First Choice or Second Best

Chapter 1: Consoling Café with a Corgi Man

Coffee, the most tasteful brew in all of creation with all of its fantastic and ever-changing flavors, could not warm her heart tonight, nor could it wash the utterly bitter aftertaste of humiliation and betrayal that had conquered her tastebuds. She curled her lips in disgust, sure that the taste would last for years to come. Even the blow to her pride and shards of her trust in others would need a miracle to recover –and maybe a bottle of booze or two. Her topaz eyes glared at the rapidly cooling mug in hand with a look that could stab an army.

“Miss? Are you alright?” The waiter must have come over in fear she was contemplating on crushing the mug with her bare hands.

“Yes.” Her left eye twitched when he didn’t leave. Relaxing her grip and taking a deep breath, she twisted her lips into a smile. “Is there something you need?” Her tone was as sweet as cotton candy sold in gas stations; disgustingly sweet with a hint of premature death.

The man pulled the collar of his uniform and stuttered, “I -ah, I thought that –um, you needed a shoulder to cry-” Her left eye twitched again. “-lean on! Yea, just if –uh, need a friend to talk to?”

Hm, she didn’t think this café had bar consoling perks. But what did she have to lose anyway? Her honor was already blemished. He, on the other hand, was rubbing the back of his neck and had averted his gaze to the clock near the register.

“Why are you curious about my dilemma?” She let go of the mug and crossed her arms.

He winced before replying, “Well, when a pretty lady comes into your café with heartbreak written across her face and then proceeds to strangle her cup of coffee with murder screaming in her eyes, you get worried for the innocent mug, you know?” She raised an eyebrow. “Er, w-was that too forward? I’m sorry,” he mumbled, his face a darker scarlet than before.

“No, it’s just that you didn’t stutter that time,” she said. “Anyway, I broke up with my former lover. Things were falling apart and he did something I’d kill him for.”

He blinked. A few seconds later, he mouth opened. “I thought your dog died and you were cursing God,” he sighed.

She stared at him, face shaped by disbelief. Then she shook her head. “I don’t even believe in God,” she muttered, brushing back her brown hair.

“What’s your name?” He asked. She paused and tilted her head. “O-Oh, um, we haven’t introduced ourselves rights? My name it’s ah, Michael.” His laughter was awkward enough for her to consider it cute.

“Well, my name is Leanne.”

He leaned forward, hazel eyes twinkling. “You know, I didn’t think you’d tell me your name.”

“Why is that?”

“You are –were- like a wounded cat drenched in water. When I waited to talk to you, you were practically ready to rip my face off if I said something to fuel your temper. Plus that smile scared me senseless.” He took care to whisper that last part to himself.

“I was angry and I wasn’t really to talk just yet.” She flourished her hand with a roll of her eyes. “Life was testing me today.”

“I noticed.” He drawled. He shifted in his seat and placed both arms on the table, hands cupping his face.

Leanne huffed, “You ruined the shy coffee boy image you had going on.” Her lips had, however, quirked into a near smile.

“I am not a coffee boy, I am a delicate flower who loves dogs.” His voice cracked as the blush now turned deep red that put tomatoes to shame.

She continued to stare at his blush, making note of the way it stained his ears and crept down his neck –at least, the part of his neck that wasn’t blocked by his arms and collar. It was kind of cute, puppy dog cute. Then again, he was a human puppy, eager to play and interact with others, but also determined to cheer up others. He was a warm ball of fluff and kindness.

Snap.

She jolted back to reality and faced a tanned hand snapping in her face. “Earth to Leanne! Time to downgrade and come back down,” Michael called. His tomato face was fading.

“Sorry, I was having an internal monologue. Did you need something?” She asked as a saccharine smile plastered itself on her face.

He pouted, pulling away his hand and turned his head away from her. “Forget angry kitty, you’re prickly. Like cactus prickly.”

Throwing back her head, she laughed, the bitterness in her mouth fading. Michael reached across the table and grasped her shoulders as her laughter shook her body. “Woah there, don’t fall off your chair while laughing at me,” he warned. Leanne relaxed and the laughter slowed to a stop. “Feel better, Leanne?” His lips curled into a grin and he let go of her shoulders.

