"Are you ready to order?" Meghan O'Day asked the man with the horn-rimmed glasses who was sitting in the booth beside the window. The gentleman was busily reading. Meghan withdrew the small tablet from inside her starched apron pocket and patiently waited for his response.
At her question, the reader's gaze reluctantly left the page of his book and bounced against her briefly. "The chicken potpie sounds good."
"Rose's potpies are excellent," Meghan said with a congenial smile. She noted that even before she'd finished writing down his order, the man had returned his attention to his reading. She grinned, not offended by his lack of notice. Some customers were chatty and openly friendly, while others preferred to keep to themselves. Meghan didn't mind. It was her job to make sure the clientele were served promptly and their needs seen to efficiently. Since Meghan was an avid reader herself, she didn't fault this gentleman for being more interested in his book than in ordering his meal.
Currently only a handful of customers dotted the diner, and the chicken-potpie order was up within a few short minutes. The reader, with his nose buried between the pages of his book, barely looked up when Meghan delivered his food.
"Is there anything more I can get for you?" she asked, automatically refilling his coffee cup.
As she moved to turn away, Meghan noted that it was Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, that had captured his attention so completely. Excitement surged through her bloodstream.
Meghan herself was a devoted lover of classical literature. She set the glass coffeepot on the table and gave the reader a second look. Not bad. In fact he was downright handsome.
He glanced up at her expectantly. The only thing Meghan could do was explain. "I
Chaucer is one of my favorites."
"Mine, too." A slow, endearing smile eased across his face. He glanced down at the page and read in a clear, strong voice: "'Bifel that in that seson on a day, in south-werk at the Tabard as I lay-'"
"'-Redy to wenden on my pilgrimage to Canterbury with ful devout corage,'" Meghan finished reverently.
His face revealed his surprise. If she hadn't earned his attention before, she received it full force now. "You know Chaucer?"
Meghan felt a little silly and shook her head. "Not personally." Her fellow Chaucer fan didn't so much as crack a smile at her attempt at a joke. To her way of thinking, he was much too young to take life so seriously; but then she was only a waitress, not a psychologist.
"You're obviously familiar with his works." He frowned slightly and studied her as though he should be expected to recognize her and didn't.
"I've read it so many times that I've managed to memorize small portions of it. I guess you could say that Chaucer and I have a nodding acquaintance."
He chuckled at that, and planted his elbows on the table, grinning up her. "So you enjoy reading Middle English?"
"I'll confess it was difficult going at first," she said, feeling mildly guilty for interrupting his meal, "but I stuck it out and I'm glad I did. Frankly, when I read it aloud the first time, it sounded a whole lot like Swedish to me."
His face erupted into a full smile, as if he found her insights a bit irreverent, but nonetheless interesting.
A second volume rested on the seat beside him. He picked it up and ran his hand respectfully down its spine. "If you enjoy Chaucer, then you're probably a fan of Edmund Spenser, as well."
She noted that he was holding a well-read volume of The Faerie Queene. He continued to look at her expectantly, awaiting her reply. Feeling a bit chagrined, Meghan regretfully shook her head.
"You don't like Spenser?"
"Isn't he the one who wanted to write twelve books, each one celebrating a different knightly virtue?"
The reader nodded. "He only completed six."
"Actually, I don't think anyone minded." As far as Meghan was concerned, Spenser was a prime candidate for intensive counseling, but she couldn't very well tell her customer that. "I didn't mean to insult your tastes," she added quickly, not wanting to offend him.
The man reached for his fork, all the while studying her as if he were trying to place her. "Do I know you?"
Meghan shook her head. "Not unless you eat at Rose's Diner regularly and I don't remember seeing you before tonight."
"This is the first time I've been here, although I've heard for years that Rose bakes the best pies in Wichita. Generally I'm not in this neighborhood." Still he continued to stare without the merest hint of apology.
