“I’m sorry, I don’t think I heard you correctly,” she says, letting out a huff of laughter that belies the confusion I can hear in her voice. “Can you say that just…one more time? Because it sounded for a second there like you said…”
“I think we should get married.”
She freezes, her confusion morphing into completely puzzled curiosity.
It’s kind of like the look you see on a teenager’s face when they sit through sex ed for the first time: slight discomfort, mostly bewilderment—but definitely a thread of interest.
Remmy’s reaction isn’t surprising to me. Not at all.
To her, my statement comes out of nowhere. Completely unbidden. Without any kind of depth of thought as to what it would mean for her. For me.
She doesn’t know the careful planning that’s occurred before this moment, the deliberation I’ve gone through in determining what should be my next steps in moving toward my ultimate goal.
Remmy may not have been my first choice—or even a true consideration—until just moments ago when I first sat down with her on the rooftop bar at my restaurant, but that’s because I didn’t know she could be a consideration.
And the longer she sits there just staring at me, the more I am convinced Remmy is without a doubt the most perfect person to play this game with me, the ultimate companion in a game of retribution that has been a long time coming.
I relax back in my chair, my body tilted just slightly to the side as my fingers brush over my five-day beard growth.
The facial hair was Ivy’s idea. My baby sister told me I look too scary with my face cleanly shaven every day and said I should soften myself with a beard.
Like our brother’s.
Though why she thinks Wyatt’s vagabond-esque appearance makes him look any amount of affable is beyond me.
She doesn’t seem to mind Lucas’ hair-free face, although he is nothing but soft and silly and playful, that special kind of charming only boy bands can pull off, the kind that enthralls young girls. I can see why she doesn’t find him…what were her exact words about me?
Quite the opinion from a thirteen-year-old, but that’s Ivy.
She might come across to many as a dainty little wallflower hoping to fade into the crowd, but I’ve been watching her bloom over the past year or so, her voice getting louder and stronger without even speaking a word.
So I’m trying out the facial hair, even if it is itchy as shit.
Remmy remains silent across from me, though her posture has relaxed just slightly. She doesn’t look ready to bolt out of her seat, which I consider a definite positive when taking into account her shocked reaction to my proposal.
“Nothing to say?” I taunt playfully as I reach out and take hold of a coaster that sits on the table between us. Tapping it twice, I continue. “I would have assumed you’d have quite a strong opinion. That is your style, after all.”
Her eyes narrow slightly before she relaxes her face just as quickly.
Learning to put on a mask comes from years of conditioning, though hers isn’t as good as most of the women in Hermosa Beach.
Any other woman who was irritated at me wouldn’t have allowed that tiny wrinkle between her brow. Her face would have stayed pleasantly neutral, regardless of how much anger was brewing beneath her skin.
That’s women for you—master manipulators who hide their true intentions with a smile and a hand down your pants.
Not Remmy, though.
She’s never been able to conceal how she really feels. Sure, she’s quick to shift her facial expressions into what she thinks should be shown, but she’s never fast enough.
She and I don’t know each other well, but I do know she’s got a rebellious streak in her that has driven her mother mad. I also know she dated Lucas for the better part of a decade even though she never planned to be with him forever, and that she carries more secrets behind those hazel eyes of hers than anyone else would ever be able to guess.
And that’s just from my casual observations. That comes without even trying to know her or understand her or her motivations.
Because that’s who I am: a quiet observer, a man on the sidelines who holds the playbook. I’m not the battle-weary military man on the front lines covered in dirt and blood, but the general dictating war games with only a few words.
And right now, Remmy is a wildcard. She’s something I didn’t see coming, without a doubt, but a true gamesman knows how to use a wildcard at the exact right time in the exact right way.
If she’ll let me.
So now it’s my job to convince her to let me use her.
“Come on, Remmy. Say something to me. Your silence is unnerving,” I say, giving her a charming smile.
She rolls her eyes and shifts in her chair, crossing her arms.
