Royally screwed, p.3
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       Royally Screwed, p.3
 

         Part #1 of Royally series by Emma Chase

  My day continues its downward spiral as I throw on the only clothes I wear these days, my work clothes--white blouse, faded black skirt, slightly ripped tights--then wrangle my mass of unruly black curls into a bun and trip my way into our mini-sized kitchen, eyes still partially closed. I pour myself a bowl of Cinnamon Toast Crunch--the best cereal ever--but when I turn around to grab the milk, my cereal is devoured by our devil-dog Bosco in three seconds flat.

  "Bastard!" I whisper-yell, because my sister and father don't have to be up for a few more hours.

  Bosco was a stray, a mutt, and he looks the part. The body of a Chihuahua, the wide-set eyes of a pug and the brown, stringy hair of a balding shih tzu. He's one of those dogs that are so ugly, they're actually cute. Sometimes I wonder if he's the odds-defying result of a kinky canine three-way. My mom found him in the alley behind our coffee shop when he was still a pup. He was a ravenous little thing back then and eight years later, he'd still eat himself to death if we let him.

  I pick up the cereal box to refill my bowl--the empty cereal box.

  "Nice," I tell the stealing stealer who steals.

  He gives me the sad eyes as he jumps down from the counter he's not supposed to be on. Then he drops to his side, exposing his belly in contrition.

  But I'm not buying it. "Oh, get up. Have some dignity."

  After an alternate breakfast of an apple and toast, I grab Bosco's pink glitter leash that my sister bought--as if the poor thing didn't have enough reasons for a complex--and latch it to his collar.

  Our building was built in the 1920s--it used to be a multifamily before the first floor was renovated into a restaurant around the time JFK was elected. There's a second set of steps that leads to the coffee shop's kitchen, but Bosco's not allowed in there, so I walk him out the front door and down the narrow, green-painted steps that lead out to the sidewalk next to the coffee shop entrance.

  And holy shit icicles, it's cold!

  It's one of those freak March days that come after a rash of mild weather has lulled you into a false sense of security that winter is over. You've no sooner boxed up the sweaters, boots, and winter coats in the crawl space than Mother Nature says, "Sorry, sucker," and dumps a frozen nor'easter on your ass.

  The sky is gray and the wind is hair-whippingly bitter. My poor blouse, which only has two buttons fastened crookedly, never had a chance.

  It bursts open.

  Right in front of Pete the Pervy Garbage Man. My white lace bra is sheer as sheer can be and my nipples proclaim the arctic temperatures in all their pointy glory.

  "Looking good, baby!!" he yells in a Brooklyn accent so thick, you'd think he was trying to make fun of people with Brooklyn accents. He wags his tongue. "Lemme suck on those sweet jugs. Could use a little extra hot milk to go with my coffee."

  Ewww.

  He holds onto the back of his truck with one hand while grabbing and rubbing his crotch with the other. Jesus, guys are gross. If this were half-decent revenge porn, he'd fall into the bin and the trash compactor would mysteriously turn on, crushing and slicing him into oblivion. Unfortunately, this is just my life.

  But I'm a New Yorker, born and raised. So there's only one appropriate reaction.

  "Fuck you!" I shout at the top of my lungs, lifting both hands above my head, middle fingers raised loud and proud.

  "Anytime, sweetheart!"

  As the truck rumbles down the street, I let loose every obscene hand gesture I know. The thumb-against-teeth flip, the chin flick, the horns, and the raised-fist bicep slap, also known as the Italian Salute--just like Grandma Millie used to make.

  The only problem is, when I smack my arm, I also drop the leash, and Bosco takes off like a bat out of hell.

  As I'm buttoning my blouse and trying to run at the same time, I think, God, this is a crappy day. And it's not even five a.m. yet.

  But that was just the tip of the crapberg.

  It takes me three blocks to catch the little ingrate. By the time I make it back, tiny snowflakes have begun to fall, like dandruff from the sky.

  I used to like snow--love it, actually. How it coats everything in a sparkly diamond luster, making it all shiny-clean and new. Turning lampposts into ice sculptures and the city into a magical winter wonderland.

