A/N: This turned out to be harder to write than expected. Big thanks to Ms Kathy, algonquinrt and philadelphic for their guidance on Edward's character. Extra hugs for Ms K's mad beta skills. I loff her. No hugs for work, which is kicking my ass right now.
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Sometime in June
It was Tuesday afternoon, and the restaurant was quiet. Only a few tables were occupied since the lunch rush had ended an hour before. Customers would start appearing again as offices emptied out and people were heading home; Poppy's did a nice a take-out business around dinner time.
The door opened; Poppy automatically glanced up – and smiled. Carlisle Cullen was leaning the doorway, his graying blond hair rumpled from the warm breeze outside.
"Come on in, Carlisle," she called. "You want a booth?" Carlisle frequently brought clients into Poppy's to hammer out the details of real estate offers in the neighborhood. That was how he had first met Poppy, and they'd been fast friends as a result for a dozen years now.
"No, just me today," he said, sliding on to a counter stool. Poppy poured him a coffee and pushed the sugar across to him. "I wanted to talk to you."
"No trouble with one of your boys, I hope?" she asked, frowning. "Emmett's just getting up to speed and Edward … well, I don't know how I'd manage without him." Carlisle looked up sharply, as if he thought Poppy was teasing. "Don't hear that much about your oldest, do you?" she asked.
"No," said Carlisle. "Not for some years." He fiddled with the sugar packets as Poppy waited for him to speak. "He's doing well then?"
"Edward's doing very well," said Poppy. "At first, I wasn't sure he'd be a good fit. But he's found his rhythm, and he's turning into a really good server. Customers like him, his tickets are usually above average, and he turns his tables over nicely during the rush. He's already got a few regular customers."
"Yes, regulars," Carlisle said, shifting on the stool. Poppy started to get an idea as to where this conversation was headed. "Emmett says … well … he made a comment at the dinner table the other night. About a woman." He chuckled nervously. "Not that there's anything unusual about women who like Edward! But his reaction was unexpected. When Esme and I got to talking that night, I started to wonder …"
Poppy said nothing, just refilled his coffee cup. Carlisle reached into his back pocket and pulled out his wallet. He opened it, extracted a bill and laid it down on the counter between them.
"Who is she, Poppy?" he asked, pushing the bill across to her. She picked it up, studied it.
"Where'd you get this?" she hedged.
"Edward's putting some of his money aside for … a special purpose," said Carlisle, choosing his words carefully. "He gives it to me in cash at the end of the week. A few months ago, I started noticing that the occasional 20 dollar bill had something written on it – a bit of homespun advice or encouragement. Around the same time, we started noticing a change in Edward. Not a huge one, but a good one.
"It wasn't until Emmett said what he did at the dinner table that Esme put it all together. There's someone in Edward's life, isn't there? A customer … from this restaurant … who is helping him somehow. Getting his life back on track."
Poppy stopped wiping the counter. "Isn't this a conversation you should have with your son, Carlisle?"
"Edward and I haven't had a decent conversation in nearly three years," Carlisle said, making a face. "He's a stranger living under my roof. Some of the things we've said to one another…" He trailed off. "I don't know if I'll be able to repair the damage in our relationship. But I want to know who is trying to repair the damage in Edward himself. Please, tell me."
"Edward's my employee, and I won't violate his privacy," Poppy said. "But I know a bit about the woman whose handwriting is on this bill. She's a regular customer and we've chatted a few times. Separated from her husband. Has a little girl, a six-year-old, cute as a button.
"Her name is Bella. For some reason, she started writing bits of advice on Edward's tips. No one knows why. But now she's one of the restaurant's best customers; the whole staff knows her and the child. I've had to settle more than a few arguments over who gets her table because she's a terrific tipper."
"And that's about it," said Poppy with a shrug. "She's an extremely private person. Well spoken, well read. Courteous. Treats the staff with great respect and affection. Appears to be quite wealthy. An ideal customer for a family restaurant."
Carlisle sat for a moment. He opened his mouth a few times, but nothing came out. "What?" asked Poppy at last. "What were you expecting?"
"She sounds decent," he finally said.
"Were you expecting her to be indecent?" Poppy asked, amused.
"I don't know what I was expecting," Carlisle said. "Edward's judgment isn't always the greatest. He's gotten himself into quite a bit of trouble in the last few years." He bit down on his words abruptly, as if not wanting to say more.
"He passed the background check I ran on him," said Poppy. "So whatever he's done in the past hasn't stuck. He has no criminal record. A few informal run-ins with the law?" Carlisle nodded. "Hanging with a bad crowd?" Another nod. "Drinking? Drugs?" Poppy paused. "Maybe got a girl in the family way?"
"Yes to the first two. No to the last one, thank God. Or if he has, we've never heard about it." Carlisle sighed. "I know other kids go through these phases in life and come out fine on the other side, but Edward already has some … significant strikes against him."
Here was the heart of the matter, Poppy realized.
"What strikes are those?" she asked. Her old friend couldn't even look up when he answered.
"Have you ever read anything he's written? Tried to get him to focus on something for more than 10 minutes at a stretch?" Carlisle glanced up and saw understanding in Poppy's face. "You know what I'm talking about. If it's a subject he loves – like music or art – he'll give you his undivided attention. But for other things, things that really count, he doesn't have the time of day. His literacy is really bad. It's his weakest subject."
