“LET ME GO!” THE WOMAN’S voice was quiet but firm, with a note of tiredness to it.
Sheriff Rodrigo Ybarra lifted his head from his scrumptious meal of a juicy steak. He was on vacation now, in a town in south Texas he didn’t know, in a restaurant he’d never visited before. But a sense of duty didn’t let him ignore it when something was obviously wrong.
A stocky guy sitting at the table nearby grabbed the hand of a slim, willowy woman. She wore a long-sleeved shirt under her waitress uniform that seemed slightly big for her skinny frame.
Rodrigo had seen this woman before, on his walk on the beach yesterday. Her dark blonde hair flowing in the breeze, she’d stared at the ocean for a long time, motionless, silent. Looking to grieve alone, he hadn’t disturbed her then, and she hadn’t acknowledged his presence, either.
Despite her demand, the guy tugged harder on her hand. “Or you’ll do what?”
Rodrigo leaped to his feet. “You heard the lady. Let her go.”
The man laughed with contempt. “The lady? You don’t know who Emma is. She should’ve never come back to Rios Azules. She’s just a—”
Indignation rose inside Rodrigo like hot lava. Nobody was going to insult a woman in his presence.
A fight in a public place wouldn’t help him in his future reelection campaign. But he couldn’t stay on the sidelines in a situation like this.
“Stay out of it,” the man growled. However, he let the woman he called Emma go.
She jumped back, cradling her hand and rubbing the spot where he’d held her, as if the guy had left a bruise.
Rodrigo’s heart squeezed with compassion, and he stepped to her. “Are you okay?”
“That’s just stupid.” The guy rose to his feet, his bulky figure menacing at over six feet tall.
Rodrigo squared his shoulders and didn’t back down. Thanks to his job, he had great skills in hand-to-hand combat, though he didn’t want to use them here. His mind searched for a way to resolve the situation peacefully.
He glanced at the waitress to make sure she wasn’t hurt.
The desperate look in her blue eyes was probably akin to one a gazelle would have after being chased by predators, knowing that, in a moment, sharp teeth would tear her apart.
Rodrigo flinched. He’d seen many horrible things in life, including watching his wife bleed to death after being knifed by a drug addict. But he’d never seen a look like this.
Something uncoiled deep inside him, in a place he’d thought dead after Corina’s passing.
“Do we have a problem here?” A female voice reached them from the direction of the kitchen.
A tall woman, dressed in blue jeans and cowboy boots, her black hair shortly cropped with blue streaks in the front, approached them.
The guy sneered. “Yeah, we do, Mari. Why would you hire this—”
“Carl, careful what you say.” Mari reached them in several quick strides.
The man she called Carl frowned. “Come on. You love our hometown as much as I do. There’s no place here for people like Emma Hughes.”
The waitress’s shoulders slumped forward. Rodrigo had a strong urge to comfort her, shield her from insults. He stepped closer, but she lifted her hand, as if to stop him from moving farther.
“Your anger is misplaced. Emma’s changed, which I can’t say about you.” Mari folded her arms on her chest.
Carl snorted. “People like Emma never change. It’s only a matter of time before she goes off the deep end again. You just watch.” He threw several bills on the table and stormed out of the restaurant.
Emma winced, as if somebody slapped her in the face. But she didn’t say anything, didn’t make an effort to defend herself.
Rodrigo wondered what Emma had done to be judged so harshly. The need to defend her surprised him.
“I’m sorry for this interruption. Please enjoy your meal,” Mari announced. “Feel free to order a dessert on the house.” She gave Emma a quick hug. “Don’t pay attention to Carl. Take a break, okay?”
“But you’re short two servers…”
Mari pulled out a notebook and a pencil from her jeans pocket. “Don’t worry. I’ll take care of it.”
Emma escaped to the kitchen.
Mari turned to him and extended her hand. “I’m Mari Goodman, the owner of this restaurant.”
He shook her hand. “Rodrigo Ybarra. I’m vacationing at the beach and heard about Mari’s Place from the locals.”
“I’m flattered. If you need anything, please let me know.” She glanced at a couple who entered the restaurant and headed to them. “I’ll be right with you.”
