- Chapter One -
"I said don't touch her!"
Porcelain shattered across the floor, hot tea soaking part of my shoe. It burned my ankle, but my anger was greater than my pain.
The man in front of me was dressed in a sleeveless shirt that stretched around his shoulders, causing his skin to bulge and his tattoos to glisten in the overhead lights. He was the kind of guy you'd expect to see in a police lineup.
And someone I'd hoped to never see again.
His fingers locked up on my coworker's wrist. Poor Korine—she'd been right when she told me to dump this asshole weeks ago. “Murdoch,” I said through my teeth. “What are you doing here?”
He started to smile, lips twisting up too high to be kind. "Come on, babe. You wouldn't answer my calls. I just wanted to see you again. I missed you.”
"And you thought you'd show that by harassing my friend?”
Murdoch shot a scathing look at Korine, like this situation was somehow her fault. When she tugged away from him, he released her. “Chill out,” he said, running his eyes over her body. “I was just playing with her.”
“Our job is serving drinks, not being your play things,” she muttered.
“Please, as if you don't like the attention. You know that your looks are how you make any real money, sweetheart. Show some skin. Earn those tips.”
It amazed me that he could act like we were in a strip club. Caffeline was a cat café. We had kittens running around. We didn't play loud music or serve alcohol. We wore fluffy ears! How did this guy think it was okay to harass my co-worker?
Korine adjusted her skirt nervously, as if the knee length material was somehow too short suddenly. I knew that feeling—that weird shame. But it's not your fault, I thought, hoping she could read my mind. “Get out of here, Murdoch.” I said it under my breath so only he would hear.
His eyes narrowed meaningfully. “Come with me. Let's go back to my place, Amina. It's stupid for you to avoid me. We had so much fun together.”
I grit my molars. “It wasn't fun when I walked in on you screwing your landlord's sister.” His mouth slid into a sharp frown. “It definitely wasn’t fun when you pushed me against the wall while you were drunk.” I spoke louder, letting my voice carry. “I asked you to leave. Don't make me call the cops.”
"Listen," Murdoch said, noticing everyone staring at him. "I get that you’re upset. I made some mistakes, and I only wanted to apologize to you in person.”
“No, what you wanted to do was ignore my request that you leave me alone. Then you had the balls to make a pass at my coworker?”
“I was just having some fucking fun, okay?" His hands went up, fingers spreading. He wanted to look innocent. "Is fun not allowed?"
The tea squished in my sock when I stepped forward. "Walk out now, Murdoch, or else.”
There—the first hint of danger burned in his stare. "You're threatening me?" Laughing without humor, he stood up so that his chair scraped loudly over the floor. If everyone in the café hadn't been watching, they were now. "No little slut threatens me."
Korine went from nervous to furious. "What did you call her?"
"Look at your outfits!" He gestured at her, then me. "Haven't you ever watched any anime? Explored around on PornHub? You're wearing collars and cat ears! You girls are walking wet dreams, so yeah, sorry if I got too close to you. I couldn't help myself, take that as a compliment, sweet-cheeks."
She was as pissed as I was, but I still hoped to resolve this peacefully. I'd seen Murdoch's violent side. I knew he was a loose cannon. "Get out. Right now. I don't want you here."
His arms jerked wildly as he pointed at himself. "I don't have to go anywhere!" Stomping forward, he loomed over me, not noticing the white cat.
"Be careful!" I screamed.
Ignoring me, Murdoch kicked his foot out. The cat dodged as much as possible, but the scuffed-up boot bumped its haunches before it jumped aside. Its shocked cry cut through every layer of my fear. I didn't care if this man was bigger. I didn't care that he was unstable.
Never, ever, would I let someone hurt an innocent animal like that.
No fucking way.
His eyes went wide; he hadn't expected me to rush forward, gripping him by his hair. "What the hell?!" he shouted, losing his balance as I yanked him towards the door. Adrenaline fueled my strength, letting me wrestle a much bigger man through the front door of the shop.
I kicked him out onto the sidewalk. "Get the hell out of here!"
He landed hard, the knees of his denim jeans tearing. Despite his ballsy attitude moments ago, he sat on his ass and just gawked up at me. Sweat slid down his pale face—his tongue darted over his lips nervously.
I wished he'd looked as pitiful when I'd caught him cheating on me.
Without another word, he spun around and limped away.
The customers and my coworkers were silent. I hurried to look for the cat. It was sitting in Korine's arms, so content you wouldn't guess it'd been kicked.
"Daaaamn, girl," Korine breathed.
Her admiration brought me back to earth. Blinking, I rubbed at my pink cheeks. "Stop looking at me like that.”
In response, she started to clap. A few of the customers joined in, ignoring me as I urged them to quit. I was beyond embarrassed by the attention. It took a few minutes for everyone to calm down. Nana, another coworker, wiped up the glass and tea. Korine pulled me into the storage room, passing me the cat as she did so. "That was awesome! You kicked Murdoch's ass!"
Cuddling the cat, I rubbed between its ears. "I didn't want to, but he was being... well, an asshole. Like usual."
"I can't believe you dated him."
“I can't believe he showed up here.”
“Take that as a reminder.” She waved a glossy pink nail in my face. “No more messing around with bad boys, okay?”
I laughed with some chagrin. “I promised you before.”
“Promise me again!”
“Right, right.” I laid a palm flat over my heart. “No more bad boys.”
“No matter how sexy, or funny, or darkly intriguing they are.”
