Free to read now! Chapter One of The Heartbreaker.
I glance out the long picture window of the Firefly Cafe to watch the snow fall outside. As a car passes by, slush sprays outward and nearly hits the cafe window. I love the snow, but I could do without the slush and the cold. Thankfully, I’m inside near the electric fireplace and I’m toasty warm as I try to break into a local accountant’s social media accounts from my laptop.
I’ve been sitting in the same spot for hours and my butt is getting sore, but I don’t want to move. I’m just too damn comfy. Earlier, when it was busier, I debated leaving, but now it’s nearly eleven o’clock and the crowd has long since gone. The only people who remain are me and my aunt, Claire. She owns the place.
Sick with a cold, she sniffles as she sweeps the floor near where I’m seated. I glance up at her and notice her puffy eyes and red-rimmed nose. I didn’t notice how awful she looked earlier, but that’s probably because she spends most of her time in the kitchen. She’s such a hard worker. I doubt she’s worked less than fourteen hours a day since she bought this place six months ago. I have mad respect for her; she wanted more than a shitty minimum wage, so she worked her ass off, got a loan, and bought this place. I only hope one day I’ll be able to turn my dreams into a reality, too.
“Take a seat,” I tell her as I push out the chair across from me with the tip of one of my black boots.
She debates it before trudging closer and all but falling onto it. After leaning back, she exhales loudly. Congestion crackles from somewhere deep in her lungs.
“You need to go home,” I tell her.
I shake my head at her.
“I’ll be fine,” she says. “Though you should get out of here. I don’t like you walking home late at night.”
“I have a rape whistle.”
She raises her eyebrows. “Well, that makes me feel tons better. Shouldn’t you be out with friends, anyhow? It’s Saturday night. A year and a half at university, and I’ve never met a single one of your friends yet.”
I shrug my shoulders because I’m not sure how to respond to that.
“Are you dating?”
“I’d have told you if I were.” I lower the screen of my laptop and meet her eyes.
“No, you wouldn’t.”
No, I probably wouldn’t. “I’m too busy with work and school to socialize.” That’s not exactly true. What is true is that my sole focus right now is getting my degree and working enough to make sure I can pay for it. So far, I’m falling behind. I could always move back in with Claire, but that’s not fair. She has enough to worry about, and she’s already done so much for me. She was kind enough to take me in as a teen, but she doesn’t need to keep helping a grown adult who isn’t her own kid. I’m not her responsibility.
“Marla, I worry about you,” she says.
“Don’t. And stop focusing on me,” I say. “We were talking about you. Go home before you spread your germs all over the place and the town starts calling you Typhoid Mary.”
“Typhoid Mary? She was a cook who was sick and infected all the people she cooked for?”
She stares at me with a blank look on her face.
“She killed people?”
“Doesn’t ring a bell?” I say.
“I have no clue who you’re talking about, but I guess that’s why you’re the smarty pants in university and I’m slaving in a kitchen.”
“In a kitchen you own,” I say with a slight smile.
She returns it. “I do own it, don’t I?”
She looks around the space, and her smile builds as if she’s appraising her achievements. Her chest puffs up just a touch. She’s proud and should be. She might be the most accomplished person in our whole family.
Her face contorts moments later. She inhales sharply before releasing a grand sneeze that echoes through the entire space.
I groan. “I’m not playing nice anymore. Go home. This place won’t fall apart if you close early.”
“I’ll lose trust. If I say we’re open until twelve, then we’re open until twelve.”
Like most cafes, she sees most of her customers in the morning and early afternoon. I don’t really know why she insists on staying open so late.
“What if I close for you?” I say.
“I don’t know,” she says as she sucks in her lips and thinks it over.
I know she trusts me, and I’m more than capable of closing the place even though I’ve never done it before. Closing the store is the least I can do for her after all she does—and has done—for me. At fifteen, when I had no place to live, she welcomed me with open arms. She served as a mother to me when, for all intents and purposes, I had none. I might not have experience with service or am overly comfortable around strangers, but how hard can it be?
