A week later, the diner was busy and one of the other waitresses was sick, so Emma came in early to help. She hadn't minded; since her day with Luke, she'd been in a wonderful mood. They'd gone out for a little while before her shift today, and he'd kissed her before saying good-bye. A light, curious kiss that had made her feel dizzy with delight. Even the piano in her apartment didn't seem to loom in the corner; she knew it was ridiculous, but she thought the instrument looked almost friendly these days.
She'd bought a Christmas decoration to set on her kitchen table, and was more talkative when Sol and Luke came in to eat. Even if she'd tried to hide it, Millie would have noticed the difference in the way she carried herself, or the way she talked.
"Must have been some date." Millie gave Emma a sidelong glance. "You're still thinking about it."
"It was so nice. They all have been." Emma sighed. "He's so sweet, and so funny. I wish I'd met him a long time ago. Before . . . before I met Sam."
"Don't you even think about him." Millie cursed under her breath. "He's trash and he's out of your life. You need to realize it for good, and act like it."
"I know, I know." Emma nodded. "You're right. Being out with Luke again today made me realize it. I've been punishing myself, but it's long past doing anybody any good. I've been so stupid, Millie. I let Sam ruin everything. I can't write, I can't sing. I haven't been able to enjoy Christmas at all, and it used to be my favorite holiday. Mine and Lila's."
"Then you start
enjoying it." Millie tapped Emma's hand for emphasis. "Tell you what, I'll help. You come in a little early tomorrow and we'll decorate."
"How come you haven't decorated already?" Emma asked. Last year she hadn't even thought about it.
Millie shrugged. "Seems like a lot of trouble, and I'm not always in the holiday mood. This year, I am. So we'll decorate."
Luke tried not to rush as he put the horses in for the night. He was anxious on two counts: first, to see Emma, and second, to write. He'd woken up earlier out of a dead sleep, written what he could remember of his dream on the first thing that came to hand, and gone back to sleep. When he'd seen it before work, he'd been elated. An almost complete outline of the story was in his head. He knew that when he did sit down to write it, he'd have no trouble.
Before that, though, he wanted to share it with Emma. They'd managed to steal some time to talk while she worked this last week, and she'd been nothing but encouraging about his writing. He'd opened to her about it more than he had to anyone else, even his friends from the classes he'd taken and writing groups he'd joined. There hadn't been time for much more than that, though.
"Come on, hurry up!" Sol grumped at him from the door. "I want my coffee. She'll be out at this rate."
"Right." Luke threw him a dry look. "And if there's one thing Millie would never make more of, it's coffee."
"You never know."
"All right, I'm ready." Luke grabbed his gloves. It hadn't snowed yet, but it felt like it might any minute.
"And another thing," Sol said as they walked, "don’t you take up all Emma's time. You like her, fine, but I want my food. And coffee."
"You're a true romantic, Sol. Your wife must drown in all the roses you buy." Luke wondered if Emma liked roses.
"Pah!" Sol snorted. "Roses, what a rip off."
"You say so."
They entered the diner and were surprised to see Christmas decorations up. There were lighted Santas and snowmen in the windows, a wreath hanging on the door, and even a little tree on the corner of the bar.
"Wow." Luke looked around. "I didn't think Millie ever decorated for anything." He spied Emma clearing a table and smiled at her. She smiled back, a little shy, and continued putting the dishes in the plastic tub.
Sol led the way back to their usual table. Emma came and took their orders, then hurried back to hand them to the cook. Just as Sol was about to complain about waiting, she came back with their coffee.
"Sorry." She took a minute to get her breath back. "I don't know why but it was pretty crazy right before you came in. I think we get more people now while they're out shopping. Then Marco, the cook, had some kind of crisis and Millie had to calm him down."
"What did she do?" Luke asked. He reached for a handful of creamers, ignoring Sol's scowl.
"I think she said she'd fire him if he didn't get himself together. Marco made a quick recovery."
"Millie has a way with people," Luke acknowledged.
"What's with the decorations?" Sol wanted to know. "She didn't do this last year."
Emma shrugged. "She said she was in the mood this year."
"Women," Sol grumbled. "'In the mood.' Pah."
Emma bit back a laugh and shared a smile with Luke. She shook her head and went back to get their food. After the plates were on the table, she went back to the bar and plopped onto a stool.
"Wow, Millie. I don't remember ever being that busy. I feel like I walked holes in my shoes."
"You and me both. I'll have extra bunions, I bet." Millie handed Emma a drink of water. "Here, drink this. Won't do me any good if you get dehydrated."
"Yes, ma'am." Emma downed the water faster than she'd intended, surprised by how thirsty she was.
