Jade Anderson would miss the restaurant where she had worked her way through school. The closing was bittersweet, but she was happy that Ms. B was getting to retire. It wasn’t the money. She had more lucrative endeavors than waiting on the tables. It was the regulars that came in she’d miss the most. Especially the elderly Strong couple that used to come in all the time before they passed away.
Jenson Strong was told to invite the pretty waitress to a get-together for his deceased grandmother, but instead, he insulted her for being a waitress and said that she better dress appropriately for the event too.
When Jade tried to politely decline the invitation, Jenson wouldn’t take no for an answer and pushed her back down in her chair. Jade didn’t just punch him in the face but knocked him back on his ass. There was going to be hell to pay.
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Jade sat down at one of the empty booths and looked at the album that had been given to her just this morning when she’d shown up to work. It was her last day here at the restaurant that she’d spent more than half her life working at. She looked up when someone sat across from her. It was Ms. Bruce, Ms. B for short, the restaurant owner—up until last month and a better mother to her than her own.
“You’re going to miss this old place,” Jade said that she would. “Don’t you be looking for another job waiting tables, young lady. You get out there and see the world, then you go on and find yourself a job that is more suited to that education that you got.”
Ms. B was the nicest person in the world. She’d not only taken good care of her, but she’d also been there when she needed her. Her husband of sixty-three years had passed away ten years ago, and it had hurt her as much as it had Ms. B. He was sorely missed by both.
“Mom called me yesterday, well, yesterday morning, but I didn’t call her back until later. She said that she was going to come here to see me about something. I told her that I wasn’t going to be around after today. That upset her. She said that I was ungrateful.” Ms. B. looked thoughtful and then asked her if she thought that she was going to want some money. “More than likely. I don’t give her anything anymore. While she’s not been as horrible of a mother to me as she might have been had I stuck around, she’s just not anyone that I want in my life anymore.”
“No, you’d not need that around you anymore.” Ms. B opened the album to the first page, to the day that she’d started working for her place. “I wish – I’d have known about how she was with you back then. I might well have taken you to my home.” She clasped Jade’s hand for a gentle squeeze. “But you were, as you are now, very closed mouth about your personal life.”
“I don’t have a personal life that you don’t know about.” They both laughed. “I can’t believe I’ve worked here for the last twelve years. I mean, it doesn’t seem possible. I’ve met so many people in all these years. And now you’re going to be moving away, and I’ll only see you once in a while instead of all the time now. I will miss this place and you.”
As they were looking through the photo album, they talked about the pictures that were in it. The Strong family, a huge part of the community, were in a lot of them. Jade had waited on the elderly couple every Sunday for the last ten or so years. She thought they were a nice couple.
“The couple had been coming into my place since my mom first opened. Bringing in their child to eat with them, then as he grew older, they’d bring in a couple of his friends. After he married his wife, years later, they would begin to bring in their child to eat with their grandparents. They were the nicest family I’ve ever known. Then Bar got married himself, and they never came around anymore. Just Mr. and Mrs. Strong.”
“When her husband passed away, I thought for sure that she’d not come in anymore. They were such a wonderful couple. I’m sure that there wasn’t another couple that loved each other as much as the two of them did.” Mrs. Strong, the elder, had passed away not long after Jade had graduated from high school at fourteen. Jade smiled as she remembered the woman. “She gave me a thousand dollars for my graduation gift. I tried to tell her that it was too much, but she wouldn’t hear of it. Then a few days later, she had a stroke that took her life. I miss them.”
“I do as well.” When one of the Strong men came into the diner, Jade just watched him as Ms. B. got up to wait on him.
Jade didn’t know them by name; however, she knew the names that they’d been given. Just not who was who. There were six of them, all men of worth. They would come in once a week, on Sundays, to have a piece of pie like their grandmother did to commemorate her passing. She often wondered how they had any idea what she had liked to eat as they had only started coming around after she had passed away.
