Henry Chan could tell that something had changed in the little cinder and soot covered girl he'd hired several months back. She was cleaning the smoke and ash off of the bottom of their nicest pot, the one they reserved for special events. They were hosting a rehearsal dinner that evening for a local family.
Still willing to do dirty jobs, as always, but she was carrying herself differently. She smiled more.
The boy had been different lately, too. Still, always rushing and pushing his ideas. But, he too had moments where he would slow down.
Henry thought back to when he first met little Ben Montgomery. So sad, so shielded. To see him let his guard down around this girl, it looked to Henry as if they were meant to work together like this.
He decided to find Betty and have her help.
"Wife, I want you to dress Willow up for the party tonight," he said. "Have one of the new kids take over her duties, tell her she can just oversee everything, but that she has to be dressed up to par with the guests."
"Why, Henry?" She asked.
"I want you to help her catch Ben's eye at the party," he smiled.
She laughed, "That happened weeks ago."
"I know, but, just do this, please," he said.
"Of course," she said and kissed her husband on the cheek. "Send her to me."
Later that evening, Ben walked into the restaurant through the back entrance in the kitchen.
"Uncle, need any help setting things up?" He asked when he found his old friend.
"No, thank you," Henry smiled. "Everything is finished. Just go enjoy the party."
Ben nodded and joined the party, but his eyes were roaming the room. He hadn't spotted the person he didn't realize he was hoping to see. He picked up a glass of champagne from a serving tray and took a sip, that's when he saw her come in through the front door with Mrs. Chan.
His mouth felt dry and he felt his heart pound in his chest.
Her dark brown hair was braided in one long plait that hung over her shoulder. She was wearing a blue silk cheongsam, floor length. She'd always been beautiful, but he'd never seen her look this stunning before tonight. She looked nervous. He picked up a second glass of champagne and brought it to her.
"Hi, Willow," he said and handed the glass to her.
That's all he could say. The only words his mouth could come up with.
She had never felt more out of place in her life than she did now in this dress, with her hair pulled back like this. But, the fact that Benjamin Montgomery seemed speechless made her smile as she took the glass of champagne from him.
"You clean up nice," she said as she took in his navy blue suit and white button down shirt.
He coughed into his hand. Suddenly, she felt sublimely comfortable in what she was wearing, seeing the affect it was having on him. She hadn't previously understood why Mrs. Chan had gone all fairy godmother on her earlier that day, but it now made perfect sense. And, while she was perturbed by how meddlesome this matchmaking seemed, she wasn't going to lie and say that she did like him and that she wasn't enjoying the results. The truth was, she liked him a lot. Really, quite a lot.
"I'm going to check on the duck," Willow said, but he gently caught her arm.
"The duck is fine," he assured her. "I came in through the kitchen. Everything looked sublime."
"Good," she said and took another sip of her champagne.
Now, she was nervous. Now they had to find things to talk about.
He finally felt like he had to tell her, "You look positively stunning."
She blushed to hear him say it.
"Thank you," she finished off her champagne and sat the glass on a nearby table.
"The party looks wonderful," he said. "You did a very good job in planning it with the groom."
"Just doing my job," she said.
"As always, you went above and beyond."
"That's why you pay me the big bucks," she laughed and then let it fizzle out as the awkwardness set in around them.
"I feel like I'm going to turn into a pumpkin in this dress," she admitted.
"No, that's not possible," he said. "You should wear that dress everyday. That dress was made for you."
She took his glass out of his hand and drank what was left in it.
"You sure that's a good idea?" He asked, remembering well what a single beer had done to her.
"Yup," she smiled, then hiccuped.
She was totally in over her head.
Music started to play. A few couples began to dance in an open area of the floor.
"Would you care to dance?" He asked her.
She nodded. He took her hand and led her to the area where people were dancing.
"So, plans for the restaurant seem to be going well," she tried to make small talk.
"Yeah," he said. "I think we're making some big headway. The place is definitely manger better than it was, before. Customers are loving the wait staff and updated decorations and table settings. It'd be great if I could get the Chan's on board with an actual renovation."
"You mean, they actually disagree with you on something?" She laughed.
"Don't be so pleased," he smiled.
They continued to dance. The floor got crowded, so she stepped closer to him. He tried to swallow his nerves. She smelled like jasmine.
"Listen, Ben," she said. "I'm sorry that I misjudged you when we first met. I was wrong. You are a kind and generous person, genuinely so. I had just never seen that in a person before."
"Thank you," he said, slightly taken aback.
He found himself curious, again, about the ways in which life had taught her to mistrust others. But, he didn't want to ruin this moment.
After the party ended and everything had been cleaned up, Henry handed a bottle of champagne to Ben.
"What's this?" Ben asked.
"Leftover from the evening," Henry explained. "It should be enjoyed by young people. Go share it with the beautiful girl."
"Uncle," Ben sighed. "She's my employee."
Henry just smiled.
"You're trouble, you know that?"
"Just do as your elder tells you," Henry said and pushed Ben in Willow's direction. She had sat in a chair at a table by the window and had taken off her shoes to stretch out her toes. Ben pulled out a chair and sat the bottle on the table.
"What's that for?" She asked.
"Uncle Henry thinks we should celebrate a successful shindig," he said.
"He and Betty didn't want to join us for that?" She asked.
He shook his head, "They're turning in for the night. Told me to lock up. Shall we?"
She picked up the bottle and tore the foil off of the cork.
"You've got it?" He asked as she stood to try to gain leverage on the bottle.
"Don't underestimate me," she smiled. "I can pop a cork out of a champagne bottle."
The cork popped and hit the wall, champagne spilling out of the bottle.
"Oh!" She exclaimed as he took the bottle from her and poured the champagne into two glasses.
They both took a few sips.
"I really should make it a job requirement that you wear that dress from here into eternity," he told her and she snorted.
"You like it that much?" She asked. "The Betty Chan, she knows how to doll a girl up."
"I should have known this was her handiwork," he laughed and poured more champagne into their glasses.
He was running out of things to say, out of excuses to keep her there in that moment. He couldn't let this night end with his mouth shut.
"Willow," he said as she eyed him over her champagne glass. "I feel like a grade schooler saying this..."
"What?" She asked, her heart speeding up nervously.
Her head was swimming a bit in the bubbly, but she was sober enough to fee the anticipation.
"I think that you are brilliant, and beautiful, and funny," he said. "I can't take my mind off of you."
She smiled and reached over to loosen his tie. He just watched her, waiting for her response.
"I like you, too, Ben," she stood up, then leaned over him and kissed his cheek. "So, what are we going to do now?"
He cleared his throat and stood up to join her, taking her hand in his.
"We could keep dancing," he offered.
He took out his phone and started to play some old standards from its little speakers, then took her in his arms. They swayed and spun across to floor.
"Still feel like you're going to turn into a pumpkin?" He asked.
She shook her head.
"Do you think maybe I could kiss you?" He asked.
She nodded her head slowly.
He pulled her closer to him and brought his lips down to hers, slowly pulling her into a slow kiss. Her heart was pounding when they pulled apart. She placed her hands flat on his chest to steady herself.
"Maybe I am turning into a pumpkin after all," she breathed out, then quickly caught his lips in a shorter kiss.
"I need to go home and get some sleep," she said.
"Or, we can kill the rest of this bottle and keep dancing," he countered.
"Ben, I have to get up and be back here in the morning," she argued.
"I really don't think your boss will mind," he smiled.
She shook her head and smiled.
"You're trouble, Benjamin Montgomery," she said.
He picked up the bottle from the table and took a swig straight from it.
"I'm not going to deny that at all."
She laughed and shook her head.