Temptation was a twat.
A scheming twat who hid around every corner, ready to strike.
This morning in August, temptation appeared to Shelle Mason, struggling waitress-slash-college student, as a sparkly gold, designer wallet. The kind women carry when they have the money to pay extra for a certain brand. The kind that was also guaranteed to be packed with credit cards and probably cash.
The wallet’s owner was a flashy brunette in designer clothing. She’d sashayed into the Cross-Roads Travel Center Cafe that morning, ready to make someone’s life miserable. Since Shelle had the worst luck in western Washington state, or at least in the greater Seattle-Tacoma area, the bitch sat in Shelle’s section.
The brunette, dressed in skin-tight white jeans, a very low-cut gold lame top that didn’t do much to cover her full breasts, a white leather jacket, and gold, wedge-heeled booties, looked completely out of place in a cafe that catered mainly to truckers. So just by walking in and sitting, she had most eyes on her.
Next, to the covert amusement of Shelle’s fellow waitresses and the middle-aged couple in the next booth, the woman proceeded to ignore the cafe’s breakfast menu. Instead of ordering, say, a No.7 with pancakes, eggs and bacon, like a normal customer, she ordered as if the cafe kitchen was staffed by a personal chef who had unlimited materials and time to serve her.
She wanted her eggs coddled—not poached, and not soft-boiled. She wanted her toast hot, but not buttered. And she wanted, not the cafe’s regular coffee, but a latte prepared with skim milk and espresso. She also wanted a bowl of fresh cut fruit on the side.
Shelle managed to keep a pleasant expression on her face while she took this ridiculous order. She had to bite her tongue to keep from asking the woman what she was doing here instead of at the Starbucks across the Travel Center’s huge parking lot, where the woman could have any fancy-ass coffee drink she wanted. Although probably not coddled eggs. Shelle was pretty sure the only eggs Starbucks served were in little sandwiches. Yummy, but not exactly low-fat.
But for her special breakfast, the woman could also have gone to the Western Shores Inn and Restaurant, up the road, or a myriad of other places nearby in this metro area. Heck, she could’ve stopped in at the Emerald Queen Casino over on I-5 and gambled while she ate her breakfast.
Judging by the size of the white and chocolate diamonds on her hands and at her ears and throat, she probably could fly to Hawaii and eat breakfast there if she so chose.
Of course, Shelle had Hawaii on the brain lately, as her foster mom Vicky—the one who’d shepherded Shelle through most of high school—had recently moved there with her new husband, and extended an invitation to Shelle to come visit, anytime.
Shelle couldn’t afford the plane ticket, not without nearly emptying her little bank account. But this woman looked as if she could do so, in a first-class seat. Instead, she was in a somewhat rough truck stop cafe in the industrial edge of the Seattle metro area.
Whatever. It was Shelle’s job to serve people food and drinks, not figure out what the heck made them tick.
Of course, the fun didn’t end there.
The brunette complained about her latte, turned up her nose at the eggs—which Shelle was pretty sure were not coddled, whatever that was, because when Shelle had placed the order, Emilio the cook had snorted and shaken his shaved head. Saying without words the woman was gonna get eggs cooked the way he chose to cook them.
The woman ate part of her breakfast, paid her tab, minus a tip, and strutted back out, with her huge-ass purse…but leaving the designer wallet behind on the seat of her booth.
Thereby presenting Shelle with Temptation with a capital T.
T for twattish temptation.
Not to mention a big fat W for Why? Why her, and why now, when she’d been doing so well?
Sweat broke out on the back of Shelle’s neck under her cafe uniform, and nausea tumbled in her middle as she gazed down at the elegant wallet in her hand. Damn it, she hadn’t relapsed for nearly three years, a record for her.
And now this.
Did God hate her, along with her ex-boyfriend who’d cheated and then blamed Shelle for neglecting him while she studied instead of spending her time naked with him? Also, her stripper neighbor in the next apartment who liked to play loud boy band music at three in the morning and pitched a hissy fit when Shelle pounded on her door? And who had conveniently been there when Shelle was not, and Shelle’s ex was in the mood for some action.
Honestly, Shelle didn’t mind losing Eric as much as she minded that she had to continue to live next door to the slut who’d boinked him while he and Shelle were an item. Shelle had dumped everything he’d left in her apartment over the railing—except his favorite Seattle Seahawks fleece, which she kept—for him or whoever else happened along to pick up. Then she’d blocked him from her phone and moved on.
“Whatcha got there, Shell?” A fellow waitress paused at Shelle’s side with an armload of pancake-and-egg laden plates. Her eyes widened when she saw the wallet. “Ooh, nice. That snooty beeyotch left a tip after all, huh?”
Shelle gave her a look of irritation. “I can’t keep it, Ronelle!”
