Hugh Reynolds doesn’t have family, at least not people to whom he’s blood related. But that doesn’t mean he doesn’t have people looking out for him, or that those people fail to notice when he falls in love.
Andrew has known Hugh since he was born, back when Andrew was just a kid himself, itching for a chance to work the dining room at the family restaurant. He’s seen Hugh through death and heartbreak and everything else. Friday night dinner at his restaurant is one of Hugh’s sacred rituals, and Andrew’s seen it all.
Tonight, however, is special. Tonight Hugh introduces his new flame to his oldest friend and longest-running family stand-in, his late grandfather’s best friend, John Sanders.
It should definitely be interesting. Andrew’s taken the night off so he can enjoy every eyebrow-twitch and meaningful glance.
At least, that was the plan.
Warnings: This story is totally safe for work.
John was nervous. A fact that Andrew, naturally, did not hesitate to mention.
“No need to be anxious. He’s a very nice young man.”
John sipped his tonic and lime. “He’s thirty-four years old.”
“Young relative to yourself, I meant.”
“You used to defer to your betters, Andrew.”
“I still do,” Andrew said, and watched John consider a rebuff, then leave it.
“Of course, you can’t blame me for hoping he’d eventually just marry Lucy Martinez.”
“I believe Ms Martinez has more appropriate taste in men.”
Andrew suspected, though would never speak aloud, that John had consulted the young woman in question in a professional capacity. The shifty tight expression on the old man’s face did not precisely confirm the theory. His concern for the future of Hugh’s escort friend seemed to go a bit further in support of it.
John shrugged. “I always thought it would be a quite compatible pairing for them both. With obvious exceptions made for outside liaisons.”
“You’ll like him, stop worrying. Hugh will know if you’re worried.”
“Don’t you have a job? I could have sworn you held a position of responsibility around here.”
“Not tonight,” Andrew said, and poured him another tonic and lime.
“Really? Won’t your entire staff fall apart if you sit down for dinner?”
“They’ll do just fine. Most of them.” He used his hand to subtly indicate two people at the other end of the dining room, half-obscured by curtains. “Love affair in the process of going sour. I already have someone coming in to cover one section, the only question left is whether I’ll need to cover both of their sections.”
“I don’t know why you insist they all wear the same clothes. How can you tell anyone apart these days?” John’s fingers tapped absently on the glass. “And your sisters go along with this?”
“How likely do you think it is they’d let me do something of which they disapproved?” Andrew watched the body language of the two in the corner, waiting for one to storm off. “And Betsy, in particular, appreciates it.”
“I forgot about her son. Transsexual, is it? I can’t remember all these damn words.”
“Transgendered, I think. But he’s only seventeen. Betsy says he isn’t ready to commit to a gender.” Andrew withheld the smile, which would only spark John’s irritation.
“Of course, you think that’s daring and modern,” John said.
“That my nephew plans to be himself and won’t let anyone stop him? Certainly. I think you might be a little bit jealous, John.”
“I’m fully committed to my gender, thank you. Ah, there you go. You should probably make a phone call.”
Brook strode quickly out of the room, fluttering the curtain. Heading toward the bathrooms, not the break room. David, though, was still standing there, staring at the wall.
“I think they might both surprise me.” Andrew checked his watch. “And doors are open. Timing. Well, I’ll be back with you shortly.”
“Take your time, boy. I can hardly drink myself into a stupor on lime water.” With an imperious wave, John turned back to the Wall Street Journal.
He offered a reassuring smile to Ana, who was hosting this evening (and none of them particularly liked to work on a night he planned to dine at the restaurant, so he used such opportunities rarely, but Ana was particularly sick about it; he’d already given Hugh a heads up to pay attention and offer an impression). She managed a nauseous-looking grimace in return.
David was still staring at the wall, one hand in his pocket, the other balled into a fist.
“Don’t mind me,” Andrew said. “Just breaking my own rules.” He poured himself a water from one of the standing pitchers, then sipped it. “If you’d like Ana to send you home, I can put in a word for you.”
“No, sir. I—I need—” He looked up. “Did you see where Brook went? I need to talk to her. Not on the floor.”
