"Thank you for visiting the Coffee House," I chimed, handing the stern customer a regular decaf. "Enjoy."
Gray nudged me with his hip. "You're overly happy this morning, Alexa." He waggled his eyebrows impishly. "Did somebody get laid last night?"
This man has an obsession with my sex life. "No." I haven't seen Liam for almost a week—an entire week since our date at the penthouse. I am unperturbed, though. He doesn't call, never. He does, however, send many text messages, expressing atypical sentiments.
How did you sleep, baby?
When are you coming back to work?
I'm busy, but I haven't forgotten about you.
What are you doing?
I miss you, Alexa. Send me a picture of that beautiful face.
I thought about you last night (this message landed with a wink emoji).
"I just am, Gray." I blew out a heavenly sigh, resting my elbows onto the coffee-stained counter. "Nothing could deter my funk right now."
"Deter your funk?" he repeated, scoffing to belittle me. "Who says that?"
"I do," I retort, restocking the napkin holder. "And—whoa." I jerked, sending Jace a derisive glare. "Did your hand just land on my ass?"
Calm and collected, Jace popped a pierced eyebrow, opening a delivery box. "Is that a serious question, Alexa? Why would I feel your ass?" He opens the display cabinet. Refills premade baked goods and squeezed juices. "Shit. You were serious?"
Heat builds in my veins. "No..." Am I imagining wandering gropes? I unmistakably felt a hand brush past my backside. Maybe he unmindfully touched me, or perhaps Grayson's winding me up again. "Gray?"
My manager held up his hands in surrender, eyes darting between his employees. "I got no interest in your ass, girl. Save the threats."
I am an arrogant bitch. "Sorry," I whispered, returning to my duties. "I thought..." You thought what, Alexa? That Jace randomly fondled you—and with Grayson present? "I'll clear the tables."
Leaving the men to wipe the coffee machines, I worked my way around the shop floor, spraying, wiping tables, emptying designated disposal units.
Two hours into my shift, I stopped for an early lunch, barricaded myself inside Grayson's office and checked to see if Liam responded to my last text message.
Liam: I'm still waiting for that photo.
Licking crumbs from my lips, I set the sandwich down, checked nobody was standing in the doorway, unravelled my hair and posed. I check the image, lip curling in disdain. I click delete, sample another—nope. "Shit." Losing the apron, I shifted on the leather chair, angled my head better and snapped. It's not the best representation of myself. My untamed hair and faded makeup are unbecoming. I send the image, nonetheless, hoping he'll approve.
I see three dots dance on the screen and hold on my breath.
Liam: Fucking beautiful.
Liam: Those eyes, baby.
Smiling triumphantly, I almost asked him to return the favour but knew Liam would never capture selfies.
Me: Thank you.
Liam: Don't thank me for complimenting you, Alexa.
Me: What are you doing?
Liam: Lunch with the men.
Liam: I'll try and pick you up this week.
Me: I can't wait.
When he doesn't respond, I tuck the phone away, finish lunch.
Ten minutes later, I fall behind the counter and help Gray close shop. While swilling the blenders, another faint touch on my elbow. On this particular occasion, I remain unruffled. Nibbling my lower lip, I cast my eyes downwards, but scour my surroundings surreptitiously. Jace whistles to my right, feigning busy, wiping spotless counters. I sensed him watching me, close, attentive, too inquisitive. I turned, delivered an unsuspecting smile. He smiled back.
Ten minutes later, Jace intentionally stroked me again. His hand swept over my lower back, brazen, almost taunting.
I lifted my head, studied the mounted wall-clock, contemplated how to handle his inappropriateness without causing an unnecessary scene.
"Do you need help?" he asked, lips tickling my ear. "You look tired." His shoulder virtually rests on mine, cologne all-encompassing, leather and sandalwood. "Alexa?"
"I'm fine," I fibbed, gaiting to the door, flipping over the closed sign. "Maybe ask Grayson."
I do not imagine Jace's sudden interest. In forty-five minutes that man hasn't steered his eyes from me. He patrols my every move, monopolises trivial conversations and indelicately finds a reason to paw me with those large, inky hands.
