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Isn't it amazing how one seemingly innocent decision can change your entire life? For me, that decision came in the form of a grande mocha latte.
Allow me to explain.
The day began normally enough. Translation: I rolled out of bed thirty minutes late, rushed through a shower and hurriedly dressed in the standard black slacks and white button-up top every Utopia Café employee is required to wear. Unlike the other employees, I left the top three buttons of my shirt undone, revealing hints of the white lace (push-up) bra I wore underneath. Don't judge. Some people are mammarily challenged and need a little boost. Anyway, if I showed a little cleavage my pervert boss wouldn't care that I was late. Again.
He might even thank me for coming in at all.
Was it wrong of me to rely on the girls to get me out of trouble? Probably. Did I give a shit? Hell, no. In fact, I unabashedly adjusted them for ample display. I was single, twenty-four and determined to keep this job. Anyone who objected could blow me.
See, my dad suffers from massive heart problems and I'm the "responsible party" in charge of his bills, not to mention the one who finances his stay at Village on the Park, a nearby assisted living center. I would have loved for him to live with me (not that there's enough space in my one-bedroom efficiency), but it's best that he stays there. They have twenty-four-hour monitoring and make sure he takes his medications, which he "forgets" to do when left to his own devices.
Besides, he claims he's never been happier. The women there are "silver foxes," he says, and eager for masculine attention. Dare I mention those silver foxes cost more than high-priced hookers because my dad is always popping the Viagra he buys from his friends?
I'll do anything to ensure my dad's happiness, though, the way he unselfishly ensured my happiness throughout my entire childhood. So I desperately need to keep my current job and get the one I'm interviewing for after my shift.
Can't be late, can't be late, can't be late, I mentally chanted as I searched for my coffee-stained tennis shoes. I've spilled more cappuccinos on them than I've served to high-class snobs. Needless to say, I've served a lot of high-class snobs.
"Aha! Found you, you dirty little bastards." When had I put them in the refrigerator? I tugged them on, shivering as my toes grew numb from the cold.
Meanwhile, the clock ticked away more precious minutes.
I hastily applied blush, mascara and gloss. You'd think the need for money would inspire me to wake up bright and early every morning no matter the circumstances, but you'd be wrong. I was too tired to do bright and early today, even for a stack of greens. Last night I'd bartended a bachelorette party until 3:00 a.m. Me, a girl who knows nothing about alcohol. Sex on the Beach—sure, with the right man. Fuzzy Navel—uh, shower, anyone? Tom Collins—who the hell?
Of course, I'd pretended to be the expert I'd claimed to be in the interview, mixing anything and everything I could get my hands on. My drinks hadn't been the tastiest, but they'd certainly created the desired results. By the end of the evening, all of the women drunkenly swore they loved me and my "wicked nasty" concoctions.
The clock chimed the hour: 6:00 a.m.
"Damn it." I rubbed my tired, burning eyes—then froze when I realized the mascara hadn't dried. Freaking great. I probably looked like a boxer who'd lost the big match. As I scrubbed my face with a wet washrag, I watered my dry, brittle plants, multitasking to save time. What would it take to make the little green monsters thrive?
Finally ready to leave, I dug my keys out of the fishbowl. How many drinks had I sucked down last night? I didn't remember dropping my keys in the water. At least the bowl was presently devoid of fish. Martin, my betta, had kicked it a few days ago. Natural causes, I assure you.
"I hope you're rotting in the sewers," I said, looking down. No way he'd made it into heaven. The little snot had hated me, had always fanned his gills and hit the glass whenever I walked into a room. He'd been a present from my last boyfriend, aka the Prince of Darkness. Was it wrong of me to wish the ex had died with the fish?
No time to ponder the ethics of that dream now. I needed to go. Dressed? Check. Shoes? Check. Keys? Check. Résumé? Check. I'd stuffed it in my work pants last night in preparation for an interview today. Ugh. Yet another menial job. If only I could crawl back into bed, snuggle under the covers and continue my X-rated dream about Vin Diesel and an easy-squeeze tube of chocolate syrup. Double yum! Something about that bald head drove me wild.
