I park across the street from The Outline. Thank goodness I didn’t have to parallel park today. My parking has improved since living in the city. But I still hate to swing my car into a spot with impatient drivers waiting for me to get out of their way. I check my face in my rearview mirror. I’m wearing more makeup than I usually do. Yesterday, my first day at Vine’s, Laura, the owner and boss, approved of my outfit but told me to work on my makeup. It pissed me off. Still, I listened, and I did my best today. I even applied the fake individual eyelashes Lex talked me into buying last week at the Nordstrom’s makeup counter. It took me all weekend to get the hang of applying them to the edges of my lids. My green eyes are lined with gray eyeliner, and my eyelids are covered in a smoky-gray shadow. I have the deep-rose blush on my cheeks and the shiny pale-pink lipstick that the sales clerk said I just had to purchase.
I get out and lock my car. I smile when I hear my red kitten heels tapping on the sidewalk. The last time I was here, I was dressed girlish with sandals. Now, I give the appearance of a high position career woman who has the world by the balls. I giggle out loud, and the gentleman standing next to me, waiting at the red light smiles at me. “Good afternoon,” he says.
Wow, someone is engaging with me and not looking at a cell phone. “It is, it’s a beautiful fall day,” I reply, and the light turns green, “Have a good day.”
I smile and walk across the street. Change is coming; I feel it all the way down to my red-covered toenails. I swear I can even smell the change blowing in the crisp fall air. I hold my head high and my back straight. I am a woman of forty-three years of age, I have raised five awesome, kind, smart young men, and I’ve owned, operated, and ran a chain of grocery stores. I’m dressed and am presenting who I am; a fucking successful woman.
I walk into The Outline and spot Lex right away. She’s talking to Lamar, Aiden, and another man in an expensive suit. I straighten my new tailored dark-gray pencil skirt, wave off the girl approaching to take my name, and walk over to the table. Lamar is the first to see me. A wide, bright smile spreads over his face. He is nice looking, but even if I was ready to put myself out there, I feel no chemistry with him. Aiden notices me, smiles, and stands.
Lex spins around, “Hi.” She hugs me and beams, “I love the outfit.” She didn’t have a chance to see this one.
“Thanks.” A throat clears, and Lamar, standing by someone I haven’t met, gives me a quick, friendly hug. “Hello, good to see you again.”
“You too, Lamar.”
“Willow,” Aiden interrupts, and my eyes swing to him. He is so tall, a good-looking, exceptionally well-dressed man that exudes strength and power. It radiates off him.
“Aiden, nice to see you again,” I feel a nervous dip in my tummy.
My eyes break from Aiden and look to Lamar. “Willow, this is John Glassman, he’s a partner with Aiden at Ackerman, Glassman, and Markley.”
The gentleman is already standing. I offer my hand and smile, “Nice to meet you, Mr. Glassman.”
“Please call me John, Willow.” We shake hands. He’s a nice looking older man. I would guess he’s in his early sixties. I look back at Aiden; I can feel him staring at me. I smile and watch his eyes crinkle when he smiles back.
“Well, gentleman, we only have an hour today, and the place is already packed so we—”
“Please join us at our table, “Aiden interrupts Lexi.
John chuckles, “Yes, please. The Outline is known for its speedy service, but sitting with Aiden Markley will guarantee you will have top priority.”
Aiden laughs off what I think was a dig at him. His handsome features are emphasized when he smiles at me, “I’m proud to admit, he’s correct. Please join us.”
Lexi peeks at me, trying to read if I want to or not. I shrug and glance at my new watch, “I have forty-five minutes, and it’s up to you.”
She raises her thinly-plucked blond eyebrows, but Aiden doesn’t give her a chance to respond. He steps over and puts his hand on the small of my back, leads me to the chair next to where he was sitting, and pulls it out for me.
“Thank you.” I remove my dark-gray blazer because it is suddenly stuffy in here, standing beside Aiden, the table, and the crowded restaurant.
I take the offered seat, and I’m startled when Lamar laughs loudly. I smile at him. I have no clue what he finds so funny. Maybe I missed a joke. I’m known for that in my family.
John Glassman wasn’t kidding about the attention paid to Aiden’s table. A chair is brought over for Lexi, and waters are placed in front of us before we are even settled in our seats. The young waitress is waiting until we are settled. Apparently willing to ignore the hustle and bustle of the restaurant just to appease this table.
“I don’t need a menu,” I say when she starts to hand me one. “I’ll have a grilled cheese sandwich, no side, with a coffee, please.”
As I place my napkin on my lap, everyone starts placing their orders. I shiver when cold air billows over me, and a chill prickles up my spine.
“Trade me seats, Willow,” Aiden leans and says close to my ear. “You are sitting in line of the front door.”
I shiver again, and I’m not sure if it’s from the cold air or Aiden’s handsome face so close to mine. I inhale, smelling his spicy cologne. “Thank you.”
Once again, Lamar’s laugh surprises me. He looks at me and then to Aiden, his brown eyes dancing with laughter. My forehead wrinkles, I’m lost once again on his humor. “What am I missing, what’s so funny?”
I stand when Aiden’s hand lands on the back of my chair, and we switch seats. Lexi chuckles, “Oh, I’m sure we don’t want to know, Willow. How was your first day at Vines?”
I look around the table, and all eyes are on me. I go back to feeling warm, “Good, thanks. We’ll catch up about that later. Did Stella win her game last night?”
I take a sip of water. Maybe we should have sat by ourselves.
“Yes, it came down to a shoot-out. Al hardly had a voice this morning,” she glows with pride.
The waitress sits my coffee down. “Thanks.”
“You work at Vine’s Bridal?” John Glassman asks, and I nod yes. He looks pleased. “I know the owner through my first wife. They were good friends; Laura is a tough bird. So, you just started working for her?” John asks.
