Nearly One Year Later…
The restaurant is insanely busy tonight, unlike most Wednesday nights. Chris and I have been run ragged without a break for almost nine hours now. The Red Fire Grill has been a constant success since it opened its doors nearly a year ago. Chris and I are still co-head chefs, and we have personally prepared meals for a lot of very prominent names from all over the United States who have visited the restaurant while in Houston. Our names were listed in Bon Appétit, and some other foodie magazines for our modern take on the five-star steakhouse. Chris and I put our heads together often, coming up with new ideas to keep it fresh and different, and Spence has sent us to multiple workshops around North America to learn all the latest techniques. It’s been a fantastic experience that I wouldn’t give up for anything. It makes me glad that I hadn’t quit last year when my whole life went to shit. Spence wouldn’t have let me, and I’m grateful for that every day.
Spence had bought me a one-way, first-class ticket to Italy, not knowing when I’d be ready to come back. I had insisted that he take it out of my pay, but he was having none of it. So I was gone for over a month before I decided it was time for me to come back to my life and face it all finally. After the time away, I had gained some perspective, and it gave me a whole new lease on my life. I had gone into the entire situation with Lucas, knowing full well what could have happened, and when it did, I had nobody to blame but myself. I accept that now, and I have moved on. I still see Lucas around the hotel from time to time, because he still works for Spence, but I consistently ignore him, despite his multiple attempts to talk to me. I don’t miss him at all. I see him now for what he really is, blinded by him no longer. I still miss Casey like crazy, though. When I came back from Italy, I had tried to contact her, but she declined every call and request I made to see her. After multiple failed attempts, I slowly gave up. I still hold out hope that one day she will find it in her heart to forgive me, I refuse to believe that that is the end for us.
Italy had been an absolute dream come true, despite the circumstances that brought me there. Spence had organized for me to stay in The Manfredi Hotel in Rome for as long as it suited me. I did a lot of touring as well. I visited Milan, Verona, Tuscany, and Naples. I did wine tours, learning a little bit more about it, and I ate way too much pasta. I gained a few pounds because of it, but I didn’t care. I took some authentic Italian cooking courses and even went olive and grape picking. You name it, I did it, and all by myself. There had been a few overly friendly, charming Italian men, who had made some attempts, but I wasn’t interested in the least. This trip was to get far away from men.
“Rox, let’s go take a break. I think we have some time before that party comes in tonight,” Chris hollers across the kitchen, waving at me to follow him.
I drop whatever it is I’m doing, and happily join him outside.
“Fuck it’s busy tonight,” Chris grumbles, bouncing from foot to foot anxiously.
“Need another patch?” I ask him.
“Yeah, I think this one has run its course.”
He lifts his sleeve to reveal his nicotine patch. Chris is making a strong effort to finally quit smoking at the request of his live-in girlfriend, Lena. I’m so proud of him, and I have been acting as his quitting coach. I pull out a new patch from my pocket, always keeping some on me for him, just in case. He pulls off the old one as I slap the new one on his arm.
“Thanks,” he says, “God, I want a cig.”
“Be strong, Chris, you’re doing so well. How long has it been now?”
“Two months and counting,” he tells me.
I know this, but I like to remind him of his progress.
“I bet Lena is so happy that you’ve quit,” I smile at him encouragingly.
“Yeah, she is, and I’ve saved a lot of extra money too…which I plan on putting to good use,” he says.
“Yeah, what are you going to buy with those savings? A trip or something?”
He smiles, and I surprise him by squealing loudly and hugging him tightly.
“Oh Chris, that’s so awesome, congratulations!”
“I’m still wondering how I’m going to do it though; I want it to be a total surprise. Something awesome,” Chris says excitedly.
“I’d love to help you with that if you’ll let me,” I offer.
“I’d love that Rox, thanks,” he sucks in a deep breath, “all the more reason to stick to this thing I guess. It’s just hard sometimes, you know?”
“I know Chris, but it’ll be so worth it.”
I pat him on the shoulder, and he nods.
“I hope she says yes,” he murmurs.
“Chris, Lena loves you. She adores you. She even let you talk her into getting her first tattoo. Trust me, she’ll say yes,” I assure him and he chuckles.
“Yeah, that tiny little flower on her shoulder, I love that thing,” he smiles, “you should get one too Rox.”
“Um…no. Tattoos are not for me; I like to look at them. I love yours, I appreciate the art, but there is nothing that I would feel comfortable enough with to, permanently, ink onto my body,” I tell him.
