Belle French-Stone’s already dismal life took a dramatic turn for the worse in the bathroom of Granny’s Diner at 8:20 AM as she took her first break of the day.
She bit her lip, knowing she’d chewed the tender flesh raw that morning with her worrying. She had bigger problems at the moment though, sat on the lid of the toilet in a cramped stall and watching her life change completely in the blink of an eye.
She stared down at the stick, stark white against the red fabric of her uniform skirt. Two faint lines had formed in the little window and she let out a shuddering gasp, covering her mouth with a hand to trap the sound.
She imagined this was the type of moment where most women found themselves ecstatic, overwhelmed with the joy of the new life forming within them before succumbing to the usual worries of impending motherhood. Belle felt no rush of joy, just an overwhelming sense of dread.
“Belle?” came a voice from outside the stall. “Honey is everything okay in there?”
“Just fine, Ruby,” she said, swiping at the tears that had started to fall unbidden. She didn’t have time for this. Her break was only ten minutes and she had tables to get to. God knows she needed the money now.
She shoved the pregnancy test into the pocket of her apron, grabbing a wad of toilet paper and dabbing at her eyes with the rough single ply. There would be no masking her red eyes, and she steeled herself for Ruby’s inevitable prying questions. Once she was sure she had her emotions under control, she opened the door to the tiny bathroom stall and stepped out.
“Hey,” Ruby said, the sympathy in her eyes almost causing Belle to burst into tears once more. She couldn’t handle anyone feeling sorry for her.
“Bad news?” Ruby asked as Belle skirted around her, headed for the bathroom sink.
“I don’t want to talk about it,” she said. Belle busied herself with washing and drying her hands far more vigorously than necessary, crumpling up the brown paper towel and forcefully shoving it into the wastebasket.
“You sure?” Ruby continued gamely. “Talking things out usually makes them seem not so scary in my personal opinion.”
“We need to get back to work,” Belle said, crossing her arms and leaning back against the bathroom counter.
“Yeah? What’s Granny going to do, fire us?” Ruby scoffed.
Belle had to snort out a laugh at that. Ruby’s grandmother was tough and ruled the diner with an iron fist, but she’d never boot either of them out, especially if she found out about Belle’s current condition.
“So?” Ruby prompted, pulling a pack of cigarettes from the front pocket of her apron and slipping one between her blood red lips in flagrant violation of Granny's no smoking policy. “What’s going on?”
Belle sighed, digging the pregnancy test out of her pocket and thrusting it toward Ruby. Maybe it would be good to let someone in on the depth of her misery. She could at least trust Ruby to be discreet.
“Holy shit!” Ruby exclaimed, her unlit cigarette dropping to the ground when her lips parted in surprise. She surged forward, grabbing the test out of Belle’s outstretched hand. “You’re fucking preg–”
“Don’t!” Belle interjected. “Please don’t say the word. I can’t bear it.”
“Knocked up,” Ruby said instead. Belle rolled her eyes. That was so much better.
She was knocked up, had a bun in the oven, eating for two, in the family way, no matter how you put it, it didn’t change the fact that Belle was screwed.
“How did this happen?” Ruby asked. “I thought you and Gary were going through a dry spell. It is Gary’s isn’t it?”
Belle shot her an unamused look. As much as she wished to the contrary, she had no doubt who this baby’s father was. That was the worst part.
“Yeah well you stop for one drink of water and this happens, doesn’t it?”
“Shit, Belle, I’m sorry,” Ruby commiserated. “Are you gonna tell him?”
“No,” Belle said shaking her head.
“You have to tell him,” Ruby replied. “I know Gary is dumber than a box of rocks but even he’s going to eventually realize his wife is pregnant.”
“Well I guess I’ll figure that out when the time comes,” Belle said, snatching the pregnancy test back from Ruby and stuffing it back in to her pocket. “Right now I need to worry about getting eggs to table 7.”
“Fine!” Ruby conceded, following Belle out of the bathroom. “But we’re not done talking about your eggs.”
They made their way down the short hallway and back to the kitchen where a harried looking Granny was dressing down their fellow waitress, Ariel.
“If you can’t be on time, don’t bother coming in to work at all!”
Ariel nodded, slipping her jacket off and hanging it on the coat rack by the back door before tying on her apron.
“I’m sorry, Granny,” she said. “It won’t happen again.”
“You see that it doesn’t,” Granny said decisively before spinning around to face Ruby and Belle. “And how nice of you two to join us! I was about to make the guests serve themselves potluck style. Might as well open a buffet if all my waitresses spend their time gossiping in the bathroom instead of working.”
“Sorry, Granny,” they both mumbled, returning to work. Ruby picked up a pot of coffee, heading through the door to the dining room as Belle grabbed table 7’s scrambled eggs.
“Oh, shit,” Ruby hissed, quickly ducking back in to the kitchen and nearly knocking the plate from Belle’s hands.
“What’s wrong?” Belle asked, craning her neck to see around her friend.
“He’s here,” Ruby said, her tone of voice leaving no question of who she was talking about. “He owns every goddamn business in town. Why does he have to come harass this one every morning?”
“Because we’re the only one of his businesses with decent coffee?” Belle offered. Ruby just rolled her eyes.
“Look, I know you’re having the shittiest morning ever and this will only make it a thousand times worse, but can you take his table? I’m a little short on the rent this month and I know he’ll ask me about it.”
“Sure,” Belle said with a sigh. He was the last person she wanted to see this morning, but she knew how badly Ruby reacted to the man. She might end up spilling hot coffee down his front and getting herself evicted.
“You’re a saint,” Ruby said, squeezing her arm. “I owe you one.”
“It’s fine,” Belle said with a shake of her head. “At least he tips well.”
