The voice was loud and obnoxious, at odds with the restaurant’s muted soundtrack of clinking cutlery, soft jazz and murmured conversation.
“Really appreciate you paying for dinner, Tom. I’m between opportunities right now but I’ll be damned if I’m gonna take just any job and be a corporate drone. Better to take a free meal when I can get one, right?”
It was followed by a braying laugh that made Liam wince and want to drag his nails down a blackboard, because that would have been preferable to listening to this honking, snorting nightmare.
Liam prayed he wouldn’t have to wait on whoever the loud idiot was, but judging by the smirk on his co-worker Judy’s face, he had a sudden sinking certainty that the table was his. Sure enough, when he glanced over to check, there was Braying Man in the middle of his section—elbows on the table, wearing a backwards baseball cap and a flannel shirt, picking at his teeth.
The idiot caught Liam’s eye and snapped his fingers. “Hey, man, can we get a bread basket or something? And booze. Lots of booze. Her old man’s paying, so make it the good stuff.” He winked, then gave Liam honest-to-God finger guns.
The guy was an utter dickhead, Liam decided. Still, part of the job was keeping his opinions to himself, so Liam made his way over to the table, face carefully impassive. His mask slipped for a split second when he recognized the girl who was gazing at Dickhead with something like worship. It was Kelly, who he shared a Marketing Communications class with at the University of Sydney, and the last time Liam had talked to her, she’d been dating someone completely different—a nice, if slightly scruffy, guitarist in a pub band. He wondered what had happened to him.
The other couple at the table had to be Kelly’s parents. They were looking at the guy with a slightly confused expression on their faces, like he was one of those hairless cats, and they couldn’t decide if they were fascinated or horrified by his existence.
Liam had to admit, Dickhead was objectively attractive when he was keeping his mouth shut. He could have been a model, with his well-muscled physique, dark hair and carefully sculpted stubble. He had a strong, straight nose, killer jawline, and even white teeth. He was just Liam’s type—or would have been, if Liam dated.
Liam cleared his throat and did his best to pretend he didn’t know anyone at the table as he said, “Welcome to Bayside. Would you like to order some drinks?”
Dickhead rolled his eyes. “Wow. I guess you weren’t listening, huh? I mean, I literally just asked you to bring us good booze.”
Liam kept his face pleasantly neutral—he’d had plenty of practice, working as a waiter in a high-end Sydney restaurant—and clarified, “What, specifically, would you like to drink, sir?” He made sure to address Kelly’s father, since he was obviously the one footing the bill.
The man smiled gratefully and started to say, “I’d like a gin and tonic, and my wife will have—”
Arsehole interrupted. “Just give me a bottle of that Don Paragraph stuff”—as someone from a family of winemakers, Liam died a tiny death at the mangled pronunciation—“and the quicker the better, yeah?”
“I’ll check if we have any Dom Perignon in stock, sir. How many glasses with that?” Liam asked through clenched teeth. God, he hoped they weren’t celebrating Kelly’s engagement to this douchebag.
Dude wrinkled his nose. “Just one. It’s for me.” He turned to Kelly and winked. “Gotta watch for extra calories in drinks if you wanna stay in shape, am I right, sweet pea?”
Liam waited for Kelly to rip the guy’s balls off—he hoped literally, but he’d settle for metaphorically—because he knew she had a hell of a temper when she was wronged. He’d been on the receiving end of it during one disastrous group assignment. But Kelly just smiled like a Stepford Wife and murmured, “Yes, Ambrose.”
Liam was pretty sure the shock on her father’s face was mirrored on his own, but he schooled his features and nodded. Ambrose tilted a menu at Kelly’s father. “This seafood platter’s meant to be for two, but you’re cool with me ordering it, right, Tom?”
Kelly’s father cleared his throat. “Kelly’s allergic to seafood.”
