“Miss, you messed up my order.”
“Pardon?” I wipe my hands on my apron, staining the Café Lena logo with espresso.
The woman beyond the counter lifts her chin. She’s lanky and weathered like desiccated fruit and swathed in mismatched floral patterns from head to toe. “I ordered a decaf mocha with soy, and this isn’t soy. It’s skim.”
It is most definitely soy. I would know since I’m the one who makes it for her every morning. I’m tempted to point this out but my newest hire, Evan, is watching from behind the register. Rather than serve as a poor example, I bare my teeth and say, “I’m sorry. Let me make you another.”
I dump the perfectly good mocha and start over, waving the carton of soy milk around for all to see. When I’m finished, I cap the drink and hand it off to the woman. She takes a sip and then leaves without so much as a nod.
“What a waste.” Evan rolls his kohl-rimmed eyes. “I watched you make the first one with soy. I should’ve said something.”
“It’s better you didn’t,” I say, “and anyway, you know the drill. The customer’s always right, especially when they’re wrong.”
Evan grunts, then takes advantage of the lunchtime lull to sweep the floor.
Café Lena is less a café and more like a cubicle that serves coffee, wedged between a cosmetics boutique and a Yankee Candle store. Other than the patio furniture outside, there isn’t a lot of space for hanging out. Most of our customers are of the grab-and-go variety, white-collar drones en route to the office and retail slaves in desperate need of a pick-me-up.
“Hey, Kat?” Evan empties the dustpan into the bin. “Mind if I take my break early? I could really use a cig.”
I’ve come to suspect Evan’s cigarette breaks are actually code for phone sex with his firefighter boyfriend. I bite back a smile. “Sure. I’ve got this.”
I pass the time before the post-lunch rush by organizing the flavor syrups and replenishing the cookies in the lower display case. I’m just about finished when I spot the expensive slacks and shiny brogues making their way towards the counter.
Smoothing my apron, I rise to meet the stare of the man opposite.
“Good afternoon, Esteban.”
“And you, as well—” He wets his lower lip, pink and plump like grapefruit flesh. “—Catalina.”
I’ve known this man since I was in braces, back when I made a point of introducing myself as Katherine to everyone at my father’s firm. The day we met, Esteban took my name, swirled it around his mouth and offered it back to me transformed. To family, friends, and employees, I am either Kat or Katherine. To the men I meet at bars, I might be Kit, Kate, Kathy, or, if I’m feeling cheeky, Kitty.
But to Esteban, I will always be Catalina.
“What can I do for you?” I fold my hands on the countertop.
Esteban’s gaze flickers to the charm bracelet tattoo around my wrist. He smooths his salt-and-pepper goatee. “I’ll take a cappuccino to-go.”
“Coming right up.” I pull the shot, tamp the grounds, and steam the milk, sensing his gaze on my back like an invisible hand. I dispense the espresso into a paper cup and then carefully pour the milk, wiggling the metal pitcher to create a foam heart. He won’t see it once I’ve placed the lid but I’ll know it’s there.
“Your cappuccino.” I slide it across the counter.
Esteban takes the cup and then offers a ten-dollar bill. I shake my head no. Given the number of times he’s bailed me out—literally and figuratively—I don’t feel right charging him.
“It’s on the house.”
We stare each other down until, finally, I surrender. His grip on the bill is firm, and I have to make an effort to free it from his fingers.
“Thank you.” If I had a dime for every time I’ve thanked this man, I wouldn’t have to worry about wasted espresso.
He lifts the drink to his lips, those deep-set eyes trained on mine. “Are you free for dinner tonight?”
“I could be.”
He smiles and takes a step back. “Then I’ll pick you up at eight. Enjoy the rest of your day, Catalina.”
“You, too.” I trap my tongue between my teeth and watch him go.
We have our favorite haunts. Trattorias and Irish pubs. Sushi, tapas and oyster bars. Tonight we dine at Adrianna’s, a bistro with black tablecloths and curved leather booths. I let Esteban order for both of us, filet mignon over celery root puree, and single malt scotch.
