The things a girl puts up with, and not just for money to pay for essentials like rent and food. While that was a big motivator for my continued employment at the Lovegood Café, it wasn’t the only reason I stuck around. Biding my time. Waiting until I fulfilled my role in this charade, and then I’d be free from this romance hellhole.
I leaned forward, cleaning the sticky mess and clearing last night’s dirty dishes and flatware from the bar, the length of the counter was marred with now-dried condensation and food-crusted plates. I jabbed my ribs on the edge of the counter for my troubles. Seriously, what were these other employees even being paid to do besides show off their ample cleavage and wiggle their asses into better tips?
I didn’t really need an answer.
But Liiiiivvvv, what if I chip my nails? I, like, just got them done this morning. Be a bestie and get that big ole heavy tray for me, love? I glared at phantom pouty lips and purple eye shadow streaked across faux sad eyes as their interchangeable whines repeated in my head. Thankfully they weren’t here or their heads might’ve exploded from the sheer force of my anger. It would be messy but worth it. And I’d cleaned up worse over the years.
Just a few more months. Maybe less, I told myself. You can hold on a bit longer.
Evangeline sent me a sympathetic smile and shrug from the other side of the restaurant. Damn, that woman was unnerving. Never mind that she was an empath—and I reminded myself to shield my thoughts better—but a shapeshifter as well. Her mood since snagging a girlfriend a month or so ago had been a lot better, so that was something.
Chef poked his head into the bar area and snorted when he saw my efforts. “Just stop doing their work,” he said. “Let ‘em get fired on their own.”
I glared him back into the kitchen. Like it was that easy. I would absolutely get blamed if we opened and the bar wasn’t cleaned up from the night before. I might not like doing it. I might dream about the most epic of rage quits multiple times a night. But I was here for a reason, and getting this job hadn’t been easy back when this place was nothing more than a sidewalk café with a reputation for serving the supernatural. Thanks to the legendary romance risotto and the popularity of the café these days, it would be next to impossible to infiltrate.
Just a few more months and I’d have the answers, the justice, I needed.
It had been almost nine months since he’d broken my heart, and given how tough it was, that was a feat in and of itself. A couple of work friends were always chatting up the awesome dates they scored using the SoulLessMates app, so without telling anyone, I signed up and waited. And hoped. Or maybe I didn’t really hope, at least not much. It wasn’t easy finding someone like me, someone who would actually like me for me.
Every call with my parents ended in, “Aggie, please come to your senses. It’s time to leave the city, to move home already.” Their reasoning? That there’d be more choices for good mates in a mountainous town. But the city was my home. Yes, I loved the rough, rocky area surrounding my hometown. I returned to my parent’s cabin for several weeks throughout the year to recharge and let my brain and soul rest from the concrete, bright lights, and constant noise.
But I wouldn’t trade my life here for anything, not even love.
Love found in the city was another story entirely.
Much to my surprise, not only had I matched with someone on SoulLessMates within the first week, but a someone I could take home and not get disowned.
Someone like me: Tough heart. Thick skin. Petrified of sunlight.
After several weeks of texting that became quick calls that became longer calls often lasting until almost to sunset, I agreed to meet Sandy in person. It was hard to say no to someone who genuinely laughed at your bad jokes and had just as many to offer. He said I was punderful.
I carefully peered around one edge of the blackout curtains in my room. It was almost dark. Safe to leave. While the sun wouldn’t kill me, it certainly didn’t agree with my skin. Thankfully the Lovegood Café had reservations into the wee hours. The witching hours some might call them. I knew a few witches. They were usually asleep by ten.
The entire walk, I fussed with the gemstone bracelet around my thick wrists and the collar of my moss-and-feather-dress. I hadn’t bought new clothes in a long time and both the hem and neckline felt good but unfamiliar. Just like this date.
My heart thud-thudded, almost as quick as a snail on a hot sidewalk.
Sandy’s SoulLessMates profile picture was ironic, nothing more than an image of a dune at the beach. But I’d know him when I saw him. My heart would know.
