Read Astory of now Online

Authors: O'Beirne, Emily

Astory of now (page 5)

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Claire glares at Kerry. Why is she always soannoying? Besides, what would she know? She’s never even had a proper boyfriend. “I know that.” She throws her a look. “I was there, remember?”

“Anyway…” Michelle reaches over and plucks at her sleeve. “Trust me; she’s not even close to as good looking as you. And she’s kind of—”

“What?” Claire lifts her head, surprised, and stares at Michelle. “You’ve met her?”

“Uh, yeah,” Michelle says as she tucks her dark hair behind her ear. “Because of Jack and Brendan. I, uh, see her sometimes when I go up and visit.”

Claire stares for a moment as she absorbs this disturbing new piece of information. She draws in a deep breath to steady herself. Why hasn’t she considered this possibility? Of course Michelle’s freaking double dating with Brendan’s new girlfriend. They’re probably friends by now too. That was how Claire and Michelle became friends, wasn’t it? Why should it be any different with this girl?

Claire breathes slowly, trying to dull the roar of blood in her ears. She cannot believe she was so busy getting over Brendan’s betrayal that she didn’t think of this smaller, yet equally significant act of disloyalty at the hand of her closest friend. “So, what? Do you all go out together?” She narrows her eyes. Michelle won’t be able to lie to her. She’s terrible at it.

Michelle drops her hands to her lap. “Uh, well, we’ve been out to dinner a few times and to some parties, I guess.”

“You guess?” Claire shoots back. “Exactly when did you meet her?” For a moment Claire’s mind flashes back to a day, years ago at her mother’s work, when her mother had placed ten-year-old Claire at the end of a large table as she interviewed one of her clients to prepare him for court. Claire watched, enthralled as her mother launched questions, one after the other, until the poor guy was dizzied and exhausted. Her mother had wanted the answers, though. Claire isn’t sure she does. But, driven by her hurt, she doesn’t know hownotto ask them either.

“I don’t know.” Michelle shrugs, helpless now. “A while back?”

“So you are just, what, hanging out with her now?” Claire looks out the window as anger and embarrassment build a great red wall around her. Tears threaten, pricking the back of her eyes. She cannot look at Kerry or at Kate, who she knows are watching carefully, probably equally alarmed and excited by this hint of drama. “And you didn’t think you should tell me?”

Michelle doesn’t respond straightaway. She looks terrified as if she might be about to cry too.

“Hey, Claire, come on, quit making her feel bad.” Kate leans forward. “What is she supposed to do? She’s—”

“Stay out of it.” Claire growls at her.

Kate slides back in her seat as though she’s been stretched out on a sling and shot into the chair. She obediently shuts her mouth.

Claire turns back to Michelle. Whether she likes it or not, Kate’s defence has somehow enticed her to pull the reigns. She musters the last shreds of her Pearson dignity and pushes her chair back. “You know what? Do whatever you want.” She says it quietly as she pulls money out of her pocket. She points at her so-called friend. “Just know that I would never, ever do that to you without telling you. You should havetoldme.” She blinks fiercely at the embarrassing slick of tears. She puts her money gently on the table and strides out of the café without another word.

And no one calls after her either.

When she makes it out the door and onto the street, she doesn’t stop walking. She numbly pushes through the crush of people trying to get back to work, not caring who she knocks or who knocks her. She bites down on her lip and wills away the tears—tears that have sprung as much from humiliation as from hurt. She will not give in to them.

She feels like a complete idiot. And she hates to feel like an idiot. And she really, really hates to look like an idiot. Not only has Michelle broken the girl code, but she also gave the other two a new reason to look down their cerebrally challenged noses at her.

Great. She flinches as a suit bumps her in the side as he charges down the street. Now, not only do they think she’s a loser for waiting on people and for not really knowing what she wants to do with her life, but they also feel sorry for her because her ex-boyfriend is a giant asshole and her supposed best friend doesn’t care enough to show a little loyalty. And that is something she cannot bear.

CHAPTER 7

Exhausted, Claire and Nina march along the damp street, faces not yet entirely clear of last night’s makeup. A shared umbrella partially protects them from the relentless drifting rain. The sky is a sodden mass today. It sags around their ears like a ceiling of endless grey over the city. It’s not too cold, but it is miserable enough to match their moods.