He clinks his glass with mine and slides closer to me in the booth. “How’s business?”
“Good. Evan’s been showing up on time, and we only had a few pain-in-the-ass customers today.” I swirl the amber liquid in my tumbler before taking a sip. The burn used to make me wince. Now I cringe at the thought of adding ice. “Speaking of pain in unwanted places, how’s my father?”
“Homicidal,” he says. Sounds about right. Esteban is a partner in my father’s law firm. That’s where we met, in my father’s office, almost twenty years ago. “He lost a case last week. The entire firm is walking on eggshells.”
My father has always had a temper, but it wasn’t until after my mom died that he became a tyrant. My mother was the love of his life, the most beautiful woman he’s ever known. He used to reminisce at-length about how perfect she was, especially at dinner when he saw me reaching for a second helping of potatoes. Unlike my mother, perfect is not a word my father would use to describe me.
He has other words for his only child.
When I realized no amount of dieting and salicylic acid was going to magic-swan me into my mother, I rebelled, and not just at the table. I became rough around the edges, someone to keep an eye on. Now, in my thirties, I more-or-less have my shit together, though I bear the proof of my wilder days on my skin in the form of tattoos, and in my hair, bleached platinum blonde and dyed electric blue.
“He left two voicemails last week,” I say. “I should probably call him back.”
“Give it a few more days. He barged into my office this morning, spouting some bullshit about suing clients for wasting his time. I told him, last I checked, failing to kiss his ass wasn’t against the law.”
I snicker. “I’m sure he loved that.”
“He threatened to ship me back to Bogotá in a bag. I told him to get back to work.”
My charm bracelet tattoo catches his eye as I reach for my drink. He touches the steel-gray chain, the tiny coffee mug, my mother’s initials, and the three hearts, one for every year Esteban and I have been together—unless you count the summer after my first year of college, and the time he laid me on my father’s desk and made me come with his mouth.
I flush at the memory. My father would be furious if he knew Esteban and I were seeing each other. Few would bat an eyelash at our age difference now but my father would see it as sedition: his protégé-turned-colleague fucking his daughter without his permission.
“Is that why you wanted to go out tonight?” I ask. “Rough day at the office?”
Esteban glides his fingertips from the fringe of my hair to the small of my back. I melt against him, glad to have opted for a halter-style dress.
“I asked you out because it’s been too long since I’ve been inside you.”
The waiter brings our food and another round of drinks. Esteban keeps his hand on my thigh when he isn’t cutting his steak. I consider offering to slice his meat for him so that he never has to move it.
“What about him?” Esteban aims his knife at the bar. I wait a few seconds and then turn.
A dark-skinned man sips beer from a pilsner glass. From this distance, I’d guess him to be at least forty-five. His navy-blue suit is well-fitted, though not as bespoke as Esteban’s Armani. And the way he pauses between drinks to swipe at his phone suggests he’s on his own time. Alone, but not lonely.
“Do you find him handsome?” Esteban asks.
“You know I do.” He wouldn’t have pointed him out otherwise.
Esteban’s gaze narrows. Jealousy was a point of contention throughout his marriage. Since his divorce, he’s worked to recognize the tendency so he can control it instead of the other way around. In doing so, he’s discovered that jealousy turns him on. Aggravation as a means of arousal, a combustive combination.
“Do you think he has a big cock?” His breath is hot on my neck. I don’t have to touch him to know he’s hard, but I reach over anyway.
“Not as big as yours.” I palm Esteban’s cock through his trousers, making him hum low in his throat. Occasionally, I can get him so worked-up that he’ll fondle me under the table. Always over my panties; never enough to get me off.
“I bet you’d like to find out.”
The accusation, whispered at my ear, makes me shiver. He loves this part, when the trajectory of the evening begins to take shape in his mind’s eye. I love it, too, not least of all because of the effect it has on him.
“If I wasn’t here, you could send him a drink.”
His hand dips between my thighs.
I gasp. “I could send him one with you sitting right here.”
Esteban summons the waiter. I order a whiskey for the man at the bar. As soon as the drink is delivered, I give Esteban’s cock a final squeeze and rise from the booth.