  But that was before. Before there were bills to pay and a business to run. When I see the snow now, all I think about is what a slow day it's going to be, how little money is going to come in...the only magical thing is how all the customers will disappear.

  A slapping, fluttering sound makes me turn my head to discover a paper taped to the outside of the coffee shop door. A foreclosure notice--the second one we've received, not counting the dozens of phone calls and e-mails that in a nutshell say, "Bitch better have my money."

  Well, the bitch doesn't have any.

  For a few months I tried sending the bank as much as I could, even if it was short. But when it came down to paying our employees and vendors or not, I stopped sending anything.

  I tear the scarlet letter off the door, grateful that I got to it before any customers arrived. Then I walk up, toss Bosco just inside the apartment door, and head into the kitchen.

  This is the real start to my day. I fire up the ancient oven, preheating it to four hundred degrees. Then I slip my earbuds in. My mother was a huge fan of the eighties--the music and the movies. She used to say they'll never make 'em like that again. When I was little, I'd sit on the stool here in this kitchen and watch her do her thing. She was like an artist, creating one edible masterpiece after another, with female power ballads from Heart, Scandal, Joan Jett, Pat Benatar, and Lita Ford blasting in the background. Those same songs fill my playlist and pound into my eardrums.

  There are over a thousand coffee shops in New York City. To stay afloat against the heavy hitters like Starbucks and The Coffee Beanery, us mom-and-pop shops need to have a niche--something that sets us apart. Here, at Amelia's, that something is our pies. Handmade from scratch, fresh every day, from my mother's recipes that were handed down to her from her grandmother and great-aunts in "the old country."

  What country that is, we're not exactly sure. My mom used to call our nationality "Heinz 57"--a little bit of everything.

  But the pies are what's kept us above water, even though we're sinking deeper and deeper every day. As Vixen sings about being on the edge of a broken heart, I mix all the ingredients in a massive bowl--a cauldron, really. Then I knead the sticky dough, squeezing and clenching. It's a pretty good upper-arm workout--no chicken arms for me. Once it's the right consistency and a smooth sable color, I turn the bowl on its side and roll the giant ball onto the middle of the expansive, flour-coated butcher-block counter. I flatten it into a big rectangle, first with my palms, then with a rolling pin, stopping every few minutes to re-flour. Once it's spread evenly thin, I slice it into six perfect circles. This will be enough for three double-crust pies--and I'll do this four more times before the shop opens. On Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Sundays, I mix up the regular apple, cherry, blueberry, and peach along with lemon meringue, chocolate, and banana cream.

  With the bottom crust set in each of the six pans, I wash my hands and move to the fridge, where I take out the first six pies I made yesterday and put them in the oven to reheat to room temperature. These will be the ones I serve today--pies are always better on the second day. The extra twenty-four hours give the flaky crust enough time to soak up the brown sugar-sweetened juice.

  As they reheat, I move to the apples, peeling and slicing as fast as the Japanese chefs at a hibachi restaurant. I've got mad knife skills--but the trick is, the blades have to be razor sharp. Nothing is more dangerous than a dull blade. If you want to lose a finger, that's the way to do it.

  I pour handfuls of white and brown sugar over the apples, then cinnamon and nutmeg, and toss the contents of the big bowl to coat the slices. I haven't read the recipes or measured in years--I could do this with my eyes closed.

  It used to be meditative, mindless, a
ssembling the pies--tucking the fruit beneath the doughy blanket of top crust like it's settling in for a nap, fluting the edges, then scalloping a perfect, pretty pattern with a fork.

  But there's nothing relaxing about it now. With every move there's the screechy worry--like a police car siren screaming in my brain--that these pies won't even sell, and the terminal water heater downstairs will finally throw in the towel and we'll be out on the streets.

  I think I can actually feel the wrinkles burrowing through my face like evil, microscopic moles. I know money doesn't buy happiness, but being able to purchase some peace-of-mind real estate would be pretty great right now.

  When the thick, buttery juice bubbles like caramel through the flower-shaped cut in the center of the pies, I take them out and set them on the counter.

  That's when my sister bounces down the stairs into the kitchen. Everything about Ellie is bouncy--her long blond ponytail, her energetic personality...the dangling silver and pearl earrings she's wearing.