“Much better, Michael, thank you.” This time, her smile was genuine, full of brightness and glee. He returned the smile and leaned back in his chair. They sat there smiling for a few more moments when another customer came in.

“Excuse me for a second. I’ll get you more coffee too. A little bit of cream and two sugar cubes, right?” He stood up and collected her cold mug.

“Yea, thanks.” She nodded and took out her phone as he left their table. Their table. Leanne tested the words on her tongue. It has a nice ring to it, she thought. Her eyes softened as she remembered how he tried to cheer her up.

Then a text message popped up and her smile morphed into a scowl. “Can’t he take a hint,” she hissed. However, she read it anyway, even as her conscious screeched at her not to, and her scowl lessened in lethality. She had forgotten how persistent Fredrik could be.

She glanced at Michael’s back as he took the other customer’s order and scribbled it on his notepad, his cheerful smile radiating warmth. Fredrik rarely smiled. The man was as cold as the winters in his home country, Denmark. His blonde hair was pale, almost white, and his eyes were gunmetal blue, sharp and cold.

Michael turned towards her and winked before resuming his previous actions. A timid blush broke out on her cheeks and she looked away with a small indignant huff. The soft yellow wallpaper stared back at her.

Her body relaxed as she continued to look at the wallpaper, following the pastel green vines dotted with budding roses. It reminded her of her mother’s house, a full-sized replica of a dollhouse, complete with antique furniture and decorations. If she closed her eyes, she could smell the coffee brewing as her mother sat in the living room, taking her time to sew clothing. Nostalgia wormed its way into her heart and the face of her mother lingered in her head.

A mug of coffee clinked as Michael placed it before her, startling her from her memories. He took the seat in front of her once more. “Hey again,” he greeted, resting his arms in front of his body on the table.

She nodded back. “Hey,” she whispered. Her hands reached for the mug, wrapping around it. The heat of the beverage seeped into the cold chill in her hands.

“You aren’t going to strangle this one, are you?” Michael asked, eyes flickering to the mug and then back to her face.

Shaking her head, she chuckled. “No, I won’t.” The coffee swirled as she lifted it and took a sip. Michael had gotten her order right.

“That’s good.” He cleared his throat and studied her. Unlike before, there was no tension in her body, her eyes were clear and the aura around her was lighter. Her forehead weren’t creased with worry lines and her mouth was no longer snarling. “Um, if you don’t mind me asking, what did your ex do that upset you so much?”

Leanne set down the mug and stared at him. “Curiosity killed the cat you know.”

“But satisfaction brought it back.” He replied. “Listen, if you talk about it, maybe you’ll feel better. Plus, you can plot revenge that most likely will end in murder and I won’t tell the police.”

“Tempting,” she said, mulling over his words. “Well alright, his name is Fredrik. And he’s from Denmark.”

“Wait, Denmark? We’re in America, how did this happen?” Michael asked, with his eyebrows furrowed.

She shrugged off his questions. “It’s easy. I went over there to study Astronomy and I met him. I stayed over there afterwards until Fredrik made a mistake and I came home filled with anger and hurt.”

“How long ago was this?” He wanted to ask how old she was too, but felt as though she’d hit him for asking.

“A few weeks ago.” She muttered, averting her eyes.

“You certainly hold a grudge.”

“What can I say?” She crossed her arms, hugging herself as she sighed. “He cheated on me and demanded I stay with him even after I caught him. He told me he didn’t see anything wrong with it.”

He cringed. “Oh, um, that’s harsh.”

“Read this.” She threw her phone towards him.

“Sure?” He fumbled as he caught her phone and held it before him.

From: Unknown Number

Sent 10:17 p.m

You know it is impossible for you to get away from me. I won’t give up on you. However, I know you are upset, Leanne, and I will give you your space, but you need to get over your little tantrum. You are mine and you always will be. You will see that soon enough.

“That’s creepy,” Michael muttered, shuddering as he handed Leanne back her phone.

“I’m lucky I left before his goons caught me. They were searching all night. But he probably knows I’m in America anyway.” She sighed, placing her phone next to the mug.

“Are you going to be alright? I-I mean, he sounds like one of those super nice boyfriends that turn into stalker exes with murderous capabilities.” He grasped her hand in a tight grip. “Listen, you need the cops or something. I don’t want to wake up only to see your face on the news because you’re missing or something.”

