Misfit Christmas?” Carlos asked referencing the Christmas dinner Mark Buchon had started a year before.

“We are,” Sami confirmed, ticking another tradition off her growing list. “What about you?”

“My family has a huge fiesta,” he said with a laugh. “We’re misfits too, but all related in some way.”

“That must be nice,” Sami said, wistfully, shifting in the crowd, “having a big family at the holidays.”

“Nice and chaotic,” Carlos grinned. “There will be at least forty of us, cousins siblings, grandchildren, friends, and people who I think just wander in.”

They were quiet a moment until Carlos reached out, tentatively, “You could come.”

“To your family’s house for Christmas?” Panic surged.

“There are so many people there and we’re friends, right?”

“Well, yeah,” Sami said, hesitating. For some reason, since their date, she hadn’t felt like friends. It had felt like something…more.

“Then come. My mom is making tamales.” As if guessing the moment she started to fold, he added, “She only cooks once a year. Miss it now and you won’t get tamales until next Christmas.”

“Can we go, Mama!” It was Ben’s pleading that made her cave. His slip into ‘mama’ melted her like hot butter.

“What can I bring?”

Carlos knew her better than anyone else. “Bring cookies. And wine. There can never be too much of either.”

Sami smiled slowly. “We’ll be there.”

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Trusting Starlight – Part 7

This was, Carlos thought, the worst first date he’d ever been on. He picked up his fork and speared a cucumber from his salad. If the look on Sami’s face was any indication, she agreed.

He wasn’t sure where it had started to go wrong. He’d knocked on her door right on time. She’d answered and, in the brightly colored light of the Christmas tree in her living room, had taken his breath away. Her eyes had been brighter. She’d done something magical to her lips that made them look pouty and utterly kissable. He’d glanced up, hoping to find mistletoe, disappointed when it wasn’t conveniently there. She’d smiled. He’d smiled. He’d thought it was going to be a magical night.

He was wrong.

He’d held the car door for her and then closed it when she slid into the seat. Walking around the hood, he hadn’t been able to make his grin disappear. He’d gotten in the car, the scent of citrus and flowers filling the air. It had been intoxicating.

“You look amazing,” he’d said, starting the engine.

The compliment didn’t land easily. “Thanks,” she’d said, plucking at her dress. Their conversation on the way to the restaurant had been stilted, nothing like the usual easy flow between the two of them. His attempts at flirtation had fallen flat. Her answers to his questions had been monosyllabic.

Now, they sat like strangers rather than friends, each of them picking at the food on their plates. He glanced up and caught her eyes flitting around the room, as if looking for an escape. He grimaced. “This isn’t going very well, is it.” He kept it a statement of fact rather than a question.

Her face turned pink. “I’m sorry. I’m out of practice.”

“Me too.” His answer surprised a direct look from her. He shrugged. “It’s been a while.” He pushed his salad plate away as the main course arrived at their table. He eyed the plate with a professional eye and then, finding it as good a dish as he would put out, picked up his silverware.

“I’m not sure I’m ready to date,” she told her plate of lobster ravioli. Carlos’s hands froze, the knife and fork poised over his steak. She pushed a plump pocket to the side, leaving a trail in the cream sauce. “It’s only been two years.”

Carlos set his utensils down. “Hey.” Sami glanced up. “It’s me, here. I know.” The corner of her lips quirked in a sad smile. “I know, Sami. You don’t have to explain anything to me.” He reached across the table and covered her hand with his. “This was probably a bad idea right now. How about we call this date officially over and just have dinner. You and me. Just friends.”

A genuine smile split her face and her shoulders relaxed. “That’s a great idea. I’m sorry, Carlos.”

He shrugged again and picked up his silverware, slicing into the medium rare steak. His timing was off. He could be patient. He checked himself when he realized he was sawing at the meat a little roughly. He may not like it, but this woman was worth the wait.

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Trusting Starlight – Part 6

Sami stood in front of the mirror in her bra and panties trying to figure out a way to cancel on Carlos without hurting his feelings. There was no way in hell she could go on a date with him.

Being his friend was easy. He was kind, sweet, and had a great sense of humor. She sat on the edge of her bed and rubbed her stomach. She had to cancel. And soon. He was due to pick her up in less than two hours. She flopped back on her bed.

