“So is this a new thing?” Evelyn pushed up next to Cooper.
“What?” He took a couple steps away from the counter, trying to decide which way to go. If he went to the left, he’d have to face her. If he went right it was obvious he was avoiding Evelyn. But Cooper just had to make look like he wasn’t.
“Liking girls,” Evelyn said, rubbing one hand down her side. Coffee stains blossomed on her apron.
“I’ve always liked girls.”
“But you said you weren’t into girls when I started at work.”
“No, I said I wasn’t dating.”
“To which I asked why.”
Cooper huffed. “And I didn’t answer you.”
“But when I asked about who you wanted to date at the store—”
“You asked me which of the girls I wanted to date,” Cooper answered deciding he could empty the carafe and brew some fresh coffee. “To which I said none.”
“Then I joked if you would date any of the boys.” Evelyn began, stepping too closely into Cooper’s personal space.
“And I said Malik.” He spilled the coffee from the carafe over one hand but kept pouring. “Admitting I was interested in one of the guys is not the same thing as saying I’m gay. I’m not. I’m bisexual. Always have been. Always will be.”
“Then why wouldn’t you want to date me?”
For oh so many reasons. None of which Cooper wanted to share with Evelyn. It wasn’t her business. Though with the way she was pressing against him, not even noticing the way he shook, Evelyn thought it was her business.
“Look at the way you react to me.”
Oh maybe she did notice and not have a clue it was his anxiety reacting in a physical rejection of her touch. Cooper pulled away from her and went to the grinder, picking out a mild roast. The midday crowd at The Jolt would enjoy something fresh. He set up the drip and got the coffee going only to turn back into Evelyn. Why couldn’t Mabel have three people on shift today?
“Mmm. I think we could be good together.” Evelyn pressed her palm against Cooper’s chest.
Immediately Cooper stepped back, grabbed a cloth then spun around. He didn’t care if she thought he was avoiding her anymore. The creamer station must needed cleaning.
“Cooper?” Evelyn followed him around the counter.
“No, I don’t think we’d be good together.” Please just let her leave it alone. “Why are you so insistent we would be?”
“Because I like you?”
“Why?” Cooper had never been overtly nice to her. Just professional.
So not an answer.
“You’re nice. You’re not like the other guys,” Evelyn continued, again still in Cooper’s personal space.
“You need to be behind the counter, Evelyn,” Cooper said, praying she’d listen. “One of us is always supposed to be by the register.”
“Oh, right.” Evelyn weaved back through the tables and positioned herself near the espresso machine, close to the creamer station. “So you want to take me out this Friday?”
“We’ll have fun.”
“You mean like at Stubby’s?” Cooper turned around and made sure the bruised side of his face showed.
Evelyn had the decently to look away but the moment her eyes returned to his, Cooper saw the defiant light in her gaze. Shit. Why did she have to be so insistent? And why the fuck were they stuck on shift together?
“Come on. That was… a misunderstanding.” Cooper snorted. Yeah, he knew those communication problems well. “Look, Evelyn, I’m not interested. I’m honestly not even looking to date anyone right now.”
“No.” Maybe if he said it enough she’d listen.
“No, what, Coop?” Mabel had a hand in her purse, not looking at him.
Evelyn smiled and puffed her chest out. “He’s saying he won’t take me out on a date.”
Mabel’s head popped up and she was frowning. Yeah, Cooper knew the feeling well. She opened her mouth and turned to Cooper, stopping as her gaze fell on his face.
“What happened to you?” she asked.
Cooper pointed to Evelyn. “Why don’t you ask her?”
* * * * *
"Cooper? Hey, Cooper? Are you listening?"
He blinked. Mabel's hand waved in front of his face, a beige blur. The past few weeks had been horrendous. Too much work and not enough sleep… again.
"You're going to be in real trouble if this continues," Mabel said, frown lines etching into her face.
"I'm sorry." He didn't know what else to say. Since the day . "Can you put us on different shifts?"
Mabel sighed, pushing her chair back, precariously balancing on the two back legs.
"Listen, I told you what happen at Stubby's—"
"Which is one of the reasons I haven't fired you."