For years I dated men who were indifferent towards me because I didn’t think I deserved better. It didn’t help that the first man to devalue me was none other than my own father, whether it was about my weight or the acne I battled throughout puberty. He’d accuse me of not washing my face enough, as if my blemishes were an affront to him, personally. How dare I be imperfect in his presence?
Sticks and stones may break my bones but words are the real weapons. You can start a war with nothing but words. You can break a promise, or a heart.
My skin has improved with medication, and hyperpigmentation can be veiled with concealer. I’ve learned how to shop for clothes that compliment my figure, and how to tell when a man is undressing me with his eyes versus waiting for someone “better.”
The man at the bar stands at my approach. He’s an inch taller and perhaps a few years younger than I thought, with a smile that reaches back through time to the boy he used to be.
“Hi.” He offers his hand. “I’m Alex.”
I am the shiny red bicycle propped against the fireplace on Christmas morning.
“Good to meet you, Kate. Thanks for the drink. This might be the best whiskey I’ve ever tasted.”
A bottle of the stuff in his hand probably costs twice as much as his suit. “Well, you looked thirsty.”
His gaze turns curious, like he’s not sure what to make of me. If there’s one thing I’ve learned about men, it’s that most of them like to be picked on, just a little.
Alex laughs, takes a drink, winces.
I smooth out my smirk. “Waiting for someone?”
He shakes his head. “I’m just in town for the night, on business.”
“Oh, what do you do?”
In truth, I don’t care what Alex does for a living. I don’t care if he likes his job, or if he has a hundred pages of the next great American novel rotting away on his hard drive. I don’t even care if he’s single.
After some more small talk, he says, “Where are my manners? Can I get you something?”
“I’ll have a glass of Merlot.”
I chance a glance at Esteban while Alex flags down the bartender. He’s staring intently, ready to send this pup scampering with his tail between his legs at the slightest hint of my displeasure. Alex passes me the Merlot, his gaze traveling over my arms, my neckline.
Knowing he’s looking at my breasts makes my nipples harden.
“I like your ink,” he says. “I thought about getting something done but haven’t gotten around to it. I bet you hear that a lot.”
“It’s a popular aspiration.” I sip my wine, dark and smoky with hints of cherry and black pepper. Alex watches my throat as I swallow.
I inch closer to him and extend my arm to show off my sleeve, knowing the harder I flirt, the harder Esteban gets, and so I’m determined to flirt my heart out. Alex touches the black calla lily below my elbow, then the Celtic knot. I can tell he wants to fuck me by the way his pupils dilate as he threads his fingers through mine. I wish Esteban could see it, too. It would make him furious.
“Has anyone ever told you that you have the softest hands?” He teases my palm with the pad of his thumb. It tickles, a jolt skittering up my arm.
Desire is a living, breathing, undulating thing beneath my skin.
“You might be the first,” I lie, tilting my chin.
He leans towards me, poised for a kiss. “Listen, I’m staying at the hotel across the street. Would you like to take this conversation up to my room?”
This man has me revved like the engine of a Corvette speeding in the wrong direction. I take a steadying breath.
“I’m afraid that can’t happen, but it was very nice to meet you, Alex.” I hand my wineglass off to him. He runs his thumb over the lipstick imprint, looking confused.
I turn to go.
“Did I say something wrong?” He catches hold of my arm, not tight enough to hurt but enough to assuage any guilt I might have felt about leading him on.
“Not at all.”
“Then what’s the problem?”
I nod in the direction of the booth. Alex locks eyes with Esteban, whose gaze is pinned on the other man like he wants to use him for target practice.
“Wait,” he says, “if you're already here with someone, why'd you buy me a drink?”
“Like I said, you looked thirsty.”
Alex squints at me, bemused, then adopts a put-upon scowl. “And you let me buy you a drink because?"
“Because you offered.” I loosen my arm from his hold. “And I'm always thirsty."
I make my way back towards the booth and slide onto the seat next to Esteban.