What had she been thinking to say yes? She put her arm over her eyes and pressed until she saw white spots. She wasn’t ready to date. Just the other day she’d accidentally checked the married box on an online survey. Sami stretched and reached for the phone she’d tossed onto the bed after she’d gotten out of the shower. She was going to cancel. She’d tell him she was sick.

She coughed, experimentally, into the silence of the room. Did that sound fake? Maybe she’d say that she hadn’t been able to find childcare. The risk there, of course, was that he’d offer to come over and what would she say when he showed up and she didn’t have the kids?

She dropped her hand, still clutching the phone, and stared at the ceiling.

Carlos wasn’t just nice, he was hot. The kind of hot even her younger self would have admired from a distance before focusing her attention on a more attainable man. Like Franklin. She groaned. She was not ready to date. She picked up her phone again. Texting seemed rude. She chewed her lip and studied the screen saver with its three smiling faces staring back at her. She didn’t think she’d be able to handle the disappointment in his voice when she canceled.

She’d handle it worse if there wasn’t any disappointment, she admitted to herself.

She started as the phone in her hand rang. Sighing, she answered.

“You’re not going to cancel on him.”

“Hi, Jessa.”

“I’m serious, Sami. You are not going to cancel on him.”

“I wasn’t,” she hedged.

“Bull.”

“I’m not ready to date,” Sami whispered.

“You are.”

Sami stared at the ceiling, willing the moisture in her eyes away. “Jessa,” her voice broke, “what if it’s awful?”

“Oh sweetie,” Jessa’s voice poured over her like warm honey. “It’s Carlos. You’ll have fun.”

“What if it isn’t awful?” Sami’s voice broke. She willed herself not to cry and run her mascara.

“A not awful date isn’t a bad thing,” Jessa said gently. “You’re allowed to date. You’re allowed to be happy.”

“I know,” Sami said. She was quiet for a moment before adding, “I don’t know what to wear.” She sat up on the bed and stared into her closet, knowing she’d sealed her fate. Any cold feet she might had were being held to the fire.

“Wear something comfortable. Put on some make-up. Curl your hair. It’s Carlos. He’s seen you at your worst,” Jessa reminded her.

Two months ago, Carlos had dropped off Tylenol for the kids after his shift, staying when he’d realized she was running a fever as well. “It’s Carlos, Jess. Carlos.”

Jessa laughed. “What are you worried about, then?”

“I hadn’t ever thought of him as anything but a friend.”

“Really?” Jessa drawled.

Sami felt the heat rise in her face. “Well, usually,” she mumbled.

Jessa laughed. “Get dressed, Sami. And for God’s sake, don’t cancel on the poor guy.”

“I won’t,” Sami promised, hanging up the phone. Taking a deep breath, she stood and went to her closet. Being married to a gay man may not have been good for her self esteem, but her wardrobe had certainly benefited. She dug through her clothes until she found what she was looking for. Pulling it out, she held it in front of her and looked in the mirror. The white tag still dangled from the sleeve.

Franklin had bought it for her the last Christmas they’d been together. She’d taken one look at the silky fabric and burst into tears, knowing the size on the tag would never fit over hips and belly still rounded from her last pregnancy. Franklin had handed her a membership card for the gym and told her she needed to stop letting herself go. She’d never hated him more, but she couldn’t bring herself to throw away the gorgeous dress.

Now, though, two years of too many missed meals and with a pair of Spanx, it might just fit. She took it off the hanger and pulled it over her head. It didn’t float over her body, but slid over her curves before settling in place. She looked in the mirror, turning to the side and sucking in her breath.

The deep blue material turned her eyes cobalt and made her platinum hair shine. The bodice crossed between her breasts and ended at a thick black band before flaring gently to her knees. Dropping to her knees in front of her closet, she dug into the back until she found a dusty shoe box. She pulled out the black velvet heels she’d bought before running after children determined her footwear. She stood, putting them on and taking a black cardigan off its hanger. She looked in the mirror and, for the first time, began to feel a twinge of excitement rather than panic. She didn’t look half bad.

