“The Coffee Girl” – Chapter One

CoffeeGirl_cover1Sam’s After Dark was the only place in Archer Cove where you could get both a martini and an ice cream sundae, and I went there even though I didn’t have money for either. I could sit on the rooftop deck and watch the sun set behind the cliffs. If Pete was tending bar, he’d give me a bowl of honey-roasted peanuts and a glass of water. Basically, he’d treat me like some kind of wild squirrel, if squirrels had laptops and occupied seats at the bar on Friday nights.

That night, I mounted the wooden stairs to the fourth floor, my laptop secured in my fashionably upcycled messenger bag. The June evening was still bright, but it would fade quickly. The white lights strung across the open roof were already lit, and the smells of Sam’s Restaurant — marinara sauce and baked fish, garlic bread and spices — enveloped the space. I had a moment of panic when I saw Camille shaking a silver tumbler. We didn’t know each other very well, and odds were good that she wouldn’t take kindly to me perching on a stool and eating the free peanuts for a few hours. Then I saw Pete emerge from around the bar. “Hey, Wren!” He gave me a little wave and a smile.

“Pete.” I bellied up and slumped into my favorite seat.

“Almost didn’t recognize you.” He gestured to his head. “What’s with the hat?”

I reached up and brushed my fingers against the bill of my baseball cap. “Bad hair day.”

More like the hot water in my apartment was spotty again, so I hadn’t showered since getting off from work. I thought that stepping into a mist of “Hidden Garden” aerosol room freshener would help, but I still smelled like bacon and cinnamon toast, but now with a hint of toxic flowers. The baseball cap didn’t help in the stink department, but it hid my batter-splattered hair. I wasn’t in Sam’s to pick up a date, and no one would smell me over the garlic bread.

Pete pointed at my laptop case. “You’re the only one who comes in here to write. Don’t most people pick cafés for that kind of thing?”

“You forget that I work in a bakery. It’s not an escape from reality for me.”

I was known as “the coffee girl” over at Hedda’s, my family’s bakery. Lattes, mochas, cappuccinos, straight-up cafe Americano — pick your pleasure. I wore an apron and kept a plastic cup marked “Tips!” in a hopeful scroll with blue marker. Every now and then, someone spared a nickel.

I’d become good at making foam. The first day after coming back from LA, I’d burned my fingers on the steam and splashed hot milk all over myself, but within a few days, I was steaming and frothing with something close to competence. Even my cousin Jessie noticed. Once she’d smiled at me as she set oversize cinnamon buns into the display case and said, “You’re really getting the hang of it.”

This is how little she expects from me, that she’s impressed when I demonstrate aptitude with a machine advertised as being simple enough for a chimpanzee.

“What can I get you?” Camille approached with a guarded smile. She’d seen me before, and she knew I wasn’t good for much in the way of tips. Maybe she was feeling hopeful.

“I’ve got it,” Pete said. “Here, Camille, if you can take care of table three, that would be great.”

As she sauntered off, Pete reached below the counter and set a bowl of peanuts next to me. “Thanks, buddy,” I said, and grabbed a few.

“Enjoy those. We’re changing over to popcorn.”

“What? You’re breaking my heart, Pete.”

He wiped his hands on a black dishtowel. “Take it up with Sam. He’s afraid of lawsuits, says there are too many peanut allergies.”

“Damn.” I liked my routine, and I was going to miss those peanuts. “I don’t know how I feel about that.”

“It’s artisan popcorn, if that makes a difference.” Pete again reached below the bar, this time producing a small, silver bag. “Caramel and chocolate. You want to try a sample?”

“Of course.”

While he poured the popcorn into a clean glass bowl, I pulled out my laptop. Pete slid the bowl next to me after helping himself to a few pieces of popcorn. “How’s the writing going? Zombie vampires, right?”

“Zombie vampires in love,” I said. “It’s the new thing.”

“Uh huh.” He set a glass of ice water next to the bowls of popcorn and peanuts. “We get a mention when you’re famous, right?”

“Are you kidding? You get a dedication.”

The truth was, I wasn’t writing a screenplay about zombie vampires, and the writing was not going well. I was on my fourth screenplay, a time travel story about a singer and the lovers over history who influenced her sultry style.

