“Is she going to be like this all day?” James asked. He leaned against the counter, staring at the office where Lilly had been singing from her heart for half an hour.
“I guess so,” Ella said.
James snuck up beside Ella and whispered quietly. “So what’s the deal with her anyway? Where is our Lilly Downer?”
“Well,” Ella whispered as she peeked over her shoulder to see that the office door was still closed. “She met some guy...”
“A biker. Town artist.”
“You know about him?”
James shrugged a shoulder, not indicating an answer either way.
“Anyway. He’s only in town until he has enough money to leave. Then they’re over… apparently.”
“Do you think she’d leave with him?”
“Who, Lilly? No. She wouldn’t leave her dad.”
“I’ve never seen her like this before. I’m a little worried.”
“I know, I am too,” Ella agreed.
Ding! Ding! The shop door opened, for a moment letting in the warm air and sounds that summer creates on Main Street.
Ella looked up to see a man a few years younger than herself wearing black jeans and a black t-shirt fitted enough to show the strength in his arms and chest.
“Oh my, look at this handsome fellow,” James commented, standing straight up as if to present himself to this dashing stranger. “Bit of a bad-boy, I’d say.”
Ella recognized him; the way his dark hair fell over his eyes, how not the hint of emotion played on his features. “I think this is him. Go tell Lilly to pipe down before this gets embarrassing for her.”
“Ugh, all the good-looking ones are either taken or straight,” James said as he walked away. “I’m going to have to move to the city to find anyone single.”
“Hi, can I help you?” Ella asked sweetly.
“Yeah, I’m looking for Lilly.”
Seems nice enough, Ella thought. Definitely easy on the eyes. Not as rough around the edges as I expected.
“Is she here, by chance?”
He had a surprisingly sweet voice and gentle eyes. “Sure, let me get her for you. Wait here.” Ella cracked open the office door and peaked inside. Lilly, apparently, needed a moment to gather herself. James was fanning her as she hopped in place. Ella closed the door without speaking a word to the two inside. “She’ll be just a minute,” she said. “I didn’t catch your name.”
“I didn’t give it.”
“Would you mind?”
He thought on this for a moment. “Jay.”
“Is that your real name?”
“You may never know,” he said with a mocking smile.
“So, I hear you like to travel.”
“It’s been my dream since I was a kid.”
“How long have you been doing it?”
“A few years now.”
“Meet a girl in every town you stop in?”
Jay smirked. He understood that Ella was focused on his relationship with Lilly, and it was clear she didn’t approve. “A few.”
“You plan on taking off again?”
“When I have some funds lined up.”
“So you do this all the time?” Ella said. He didn’t respond. “Ever think of slowing down?”
“Honestly,” he said. “Yes. But don’t tell Lilly. She doesn’t want to get stuck with me.”
“What do you mean?”
“I’ve been on the road for a majority of my adult life. My college education has gone unused for the most part, and every job I have lasts a few weeks tops. I have no evidence of ever living the life she’s accustomed to. The only trade I’ve become an expert in is escape.”
Ella looked into his eyes. “What are you trying to escape from?”
“Hey, Jay!” Lilly greeted him with a smile as she popped out of the office.
The doorbell rang, welcoming another visitor into the shop.
“I’m going out to lunch, boss. Be back in an hour,” Lilly said.
“I’m watching the clock!” Ella called as the two who quickly made their way out the door. They walked by Eric without even noticing him, but he took note of them.
“Who’s that guy?” he said.
“Doesn’t matter, he’ll be out of our lives soon.” Ella said this almost to reassure herself. Keeping her head down, her fingers aimlessly flipped through a bridal magazine.
Eric looked to James, seeking an explanation. James gave Eric a devilish wink and went back to work.
“Getting married?” Eric asked.
Ella looked up, surprised and suddenly struck with nervousness. Butterflies stirred in her and she could feel her cheeks blush and her heart pound in her chest. “What? No, why?”
“You’re looking through bridal magazines.”
So distracted with worry about Lilly and her crush, Ella almost forgot what she was doing. “Oh, no! I’m just looking for inspiration. I’m not going to get married. I mean not that I’m not ever going to get married. I’d like to get married. What girl my age wouldn’t like to get married? But right now, at this moment, I’ve got no plans.”
“Just, stop talking,” James whispered in her ear.
“Right,” Ella said as she squeezed her eyes closed, trying to wish away all of the words that she had just spilled out.
