Coffee Girl

From the short story collection Beginnings.

Keri glanced at the clock, muttering under her breath about the unfairness of life. It was bad enough her roommate told her this morning he was moving out and in with his girlfriend who she knew was so absolutely wrong for him. Now she would have to start interviewing new potential roommates, though she knew she would never find anyone who made her feel the way Gary did when he looked Cover of Beginnings by Dee Manat her, or smiled, or laughed, or had milk dripping down his chin in the morning. And to top it all off, Phil called in sick this morning so, in addition to the espresso machine, she was stuck tending the brewers that kept the twelve carafes of coffee full for the rush of college kids and power suits who were all too important and too busy to have to wait for anything, much less a caffeine fix.

At least I don’t have to smile and make nice with them. Small blessings, I guess.

She would not have believed it possible when she started the job, but after three months, she knew most of the regulars by sight and many of their names and what they usually ordered. By the end of her sixth month, which was last week, the ‘many’ became nearly all. When she was not in a foul mood, she enjoyed the give and take with the customers, the little jokes, and smiles. And the tips were tremendous.

She dumped the used grounds and added freshly ground almond vanilla-creame beans to the brew funnel. As she pressed the start button, she heard, “Excuse me” and looked around at a new face.

“I’m sorry to bother you, but the Colombian decaf is empty. No rush. There was a little left in the decanter thing. I’m over in the corner by the window. Whenever it’s ready would you please let me know. Or just throw something at me to get my attention.”

He grinned and it was the kind of grin that was so genuine Keri automatically returned it, despite her mood. “I’ll let you know,” she said, all the while thinking, Sorry to bother you? No rush? Please? What planet did this guy fall to Earth from?

Despite her mocking thoughts, she realized her mood had lightened and glanced his way. He was hunched over a laptop, furiously typing away. She wondered if he was a student or some tech guy or maybe a writer of some kind as she dumped the decaf beans into the grinder before punching up the next espresso order, a large latte with extra foam and a dusting of cocoa powder.

When the decaf was ready, he was still focused on his laptop. For a second, she toyed with the idea of balling up some napkins and throwing them at him as he requested, but instead, poured him a large cup.

“Oh! Thank you!” he said when she set the cup down next to him. “You didn’t have to bring it to me. I can see how busy you are.”

“That’s okay. It’ll do some of them good to slow down and wait an extra minute or two. I didn’t know how you take it so I left room for milk or cream.”

“Black is perfect. When I want coffee-flavored something, I buy ice cream.” Again his grin was rewarded with one in return. “Thank you again. It was very nice of you.”

By ten-thirty, the morning madness slowed to the normal steady stream and Keri took her break. She sipped a hot chocolate while explaining to Cathy, the owner, cook, and baker, why Gary’s girlfriend would only hurt him in the end.

“Have you told him any of this?”

“No! I could never. He’d just think I was jealous or desperate or something.”

“Right. Or something. How about some truth. He shared that place with you for over a year before he met what’s-her-name. You had your chance and you let it slide.”

“But I wanted him to want me.”

“Bah. Men don’t know what the hell they want. We have to hit them over the head. Did you ever compliment him on whatever manly thing he was up to at that moment? Did you ever dress so he’d notice you? Or better yet, let him get an accidental peek at you in your underwear? Hell, you were living with the guy. You had every opportunity, girl.”

“Oh good lord,” Jan said as she came through the door from the front. “Is she still going on about Gary? She’s been muttering under her breath all morning. We’re out of M&M cookies. And who’s the geek in the corner you played waitress with earlier?”

Keri shook her head and sighed. “He’s nobody. He was just nice and polite during the rush instead of biting my head off because the decaf was empty, so I brought him a cup of coffee when it was ready. Do you recognize him?”

“No. First time I’ve seen him here. Polite, huh? We could certainly do with more of that around here in the morning.”

~ ~ ~

Steve One and Steve Two were partners in a small insurance business and served as the shop’s lunch-rush early warning system. They walked in at eleven-twenty every morning to get their lunches. By the time whatever sandwiches they ordered were ready, the line at each station would be growing.