“That’s cool, I wasn’t planning on sharing anyway,” the dickhead—Ambrose—said with an easy grin that lit up his entire face and really, it wasn’t fair that someone who was such a colossal arsehole could be so attractive. But of course, that was how the world worked, right? Beautiful people got away with murder.
Liam turned back to the older man. “And the rest of your drinks order, sir?” he asked, taking petty satisfaction at the way Ambrose snorted and muttered under his breath.
“A gin and tonic for myself, and a glass of Connelly Cellars’ Perfect Pinot,” Tom said, and Liam suppressed the urge to preen, just like he did every time someone ordered one of his family’s wines.
“Make mine a tonic water,” Kelly said.
Liam blinked. Wow, what happened to the girl who always claimed she’d never drink water because fish fucked in it?
Something weird was going on, and whatever it was, Liam didn’t like it. He especially didn’t like that it was happening here at Bayside. People didn’t come into Bayside wearing backwards caps and being dicks. Bayside had standards—standards that Liam was beginning to worry he might have to attempt to enforce. It had water views! You could see the Sydney Harbour Bridge from the wide dining room windows! It was both fancy and trendy, and it always made the list of the top ten places to eat in Sydney. Diners weren’t supposed to wear flannel to Bayside, and Liam panicked quietly that he didn’t know if the dress code was actually enforceable or not. Liam had only been working here for eight months, but it had never come up before. People usually treated Bayside like it was a special occasion, not three a.m. at the counter of Macca’s.
“Good choice, babe. You know you’re a sloppy drunk,” Ambrose said, leaning in and patting Kelly’s face. Then he hauled himself out of his chair, scratched his belly and farted. “I gotta go take a dump. I always shit when I’m out. Make someone else deal with that, am I right?” And with that Ambrose sauntered towards the bathrooms, leaving Kelly’s parents staring after him open-mouthed.
Liam couldn’t help himself. “Kelly—”
“Hi, Liam, I guess you’ve met my new boyfriend now!” Kelly cut in, following that with a tinkling laugh that was pitched a little high with nerves. “He’s an entrepreneur.”
Liam opened his mouth to ask what happened to Greg the bassist, but Kelly shot him a glare that said she would hunt him down and personally set his dick on fire if he said another word. Liam knew that look, so he shut his mouth, went to fetch drinks and said a prayer that he wouldn’t have to be the one to clean the toilets at the end of the night. Frankly, he wouldn’t have been surprised to learn that Ambrose had just decided to take a shit on the floor and stolen all the paper.
When Ambrose wandered back out again at last, he didn’t walk straight back to his own table. Instead, he approached another table where a group of shiny and fashionable young women who were probably Instagram influencers or something were eating.
“Hi, ladies,” he said. He put both hands on their table and leaned forward. “My name’s Ambrose.”
“Is he—?” Kelly’s mother’s mouth dropped open. “Oh my God.”
“Ambrose is very sociable,” Kelly said. “People love him.”
A ticking vein in her father’s temple called her a liar.
Liam saw the way that Tom started to strangle his linen napkin, and hurried over to the influencers’ table. “Excuse me, sir,” he said to Ambrose. “Can you please return to your own table?”
Ambrose gave him finger guns, and sauntered back over to join Kelly and her parents.
What the everlasting fuck? And Liam obviously wasn’t the only one thinking it. Kelly’s mum looked close to tears, and her dad looked half a heartbeat away from either a stroke or a homicide. In the event he actually did murder Ambrose, Liam decided to tell the police it was justified. Hell, at this point he’d probably give the guy an alibi. And the murder weapon. And a bucket of bleach to clean up the murder scene.
Kelly, though, just beamed at Ambrose like she was under some sort of spell. “I missed you, boo.” She blew him a kiss.
Ambrose shrugged. “Have we ordered yet? I’m starving. Service here is soooo slow,” he said loudly, stretching his arms over his head and attracting stares from the other tables. “Probably can’t get decent staff.”