She wasn’t going to curl her hair, but, she decided, the occasion called for perfume. Just a spritz on her wrist before putting on her grandmother’s silver heart pendant and her mother’s diamond stud earrings. She smoothed on her lipstick and stood in front of the mirror again.

She looked, she realized, almost pretty. She smiled. It was only Carlos. How bad could it be?

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Trusting Starlight – Part 5

“Did you ask her?”

Carlos stared blankly at the screen in front of him. The kitchen was quiet, most of the staff long gone. He hit send on the vendor email and turned his attention to Jessa. “Yeah.”

“You don’t look too happy,” she noted, studying him.  She wiped her forehead with the back of her hand, leaving a dusting of powdered sugar in its wake. Jessa handed him a plate of brioche con crema.

Carlos wasn’t sure where he’d gone wrong. “I asked her if she had plans for Monday.” He picked up the cream puff and took a bite. He moaned. “These are fantastic. Why are there leftovers?”

“I know how much you like them,” she shrugged. “You seemed quiet all night and you know me. I’m a firm believer in the healing power of sugar.” She reached over and snagged one of the tiny pastries. “I would have thought you’d be a little happier.”

“She thinks we’re getting together to watch a movie or maybe go out for dinner.”

“That’s not exactly bringing your romantic A game, Carlos.” Jessa scolded lightly. She took a bite and smiled. “I did good.”

Carlos nodded in agreement before adding, “No. She thinks we,” he gestured between the two of them, “are getting together with her and doing something.”

“Oh,” Jessa sounded almost as disappointed as he felt. Sami had worked at Buchons’ for nineteen months, three weeks, and four days. He’d been in love with her for nineteen months, three weeks and two days. His father had always told him Hernandez men fell hard and fast and when they did, there was never another woman for them. His father had been right.

Jessa took off her apron and folded it over her arm. “She’s still here, you know.”

Carlos looked at her in surprise. He’d left the kitchen before closing, wanting to take care of the paperwork that was the only part of the job

“I made her a pot of hot chocolate and a plate of these. You weren’t the only one quiet tonight.” Jessa leaned down and kissed his cheek. “Go try again.”

As she stood, Carlos caught her hand. Her eyes were sad, their normal spark absent. “You okay?”

She shrugged. “I will be.” She smiled, a faded version of her typical brightness. “It’s not a big deal, just tired.”

Carlos squeezed her hand and nodded. “Go. Get some sleep.” He frowned as she left the office. Jessa was the older sister he’d always wanted, even if she was closer to his mother’s age than his. He worried over the lines that had appeared around her eyes over the last few months, the distance she’d put between them. Sighing he stood. She’d tell him what was going on when she was good and ready and not a minute before. He walked out of the office, flicking the light and sending the room into darkness.

The kitchen was empty, the chrome expanse spotless. The bank of lights were turned off; the only illumination came from the old wooden table in the corner. Sami was seated beside it, her apron hanging on the back of the chair she’d pulled up to prop her feet up. A cup of steaming chocolate and a plate of mostly eaten pastries were at her side. She held a dogeared novel in her hands. She glanced up and smiled as he neared.

“Hey,” she said, lifting her feet off the chair and pushing it toward him.

Carlos sat and reached for the book she held lightly and reading the cover. “Is it any good?”

She shrugged, a pale pink blush coloring her cheeks. “It’s a lust in the dust book, but I love it.”

He laughed. “Lust in the dust?”

“My college roommate found my stash of historical romances and, after seeing Fabio on the cover in nothing but chaps with a rearing horse in the background, dubbed it lust in the dust. I haven’t been able to think of them as anything else since.” She pushed the plate across the table. “Did Jessa bring you some?”

“Yeah,” Carlos said, helping himself to one anyway.

“If you want to get out of here, I can box these up.” Sami started to stand.

“I’m in no hurry,” he said. He didn’t add that he could sit and watch her eat cream puffs and read romance novels all day.

Sami folded a corner down and set the book on the table. “f I go home, I’ll just start laundry and dishes and I’ll never read.”