My gaze flickers up at the clock. “You close in less than an hour. I probably won’t even get a single customer in here.”
“You don’t know how to work the cash register.”
I chuckle at that. “I’m a computer whiz. I’ll figure it out. If someone comes in, how hard will it be for me to serve them a coffee and a donut and take their money?”
“Are you sure?”
“Hell, I’ll even mop and wipe down the counters.”
She heaves a weary sigh and tosses up her hands. “Okay. You convinced me.”
I smile at her. I didn’t think she’d go for it, but I’m glad common sense won out. “Really?”
She sniffs and nods. “Thank you.”
Her gratitude makes my cheeks flame because I don’t need it. Doesn’t she realize I would do anything to make her life easier?
She pushes herself up out of her seat and hangs her head before plodding to the kitchen in the back.
The sound of her coughing travels through the walls and permeates the small open seating area. My chest squeezes hearing it. I’m sure she—and anyone else who’s ever known me—thinks I’m cold and insensitive because I have trouble expressing how I feel. The truth is I feel—a lot. And right now I want her to get better. I know she’ll be back here tomorrow to put in another fourteen hours of work, and there’s not a damn thing I can do about it. She might be more stubborn than I am.
When she returns, she hands me the keys. “The code for the alarm is six, seven, five, eight,” she says. “Make sure you leave within three minutes of setting it. After you leave, look through the door at the alarm. The light should be green.”
“Six, seven, five, eight. Got it.”
“Thanks so much, Marla. I sure could use the sleep.”
“No worries. And maybe if you need more help, I could lend a hand around here. You wouldn’t even have to pay me,” I say with a grin.
She shakes her head and her expression becomes stern. “No. You’re too busy. You need to keep up those grades. Maybe next year you’ll get that scholarship you’ve been hoping for.”
“And then maybe you can work a little less for that PI guy.”
“Sam pays me really well,” I say, because he does. Yet, even with the money I get from him for freelancing, I’m still behind on my tuition payments. I have thousands left to pay over the next couple of months or I won’t get my marks for the term in April, and then I won’t be able to continue school in September.
“Of course, he pays you well,” she says. “You give him information he couldn’t get anywhere else, but if the police ever find out you’re getting information from hacking, you’ll be in jail.” She lowers her voice, and it takes on a softer tone, as though she’s reluctant to state the obvious, “Like your dad.”
I swallow hard and scratch an itch on my eyebrow. I don’t talk about my father so I gloss right over that. And to be fair, he was never much of a father to begin with. She furrows her brow, and though I could take her comment as judgmental, her face says something entirely different. But I still feel the need to justify my actions. “Sam’s a good guy. Sometimes he just needs a little help pointing him in the right direction.”
She frowns at me.
“Go home and go to bed, okay?” I say, hoping to end the conversation quickly.
She pulls me into a hug and keeps me in her bubble a little longer than I like. I didn’t grow up with affection. The family I had often ignored me. For as long as I can remember, Claire is the only one who’s ever hugged me. Even guys I’ve dated never did it. Though, to be fair, the guys in my life were never long-term and they were more about sex than love. I preferred it that way. Still do. Hugging is just too intimate.
“You bet. I’ll drop the key off in the morning.”
“Sure. Or whenever you can. I have a spare.” She lets me go and walks out the door. I follow her with my eyes as she walks by the window. She lives near the end of the street, above the laundromat.
I let my gaze wander around the café. The floors are terrible and some of the tables have yet to be wiped down. I shut down my computer and tuck it, and my scrambler, into my book bag before I grab a cloth and start wiping down the countertops. Before long, I have the mop and bucket out and I’m putting the chairs on the tables upside down. I leave a couple of chairs down—just in case—though it’s twenty to twelve and unlikely I’ll see anyone now.
The floors are shiny when I’m done. Of course, that’s when a customer comes in with dirty shoes. I sigh and guide the mop in the bucket behind the counter. I glance back at him and only see a set of wide shoulders on the back of a tall, lean body.
