Bigger catastrophes loomed. Theodora chewed Mary out when told the veal special was off the menu. A sweet-faced tot—happy with her hamburger—flung herself across table six when told there was no ice cream for dessert. Chocolate milk and Diet Cokes flew through the air. Afterward, the rug made squishy sounds whenever Mary ran past. And a family of four stormed out without paying for their drinks after Delia gave up on reciting the dinner specials and rattled off the few entrees still available.
By nine o’clock, Mary was worn out and jumpy and just plain frustrated. Which was how Anthony found her when he came to fetch his daughter.
He’d been at the Gas & Go taking his time on a brake job, allowing Blossom more time to fool around at the restaurant. Strolling in from the street, he searched the throng for Mary. He caught sight of her behind the mobbed counter.
Her hair was a mess. Streaks of mascara ran down her cheeks, lending a clownish appearance. Rushing toward the kitchen, she didn’t quite clear the swinging door. It swung back and hit her squarely.
He flinched. Unbelievably, she seemed oblivious to the injury. She disappeared inside.
Following her proved difficult. In his path, a woman in pink shorts argued with Delia. Beyond them a boy spun in a circle as his parents battled over a wad of bills. The little monster had toilet paper stuck to the heels of his sneakers. His hands were loaded for bear with sugar packets. He hurled them out in a circle, spinning like a Gatling gun gone nuts.
Dodging the kid, Anthony skirted around a mound of rice pilaf on the floor. A sugar packet whizzed past his shoulder and he dived for cover. He scooted behind the counter where a motley group of teenagers sat devouring hamburgers and fries. A boy with punk-style orange hair was deep into a lip-lock with the girl on his lap. If someone didn’t stop them, they’d soon be doing the nasty.
For the love of . . . He hoped Blossom hadn’t seen the teenagers in mid-grope.
“Knock it off,” he growled. The teens sprang apart.
Delia materialized before him, throwing his heart painfully out of rhythm. It was one of the negatives of being a tall man. Women, many of them fairly short, leapt in front of him. He felt unnerved, like an elephant intimidated by mice.
She dug red-tipped talons into his arm. “Run for your life,” she hissed. “It’s not safe here. Don’t blame me when you see Blossom. I tried to stop her. So help me, I did.”
“You tried—” His foot slid a startling inch. Confused, he glanced down. “For the love of God, what’s on the floor?”
He lifted his foot from the pool of pink goo. Slowly he brought his attention to rest on the ice cream freezer. Delia muttered something and ran off.
Ice cream. All over the floor. It was leaking out of the freezer.
Leaking. Out of the unit’s bottom panel . . .
He charged the freezer. Grabbing hold, he hauled the appliance from the wall and yanked out the plug. All Mary needed was an electrical fire on top of the chaos raining down on her establishment like locusts.
It went downhill from there.
In the kitchen he found Blossom sitting Indian-style on a counter, penned in by jumbo canisters of ice cream. Twin tracks of red and brown made a highway down her tee shirt. The sugary stream dripping from her tennis shoes was sure to draw ants before she finished drowning herself in dairy.
Striding past Finney, he approached his kid. “Blossom, what the hell are you doing?”
“Thoo thouldn’t thwear,” she garbled, her tongue evidently frozen.
He swung around to regard Finney, dashing between the oven and the grill. “How much did she eat?” he asked.
“No idea. She’s your kid, your problem.” Finney pulled a bubbling casserole from the oven. “Hey, Anthony—you’re a mechanic.”
“Thanks for noticing.” He spotted her ill-mannered son leaning against the wall. Patches of chocolate streaked his cheeks. “How much ice cream did yours eat?”
“This isn’t a contest. They’re both eating dairy. Leave it at that.”
“You don’t approve of this, do you?”
“It’s not heroin.” She placed two plates on the ledge of the pass-through window before giving him the once-over. “You fixed the walk-in cooler. How ‘bout you look at the stove? Something’s wrong.”
He watched her twirl the stove’s knobs for three seconds. “Stop! You’ll blow us up!”
Finney straightened. “You sound like Mary.”
“Where is she?”
“Hiding in the hallway.” The cook waved a paring knife due south.
“Stay away from the stove. I need to check the gas line.” He frowned. “Why is Mary hiding?”
“I think she’s crying.”
He hurried to check on her. Sure enough, she was trembling by the door leading out the back of the building.
“Planning to bolt?” He appraised her flushed, sorrowful face. “Hey, your lip is bleeding. Must’ve been the door that hit you.”
She pinned him with a gaze rife with desperation. “All I can feel are my arches,” she said. “They’re on fire. And I’m fed up with having to defend my life just because the ice cream melted.”
From his pocket he withdrew a rag. “I don’t know about defending yourself but you are bleeding. Here. Let me help.”
He dabbed at the crimson drop by her mouth. She stilled as he touched her, and he smiled. The wound was just a nick, really. By morning, it’d be history.
Pleased with his ability to forestall electrical fires and staunch the flow of blood, he began pulling back. As he did, his gaze slid to hers.
Connecting with her mossy green eyes made them open wide. There were golden flecks inside, a whole sunburst of color on top of the darker green. On an intake of breath, Anthony watched her lips part, her lower lip appearing slightly swollen and bruised—
The skin on his scalp tightened. Heat poured through his body. Sucking in air, he battled vertigo.
The reaction wasn’t his fault. During adulthood he’d enjoyed sex so infrequently, he’d entered the priesthood without taking vows. Did his attraction have to knock him over like this?
The suggestive tempo of his breathing affected her too, putting a nice sheen on her forehead. She sent her tongue across her lips on a languid journey that sent his heartbeat into a crazy dance. Come to think of it, she was also breathing fast, her breasts straining against her pretty blouse—
He swiped the Rain Forest dampness from his forehead. “Bleeding’s stopped,” he mumbled. At this rate, he’d need to wring his shirt out in Finney’s sink.
Mary regarded him with smoldering eyes. “Thank you,” she murmured.
He tried to clamp his attention on anything but her. No dice.
Succumbing to the urge, he looked closer. Mary wasn’t pretty in the classical sense. Her eyes were slightly close-set. Her nose—like his—was a tad too large. But her lips were full and pink, and her skin glowed. The combination made her beautiful.
“I’ll get Blossom, take her home.” He paused, confused. Why couldn’t he stop looking at Mary?
She had a nice shape. Small waist, good curves. Breasts that would fill his hands just right.
A second wave of heat pummeled him. He was sweating like a gorilla. If this was his big debut as Mary’s suitor, he’d blown the opening act.
“I’ll get Blossom out of your hair,” he said. “Need to pour some Pepto down her throat before she hits the sack.”
“Oh. The ice cream.” Mary stepped closer, effectively raising the temperature on his furnace. “It’s my fault,” she added.
“I doubt it. She’s nuts for the stuff.”
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