Chapter 1: Not all men are the same
"Hey, sexy, you brought me lunch, can I bring you dinner?" the customer flirts, reaching out to touch my hand with his greasy one.
I smile politely. Although I'm disgusted at his sly smirk and awful pickup line, tips are what I live on. I remove my hand from his reach to act as if I need to use it to hold my tray.
"That's a sweet offer, but I'm having dinner with my boyfriend," I reply, clearing his table.
I send him another friendly smile and turn back to the kitchens with the clutter of white ceramic plates and diner milkshake cups. I feel a spank on my ass and, instead of confronting the fucker who assaulted me, I scurry away like a little mouse.
"Hey, Baby Belle, you okay? You look distressed," Jeremy, the owner's son, greets, pulling me into his side with his arm draped over my shoulders.
He's worked at this diner for seven years and plans to take it over from his father, my boss, very soon. It's handy that we have an amiable relationship. With my height of 5'0, he, as many, seems to tower over me, however his affable attitude makes him less intimidating.
"It's nothing, J," I mumble, giving him a reassuring look before hurrying off into the kitchens, out of his hold, to dump my plates in the sink. I hover over it, clutching its sides to breathe through my crushing anxiety.
"Belle, babe, can you cover my night shift tomorrow?" a female voice inquires, coming up from behind me and leaning against the sink.
"Tomorrow night?" I ask, a thoughtful expression on my face as I reassess my schedule. I barely have a schedule though.
"Yeah, it's the slowest night anyway, there's only one other waitstaff so I thought, you know, you could help me out? You can keep the tips but Harry needs someone on."
She wears a fake pleading smile paired with puppy dog eyes that don't really work on me. Instead, I agree because I'm in crushing debt, unable to keep up with the insane rent in my dingy one-bedroom apartment.
New York prices are incredibly steep, and with my lack of qualifications and having not even graduated high school, the ability to get a well-paid job is very low. This will be the best job I can get, and I'm still struggling to make ends meet.
"Sure, yes, don't worry about it," I tell her, resisting the persistent urge to roll my eyes at her false grin.
"Thanks, babe. I'm off now, so see you later." She whips her head around, her blonde hair spraying into my gaping mouth, and I spit it up without her noticing.
"Ew," I mutter, fixing my chocolate brown hair again and flattening out my apron before cleaning up the front.
Jeremy closes up the diner with a few of us left and takes a seat at one of the tables, shuffling dollar bills in his fingers from the register. He huffs, his head flopping into his hand in defeat and he rakes his hand across his face.
"You okay?" He glances up, his expression lifting as he gestures for me to take a seat by him.
"Nowhere to be, Baby Belle?" he asks with a little smirk, leaning closer to me and slamming the money box shut.
"The longer I stay out of my apartment, the better," I respond with a chuckle, fiddling with my fingers as I lean back in my chair.
"There are noises in the pipes. The water pressure sucks. There are springs bursting out of my mattress. You have to turn the light switch on and off three times before the lights come on. I have no idea why. There are various reasons," I rant but laugh when I notice the horrified look on his face. "Sorry. I should be heading back anyway. It's getting pretty late."
"Yeah, Belle, I'll walk you back if you want. You definitely shouldn't be walking home alone," he offers with a wide smile. "I need to get some air anyway. We're having a few money issues."
"Oh, really? You get so much business in here," I exclaim, furrowing my eyebrows at his surprising problem. I would have thought this place is doing well.
"Yeah, we do, but we have other expenses," he murmurs, grabbing his coat from under the light blue counter and placing a hand on the small of my back.
Guiding me out and locking up behind him, we begin to stroll down the sidewalk, him keeping me close to his side. A couple of guys wolf whistle and wink at me and I roll my eyes, leaning further away from their side of the sidewalk.
"You must get guys looking at you like that all the time."
"Sometimes, I guess. But men are men," I say, shrugging my shoulders.
"Well, you do have big beautiful blue eyes, but not all men are the same," he says, stopping in front of my apartment complex and staring down at me. I glance down a little shyly but he lifts my chin with his slender finger so that my eyes would lock with his own. "You have a boyfriend, Baby Belle?"
"No," I breathe out.
"Good," he mutters before leaning in and engulfing my lips in his, a soft and gentle kiss. He presses for more but I abruptly back away, my eyes widen at him. My love life is little to none, with the occasional kiss here and there but nothing serious. "I'm sorry. Was there something wrong?"
"N-no. I was... um, I was just surprised, really," I stammer. His hands still clasp my waist still, his head cocking to the side in confusion.
"I didn't really think it would be surprising to you, but I like you," J confesses, squeezing my waist lightly. I stand there, gaping a little. I didn't really see us like that, although maybe I should have. I like him, as a friend, but it could be more. I'm just quite vulnerable, and I'm afraid to open up and be with someone. I don’t trust easily and honestly, I find it difficult to even trust J, although he’s seemingly a sweet guy. Aren’t they the ones to watch out for? "Belle?"
"Um... I don't know what to say," I answer, slightly speechlessly.
"Go on a date with me?" He looks particularly hopeful, moving his hands from my waist into my own hands.
"Sure, okay," I consent. His face lights up, kissing my cheek in a goofy way and bidding me farewell.
I stare after him, slouching down onto the side of my building and hugging my legs to my chest. J is a good guy, and could possibly be a great boyfriend, but I'm not sure I'll ever be ready to date. I'm twenty years old and I've never had a boyfriend. There are several reasons for that, and perhaps I should apply them now.
It's just a date though. One date. Then again, I work for him; he's my boss technically. If we don't work out, it would be awkward to see each other every day. Maybe I should have said no, but that would still create a strange dynamic between us.
Maybe I should have kept away entirely so he couldn't ask me, refused politely his offer to walk me home, or not asking how he was and just leaving when most of the others did. But the owner, J's father, pays me more than the other waitstaff for all the extra hours I do. And J and his father have done so much for me.
I twist my keys several times in the lock, attempting to open my front door but, as usual, it doesn't budge.
"Hey, darling," creepy Steve from next door says, leaning against the doorway with his eyes raking up and down my body.
"Hi, Steve," I politely reply, shoving my key once again in the lock in a sense of urgency. I focus on the lock, breathing through, hoping this time, the door will magically open. I gasp as I feel arms swoop over me, trapping me against the door. My shoulders against his chest, his hardness pressing into my back. He takes my hand with the key in it and unlocks the door, using me as his puppet.
As the door swings open, he pushes me inside from behind. He kicks the door closed behind us, his hands on my hips as he backs me up against a wall. The smell of smoke envelops my senses as I squirm against his chest, pushing him back a little.
"Please, stop." He does as I say, stopping right in the same position, looking down at me with a sly smirk. His hand grabs my neck, pulling my head back to slam against the wall. My mouth opens involuntarily and he shoves his tongue down my throat, crushing me with his body up against the wall. I continue to struggle, my breathing erratic and shallow, my whimpers muffled by his mouth. He breaks away and swiftly leaves, not before sending me one last smirk and wink.
My back slides down the wall, my body falling lax into the floor. I detest being so weak. Why am I an easy target? I just want to be left alone, I just want to forget.
And yet, it always becomes impossible.