"I've been a model employee," Cooper answered, taking a step back and crossing his arms. "Even that Harlan guy came over and backed me up about Evelyn's behavior at Stubby’s."
Mabel closed her eyes. "I know. I know. But until now Evelyn has been a model employee too. I have to take her accusations against you seriously."
"I haven't taken anything. I haven't touched anyone inappropriately. Shit, boss, you saw the bruise on my jaw after she punched me. I've just done my job. That's all I want to do."
Mabel opened her eyes again, her dark brown gaze centering on him. She reached out and patted Cooper. "I believe you. I just have to prove it to Benji."
"He doesn't believe me?" Cooper asked, his voice hitching. Damn. Never in his wildest dreams did Cooper think he'd be having to defend himself against such wild accusations.
"Benji is a—" Mabel waved a hand, biting the left side of her mouth. "A born skeptic. And this establishment and the bakery is our lifeblood. We can't lose them over something like sexual harassment allegations going unheard."
"No. But. I…He's always been nice to me when he visits the café," Cooper said automatically, like it would help.
"Because you were polite and respectful to him."
"Just because some acts one way doesn't mean that's their true selves."
Yeah. Didn't Cooper know it. This fuck up with Evelyn was tearing his life apart. Mabel shrugged, her mouth lifting into a smile before disappearing again.
"I'm sorry, Cooper. I really am. I'll see what I can do about making sure you're on different shifts. Just try to make sure you keep clear of Evelyn for today when she comes in for her shift. Malik is here for a buffer. We'll go from there."
"Sure thing, Cooper. I hope we can get to the bottom of this quickly."
Cooper tied his apron on, gave Mabel one last look, then headed out of the managerial office, stunned and moving in a stupor.
He knew Evelyn had been pissed at Stubby's, but to accuse him of sexual harassment? Of stealing? Jesus. Cooper didn't know how to even feel. Well, angry covered a good portion of his feelings. He just didn't know what to do with it. It wasn't like he could retaliate. That would only prove Evelyn right.
He huffed, wiping his head with a hand. God. What a fucking mess. No matter how much he liked The Jolt, or the pay that went with being a shift manager, maybe it was time he moved on. There were other coffee shops in Boswell. Hopefully any new job would work with creating a decent schedule with his job at Band Rescue.
Shit. No one else was nearly as flexible as Mabel when it came to his work schedules.
"You goin' to help or what?"
Cooper glanced up. Malik stood behind the pastry case, lips twisted, hands on his hips, and brows scrunched together.
"You all right, Coop?"
"Yeah, just—" He shook his head. "Just stuff. Don't worry about it."
"Evelyn up to her shit again?"
How did Malik even know?
"Man, what did you do to piss her off this time?"
Whatever, there wasn't time for gossiping. Cooper didn't want to go there. "Shhh. We have customers."
After a moment, Malik shrugged and went back to the bar, wiping down the espresso station. Cooper got behind the register and smiled at the couple talking over the menu. Once he handed the order off to Malik, Cooper went back to checking supplies, making note of anything they needed to stock up. After the morning rush, they basically needed everything, but Cooper hated wasting the delicious pastries Benji made every day.
"What are we low on?" Mabel asked, making Cooper jump.
He made a face at her. "Everything. Hey, when is Benji's permit gonna come through to connect the bakery and café?"
"The town council is throwing another wrench in the works."
"You've got to be joking."
Mabel rolled her eyes. "I wish."
"That's nine months."
"You're telling me." Mabel leaned against the doorframe. "We bought out Helen's Heaven because we were told we'd be allowed to expand."
Grunting, Mabel pushed off the door. "I wouldn't disagree. That your list?"
"Yup." He handed it over.
"I'll be back shortly. Be good."
"I always am."
Malik laughed, his dread lock beads clacking.
"What?" Cooper asked, indignant.
"Then why are you always in trouble, Coop?"
Mabel tittered. "He's got a point, Cooper."
"It, uh, finds me?" He must have a bad luck magnet or something.
The door chimed. They all yelled "hello." The greeting died on Cooper's lips when Evelyn walked through the door, smiling like a cat with a live lizard caught in its teeth.
