There is lots to cover and so little time!
1. Uncommonly Tidy Poltergeists will be coming out in audio! Look for it late October/Early November.
2. The Re.new.al anthology is coming along. We're just waiting on a couple illustrations to complete it then we can start making all the different formats and print. <3
3. Toni is ankle deep with Archie's Accidental Kidnapping edits for her expanded second edition. Then she has edits for As Fire Rains Down then Pyro finally gets his turn.
A note on the updated Archie's Accidental Kidnapping - it's changed, quite a bit. The one thing hasn't changed is Archie and Adze, those are still our main guys. Everything else? New world. When Toni decided to dust of the series she felt it needed fleshing out and resulted in the story going from 15K to about 50K. That's massive! The other thing is she's renamed the series since other people are now using her old one. It'll the Hounds of the Hunt now.
4. Freddy has a holiday story for us this December, as well as a few others in the pipeline. Content edits are happening for other stories, not to mention writing is happening for more stories, they just needs more hours in the day.
5. Message from the Home Office and The Nut Job by Angel and Freddy respectively, from the IMP Universe will be undergoing edits and being released by MCB.
6. Marionettes in the Mist illustrations are happening for the first volume, and expansions and edits are underway. Mila is doing a wonderful job with the pages. Here is a sneak peak of part of one of the images. <3
7. Our house lines have rolling submissions. If you think you have a story for us, we're always happy to get new submissions!
8. Holiday stories - MCB will be putting out a call for short (less than 15k) holiday stories. Each story will be offered a one time pay amount, will get their own covers, edits, etc., as well as a cover for a bundle packet of the stories.
It'll be a small submissions window, but if you have a story, submit! We want to get as much cheer out there for the upcoming holidays.
Oh, how Cooper wished he could take back his conversation at the bike rack. The "I'm too tired to do anything how about a movie at my place?" tactic only backfired. What was he thinking? The move would probably haunt Cooper to his dying days. He knew it.
Why Harlan had to sit so close, or have his arm on the back of the futon, Cooper hadn't figured that out either. Buddies weren't what Cooper would describe them as. Yes, they'd talked since Stubby's, for sure since Harlan backed up Cooper's version of events, but Cooper had assumed it was friendly banter that would trickle off into nothingness—not invasion of his personal space.
The movie—what were they watching again?—seemed long as hell. Not Cooper's best choice, he focused on the TV. Battle Royale. Right. Apparently, subtitles didn't scare people like Cooper thought they did, or at least, not Harlan. Something shorter would've been better. Good movie, bad choice for getting rid of company.
Company that had no personal space.
Was it hot? The thermostat had to be set too high or something. Cooper leaned away from Harlan, but a heavy weight on his shoulder stopped him from really getting anywhere. Cooper tensed, frowning slightly. He chanced a glance down, and yup, there was Harlan's hand, kneading his shoulder.
A sigh escaped Cooper. Really? That was what all the bluster before was about.
Right now all Cooper could do was work two jobs, and pay for his crappy apartment and one to two classes a semester at the local community college. He had no time for … well, Cooper struggled for the right word for the situation. Well, for shit like a relationship. He didn't even have the energy for a quick down and dirty fuck either—not that the idea appealed to him in the slightest—and if that's what Harlan thought he was getting the ass would find himself getting tossed on said backside.
Another quick attempt to scoot away from Harlan resulted in the same. Another not so subtle shoulder squeeze. Fuck. No, just no. Cooper didn't need this shit.
"Would you lay off?" he said, rolling his shoulder and jerking away from Harlan.
"What?" Harlan began, his hands sliding against Cooper but he was standing already.
"I got enough from harassment from Evelyn, I don't need it from you too." Cooper crossed to the door, unbolting it. "If you think I'm going to bend over for you—"
"Whoa! Whoa!" Harlan said from behind him.
Closer than Cooper expected really. He turned, crossing his arms. Nerves all jumbled in bad ways. Cooper pressed against the door while Harlan took a couple steps back, his hands up.