“I’m not so sure that’s the smartest idea you’ve had today, David. She looked upset. So do you.”
This was not Andrew’s first pregnancy at the restaurant. It was, however, the first he’d witnessed being announced at the water-coffee station ten minutes before doors open on a Friday night.
He poured another glass of water and handed it to the young man standing in front of him, whose fisted hand was now nervously thumping his thigh. “Drink.”
“Not sure ice water—”
“Drink, David. Then sit here, in this chair, until I come back for you.”
David winced. “Sorry about the chair, Andrew.”
“I’ll write the entire lot of you up for it later. Sit down and hydrate.”
Ana was spot-checking the dining room (and nervously glancing toward the door as if any moment a stampede would burst through, all clamoring for a table against a wall, or a direct line to the bar). No one yet arrived except John, who seemed content to read his paper.
No sobs threatened behind the bathroom door. He tapped lightly.
“I’ll be out in a minute!”
Feeling a bit awkward, Andrew lingered in the alcove and waited.
Red eyes, but uniform, hair, and makeup were all perfectly in place. Brook was one of his favorite servers, and this was probably why.
“Sorry, Andrew. Are doors open? I can—”
“Come back to the office for a second. Please.”
She sighed, and all the anxiety displaced by her efforts at appearance stole back into her expression. “He told you?”
One never knew how to respond in such situations. But he’d known Brook for two years, and he’d watched the relationship progress from furtive glances across the dining room to hands brushing as they passed one another leaving the kitchen.
He took a risk, and kissed her cheek. “Congratulations, Ms Stephenson.”
“Oh fuck. You’ll make me cry again.”
“Come talk to me for a few minutes.”
“Andrew, you aren’t even working tonight,” she protested as she followed him back.
“This isn’t work, dear. Sit. Want a vitamin?”
“You and your vitamins. You know you’re not supposed to take a bottle a day, right?”
He popped another and offered her the bottle.
“You know, we always have to convince new people that they’re really vitamins, and you’re not back here getting high.” She shrugged. “Sure. What the hell.”
“I’m not too worried about my reputation,” he said. “Are you on the insurance?”
“Yeah, right. Even you don’t pay that well, Andrew. But I’m okay. I have my application in for the new state-wide thing, and a friend of mine recommended a doctor she likes, so I think I’m pretty much okay.”
“And you just told David tonight?”
She shot him a narrow look. “You second-guessing me?”
“Only when you endorse the key lime over the cheesecake. You couldn’t have waited until after service to tell him? A little consideration, if you will. I do have a restaurant to run.”
“Oh, stuff it. Christ. Don’t make me think about this, or I’ll lose my fucking mascara again. God, sorry, Andrew. Rough day.”
“This is why we’re in the office.”
“So I can say ‘fuck’ a lot?”
“You’re processing. May I ask when you—found out?”
“Three days ago. Why? You think I should have told him right away? God, it’s not even like that. Jesus, Andrew, what am I gonna do?” She pressed her hands flat on the desk.
He leaned in and settled one hand over both of hers. “You are going to be an incredible mother, Brook. And you should know this already, but you’ll have this position for as long as you want it.”
“Yeah, but I was gonna get on the management track, you know? If this happened two years from now? Then yeah. But right this second?”
“I will leave the decision about your professional development to you, but there is no reason why you should put it off indefinitely. If you win the lottery between now and when you return to work after giving birth, we’ll have lost some training hours. But if you were going to win the lottery, we’d likely lose you anyway, right?”
“The lottery’s right. I’ve been looking. Baby shit—stuff, sorry—is really expensive.”
“I have a handful of nieces and nephews.” He decided he’d corral Betsy and Sarah into stopping by soon to fawn over their new “restaurant baby mama.” “I called Emerson in to cover, if you need to leave.”
She snorted. “Are you really saying me and Emerson are a fair trade, Andrew?”
“Actually, I thought I was covering David’s shift.”
“Not fair. He’s doing all right. At least he’s making eye contact with people now, and not running back to see if Chef has anything for him to prep anymore.”
“He seems much more comfortable,” Andrew agreed.
“So you really don’t mind a big fat pregnant broad running around here? What if I start knocking shit over?”