I waffled between waiting outside or inside, not making my decision until I got to the café. There were a number of people waiting outside and they looked down on me, literally. But the slight sneers that twisted many of their lips made my decision. No need to put myself through another second of silent judgement. Silent often became passive aggressive snide comments, just loud enough for me to hear.
My heart may be close to stone, but it could still be cracked by hurt feelings .
The hostess—tall and gorgeous by anyone’s standards—greeted me with a genuine smile. “Hi, I’m Evangeline. Welcome to Lovegood’s. Do you have a reservation? Our wait list is kinda long tonight.”
“11:30, for Sandy Arkose,” I said, grateful he’d made a reservation. I hadn’t realized how popular this place was, to have a long wait at this time of night.
“There it is. Party of two. You must be Agatha Malachite. He included your name in the reservation as well. You’re the first here but your table is ready,” Evangeline said. “You’re welcome to wait for your friend here or have a seat.”
“I’ll sit, thanks,” I said. The restaurant was dim, lit only by a few overhead chandeliers and candles on each table, much to my eyes’ relief. So much of the outside world was overly bright, even at night.
A short table and chairs had been made available for us on a raised dais, so we wouldn’t inconvenience our server. I climbed up the wide steps that had been provided, pleased that this restaurant had clearly served trolls in the past.
Evangeline set the menus on the table and handed me a cocktail list once I was settled, not once making me feel rushed or that I was keeping her from anything. “The rock hound is especially good tonight, thanks to our awesome bar tender,” she said and winked. “Your server will be by in a minute, but wave me down if you need anything.”
I relaxed, feeling welcome. It didn’t always happen. And she was right, the rock hound sounded delicious. I ordered one when the server came over but decided to wait before ordering an appetizer. While I waited, I fidgeted with my bracelet and a slightly frayed thread on one of the menus, resisting the urge to open it and make my food choices before Sandy got here. I didn’t want to make him feel awkward while he perused the options.
Right at eleven, the shuffle of heavy feet quickened my heart and it took all my willpower not to turn around. I didn’t want to seem overly eager.
“Aggie?” a voice asked.
I turned, forcing a neutral expression across my rough features.
He was like me.
But he wasn’t.
Instead of lumpy, thick gray skin and a wide, bumpily nose, he was smooth and greenish, like glazed ceramics. Where my round eyes were huge and pale yellow, his were similarly wide, but deep green. No scraggly black hair stuck out from his head in random clumps; only silky moss-like curls wound along his scalp to his shoulders.
I’d seen pictures of his kind in the stories my parents read to me when I was a child. The kind of stories that extolled the dangers of walking alone in the woods. Dangers caused by the Woodland trollfolk.
Trolls like Sandy.
The Woodland trollfolk treated those of us from the mountains like we weren’t worthy of existence. Treated us with scorn, something that stung enough when it was a faerie or vampire, but to come from our own kind was a special kind of pain.
Instead of horror, though, he greeted me with a toothy smile. A smile of bright pebble-like teeth, straight and nearly human. “Aggie! It is so nice to finally meet you!”
He ignored my obvious shock and took the seat across from me, the smile widening as he settled in and picked up the menu. “I hope you don’t mind, but I reserved an order of their risotto for us. Sometimes they run out. And I know how much you like mushrooms. We’re alike that way.”
I held my hands up, comparing my thick digits to his slimmer, more delicate fingers and limbs. “Alike?”
I didn’t mean to say it out loud. But it was out there now, hanging over the table like the smoke from a freshly blown out candle. Sandy put the menu down and folded his fingers together, a move I could never duplicate. “I hoped you wouldn’t mind. Not the risotto, but, you know, about me. I know I’m different. But we’re both trolls who love the city, and that makes us alike. And we love so many of the same movies. And books. And chipmunks. How many hours did we spend talking? You know me—the real me—in a way no one else does. And I… I like the real you.”
Our server brought over a large bowl of something earthy and rich smelling, placing it between us along with two smaller pasta plates. The risotto.