"Alexa," said Jace, faintly dragging his groin across my backside. "I—"
"You need to stop," I warned, pinning him with a death glare. "Jace, you cannot behave like this. Not only is it inappropriate and unprofessional, but I am also in a relationship with a jealous psychopath who wouldn't think twice of dismembering and burying you." I omit Liam's name as I don't want to start our relationship with negativity and needy, pointless drama. "And don't even think about calling me insane. Your hands slip far too often, and it's making me uncomfortable."
Jace looked wholly horrified. "I...You think I'm...Are you accusing me of sexual harassment? Those types of accusations can get me in trouble, Alexa."
Oh, now he's acting melodramatic. "No, I am pointing out that you're a little too touchy-feely, Jace. If I wanted to cause you any problems, then I'd be sitting in Grayson's office filing a complaint." I tossed the cloth onto the table, wiped my hands in the apron. "Listen, arguing with you is futile. We're co-workers who spend more time here than we do at home, which means we're in each other's company a lot. I'd like to be friends, without the inappropriate fondling, or our situation is going to be extremely unpleasant."
"I am not interested in you, Alexa." His mocking eyes seared into me. "Or any woman, for that matter..." He leaves me to fill in the blanks. "Oh, come on. Don't tell me it's not apparent."
I blinked rapidly. "What?"
He motions to himself as if stating the obvious.
My eyebrows met in a confused frown. "Are you trying to tell me you're gay?"
He nods sheepishly.
"Oh, I'm so sorry," I blurted, shame heating my neck and cheeks. "I didn't know, Jace. I thought..." You're vain and seemingly egotistical, Alexa. "You just don't look..." How do I put it? "Like Grayson."
"I heard that," Gray quips, eyeing me over the cash register.
Jace chuckled, scratching the back of his neck. "That's because Grayson is more open about his sexuality. I'm not." He tucks his hands into his trouser pockets, giving me a weak, humiliated smile. "Listen, Alexa. I am sorry if I came across the wrong way or offended you. I'm the new guy—a nervous new guy, who's just trying to make friends. And, well, you're a little distant and cold sometimes..."
"Alexa is full of herself," adds Grayson. "Just ignore her."
"Gray," I hiss, chagrined, cheeks bright red. "Will you please shut your mouth." God, he is not helping my case here.
"It's true." My unruly manager strode toward us. "Alexa believes every man wants her."
I fisted his black polo shirt. "Gray, what the ever-living-fuck is wrong with you?"
Smirking like a Cheshire cat, he throws an arm across my shoulders, tugging me close. "You know I'm fucking with you." He looked at Jace. "Alexa has a boy slash man friend that she's obsessed with, so I doubt she's seeking prospects. I'm, however, single." His toothy grin had tickled me. "In case you're interested."
Jace bristled, cheeks sinking, ashen white. "I am cool, man."
"That's a shame," said Gray, eyes roaming Jace's muscular physique suggestively. "I'm a giver."
I choked on air. "Dear God."
"Duly noted," Jace rasped, a nervous laugh rattling in his chest. "I'll keep that in mind."
"How about this for an idea? Why don't we all go out tonight? Something simple." He pondered briefly. "Food, cocktails and maybe some dancing. What do you guys think?"
We never associate outside of work. "Why?"
"So that we can all mingle," Gray deadpans, boring into me with a threatening glint. "Come on, Alexa. It'll be fun."
"Sure," Jace husked, tongue piercing cleaved between a white grin. "I'm down for whatever."
"Okay." I guess alcohol and food never hurt anybody. "I'll bring my friend, Chloe."
Convincing Chloe to escort me on a night out was hardly troublesome. The second I mentioned men and cocktails, she disrobed Bruce Almighty style and glamorised her once tired appearance.
A tempestuous wind and cool drizzles greeted me as I clambered from the taxi. I covered the driver with a generous tip, squealed behind Chloe when the heavens complained, clangorous thunderclaps and torrential downpour, lashing against the streets of London.
"Oh, shit," I laughed, ducking into the restaurant, soaked hair clinging to my back and shoulders. Perhaps a short red dress was presumptuously daring, considering the depressing weather.
For a shack-style experience, sand dusted the hardwood floors, and colourful chalkboards mount the oak-panelled walls: red, yellow, green and black rustic, mismatched tables, wooden chairs, graffiti canvases, low-hanging dim light fixtures, friendly waiters and reggae music. "You Want Me" by Vybz Kartel currently sounds from the rear stage, partygoers occupy the dancefloor.
