The Rider's Keeper

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2

OLIVE.

MY class went on longer than I expected today. Although the freshmen seemed reluctant to ask questions in the massive lecture hall at the beginning of the school year, they have adjusted pretty well to college life. They remind me of myself when I first started college. I’d always make sure to avoid eye contact with my professors.

Luck was never on my side back then. For some reason, I’d always get picked out from the crowd of students by my professors, and in time I learned to adjust and perform to my fullest potential. Now, here I am. A senior in business studies, taking on a side job as a tutor and helping to run my parent’s café.

The cool autumn weather causes a shiver to run down my body as soon as I exit the high main building on campus and start toward my car, reminding me to fix the red scarf around my neck and shove my bare hands into the pockets of my thick coat.

It has been a while since leaves dried up and everything turned brown and drab, exposing buildings that covered up in the summer due to all the trees, including our café.

Sliding inside my convertible, I twist the key in the ignition and turn up the heat, sending a silent thanks to the heavens that I decided to keep my roof attached. This season isn’t the season to show off. The frigid autumn air will numb you like a motherfucker.

My college is just outside the town that I live and grew up in, Oregon, and a thirty-minute drive is all it takes for me to pull up in front of the café to begin my shift for the day. The simple roar of a motorcycle is enough to turn me pale these days, and I tense when a speeding rider hurtles past my car a few shops from my café just as I look for a parking spot.

To think that I used to ride that thing.

I shake my head, ridding myself of the depressing thoughts that always seem to find their way in whenever I think about motorcycles.

I pull my key from the ignition, grab my bag and strut toward the entrance, and the jingle bell overhead announces my arrival just as I push the glass door open. Warmth envelopes me as soon as I cross over the threshold and shut the door behind me, bringing an instant smile to my face.

“Hey, Dani.” I offer a sweet smile to Daniela, who has two cups of coffee on a tray to serve the customers seated by the window. “Is my mom here?”

Daniela smiles politely, careful not to spill as she lays the mugs and saucers on the table. “In her office.”

With a nod to Uncle Jimmie in the kitchen, I slip into my mother’s office, immediately noting the solemn look on her face as she stares at the papers spread out on her desk. Okay, bad news.

“Livvia, you’re here.” Her face barely lights up as I move to give her a side hug.

“Is everything okay?”

“It’s autumn, and our store should be buzzing with customers this season, but I-” She pauses, clamping her mouth shut and inhaling deeply. “I don’t think we can even afford to pay half of our workers this month.”

I frown. I’d told myself it would never come to this. “Business has been slow this week,” I nod. “But that is no excuse to refuse our employees their hard-earned money,”

“I know, sweetie, but I thought that maybe I could talk to Daniela, try to make her understand a little-”

The mere thought of it makes me recoil. “Mom, no.”

“Why not? She is only getting paid at the end of the month, most of our employees live on weekly wages-”

“Exactly, more reason to not withhold her pay from her. It is already the end of the month, she is expecting to get paid, and so is Jim. Just because they are permanent, full-time employees and they’ve been with us the longest doesn’t mean you should take advantage of them. Every worker gets their pay, no funny business. They need it.”

“But probably not more than we do, honey. With your father frequenting the hospital, I’d say we try to reason-”

“Mom?” Her eyes snap to mine and shake. “No,” I shut my eyes in frustration. “Please, tell me you did not take the business’ money and use it to pay dad’s hospital bills.”

Her lip quivers and a deep sigh escapes through my lips. “I was hoping I would never have to do this someday,” I stand from my chair. “I’ll see what I can do.”

Mom’s eyes widen. “Olive, what does that mean?”

“Exactly that. I’ll see what I can do,” I shrug my shoulders.

“You are not going to take out a loan, are you?”

“Of course not,” I frown at her. “But right now, I cannot tell you anything. Just trust me.”

Mom opens her mouth to speak, but nothing comes out. Offering a tiny smile, I pull her in for a hug. “Dad’s going to be fine, okay?”

“Okay.” She nods against my shoulder.

“Go home. I’ll take care of everything here.”

Mom smiles. “How can you be so responsible?”

“Guess who I take after,” I nudge her shoulder playfully.

Wheels begin turning inside my head as soon as mom leaves the room, and I enter the employee changing room to peel my clothes off and slip into my uniform.

I begin inspecting every nook and cranny of the layout of our store, checking our lights, the state of our tables and chairs, and whether they are clean or not, and cleaning the ones that aren’t clean enough. I scan the menus hung on the brick wall, inspect the line of our pastries inside the display area, and check on Uncle Jimmie, who keeps producing fresh items in the kitchen.

If there is any place that makes me happy, it’s this one. This café is home to me. I make it my goal to run it with the right amount of care and affection. I have seen many love stories bloom from inside this very space, and a lot of great students turn to our place for a calming place to study. It is a place to gather, work, and drink. It is a place where people can savor both their coffee and their experience in our little establishment.

It is a relaxed social space where people can gather with their families and friends inside the unique and calming atmosphere to enjoy a relaxing lunch or catch up over a cup of coffee. It is my place to be.

Satisfied with the outcome of my inspection, I find my place behind the register and begin taking orders, giving Paul a break.

The sun went down as I drowned myself in taking orders, serving customers, and cleaning up tables, reminding me of how short Autumn days are.

With a sigh and a stretch of my neck when I finish cleaning up a table where the customers just up and left, I am surprised to see Matt and April folding their arms and watching me as they lean against the counter.