There in Sam’s, where the night was falling around me and the bar was slowly becoming crowded with conversation, I was getting into a good rhythm when Pete set a martini glass in front of me. He may as well have thrown it in my face, I was so startled. “A cosmo,” he explained. “From the gentleman by the rail.”

I blinked a few times before it registered. Someone had just bought me a drink. I followed Pete’s nod to the railing, where a dark-haired man stood looking out over the sea. He was wearing a dark-colored T-shirt that accentuated muscular arms, and he looked to be generally well constructed. I swallowed. “Him?”

Pete gave another nod. “Guy in the T-shirt standing over there. Said to give you whatever you were drinking, and I told him you were having water, so he said to give you a cosmo.”

I brushed my hands down my jeans. In all the months I’d been coming to write at Sam’s, this had never actually happened before. It wasn’t that kind of a place, and I wasn’t that kind of a person. “What should I do?”

Pete smiled. “Thank him? Tell him to piss off? Whatever you want.” He turned to someone standing at the center of the bar. “What can I get you?”

This was a dilemma. If movies of the week and romance novels had taught me anything — and I liked to think they had — drinks with a strange man at a bar could lead to a myriad of possibilities. A night of passionate romance and an unexpected pregnancy, for example. I would fall pregnant and proudly assure him that no, I would raise this child on my own. Then, after a series of comic trials, we would fall in love. Or he could be the heir to an oil fortune, looking for a marriage of convenience in order to comply with the terms of his father’s will. I would resist but would ultimately agree to the sham, and after a series of comic trials, we would fall in love. Or he could be a serial killer, in which case I would end up brutally murdered by the time the real story began.

I sighed. Odds were two out of three this wouldn’t end with my head in a duffel bag, and maybe I’d get some material for my screenplay. I closed my laptop and slid it into my messenger, making sure to grab my cosmo as I made my way to the man by the railing. His back was to me, and now I could see that he was indeed very well built. I cleared my throat and tried to think of something clever to say. Maybe Don’t jump?

“How’s your drink?”

Oh, he spoke first. That took the pressure off. “It’s fine. Well, I haven’t tried it yet, but it looks good.” I held it up to the fading sunlight. “It’s pink.”

He half-turned his body, and that’s when I saw he was very handsome, what with his dark coloring and angular jaw. Yes, I was confident he was either the heir to an oil fortune or a murderer. His cheeks were unshaven, and when he smiled, his teeth were white and straight. “I saw you sitting alone with your laptop. I thought you might like some company.”

“Sure, why not. I just came here to work.” I set my bag on the floor and leaned up against the rail, mirroring his pose.

“You work at the bar?”

“I write here. I like the noise.”

“So you’re a writer? Anything I’d know?”

Ah. I took a sip of my drink, and it burned my lips and tongue. This was where things usually got awkward, when I said that I wrote and people wanted to know whether I’d written anything important. Which I hadn’t. “Probably not,” I said, and hoped he didn’t care enough to ask more. He didn’t.

“I’m Jax.” He held out a hand.

“Wren.”

“Red? That’s your name? Like the color?”

“No, Wren. Like the bird.” Curse my parents and their creative naming.

The corners of his mouth quirked upward. “You want to sit down? I promise I’m not trying to hit on you.”

I hid my disappointment. Clearly this was not a marriage-of-convenience situation. Maybe he was going to stab me to death, after all. “I don’t think that’s a good idea. I came here to do some writing.”

“Then take your cue from some of the greats. Your writing will go better after you get a couple of those in you,” he said, nodding at the cosmo. “Come on. Sit down with me. I promise I won’t bite.”

I took another sip of the cosmo, feeling the warmth hit my veins. Liquid courage, my friends — it can make you do all kinds of crazy things. Like dance on tables, or go home with a stranger, or, in this case, lose your head completely and agree to have drinks with a serial killer. “Okay,” I said. “But it’s your treat, and I’m ordering whatever I want. No strings attached.”

He shrugged. “Sure. Whatever.” He slid his fingers through his thick hair. “I wanted to talk to someone, that’s all.”

My feet were heavy as we trudged toward an empty table lit with a single tea light candle. He wanted to talk, and didn’t that figure? People were always wanting to talk to me. My cousin Jessie said that I should have studied psychology instead of English. People loved to tell me all about their problems, and now it seemed I was about to have a cosmopolitan with one of the hottest men I’d ever met, and he was going to do nothing but use me as a sympathetic ear. The least he could do was take off his shirt and give me a good spanking afterward.