“Did you want another drink? Salads? Or…” she asked, then stopped, and, apparently reading the table, added, “You know what? I’ll give you a few minutes to talk it over. Enjoy.”
Sandy didn’t wait for me to say anything more, reaching over and spooning mushroom risotto first onto my plate, then his. The clink of silver against porcelain was the only sound for a moment. There was comfort in the ritual of serving food. And it smelled wonderful. Intoxicating, even. I breathed in the heady aroma of fungi and rice and cheese.
And a little something extra that I couldn’t quite place.
My stomach rumbled, in spite of the confusion and anger and hurt and I didn’t even know what lurching around my body. Most people assumed since trolls moved, talked, and did pretty much everything slowly, that we were stupid too. Woodland trolls—with their more petite build, more humanish features—got by in this world with more ease than us Mountain trollfolk. We were plodding and clunky, the bottom feeders of the global fish tank such as it was.
And this troll from the woodlands… liked me?
They usually scorned us, threw us under the rolling boulder the first chance they got.
“Aggie?” His voice was gruff, but with a wind-like undertone that calmed the anger pulsing through my veins.
I forced a smile and nibbled a bite of the risotto. It melted in my mouth and the smile became genuine. “It’s good,” I said, the words coming out harsher than I intended. But Sandy didn’t flinch. Instead it seemed to encourage him.
“You know, many rings ago, our people got along. It was only when our resources dwindled that we came into the mountains. For help. Or so the story goes. It’s been so long, and we both know how the truth gets lost among a people.” Sandy paused, pushing a few grains of rice about his plate. “Us against Them. But who’s us and who’s them, really? We’re all trolls deep in our stone-like hearts.”
He smiled again, not quite meeting my eyes.
“But why did you lie to me?” I asked finally, unable and unwilling to hold that inside any longer.
“You wouldn’t be here right now,” he said. “And I know I should have been upfront about who I really am, especially since you were from the very beginning. And I didn’t lie. I just didn’t tell you I wasn’t from the same region.”
“A lie of omission is still a lie, and it really isn’t a great start to anything,” I said, biting my tongue so I didn’t add, but it’s just like a woodland troll. Instead I took another bite, a big one this time, of the risotto. It really was the best thing I’d ever eaten—not that I’d tell my mama. The warm food in my belly sanded away at my anger, grinding it to grit. Irritating, yes, but not an impermeable stone wall.
“Can we rewind and start over from the beginning?” he asked.
“No,” I said. “We can’t. What’s done is done and I won’t pretend it didn’t happen. That’s not fair to either of us, to rewrite history.”
Sandy shrugged, his head drooping. “I understand. I’m sorry. Do you want me to leave?”
The power was mine. His fate. Well, his fate with me. I could crush it to powder. Or build stone upon stone, not as a wall, but as something lovely, a sculpture. Something new. “We can’t start over like none of this happened,” I said. “But we can move past it. Slowly.”
“Like we have any choice about going slow,” he joked.
I laughed. I didn’t mean to, but I did. He was right. We didn’t have a choice. Moving forward was going to happen. But we did get to choose how we moved forward.
“So, tell me about your family,” I said and smiled at the server as she walked by, waving her over so we could order drinks and more food.
As Sandy told me of his many brothers, sisters, and cousins, weaving tales of chaos and adventures and strict parents, I realized he was right about one thing: we were all trolls in our strong hearts.
And maybe, just maybe, my heart would find an unexpected home.
Or at the very least a new friend.
The troll couple was the last to leave. Not unexpected. Though there weren’t many trolls in the area, they were usually the last to leave. I didn’t mind. They were quiet and tidy, unlike the weres and vamps who thrived on drama and bloodshed.
And it seemed the romance risotto had claimed another burgeoning couple.
What was in it? Chef only smiled and shook his head when asked, not that I’d ever bothered. I was a no one, and not even his kitchen staff knew the secrets to his recipes, not in full. They each only knew their parts.
But we needed to know all of it.
I needed to know.
And time was running out.
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