“And this is the break room. You get a thirty-minute break for every four hours you work. Do you have any questions?”
Claire looked around and shook her head. “Nope.”
Kieran glanced at the woman standing next to him. Gracie had brought her in that morning and after a cursory interview, he’d offered her the job. If his cousin thought it was weird that he’d changed his mind, she hadn’t said anything. Yet. “Okay, great.”
“Actually, I do have one question.” He turned to look at her. “When do I start?”
“Now, if you’d like. Or tomorrow. I’d ideally train you before next week but we can be flexible and work with your schedule.”
She smiled and nodded. “Now works.”
She sauntered off through the door and Kieran watched her, appreciating the sway of her hips and the slope of her back. He closed his eyes, trying to banish his inappropriate thoughts. He didn’t know what he was doing, only that he was playing with fire.
She was a good worker. Kieran smiled over at Claire while they closed up for the night. With Stephanie gone, he was handling the books after closing each day, which meant more time at the shop and more time around her.
Claire walked over to him, smoothing down her curly hair. It was amazing how different she looked compared to the first time they’d met. He’d done a double take when he’d looked at her eyes. He thought she was wearing contacts at first but they were her real eye color. There was a story there and maybe one day…
“So, I’ve been thinking…” She leaned against the counter.
“About what?” He closed the cash register, done with the day’s tally. They’d done okay, not great, but not bad either.
“What are your plans for the second floor space?”
“The break room?” He frowned.
Shaking her head, Claire said, “No. The open space in-between your office and the break room. I was thinking that would make an excellent lounge type area. You know, have the place running all day. That way the college crowd can hang out longer. Especially the students that need a place to study and socialize.”
He thought about that suggestion. “How would that work?”
They were seated at a table, trying to hash out Claire’s idea. It would mean completely re-branding themselves into a speakeasy but that sounded kind of cool. Especially considering how old fashioned some of the clubs and bars were in town.
“We’d have to do some heavy remodeling,” he noted.
“Yeah, you’re right. The cost alone makes it unfeasible.” Her shoulders slumped and she looked down at the notes she’d been scribbling.
“The cost isn’t a concern. We do well enough that we could remodel without any problems.”
He hadn’t meant to say that. The cost would come straight out of his own pockets. They couldn’t afford their plan. And when had he started thinking of this as “their” plan?
Claire grinned at him and it stopped his train of thought. She was beautiful. And smart and funny. And she had an eye for business. He liked that.
She looked at the clock and her eyes widened. “Shit, I have to go. I start work in an hour!”
He frowned. “You have another job?”
“Well, yeah. Between school and my bills, I need to work as much as possible.”
He thought about that. Couldn’t her family help her? He stood up and walked out with her, locking the door behind them. “I’ll see you tomorrow?”
He stood for a second, debating with himself but finally said, “I could give you a ride. If you’d like.”
“Oh my God, I would love! I have no idea when the next bus is coming.”
He walked her to his car, opening the passenger door for her first before getting in. Once inside, he asked, “Why don’t you drive?”
She frowned at him for a moment. “No one is going to give a blind girl a license.”
His face must have registered his surprise because she chuckled a little bit. “I am legally blind. I mean, I can see just fine – most days – but my eyes aren’t the most reliable. So, it’s buses and taxis for me.”
He wanted to reach over and squeeze her hand or something but he didn’t think she would appreciate his pity. Instead he nodded and said, “That sucks.”
She laughed. “Yeah, it does. But it is what it is, right?”
They drove in silence until he stopped in front of the bar where they’d first met. “Well, here you go.”
She smiled up at him. “Thank you Alistair. For the ride and for hearing me out about the shop. You didn’t have to do either.”
“Well, I’d be a fool not to listen to a good idea when it’s presented to me and I’m the reason you’re late. It’s the least I could do. And, I wanted to.”
She grinned and seemed to sway towards him a bit. Then she looked away, mumbled a quick thank you, and exited the car. He revved the engine and waved to her before driving away.
It became a pattern. He’d schedule her for the evening shifts, making sure she closed with him and they would work on the renovation plans until it was time for him to drive her to her next job. He found himself looking forward to those days. And feeling grumpy when she wasn’t working. It was becoming a problem, one he didn’t want to fix.
Rolling his eyes, he stepped into the bathroom to find Lorde sitting in the tub. “What’s wrong?”
She raised a hand to him. “I can’t get out of the tub.”
Trying not to roll his eyes again, he scooped her out of the tub and walked her into the bedroom. He looked down at her naked form, belly swollen and ready to pop, and wondered if his lack of arousal was because of her distended abdomen or something else.
“Thank you Kieran.” Lorde stepped away from him and turned to get dressed.
She was still breathtakingly beautiful. Pregnancy couldn’t negate that, in fact it made her more so. She was softer, gently, smoother around the edges. So what was different? Maybe he’d changed in the last few weeks? An image of Claire, with her piercing diamond eyes, flashed in his mind.
That was absurd. She was just a friend. More accurately, she was Gracie’s friend. And Gracie’s age. And her coworker. Merciful Maker…
“Did you hear what I said, Keiran?” Lorde was dressed in loose pants and shirt.
“No. What did you say?”
“That we need to call your mom and make sure she’s set for next week.”
Lorde was due next week and she’d opted for surgery, so Eva was coming to help out while Lorde recuperated. He’d readily agreed when Lorde suggested it. It would be nice to have his mother around.
“Yeah, I’ll send her a message later today. Are you all set?” He had to leave for work soon.
“Yes, I’m fine. No need to stay for me.”