I climbed a little reluctantly into the high seat and took a larger sip of my drink. He was drinking something in an old-fashioned glass. A whiskey neat, maybe. Some manly drink. We were directly under the lights now, and although they were dim, I noticed a tattoo that wrapped around his upper arm. It was damn sexy.

My night was officially shot, my writing on the back burner. When Camille came to take our orders, I ordered an ice cream sundae with all the toppings. Jax sat back in his seat, more amused than disgusted. “Is that all? Are you sure you don’t want a large pizza and wings to go with it?”

“I’ve got to save calories where I can.” I set my drink aside and leaned forward, bracing myself. “So. You want to talk?”

Did he ever. He had arrived in town that morning. He claimed he was enjoying his time in Archer Cove, despite referring to the restaurants with adjectives like “serviceable.” I sat and listened to him for what felt like forever. He didn’t eat, but he liked his whiskey. He liked a lot of it.

During our conversation, I learned the following, which I’ve distilled for digestibility: Jax’s mother was supportive of his career but thought he should settle down and have a family; his agent thought his image was damaged due to his “inability to commit” to one woman; he was young and wanted to have a good time, and why couldn’t anyone see how misunderstood he was? I was mildly interested for half of my martini, then tuned out for the second half, then got through another fifteen minutes by focusing on my ice cream sundae, then wished I had the power of invisibility so I could make a quick escape.

At one point, I looked over at the bar and caught Pete’s sympathetic gaze, but he didn’t rescue me. We should have decided on some kind of a distress call, like a tug at my earlobe. Live and learn.

Jax took a breath and finished his drink. I leaned forward. “Am I allowed to speak?” I hadn’t been able to get a word in edgewise in almost ten minutes.

He set his forearms on the table and leaned in. “You have beautiful eyes. I hope someone’s told you that before.”

I started. “Oh. Thank you.” I toyed with the napkin in my lap. I’d been about to lecture him, and then he’d gone and thrown that compliment. Knocked me right off my game. “My dad has said that. They’re just brown, though. Brown hair, brown eyes.” Dullsville.

He smiled coolly. “They’re not just brown. More like dark amber.”

“I guess so.”

I needed to return the compliment, and really, where to start? The guy was gorgeous. But I didn’t want to seem like I was actually into him. It was all about choosing the right body part. “You have nice, uh —” Hair? Hands? Lips? “—Teeth. Very straight and, you know, white.”

Nice teeth? I wanted to spontaneously combust.

Jax laughed. “Thank you. And hey, I’m sorry if I talked your ear off. I sometimes ramble when I have a lot on my mind.”

“You’re using me as therapy, which is fine. Lots of people do, and I’m used to it. And I understand that women fling themselves at you and that you find it impossible to commit to one. I mean, I guess I don’t understand that at all, but I’ll take your word for it that it’s been a problem.”

I paused when I noticed his eyes could barely focus on me, and he looked as if he might fall asleep at the table at any moment. I could keep going, knowing he wouldn’t digest a word, or I could thank him for the drinks and call him a cab. Jax was looking less like a serial killer and more like a guy who’d had life too easy.

He turned his glass in the candlelight. “Please, continue.”

I studied him, and then realization congealed slowly in my brain. “Wait, you’re an actor, aren’t you? Jax Cosgrove.” Of course. Half of Hollywood was in town for the film festival.

“You’re just realizing it now?” He smiled sadly. “You have no idea what that does to my ego.”

“Sorry, I’ve been avoiding Hollywood for a few months.” I dragged my spoon through the remnants of my sundae. “Griff Dannel is my ex-boyfriend.”

“Really?” He raised his eyebrows. “From when, high school?”

“Try six months ago.” I couldn’t keep the bitterness from creeping into my voice.

He took a renewed interest, studying me over the flickering candle. “Are you an actress?”

“No. I mean, not really. I’ve done some small roles here and there. It’s how Griff and I met.”

A cool breeze passed and sent goosebumps across my arms. My acting career was like bad sex: awkward, forgettable, and over quickly. I’d taken a few small parts to learn the business, but I was much more comfortable behind-the-scenes, writing screenplays. Alone with my computer, holed up in a room like a common misanthrope. It just felt so much safer that way.