Eric waited for a moment, and another, but Ella kept her eyes hidden.
“We’re still here, dear” James said, finally.
Ella peeked out from one eye. “Oh my god, I’m sorry, how long have my eyes been closed?” She dropped her shoulders and hung her arms. “Oh forget it. I’m a mess today, that’s all, a mess.” She tossed the magazines onto a table near James then returned to the counter, clearly exasperated. “Yes, sorry, how can I help you?”
Eric looked around wondering if she even realized it was him. To avoid further embarrassment and confusion, he picked up a mini bouquet from the bucket on the counter and set it down before the curious woman he had stopped in to see. “Yes, I’d like these and I’d also like to take you to lunch.”
“Oh, thank goodness. James I’m taking my lunch, you can handle the store with Sarah, there’ve been four people all day and two of them haven’t bought anything.”
“I was buying this,” Eric reminded Ella as she approached him on the customer side of the counter.
“Get me out of here now and they’re on me.” Ella walked passed Eric and headed for the door.
“No, I have to pay for them.”
Ella stopped and gave him an annoyed look. She marched to the counter, checked him out, accepted payment, and offered the receipt. “There. Now can we go?”
“Yes, we can,” satisfaction carrying every word.
Once outside, he handed her the bouquet. “These are for you.”
Ella hung her head and took the bouquet from his hands. As she tilted her face into the bouquet, welcoming the scent of the fresh flowers, he saw his smile. “Thank you.”
Eric bent down to kiss her lovely lips, holding her in a trance for a moment and allowing her to focus only on him. A moment later, he was leading her down the street. Reeling, Ella admitted to herself in the secret depths of her heart that she would gladly follow wherever he would lead her.
Ten minutes later, the two found themselves facing each other from across a small table in the fresh, outdoor air. Bees buzzed through the flowers that ran along the edge of the patio, tickled with pollen and sunlight. Ella tossed the spread of fresh greens with her fork, obviously distracted.
“How’s your salad?”
“Hmm? Oh! It’s fine.” She forced the edges of her mouth to curl up into a smile, but Eric could tell that something was amiss.
“What’s on your mind?”
“Nothing, I’m sorry.”
“Don’t be.” Eric washed his food down with a sip of ice cold water with a hint of lemon. “Who was that guy in the shop?”
It baffled Ella that Eric could sense exactly what was bothering her. “Jay. Lilly’s guy friend.”
“Ahh, don’t like him?”
“I’m just―” She gave up on the salad and lay her fork down in submission. “I’m worried she’s getting too attached. When he came into the shop today, Lilly was basically hyperventilating in the back.”
“Why?” he said with a laugh, hardly able to imagine Lilly that way.
“I don’t know. I think she didn’t expect to see him there. She’s been keeping him to herself; away from me, I mean. I don’t think she wants him and me to have any sort of relationship, good or bad, because she knows that eventually… he’s going to leave.”
“Oh! Now I know where I’ve seen him. He’s that guy who draws pictures of people on the street. Remember we ran into him that one day? I’ve seen his work since then, it’s pretty impressive.”
“Come back to my side…”
“Oh, sorry. What I meant to say is that his work is terrible, he is no good, and she should leave him before he has a chance to leave her.”
“Why are you so worried? She’s a big girl; can’t she take care of herself?”
“Of course! But we’ve always gone through these things together and now she’s shutting me out. I’m worried she’s going to get herself caught up in something that I can’t get her out of, I guess.”
“Alright, I think I have a solution for you,” Eric said as Ella inched to the edge of her seat, anxious to receive his wisdom. “It is important that, in times like these, we remember Little Bo Peep.”
“Little Bo Peep?” Ella was confused. Why was this strong, muscular man trying to solve her problems with nursery rhymes about wooly animals? “What are you, Mother Goose?”
“She lost her sheep, right? Well, she left them alone and they eventually came home.”
“I think you need to be telling this story to a kid. There’s one right there,” she said, pointing to a young boy at another table. “I’ll go get him and you can explain about the sheep.”
“Come on,” Eric laughed. “I’m serious. Let her do her thing. Maybe she needs to.”
“What if she gets hurt?”
“We all do. And therein lies the lessons we learn.”
Ella knew full well that he was right. But to let her friend walk right into pain; how could she do that?
“Trust me,” Eric said, seeing her reluctance. “It will all turn out fine in the end.”