For, perhaps, the hundredth time, Keri wondered how anyone could be so consistently punctual. She imagined people in the surrounding buildings watching for them, setting off an ever-increasing circle of customers as people saw others leaving for lunch.

The Steves were still placing their order and the line was already growing. Had Cathy not offered to pay double-time to convince Tom T. to come in and help with the lunch rush, to say it would have turned into a zoo would have been a colossal understatement. It would have been much closer to a wild animal park.

By one-thirty, customers slowed to a trickle and Keri had time to breathe again. She checked the corner table but found it empty and regretted not going over to talk with him during her morning break.

If he’s new in town, or here on business of some sort, he might appreciate…what? What’s wrong with you? Now you’re mooning over a stranger who was polite. Good grief, girl, get a grip!

Keri was beat by the time her apartment door closed behind her. All she wanted was to languish in a hot bath with a glass of wine. She dropped her bag on the chair and froze. Something was off. She was sure of it, but could not tell what. She looked in the kitchen but everything appeared fine until she noticed the gap on the counter.

“Ohmygod, Gary’s espresso machine. It’s gone. We’ve been robbed!”

She raced to her bedroom but nothing seemed to be missing. Her jewelry box was untouched as were the few pieces she hid in her underwear drawer.

What the hell?

She crossed the living room to Gary’s room, pushed the partially opened door, said, “Oh damn!” and turned to get her cell phone from her bag.

When he answered, she said, “What the hell, Gary?”

“What?”

“All your stuff is gone.”

“I told you I was moving in with Elise.”

“That’s right. This morning. At five AM. And ten hours later…what did you do, spend all day packing and moving?”

“Pretty much. We’re in love, Keri. I wanted to be with her. You should be happy for me.”

“I’ll be happy when I find another roommate I can live with without wanting to pull my hair out.”

“Speaking of which, there’s an envelope in the freezer with my share of next month’s rent. If you find someone before the end of the month, use it…well, for whatever. Buy yourself something nice”

“Why is it in the freezer?”

“Because I figured when you realized I was gone, if you couldn’t get me on the phone, you’d go for the Cherry Garcia.”

“You jerk. Hold on.”

When she opened to freezer door, there it was, propped against the ice cream.

“You could have told me you were leaving today instead of running out like some deadbeat tenant.” She tore open the envelope.

“Come on, Ker. You know I’m no good with goodbyes.”

“Hey, this check is ten dollars short.”

“I know. That’s the ten bucks you owe me from the bet.”

“Bet? What bet?”

“Are you kidding? About six weeks after I moved in, remember? We were doing tequila shots and watching some sappy movie you picked and we bet ten dollars on who would fall in love first. I won!”

“No you didn’t you jerk. I won. I was already in love with you!”

“What? Keri! What?!”

Oh shit! Oh shit! Nice going girl.

“Relax, Gary. I was just messing with you. You always were too easy. Look, I wish you and her the best of luck. Stop in the shop some day soon and I’ll buy you both a coffee. But I have to go now. I have an ad to write.”

~ ~ ~

“You look like crap,” Cathy said when Keri walked into the back for an apron.

“Gary moved all his stuff out yesterday while I was here.”

“Ohhh. I’m sorry, Keri. But maybe it’s for the best.” She didn’t ask if the way she looked was from crying, insomnia, getting sick on ice cream, or all three.

“Yeah. Maybe.” She headed out front to start setting up for the day.

Just before eight, Keri came out of the back with a customer’s breakfast wrap when she saw the polite guy from yesterday standing in Phil’s line. Their eyes met and she smiled as he grinned and nodded. She rang up the sale and when she looked up again, saw he moved to her line.

“Good morning,” he said when he reached the counter. “Are you okay? You look…ill?”

“Good morning. I’m fine. Just a little…a lot of insomnia last night. What can I get you?”

He placed his order and as she put it together, she found herself resisting the urge to look back over her shoulder at him. And when it was ready, he handed her a ten, then stuffed the four dollars and twenty-seven cents change in her tip jar.

