Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Chapter Two Consuelo's Restaurant

UPDATE: Unlikely Merger is NOW available! We will offer
the book FREE on Kindle July 1-July 5, 2015!

Today, we begin meeting the heroes as Mercy encounters each one. If today's your first day, read Chapter One first. Daily, for the next 10 days, we'll introduce you to one more character and you'll learn their stories. Beginning June 20, you'll decide which hero is the perfect match for Mercy. Voting will remain open through midnight on June 24. Then, on July 1, Unlikely Merger will release on Kindle with the final chapter that reveals the hero who won the most votes during the voting process. 

Chapter Two
Consuela’s Restaurant, Near Bellville, Texas

Mercy aimed at the cork board where the map hung. The launched dart fell far short.
“Scoot up, and try it again.” Madeline handed her another missile.
“I can’t believe Daddy played games to figure out which businesses to look at. I feel so silly.” She stuck her tongue between her teeth and extended her arm several times.
“He thought it was fun. Besides, he said a prayer for the Lord to do the guiding. Gave him confidence that there was some good reason for him to be going to wherever the dart hit.” She smoothed her graying hair, but it didn’t need her help. Not a strand out of place.
Eyeing the board, Mercy threw a second dart. This time it stuck in the northern part of Canada. “This is crazy. I’m not visiting glaciers in the dead of winter.”
“Hmm. Well, your dad does play darts regularly.” She shoved another into Mercy’s hand. “I guess we can pin the tail on the donkey instead.”
A nervous giggle bubbled up with visions of an Eeyore game she used to play.
“Shut your eyes.” Madeline crossed her arms.
“Oh, you weren’t joking?” Of all the convoluted ways to plan travel. But it had worked for her father.
She closed her eyes, allowing Madeline to spin her in a circle and give her a shove. “Straight ahead.”
Wavering for a few steps, she thrust her hands in front of her. A moment later, she felt the smooth surface.
“Poke the pointer in.”
She ignored Madeline’s order at first—long enough to make sure she’d chosen somewhere on the south side of the country. She pierced the paper and opened her eyes.
Madeline joined her at the mark. “Near Austin, Texas. At least you won’t have to deal with glaciers down there.”
“Good thing.”
“I’ll arrange for your airline tickets and hotel rooms.”
Plural? Mercy chuckled. “How many rooms do you think I’ll need?”
The woman stared at her for four, silent seconds. “Your father didn’t tell you?”
Uh-oh. “Tell me what?”
“Your dad wants his newest associate to go along on this trip. Nice guy. Very charming. And cute.” She pulled the map off the board.
It was bad enough that Mercy had to go on these trips at all, but now with a stranger? “I’m trying to adapt to all of this. Can’t the new man go by himself?”
“That’s what he wants to do.”
“Great.” Problem solved.
“But your dad is afraid the trips will become a competition, undermining the integrity of the company and its acquisitions and investments.”
“Then let this other guy do the job.” If only.
“I can’t speak for your dad, Mercy, but I’m hoping, as you visit these places, the business will grow on you. If it doesn’t, Henry will need to groom someone else for this part.”
Mercy stroked her fingers through her hair. Here she was, indulging her tunnel vision and only worrying about herself again. Her father needed her at this task. He deserved her best effort. “Daddy doesn’t need to train anyone else. I can do this. But if he wants Mr. … what’s his name?”
“Rogers. Dustin Rogers.”
“If Daddy wants Dustin Rogers to accompany me, that’s fine.”
“Good girl.” She quick-stepped into the hallway.
Ha. Good girl didn’t come close. Selfish brat was more like it. Mercy determined to do her best to be polite to Mr. Rogers and get this trip done with the least amount of complications.