“Well then leave it on my shelf, ’cause I will.” With a toss of her ponytail, the plump redhead hurried away.
Shelle stared at the shiny wallet, a graceful fringed fob trailing over her palm. It was so pretty. Exactly the kind of thing that always caught her eye. Yeah, and then got her in deep doo-doo. No, she couldn’t keep it, even if it had been practically dropped in her lap.
“You gonna stand there all mornin’, blondie, or let us siddown?” a gruff voice demanded.
The words were followed by a pat on Shelle’s ass that made her jump. Shoving the wallet in the pocket of her apron, she turned on the customer, a pot-bellied trucker with graying hair and a vest that announced he was Earl, of Belt Bros Trucking. Apropos, since Shelle wanted to belt him one with the empty plate she held. The small fruit dish slid across the plate and a lonely cube of cantaloupe slopped out, landing on the black tee straining over Earl’s pot belly.
He and Shelle stared at the piece of fruit, and the wet spot soaking into his shirt.
“Oops,” she said. “Better keep your hands to yourself, unless you want a serving of something hot with that.”
The two other men behind him, clad in matching vests, laughed. Earl merely brushed the piece of fruit back onto the plate with one grimy hand and smirked at her. “Pretty gal in a little dress like that, you oughtta be used to it. Be sweet now, an’ I’ll leave a big tip.”
Yeah, sure. And next, that red-headed English prince was gonna set eyes on Shelle and throw aside his gorgeous Hollywood actress for her.
Shelle rolled her eyes. “You want sweet, order the giant cinnamon roll. I serve the food and coffee, that’s it.”
Earl held up his hands in mock surrender. “Okay, okay. How bout you start us with some o’ that coffee and some menus?”
“Here, I’ll take that plate, Shelle,” said a younger voice at Shelle’s shoulder. One of the busboys stood there, tray at the ready. Tre, a compact Hispanic youth with glossy black hair, dark eyes and a flashing smile. He winked as Shelle dumped the dirty dishes in his tub.
Shelle hurried away to get Earl and his friends their coffee, knowing they were watching her walk away and cursing for the millionth time the uniform she and the other waitresses were required to wear. This was a very short, black, belted button-up dress with a frilly white apron, a combo that was supposed to be nineteen-fifties style. The deep vee in the front exposed cleavage, and the short skirt very nearly did the same to her ass.
The truckers and male travelers who frequented the cafe loved the uniforms. The waitresses did not.
But the tips were good here, and Shelle’s apartment was only a couple of miles away, so she saved a whack on gas. And at least the customers here weren’t mostly drunk, as they had been at her last job as a cocktail waitress.
Tre followed her, pausing by the coffee pots as she filled one. “Hey, now that you’re loaded, we don’t have to wait to go out on that date. How ’bout tonight?”
Shelle whisked the full carafe out from under the spigot. “How about we keep waiting, Romeo? I’m not loaded, and likely never will be, so I can’t afford you.”
He batted his long lashes at her apron pocket. “Oh, yeah you are, chica. C’mon, let’s have some fun with what’s in that wallet.”
Shelle shook her head in disgust. “Like I told Ronelle, I can’t keep it. So get over your big date idea—I already did.”
Then she got back to work. As soon as she had a break, she would deal with the wallet. She sure didn’t have time now, with more customers pouring in the door.
True to his word, Earl left Shelle a nice tip. So did other customers, because she was friendly and good at her job.
And for a while, she even forgot about the temptation in her apron pocket.
Finally, the breakfast rush was over. Shelle and her fellow waitresses were working more slowly on the myriad of small chores that always needed doing—refilling condiments, making more coffee, wiping out the booths and running the Swiffer over the worst spills on the linoleum floors.
Shelle had her head down, screwing the lids back on a table full of salt-and-pepper shakers, when she heard Ronelle giggling with Tawnequa, a tall African-American waitress.
“Oh, Shell-ee,” Ronelle called in a sing-song voice. ” Tawny and me were talking and we think you should change up your wardrobe, start dressing like that brunette. Put on a little style!”
Shelle looked over at the two other waitresses. ” You know I can’t afford to dress like that, and no way am I gonna help myself to what’s in that wallet to do it.”
Tawny winked at her. “Now girl, you don’t have to buy designer to look good. Although if you want to, that’s what consignment stores are for. You can buy practically new things that a rich bitch wore once and turned her nose up at. But me, I shop at Nordstrom Rack, and TJ Maxx. Find me some awesome deals there.”
Shelle shook her head. “I still wouldn’t look anywhere near as good as her.” The brunette had been a bitch, but she had style.
Ronelle rolled her eyes. “Ri-ight, with those freaky eyes and that natural tan you have going on. You’re gorgeous and you know it.”