The morning crowds thinned early, so she let Phil take his break first. When it was her turn, she took a hot chocolate and a large decaf over to the table in the corner where the new guy sat typing.

“Hey! Coffee girl. What’s this?”

“This is my thank you for that tip earlier,” she said, placing the coffee on the table, “but you realize it was much too much for a coffee and a couple of muffins.”

“Nonsense. I used to wait tables when I was in college and the experience made me a generous tipper. Especially when there’s a pretty girl involved.”

She felt color rising in her cheeks. “Oh dear. I was going to ask if I could join you for a few minutes, but now I’m not sure if I’d be sharing a table with a masher or someone with terrible eyesight.”

“I assure you I’m neither,” he said with a laugh as he closed the cover of the laptop and waved her to a chair across the table. “I’m Efrem, but my friends call me EZ.”

“As in easy to talk to?”

He laughed. “No. As in Efrem Zimbalist Jackson. My mother is a huge fan of old TV shows, probably because she grew up watching them. She loves this actor Efrem Zimbalist Jr. and so when I was born, I got named after him.”

“Wow. That’s a great story! And a cool nickname. I’m Keri Watson. My friends call me…Keri.”

“So, to what do I owe the honor of sharing your break time? Beside the tip, of course.”

“Well, beside the tip, it was how nice you were yesterday morning. Customers around here are always in a hurry and usually get a little testy when they have to wait for their coffee to brew. Plus…well, a polite new person who hangs around the shop working is quite the rarity, so everyone’s a little curious about you.”

“Everyone?”

“Ummm..okay, not everyone. Me. But they will be now that I’m sitting here talking to you. So don’t tell me anything you don’t want everyone in the shop to know.”

“I see. Was it my rugged good looks, my obvious intelligence, or my irresistible sex appeal that drew you here?”

“Actually, it was your manners.”

“Ouch! I guess mom would be happy to hear that, but my ego wants to run and hide.”

Keri laughed as he play-acted despair. “I was kind of in a foul mood yesterday morning and you being so unexpectedly polite really lifted my spirits. And then this morning you were all like, ‘good morning’ and smiling and happy despite how I must have looked and it helped again. So I got curious and here I am.”

“Hmmm…are these foul moods and sleepless nights a common occurrence?”

“No. My roommate moved out yesterday and I was bummed. So what do you do on the computer?”

“Do you want the long version or the short?”

She glanced at the clock. “I have ten minutes left of my break.”

“Short version it is, then. I do systems analysis. Basically, I study something and figure out if it can be made better and how to do it if it’s possible.”

“Wow. What are you working on now?”

“Sorry. I can’t discuss clients or what I do for them, but if you want an example, turn around and take a look at how the store is set up, particularly, the pastry racks. Do you see any way to improve efficiency there?”

She stared at them for a minute then turned back and shrugged. “It works fine the way it is.”

“I’m sure it does, because everyone is used to it. Look again. Now, I know that blueberry is the most popular muffin choice because you keep two trays on the racks.”

“Right. So?”

“You have three service stations. Call them one, two, and three, left to right. When a customer orders a blueberry muffin at station three, the server turns around, takes one or two steps, and can bag or plate the muffin. But if a customer at station two, in the middle orders one, the server has to take three or four steps. And from station one, the server has to take five or six steps to get a muffin.

“Now, if you had one tray of muffins on each side, the server at station one would save six or eight steps on every blueberry muffin order. And the server in the middle would have a choice, so if number three server is getting a muffin, he can go to the tray on the other side, saving a few seconds.

“That’s just one example. If your boss hired me to streamline the serving process, I’d study sales records and figure out the optimum spot for each item.” He grinned and raised his eyebrows. “Suggest the muffin thing to your boss and try it out for a week. Who knows, you might get a raise.”

He was pleased to see she caught on immediately and questioned him about other possibilities in the few minutes left of her break.

“Thank you! After the lunch rush, I’ll tell Cathy and the others about it.”

“Make sure you take the credit. If word gets out I’m giving advice for free, my hourly rate is going to take a nosedive.”

He watched her walk away thinking, nice smile, then, nice butt, too before sipping his coffee and returning to his keyboard.

