The Girl in the Café
(A Short Story Prequel of Sorts to "The Billionaire's Price")
"You sure you don't want me to gift wrap it for you?" says the shop clerk.
She's about my age and Asian —probably Korean-American, if I were to guess from the k-pop shirt she's wearing. She's been more than helpful in assisting me and Ben with picking out Corinne's gift. "It's free," she added.
"Thank you," I say. "but my wife likes it when Ben and I wrap her presents ourselves."
"Oh yeah. Personal touch." She nods. "I get it." She smiles as she wraps up the leather-bound sketch book in plain brown paper.
In the corner of the shop, Ben is looking at a shelf of old books for sale. At five years old, he's curious about everything. I like bringing him to new places. When I told a friend I was looking for a gift for Corinne on her birthday, he mentioned this shop. It sold antiques and handmade goods — the perfect place to find a present for my artist wife.
Ex-wife, I remind myself.
The divorce was finalized two months ago. We've been separated for three years. I'd hung on for as long as I could, but staying married wasn't fair to either of us. Or to our son Ben.
"See anything you like, buddy?" I ask him.
He shakes his head. "I'm just looking."
"Here you go," says the clerk, pushing the wrapped parcel and my change toward me. "I hope she likes it."
I wave off the money. "Keep the change," I say. "You've been a great help."
"Oh wow. Thanks." She beams at me.
Ben and I walk out into the afternoon sunshine. I look around for someplace I can get coffee. "Are you hungry?" I ask Ben.
He nods. "Can I get a donut?"
"All right. Let's see what we have in these parts." We walk down the sidewalk.
My phone rings. I glance at the caller ID before I answer. "Hey, big bro," I say.
"Do you mind telling me why Garret has no idea where you and Benson are?" says Sebastian. He has his bossy big brother voice on. I love this guy, but he's too much of a mother hen sometimes. I'm twenty-five, I'd been married, and I got a son. But he's still looking out for me like I was a kid.
"That's because I didn't tell him."
"Eric, where are you?"
"Getting Corinne a birthday present. Relax."
"I'd relax if you'd stop ditching your bodyguard to go galavanting about L.A."
"I'm being careful, Sebastian." I never give my real name when I'm out, and I only pay in cash. As far as everyone around me is concerned, I'm not the younger son of oil and banking magnate George Mattheson. I'm just a regular guy taking my son out for a snack. "Don't you ever want to step outside your ivory tower and just ... breathe?"
I chuckle. "You should try it."
In the corner of the street, I see the glass window of a café. The Foxhole.
"I'm flying back to L.A. tonight," Sebastian says. "You and Ben should come over for dinner."
I push open the door of the café. Ben walks in ahead of me. I follow him as he goes a booth by the window and sits down. "Great. I'll see you then." I hang up.
BINABASA MO ANG
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