“What do you think I should do?”
Hmm… Zayne stroked his beard gently as he considered the cook’s question.
He was still getting used to being the one everyone in the kitchen turned to for advice. It was a bit of a scary change from what he’d been used to… But a good one too. It was so easy to get frustrated with Greg calling the shots about pretty much everything else — advertising, prices, decor… But the kitchen was still his domain. And Zayne loved it.
“Try garlic instead.” He replied at last, smiling. “You can never go wrong with garlic, right?”
The young woman nodded. “Sounds good to me!”
Zayne watched with a smile as she got back to work preparing the customer’s meal. He took a moment to appreciate just how smoothly the kitchen was running that afternoon. Three weeks since opening day, and they’d finally developed a good rhythm. He just hoped the momentum stayed as good when his shift ended.
He’d been working on not stressing as much when he handed control of the kitchen over to Felix… But he still found himself spending most of his days off wondering how things were going and resisting the urge to call and check in. Zayne took a moment to promise himself that after his appointment with Dr. Hall, he’d spend the rest of his evening relaxing instead of worrying.
“Um, Zayne?” A soft voice interrupted his thoughts, calling him back to the present.
“What’s up, Bec?”
“I know you’re out in like, twenty minutes, but do you think you could help with this order?” Her voice was almost apologetic. “The customer was very… specific.”
He raised an eyebrow at her “Oh?”
Becca nodded as she began reading the complicated order from the paper in front of her. “She wants a Monte Cristo sandwich — all turkey, no ham, extra mustard, light on the mayo, cooked ‘extra crispy’?”
Zayne’s eyes widened at her words. Oh my God. Had he heard her correctly? Could it just be a coincidence?
“Thanks…I’ll take care of it.” He replied at last as he got to work retrieving the ingredients.
Zayne could feel the eyes of the rest of the kitchen staff on him as he began preparing the meal with the utmost care. He did his best to ignore them, instead focusing on making sure he got every detail of the recipe correct.
“Hey, Felix?” He called across the kitchen when he’d finally finished. “I’m leaving a few minutes early… Do you mind taking the reigns for me?”
The other man shrugged. “Sure, that’s fine.”
“Great, thank you!”
Zayne lifted the plate from the counter and began heading out toward the dining room. “Aren’t you gonna let the waitstaff take care of that…?” A voice called out after him.
He ignored them completely.
“Surprise.” Hope smiled gently at him as he finally reached the table.
Zayne felt his breath catch in his throat at the sight of her. He’d seen Hope’s face countless times on billboards and magazine covers over the past year… but nothing compared to seeing her sitting there in front of him. It was almost too much to take. How could she possibly be even more beautiful than he’d remembered?
A small smile came to his lips as he set the plate down in front of her. “I knew it. There’s only one person in the entire world who’d have the audacity to ruin a perfectly good Monte Cristo like this.” He teased.
“I know. You always loved to remind me of that.” Hope laughed softly. “I had a feeling my order would be a dead giveaway… Actually, that’s kind of what I was hoping for.” She confessed.
Zayne still couldn’t believe she was actually there in the flesh. He wanted nothing more than to reach down and take one of her soft hands in his. Or lift her into his arms and press his lips against hers.
Instead, he pulled out the chair across from her and took a seat. “It’s great to see you… You look amazing.” For a moment, he paused, his eyes drinking in the sight of her once more.
“Thanks! You too.” The way she looked at him sent a pleasant shiver up his spine. “I’m digging the new beard.” Hope added with a little laugh. “It suits you.”
“You think?” Zayne reached up, stroking the coarse hair on his chin for a moment. “I decided to try something new.”
“Well, I like it. It looks great!”
He smiled gently at her for a moment as they fell into a brief silence. But it was not like the usual easy silences they often shared when they were together. There was so much tension in the air between them… It was a bit awkward and uncomfortable, but not entirely unpleasant either. It was difficult to describe.
Zayne cleared his throat softly. “You should probably eat your sandwich before it gets cold… I know how much you hate it when the cheese starts to harden again…”
“Oh! Right… Yeah…” Hope laughed almost nervously for a moment before lifting the sandwich to her lips. “Mmm… Oh my God. I think this is even better than I remember.”
