Cat's Lair(4)

By: Christine Feehan

“You don’t like making coffee, David,” Catarina replied, and put on her apron. Which she found hilarious because he owned the coffee-house.

The moment she was behind the coffee machine, David moved into position to take orders and money. Clearly there he was in his element, chatting up the customers, remembering their names, talking them into some of the bakery goods sold with the coffee. He even remembered the poetry or short stories they wrote. He was awesome with the customers, and she was awesome with the coffee. They made a great team.

She didn’t look up when anyone ordered. It was part of her strategy to keep in the background. The mouse in the coffee-house. Unfortunately, because she was great at making any type of coffee drink, the customers were aware of her. She was the reigning barista, and the customers had begun to fill the coffee-house nightly.

She had worked hard to learn what she needed to in secret. She read, watched countless videos and committed coffee books to memory. Before that, she’d had to learn to read. She was a little smug about it. Rafe would never, ever think to find her in a bookstore/coffee-house. Never. She was poor little illiterate Catarina.

She kept her eyes on the espresso machine when she heard Ridley give his order in a soft, low tone that set a million butterflies winging in her stomach. She already knew exactly what he wanted, just as she did with most of the regulars. He hadn’t been coming in all that long, but she was aware of every breath he took – just as the other women were. She certainly remembered what he liked for coffee.

She knew exactly where he sat without looking up. He always pulled out a book, usually on mediation or essays from a Zen master, while he drank his coffee. He savored coffee. She’d watched him, sneaking looks of course, and he always had the same expression on his face. She knew she put it there. She might not be a conversationalist, but she made spectacular coffee.

She forced herself to make fifteen more coffees before she looked up. Her gaze collided with his. All that beautiful, perfect, molten gold. She almost fell right into his eyes. She blushed. She knew she did. There was no stopping the color rising into her cheeks. He gave her a faint, sexy smile. She looked down without smiling back, concentrating on her work.

One look and her stomach did a crazy roll. What was wrong with her? She didn’t have physical reactions to men. It was just not okay. She couldn’t ever be stupid enough to wish for a relationship. She’d get someone killed that way. In any case, she’d be too afraid. She didn’t even know what a relationship was.

But he was darned good to look at, she acknowledged with a secret smile. Darned good. The familiar rhythm of the coffee-house settled her nerves. The aroma of coffee and fresh baked goods swept her up into the easy atmosphere. Once the poetry slam started, darkness descended. There was usually little joy in the poems, but she enjoyed them all the same.

Bernard Casey, a regular who was usually first up at the microphone, accepted his caramel macchiato from David, took one sip, and pushed his head over the counter the way he did each evening.

“Hey, coffee woman. Heaven again.”

She shot him a smile. It was safe to smile at Bernard. He loved coffee, his poems and little else. “Hey coffee man, glad you think so.” He only looked at her once a day, and that was when he gave her the nightly compliment.

It was their standard greeting. Bernard waved and settled at his usual table right in front of the microphone, making certain he would be the first and last poet of the night.

Ridley observed Catarina over the top of the book he no longer had any interest in. She was beautiful and she was scared. Very scared. She thought she’d managed to downplay her looks, but a man would have to be blind not to see through her baggy clothes and attempts to tame her wild hair.

Her sunglasses didn’t hide the perfection of her skin, and when she took them off and looked at a man with her exotic cobalt blue eyes, the color a deep intense violet at times, ringed with those long dark lashes – well – the punch was low and it was just plain sinful.

And then there was her mouth. Full lips like a cupid’s bow. Turned up at the corners just slightly. Her lower lip could make a man go to his knees and fill his nights with erotic fantasies. When her lips parted and she gave a small, distracted smile, the one that meant she wasn’t seeing you, any man worth his salt couldn’t help but take on that challenge. When she smiled, like she’d just done to Bernard, the strange poet who poured out his feelings for her through his poems, Ridley knew a man would kill for her.

She was nothing at all like he expected her to be. He watched her at the dojo with Malcom during her lessons and training sessions. She was focused. Intelligent, which, when fighting, was important. She was quick, her reflexes good, and she moved with a fluid grace that took his breath away. He wasn’t the only man in the dojo who stopped what he was doing to watch.