Chapter Title: When in Rome
Rating: PG (adult language).
Word Count: ~4,475 .
Characters: Maraina Stratten, Noel Cruz, Reece Chambers, Incognito Chuck, Elly Owens
Rating: PG (adult language).
Word Count: ~4,475 .
Characters: Maraina Stratten, Noel Cruz, Reece Chambers, Incognito Chuck, Elly Owens
Warnings: Unbetaed (possible grammatical errors).
Synopsis: Getting stuck in an epic traffic jam is the beginning of a whole new life for good girl with a heart of gold, Maraina Stratten.
“I see this as the beginning of an extraordinary friendship that will define us both.”
“I see this as the beginning of an extraordinary friendship that will define us both.”
Maraina Stratten groaned at the sight of the idling cars in front of her. “Please don’t let it be bad.” She looked at the back of the catering van, at least most of the deliveries had been made and what hadn’t wouldn’t spoil in the refrigerated boxes even in the middle of the one of Los Angeles’ vicious heat wave.
A loud buzzing sound had her looking for her phone. She found it under the passenger seat because where else would it be.
“I could definitely use a time machine right now,” she muttered. She hit the power button and slid the unlock screen, before tapping the speaker button. “Hey, Noel-”
“Don’t get on the 405! Whatever you do. Take Sepulveda, instead. Don’t argue, some idiot was running from the cops and went all bumper cars from the 90 to the 10 before jackknifing an 18-wheeler and it’s a mess.”
Mari opened the window and stuck her head out. All she saw were cars. A long parking lot full of them. Sigh. This was going to be one long, hot afternoon. She turned the ignition off.
“You’re on the 405, aren’t you?” Noel’s voice sounded so dejected she wished she could reach through the phone and give him a hug.
“Was I at least close to saving the damsel in distress?”
She laughed. “So close, darling. So close. Five minutes and you would have saved me.”
He sighed. “Okay, so how far did you get?”
“I actually got done with the Andersen delivery, so I was ahead of schedule. But there’s no way I can make the Bartlett one.”
“I can work with that.”
She heard some furious tapping and knew Noel was sitting in front of the computer working his magic checking deliveries and rerouting drivers to make sure every client would get their food come hell or runaway bumper car drivers.
“I can have Toby deliver his stuff to the Bartlett party and by the time that’s done, Vivi can swing around and drop off more food so he can continue his rounds. Good thing I convinced your Mom to cook two extra batches today.”
Mari snorted. “You were just hoping that would be your dinner.”
“Yeah, well Papa Joe won’t be mad this time, since it will keep customers happy and at Civilized Pleasures, our motto is good food, good wine and great company.”
He laughed. “You love me. Come on, you know it’s inspired word smithing. Hits all the buttons with the snob crowd. And your mom’s cooking is heaven sent.”
“You’re sucking up hard. I thought I wasn’t your type.”
“Well, you’re not, but you are my ticket to delicious meals and your mama loves me. Or at least she feeds me.”
That’s exactly what Lucia Barros Stratten had done the minute Mari had dragged the skinny and painfully reserved Noel home from a graphics design class her first week at community college. They’d practically adopted him and it had worked out for everyone.
“Is there anything I can do for you, darling, as you lose half of your body weight in that sweltering heat?”
“You could use your mad scientist computer skills and build me a time machine.”
“Heh, the first thing I’d do with my own personal Tardis is zip back to high school and give Michael Tallow a big ol’ smack right on those luscious lips of his that he’d never forget and immediately convert him to the joys of gay sex.”
“Yeah, not holding a torch. Not at all.”
“That boy was fine.”
Mari snorted. “What happened to that shy, quiet boy I once knew who was afraid of talking to the nerdy girl sitting next him, much less expounding on the joys of gay sex?”
She was expecting the snappy comeback. The smile that was starting to ache her cheeks started to fade when all she heard was silence.
“He found his voice,” he said quietly.
Mari’s breath hitched, her throat tightening painfully. She hadn’t meant for their conversation to turn so serious so quickly,but Noel had found his voice with the support of the family he'd chosen and who’d chosen him right back. Under that love, he’d blossomed into the wonderful man he was always meant to be.
“He has an amazing voice,” she replied roughly. “And I love him dearly.”
“Yeah, yeah, you’re going to make yourself cry and we both know that ain’t pretty.” They both chuckled. Many tears had been shed in the last year since they’d met, but these would be happy tears.
“Listen, since you’re going to be stuck there for a while,” he said, “why don’t you take out the bolinhos and see if you can sell them to the other drivers? Maybe even pass out some cards. Who knows who you’re stuck with? Maybe you’ll run into the next Brad Pitt.”