Liam seethed and wondered if he and Tom could come to some sort of agreement regarding mutual alibis and body disposal. The walk-in freezer out the back would be a good place to store a corpse while they figured out their next step.
Liam woodenly went through the specials, which nobody ever ordered anyway, then took their menus back and excused himself. He’d only made it a few steps away from the table when the obnoxious click of someone’s fingers pulled him back again.
“Hey, change Kelly’s order to a garden salad,” Ambrose said. He grinned at Kelly. “We don’t want you getting too chunky, right, babe?”
That vein in Tom’s temple looked about ready to pop. “Kelly can eat what she bloody well likes,” he hissed in an undertone.
“A salad sounds great, actually,” Kelly said. “Ambrose knows what’s best. Babe, tell them about your business ideas.”
Ambrose straightened up, his eyes gleaming. “Have you guys heard of multi-level marketing?”
This time it was Liam’s jaw that dropped. Kelly was a business major.
“So,” Ambrose said to Kelly’s stone-faced parents, “what you do is, you have a product, and you recruit people to sell it for you. They’re called a downline. Like, some people say that it’s predatory and cult-like, but I’ve been in a cult, and ha! You won’t fool me like that twice! Well, three times. Did you bring your chequebook, Tom? I mean, I can take cash if you want to get on board too, I guess. Like, what do you think? Five grand?”
Liam stared at Kelly for a moment, wondering who the fuck she even was, then escaped to the kitchen to put in their orders before he finally snapped. He managed to resist the urge to tell the chef to spit on the seafood, but it was a close-run thing.
* * * *
Things hadn’t really improved by dessert. As the level in his bottle of Dom had dropped, Ambrose had become steadily more obnoxious and his volume levels had risen—Liam had been able to hear him from all the way across the restaurant.
He came out with such gems as, “No, I’d never want kids. I want my partner’s sole focus to be me, and they’d need to work so we can afford for me to pursue my dreams. Plus, y’know, I’ve banged a few cougars and I can tell you now, the body never quite bounces back, does it?” Here he turned to Kelly’s mum. “You know what I’m talking about, right, Jeanette?”
“Jesus Christ,” said Alastair softly in Liam’s ear.
Alastair was one of the other waiters working tonight. He hadn’t quite believed Liam’s “I have the worst fucking customer ever” story when Liam had told the first part of it in the kitchen between courses, and he’d come to see for himself.
“I know, right?” Liam murmured back. “Wait until he calls me ‘garçon’ again.”
“Fuck off, he did not.”
Liam nodded grimly. “Snapped his fucking fingers and everything.”
Alastair shook his head. “I don’t know why you even put up with this shit. Why do you work here again? Aren’t your parents loaded?”
Liam suppressed a sigh. “They own a winery. It’s not the same thing. Besides, I’m twenty-three. I can pay my own way through uni. I don’t need my mum giving me pocket money.”
Alastair looked sceptical. “I guess.”
As they watched, Ambrose started waving his hands animatedly. “Yeah,” he said at a volume level more suited to a dance club than a restaurant, “I’m definitely too good to settle for any old job. I mean, look at me. I’ve modelled, for Christ’s sake.” He pulled his shirt up to show off a lean torso and sculpted abs. Liam might have been impressed, except he suspected that the only reason Ambrose was so fit was because he was constantly running away from people who wanted to punch him in the face.
“I’m dating a model, Mum,” Kelly said. “Aren’t I lucky?”
Tom looked unimpressed. “Yeah? I’ve never seen your face anywhere.”
Ambrose gave a sheepish grin. “Well, I say modelling, but it wasn’t exactly mainstream. And it didn’t exactly feature my face as the main attraction. It was more off-grid, online, pay-per-view, take-yourself-in-hand kind of work, you get me?”
There was stunned silence. “You mean…?” Jeanette started.
“I guess you old people would call it porn, yeah. It was pretty successful, too.” He reached for his phone. “Wanna see?”