“I’ll be with you in a minute,” I call out to him.
He waves at me over his shoulder and mumbles something before he takes a seat at one of the few booths on the right side of the space. Something about him is familiar, even from behind. Maybe it’s his golden waves. Who has sun-kissed hair in January in Nova Scotia? He slumps forward to rest his elbows on the table and bows his head. He looks like he’s having a rough night so I immediately soften to him. I’ve had my fair share. Sighing, I grab the coffee pot and the tallest mug we have before plodding over to him. A few feet away, I stop and he looks up. My jaw drops.
Crystal blue eyes stare up at me. But they aren’t what surprise me. What surprises me is the blackened flesh around his right eye and the swollen lid he can barely see through. On his cheek, a short scratch frosts his bright red and angry cheek. His left hand is bloodied and cut up on his knuckles. Frown lines appear on his forehead and his face pales. He looks at me wide-eyed, like he’s seen a ghost.
I realize I know him, but only a little. I’ve seen girls point at him in glass, chat about him, call him a man-whore. A heartbreaker. I’ve heard girls say he’s only good for one thing, but boy is he good at that one thing.
He clears his throat and shakes off whatever is going on in his pretty head. His color starts to return.
I set the coffee mug down in front of him and pour coffee until it reaches the brim. Some servers might ask him questions or offer him a shoulder to cry on. That’s not me. Perhaps that’s why the only service job I had I got fired from. I hate conversation for the sake of conversation.
“Thanks,” he says.
I nod stiffly and leave him momentarily to head out back. I find an ice pack in the large walk-in fridge and wrap it in a hand towel. I also grab the first aid kit. When I return to him, I hope to God he hasn’t stolen anything. Though he doesn’t strike me as a thief. His black winter jacket is torn on the shoulder, but I saw the brand name on his chest and recognized it as expensive. I also didn’t miss the designer watch on his wrist that probably cost more than Claire’s three-year-old Honda.
He slowly sips his coffee as I return.
I hand him the ice pack.
He wiggles his jaw back and forth before taking it. When his chilly fingers brush against mine, I pull away quickly.
“You’re like my guardian angel tonight,” he says.
“You want help with the hand?”
He sets his mug down and holds his hands out to flex his fingers. “Sure, if you’re offering. I’m not in the mood to sit in the emergency room for something as minor as this.”
“Minor? You look like you got jumped.”
He chuckles. “You should see the other guy.”
I roll my eyes. Such a guy thing to say. I sit in the chair opposite him and hold out my hand. “Give me your hand.”
He doesn’t hesitate. He slides it across the table until it’s near the edge and right in front of me. It doesn’t look so bad. Just a lot of dried blood. I open the first aid kit and push things around until I find some saline. I grab some napkins and put them under his hand. He keeps his eyes on me. I can’t read his expression so I ignore it.
“I’m Tate. Tate Donovan,” he says.
He’s skinned his knuckles and they’re swollen, but I don’t think any of his bones are broken. Gently, I take his hand and lift it up. It’s an odd thing to hold the hand of a stranger, but I’ve bandaged up fight injuries so many times my instincts take over.
He studies me. “Have we met before?”
“That’s original,” I say.
“No, I’m serious. I’m not good with names.”
That must be really inconvenient when he wakes up next to a woman in the morning.
“We slept together a year ago?” I say. “Don’t you remember?”
His expression changes, suddenly becoming serious. “No, I’d remember you.” He says this so decidedly that it surprises me. Given what I’ve heard, I wouldn’t think he’d remember everyone he slept with.
I relax my face and smirk. “All right, you got me. I’m joking.”
When his face contorts to smile, he winces, then opens and closes his jaw slowly. When I hear it crack, my shoulders hunch.
“Sorry,” he says.
I pour a little bit of saline on his cuts and dry them off with some more napkins. I should put on gloves, but I honestly don’t think about it until I’m nearly done. I wrap a rolled-up piece of gauze around his hand and tape it up after biting off a piece with my teeth.