Carlos studies her in silence while she sipped her cocoa. If someone had told him two years ago, he’d fall in love with this woman, he’d have thought they were nuts. She wasn’t his normal type. He’d always gone for sleek brunettes, athletic women who’d gone on runs with him in the mornings and fallen into bed with him at night, always leaving before dawn. At twenty-six he’d been more interested in having fun than having a relationship. Then this curvy woman had walked into the restaurant, white blonde hair cut just below her ears, sadness in her eyes, and three kids who were a walking advertisement for commitment. He’d been a goner.

Sami sighed and stretched, the arching motion straining the buttons on her shirt. Carlos liked to think he was a modern man, a feminist, if his mother had anything to say about it, but he couldn’t keep his eyes from straying, half hoping a button would pop. “I should really get going,” she said, bringing his eyes back to her face.

“Let me lock up and I’ll walk you out.” He left her to go to the office, grabbing his jacket off the hook and listening to the sound of her washing the plate and mug. It would never occur to her to leave them for the next day.

He joined her at the door and set the alarm. They walked in silence to her van.  She paused at door. “Thanks, but I think I’m good from here. Goodnight.” She smiled and started to turn.

“Sami?”

“Hm?” She looked over her shoulder.

“Would you like to go out on a date with me Monday night?”

Her mouth dropped open and her purse fell to the ground. As answers go, it wasn’t very flattering. Carlos waited, his stomach in knots.

“A date?” she squeaked.

“A date.” He didn’t want there to be any confusion this time.

“With me?” She touched her hand to her chest.

“With you,” he said firmly.

Her mouth opened and closed before opening again. “Carlos, I’m old enough to be your mother.”

“You’re ten years older than me,” he said dryly.

“I can’t be your type,” she said.

“How do you know what my type is?” He leaned against the back door of her van.

She looked at him pointedly. “I highly doubt your type drives an Odyssey.”

Carlos shrugged, trying not to let on how close he was to getting on his knees and begging her to give him a chance. “I like minivans.”

“You can’t be serious,” her voice took on the high note of panic he knew all too well. He straightened.

“Hey.” She jumped when he touched her shoulder. “It’s just a date,” he told her, dropping his hand. “It’s okay if you say no.” Please don’t say no. He held his breath.

“Just a date?”

“Yes.”

“What if it doesn’t work out?”

His heart started to pound. That wasn’t a no. “We’ve been friends a long time, Sami. That’s not going to change.”

“You’re my boss.”

“Not really,” Carlos shrugged. “I only manage the kitchen staff.” He waited, giving her time to think.

“Okay,” she finally said.

“Really?”

“Yes,” she said emphatically. “I’ll go on a date with you.”

 

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Trusting Starlight – Part 4

“I really appreciate this, Brie,” Sami said as Penny and Ben squeezed past the two women, nearly knocking them over. “You don’t mind that it’s a sleepover?” She pitched her voice over the sound of the children yelling for Santiago.

“Are you kidding? That’s the best part. Mark’s making donuts.”

“For breakfast?”

“Dinner.” Sami turned as Mark walked into the room, a towel thrown over his shoulder and flour dusting the tee shirt advertising his weekly cooking show. He slung an arm over Brie’s shoulders. “You’re going to love them, Archie, my man.” Archie burrowed his head into Sami’s neck.

“I’m sorry. He’s been like this all afternoon.” Sami kissed his forehead.

“Come here,” Brie said, reaching for Archie. He shook his head and gripped Sami tighter. Over the top of his hair, she could see the clock ticking ever closer to the start of her shift.

“Archie, sweetheart, go with Miss Brie,” Sami whispered into his ear. She pried him from her neck and handed him to Brie’s waiting arms.

“They’ll be fine,” Brie assured her, her face glowing as she snuggled the little boy closer. Archie leaned his head against Brie and closed his eyes.

“I’ll have my cell on me,” Sami fretted.

Mark put his hand to Archie’s forehead. “He’s probably just tired. He was with his dad last night?”

“Yeah,” Sami picked up her purse from where she’d dropped it.

“We’ll call you if anything happens,” Brie assured her. “Don’t worry.”

“Okay.” Sami lingered at the door. “Penny! Ben!” Running feet and clicking nails on wood floors was her only warning before she was over run by her oldest children and a dog who could nearly look her in the eye. Santiago’s wiry coat had taken on a gleam of health since he adopted Mark almost a year ago. He slid to a halt, seeming to keep Penny from falling as she tried to jump in front of Ben. They wrapped their arms around her.

