Dirty secrets. We all have them. We guard them fiercely, protecting them like a mother does a precious newborn infant, cradled to her chest, away from the world’s prying eyes. Yet those dark, forbidden desires we crave won’t stay hidden for long. They have a way of coming out—usually at the most inopportune time.
I knew all that, and yet . . . I watched them from a distance, knowing they’d be perfect together. They were two halves of the same whole. He was broken beyond repair. She was so familiar, reminding him of something he desperately wanted to fix. I knew she’d be perfect for him.
In the end, the chain of events this would to set off would be fucking massive, yet I was powerless to stop it. Instead, I was there in the middle of it all, stoking the flames and praying they didn’t take me down with them.
My entire morning revolved around this thirty-second encounter. And if I timed it poorly and missed it? My whole day would be shit.
I needed it like a shot of adrenaline to start the day.
Every morning, careful to make sure my makeup was perfect and my hair was in place, I’d stop at the coffee shop on my way to work. I’d linger, staring at the rows of gourmet pastries and handcrafted mugs.
And every morning, promptly at ten to eight, Mr. Tall, Dark, and Sinful strolled inside and ordered a double shot of espresso to go.
Our routine had gone unchanged for the last ten months, and even though I cherished every second of our time together, we’d never spoken a single word. Hadn’t even made eye contact. For all I knew, he thought I was one of the commuters grabbing a mug of something hot and strong on my way to work. Just like him, I assumed. Or worse, maybe he didn’t even notice I existed.
Until one morning, I’d stepped into line behind him and, for some inexplicable reason, he’d turned and looked deep into my eyes. I couldn’t say how long the eye contact went on, probably only a fraction of a second. But even so, I felt like my lungs would collapse from the weight of his hazel stare boring into mine.
Since then, I’d tried a few times to recreate the moment, to wear some new perfume that might catch his attention, or pull my brown hair into a different style that might catch his eye. But nothing had made a difference. No, I was certain he didn’t even know I existed. Which was for the best, since I was pretty sure this was borderline stalking.
But then, that had been before everything changed. It was the precursor to something that would alter my life forever. Something that would make everything richer and sweeter and deeper . . . only to have it all fall apart, leaving me to piece together the shattered fragments.
Luckily for me, though, every instant was etched perfectly into my memory, even now as I struggled to decide if it felt more like a curse or a gift.
That morning, the scent of roasting coffee beans had filled the air, and steam formed inside the windows from the warmer-than-usual foggy September day.
I was standing in the corner, admiring the new array of teas for the fall, when the door chimed behind me, forcing me to turn around and look for the man I knew would be there.
He was dressed in his charcoal-gray suit—one of my favorites. The fine material stretched across his sculpted biceps and wide shoulders enticingly. His crisp dress shirt was navy, contrasted by his silver tie. Every inch of him was polished. But it was the scowl painted on his chiseled features that made my knees weak.
In the months since I’d first seen him, I’d imagined a life for him, even come up with a few names and rough ideas of what his office and apartment might be like. I never saw what he drove, but I was certain it must be something fast and sleek.
As for his job, I was sure he had a high-powered career as a corporate attorney or a stockbroker, or maybe a real estate investor. Something where he was in control, and his powerful body and almost overwhelming presence could do most of his talking for him.
“Espresso—” he said, his voice rough but sensual, deep and intoxicating. I’d often imagined the way my name would sound rolling off his tongue.
“Double shot, to go,” the barista finished for him, smiling.
It seemed I wasn’t the only one who had him pegged. The man was nothing if not predictable.
He gave her a curt nod, his gaze drifting to the smartphone in his hand that had just let out a demanding ping. From where I stood a few feet from him, I glanced over, trying to get a peek at the background of his screen to see if there was a picture of him with a woman, or maybe one of a child set as his screensaver, but no. Just the standard factory presets.
He was all business. There was little fanfare, no good morning or other greeting to the staff at the café, not even a friendly smile. But that voice, though . . . pure sin.
I swallowed hard and stepped in line behind him, thinking of it now as he stood inches from me. If I introduced myself, I might get him to say my name, another moment to carry with me late at night when I lay awake thinking of him with my hand down the front of my panties.
Instead, the barista set the cardboard cup down in front of him. He handed her a black matte credit card, waiting with his hand outstretched as she swiped it.
Almost as if in slow motion, he turned. Shooting a look over one broad shoulder and holding my gaze, he dropped something into the glass jar in front of the register. Then he grabbed his coffee cup and strolled away like nothing had happened.
And for a second, nothing did.
“Nice tip, asshole,” the pink-haired barista muttered as the door chimed closed behind him. She plucked a business card from the tip jar that was otherwise filled with crinkled dollar bills and coins, then tossed it into the trash can behind her before ringing up my order for a small tea.
I waited, staring at the discarded rectangle as a sense of panic washed through me.
Maybe it was because I was standing on the cusp of thirty, or because I was suddenly single for the first time in forever. Maybe it was because the possibility of ending up as a sad cat lady now seemed like a very real possibility. Whatever the reason, I did something reckless.
My heart pounded out an unsteady rhythm as I reached toward the barista. “C-can I see that card?” Totally pathetic and I knew it, but I couldn’t help myself.
She eyed where it rested on the top of the trash can—seemingly stuck to the side of that morning’s new trash bag—and then looked back at me.
“Please,” I added, letting a hint of my desperation show.
Rolling her eyes, she picked up the card, brushed off a few errant coffee grounds, and extended it toward me. “No skin off my ass.”
I plucked the card from her fingertips and muttered an apology, unable to help the fact that I was acting like a crazy person.
The heavyweight linen card felt sumptuous in my hand. Rubbing my fingers across the raised ink, I couldn’t help but wonder if he’d left this on purpose. If he’d meant for me to find it.
He didn’t strike me as a careless man, didn’t seem the type to make the mistake of dropping his card where he meant to leave cash. As weird as it sounded, that look, the way he’d held my gaze? I was sure this was deliberate. I felt it in my bones.
Before I could even process my destination, my black ballet flats were carrying me toward the door.
“Miss,” the barista called after me. “Your tea!”
I rushed back and dropped some money on the counter, then told her to keep it and waved a hand in her direction before continuing toward the door.
I didn’t need the tea. I’d gotten what I came for.
Clutching the card, I rushed down Second Avenue, oblivious to the people rushing past me. I made it to the bus stop just in time to see the hulking, dusty city bus squeal to a stop. After trudging up the steps, I found a seat in the front, the card still in my shaking fingers.
I lived in the heart of the city, even though I couldn’t afford it, even though I worked thirty minutes away in the suburbs. There was something romantic about living downtown—the history of the buildings, the quaint brownstone I lived in with its charming front steps, built over a hundred years ago. Nothing about living in an apartment complex with concrete strip malls decorating the landscape appealed to me. Well, nothing except the idea of a functioning kitchen and a modern bathroom bigger than a coffin, but hey. A girl couldn’t have everything.
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