“Both of my sisters worked here while pregnant, Brook. I am not at all worried.” He paused. Was it really thirteen years ago now? It didn’t feel that long. Considering the dinner to which he was now almost late, surely the number was correct. “In any event, I only intended to reassure you about all of the details on the work side of the equation.”
“Thank you, Andrew.” Her hands turned and gripped his, suddenly fierce. “First words out of my mom’s mouth: ‘You finally found yourself a decent job and now you’ve fucked it up.’”
“Rest assured you haven’t.” Of course she had a damaging family of origin. He was a sucker for the kids whose parents had failed them in some sense.
“We better get out there before Ana has a coronary. Try to remember you aren’t on the clock tonight, Andrew, okay?” Brook stood up, straightened her clothes. “My mascara all right?”
“Good. Thanks.” She smiled. “Can I show you to your table, sir?”
“Thank you very much, you may.” He freed David from the coffee-water station (and suggested mildly that he take the chair back to the break room), and checked in with Ana once more before actually sitting down.
Someone—Ana, most likely—had already seated John at the table Andrew preferred in the back corner, by the kitchen.
“There you are. I thought I might be having dinner all by my lonesome.” John shuffled his paper to the side. “All clear?”
“All clear,” Andrew agreed, and sat with his back to the wall. As he watched, David halted in front of Brook and opened his mouth, then said nothing. Brook reached out, squeezed his upper arm, and let go.
Both of them smiled and went back to their opening chores.
“You remember his name?” Andrew asked, and returned to the entertaining pastime of annoying John.
“His name, his social security number, the balance of his bank account, and the poor state of his retirement savings. Tell me how any Reynolds could fall for someone who has failed, until now, to engage a robust retirement fund. And he used to be an attorney.” John sniffed, as if affronted. “I expected more from Hugh, Andrew.”
“I don’t think Hugh thought to demand full financials. I’m sure it was an oversight.”
Even as John began to sputter something else, Andrew rose from the table, straightening as if he was standing at the door, watching Hugh and Truman arrive. But here they were, looking very well, laughing lightly.
Ana greeted them, and they her. A second passed before Hugh looked beyond her and met Andrew’s gaze.
Andrew nodded. Hugh smiled and nodded back.
“Get up, old man. Our dates are here.”
“Should have been Vince doing this,” John muttered. “You’re late!”
“We are precisely on time,” Hugh said. “John Sanders, please meet Truman Jennings.”
“Excellent to meet you,” Truman said, and reached out.
And John, all traces of the curmudgeon vanished, shook hard. “You too, my boy. I’ve heard virtually nothing about you from Hugh, but you shouldn’t take that personally. He is notoriously good at evasive maneuvers.”
“Don’t I know it,” Truman replied.
Andrew watched Hugh and tried to call up a memory of him younger, with his grandparents. As usual, he could only really remember Cordelia, on whom he’d had a magnificent crush. Hugh caught his eye and offered a soft, sweet smile, a hint of that much younger man showing through.
“Sit down, both of you. Here I thought Andrew was meant to be showing some sort of hospitality.”
“Merely deferring to my betters,” Andrew replied. “Sit. Good to see you both. How were the trenches this week?”
Conversation carried them though and David was around for drink orders and to talk up the specials (only stumbling twice, and casting a guilty look in his direction). John, at length, relaxed.
* * *
“Would you let the boy answer a question? Good god! Or is there some reason you believe he needs your protection?”
“I already told him you run background checks on anyone I take seriously.”
“And? What’s he hiding?”
“John, I’d appreciate—”
“Are they always like this?” Truman asked, half turning away.
“No, but it was inevitable that they would be tonight.” Andrew liked Truman. He especially liked the way that Truman looked at Hugh, with a sense of expectation, as if whatever happened next would be undoubtedly exciting. “You’re the first one John hasn’t had to bulldoze into meeting.”
That got a pleased smile. “Am I? How does this usually work?”
“E tu, Andrew?” Hugh shook his head. “That’s true, though. It’s been a year now, John. Are you slowing down in your old age? You generally wait exactly six months after the first time I bring someone to Friday dinner.”
“Well, you brought this one to Friday dinner right away, so how was I to know how long to wait?”
