6 – The travellers
A spoon clattered to the floor, closely followed by a bowl full of pasta. Anne and Jess watched as Skip fell to the ground and tried to salvage some of the penne that hadn’t touched the floor, flustered beyond belief. He bumped his knee on the ground hard, crushing a piece of pasta to mush under his leg. He dropped the spoon again and banged his head on the table as he stood up, causing his glass of water to spill over. He grabbed for the glass but only ended up accidentally punching the table. He let out a yelp of pain.
Skip’s face was flushed pink with embarrassment. He shot a quick look at Anne and Jess to gauge their reaction. The girls were trying their hardest to contain their laughter. His arms and legs were the gangliest Anne had ever seen – he clearly wasn’t used to his body. She’d never seen someone so uncoordinated in all her life. Poor boy.
“Here, let me help,” the boy with curly hair said, and smoothly sorted Skip out. The rest of the boys were roaring with laughter.
“You put two good-looking girls in front of him and he turns into a circus act!” Mr Handsome with the sparkly blue eyes said – Smith, Anne remembered. Skip blushed deeper and excused himself to the bathroom to clean up. He took off as though a rocket was placed under his backside. Anne tried to stop herself from blushing – she’d never have said she was good-looking. Pretty boring, she’d always thought.
“This,” Taryn said, placing her hands on the girls’ shoulders, “is Jess and Anne. We met them last night, remember?”
There were friendly waves and hellos all around.
“Did you enjoy the show?” Smith asked, chugging down a glass of beer. The girls nodded. Jess shyly added to Anthony, “You have an incredible voice.”
He shrugged and looked away. Anne thought this rude, but maybe he was embarrassed. She tried to catch Kai’s eye, but he wouldn’t look at her. Why not?
“Here, sit down girls,” Taryn said, pulling up two chairs to the already crowded table. “What would you like? Are you coffee drinkers? Hot chocolate? Ice cream?”
Jess and Anne glanced at each other before they sat down and answered simultaneously, “Hot chocolate.”
Taryn smiled a Hollywood-worthy smile. “Good choice. I’ll be right back.”
Anne’s chair was placed, by chance, next to Kai’s. She shot a look his way again, but he was only intent on eating his dinner. Anne tried to placate the sinking hole of disappointment in her stomach. What was wrong with him? Why wasn’t he looking at her? Did she have food on her face?
Anne discreetly checked her mouth area for traces of her carbonara. All clear. So why wasn’t Kai looking at her?
“So how long are you in town for?” Jess asked the boys, turning Anne’s attention elsewhere.
“Eight more days,” Riley – the curly haired boy – replied.
“Where are you staying?”
“In a friend’s flat,” Smith said, putting his knife and fork across his plate to indicate he’d finished. The other boys had only got half way. Anne couldn’t help thinking that her mother would have told her off for eating so quickly. “It’s a bit pokey though.”
“Not a bachelor pad by any standards,” Riley added somewhat disappointedly. “But Taryn says we’re not allowed to bring girls back anyway.”
Anne remembered Kai offering to sort her out that morning when she’d felt so awful with the hangover. She realised that he’d gone against Taryn’s word to help her out. She glanced again at him next to her and realised that he had been looking at her too – she caught his green-eyed gaze just in time before he quickly looked away again. He’d done that. For her.
A short while later, Taryn arrived with their hot chocolates – and one for herself.
“I didn’t know what you guys wanted, so I told him to put everything on it,” she said, setting down the mugs.
“Thank you,” the girls replied. Their drinks were topped high with whipped cream, marshmallows and flakes.
“If there’s anything you don’t like, give it to one of the boys. I find they’re as useful as bins are,” Taryn winked at the girls. They smiled back as Smith pretend-angrily nudged her in the ribs.