~ ~ ~

The next morning, he grinned after his ‘good morning’ and nodded at the two trays. “How’s it working?”

“You were right. It’s amazing. It saves ten or twelve seconds from this station.”

“There you go.”

“Want your usual?”

He nodded. “And I hope you’ll join me on your break again.”

“I will, thanks.” She handed him the cup and placed the plate with two muffins on the counter.

When he reached into his pocket, she held up her hands and said, “Nope. It’s on the house today.” And when he opened his mouth to argue, she said, “Boss’s order. You want me to get in trouble?”

Keri began spending all her morning breaks at his table as well as her afternoon breaks when he was still there after the lunch rush. By Friday, she learned he expected to be in town for six or eight more weeks, his home address was his parents’ house but he had not been back there for nearly nine months, and that he lived in hotels or short-term rental apartments, whichever was provided by the client.

By the end of the second week, they had discussed a long list of personal preferences including colors, sandwiches, movies, ice cream, and philosophers.

~ ~ ~

The following Tuesday, Gary and Elise came in to say hello. Keri bought them coffee, as promised, and during the five minutes they chatted, got the distinct impression the visit was Elise’s idea.

Later, when she mentioned it to EZ, he suggested Elise might not have believed she and Gary were just roommates and wanted to see how he reacted around her.

~ ~ ~

Three days later, EZ asked her out.

“Honestly, Keri, unless I’m sleeping or talking to you on one of your breaks, I’ve been working, and it’s starting to wear me down. I need a break and you’re the only non-client type person I know here so I was wondering if you would like to go see a movie or go bowling or anything that’ll get me out of the hotel room for a few hours. Strictly platonic, as friends. I’ll even pay. Or not. Whatever you want. You can even pick the movie. What do you say?”

She was impressed with how nicely he begged without actually begging. “Well, I’d planned on finally putting the ad for a new roommate on Craigslist tonight, but I suppose it can wait until the morning.”

They made plans to meet in front of the shop at seven and walk to the multiplex.

“Good lord,” he said as they walked out of the theater. “Please explain to me what you — what women — like so much about those kinds of movies.”

“Hey, you wanted me to pick the movie. Even when I demurred, you insisted. So I picked what looked like a nice rom-com. To tell you the truth, it was a little gross at times, but I guess that’s what kids like these days.”

He laughed. “Kids? You’re just a kid yourself. What are you, all of twenty-two, twenty-three?”

She threw her head back and slapped her hand over her heart. “Oh, I love you for saying that. Say it again. Please?”

“What? That you look like you’re twenty-two or twenty-three?”

“Thank you, EZ. I knew there was a reason I came and sat with you the first time. It was so I could hear that. But the truth is, I turned twenty-seven two months ago.”

“I would have bet money against that. I’m thirty, by the way. In case you were wondering.”

“I was, actually. But I would have asked you Monday.

“I had a really good time, EZ. Thanks. But I’m working tomorrow and five AM is not all that far away. Would you mind waiting with me at the stop up there until the bus comes?”

“Bus? Are you nuts? I’m not letting you take a bus home.”

Despite her protestations, he flagged a taxi, insisted on paying the driver in advance, and included a generous tip to make sure she got in her building safely.

~ ~ ~

“He actually said that to a taxi driver in this city?” Cathy asked.

“Seriously. And he must have tipped him pretty well because the guy watched me until I opened the front door and walked in. When I got up to my apartment, I looked out the window half-expecting him to still be there, waiting for the lights to go on.”

“Well, well. This guy sounds like a keeper.”

“Sure, for another month or two at best. Then he’s off to his next job.”

“Such a shame.”

Keri shrugged. “That’s my luck. One way or another, they always leave. At least this time, I know he’s leaving, so he won’t be taking part of my heart with him. If I can’t have a relationship, at least I can have a good time for a couple of months.”

She saw Cathy’s eyebrows shoot up and added, “No. Not that kind of good time. He made that clear yesterday. And to be honest, I’d rather be the friend he had fun with while he was here than just be the girl he screwed for awhile.”