* * * * *
Cooper dropped his head down on the counter. None of his shifts at The Jolt had ever felt so long. And he needed to take a piss. With Evelyn here, though, he hadn't gotten out of Malik's line a vision. He wanted someone to be able to back up him if push came to shove.
A hand thumped his back, making him tense momentarily before Malik spoke. "You okay, Coop?"
"Long coupla weeks."
He turned his head, not taking it off the counter, looking up at Malik. His coworker just laughed and shook his head. Cooper snorted.
"I see I can count on your sympathy," Cooper said dryly.
"Man, you look well done. You should go home and sleep."
Yeah. That sounded nice. Cooper needed a break. Today had been filled with tension better left behind him. But first… Cooper stood and checked where they were at with the shift change.
"Evelyn clock out for her break?"
"Forty-five minutes ago," Malik answered. "Hasn't clocked back in."
Great. Just great. One thing Cooper didn't want was hunting down Evelyn to get back on shift. He growled and rolled his forehead against the counter again.
"Hey, man, that's on her." Malik leaned back against the counter. "Let her fuck up and get fired. You covered for her faults too long."
"I-I, maybe…" She had used him as a reference after all—without actually asking—so he felt responsible. "Who's coming in after us?"
"Alison and Nolan."
"Nolan should be here in about fifteen. Alison should come in a half hour before Evelyn's shift is up."
"You mind if I take off as soon as he gets here?" Cooper needed a nap, and then maybe he could focus at rehearsal, not pass out on the couch like, well, since forever?
"Go ahead, Coop. You look like a hooker at a free pass convention. Well used and hard up."
"I don't think that's a compliment."
Malik chuckled and slapped his back again. "You work too hard."
"Got to make ends meet somehow."
"Oh, right, I, umm, sorry, Coop."
"I forget you don't live at home like the rest of us sometimes." Malik's beads jangled when he shook his head. "Sorry."
"Don't worry about it."
The door chimed, both of the hollering a "Hello." When Cooper saw it was Harlan. Malik elbowed him. Cooper tossed a scowl in his direction before smiling at the bartender.
"Harlan, nice to see you."
That smile of Harlan's came right out—all confidence and ease. He strolled up to the counter and leaned in. "You boys gossiping about something juicy?"
"Uh, no?" Cooper answered, darting his eyes over to Malik and back.
"Looked like it."
"Nah, I'm just getting ready to head home, crawl in my bed. That's all."
"Aren't you a bit young for early bedtimes?" Harlan checked his phone. "It's only two."
In the afternoon? "It feels like two a. m."
A groan slipped from him. Malik's lips twisted, his brows scrunched together, and he crossed his arms.
"What?" Cooped asked, rolling his neck.
"Evelyn is really getting to you, man."
"Evelyn?" Harlan interjected, head going back and forth between Cooper and Malik. "That bitch from the other night?"
Cooper imagined his ears pricked, like a retriever. He laughed. "Yeah, her."
"She still giving you trouble?"
Malik answered for him. "Yeah, trying to get him fired."
Both of them scowled, their gazes locked, and nodded.
He eyed them speculatively. "What?"
Sometimes, just sometimes, it would be nice if people didn't look at him like he was stupid. Cooper hated it, with a passion.
The door chimed. All of them yelled "hello" as Nolan walking through the door. He stopped when he saw them crowded around the counter.
"Did someone die?"
"Not yet," Cooper answered. About time he got going then. "I'm taking off."
Before anyone could say anything, he was already walking through the doorway to the back, undoing his apron. He grabbed his backpack. Cooper tossed his apron in it then shouldered the pack. After a quick check everything was in its rightful spot, Cooper headed out.
Harlan, Malik and Nolan huddled together by the cash register. When they saw him coming they shuffled apart, making Cooper frown. Certain shit he just did not need. Malik's gossiping could get them all in trouble.
"See you guys tomorrow," he said, waving but not slowing down.
The look in Nolan's and Malik's eyes said they both wanted to say something. Fat chance. Cooper was done. The idea of hashing out Evelyn, especially when she could walk through the door any moment, made his stomach turn and Cooper had no intention of being caught in another mess.
Stupid bitch made his life hell since she walked into it, even more so once he turned her the fuck down.