“How do you know how long Truman and I dated before we came here?”
“I have my sources, Huey,” John said, not meeting any of their eyes. “In any case, I approve. Despite his non-existent investment portfolio.”
“You realize it’s illegal to do whatever it is you do to find out that kind of information?”
“It’s perfectly fine, Hugh,” Truman said. “I have no objection to the—ah—background check. I had a few investments, but I didn’t really know what I was doing at the time. Then I had an opportunity to invest in a fledging business and took it.”
“One of you is as bad as the other,” John muttered. “How’s your gym, Hugh?”
“Above water. Nick tells me it’s almost time to do some work on the locker rooms.”
“Is he still trying to make it a men’s only establishment?”
“Oh, he wasn’t really. He was only bemoaning the unfortunate reality of doubling all of our gendered facilities, when the women’s locker room is rarely used. But I think he’s decided on a strategy of recruitment instead. That reminds me, Andrew. Nick said to let you know he can offer free training, if Jo is interested.”
The offer momentarily robbed him of speech. “That’s very generous of him. I’ll talk to him about it.”
“I’ll leave his card with you.”
“And what locker room would he use, then? Will you build a third one, to satisfy the people who aren’t committed to a gender? Really, Hugh, where does it end?”
“Jo would use whatever locker room makes sense. The service agreement is precise to the letter about the rights of all people, wherever they fall or don’t fall on the gender spectrum, to be comfortable at the gym.”
Andrew’s contemplation of his nephew in a gym full of gay men (it wasn’t, exactly, but certainly it would be more gay men than he’d ever seen in one place) was cut short by a frantic hand-motion in his direction.
“Excuse me, gentlemen.”
“I knew you couldn’t leave them alone for a few hours.”
He flashed a cool polite smile in John’s direction—John grinned outright, recognizing his dismissal—and nodded to Hugh and Truman as he rose from the table.
One of the newer servers, Corin, intercepted him mid-way through the dining room. “Ana’s melting down!”
“Thank you,” Andrew said, and steered her toward coffee-water. Brook had taken over at the host station, and David appeared to be helping with her section of tables. “Where is she?”
“The office, I think? She was crying.” Corin’s eyes glazed with relish and Andrew made a mental note to have Brook take her aside later to go over the accepted protocol for coworkers crying on the floor.
“Please return to work, Corin. Thank you for letting me know.”
Brook cast him an apologetic eyebrow-raise as he passed her—never breaking a smooth recitation of the specials for the table she’d just seated—and he nodded acknowledgment.
Ana was, indeed, in the office. And she was also crying.
The office was a sore point with Betsy and Sarah, who thought it should be locked when he wasn’t in it. But Andrew liked giving the management staff a place to go, and did not like the idea of having a phone in the break room (or insisting that work calls be made from personal cell phones or the host station, in the absence of the phone in his office). He locked up all the file cabinets, and a friend had built the computer under the desk, which was a top-of-the-line machine housed in a battered case that looked like it had survived a string of natural disasters and then been reassembled after being crushed in a compacter. (A subtle application of unnecessary duct tape along one side finished the effect, to Andrew’s secret delight.)
No one would ever know that the PC was a four thousand dollar machine. And no one had ever stolen it.
Andrew considered it a mark of respect to allow the staff use of his office, and he endeavored to earn their regard in return such that most of them would not be inclined to steal more than incidentals. His sisters thought he was sentimental and eventually the restaurant would teach him the error of his ways. Which was possible, but it hadn’t happened yet.
“I’m so sorry, Andrew!” Ana began to cry again, when he entered and shut the door. “I’m so sorry! I just—I just—”
He passed the box of tissues to her and waited.
Ana got herself together with a few deep breaths. She had been on the management track for two weeks, and each step up had included a brief emotional set-back. Andrew wasn’t sure if Ana recognized the cycle, or if he should mention it. She had great potential, and would one day make an excellent front-of-house manager, but nurturing her potential without handicapping it had been tricky.
“They’ll never respect me,” she said, sniffling and trying to dab her tears away without destroying her eye makeup. “I mean, Brook could do this job so much better, and even David is looking at me like I’m a failure. I have no idea what to do with Rickie, who keeps asking me how he can help. God, Andrew, I think this was a mistake. I’m not ready.”