Jenson was the oldest son. He was a big man, and she thought that he was some sort of politician. It wasn’t in her to keep track of who was who in the political world, so she didn’t know for sure what it was he did.
Clay was the next oldest. She knew that he was a teacher of something but was not sure what he taught. Ms. B told her once that he was head of a science department that landed rovers on other planets. Again, it wasn’t something that she had had time to look at because of her education, as well as working full time.
The next two, she didn’t know all that well. Only that Barkley and Barton were twins who didn’t look the least bit alike. At least to her. And that women fawned all over them, hoping for a piece of the action that would eventually end up with them knocked up with one of their kids to be a part of the very wealthy Strong family. Christ, women like those gold-diggers gave other women bad names.
Maverick was next. He was a financial advisor that kept the Strong family in money. She wasn’t sure, but she had heard that they had all the money in the world, so his job seemed, to her anyway, kind of stupid. But then, people thought that hers was as well.
Trevor, someone that she had known a little, had gone to college when she had. At fourteen, it had been difficult for her to get around campus. She couldn’t drive yet and couldn’t afford a new bike at the time, but he had been nice to her when she’d been stranded in the snow with Mr. B’s old bike that had been broken and taken her to her building. Even after her class, he’d been outside waiting in his wonderfully warm car to take her home. She’d only seen him since then in here at the restaurant having pie with his brothers. He had never really acknowledged her again. She didn’t have a clue what it was that he did but didn’t care either. They were all so far out of her league that she was sure they were on a different planet.
Jade had managed to graduate first in her class with her bachelor’s degree as well as second in her class with a doctorate as a medical engineer. Being only seventeen, when she finished her doctorate, Jade finished up her medical degree to be in the hospital to get more education as a physician. She’d had to work from the diner the first
year of her job because they couldn’t allow her in the building until she was eighteen. Even then, they had been accommodating to her, setting up a good computer as well as a laptop so that she could do the work she was very good at, as it turned out. She worked in a lab environment most of the time, developing medical solutions and was involved in research as well as developing and testing medical devices. While she could be counted on to fix such testing machines, she rarely did that anymore as she was good at her other job.
“Are you Miss Anderson?” Looking up at Jenson, she said that she was. Right off the bat, she didn’t care for him or his tone in asking her who she was. “I know you know who my grandmother is. And I’m sure you know she passed away a few years ago. My family and I are having a get-together to remember her by. Grandma asked if you could be there too. It won’t be a big celebration but just a couple of hundred people.” As he straightened his tie, Jade inwardly seethed. “We’ll expect you there on time and with a nice dress on. I’m not kidding you when I tell you not to embarrass the family with whatever you think you might be wearing. So be respectable and nice looking.” She decided to ignore his comment about her clothing and smiled instead.
“I thought you said it wouldn’t be a big celebration. That’s a lot of people.” He looked pissed for a second time, and she asked him when it was. After he told her, she shook her head. “I have to work that day. But I do thank you for so politely asking me to attend.”
“You’re not coming?” He looked as if he couldn’t believe she’d rejected his invitation. She said no, not even if she didn’t have to work. She took some satisfaction at the anger that flashed in his eyes. “Why not? Are you too good for us? My grandmother wanted you there, and you’ll have to make other arrangements for someone else to wait on your tables before I allow you to turn her only request down.”
“Allow? I’ve got news for you, mister. Last time I checked, you didn’t sign my paycheck, nor are you my daddy. I guess it sucks to be you. I’m not going. I have to work. Some of us have to make a living as we’re not handed everything on a silver platter.” He looked at the others that had been sitting with him before glaring back at her. She knew she’d pissed him off, but she didn’t care. Good. It served him right, but she still needed to keep her own temper in check. “I’ve been a waitress for the last twelve years, Mr. Strong. You don’t frighten me in the least little bit. I’m busy. I’m not going.”
