It had been a week since that surreal dinner with the Chan's and Ben. Today was the day Willow moved into her new apartment, care of Benjamin Lewis Montgomery.
She was riding in the passenger seat of his very nice, but practical brand new Subaru Outback. The radio was off and they were awkwardly silent. Well, she was awkwardly silent. He seemed absolutely comfortable.
They pulled up to an old Victorian rowhouse. It was pea green with purple and light baby blue trim. It's age showed, but it looked well-loved.
On the inside, there was a hall with a door on the left labeled A. A spiral staircase led to a small landing with another door labeled B.
"You're up there," Ben pointed, taking her bag from her and leading the way up with one smooth motion.
She wanted to protest, but she followed instead. He unlocked the door and held it open for her. She hesitated, biting her lip, before stepping over the threshold.
It was a simple loft apartment. An open kitchen to the left of the door, a large living area, and a closet and bathroom to the right of the door. There was a huge bay window that looked out over the city. She could see the Bay Bridge in the distance. The walls were painted a soft gray, framed by white crown molding. The floor was hardwood that looked original to the house.
"What do you think?" He asked.
"This is way nicer than I could've hoped for," she admitted.
"Good," he flashed those shiny white teeth again.
It had been bugging her for too long and she couldn't hold the question in any longer, but she also didn't want to bite the hand that was feeding and sheltering her.
"Can I ask you something?"
"Ask away," the smile never left his face.
He seemed a bit like a Ken doll in that moment. Never fading smile plastered on his face. Almost as if it were painted on. She felt like he was hiding something. As nice as he was acting, she didn't want to trust him. Her mind was already coming up with a million escape plans.
"Why are you doing all of this?" She asked in a sigh. "Mr. Chan told me that he used to work for your father, but you're not really related."
His smile relaxed a bit and he sat down on the floor. She pulled herself up onto the bench seat in the bay window and waited for his answer.
"My family is," he paused. "Well, they're pretty old school. Old money. My great-great-grandfather was a Colonel in the military who got into imports in the early twentieth century. The business has been passed down through the years. They're strict and... Well, haughty. It wasn't exactly the most fun environment to grow up in."
He took another pause. This one much longer.
"You know, there's a really good pizza place right up the road. You wanna go grab a slice?" He asked.
He had a knack for out-of-the-blue statements and having the last word, this Ben.
"Sure," she said.
They walked to a hole-in-the-wall place. Gepetto's Pizzeria. They were seated at a small table with a red checkered table cloth and fake flowers in a vase.
"Two of whatever's on tap and a large pepperoni," he ordered when the waitress came by.
"Where were we?" He asked himself and cleared his throat nervously before beginning his story again. "Right. Um, you probably weren't expecting my whole life story when you asked that question."
"Honestly, no," Willow caught herself smiling.
This was the first time she'd seen him express anything other than overconfident pleasantness. It caught her off guard.
"Sorry," he smiled again, a hint of sadness in his eyes. "I know your weary of me, and I actually really appreciate that you're so protective of the Chan's. I'm sorry, it's just such a long story."
Great, now she felt guilty. And she didn't know how to respond without sounding like a jerk.
"When I was eleven, my mother passed away unexpectedly," he continued and her heart broke for the child version of Benjamin Montgomery. "My father had never cooked a meal in his life, so he hired a cook, Mr. Chan. The Chan's moved into our home. My father and I were never very close, and he didn't know how to deal with my grief. The Chan's sort of stepped in and cared for me. Henry and Betty Chan are very much like parents to me in their own right."
"Henry's like the Alfred to your Bruce Wayne," she let the words slip out before she could catch them.
He laughed, genuinely laughed.
"You know, I've never thought of it that way, but that is a surprisingly accurate comparison."
The waitress brought their pizza and drinks. The beer was dark and heavy, which Willow was not used to. She sipped at it gingerly.
"Anyway, a couple of years ago, Mr. Chan decided he wanted to pursue his dream of owning a restaurant. I had graduated from college and moved out. My dad had remarried. It made sense. But, as good as he is a chef, he's a terrible businessman. I convinced him to let me help him out. Here we are. So, how do you feel about me, now?" He asked.
She coughed into her hand and put her glass down on the table.
"I believe that you have good intentions," she admitted.
"But?" He asked, sensing that she wasn't being completely honest with him.
"But, you're maybe a bit naïve and a little overconfident," she finished.
"Dumb and cocky?" He rephrased.
"No," she couldn't help but laughing. "Too giving and... Well, you dive in headlong."
He smiled, "No arguing with you on the second part."
"Can I be honest with you?" She asked.
"You haven't been already?" He teased.
"I'm sort of scared you're going to run them - and yourself - dry," she said. "Not to be selfish, but where would that leave me?"
"If they shut their doors in six months and you were still sleeping on a cot above the restaurant, where would that leave you?" He asked. "Aren't there some risks worth taking? Don't mind me jumping headlong here, but I'm betting there was risk involved in you getting into that situation."
He was right. After she'd lost her last job, moving home was the safe-but-miserable choice. Leaving there was a risk, but she'd been happier working herself ragged with that Chan's than she'd been in a very long time.
"I have to admit," he broke her train of thought. "I'm curious about what brought you to working at the restaurant. You're young, smart, and you work hard. Why did you take that job?"
"It's going to take more than one beer," as strong as it was, she thought, "to go down that road with you. I'm sorry."
"Another time, then," he smiled kindly. "How's the pizza?"