No. The last thing he needed was Harlan getting involved. The bartender had already gotten too wrapped up in the mess to start with. Cooper slammed the door open, palms stinging from the impact. Not one step lost.
"Cooper, wait!" Harlan called.
Already through the second set of doors Cooper had no intention of slowing down. Harlan yell was muffled this time. A quick right turn and Cooper was at the bike rack trying to get his lock off. Home and bed called.
He swung a leg over his bike, one foot on a pedal, ready to take off, when Harlan filled his vision, blocking Cooper.
"Boy, you are in a snit."
"I've had a long day, Harlan."
"Okay, okay. I get that." Harlan rocked on his feet, watching Cooper.
"I wanted to see if you some free time today."
Was the whole bed conversation missed? Harlan had been there, yeah? Something in Cooper's face must have shown his irritation.
"I wanted to hang out."
The five most dangerous words a bartender from a gay club could every say.
"I did promise to teach you to herd."
What to do when staring down an angry mob of twinks?
“What kind of asshole test is that?” Aggressor twink put his hands on his hips.
Apparently by not telling them they passed the platinum star test since they found pussy so repulsive. Jerks. Just because it wasn’t what they were attracted to didn’t mean they had to rip Evelyn apart. Cooper frowned. The twink’s hip jutting and squinted eyes were probably some kind of flag.
Like a retreat as fast as possible from the scene in question.
Too bad Cooper had no possible retreat since he was surrounded on all sides.
Evelyn clung to the back of his shirt, not to mention Ross, the two using Cooper as a shield. Thanks. Real supportive coworkers, these two.
“Listen, I get you’re mad—” Cooper began but was cut off by a snort.
Aggressor twink rolled his eyes. “We don’t need bitches like her.”
“You’re the only bitch here,” Evelyn shot, still cowering in safety.
“Please, stop.” Cooper glanced over his shoulder. “Just say you’re sorry so we can go.”
Twink laughed. “Run along, kiddies, with your tail between your legs. Like the pups you are.”
“Says the dog who shakes their ass like a dog in heat,” Evelyn spat. “Ready to get bred.”
“You fucking cunt!”
The next few minutes were a blur of terror, chaos, and self-defensive moves meant for personal areas Cooper rather wished people would let alone. A fist got too close to his face while a knee made a close shave near his nuts. Yells, screams, and bodies moved on masse. Hands grabbed at his shirt, pants, and arms—almost all trying to reach past him.
More than enough hit close to home. Too close. A light-headedness consumed Cooper, causing dizziness and his stomach to turn.
But no matter how pissed Copper was at Evelyn, he wouldn’t let a gang of people beat the shit out of her. No one deserved that. No one.
A fist connected with Cooper’s stomach then his left ear got boxed. Ringing joined the queasiness. He pushed forward, ducking, blocking where he could until he erupted out of the angry clubber’s bait ball.
Several staff looked on, money exchanging hands. A few of them seemed rather perturbed Cooper was standing if their expressions were anything to go by. He shrugged. Being big did have momentum going for him.
Before Cooper could make it away from the mass of people, though, a hand drug him back in.
“Get me out of here!” Evelyn yelled in his ear. The demanding request followed by a punch to his kidneys.
Cooper flinched, ducking his head and biting back the nausea.
“What is wrong with you? Move your big ass!” Evelyn pushed insistently at his back. “This place sucks. No fucking respect. The assholes. At least you’re not like their sort.”
It was Cooper could do to stand. To not keel over and end up trampled in the throng. Evelyn grabbed his arm, wracking Cooper with a shudder. Repulsion swept through him as his stomach pulsated with the need to throw up. But he pushed it all down. Had to. All he wanted was home, his bed, and if getting Evelyn out of Stubby’s then that was what he’d do.
They slithered between bodies, arms and legs only to pop out on the side facing the DJ. How did that even happen? Cooper glanced over the crowd and saw the staff to their left, exchanging money—most likely anyway by the hand movements—again.
Though a couple bigger bruisers, the bouncers had waded into the club. With no music playing the mad shouts and curses were all that was left of the evening. Harlan was in the middle of the bait ball, trying hard to separate Ross from an angry clubbed who had him in a headlock. The moment the bouncers decided to take action and wade into the crowd, Cooper must have made a face or something because Evelyn pulled on his arm.