“You’re good at this,” he says.
“Are you a nursing student? Or maybe you’re studying medicine?”
He raises an eyebrow. He wants me to volunteer what program I’m in. I don’t.
“Keep the ice pack on your face. It’ll help.” I let go of his hand.
He holds up his hand, turning it over, examining it before his gaze trains back onto me. He’s still waiting for an answer.
Sigh. “My dad was a fighter,” I say instead.
“Like for sport? Professionally?”
“Yep,” I say, not committing to either response.
He shakes his head at me, a touch of amusement on the curling edges of his mouth.
In truth, my dad fought people who looked at him wrong, who didn’t follow through with commitments, who gave him a hard time, or attitude. He never touched me, though. Never hit my mother either. He wasn’t overly nice to either of us, but I trusted him not to hurt me physically. Compared to the man my mom left us for, she had it good with my dad.
Tate takes a long drink of his coffee and I stand, about to start closing up.
“I don’t like to fight,” he says suddenly.
I slowly lower myself back down onto the seat. I’m not sure why. Maybe his need to justify his actions makes me curious. Or maybe I feel bad for him. Or maybe this scene is so familiar to me, it feels comfortable.
“If you don’t like to fight, then why did you?” I ask.
He shrugs. “Sometimes it’s unavoidable.”
I resist the urge to roll my eyes. “If you say so.” My dad said the same thing. Only he never had fancy lawyers to bail him out of trouble like Tate probably does.
“What time do you close?” he asks when he catches me looking at the clock above the counter.
I strain in my glasses to see the clock. My prescription is old, and I probably should have invested in a new pair a year ago. Getting them updated isn’t a priority. “A few minutes. Did you want something?” I ask. “We have a couple Boston creams left, a strawberry cream Danish, and a sad-looking leftover chocolate peanut butter ball.”
“It’s way too small. A leftover. Claire usually gives those to people who bring their dogs in here.”
“She owns the place, and she bakes everything except the bread. It’s all pretty good.”
He takes a long drink of his coffee. “Coffee’s not great.”
I shrug. “I think it’s been there a while. It’s not her specialty. People come here for her food.”
“How long have you worked here? I’ve been here a bunch of times, but I’ve never seen you.”
Like he’d notice. “I don’t work here.”
He raises an eyebrow.
“Claire is also my aunt. She was sick tonight so I offered to lock up for her.”
“That was nice of you.”
“I’m a nice person.”
“But working in service isn’t really my thing,” I add.
I pause. From what I know of this guy, he’s not someone I would waste my time on. He’s a rich boy with good looks, girls fall all over him, and he gladly accepts all the attention he gets. Not that there’s anything wrong with all of that. I just don’t think it’s fair that some people are blessed with everything and don’t have to lift a finger while the rest of us struggle. I don’t get why the world works like that. It just seems unfair.
If Claire hadn’t taken me in when I was fifteen, I would have been on the streets. That’s why I’m determined to get my degree and the best paying job I can. I know life will be better when I don’t have to worry about money anymore. I bet he’s never had to think about that. Is it his fault? No. But it still irritates me, and I consider walking away and forgetting about him. Yet I don’t move.
“I don’t want to wait on people,” I say finally. “People bother me.”
He chuckles. “Should you say that to a customer?”
I shrug. “Probably not, but I guess that’s why Claire has never asked me to work here.”
His gaze intensifies. I don’t look away because I don’t have it in me. Maybe that’s what dad gave me, his inability to back down. In fact, I lean into the stare before he finally laughs and looks away.
“You’re a little intimidating,” he begins, “and I don’t scare easy.”
“Me?” I shake off the thought. “I don’t think so.”
He touches his temple and strokes the bruising.
“What was the fight about?” I ask, pointing to his eye.
“Do you care, or are you just being polite?”
“I don’t care. And I’m not being polite.”
He laughs. “You do care or you wouldn’t ask.”
“You’re reaching. Call me curious. People and their motivations interest me,” I say quickly.