"I'm sorry, Cooper. Touchy thang, aren't you?" Harlan smiled, but it faded as Cooper glowered.
The bartender was no longer on the "he's a decent dude” list. And honestly, it sucked. He had seemed like a decent sort. Maybe someone Cooper wanted to friend, if he still had time for those.
"You can leav—"
"It's not like that." Harlan took a tiny step forward, his hands now his pockets.
"Like what?" Because really, Cooper felt pretty sure it was. And honestly, he did think Harlan knew enough about him to know hookups weren't his thing. The night at Stubby’s should’ve been enough of an indicator.
Harlan watched Cooper for a minute before huffing and going back to the futon.
"Weren't you on your way out?" Cooper asked.
"I hope not," Harlan answered. He patted the futon. "My friends always told me my touchy-feely ways were going to catch up with me."
"Uh-huh." Cooper called bullshit.
"Would I like something to happen? Yes."
See? Cooper smiled triumphantly.
"Does it have to? No."
Now that didn't make sense.
"Sit down. Let's talk."
Two of the suckiest phrases ever. "I prefer to stand."
Harlan gazed at Cooper, not flinching once during their stare-off. Instead he frowned, clasped his hands together, and said something that caught Cooper off guard.
"Who hurt you so badly?"
It felt like a sucker punch to the gut. Cooper rubbed his head, his hair standing up every which way. He really needed to get it shaved again.
"Were you…" Harlan stopped, making a face, like he was trying to choose words carefully. "Were you raped?"
Not the question Cooper expected. "No."
Cooper shook his head, whether to deny it out of habit or to clear his head he wasn't sure. Admitting what happened made him nauseous. He hated how people looked at him when he said he had been abused. Most people didn't believe him. A big guy like him? Must have been the abuser, not the other way around.
"You sure some guy hasn't hurt you?"
Fucking shitty-ass assumptions.
"No, but my ex-girlfriend did a bang up job," Cooper replied, breathing in hard, pressing against the door.
There was a pause in Harlan's litany of questions, but only a pause. Harlan sat forward. "You're straight?"
"In the closet?"
And fuck it all, yes, Harlan sounded judgmental as fuck. Cooper straightened and said, "No."
"So you're gay?"
Harlan stood, frowning, squinting at Cooper. "Your one word answers aren't helping me here, Cooper."
"Fine. I'm bisexual. Happy?"
Oh, the look on Harlan's face. Absolutely priceless.
"Bisexual?" Harlan asked again. Cooper banged the back of his head against the door. Not hard, but yeah, it was a bang head moment. Like they hadn't been going in circles over the same fucking conversation for ten minutes. It was like talking to Evelyn all over again. She hadn't taken it any better.
"Yup." Cooper gave a thumbs up. "Both are good."
"Yup. Both." Cooper managed a smiled somehow. "Men and women both do it for me."
Harlan grimaced and shook his head. "So you are a closet case."
God, no, Harlan was one of those guys. Cooper felt for the door handle. Locating it, Cooper swung the door open and made a sweeping motion with his hand.
"Listen, Harlan, I'd like to say it's been fun, but it hasn't." Cooper paused, but the bartender still hadn't gotten a clue, sitting on the futon like the door just hadn't been opened for him. Okay, time to be blunt. Well, more blunt. "You just stepped on a sore spot for me. Bisexuality isn't B.S. I'm not hiding anything. I'm not trying to make excuses. I'm just me. I know what gets my dick hard. So, leave. Now."
But the ass didn't move.
"Really? I have too much shit going on in my life than to deal with another stalker, or to have someone tell me I'm lying to myself, or whatever it is you're doing."
"I'm sorry, Cooper. I am." Harlan leaned back, the exact opposite of getting up and leaving.
Okay, fine. He wasn't going, yet. Cooper closed the door again but made no move toward the futon.
"I'm not going to hurt you."