For the next twenty minutes, the girls and boys chatted. Anne and Jess learned that the group rarely spent more than two weeks in one particular town. They called themselves travellers. They’d go from town to town, taking up any spare jobs that were going – each boy seemed to possess some useful skill or other – and to busk for their meals and tips. Skip, Anthony and Kai were the quieter ones, Anne noticed. Though she had a strong suspicion that Kai wasn’t usually this subdued; she instinctively knew it was to do with her presence. Smith and Riley together, on the other hand, could have talked for England. It seemed to Anne that they never shut up.
“I’m gonna go and speak with the manager, Bill,” Taryn said as she got up from the table, licking away her chocolate moustache.
“You know the manager of Louisa’s?” Anne echoed, astounded. She’d lived here in this village all her life, and she’d never seen the manager – whose name she’d newly discovered – come into the restaurant at all. She hadn’t even been aware that the manager of Louisa’s was not a woman called Louisa.
“Yup, sure do. He used to babysit me when I was a kid,” Taryn explained. “Now, if you’ll excuse me.”
Again, Anne was struck by how awesome Taryn was. And it seemed completely effortless.
“I’m gonna go for a smoke,” Anthony said, departing as well to go out the back. Jess’ eyes lit up as she stood up herself.
“Would you mind if I joined you?” she said. Anthony beckoned her along. Jess gave Anne a secret grin as she passed her.
“I’m gonna go grab some fresh air,” Kai mumbled, getting up from his seat. His hand brushed Anne’s arm. Anne gasped. She felt a warm trail in its wake, making the hairs on her skin stand on edge.
“Come,” Kai whispered under his breath so that only she could hear. She stood up and muttered, “Yeah, fresh air...” before she followed Kai out, leaving Smith and Riley making fun of Skip at the table.
Kai shut the door behind the two of them out the front.
“Anne,” Kai spoke her name in his deep voice. Anne crossed her arms over her chest – it was a little chilly out.
“I’m sorry about ... that. Back there.”
Somehow, Anne understood that he meant ignoring her.
“I just ... I’m trying to figure it out,” Kai continued. He finally looked at her, locking his gaze with her chocolate brown eyes.
“What’s there to figure out?” Anne said softly.
“I’m sorry,” Kai said again, shaking his head. “I just ... I’m slow, with things like this ... I dunno...”
His eyebrows were turned down in frustration as he struggled to get the right words out. Anne placed a consoling hand on his arm. She felt the taut muscle beneath his skin slacken.
“It’s okay,” she reassured him with a small smile. Kai gave her one of his own back – that gorgeous smile with the dimple on the right cheek.
“I’d like to get to know you better,” he said. Anne caught herself staring at his lips. They were just so plump ... and that chip on his tooth – it drove Anne wild. She started to lean in towards it, unable to resist – like bees drawn to honey.
“I’d like to get to know you better too,” Anne agreed, stopping millimetres away from his mouth. She saw his Adam’s apple bob as he swallowed somewhat noisily. She smiled a small smile of satisfaction. It felt amazing that she could make a man behave like that – it gave her confidence.
“Anne!” Jess’ voice called behind her. Anne almost jumped out of her skin. Annoyance flooded her mind as she turned around.
“It’s quarter to ten; we’ve got to get going!”
Anne immediately stood, thinking of the curfew her mother had imposed on her. “I’m coming, Jess!”
Jess retreated back inside the restaurant. Anne looked down at Kai and his beautiful green eyes.
“I’m sorry, I’ve got to go.”
“Do you really have to?” Kai objected, stroking a finger against her hand. Anne nodded.
“I’m sorry. I really, really need to go. All hell will break loose if I’m late home.”
Kai ran a hand through his blonde hair. “It’s like you’re Cinderella, or something,” he mumbled under his breath, making Anne giggle.
“And you’re my Prince Charming,” she whispered as she leant in to press a quick kiss on his cheek. She immediately took off, not glancing back once to take in Kai’s reaction.
“I’ll see you tomorrow,” Kai called after her. Anne waved at him without turning around. She was enjoying being this new Anne.