The waiter collects two menus. "Table for two?"
"Reservation," I said, pointing to Jace and Grayson, seated at a corner booth. "We're with them." He delivered the menus, motioning for us to follow. "Hey, guys." Smiling, I slip onto the warm leather bench with Chloe shuffling close. "I hope you didn't start without us."
"Bring two more of these over," Gray tells the waiter, elevating a giant fishbowl above his head. "And don't go easy on the rum. I plan to get unbridled and insatiably sloshed."
"Nothing new, then," I mumbled, scanning the price list. Honestly, Grayson's hungover six out of seven days a week. I commend his late-night gregariousness and irrepressible partying.
"What's your secret?" Jace asked him, shifting somewhat uncomfortably in his seat. He looks handsome in his fitted black shirt and additional gold jewellery tonight. Brown hair slicked back with a few wiry strands falling over his brow. He caught my cataloguing and smirked at me with light raillery. "You okay over there, Alexa?"
"Yes," I said, a touch ruffled. "I'm looking for something to eat."
"Oh, I might be able to help with that," Grayson teases, winking lasciviously. "I hope you like meat."
That man is irredeemable. "Not as much as you, apparently."
"Alexa," Gray reached between tealight candles, turned my menu the right way, "your pricelist was upside down."
I masqueraded discomfiture. "I knew that."
Chloe snorted, thanking the waiter for our alcoholic filled bowls. "I'm Chloe," she introduces herself. "I've heard so much about you guys."
"Really?" Gray chimed, followed by a crescendo of laughter. "I have heard absolutely nothing about you."
"That's a lie," I fired back, calling out his frivolous dismissal. "Chloe, I discuss you to the point Gray tells me to become a lesbian."
Gray nodded, sharp, vehement. "It's true," he confirms, and I considered sending him articles on split personalities. "I think she secretly loves you, Goldie Locks. At this dire point, I know the size of your bra."
Chloe turned at the waist, glaring at me beneath hooded brows. "You told them my bra size?"
"No," I retorted, flinging my manager a miffed glance. "He's obviously had too much to drink—"
"And I checked out your knockers the second you sat down," Gray adds, and Jace chortled behind a clenched fist. "Don't worry, though. I'm harmless and prefer men."
Against Chloe's better judgment, she chuckled, unvexed by Gray's innocuousness. "Your petulant behaviour is a sign of senility," she said, and he jerked an insouciant shoulder. "But I'll take your perverted compliment." Plucking up the menu, she pondered dishes. "This is my first visit to a Caribbean bar, so I don't know what to order...And what does a Rasta burger, entail?"
"I come here, religiously," Gray said with a flippant hand wave. "Don't trouble that little head of yours. I'll do the ordering."
"Little head," she repeated, cocking her head to the side. "Besides, who said I require assistance to order a damn meal? Don't," she warns with a pointed finger, dragging her fishbowl away from his wandering hand, "touch my alcohol."
I shared a worried look with Jace.
"Why all the hostility, Goldie Locks?" Gray goads, mischief pivoting in his narrowed eyes. "Quit whining and get drunk with me."
Her forehead creased in bewilderment. "Is there something mentally wrong with you?"
I spluttered mid-drink, alcohol burning my throat. "Chloe," I gasped, and Jace passed me a napkin. "You can't ask questions like that."
"I just did," she quips with temerity, haughtily scowling to the motormouth across the table. "Do we have a problem?"
"No," Gray scoffed, tossing a bunched-up napkin in her face. "I'm trying to loosen your wedgie is all."
Jace slowly shook his head. "I am so fucking confused."
I concur. "Likewise."
Our waiter reappears. "Are you ready to order?"
Grayson recites our order, adding additional beverages. "How long are we talking? My tummy thinks my mouth is on strike." Patting his stomach, he adds, "It needs fuel."
Twenty minutes later, our dishes arrived alongside various coloured cocktails. These crafted drinks are already taking effect, relaxing my coiled-up body. "This is divine," I murmur around a bamboo-like straw, watching edible leaves float amid glitter, frosting decorating the glass rim. "And lethal."
"Right," Gray rubs his palms together. "Solo wings, Caribbean bites, sweet chilli prawns, Dutty fries, plantain, mango slaw and jerk sauce. I promise," he emphasises, eyes rolling heavenward, "you're going to be hooked."
