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“What’s your name?”
She looked up from her notepad, pointing to her name tag and indicating, “Dusty.”
“You don’t look like a Dusty.”
She shook her head, pushing a loose strand of hair out of her eyes as she looked down at his order. “What dressing would you like with your salad?”
“Your hair is a beautiful color.”
“When I cut it, I’ll give it to you as a souvenir,” she declared, her sauciness shining through as she shared with him a fake smile. She eyed him quickly, taking in his dirty blonde hair and light colored eyes. His cheekbones were prominent, but she didn’t feel she would cut herself touching them if invited. The one thing that put her off was the mustache. She had half a mind to point it out and ask if he were luring children into a white van later that day.
But his dopey eyes seemed to grow in size as he gave her an obvious onceover. “Please keep it,” he murmured. Dusty’s cheeks grew warm as she stared at his lips. They were parted as he spoke, giving her a partial view of his pearly teeth and pink tongue.
Pursing her lips and withholding a smile, Dusty forced her eyes back up to his and reiterated the question, “What dressing with your salad, sir?”
“Please,” he declared. “Call me Carlisle.”
Hearing his name allowed the gravity of his flirting to sink in. A pit formed in her stomach. Dusty had been hit on before, but she’d learned to ignore it. This man, Carlisle, was different though. Even after he left for the day, she thought about him. She went about her duties at the diner with his smile, his lips, on her mind. Dusty thought she’d be over it by morning, forget about him and his comments.
However, he returned the following day. And the day after. And again the next. Each time he praised her looks. Her eyes. Her nose. Her lips. Carlisle grew more daring in his speeches each time he complimented her. Dusty felt she should be offended, like she should be cautious. But he was so charming, he managed to make her feel gorgeous. She left him smiling to herself and blushing madly, practically running to get his order put in.
The rest of the diner staff were just as under Carlisle’s spell as she was. They encouraged her to go talk to him more, to get his number, to compliment him also. Eventually the pit in her stomach started to feel less like a heavy boulder and more like butterflies. It seemed wrong that anyone could be so charming. Somehow she felt trapped, like Carlisle had cast a net and reeled her in like a fish. His smile hooked her, and his words formed the line that tethered her back to him.
Dusty hardly stood a chance when at long last, Carlisle asked her for her number. Though her stomach twisted, she found herself writing it down on his copy of the receipt.
Their first date occurred the following week.
Looking back now, it had felt like she’d taken a dive off a cliff going out with this man she’d only ever seen in the diner. She hadn’t checked to make sure the water was deep enough, or if sharp edges awaited her below. It was like Dusty had been offered a shot but had taken the bottle instead. The doom became consumed by the warmth, and the dizziness that ensued distracted her from the anxiety.
Dusty spun out of control with Carlisle. She wouldn’t be sober for another six years.
Shots exploded in the small warehouse where Sterlyn and Johanan had cornered their targets, but Joe went deaf the moment Sterlyn fell backwards. His heart stopped as white noise filled his mind, blood seeping out of Sterlyn’s head onto the hard floor. The time between getting Sterlyn out of the warehouse and back to their safe spot was a blur.
All Joe remembered was carrying the hitman, his boss, into the home and finally inspecting the wound.
His fear was that Sterlyn now had a bullet in his head. All the blood coagulating and clumping in the man’s hair made him think he was a goner, that Sterlyn wouldn’t be waking up from this. Joe’s chest could’ve collapsed, he was so crushed. His knees gave, the big man dropping at the German man’s side as he dry-heaved.
It wasn’t till the hitman’s personal doctor could see him that Joe realized the wound was superficial.
The whole situation left Joe reeling. He lost all sense of time, contemplating what he would have done if Sterlyn had died that night. Joe realized, for the first time, there were a number of things that he wished he could have said to the boss who had saved him from a terrible scenario. Joe was once permanently indentured to serve a wealthy, crooked man. Sterlyn had saved him, shown him that wasn’t all he was meant to do. Joe could have more, he could give the man he had grown to love even more. Joe had thought he’d always love that man, the one who’d gotten away. The one who’d ultimately been saved after Joe’s severance with his former boss.
Joe would always have a place in his heart for that young man. He just had no idea he would find himself so desperately devoted to another. It made sense for him to care for the hitman who’d opened his eyes to a life without constant humiliation and overbearing sorrow.
But here he was, sitting by Sterlyn’s bed and waiting for him to wake up. Bandages circled the German’s head, the blood long washed from his now dry hair. Joe sat with his hands folded before his lips, dark eyes locked on the expanding and contracting of Sterlyn’s chest. The man’s lips were parted slightly, gentle wisps of air expelled past his teeth every so often. Sterlyn looked so at peace, a stark contrast to the chaos which had ensued in Joe’s mind. Joe was forced to ask himself, could he go for the rest of Sterlyn’s life without at least telling him how he felt.
When Sterlyn finally woke up, Joe had already determined the answer.
The hitman blinked himself awake, but before he could sit up Joe’s lips were pressing to his. Sterlyn’s mouth was warm, and his breath tasted faintly of cigarettes. Joe’s mouth lingered on Sterlyn’s for a few seconds, but it felt like several minutes. With his eyes closed, Joe pulled away and whispered against the boss’s lips, “I’m satisfied with just you knowing.”
As soon as he’d finished, Joe got up and left the room. Sterlyn would need to process this, and Joe couldn’t expect him to do that in a few seconds. Sterlyn was a slow, reflective thinker, and Joe had just dropped a bomb on him.
Nothing may come of it. Something may come of it. Joe didn’t know. All he knew was that he wasn’t going to let Sterlyn die without knowing he had someone who would miss him.