Stop daydreaming, woman. I trudged to the front door just as the phone rang. Sighing, I raced into my bedroom. Probably my boss, Ron, but I wanted to double-check just in case. A quick peek at caller ID revealed it was actually my dad. Late as I was, I didn't even think about letting the machine pick up. I grabbed the receiver and held it to my ear. "Hey, Daddy."
"Hey, doll. What'cha doing?"
"I'm headed off to work. Everything okay?"
"Fine, everything's fine." His deep, rumbling voice never failed to comfort me. "You work too hard."
"Ah, but you know it's what I live for," I said, and my voice held only truth. I'd never, never let this selfless man know I didn't like my job(s). He'd go off and get one of his own, the old teddy bear. Anything to take care of me. No wonder I loved him so damn much. "I'm not happy unless I'm working."
"Just like your mother, God rest her soul. Never did understand that mind-set, myself," he said. I pictured him shaking his head in wonderment. "I won't keep you. I just got to looking through old photo albums of you as a baby. I know you visited the other day, but I still wanted to hear your voice."
See? He's a sweetie. "Now you're trying to make me cry. But I'm glad you called. I missed you and your voice, too."
He chuckled. "Aren't we just a pair of mushy—"
"David!" I heard a woman call.
"Oh, hell," he said to me. To the woman, he grumbled, "Not now, Mary. I'm on the phone with my best gal."
"Did you or did you not kiss Janet in the gardens last night?" Mary demanded in the background.
"Double hell," my dad whispered. Then, "Oh, crap. I think she's wheeling her chair into my room." He paused. "I guess I should have resisted Janet's invitation for a stroll."
"I guess you should have," I said with a laugh.
"I have to go now. Love you, doll," he said.
"David!" Mary called, closer now.
"Love you, too, Daddy."
We disconnected, and I stared at the phone for a minute, a smile hovering on my lips. Shaking my head, I rushed out of my tiny apartment with only one wistful backward glance.
"Let's get this day over with," I muttered.
Outside, the dim spring morning proved wonderfully fragrant with the scent of magnolia, but oppressively hot, the air sticky with humidity. Ah, crap. I'd forgotten to bring a little towel to pat away any sweat. In a few minutes, my clothes were going to be plastered to my body. Oh, well. Nothing I could do about that now.
Not wanting to arrive at work hungry (hungry = bitchy and bitchy = fired), I stopped for a caramel glazed doughnut on my way to the bus station—and missed my bus. MARTA, Atlanta's premiere miss-it-and-you're-screwed transportation system, being what it was, the delay set me back another twenty minutes.
By the time I raced into Utopia, lines were long and winding. Customers were pissed about the wait and quite vocal about it. I yawned. I mean, please. Cry me a river, Richie Richersons. Jeez. Anyone who could afford a daily six-dollar cup of joe didn't need to be complaining about anything.
Ron, my boss, spotted me and gave me a you-are-so-dead scowl.
I squared my shoulders, thereby tightening the material of my shirt, and offered him a chocolate sundae smile, smothered in whipped cream and cherries. Hmm, whipped cream. That would fit nicely in my Vin Diesel fantasy.
Ron's gaze connected with the girls. He paled, looked away and crooked his finger in my general direction. Without glancing to see if I noticed, he pivoted on his heel, a silent command for me to follow him. Great. Freaking great. This didn't bode well.
Breathing deeply of the cinnamon-and-vanilla-scented air, I passed several men and women who were using the tables as mini work spaces, their computers, faxes and shredders surrounding them. I stepped into Ron's small, cramped office.
"You wanted to see me, Mr. Pretty?"
"It's Peaty, and shut the door," he said, his voice devoid of emotion. He plopped onto his chair, the cluttered desktop shielding his belly paunch. His black gaze remained lowered, not touching any part of me.
Palms now sweating, I did as commanded. The smells of dust and cloying aftershave immediately assaulted me, wiping away any lingering hint of baked goods. Without waiting to be told, I claimed the only other seat in the room. A stiff, uncomfortable step stool I liked to call the Naughty Chair. File cabinets pressed close on both sides of me, making me feel pinned.
I studied Ron. He had thin lips, and right now those lips were pressed tightly together, barely visible slashes of pink in the contours of his rotund face. His sandy hair stood on end, as if he'd plowed his fingers through it one too many times. Lines of tension bracketed his eyes, and his brow was furrowed.