We shared dishes, individually ladling tasters onto our plates. "Alexa," Jace said, forking shredded chicken into his mouth. "There is a slight cinch in your London accent." Licking sauce from his lips, he chewed quietly. "Why is that?"
Chloe pays scant attention to our conversation, warming up to Gray's eccentric mannerisms and uncontrollable tongue. They engage in a light-hearted conversation, discussing a rave they'd both enjoyed last year.
"Uh, I wasn't born in London," I said, taken aback by his perceptiveness. "I'm originally from Cornwall. Newquay to be exact."
"Really?" He seemed surprised. "Why did you move?"
I swallowed rice, deliberating a response. I mean, his innocent questions aren't bothersome, but I am enjoying socialising and cocktails. Depressing stories will only hinder my ebullience. "I moved a long time ago with my sister." I omit the details. Our past is hardly a secret, though, if Jace isn't privy, I'd like to keep it that way. "What about you? Born and raised Londoner?"
"The outskirts." He doesn't elaborate, eyeing Chloe with a questioning glint. "Is she your...?"
"No, we're best friends. Kathy," I corrected, pain returning to my chest. "My sister's name is Kathy."
"I guess I'll meet her soon?" Setting his finished dish aside, he crossed his arms, rested back in his chair. "She probably hounds the Coffee House for discounted beverages, huh?"
I masked concerns once more. "Maybe in the future," I said resolutely, forking coleslaw. "Kathy's presently backpacking around Europe."
"Impressive." He studied me with considerate concentration. "You miss her, though, right?"
Why am I shrinking under his inoffensive line of questioning?
"Of course, I miss her." I'll never stop loving Kathy. Immaterial to her behaviour before she died. "Nothing good vodka can't fix," I chimed with feigned humour. "What about you, Jace? Any family...?"
He breathed in, chest expanding. "My parents died a few years back." I noted an angered twitch in his neck. "That's pretty much it."
"I'm sorry," I said, needing to change subjects before we stepped into uncharted territory. "So, tattoos?" I wrapped my lips around the draw, frowning when no liquid quenches. "What happened?"
"You finished, Alexa." Jace removes my bowl, kindly positioning his between us. "Here. We can share." He waited until I sipped. "I'm a tattoo artist."
I puckered a brow. "That explains your love for ink." My clutch vibrates, but I didn't rush to answer my phone. "Question time. Do you tattoo yourself and does getting ink hurt?"
"No, I prefer when someone else needles them on," he explains, declining Grayson's offer for extra dumpling portions. "I think pain is based on individual discretion. I personally enjoy a long sitting; it's quite addictive."
"You call voluntary pain enjoyable?" No, thank you. I'd rather not traumatise myself. "I'd love one. I couldn't stomach it, though."
His gaze roamed my exposed arms. "Don't knock it until you try it. I think a little ink would suit you."
I snorted. "Never going to happen," I said firmly, regarding the challenge in his eyes. "I mean it, buddy. Keep your gun away from me. I bite."
He gave me a long, immerse look. "Feisty."
My phone jittered again. I apologised, unclipped my clutch and stifled excitement. "Hey," I answered, butterflies fluttering in my stomach. "What's wrong?"
The line remained silent for a moment. "Why do you assume something is wrong?" Liam asked, his rough voice sprouting me in goosebumps. "Am I not allowed to call my girl?"
I nibbled my lower lip, smiling like a deranged woman. "You never call."
"What?" Gray shrieked, lobbing an ice-cube at Jace. "And I thought I was a pervert."
Jace snickered, draping an arm on the bench rear. "I'm honest," he proudly states, discerning my perplexity. "I actually defended you, Alexa. Gray reckons you're the unfortunate owner of A-cups, so I corrected him." His eyes dipped to my chest. "More than a handful is too much, right? I think you have great tits."
Why would he choose this exact moment to say something so gratuitously inappropriate?
I tore my eyes away, heart lunging to my throat. "Liam—"
"Where are you?" I'd suspected his haste bellicose. "Who the fuck was that?"
I murdered both assholes with a contemptuous scowl. "I am at a restaurant with work friends," I confirmed, ignoring their judgmental stares. "I text you earlier—"
"A co-worker who thinks it's acceptable to make licentious comments about you."