“Time to go.”
“What about Ross?” Cooper asked.
“He's a big boy who can handle himself.”
“You brought him here.”
“And now I'm leaving him here.”
God. How did Cooper attract people like her? Was there a sign on his forehead? Was there something wrong with him?
A big whistle rose above the noise, everyone clapping their hands to their ears, including Cooper. When he tested the waters and let go, silence had descended upon the club again. Bouncers were separating people and moving them toward the doors. Harlan had Ross by the cuff and was searching the room with his eyes.
Instinctually maybe, or possibly because Cooper was a huge, stupid idiot, he raised his hand. Harlan’s searching halted and he pulled up, dragging Ross in their direction. A punch hit Cooper square in his kidneys.
“What are you doing?” Evelyn hissed.
“You slut!” Aggressor twink had reemerged from the fray. And of course, by them.
Evelyn lunged for the asshole, but Cooper managed to get ahold of her and pull her away as Harlan pulled up with Ross, let go, and grabbed the twink.
The two hissed and threw more insults at each other until one of the larger bouncers came over and asked, “You wan’ me to toss ‘em, Harlan?”
Evelyn and the twink sagged in Cooper’s and Harlan’a holds.
“No, they're not going to make more trouble, are they?”
They shook their heads.
“All of you, fork over your IDs,” Harlan continued. And once they complied, he asked the bouncer to photocopy them. “All of you are banned.”
“What?” Evelyn and the twink shrieked.
The two would have make the best of friends if they weren't already enemies.
“I mean it. You guys show up again, staff will call the cops, no questions asked,” Harlan continued. He dipped his head toward their group when the bouncer came back and held up their IDs. “Now, I'm going to take—” he glanced at the twink’s license. “Donny, here, outside. Give me a five minute start Terrell.”
“Sure thing,” the bouncer answered and turned to face Cooper and his coworkers.
The sounds of protest from Donny echoed in the club as he was escorted out. Cooper reveled in the empty silence that followed his ejection. So much so he almost forgot he had Evelyn held up against him. Well, actually, he had forgotten until she rubbed her ass against his crotch.
“What the!” Cooper let go of Evelyn post-hast.
Laughter, her ‘happy-me’ giggling, resonated in the empty space. Had a killer-clown quality to it really. Creepy as fuck. She turned to face him, but luckily Terrell motioned for them to follow him to the door. Cooper fell in line with a quick step and refused to look behind him. In his head he chanted a reminder Evelyn could not hurt him. They were leaving. And he'd be home soon enough.
When they got to the car, Terrell about twenty paces away, Evelyn stopped Cooper from ducking into the car.
“What?” he asked none-too-politely. Cooper had no patience left, especially not for her.
“That twink what you like? Femmes like him?” Evelyn let her head fall back and smiled up at him. “You know, all you have to do is say the word.”
Harlan stood across the lot, next to a black BMW Donny was getting in. He was waving, asking for Cooper to wait up a minute.
“We are not waiting on that asshole,” Evelyn said. One of her hands started moving up and down Cooper’s flank.
“Harlan's not an asshole.” He tried to take a step back but bumped into the car.
Ross shouted. “Let’s go!”
Evelyn sneered at the car. “As I was saying, if you want to give girls a go, say the word.”
“Again, excuse me?”
“I saw the way you looked at Donny. I'm just saying if you're ever questioning about how it works with a girl, you can give me a go. Because I think you look at me like that sometimes. So if you need someone to fuck, I'm a much better choice than that dog.”
Nope. Cooper really didn't follow. Didn’t want to know how she equated disgust with the lack of humaning properly to come hither looks. The sneak peak into her thought process was down-right frightening.
“Never know until you try it.”
“Actually, I have. And I would never sleep with you.”
The silence should've been warning enough, but the strangled fury with Evelyn’s question, “you’ve fucked a girl before?” did have warning bells going off in Cooper’s sleep-addled brain.
“Being bisexual, I do know what I am attracted to in both men and women, and you and Donny are definitely not it.”