“I like your honesty.”
“It’s the best policy.”
“So I’ve heard.” He adjusts in his seat. His jacket makes a scratching sound as he moves.
I suspect he has more injuries under those well-fitted clothes. He’s going to hurt in the morning once all the adrenaline wears off and the injuries have a chance to really sink into his skin. Every morning after drinking and fighting, my dad would wake up in pain and I would leave acetaminophen and water by his bedside to help him hurt less. I was doing this as young as six years old. He was all I had. Mom had already left by then.
“Well?” I say to prompt him.
“You know, when my friends and my roommates ask me what happened, I’ll probably make up some bullshit story to make myself look good. I’ll give it a twist to make them laugh. They’ll torment me for weeks until they eventually forget about it. But…”
“Don’t bother answering if you’re going to lie to me. I’ve been around liars my whole life, and I don’t have the patience for it.”
“That’s really sad.”
“Okay.” He absentmindedly circles the rim of his cup with his fingers. “I might have slept with someone I shouldn’t have.”
“There’s a shocker.”
He rolls his eyes and then pauses a long moment before he adds, “She was married.”
“You’re judging me,” he says.
“No, you’re judging you, or you wouldn’t be planning on lying to your friends about it.”
“That’s not why I’d lie.”
Confused, I still. “So why would you?”
He hitches a shoulder. “It doesn’t matter.”
“It clearly does to you.”
“I was sleeping with a married woman, and her husband found out. I’m not sure how he tracked me down, but I had practice earlier and he was waiting for me when I came out. He took a swing at me, and I didn’t fight back.”
Liar. “Then why are your knuckles skinned?”
He frowns and then smiles. “All right, the first few hits were free. I let him have them, but I warned him
if he kept going, I’d fight back. He decided to keep going.”
“You let him get those first shots in because you thought you deserved it?”
“I don’t know if that’s noble or stupid.”
“Nothing about me is noble. If I want something, I take it. I don’t really think about the consequences.”
“That’s shitty of you.”
He laughs weakly at that. “I know it is.”
“Why are you telling me all this? You don’t even know me.”
“Because you asked.” He hitches a single shoulder as he frowns. “And I don’t know, I guess to get it off my chest. You said you don’t like people, so it’s not as if you’re going to broadcast it to everyone at school.”
“This is true. Though I could blackmail you.”
“Go ahead. You won’t be the first.”
I open my mouth to speak and then snap it shut. Not my business.
He lets go of the cup and makes a fist with his hand, flexing and unflexing his fingers. “Also, if we’re being honest, you remind me of someone I used to know. Someone I trusted.” His expression becomes shy.
I wouldn’t have guessed that anyone like me ever graced his social circles, but I don’t see a trace of a lie in the set of his eyebrows or any shifting in his eyes. I’m sure he’s telling the truth so I wonder why the reminder makes him look so sad.
He drinks the last of his coffee and checks his watch.
I look up at the clock on the wall. It’s already a few minutes after midnight. “I guess I should close up,” I say.
He holds up his coffee mug. “Thanks for the coffee.” He reaches into his wallet and drops a twenty on the table.
I pick the bill up and attempt to hand it back to him. “Don’t worry about it. I would have thrown the coffee out anyway.”
“What about the tip?”
“For a coffee? I think I’ll live without the fifty cents.”
“Easy now. I might have given you a whole dollar.”
When he smiles now, his face lights up for the first time since he walked in here. I can see, even through the beat-up face and ripped clothes, why he appeals to girls. There’s something extra about him. Something I can’t describe. A girl could easily fall prey to a guy who smiles at her like he does. Not this girl, though. But I have to give him credit for making me swoon at him for a total of three seconds.
“It’s pretty shitty out there,” he says. “Can I give you a ride home?”
I look at the fat snowflakes falling from the sky. It’ll be dark and cold walking home, but I don’t know if letting him drive me home is a good idea. In fact, I’m sure of it.