“Mark made donuts for dinner!” Penny told her, eyes beaming.

“They’re mac and cheese donuts!” Ben crowed.

“Be good, okay?” Sami kissed them and pushed the hair out of Ben’s eyes. “Keep an eye on your little brother.” She stepped back. Mark and Brie looked happy and comfortable, with the kids and dog circling them. She leaned in for one last kiss to Archie’s cheek. He was asleep, his breaths even.

“Come at nine and I’ll make you breakfast,” Brie said.

“She’s learning to cook,” Mark said proudly.

“There’s this hot chef on TV who makes it look easy,” Brie teased.

“I’ll see you then.” Sami half ran down the sidewalk to her car, knowing she’d have to hit every green light to make it to work on time.

Sometimes, it felt like all she ever did was run late.

Franklin had been happy that she’d been able to find a sitter. Mike had been annoyed. “Sami,” he’d told her, taking her aside as Franklin gathered the kids’ shoes and jackets, “you’ve got to stop letting him do this to you. I love that man. Warts and all. Which is why I’m telling you, you need to set some boundaries or he’ll keep running all over you.” Mike had sent a fond look to her ex husband. “The man has a strong personality and you are too kind.”

Sami thought of his words now. It wasn’t that she was kind. God knows she’d had some very unkind thoughts about the man who’d broken her heart and destroyed her trust in men, but she had grown accustomed to being the adult in their marriage and, then, in their divorce. Maybe, she realized, it was time for her to take another step back. Franklin was Mike’s problem now.

She was almost giddy at the thought. “Not my monkey. Not my circus,” she whispered into the car as she pulled into the parking lot. She checked her watch. She was on time with four minutes to spare.

She flicked down the visor and applied a thin coat of lipstick. A tap at her window had her dropping the tube in her lap. She turned to see a large shape looming beside her door. It opened.

Sami put her hand to her heart. “My God, Carlos. You nearly gave me a heart attack. What are you doing?”

Carlos stepped back as she got out of the car and then closed the door behind her. “I had to get something out of my Jeep and saw you pull in. I thought I’d walk in with you.”

“Thanks.” As they approached the door, he slowed to a stop.  She looked at him. “What’s wrong?”

Carlos cleared his throat. “I was wondering what you were doing Monday night.”

“Oh!” Sami smiled. “Nothing too much. Why? Did you and Jessa want to come over and binge watch something? I was just thinking it’s been too long since we’ve gotten together. This semester kicked my rear.” Sami opened the door, wondering if she should suggest pizza. It’d be nice for Carlos not to cook on the one night a week the restaurant was closed. They could order out, maybe grab a six pack and settle in for a sci fi marathon.

Her thoughts were interrupted by Carlos’s hand pushing the half open door closed again. He loomed over her, one hand holding the door closed, his muscular body as impenetrable as a brick wall. Sami started to take a half step back and then reminded herself this was Carlos.

“I was wondering if you would like to go out on Monday night.”

“I guess so. Did you check with Jessa?” Sami preferred a pizza and beer at home, but Franklin had the kids and it might be nice to get out of the house.

“No,” Carlos said, a look of frustration crossing his face.

Sami reached up and patted his arm. It was solid as a rock. “Don’t worry. I’ll touch base with her tonight, see what we can figure out.” Carlos was always game for whatever she and Jessa came up with. She didn’t know what she would have done without her Buchons’ family. The divorce – and the reason why – had rocked her circle of friends. Most had fallen all over themselves to embrace Franklin’s exit from the closet. She’d felt a bit like collateral damage, eventually drifting away from the people who told her how proud she must be.

“We’re going to be late,” Sami said, laughing into Carlos’s frowning face. “Don’t worry. No chick flicks.” She ducked under his arm and reached for the door again. He stepped back, opening the door and gesturing her into the bustle of the kitchen on a Saturday night.

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Trusting Starlight – Part 3

Sami didn’t even try to keep a smile pasted to her face as she walked out the front door of Buchons’ to meet her ex husband. She’d given up on fake pleasantries right around the time she’d given up fake creamer. It should have gotten easier, meeting him week after week when he picked up the kids for his days. For a while, it had. She’d thought they might even had become friends.

