Dean Song isn’t exactly expecting to meet the woman of his dreams on his lunchbreak– or her cute daughter.
There’s a toddler sitting at the counter in front of the bar.
Dean blinks twice at the fluffy-haired kid sitting up with her chubby hands flat on the counter. He doesn’t even bother to resist the urge to rub his eyes. Neither that nor blinking them helps. The kid is still there, sitting up on her knees in a cherry red bar stool with chocolate sauce smeared over the brown skin of her face and a crayon tucked behind one tiny brown ear.
The thing is though, that maybe Dean is hallucinating this — this kid. Maybe he’s seeing things because no one else is acting as if she’s even there. The bistro’s waitstaff wander around the small space without looking at her and no one even glances in their direction as Dean watches the toddler eventually get tired and plop back down in her chair.
Dean cards his fingers through his hair, nails scratching over his scalp as glances down the length of the counter, hoping that the bartender will see him and come to his rescue.
No such luck.
The bartender — a tall woman with dark brown skin and black braids that come all the way down to the backs of her knees — is busy on the far end of the counter, setting out drinks and appetizers for the people taking advantage of the brief gap in the lunch rush to get the best food. If she notices him before his lunch hour ends, Dean will eat his ID badge.
A small hand curls into the bend of Dean’s elbow, tugging at the fabric of his long-sleeved button up hard enough that Dean kind of has to look down. The toddler is looking at him now with an expectant frown on her face and her brown eyes wide and inquisitive. She squeezes Dean’s arm and then grunts at him.
“Up,” she says sharply, dark eyebrows drawing together. “Pick me up.”
This… doesn’t happen to him. Sure, he’s not the sort of person that can scare a baby into tears just by looking at them the wrong way (like his sister Willow), but he’s not a baby person. Babies and toddlers – Hell, children of all types, just don’t like him. Dean doesn’t get along with kids and they don’t get along with him.
So why is this one clinging to him and asking to be picked up?
“Um,” Dean says, eyes wide with what he knows is panic. He glances around the room almost frantically, hoping that someone — anyone — will show up to rescue him. Unfortunately, his coworkers can’t see him with how far he is from the bar and none of the bistro’s staff seems to notice him. Dean feels his eyebrows furrowing and he glances down at the toddler clutching at his arm. “I — um — Don’t you know not to talk to strangers?”
That… doesn’t go over well. Talking to a toddler is harder than it looks and Dean isn’t surprised that the little girl doesn’t get a word that he’s saying. She clutches at his arm some more, tiny sharp nails digging in through the fabric of Dean’s button up.
“Up! Up,” she demands.
Dean kind of feels like he wants to pass out. He glances around again but still there’s no one around to help him out.
“I can’t pick you up, kid,” Dean murmurs, his voice soft and as soothing as he can make it. He doesn’t pick the toddler up, but he is very gentle about disentangling her fingers from the sleeve of his shirt. Unfortunately, the toddler latches on to his finger instead, pale brown fingers digging into the warmer gold of Dean’s skin. “I don’t even know how to lift a kid up without dropping them. Where’s your mom anyway?”
The sound of a throat clearing makes Dean feel cold all the way down to his toes. He looks up from the toddler grabbing at him and into the face of the bartender. And what a face she has – The bartender is gorgeous, tall and toned with strong arms that flex as she wipes down the counter in front of her and cleans up some mess that Dean can’t see because he’s busy staring. She has lean features, hazel eyes, and a full mouth that makes Dean feel a little like whimpering.
Dean doesn’t blush easily — at least he didn’t before lunch today — but he feels his face warm up with a blush when he looks up at the bartender and realizes that she’s probably the most beautiful woman that he’s ever seen in his life.
“I’m Aja Samuels,” the bartender says with a sharp smile that makes Dean feel like whimpering. “And that –” she pauses to gesture at the toddler now doing her best to climb up Dean’s arm. “That’s my daughter Mercy.” She wiggles her fingers at the little toddler but then frowns when her daughter doesn’t even glance at her, which is how busy she is. “I guess that she really likes you.”
Dean frowns. “Um – I’m um – I’m Dean Song.”
The last time that Dean was this tongue-tied, he was fifteen and facing the prettiest girl at his high school on his way to asking her to junior prom. At twenty-eight with a long and varied love life behind him, he shouldn’t be speechless at the sight of a pretty face. But he is. He so freaking is.