Zayne smiled playfully at her. “Couldn’t miss the opportunity to try my cooking again, huh?”
“You think I’m just here for the food?” Hope shook her head, smiling. “I wasn’t about to pass up the chance to see your restaurant in person! And see you…” She paused for a moment before speaking again. Zayne would have given anything to know what she was thinking. “I had a shoot in Falkenburg yesterday, and I knew I had to make it down here while I had the chance. I wanted to surprise you.”
“You succeeded.” He chuckled to himself. “And I’m really happy you made it.”
“Me too… This is incredible.” The way she smiled at him sent a flurry of butterflies through his stomach. “I just knew you’d do amazing things.”
“Thanks. But I didn’t get here on my own, y’know… I had a lot of help.” Zayne paused. “I never really got the chance to tell you… But I don’t think I could have made it this far without you.”
Hope shook her head. “Oh, I don’t know about that.” She said simply. For a moment, it looked as though she wanted to say more. Instead, she took another bite of her sandwich. “This place is so nice, Zayne.” She continued, changing the subject. “It’s beautiful. I guess it’s just a little different than what I was imagining…” Hope admitted.
Me too. He almost said. “My business partner had a lot of new ideas.” Zayne chose his words carefully. “And some of my tastes might’ve changed a little, I guess.” He shrugged slightly as he spoke.
“I get that.” Hope smiled. “It’s crazy how much time can change things, huh? And change people too…”
“It is.” Zayne agreed. “But… I think there are some things that never change.”
It was amazing how easy and effortless talking to Hope turned out to be… For a while, it almost felt like nothing had changed between them at all.
Zayne kept her updated on everything going on with his family, and how everyone was moving forward after Mari’s death. Hope was so supportive and understanding when their conversation touched upon his grief, which he was extremely thankful for. Still, it was a relief to move on and tell her all about the restaurant too, and how things had been going since they’d opened. He was very careful to only focus on the positives, of course. Why ruin their conversation by bringing up the bad stuff? The last thing he wanted was for Hope to worry about anything… Least of all him.
He had fun sharing his triumphs with her, and watching the way her eyes lit up at some of the stories he told.
In turn, Hope told him all about her adventures traveling the world and meeting so many famous photographers, designers, and fellow models — including some fun and rather scandalous gossip that left Zayne in stitches. She also told him every detail of the day she finally brushed elbows with her favorite member of the Fangs cast (and what a skirt-chasing douchebag he turned out to be).
Zayne loved hearing her laugh, and he loved listening to all of her stories (which proved to be a lot more entertaining when told in person, rather than through text messages).
They spent nearly an hour chatting together before Zayne noticed the time. “Fuck.” He muttered.
“I have an appointment with Dr. Hall at five… And I still need to go home and change first…”
Hope eyed him curiously for a moment, and Zayne realized his slip-up. He’d never actually mentioned to Hope that he was seeing a therapist. Should he tell her? What would she think of him if she knew? Would she be weirded-out? Would it make him look weak?
He was too afraid to find out the answer.
“That’s okay… I need to catch my train back to Falkenburg anyway. My flight home leaves in the morning…”
Zayne felt a slight heaviness in his chest as he watched her rise to her feet. Was it already time to say goodbye?
Hope looked around uncertainly for a moment. “I’m sure the waitress gave up on us a long time ago.” She almost laughed. “But I need to get my bill…”
He shook his head, rising from the table as well. “It’s on me, don’t worry.”
“Are you sure?”
“Well, thank you.” She smiled warmly at him. “I’m so happy I got to see you, Zayne.” Hope said softly. “And I promise that next time I’m in town, I’ll give you a little more warning before I show up, okay?”
He let out a small laugh. “As long as you don’t force me to butcher another recipe again.” Zayne teased.
“Hmm… No promises there.” She gave him another beautiful smile before closing the distance between them and pulling Zayne into a tight embrace.
He closed his eyes, relishing in the warm feeling of her body pressed against his. The sound of her soft breaths, the smell of her hair… It was killing him.
“I miss you.” The words left his lips before he even realized what he was saying. “So much.”
Her soft breath tickled against his ear as she whispered her reply.
“I miss you too.”