Aleena

I’d be willing to bet if you asked a number of people my age what they planned to do on their twenty-first birthday, it would involve something along the lines of copious amounts of alcohol, and maybe a strip club. I know that was pretty close to what I’d had in mind.

I certainly hadn’t counted on waiting tables during the lunchtime rush at one of New York’s priciest restaurants. And yet, that’s what I was doing.

Biting back a sigh, I shifted my weight as I wove through the sea of tables and flesh, carrying my burden of overpriced, oversized lunch entrees.

I’d come to New York City six months ago. Like so many others, I’d left my small-town life –Iowa for me– and come to the big city, but so far, nothing was turning out the way I’d hoped. Granted, it might have helped if I’d actually had some sort of plan in mind. Something other than I’m tired of not fitting in, I’m tired of not belonging.

Now, instead of not fitting in anywhere in small-town Iowa, I got to not fit in here in New York, one of the biggest cities in the world.

I’d hoped coming here would help me figure out who I was, what I wanted to do with my life. Since then, I’d figured out exactly one thing—I was a half-decent server. Nothing earth shattering. Nothing that steered me in a new direction.

I did learn one thing about myself—I preferred the city. I did miss my dad, even though I talked to him once a week. I sometimes felt guilty that I never got homesick, but there was little to miss about my old life. My mom had died when I was eight and my grandmother a few years ago. Now, other than my dad, there was nobody else left I really cared about.

“Here you go!” I smiled at the group of people gathered at table 216 and passed out the plates. Not a single one of them looked up, or spoke.

One of these days, I might get used to people totally ignoring me. Back home, people said thank you when you gave them something or at least offered a smile of appreciation.

Here? People acted like they did you a favor by letting you serve them.

That’s just one of the differences between the Midwest and the East Coast. Just one.

As they dug into their meals, I gathered up empties and stacked them on my tray. I was checking out the tables when I heard my name.

“Aleena!”

One of the other servers nudged me and I looked up to see my best friend, Molly, give me a quick wave from back near the kitchen. I grinned at her and gave a head bob in return, the best I could do with both of my hands full.

Molly Walters was three years older than me. With bright red hair, freckles and a wide, open smile, she’d been asked more than once if she was still in high school. The fact that she was tiny, the very definition of petite, didn’t help any. She’d been working here for two years and had been the one to show me the ropes when I’d gotten hired. She wasn’t just the closest person to me in the city. She was the closest friend I had, period.

She glanced around and then pointed at something she held.

I widened my eyes at the cupcake she held in one hand.

It was gone in the next instant, but I’d gotten a good look. It was one of those little ones with icing piled up so high on the top that it was almost bigger than the cake itself. Best of all, there was a candle right in the middle.

A blast of pleasure swam through me, almost obliterating this shit ass of a day. My feet were killing me. I’d been working for well over five hours and I didn’t foresee a break in my near future. I wasn’t even going to think about the three separate patrons who’d decided it was perfectly acceptable to cuss me out.

Oh, yeah. My asshole of a manager had ‘accidentally’ touched my ass twice this morning.

He’d asked me out my first day on the job. He’d been subtle about it and had seemed congenial when I told him no, but I could see the displeasure in his eyes.

Ever since, he’d gone out of his way to make my life pure hell here.

Molly kept saying I should file a lawsuit against him, but I didn’t know what I was supposed to say.

He glared at me?

He glared at everybody.

He scowled a lot?

He wore a permanent scowl.

Every time he’d accidentally gotten too close, I could think of a dozen times when I’d legitimately accidentally bumped into somebody too. Accidents did sometimes happen.

Reporting him would cost me my job. People can talk all they want about affirmative action and equal opportunity, but if you were broke and barely scraping it by from day to day, sometimes, you were just…stuck. You had to have money to live, right?

Molly worked here with me—she’d helped me get the job. Any day with her made the day better. Thoughts of her and my birthday cupcake danced in my mind as I turned.

An older woman, walking with her friend, gesticulating wildly. “Can’t you see how things are just going south in this country?” the woman demanded of her friend. As she spoke, she flung out an arm, catching me right ­in the face.