  "Are those my earrings?" I ask, like only a sister can.

  She plucks a blueberry from the bowl on the counter, throws it in the air, and catches it in her mouth.

  "Mi casa en su casa. Technically they're our earrings."

  "That were in my jewelry box in my room!" They're the only ones I have that don't turn my lobes green.

  "Pfft. You don't even wear them. You don't go anywhere to wear them, Livvy."

  She's not trying to be a jerk--she's just seventeen, so it's inevitable.

  "And pearls like to be worn; it's a fact. If they sit in a dark box for too long they lose their luster."

  She's always spouting off weird little facts that no one except a Jeopardy! contestant would know. Ellie's the "smart one"--advanced placement classes, National Honor Society, early acceptance to NYU. But book smarts and common sense are two different things. Outside of being able to run a washing machine, I don't think my sister has any idea how the real world works.

  She slips her arms into a worn winter coat and pulls a knitted beanie down over her head. "Gotta go--I have a calc test first period."

  Ellie skips out the back door just as Marty, our waiter/dishwasher/bouncer and consummate repairman, walks through it.

  "Who the fuck forgot to tell winter it was over?" He shakes off an inch of white slush from his curly black hair, like a dog after a bath. It's really coming down now--a wall of white dots.

  Marty hangs his coat on the hook while I fill the first filter of the day with freshly ground coffee. "Liv, you know I love you like the baby sister I wish I had--"

  "You have a baby sister."

  He has three, actually--triplets--Bibbidy, Bobbidy, and Boo. Marty's mom was still flying high when she filled out the birth certificates, a little mix-up with the meds during delivery. And Marty's dad, a rabbi from Queens, was smart enough not to quibble with a woman who'd just had the equivalent of three watermelons pulled out of her.

  "You don't piss me off like they do. And because I love you, I feel entitled to say you don't look like you just rolled out of bed--you look like you just rolled out of a garbage can."

  What every girl wants to hear.

  "It was a rough morning. I woke up late."

  "You need a vacation. Or at least a day off. You should've come out for drinks last night. I went to that new place in Chelsea and met the most fantastic man. Matt Bomer eyes with a Shemar Moore smile." He wiggles his eyebrows. "We're supposed to get together tonight."

  I pass him the coffee filter when the delivery truck pulls into the back alley. Then I spend the next twenty minutes arguing with a thick-necked meathead about why I'm not accepting or paying for the moldy fucking Danish he's trying to dump on me.

  And the day just keeps getting better.

  I turn on the front lights and flip the CLOSED sign to OPEN at six thirty sharp. I turn the bolt on the door out of habit--it's been broken for months; I just haven't had the chance to buy a replacement.

  At first, it doesn't look like the snow will be a total disaster--we get our coffee-craving, on-the-way-to-work local crew. Along with little Mrs. McGillacutty, the ninety-year-old woman from two blocks down who walks here every day for her "morning workout."

  But by nine o'clock, I flick on the television at the end of the counter for background noise as Marty and I stare out the picture window, watching the snowstorm become the blizzard of the century. There's not even a faint pulse of customers--it's dead--so I call it.

  "Feel like deep-cleaning the fridge and the pantry and scrubbing behind the oven with me?"

  Might as well get some housekeeping done.

  Marty lifts his coffee mug. "Lead the way, girlfriend."

  I send Marty home at noon. A state of emergency is declared at one--only official vehicles are allowed on the road. Ellie bursts through the shop like a whirlwind at two, elated that school closed early, then twirls immediately back out to spend the storm at her friend's apartment. A few random customers stop in during the afternoon, stocking up for their pie fix while hibernating during the storm.

  At six, I work on the bills--which means spreading papers, ledgers, and bank notices out at one of the tables in front and staring at them. The cost of sugar is up--shitheads. Coffee is up--bastards. I refuse to scrimp on fruit. I send Marty on regular weekly runs upstate to Maxwell Farms--they grow the best produce in the state.

  By nine thirty, my eyes start doing that closing-without-realizing-it thing and I decide to call it a night.

  I'm in the back, in the kitchen, sliding a plastic-wrapped pie into the fridge, when I hear the bell above the door jingle and voices--two distinct voices--come in, arguing in that ball-busting way men do.