A day later, Mercy sat in the passenger seat as Dustin Rogers pulled a rental car out of the space at a rainy Houston airport. Madeline was right. He was cute in an outdoorsy way. He looked a little out of his element in a gray suit, though.
With short waves of light brown hugging his head, he turned baby blues on her and stretched out a toothy grin. “Who would think that a little ice would shut down half the state of Texas?”
Mercy nodded and reflected on Madeline’s comment about dealing with glaciers in Austin. Maybe she should have tried Canada after all? “Is Austin a far drive?”
“A couple of hours. Shame the plane refused to land there, but we’ll still have the evening to visit the restaurant your father’s interested in.” He merged onto a freeway while he punched buttons on the radio, finally settling on the twang of a country song.
A couple of hours? Of this whiny, depressive music? She gazed out the passenger window at the gray scenery. It looked about as blah as she felt. What’s wrong with me, Lord? When did I become so self-centered? Maybe she’d always been this way. Her perpetual state of motion camouflaged her bad attitude.
That certainly came to a screeching halt with nothing to do but sit in the passenger seat and daydream while Dustin drove west along I-10.
After an hour, the driving itself slowed. “Why are we stopping?” Small pellets of ice fell, but it was barely freezing.
“I would think, this far south, that ice is an anomaly.” As if confirming his prophetic opinion, the scene of a fender bender appeared on a bridge. Traffic veered into one lane, but the speed on the other side of the accident only increased to barely over turtle-rate.
“The road isn’t that slick.” At this pace it would take all night to get to downtown Austin.
“They aren’t as used to it as we are.” He turned another easy-going smile on her. “I can empathize. I’m a California dude. I learned to drive in San Diego. Ice and snow? They were things we saw in movies and on national news stories.” He chuckled. “But I guess you grew up around all of this, huh?”
“Yeah.” She looked out the side window but instantly regretted her shortness. She faced him again. “I couldn’t avoid the weather in Denver, but Daddy made sure I knew how to handle it. He and I used to take day trips to the nearby mountain resorts, and I was the one who had to drive.”
“Do a lot of winter sports?”
“Skiing mostly. Some snowboarding, but I’m not very good at it.” She laughed with the memory of a face-plant she had made the first time she tried to come off a lift with her board. “I think boarding takes a level of recklessness that I don’t have.”
He nodded. “Uninhibited. I used to surf. Thought boarding would be simple. Boy was I wrong.” A little crinkle formed at the edge of his eye. “But I love the mountains. The pristine snow that’s so clean you can eat it. Makes that old hymn, 'Whiter than Snow,' all the more meaningful.”
“Are you saying that your church in San Diego sang 'Whiter than Snow?'” She laughed.
“I know, right? I think our preacher had ties to the song somehow. Ancestral connections. Or maybe his childhood church used it a lot.” He shrugged. “Never experiencing snow made the hymn almost magical to me. It convinced me to go to the University of Vermont. I had plenty of chances to see snow there.”
“I bet you did.” White out conditions, more than likely. “It wasn’t all soft and fluffy. I bet the song took on new meaning.”
“Deeper meaning. But I loved the winter. So when the opportunity at Lacewell came up, I jumped at the chance to live in Denver.” He inched forward a few more feet. “What about you?”
“I’ve never wanted to live anywhere else, though I did enjoy a cruise to the tropics not too long ago.”
“Tropics?” He cut his eyes in her direction. “Funny, I don’t see you as a beach type of girl.”
Was that an insult? Even if it was, she couldn’t take offense. She wasn’t a bikini wearing, sun worshiper who lay around dripping with oil all day long. “I enjoyed the tours, but I prefer Colorado weather.”
“How about Lacewell? I get the feeling working at your dad’s company wasn’t exactly your choice.”