“I don’t know what world you live in, Bennie,” she says, using the nickname that has become the namesake of my restaurant, “but in my world, two people don’t just randomly decide to get married without knowing each other at all. As ancient as our parents can be at times, even they don’t force arranged marriages.”
My smile remains in place as I pick up my glass of scotch and take a sip. She has so many tells, and she doesn’t even realize it.
“So my answer is no,” she continues. “Definitely…definitely not.”
Everything about her right now tells me she wants to ask more, get more information, possibly consider the idea.
I know because I took the few moments when she was speaking to me earlier—about breaking up with Lucas, about her pregnancy, about her parents—to rationalize things for her from every angle. The positives from her vantage point are substantial.
“You know, you said no, but I don’t think that’s what you really mean,” I reply, enjoying the way her jaw clenches in irritation. “And I’ll be honest, I don’t know that you’ve truly thought this opportunity through.”
Her eyebrows lift. “Opportunity?” she huffs out, incredulity tinging her tone.
“Because if you had—if you’d really thought it through—you’d see how many ways this would make your life so much easier and simpler.”
She shifts again in her seat, uncrosses her arms, and leans forward. “Fine. Tell me, oh wise Mr. Calloway, tell me all the ways this will save my desperate, damsel self. Because from where I’m sitting, you sound like an absolute lunatic.”
All I needed was her approval to share my reasonings and I know she’ll see it from my perspective. Because Remmy is one of those fake-rebel types.
Shove something in her face and she’ll push back, her desire not to go with someone else’s flow overpowering her actual interests and aspirations. She’s the woman who would never be willing to go along with something if she didn’t want to do it in the first place, regardless of whether her perspective has changed on whether or not that particular thing could help her in any way.
She’s a fighter. A constant, relentless fighter.
And the only way to reason with a fighter is to make them feel like they’re in control.
Hence my need for her to agree to hear me out.
It means she’s in charge. That it was her choice to consider what I have to say.
Even if I’ve orchestrated every step so far.
“Correct me if I’m wrong, but you’ve pretty much just told me your parents will be kicking you out of the family if you come to them as an unwed pregnant mom, correct?”
She watches me but doesn’t say anything.
“Not only that, I know for a fact your mother loved Lucas since I’ve heard her talk about her ‘future son-in-law’ on multiple occasions. So, I’ll paint a picture of her perspective for you. You went to a subpar collegiate institution, rarely came home, and graduated late without any announcement or fanfare. Then, once you do come home, you’re pregnant, have broken up with the man your mom thinks you’re going to marry, and have no other father as a potential support for you, a young, unemployed woman who is about to be a single mother.”
I drag my tie through my fingers as I watch her sitting in front of me, her irritation bristling and bubbling for anyone to see.
She looks like she wants to glare daggers at me, but there is disappointment hiding in the depths of her eyes, maybe directed herself.
“Remind me to never have you paint a portrait of my life ever again,” she chides as her gaze slips off into the distance.
I ignore her irritation and focus on convincing her that this is the right move—the best move. Because if she agrees to this, all my patience will not be for nothing.
“If you marry me,” I continue, “all of that goes away. Every single bit. No offense to Lucas, but a Calloway is a much bigger fish in our humble little sea…”
Remmy scoffs and rolls her eyes but doesn’t protest or interrupt me.
“…not to mention the fact that a marriage and a baby could be tied up nicely without any significant complications. Marry me, and I take full responsibility—for you, and for the baby.”
I pause, giving her a moment to digest it. Then I go in for the kill.
“You’re no longer the unwanted single mother. You’re a fiancée with a future as Mrs. Calloway and a child who will be taken care of for the rest of its life.”
Her eyes reconnect with mine.
“And what do you get out of this?” she asks.
If I’m honest, I wasn’t certain she would think to ask this of me. When someone is drowning and somebody else reaches out to save them, the person gasping for breath doesn’t often pause to ask why.
Because you’re drowning, of course.
But Remmy is much more shrewd than many others. It’s likely one of the reasons she has problems disguising her facial expressions. She’s too busy examining others to worry about whether her lip is curling or her eyebrows are arched.