“His name is Alex,” I whisper. “He invited me up to his hotel room.” My pulse drums between my thighs. If I were to reach below the table, I’d no doubt find Esteban rock-hard and raring to go. “Take me home now. Please.”
Esteban smooths the scruff along his chin, then tut-tut-tuts.
“I’ve got a better idea.”
We rent a room in the hotel across the street.
Sprawled out on the king-size bed, I watch the flames lick around the faux logs in the gas fireplace. Impatience tugs at my limbs until I’m a marionette, dancing on my back. Esteban drapes his jacket over a chair, then removes my black pumps one-by-one and spreads my legs. My skirt puddles on the bed around my hips.
“What you did back there to what’s-his-name wasn’t very nice, Catalina.”
Esteban remembers Alex’s name as well as I do but hearing me say again it will only fuel his jealousy.
“His name is Alex.”
“Ah, yes.” He caresses my calves, then slides higher, his thumb skimming the bluebird tattoo on my inner thigh. I let my head loll to the side as anticipation flutters through me. “He wanted to bring you here. He wanted to fuck you on a bed just like this.”
Esteban hooks a finger into the crotch of my panties, pulling them taut. The air is warm but I still gasp as it rushes to greet me. He tilts his head to see past his hand, assessing my pussy as though it were a rare and curious thing. As if he hasn’t already made me come every way a person can.
“He told me I had nice hands,” I say. “I think he wanted me to wrap them around his cock.”
My panties snap against me. I flinch at the sting and then smile.
“You’re a fucking tease, Catalina.” He palms my breasts, flicking my nipples through the silken fabric. “Admit it.”
“I’m a tease.”
He pinches my nipples, and my entire pelvis throbs.
“A fucking tease,” he growls. “One who deserves to be taught a lesson.”
Esteban unbuttons his shirt and then reaches for his belt. I scoot forward. With my hands flat on his stomach, I press my cheek to the bulge in his pants. I need to hold him in my fist and feel how bad he wants me. I need to taste his desire on my tongue.
He lowers his pants and boxers, then curves my hand around his cock. A drop of precome beads at the tip; I gloss my lips with it. He groans, a deep rumble that fills the room and makes me tremble.
“I bet Alex is somewhere in this building with his hand around his dick,” he says, “thinking of you.”
The conjured image of Alex touching himself to the thought of me makes me whimper. I close my mouth around Esteban’s cock. He licks his perfect lips and then cradles my scalp, urging me on. Holding his gaze, I take in more of the shaft and then start to suck.
Air hisses through his clenched teeth. I can’t get enough of how he’s looking at me, like I’m the only person capable of making him feel this good. I press my brow to his belly, the head of his cock making me gag.
“Easy, mija.” He leaves my mouth with a wet pop and then shoves me onto my back.
Reaching under my dress, he pulls my panties aside to explore me, his thumb slip-sliding over my clit.
“Catalina, you like sucking cock so much, I sometimes wonder if you have a clit at the back of your throat.”
It’s true, I adore sucking his cock. I love being able to gauge how turned-on he is by how quickly my mouth fills with precome. Right now, I can’t decide where I want Esteban’s filthy mouth to go. He chooses for me, aligning his body with mine, mouth-to-mouth, cock-to-cunt.
His kiss takes no prisoners. I moan as he pinches my clit, stroking upward to draw back the hood. He strums the stiffened bud. I twitch and shudder, so sensitive and already so close.
Two strokes shy of the point of no return, he abandons my clit to rid me of my underwear and then poises his cock at my folds.
“You think you can take and take without offering something in return. But that’s not how it works, Catalina. It’s time to pay up.”
He thrusts into me, and parts of me are gladly pushed aside to make room. I cry out around his tongue as he fucks me, a wail that skips and starts like a favored song on a scratched CD. He grinds his pelvis against mine with every thrust and it’s almost, just barely, enough pressure to get me off.
When he feels my muscles tighten, he stops, pulls out, and tells me to suck his cock.
I let Esteban use me. I let him march my body to the peak of arousal and back down again, over and over. He knows I can’t come without touching my clit, so he pins my hands to the bed. This is my punishment, my penance for stringing poor Alex along and making Esteban jealous. I am the tease getting a taste of her own medicine.