Like her life decisions were any of his business. “I’m not sure how you got that idea.” She swallowed her initial reaction and pulled out her phone. “There’s an exit up here. Shall we see if the back roads get us along any faster?” Flicking through her maps app, she found a likely route. “This takes us north first, but we should be able to avoid the busier roads.”
“Either way.” He took the exit. “I can’t imagine this continuing for much longer. As soon as the sun breaks through, it has to melt.”
That wasn’t what she’d ever experienced. But snow was the norm for her rather than the oddity. And it usually looked crisp and brilliant. Not like this dingy stuff that seemed to coat everything.
Dustin crawled from the interstate and took the highway north. The speed increased somewhat. He glanced in her direction. Before focusing out the windshield.
“This is better, right?”
“Sure.” He looked again.
“What?” She automatically smoothed her slacks. “Is something wrong?”
“I’m sorry if I was prying before. It makes a trip easier if we can talk. I chose the topic poorly.” His lip curled downward.
“That’s okay.” Wow. This guy could be really humble, despite his natural confidence. “Why don’t you tell me what you hope to achieve at Lacewell?” That ought to be a safe enough topic.
“That’s a deep discussion. I love that your dad has built his company on Christian principles. I want to prove to the business world that an executive can succeed with ethics and high standards in place. I’ve seen people use the title of Christian as a marketing ploy, but they don’t exhibit any of the traits of godly living.”
Mercy’s mouth had dropped open. Was this guy serious? He seemed sincere, but could he really be that good? “I’ve worked with people who wear the Christian label when it suits them.”
“Would you believe one of the grad assistants used to counsel us in how to tell if we needed to play the Christian card?”
“You’re kidding.”
He shook his head. “Nope. It’s just part of the marketing manipulation. Sell at all costs. Find the mark’s weakest point and press.” Traffic slowed once again.
No wonder the title of Christian sometimes invited scorn. “Not all marketing is like that.”
“Exactly. And businesses can prosper without that greedy, dishonest mentality.”
If nothing else, she had found something Dustin was passionate about. He shared more over the following hour and a half while they crawled toward the rural town of Bellville. With no signs of the frozen rain stopping, they finally pulled into a parking lot, and Dustin shut off the engine. “Think we can brave the elements long enough to reach those doors?” He pointed to an old building. One side had been newly restored with Consuela’s scrawled in neon.
The wind had picked up, swirling the ice like little shards of glass, but none of it overwhelmed some of her past experiences. She glanced at the doors. “I’m ready if you are.”
A sparkle of mischief hit his eyes. He pushed out his side as Mercy climbed from hers. If only she’d worn her snow shoes or hiking boots instead of dress pumps.
She slipped as she shoved the door closed, but Dustin was at her side, steadying her. “I think I get why these Southerners are having trouble.” He laughed.
Grabbing her hand, he led her down a row of cars.
A lot of cars—at least a couple dozen. “Looks like we’re not the only ones who took this route and needed a break.” She slipped again and leaned in to him.
He dropped her hand and wrapped his arm around her waist. “Watch it now.” Keeping his arm tight around her, he reached for the rail that marked the beginning of a long ramp. “Good thing we don’t have to attempt any stairs.”
Thankfully, the ramp had a rough grade to it that provided limited traction. And limited was all the traction Mercy needed. “I’m not usually so clumsy.” She paused under the porch covering to brush the ice from her hair. “Thanks for your help.”
He paused and caught her eye. “That’s why I’m here.” A slight smile graced his rugged features, accenting his clean-shaven, firm jaw.
He opened the door for her. Electricity rippled through Mercy. She gave her head a shake. I’m a twisted mass of emotions. She’d better get her reactions in check. They were only co-workers for pity’s sake.
And right now, her job was enough for her to handle without throwing any complications into the mix.