“With my luck it will be the next Pee-Wee Herman, but good call on the bolinhos. And if I get arrested for selling food without a permit, I’m totally throwing you under the bus and making you bail me out.”
“Deal, now generate some biz, baby doll.”
Mari ended the call and dropped the phone in her pocket. No time like the present, she decided and she moved between the seats and into the back of the van. She definitely wanted to lighten her load before some Highway Patrol decided to check on all of the Angelenos melting under the sweltering heat.
She grabbed several business cards and pamphlets, dropping them in the pockets of the serving apron and rummaged through her wallet for any cash. Twelve fifty better be enough because it was all she had to make change. With gloved hands, she took the meat filled pastries out and put them in a serving basket. The good thing about bolinhos is that they were great hot, warm, or cold. She filled another basket with a variety of sweets and a wheeled cooler with water bottles. Popping open the van’s door, she hooked the baskets in one arm and pulled cooler behind her.
A sedan who had seen better days was her first target.
“Hi there.” She smiled at the driver, a rather sour looking man in his mid-forties with a rumpled shirt and horrific tie. “It looks like we’re going to be sitting here for a while, police chase gone wrong up ahead. I have fresh meat-filled pastries, sweet truffles and water if you’re interested.”
Five cars later and she had to go back to the van to refill the baskets. It helped that the first car ended up calling her back for more food. Her second trip was even better especially since the motorcyclist three cars behind the van had decided to take off his helmet and jacket. Not that she was paying attention to how the white tee stretched tightly across his chest or the interesting ink that peppered his arms.
Nope. She wasn’t paying any attention to that at all.
At least not until she got closer.
“Isn’t grandma going to be upset you’re selling all her goodies, red?” It was the smile that sold the line. It was warm and inviting, but it was the friendly humor in the striking hazel eyes that made her walk towards the sexy stranger instead of walking fast the opposite direction.
He was a bad boy cliche. The tattoos, and now that she’d gotten a closer look there were several on both arms, the motorcycle, the leather. All he needed was a guitar case to complete the casting call for BadBoysRUs. But knowing it, still didn’t stop her heart from skipping several beats and squeal like preteen at her first boy band concert.
“Not when she sees the wad of cash and potential new business I’m drumming up.” Oh, thank god her brain overruled her hormones and functioned normally. She might even be able to make it through this conversation without sounding like an idiot.
“OK,” he said, the smile widening and making him younger and much more approachable, “I’ll bite.”
Mari eyed the tribal wolf tat on his arm and arched her brow. “Does that actually work for you?”
He shrugged. “Hit or miss.”
“Miss,” she shook her head sadly, “but so close.” She almost did a happy dance right there and then simply because what was coming out of her mouth was remotely witty.
He dropped his head between in surrender, but continued to smile. “You wound me.” He tapped his heart.
“But I have pastries and sweets to ease the pain.”
“Deal,” he said, pulling out his wallet. “I’ll take one of the waters, too.”
She handed him a bolinhos and water, pocketing the cash and giving him change.
“Any chance I could get your number?”
Mari smiled and pulled out one of the business cards and handed it to him.
“Civilized Pleasures,” he nodded, “nice. But I was hoping for your number.”
She shrugged. “I don’t give my number to strangers.”
He stuck out his hand. “Reece Chambers. Carpenter, painter, musician, and all around jack of all trades.”
“Mari,” she said, meeting his eyes. “Student, waitress, peddler of food stuffs during traffic jams.”
He laughed. She melted into a puddle of goo. How she kept from sighing like a besotted fan girl, much less string two words together while in the presence of such manly hotness, she’ll never know.
“Nice to meet you, Mari.”
He held on to her hand a second or two longer than necessary. Oh, he was charming the pants off her and she knew it. Good thing they were in the middle of a crowded highway.
“Likewise, Reece.” She let go of his hand and smiled again before picking up the cooler and walking to the next car. “See you around.”
“Wait,” he called out, “you didn’t give me your number.”
“I know.” She waved and turned back to the next car, but not before noticing that he had tucked the card in his shirt pocket.
That was a good sign right? She couldn’t just give her number to a random stranger, no matter how cute, just because they were caught in a traffic jam. If he was interested, he could always call the company. Heh, who was she kidding? Guys like that didn’t pursue girls, especially girls who didn’t make it clear that there would be a prize at the end of the chase. No, guys like Reece Chambers, - he had said musician, hadn’t he? - fended gaggles of girls with a two by four. Well, the fantasy was nice while it lasted.