After Mari left, Rodrigo returned to his steak.
As he savored a juicy, tender piece followed by a baked potato generously stuffed with butter, sour cream, and spices, he shook his head. Rios Azules was a strange town, where restaurant owners served food, huge, burly guys obeyed orders from women half their size, and a beautiful stranger with sad blue eyes intrigued him more than he cared to admit.
Her eyes burning with tears, Emma dashed inside the kitchen and stopped in her tracks.
Too many people here, including Joy McGregor, a vivid reminder of everything Emma had once had and lost, through her own failings. Amazingly, Joy also tried to be her friend. Emma appreciated it, just like she appreciated Mari’s willingness to step in and serve food. While Emma had been hired as a chef, she hadn’t minded waiting on tables today, as well, to cover for two waitresses who’d called in sick in the morning. But Joy’s and Mari’s kindness only reminded Emma of her shortcomings. Just like Carl had.
She whirled around, ready to leave. She needed to be alone. She needed…
She winced. No, she didn’t need that, no matter how much every cell in her body craved it. She had to fight it. She’d survived without drugs for over a year. She could go a few minutes longer. And then a few minutes more.
No matter how much everything within her begged for oblivion.
Her insides trembled, and her fingers, too. She laced her treacherous fingers together as she headed toward the door.
“Are you okay?” Joy’s worried voice hit Emma like a stone between her shoulder blades.
Would everybody stop asking me that? First that handsome stranger, now Joy.
“I’m great. I’ll take a break.” Her lungs constricted, making it difficult to take the next breath.
“I know something is wrong.” Hurried steps were followed by a soft hand touching Emma’s shoulder, stopping her before she reached the kitchen’s door.
Emma resisted the urge to shake Joy’s hand off. Instead, she clenched her teeth and turned around. “I told you, I’m fine. What do you need help with?”
Joy gave her a long look. “Garden salad. Whatever it is, I’ll say a prayer for you.”
Judging by the way her co-worker’s lips were moving as she went back to the table, she did just that.
Emma nodded her gratitude.
She needed prayers.
She wanted to say a prayer, too. But she was so new at being a Christian, like a child taking her first steps. And after all she’d done, would her prayers be heard?
Squaring her shoulders, Emma proceeded to cut vegetables. She had to pull herself together. Mari deserved nothing but Emma’s best work after giving her a chance when nobody else in Rios Azules would. And no client had yet ordered a salad salted by tears.
After a few minutes, Emma settled into the familiar routine of cooking. She’d always imagined Christians to be like Joy, or her ex-husband, Dylan, or Roy, the man on whose deathbed she’d accepted Christ over a year ago. They were kind and caring, despite being hurt by others. Roy’s daughter had died from an overdose, so he’d made it his life mission to help others like her, including Emma.
On the other hand, Emma was broken, disillusioned, and so messed up. Though unintentionally, she’d hurt others, especially the people she’d loved the most. How could she even dare to pray?
Mari dashed inside, hugged Emma quickly, and picked up a tray. “Better?”
Emma nodded as she suppressed a groan. One could only wish for a boss like Mari and a co-worker like Joy, and that was adding insult to injury. “Mari, why did you hire me? You know who I am.”
Mari’s eyes darkened for a moment. “I also know you want to change your life. If I say I love God but don’t help my fellow man, that just makes me a hypocrite. And I can afford the risk. My husband is a doctor with a successful practice, and my other restaurant is popular. I gave you a probation period, and you passed with flying colors.”
Something shifted in Emma’s chest. “Thank you.”
“You have a God-given talent, and you use it well.” Mari leaned to her and whispered, “Don’t tell Joy, but you’re one of the best cooks I’ve ever had. People love your food.” Then she picked up a tray and rushed outside.
Tentative hope blossomed inside Emma. Some people, like Mari and Joy, trusted her, unasked and unexpectedly. With others, like Dylan, Junior, and Carl, she’d have to earn it piece by piece, day by day.
Minute by minute.
Joy arranged the salmon and white rice with grilled peppers and onions on the plate and started frying shrimp. The enticing scent spread in the air.