She stood up, and he pushed her back in the seat. So much for keeping her temper in check. The sound of scraping chairs had her up and hitting the man square in the face before she could think that the others might be coming to his rescue. If the others were going to come and hurt her, she was going to take care of this asshole first and foremost.
Jade didn’t just punch him in the face but knocked him back on his ass, where he broke one of the few tables in the middle of the diner when one of the spindly legs shattered. The splintered table leg had not only broken off but entered his leg from the back of his thigh and came out through the top. She immediately went into physician mode.
“Call an ambulance. Also, the police.” Ms. B was right there with his brothers, and she had her get everything she’d need to make sure that the man didn’t bleed out. Jenson shoved her away from his bleeding leg, and she’d had about enough of his shit. “Listen, you mother fucker. You either let me help you, or you die right here. Then your brothers can live a stress-free life without you, and I have no doubt that you stress everyone out by your ordering them around. Lay back. Shut the fuck up and let me do my job.”
While waiting on the ambulance to come for the dumbass, she had tied off his leg wound and wrapped the wound with the wood still inside of it. Explaining, mostly for her calmness, she said everything she was doing and why. By the time the ambulance was pulling up out in front of the diner, she was ready to call it a day. Instead, she was asked to go in the ambulance with him to the hospital so that she could tell them what was going on.
“I can’t.” One of the medics, Peter, told her that she’d done a great job at keeping him calm and she snorted. “He’s a prick.”
One of the brothers laughed and agreed with her. She didn’t want to engage in talking to him, so when they were going to follow his brother into the hospital, Trevor stayed behind to talk to her. He asked her if she was all right.
“I am. Thank you for asking. You should go see what he needs.” Trevor said that he’d let him know if he needed anything. “Of that, I have no doubt. He touched me first. Not to mention he was very rude to me. Ordering me around like I’m a simpleton. He even told me that I was going to his grandmother’s memorial and that I was to clean up and wear nice clothing.”
“I’d like to say that this is unusual for him, but it’s not. Lately, we all avoid him. Are you going to come to the memorial?” She said that she did have to work. “It was my understanding that this place and the acres around it have been sold, and this place is closing up.”
“It is. This isn’t what I do for a living. Although it did put me through college, I have other resources that I depend on. Besides, I don’t think that even after what your brother said to me, I’d have all that much in common with anyone there. I do have to work, however.”
He nodded, and she began cleaning up the mess that she’d made. Trevor helped. “I can do this, Mr. Strong. Just, well, I don’t want to be rude, but you should get to the hospital to see your brother. If you could perhaps give me a heads up if he plans on suing me, I’d like that very much.”
“He won’t sue you.” He sounded so firm on the idea that she almost believed him. Almost. She didn’t think that Jenson would have any trouble suing her for him being a jackass to her. “May I call you Jade? I remember you in college. I gave you a ride once, if I remember. You were a kid back then.”
“I was.” He just nodded when she didn’t have anything else to say to him. “Mr. Strong—” He told her to call him Trevor. “Since I doubt that we’ll see each other after this, Mr. Strong, I’d like to thank your family for the invitation to your grandmother’s celebration. I did love her and her husband, but I do have to work, so if you’d tell whoever is in charge that I thank them for the invite, I’ll be going home now.”
Picking up her photo album, she left the diner. Jade could still hear him laughing as she got through the door and out into the cold. The Strong men were nuts, was all she could think about as she waited for her car to warm up enough that it wouldn’t die when put into gear. Stupid men. They were all nuts.
Jenson startled awake and sat up. This caused him to cry out in pain, and he had a few seconds of wondering what the fuck had happened. Then he looked at his leg, and his temper, not all that maintained lately, flared up when he remembered the waitress hitting him.
“You should be ashamed of yourself.” He looked over at his mom, who was knitting. The way that her needles were clacking together made him realize that she was as pissed off as he was. Without looking up, she continued. “What made you think that you could talk to anyone like you did that young woman? To tell her to make sure that she was dressed nicely? Then on top of that, you shoved her into the seat like she was nothing but an errant child.”
