“Jake, over here!” Thomas Carpenter waved at the tall man who’d just entered the crowded steakhouse.
Jake Barry lifted his hand and smiled in recognition. He made his way to the far secluded booth, loosening his tie in the process. The men shook hands and exchanged a short hug in greeting.
“How’re you doing?” Thomas asked as they both sat down.
Jake smiled. “Fine, things are busy but good.”
“I’ve heard.” Thomas leaned back into his seat. “They’re speaking of you, you know.”
“They are,” Jake noted absently.
“Sure they are! It’s a rare thing when someone from our town ends up on the list of the five hundred biggest companies in the country.”
“I barely made it,” Jake said calmly. “I was in the last hundred.”
“Yes, but come on...at your youthful age, it’s something huge,” Thomas cheered. “I’ve never even had the slightest chance to get there. I’m proud of you.”
“I’m glad about it.” Jake looked to the side, distracted. “It’s satisfying that the company’s developing.”
Thomas watched him through narrowed eyes. “You don’t seem very enthusiastic about it. Like you don’t care.”
“I care, I do,” Jake assured hurriedly, “it’s just...” he hesitated for a moment and then shrugged. “Doesn’t matter.”
The waiter came, which put an end to their conversation. They placed their orders.
“Amy would have trotted me down seeing me eating here,” Thomas remarked.
There was an instant shift in Jakes’ expression. “She would?” he asked quietly.
“You bet.” Thomas nodded. “She insists I eat healthy, you know all that green stuff, veggies, and fruits... she even convinced Claire to control what I eat. I won’t get any of these at home.” His eyes followed the waiter carrying the juicy steaks to the nearby table.
“I’m sure she wants what’s best for you,” Jake pointed out.
“Oh, I know.” Thomas smiled. “She’s a good kid.”
There was a silence for a while, before Jake asked in a casual, almost indifferent tone. “And how is she? Amy?”
“She’s good.” Thomas searched Jake’s face for a moment. “Actually, I talked with her yesterday. You do know that she’s in Europe, don’t you?”
Jake frowned. “No.”
“Yeah, she’s been gone for over two weeks now. She should be touring Versailles today, if I remember correctly.”
Jake started to fumble with a paper napkin. “She’s travelling with some friends?”
Jake scowled. “Alone? And you let her?”
Thomas laughed. “Let her? Do you really think that I could forbid her this? She’s twenty six.”
“So what? She’s your daughter,” Jake insisted. “It’s dangerous for a young single woman to be all alone in a foreign country.”
Thomas waved his hand dismissively. “She’ll be fine. Look I know that she can give the impression of being this tiny little woman who needs constant protection, but trust me, she can take care of herself. Besides, she’s staying with some friends there. She met them through the Internet.”
Jake’s scowl deepened even more, twisting his handsome features. “You don’t even know whom she’s staying with?” he questioned unbelievingly. “Are you aware of all the shit that you can run into on the Internet these days?”
Thomas gave the other man a level look. “Don’t exaggerate. She met those women through some literary society, or something like that. She says that they’re taking a good care of her and are very welcoming. What? Don’t look at me like that! She’s not a child.”
Jake’s face suggested that he wasn’t in the least convinced with his companion’s argument.
Thomas sighed. “Jake, look, I know that it’s none of my business but I think you like her...a lot.” He cleared his throat. “Amy, I mean.”
Jake’s expression turned cold. “Do I give you that impression?”
“You sponsored the new wing in the library where she works. You helped me when I was financially pressed,” Thomas reminded flatly.
“So what?” Jake demanded, defensively. “You’re my friend, I owe you a lot. It’s only right that I helped you when you needed it. As for the library, it was a good cause. I would have given the money to some charity anyway.”
“Yes, but...” Thomas hesitated. “Look, I’m not stupid, and I think that I know you pretty well.” He leaned forward. “And I do think there’s more to it than you want to admit.”
Jake was silent. He averted his eyes.
“You could try to ask her out when she returns,” Thomas suggested gently. “You see she’s not the type of girl who would make the first move. She’s rather shy with men. She doesn’t talk about it, but I think she hasn’t dated anyone seriously since college.”
Jake forced a tight smile. “So you say that I’ve got your blessing?”
“Yes, you have,” Thomas said earnestly. “She’s my little girl and I want the best for her. I’m sure that you’re the man I can trust with her. I don’t know how I would survive if someone hurt or mistreated her. I think that I would kill the bastard. And I know you would take care of her, keep her safe... hey, go with her to Europe the next time. Look, I don’t want to put any pressure on you but ...give this idea a second thought, will you?”
Jake just stared at the other man for a moment without saying anything.
“I think that our food’s coming,” he said at last.