Excerpt: Ink & Flowers

“Yo.” The man sauntered up to the counter and set down his bouquet—daffodils with carnations. Luke stared at them for a moment and then snapped out of it to scan the bar code and remove the plastic wrapping.

“Paper or plastic?” he asked automatically, even though he knew the answer.

“Plastic.” The man shoved his hands into his pockets and glanced around the shop as Luke got to work on the wrapping. The yellow-patterned plastic he had chosen was being difficult, crumpling and folding in the wrong direction. “Hey, you okay, man? Your hands are shaking.”

The question only caused Luke to shake more, of course. “I’m fine,” he murmured, and it came out sharper than he anticipated. “I’m just hungry,” he added to soften it a bit.

The man shrugged. “Okay, whatever you say, man.”

Luke finished up with the ribbon and shoved the bouquet at him. “Ten twelve.”

The man paid with cash and Luke realized, relieved, that he was the last customer in line. Time to talk to Beth. All his arguments had vanished from his mind, and he vainly attempted to recall them as he ducked into the workroom where Beth was preparing shoots of baby’s-breath.

“N-need to talk to you …” he murmured, and Beth looked up sharply.

“Sorry? What was that?”

“I—” Luke’s throat clenched. “I need to talk to you about something.”

Beth stared at him for a moment and then snapped her attention back to the baby’s-breath. “Well, talk.”

“I need more hours,” Luke spat out. “I—I mean, if there was possibly any way you could … I thought maybe Madison might be able to work day shifts, o-or …”

“Madison needs to work weeknights so she can take care of the baby during the day, Luke, you know that.” Well, she didn’t seem angry, at least. But it didn’t exactly seem like this was much of a discussion, either.

“Well, yes, I know, but I—it’s just that I don’t have enough for rent and …”

Beth finished up with the flowers and stood up straight, pulling the gloves from her hands. “So get a second job. I told you I’d be willing to schedule your shifts around something else.”

“I’ve been looking, there’s nothing.”

“Really? The McDonald’s across the street has had that ‘Now Hiring’ sign up for years. Ever since you left, I think.”

“I don’t—”

“Yes, I know, you don’t want to work at McDonald’s again.” Beth sighed. “You’re an adult, Luke. Sometimes we have to do things we don’t like. Now, I know your aunts would be very happy to have you live with them free of charge while you go to school.”

Luke flinched at the mention of his aunts, and Beth spared him a pitying eye-roll. “But if you insist on living on your own,” she continued, “you have to support yourself. And I’m sorry, but I don’t have any more hours to give you. Understand?”

Luke nodded, although it was more like his head was shaking in an up and down motion. He felt very close to being sick.

“Oh, don’t give me that look.” It seemed Beth’s patience had run out. “Go and watch the front, I’ve got to bring in the delivery.”

“I can do it.”

“No, go watch the front.”

Luke nodded and forced the rise of depression back down into his throat. Beth was right, of course. He was an adult, and he had two choices. He could live with his aunts, or he could take back his McDonald’s job. He couldn’t decide which particular thought was making him physically sick, or if it was the combination of the two.

The tattooed guy was still in the shop when he returned to the front. Luke wondered what he wanted; hoping that he had simply made a mistake with the order and the man wasn’t going to proposition him again.

He acknowledged Luke as he entered and sauntered up to the counter, obviously in no rush. “You know,” he said when he finally reached Luke, leaning a beefy arm against the counter, “I never got your name.”

“Um, it’s Luke.”

“Luke,” repeated the man. “Cooper,” he thrust a hand out, and Luke took it automatically. His grip was firm, his hands large and calloused, and Luke felt for a moment like his hand was no longer his own. Then his grip receded, and Luke hurriedly dropped his hand to his side. “So, Luke. Money troubles?”

Luke felt his eyes go wide before he turned away to fumble with something—anything—next to the desk. “You heard,” he muttered, picking up a damp cloth and furiously wiping at the clean counter.

“Yeah, couldn’t help but overhear. Listen, I might have a place for you to stay.” Cooper’s tone was casual, almost flippant, but his eyes, when Luke dared to glance up at them, were serious.

“W-what you mean, like an apartment? I don’t have any money, that’s the problem.”

“Well, you wouldn’t have to pay rent. And it wouldn’t be an apartment. It’d be mine.”

“What, live with you?” Luke cringed at how disgusted his voice sounded, but really, what did Cooper expect?

Cooper seemed more amused than offended. “Yeah, with me.” He said. “But it wouldn’t be for free. There’d be, you know, terms.”

Terms. Luke’s heart was beating furiously. Too much stress in one night, and he hadn’t even been at work for an hour yet. What terms? The way Cooper had said it made it sound ominous, dangerous. He couldn’t even imagine what kind of terms he had. Didn’t want to imagine. His hands were shaking again.

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