I savor every drop.
“Please,” I beg, my voice hoarse and pathetic. He’s got my legs over his shoulders and my top askew, breasts bare for him to torment as he pleases.
I can feel the damp spot we’ve made on the bed beneath me. He pulls out and spreads my legs, then rubs my clit with his cock until my calf muscles spasm. Then he’s gone, and the absence of his touch is agony.
“No! Don’t fucking stop!”
He laughs, stroking himself. I’m still reeling when the first hot spurt hits me between the legs. The only thing I love more than coming is watching Esteban come, seeing the look on his face and knowing that I put it there. He pumps his erection, marking me until there’s nothing left.
I’m so turned-on I could sob.
“You think you deserve to come after what you’ve done?”
“Please.” It’s the only word I know.
He thumbs my clit like it’s an afterthought, using his semen as lube. Mercifully, he doesn’t stop.
At first, my orgasm is soft and skittish. I have to chase it. As soon as I sink my teeth into its flesh, my whole body shudders. I shiver and shake. I rattle, and the sound that I make is entirely animal.
Esteban draws me into his lap to rest, his arms strong and solid, his chest and belly soft from years of deskwork. The smell of his skin comforts me, like the scent of someone else’s pleasant memory of home. The hair on the back of my head feels matted. I must look like something the cat dragged in, but I couldn’t care less.
“Still jealous of what’s-his-name?” I jest.
He chuckles, his fingers circling my charm bracelet tattoo. I remember the day I got the chain and my mother’s initials, the grip of Esteban’s hand around mine, the piercing hum of the needle and the burn. I remember my father insisting that no respectable company would ever hire me. He made Esteban partner the following year.
“I used to be jealous of you,” I confess. “How my father would strut you around the office, the son he always wanted.”
He guides my wrist to his lips. “Catalina—”
“I want to tell him about us. If he doesn’t like it, that’s his problem.”
He sighs. “Now is not a good time.”
“Will there ever be a good time?”
“Sure. The day he retires. He’s been talking about it. I think he’s getting ready to hand off some of his clients.”
“And, of course, you want him to hand them off to you.”
“Is that so unreasonable?”
Considering the shit he’s had to put up with all these years working alongside my father, no, it isn’t. I don’t want to begrudge him his success. Still, I gather my knees to my chest. I used to get off on the secrecy, the furtive glances and office quickies after dark. Now I see it all for what it is: the sheltering of yet another aspect of my life from my father’s disapproval.
Esteban cups my chin. “I understand why you want to stand up to your father. But could you do it in a way that doesn’t encourage him to make good on his death threats?”
Glancing down at the sheen coating my inner thighs, I force a smile. I want to be angry with him for not choosing me over my father’s good graces, but I can’t be. He’s dedicated too many hours to the firm, spent too many years as my father’s right-hand man. How can I ask him to throw that away when I’ve spent decades wanting to trade places with him?
He kisses my temple. “Does the fact that I don’t say I love you in front of your father make it mean any less when I do?”
It doesn’t, but that neither of us are willing to say it in front of him makes the whole thing feel sordid when it shouldn’t have to.
“I’m going to take a shower.” I peel my wrinkled dress off and head for the bathroom.
Evan is waiting outside Café Lena when I arrive the next morning wearing the dress from last night.
“Not one word,” I tell him.
He bites back a smirk. I change into the spare jeans and sweatshirt I keep in my office.
The rush picks up and stays up until just after lunch. As soon as Esteban steps through the doorway, I immediately move to apologize for leaving this morning without waking him to say goodbye.
Then I notice he’s not alone.
“Dad.” I pray he doesn’t hear my displeasure, not that he ever tries very hard to hide his own. “What brings you in today?”
“You haven’t been returning my calls.” He adjusts his glasses. “I forgot how small this place is.”
“Your father insisted on taking me out for coffee.” Esteban leans against the counter, looking apologetic. My father claps his shoulder.
“This hotshot just landed us a new client. I’m taking him out to celebrate.”