“It’s the least I can do after you nursed me back to health.” He holds up his bandaged hand.
“I’d do that for anyone who walked in here looking like you.”
“Because you feel bad for me?”
“Yeah.” I try to keep a straight face, but end up letting a smile leak into my expression.
He mirrors it. “Since you want to help, you know what would really make me feel better?”
“I can’t wait for you to tell me,” I say, knowing from the sudden gleam in his eye, and from what I’ve heard of him, where this is likely going.
“Forget about me driving you home. Come back to my house with me.”
I laugh out loud. “For what? Sex?”
“Oh, hey, calm down. You’re moving too fast. But if you think it’d help with….you know…the pain.” He winces as he rests his bad hand against his chest, hand on heart.
I roll my eyes. “I’m not going to sleep with you no matter how thick you lay it on.”
He waggles his eyebrows. “Thick is my specialty.”
I laugh so hard I start coughing. “Tate, you’re not as awful as I thought you were, but I’m not going home with you. I’m not going to sleep with you, and I never will.”
I fold my arms over my chest and stare at him.
“All right. No sex tonight.”
“Or any night,” I say.
“What do you mean why? We don’t know each other.”
“We don’t need to know each other to have sex. It’s therapeutic. It feels good, and I’m pretty sure you’d want less from me tomorrow than I’d want from you, and that kind of turns me on. No one gets hurt, but we both get something out of it. Think of it this way, you can tick a one night-stand off your bucket list.”
Bucket list? I scoff at that. “A one-night-stand isn’t on my bucket list.”
“Are you saving yourself for marriage?”
“No, I’ve had one-night-stands before.”
“Really,” I say.
“So what is on your bucket list?”
I sigh, then shake my head at him. I’ve never thought about it before. Truth is, I’m young, so planning on a list of thing to do before I die hasn’t been a priority—thank God. But when I really think about it, I can’t think of anything good to add to it. Being self-reliant has been the only thing I’ve ever really wanted. “I don’t know. What’s on yours?”
He looks away and fidgets with his hands. He looks shy again, and it really looks good on him. Cocky might be attractive to some, but I don’t find cocky honest. I think it’s a mask.
“I’d like to swim in the Olympics.”
He nods. “It won’t happen, but it’s always been my dream.”
“How do you know it won’t happen?”
“I’m good, but I’m just not that good. I’m twenty-two, and I think I’m a little too old to get there now.”
“You want it, make it happen, or you don’t really want it that badly.”
He nods as he considers my words. “Maybe you’re right. Or maybe I want it but just don’t want to put the work in that it would take to make it happen.”
“Which leads me back to my first argument—you don’t want it that badly.”
“Man, you’re tough,” he says.
I offer him a little shrug. “I don’t tell people what they want to hear. Maybe that’s why I don’t have a lot of friends.”
“It’s their loss.”
“You’re trying to butter me up so I’ll sleep with you.”
“Yes, I am. Is it working?” he asks.
Would a one-night stand be so bad? It’s not like I’m against them. In fact, I prefer them. You don’t get hurt by one-night stands when both people accept what it is going in. I don’t have to worry about messy relationships or getting hurt if he doesn’t call, or feel smothered when he does. Sex is simple.
He gives me bedroom eyes that smolder. I swear his eyebrows weren’t hooded before, or maybe they’re starting to swell from the punches he took. “I’ll regret you if you say no,” he says softly while his eyes search every corner of my face.
Would he? Would I? I am curious to know what all the fuss is about. “Sex? No strings attached?”
When he leans forward, my breath catches.
“Just one night?” I parrot quietly. My body stirs at the thought of it. He’s easy to look at, and it’s been a long time. We’ll walk away in the morning like it never happened. He’ll be satisfied, and if his experience level means anything, so will I.
“Or do you have something better to do?” he asks.
I take in a deep breath and glance down at my computer. I almost laugh at the way tonight played out. Never in a million years would I have guessed tonight would end this way, but here I am. Do I have something better to do?
“No,” I say finally. “I don’t.”