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Pay It Forward (A Giving Back Story Book 1) by Nic Starr (1)

It had been a bad morning. A crazy morning. One of those mornings where everything that could go wrong, did go wrong. It was amazing Bailey had even made it to work at all.

First his alarm had failed to go off because he’d forgotten to plug in his mobile phone and the damn thing had gone flat. Waking up half an hour after he was usually out the door meant he was running late for his shift. He’d tackled an overcrowded bus, crawling along in peak hour traffic before alighting in the city to fight his way through the sea of umbrellas for a block and a half. He’d flown through the doors of the high-rise building that housed the company he worked for, grateful when he didn’t have to wait long for the lift. He got off at the twentieth floor and made his way through the maze of olive-green cubicles, ignoring the combination of glares and raised eyebrows from his co-workers.

Jeez, it isn’t as if I’m late very often. They all have a shitload more sick days than I do.

“Sorry I’m late,” Bailey puffed out as he peeled off his coat and threw it over the back of his office chair. Ryan stood on the other side of the cubicle wall, tapping his watch pointedly. “I was—”

“Whatever.” Ryan cut him off with a wave of his hand. “Just sit your arse down and log into the phone as quickly as you can. We’ve already got a backlog of calls waiting, and I’ve got a call centre manager breathing down my neck. I’ll save the reprimand for later.” Ryan winked before turning away and leaving Bailey to it.

Bailey had a moment of guilt as he planted his arse, at the same time as he pressed the button to boot up his computer before putting on his headset. When his screen lit up, he launched the main system and finally reached over and logged into the phone. It only took a moment for the beep to sound in his ear, and yet another workday began.

“Good morning. Welcome to Wonder Energy. This is Bailey. How may I help you?”

Ryan gave him a broad grin and a thumbs up across the divide. He was a good boss, and Bailey knew Ryan wouldn’t hold his lateness against him. And that had nothing to do with Ryan being Bailey’s best friend; he was a decent guy, just under pressure like they all were. Times were tough and the company was pushing them to exceed targets.

Bailey spent the next few hours tethered to his desk—literally—with barely time to scratch himself. When his scheduled break rolled around, he moved fast to hit the buttons on the phone to take himself out of the call queue, and removed the headset. He stood and stretched, rolling his shoulders to relieve the tension.

“You on a break?” asked Richard, the guy who sat in the cubicle opposite.

“Yeah,” Bailey replied as he picked up his iPhone and shoved it in his pocket. “An hour. I’m going to head out and grab something to eat. Do you want to come with me?”

“Nah. I’ve got another fifteen minutes before I’m due for my break. I’ll—” Richard shrugged apologetically and turned back to his computer monitor. “Welcome to Wonder Energy…”

Bailey chuckled at Richard’s exaggerated eye roll. The calls from customers were never-ending and management monitored every moment not on a call. He was coming to hate stats.

A hand on his shoulder caused Bailey to turn. “I’ll tag along. I need a coffee. And you can tell me why you weren’t on time this morning.”

“You’re not going to give me a hard time are you?” Bailey asked as he studied Ryan.

“Ha,” Ryan snorted. “Not likely. But I should. Me being the boss and all.”

This time it was Bailey who snorted. “You might be the boss on paper—”

“Hey! Where’s the respect?” Ryan scowled in mock anger before turning toward the doorway.

They took the lift to the ground floor and exited the building onto the crowded city street. The traffic was busy and the footpath an obstacle course, but Bailey was happy to escape the confines of his corporate prison. He hated being stuck in the cubicle all day, answering call after call from customers querying why their electricity bill was so high or trying to make arrangements to pay it off. As a job it sucked, but at least it brought in a decent salary even with his part-time hours, enough to cover the rent on his small apartment.

“What do you feel like?” Ryan asked. “Want to go to the coffee shop a few blocks down?”

“Take Two? Sure. The walk’ll do me good anyway.”

Ryan chuckled. “I’m sure the walk won’t be the only thing to do you good.”

Bailey glared, but Ryan just winked and headed off down the footpath.

It didn’t take them long to reach the old building that was the location of the coffee shop they’d been to a few times—okay, maybe a bit more than a few times—in recent months. It mightn’t have been the most trendy of places but the food was good and more importantly, the coffee was excellent.

As they entered the warmth of the building, grateful to leave the cold outside, Bailey looked up and caught the eye of the guy behind the counter. His breath caught, and he was sure he was blushing. He hoped cute-barista-guy would attribute his flushed cheeks to the crisp winter weather.

“Take a seat wherever you like,” the blond said, waving an arm to the couple of empty tables against the wall. “I’ll be with you in a moment to take your order.”