Emma sliced vegetables with a vengeance. After being drug-free for months, she’d returned to Rios Azules to be closer to her son, after missing most of his childhood in a drug-inflicted daze in Chicago. Her life revolved around Junior now, and she had to tough it out.
As Emma finished the garden salad, she wondered why that attractive customer had defended her. He must be new in town and didn’t know who she was. Her heart skipped a beat.
That couldn’t be attraction. She hadn’t been attracted to a man since falling for her high school sweetheart, Dylan. There was something solid, honest about that customer, with quiet strength, like Dylan’s.
Look how well that turned out.
Her addiction had nearly ruined Dylan’s and their son’s lives.
Emma’s heart squeezed painfully as she topped a baked potato with butter and sour cream.
Mari and the other servers hurried inside, dropped orders, picked up the new ones, and rushed back. Emma took an order for beef fajitas.
By the time the fajitas with pepper and onions were ready, the turmoil inside her had settled somewhat, anxiety mixed with the pleasure of her favorite work, like fruits and milk inside a blender. With the fast pace of restaurant work, there was no time to be miserable.
Even if I know people won’t let me forget my past here. Even if I know I won’t forget it, either.
Emma even had to work side by side with the new wife of her ex-husband, the woman Emma’s son called Mom. By all measures, Emma was supposed to hate her co-worker. But no, the good-hearted Joy made it so difficult to hate her.
Emma nearly grunted. It wasn’t fair.
Plus-sized and cheerful, Joy even looked the part of a chef, while skinny Emma constantly had to prove herself. Like it was Emma’s fault that, even after quitting drugs, she couldn’t gain weight.
“You need to eat.” Joy probably heard Emma’s stomach growling. “You must be hungry.”
“Joy is right. Go eat something. You’re just skin and bones,” Mari said as she picked up a tray.
Emma grimaced as she arranged the fajitas and rice on the plate. “I know, nobody trusts a skinny chef. But no matter how many cakes and hamburgers and fries I eat, I can’t gain weight.”
Joy sighed as she patted her plump middle. “I wish I had that problem.”
Mari left with the fajitas and then returned and dropped off an order for cheese enchiladas. Emma took it. Her mouth watered as she made the dish, reminding her again she’d skipped breakfast.
Minutes later, Mari raced inside, gave a new order for a steak with mashed potatoes to Joy, and looked at Emma. “He’s rather handsome, you know.”
“Who?” Joy perked up.
“Emma’s knight in shining armor. A broad-shouldered, tall, muscular customer who stood up for Emma. Clean-shaven, with dark hair and dark eyes. And extreeeemely attractive.” Mari practically singsonged the word extremely.
“Interesting.” Joy smiled while taking the baked salmon out of the oven.
Emma helped her unexpected friend with the heavy tray. “No! Not interesting.” And that was not a little tug on her heart.
“By the way, the knight in shining armor needs more tea.” Mari took a pitcher and placed it in Emma’s hands. “Here.”
Emma’s jaw slackened. Yes, the guy was attractive, but there were a million reasons why Emma wasn’t looking for romance. “But the enchiladas…”
“I’ll take care of them.” Joy moved swiftly nearby.
Her heart beating fast, Emma stared at her boss and her co-worker, the pitcher cold and heavy in her hands.
Mari picked up a tray. “I’m short two servers today, remember? Oh, don’t look like I’m sending you to walk on glass shards barefoot. Just talk to him. He’s on vacation. Smile.”
Emma attempted a grin.
Her boss sighed. “No, that’s a grimace, not a smile. Try again. Again. Now, better.”
Okay, Emma could serve the guy some tea and escape back into the kitchen. No biggie. She followed Mari outside the kitchen.
“And a couple of dates never hurt anybody,” Mari threw over her shoulder.
Emma nearly dropped the pitcher. Then she remembered Mari’s words and plastered a smile on her face again.
Rodrigo felt a strange movement in his chest when the mysterious waitress appeared near his table.
When he’d first seen her at the ocean in a light aquamarine dress, its sleeves flapping in the wind, she’d reminded him of the ocean, intriguing and oh so beautiful.
What had that guy called her?
