"Rick?" She used to call me Ricky. The only person who'd ever tried. Her voice had a slight nervous waver. My stomach, the same.
"Kim. How's married life?" My voice, cooler than I'd intended, covered up my stomach's nerves. And the pang in my chest.
"Fine." Flat. "I'm hoping you can help me."
"Of, course. What do you need?"
"I mean I want to hire you."
"Oh." I had a rule to never fall for a client. I wondered if that included taking on a client who'd I'd already fallen for earlier in life. My life, my rules. "Well, I'm a little, kinda, ah, I could give you contact info for someone who's really good."
"This probably wasn't a good idea. I'll find someone on my own. I hope you're well."
"No, wait." I didn't have a rule that said I couldn't help a friend. "Whatever you need."
"Okay." An inhale. "Could we talk about it in person?"
"Sure." I wanted to see her. But I didn't want to see her. I didn't want to be reminded of the life I let slip away. "I meet with clients at Muldoon's. Turk lets me use a booth if the restaurant's not too busy. Can you meet me there at six tonight?"
"Yes." It sounded like a question. She may have been trying to figure out what she'd tell her husband to get away.
Her husband. Not my problem.
* * *
Muldoon's Steak House sat on Prospect Street, La Jolla's restaurant row. It hadn't changed much in the forty-plus years it held up the north end of the row. Square concrete building in a sea of modern remodels. It withstood the waves of trends that restaurants in the area had tried and discarded. Muldoon's was an old-school steak house, family owned. Run by Turk Muldoon.
My one-time partner. And one-time best friend.
I walked inside the dimly lit entry at 5:55 p.m. Turk manned the hostess station. Still a massive man who was an all-conference linebacker at UCLA twenty years ago. But he looked thinner than the last time I'd seen him. And older. Gray pinched in on his curly red hair around the temples. His once cherubic face now drawn back to finally show his age. Years spent leaning against a walking cane can do that. The fact that he could stand upright at all was a near-miracle. The doctors thought Turk would live the rest of his life in a sitting position when they extracted the bullet wedged against his spine four years ago.
The night he saved my life.
"Rick." He forced a smile. "You here to meet with a client or have dinner?"
"Client." I forced a smile of my own.
"Booth four is available." He pointed his cane toward the dining room. "You know the way."
"Thanks." I started for the dining room, relieved our conversation was over.
"How will I know your client?" His voice over my shoulder stopped me. "Will he ask for you?"
"She." I turned back toward him. "It's Kim. You can just send her back. Thanks."
"Connelly?" Turk's eyebrows rose. He always liked Kim. He never understood why I broke up with her. With each passing year, neither did I.
"That's right. I remember hearing she got married." No mirth in his eyes. Maybe a hint of sadness. He knew better than most how life can change for the worse in an instant.
"Yeah. She got married."
I went into the dining room I used to run four years ago and hid in booth four.
Kim appeared a few minutes later. She wore a green silk blouse that made her emerald eyes pop. Her blond hair, swept off her face, she looked every bit the successful realtor she was. But tired. And worried. And still beautiful.
My breath tightened. I pushed down feelings that didn't belong to me anymore. Feelings I didn't know I still had. Feelings I missed.
I slid out the booth and stood up. I didn't know whether to put out my hand for a shake or close in for a hug. Kim didn't either. Finally, we stepped into an embrace. Awkward at first. Then close, warm, and long. And filled with memories.
"You look good, Rick. How have you been?" The smile that caught my eye eight years ago and, through everything since, had never let go. Wide, bright, light sparkling in her green eyes. I realized right then how much I'd missed it.