Shelle’s eyes were unusual, being light hazel in contrast to her skin tone, inherited from her father, a full-blood Native American. She’d also inherited his long legs, although not, unfortunately his leanness. She liked her food, so although she was active, she had curves.
Her hair, who knew who she’d gotten that from, as her mother had been a blonde, was medium brown, with a tendency to be unruly as hell. For work, she bundled it up in a messy bun. Other days, she pretty much let it hang down her back in a mass of waves. Less hassle that way.
“Not to mention those legs,” Tawnequa added, hand on her own round hip as she gave Shelle a flashing smile. “Mm-hmm, I’d do you myself if I was into girls and not happily married to my big man.”
All three of them snickered at this.
“Nope,” Shelle said, screwing a lid on the last salt shaker. She wiped her gritty hands on her apron. “No shopping, not with school to pay for. I’ll just have to deal with being unfashionable, at least for another two years. Speaking of which, I need to ask Harry if I can pick up another shift for the next couple of weeks.”
The college she was attending was on break for a couple of weeks, between the summer and fall terms. She had two papers to write—one of which she was so not looking forward to—but she’d still have plenty of time to work more hours.
“He’d better say yes,” Tawnequa said, “We’re sure busy enough.”
Shelle glanced at the big clock on the wall behind the counter. “But for now, I’m off. Gotta go clock out. You ladies have a great lunch shift.”
Ronelle’s eyes went wide. “Hey, your shift ain’t over. Harry catches you, he’ll dock your pay.”
“No, because I’ll be in his office talking to him,” Shelle said. Her shift ended at eleven am. The big wall clock over the register read five minutes to. “Besides, I was here early this morning—twenty till five. Couldn’t sleep, figured I might as well get a few extra tips.”
Truckers pulled in and out of the Travel Center at all hours, so the cafe was open twenty-four seven, and breakfast service started picking up at the butt-crack of dawn.
“Okey-doke, but don’t be hunched over your laptop all afternoon studying,” Tawny said. “It’s looking like a real nice day out there. And the rains will move in for fall soon enough.”
“Okay, mama.” Shelle gave her a grin, and walked back through the booths, around the corner past the manager’s office—now empty, darn it. That meant she’d have to try and catch Harry the next morning.
She walked on into the tiny area by the kitchens where each employee had a locker. Since drums holding used cooking oils sat below the lockers, Shelle’s jacket and purse always smelled like stale fries, but right now all she cared about was getting her combination padlock open. If she couldn’t talk to Harry, she wanted outside, into the sunshine.
She grabbed her purse and polar fleece—it might be early September in the Pacific Northwest, but it was chilly before dawn—and let herself out the back door.
Her ’83 Tercel was parked there, in all its battered glory. The compact car had once been dark blue, before the wet climate and salty sea air had their way. Now the blue was rusted in spots. The replacement hood was yellow, with more rust. But the car ran, reluctantly at times. And the seats were hidden under cute purple-and-white Hawaiian flowered seat covers, so the interior was better than the exterior.
At least today was sunny, and a temperate seventy-something. She could drive with the windows down, instead of inhaling stale car smell. One of the past owners had been a smoker, and Shelle could not get the smell out, no matter how hard she scrubbed and shampooed the interior.
She slid into the driver’s seat and shoved the key into the ignition. The motor sputtered to life, and with one push of the accelerator, she backed out, shifted and putted toward the west end of the parking lot.
She had to wait for a line of semis waiting to roll out of the parking lot onto the street. As was their habit here, they took the right-away.
A big red-and-yellow Frito-Lay rig was at the end, and the driver waved for her to turn onto the street before he pulled out. She waved back and headed east along the truck-lined street that led up the hill toward her apartment complex.
Which was when she felt the lump in her apron pocket. The wallet. She’d forgotten to turn it in to lost-and-found.
Oh, hells bells. Shelle made a horrible face at the street ahead, then slowed to make the turn to the SeaTac Shore Apartments. Now, instead of showering off the cafe, changing into shorts and sneakers and taking her laptop to a nearby park to make some headway on her paper, she had to deal with the wallet.
Which would probably just mean taking it back to the Travel Center to hand over to the over-all manager’s secretary, but still…she’d hoped to be done with the place for the rest of the day, not headed straight back there.
God, she was sick of waitressing, of coming home smelling like grease and stale pancakes, or in her last job, of cigarettes and stale booze. The ‘no smoking’ rule was laxly enforced in many bars.
Only a couple more years, she reminded herself. She could do it, even if it meant walking into the Travel Center Cafe every damn day.
And she’d return the wallet, too.
Because, the alternative was to keep it, which she was not going to do.
No, nope, nopity, no-to-the-nth power.
She was done with stealing, forever.