As a child, Christmas was a celebrated tradition I missed. Back when confined by four walls in that squalid basement, I laid on the concrete most nights, envisioning which colours I'd decorate the tree and how I'd wrap parcels if given the opportunity. For the first time in a long time, I had the chance to make my dreams come true with people who, unfortunately, I allowed to imprint my life. What started to be a prophesied best memory turned into a heinous day I wished to forget.
Liam Warren had broken my heart.
The night I left Club 11, I returned to the penthouse with Chloe in tow, packed my belongings, tossed the keys onto the kitchen counter and never looked back. Later that night, we checked into an unopened bed and breakfast. Initially, the innkeeper rebuffed accommodation as she'd taken time off for the Christmas period, but after hearing Chloe's persuasive argument about us sleeping on the streets, she relinquished and even offered homemade mince pies.
I ventured to the bank and emptied my savings: first month's rent and bond for a two-bedroom flat. Luckily for me, Liam hadn't charged a penny while I resided with him, so, for now, money wasn't an issue. I was demoralised when first moving into our new home. I'd stupidly became accustomed to extravagance and regal lavishness. I was unfazed by the communal garden, and loitering youths out front. However, our flat, in particular, was shabby, unpleasant and unaccommodating. Floorboards and unfashionable papered walls, layers precariously peeling, exposing stained cigarette smoke and thick damp. In the kitchen, cabinets hung from rusted hinges and missing drawer handles.
We spent an entire month renovating our new home, whitewashing the walls, repaired the kitchen, eliminated filth from the bathroom and Chloe managed to swindle a guy at the local market to install cheap cord carpet throughout the entire flat. Chloe bought canvas paintings she'd found in a nearby charity shop. Then came the scatter pillows and mismatched upholstered furnishing. Her wild colour scheme made no sense, but I found myself liking her taste regardless. My favourite had to be the living plants residing that after two weeks, Chloe neglected which entailed my reluctant watering skills.
This diabolic spruce necessitated sterile gloves, sports caps and trousers tucked into boots to ensure we made it through the ghastly disturbing cleansing journey alive; It was obligatory, I assure you.
I moved on. I forced myself to put one foot in front of the other and forget about my time with Liam Warren. I swore that whatever we shared is over. I declared how much I loathed him—then why does his absence hurt so much? Why do I lay awake at night, wishing he'd enter the bedroom and apologise?
I missed those blue eyes gazing back at me.
I missed his smirk and his cocky mannerisms.
I just missed him.
Although I haven't admitted bereavement aloud, I secretly hate that Liam hasn't fought for me. Perhaps my resentment is unwarranted. He never declared our relationship to be more than sex, no matter how much I didn't want to acknowledge this truth. However, I had hoped he'd ask me to come back to work if nothing else.
We weren't an item, though.
Liam didn't tell me he loved me.
Liam never lied or made promises.
"Woah, Alexa," Grayson, the Coffee House manager, snags the overflowing mug from my hand. "Didn't that hurt?"
I examine my raw skin, enduring the aftermath. "Oh, God," I squirmed, flapping my arms like a bird. "Shit, Grayson! It stings!"
Grayson apologised to the impatient customer on my behalf, instructs another team member to intervene and hauls my complaining backside into his office. "Alexa, calm down." Shutting the door behind us, he encouraged me to perch onto the wooden desk while searching for a first aid kit. "You were miles away," he said, opening a clear container.
I blew my cheeks out, eyes watering involuntarily. "I'm sorry."
"Enough of that," he playfully scolds, shooting me an innocuous wink. "I am more concerned about your skin. Here," he adds a cold compress to my swollen hands, "we need to make sure there's not too much damage."
"It's fine," I said, knowing it's nothing a little cream and pain relief can't fix. "I don't know how you tolerate me."
Grayson hired me within six minutes of my interview. According to Gray, we're soul buddies, though, I secretly believe his high demand for employees aided his impulsiveness. I started my new job role the following morning and, in all fairness to my eccentric manager, his patience level is commendable. I mean, I never claimed to be an outstanding barista but had promised my coffee skills were praiseworthy—lies. I am no better with those damn machines than I was pouring spirits and cocktails at Club 11. Today is the third time I have scolded myself while preoccupied with depressing thoughts. I also mix the wrong beans, burn paninis and give customers improper orders.
I am an atrocious shambles impending the sack.
"You're getting there," he lies, and I groaned. "Honestly, Alexa, You worry that pretty head of yours too much. It's coffee and toast," he adds, striving to lighten the mood. "In a few more weeks, you'll be whizzing around."
Do I love working at the Coffee House? Not overly. Aside from Gray, I don't seem to gel with co-workers. It's possibly my fault. My incessant moodiness is unbecoming and unintentionally hostile, but assisting customers and cracking jokes aren't the same without Josh present. I genuinely miss him. I'd give anything for him to whip me around the backside with a tea towel or call me fugly right now.