“Congratulations.” I hold Esteban’s gaze a few seconds too long so he knows that I mean it. “What can I get you?”
“I’ll have a—” Esteban’s phone buzzes in his pants pocket. “My apologies, Catalina, I have to take this.” He mouths surprise me before stepping out onto the sidewalk.
My father gives the pastries in the case a once-over. “So, how goes it, Kittykat?”
“Couldn’t be better.” I start grinding enough beans for two cortados—Esteban’s favorite drink—to give myself a distraction.
“Turning a profit?” my father asks. I pretend not to hear him. “I still can’t fathom how you mustered the capital to fund this little venture.”
“They’re called loans, Dad.” Technically, one of those loans came from Esteban, but I’d never tell him that. I’m honestly not sure what would make him angrier: to discover that Esteban’s been fucking me, or financing my little venture.
“With your credit, I bet the interest rates are astronomical.” He peers into my office. “Where’s your employee?”
“His shift ended at noon.” I brew the espresso into two small glasses, then add raw sugar and steamed milk.
“Would it have killed him to sweep the floor before he left?”
“Would it kill you to say something nice about this place for once?”
“I’m only teasing, Kittykat. Lighten up.” When he realizes I’m serious, he sighs and scans the walls. “I like the name.”
Figures he’d say that; I named it after Mom.
I set the drinks on the counter. “That’ll be eight dollars.”
“You’re really going to charge your old man?”
“How else am I supposed to turn a profit?”
He sniggers and hands me a ten. I ring him up and dispense the change, which he pockets. Raising a glass to his lips, he takes a sip, then frowns.
“It’s a cortado. It’s supposed to be a little sweet.”
“Not this sweet.” He sets the glass down. “Is this how you take your own coffee? No wonder you’ve stopped losing weight.”
I swallow a scream. “Would you like me to make you something else?”
“No. I want you to make another one of these, only right this time.”
My hands curl at my sides. I’m used to him questioning my every move, but if there’s one thing I know how to do backwards and forwards, it’s make a damn delicious cortado.
I taste the drink for myself. “There’s nothing wrong with it.”
“Kittykat, if this is how you normally conduct business, then I’m afraid you won’t be in business for long—”
My hand jerks like it has a mind of its own, splashing cortado all over my father’s white shirt. He gapes. The glass drops to the counter with a thunk as my hands leap to cover my mouth.
“I’m...I didn’t...” I mean to apologize but the words won’t come. What rises instead is something lighter, frothier.
“You think this is funny?” my father barks.
I must, because I cannot stop laughing. It’s like trying to catch a cascade of marbles as they tumble down the stairs.
He grabs a fistful of napkins from the dispenser. “What the hell’s gotten into you, Katherine Marie?”
My left side pangs. For whatever reason, hearing him use my middle name has me in stitches. My father curses and then storms off, nearly ramming into Esteban on his way out the door.
“I was gone for three minutes,” says Esteban. “What happened?”
I finally manage to speak. “I think I just stood up to my father.”
“I see.” He sips from the other cortado and hums with pleasure. “Perfection.”
His praise warms me like a cup of piping-hot coffee on a cold day, yet my thoughts snag on his wording. There is no such thing as perfection.
The cortado I made is delicious, but it isn’t perfect. Neither is our relationship, nor the way I’ve chosen to live my life. But it doesn’t have to be perfect. Even my own mother—contrary to how my father chooses to idolize her—was only human, made up of disparate parts sweetness and bitterness, like the rest of us. Like me.
Esteban eyes me curiously over the rim of his glass. “Can I ask what prompted this act of rebellion?”
I run a dish towel under the faucet and begin wiping down the counter.
“You know the saying the customer is always right?” I ask. Esteban nods. “Well, this time he wasn’t.”
Rachel Woe is a forbidden love junkie who probably watched too many inappropriate movies as a teenager. A longtime lover of risqué fiction, she used to smuggle Story of O and The Sleeping Beauty trilogy to school, folded inside brown-bag book covers. On the rare occasion when she’s neither reading nor writing, you can find her camped out at the back of the cinema or on the hunt for a perfect Irish eggs Benny.