I leaned against the counter and sighed as I shoved my hands in my pockets.
Today was shaping up to be one of those days.
Not only had my alarm failed to go off this morning, but traffic was hell getting here, and my boss seemed to be in a pissy mood. He was snapping at anyone and everyone who got in his way, and unfortunately for me, I just kept crossing paths with him.
First, when I rushed in and nearly collided making us both tumble backwards. My boss, Mr. Rothman, a short man with balding spots on his head, and a protruding belly. With his dark moustache, he looked like one of those characters in the old movies.
Except today he wasn’t the kindly old grandpa.
He was as mean as a pitbull if his mood was anything to go by, and I wondered why he was so sour.
After Mr.Rothman righted me, he gave me a stern look and began to preach about the importance of getting to work on time, and how customers would perceive us.
I highly doubted that customers cared when we got here.
I worked at a pub for heaven’s sake.
I wasn’t delusional as to what purpose I served.
Unlike most people here though, I enjoyed my job immensely. It allowed me to have a flexible shift, so I could go to night school and get a degree in social work.
Getting a job at a pub wasn’t my original plan, but it happened to work out that way, and Mr. Rothman was a good boss. I wasn’t going to be rich, nor was I going to get anywhere if I stayed here, but that was okay.
As long as I had the time to work on my degree then I didn’t particularly care.
The only downside to this job was the customers.
Some of them could be really friendly, but others were decidedly less so.
I tried to avoid patrons who were known for being disruptive and lewd, but it wasn’t always easy. If they happened to be there while I had my shift, I had no choice but to serve them, but usually Ruth took over for me.
Ruth was my best friend at Dougal’s pub.
I have no idea how I would’ve survived without her and it was a good thing I didn’t have to find out. She’d been here for a lot longer than me, and part of it was because of life choices that forced her into this profession, but I think a part of it was also because she was comfortable.
It was hard to picture life outside one’s comfort zone, and Ruth was no exception, but she was always ready and willing to cover my shift if I needed it.
And that tended to happen when I had exams, or I had a revision session.
Ruth never complained though.
I loved her for it.
She was like the older sister I never had.
I cursed loudly when I picked up one of the trays of food, not noticing that it was piping hot. I ended up dumping it all over the front of my shirt, and I stared in dismay as I realized I didn’t have a change of clothes.
“Are you okay?” Ruth asked, sympathetically. “I have a spare shirt in the back. Why don’t you go and find it?”
“Ruth, you are a real lifesaver,” I said, gratefully. “I seriously don’t know what I’d do without you.”
Ruth snorted, her brown eyes sparkling in merriment. “Trust me, honey, you’d be just fine. You’re a survivor. Just promise me you won’t be stuck here forever. Dougal’s may be home for me, but it’s not your home. You’re meant for greater things.”
“Do you really think so?” I asked, trying not to let the hope tinge my voice. I wasn’t some naïve and idealistic schoolgirl who had no notion of how the real world worked.
The system wasn’t perfect, and most times it ended up failing the people who needed it the most, but I had hope that I could be one of those people who helped.
That’s all this world needed.
More people who were willing to keep trying no matter what.
I hoped I could be one of those people.
“Honey, I know so, now go get yourself cleaned up before Mr. Rothman launches into another one of his lectures. Lord knows I love the man, but the mood he’s in today.” Ruth shook her head. “I doubt you want to cross him.”
I grimaced. “Yeah, you’re right, I don’t. He’s already looking at me like I’m fresh meat because of the fact that I came in late.”
“Don’t worry, darlin’, it’ll pass. You’ve only been here for a few months, but Mr. Rothman snaps out of it fairly quickly,” Ruth assured me as she patted my hand then steered me towards the back.
I gave her a grateful smile as I hurried to the back and rummaged around till I found the t-shirt Ruth was talking about. Unfortunately for me, Ruth was two cup sizes smaller than I was, so her shirt was a t-fit, and it made my breasts more prominent which I hated.
I wasn’t comfortable, but I had no other choice. It was either put up with a tight shirt, or keep my dirty one on. I knew I wasn’t actually going to consider a second option, so I just sighed and slipped the clean shirt on.
On Ruth, it probably looked professional. On me, it showed cleavage. I frowned at myself in the mirror before I stretched out the material, and realized there was nothing I could do.
At 22, I, Sandra Stevens had not ended up where I expected at all.
With a deadbeat dad who walked out on us, and a mother who did her best, I knew I couldn’t ask her to provide money for college when she was barely making ends meet. So, I worked the odd job here and there to save up. I also studied my ass off at school to get a scholarship, and I did.
Everything changed when the accident happened.