Ron had been pissed at me a lot these last few weeks, but he'd never radiated such disgruntled irritation. Such grim determination. I recognized the look, though. I'd gotten it from other bosses over the last year, right before they fired me.
I smothered a sigh. I hadn't always been a bad employee. For nearly five years, I'd worked as a waitress during the day and a maid during the evening. I'd made enough to pay for my living expenses and support my dad, as well as build a nice savings account—a savings account I'd used up during my (forced) hiatus, aka the two months that it had taken me to land this job at the café.
Why couldn't I hold back my restlessness anymore? Why couldn't I quash my discontent, as I had for so many years, and stop sabotaging my only source of revenue?
Though I didn't want to admit it, I knew the answer. I'd woken up one morning and realized life was passing me by, moving at high speed while I wallowed behind. Dissatisfaction had filled me—and had only grown since.
"I'm sorry for anything and everything I might have done," I said, when Ron opened his mouth to speak.
"You're late," he growled. "Again."
The fact that I didn't utter, "Thanks for stating the obvious," should have earned me major good-girl points. "I know, and I really am sorry." When his expression didn't soften, when he still didn't glance in my direction, my heart slammed against my ribs. "I worked another job late into the morning and had trouble waking up."
He stared at the wall clock just behind my head and adjusted his chocolate-smeared tie. "While I like the image of you lingering in bed—"
Sick bastard. Gross. Just… gross. I might have thrown up in my mouth. And yes, I understand the irony here. You brought it on yourself, Jamison. What else did you expect, unleashing the girls like that? Suddenly hoping to hide them from view, I hunched my shoulders.
Wait, Ron's mouth was moving. He hadn't stopped talking.
"—that's just not a good enough excuse. I mean, I can make an exception for it once, twice, but we've had this same conversation seven times now. And you've only worked here a few weeks."
"I'll be on time tomorrow, you have my word. I'll go without sleep if necessary." Did I sound as desperate to Ron as I did to myself? Probably. Damn it. I hated to let him see my desperation. Hated, hated, hated. The more desperate he knew I was, the more he could pull my strings and make me dance like a performing monkey.
He tapped a pen against his desktop. "That's what you said last time. This is a small, independent operation, Belle, and we rely on our employees to provide superior service to keep us in business."
"I do provide superior service," I gulped, adding, "when I'm here."
Frowning, he dropped the pen and pushed a hand through his hair, causing more of the sandy locks to spike straight toward the ceiling. "You think you're good with customers? Really?"
"Yes, really." I knew what was happening here. He teetered on the brink of firing me and was simply trying to work up the courage to utter the words. And, I realized with shattering fear, I might not be able to talk him out of it this time. By this point in our previous talks, he was usually sending me on my way with a stern (but perverted) warning.
Had his irritation given him a supersonic determination no amount of sweet-talking persuasion could penetrate?
My eyes narrowed; my hands clenched into fists. I wouldn't allow him to get rid of me easily. Somehow, some way, I was going to penetrate that wall of nefarious determination. I could not lose this job. Lately very few businesses were willing to take a chance on me, so I could only imagine how long it would take to land another.
"Stupid jobs," I muttered.
"What was that?" Ron asked, his gaze sharpening.
Had I said that aloud? "Oh, uh, nothing." I straightened in the chair. "You were saying?"
He pushed out a sigh. "You have no people skills, Belle. Instead of smoothing ruffled feathers, you set them on fire."
"I'm telling you, I'm a good employee," I said through clenched teeth. And that wasn't a lie. Sure, I usually arrived late, always cussed, sometimes bitched and—and this is not an admission of guilt—(allegedly) borrowed from the stock room. But I worked weekends, holidays and overtime whenever possible. That counted for something, right?
"I can't believe you're making me do this." Ron flipped open a file and ran a blunt-tipped finger down the front page. "Complaint—server is rude and pushy. Complaint—server made tea instead of coffee. Complaint—server is rude. Complaint—server is rude. Complaint— server is rude. Shall I go on?"
"I don't let the customers yell and scream at me." Indignation gave me a sense of bravery, and I sat up even straighter, shoulders squared. Did people have nothing better to do with their lives than complain about a lowly server? "That doesn't make me rude, it makes me human."
"Jenni doesn't yell at customers even when they yell at her."
"Jenni is a brown-nosing moron."