Five hours at Tulips Day Care Center
Two hours at Cherry on Top
Two hours at Vintage Pages

This had been the routine for Grace and me for the next two days. And within those two days, I've managed to establish bond with some of her co-workers, save for Vintage Pages since she takes the last shift alone.

For example, Martha, the receptionist at Tulips, no longer pokes fun at me whenever I grab a copy of Working Mother or Smart Parenting and start engrossing myself in it. She even slid a couple of car and sports magazines in the stack for me. Well, I wasn't really initially sure if it was her, nor if those were even for me. Not until I looked up to her direction and found her looking back at me with a "you're welcome" expression.

I remembered simply smiling and nodding at her to convey my belated thanks. But later that day, I brought my gratitude a level higher when I helped her brought inside some heavy purchases. And I think that really made Martha and me closer to the point she started sharing her homemade donuts to me.

And let me tell you, they were delightful. Krispy Kreme has got nothing on Martha's.

At Cherry on Top, would you believe that all the showgirls' names start with 'Cherry'? Cherry May, Cherry Anne, Cherry Rose, Cherry Blossom. There's even a Cherry Cherry!

There were a couple more, but I didn't make an effort in recalling. It's not like those were their real names, anyway.

Most of them started chatting me up now, and I back, during their breaks. I found that a little weird at first. Probably because I never thought they'd bother to notice me. Me, as in the guy who Grace tags along and sits quietly and behaved at the corner. But somehow, in the two days—third today—I've kind of grown already some sort of an attachment to them. I must say that my social circle had sort of distended, and it's all sort of because of Grace.

Speaking of her, I looked back at the bar where I last saw her organizing liquor bottles and discovered she was no longer there.

I fussed over this for a moment, my butt slightly lifting up from the chair, head jerking and eyes flying at every spot inside the pub. I don't know why, but every single time she vanishes from my sight, I felt like I was going to scramble and start looking for her.

Then suddenly, she appeared from the back, a mop in her grip.

I sighed in relief, planting my butt back on my seat. For a second there, I almost thought Carson might have found a way to abduct her or something.

"You know, fantasizing from afar would do you no good."

It was Cherry May, sandwiched between Cherry Anne and Cherry Cherry, who were all standing not too far from my usual spot, their arms enfolded under their large breasts.

"What?" I turned up a confused look. "You mean Grace? I'm not fantasizing about her." And I said this with massive conviction because that was the truth. I even produced a preposterous snort. Because that's what they were giving off to me right now. Preposterous.

What I got in return was rude laughter. From all three Cherries.

Well, what do you know? Showgirls laughing at your face...something must be wrong with you.

And by you, I mean me.

"You know," it was Cherry May again walking closer, the other two following suit, "if I'd get a penny for every second you look at her, I'd have..." She started to do the math in her head, her face distorting agonizingly with every second that ticked. She gave up shortly. "Whatever. The point is I'd be richer."

Cherry Cherry leaned on the table in front of me, making her cleavage much more pronounced. As if it wasn't already. "Hotshot, what are you waiting for?"

Okay, what is going on? Did they suddenly come up with a Let's-Pester-Auric-Day and then decided they'd hold it today?

"I'm just keeping an eye on her," I enunciated the syllables slowly and clearly so they won't miss the essence of it. "It's normal to literally watch her every now and then."

"That," Cherry May said, assuming a contemplative expression, her index finger waving at me. "I don't get that. Why are you keeping an eye on her?"

Cherry Anne butted in. "Are you a bodyguard or something?"

"Is she a princess in disguise?" Cherry Cherry actually got thrilled with her theory of Grace.

Her face instantly fell however when I disproved both claims.

"So why then?" Cherry May asked, one finely-shaped eyebrow raised to her forehead.

Jesus Christ, she's stubborn and annoying.

Good thing, their choreographer, the woman in her 40's who everybody calls Queen G, called them all back up to the stage to return to the rehearsal and I was saved from lying.

Not that I would have any problem with that. I mean the last thing I'd share to anyone is Grace's near-rape encounter. Speaking of that, though, I only grasped now that no co-worker of hers have any idea of it. Not the Cherries, not Martha, nor the rest of the women she works with in the day care.

Whatever her reason for keeping it veiled is up to her. But for myself, I felt some sort of pride. Grace hardly knew me yet she trusted me with that secret.

And I intend to keep it no matter what.

~.~.~

Vintage Pages reminded me of my father's library. Except that my father's was a little more organized than this. He was a big collector of novels, especially of the spy and sci-fi genres. When he's not busy with work, I would see him cooped up inside the library, sitting comfortably on a futon with a hardbound book in his hand. His brows maybe furrowed in concentration but that definitely meant that he's enjoying what he's reading. Sadly, that is kind of rare to happen nowadays. The construction business has flourished and expanded and it's eating up a lot of his attention.

I used to hang out at the library, too, when I was a kid. But only because I had loved the amazing feeling of being surrounded by gigantic shelves and stacks of books. I would stand in the middle and delight in how so small I was.