She finally looked up at him. “She said that she wasn’t coming to grandmother’s celebration and that she had to work. I told her to find someone else to wait at her table. That’s all.” His mother clicked her tongue at him. “Why are you mad at me? I’m the one that’s in the hospital. Not her.”
“You’re only alive because she, a mere waitress, according to you, was there to save your butt. Did you know that when she knocked you back—justifiably too, from what I’ve heard—that the splintered table leg nicked your artery? That had she not been the one to tie off your leg so that you’d not bleed out, that you’d be dead now?” He asked her what she was getting at. “What do you mean, what am I getting at? I thought I was being clear on what I’m telling you. And you should have read the report on the employees that work at the diner before behaving like an idiot when you were told to ask, not tell her to come to the celebration. What is wrong with you of late? You’ve been snipping and snapping at everyone, including me, for the last several months.”
“I have a lot on my mind.” She asked him what that might be. “It’s stuff with work. I’ve been working on things that aren’t coming to fruition as quickly as I wanted them to. Not to mention this thing with dad.”
“Your father? What’s he done that has you so upset? This might well have slipped your mind, Jenson, but we’re both old enough that we don’t need a sitter anymore. Not to mention needing our son to babysit us.” He said that he knew that. “Do you? I’m not so sure about a great many things with you of late. Why is it that Trevor refuses to talk to you? Or, for that matter, Barkley and Clay? What about Maverick? You’ve pissed off a great many people. As I’m sure was your plan.”
“I didn’t want to bother you and dad with what I have going on.” She just glared at him. His leg was aching right now, and he didn’t want to say the wrong thing to his mother. “Did you know that the money that we set aside for the new school programs is missing? Also, the high school was supposed to have received their football uniforms for this season, and they’ve not been delivered.”
“And?” He asked her if she didn’t think that was wrong. “Wrong? Not really. The school board received an email from the company making the uniforms that the material that they used to put the uniforms together wasn’t being delivered in a reasonable timeframe. So they made a deal with the school to not only make their basketball jerseys and shorts for half price, but they were also going to give them a huge discount next time the school orders for their mistake.”
“No one told me that.” She asked him if he’d asked anyone about it. “I was going to, then other things started popping up too.”
“The before and after school program, I’m assuming.” He was hurting now, so he only nodded at his mother. “Call the nurse, Jenson. We can have this conversation at any time. However, I will try to ease your mind by telling you that they’ve not set up the programs because they don’t have enough volunteers to work the time slots they were planning to run them with. The money isn’t missing but being put to good use on other projects that were also on the list that—call the flipping nurse, Jenson.”
He did. And when someone at the desk finally answered his call, he was nearly ready to beg them for something for pain. Jenson felt like his leg had been torn off and slapped back on. As soon as the nurse gave him an IV injection of pain meds, Jenson felt his entire body simply shut down. The pain wasn’t gone, but it certainly was a good deal easier to deal with.
At some point, he must have dozed off. His mother was gone, but his dad was sitting there working on a crossword puzzle. When he asked him where mom was, dad told him that she’d gone home to get a shower.
“I don’t need you guys to sit around with me while I’m here. I’m sure you have better things to do than to watch me sleep.” Dad just looked at him, confusion written all over his face. “Dad, I’m not being rude, but I’m perfectly capable of being in the hospital by myself.”
“I’m sure you are. But you almost lost your life, and I began to realize that I needed to hang out with my sons more often than I had been. Watching you sleep, to me anyway, is better than planning your funeral.” Jenson felt his face heat up. “That young woman that put you in your place, I’ve been doing some research on her. You’re an idiot compared to this young woman. I’m not going to go into details with you because, frankly, I don’t think you deserve it. However, I will tell you that you need to get your head out of your ass and stop judging people for what you think and see them for what they are.”