One particular tattoo that I love comes to my mind.
“Maybe someday, you’ll find something you love enough,” he muses.
“Sure, maybe. I guess it’s not completely out of the question,” I consent.
“Hey, what time is it?” Chris asks me.
“Then I guess we better get back inside before everything falls apart.” Chris sighs and opens the door for us, back into the hot kitchen.
Just after ten, Chris, Lena and I sit in the hotel lounge for a quick drink after a long day. Lena had acquired a later shift at the front desk so that she’d get off near the same time as Chris. I’ve come to know Lena pretty well, and I find that I like her very much. She’s perfect for Chris. She’s the cutest little thing too. She’s twenty-two, stands only five feet tall and she has almost white-blonde hair, cut into a funky pixie cut that compliments her soft features. She’s also got big blue eyes that light up every time Chris walks into the room. They are just the best couple ever. But despite her sweet exterior, she’s got a spunky attitude, and she likes to curse.
“What a long fucking day,” she complains, taking a sip of her beer.
“I had this crazy bitch demanding all these ridiculous things in her room; I wanted to slap her on her over-plastic face.”
Chris gazes at her adoringly and chuckles.
“I think I know who you’re talking about, and she’s been causing problems all week. She’s this-close to getting kicked out,” I tell them, holding up two fingers nearly pinched together.
“Good, I fucking hope so. I can’t take any more of her bullshit for very much longer,” Lena, laughs her adorable girly laugh.
“All just a part of the service industry, I guess. Having to deal with crazy people with a big smile on your face,” I say, shaking my head. Luckily, being in the kitchen, I don’t have to deal with the people that Lena has to endure every day, she’s right at the front lines.
“Asshole alert,” I hear Chris mutter under his breath.
I look at him, and he discretely points to the door. Lena and I turn to see Lucas stride into the lounge, with a tall blonde model type on his arm. They go over to a corner booth and take a seat. Lucas glances over at the three of us and quickly turns away. Lucas has been seen with a new girl every few weeks, doing what Lucas does.
“Still haven’t talked to him?” Lena says, quietly, as I turn back to face her and Chris.
“Nope, and I don’t plan to either,” I scoff.
“Did he finally give up trying?” Chris asks me.
“Yeah, I think so,” I tell him.
We haven’t talked about Lucas for a long time.
“Good, that fucker can just get lost,” Chris, snorts.
Chris is not a fan of Lucas’s, and still shows open hostility towards him every time we have to be in the same room as him. Lena had told me that after I left the restaurant opening party, Chris had really given Lucas a piece of his mind, not caring about the fact that Lucas could beat the shit out of him if he wanted to. But Lucas had just stood there, and took all of it, before disappearing. Lena had been completely stunned and impressed by Chris’s valiant standing up for me, and she said that’s what really sealed the deal for Chris.
Chris and I had told her the whole story leading up to the events of that night. I had revealed things that Chris still hadn’t been aware of. That was one very long drunken night the three of us shared. It was a bonding experience for Lena and me, and it felt so good to have a female friend to talk to. The two of them have basically become my best friends. Chris was always a close friend, but we’ve crossed into best friend territory, and wherever he is, Lena is too.
“So changing the subject,” I start, wanting to wipe Lucas from our radar, “Is everything good at the house? Do you guys need anything?”
“Everything is great,” Lena says, “but I was wondering if it’d be okay if I painted the living room? I found this really fucking great color that I’d love to use, but I wanted to make sure you’d be cool with first.”
“Paint whatever you want Lena, I trust your judgment,” I smile at her.
I am currently renting my little house to Chris and Lena. They’ve been there for just over three months now. I had saved enough to buy a new condo downtown so that I could be closer to the restaurant since I’m there so much. Driving across town almost every day was really wearing on me. I give them a good deal on rent, and they are hoping to save up and buy it from me. I had made enough at the restaurant to pay off the house in full, and also put a significant down payment on the new place. All of this was possible because Spence pays me more than what I think is necessary or fair compared to everyone else, but who am I to complain? Chris now makes the same as I do, but he blew a lot of money on a fancy new truck for himself and a car for Lena.
“Yay! Awesome. I hope you like black,” she says excitedly, and I almost spit out my drink.
“Black?” I confirm.
“Kidding,” she giggles, and I breathe a sigh of relief.
I guess ultimately though, if they bought the house, they could paint the whole house black if they wanted to.