Aja smiles down at him. It’s a softer smile now, but no less lovely. “Since my darling daughter is intent on holding you hostage,” she says, “Maybe you’d like to have your lunch at the counter today?”
Mercy’s surprisingly strong fingers flex over the skin of Dean’s forearm as if reminding him that he can’t get away from her until she’s good and ready. She looks up at Dean with a faint frown on her face and wiggles in her chair.
“Please?” Mercy asks, her dark eyes huge and luminous in her round face.
Dean huffs out a sigh and then slumps into the chair right beside Mercy’s own.
“Okay,” he says to Aja and Mercy both. “Fine. Let me just text my coworkers and let them know that I’ve been kidnapped by the two of you.” He settles into the chair and then tilts his head back so that he can look up at Aja’s face and just bask a little. “Why do you trust me to watch your kid anyway?”
Aja’s full mouth quirks with a smirk. “I did two tours overseas before I had Mercy. Trust me. If I’m somehow wrong and you’re not a good person, I can take you out without a sweat. I’m a good judge of character though and you don’t look like you have a deathwish.”
Dean blinks. “Um… Thanks?”
“You’re welcome,” Aja says, smiling. “Now what would you like to have? Today my partner Meeya is in the kitchen and she has a goat curry bowl on special. If you want, could also get a roti wrap. It’s a little more expensive, but trust me: it’s worth it.”
“Choose for me,” Dean blurts out. He tries to cover his eagerness a second later. “I mean – only because you know what’s good and I don’t. I’ll eat anything once, though.”
That’s apparently the right answer because Aja smiles at him before turning her attention to Mercy.
“Now, Mercy,” Aja says with a soft note to her voice that makes Dean’s chest tighten. “Do you want the chicken or the goat curry today?”
Mercy shakes her head hard and all of her curly hair goes flying.
“I wan’ cake,” she declares at the top of her lungs. “Cake!”
Aja snorts and flips a few of her braids out from in front f her face. “You know the rules, mini me,” she says firmly. “No cake until you’re finished with lunch. If you eat all of the curry and the ducana Auntie Meeya makes special for you, maybe we’ll talk about dessert.”
Mercy huffs and flings herself back in the chair hard enough that it rocks on its legs and Dean reaches out on instinct to catch it.
“Not fair,” Mercy mutters.
“Yeah, yeah,” Aja says lightly. “But you eat good most of the time, nah? If I gave you cake all the time you’d be round like a little ball.” She reaches across the counter easily and tickles Mercy’s chin until the toddler giggles and wiggles, eyes scrunching up like crescent moons. “Or is that what you want?”
Dean catches Aja’s eye when she pulls back and once again, he feels his face heat up.
“You’re a good mom,” Dean blurts out apropos of nothing.
Aja grins. “You’re sweet,” she says. “You should come back more. I mean, after this.”
Who knows how long they would’ve stayed there smiling at each other like fools –
Seconds later, a bell rings and a young woman with a neat black bob pokes her head out around the swinging kitchen door.
“Ah, Aja,” the woman cries out. “Are you planning on helping out or what? We’ve got plates back here waiting for you.”
Aja doesn’t look away from Dean as she speaks. “I’ll be right there, Meeya.”
Her partner sniffs and mutters something underneath her breath that winds up being eaten by the clattering chaos of the kitchen behind her before disappearing behind the kitchen.
“Is that – ” Dean pauses, unsure of how to proceed. “Am I stopping you from working? Will you get in trouble?”
Aja shrugs. “Meeya might yell at me later, but I don’t care,” she says with a wide smile. “It’s not every day a guy that looks like you walks into my restaurant. I’ve got to take advantage of this while I can.”
“I can always give you my number,” Dean blurts out, feeling bolder than he probably should. “If you want –”
“I do,” Aja says in return, actually cutting Dean off with her eagerness. She stuffs one hand in the deep pockets of her jeans and comes out with a notebook and a tiny stub of a pencil, sliding them across the counter for Dean to take. “But – you do plan on coming back right?”
The twist of Mercy’s fingers clenching in Dean’s shirtsleeve kind of makes up his mind for him. He smiles down at the pushy little toddler first and then glances up at Aja, feeling in turns pleased and shy by the smile on the tall woman’s gorgeous face.
“Of course,” Dean says. “Even if the food somehow sucks, I’ll be back.”
Aja’s smile softens and she inclines her head in a nod. “That’s good to hear.”