“You do understand that I’m the victim here? I’m the one in the hospital with my leg hurting.” His dad asked him if he thought he was justified in treating Jade the way he had. “I was told to make sure she was invited to the gathering with grandma. I did that, and she hit me. Then on top of that, she put me in the hospital with a messed up leg.”
Dad stood up and looked at him. At that moment, for the first time in his life, Jenson saw disappointment on his face. All of it was directed solely at him. When he left his room, not even bothering to tell him goodbye or even to say that he loved him, Jenson was left alone in the room to think.
Usually, Jenson was never one to second guess what he did or said to someone. But right now, he was thinking of how he had treated Jade. He hadn’t been going to admit to anyone, including himself, that he’d been in the wrong. But from all accounts, she had saved his life even after he’d been a total jerk to her. However, he tried to think of it being her fault for hitting him and telling him no—a word that he simply hated to be told—he’d done her wrong. More than that, he’d been a total ass to her and thought that perhaps he had deserved how his family was treating him.
Picking up his cell phone, sitting on the little table by his bed, he called his attorney. Jenson wanted to get a full background check on this woman and berated himself for not doing it sooner. As soon as Holly answered the phone, he told her what he needed.
“You mean Jade Anderson?” He said that was her. “Yes, well, I can tell you anything you want to know about her. She and I are cousins. However, I don’t think that you’re going to be overly impressed. Jade told me what you did to her in the diner the day before yesterday.”
Jenson hadn’t even realized that he’d been in the hospital for two days. Asking her what she’d heard, she told him what his parents had told him. That not only had he deserved being knocked on his ass, but he should have been nicer.
She said she’d get back to him on what she could find for him on a non-personal level. While he liked Holly a great deal, and she was an amazing attorney, he wasn’t thrilled that she was talking to him as if he was stupid. And she had. Telling him that he needed to curb his temper before someone took him to the task. Again. Also that he needed to stop looking at people like they were out to get something from him.
“Not all people are the same, you know.” He didn’t get a chance to answer her when she started again. “Leave Jade alone. She doesn’t need any more bitterness in her life, and for someone who has it all, you’re about as bitter as anyone I’ve ever met.” When she hung up, he just laid there.
What was wrong with people lately? He’d just been warned off by a woman that he didn’t particularly care for right now. Instead of waiting to find out what little Holly might be giving him, he searched for Jade Anderson. In seconds there were so many hits on his search than he could have imagined.
She’d graduated from high school at thirteen. Not unusual, he supposed as he might have thought. He had graduated at the same age. He was sure that all his family had. However, where they differed was that she’d gone straight into college while he’d waited until he was eighteen to go back to higher education.
Not only did Jade have a doctorate in her chosen field as a medical engineer, but she also had a bachelor’s in math and science. She was a certified doctor that volunteered at the homeless shelter and had been at ground zero at a few disasters around the world. As he read over her accomplishments, one thing occurred to him. There were never any pictures of the young woman in any of the articles, and—he found this one to be strange—there were never any quotes from her about anything she’d done. Not even to say that she had done this all on her own.
There were some articles about a Hilda Anderson he found as well. Jenson couldn’t know for sure, but he thought the woman was Jade’s mother. There were several places when she’d been interviewed about Jade where she didn’t have anything good to say about the younger woman. One quote that he thought was very telling was when Hilda complained that her little girl had abandoned her at the age of thirteen. He couldn’t figure out how that had come to pass. Children didn’t normally abandon their parents. Usually, it was the other way around.
The more he read about Hilda, the more impressed he was with Jade. To have had a mother like she had, while not abusive but surely toxic, and accomplish the things that she had was a miracle. Not only had she gotten herself educated, but she had worked hard at not having to have loans that would have come due after she had graduated.
When his dinner was brought to him that night, he had also been given a file from Holly. She didn’t stay, telling him that she had a date with her husband, but she told him that if he wanted more, she could get it for him first thing on Monday morning. He’d been so wrapped up in what he’d been reading that he’d not even realized that it was time for her to be off work.