Keri got her wish. The next five weeks were filled with conversations during the day and fun around town most nights. Despite her promise to herself to keep it all friendly and safe, she found herself longing to sit with him when she was working and fighting the urge to hold his hand or put her arm around him when they were walking. She knew she was falling for him a little, but it was just a little, and the knowledge he would leave soon and she would never see him again helped keep her heart safe.

~ ~ ~

No sooner did she plop down for her morning break than he asked, “Is there any chance you could get two or three days off at the end of the week?”

“Umm, I don’t know. What’s going on?” As soon she asked the question, his expression betrayed the answer. “Oh.”

“I’ll be done on Wednesday, but my flight to Paris isn’t until Sunday evening. Please, don’t look so sad.”

“I’m sorry. I knew you’d be leaving soon. It just took me by surprise.”

“Don’t apologize. I guess I feel the same way. Look, I’ve been doing this work for five years and I’ve been in a lot of coffee shops and hung out with a lot of people, guys and girls. But I’ve never enjoyed myself more than I have here, with you. In many ways, you and I are kindred spirits and in other ways, so different. But hanging out with you was easy and always fun, even when we argued about stuff like those god-awful movies you dragged me to. You’re the best friend I ever made on a job and all because my momma taught me to be polite. Can you imagine? Anyway, I’ll have three and a half days free before I leave, and I’d really like to spend as much of the time as I can with you. Whatever you want to do. In town, out of town, go somewhere for a few days, it doesn’t matter. What do you say?”

She said yes, of course, even though she knew it would make his leaving that much harder.

~ ~ ~

It would have been a whirlwind romance if romance had been the endpoint. Instead, it was a whirlwind goodbye, packed with laughter and fun and long conversations and the joy of just sharing time with a wonderful friend she would probably never see again.

And then he was gone.

On the way home from the airport, she convinced herself she was not going to cry, but when she closed her apartment door and collapsed on the sofa and thought about that final hug goodbye, how could she not.

~ ~ ~

In the weeks after EZ’s departure, Keri threw herself into working. She decided her homage to EZ would be to find ways to make the shop more efficient. And she did. With Cathy’s help, she compiled sales data and took the muffin-tray trick to the next level, rearranging the trays in the racks and display cases to put the biggest sellers within easy reach of the staff. Then she delved into coffee sales, impulse items, and even came in on a day off to study how the shop looked from the customer’s perspective. And five weeks after he left, she got a surprise that banished the rest of the blues.

When Cathy called her into the office, Keri wondered if she went too far, disrupted things too much.

Oh, well. I’ll find out in a minute.

“I know you started with the efficiency thing to give yourself something to focus on so you wouldn’t be thinking about an absent friend. I didn’t think it would accomplish much, but I figured it would be good therapy for you. Well, I just closed out the books for last month and I thought you might be interested in what I discovered.”

“Oh lord, don’t tell me I did all that for nothing.”

“Okay, I won’t tell you that. Instead, I’ll tell you that sales are up almost ten percent from the month before. We’re selling more of everything because we’re serving more customers faster. Lines move faster so people don’t pass us by when they are long. Even the average sale amount is up, probably thanks to the impulse displays.”

“That’s great news!”

“Yes, it is. And this is for you.” She handed Keri an envelope and watched her reaction as she opened it.

“That’s fifty percent of the increased profit. It was all your doing and you deserve it. Now give it back.”

“What?”

“Give it back and I’ll explain.”

Bewildered, Keri passed the check back.

“Did you know I opened this business because I love to bake?”

Keri shook her head.

“Well, I did. If I thought I could make a go of it here just selling baked goods, I’d do it in a minute. But it’s the coffee that really brings them in. Here’s another thing I bet you don’t know. I hate working the front. I hate managing the front. I hate thinking about the front. I’d much rather put my time and thought into coming up with new, delicious things to eat. But I never could. Then I got an idea. I should hire someone to run the front for me.”

Huh? Is she

“Are you talking about promoting me to a manager or something?”

“That was my first thought. You’ve always been the best employee here, so you would have been the natural choice for a manager.”

“Would have been?”