"Rose will be pleased to hear that." Feeling a little foolish for lingering so long, Meghan picked up the coffeepot and took a step back. "Enjoy your meal."
"Thank you, I will." He continued to observe Meghan as she turned and headed toward the service counter. Even then, she felt his gaze.
Sherry Caldwell, the assistant manager, joined her there.
"Who's the hunk you were just talking to?"
"I don't know. He came in about twenty minutes ago, started reading Chaucer and ordered chicken potpie."
"He's cute, don't you think?" Sherry asked, eyeing him inquisitively. The assistant manager was a grandmother, but still young enough to appreciate a good-looking man when she saw one.
Meghan didn't think twice about nodding. There wasn't any doubt in her mind that this man was attractive. Everything about him appealed to her, especially his choice of reading material. Although he was sitting, Meghan could tell he was well over six feet. His dark hair was thick, cut short, and styled in a manner that gave him a distinguished air. He wasn't openly friendly, but he wasn't aloof, either. He was more of an introvert, she decided; distinguished and professional, too. Those traits wouldn't normally appeal to her, but they did in him-strongly.
From what she'd noticed, he seemed to be physically fit, but she couldn't picture him gliding down ski slopes or lifting weights. In fact, he didn't look like someone who cared much about muscle tone. He was dressed casually now, but something about him suggested he was more at home in three-piece suits and stiffly starched collars than the slacks and sweater he was wearing now.
"He's not the kind of guy one would expect to come in here, is he?" Sherry pressed.
Meghan shrugged. "I guess not, but we get all types."
Sherry chuckled. "Tell me about it, kiddo!"
The following evening, Meghan kept looking for the man who loved the literary classics, chiding herself for even expecting him to return. It wasn't like her to feel so strongly about a stranger, especially one whom she'd only talked to once and briefly at that. All day she thought about the handsome man who knew and loved Chaucer the same way she did. She would like to know him better, and wondered if he felt the same about her.
Just when the dinner rush had started to lull, Sherry strolled past her and muttered under her breath, "He's back."
Meghan's co-worker made it sound as if an FBI agent had just stepped into the diner and was preparing to consort with the KGB. Meghan was carrying three plates of chicken-fried steak, and daring not to hope, she paused to ask, "Who's back?"
Sherry rolled her eyes. "The good-looking guy from last night. Remember?"
"I can't say that I do." Meghan preferred to play dumb, being unwilling to let her friend know how much she'd thought about seeing "the reader" again.
"The chicken potpie from last night," Sherry returned, obviously frustrated. "The one you've been watching for all night, so don't try to fool me!"
"Chicken potpie?" Meghan repeated, continuing the pretense and doing a poor job of it. "Oh, you mean the guy who was reading Chaucer?"
"Right," Sherry teased. "Well, he obviously remembered you. He requested your section." Sherry wiggled her finely penciled brows up and down several times.
"He did?" By now Meghan's heart was doing cartwheels.
"That's what I just finished saying."
Meghan wasn't willing to put a lot of stock in this. "I don't suppose it occurred to that romantic heart of yours to assume he was pleased with the food and the service?"
"I'm sure he was," Sherry returned, trying to suppress a smile, and failing. "But I think he's far more interested in seeing you again. After all, he could order the same cooking from any one of us."
Meghan discounted Sherry's reasoning with a soft shrug, feeling disinclined to accept anything more than the fact the handsome man who read Chaucer was back.
"Go get him, tiger," Sherry teased. "He's ripe for the pickin'."
Meghan delivered the chicken-fried steaks and refilled coffee cups before approaching "the reader's" booth. Once again, his nose was deep in a well-worn leather volume.
"Good evening," she greeted, striving to sound friendly but not overly so-it wouldn't do to let him know how pleased she was to see him again. "You're back."
He closed the book and looked up at her. "I was in the neighborhood and decided to stop in."
"I'm glad you did." Her fingers tightened around the handle of the coffeepot. "I enjoyed our conversation last night."
