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Worth It All(3)

By´╝ÜClaudia Connor



He didn’t have anything against it, in theory.

Simon’s phone vibrated and he read the text. “Shit. I forgot I promised my sister I’d help move some furniture. She wants all her stuff in the condo before the wedding so they don’t have to mess with it after the honeymoon.”

He nodded. “Makes sense.”

Simon finished off the last half of his burger in three bites and drained his glass. He scooted out of the booth, taking his time to stand, and reached for his wallet.

“I got it,” JT told him.

“Thanks. I’ll get you next time.” Simon grabbed the last couple of fries from his plate. “Make a move, before someone else does.” He started to turn, then paused. “Oh, and my mom says if you aren’t dating someone else, she’s going to force you to take Layla to the wedding.”

“Why the hell would your mom want me to go out with your sister?” Taking a woman to a wedding definitely fell into the category of serious.

“Beats me,” Simon said with a grin. “Later.”

Simon left and JT took his time finishing, watching Paige as he did. There was an inherent sweetness in her smile and the cheerful humming he’d noticed when she hurriedly wiped down tables. But then there were times, like when she slowed to refill a soda or wait on a customer to count out change, that she seemed a million miles away. Like if she stopped long enough, the weight of her thoughts settled over her like a wet blanket. He’d like to know what those thoughts were.

She grabbed more plates, loading up a heavy tray. Thanks to Simon’s hassling, he now had a vivid image of sitting across from her, watching her eat, being served instead of serving. He could picture Paige smiling shyly at him across the table. How the soft glow would reflect off her hair and dance over her cheeks. She was a woman made for candlelight, she was—

“I have a turtle.”

JT angled his head toward the child on the other side of the now-empty seat beside him. The little girl didn’t look up, her tiny hand moving deliberately over a sheet of white paper.

Was she talking to him or just talking? Were kids supposed to talk to strangers?

She slid the paper a few inches toward him and tapped on a green oval. “His name’s Eric. He’s a turtle.”

“Ah.” He raised his brows, nodded, and swallowed the food in his mouth. “Classic turtle name.”

She pulled her paper back in front of her and picked up a blue crayon. “I thought so.”

She had that deep, scratchy kind of little-kid voice that seemed at odds with her white-blond hair hanging in thin, wavy pieces to her shoulders. A butterfly clip thing clung precariously to a few strands near her ear. She swung one foot hard enough to tap the counter in front of her, the other was tucked beneath her short purple skirt.

He glanced around for a supervising adult. She looked really small to be left alone, but what did he know.

The line cook turned, a big grin on his face, and slid the little girl a mountain of fries. “Okay, Miss Casey Bell. Think you can eat a whole plate of Mr. Mac’s fries today?”

“Yep.” She gave a determined nod.

“We’ll see about that,” he said with a wink and chuckle.

“But I need ketchup.”

Mac was already back to his burgers so JT reached for the bottle, holding up a stack of napkins in front of him, and slid it over.

“I can eat a lot,” Casey said to him, flipping open the cap on the bottle.

JT had some doubts, as the mound of fries was as big as her head. She squirted here and there, making a series of ketchup piles until the bottle hit a pocket of air.

She slid him a sideways glance and giggled. She squeezed again and giggled, then grinned up at him again like they were sharing some secret joke, and a smile pulled at his lips. He got a text from work, an update on a trial he had some techs running, and shot back a reply. From the corner of his eye, he caught the girl swimming her fries through the ketchup. Her face resembled the plate, stark white and smeared with red.

Paige brought him a drink refill and laid his ticket beside his plate. “Whenever you’re ready.”

“Thanks.” Their eyes held for a beat before her attention turned to the child beside him.

“Good?”

“Yep.” She poked three more fries into her mouth and Paige rounded the end of the counter and out of view.

With no real reason to hang around, he grabbed his ticket and moved to the register. A break in the counter divided the checkout on the left from Casey in her seat at the end on his right. He watched her dot ketchup around the edge of her plate before Paige met him and took the ticket he held.

“Everything okay?”

Paige flashed him a bright smile and his gut twisted like it did every time he saw her. “Yeah. Great.”

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