He frowned and studied her face. Sometimes she said things that seemed as if she was reproaching him but if he commented on it, she would brush him off. “Yes, well. Call me if you need anything.”
“Mmhmm.” Lorde leaned back on the bed with a book.
Kieran closed the laptop and looked up to find an amused Claire staring at him. “What?”
“I’ve been talking to you for the last five minutes. Have you heard a word I said?”
“Sorry, just focused.” He’d been thinking about her actually. Was she seeing someone? He still needed to see Gracie’s new home. Would it be awkward for him to visit her home?
“I was saying that I don’t have to work tonight.” She was watching him expectantly.
“Oh?” Disappointment coursed through him. He liked driving her to work. She seemed more comfortable outside of their mutual workplace and he was desperate to learn more about her.
He looked her over. She was dressed for work, except not quite. She was covered up more… A bit. Her tattoos were visible, though barely and her hair was loosely curled and pinned half up, not the usual wavy style that she wore for work.
She sometimes would change for work at the bakery and he’d grown very familiar with her dress style. And the artwork on her body. With her body, full stop.
“I was wondering if maybe you wanted to talk about the renovations.”
“The reno… oh. Yeah. Of course.”
She suddenly grinned. “But not here. How about we go somewhere else? There’s that new bowling alley on Mercer. They have killer fries.”
He shouldn’t. He knew a bad idea when he heard one. “Sure. That sounds – uh, good.”
And that’s how he found himself being a fool with Claire at the Merciful Bowl-a-rama. Where the fries were literally called Killer Fries, served with Bullet Burgers and Murderous Milkshakes. The place was cheesy and tiny, a hole in the wall. But he found himself downing his third beer and laughing as Claire made her second strike in a row.
He skimmed her ass as she bent down to pick up her bowling ball. “Can I ask you a question?”
She smirked at him, she’d seen him looking. “Sure.”
He took a sip of his beer, giving her a grin of his own. He’d grown some major cojones since his first drink. “Where does that tattoo on your hip lead?”
Honestly, he was dying to know. She had four that he’d seen. One on her left arm that said Survivor, one on her upper back of floating butterflies, another on her lower back shaped like a kiss and a fourth on her right hip. He wasn’t sure what it was, since it sat so very low and the curiosity was killing him.
She stared at him, mouth slightly agape. “I can’t believe you just asked me that.”
“I am so sorry.” He blushed and placed the bottle down. “I think I’ve had enough for the night.”
She giggled and got in position, giving him a perfect view of the kiss on her lower back. Lorde never giggled. It reminded him of how young and how vastly different Claire was from his wife.
She scored another strike, the ball crashing into the pins swift and sure.
“Why do I feel like I was set up?” He gave her a high five as she walked past.
“Because you totally were.” She winked at him. “But it’s okay. I’ll get the next round of drinks.”
“As if I’d ever let the girl pay,” he scoffed. “I’m not an idiot.” Claire stilled and after a moment, so did he. “I – uh, I didn’t mean to imply…”
“That this was a date?” She shook her head. “No. I didn’t think you did. Not at all…”
A week later, the two of them were opening the bakery – a first.
“You look awful,” Claire said with a giggle.
Feeling awful, Kieran made grunting sounds at her as he put the last of the chairs down. He hated the early morning shifts but Lorde was due in the hospital that afternoon, so he’d swapped with Emma. He hadn’t realized that Claire had swapped with Gracie.
“I didn’t expect to see you here so early,” he said. He noted how demurely she was dressed. All her tattoos were fully covered. Still, her stockings, stilettos and short dress did more for him than any of the scantily clad women at the club were Lorde worked.
“I have a thing tonight.”
He heard, ‘I have a date.’ Kieran felt his stomach clench and he jerked the cash register open. Why did the thought of Claire seeing someone upset him so much? He sighed. He knew why. And he knew he had no right. He was a married man, whose wife was giving birth to their second child that very same day! What kind of asshole did that make him?
He looked up to see Claire standing in front of him. Closer than she probably should. “Yeah?” His voice came out as a croak. He needed to stop this. He needed to remember who he was, the promises he’d made to his wife, to himself. She didn’t say anything else but she did move closer. And he knew, he knew he should move away. Stop her from doing whatever it was she was about to do. It was early morning and anyone could just walk in…
He lifted his hands to move her away, only he found himself grasping her arms and pulling her closer.
“There is no one else,” she whispered before she kissed him. It was a light kiss. A mere brushing of lips against lips. Not a proper kiss at all. So why did his heart skip a beat before doing double time? Bits and pieces of images filtered through his mind but he was too distracted to pay attention. All he felt were her lips, all he could sense was Claire and her perfect… Everything.
She started to pull away but he snagged her waist and drew her closer still. He pressed down on her mouth, his tongue swiping at the seam until she opened and let him in. He just wanted a taste, that’s all. And then he would stop. He couldn’t think of a single thing after that.
Claire finally pulled away. Her face flushed and her lips swollen. He liked that look on her; liked that he’d done that. That he’d stolen her breath and made her pant. He realized what he was thinking and abruptly turned away. What the hell was he doing? “I am so sorry Claire.”
He heard an intake of breath. “It’s my fault, I shouldn’t have done that. You aren’t available…”
He turned back to her and caught the sorrow and disappointment in her eyes. “No. I’m not. But I wish – ”
She placed a hand on his cheek and shook her head. “Don’t do that. Don’t say that. We will both regret it if you do.”
She stepped away and began wiping down the counters, refusing to look at him. Feeling confused and frustrated, Kieran headed up to his office. He couldn’t think clearly when he was around her and he desperately needed to decide what the hell he was going to do.