Season 2, Episode 3
Still reeling from her encounter with her nightmare ex the night before, Danika sat at her work desk, trying to make sense of some code. She needed to finish it and analyse her father’s data by the end of the week. Yet, no matter how much she pushed them from her mind, thoughts of Malik’s kiss intruded, along with the sting of Brennan’s betrayal. Not to mention Hayden’s thinly veiled threat, ‘See you soon.’
Dad gave her shoulder a comforting squeeze. ‘It’s lunch time, Twinkle Toes.’
Pivoting on her gas-lift chair, she forced a smile up at him. ‘I’ll grab something later. I need to make more headway first.’
He shook his head. ‘I need you with me. The board are in Moonlake, and they want to meet our newest team member.’
With a sigh, she saved her work and logged out. ‘Where are we going?’
‘The new café that opened in Central Shopping Town.’
She followed him out of the office and hopped into the passenger seat of his Astra. ‘Why are they so keen to meet me?’
Manoeuvring out of the carpark took his concentration for a couple of minutes. Reaching the open road, he replied, ‘The board are re-evaluating project funding, and they want to hear your thoughts. No pressure or anything,’ he added with a nervous chuckle.
‘Why me? I’m just an intern.’
‘You’re also one of the brightest minds on our research team,’ he pointed out with a proud grin. ‘With your help, I’m sure we will be making regular submissions to all the big journals.’
‘Right,’ she huffed, feeling like a fraud after struggling with her latest roadblock. I just need to get my head back in the game, she reminded herself.
As Dad pulled up in front of the café on the north side of Main Street, Danika spotted Malik exit the venue. His snug chinos and shirt were a far cry from the greasy overalls he usually wore on a workday.
‘Is that Malik Fadel?’ Dad mused. ‘That man is bad news. Did you hear about the misconduct at Guinness Auto? I wouldn’t be surprised if Fadel was behind it all. Poor William.’ He shook his head in disappointment.
‘We don’t know that he had anything to do with that.’ Turning to watch Malik’s retreating form, she licked her lips at the sight of his shapely backside. Heat flooded her core as she imagined where their night might have gone if Hayden had not shown up. Then she recalled the revelation about Elise and the nape of her neck prickled. There was no way she intended to pursue Malik if there was a grain of truth to Hayden’s words. The casual sex did not bother her, but Danika was not naïve. She had seen the way Elise’s overdose affected Malik. ‘You’re right though, Dad. Malik cannot be trusted.’
Stepping into the café, she took in the aesthetic. Warm vintage globes illuminated rustic timbers, and various ferns draped over the edges of hanging pots. The manager led them to a large table with a Reserved sign at the back of the room where one of the board members sat with their head in a newspaper.
Lowering the broadsheet, Hayden Archer smiled at her and rose to his feet. ‘Hello Danni.’ Grabbing her left hand where it sat limp at her side, he pulled it to his mouth. It all happened so quick that she had not recovered from her shock in time to yank her hand back before his foul lips polluted her flesh with his kiss. ‘It’s such a pleasure to see you again after five lonely years.’
‘Wish I could say the same,’ she muttered as she stumbled back from his reach.
‘Dr. Henderson,’ Hayden greeted her father with a handshake.
‘Please call me Stirling,’ Dad replied. ‘There’s no need for such formalities after all this time.’
‘The others will be here shortly….’ Hayden’s voice faded beneath the thundering of Danika’s heart.
Scratching at the back of her hand, she endeavoured to strip away the remnants of Hayden’s touch.
‘Danni?’ Dad nudged her.
‘Huh?’ She blinked a few times to recalibrate her surroundings.
‘Hayden was asking what you wanted to drink?’
‘Oh, um… lemon, lime, and bitters please.’ When Hayden strode over to the counter to place their drink orders, Danika turned to her father and asked in a whisper, ‘What’s he doing here?’
Dad’s brows climbed up his forehead. ‘He didn’t tell you?’
‘Tell me what?’
‘Hayden is the chair of the board.’
His words dropped like a lead weight in her stomach where they tunnelled deep, twisting her gut into impossible knots, the sort that would take a puzzle sleuth a century to unravel. ‘Since when?’
‘Since we opened a year ago. Sorry, Danni, but I thought he would have informed you.’ Dad sat to the right of Hayden’s spot, leaving her frozen like one of the statues in the courtyard fountain.
‘Have a seat, angel,’ Hayden rumbled in her ear as he pulled a chair out for her.
The moment his hand slid across the small of her back, she jolted into action, diving for the chair to escape his touch. She should have fled the café, but she did not want to make a scene in front of her father.
Returning to his own seat, Hayden grinned at her. ‘You look well, despite the recent stress of your circumstances.’
‘Makeup can do wonders,’ she deadpanned.
‘I was sorry to hear about Elise,’ Hayden offered.
‘I’m sure you were.’ It took every ounce of willpower to keep the venom out of her tone.
A group of six men and women approached the table, introducing themselves as the remaining board members. After a few pleasantries, they commenced their meal.
‘So, Miss Henderson,’ Julie, the woman to her right started. ‘Hayden tells us you achieved first-class honours at UCL.’
How the hell did he know about that? Glancing across the table at her father’s proud smile answered the question. Schooling her expression, she faced Julie. ‘Yes, that’s right.’