Poppy hesitated, hating to venture into such personal territory. But the question was begging to be asked. "Haven't you ever had him tested for a learning disability?"
"There's nothing wrong with my son," said Carlisle stiffly. "So slapping a label on him won't help the situation."
"You didn't answer my question," Poppy replied. Carlisle sighed and shook his head.
"Once," he said finally. "Some fancy school shrink had him in for testing. Attention deficit disorder, she thought. Esme agreed with her, but both of us were hesitant to have him medicated." He leaned forward, his face earnest. "Really, Edward just needs to apply himself more consistently."
"Uh huh," she said doubtfully. Poppy wasn't a psychologist, but it seemed to her that there was more to Edward's limitations than laziness. With the right motivation, he could hustle with the best of them. "Where did he apply himself in school?"
"Like I said, the artistic subjects. Art. Music. Photography. His sketches are really quite beautiful. Now, if he'd just apply that creativity to his writing and combine it with his photography, I think his ads would really sing. Add his good looks to the mix, and he'd have clients knocking his door down. I've proposed this to him more than once …"
"Wait," said Poppy. "You've lost me. Ads? Clients?" She suddenly shouted with laughter. "You want Edward to be a real estate agent? Like you?"
"Why not?" he asked defensively. "I've got an established practice, one that earns this family good money. A lot of kids join their parents in the business."
"I'm sure they do," she said. "But Edward isn't one of them. I'm not certain where Edward's interests lie, but they're not along those lines. I could see him as a graphic designer maybe, or a chef. He's made some really solid contributions to our new menu. Maybe a house painter. But you'll never make your boy into a salesman, Carlisle, no matter how hard you try."
"With all due respect, Poppy, I think I know Edward better than you do," he said, looking irritated.
"With all due respect, Carlisle, you walked into my restaurant to ask my advice about your son, and I'm giving it to you. You can't tell me this is the first time you've heard this either." Carlisle's face flushed a dull red and Poppy knew she'd hit the mark. Her voice softened. "You think I don't know what it's like to have your kid walk away from a family business? You don't see Greg behind this counter, do you?" Poppy's only child was married and worked in California for one of the Silicon Valley powerhouses. He had never wanted to run the restaurant. "It's one of the toughest things for a parent to let go of. But eventually, you come to terms with it."
Poppy saw terrible pain in Carlisle's face when he said this – the pain of a parent who realizes their child didn't turn out the way they expected. She leaned forward and took one of Carlisle's hands in her weathered fingers, surprising them both.
"He's a good boy. Yes, he's gone through a bad phase, but he's coming around. Maybe he does have a strike against him if he struggles with book learning. But there are so many more choices today, so many things he could do and do well. He's got to find his rhythm in the working world, the same way he found it here."
"God, I wish I could believe that," said Carlisle. "Edward is so angry with life, with everything. It doesn't help that he has friends who come from wealthy families and have never had to lift a finger. He looks at them, strolling through life and he's furious that his life seems to be such a struggle."
"So he's an angry young man who maybe has a learning disability and is discovering that life isn't fair. I get that. But Carlisle, why the big concern about Bella?"
"Edward is a good-looking kid," said Carlisle. "We're pretty sure he managed to pass his last couple of English courses in high school because of the help he got from some of the smarter, less secure girls in his classes. I'm worried that the pattern might be repeating itself." He took a deep breath. "That perhaps he's seeing this woman … and being rewarded for it." Carlisle flushed red at this last statement. "Or worse, that he's run into someone who is much better at the game than he is."
"To the best of my knowledge, they've never seen one another outside this restaurant," Poppy said. "I've never once seen remotely flirtatious behavior from Bella, and believe me, I've watched. Once I realized she and Edward had developed a friendship, I kept a pretty close eye on her."
"What does she do for a living?" asked Carlisle.
"You know, it's funny you ask," she answered. "No one knows exactly what she does. She tells me that she runs her own business and that her work is confidential. Sometimes she comes in during the afternoon lull and works on her computer. Lately she's been toting a giant folder of papers around with her. Uses that BlackBerry of hers non-stop." Poppy paused and looked at Carlisle. "If I tell you what I think she does … and who I think she really is … will you keep it to yourself?
Carlisle looked surprised. "Well, sure. unless you think she's a mobster or something."
"Far from it," she said. Poppy leaned over the counter and spoke quietly for a moment. Carlisle listened, his expression going from disbelief to thoughtfulness. Then he chuckled.
"My God. That would be ironic, now wouldn't it?" he said.
"So it would," Poppy agreed, glancing at her watch. "Mind you, I don't have a shred of proof to back it up, so take it for what it's worth. After-work folks are going to start coming in, so I've got to get back in the kitchen and make sure the boys aren't napping on me." She clasped Carlisle's outstretched hand and shook it. "You going to tell Edward you were in? I think it would be best if you did. He'll be in for the dinner shift soon."
"I'll make sure he knows," he replied. "Thanks, Poppy. You've given me a lot to think about."
"Anytime. You know, you should drop around this weekend and have brunch. The French toast is good, and I'm sure your boys would love to show off for you and the Cullen ladies." She cocked an eyebrow at him. "Might put your mind at ease about some other things, too."
"Maybe we will then," Carlisle said thoughtfully. "Maybe we will."
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A/N: As mentioned above, I'm in a very busy cycle at work right now, but hopefully I will be back with a regular chapter of Tips soon. Thanks to all my readers for their insightful reviews and comments!