The massive late afternoon line of customers suffering from caffeine withdrawal finally ended.
“Is there a government imposed ration on coffee that I don’t know about?” I asked my co-worker as I untied the apron that was splattered with coffee and frosting. We always got a late afternoon rush at Java the Hut, the coffee shop where I worked full time, but today’s had been bordering on ridiculous. It was twenty minutes past the end of my shift. It was a good thing I hadn’t had plans, cause no way could I have left Meg alone with the thirsting hordes.
“Whatcha up to tonight, pretty girl?” Meg smiled at me as she set the machines to brewing—our dispensers all needed to be refilled after the rush.
“Roller derby practice.” I finger combed my hair before tying it back with an elastic that I kept in the pocket of my apron. I knew from experience that it wasn’t much of an improvement, looks wise, but at least it was off my face.
“Wanna grab dinner after?” Meg’s voice was casual, with a hint of flirtation. I studied her for a long moment as I zipped my hoodie all the way up to my chin.
Tall and pleasantly plump, my fellow barista looked like the former southern beauty queen that she was, all big hair and boobs and shiny teeth. On her first day at the shop she’d announced out of nowhere that she was a lesbian and too bad if I had a problem with that.
I had blinked in surprise, but only because of the way she’d just thrown the info out there. I could have cared less if she dated men, women, or dogs, and when I’d told her as much she’d laughed that deep throaty laugh of hers and patted me on the ass in a way that didn’t offend me at all.
“We’re gonna get along just fine, sugar.” She’d said, and we did, even though she never stopped asking me out.
Apart from a few dinners, I mostly refused. Hell, maybe I’d take her up on it one day, but as of right now I didn’t date anyone, not women, and certainly not men.
I wasn’t sure that I ever would again.
“You don’t want to go for dinner with me after practice. I’ll be sweaty and stinky and ready for bed.” I realized that I’d set myself up as soon as the words left my mouth, and was already laughing by the time Meg wiggled her eyebrows at me lasciviously.
“The ready for bed part sounds real good, sweetie pie.” She blew a kiss at me as I laughingly swatted her away, tossing my apron into the laundry bin and swinging my purse up and onto my shoulder.
“See you tomorrow, Meg.” I grinned at her as I pushed my way out of the steamy, cinnamon scented interior of Java the Hut and into the uncharacteristically crisp air of early fall. I snuggled down deeper into my hoodie as I began to walk in the direction of my condo, wishing I’d had the forethought to bring my woolly mittens with me that morning.
The chilly air burned the inside of my nose as I walked, my thoughts back on the crazy busy shift I’d just left. I was a self-admitted loner and so wasn’t sure where the urge came from, but I thought about turning back to the shop and taking Meg up on her invite, though just as friends.
It was probably time to start getting out, start trying to get some semblance of a normal life back. The problem was that I so rarely had the urge. The coffee shop, roller derby, my condo—they were all safe.
It took a lot for me to venture outside of my comfort zone these days.
“Just do it, Adele. One dinner. You’ve done it before.” My steps slowed as I turned back around—my mind wanted company, but my body wasn’t so sure. Out of habit I looked across the street, at the apartment building I’d lived in a few years earlier. The one I’d fled from when my life had turned upside down.
A young man stood on the frosted grass in front of the ancient brick, breaking down cardboard boxes, only a T-shirt standing between him and the chill.
Something about that body… about the tilt of his head was achingly familiar.
I did a double take.
“What the fuck?” Meg forgotten, my feet froze in place and I stared, my heart going from zero to sixty in the time it took to suck in a strangled mouthful of air.
He was a fraction taller than he’d been last time I’d seen him, and the long, lean muscles I’d once known were thicker, looked harder. His dark hair was a bit longer, like he just didn’t have the time or inclination to keep it short and neat.
And it was a different pair of glasses perched on his nose, some classic wire rims instead of the preppy RayBans he’d once sported.
But my body remembered, and unfortunately, so did my heart.
It was Malachi Hunter. Malachi Hunter, the only guy who’d ever broken my heart.
“Holy shit.” An embarrassing squeaking sound echoed out of my mouth, cutting through the thin, cold air, and then I felt those eyes that I’d once loved to just look into lock onto me.
I couldn’t move. I couldn’t breathe.
His head cocked to the side, his eyes narrowing like he was trying to place me. A pang of hurt twined with irritation bolted through my gut, followed by the more rational reasoning of my mind.
It had been over two years since I’d laid eyes on him. He looked different, and I knew that I did, too.
My hair was no longer the neon red I’d once kept it—I’d let it go back to its natural reddish blonde. I didn’t let it fall in a wild mass of waves anymore, either, instead preferring to keep it off my face in a ponytail or a bun.
Gone too was the thick charcoal eye makeup, the bright red lipstick. I hardly wore makeup at all anymore, not even to derby matches—I didn’t like to be noticed.
And my most telling feature, my tattoos, were hidden as they always were now beneath my long sleeves.
Still I held my breath, unable to do anything but hold our stare and wait.
Would he recognize me?
“Adele?” The voice called out across the street, a shade deeper than I remembered, though just as capable of making me shiver. I held still like a terrified deer as the guy I’d once known melded with the man in front of me, the two becoming one as he tossed the cardboard aside and loped across the street.
I cleared my throat, emotions that I’d thought long buried roaring to the surface like they’d never been gone.
“Hi, Mal.” Whatever I’d been expecting, it wasn’t the big, open, still freaking sexy smile or the excited look in his eyes.
It wasn’t the bone crushing hug that he pulled me into, either. But instead of tensing, poised for escape like I’d done any time someone touched me in the last two years, a not entirely comfortable discovery slapped me right in the face.
It was impossible to turn back time. I of all people knew that, because I’d once gone to a casual frat party looking for this very man, dying to fix what was broken between us, and instead had been violated, shamed, and run out of town. I wanted to scream at Mal as much as I wanted to hug him, to ask him why he’d called but never come knocking at my door in the days after I’d walked out on him.
I did none of these things. Instead, surprised at myself, I settled into hug and contemplated the fact that Mal’s arms still felt like home.