“Right. If I was hiring a manager. But managers are just, well, managers of something someone else owns. No manager will ever devote herself to a business the way an owner would. You can see that, right?”

“Right. So you’re not offering to make me a manager?”

“Correct. I want you to be my partner.” She held up the check. “And this can be your down payment.”

~ ~ ~

Keri sat in EZ’s former seat watching two guys with jackhammers dig up the sidewalk across the street as she thought about her first month as an owner. When she said yes to Cathy’s proposal, she had no idea just how much work was involved. Schedules, books, ordering, vendors — she was amazed Cathy found time to do it all and still keep the pastry shelves full. But now that she had her first taste of business, she could not imagine ever wanting to go back.

She closed her eyes and listened to the sounds of a busy shop. Customers ordering or talking on their phones or at the tables, display case doors sliding, lattes being foamed, coffee brewing; it was all a symphony of sorts, one she had come to love.

Her cell phone rang, and for the dozenth time, she regretted giving it to all the vendors. She didn’t recognize the number. Probably another one trying to sell us something.

“Hello?”

“If I timed this correctly, you’re on your break, yes?”

“Yes. But who is this?”

“Ahhh! You don’t recognize my voice?”

“I…hold on.” She jumped up and headed for the Ladies’ Room. “Okay. There was lot of background noise and I couldn’t hear well. Say something now.”

“Something now.”

She rolled her eyes. “More than that if…wait…EZ? Is that you?”

“Thank goodness. My ego was in a death spiral for a minute there. How are you doing, coffee girl?”

“I’m great. I miss our talks, but things have been going really well for me. How about you? How’s Paris?”

“Okay, I guess. I did the tourist thing a couple of weekends, but mostly I’m working. I did find a nice coffee shop, but it’s not the same.”

“Well, what did you expect? Nobody makes coffee like we do.”

“That’s not what I meant.”

Keri’s stomach flipped and she closed her eyes and told herself, Don’t. He’s just being polite. Keep it light. “Surely it’s not the muffins.”

“No. To tell the truth, it was those terrible movies you dragged me to.”

She laughed. “They were not terrible. You just can’t appreciate the finer nuances of chick flicks.”

It was his turn to laugh but when he spoke again, it was with his serious voice.

“Keri, something happened yesterday. Something sort of out of the blue. And maybe it’s a good thing and maybe not. I’m not sure yet. But it’s serious and I know we were just friends for a few months but you always told me what you thought, good or bad, and I need to talk to a woman about this, someone who’ll tell it to me straight, not just what she thinks I want to hear. Are you up for that?”

“EZ, please tell me you’re not really sick or something.”

“No, it’s nothing like that. But it could change my life. Serious stuff.”

“Okay, then tell me. No, wait. I’m standing in the bathroom. Hold on.”

In the space of half-a-minute, she explained things to Cathy, who smiled and said, “Close the door and if you absolutely must put your feet on the desk, take your shoes off first.”

“Okay, EZ. I’m in the office. Now what’s going on?”

“I got a call yesterday from a company that apparently liked the work I did for them so much they want me to come work for them full-time. I’d be working from the home office, only occasional traveling, pretty much be my own boss, and crazy money and benefits.”

“Wow! It sounds fantastic. But if you’re calling me, I’m guessing you’re not sure if you should take it?”

“Exactly. I kind of like what I do now. A few months here, a few months there…the job has let me see an awful lot of the world.”

“But?” She heard him sigh.

“But I meet a lot of people, get close to some of them for awhile, like I did with you, then I’m gone, usually never to return. I don’t really have any friends, Keri, not even friends like you and the other people at the shop are.”

“So you’re lonely?”

“A little. Maybe. Sometimes. But it’s not just that. What makes the job offer most attractive to me is that, well, when I was working there, I…I met someone.”

Again her stomach flipped and again her better judgment said, Don’t do it. It’s someone else. That’s why he’s calling me.

“We had a really good time together while I was there, but we both knew I’d be leaving. The thing is, I kind of developed feelings for her, you know? Not that I ever told her. It wouldn’t have been fair to her. And as you know, I’m much too polite to be unfair.”