The fury in her growl set Cooper’s hair on end. Shit for foot to mouth fuck ups. That was the cake.
Harlan called out, jogging up from a few yards away. “Hey, Cooper, before—”
“You fucking lying bastard!” Evelyn yelled.
Cooper didn't see her fist, only felt it when it connected to his jaw.
* * * * *
The cab ride home felt like the longest in history. Maybe it had something to do with the black eye and sore stomach, and well, several other sore areas on Cooper's personage. He prodded the swollen flesh on his face, letting out a hiss. Shit. That totally hurt.
"You all right?" the cabbie asked.
"Yeah, or, I will be once I get home."
"You sure you don't want me to take you to the emergency room?" The man's eyes met Cooper's in the rearview mirror.
He shook his head. "Just gonna stand under a long hot shower then crawl in bed for a quick nap. That should do it for me. Probably."
The cabbie shrugged, but his eyes flicked back to Cooper's face again before going back to the road.
"I'm really okay." He prodded his eye again. Ow.
"Definitely a shiner you got there. You piss off some girl's boyfriend?"
"Nah, I pissed off the girl."
The cabbie laughed, slapping his hand against the wheel. "Boy, you are in trouble. Girls fight dirty, and they are way more scary in a fight."
"Yes. Yes, they are."
The cabbie shook his head, smiled, and laughed one more time before letting the conversation drop. Cooper was eternally grateful for that small piece of grace. Exhaustion clung to him, and all he really wanted was his bed. To be alone—without any surprises or angry people mobbing him. Or Evelyn.
Speaking of the witch, Cooper rubbed his sore jaw. Who knew she could pack such a powerful punch? Not him, that's for sure. He would've moved out of the way.
When Evelyn screeched and swung at him, pure shock kept him rooted to the spot in the parking lot, allowing her to get a solid punch in Then all Hell broke loose. Harlan waded in and it got worse from there.
Cooper never, ever wanted to set foot in Stubby's again. Luckily, it seemed he was barred for life. As were Evelyn and Ross. The damn little aggressor twink managed to get blacklisted too. Those punishments, honestly, Cooper could live with.
A hand shook him. Cooper blinked, jerking instinctively. When had his eyes closed? The cabbie stood next to him, door open, the lines on his face crinkled, and a frown forming on his lips. Behind the man, Cooper's apartment complex loomed up in the darkness. Guess they still haven't fixed the lights.
"You sure you're all right, kid?" He took his hand off Cooper, but didn't step back.
"Just tired. Working too many hours and, and… stuff. Tonight didn't help."
"I know how that goes."
"Yeah. How much?" Cooper reached for his wallet.
"Don't worry about it."
"I was about to go off shift anyway."
Cooper rubbed his head. "You sure?"
The cabbie nodded. "Everyone needs a break sometimes."
"Thanks, uh, Mr.—" Cooper glanced for the taxi diver identification card. "Hamilton."
Mr. Hamilton smiled and offered him a hand. Cooper took it and hauled himself out of the cab. He thanked the cabbie one more time, taking the business card offered to him, and promised to call if he changed his mind about the emergency room.
He probably looked like dogshit, but, really though, it wasn't too bad. Not enough for a doctor anyway. Cooper didn't need those bills.
Down the dark path between the old brick apartment buildings Cooper trudged. It took Cooper every ounce of energy and willpower he had to put one foot in front of the other. But he managed to make it to his door and into bed. Sort of. Laying across the bed with his clothes on still counted. He'd deal with everything else when he had more energy. Right now, Cooper just needed some sleep.
The fallout at the cafe, his clothes, Evelyn and Ross, and all that shit, could wait another day.
Except his mind wouldn't let him calm down. The tumultuous emotions of the night getting the better of Cooper. He needed to find a way to calm down. So he did the one thing his frazzled mind could. He called Jo. She would know the right thing to say without asking. They could talk about anything and everything, and by the time they were done, Cooper would be able to let go of the disastrous night.
“Cooper? Everything okay?” she asked in way of answering. The words slurred together, her voice soft with sleep.
“Shit. What time is it?”
“Don't worry about it,” Jo replied. “Sleep is for androids and puppies.”
Cooper chuckled. This was friendship.