Her attentiveness is actually a point of caution for me. As perfect a candidate as Remmy is for the role of future Mrs. Calloway, there is some value to marrying someone with a mind that stays a little blurrier on a regular basis. The sharper you are, the faster you can cut through the bullshit, and I’m not sure I need those kinds of eyes watching my every move.
Not when I’d rather handle my business undetected.
“Me?” I repeat back to her. “My motives are my own.”
Her eyes narrow, and I see my mistake instantly. Her focus shifts, no longer having asked a flippant question to abate her own curiosity, but having inquired about something I don’t want to address.
I pause, let out a lingering sigh. “Although, I guess…you knowing wouldn’t be so bad,” I tack on, tapping my fingers along the tabletop while trying to douse the fire of interest I see flickering inside of her. “I’m at a point where my parents are both vocalizing their desire for me to get married.”
My parents don’t give one shit about who I’m in a relationship with as long as I don’t cause any more problems for the Calloway name.
I’ve caused enough of those in the past.
Too bad for them, I’m not even close to being done.
“I’m regularly accosted by women they deem appropriate to marry and settle down with, and I’d like them to kindly back off as I have no interest in any of the people they’ve brought forward.”
That last part is true, at least it was on my mother’s part back before…‘the scandal’.
That’s what she calls it: the scandal.
It makes me want to laugh and roll my eyes and continue right on without a worry.
Ever since then, she hasn’t pushed anyone toward me, hasn’t tried to get me to settle down. She hasn’t given me any attention at all, if I’m honest.
Both of my parents ignore me now, though my mother is the one who called me an embarrassment and uninvited me indefinitely from all functions where she would be attending with ‘family’, aka my sister and brother. My father still demands appearances from me on occasion to represent the Calloway name, especially while Wyatt was in college at the other end of the state.
I go along with his expectations while I lie in wait, allowing him to believe he has any control over my life. He won’t know the reality of the situation until I deem it necessary.
Remmy watches me, taking in my explanation with that perceptive mind of hers. Apparently, what I’ve said has satiated her desire to know more.
“I don’t know that you’ve thought everything through,” she finally says, “as wonderfully logical as your reasons might be. This isn’t just marrying some dimwitted socialite.” She leans forward and drops her voice. “I’m pregnant.”
“I know that.”
“Do you?” She grits her teeth. “Do you really? Because this is a real baby, one who will cry and scream and shit all over your house and your perfect, fancy fucking life. And I doubt it’s much of a secret that I’m a handful, too. So I just…don’t know. I don’t know if you’re really prepared for what this would mean. For you, for me—for either of us. I can’t jump on board when I feel like you have no idea what you’re getting yourself into. I’ve made that mistake before.”
Silence settles between us as her words wash over me.
As foolish as I think she is to shoot me down, there’s a part of me that’s impressed as well.
I’ve never thought of Remmy as anything other than one of those dimwitted socialites she so clearly detests, and in the past thirty minutes, she’s demonstrated herself to be quite the inquisitive, curious, and thoughtful sparring partner.
I allow myself to consider her points for a moment—just a brief one. I try to see things from where she sees them, because you can’t control a chessboard if you don’t understand the purpose and perspective of each piece in play.
“Is that your only concern?” I ask, folding my hands together. “You think I haven’t thought the baby part through?”
She sits in silence, assessing me, before she nods.
Interesting. That means I definitely have her on the hook, means she’s finding enough value in what I’m saying to actually mull it over in that very busy mind of hers.
“I’ve gotta go,” she says, cutting off my thoughts before I can identify the best way to convince her that a baby is actually—in my mind—the best part about this deal, the least worrisome. It is for me, at least.
Wyatt and I took care of my sister when she was a baby. We changed diapers and fed her bottles when my mother was out on the town and too self-absorbed to be worried about breastfeeding.
Being a father is actually something I’m truly looking forward to in life, something I’ve wanted for quite some time.