“He’d have to to get anyone to put up with him,” Ruby spat. “The only good thing about the man is his money.”
Belle couldn’t find it in her to disagree with Ruby for once and set off into the dining room, her heart pounding.
Sure enough Mr. Gold was sitting at his usual table, a booth in the front corner next to the window that afforded him a perfect view of the street and all the townspeople coming and going from the diner. He cut an imposing figure, all sharp edges in his dark three-piece suit. A black storm cloud perched in the center of the otherwise cheerful diner. He was an anachronism. He didn’t belong. Belle suspected he liked it that way.
She dropped off Leroy’s eggs and then approached Mr. Gold’s table on unsteady legs, her stomach beginning to roil uncomfortably. The sunlight from the large bay window picked up the silver in his hair, glinting and shining. She imagined running her hands through it, of having him above her, the comforting weight of him pressing against her, his mouth against her skin.
Belle shook her head, trying to dispel the unwanted thoughts.
She arrived at the table, waiting for him to acknowledge her presence. She wasn’t quite sure what to say to him.
“Mrs. Stone,” he said coolly, looking down at his menu and not even giving her the benefit of his full attention.
“Mr. Gold,” she said just as coolly. “What can I get you this morning?”
“Coffee,” he said. “Black. Eggs over easy, bacon, and…” he trailed off, finally looking up at her. “God, you look dreadful.”
Belle huffed out a laugh, too worn down this morning to feel any indignation at the insult. “Gee, thanks.”
He must have realized what he’d said a moment too late, his eyes bulging before he schooled his features in to their usual polite disinterest.
“I didn’t…” he shook his head. “I didn’t mean you look bad, just upset. Are you alright?”
He seemed genuinely concerned, his voice soft, one hand coming to lie over hers where it rested on his table. Belle’s hand prickled at the contact and she snatched it away, a brief look of hurt crossing Gold’s eyes before he folded his own hands in his lap.
“Fine,” she said with a stiff nod of her head. “Just one of those mornings.”
“Yes,” he said and Belle wasn’t sure if he was agreeing with her or just looking to fill the awkward silence.
“How is Neal?” she asked, casting around for some neutral subject.
“He’s doing well,” Gold said, a smile playing at the corner of his mouth as it always did when he spoke about his son. “Baseball tryouts are this week. Fingers crossed he makes the varsity team.”
Belle just nodded.
“And Mrs. Gold?” she asked.
Mr. Gold’s eyes turned harder at her question, the soft smile fading from his lips.
“Fine,” he said stiffly. “And how is Mr. Stone?”
Belle winced. She supposed she deserved that.
“He’s fine too.”
“Well, wonderful,” Gold said, looking back down at his menu. Belle rather thought he was avoiding her gaze. “Now that we’ve established how fine everyone is, perhaps you can finish taking my order.”
“Sure thing,” Belle said with a nod, scribbling down the rest of Mr. Gold’s breakfast order before scurrying back to the kitchen.
Belle let out a deep breath as soon as she was out of the dining room, leaning back against the wall. She felt as though she’d just run a marathon, out of breath and exhausted.
“I owe you,” Ruby whispered as she swanned back out of the kitchen to serve another table, giving Mr. Gold’s a wide berth.
Her respite was short lived. It was a matter of moments before Mr. Gold’s order was up and she was forced into his presence once more.
“Here you are,” she said, dropping the plate down on the table in front of him with a thunk. Her vision was swimming, her skin clammy. She knew Mr. Gold’s presence in the diner wasn’t the direct cause of her nausea, but it felt better to blame him for it.
Gold looked up at her, his brows drawn close over his dark eyes, the morning light picking up flecks of gold in them. They looked concerned, those eyes. They had no right to.
“Are you sure you’re feeling alright?” he asked. His voice sounded as though it was coming from far away, Belle’s blood pounding in her ears. “Belle?”
The way he said her name, so soft, barely a whisper, was the last straw.
“We’ve already ascertained that everyone is fine,” Belle spat before clamping her mouth shut. The smell of the bacon and the eggs, the slight burn of the coffee grounds, and the antiseptic scent of the soap they used to clean the kitchen all swirled together, the stench suddenly overpowering. Her stomach rebelled and Belle dropped the coffee pot she’d been holding to refill Mr. Gold’s cup, turning and running for the bathroom, the sound of the pot smashing on the ground chasing her down the hall.
After emptying the contents of her stomach, Belle rinsed out her mouth at the faucet giving her reflection in the mirror a critical eye. Mr. Gold was right. She did look dreadful.
She sighed, wetting a paper towel and pressing it against the back of her neck, under her ponytail. She was going to have to figure out something to combat the morning sickness. She wouldn’t be raking in the tips if she had to run to the bathroom every five minutes. No one wanted a violently ill waitress.
Once she was sure she wasn’t going to be sick again, Belle straightened up and headed back in to the diner. Either Ruby or Ariel had already cleaned up the coffee she’d spilled and Belle was surprised to see Mr. Gold still at the table.
He glanced up at her as she stopped by with his check, picking up his empty plate.
Mrs. Stone,” he said, his voice low enough that he wouldn’t be overheard. “If you’d be so kind, might you pay a visit to my shop when you leave work this afternoon.”
Belle knew it wasn’t a request. She could tell by the steely look in his eyes and the firm set of his jaw. Mr. Gold wasn't a man who was used to being told no and Belle had never been good at voicing that particular word anyway.
“Okay,” she agreed.
Gold took out his wallet, removing several crisp bills and placing them on top of the check.
“Keep the change,” he said, leveling her with one final, loaded look before gathering up his cane and leaving.
Belle scooped up the cash he’d left on the table. A $20 tip on a $6 meal.
She pocketed the money, guilt settling in her gut.
This was bad. This was so bad.