Claire could really use a few more hours of sleep. And she shouldn’t be in the city either. She’s supposed to go home and get ready for a lunch at her aunt Lucy’s, but she can’t bring herself to go anywhere near her mother just yet. She knows sudden, un-caffeinated contact with Christine will not end well. So Nina, ever helpful, is finally taking her to the coffee place she’s been raving about to fortify Claire for her afternoon of family fun.

Last night at the pub was a late one. By the time they shut the doors, trudged back to Nina’s flat to watch some crappy TV, and then fall asleep, it was the early hours of morning. Then, just to make the situation worse, Claire woke up a couple of hours later when Nina’s boyfriend, Josh, barrelled into the apartment, drunk and raucous, some time just before dawn. He didn’t notice her ensconced on the couch at first and had turned on all the lights and the television. When he realised she was asleep there, he backed into the bedroom and apologised profusely. It was the most he’d said to her in ages.

Josh is always a bit weird with her. She’s not sure why, but he mostly ignores her. Or when he does talk, he barely says three words. Maybe he doesn’t like how often she stays. But Claire doesn’t worry too much because Nina tells her Josh has no say as he barely pays rent. He doesn’t get to care.

And anyway, Claire’s happy to ignore him. He’s an idiot who studies personal training, and he’s obnoxious and full of himself—one of those types who thinks he doesn’t need charm because he’s got a six-pack and a car. He doesn’t realise none of this negates the fact that he’s a giant tool.

And the weird thing is Nina seems to know he’s an idiot. At least she always calls him one but in a fond, long-suffering way. It’s as if she knows her boyfriend is less than desired, but she can’t be bothered to do anything about it. Claire isn’t sure if it’s because Nina likes to have a guy around or because she doesn’t expect better for herself. Either is kind of sad, really, especially considering she’s great. Claire’s pretty sure she could do a lot better than this human void.

“Here we are.” Nina yanks open the door of the café, and they hurry out of the rain. It seems everyone else had the same idea, because the place is packed. The café is a long, narrow, white space with high ceilings, crammed with bench tables and metal stools—every seat seems to be occupied by the damp crowds drinking coffee. The windows are completely steamed up, blocking the view of the street outside. It feels as if they’ve entered a loud, crowded cave.

“It’s kind of full.” Claire thrusts her hands in the pockets of her new jacket. “Should we go somewhere else?” Not that she really wants to go back out in this weather.

“It’s always like this.” Nina cranes her neck to scan the length of the room. “Let’s see if there’s room closer to the back.” She leads them through the room, squeezing between tables as she moves toward the counter.

“Hey!” It’s Robbie. He grins as he holds several coffees expertly in his hands. He looks as conservative as he probably gets, wearing clean black jeans and a black T-shirt with the café name on it in white letters. “Come for coffee? There are some seats by the machine.” He gestures to the area behind him and then holds up the coffees. “I’ll take these and be right back.”

They find seats at the end of the long counter and climb onto the stools. Claire presses her hands to the back of the machine, absorbing its warmth.

“How are you, honey?” Robbie is back, hands free, and wrapping his arm around Nina’s shoulder. “Glad you came.”

“I’ve been telling Claire how good the coffee is, so I brought her.” Nina leans her arms on the counter.

He turns to Claire and slowly raises an eyebrow. “I didn’t think you’d be able to go out in the daylight. I thought you’d turn into a little pile of ashes.” Then he grins and leans in to give her a kiss on the cheek.

“Hilarious,” she mutters, simultaneously rendered shy and slightly flattered. She’s not used to people like Robbie, for whom affection seems to be second nature even with people he doesn’t know that well.

He turns to Nina. “I’m buying your coffee. Payment for modelling the other night.” He stands on his tiptoes and looks over the coffee machine. “Hey, Mia?” he calls. “You remember these two from the bar? You know, the place on Monteith Street?”

The girl who came into the pub with him last week sticks her head out from behind the machine. Her hair is tied back into a neat ponytail. “Yeah, I know the one. I don’t go to quite as many bars as you, remember?” She turns and smiles warmly at Claire and Nina, her eyes crinkling. “Hi there.”

“Yes, Mia,” he snarks with a grin. “Youarebetter than me in every way possible. Anyway, I owe Nina, so don’t charge them, okay?”