“No, we bloody well don’t,” Tom snapped.
Something in his tone must have gotten through because Ambrose just shrugged and said, “I’ll leave it up to your imagination. Or you can ask Kell.” He gave a filthy wink to Jeanette, along with the inevitable finger guns.
Liam checked his watch and willed them to leave. Surely two hours was enough of this torture? He was relieved to see that Ambrose was standing, possibly in preparation for departure, but his heart sank when Ambrose cleared his throat, shook out his arms, and declared to anyone who was listening, “I’m gonna do a magic trick!”
With a determined set to his chin, he grabbed the corner of the tablecloth.
“Oh, Jesus,” Liam groaned, and sprinted across the room. “Sir!” he bellowed, not caring how he looked, “please don’t attempt to remove the tablecloth! It never works!”
“It’ll work for me! It’s gonna be amazing!” Ambrose insisted. And with that he pulled at the cloth, which, instead of sliding out from under the crockery in a dazzling display of finesse, dragged everything along with it, sending plates, glasses and cutlery crashing onto the floor and a glass of red wine into Jeanette’s lap. Ambrose stared at the wreckage, and Liam could have sworn he was genuinely shocked.
“Well, fuck,” he said loudly. “That didn’t happen on YouTube.”
* * * *
Watching Ambrose being asked to leave the restaurant by Lin the manager almost made up for cleaning up his mess—almost. As he shoved smashed bits of plate into a bin bag, Liam watched and waited to see if Kelly would finally grow a set and send her awful boyfriend packing, but to his confusion she did no such thing. Instead, she patted the back of his hand and told him to keep practicing, kissed him on the cheek and called him an Uber while her parents scowled their disapproval.
It was weird.
He wondered how his own parents would react if he brought someone like that home and sighed quietly. They’d probably still welcome him with open arms, because they were desperate to ‘see him happy,’ which in their world meant paired up, no matter who with. He’d tried telling them he was content to be single, but still, every time he called his mum she asked, “So, are you seeing anyone?” Whenever he said he wasn’t, she’d make her patented disappointed noise.
It wasn’t that Liam didn’t want to date. It was just that he was shit at it. He took forever to figure out when someone was flirting, and even when he did pick up on it, his choices had proven to be less than stellar.
His last boyfriend had cheated on him—in Liam’s bed. It had ended with tears and accusations, and it had hurt, leaving him feeling stupid and worthless and unattractive. Liam had decided afterwards, as he nursed a nice bottle of red along with his battered heart and bruised ego, that he was done with romance. He wasn’t willing to risk feeling that way again.
He hadn’t been able to bring himself to tell his parents what had happened, ashamed and embarrassed in equal measure, so now his mother continued to wonder aloud if Liam couldn’t try and get back together with that lovely Jonah. Liam was left fobbing them off with excuses about being too busy with uni and work to worry about dating.
Alastair crouched next to him and started helping him sort out the mess. “You gotta ask yourself,” he said quietly. “If that was how this guy acts when he meets the parents, what’s he like the rest of the time?”
“He’s a fucking nightmare,” Liam agreed, bundling up the linen. “I don’t know what Kelly sees in him.”
“Wait, you know her?”
“Yeah. I thought she had better taste than this though. She normally takes no shit, but she was practically fawning over this guy.”
Alastair’s brow furrowed. “Maybe it’s because he’s good-looking? Still, you should check in with her, make sure she’s okay.”
Liam, who’d been thinking the same thing, nodded. He’d track Kelly down at some point and find out why she’d broken up with Greg and had started dating Ambrose, the colossal arsehole.
Maybe she owed him money, or she’d joined a cult, or maybe Ambrose was terrible at magic but some kind of hypnosis master, and he’d woo-wooed Kelly into thinking he wasn’t a total fucktard. There was definitely something shady going on because the guy was, objectively, a complete and utter wanker, and Liam hoped he never had to lay eyes on him again.