“Griff’s with Poppy Hayes now.”

“Yeah, and I’m pretty sure there was some relationship overlap, if you know what I mean.”

Things with Griff had ended in a colossally horrible fashion that was not at all my fault. If someone were to construct a big-screen metaphor of our breakup, it would involve some kind of car explosion and an action heroine fleeing the scene in a white tank spotted with grime, her hair flying. I would be the action heroine, obviously. Griff would be the terrorist who blew up the car. I took a sip of my water. “I don’t actually want to talk about it.”

“Sounds like drama. I hadn’t pegged you as the type, because of that hideous hat.” He raised his glass again, and then tried to drain any liquid at the bottom. “My career as a leading man is as good as over before it began, anyway.”

“Why, because you’re a womanizer?”

His mouth rose in a half-smile. “I’m unfairly portrayed by the media, Wren. And it doesn’t help that I keep getting cast in womanizer roles. My publicist says it’s a case of art imitating life, or vice versa.”

“So start telling people you’re a method actor.”

He ignored me and pushed his glass aside. “She left me a voice mail message this morning.”

“Who?”

“My publicist. Let’s just say that it wasn’t kind. She thinks I’m going to be left to supporting actor roles unless I walk the straight and narrow. Who wants to settle for straight and narrow, anyway?”

“Uh, no one,” I said quickly. “How boring. Anyway, I’m really sorry, Jax. What a stupid business Hollywood is.”

He closed his eyes, but didn’t answer. For a second I thought he was going to burst into tears, and I was bracing myself. Then he slumped forward and began to slide off his seat. I rushed to his side. “Jeez. You okay?” He was heavy.

From out of nowhere, Pete appeared and helped me to lower him to the ground. “Guy can’t hold his liquor.”

Jax was sitting up, but shaky. His arms hung limply at his side as he grumbled, “I’m tired.”

“You’re something, all right,” Pete said. “Where are you going? We’ll call a cab.”

Cabs in Archer Cove basically didn’t exist. We’d have to call a dispatcher two towns over and wait for someone to come. It could be a long time, and since I was feeling responsible for Jax’s well-being, I was selfishly relieved when he mumbled, “The inn.”

“I can walk him back,” I said to Pete, hoping that Jax could meet me halfway by standing up. “It’s only two blocks.”

Pete wasn’t convinced. “You sure? How much have you had?”

“Just the cosmo, and that was almost two hours ago. I’m not even driving.”

“But you don’t know this guy. I don’t want him taking advantage of you.”

I was touched by Pete’s concern, but confident I would be fine. “I’ll just get him to his room and leave.”

Pete seemed satisfied with that answer. “If you get into any trouble —”

I nodded, and we both helped Jax to his feet. He swung this way and that, but otherwise mustered the presence of mind to walk out of the bar and down the stairs. “Tell him to come back tomorrow to settle the tab.” Even Pete must have known that was kind of a tall order.

We hit the sidewalk, me and my new buddy Jax. I had him propped up against my shoulder. He kept muttering, “I’m fine, I’m fine,” into my hair.

“You’re not fine. You’re blasted,” I said. “You’re going to be feeling this in the morning.”

“I’m just tired,” he groaned, his alcohol-soaked breath hot on my ear. “You’re…a nice girl,” he crooned. Then he reached for my breast, and I jabbed a sharp elbow into his ribs.

We continued the walk down Elm Grove, hobbling past restaurant row, which boasted the best dining in Archer Cove and was still crowded even at this late hour. Fortunately, Jax looked so inebriated that pedestrians gave us a wide berth, and we were able to move relatively swiftly down to Bishop’s Place. I could have wept with relief to see Archer Cove Inn rising in the distance. Almost there.

The Inn was quite large, with approximately forty guest rooms and several guest cottages. Having grown up in Archer Cove, I’d never actually stayed there myself, but I’d always admired the sweeping porch that wrapped around the front and sides and overlooked the ocean. Now, that same porch was occupied with guests and visitors enjoying evening cocktails and light jazz, and Jax and I were quickly becoming a distracting spectacle.

