CHAPTER 3: JAKE
I rarely took advantage of the perks of ownership, but this morning, I am prepping for the meeting that could change the course of my career and I’m running late. So, shrugging the leather motorcycle pack off of my shoulders, I take the stairs two at a time toward Hurst Café’s open front doors, gliding past the growing line of Angelinos waiting impatiently to give their coffee and breakfast orders--doing my best to avoid eye contact with the customers I pass.
I’ve nearly cleared the top step when I make the mistake of looking back and get sucker punched by a glare so forceful, it’s almost physical. Startled, I trip up the step, my hand reaching for the ground. I’m not prone to feeling self-conscious but I look back at the glaring woman in time to see her smiling-the corners of her eyes tilting upward with such satisfaction I’m helpless to do anything but grin right back.
She must be annoyed by my reaction because then her eyes narrow. I open my mouth to apologize, a charming explanation already forming on my lips when the barista I’d hired just last week calls my name from behind the counter.
“Hi Jake,” she says, waving her hand and summarily dismissing the customer standing in front of her. “What can I get for you?”
The customer, who was in the middle of giving the barista her order turns with disbelief, something unpleasant curling on the edge of her pouty mouth until, (and I can almost see the moment it happens), she notes the sheen of my suite, the cut of my jacket.
Yeah, the superficiality of the town frustrated me at times, but it did often work to my advantage.
“Please, your coffee’s on me,” I say to the woman, my shoulder bumping hers in a friendly way as I maneuver myself next to her in front of the cash register.
“Oh…wait…you must be…”
“Jake Hurst,” my barista interjects, her face now nearly as pink as the cotton candy bob hovering over her shoulders.
“I thought that’s who you were!” the woman says, no doubt recalling the recent photos she had seen of me splashed all over the gossip columns, heralding my return to the list of LA’s most eligible bachelors. She flips her hair to the side, giving me a flirty flick of her lashes. “Why don’t you join me, since you’re buying?”
By now, the other customers are peering at me with more than idle curiosity.
I smile in apology as I take the cup of black coffee being proffered over the counter. “Maybe next time.”
I turn toward the barista, “Let Cesar know I’m here? Thank you.”
I log into my laptop just as Cesar strides toward my corner table, a tray laden with food between his hands. “What’s good, boss?”
I make a show of inhaling the scent of bacon, eggs, and Cesar’s tangy jalapeño-lime salsa. “Pops better keep you happy so he doesn't lose you.”
Cesar grimaces and plops down in a chair, crossing his arms across his chest. His dark brown eyes turn to slits as he looks at me.
“Too soon?” I say.
The two of us haven’t spoken since last weekend when I’d come clean about my plans to pursue opportunities away from Hurst. When I’d told Cesar that was part of the reason my ex, had broken up with me, he’d nodded with approval. “She’s a smart girl. Why would she stay with a man who’s willing to risk his entire inheritance just to ‘see what he can do on his own’? You’re a Hurst Jake. Get your need for adventure out on your bike or by backpacking through Europe like all your buddies. Don’t take risks with the family business! You know you belong here, amigo.”
I’d always known Cesar’s loyalty was two-fold, but I’d never questioned that it would lie with me first, with my family coming a close second. He lifts a piece of bacon off my plate, takes a bite of it then tosses the rest back.
“Come on,” I say, annoyed as always when he takes a bite of whatever I’m eating. “At least I know you didn't do anything nasty to my food.”
Cesar scowls but I see the smile lurking in his eyes. “Wait ‘til you bite into that omelet.”
I chuckle, taking a stab at my eggs. If there was one thing Cesar wouldn’t do, that was waste fresh, quality ingredients. “You know my meeting is today.”
Cesar’s smile vanishes from his eyes, but he nods. “Don’t worry. It won’t get back to anyone.” He hesitates. “When are you planning to tell your pops and granddad?”
I sit back in my chair, run a hand through my hair. “I thought I’d wait until I had something more concrete to show them.”
Cesar nods, “so you haven’t decided for sure then?”
I shake my head, but I know Cesar can see it--the look in my eyes that says I will not change my mind with or without my family’s support. He is the closest thing to a brother I’d ever had and since he'd come to live in our guest house with his mother, where I went, he'd gone. When it was time for college, my mother had a scholarship fund established at Hurst, so Cesar could get a full ride to the culinary arts school of his choice, but we are still handing out four-year scholarships to three Hurst families each year, nearly a decade later.
I glance toward the line of people still waiting to order and notice that the girl who’d given me the killer glare is now at the head of the line.
Cesar turns to see what I’m looking at-- his dark brows lifting in surprise over the girl. She is searching for something in her bag, her glossy brown hair a pool around her shoulders, the heavy fringe of lash a dramatic swoop across her pale skin. “Know her?”
I take a huge bite of my omelet and talk around it. “She saw me skipping the line and looked like she had a few choice words she wanted to hurl at me.”
Cesar laughs, his chef’s coat barely containing the rippling muscles beneath. “Like overprivileged, entitled, and cocky?”
I grin. “No… she doesn’t know me like you do.”
Cesar grunts and takes a sip of my coffee.
I ignore him this time although sharing coffee is usually where I drew the line. “You could go with me if I leave Hurst. Make sure I don’t make too big a mess of things.”
Cesar shakes his head. “I don’t know man. I got my baby girl to think about.” And with this, he scoots his chair away from the table and stands. I give him a slap on the ass as he walks toward the kitchen. As he passes behind the counter, my eyes meet stormy ones. Giving into a squirrelly impulse, I shoot the girl I’d displeased earlier a wink.