Keri could tell from his voice they were sharing a grin.

“So here’s the problem. As much as I like what I’m doing now, I’ve realized recently that I’ve been missing her. And what it comes down to is that if I thought she had developed feelings for me, too, I’d take the job.”

“So tell her how you feel.”

“Sure. I call her up and say what? Gee, I know we had fun when I was there, but I’m thinking of moving there permanently but only if you’re as hot for me as I am for you because I want to settle down and fall in love and get married and have kids and…and do you see the problem?”

She did. It wasn’t her he wanted. But that was her problem.

“Look, EZ, the only way you’ll find out if she likes you the way you hope is to ask her. But you can’t do it on the phone. You have to face her so she can see how serious you are and you can see her reaction. When do you have to let these guys know about the job?”

“The week after this job is done. About a month from now.”

“Then, when the job’s done, come back and talk to her. Tell her how you feel, tell her everything, and hope she feels the same way.”

“You’re sure?”

“You wanted the truth. There it is.”

They chatted for awhile, reliving good times, bad movies, and bowling balls thrown backwards until both had to get back to work.

Keri sighed as she opened the office door.

“Sooooo?” Cathy said with a hopeful look on her face.

“Basically, he wanted to know how to tell some girl he likes her and find out if she likes him.”

“Oh.” The hopeful look turned to sadness. “I thought maybe…”

“Me, too. Oh, well. Want me to take the tray of cookies out?”

The Steves walked through the front door as she came out of the back with the tray. “Hi, guys. I’ll be with you in a minute.”

Geez, twenty past already. It didn’t seem like we were talking that long.

“I’ve got them,” she heard Phil say as she bent down to slide the tray of cookies into the display case. “Want to check the coffees?”

She stood and stretched just as a loud voice asked, “Do you folks still have table service here?”

She turned toward the sound, scanned the tables, and did a double-take, her eyes wide with disbelief. “EZ? EZ!” She dashed from behind the counter. “What are you doing here? Why didn’t you…oh. Oh! You mean you…all the time you were…?”

She took a breath, looked around to see who might be watching, and sat down. “It’s nice to see you again. What brings you here?”

He smiled. “You know why I’m here.”

“I’m sure I don’t.”

Two can play at this game. Ohmygod, two can play. Two!

His smile broadened. “I see. Well, I’ve missed you since I left. I’ve missed you a lot. Your smile. Your sassy attitude. Your single-handed support of the hot chocolate industry. I’ve missed all of you, Keri. And I have an opportunity to move here permanently. But I’ve realized it would be too difficult to live in the same town as you without you. So I’ve come to find out if you have any feelings for me at all beyond friendship. Because what I feel for you goes way beyond that.”

“Is that so? How far beyond?”

“You’re really going to make me work for this, aren’t you?”

She picked up his cup for a sip and was surprised to find lukewarm hot chocolate. She was glowing as she set the cup down, but just smiled and raised her eyebrows and waited.

“Keri Ann Watson, it is my hope that the feelings I have for you, and any feelings you may have for me, will one day grow and lead to a life together filled with love, and togetherness, and someday marriage and children and a home with a yard and maybe even a dog. I don’t know how it happened, but it did. A part of you has become a part of me. And now I find I want…I need the rest of you to make me whole. That’s how far beyond.”

When his voice died, Keri realized there was no background noise in the shop. She turned to find everyone in the store watching them and felt her cheeks grow hot again, but she didn’t care. She turned back to face him and said, “Efrem Zimbalist Jackson, you really must have been blind not to see how I felt about you months ago. Hugging you and watching you leave was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. And I have no idea why I’m going on like this when what I really want to say is that I’m very, very happy you took my advice.

“Now take me please and don’t ever let me go.”

– * – * –

Thank you for reading Coffee Girl. I hope you enjoyed it.

If you’d like to read the other six short stories in the collection, please click on one of the order links, below. And when you’ve finished the stories, please stop by Amazon and leave a review to let me and others know what you thought of the stories and which ones you liked best.

Thanks again!

~Dee Mann


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