Unedited. Subject to change. Release date to be determined – i’ll give it when I have it, I promise.
“So… you never told me what your name was.”
Maddox made that statement from the confines of a half-circle booth, where instead of sitting opposite me, he’d chosen immediate proximity. His legs were spread wide – one touching mine – and his arms were draped along the back, enveloping me in ambient heat from his body.
“Um… Aly. Alyson.”
“Okay. Nice to meet you, Alyson.”
I felt, rather than saw, his grin. All the tables had a single bulb hanging over them for illumination, but the bench seats sank into the shadows. Sitting back like he was, I could only barely see him, but still.
His presence was… potent.
He’d ordered for me, when I’d sat there gaping stupidly at the menu upon being asked what I wanted. It was embarrassing, really – I couldn’t even tell you if the Mids had a place like this… a restaurant. I rarely, if ever, deviated from my specific route, and even if I did, there was no way I’d ever part with an amount so large for a meal that would only feed one person.
He ordered me a waffle, which I’d never had, and chicken, which I hadn’t tasted in years and years. Once it was just me and Nadiah, with Gran sick in assisted living, the budget had been cut to the bone. Meat was a luxury I couldn’t afford.
It didn’t feel like something I could argue against though. This place – Underground, as it was apparently called – belonged to Ches as well. We were underneath the foyer where we’d been introduced, where I’d felt the music under my feet. After Ches had offered her ominous farewell, Maddox led me through a heavy steel door and down another set of stairs, through a mass of sweaty bodies writhing to pounding music, to the area where we were now.
I drew enough curious stares along the way to understand that I didn’t fit. Desperately, I wanted to sit back, out of the light, but that would mean sinking into Maddox – a thought way more mortifying than the stares were.
Of course I’d seen a man before – the Mids were full of them. Over the years, I’d even dated a little, with varying levels of success.
Mostly very, very low.
And none of them made me feel as… flustered … as Maddox did.
“So you’re from the Mids, huh?” he asked, right in my ear, nearly making me jump out of my skin.
I swallowed hard, steadying myself, not looking back when I nodded. “Yeah. Been there all my life.”
“Damn. How do you manage out there with that curfew?”
“I… don’t really notice it,” I shrugged. “Nadiah and I are never out that late anyway, so it doesn’t mean anything to us.”
“Never?” he asked, with such skepticism that I did turn then, to meet his eyes in the low light.
“Not even like… out with your man or anything, sneaking around?”
My face heated as I shook my head. “No… not even that.”
“Ah, damn,” he grinned, then laughed. “That’s not surprising though, not really. Typical good girl from the Mids. You probably never even got your cherry popped.”
“I… I’m not a child,” I defended, suddenly feeling parched. I used my tongue to wet my dry lips, wishing I’d had the sense to put lip balm in one of my overstuffed pockets. “Of course I’ve… you know?”
That enthralling smile spread wider. “Nah, I don’t, cause you can’t even say it.”
“But I’ve done it.”
“If you say so.”
I clenched my teeth together, practicing my difficult client protocol to calm myself. A count to five, with a closed mouth, and then a smile. Another count to five, and then a swallowing of the anger that would only get me in trouble if I let it out. Maddox wasn’t a client, but that didn’t mean I shouldn’t practice a similar decorum. Working ensured my survival. Cooperating with Maddox would get me answers about my sister.
At this point, they were of equal importance.
The arrival of the food helped quell my emotions. It was impossible to focus on my self-conscious irritation when the plate in front of me smelled like… happiness. My mouth watered as the table was loaded with food and drinks and condiments, reminding me that Harriet’s coffee at the salon was the last thing I’d consumed.
That coffee – and the salon, and that conversation – felt like something that had happened days ago, instead of hours.
Maddox tucked into his food without hesitation, probably expecting me to do the same. Instead, I stared at the golden, syrup-drowned waffle piled high with fried chicken like it was going to come alive and attack me. Like I was waiting to wake up from a dream.
But then Maddox took a piece right off my plate, biting into it. “It’s good, Aly. You should eat.”
So I did.
Using every detail of the table manners my mother and grandmother had taught me, I prepared myself and then took my first bite. I tried my best not to audibly moan, but the rush of flavor in my mouth made that impossible.
Very quickly, I forgot most of my manners.
Long-term hunger – a feeling I’d become accustomed to, to make sure Nadiah had plenty to eat – and great food created a situation where I tuned out my surroundings – there was nothing there except me and my plate, and I had every intention of cleaning it.
Until I realized Maddox was looking at me.
Thinly veiled amusement was apparent on his handsome face, and for about the hundredth time in the last few hours, embarrassment rushed through me.
“You’ve got a little…” he picked up a napkin, aiming for my chin before I snatched the cloth from his hand to do it myself.
It was syrup.
A line of syrup I had to scrub at to get off, like it had been there for a bit and had time to dry. When I put the napkin down, my fork went with it. I took a big gulp of water that I halfway choked on, not expecting it to taste so… clean.
And then I put my hands in my lap and sat still, before I humiliated myself any further.
“What’s wrong?” Maddox asked, and I shook my head.
“Nothing. Just… waiting.”
“So you’re done? You’re full?”
“I didn’t ask if you were fine, I asked if you were full.”
“I’m done eating.”
His expression softened to understanding. “Because I was looking at you?”
“Because you were laughing at me.”
“I wasn’t laughing at you. I was looking at you, because you seemed happy – like you were enjoying yourself, which I hadn’t seen before. Eat your food.”
I shook my head. “I had enough. I don’t want to make myself sick.” That was true. But I only had enough sense to think it because he’d embarrassed me out of stuffing my face.
Maddox stared for another few seconds, then shrugged, sliding my plate over to join the plates of food he was already working on. “May as well not let it go to waste.”