"Okay, hold the fort. I'm going to check on Marco."
Millie headed back to the kitchen, and as soon as she was gone, Luke took the stool next to Emma.
"Hi." She smiled at him. "How's your writing going?"
"Really good. I wanted to tell you, I had this great idea when I was sleeping. I think if I can just sit down and start writing, it will come . . . just flow." He put his hand over hers. "I had to tell you first, though."
"Luke, that's so sweet. I'm flattered." Emma didn't know how she managed to keep her voice steady.
"It's only fair. You were my muse."
"I kept thinking about how you looked during the concert last week, and you mentioned memories. So I got this idea, sort of a flashback thing, I think. About a woman who loved music and she's reflecting on things as she approaches her last performance. You know, past loves, her discovery of music, things like that."
Emma was dumbstruck, but Luke was too enthused to notice.
"I know it must seem weird that I'm going to tell this story about a woman, and mostly from her point of view, but it just feels like the right way to do it, you know? So I was thinking, I'll need your help." He squeezed her hand. "I keep meaning to find out about you, and your music, and things like that. I don't mean that I want to tell a story about you, necessarily, but maybe you can help me with, I don't know . . . how you feel about music, or how a woman would act in a certain situation, or . . . ." He paused for a breath and looked at her, stunned to see tears on her face. "Emma, what is it?"
"I . . . I don't . . . I can't do that. You don't know . . . ."
"Look, Emma, I'm sorry. I didn't mean to upset you." He took her hands in his. "I'm sorry."
"It isn't your fault." She shook her head and wiped at her eyes. "I know you like stories, Luke, but you won't like mine." She got up and darted into the bathroom.
Luke sat for a moment, bewildered, then went back to the table with Sol.
"What happened?" Sol gave him a curious look. "She ran away like a rabbit."
"I don't know." Luke shook his head. "I was telling her about my story idea, how I hoped she could help me with some things, but then . . . I don't know."
Sol made a dismissive noise. "Women. Been married to one for forty-five years and I still don't understand them."
Luke stared at the table and ignored his food, trying to figure out what he'd done wrong. He went over it in his head and came up blank. He heard some dishes clatter and looked up to see Emma clearing a table. She wouldn't look at him.
A few more minutes, he decided. He'd give her a few minutes to collect herself and then he'd go talk to her. To distract himself, he listened to Sol grumble and complain, making the appropriate responses when necessary. Gonna be a long few minutes,
Emma focused on the dishes, then on wiping the table, and then on taking the dishes into the kitchen and placing them by the sink. One task at a time, locking her mind onto the mundane work so that her thoughts didn’t follow any other tracks.
"Whassa matta?" Marco asked her.
She'd never been able to quite place his accent. One day he sounded Italian, the next day Spanish, and once she'd sworn he'd sounded French. He had a multi-ethnic look that confounded any attempt to speculate on his background; she suspected he liked it that way.
"Nothing. I'm okay." She took a deep breath. I'm okay.
"No, you ain't." Marco shook his head. "You look white like a ghost. Like you scared. What you scared of?" Everything.
"Nothing, Marco, really. Don’t burn that burger."
He scoffed. "I never burn nothin' I don't mean to. Now, it's Christmas," he said in a reasonable tone. "So, you stop lookin' like a ghost. That's for Halloween."
"Right." Emma shook her head and went back to the main floor, ignoring her fluttering stomach. Luke had come close—so close—to what had happened. Except he'd left out the dark things. Couldn't see them, perhaps. She pressed her fingers to her eyes; she didn't want
him to know the dark things. You're being ridiculous
, she told herself. If she wanted to be friends with Luke, or more, she couldn't keep everything back. It would be hard to tell him, but shouldn't she try? Wasn't it all the lies that had cost her Lila and any other friends she'd had?
"Are you all right?" Luke had come up and taken a seat at the counter. He looked concerned.
"Yeah, I am." Emma leaned against the counter. "I'm sorry. I shouldn't have run off like that. I was just . . . scared."
"Listen." Luke sat in front of her and nudged her chin up. "Why don't you and I go for a ride tomorrow and you tell me about it? I'm not looking for story material or anything else. I just want to know about you, and what happened."
After a silent moment, Emma nodded. "Okay. But . . . ."
"But what?" He smiled and let his finger trace her cheek.
"But you have to tell me your story, too." She put a shaky hand up and held his hand in place against her face. "You haven't said much, but I know there's something."
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with this note attached, it has been posted without my permission.
<a href="http://www.lushstories.com/stories/love-stories/horses-in-the-city-ch-03.aspx">Horses in the City Ch 03</a>