Dinner didn’t look that bad, but it wasn’t what he might have ordered from a nice restaurant. As he was eating the soup and sandwich, he realized that he’d been wrong. The food was much better than he might have gotten, even at a five-star restaurant. With his belly full and his medications kicking in, he was ready to relax with the file he’d been given before sleeping. It was nearly midnight when he got through the first part of the file folder.
Hilda is the mother of Jade. Hilda also had a brother, Jacob, Holly’s father, that was a good deal better at everything than his older sister had been. Everything that Jacob touched seemed to turn to gold. While Hilda went from one disaster to the next with only the clothing on her back. She’d had Jade when she’d been barely sixteen, and while everyone around her wanted to put her up for adoption, Hilda had kept the baby. The notes that were in Holly’s handwriting told him that her aunt had held onto the child because everyone was telling her that she was too immature to raise her. ‘Of course, it looked like they were right, but that was when the story started to make me think that Jade had been the mature one in their little dynamics.’
Jade, at the age of two, had learned how to read. Once she had that under her belt, she began making sure that the bills had been paid and on time also that she and her mother had food on the table nightly. Since they were living in government-subsidized housing, the only real thing that they should have been paying for was their food. But Hilda had gotten cable, a cell phone, as well as a plethora of other items that, with no income coming in, soon were turned off. That was when Jade had gotten a job for herself.
By the time Jade was six, she had two jobs working around the neighborhood that earned her enough cash to pay for her supplies for school as well as anything extra—like a coat Holly had told him to walk to school in.
Cleaning houses at her age couldn’t have been easy on the child, but she did it until she turned thirteen. Then she’d gone to apply for a job at the diner where he’d seen her a few days ago.
She was now, twelve years later, twenty-four years old with a better education than he had. Not only that, she was one of the few people in the world that could break down just about any machine that had ever been made and repair it. Even if she’d never seen the machine while it had been working. Along with having a medical degree. Jade was well respected at any hospital or field operation that she worked at by all her peers and clients as well. He couldn’t have been more impressed with her than if he’d been with anyone else in his life. Christ, he’d been a real shit, he realized.
Picking up his cell again, he called the diner. While it wasn’t difficult to find the number, calling it made him feel horrible for the way that he’d treated someone that was much nicer than he might have been in that Jade had saved his life. When the phone was answered, he thought about hanging up but plunged forward.
“My name is Jenson Strong. I was wondering if there was some way that I could get in touch with Jade Anderson.” There was a long pause. He decided he had better continue before they hung up on him. “I know that I treated her badly, and I wanted to make it up to her. At the very least, to tell her that I’m sorry and that I was a shithead.”
“She’s upstairs. Let me go and see if she’ll come down to talk to you. But don’t hold your breath on it. She’s working right now and gets upset when she is interrupted. All right?” He said he’d hold on. After what seemed an eternity but only about five minutes, the woman came back on the phone. “Jade told me to tell you that she’ll be at the hospital in the morning for an install and that she’ll talk to you after that. Also, she said to tell you that if you want to know anything about her, you don’t need to go through the hoops that you are. Just ask her.”
“Yes, you’re right. She’s right. I’ll do that.” She asked him if he needed anything else. After telling her no, he thought of something. “Does Jade like coffee?”
“Nope. Just water. Nothing but water. The colder, the better.” He heard someone else speaking and then spoke to him in a hurried voice. “Mr. Strong, we’re kind of busy here. If there’s nothing else, I’m hanging up now.”
The phone went dead when he told her that he didn’t need anything else. Putting his cell phone down, his nurse came into the room. Everyone here had been so good to him that he wondered if they’d heard how he’d treated one of their own. While wondering, that didn’t mean he was stupid enough to ask her about it. Instead, he took his meds for the evening and settled on the bed. Jensen, if he was honest with himself, was embarrassed at how terrible of a person he’d been.