Bailey’s feet only moved towards the tables when Ryan shoved him between the shoulder blades. “C’mon, man. Get moving. We’ve only got about forty-five minutes left.” Bailey tore his gaze from cute-barista-guy and grabbed a seat at the nearest table. From his position against the wall he had a perfect view of the whole coffee shop, right across the room to the lounges and fireplace.

“I don’t know why I suggested we come here,” Ryan said as he plonked himself in the chair opposite Bailey.

“What d'you mean?” Bailey managed to stop staring at the back of the guy who was now clearing a table nearby. He met Ryan’s eyes. “The coffee’s great.”

“Yeah, the coffee is great. It’s the company that sucks.” Ryan scowled.

“Huh?” Bailey raised an eyebrow.

“You don’t pay me the slightest bit of attention when we’re here, and I have to drag the conversation out of you. You only have eyes for Mr Gorgeous over there.” Bailey followed Ryan’s gaze and found himself taking in the muscled form again. Barista-guy was chatting to some customers. He was balancing a pile of plates in each hand, the weight of the load accentuating the taut muscles of his arms. The sleeves of his pale-blue buttoned shirt were rolled back to the elbows, exposing strong forearms with a light smattering of fair hair. The fabric pulled across his well-defined shoulders and disappeared into the waist of his jeans, the strings of his apron cinching around a narrow waist. He was mouth-watering.

“Fuck, Bailey. Stop drooling on the menu.”

Bailey snapped back to look at Ryan, almost tempted to wipe his chin. It wouldn’t have surprised him if he had been salivating over his crush. Crush? He looked down at the menu, not even realising he’d picked it up from the centre of the table. Maybe he was a bit obsessed with the dude but his little obsession didn’t do any harm.

His musing was interrupted as the man himself stopped by the table. “What’ll you have, guys?”

Bailey looked up into the big brown eyes of the man towering over him. “Ah… I’ll have a large flat white and a chicken Caesar wrap.”

“You want that toasted?”

“Sure, that’d be great.” Bailey’s smile was met with a grin. Barista-guy really did have a fabulous smile—his well-groomed beard framing full, pink lips and a flash of perfectly aligned teeth. Not for the first time, Bailey wondered if he’d had braces to get them so straight, unlike Bailey’s own slightly crooked teeth. The man turned to Ryan and efficiently took his order before heading back to the kitchen.

“Now that you’ve had your daily dose of gawking—”

“I wasn’t gawking,” Bailey said.

“Perving then.”

“Isn’t that the same as gawking?” Bailey asked.

“Yep. Which is exactly what you were doing,” Ryan chuckled.

“All right. So I was gawking. Perving. Whatever. But you’ve got to admit he’s definitely worth looking at.”

“Oh, I’ll give you that, all right. He’s got a great, tight body. He’s good-looking. He makes a mean macchiato. He’s Mr Perfect.”

“Wh—”

“Mr Perfect for you anyway,” Ryan continued. “My Mr Perfect, on the other hand, doesn’t look as if he goes to the gym every day. My guy is a real man. Natural.”

“Hey! He’s more than just his muscles. You’ve seen how polite and friendly he is to his customers, and how he knows so much about his regulars. Anyway, what’s wrong with someone who looks after his body? He’s obviously fit and cares about his health. You go to the gym and— What?”

Ryan sat back with folded arms and a smirk on his face. “You’re pretty quick to jump to the defence of a guy you claim is no more than eye candy.”

Bailey slumped in his seat, defeated. Sometimes he hated that Ryan knew him so well.

Ryan leaned across the table and patted his hand. “Don’t worry, mate. Your secret is safe with me.”

* * *

“Hey, Tommy!” The voice boomed across the coffee shop, echoing within the confines. “What are you up to, mate?”

Tom glanced up from the register to see a few of his buddies filing through the glass door. Elliot held the heavy door open for John and Phil, letting in a blast of frigid air. A smile lit Tom’s face at the sight of the three guys who’d been his best friends since high school. They’d all gone to the same private school and hung out in the same circles outside of school. Elliot was the son of his mum’s best friend, so they’d even spent countless family holidays, both beach and skiing, together.

“Hey guys. Great to see you. Come on in and shut the door, it’s freezing out there.”

“Fuckin’ oath. It’s cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey,” John said as he unwound the scarf from around his neck.

Tom laughed, mainly because the words were so at odds with the man in front of him. John had completed his law degree and was working with a well-known city firm. He was dressed the part, with a fine cashmere black coat covering his no-doubt custom-made suit. He looked designer from the top of his immaculately groomed dark hair to the tips of his highly polished shoes. In contrast to his appearance, John sounded like he should be working on the docks.

“You kiss your mother with that mouth?” Phil punched John on his upper arm.