It’s finding the right mother that concerns me. The idea of finding a wife. Kids are innocent and perfect until we corrupt them.
I can manage a baby.
What I can’t manage is a woman who plans to use me without my knowledge, betray me when it suits her, stab me in the back and leave me behind, bleeding on the ground.
Which is why this arrangement would be perfect with Remmy. We would both go into it knowing exactly what it is.
A chance for us both to use each other for what we need. A solution to both of our problems.
Even if I don’t plan on sharing with Remmy just how perfectly she fits into my plans.
But before I can vocalize any of that, she stands abruptly, her chair grinding across the concrete floor of the rooftop where we sit overlooking the pier and promenade.
“Where are you going?” I ask, confused about her sudden desire to flee. “There’s still a lot to talk about.”
But she just shakes her head. “I don’t think so. I think…I think you’re insane for even suggesting this idea, and I don’t want any part of it.”
My shoulders drop when I realize my plan has failed. It doesn’t happen often, so when I actually do get pushed down, it tends to knock the wind out of me for a bit longer than I’d like.
Perhaps another woman would be a better fit.
“I’ll see you around, Bennie,” she says, her voice taking on a soft quality I doubt she shows very often. “And thanks for considering how you might be able to save me,” she adds, “even if it isn’t going to work out.”
Then she steps over and places a kiss on my cheek before maneuvering through the other tables and down the stairs to get back to ground level.
I stay in my seat for a while longer, my eyes shifting down to the beach where the Pier-to-Pier Swim is still finishing up, the weakest of the swimmers dragging their exhausted bodies out of the water and making for the finish line.
They look drained to the last drop, like they could pass out there in the sand as they crawl toward their end goal.
Watching them spikes my pulse with a hint of inspiration.
A reminder that you rarely get what you want on the first try, with the first attempt, on that first plunge into the ocean.
I know marrying Remmy Wallace is a decision that would benefit both of us in more ways than she can possibly imagine, even if I wasn’t prepared to share my true reasonings with her just moments ago.
And if I’m planning on getting what I want, I just need to work a little harder, do a better job of convincing her, find the right method to show her exactly what we could be.
Because she really is the perfect woman.
To help me with my ultimate revenge, that is.
With that thought, I finish my drink in one long swallow and head back to work.
“Ingrid, you can’t tell a customer to get up and get their own drink just because you’re irritated with them.”
My newest waitress gives me a smile that falls somewhere between plastic and nauseated.
“I’m so sorry, Mr. Calloway. It won’t happen again.”
It will happen again.
I know it.
She knows it.
The only thing I don’t know in this moment is if I’m willing to let her go during her probationary period because of this, or if I’m going to hold on to her because I’m shorthanded.
That’s the thing about owning a beachside restaurant, no matter how successful it is: there is always a summer rush and a need for more staff. Once August rolls around, though, employees start putting in their notice as they make plans for the off season.
Two of my regular servers are heading back to college in September.
Another is leaving to work as a manager at her mother’s store.
I have a handful of bartenders who were hired to deal with the influx of summer tourists, who will be leaving soon for whatever else is on the horizon.
A sous chef is moving a few hours away to start a job as a head chef at a new restaurant.
And even though all my temporary workers have end dates on September 1st, that’s never what ends up happening. They start dropping like flies weeks before then, and my manager and I are left scrambling to hire additional people to cover the load.
We are just creeping into August, and I’m already starting to feel the effects of it.
Which brings me to Ingrid.
I hired her because she had waitressing experience on her resume, four years of working at a beachside hot spot in San Diego.
Too bad it was apparent on her first day that she hadn’t been completely honest. Most of her waitressing knowledge is probably from YouTube or TikTok or whatever young people are using these days.
“Good,” I finally say, accepting the fact that I need Ingrid, at least for a little bit longer. “If it does, you’ll likely find yourself out of a job, got it?”
Ingrid nods, smiles, and then spins on her heels, heading out of my office and through the kitchen, back out to the main floor to continue terrorizing customers.
