I'm wiping down the counter since I finally have a moment to breathe. When the bell over the door rings, I look up and smile.
I'm surprised to see a very young man wearing very tight jeans and a white t-shirt, along with cowboy boots and a cowboy hat. He looks a little moody, almost like he's brooding.
He pauses when he's about halfway to the counter and glances at me, biting his full lower lip. His eyes are a soft, light green and create a lovely contrast with his dark skin. If it weren't for the outfit, I'd guess he was a native Hawaiian.
“You're open, right?” he wonders, looking around at all the empty seats.
I laugh and nod. “I am. Business always slows down in the evening. Most of my customers are here early in the morning and throughout the afternoon. Please, have a seat wherever you'd like.”
He looks around again, then continues toward the counter. “Mind if I sit here?” he asks. “I don't want to interrupt your cleaning or anything.”
“You're not,” I assure him. He sits down, taking off his hat and setting it on the seat beside him. He starts to scan the menu boards hanging on the wall.
“I have individual menus too, if you'd like one,” I offer.
“No, no, this is okay. Just, um, being indecisive.”
“I didn't mean to rush you,” I say sincerely. “Take as much time as you need.”
He shakes his head. “No, uh, I think I'm ready. I'll have the grilled chicken and spinach burrito and the pineapple smoothie. Gotta have pineapple when you come to Hawaii, right?” he laughs.
“Definitely,” I agree. “Two of my favorites, by the way. Coming right up.”
“How long have you worked here?” He folds his arms and leans against the counter, watching me as I make his food.
“Since it opened,” I reply.
“How long is that?”
“Five years now.”
“Cool. Seems like a nice place. Almost everything else I walked past was deep-fried. Not that I don't like that, of course, but I have to stay in shape.”
I tilt my head curiously. “I go to the shrimp cart on the corner every Friday as a treat. Best one on the island, in my opinion. And, if you don't mind me saying so, you look like you're staying in shape just fine.” I try to make sure the comment doesn't sound flirty, just observant. I can't tell exactly how old he is, and I don't think he's in high school or anything, but he's still way too young for me.
He smirks, though. For the first time since he's walked in, he seems confident. “Yeah, I keep it tight,” he admits. “Have to.” I'm not sure why, but he doesn't continue.
“Are you here on vacation?” I steer the conversation in a different direction as I pack the smoothie ingredients into the blender and the chicken cooks.
A grimace flashes across his face. He runs his hand through his hair and looks down at the counter. “I'm not hapa haole,” he mutters.
I instantly feel bad. I didn't mean to hit a sore spot, but I clearly did. I move over to him and put my hand comfortingly over his. “Hey,” I tell him softly. “I didn't mean any offense.” His eyes slide to mine as I explain, “It's how you're dressed. It's not everyday that I get a cowboy in here.” He cracks a smile and I wink before moving back to his order.
“Sorry,” he apologizes as I pour his smoothie and wrap his burrito. “A guy I work with gave me a hard time about it earlier today and it struck a nerve. Thanks,” he adds as I put his plate in front of him, leaning against the counter so we can keep talking. “I just got here today,” he explains. “But I was born here. Left when I was a kid. My mom taught me the slang.”
“You came here for work, then?” I don't mind letting his reaction go. Some people in Hawaii are proud to identify as hapa, which essentially means someone is only part Hawaiian, but for others, it's a derogatory term. Haole means European or white, which can cause even more offense. It's often used to make fun of tourists and people who come from anywhere except the islands.
He takes a huge bite, chewing and swallowing before he responds. “Mmhmm. Lifeguard with Baywatch Hawaii.”
“Oh, Sean's new team? I heard about that. Sean's a regular here.” No wonder he said he has to stay fit. Being a lifeguard in Hawaii is already a tough gig; everyone knows that. But Sean's team is going to be on a whole different level.
He grimaces again and then tries the smoothie. “Not exactly my favorite guy right now. He's looking for the weak link, and I think everyone assumes it's going to be me because I'm the youngest.”