She offered a faint smile at his concern. “It’s better if you don’t associate with a mobster’s ex-girlfriend you know.”

“What?” His face was a combination of a blank stare and a fish mouth, the one fishes make when they open and close their mouths repeatedly.

“Fredrik is a mobster. He’s the leader of his own gang. He also likes to laze around the house eating Danishes while his lackeys look for me in every inch of Denmark. Very caring, I know.” She laughed without mirth, unshed tears gleaming in her eyes. “I screwed up so bad. I should never have gone out with him.”

“Why did you ever go out with him?” Michael asked, his free hand reaching into his apron pocket for napkins.

“I don’t even know. All I knew was that he was in some shady business and I never asked for specifics, you know? Plus, I was convinced that he loved me. He would take me out to these dates were we’d have fun. Fredrik once rented an entire seaside restaurant just for me. I thought he was so romantic. Oh god, I’m going to die.” She pulled her hand from Michael’s grip and hugged herself. “I was so stupid. I thought with my heart and not my brain and now I’m going to die because of what I thought was love.”

“H-Hey, calm down. I don’t think you’re going to die.” He stood from his chair and moved to Leanne’s side.

“No, Michael. I first met him when he was in a shootout with a rival gang. Oh man, I should’ve paid more attention back then. But I was so scared and he promised he’d protect me. I can’t believe I thought he was my white knight in a business suit.” She chewed her lip and curled further into herself.

“Oh no, Leanne. Um, it’s not your fault? I mean yes, it is totally not your fault and I am but a small potato rolling towards the stew of life and I don’t think I can save you from bad memories or stalker exes with mob connections that could take me out with a snappity snap or something and -please don’t cry that is my weakness and like, it’s not even a cute weakness -I mean I’m not saying you’re not cute it’s just that I can’t handle crying women cause then I start crying and Jesus Christ, why aren’t I shutting up? Oh man, okay, um, police. Police, we need the police.” Michael babbled, his words rushing out of his mouth in a stream of stutters and half-baked attempts of consolation.

From the other side of the café, the other customer glanced at them, muttering about the youth these days. He shook his head and returned to his jelly filled donut and coffee.

▨F▨I▨R▨S▨T▨C▨H▨O▨I▨C▨E▨O▨R▨S▨E▨C▨O▨N▨D▨B▨E▨S▨T▨

The biting frost of Denmark’s winter permeated the meeting room, but it could not compare to the icy aura surrounding Fredrik as he set his gunmetal blue eyes on the faces of his many underlings. He rested his chin upon his fist, and crossed his legs as he sat at the head of the mahogany table. “You are telling me that you allowed her to escape to America?” He snarled, baring his white teeth at them. “I consider myself far more merciful than my father. I will not kill a man for incompetence. However, you trample my kindness as though it were nothing more than dirt.”

The men stayed silent with their heads bowed down. Fredrik threw his hands up in the air. “And nothing? All you know is that Leanne left for America but you don’t know where? Leave. You are all dismissed until you find her whereabouts.” The men filed out, not daring a glance back at their boss.

Groaning as he leaned back in his chair, he looked up at the ceiling. He ran a hand through his blonde locks. “Where could she be,” he murmured. He shut his eyes as he thought of her, his Leanne. His muscles relaxed as a memory bubbled up from the dark recess of his mind. A small smile crept upon his face. Such a lovely smile she had. It was one of his favorite things about her.

His phone rang, blaring out like a trumpet playing at an ungodly hour in the morning, and shattered the brief moment of peace he had. “Hello,” he answered. Snickers erupted on the other side, too loud for Fredrik to keep the phone next to his ear. He grunted as he glared at the screen. “Egil, hush, you don’t need to be cackling that loudly like a blasted witch.”

“Of course I need to cackle, brother. You screwed up and you know it.” Egil crowed, glee running rampant in his smooth voice. “Leanne certainly won’t come back to you.”

“She will come back. She is not capable of loving any other.” He retorted, a vein popping on his forehead.

“Are you sure about that, Freddy? I have no qualms about wooing her to prove you wrong. I mean, she is quite attractive and we’re only half siblings. She won’t have to see you, the man who didn’t have any problem betraying her.”