I had to cash in all of my life’s savings to make sure my mom got better, and I happily and selflessly did it. She was back to normal now, and working at a pottery shop close by. Staying behind to take care of my mom also meant that I had to give up my scholarship.
As much as I loved my mother, and didn’t resent the sacrifice I had to make, I also knew that it put me back at square one, and that college was no longer an option since I couldn’t save up like I did when I was a kid, and I also couldn’t get my scholarship back.
At least I was able to apply for night classes, and soon I’d have the degree to be able to make something out of my life instead of sticking around here. I gave myself a quick cursory glance to make sure everything was in place before I threw my blonde hair over my shoulder and walked out, my hazel eyes scanning the place.
They landed on Ruth who was chatting with the chef easily, her brown hair plaited to the side. I never asked Ruth how old she was, but I put her somewhere in her late 30’s though she spoke with the wisdom of someone beyond her years. Her dark colored skin glinted under the fluorescent lights giving her a warm ethereal glow.
It made me wonder what trials she had to face, but it wasn’t my place to ask.
I knew that she had a kid, a son who was going to community college, studying to be an architect. He was a well-mannered boy, and it was clear to anyone who met him that he adored his mom.
If I had to guess, I’d say that Ruth got pregnant after High school, and her parents wouldn’t support her, so she had to find her own way. It made me admire her all the more for being able to hold her head high and successfully raise a boy in spite all of the odds telling her that she couldn’t.
Some people made fun of her because of her quirky accent. Ruth was from Louisiana, and I personally loved the way she spoke. The way she curled her S’s and O’s. She said darling and honey quite often too which I always teased her about, but she’d give me a stern look, and I’d immediately stop.
Over time, her accent became less prominent, or so she claimed, but I still liked to poke fun at her considering I was born and bred in Georgia.
I had no idea how she did it, it was one of those stories that inspired me to keep going. I didn’t have a baby to raise after all. All I had was a screw up father who skipped town years ago, and that wasn’t going to be enough to stop me.
I was determined not to let it.
I swore I wouldn’t let it affect me, and I wouldn’t turn into one of those people, but there were times when I wondered how different my life would’ve been if he hadn’t walked out on us.
I had vague memories of my childhood, of how in love my parents used to be. How my father would twirl my mom around the kitchen, and how she would laugh and call him a silly goose as she slapped his hand away when she was making his favorite food.
These were all things I remembered clearly, and it just made me sad.
How could two people who were so in love not end up together?
It made no sense.
They loved each other and fought to be together, and when they had me, they started a family, but something, some deep darkness eventually drove them apart, and it scared the hell out of me.
How could people just wake up one day, roll over and decide to walk out on the person they love? When was it ever okay to give up and decide that the person you loved was no longer worth your time? But more importantly, how was it that they made themselves walk away after everything they’d been through together?
These deeply rooted fears made me realize that I was always going to be afraid of getting into a serious relationship. No matter how hard I tried to move past it, or forget that it ever happened, my father’s face loomed in the background, his lips curled into a frown.
Still, I supposed I turned out alright considering I was a child of divorce. Aside from a fear commitment which wasn’t something that was inherently because of divorced parents, I had no other issues.
I was in good health, and I was able to maintain a steady job, and a good relationship with my mother who had long since moved on from my dad. She’d dated a few people here and there, but nothing serious until now.
He seemed nice enough, but if my parents divorce affected me then what kind of scars did it leave on my mother’s heart?
“Honey, you are rocking that shirt,” Ruth complimented as she held out her hand. I placed my small hand in hers, and she twirled me around after making sure no one was looking and gave me a once over.
“You should be a model,” Ruth said, for the million time since she’d known me. For some strange reason, she had it in her head that I could pull it off, but we both know it wasn’t feasible.
I snorted. “Be serious, Ru, I’m not model material.”
“You may not be tall, but you have a nice petite figure that some men love, and you’ve got those doe-like eyes. I’m telling you it’s a waste,” Ruth tutted as she placed her hands on her hips.
“Tell you what, Ru? If I get discovered, you and Joe will be the first people to ride with me in my fancy limo.”
Ruth threw her head back and laughed. “Don’t you go making those promises, now, otherwise I might have to start planning what I’ll wear.”
I dismissed her protests. “Planning what you’ll wear? Of course not. I’ll send you and Joe something nice. A nice dark tux for him, and a saucy little number for you.”
Ruth chuckled, heartily as she wiped away a stray tear. “Oh, dear. That’s a nice thought, isn’t it? How’s your momma doing, Sandy?”
“She’s fine, Ru. Enjoying her work as always.”
“And is that fella still enjoying her company?” she asked, her brown eyes shrewd and understanding.
