Van walked into his shop with a plate piled high with food as Tessa stepped out of the backroom laden with pails, brooms, and cloths.
"You can't start working on an empty stomach." He balanced the tin plate on the stove top next to the brewing coffee and dug around in the crate for another plate. He couldn't buy two meals without starting gossip, so he'd order one of everything he could think of and had it piled on one plate.
"I haven't started my day with a meal in a long time."
Tessa's soft spoken response hit him like a kick in the knee cap. How long had it been since she'd had a decent meal?
"I won't have you working without eating proper." He pushed half the food onto his plate and offered the restaurant plate to Tessa.
She placed all the cleaning items on the floor and took the plate, lowering her body onto the one chair. "Thank you." She took a bite of hotcake. Her eyes closed and her wide lips tipped at the corners with just the slightest whisper of a smile.
How long had it been since she ate well? He'd remedy that. He'd make sure she ate three times a day.
He balanced his backside on the only crate he'd brought in and ate.
"Where did you want to start?" Tessa didn't look at him, she kept eating.
Watching her enjoy the food, his chest squeezed with protectiveness. "We'll start down here. Once it's clean, I'll make a workbench and shelves while you clean the upstairs."
She nodded, sighed, and leaned back in the chair. The plate in her lap appeared licked clean but for a scrap of hotcake. The cat sauntered out of the back, yowling in a demanding tone.
Tessa laughed. The lighthearted sound flowed over him like the sweet scent that filled his mother's kitchen when she baked pies. Inviting, soothing, and mouth-watering.
"I saved you a morsel. Though why I feed you when you should be hungry to catch mice, I'll never know." She held the scrap down to the cat. The animal sniffed it over, nudged her hand twice, and finally nibbled it from her fingers.
"He doesn't act all that hungry." Van observed.
"She. Patch is a girl." Tessa cast him a glance that said "how could you not know".
"Sorry. She doesn't act hungry." He slid the last bite of fried potatoes in his mouth and couldn't stop the sting of jealousy that sprouted watching Tessa stroke the cat's head and back. He nearly arched his back like the cat hoping he'd feel Tessa's gentle touch.
"It's a good sign she's not hungry. It means she's getting rid of the disgusting mice." Tessa shivered.
Ahh, she didn't like rodents. He tucked it away with all the other things he had noticed about the woman.
She stood and held out a hand.
Van looked at her hand and back into her face. "Yes?"
"Hand me the plate and fill the buckets so we can get to work." She placed her still full coffee cup on the shelf behind the stove.
"Not until you take a moment to finish your coffee."
She wrinkled her nose. "I prefer tea or warm milk." Her eyes went dreamy. "I haven't had milk, warm or otherwise, in so long I can't remember what it tastes like."
Her statement brought him back to the fact his actions had stolen her childhood from her. Guilt ascended as quick, suffocating, and mind numbing as an avalanche of snow.