"Let's get a look." Gray examines my hands further. Satisfied the swelling lessened, he applies cream, carefully massaging my fingers. If he weren't into blokes, I'd presume those unnecessary finger strokes was a coquettish advance. "Done." Returning the first aid kit to the cupboard, he uproots his wallet, rummaging for change. "Why don't you grab an early lunch break? Get us some coffee and toasted sandwiches."
Nonplussed, I glanced at the door. "There's coffee and sandwiches out front," I remind him, scratching the nape of my neck. "You're trying to get rid of me!"
Gray laughed, ebbing me toward the door. "No, I am giving you an early break to collect yourself—"
"Fine." Slipping out of the black apron, I tossed it on his desk and snagged my purse from the lockers. "I am not accepting your money, though. Lunch is on me." Before he had the chance to protest, I bolted out the door and welcomed midday sun on my face.
I strolled down the street, stopped at the cashpoint and punched the pin code. My finger gyrates above withdrawal amounts, ready to code funds— "What the fuck?" Squinting, I leaned closer to be sure my eyes hadn't deceived me.
"Hurry up, " someone complains behind me. "I don't have all day."
"Just a second," I give the rude bystander a flippant wave, return the card and stumble into the branch. "Excuse me." I fall into the glass partitioned counter, flinging wayward hair from my face. "I have a problem with funds."
The female bank teller peers at me over gold-framed glasses. "How can I help?"
"I just checked my balance," I point blindly, eyebrows furrowing into a frown, "and it's too high. I am worried someone's accidentally wired across money," I giggled nervously, "and if I spend it, I'll be left with a hefty debt to repay."
"Insert your card into the reader."
"Type your pin."
I coded the four digits.
"Okay, Miss Haines," she said, tapping her keyboard. "You received fifty-five thousand last Wednesday that you wish to dispute?"
Those zeros flummoxed me. "It's not my money," I whispered, needing to sit down. "It's a mistake—"
"It was from Warren Enterprise," she explained, turning the screen to show me. "Are you familiar with the company?"
That son of a bitch. "No," I lied, curbing rising repugnance. "I have never heard of it."
Her eyes narrowed. "Your bank statement suggests you've received payments from this company at the end of every calendar month...?"
"Well, yeah," I backtracked, drumming my fingernails on the counter. "I mean, I used to work there—but I didn't earn fifty-five grand." Composing myself, I blew out a soothing slew. "Okay, listen. I do not want that money. I need you to send it back."
She stared at me with a deadpan expression. "You don't wish to keep the funds?"
"No." I will not be indebted to that man. "Please return the balance immediately. Thank you."
The customer representative shakes her head in disbelief, fingertips strumming across the keyboard. "Will you be taking out any money this afternoon, Miss Haines?"
"Just a tenner," I quip, holding the purse to my chest. "Make it fifteen."
Nodding, she finalises the transaction by asking me to sign a receipt, then hands me two notes. "You can remove the card now," she explains, slapping on a fake smile. "Have a lovely day."
"Thank you." Leaving the building, I stuffed everything into my purse and proceeded to the heady smelling burger van on the street corner. I order two hot dogs and chilled colas, pay for the goods and return to the Coffee House.
Grayson is clearing two booths near the windows. I smiled meekly at him, rounded the counter and helped myself to his office.
He joins me moments later, downing his cold drink thirstily. "That smells incredible."
"I hope you like mustard." I bite into the bap, lick tomato sauce from my lips. "This is amazing."
Gray nods, silently chewing his food.
We finish lunch and stand at designated stations: Americano, caramel macchiato, tall latte, Croque monsieur panini and mango salad. I swear to God I will be singing these orders in my sleep. It has been non-stop from the moment I put my apron back on. "Thank you for choosing Coffee House," I recite with a chipper chime, pleasing Gray with my forced enthusiasm. "Good, right?"
"Your vocals need some work," he teased, refilling the chiller with fresh juice and sparkling water. "It's getting late. I'll finish cleaning the machines. Oh, and before you go, take this, and this, over to the table by the window. You cannot miss him. Extremely Hot," he emphasised with a dramatic eye-roll. "Make a note."
Make a note? I accept the tray from him, frowning as I wade through wooden tables. I spot a guy with his back to me, leather jacket stretching to accommodate his muscular frame. "Hey," I said, and he looked up, stealing the air from my lungs. "Uh, you ordered..." I sucked in a measured breath, checked the goods: hot chocolate with mini marshmallows, whipped cream and shortcake. "Your order."
His sculpted physique, although mostly covered with leather and denim, is wrapped in intricate designs, from photorealistic representations of art icons to swirling geometric patterns and religious idols, a hard-edged image: styled brown hair, sculptured jaw and cheekbones, mesmerising forest green eyes, facial piercings, nose ring and eyebrow barbell.
He offers me a friendly smile, displaying his perfectly straight white teeth, tongue peeking out to smooth along his bottom lip, giving me a glimpse of his titanium piercing and when he sets the newspaper aside, I marvel at his inked hands and fingers. "Cheers," he said, his voice smooth yet rough. His eyes are breath-taking, intense and beguiling.