"You're also not leaving," Cooper pointed out. "A very Evelyn move if you ask me."
Well, Harlan had the decency to flinch, that was something. More than Evelyn aka "The Stalker Girl" anyway, and she was still oblivious and mad. Oh, to be honest, she was all kinds of messed up. Too much like Tabitha for his tastes.
Huh? Cooper glanced back to Harlan, who was still on the couch, not gone. But his expression had changed to something more serious. Frowns did nothing to distract from Harlan's looks, though Cooper felt smiles suited him better.
"You said 'Too much like Tabitha'," Harlan said, crossing his arms.
Great. Defensive posturing. Why did he attract all the weirdoes? Cooper had to be doing something wrong. Or maybe he had come kind of weirdo-attracting pheromone.
"Tabitha was my ex. Nearly killed me." Cooper lifted his shirt, pointing to an old scar. A scraggly mish-mash line that went across his entire abdomen. He also showed off the two puncture wounds where she stabbed him. "Things started small. Her wanting me to wear certain things. Then buying me what I should wear. It spiraled downward after that. By the time I realized I needed out, she was already throwing stuff at me and hitting."
A small part of Cooper wished he could enjoy the expression Harlan had. Didn't he look completely and utterly aghast? Shit. This is why Cooper hated saying this stuff. He pulled the shirt back down, tugging it for a couple times just to make sure it was in fact, all the way down.
Cooper hated those scars but he would never, ever be able to hide from them completely.
"You—?" Harlan began, but his voice gave way. Cooper didn't need to guess what was coming. He'd had this conversation before. Harlan leaned forward. "You let a girl hit you?"
"You just can't help putting your foot up your own ass, can you?" Cooper snapped. God, he hated this fucking conversation. It went the same way every time. Every time. No question. "But you don't know shit. So do me a favor and just leave."
It wasn't immediate, but Cooper saw the moment Harlan decided it—what it was, ‘cause that much Cooper hadn't figured out—wasn't worth the fight anymore, and stood.
'Bout time the ass left.
"I really am sorry, Cooper. I just—I just…" But Harlan stopped. He pressed his lips together and shook his head again.
When Harlan looked up, the tension in Cooper finally unfurled. Finally, the ass would just take a hint and leave.
"Now, if you don't mind," Cooper said, indicating the door. "I do better alone, thank you."
Suddenly Harlan tensed, their eyes meeting. A spark went off in Harlan's gaze. Shit.
Some days Cooper had to wonder what karma he pulled in from past lives to have to put up with this nonsense now.
"No wonder you're so jumpy." Harlan did the arm-crossing thing a lot of guys did. Someone needed to go back in time and tell the male species posturing was the stupidest move ever.
And Harlan also did the not leaving thing, again.
Cooper just wanted cry from frustration. He closed the door and crossed the room. "Because a girlfriend almost killed me, or because I have one stalking me? Or, or, and this is a good one—I have a guy turning into a stalker."
"I am not a stalker. I just want to get to know you."
Oh, ooooh. How good was that shit thinking? "By not taking 'No' for an answer?"
To Cooper's delight, Harlan paled and he had to take a minute to gather himself. He even put up a hand and told Cooper to wait a minute. Watching him squirm made Cooper a little too giddy. God, now who was being the ass? Cooper really needed more time in the sack.
No sleep and Evelyn-related stress made Cooper one caustic individual. It sucked. He collapsed on the futon, sighing. Just a few minutes. That was all he needed. Cooper let his eyes close.
A quiet "I'm sorry" came from Harlan's direction.
"I've heard that before." Cooper rubbed his head. "From you too. You've only managed to dig yourself in deeper."
"You're right." Harlan coughed, humming briefly. "Look, I've done this all wrong. I thought…"
But he didn't continue.
Cooper popped open one eye, staring at Harlan for a minute before prompting, "You thought?"
"I just figured you were just being skittish. Shy. Something like that." He shrugged. "I see I was wrong."
