Michael Russo was concerned. The lady standing all by herself in the lobby had come in about fifteen minutes ago with Ellie, but Ellie was still in the dining room (with her dad…huh), and the lady was standing there, looking kind of lost and helpless, and he was pretty sure she hadn’t eaten yet. He had noticed that neither of them looked particularly happy when they came in, but he figured that was just hunger. Hunger made him grumpy, for sure. Maybe he could help.
“Ma’am, is everything OK?” he asked politely from behind the host stand. The woman didn’t reply and didn’t move. Walking out from behind the stand, he came to stand at a polite distance behind her and tried again.
“Hi, I’m Michael. I manage this place. Is there anything I can do for you?” She turned to face him.
“No, I do not believe there is anything you can do for me,” she replied slowly. Her words were clipped, her voice perfectly measured and controlled, but huge tears were rolling down her face. Oh, no! He was no good with crying women.
“I’m sorry…you just seem…I don’t know…,” he trailed off. “Are you sure I can’t help you in some way?”
She continued to look at him through tear-filled eyes. He walked back to the host stand and brought out a box of Kleenex. He handed her the box and waited silently. She pulled a sheet out and turned it over in her hand.
“What is this for?” she inquired. Michael blinked.
“It’s a Kleenex,” he frowned at her. “You know, to wipe your eyes with.”
“I see,” she dabbed her eyes with the tissue. “Thank you.”
“If I may ask,” Michael hesitated when she raised one perfect eyebrow at him, and then boldly pressed on. “It’s just that I noticed you came in with Ellie a little while ago, and now you’re standing out here by yourself, and, well, you’re obviously very upset. Do you need a ride? I could call you a cab.” He stopped, at a loss for what else he could do.
She tilted her head to one side and appraised him through narrowed eyes. At least she wasn’t crying anymore. He really couldn’t deal with crying women.
“I do not need a ride,” she informed him finally. “I will wait until Elena finishes her meal. She will provide my transportation back to her home.”
“You’re staying with Ellie? Oh, are you from out of town?” he was relieved that the conversation was heading in a much safer direction now that the waterworks were off. She did not answer him, but she did nod in a not unfriendly sort of way. Then something else occurred to him.
“But you haven’t eaten, have you?”
She shook her head. “I have not,” she agreed.
“Look,” he said. “It’s none of my business what happened in there. If you and Ellie had an argument or something, I’m sure you’ll work it out later. But you came in for a meal, and here you are not eating. I’ll bet you’re pretty hungry, and we can’t have that, can we? How about if I bring you something from the kitchen while you’re waiting for her?”
“Finally,” Hera thought. “Someone who understands how to treat a guest in his establishment.”
“I am grateful for your hospitality,” she replied. “I accept your offer.”
“Great!” Michael was beaming. “What would you like?”
In an instant, her face transformed from polite friendliness to stony impassivity. Oh, god! Now what? Did he say something to offend her? Was she upset again? “Please don’t let her start crying again,” he thought.
“I do not know what foods your cook is skilled at preparing,” she answered. “And I do not wish to choose from your list. Please bring me a meal of your choosing. I assure you that anything you offer will be adequate. “
“Umm, ok. I tell you what. We have a special tonight—lamb chops with brown butter and rosemary, rice pilaf, and roasted veggies. It comes with a Greek salad? How does that sound?”
“It sounds perfect,” she replied, a smile once again gracing her features. It was amazing how quickly her expressions changed.
“Great! Give me a couple of minutes and dinner will be right out!”
Michael disappeared behind a swinging door. Hera could hear him whistling as he walked away. “Strange man,” she thought. “Strange, but very kind, and certainly more polite than that Dr. Holloway.” Now where did that thought come from?
True to his word, Michael came out of the kitchen a few minutes later, several plates balancing precariously in his hands.
“Dinner is served!” he announced, smiling. His smile dimmed, though, as he looked around. “Oh! There’s nowhere for you to sit and eat out here. Why don’t I find you a nice table in the dining room?”
“No!” her reaction was swift and decisive. “I mean that I would prefer to eat someplace other than the dining room,” she amended. “I do not wish to disturb Elena’s meal with her father.”
Michael wasn’t convinced, but it was obvious that she wasn’t going to eat in the dining room, and he didn’t see any point in trying to convince her otherwise. However, that still left the question of where she would eat, since there were no other seating areas at the Rise and Shiner Diner. The Shiner didn’t even have a bar, thanks to his great-something grandmother’s aversion to alcohol. Not for the first time, Michael reflected on how much more successful the Shiner could be if they got a liquor license. And a bar. And maybe an outdoor seating area. He shook his head. There was no point in this line of thinking. Dad would never go for any of it. And while he may not technically own the restaurant anymore, his word still carried a lot of weight. Mom would agree with Dad, but he was pretty sure his sister would side with him. Michael wasn’t interested in embroiling the family in a pointless argument, though, especially when his dad’s health was still pretty dicey.
In any case, he had a more immediate problem to solve. And the problem was looking at him anxiously, while her meal was getting cold.
“How would you feel about eating in my office, then?” he suggested. “It’s not much, but there’s a table and a chair, and it’s in the back, so it’ll be pretty quiet. You can have your dinner in peace and join Ellie whenever you’re ready.”
Her face transformed, a radiant smile replacing the worry and anxiety. “That would be wonderful!” she agreed. “Thank you.”
“Walk this way,” Michael grinned over his shoulder as he made his way toward his office, balancing the plates and shuffling his feet in a pathetic imitation of Marty Feldman’s Igor character. His guest didn’t laugh. “Must not be a Young Frankenstein fan,” he thought.
The office was certainly “not much,” but Hera didn’t give it another thought, as the plates were set before her and the aroma of roasted lamb and rosemary overtook her senses. She spared Michael one final glance and a grateful smile and dug in.