Once Perfect

17941
Gemma has taken a job as a cocktail waitress at Club Excess, when the head bouncer catches her eye. Mateo is strong, intimidating and no-nonsense. But when Gemma sees a softer side of him, her feelings turn to lust, and she finds herself more curious than ever about his past.

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1. Club Excess

Gemma's wiping the bar booths at Club Excess, the Main Line's most infamous nightclub, and is preparing for another night of cocktail waitressing. All right Gemma, you can do this. Psyching herself up has become a nightly ritual before the doors open and the crowd pour in. Crowds of spoiled brats with too much money and too much attitude. The offspring of Philly's wealthiest families. She should know. She used to be one of them. 'Malibu Barbie! We need more cocktail napkins!' Gemma stops wiping the booth and half-consider throwing the bucket at Sam, her boss. 'Malibu!'

'Sam, don't call me Malibu Barbie.' Sam flips his rag over his shoulder and looks at her. 'I don't care what you wanna be called, I need those napkins!' She throws down her towel and stomps across the dance floor in her black, tigh-high boots. If it weren't for the crazy tips drunk people drop like bowling balls no way should she work at a place that required her to dress like this. The more desperate among them tie their shirts closer to their cleavage. The most desperate... go in just their bras. Gemma steps slowly as she nears the group of bouncers huddled around the head bouncer, Mateo. 'Listen up. Keep the drugs and the dealers out. You see any of that shit, send their asses out the door,' as he talks, his steel gaze takes in everyone, including her. Gemma quickly looks away. Despite his captivating looks, Mateo scares her. Considering he's an ex-con who fights in fight clubs, she'd think the staff would avoid him too. In the six months since she has been here, she certainly has. But she's been aware of him. To say the least. And, every now and then, She has seen him glance her way, too. 'Sam doesn't want another OD in his place. If those rich pricks want to die, they can do it somewhere else.' The other bouncers nod in agreement as Gemma tries to sneak by. 'Nice ass, Gemma!'

'Uh-'

'Leave Gemma the fuck alone and pay attention,' Dale immediately drops his gaze. As Gemma shuffles past, she can hear Mateo getting back to business. 'With the first week of classes over, these fools are ready to party. And dealers are ready to assist. I'll take the point near the bar. Ant's my second. If I'm mixed up in some shit, you call him. Got it?' The bouncers collectively mutter in agreement. Even Dale. Gemma slips behind the bar where Sam is stacking glasses. 'Grab two boxes of napkins from the storage and make sure they have the new logo, not the old one. Numbnuts spelled ''Excess'' wrong on the last order.'

'I know, Sam, I know.'

'Hurry up, Malibu, we only have twenty minutes before those needle dicks bust down the door!'

'You're bartending again tonight?'

'No. I just wear the apron to show off my man boobs. Of course I'm bartending. I had to fire Joe when he helped himself to the register last week!'

Gemma opens the door behind the bar, flips the lights on, and heads down the long hallway. The lights illuminate everything except the one room she needs to enter... the storage. Don't be such a wuss. Her confident steps slow as she gets closer to the door. She hates the storage room. Gemma's hand grips the knob and she lets out a long breath, waiting in the safety of the bright hall. Then, she pushes the door open. She grapples inside for the little string at the center of the room, her lifeline to the overhead light. Why couldn't Sam update this part of the old warehouse? Cheap bastard. Gemma sees that the jar of maraschino cherries, which she always uses to prop the door open, is down to just a few. It won't keep the door open long, but it should buy her enough time to reach the string. Gemma kicks the box against the door and takes a deep breath. Then, she bolts towards the center. She's almost to the string when her boots slips and she falls hard on her side. 'Ouch!' The box gives way and the door slams shut, encasing her in complete darkness. 'Oh no, no, no!' Don't panic. Don't panic. Gemma - DON'T panic. She starts to hyperventilate, and her breath comes in rapid puffs. Stop it Gemma. It's just a room. It's not going to hurt you. I just need to go for the light. She shoots up, karate chopping the air. No string. Great. I'm stuck. Then, she knocks into something smooth and heavy. Yes, the fridge! But which one? The one in the back, or the one by the door? Gemma stumbles backwards, and someone grabs her arm. 'Don't touch me!' Her elbow hits something stacked on a shelf. Objects fall in all directions. There's something here. Stop. Stop it! Emma collapses against the cold floor, sobbing. 'Please...' She hears footsteps, and the light spills into the room. The overhead light suddenly blinks to life. 'Gemma. Gemma. It's okay.'

'N-no...'

'Gemma... it's okay. You're all right now. I won't let anyone hurt you...' Mateo. Of all people. He came looking for her. 'Breathe. Don't think. Just breathe for me.' Gemma slows her breath and sits up, brushing away the hair that has plastered itself to her forehead. Fucking panic attack. 'That's it.' Mateo crouches a few feet away, meeting Gemma with his soft, gentle eyes. 'You're safe. Nothing's going to hurt you. I'm going to stand up now, okay?' Gemma nods. His body casts a shadow over her as he stands. Sam and Dale come crashing into the storage room. 'What the hell happened? All you had to do was getting napkins!' Gemma realizes that she's sitting amid broken shot glasses and black-and-orange garlands, left over from Halloween. 'The door shut before I could get to the light.'

'And?!'

'I'm claustrophobic.'

'You can't be serious. The room doesn't even have a lock. You're a real head case, Gemma. You know what I think? I think little Gemma is afraid of the dark and lost her shit. Didn't you?'