She pulled up to the next car. “Hi-”
“Yeah, yeah, what you got?”
Mari eyed the expensive hair cut, suit and car. “Eight dollars for the water and a buck a pop for the pastries.”
The blond executive glared at her. “That’s highway robbery.”
She looked around and shrugged. “When in Rome…”
“Fine, whatever.” He pulled out several bills and handed it to her without really counting. “Keep the rest. It looks like you need it.”
Asshole! Should have charged him more. Whatever. She shook her head and starting on the next car. There was still money to be made and the traffic jam wasn’t going to last forever. The noise from an older and well dinged mini-van trampled the sweltering air like a charging rhino. Both side doors were open and with the heat, it was no surprise, but it allowed the noise from the gaggle children to travel widely if the looks of the nearby drivers was any indication.
A loud shriek pierced the cacophony and the driver, must be their mom since she seemed immune or simply resigned to the ruckus, banged her head on the steering wheel.
Mari put her fingers in her mouth and whistled. The ear-splitting sound froze the children in place. The woman’s head snapped up in attention, but Mari’s attention was on the young group of ruffians.
“Are you children or gaggle of wild monkeys?”
The kids looked eyed her up, then looked at each other. “MONKEYS!”
“That’s too bad,” Mari said, shaking her head mournfully. “Because I have thick, gooey chocolate chip cookies the size of a Chihuahua. But they are only for well-behaved children, not wild monkeys. Chocolate is deadly for monkeys.”
“I thought that was dogs,” one of the ruffians called out from the back.
“And monkeys,” Mari said with a surety that actually had her believing in it herself.
The kids shrugged and settled back into their seats, waiting.
Mari turned her back to them and leaned on the driver’s door. “Please tell me they can have cookies because I’m kinda afraid what they’ll do to me if you say no.”
The woman chuckled. “I’m sorry but I can’t afford it.”
“Don’t worry. I consider this my civic duty.” Mari smiled and handed the woman a water bottle before turning to the kids. Bottles of water were passed around even as they eyed her suspiciously. She pulled out the cookies and doubt turned to glee as greedy hands reached out for their bounty.
“I’ve seen bigger,” one of the rascals complained. Mari snatched the cookie from his hand and waited. “But only in my dreams.” She smiled and handed it back.
“OK guys, just try to take it down a notch. Or twelve before you get cited for noise pollution, eh?” The kids nodded absently as they scarfed down the sweet gooey goodness.
“Thank you,” the woman said.
“No problem and if they aren’t in a sugar coma in five minutes, we can sic them on the cops to get us moving.” Mari winked.
With the cooler zipped, she headed back towards her van. The luscious Reece Chambers was no longer in his spot. Pity. Not that she was looking, not at all. Then she spotted him next to a red convertible occupied by the “just water” sorority girls. Figures. She hoped their boney asses poked through the leather seats.
There wasn’t much of anything left to sell, unless she threw in the van, so it was a good time to call it quits. Noel’s idea had certainly made a sucky situation into a profitable one. Storing the cooler back in the van, she zeroed in on the six remaining pastries.
“You never did make it to my parking space.”
Mari turned and was captivated by the warmest blue eyes she’d ever seen and an infectious smile she couldn’t help but mirror. The deep lines that showcased at a lifetime of laughter and experience deepened. The man took off his straw hat, fanning it across his face and uncovering a slowly thinning batch of completely silver hair.
“If I’d known the entrepreneurial girl was so lovely, I would have come a lot sooner.” His contagious smile now had a rakish slant and Mari knew that this man must have been hell on wheels charming the pants off women in his younger days. Not that he was doing a bad job now.
Mari grabbed the pastries and two bottles of water. “Are you trying to charm me?”
“Is it working?”
She laughed. “Absolutely.” She handed him one of the bottles and put the pastries next to her. “These are bolinhos, meat filled pastries. My Mom’s specialty. I’m Mari, by the way.” She waved off the twenty dollar bill he handed to her.
“I’m going to have to rethink my entrepreneurial label if you just gave stuff away.” He leaned against the van and accepted the pastry. “Call me Chuck.”
She nodded. “Oh I charged alright. And anyone with a 50K car got charged double.” She handed him another bolinhos since he inhaled the first one.
“What makes you think I don’t have one of those?”
Mari looked at the well worn jeans that had patches dirt and grass smudges and a work shirt that had been washed so many times it now belonged in a different color spectrum.
“Don’t let the clothes fool you,” he said. “I’m incognito, but I’m filthy rich.”
She chuckled and shrugged. “It wouldn’t have mattered. Those baby blues and that smile would have charmed the feet right under me regardless of your car or money.”
