Sharon had already jumped down from her side and was talking to the horses as if they could understand her. They were just dumb animals, but she had a soft spot for them. Ben usually thought it was sweet. Today it annoyed him.
No, if he was honest, he was annoyed because he knew any minute she was going to turn her attention to the dragons. She would want to drag him over to see them while she ooh’d and aah’d about how beautiful and magnificent they were. He was already thinking of an excuse, but she came around the horses and hugged him, catching him off guard. He hugged her back and gave her quick kisses, then pulled her away from the dragons toward the café.
As they walked in, still arm in arm, his heart sank. All the tables and the counter seats were full. There was only one single guy sitting at a table, and before Ben could reign her in, Sharon had already walked up to him. “Hi! It’s a full house today – mind if we join you?”
The guy looked up from his paper and waved his coffee mug toward the opposite seat. “Help yourself. There’s coffee in the pot if you wanna grab a couple mugs from the counter.” Ben groaned. Sharon really had no sense of strangers – they were just friends she hadn’t met yet. She picked up two mugs off the counter and waved to the waitress, then slid onto the empty bench. Ben had no choice but to sit next to her.
The other guy gave him a funny look. “Name’s Richard. Richard Jansen. You look an awful lot like someone I used to know. What’s your name, son?”
Ben shifted uncomfortably on the bench. “Ben. Ben Waltham. This is Sharon Cates.”
Richard nodded. “I wondered. I can’t believe it. Waltham – you have got to be related to George Waltham. You’re his spittin’ image.”
Ben jerked upright. His hand trembled on the table. Sharon put hers over his, squeezing, calming. She laced their fingers together. Bern focused on them, trying to breathe calmly. “How did you know my Uncle George?” He already knew the answer. He’d seen it outside.
“I trained with him in the Dragon Corps, and we rode together for sixteen years. He was a good man, your uncle. I still miss him.”
Ben spat out. “He was…until that monster killed him! Is that her out there? Do you ride his killer?” Sharon gripped his fingers tight, her face draining of color. He had never told her why he disliked the dragons that fascinated her so.
Richard’s face darkened, and he set down his coffee mug with slow precision. “Son, someone’s done you a disservice. Old Bess didn’t kill George.”
“What do you know about it?” Ben almost shouted. He drew in a ragged breath and preprared to tell Sharon they had to get out of there.
Richard said quietly, “I was there. I saw the whole thing.”
Ben sank back in the seat, staring, as Richard continued. “Bess didn’t kill your uncle, Ben. He was working hazmat, trying to contain a crazed dam. The dam knocked him out with her tail, and Bess stood over him. She tried to save him from being roasted alive.” He hesitated, his gaze turned in, replaying the memory. “Bess took the flames herself. She still has the scars. The dam was in a rage, shooting flame all around. It took the hazmat crew almost twenty minutes to contain her. By that time, George was dead, and Bess nearly was.”
Richard lifted his coffee mug. “I don’t know who told you otherwise, son, or why. But your uncle was a good friend to me and a hero that day. Yes, I took care of Bess while she healed. We mourned for George together.”
Ben stared at the table, his fingers still entwined with Sharon, the dingy, well-fingered menu against the window – anywhere but Richard. “My mother. She told me Bess turned on him for no reason.”
Sharon asked, “Why would she lie to you like that?”
Ben looked up, finally meeting Richard’s gaze. Richard nodded his understanding. Ben said, “She was afraid. She didn’t want me to become a dragon rider too.”
Richard left a few bills on the table and collected his paper and cap. He stood and looked down at them. “Would you like to meet her? I think she would be mighty happy to meet you.”
Ben looked away again and shook his head. Sharon leaned against him and smiled sadly up at Richard. “Thank you. Really. Maybe we’ll see you another time. Take care of yourself.”
“You too, young lady. Both of you.” He rested his hand on Ben’s shoulder for a moment, then walked away. Ben sat staring, sightlessly, listening to the bells on the café door as it opened and closed. Sharon sat quietly with him.
Suddenly Ben leaped up without a word and ran out the door.
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