Except he’d fallen in love.

And she wasn’t sure she ever could again.

“I want to tell everyone,” he’d gushed, his eyes brighter than they’d ever been when they’d been married. “I’ve found The One.”

She’d tried to bite her tongue, tried to maintain eye contact, but the words had slipped out. “It’s pretty great when you think you’ve found someone to spend the rest of your life with, isn’t it?”

He’d shuttered up at her bitter words, the arrogant mask he’d worn the last three years of their marriage hardening. “It is,” he’d agreed. “It’s wonderful to find someone who understands you.” In the six months since, he’d been distant. His coldness manifesting into a fastidiousness that had leaked into his relationship with the kids. She’d spoken to him, at length, but his only reaction had been dismissal and an increase in tardiness.

She watched him now, using a napkin purloined from his glove compartment to wipe down his squirming son. His hair was perfect, rumpled just enough to be edgier than a man over forty should be. His shirt – a crisp pale blue – was tucked into jeans with a label she knew cost far more than the clothes he’d bought when married. Everything about him screamed midlife crisis, especially the blonde leaning against the side of the car watching the children with an amused smile.

Sami shifted her eyes, not ready to face the love of Franklin’s life. “Their backpacks are in my car around back. It’s not locked.” She eyed the convertible. The car seat in the back looked out of place and she wasn’t certain the three kids would be comfortable shoved in like sardines. “You might want to put the top up.”

Franklin rolled his eyes. “I’m not an idiot.”

Sami bit back the obvious retort. “What time do you want me to come get them on Sunday?”

“About that,” Franklin glanced back toward the car before leaning in to speak in a low voice, “I’m not going to be able to keep them until Sunday.”

“What?”

“Well, I made reservations at this fantastic little bed and breakfast for tomorrow night.”

“What?” Sami knew her voice was beginning to squeak by the way Penny glanced over at her. She and Ben were regaling their father’s lover with stories about the lizard which had, Sami noted distantly, grown in size if their hand gestures were any indication.

“Well, it’s our six month anniversary.”

Sami leaned closer. “You knew that before today,” she hissed.

Franklin shrugged, unrepentant. “I’m sure you can find a sitter.”

Sami’s mind raced, going through her back up childcare list, discarding one after another. One friend was out of town, another had the flu. A sudden thought struck her. “You should be finding a sitter,” she said.

Franklin looked shocked. “I don’t have anyone you’d allow to watch them.”

Sami had to admit he was right. When he’d left her, he’d left everyone behind while he started a new life. She had a feeling that if it wasn’t for the kids, she’d never have seen him again.

“Hey, Frank? We should probably get going. Sami has to work and the kids are bouncing.”

Franklin looked over to where Archie was rubbing his face against the previously flawless exterior of his car. “Archie!” Sami winced at the sharpness of his voice. “What the hell do you think you’re doing?”

Before Sami could intercede, help came from an unexpected place. “Jesus Christ, Frank. Chill out. They’re kids. Kids are messy.”

“Don’t roll your eyes at me,” Frank said, but he calmed instantly.

“I’ve been telling him he needs to get on medication, Sami. His OCD is out of control right now. I’m sorry we’re late. I had an appointment run over. Mrs. Hoyt had surgery on Wednesday and the poor thing needed a shampoo and style badly.”

Sami felt herself thaw. Reluctantly. “It’s okay, Mike.”

“And what’s this about tomorrow night, Frank? We have the kids. It’s on the calendar. I know it is because I put it there.”

“It’s our six month anniversary,” Franklin said. Sami noted he didn’t get angry when Mike called him Frank.

“We’ll celebrate next week,” Mike said firmly.

“I’ll see what I can do,” Sami nearly kicked herself. She couldn’t help it. She liked the man her ex-husband had fallen in love with no matter how hard she tried to hate him.

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Trusting Starlight – Part 2

Carlos jumped to his feet to help Sami wrangle the kids. He stopped when she put her hand on his arm. “Eat your dinner,” she said. “I’m fine.”