“Now who’s using their charm?” His eyes twinkled. “If only I was single,” he waved his hand showing off the gold ring, “and fifty years younger.”
Mari laughed. “If those things were true, then I know you’d be charming a lot more off me than just my feet.”
“You’d be right about that.” He winked. “What?” he asked when he saw her studying him intently. “Do I have food in my face?”
Mari shook her head with a smile. “Your wife must be an amazing woman.”
“Now what makes you say that?”
“She must be in order to keep a rogue like you in line.”
“For all you know, Beautiful Mari of the Entrepreneurial Spirit, I could be on my fifth wife while having three mistresses and six illegitimate children. Being filthy rich like I am, of course.”
“True, but you’re not the type,” she said after torturing her lower lip and narrowing her eyes in concentration. A charming rogue as her Nana would have said, but one with a true, kind heart. And wild between the sheets. Mari shook her head. She missed Nana and ‘Nanaisms’. She couldn’t quite dampen her smile when she looked back at Chuck. “Nope. You’re the faithful husband, Incognito Chuck. I can tell.”
“Jump to unsubstantiated conclusions much?”
She nodded. “All the time and sometimes I’m even right.”
Chuck sighed. “She is amazing and we’ve been married forty years, though I probably shouldn’t have told you.”
Mari gave him a bright smile and started bouncing her shoulders to her imaginary beat. “I love it when I’m right. I love it, I love it.”
“Please tell me that’s not how you young kids are dancing these days.” He shook his head. “Get off my well manicured lawn.” His smile took the edge off his words. “So tell me, Beautiful Mari, what do you do when you’re not hocking your goods on the biggest parking lot of L.A.?”
Mari paused, then bit off a snicker when his eyes widened.
“Oh dear, that sounded incredibly illicit, didn’t it?” He smiled when she waved off his concern that she might be offended. “College or are you a frustrated actor, waiting to be discovered?”
“No, no acting. I wanted to go to college and become a lawyer-”
“You’re much too nice to become a blood sucking leech draining civilization of all that is good and bright.” He shook his head. “No, that’s not you.”
Mari shrugged. “Don’t like lawyers much, eh?” She smiled. “I guess. I just wanted to make enough money to enable my Mom to work less.”
He nodded slowly. “A noble goal. What happened?”
Mari thought back of high school and all her lofty, if unrealistic goals. It seemed like a lifetime away instead of just a little over a year.
“Turned out I was good with computers and graphics.” She pulled out a pamphlet and handed it him. “And my Mom’s boss offered me a job, so I took it instead of spending money that I didn’t have. I do community college for the design stuff, though. So it’s not like I’ve totally given up on education.”
He looked at the brochure and then put it on his front pocket. “What do you want to do?”
“Fit into a size 4 pair of skinny jeans,” she said without hesitation, “but as my Nana used to say, ‘Dream big, Cara. Not bony ass’.”
He snorted. She smiled. “Your Nana seems like a character.”
Mari nodded. “She ruled the neighborhood like a tiny dictator with her iron will. She was amazing.”
Chuck waited for her to answer and she knew she wouldn’t be able to go off a tangent. For some reason, she felt comfortable telling this kind stranger exactly what she really wanted. “I want to tell stories.”
“All kinds,” she answered. “Just look around us, there are stories everywhere.”
Chuck nodded. “Go on then, tell me a story.”
“Off the cuff?”
He nodded again. “Entertain me.”
Mari bit her lip. “Reality based or fantasy?”
He put his hands on the back of his head and leaned against the interior of the van. “Over the top.”
Mari laughed. “Alright, then.” She looked back at the cars around them for inspiration when an idea struck her. “I know the truth about you, Incognito Chuck.” A forlorn sigh escaped her lips and her chin dropped to her chest. “I can’t believe I missed it. Talk about missing the forest for the trees. All I saw was rascally charm.” She looked up and met his furrowed brow. “You had me pegged from the beginning, didn’t you?”
Chuck straightened and leaned towards her. “Mari, I’m sor-”
“You’re a spy,” she accused with a newfound southern drawl. “You fooled me with your Southern manners and good ol’ boy charm. You were just fishing for information from little ol’ me. As if I could possibly have the key to organization that is still hunting you and that Mata Hari you married.” She ignored his muffled snort and sniffled as he leaned back against the van listening to her tale.
“I wasn’t even born when you went behind the iron cabana, blatantly disregarding the expressed orders of you superiors to rescue the woman you loved, the enemy agent that had saved your life countless of times during your illustrious, albeit veiled career.