“Ouch.” John rubbed the affected biceps. “You big bully,” he said, but the grin never left his face. John and Phil had been teasing each other for as long as Tom could remember. Phil was large—more like huge really—over six feet and wide, and he’d always had a problem with his weight. Maybe it was the lack of sport because admittedly he didn’t do a lot of activity, but his bulk was most likely genetic, given his parents’ stature. He was forever using his size in mock fights with the others, and they returned the teasing.

“You guys want coffee?” Tom asked as he bumped fists with each of them, then made his way back behind the timber counter.

“Is the pope Catholic?”

“Yeah. Yeah. Stupid question.” Tom started preparing the coffee as the three men pulled up stools to sit at the bar. “So what’s news, guys?” he asked as he tamped freshly ground Arabica coffee grounds into the handle.

“Nothing new for me,” Elliot answered. “Same old shit. New project, same issues.”

“They still driving you to ridiculous deadlines?” Tom asked, glancing up from the coffee preparations.

“Of course,” Elliot snorted. Elliot was a project manager for a construction company. He was kept busy in the current building boom but complained of continually fighting bureaucracy and a management team he believed wasn’t operating in the real world. Not enough time and not enough money. It was times like this Tom was reminded how lucky he was to be his own boss.

“Sorry, mate. I hope it gets better,” he said, although he knew in reality Elliot thrived on the pressures of his job. He started brewing coffee into the four cups set on the machine.

“So do I,” Phil added. “I’m sick of hearing about your crap bosses and killer deadlines.”

“Hey.” Elliot looked indignant. “As if you can talk. You and your continual bitching about working with your dad.”

Phil straightened. “At least you love your job. You try working with the old man and see if you don’t crack. He’s a goddamned slave driver and a control freak to boot. I’d give you a week,” he huffed.

Phil’s family were all involved in their bespoke kitchen design business. Mrs Santos, his mum, and Phil’s sister, May, ran the showroom, and Phil and his dad worked on the design side. Phil also took a lead role in coordinating the tradesmen under the watchful eye of Mr Santos. It was this watchful eye—or as Phil preferred to call it, “interference”—that was the bone of contention between Phil and his dad.

“Well I can beat you all in the craptastic stakes this week,” John interrupted.

Tom placed a plate of muffins on the bench in front of him. “Yeah?”

“Do tell?”

“Why?” Phil and Elliot spoke at the same time.

“We lost a major client this week. We’ll most likely be looking at cutbacks. I’m the last in, so….” John shrugged as though he was resigned to his fate, but Tom knew he’d been enjoying working at the company. He picked up a muffin and pulled a piece off, shoving it in his mouth.

“Well, shit. That’s fucked, man. I’m so sorry.” Phil patted John’s arm in sympathy as the other guys shook their heads. As much as they all gave each other a hard time and whinged about their own problems, when it came down to it, they supported each other through thick and thin.

Tom finished pouring the warmed milk into the shots of coffee, topping three cups with the soft foam before shoving the cups in the direction of the guys. He kept the short black for himself. They sipped on coffees while John told them more about his work situation. He’d know more in the next few weeks.

Finally the conversation turned to Tom and the coffee shop.

“So, Thomas. Tell us what’s happening in your world. How’s the cafe going?” John asked.

Tom prepared himself for the conversation. When they guys used his full name he knew they were up for a serious discussion and wouldn’t let him fob them off as he usually tried to do. He just hoped to hell they weren’t all here to stage some sort of damned intervention.

He leaned on the bar. There was no point beating about the bush. “Fair.”

“Fair? What exactly does that mean?” Elliot asked.

“I’m doing okay. I make enough to cover costs and to live on, but still nothing leftover to do the place up.” He waved his arm toward the tired interior of the building and the guys automatically turned to take in their surroundings.

The large room was rectangular, with glass fronting onto the street. The entrance door was in the centre, a beautiful old timber-framed door with glass panels, which was in original condition. The rest of the room was also blessed with character features—a high pressed metal patterned ceiling with four magnificent, although peeling, ceiling roses and crumbling plaster on the walls. Crumbling so much that the bricks were even exposed in a couple of places, although the sight of the old brickwork had an almost trendy appeal and Tom was contemplating removing the plaster on one entire wall to make it a true feature. The counter at the back of the shop ran parallel to the rear wall. It was also original, probably close to one hundred years old: a long timber bar atop a display cabinet, with the patina of age. Scratches and grooves marred its surface but provided a real sense of the history of the place.