Pain flooded through me, a starburst from my cheekbone. I stumbled and the pain teleported to my ankle. I had a split second to register that my cheek hurt more than my ankle, but it didn’t matter—I was going down. I was going to hit the floor and dishes were going to fly—

Then hands caught me and I stumbled into a hard body. The scent of a spicy cologne flooded my head.

Both appreciation and apprehension twined through me—appreciation for the as-yet-unseen male, and apprehension for the plates I couldn’t hope to keep balanced.

“I got you,” he said.

Yeah…you do, I thought, dazed.

For the briefest of moments, I thought he’d even catch the plates. They teetered on the brink before they crashed to the floor.

Silence descended. The odd kind that always follows such a spectacle spread throughout the restaurant. For that brief moment, I was able to just stand there. A body of solid, hard muscle held me steady. Through the thin back of my cotton dress-shirt, I felt the rise and fall of his chest. Carefully, I eased away and turned, lifting my head to gaze into a pair of the brightest blue eyes I’d ever seen.

My heart gave a hard thump.

Oh…wow.

He was almost too pretty. That hard jaw saved him from it, though it was close. His mouth curled as our eyes met and hot, sweet heat spread through me. He smiled and my heart fluttered just the slightest. There were disarming grooves that framed his mouth. A few years ago, they had probably been an amazing set of dimples and now, they made for a smile that probably threw women, young and old, off-guard.

“Hello.”

“Thank you,” I said.

Chatter resumed, people no longer interested.

Dishes had been broken, but nobody was hurt or angry—life will go on, right?

Or…maybe not.

A split second later, I heard the clop-clop-clop of thick-soled shoes. Dread twisted in me and I looked up in time to see a short, stocky man striding toward me.

My boss.

The scowling ass-grabber.

Gary was in his mid-thirties, but dressed and acted ten years older. His hair was already thinning, but instead of accepting his losses and cutting it short, he left it long and combed it back, slicking it with some sort of hair grease that smelled like coconuts.

He often reminded me of a rodent—his complexion ruddy even on the best of days. Today wasn’t the best of days. He was red, so red it would have worried me if I hadn’t seen my fate dancing before me.

Some of the people close to us cast curious glances our ways. Nervous, I smoothed down my skirt. I hated being the center of attention.

As he drew nearer, I couldn’t decide if I’d rather have him do this here or back in his office. I never liked being alone with Gary, but I thought it might be worth it just so I didn’t have all these people staring at me, including the extremely hot man standing so close I could still smell his cologne or whatever it was he was wearing.

“Come with me.” Gary grabbed me, his fat fingers digging into the flesh of my upper arm.

Shame made my skin grow hot and I focused on the floor as we passed by the patrons. I could hear his murmured apologies. “I’m so sorry. Please excuse this inconvenience…”

This wasn’t going to end well.

The moment the door shut behind us, I twisted free.

“What the hell were you doing? Don’t you know how to carry plates?”

I guess there wasn’t a point in telling him that somebody had hit me. My cheek still stung from the blow. Swallowing, I just stared at him.

“You made a fucking mess out there!” He stabbed a finger toward the door. “What sort of incompetent idiot are you?”

I could ask you the same thing, I thought mutinously. My dad ran the best restaurant back in our hometown and one thing he’d drilled into my head—you treat your staff the way you’d want to be treated. You treat them with respect and they’ll respect you.

But Gary didn’t want my respect.

He wanted in my pants.

So I just stared at him. It only made him angrier.

He opened his mouth. Dread curdled in my gut.

Aw, no.

I needed this job.

“I don’t even know why I let Molly talk me into hiring you.”

You hired me because you wanted to get into my pants. I had to bite my tongue to keep from saying it. Erring on the side of diplomacy, I said, “I’m really sorry, Gary. It won’t happen again.”

“I know it won’t.” He crossed his arms over his chest.

No, no, no

Just then, the door opened and the hot guy who’d caught me walked in as if he owned the place.

“Gary, right?” He flashed a charming smile.

Gary gaped at him for a split second and then shook himself, attempting to regain his composure. “Sir, you can’t be in here.”

“I just wanted to help straighten things out.” He glanced at me and then nodded at Gary. “You see, Gary, what happened out there wasn’t her fault.”

