Barista. Cat owner. Friendly neighbor. That’s Reese Thompson, and he doesn’t want anybody to look behind this façade. Trapped in a body heavily inked with the shame of his past, Reese’s self-loathing keeps him from fully embracing his freedom after six years of prison. Until a man walks into the café where Reese works, and changes the course of both their lives.
Reese Thompson dragged the flat of his palm across the bathroom mirror to get rid of the condensed water fogging his sight. He wasn’t particularly fond of his own reflection, but he knew shaving blindly was never a wise decision.
Over the years, Reese had become an expert in ignoring the black ink starting below his collarbones and crawling down his arms and chest. Well, ignoring probably was the wrong word. He’d learned to cope with the stupidity of his youth.
Maybe he should consider a beard? The three days’ growth of stubble didn’t look too bad. He held his gaze firmly fixed on his face, then shrugged and put the razor away. A beard it was.
Almost a year had passed since he’d been released from prison. Reese still checked the window first thing in the morning to see if it had bars caging him in. Fuck it.
He wasn’t one to wallow in self-pity. His new life was boring as hell, but he’d quickly realized the security lying within boring and bland. Everything was better than wearing orange one more day.
Reese finished cleaning up and left the bathroom to the usual gesture of flipping off his image in the mirror. In his shoe-box sized bedroom, Reese patted his cat in passing. Tizzy lay curled on her pillow, although the white monster would argue that every last pillow in the shitty apartment they shared belonged to her.
Shaking his head over his furry spoiled roommate, Reese shrugged into a dark green button-down shirt and black jeans. Of course he’d developed a serious dislike for anything orange because it held bad memories. He detested shirts that were too light as well, because his tattoos were visible through them. And so, picking clothes to meet his aesthetic standards had proven way more challenging than he’d expected.
Reese obviously lacked the fashion gene some gay men were born with. It resulted in a wardrobe that consisted mostly of simple jeans, dark sweatshirts, and equally dark long-sleeved cotton and button-down shirts.
It wasn’t as though his job required fashionably. One last finger-comb through his short brown hair, then Reese left his apartment.
Working as a barista at Jen’s Café, as nerve-wracking as it was to deal with bitchy customers day-in and day-out, had its perks. Free breakfasts and drinks, for one. Another perk was the three minutes’ walk.
After a glance at his watch, Reese picked up the pace and smiled as he thought about his boss, Jenny Winters. She was a true gem, giving an ex-con a chance, and the only bright light making his work bearable. Had Reese been straight... yeah, well. He wasn’t. Plus, Jenny’s two boyfriends would slice him into ribbons if he so much as looked at her the wrong way.
Entering the café to the cheerful jingle of the bell above the door, Reese smiled at Jenny, who bustled around behind the counter.
“Morning, boss. I’ll be just a second.” He hurried into the staff room, placed his bag in the locker, and tied a black apron with the café’s green logo around his hips.
Back out front, Jen gave him a quick hug and pointed toward Reese’s station. “You need to restock the fancy syrups before the vultures arrive. Unless you want to flirt your ass out of an angry, under-caffeinated college crowd.”
Reese loved Jen’s humor. He gave a shudder that wasn’t the least bit exaggerated before he bumped her hip. “At least everyone’s in a hurry in the morning and not in the mood for chitchat.”
“Yeah. The college crowd’s snagging one last boost of caffeine and sugar before they have to suffer through class.” Jenny laughed and brushed a strand of reddish hair out of her face. “It’s always the same. By lunchtime, the loud and rowdy students invade the café like the tide.”
Reese scowled. “And they leave nothing behind but empty shelves and a frazzled Reese. Good for your business, but...”
“I know, hon.” Jen patted his arm. “You’re not good with people and big crowds, and you hate the students the most.”
He grunted. “Some try to slip me their numbers, others are obnoxious little shits who think the world ends if they don’t get their hip soy decaf lattes without cream within five seconds of ordering them.”
“Welcome to the joys of working with people.” Winking, Jenny bounced toward the tables to give them a last check. “True, the job isn’t ideal for you. But, as weird as it is, by now you’re famous among the customers for your lack of smiles and flirty chitchat. I think some come by merely to tease a smile out of you. Very good for the business.”
Reese snorted. “Glad I’m the main attraction now. As long as you don’t kick my ass for my sometimes sour mood, I don’t plan to change.” Jen was right. His gruff behavior seemed to attract the women and men who liked a challenge. Reese wasn’t a fucking challenge. He wanted to get his job done, then return home to a quiet evening on his sofa—preferably with pizza and Tizzy.
Jen looked up from where she’d been busy arranging the sugar shaker and straw holder at one of the tables. The smug smile on her face didn’t bode well.
Reese looked at her warily. He’d come to fear his pint-sized boss. “What?”
“Well, you know I have a cousin—”
“No. No. I mean it, Jenny.” He felt a hard knot coiling in his belly.
“Dammit, woman.” Turning on his heel, he made a dash for the storage unit. Reese was so flustered his hands shook as he sorted through the syrup. Actually, he merely touched and turned the bottles so he could read the labels. He hoped he wouldn’t drop one of them.
Reese tensed when he heard Jenny entering the storage behind him. He tried to calm his racing heart.