“You’re too young to be cynical, honey, and even if you weren’t. Don’t let those words beat you down. You’ve gotta dream big, and dare to fail,” she advised, kindly.
We both turned when the pub door opened, and a man walked in. He was one of our regular customers. Mr. Garcia was a short man with thinning dark hair, rings on each of his fingers, and a moustache that Ruth and I liked to call the ‘porn stash’.
It really wasn’t doing him any favors, and in fact made him look like a pervert.
However, I will say this about him. In spite of the myriad of stereotypes that flashed through my brain when I first met him including but not limited to Mexican drug lord, and Italian mobster, I was pleasantly surprised to find that he wasn’t any of those things.
Aside from the way he twirled his moustache like a villain in one of those old black and white movies, there was nothing even remotely sinister about Mr. Garcia.
He enjoyed a good hearty drink, and when he did he was loud and boisterous, but he was one of our better customers. He always tipped generously, and he never made any inappropriate passes on any of the waitresses.
When I first met him, Ruth explained that he was from a huge Italian American family that owned a chain of pizza and pasta stores. It was pretty popular around Georgia, and I was one of their biggest fans.
Garcia’s was the best of the best, and it was no surprise considering they knew their stuff.
“Did you see the new episode of ‘This is Us’ last night?” Ruth asked as she patted her pockets looking for her pen and notepad.
I leaned across the counter and grabbed both and handed them to her. “I did, yeah, but I’m taping them because I’ve been busy with college. I’m kind of dreading the big reveal.”
Ruth grimaced. “Yes, me too. Jack Pearson’s death is not something I want to watch.”
“Me neither,” I agreed. “So, are you taking Mr. Garcia today, or should I?”
“I’ll do it, you have to go tend to the gentleman in the corner over there.” She inclined her head slightly to show who she was talking about. I produced my own pen and notepad and made my way to my corner.
My steps faltered when I came within close proximity of the man, and noticed how attractive he was. I may have been a commitment phobe, but I still had eyes, and a libido which was going into hyperdrive right now.
Had it really been that long since I’d been with a man?
I did the mental math and realized it had. I’d been so focused on attaining my goals that I’d forgotten to attend to one of my basic human needs. Not that it mattered. I could easily take care of that on my own.
The man in question had his head slightly inclined, so that I couldn’t see his profile, but I could see that his hair curled at the nape of his neck. He had dark brown hair, the color of chocolate, and it was artfully tousled to the side. I could see the stubble growing on his chin which gave him a bit of a goatee. Long expert hands held onto the menu as he continued talking on the phone.
He was wearing a dark navy-blue suit with his tie hanging off the edge of his neck, and the first few buttons slightly open. A rolex creeped out from underneath his pressed white shirt. This man’s entire appearance screamed money, and the way he was drumming his fingers against the menu made me think that he wasn’t enjoying the conversation he was having.
I stopped in front of his booth and patiently waited for him to finish as I tried not to be obvious about the staring. Once he was done, he swiftly put the phone away and flashed me a smile.
“Hi, what can I get you?”
“Do you guys serve radlers here?” he asked as his eyes quickly scanned the menu.
“We don’t, but I can make it for you,” I offered as I jotted down his order.
“Can I also get some hot wings?” he asked before he dragged his eyes away from the menu. Once they landed on me, he smirked and leaned back against the booth.
“Sure,” I said, trying to keep my voice as neutral as possible as I sensed the shift in his attitude. I hadn’t been working here long, but it didn’t take a genius to notice when a customer was checking you out.
To his credit, Fancy suit was being subtle about it.
“Can I ask you a question?”
“Do you know that man over there?” He shifted his eyes to Mr. Garcia then back to mine.
“Mr. Garcia? Yeah, he’s a regular here.”
“Good because I was told he’d be here,” he responded, and his baby blue eyes turned as hard as steel in that instant. Gone was the playfulness, and I wondered why.
I shifted uneasily. “Will that be all, Sir?”
Fancy suit gave me a long look before he nodded. “For now.”
I gathered the menu in my arms and tried not to react when I noticed his eyes glued to my backside. I drew the apron on closer, and marched forward. Once I reached the counter without any incident, I placed the order and sighed.
Thank God he was the type of customer who just looked.
I didn’t want to cause a commotion, and with the way he was dressed, he was sure to cause us problems. Mr. Rothman protected his staff, but if some hot shot lawyer slammed us with a lawsuit, it would be bad for business. I shook that thought away considering I didn’t even know if he was a lawyer, it was just a guess. Ruth returned from Mr. Garcia’s booth with a smile on her face as she placed her order.