  "My fingertips are frozen, you know. Can't have frostbite--my fingers are Franny's third-favorite part of me."

  "Your bank account is Franny's first-, second-, and third-favorite part of you. And you sound like an old woman. We weren't even walking that long."

  It's the second guy's voice that catches my attention. They both have an accent--but his voice is deeper, smoother. The sound of it feels like slipping into a warm bath after a long day, soothing and blissful.

  I step through the swinging kitchen door. And I think my tongue falls out of my mouth.

  He's wearing a tuxedo, the black tie hanging haphazardly around his neck, and the top two buttons of his pristine white shirt are open, teasing a glimpse of bronze chest. The tux hugs him in a way that says there are hard, rippling muscles and taut, heated skin beneath it. His jaw is chiseled--fucking chiseled--like it's made of warm marble. His chin is strong, beneath the planes of prominent cheekbones that a GQ cover model would kill for. His nose is straight, his mouth full and perfectly made to whisper dark, dirty things. Masculine eyebrows sit above gray-green eyes--the color of sea glass in the sun--framed by sooty, long lashes. His hair is dark and thick--a few strands fall over his forehead, giving him an effortless, edgy, I-don't-give-a-fuck kind of look.

  "Hi."

  "Well...hello." The corner of his mouth inches up. And it feels...naughty.

  The man next to him--redheaded, kind of pudgy, with light sparkling blue eyes--says, "Tell me you have hot tea and my fortune is yours."

  "Yes, we have tea--and it'll only cost you $2.25."

  "You are officially my favorite person."

  They pick a table along the wall and the dark-haired one moves with confidence--like he owns the place, like he owns the whole world. He sits in the chair, leaning back, knees spread, his eyes dragging over me the way a guy with X-ray vision would.

  "Are you going to sit down too?" I ask the two men in dark suits who stand on either side of the door. And I'd bet my tip jar they're bodyguards--I've seen enough rich, famous people around the city to spot them--though these two are on the young side.

  "No, it'll just be us," the dark-haired one tells me.

  I wonder who he is. The son of some rich overseas investor, maybe? Or an actor--he's got the body and the face for it. And...the presence. That n
ameless quality that says, "Pay attention--you're gonna want to remember me."

  "You guys are pretty brave to be out in this weather." I put two menus on the table.

  "Or stupid," the redhead grumbles.

  "I dragged him out," the dark-haired one says, his words slurring the tiniest bit. "The streets are empty, so I can walk around." His voice lowers conspiratorially. "They only let me out of the cage a few times a year."

  I have no clue what that means, but hearing him say it may be the most exciting thing that's happened to me all day. Fuck, that's pathetic.

  The redhead scans the menu. "What's the specialty here?"

  "Our pies."

  "Pies?"

  I tap my pencil against my pad. "I make them myself. Best in the city."

  The dark-haired one hums. "Tell me more about your magnificent pie. Is it delicious?"

  "Yes."

  "Juicy?"

  I roll my eyes. "Save it."

  "What do you mean?"

  "I mean, you can save the pie innuendos." My tone drops, imitating the creepy lines I've heard one too many times. "'Do you serve hair-pie, I'd eat your pie all night, baby'--I get it."

  He chuckles, and his laugh sounds even better than his voice.

  "What about your lips?"

  My eyes snap to his. "What about them?"

  "They're the sweetest thing I've seen in a very long time. Do they taste as good as they look? I bet they do."

  My mouth goes dry--and my witty-comeback reflex flatlines.

  "Pay no attention to this sorry mess," the redhead says. "He's been smashed for three days straight."

  The "sorry mess" raises a silver flask. "And on my way to four."

  I've seen my share of sloppy-drunk frat boys in the thrall of an after-party, late-night food binge. This guy hides it well.

  The redhead closes his menu. "I'll have tea and the cherry pie. And peach. And hell, give me a blueberry a la mode as well."

  His friend snorts, but he's unapologetic. "I like pie."

  I turn to the other one.

  "Apple," he says softly--managing to make the benign two-syllable word sound totally sexy. My pelvis swoons like a romance novel heroine who just saw her Brad Pitt circa Legends of the Fall-like hero riding toward her on horseback.

 
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