The aroma of aging books brought me from my trip to memory lane back to Vintage Pages. Not inclined to read anything from the store, I opted to just help Grace out in returning some of the stuff that have gone misplaced from their rightful shelves.

One book led me to the same rack as hers. Standing next to her, I realized that despite the long, rough day, she still smelled nice.

I took an inconspicuous whiff of her hair when she made a slight turn to her left and I instantly recognized fresh watermelons.

Wow, who knew watermelons could smell this nice on one's hair?

"I saw the girls talking to you again," she suddenly teased. Taking me by complete surprise, I backed away a little, feeling rather ashamed of myself for sniffing her hair. Though she may have no idea that I just did that.

"Uh, yeah," I replied, marching to another shelf and popped in a Michael Crichton book somewhere at the top layer. "They find my always being with you suspicious so they did a little investigation. I'm assuming they don't know about you getting almost..."

I didn't say the word. I didn't know if it's an unspoken rule between her and the rest who knows about it. I just hinged on my instincts not to mention it.

Grace went rigid for a second, then made a sharp turn to my direction, alarm and fright crossing her face. "They don't. Please don't tell anyone. Please."

"I didn't," I assured her, half-surprised/worried at her reaction. "I take that you like to keep it as a secret. So don't worry, it's safe with me. And I promise to keep it for as long as you wish."

She slightly dipped her chin and with a relieved tone, uttered, "Thank you."

"No problem. They actually thought, uhm," I turned my back to her, sliding the last book in my possession into one of the shelves, "that I have a thing for you."

I remained not looking at her. The fleeting silence that followed suit could mean a lot of things and damn if I wasn't curious to know what she was thinking.

"And...you don't...right?" she eventually said.

I spun to her direction. Her focus was on the set of books she was still arranging.

I took a moment to ponder over that.

Which I couldn't believe I just did. Why the fuck was I thinking about it? I don't have a thing for Grace. Fucking period.

"No..." The answer came out strangely reluctant. Muffled. Which she heard anyway.

She smiled, gazing at me. "Of course you wouldn't. Someone I know has a thing for you though."

My eyes narrowed doubtfully at this. The only girls I've met so far other than her were the girls from the pub. But even them, maybe once in a while would flirt at me, but they're just being really playful. It's ingrained in their personalities. And then there's also this part that they're pestering me simply for the heck of it.

Yes, I can definitely feel the Cherries' love for me. It could definitely be one of them.

"Really?" I asked, my face still spelled of doubt.

Grace nodded.

Perhaps someone from the day care center? But I hardly went inside the play area and most of them spend all of their time in there.

"Is it Martha?" I wanted to sound like I was joking, but my tone came out serious.

Grace laughed out loud in response, her eyes lighting up with just pure happiness and delight. For a moment, all the sadness that dwelled in those obsidian orbs vanished. And I don't know why, but the spectacle had my stomach flipping double.

"No, it's not Martha," she said, the laughter slowly dying on her lips.

"Who is it then?"

"I can't say." Grace shrugged with sort of a teasing smile. "She trusted me not to say anything."

Then she marched to the counter and while her back was turned against me, I asked, "What did she say about me though?"

She wheeled around, pondering. Remembering. "She thinks you're interesting." About to head the other way again, she halted. Eyes back to me, she added quietly, "And that it's nice of you to be looking after me."

"Huh." Hands on my hips and weight on one leg, I constrained my brain to conjure an image of a girl who might say some things like that.

I knew for a fact that the Cherries won't. Martha might, but Grace did confirm it wasn't her. Not that I truly believe it would be Martha anyway. For Christ's sake, the woman is happily married with two sons.

So who?

Grace's face kept materializing in my head, but it couldn't be her either.

I wouldn't have a problem with that though if it was her. I mean I still think she's weirdly a psychic and has the saddest eyes I've ever seen, but her pull on me...I couldn't quite explain it. Or describe it.

"I wish you could tell me who it is though," I told her, walking to the counter. By then, Grace was commencing to write sales on a ledger.

"What for?" she asked without looking at me.

"I don't know." I shrugged. "So I could meet her? Is she pretty?"

Grace abruptly stopped writing. Then she raised her chin, looking apologetically at me. "She's not."

I nodded meekly even though I have yet to process her answer. As soon as she went back to jotting down numbers on the notebook, I found myself staring at her. The sadness pooled in her eyes once again and there was nothing I desired more than to take it away.

Why the fuck are you so sad?

It's like she's instantly gone into a world where nothing exists but pain and misery. Where clouds are thick, gray and heavy, and every living thing are either wilted or dead. And she's in the middle of it all, watching with her mournful eyes.

I didn't know why it even bothered me to see her like this when I didn't even care for her like that.

Or maybe I was wrong. Maybe the Cherries were right after all. Maybe I have a thing for her. But then again, I shouldn't. The girl got almost raped. The last thing she needs right now is another guy who'd break her. Tear her apart. Because when summer blows over, that's exactly what I would do.

Grace's swing of her head to me, catching me staring at her, whisked me out of my trance.

My breath hitched. And then after recovering silently and quickly, I told her I was getting an iced coffee. "Do you want one?"