“All right. We can step you back to host tomorrow.”
She rolled her eyes. “You wouldn’t. It’s the middle of the pay period.”
“That’s a good point. We can step you back down starting the first of the month. I’ll make a note to do that.” He reached for a Post-It.
“Fine. I know I’m making a big deal out of nothing. I just—I’m standing there, and I feel like they’re all listening to me and thinking they could do my job better.”
“Well. Maybe not David. Though have you noticed he isn’t hiding in the kitchen anymore? I keep meaning to ask Chef if he banned him, of if he’s just feeling more comfortable on the floor.”
“Chef didn’t ban him,” Andrew said.
“Oh, good. That’s really good. He’s doing so much better now.”
“You should mention to him that you’ve noticed.”
“All right.” She took another breath. “I know I’m freaking out about nothing. But I watch Brook and I feel like she’s the one who should be doing this, she should be in charge when you aren’t here, not me.”
“I’m glad you feel that way. She and I were just talking earlier about the timing of her next step up.”
“Were you? I think she’s ready.”
“I do, too. And she’s getting there.”
For a long moment, Ana didn’t say anything. “Did you wait a long time for me to think I was ready?”
“Not as long as I waited to shift you from busing to serving.”
“Sometimes I wish I was still busing. All I had to do was not drop anything.”
Andrew smiled. “Sometimes I wish I was still busing, too. Or dishwashing, more than busing. Do you think I could demote myself to dishwasher and let you and Brook and Stephen run the place?”
“Then what would you do with Nitya? She’d stab you with that evil dishrack thing of hers.”
“Fair point. And she’s more qualified, now, than I was.” Nitya had been hired in the middle of a dish pit crisis, and had been full time within three days, despite telling him there was no way she could work more than twenty hours because she needed practice time with her band. He’d stepped up her pay in accordance with how he would have promoted her, if she’d ever been willing to be promoted. (Never again would he be left without a reliable dishwasher. Never again.)
“So you think Brook’s not actually pissed that I’m kind of in charge tonight?”
“You are literally in charge tonight, Ana. No ‘kind of’ about it.”
She shuddered. “Don’t remind me.”
“I started working the dining room when I was fifteen. Before that, I prepped and washed dishes and during really slow times I was allowed on the line. I still have customers who call my father to complain about me if I don’t make certain everything’s perfect, Ana.”
“You do, really?”
“The older man at my table, sitting across from Mr Reynolds? He will call my parents tomorrow and give them a full report of every minor failure on my part.” Including coddling his host staff during service. No need to mention that. “I understand how you feel, but there’s no way around it.”
Ana stood up. “Sorry, Andrew. I swear, I’ll stop crying.”
“You’re ready. And I don’t think anyone on the floor tonight wishes they were hosting while I’m eating dinner.” He gestured her out in front of him.
“No one wants to let you down.” Ana preceded him to the host station, and touched Brook on the shoulder. “Sorry, Brookie.”
“No problem. I gotta get back to my section before the big boss notices I’m not there.” She waggled her fingers at Andrew and grabbed a pitcher of ice water to make the rounds.
“The restaurant is in excellent hands,” he said.
The doors opened and Ana took another breath before turning to her guests. Her greeting was perfect; polite, warm, not effusive. Andrew went back to his table, anticipating a less interrupted evening.
“I don’t expect you to understand—” John was saying.
Truman leaned across the table. “If the East Bay can’t take it seriously, then that’s what you get. And it is what you got, for years.”
“There’s an awful lot more competition here, I’ll remind you, and with good reason.”
Andrew sat down, mystified by Hugh’s lack of concern in what was clearly an argument.
“I don’t doubt that, but since Oakland can’t seem to prioritize, I’m not going to waste my loyalty. Let’s not even talk about Tampa—”
“Tampa! That was never going to actually happen. And the Raiders do not need fearful fans like yourself anyway.”
“Clearly the Raiders need all the fans they can get!”
“Listen to me, young man. The 49ers do not now, nor will they ever, inspire the quality fan base that the Raiders are heir to.”