The interior of the restaurant was charming, like a graceful Spanish villa with wrought-iron lamps and lattice along historic brick walls.
“Looks like this place used to be a bottling plant for Dr Pepper.” Dustin pointed to a historic landmark sign behind the hostess station. He pulled two menus from a stack and handed one to Mercy. “No wonder the exterior only had one side renovated.”
The place fairly bustled with patrons. Only one waiter seemed to be on duty. He ran back and forth between tables. Another dark-haired man in an apron, an older version of the waiter, came out of the kitchen with a tray of food. As he neared, he nodded toward Mercy and Dustin. “An empty table es in the back. Only me and my son here. The weather. We are slow.” His thick Hispanic accent dictated that he had only lived among English speakers in recent years.
“Do you need help?” Dustin stowed his menu back on the pile.
The man stopped and stared at him. “You help?”
He shrugged. “Sure.” He looked at Mercy. “Would it bother you to eat alone?”
“Eat alone? Pfft. I can service tables as well as you can.” She grinned.
The man adjusted the tray. “Let me serve this. Have a seat, and I will come to you.”
Dustin led the way to a table closest to the kitchen. “Are you serious about serving?” He held out her chair. “You don’t have to.”
“Of course, I’m serious.” But then it wasn’t really a stretch to assume the boss’s daughter would be pampered and spoiled. “I used to be a nursing student. I really enjoy helping others.”
His eyes crinkled again. “Somehow, that doesn’t surprise me one bit.”
The cook came toward their table carrying aprons. “Stay clean. I am Alejandro Velasquez. My son, Samuel.” He pointed to the young man balancing plates on a large tray. “Can you take orders?” Mr. Velasquez held out a pad to Mercy.
“Of course.” She took it with the hopes that the customers would be full of grace since she didn’t know the menu.
“And you will clean, yes?” He handed Dustin a large black bin and pointed to an abandoned table. Looked like a crew of toddlers had finger-painted with their salsa.
Dustin took the bin, but Mercy poked her elbow into his side and glanced up at him. “I think I got the better end of this deal.”
For the next several hours, Mercy waited tables. She took forever, having to write every item in longhand, though most of the guests were happy to be out of the ice storm. At least her handwriting was good enough for the cook, Mr. Velasquez, to read.
They had a steady stream of incomers, which she also seated. She and Dustin even gave up their table and moved their things to the kitchen. By sunset, the precipitation and the traffic had all but ceased, yet they were no closer to their destination, and temperatures plummeted.
Mr. Velasquez insisted they sit and enjoy a meal. “You must be tired. Travel. Work. Time to eat.” He smiled broadly. “Eat.”
Samuel wiped down the tables. “You might as well take him up on the offer. He won’t stop fussing until you do.” The young man had a ready grin like his dad.
Mercy sat at the table next to the one he was cleaning. “How long has your family owned this place?”
A sad look softened the boy’s dark features. “Pop opened the first Consuela’s the year he and my mom arrived from Mexico. Mama was the best cook in town, so the restaurant did very well.” He finished wiping down the table and excused himself.
Interesting … they’d opened a first Consuela’s. Maybe Mama was working there today? He came back with an emptied bin and tackled another table.
“So where is the first Consuela’s?” And did she have enough time to visit it? This place was nothing like the barbecue restaurant, which was one of Austin’s prime nightspots on Sixth Street, but these people had such sincerity and were full of kindness and hard work. Just the type of business Daddy would be interested in.
The young man paused with a grimace. “It burned to the ground six years ago. Kitchen fire. Mama was caught inside.”
Oh, no. A vacuum filled Mercy’s lungs. “I’m so sorry.” Barely a whisper came out.
“You could not know, Miss. But Papa and I have worked hard to make this Consuela’s to Mama’s high standards. Since it is her namesake.”
Mercy shut her eyes and stifled the tears aching to empty.
Dustin came from the kitchen carrying their things. “Seeing all the different meals has me starving.” He put his burden on an empty chair. “Do you know what you want?” He sat across from her, his short bangs sticking to beads of sweat on his forehead and his smooth cheeks flush with his exercise.
He looked better than ever with a deep joy and an open countenance.
She hid her emotion by unwrapping her utensils. Shaking her head, she opened the menu and kept her moist eyes focused there.
“Maybe a fajita trio? That smelled amazing.” Dustin’s enthusiasm was contagious.
“Sounds good.” She shut the plastic flap and grasped her hands together on the table in front of her. The words had all been a jumble of liquid mosaic anyway.
Dustin hadn’t seemed to notice her angst. He scanned the menu. “I think I’ll have Consuela’s Especial.”
The young man appeared over Mercy’s shoulder. “Nice choice. Mama’s favorite meal. And a fajita trio. Can I bring some queso?”
“Absolutely.” Dustin smiled over Mercy’s head.
She stared at the basket of chips that Samuel had left in the center of the table. The way these men worked, their dedication—Consuela’s deserved the notoriety and financial help that being part of Lacewell would give. What would Daddy think if she suggested this company? But would Mr. Velasquez even be interested? And what about the place on Sixth Street?
“You look like you’re a million miles away.” Dustin brushed the back of her hand with his finger.
“Considering options.” Even if they could get to Austin tomorrow, they’d have little time to evaluate Babe’s Barbecue before having to catch their flight out. Better to reschedule that trip for another time.
“Would those include talking to Henry about investing here?”
She met his gaze. How had he guessed?
Dustin leveled a tender look on her. “You have a generous spirit about you, Mercy Lacewell. No wonder your dad wants you to take all of these on-sight visits.”
She shrugged. “I don’t know about that. But this is exactly the type of business in which Daddy likes to deal.”
He nodded. “We think alike. Maybe you should talk to him.” He squeezed and released her hand. “After we eat.”


Whether from the food or Dustin’s fun-loving personality, Mercy felt her confidence return. Her stress diminished even more after her call to her dad. “He loved the idea and promised to put Madeline on the research first thing tomorrow.” She grinned as she returned to the table.
Dustin cleared away their dishes. “All right, then.” He handed the bin to Samuel. “All we need to do now is get on to Austin.”
“No. No-no.” Mr. Velasquez came in from the kitchen and removed his apron. “Too much bad roads. You stay with Samuel and me.”
Mercy shook her head. “We couldn’t do that. There has to be a hotel in town.”
“Not nice. No.” He smiled. “Do not worry. I have a nice big guest room.” He winked. “And a sofa bed for the SeƱor.”
Her cheeks warmed.
Dustin glanced at her with a slight shrug. “Chances are we’ll have to stop somewhere anyway.”
She nodded.
The two men shook hands. “Looks like you have a couple of boarders, then.”
Even if she and Dustin didn’t get to visit the Sixth Street restaurant at all, this trip had certainly proved more valuable than she’d ever expected.

From the Authors of Unlikely Merger

A Dozen ApologiesAvailable on Kindle

The Love Boat BachelorAvailable on Kindle

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