I ceded, sinking back in my seat. "They were only—"
"Don't trivialise or disparage his behaviour, Alexa," he warned, and I knew Chloe overheard because she shook her head in disapproval. "I'm not okay with this."
If Jace heard, he seemed oddly impervious to the unsubtle threat in Liam's voice. "Can we do this later please?" I whispered, cheeks reddening with each passing second. "Not in front of an audience."
Liam sighed into the receiver—and then the asshole ended the call. I lowered the phone, jaw slackening.
"Did he hang up on you?" Chloe asked, studying my phone as if it offended her. "Seriously, Alexa. I don't know how you tolerate him. That guy," she slurs, pointing at me while addressing the men, "is surrounded by naked women daily. I mean, he probably fucks half of them—"
"Chloe," I scold, wishing she'd control her wayward tongue. "You know that's not true—"
"Yet he has the audacity to get shitty with my best friend because she's out with a bunch of fully clothed gay guys." She dramatically rolled her eyes. "Warren and his double-fucking-standards."
Jace shot me an interrogative look. "You're dating Liam Warren?"
I couldn't differentiate whether Chloe's rhadamanthine thoughtlessness stemmed from alcohol inebriation or usually suppressed opinion. "Yes," I respond, blundering with the fishbowl.
Jace gnarled his teeth. "Warren is fucking dangerous," he points out with asperity. "Why the hell are you aligning yourself with a man like that?"
"Hey, come on, guys." Gray's light mood sharply plummeted. His understanding voice fails to desensitise me. "Alexa's a big girl. It's her choice—"
"Isn't he a bit old for you?" Jace proceeds and I had wondered where the defensiveness escalated from. "What are you? Eighteen?"
"Twenty," I corrected, speculating if he's intentionally deriding me. "Liam's only twenty-nine."
That annoying brute locked his pulsing jaw, green eyes enlarging. "You might not appreciate my opinion or friendly advice," he said, and tension sheathed my body. "I'll deliver regardless. You need to be careful with him, Alexa." I open my mouth to defend Liam, and Jace holds up a hand, silencing me. "I get it, okay? You love him—that much is evident—but I guarantee, you do not know him as well as you think. There's a big fucking reason why people stay away from Warren—"
"Are you speaking from experience, Jace, or unfounded hearsay?"
"Experience." Jace aloofly snags the fishbowl, sipped from my straw. "Warren murdered my parents."
I was stunned into silence. It's no secret that Liam's murdered, but knowing someone affected by his callous crimes was a quandary. "How do you know it was Liam?" I asked, wrongly prepared to defend his honour. "If he killed them, why isn't he in prison for murder?" I knew why. Liam has a close relationship with the metropolitan police department. They unlawfully cover his wrongdoings. "You know what? I'd rather not discuss this matter, Jace. You're putting me in an unpleasant situation."
"Why don't we dance?" Grayson intervenes, striving to cool down our heated discussion. "I—"
"I'll pass," Jace rudely cuts him off, soaring to his feet. "I'm calling it a night." Opening his wallet, he counts six twenty pound notes, drops them onto the table. "I'll cover the bill." He slipped into his leather jacket, stormed off.
"Shit," I whispered, watching him abscond with a nagging feeling festering in my stomach. "I'll be right back." I squeezed behind Chloe, chased Jace outside. "Jace, wait!" I called, following him along the pavement. "Please, I want to apologise."
Jace tersely paused, glanced at me over his shoulder. "Hey, it's not your fault, Alexa." He met me halfway. His height was intimidating, looming. "I shouldn't have mentioned it."
"I was insensitive," I insisted, and his eyes veered past my head. "As you can appreciate, I am in a tricky position. I'm with Liam, and I love him very much." I wrangled my fingers, nervous. "Jesus, I don't know what to say."
His lips flattened into a grim line. "Don't say anything, Alexa." He jerked his chin. "You might want to head inside. That Bentley looks familiar."
I frowned, trailing his line of vision. Across the street is a parked Bentley, one of Liam's men relaxed behind the steering wheel, openly watching our display. "Oh, he's harmless," I said, recognising him from outside the Coffee House this afternoon. Liam stressed mandatory protection and surveillance for us to be in a relationship. "I..." I looked back to Jace, but he disappeared like an apparition.