Well, Emma just silently refilled his glass and left. So much for her coming back. He had no explanation for the sting of disappointment for her not even exchanging a couple of words with him.
A moment later, Emma appeared again, accompanied by Mari. “Would you like dessert?” Emma’s smile seemed to be rather fake.
Mari heaved a sigh of relief and moved to a nearby table. “Everything okay here? Would you like anything else?”
“What would you recommend?” Rodrigo wasn’t one for desserts. But for some reason he wanted to linger at this place.
Just to make sure order was maintained, of course.
And as much as he loved refreshing tea with a hint of lemon and mint, one could only drink a glass of iced tea for so long.
“Chocolate cake. And I’m not saying it just because I made it.” Emma’s smile became less strained and her eyes less guarded.
“Chocolate cake it is then.” He felt a painful stab of guilt. How could he enjoy dessert when Corina wasn’t here anymore?
It’s been two years.
It didn’t matter. The pain felt as sharp as if he’d lost her yesterday.
“I saw you near the ocean,” he blurted out when Emma came back.
A fleeting expression appeared in her blue eyes. “I like it there. It’s soothing. Peaceful. And… at that late hour, there are usually no people there.” She glanced at him. “Well, almost.”
Had he been intruding on her solitude at the beach? He swallowed a hard lump in his throat. If his company was unwelcome… “Could I have an order of a Salisbury steak, coffee, and another piece of cake to go? And the check, please?”
Amigo loved Salisbury steak, and Rodrigo had to take care of his faithful companion.
Emma nodded and left.
Rodrigo tried the cake, and the rich, smooth, sweet flavor exploded on his tongue. With cake like that, he could become a dessert kind of guy.
Emma returned and handed him a tall paper cup and a takeout box.
He paid, leaving a large tip.
Emma’s brows shot up. “That’s too much.”
“You’re welcome.” He headed to his car, the emptiness in his heart increasing with every step.
Once he gunned the engine, something stopped him from driving away. Maybe the expression of hurt in Emma’s eyes. Maybe concern that the guy who’d insulted her would come back.
Rodrigo was used to stakeouts from the earlier days of his career. But no matter how many times he told himself it was like one he’d done on his job, it didn’t feel like it.
He couldn’t be attracted to this woman, could he? Pain squeezed his rib cage. No, his heart still hurt too much for that. Rodrigo rubbed his forehead in thought.
His faith had saved him two years ago, kept him sane. He’d started every day with a prayer, and he’d finished every day with a prayer, too. The way Corina had taught him. She’d also taught him to pray for others.
Rodrigo didn’t know what had happened to Emma to put that eternal sadness in her eyes, to make people like Carl treat her with hostility, but he found himself praying for her.
But no matter how strong his faith was, sometimes unwelcome thoughts filtered through. He always believed that God was love.
Why then did Corina have to die?
The fresh onslaught of pain nearly left Rodrigo breathless. She’d been like a ray of sunshine in the lives of the people around her, especially in his. She was a great nurse who cared for her patients. She could’ve done so many things here, could’ve helped so many people. If that junkie hadn’t stabbed her… Anger uncoiled in his gut, accompanied by hatred for the person who’d stabbed her.
About an hour later, Rodrigo rubbed kinks out of his neck.
How old was Emma? Probably in her late twenties or early thirties, at least several years younger than he was. Were her paleness and slimness natural or the result of a long-term disease? Did she have a boyfriend? She didn’t wear a wedding ring, but that didn’t mean much these days.
The most important question is, why am I asking myself all these questions?
He said grace and sipped coffee. Then he gave the cake its due.
He hadn’t been interested in someone or something this much since losing Corina. He’d never thought that a new beginning would taste like cold coffee and rich chocolate cake.
The moment he finished his food, Emma appeared at the front door, and Rodrigo straightened.
In the restaurant, her blonde hair was hidden under a cap, but now it flew freely over her shoulders, like the first time he’d seen her. He had an inexplicable urge to run his fingers through her hair, feel its silkiness.
Rodrigo shook it off. He climbed out of his truck and headed Emma’s way. She looked up, and steel appeared in her eyes.