A walk to the cafe could clear my head. Or maybe all I needed was air. Because all of a sudden, my chest felt a little constricted.

"Sure," Grace replied rather awkwardly. I could tell that she sensed my little daydreaming a few seconds ago. "A frappe would be nice." Then she fished for something from the pocket of her jeans.

Money.

"Don't bother," I told her. "I got this."

"But—"

Before she could have another word to complete her retort, I quickly cut her short, hauling my cell phone out in the process. "What's your number?"

Her nose scrunched up to denote her confusion, and damn if she didn't look adorable.

I gulped the sudden lump that grew in my throat. Jesus Christ, why did it suddenly feel extremely hot in here?

"I can't watch after you when I leave," I started to explain, adjusting the neck line of my shirt as though it's smothering my airways. "So I'd just call. That way even though I can't see you, I'd still know if you're in trouble."

Something was brewing inside Grace's mind and whatever it was, I may never find out.

She took my phone from my grip, my skin tingling when our skins touched. She typed in her number and when she returned it to me, I saved it.

I called her the minute I got out of Vintage Pages. But I stayed at the frontage for a while, checking around for any signs of Carson. When I got nothing, I embarked on my walk to the cafe, Grace picking up my call at the same time.

"I thought you were joking," she said seriously and I laughed. "I'm being serious. This is a waste of your money, Auric. You've already wasted a lot on me, following me around town."

My laughter faded right away. "If it's a nuisance for you, I can stop. Just say it."

Although if she did say it, I don't think I could stop. It had only been three days of watching after her, yet it already felt like it's a routine.

"So you're making this my choice now? I told you from the start that you didn't have to keep an eye on me."

"And then I still insisted that I wanted to," I reasoned, halting for a moment in front of a motorcycle shop. I made a mental note to come back another day to check a few models out. "Stop complaining, okay, Grace? As you've said, I'm the one who's wasting something here, but did you ever hear me whine about it?"

If she had been somebody else, I would have been spitting mad right now. But I was still calm. It's rather difficult to bear even just an ounce of resentment at her. Maybe it's because of those sad eyes—those sad, pitiful eyes that made me wonder every night why they couldn't just be happy.

The sound of the chimes at the bookstore door suddenly erupted in my ear and I felt immediate unease. Carson's face promptly came to mind, having me so close to running back to the store right away.

But Grace was calm when she said, "Hang on a second," and I guess there was nothing really to be stressed about.

"Okay, but don't hang up," I told her firmly.

She didn't respond and I was afraid she would hang up. But she didn't. And I heard a conversation I didn't think I was supposed to hear.

"I need money, Grace. Five grand."

It was a guy's voice—imposing, with a hint of dread in it. And it's not Carson. Someone I haven't definitely heard. Or seen.

"Five grand?" I could see Grace's eyes going big with this. "Are you serious? You've already asked for money this morning, Jack—"

Jack? Grace's older brother? I remembered she mentioned him in a previous conversation.

"—and that's all I can give you."

"Oh, come on!" There was a pause, Jack's loud gasps for air were the only sounds perceivable. And then he roared, pounding his fist hard on the counter, "I'm in deep-shit trouble, okay?! I need money right fucking now!"

Grace's frightened face flashed before my eyes and I just knew that I had to go back. So with the phone glued to my ear, I ran as fast as I could.

"If I don't fucking pay them, they're going to fucking kill me!" he continued.

"That is your problem, not mine," Grace retorted roughly. I deemed right away that this scene had been going on so many times now and she's clearly fed up. Though I kind of have prayed that she take her fierceness a few notches down because she's dealing with a desperate man. And desperation clouds good judgment even within families. Who knows what her brother might do to her. "Go find someone else to pay for your debts from your gambling because I'm sick and tired of doing it!"

Then I heard footfalls, until it stopped and was replaced by metals clinking.

"What are you doing? Stop that!" Grace yelled, her voice cracking. "Stop that, please!"

I supposed her brother was trying to steal the money from the cash box—the Vintage Pages' sales for the day. But I could be wrong. I wished I was wrong.

"No, Jack! No!" Grace was crying now. And fuck it; I don't care if that was her brother, I swear to God one solid blow will land on his face as soon as I get there.

Unfortunately, by the time I reached the bookstore, he had already departed. Grace was down on the floor behind the counter, sobbing, head bent down and knees to her chest.

One glimpse at the opened drawer told me I was right. He took the money. All of it.

I sat beside Grace, who looked so fragile when she's crying. There was no doubt in my mind I wanted to take her in my arms right there and then and cradle and soothe her. But my hands were shuddering from rage—hands that craved for nothing but to inflict physical pain. And God knows if I put them on her, I'd only regret it.

I fisted them instead, though it did nothing to alleviate the shaking.

"Did he hurt you?" I asked, my voice coming out as a low horrifying growl.

"No," she sobbed, lifting her head up, making all those tears as visible—and real—as they could be. I couldn't bear seeing those tears, but I fought the urge not to look away either. "He took all—all the store's money. I—I don't know how I'm going to pay that back."

I didn't know either, but... "We'll find a way, okay?" I assured her sternly. "We'll find a way."