"I did, too. Very much." His sober gaze continued to study her with undisguised admiration.
Meghan could tell that this man was earnest and serious. He wasn't the type to openly flirt or lead a woman on; in fact he seemed almost uncomfortable. This evening he was wearing a suit and tie and looked more dignified than ever. He was the only man in the entire diner wearing anything so formal.
He set the volume aside and looked up eagerly, reading her name tag. "It's good to see you again, Meghan."
and you too, of course." She set the coffeepot down, pulled her pad from the pink apron and held her pen poised, ready to write down his choice.
Instead of ordering, he held out his hand to her. "I'm Grey Carlyle."
She gave him her hand which he grasped in a firm handshake. Meghan had trouble pulling her gaze from his; his eyes were a mesmerizing shade of blue that reminded her of a midsummer Kansas sky.
"I'm pleased to meet you, Meghan-"
"O'Day," she filled in. "It's Irish," she mumbled, instantly wanting to kick herself for stating something so obvious. If her name wasn't enough of a giveaway, her bright auburn hair and deep blue eyes should have been.
Suddenly there didn't seem to be anything more to say. Grey glanced at the pad in her hand and announced, "I'll order the special-whatever it is."
"Chicken-fried steak," Meghan told him eagerly.
"That sounds fine."
Meghan took her time writing it down, wanting to linger and get to know him better. Instead she asked him, "Would you like soup or salad with your meal?"
She made a note of that. "What kind of dressing?"
He mulled this over as though it were important enough to involve national security. "Blue cheese, if you have it."
"We do." If they didn't she would stir up a batch herself.
"I don't suppose you've read Milton?" He turned over the book on the tabletop and showed her the cover.
Meghan held the order pad against her breast and smiled down on him. "I loved Paradise Lost and Lycidas, but the whole time I was reading his works I had the impression he was trying to get one up on Dante." The minute the words were out, Meghan wanted to jerk them back. She could feel the color sweep into her cheeks, and it was on the tip of her tongue to tell him she hadn't meant that.
The faint quiver of a smile started at the corners of his full mouth. "'Get one up on Dante'-I never thought of it quite like that before," he murmured. "But actually, you could be right."
A bell chimed softly in the background, reminding Meghan that one of her orders was ready and there were other customers who expected to be served. "I'd better get back to work," she said reluctantly. "I'll have your salad for you in just a minute."
"Before you go," he said abruptly, stopping her. "I'd like to know where you attended college?"
She cast her gaze down and shrugged, feeling slightly awkward. "I haven't."
"You haven't been to university?" Surprise elevated his voice.
Meghan looped a strand of shoulder-length hair over her ear and met his confused gaze.
"Do you mean to tell me you've done all this reading on your own?"
"Is that so unusual?"
He reached for his water glass. "Frankly, yes."
"If you'll excuse me now, I really have to get back to work."
"Of course. I'm sorry for detaining you this long."
"No, don't apologize. I enjoy talking to you. It's just that-"
"I understand, Meghan. Don't worry about it."
She stepped away from the booth, feeling uneasy with him for the first time. Literature was the one love of her life-her passion. She'd started reading early English literature when nursing her mother after she'd taken a bad fall. High school had given her enough of a taste for the classics that she'd sought out and begun to investigate major works on her own, later. While at home, she'd had ample opportunity to explore many of the literary greats, and in a short time had devoured volume after volume, making a whirlwind tour of six hundred years of English literature.
As Meghan headed toward the kitchen, she noticed Grey frowning. Now that he knew she didn't have a degree to back up her opinions, he probably wouldn't ask her what she thought of the classics again. It would have been better if she'd kept her thoughts to herself than to spout them as if she knew what she was talking about. The habit of blurting out exactly what she was feeling was one that continually plagued her. Grey Carlyle was a man of culture and refinement. Her guess was that he was a doctor or an attorney, or someone else equally distinguished. Obviously he knew a good deal more about literature than she ever would.