'And I think you're a fat fuck who still lives with his mom and doesn't know his ear hole from his asshole.' Oh my God! 'No one's perfect. Get to your post.' Dale scowls, but doesn't dare contradict Mateo. He hurries out, slamming the door hard behind him. Mateo turns to Gemma, holding out his hand. 'Here. Let me help you up.' she hesitates. She has seen him ''escort'' clubbers out. It's not gentle. Or pretty. Gemma pulls back, and he gives her a surprised and hurt expression. 'I'm okay. Thanks.' He withdraws his hand and steps back, watching Gemma slowly stand up. 'Come on. The little pukes are pounding on the doors.' Mateo grabs the two boxes of napkins she were sent for. 'Go. I got it.' Gemma bends over to pick up the plastic shot glasses. 'Seriously. I'll take care of the mess. Get cleaned up and then come out when you're ready. I'll have the girls cover for you until then.' She charges out the door as Pitbull blares trough the speakers.

By the end of the night, Gemma's feet are killing her. Tips weren't great, but after the panic attack, she's just grateful she stayed instead of running home. Not that Sam would've let her, probably. She's waiting at the bar to convert her tips into larger bills when she spots Mateo standing with Sam, Ant, and the rest of the bouncers. As if feeling her eyes on him, Mateo looks in Gemma's direction. Heart pounding, she quickly averts her gaze. One of the other waitresses, Noelle, sidles up next to her. 'Hmmm. He's beautiful, isn't he?' Gemma's face heats up. 'You mean Mateo? Yeah, I guess.' Noelle's grin widens. 'You guess? I saw you staring at him. In fact, I think you still have some drool on your lip.' Gemma bats Noelle's hand away from her lip. 'I don't know what you're talking about.'

'Damn, Gemma. Could you be more antisocial?' Noelle tosses her long, red hair and they both walk towards the door. 'Gemma, wait.' Mateo's deep tone stops her. She will herself to play it cool as she turns. 'Do you have a smartphone?'

'Huh? What?' Real cool, Gemma. Mateo presses his lips together. His eyes spark. Yep, he's trying not to laugh at me. 'A smartphone. Do you have one?'

'Yes. yes, I do. Do you need to make a call?' She rummages through her purse and find her battered iPhone. The only luxury item besides her laptop that survived the IRS's seizure of all their valuables. Shit. Was all that drama just three years ago? Gemma pulls out her phone and holds it to Mateo. 'Actually...' He reaches out and lowers her phone. Pressing his warm fingertips against her knuckles. Gemma pulls back, as if burned... and in the process, drops her phone. 'Damn it.' She tries to suppress her nervousness as she bend down to pick it up. He's never been inappropriate with any of the waitresses. But he has served time for assault. Tonight she saw him drag a guy out by the throat. Gemma takes her time inspecting her phone to delay facing him. When she finally looks up, his eyes are surprisingly tender. 'Download a flashlight app and keep the phone in your back pocket while you're here.' Yep. He definitely knows I'm terrified of the dark. 'I- Sam doesn't allow us to carry our phones during work. And there's not a lot of room in our outfits.' Gemma instinctively tugs her shorts down, and Mateo overts his gaze. 'I'll talk to Sam. So as long as don't text or make calls, you'll be able to hang onto it. And you can make the phone fit. You're tiny enough.' Gemma bites her lip and Mateo hones in on her mouth. He swallows hard. 'Okay.' I can't believe it. Was he just checking me out? Mateo clears his throat and calls over his shoulder. 'Ant! Could you walk Gemma to her car?'

'Mateo, it's fine. Ant doesn't have to walk me.' Mateo looks at her, hard. 'It's 3 A.M., there's a lot of creeps out there.'

'Well, thank you.' Ant leaves the group of remaining staff, his pace dwindling as he nears. He glances her way and back at Mateo, his smile brilliant white. 'You sure you don't want to leave your little Gemma in the hands of Dale the douchebag?' Ant is mean, muscular, and capable of bashing heads like tree nuts, but is also a ball-busting comedian after the bar closes. 'Hey! I'm standing right here!'

'Like I give a zebra's ass. You ready girl?'

'Yeah. Thanks.' Mateo walks away from them in the direction of the storage room. As he passes, Dee-Dee, another waitress, yells after him. 'Teo! We're going to be late to the fights. Where you going, sweet thing? Sweet thing? Are they hooking up? 'Storage room. I'll only be there for a bit.' Mateo's going to clean up the mess Gemma made. There's no other reason for him to go back there. Dee-Dee's eyes fixate on Mateo's black military pants. She licks her lips. For some reason, that really irks Gemma. She turns around, realizing that Ant has been watching her watch Mateo. She clears her throat. 'Ready to go?'

'Only if you're done checking out my boy Mateo.'

'I wasn't checking him out, Anthony!' He chuckles. 'If you say so.' Gemma wants to be mad, but she can't stay mad at a guy who has such a great laugh.
Gemma's Cherokee is parked at the far end of the lot. A far cry from the custom BMW she once drove. 'He's a good guy, you know.'

'Huh?'

'Teo. He's good. And I'm not just saying that because we're close.'

'He's been in prison.' Ant's smile drops. He slows to a stop. 'Gemma, there's a lot you have to learn about life. Not everyone who goes to the joint deserves to be there.'

'A-are you saying he's innocent? That he was framed?' Ant just looks at Gemma, dumbfounded. 'No. He did what he did. But that doesn't mean he didn't do the right thing.'

'Anthony, I don't want to hear more about it.'

'That's it, you've just made your snap judgement about him and don't want to hear the truth?'

'Whether it was justified or not, he almost killed someone. That's not okay, Ant.'

'My boy broke the law. I'm not saying he didn't. But before you judge him, know that he lost. A lot.'

'I'm sorry. I'm really just... sorry.'

'I don't expect someone like you to understand.' Someone like her. A rich girl from the suburbs. Problem is, she does understand. What it means to lose everything. She just doesn't dare admit what happened.
 

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