If she’d been holding up a blinking neon sign above her head, it would not have been any more obvious to Carlos that she was most definitely not fine. He’d watched the tension enter her body as the laughter left her eyes the second her ex husband had pulled up in front of the restaurant. “Let me get them boxes for their dinner,” he offered.

“No. Really,” she wiped soup and avocado from Archie’s face, “it’s fine. I’m sure Franklin is going to feed them something.”

Ben groaned. “Sushi. He’s going to make us eat sushi.” He slumped in his chair and crossed his arms. “I hate sushi,” he muttered mutinously. Carlos sent a glance to Jessa. As if reading his mind, his friend jumped to her feet and started stacking tortillas. A quick glance around the table set everyone else into motion. Like the well-oiled machine they were, his crew started packing enough food to feed a dozen children.

“Don’t worry, man,” Carlos told the boy, “stuff some of these tortillas in your shirt and you can eat them.”

“Carlos!” Sami laughed. “Ben, do not put tortillas in your shirt,” she said as the boy reached for his plate.

Carlos grinned, glad that he’d made her smile, and walked to the kitchen to grab a bag for the containers. Footsteps followed him.

“Dinner was good, Carlos.”

He turned. “Thanks, Centava. I’m glad you liked it.” He shouldn’t have favorites, but if he did, this little girl with her white blonde braids and serious gray eyes would be his.

“Can we come again?”

“Anytime, mija. Anytime.” He pulled on one silky braid. “You’d better get going. Your dad is waiting.” He handed her the bag then leaned against the counter and watched her walk out the door.

Jessa strode through the opening before it had a chance to swing back. “I could kill that man,” she seethed. Carlos crossed his arms and raised a brow. “Don’t you act all cool and calm, Carlos. I know why you came back here.”

“To get a bag.”

“To keep from punching that idiot in the nose,” she snorted.

Carlos shrugged, not denying it. He’d like nothing more than to pound an apology out of that miserable excuse of a man Sami had divorced. Jessa was quiet for a long moment. The sound of chatter hummed through the doors. Carlos glanced at the clock, calculating the time it would take to get ready to open and decided to give them another fifteen minutes. He’d been head chef of Buchons’ for almost a year, taking over when the previous owners had sold it and downsized. “Have you heard from Brie?” Carlos asked.

Jessa glanced at him sideways before taking the change of subject. “We went to breakfast this morning, actually.”

“Yeah? How’s she doing?”

“Fantastic.” Jessa bit her lip. “They have news.”

“Are you going to tell me?”

Jessa shook her head. “I can’t. But it’s good.”

Carlos grinned. He liked the Buchons. He’d started working for Mark Buchon the summer before senior year. His parents had been feuding over which alma mater he’d be attending after graduation when he’d seen a help wanted sign in the window of a little place that looked more like a sandwich shop than the top notch cafe it’d turned out to be. He’d gotten the job of washing dishes. That it made his parents grit their teeth and remind him of summer enrichment programs only made it better. By the end of summer, he’d been helping Mark with prep and had found his calling. The Buchons were family.

Mindy popped her head into the kitchen. The redheaded hostess smirked. “The coast is clear,” she said before disappearing to the front of the house again.

“You’re going to have to tell her at some point,” Jessa said pragmatically.

“She’s not ready, yet.” He thought for a moment. “How long has Mindy been here?”

“Two months, maybe three. Why?”

“Does everyone know?”

Jessa patted his arm. “Sweetie. You’re not exactly subtle.” She kissed his cheek and left him to his thoughts while she checked on her dough babies ready to go into the oven.

“Everyone?” he called after her.

“All but one,” she said, taking the plastic wrap off her trays. “You might want to try making a move at some point.”

“I’m working on it,” he mumbled.

“You’re not getting any younger.” Jessa started stacking the trays of rolls into the oven.

“Yeah, but I’m getting older.” He pushed away from the counter and walked to the doorway. Pushing it open, he lifted his hands to rest against the top of the door frame. “Time to get this show on the road,” he called out. He stayed for a moment while his staff made half-hearted groans and got to their feet. He glanced out the window. Sami was still outside, her arms crossed tightly in front of her while Franklin spoke to her. Carlos pushed away from the door and retreated to the kitchen. Yeah. He’d like to crack that guy’s skull. After he thanked him for letting Sami go.

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