"Good. Acknowledging the problem is the start of the solution and moving on," Cooper said, yawning. He glanced up and was startled by the expression Harlan wore.
"Coop, you've been in therapy."
"Yes." It helped, a lot. Not that everything was perfect, but Cooper was learning to make those steps for himself again. "Why? Have you?"
Cooper nodded. "Good for him."
"Juan had been raped."
Too stunned to reply, Cooper shifted on the futon, pulling his legs up. That… No wonder Harlan assumed rape.
"Listen, Coop." Harlan rocked, his dark blue gaze moving everywhere, mouth working but silent. He finally settled, stepping closer. "I am sorry. Really. How about this? I'm gonna leave—"
"That's kinda what I asked you to do already," Cooper pointed out. He got ignored.
Harlan kept right on going. "I'm gonna leave, but I will be back. I really do want to be your friend. Maybe more. But I can take it one day at a time. Okay?"
"I'm not sure I want to be your friend," Cooper answered honestly. He did not have time for people who wouldn't listen to him. Never again.
"Okay. Okay." Harlan nodded. "I deserve that. But can I remind you we have had fun talking before. I did back you up about Evelyn."
That much was true.
"And I don't want to be that guy."
That would be nice.
"How about you sleep on it?"
Sleep. Best word ever.
"Coop?" Harlan rocked again, itching. "What do you say? We start over? Blank slate?"
No. He couldn't listen. Cooper had heard this song and dance before. He knew—fucking knew—how it ended.
But God, did Harlan look so sincere, so hopeful.
"Only if you leave right now."
* * * *
Jo sighed. “You do attract the weird ones.”
“Please, I know this,” Cooper said. He banged his head against the cafeteria table a couple times.
“You don’t have enough brain cells to damage, you might want to reconsider your current course of action.”
“True.” He rolled his head, settled his cheek on the table, and looked up at Jo’s slight smile. “But you’d have to include yourself in that statement.”
“One, we’ve never dated.” She held up a second finger. “Two, you gave me your number.”
“Can’t argue there.”
Too bad too. Jo seemed like one of the few sane people in his life. Somehow they always managed to pass each other by. But she was always there when he needed her. The best of friends.
Cooper sighed. “I think I should never see Evelyn again.”
“Time to start looking for another job?” Jo asked, she laid her had across his back between his shoulder blades and stroked downward.
“Yes, probably. Just sucks. I liked it there, besides her.”
“What about Harlan?”
That was a harder answer. It felt like Harlan had manipulated Cooper into agreeing to being friends, possibly more. That enough made his skin crawl and fear a repeat of Tabitha. But Harlan didn’t approach Cooper when he was upset, well, not a lot, and he left when Cooper gave him the ultimatum.
“I don’t know,” he answered honestly. “Seemed decent enough. At first.”
“But not anymore?” Jo picked up her apple an munched into it.
“It was a weird … fight? Is that what you’d call it?”
Jo nodded, chewing, and gave a half shrug.
Yes, Cooper understood the sentiment behind her answer. “He might have thought he was being helpful? But the shit he said… ”
“Just because a person is ignorant does not mean they cannot learn.”
Cooper grunted then pushed back up, slouching in his chair.
“Did he seem like he wanted to understand?”
Jo’s eyebrows rose and she gave Cooper a half-grin. “So Harlan’s a toss up?”
“Yes, I guess so.”
“Don’t be so quick to judge. You said he’d been a gentleman while watching the movie.” Jo cupped patted his knee and took another bite out of her apple. “You could use a few more decent friends.”
Though it scared Cooper. Harlan could do a lot of damage if he wanted to. He wasn’t small.
Jo stood, grabbing her backpack. “Class is going to start in ten.”
“Shit, yeah.” Cooper gathered up his books and shoved them into his bag.
Jo looped her arm in his. “If Harlan ends up being a jerk I’ll help you hang him from his balls from the flagpole.”
“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."