“Yesterday was my first day; it all happened pretty quickly. I applied after seeing a sign in the store’s window while I was walking around the area. I applied on a Friday, interviewed Saturday, and was hired Sunday. My first impression of Laura is she’s a smart, tough woman whom I know I will learn a lot from in this position.” I keep my smile. I don’t know Laura yet, other than she’s no-nonsense, blunt, and has a critical eye for fashion she’s willing to share with everyone.
“Don’t let her beat you up to much. Tell her I said hello, I hadn’t seen her in years. Maybe I’ll stop by to say hello myself,” he winks.
“Oh, look, here comes our food,” Lexi chirps, and I make room on the table.
“You were not kidding about the fast service.” I look at my watch, I still have a half-hour, and I’m only a five-minute drive to the store. I wait until the waitress sits all the food down before I pick up my grilled cheese sandwich. I take a very unladylike bite. “Mmmmmm,” I moan and dab my mouth. I didn’t eat breakfast again, and I’m starving. Aiden clears his throat, and I notice he hasn’t started eating. I dart my eyes around the table. Lexi is like me; she is not wasting time and takes a big bite of her chicken salad sandwich. I know she is swamped right now at work with the closing of their fiscal calendar year and doesn’t have time for a relaxing lunch.
“Willow, what did you do before Laura hired you?” John asks me.
I take a sip of coffee before I answer. I shiver. I can feel the air from the front door make its way straight back to this table. “I co-owned six IGA stores in Martin and Shelton Counties. It was a family business, and I was a jack of all trades, like most people I think who own and operate a family-owned business.” I stop speaking when Aiden stands, removes my jacket from his chair, and lays it on my shoulders.
I shiver again, “Thank you.”
He looks right into my eyes, warmly, “You’re welcome, Willow.” The tiny hairs on the back of my neck rise. My hands go to my jacket lapel to pull it close to cover up my breasts when I see Aiden quickly glance at them in my pale-pink, silk shell blouse.
Lamar chuckles again and says to me, “Willow, I promise not to tease you. But please tell John and Aiden here how many degrees and certificates you’ve earned.”
I shake my head, “Oh Lamar, not you too.” I pretend scowl at Lexi; she needs to stop teasing me. “I have three Associates Degrees and seven certificates for various things.”
“Good Lord girl, you could have saved money and received a BA and MA,” John says while sipping on a cocktail.
“I could have and would have if I lived near a four-year university, but the only school close and accessible to me was Middleton Community College.”
“You didn’t get the chance to live and experience college life?” John asks me.
“No. I married my high school sweetheart and had my first child when I was sixteen years old. My ex-husband’s family owned the two local IGA grocery stores in our county. I started attending Middleton shortly after I had my second son, Henry. It was right after I started community college, my ex-husband and I decided to grow and expand the business to other areas in our rural communities.”
“How many children do you have?” John asks me, and I wish the conversation would get off me. I don’t like attention. “I have five sons, Oliver 26, Henry 24, Max 22, Elliot 20, and Drew eighteen.”
Lamar laughs, “Aiden, you need to pick her brain on how to deal with the kid.”
I raise my brows and look at Aiden, “I’d be happy to give you advice, but I’m a typical mother, I have no idea what I’m doing.”
“I doubt that, Willow,” Aiden objects softly.
“I wish you would have had a couple of girls; I could use help too,” Lexi says and takes another big bite of her sandwich. I giggle and roll my eyes, and then a ping of pain hits my chest. Jake is having a baby girl with his new wife.
I glance at my watch; I need to leave in ten minutes. I pick at my grilled cheese and drink my coffee, listening to everyone make idle chit chat grateful that the subject is no longer on me. After a few more bites of my sandwich and a look at my watch, it’s time to leave.
I remove the jacket from my shoulders, Aiden quickly stands and takes ahold of it. I scoot my chair back, stand, and he helps me put the tight-fitting blazer on. “Thank you,” I smile then look to Lex. “I need to get going, I know you’re swamped at work so if I don’t talk to you, I promise I’ll see you Sunday. It was nice meeting, you, John. Lamar, Aiden, nice to see you guys again.”
Lexi stands and hugs me, then whispers into my ear, “I’ll call you tonight to check in with you, sorry about lunch today.”
“It was fun, and I’ll talk to you later.” I wave goodbye.
“Willow, may I walk you to your car? I’d like to speak to you about what you witnessed last Sunday.”
“Oh, you don’t need to, Aiden. Believe me, I’ve seen that situation too many times to count raising five sons. I know tempers can fly, and things can get out of hand quickly. I need to apologize again to you for butting into your argument, but like I said that night, I didn’t think just flew into action.”
He nods, puts his hand on my back, and walks me out into the bright sunny afternoon fall sun. I squint up at him, and he smiles down at me. He’s so attractive. He has a powerful, prominent nose and square jawline. They would be considered big on a normal size man, but Aiden is a large man. A tall man, whose build is not lean. It’s broad, thick, and muscular with meat on his bones. His hair is the darkest shade of blond; some might consider it a light brown, but I think it’s blond. The stubble growing on his squarish chin is a lighter shade of blond mixed with some gray hairs. His eyes, his beautiful eyes are a brilliant green. I was right. There are no undertones of a different color in his irises. They are pure green, and they are beautiful. My heart pounds, I feel warm, but I shiver from the breeze blowing. The sun is shining brightly down on us. My God, I’m attracted to Aiden. Oh, my goodness. My heart thumps, thumps, thumps. I’m looking up at him as if I want him to kiss me. “I, uh, I need to get going to work.”
He chuckles, “All right, Willow, it was nice seeing you.” Smirking, he walks back inside The Outline. I stand and watch him while holding my blazer tight across my chest.