“Not even if they sweat chocolate.” Murdoch was the last in my long line of bad dating decisions, I was set on that.
She grimaced, shaking herself like there were spiders crawling on her skin. "Ugh. I'm pretty sure he was trying to flirt with me. How gross." She dug into one of the many boxes in the small space. Peeking at me over her shoulder, she lifted something long, white, and fuzzy. "Since we're back here anyway..."
“For the last time," I groaned, "I'm not going to put on the tail!”
Korine wilted. “But you'll look so much cuter to them with this on!”
“Cuter to who?”
“Everyone on the internet!”
Pursing my lips, I leaned against the striped wall. “Then I definitely don't want to wear it.”
“Fine. The ears are enough, I guess.”
“I don't know why I ever agreed to make these videos in the first place,” I said.
Stepping back, Korine fiddled with the camera. “It's called vlogging.”
I gave her a blank look.
“Video blog? Social media? Do those words mean anything to you?”
“Not a thing.”
Pulling air into her cheeks, she blasted it out in exasperation. “Amina, ever since you did the first video for Caffeline's Instagram, our business has shot up. At this rate, the owner will give me—us—raises!"
Being a waitress wasn't my dream, but... more money was tempting. I put on a big smile. “Good point. I'm ready when you are.”
She pushed a button on the laptop she’d arranged, then flashed me a thumbs-up. Cradling the cat, I swayed side to side and started to sing. It was a silly song, something I'd penned during my abundance of hours strolling the streets. It's funny how the world looks when you have nowhere to call home. Even funnier is how you can be inspired to write a cheerful song out of all that gloom.
Smiling at the camera, I trilled the last line, then grabbed the cat's paw so it looked like he was waving. “See you guys next week!”
Korine shut the laptop, eyeing me carefully. “Anyone ever tell you that you're not bad?”
“Not bad?” I laughed.
“As in, you sing really good. Surely someone has told you that."
Placing the cat onto the floor, I bent away so my face was hidden. “You're the first."
“That's weird, I'd think—”
“Let's get upfront before the place gets too busy for Nana.” Effectively ending the probing conversation, I adjusted my cat ears and opened the storage room door. The bitter scent of coffee filled my nose.
Nana caught my eye, her long blonde braid flipping as she hurried over. “Hey,” I said.
“Hey yourself.” Sticking out her tongue, she jerked her head at the packed tables. “I don't care that you guys make your dumb videos, but don't leave me alone for so long!”
“They aren't my dumb—never mind.” I snatched a pad of paper and put on a giant smile, shouldering around Nana to get to the newest customers. “Hey there! How can I help you?”
The day moved on without any more incidents. Around three in the afternoon, the place calmed down enough that I could take a break and grab some water. Sipping it, I spotted Korine as she hovered by a shelf of coffee mugs. When I saw her glancing at her smart-phone, then at me with worry twisting her features, my heart tightened. After dealing with Murdoch, I was on high alert.
I paced towards her. She saw me coming and ducked into the hallway by the storage room where we could be alone. Leaning into the wall, she whispered, “Amina. Holy shit.”
“What is it?” I whispered back. The whites of her eyes were making me nervous.
She lifted her phone and turned it so I could see the screen. The Insta account for the café looked back at me. “Okay,” I started, confused. “What am I...?” I never finished. Below the newest video I'd made with Korine there was a comment.
Violet_BeatsnBlast: Hello, this is Beats and Blast Records. We're trying to reach your employee in this video. Check your DMs.
Reading it out loud, I asked, “A record company?"
“Amina, do you have any idea what's going on?”
A rumbling wall of thunderclouds slid inside my chest. “I've got a suspicion.” No, it couldn't be.
Her grin started small, but soon, it made her eyes crinkle. “They saw the videos. They heard you! Amina, this is a music company! They must want you to work with them!”
“Don't get carried away,” I said softly. “They could want to talk about anything.”
She shook her head so fast that her cat ears bounced to the floor. Scrolling to the account’s private messages, she showed me the one sent by Violet_BeatsnBlast. It listed a number and requested we get in touch. “You have to call them.”
On reflex, I touched my cellphone where it rested in my back pocket. “What if it's a prank? How do I know it's not a fake account or something?”
Gripping my shoulders, she looked me dead in the face. “Amina Richards, if you don't go into the stockroom right now and call that number, I am going to suffocate you with that damn tail you hate so much.”
Lifting my chin, I gave her a quick, no-nonsense nod. “Alright. Okay. But if it's fake, don't you dare tell anyone I fell for it.”
She gave me the exact same serious nod. “Understood.” Squeezing me, she lit up like a Christmas tree. “Oh my gosh, if you become famous, please don't forget me. Okay?”
There was no way for her to know what was going on in my head, but her childish excitement was enough to settle my unease. “Of course not.” Quickly, I copied the number from the message on her phone into my own. “Go out front and keep Nana from chasing me down while I do this.”
Opening the door, I slid into the small room. The shelves were so cluttered you could hardly see the striped walls. I touched down on the chair by the laptop, then jumped up, far too anxious to sit. Am I really doing this?
A wave of old memories and too-crisp fears hit me. Biting my tongue, I held my phone out and stared at the number I'd typed into it. The blue screen was steady, unlike my insides.
Do it. Just call and see.
There was no harm in the call. If this was fake, fine, I'd be disappointed. But if it was real?
What if it was real?
Did abandoned dreams get second chances?
Tightening my resolve, I focused on the phone...
...and I called the number.