I rest my head in my hands, wishing I’d done something different with my life. Never in my wildest dreams did I anticipate that owning a business would be like this.
Scratch that—owning a restaurant.
Customer service jobs are all the same. You bend over backward to give someone what they want or need so they return to you. I knew that going into this industry.
The problem is that I never pictured myself in a role like this one.
I was never supposed to stay here. I was supposed to hire a manager, get things settled, and then move on to build my next restaurant. I planned to take the subsequent steps toward creating the culinary empire I’ve been planning and plotting for the past decade.
There’s some famous quote about making plans, right? Woody Allen or something. If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans.
That’s why my life is a joke right now.
I had plans—strong ones, a thought-out and well-designed vision for my future.
Until my father decided to stab me in the back.
Now, I’ve committed to staying here until I can finish the war he started, even if it means delaying my professional goals longer than I intended.
Which is why this wildcard with Remmy is so essential.
It has the potential to turn things around and get them back on course.
Get me moving in the direction I want to go instead of where I currently sit, floundering and waiting for what’s next.
“Got a second?”
The sweet voice has me lifting my head and turning to the door, where my younger brother Wyatt’s girlfriend stands with a big smile on her face.
“Hey, Hannah,” I say, letting out a sigh and waving her in to take a seat. “What do you need?”
She maintains the smile, and I instantly know this is a request I’ll probably grant for her, even though I would tell anyone else to take a hike.
“Well, I wanted to ask you a favor, and I totally understand if you say no.”
I wave her concern away. “What is it?”
She bites her bottom lip. “I’m wondering if I can be taken off the schedule for the last week of the month.”
My eyebrows rise. “The entire week?”
Hannah nods. “Wyatt said he has a surprise and he won’t tell me what it is, but he wants me to take a week off.”
I let out a low chuckle. Leave it to my younger brother to be a closet romantic who whisks his girlfriend off on a week-long vacation.
“I know it’s last minute, and if you can’t make it work, I totally understand. I can always trade some shifts and we can do something shorter,” she says, her words coming out in a rush.
I have to bite back a smile at her nervous rambling.
I love my brother, but I never would have pictured him with a girl like Hannah. She’s all soft and sweet and caring, always willing to go the extra mile and accommodate others. I’ve only had her on staff for three months, but I can already tell she’s going to be the best employee I’ll ever have—hardworking, thoughtful, positive.
Wyatt always seemed like the kind of guy who would live his bachelor life for as long as he could, so his commitment to her and how much he loves her…it was definitely a surprise.
A happy one, of course, but a surprise nonetheless.
I’m not usually a fan of surprises. It means I’m not adequately prepared or haven’t thought through all the possibilities.
With Hannah, though, I’ll make an exception.
Because they really do seem happy together.
“Hannah, it’s fine,” I say, resigning myself to keeping Ingrid on for a few more weeks at minimum, regardless of whatever other shenanigans she might pull in the future. “I’ll make it work. Go on your trip with Wyatt.”
She beams at me. “Oh my gosh, really? Thanks so much, Ben. Seriously. You’re the best.”
I shake my head and give her a grin. “Just don’t tell any of the others. I don’t want them to think I’m getting soft.”
Hannah giggles. “Oh come on. I’ve seen you with Ivy—I know you’re a big softy in there.”
Her mention of my baby sister—her sister, too—has me rolling my eyes. “You don’t get to pull the Ivy card, okay? Not fair.”
She stands from her chair and picks up her purse off the ground.
“Your shift over?”
Hannah nods. “Yeah. I’m just the early rotation today. Eleanor and I are going to the movies tonight.”
I’ve noticed Hannah and Eleanor have gotten close, but I didn’t realize they hung out outside of work. “Well, have fun.”
“Thanks again, Ben.”
With that, Hannah heads out the door, and I turn back to look at my computer screen, at the financials from this quarter and the purchase orders for ingredients and alcohol.
What a tangled web our lives are. How strange this summer has been. And now, with this potential tangent with Remmy, it’s just going to continue to become much more convoluted.