‘With you and your father working together, I’m sure the observatory will flourish,’ Julie asserted.
‘Not to mention the support of her beau here,’ added Dad.
Danika choked on a piece of her chicken salad, accepting the glass of water Hayden handed her. ‘We’re not actually together,’ she rasped with a croaky throat.
Dad reached across the table to pat her hand. ‘I know your five-year split was for practical reasons, Danni. Now you are both home, I’m sure your love will blossom again.’
Nausea swirled through her gut as she met the devil’s smirk.
‘Of course it will,’ Hayden boasted.
‘Excuse me a moment. I need to get some air.’ She made her way to the courtyard at the rear of the café. Passing several groups enjoying the alfresco dining experience beside the marble fountain, she sat on the retaining wall of a garden bed.
Hayden joined her a minute later, stifling her with his proximity and overbearing presence.
‘What are you doing here?’ she snapped.
‘Like any devoted beau, I’m checking that you are okay.’ He grabbed her hand and squeezed it to the point of pain.
‘I mean what are you doing back in Moonlake? Why infiltrate my life like this?’
He laughed drily. ‘Why for you of course, my sweet angel. I really have missed you.’
‘That makes one of us,’ she huffed.
‘Do I need to remind you who you belong to?’ he threatened between clenched teeth, his nails digging into her palm.
‘I don’t belong to anyone but myself.’
Turning his whole body to face her, he released her hand and stroked his knuckles along her cheek. ‘I will make you mine for eternity, in every sense of the word.’ Springing to his feet, he marched back inside; his dark promise lingering in the air like smog.
Unable to breathe in the thick atmosphere, she excused herself from the rest of the lunch meeting, claiming an upset stomach. Not like it’s a complete lie. Strolling down the street, she tried to clear her head, yet the dismal clouds refused to lift. I knew this job was too good to be true. Why else would the perfect opportunity arise so close to home? Stopping outside the hospital, she spared a thought for her convalescing friend. May as well see how she’s doing.
A man at the front desk explained, ‘The doctors have moved Elise Marshall to Ward 3A.’
The stench of bleach filled her nostrils as she traversed the sterile corridors. Laughter filtered through the open door to Elise’s room and Danika spied two familiar figures sitting on either side of the bed.
Glancing up, Elise beamed. ‘Danni!’
Grayson smiled and waved at her, while Malik turned around with a start, his own countenance much colder.
‘Shouldn’t you be at work?’ She directed her question at Malik who looked far too edible in his clean, tailored clothes.
One side of his mouth quirked. ‘Haven’t you heard the news? The customers aren’t exactly lining up. I could say the same for you and last I heard there wasn’t any scandal surrounding the observatory.’
‘I’m on a long lunch break. My dad’s wining and dining the board of directors. Hi Grayson.’ She gave him a quick nod before moving into the room to get a better look at Elise. A little colour had returned to the girl’s cheeks, but she still appeared gaunt. ‘Hey Lise, how are you feeling?’
‘A bit restless,’ Elise admitted. ‘I can’t wait to get out of this place.’
‘Are they feeding you enough here? You could stand to put on a few kilos.’
Elise shrugged. ‘I struggle to keep food down.’
‘Would you like a seat?’ Grayson offered as he rose.
‘She can have mine,’ Malik insisted. ‘I was just leaving anyway.’ After a chaste kiss on the crown of Elise’s head, he said his farewells. Pausing in front of Danika, he exchanged a heated gaze with her.
A plethora of contrasting emotions bubbled up inside her chest as she stared into his dark, fathomless eyes. She wanted to ask him what he was thinking; what he was feeling in that moment. Then Grayson cleared his throat and broke the spell. Brushing past her, Malik stormed out of the room. Dropping into the vacant chair, she inhaled the residual mist of Malik’s spicy fragrance.
‘Geez woman!’ Elise squawked. ‘That was intense. I couldn’t tell if the two of you were about to tear each other apart or rip each other’s clothes off.’
Danika snickered. Probably both. ‘Definitely the former,’ she assured her friend. ‘Although I suspect you’d prefer the latter.’
A blush tinted Elise’s cheeks as she giggled.
Grayson shifted uncomfortably in his seat. ‘Maybe I should leave the pair of you to catch up.’
Elise’s hand shot out to halt him and she shook her head. ‘Please stay. You’ve been such a wonderful support.’
With a resigned sigh, he settled back into his high-backed vinyl-covered chair.
‘On a more serious note, can I ask you a personal question?’ Danika queried.
‘Are you and Malik—’ Danika gulped, ‘—in love?’
Silence descended as Elise stared out the window. Her eyes watered when she turned back. ‘Things are too complicated for words, but I know Malik doesn’t love me as more than a friend. Not that it matters, my old man would never allow it.’
Danika sucked in a sharp breath. ‘I’m sorry, Lise.’
‘What for? It’s not like you have any sway over Malik’s heart or Daddy’s stubborn head.’
She agreed as far as Grant Marshall was concerned. As for my influence over Malik’s emotions? That remained to be seen.
Copyright © 2022 L. Starla & J. Wake
Stay tuned for Season 2, Episode 4, coming 14th October 2022.