Her smile slid away when she caught the look on my face. “Why do you look like you’re about to murder someone?”
“I might, you never know,” I grumbled as we shifted, so that we were standing off to the side out of sight of the customers.
“What happened? Did fancy suit give you a problem?”
I snickered. “It’s nice to see that I’m not the only one who gave him that nickname. He’s not giving me a harder time than usual.”
“Did he try anything inappropriate?” Ruth asked, her eyes blazing with righteous fury.
“Whoa, hey relax mother Teresa. He didn’t try anything. Just the long suggestive looks, you know. The usual.” I placed my hand on her shoulder to calm her down. I could feel the tension radiating off of her in waves, and she relaxed ever so slightly when I touched her.
“What’s a guy that fancy doing here anyways?” Ruth slide her gaze towards him, her eyes narrowing suspiciously. “Dougal’s isn’t the type of place his type would go sniffing around.”
I lifted my shoulders up then let them fall down again. “I have no idea, Ru, but I think it has something to do with Mr. Garcia.”
Ruth’s brows furrowed in confusion. “What do you mean?”
“He was asking about him, and I know he was trying to downplay it, but he sure did seem interested.”
“You’re saying he wants to make the moves on Mr. Garcia?” Ruth’s expression turned to one of merriment. “Well, I’ll be damned. He didn’t strike me as the type, but hey they come in all shapes and sizes nowadays.”
“How could he be when he was checking me out?” I pointed out.
Ruth opened her mouth then closed it again. “Maybe he’s one of those folks that like both?”
“You mean bi?”
“It’s possible.” Ruth grinned. “Care to wager on it?”
Discreetly, I lifted my arm up, pretended to stretch and snuck a glance at our mystery man who was looking extremely uncomfortable as he waited for his food. He was playing with the salt and pepper shakers, twirling them round and round till they stopped then he’d stare at the wall and repeat.
He had nice broad shoulders, and firm looking hands.
I hadn’t realized I said that out loud until Ruth began to chuckle next to me. “Honey, you’re attracted to him. Oh, boy. Well, he is easy on the eyes, but you be careful around him, okay?”
The tips of my ears turned pink as my entire face flushed. “I didn’t say anything, Ru. He’s not my type because he’s kind of a pig, but also even if those two things weren’t true, I doubt I’m his type.”
“Now, how do you know what his type is?” Ruth asked, her hands on her hips, one eyebrow raised.
“Look at his appearance, Ru. It screams money. He probably likes those women who bathe in diamonds or something, I don’t know.”
Ruth scoffed. “There’s no such thing first of all. Second, don’t sell yourself short.”
I rolled my eyes. “It doesn’t matter anyways because he was checking me out, remember? And that’s weird.”
“I guess so, darlin’.” Ruth looked skeptical as she tossed another look his way. Fancy suit swiveled his head all of a sudden, so that his gaze collided with Ruth’s. She gave him a professional smile which he returned as he awkwardly looked away.
“He’s going to know we were talking about him,” I said, my voice ringing with mortification.
“Nah, and even if he does, I have a feeling he’s pleased about it. Look at the smirk on that boy’s face.”
Sure enough, there it was.
The slight curve of his sensual lips.
Damn, I really needed to stop thinking about him in sexual terms. It was starting to affect my judgement, and I didn’t want that.
I was not driven by hormones.
No matter how good looking the man was.
I was in charge here.
The bell rang to signal that fancy suit’s order was ready, and I turned my back on him as I picked it up. I really hoped my face wasn’t red anymore otherwise he’d be able to tell, and that would be embarrassing. I set aside his beer, worked my magic to make it into a radler as per his request then I picked everything up, placed it on a tray and walked over to his table.
I carefully placed everything on the table, and he watched me quietly, an amused smile tugging on the corner of his lips.
“Can I get you anything else?” I said, in my practiced voice.
He shook his head and began to enthusiastically dig into his wings. I quietly made my way back, and then the strangest thing happened. Once he was done with his food, he picked up his beer and walked over to Mr. Garcia.
Ruth straightened. “Here we go. Things are about to get a whole lot more interesting.”
“Mr. Garcia,” the man called out, loudly as he stopped at his booth and gave him a charming smile. “I’m a huge fan. May if I join you?”
Mr. Garcia was slightly befuddled as to why this well-dressed man was even speaking to him. I was guessing men like him weren’t the usual clientele, but stranger things had definitely happened.
“Sure.” Mr. Garcia gestured to the seat in front of him as the sauce dripped down his mouth. He used the back of his hand to wipe away the grease after he couldn’t find a napkin. Hurriedly, Ruth placed a packet of napkins on his table and slipped away undetected.