“When’d you guys get here?” I breathe. “I didn’t see you coming in.”

“Should we be surprised?” April rolls her eyes.

A scowl finds its way onto my lips. “It’s too early in the day to be rolling your eyes at me, April. What have I done this time?”

“I don’t know uh- does trying to work yourself to death sum it all up?” April throws her arms up and walks over to me, yanking the damp cloth from my hands. “Sit your ass down and let us do our job, Olive.”

“Uh,” I can’t help but laugh. “What are you doing? I call the shots, remember?”

“Well, you’re doing a pretty crappy job at that,” April states like it’s the most obvious thing ever. “Someone who calls the shots is supposed to tell others what to do, not work themselves like a fucking slave.”

I open my mouth to speak but then close it. I haven’t been working that hard, have I?

“Yes, you have,” Matt answers as if he can see my thought process. “Go stand behind the counter or something. We’ll serve and clean up. I think you’ve pretty much done enough for the day.”

I roll my eyes and look around to find four pairs of eyes staring at me, including Daniela and Jessi. Daniela has her purse in her arms and has already changed out of her uniform. “What time is it?”

Dani shrugs. “It’s past 8 pm.”

I expel a breath of warm air at her answer. I have been here since 2 o’clock. “Dani, you can go home. I’ll take the orders.”

I pretty much drag my feet to stand behind the counter and watch the register, and everyone releases sighs of relief when I do.

I don’t know what to do with myself, every customer in the store has their ordered share of food and drinks, and no one else has come into the store since I stood here.

Grabbing another cloth, I start wiping the squeaky clean counter and rearrange everything to my preference. When that is done, I start fidgeting with my fingers.

The music playing softly above my head starts calling to me, and soon I find myself bobbing my head to the rhythm.

“Fuck this,” I throw the towel and head into the office.

I usually spend an hour on my schoolwork and another hour checking our accounting books to see if mom had missed anything, then begin tidying up the office.

The roar of a motorcycle pulls me from my thoughts, tensing. Whoever is riding it is constantly revving it in front of our store. “What the fuck? It’s 10 pm.”

With a frown, I quickly slip out of the office. “Who is making so much noise at this time of the night?”

There are only three employees left inside the store, and the last of our customers soon clear out.

April, Jessi, and Matt have gathered upfront. No doubt that April looks pissed, and so do I. “Some idiot is busy showing off outside. Whatever crew he arrived with had better disappear, or I swear to God,”

“Oh my God, they are coming in!” Jessi exclaims, cutting April off.

I have had a dislike towards bikers ever since that incident that almost cost me my life a few months ago, and as much as I find the whole bunch of them to be obnoxious, reckless, and irresponsible morons, they are still customers.

They may stick out like a sore thumb in this kind of atmosphere, but we take what we get. From all the commotion outside, I’ll bet you that some had a few to drink.

“Olive,” April calls, pulling me from my thoughts. “We let them in?”

I shrug. “Yeah,” We need the money.

“Are you sure?” She raises her eyebrows. “The bunch of them belong in a bar or something, not here,”

From the looks of it, she is not entirely wrong, as stereotypical as it sounds. I plan to give all my customers the benefit of the doubt and hope they won’t pull some shit, but I don’t mind straightening them out if they do, to teach them a thing or two.

Is the customer always right? I wouldn’t know because that is not in my dictionary. I don’t mess with that bullshit.

The bell jingles announcing the arrival of a new customer, and as if the world is in slow motion, a six-foot-three figure with a ton of muscle strolls inside.

He radiates confidence and strength as he leads the group inside, and my breath hitches when he turns to meet my gaze. A face with high cheekbones and a straight nose sitting in between two dark obs, the light stubble on his chin, the sharpest jawline that should be a transgression against divine law, and a bush of eyebrows that cast dark shadows over his already dark eyes. This man is the epitome of sin, perfection, and grace all in one package, and he is not a guy with whom to mess around.

He has an edge to him, and I can already tell that he’s broken a few hearts before, maybe even a couple of ribs. His face alone screams ‘red flags.’ He is the kind of guy you’d want to stay away from,

He is dangerous.

Reaching the counter and stopping in front of me, his dark gaze never leaving mine, his rosy full lips deliver a charming smile. “A ham, bacon, sausage, and avocado wrap, and an espresso, double.” The words roll off his tongue smoothly as if he had them memorized.

Taken aback by the sound of his deep velvety voice, I avert my eyes to the POS on the countertop, filling in his order. “Any extras?”

His lips curve into a mocking smile as if he can read through my thoughts. “No.”

“Great. To go?”

“No,” My eyes snap up to his. “I’ll be eating in, thank you.”

With gritted teeth, I force out. “Great.”

It was typical of me to believe that these guys, or perhaps one of them, would order a coffee and abandon whatever plans bikers would have at a café and return to a bar or something. But these guys are here to stay, and after placing their orders, they’ve divided themselves across three tables, meaning they had to yell if the other person was too far away.

Matt and Jessi prep while April and I serve, and during the whole process, I feel a hot and lingering gaze on the back of my head, my face, or someplace else, but someone is watching me, and they aren’t wavering.

I soon learn the culprit when I walk over to politely give his food to him and scowl when I realize he’s been looking at my chest the whole time I was bending over to place the food on his table.

Fucking perv.

“Hey, stranger! Eyes up here.”

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