I wasn’t sure who was more surprised, Gary or me.

“It was mine.”

He took a step forward and I suddenly realized how big he was. In the rush of the moment earlier, I’d missed it, but he was almost a foot taller than me—and so damn sexy. He wore a suit that fit him so well, I didn’t doubt it had been specially made for him.

“I didn’t look where I was going and I bumped into her.” He reached into his back pocket and pulled out his wallet. “Let me pay for the damages.”

“Sir, that’s really not necessary,” Gary said. A smile now crossed his face, replacing the snarl. It held a world of ass-kissing in it. Have money? Will grovel.

“Nonsense. I insist.” He held out a couple hundred dollars. “And I’m sure whatever else is left over, you can find some use for.” He smiled at Gary, but his eyes flicked over to me. “No one needs to get fired, right?”

“Of course not, sir.” Gary took the money and gave a slow nod. “I appreciate your kindness and understanding.”

The knight-gallant gave Gary a pointed look. “I’d like a word with the young lady, please.”

“Oh, of course.” Gary hurried out without a second glance at me.

I waited until the door closed before looking up at the man who’d just saved my job. “Thank you so much.”

“You’re very welcome.” He smiled at me, this one much more genuine than the ones he’d given Gary. He glanced back at the door my manager had disappeared through. “It wasn’t your fault. The lady…she caught you in the face pretty hard.”

“I’m fine,” I said, smiling. I lifted my hand to my sore cheek.

“Are you?”

“I…” I swallowed.

He glanced at the door again and then looked back at me. “Are you?”

“I’m fine,” I repeated, although I wasn’t entirely sure it was true. Our eyes met and there was a moment of silence before I felt compelled to break it. “I should get going. My shift’s not over until four.”

“Be careful,” he said. “I’m leaving so I won’t be here to catch you if you have another accident.”

As he spoke, he reached out to touch my arm—that light contact sent heat blazing up through me. My breath caught in my throat. Heat pooled down low in my belly and to my horror, I could feel my nipples drawing tight, stabbing into my bra.

Oooookay.

I needed to get out of here before I made a bigger fool of myself than I already had. He left first, though, quickly and quietly, out the door before I had a chance.

I gave myself thirty seconds. Thirty seconds to calm myself and then I slid out of Gary’s office and headed to the kitchen. Hopefully somebody had been watching my orders.

“What the hell are you still doing here?” Gary snapped.

I came up short. “Ah…I still have a couple hours left on my shift.”

Gary scowled at me and I knew.

“You said you wouldn’t fire me.” I took a couple steps forward, lowering my voice. My stomach churned.

He smiled at me, but it was a cold one, one that turned my stomach. “Let me give you a piece of advice that will help you for the rest of your life.”

“Yeah?” I stared at him, jerking my chin up. I was tired of him talking down to me. If he was going to fire me anyway—and I had a feeling he was—then I was done trying to play nice.

“You know that saying that the customer’s always right?”

“What about it?” I asked.

“Well, it’s bullshit.” Gary jerked his head toward the office. “And that was the perfect example. Go get your stuff. Leave and don’t come back.”

“You son of a bitch,” I said, months of suppressed anger and humiliation breaking free. I reached up to touch my necklace, telling myself to calm down. It wasn’t that bad. It was never that bad, right?

But my necklace was gone.

“What did you say to me?” Gary’s eyes flew wide.

Ignoring him, I patted at my neck. “My necklace…”

“Get out!” Gary shouted.

I looked around, staring at the floor, searching for the silver chain.

“Didn’t you hear me?!”

“I can’t find my necklace!” I shouted back at him.

“I don’t care about your necklace,” Gary snapped, storming over and grabbing my arm. His fingers dug into my skin, drawing a pained yelp out of me. “Get the hell out or I’ll call someone to get you out.”

He shook me and then, with a final squeeze, shoved me toward the door. “Get out.”

Tears of anger and misery spilled over.

I didn’t want him to see, so I turned away.

Earlier, I’d thought how odd it was that I hadn’t been homesick.

Swallowing the knot in my throat, I half-stumbled toward the door.

Suddenly, I was very, very homesick.

 

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