“A fan base that continues, year after year, to suffer through fourth quarter fumbles, a record of wasted interceptions that would make any player weep, and management that can’t even rally fans to maintain the field! I’ll take my uninspired team across the Bay, John. Any day.”
“So, Andrew,” Hugh said, into the charged pause that followed. “How is Amelia?”
“She’s well. She’s in London this month, planning a trip to Lagos.”
“Lagos. Has she been there before?”
“A few times, but never to write about it. She’s working on a series about the fastest growing populations centers no one’s heard of.” The distraction was working well. Andrew explained, to Truman, “My wife Amelia is a travel writer.”
“Is it difficult, spending so much time apart?”
The standard question. Andrew offered the standard answer.
“It seems to work well for us.”
“A marriage where you live on separate continents is hardly a marriage,” John said.
“Surely after twenty years you get a pass on the rules?” Hugh murmured. “We took the liberty of ordering whatever your current usual entree is from the nervous young man who keeps looking over at Brook. Tell me his name again?”
Count on Hugh to notice the undercurrents of the serving staff, and to redirect any hint of awkwardness. Andrew smiled.
* * *
Andrew took his espresso black and undiluted, every Saturday and Sunday morning before going into the restaurant. Antony pretended to double over in horror upon seeing him at the back of their little group.
“Is that really you, or am I seeing things? John Sanders, you old fool, what the hell are you doing here, surrounded by youth and beauty?” He pushed their drinks across the counter, somewhat belying his apparent shock. “On the house, on the house. Family reunions are always on the house.”
“You’re too kind, Antony,” Hugh said, slipping a twenty into the tip jar.
“Damn right I’m too kind! I can’t believe you’re here so early. Did Andrew get you thrown out of his own place?”
“They can barely survive without him,” John said, and leaned against the counter. The two of them would talk like old men; Hugh and Truman had already taken their coffees to a table in the back. Andrew, caught between the generations, hesitated.
Then Hugh met his eyes with the barest invitation.
He took his espresso and sat down.
“Everything all right, Andrew?”
“I’m not the one on the hot seat tonight.”
“I think it’s going well. I was just telling Truman that John’s nothing compared to the grilling he would have gotten from Grandfather.”
“It’s still hard for me to imagine ever being out to my grandparents,” Truman said.
“Well, coming out and being found out are slightly different things, I think. Speaking of—how is Jo really? Without the outdated transphobic commentary this time.”
“I think he’s all right. Betsy says he spends a lot of time online talking to other teenagers—or people pretending to be teenagers, as Betsy puts it.”
Truman lifted his espresso in a solo toast. “Coming out in the age of the Internet is another thing I find hard to imagine.”
“I just caught the beginning of it,” Hugh said. “Nick was serious about his offer. People embracing a sense of androgyny with a body that isn’t often find working with a trainer who understands their goals helpful. And Nicky, naturally, is open to everything.”
“I should really show you pictures,” Hugh said, turning toward Truman. “You would not have recognized my short, stumpy self.”
“Nick made you taller?”
“Yes, in a sense. When I felt better about myself, I did stand taller. Taller and more confident.”
Something passed between them—humor and tension and promises of more, later—then Hugh turned back.
“Say hello to Amelia for me. When I remember to look at Twitter, I keep track of what she’s doing, though that’s not all that often.”
“I will send her your regards.” Amelia liked Hugh. She said she appreciated his sense of restraint, and he was one of the few people she’d go out of her way to invite up to the house when she was in town.
“Huey! Tell your nonno here to settle up his tab! Us struggling shopkeepers could use the help.”
“I am nobody’s nonno,” John said. “Bite your tongue, you old bastard.”
“You should have him settle Grandfather’s as well,” Hugh called over, with a mischievous smirk.
“Oh, Jesus, Hugh, don’t tell him—”
“You sentimental fool. Tell me you don’t have a ledger around here with Vince—”
“It’s just the normal ledger, damn you.”
“From what year?”
“It began in ‘85, but that’s not—”
John laughed, throwing his head back, wheezing inhales that troubled Andrew a little as he watched. “Oh, you fool. Show me.”
“It’s not that,” Antony grumbled, pulling out a dusty old book.
“I wouldn’t mind seeing this,” Truman said.