“Well, you two,” I announce, finishing my drink and standing up, “I think I’m going to head home. We’ve got another long day tomorrow.”
“Yeah, I guess we should head home soon too,” Chris agrees, “See you tomorrow, Rox.”
“Night Chris, night Lena,” I say, leaning in and giving Lena a hug and kisses on the cheek.
“Goodnight hun, I’ll see you tomorrow,” she says softly.
I smile and wave at them and make my way toward the entrance.
“Have a good night, Miss Vice,” the doorman, Bob tips his hat to me as I walk out of the hotel to the curb and gesture to the valet.
“You too Bob,” I smile at him and walk over to the curb to wait.
“Are you ever going to fucking talk to me?” I hear a quiet voice behind me.
Ugh! Give it up already! I turn around slowly to face him.
“Not if I can help it. Why don’t you just give it up already? I don’t know what you’re trying to achieve here Lucas, so just… go away,” I tell him, turning my back to him once more.
“Come on, Roxanne. You don’t have to be like that. We have to be able to be civil at some point. Couldn’t we at least try to make it a more comfortable environment?” he requests.
I don’t turn and look at him this time, keeping my back to him.
“I’m perfectly fine the way it is now. I’m not so worried about how comfortable you are or not Lucas, that’s your problem. Now if you would excuse me, I need to go home now,” I tell him just as my car pulls up in front of me.
Without another word to Lucas, I hop in and drive away.
Saturday rolls up on me, and Chris and I are having a welcome, slow afternoon. It’s a long weekend, so we assume everyone has gone out of town for the weekend. I get off early today and have Sunday and Monday off as well. I’ve been looking forward to having some time off. Chris had last weekend off, so it was my turn.
“So, I thought I would propose next weekend,” Chris says out of the blue while we stand in front of the grill.
“Feeling a little eager, are we?” I chuckle.
“I just don’t want to wait anymore, I’m picking out a ring tonight,” he tells me.
“You do know the Masque is next weekend, right?” I remind him.
Yes, the annual Manfredi Masque has come upon us once again. Chris and Lena are on the guest list this year. They are beyond excited to be attending this party. After my experience last year, they are dying of curiosity. I will be attending as well, but my activities will be far different than last year.
“Oh, I’m aware. I was actually thinking of popping the question in the limo on the way to the party. You know, while we’re all looking our best? I’ve never worn a tuxedo before, and Lena bought this beautiful dress. I just thought it might make the night all the more romantic,” he explains.
“That actually sounds pretty nice Chris,” I agree.
I guess the Masque can be whatever you want to make it. It can be an adventure, sexy, or I guess even romantic. My experience wasn’t romantic in the slightest, hot yes, but not romantic. Was that really a year ago? So much has happened since then.
“I think so,” he nods.
We were going to share a limo, but I think I might try and arrange for them to have one to themselves now…with a few extras. Help him out a little.
I head home around three o’clock, eager to start my weekend. I pull into the underground parking of my new condo apartment. I am on the thirtieth floor of a forty-story building. It’s a modern new structure near the heart of Houston. I can see the Manfredi Hotel from my balcony. This place is way more convenient. My new mortgage is substantially higher than the last place, but I can afford it now, especially once I sell my other house. That should help with a big chunk of this mortgage. Chris had mentioned yesterday that he has already put away almost enough for a down payment and that he would like to surprise Lena with the house after they are engaged, so that should be happening soon. I take the elevator from the parking garage up to my floor and as I put the key in the lock, I realize my door is already unlocked. I smile to myself, knowing what’s waiting for me on the other side.
I step into my apartment, and I see his suitcase sitting there in the foyer, finally back from a weeklong business trip. I look around the big open space, eager to see him. My boyfriend of over six months, the beautiful man that I love. He steps out from the bedroom, and lays eyes on me, sending a warm smile my way. I drop my purse on the floor and hurry over to him and wrap my arms tightly around his neck, kissing him hard. I breathlessly break away and look up at him.
“Did you come straight here from the airport?” I ask, noting the suitcase.
“I couldn’t wait any longer,” he tells me, holding me tighter.
“I missed you so much,” I tell him.
“I missed you too my love,” he smiles, leaning in and kissing me again, and this time he reaches down and squeezes my ass.
“I missed this ass, and I need to get it naked right now,” he grins, lifting me up and throwing me over his shoulder, causing me to squeal in playful delight.
“Spence!” I giggle, smacking his butt as he strides towards the bedroom with sensuous purpose.