I shrug. “Age isn't necessarily the most important factor. Sure, you may not have as much experience, but I bet you're stronger, faster, and have more stamina.”
His smirk comes back and he raises his eyebrows at me. “Yes, I do.”
I feel myself blush slightly and hope he doesn't notice. He's practically a baby. I bet he flirts with any woman in front of him. “Sean knows that.” I'm hoping bringing up someone he doesn't like will dampen any attraction he might be feeling. It's also true. “I know he seems like a hardass, but give him a chance.” Sean isn't the easiest guy to be around all the time, but he's got a good heart.
He rolls his eyes, taking another bite and letting what I said go by without comment. He takes another drink and I stand up off of the counter. “I'll let you eat, okay?”
He reaches out and grabs my wrist. “No, it's all right. You can stay and talk. If you, uh, don't have anything else to do, I mean.”
I smile and shake my head. Suddenly, I see him quite clearly. On the outside, he tries to be cocky, arrogant, and confrontational. He's competitive, and I'm sure he wins a lot of the time. He's a smooth talker, a sweet talker, a flirt. But he keeps people at a distance by being standoffish because he's not willing to admit how afraid he is. I'm guessing that he's really quite sensitive, considering how he reacted to my innocent comment earlier.
“I don't have anything else to do.” He carefully lets go of my wrist, looking just a tad bit sheepish. “I'm Robin, by the way. Robin Ballard.”
“Jason.” He quickly tacks on, “Just Jason.”
“It's nice to meet you, Just Jason.”
He chuckles. “So, are you a lifeguard in your spare time or anything? You seem to know a lot about it.”
“Me? I can swim if you put those little floatie things on my arms,” I joke. That gets him to let out a full-bodied laugh. When he's done, I keep going. “My customers are mostly local. Lifeguards, surfers. The healthy crowd. I pick up a lot.”
“Cool.” He pauses. “Are there really, um, sharks around here?”
I giggle. “You've been talking to Kai Colburn, I see. There are sharks in the area,” I confirm. “But generally, they don't bother people unless people bother them.”
He sighs. “I bet the tourists are great at not bothering them. I'm the one who's going to have to pluck them out of the shark-infested waters.”
I can't help myself. “Aw, come on, Jason. You'll get all the girls with a story about facing down a shark.”
“Hard to argue with that,” he agrees, smirking yet again. He really is handsome, I realize, as I stare at him up close. The contours of his face are perfect, his dark hair is neatly cut, but just the right level of disheveled to be sexy, and I'm sure the rest of his body under those clothes is something to write home about.
I'm going to have to be careful about what I say if he comes in again. If I keep flirting, he'll probably take me up on the offer, and that could get problematic.
He's finished eating. “How much do I owe you?” He pulls out his wallet, which unsurprisingly doesn't have much in it. I tell him and he frowns. “Is that a special or something?”
“Normal prices,” I promise. “I have to be competitive, and I make it up with a lot of shared ingredients between recipes and repeat business. Some people eat three meals a day here.”
“Okay.” He takes out a few bills and hands them to me. I put them in the cash register. “You need a receipt, Jason?”
“Nah.” He stands and puts his hat back on. “Thanks, Robin. The food was great, and it was nice talking to you. Sorry I snapped at you earlier.”
“No offense taken, Jason, really. If it makes you feel better, I would have guessed that you were native Hawaiian if it hadn't been for the get-up.”
He smiles. “Thanks,” he says again. “You mind if I come back tomorrow? Seems like the place I should frequent if I don't want to let myself go.”
“You're welcome anytime, Jason. To eat or talk or both.”
He tips his hat at me and nods. “Then, uh, aloha, Robin.” He shoots finger guns at me and I snort.
“Aloha, Jason. Have a good night.” I wave.
He opens the door and then I'm alone again.
I let out a breath and shake my head to clear it. “Do not think about that man before you go to sleep tonight, Robin,” I mutter to myself. “Remember that he is basically a baby.”
I'm sure anything he sensed tonight will be quickly forgotten anyway. He'll be surrounded by beautiful women in bikinis in no time.