“Me either.” Andrew sipped the last of his espresso and brought the cup up as well.
Sure enough, a very old fashioned ledger stretched open across the counter, and Antony’s gnarled old fingers ran down a column in one of the first pages until he came to a neatly printed “Vincent.”
“I don’t see Grandmother.” Hugh was leaning somewhat over Truman’s shoulder, and did not see the other man’s momentary surprise, which relaxed almost immediately into pleasure. It was far too intimate a moment to have witnessed, but Truman looked up before Andrew could look away, and both of them offered apologetic shrugs before turning their attention again to the ancient ledger.
“Your grandmother would have no more run a tab than die her hair green, Hugh Reynolds. Oh, she couldn’t bear that Vince did, but as long as it was here and not the bar, she allowed it.”
“She couldn’t stand buying the house on credit, either. Did you know she used to do little odd jobs around the neighborhood—she’d do the shopping and take it around, or she’d clean houses—and every cent of it went into the mortgage payment. Sofia took two years off the end of that loan by herself,” John said, like he was describing the most attractive thing he’d ever seen.
“I did not know that.”
“You still owe me money, too, Mr Wilson.”
Andrew started. “How do I owe you money? I’ve never had a tab, Antony.”
“Indeed you have. You forget?” Antony paged back a few sheets to the beginning of the book. “Here, carried over from the last one.” He tapped the page and Andrew craned to look.
“I would have been a teenager. Oh. Ah. I do remember now.”
“Skipping school, young man, is a very bad habit,” Antony said, and waggled that knotty-branch finger in his face.
“You skipped school?” Hugh asked. “Andrew, I’m appalled. Do I have an entry in this little historical document of yours, Antony? I should.”
Antony’s face softened. “No, my boy. All of your debts have been erased.”
“You really are a sentimentalist.” Hugh waved a hand toward the pastry case. “I used to come here when I was lonely and Antony would feed me quiche. He’d drop slices to my table, as many as I’d eat, and at the time I thought it was strange he suddenly served quiche.”
“You’ve never served quiche,” John said.
“Well, I only quite specifically served quiche. You were melting away, Topolino.” Antony dashed at his eyes.
Andrew swallowed and John cleared his throat. But Truman, unobtrusively, reached back to touch Hugh’s hand.
“I had no idea you liked quiche. Here’s my real question, though—does Antony realize you have a Mr Coffee in your kitchen?”
“A what? You have a what, Hugh Reynolds?”
The moment turned, and Andrew did not miss Hugh’s grateful smile at his partner.
“My last coffee maker broke and I was stuck with what they had at Target, Antony, it wasn’t a concerted effort to offend you—”
“A Mr Coffee?”
Andrew’s phone went off as Antony launched into perhaps the most furious rant he’d ever heard directed at Hugh. (Hugh, for his part, looked suitably embarrassed.)
Restaurant flashed onscreen.
“I know we shouldn’t bother you, but Cara said to call because something’s wrong with the salmon we got this morning.”
Cara would have to be in a red-line panic to call Andrew. And he’d never actually seen his sous chef in a red-line panic.
“I’m down the street, Ana. Tell her I’ll be back in fifteen minutes.”
“Perfectly fine. When it rains, it pours. See you soon.”
“Now, you see? If he’d managed his staff better, he wouldn’t have to keep holding their hands.”
Antony broke off to say, “What is it, Andrew? Emergency?”
“Salmon, apparently. Forgive me, gentlemen.”
“Oh, shut it, John. His father’s never taken a vacation in his entire life, and Andrew, here, leaves the country a few times a year!”
“He can’t even leave the building!”
Andrew caught Hugh’s eye. “I apologize for leaving you with the cranky old men.”
“Like an old married couple, aren’t they?” Hugh glanced at Truman, then back at Andrew. “Would you like company for the walk down the street?”
“Oh, I think I’ll stay here and listen to more history about the House of Reynolds, if it’s on offer.”
“Ha. The boy wants more history!” Antony boomed. “We’ll give him that. Did I mention that I was madly in love with Sofia from when I was three years old until she married that scamp Vince? God, you’ve never seen a woman so beautiful.”