Mia nods and ducks behind the machine.

“I better get back to work.” Robbie whips a pen from behind his ear. “Tell me what you want, and I’ll put your order in. The guy working your section is useless.” He rolls his eyes. “Beautiful, but useless.”

They order their coffees, and he leaves them to it and disappears into the mass of tables.

Nina is telling Claire about the trip she has planned to visit her giant hippie family in Northern New South Wales when Josh turns up. He slides his arms around Nina’s shoulders and kisses her loudly on the neck.

“Hey.” He growls in a voice he probably thinks is sexy. He nods at Claire.

She nods back and tries not to roll her eyes at his sudden, unwelcome appearance.

“Hi,” Nina croons as she wraps her arms around his waist. “You got my message. I thought you’d still be asleep.”

“Nah, I wanted to see you before I go to training.” He takes a hold of her ponytail and kisses her again.

Claire sighs. That’s it. Intelligent conversation over. She turns the other way. These two are huge fans of gross, prolonged PDAs, and she’s been a reluctant witness to enough of it to know what to expect. She sips her coffee, which is as good as Nina promised, and checks out the stickers and comics stuck to the back of the machine.

“Hey, mind if I sit?”

Claire looks up. It’s Mia. She stands next to the last available stool in the row by Claire with a tiny cup in her hand.

“Break,” she explains.

“Yes, please.” Claire rolls her eyes. “Save me from this grotesque display.” She tips her head toward Nina and Josh.

Mia unties her apron, puts her cup on the counter, and climbs onto the stool. Then she leans over and rests her chin on her folded arms.

“Over it?” Claire asks her. It can’t even be midday yet.

Mia nods without lifting her head. “You know what the worst part about this job is?”

“What?”

She turns to face Claire and frowns. Mia has a small smattering of freckles across her nose and cheeks. “Having to make hungover, tired, and needy people feel better when you are hungover, tired, and needy yourself.”

Claire smiles. She knows this game well—the hospitality whingefest. And she has plenty of ammo too by now. “Yeah, well, in my job, you watch people being all happy, getting drunk, and having a weekend when you want to be happy, get drunk, and have a weekend. That also sucks.”

Mia nods. “But at least they’re happy customers. Some days I see half of Melbourne before they’ve had their first coffee. And let me tell you, this city is moody in the morning.”

“Well, you know,” Claire counters, always happy to go for the one-up in the my-job-sucks game. She and Cam play it all the time. “Sometimes a person can get too happy, you know? I’ve seen someone so happy with the combination of margaritas and a Friday that she vomited in her own shoes.” Claire leans forward. “Not on, Mia. In.”

“Oh okay. Gross.” She sips her coffee. “This game of who’s got it worse could go on forever, but maybe we should just agree our lives of servitude mutually suck.”

“Or we could just agree that I won, because grumpy, coffee-deprived people have nothing on vomit in shoes.”

Mia grins at her.

And Claire grins right back. “Just saying.”

Mia nods slowly, conceding to Claire’s win. She tips her head back and drains the last of her coffee.

“I don’t want to get all up in your business, Mia, especially considering we just met.” Claire pulls a face and points at her cup. “But maybe if you are so exhausted, you should consider graduating to a big-kid coffee?”

Mia contemplates the teeny espresso cup as she spins it around on the counter. “Yeah, but if I had a bigger coffee, I wouldn’t be able to drink as many in a shift. I’m not sure what a caffeine overdose would be like, but I bet it’s not pretty.”

“Probably not.”

“So I’ll stick to small doses and lots of them, thanks.”

“Drip feed. Fair enough.” Claire is stirring, anyway, because this girl seems up for it. And Claire’s always up for it.

Claire’s just about to ask what Mia does when she’s not working when a tall guy with some seriously stupid facial hair comes around the counter. Claire can’t help staring at him. He must spend hours with his shaver. Seriously, where do some people get their ideas about what looks good?

“Uh, hey, Mia, I just wanted you to know that I adjusted the grind,” he says in this kind of worldly, hipper-than-thou monotone. “So you might notice, you know, that it’s pouring a touch slower, but I think you’ll find you’re getting morecremaon the pour.”

“Okay, thanks.” Mia smiles politely at him. “I’ll be back in a couple of minutes.”

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