Behind the counter was shelving and storage. But Tom’s favourite feature above all others in the building was the open fireplace with ornamental surround topped by a wide mantelpiece and a vintage tile hearth. His biggest regret was that the fire wasn’t operational. The flue was blocked, no doubt from years of use accompanied by neglect, but even if he got the chimney cleaned, the building regulations probably wouldn’t permit its use in its original form. Tom hadn’t got around to checking the planning laws yet but didn’t hold a lot of hope. There was no point getting his hopes up and then having them dashed. A pair of three-seater lounges faced each other, with two armchairs adjacent, the setting centred around the fireplace. A group of young people were seated in the area, engaged in animated conversation and appearing to be enjoying themselves despite the lack of fire. However, Tom prayed for the day he could get the fireplace providing warmth and ambiance, even if it meant fitting a replica gas model.

“It doesn’t look too bad to me,” Elliot said as he looked around.

“I guess not,” echoed John, “particularly if you like the comfy, lived-in feel.”

“Well I like it.” Elliot was adamant. “It’s welcoming.”

Tom laughed. “Well I’m glad at least one of my customers does.”

“I wouldn’t exactly call me a customer, given you never let me pay for coffee,” Elliot said with a chuckle.

Tom had to admit he had a point but these men were his friends, his family.

“Seriously though,” Phil said, “I don’t know why you won’t let us give you a hand. I can help with some of the reno, particularly the kitchen area and the counter. I can get you new whitegoods at wholesale prices—”

“And like I’ve said before, I’m happy to help with the floorboards and the painting,” John offered.

Tom had to grin at the thought of John covered in dust while he worked a sander over the well-worn floor. “You want to get on your hands and knees to remove all those nails?”

John looked at the floors and back at Tom. “Ahh… maybe the painting?”

Tom burst into laughter. “Thanks guys, but I’ve got it under control.”

“I think our boy Thomas just needs a bit of convincing,” Elliot said.

“No, really.” Tom injected firmness into his voice. They’d had this argument before. “I want to do things my way.”

“Your way seems the slow way. We can get this place polished up in no time—”

“I said no!” The words burst from Tom’s mouth before he could stop them, but fuck, he was sick and tired of no one understanding his desire to do this himself. Hell, he needed to do it himself.

Tom looked from shocked man to shocked man. Phil was wide-eyed, staring at Tom. Elliot was opening and closing his mouth as if he wanted to say something but wasn’t sure what—or if he should say anything at all.

John swallowed hard. “You heard him, boys. Let’s give Tom credit that he’ll ask when he needs our help.”

Thomas looked at John gratefully, hoping his friend could see how relieved he was.

“Anyway.” John pushed back his stool and rose. “I have to get back to the office. Thanks for meeting me, guys. I needed a bit of time away from the doom and gloom of the office. Are we still on for the footy on Saturday night?” John looked to the others.

“Sure.” Phil nodded.

“Yep. I can’t believe you got tickets to see the Swans from the corporate box.” Elliot stood and grinned at John.

“Ah, you’d better enjoy the perk while it lasts. If… ah… when I’m out of a job there’ll be no more free tickets.”

John turned to Tom. “And you’re coming, right?”

Tom fidgeted behind the bar, stacking the empty coffee cups. “Um… no, I can’t make it. Sorry.”

“But the cafe’s closed on Saturday nights.” Elliot tilted his head in puzzlement.

“Yeah. I have other plans.”

“But I thought—” Elliot started, only to be interrupted by John.

“C’mon, guys, he’s obviously had a better offer.”

“Better than hanging out with us, better than schmoozing with free food and drinking free beer?” Phil sounded amazed.

Tom blanched at the words and swallowed hard against the sense of unease tightening his chest. So reminiscent of his past life….

“Yeah, better than that,” John said. He winked at Tom as he wrapped his striped scarf around his neck. Tom’s relief was instant. John had always been the most sensitive one of the bunch and picked up on the mood.

“I’d better head off too,” Elliot said. “I’ve got to meet with the chief financial officer this afternoon to go over the budget.” His grim face and the roll of his eyes showed how much he wasn’t looking forward to the session.

“And I’d better get back to the showroom before Dad starts wondering where I am,” Phil said. “I’m surprised he hasn’t called already.”

“C’mon, big boy.” John took Phil by the elbow and led the way towards the door.

They all raised a hand in farewell. Tom waved back as he listened to their teasing on the way out. John was saying something to Phil about overreacting, knowing full well that Mr Santos never kept such strict tabs on Phil. He might have butted in at work to “give advice,” but Mr Santos pretty much trusted Phil to put in the hours.

As he watched them stroll past the glass shop front, Tom had a brief flash of regret for his old life. But it was short lived. He’d been the one to fuck it up, and he had to live with the consequences. He straightened his back and turned from the sight of his friends, focusing instead on clearing a couple of tables and seeing if the small group of customers seated in front of the non-working fireplace needed a refill.

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