"No problem," I squeak, arranging his order onto the table.
"I got to have my sugar fix," he said, lifting the mug to his mouth, licking cream from his full lips.
I found myself oddly fascinated by that innocent tongue sweep. "Oh, you have diabetes?"
His puzzlement added a hint of red to my cheeks. "No." He chuckled, folding his arms, leaning back in his chair. "Just like my sugar."
"Well, who doesn't love sugar, right?" Hand to my hip, I continued to prattle, "I swear, I practically live on ice-cream. I buy at least six litres per week. And I am not kidding. I pack that sugary goodness away and search for leftovers in the freezer."
Alexa, shut up. Stop talking. Stop embarrassing yourself.
"Vanilla is my favourite," I tell him as if he cares, "and I am partial to chocolate, although mint has become a somewhat requirement over recent years..."
"No, shit." He's modest enough to play along. "Ice-cream is a must. Where do you put all those calories, though?" His eyes toured me from head-to-toe. "You're a dot."
"Oh, I got some thunder thighs," I belittle myself, cheeks scorching. "I chafe all the time."
He busted out laughing. "Chafing up, huh? Sounds painful."
I actually have no idea; I don't even know why I said that. "Anyway," I inched back, feeling Gray's nosiness drilling into the side of my head, "enjoy your sugar."
"Jace," he said, and I halted. "My name...?" His eyebrows curved, waiting for me to cotton on. "It's Jace."
I smiled at him. "Nice to meet you, Jace."
"And you are...?" His head tilted slightly, eyes searching mine. "I assume you have a name, too."
"Alexa," I later found my voice. "My name is Alexa."
"Alexa," he repeated, my name rolling off his tongue. His green eyes seared into mine, something ineffable etched to his hardened features. "Thanks for the beverage, Alexa."
A nervous chill raced across my flushed skin. I spin on my heel, rush behind the counter and busy myself with cleaning. I sensed Jace's eyes on me and didn't quite know I felt about it.
While spraying the countertops with disinfectant, I peered over to his window table, furtively watching him type a message on his phone. As if detecting my curiosity, he lifted his gaze, a small smirk teasing his lips.
I mirrored his fondness, waving like an idiot, inwardly berating myself.
Jace is handsome, not in the Liam sense, but within his own right. He doesn't wear tailored suits, twenty-four karat gold or ice diamonds. He's not modelling Ferragamo shoes, just a simple pair of heavy-duty boots and faded denim jeans.
I put my back to him or else he'll catch my perverted distortion. Growling under my breath, I buried my head to the counter—
"Alexa," Jace called, and I whipped around to face him. "You didn't ask for payment." He held up a bank card. "Can I settle it now so that I can leave?"
It is pitiful that I assumed he called me for another reason. "Of course," I whispered, wiping cleaning residue from my hands. I grab the PDQ, code in his order and pass it over the counter.
Jace slid in his card, thumbed the transaction. "I don't think I've seen you here before," he mused, making small-talk. "Are you new?"
"Relatively." The black T-shirt stretches across his broad chest, leaving little to the imagination. "Why do you ask?"
"Curious," he murmurs, returning the reader. He lingered for a few strained seconds, almost as if he wants to continue our conversation, then decides against it. "It was nice meeting you."
Jace walked away, and I didn't breathe until the Coffee House door closed behind him.
"What did I tell you?" Gray miraculously appears, eyeing the door with me. "Hot, right?"
"He is definitely," I pursed my lips, "different."
"Different?" His beautiful face bunched up in horror. "Girl, that guy is a wet dream," he purrs, tousling his blond tendrils. "He is definitely my wet dream."
"Oh, God." Giggling, I begin to clear the spillage trays. "And I thought I was smitten."
He deliberately licked his lips. "Spank bank material."
"Grayson, will you shut up? You're giving me unwanted front row seats to late-night jerking sessions."
"Come on now. Admit you're going to use that sex god to get yourself off later."
"Absolutely not. I have a boy..." I stopped washing the container, a harsh and stupid reminder hitting me in the chest.
"You have a boy," he parodied, scoffing theatrically. "What type of answer is that?"
How do I say I am obsessing over a man who doesn't want me? "Well, no." I grimaced, rubbing the chill from my arms. "We're not exactly boyfriend and girlfriend or whatever." Or anything, I thought, wanting to kick myself.
"There you go." He clapped his hands. "You can cheat on a fuck buddy."
This conversation is bringing down my jubilant mood. "It's complicated." I am not with Liam. I don't even know why I thought about him. "Coffee?"
"I am good." He balanced an elbow on the counter, chin resting on a clenched fist. "So, do you?"
I blinked twice. "Do I what?"
His eyebrows danced deviously. "Get yourself off!"
He literally couldn't have said that any louder if he tried.
"Fucking hell, Gray. Why not say it that a bit louder, so the whole Coffee House can hear you," I snapped, pretending not to notice the watchfulness emitting from the back. "Anyway, why do you care? You're gay. Me telling you about masturbation sessions does nothing for you."
"Because I'm nosey, woman."