God, how he wanted to strangle Egil. He grit his teeth as his younger brother continuing laughing at him. “Stay away from her. She is mine.” He growled and his grip on the phone tightened.

“She was a good woman and you let her go, unintentional or not. She will not come back to a man who does not love her.” Egil quieted as he continued to speak. “You could have had it all, Fredrik. A marriage with love when men in our line of work usually marry for family connections and alliances. I like Leanne and she does not deserve what you did to her.”

“I know, Egil. I do not regret sleeping with that woman, but I do regret letting Leanne knowing of it-”

Egil’s laughter boomed and bounced against the walls of the room. “I can’t believe you. It would have been better if you hadn’t slept with that nameless woman anyway. Leanne would have found out sooner or later even if you have managed to hide it from her that night. Do you think she’s an idiot?”

Fredrik’s voice was dripping venom as he responded, “No, and I expect her to use her brain to realize that that woman meant nothing to me and return to my side. I understand she is angry, but she knows her place. Unlike a certain someone I am currently speaking to.”

“Very funny, Freddy. Are you even planning to apologize to her? It seems that you simply expect her to calm down after a few months and run into your arms, filled with love and trust like before.” Egil tsked, “A shame I have to ruin your blind fantasies of love, brother dearest, however she most likely is seeking comfort in another and you are as delusional as the teenage heroines in young adult novels who are in the middle of a make believe love triangle.”

“Then what do you expect of me? Buy her flowers? Invite her to dinner? Threaten to kill her family if she does not come back?” He asked, blotches of red painted on his face.

“What was that saying Astrid always mutters? Ah, yes. “If you love them, let them go. If they come back, then that love was meant to be.” Wise isn’t it, Freddy? Though, a bit odd when our baby sister uses it whenever her dogs run off on her daily walks. They do come back when she starts to cry, however.” The heated discussion evaporated as Egil rambled on about Astrid and Fredrik tuned him out.

He could wait for Leanne. It would be a show of his patience. Yes, he could do that, but how long until her anger cooled? Maybe he should prepare a gift for her, like Egil said. But what kind of gift? She was never one for flowers and clothing rarely did a thing to make her smile. It usually made her uncomfortable when still attached to the price tag.

A slow smirk slithered onto his lips. Surely, she would enjoy seeing the mistake being erased from existence. Then she will happily be back in his arms and they could continue as though it never happened in the first place. Yes, that would make her forgive him. Ending the now one-sided call with Egil, he punched in a new number. He needed to make his gift perfect.

▨F▨I▨R▨S▨T▨C▨H▨O▨I▨C▨E▨O▨R▨S▨E▨C▨O▨N▨D▨B▨E▨S▨T▨

Michael stared at Leanne, who had grasped his hand when he had reached for the phone. Her face was now contorted in fear as she pleaded with her eyes for him to not call the police. He could understand why she would fear such a thing. If the police were alerted, her location would be known and she’d have to run again. He bit his lip, eyes shifting from the phone in hand to her. Surely this Fredrik did not have the American cops in his ring. America was too far away since Leanne had run here.

“I don’t want to go back to him, Michael. Don’t call the cops or he’ll know.” She begged, tugging his hand away from the cellular device. Her body shook when he did not move or acknowledge her attempts. “Michael, please, you don’t know what he can do.”

Michael hesitated for a moment and then withdrew his hand. “Fine, but you need to keep yourself safe. Take some defense classes and buy some mace spray.” He turned his body to look at her fully. “Or maybe run for another country and plead for asylum. Canada sounds nice. They have lots of maple syrup for all your pancake needs.” He schooled his features into a smile.

Leanne relaxed, letting go of his hand. She glanced around the cafe. The other customer had gone, his table held nothing more than a tip for Michael. “Thank God that guy wasn’t a spy,” she breathed, relief flooding her veins.

“Leanne, did you hear me? And why would he be a spy?” Michael asked, his brows drawn together as he tried to imagine that man making a shady –and expensive- call to Denmark. “You need something to make you chill. Something like pictures of puppies.”

“My life is in danger and you want to show me pictures of puppies?” Leanne mused, “You sure have your priorities straight.”

“That’s the only straight thing about me,” he snickered.

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