“I’m sure,” Truman said, and flashed Hugh a smile.
“Don’t tell the boy about women, you ass.”
“Well, you can tell him all about how beautiful Vince was, but I’m telling him about Sofia.”
Hugh took a deep breath as they exited. “I forget how much space the two of them take up in a room together. When I was younger, they were all so loud, Grandfather and his cronies.”
“They embarrassed your mother to no end,” Andrew said. “She would try to become invisible.”
“Even as an adult, they embarrassed her. I liked it.” He smiled a bit ruefully. “I was entranced, watching men interact. Watching the way they moved around each other, the way they spoke when women weren’t present.”
“Faster,” Andrew said. “A little faster, a little slurred, not taking as much time between the words. I hadn’t thought much about it, until one of my servers brought it up, that a table with all old men was harder to understand than a table of mixed ages and genders.”
“Really? And here I thought it was the projection of a little fatherless queer boy.”
“Observant. You were always observant, Hugh.”
“Then my asking about Brook will not surprise you.”
And it didn’t. “Confidentially, Hugh.”
“Which is why the young man whose name I still don’t know was gazing longingly across the room at her all through dinner.”
“David. And yes.”
“Healthy?” Hugh asked, after a moment.
“As far as I know.”
“Well, we’ll do the usual thing. Just let me know when.”
The usual thing. Hugh Reynolds, fatherless son of a teenage mother, had a soft spot for the young women in his orbit who found themselves surprised by pregnancy. The gift baskets given by the restaurant to its new mothers were always a great deal more elaborate than would be accounted for by the traditional passing of the hat.
It wasn’t necessary to accept Hugh’s money. But it seemed to make him feel like part of the family, just one more coin into the collection, except in this case the coin was a check for a thousand dollars, eventually distributed through a number of gift cards.
“It’s early days, she tells me.” He glanced at Hugh, walking beside him, upright and grown now, but still also the young man whose despair had led him to countless quiche lunches at Antony’s, countless solitary dinners at the restaurant, where the staff treated him like part of the furniture, ever-present and unremarkable.
“Do you ever regret having a marriage that runs contrary to tradition?”
The question shocked him. He covered it quickly, and surveyed Hugh again. Cordelia’s son, all the way to his toes. To the horror of her parents, Cordelia would ask the kinds of questions that shocked people.
“No. But regret only happens about things that are fixed, static. My marriage to Amelia has never been static. When something doesn’t work for one of us, we change it until it does. Are you thinking about marriage?”
“No. I didn’t mean it quite that way. But we aren’t—we don’t necessarily have what my grandparents had. Not that I—it’s only been a year, after all—but I find myself considering many paths.”
“We tried to live together, here, a long time ago,” Andrew said, gesturing vaguely at the street, the neighborhood. “And when that didn’t feel right, we considered me going with her, letting Betsy run the restaurant for awhile. But ultimately, living together did not make us happy. Living apart, talking over the computer and seeing each other for a few days a month—took years of trying different paths, Hugh. But we did it together. It wouldn’t have ever worked if both of us were approaching it as individuals.”
“Ah,” Hugh said. “Noted. I worry that he will—want the traditions. He’s from tradition.”
“But he’s with you. Tradition might suit you, Hugh. One never knows.”
“Living together makes me happy,” Hugh said, after a moment.
“You deserve happiness.” It felt almost too pat, too silly, but Hugh half-shook his head.
“Truman deserves whatever he wants. I can only hope I fit into it somewhere. But here’s the restaurant. You should have dinner with us more often, Andrew.”
“The staff hate it when I do that. They think I’m watching them.”
“True.” Andrew hesitated, then drew Hugh into a hug. “Go back and rescue Truman from the past. He might be gray by association by the time you get there.”
A shadow crossed Hugh’s face, then vanished. “I did rather leave him with the sharks. Goodnight.”
Andrew watched Hugh walk back to the cafe, then paused a second longer to pull out his phone. Good morning. XO. Amelia turned her phone off at night, but she’d see the text when she woke up.
It probably wasn’t a good idea to start thinking about catering Hugh’s wedding, but some very quiet, very distant voice in the back of his brain began to crunch numbers and run menus. It never hurt to be prepared.