“You turned your back on your duty! for a woman of all things and you’re surprised that the organization is still after you? You think that this-” she waved her hand at the van’s interior - “is just some camouflage of the new generation?” She took a deep breath, her eyes narrowing while his crinkled in amusement.
“You’re right, Gramps, but it’s too late. You’ve fallen under the spell of my croquettes of truth and you will now tell me everything you know about everything and everyone and in the end, it will be I, Mari the Invincible, who will take that knowledge and take over the world! Muwahahhahahha! Oh, hi!” She turned to woman who had walked up to the van. “I’m sorry, but I’m plum out of everything except-”
“Croquettes of Truth?”
Mari shrugged. “Melodramatic storytelling on the fly, I went with what I had.”
“I’m Elly. Elly Owens.” Her hand shot out with a no-nonsense confidence that Mari couldn’t help but envy. The handshake was brief and firm. There was nothing about this woman that hinted at softness or delicacy, but there was an undeniable warmth underneath that direct manner which put Mari at ease.
“Mari. And this is-”
“Chuck,” he said, taking the woman’s hand. “It is a pleasure to meet yet another, beautiful woman in during this vehicular trial of patience.”
“Watch out for Incognito Chuck,” Mari warned, “he’s a gentleman scoundrel, master spy who’ll try to charm your socks off.”
Elly nodded and smiled. “I don’t doubt that, but I’m happily married.” She turned Mari, pulling out a business card from her pocket. “I saw what you did for the van and…” Her eyes drifted back to Chuck and voice trailed off. A soft harrumph escaped her lips before she turned back to Mari. “Anyway, it was really nice of you. I have a small alterations shop in Torrance and if you ever need anything, just give me a call.”
Mari took the card. “Bibbidi?” She looked up at Elly. “As in bibbidi bobbidi boo from Cinderella?”
Elly’s head tilted to the side. “Most people don’t get that.”
Mari shrugged. “Croquettes of truth.” She lifted the plate to Elly who took and popped it in her mouth.
“Are you selling food without a permit?”
All three snapped to the harsh voice coming out of the uniformed patrol officer walking towards them.
“Uh.” Mari froze like a deer in the headlights.
“Ma’am,” he turned to Elly, “did she sell you that item?”
Elly finished swallowing. “Nope, she sure didn’t. We were just exchanging business cards.”
“Then you need to return to your vehicle.” He turned to Mari and Chuck. “Sir, has she been peddling food to you?”
Chuck coughed. “Now son,” he coughed again, “I have diabetes and this nice young girl was kind enough to help me out.” He took a labored breath. “You know this heat has been just awful and to top it off being stuck in the concrete jungle is just hard on my old bones. So you just ease off this tenderhearted young lady who took care of a stranger when she didn’t have to, especially since I didn’t see no officers coming around and checking on people while we waited in this inferno.” He stared down the officer until the younger man dropped his gaze.
“Why don’t you try a croquette?” Chuck took the plate from Mari’s limp hand and put it in front of the officer. “They are delicious and a perfect pick me up in the middle of the hot afternoon.”
The officer looked at both of them warily. “Fine, but don’t let me hear you’re peddling food.” He picked up the last croquette and popped it in his mouth.
“Take a brochure,” Mari blurted, then cringed when the officer arched his brow as if to say, Don’t push it.
“There’s a ten percent discount for all men and women in uniform,” Elly added, glaring at Mari.
“That’s what I meant to say,” Mari said and smiled weakly.
The officer took the brochure. “Please return to your vehicles, we’ll be moving shortly.” He walked back to his motorcycle.
“Honeychile, you need to be a lot more snappy and a lot less slow as molasses when it comes to any man in uniform,” Elly said with a wink. “Call me if you ever need a fairy godmother.”
Mari and Chuck watched her walk away.
“She’s right, you know,” he said. “You came up with croquettes of truth but couldn’t deal with a CHP.”
“My brilliance comes and goes on the whims of my vindictive muse.”
He laughed and picked up a discarded pen from her apron, writing on one of the brochures. “Beautiful Mari of the Entrepreneurial Spirit hampered by a Vindictive Muse, you are cordially invited to a potluck dinner at my house. I would love for you to meet my Mata Hari of a wife and I would be enchanted to meet your mother.”
“You just want us to bring more croquettes, don’t you?”
He placed his hand over his heart. “I cannot tell a lie. Take a chance on an over the hill master spy.” He picked up her hand and kissed it. “I see this as the beginning of an extraordinary friendship that will define us both.”
Chapter 2: Sterling Mitchell, At Your Service