Everyone seemed to hold their breath as they wondered what was happening.
This wasn’t a casual meeting, nor did this man seem like the sort to fawn all over a local celebrity.
No, my instincts were telling me that something else was up.
I just couldn’t quite put my finger on it.
The fancy stranger smiled easily and held out his hand. “I’m Mr. Coldwell, Alex Coldwell.”
“It’s a pleasure to meet you Mr. Coldwell. I’m Frank Garcia.” Mr. Garcia vigorously shook his hand, a large beam on his face. “Well, this is an unexpected surprise. It’s always a pleasure to run into one of my fans. I must say, I was surprise you are a fan. You did not strike me as the sort.”
That sounded like a strong powerful name.
It suited him.
Alex leaned back against the booth with one hand on either side. “I am. I’ve been reading about how your family business started.”
Mr. Garcia smiled in embarrassment. “We just work, that’s all there is to it. I think that with passion and dedication, a lot of doors can open up.”
Alex leaned forward casually and placed his hands in his arms. “I completely agree, Mr. Garcia.”
“Please call me Frank,” Mr. Garcia insisted. “Can I get you something to eat or drink Mr. Coldwell?”
Alex smiled modestly. “I wouldn’t mind some nachos.”
Mr. Garcia laughed and smacked the table in front of him. “A fancy man with an appetite. I see you aren’t afraid to get your suit dirty.”
“You have no idea,” Alex agreed wholeheartedly as his eyes glinted.
“I almost wish I had bet against you,” I whispered to Ruth as I watched them down their third glass of beer. Mr. Garcia was already starting to get tipsy, and his voice was carrying over to the entire pub.
Not that we had a lot of customers, just two or three other low key customers, but he was attracting a lot of attention.
The same couldn’t be said of Alex. Not only was he able to hold his liquor, but he also kept egging Mr. Garcia on. As if he hoped to gain something by getting him to drink that much.
I caught sight of his expression, and it was calculating and shrewd.
Dread settled into my stomach, and I had no idea.
I didn’t think that Alex would actually commit a crime, or something like that, but it was clear he was up to something, and if it was something that required the other person to be tipsy then it can’t be anything good.
Still, I was going to hold off on calling the police.
Until I knew for sure what he was up to, otherwise I just looked like the boy who cried wolf.
“So, Mr. Garcia, do you think people like working for you?” Alex asked, casually as he rolled up his sleeves showing off his muscular forearms in the process. He had tattoos on either side of his arms, but I couldn’t make out what they were.
Mr. Garcia fixed bleary eyes on Alex and squinted. “I think so. I try to treat my employees fairly, and I think that offering them a safe environment is important too.”
Alex nodded as he took a swig of his beer. “And how’s that going for you?”
“I think it’s going well.”
“You have a woman called Lexia Evans who works for you, right?”
Mr. Garcia froze, like a deer caught in the headlights as his face paled. “Why are you asking? How did you know her name? Who are you?”
Alex shrugged. “Right now, I’m nobody of consequence, but I could be somebody vital soon.”
“What do—” Mr. Garcia hiccoughed. “What do you mean?”
“Mr. Garcia, I’m an attorney, and I work for Montgomery & Williams. This morning, a woman walked in and filed a sexual harassment lawsuit against you. That woman’s name is Lexa Evans.”
Mr. Garcia blinked and sat back in his chair, a stunned expression on his face. “But I…I didn’t do anything.”
Alex raised an eyebrow. “You’re going to need to be more convincing than that if you want to get away with lying in court.”
Mr. Garcia’s face turned red. “I’m not lying. What do you want from me?”
“I don’t know if you have an attorney already—”
“I’m really good at what I do, Mr. Garcia. I want to represent you,” Alex continued as if Mr. Garcia hadn’t spoken. “Now, if I were you I’d think about this very carefully.”
“How did you know where to find me?” Mr. Garcia’s mouth was gaping like a flounder.
“It’s not hard, Mr. Garcia. You are a creature of habit,” Alex informed him, his eyes flickering over the place before they settled back on Mr. Garcia.
Ruth, the rest of the staff, and I quietly watched from where we were, eager to see what was about to happen next. I, myself, couldn’t fathom the prospect of Mr. Garcia being a sexual predator. He didn’t seem the sort at all, and he’d never done anything to suggest otherwise.
Then again, it was always the ones you didn’t expect.
It was the quiet ones you had to watch out for.
“I don’t think you want to risk bad counsel, Mr. Garcia. You have a lot to lose. Your chain of restaurants is lucrative right now, but if word of this gets out, you won’t be able to recover, and do you really want to push your luck?”