We climbed the wide front steps that led to the gracious entry, where an enormous crystal vase filled with roses — pink, white, and yellow —occupied our line of vision. Mine, at least. I’m not sure Jax was able to focus on anything.

“Oh for the love of —” Anna Tumblesby, the owner of the inn, came flying from behind the front desk. “What on earth…?”

“Hi, Anna. It’s me. Wren.”

“Oh heavens.” She set one hand over her heart. “Honey, I didn’t recognize you. Nice hat.”

“Uh, thanks. This is Jax. He says he’s a guest at the inn.”

Until that moment, it hadn’t occurred to me that he might be mistaken, given his state, and then what would I do? But fortunately Anna nodded and whispered, “He’s a VIP. He’s in the executive suite.”

“Mind if I take him there? He needs to lie down.”

“I’ll say.” Anna was a vision of white, from her white linen jacket and matching pants to her light blonde hair. She was full-figured and soft in both appearance and manners, but that didn’t stop her from assisting me by reaching across Jax’s lower back and saying, “Come on. It’s on the third floor, and our elevator is out until tomorrow.”

Together, one step at a time, we reached the executive suite. As I stepped inside, my breath was stolen by the bay window that captured a panoramic view of the Atlantic and the mansions on the cliffs, lit against the darkness. The entryway was marble, the woodwork appeared hand-carved and ornate. The decor was rounded crystal lamps and silk linens.

We helped Jax to the bed, sitting him down and then flinging his legs on top of the mattress. Anna set her hands on her hips, every bit the image of the disappointed mother. “Mr. Cosgrove,” she said, clucking her tongue. “Are you going to be okay, sir?”

“Just tired. I…took a pill.”

“You did what, now?” I went from irritated to concerned. “What kind of a pill?”

“Valium. This morning. For the plane.” He flung one arm across his eyes and reached for me with the other one. “Stay here. Please?”

I looked at Anna, who simply returned my gaze helplessly. “I don’t…don’t you have anyone else you’re traveling with? Can’t they stay with you?” Can’t anyone else stay with you?

“He came in alone,” Anna said. “Told me his agent isn’t coming in for a few more days.”

“Please?” he whispered. “What if I die?”

I gave a long glance at Anna, who just shook her head. “Fine. I’ll stay here for a little while. But I swear, if you touch me, I’ll cut you.”

I didn’t have anything to cut him with, but Jax didn’t seem capable of doing much of anything but whining and passing out. “Okay,” he murmured as he rolled onto his side. “Deal.”

Anna pursed her lips, clearly disapproving of her guest’s unbecoming state. “Mr. Cosgrove, you let me know if there’s anything else you need tonight. Just hit that little red button on the phone. You too,” she said to me, lowering her voice.

I nodded. “I’m only going to be here for a little while, until I’m sure he’s okay.”

Anna nodded. “You owe her one, Mr. Cosgrove. You hear me?” Then with a little wave to me, she turned and left the room.

I slumped onto a leather couch that was surprisingly soft and inviting. Jax didn’t move, other than to mumble something every now and then. I waited for a bit, thinking I should make my way home. I was only four, maybe five blocks from my apartment. I don’t know why I didn’t just get up and leave. I kept thinking about Jax saying that he took a Valium, and I thought it made sense to have someone there, just in case he stopped breathing. I wouldn’t be able to live with myself if I left and he

I removed my hat and set it on a table, then shook out my hair. The couch was soft, and my body ached because I’d been up early, and the pillows were perfectly stuffed and velvet…

He woke first and shook my shoulder. “Hey,” he said. Then more insistently, “Hey.”

“Oh.” I sat upright, rubbed my eyes, and glanced at the blue numbers on the digital alarm clock. “Shit.” Five o’clock. That meant I had half an hour to get to work.

I slipped into my shoes, grabbed my bag, and headed for the door. “Wait!” Jax said behind me. “You don’t have to —”

“Thanks for the ice cream!”

I pulled on my hat, opened the door and stepped into the hall. Stopping at home was out of the question, but if I ran to work, I might have time to wash my face in the bathroom sink, and maybe Jessie would have an extra toothbrush. Just…shit.

I broke into a run when I hit the front porch, feet flying across the boards. All I could think about was reaching work in time to avoid my dad’s suspicious gaze. I never even saw the woman taking my picture.

 The Coffee Girl is available in May

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