Excerpt from Coffee in Common

WEDNESDAY, MAY 5, 2004

7:40 AM

Paul DiLorenzo and Roberto Tello stood in line at Coffey’s Coffee as they did nearly every workday morning. It wasn’t unusual to find the line of customers snaking around inside the shop and then stretching out the door, even on the blustery, frigid mornings that frequently passed for spring in New England.Cover of Coffee In Common by Dee Mann

There were no lattés, or double mocha cappuccinos to be found at Coffey’s. Seventy-two year old Gil Coffey didn’t believe in trendy. For forty-nine years he’d been serving hand-made-on-the-premises pastry and bagels and the very best caffeine fix in downtown Boston, and didn’t see any reason to change.

Rumor had it that representatives of some large chains periodically bought Coffey’s coffee, not to drink, but to analyze in an attempt to determine what made it so good. So far, they’d not succeeded.

In 1994, when Starbucks moved into the area, one of Gil’s employees took a marker to her name badge and became Barista Betty. Gil and the customers thought it a hoot. At the time, most folk in the area still thought barista was Italian for barkeeper. So Gil had new badges made for all the employees, a practice that now, years later, had become tradition.

“…but there was no way he was going to strike him out.”

Paul was only half paying attention to his friend as he silently debated the merits of ordering one of Gil’s amazing blueberry muffins versus a cinnamon-raisin bagel with cream cheese.

“He hasn’t struck him out in three years. So why in the hell would Francona leave him in there with the bases loaded?”

“Maybe he had a hunch.” He watched Barista Akina bring three cups to the counter for the girl in front of them.

“No maybes. The guy needs his head examined. There’s no way he should be managing a little league team much less the Red Sox.”

Paul enjoyed baseball and the Red Sox, but Rob was one of those fanatical fans for whom Red Sox Nation was created.

Akina twisted the three cups into a cardboard carrier and asked the woman, “Will there be anything else today?”

“Whatever you’re giving away for free,” she said with a grin as she reached into her purse.

Paul was about to answer Rob, but instead whipped his head around and blurted out, “Hey, that’s my line.”

Her eyes met his when she turned to see who had shouted in her ear. “Excuse me?”

Paul could only stare, captivated by her dark brown eyes, the smoothness of her skin, the gentle slope of her nose, the whiteness of her teeth, and the way her lips seemed to make him ache. He sensed the color rising in his cheeks and felt his heart quicken, unsure if it was his embarrassment or her amazing eyes making him feel suddenly very strange and self-conscious.

Finally he managed, “I ah, I’m ah, sorry. I said, ‘that’s my line.’ I almost always say that when someone asks if I want anything else.”

The woman’s skeptical frown was followed by first one, then the other eyebrow arching to accentuate her disbelief. “You say ‘that’s my line’ whenever someone asks if you want anything else?”

“No, no.” He was so rattled he didn’t realize she was joking. “I mean I always say that, what you said, when someone asks if I want anything else.”

Her simple, “Really!” made it obvious she didn’t believe him. He turned to Rob in desperation. “Tell her. Don’t I always say that?”

Crap. That sounds so lame she must think I’m an idiot.

There was no longer any doubt his face burned from making a fool of himself.

Rob rolled his eyes and nodded as he turned to face the girl. “Yah, he does. He says that all the time.”

The girl added a wrinkled brow.

Are these two working on a new pickup line or are they simply demented?

“See.” Paul tried to look hopeful.

Akina cleared her throat. “That will be nine dollars and twenty-one cents please.”

The woman turned back, removed a ten from her red leather wallet and handed it over. “Keep the change.”

She dropped the wallet in her purse, picked up the tray, turned her head to smile briefly but dismissively at Paul and Rob, and headed for the door.

The two stepped up to the counter. Rob ordered his coffee and perused the display cases filled with rich, moist muffins, flaky, sweet pastry, and assorted giant bagels. Paul watched the girl until she walked through the front door.

No sooner had it closed behind her than he turned to Rob, then back to the door, then back to Rob, who’d glanced over in time to catch his friend’s brief ballet and knew what was coming. He broke for the door, calling back over his shoulder for Rob to get him the usual and that he’d meet him at the office.

Out on the street, he performed another dance, twisting left, then right, then left again, finally catching sight of her in the morning crowd. She was walking slowly, gracefully, and he could not help but admire the gentle curves of her very feminine form as he hurried to catch up. Her dark-auburn hair shone in the morning light, swinging back-and-forth across her shoulders in a gentle counterpoint to the sway of her softly rounded hips.

“Excuse me,” he said, touching her lightly on the left shoulder.

She glanced back, then stopped and turned toward him, her face filled with curiosity.

Paul realized he had no idea what to say. Something was drawing him to this attractive stranger, but whatever it might be, it was not providing any dialogue.

“Hi. I’m Paul. I, ahh, well I couldn’t let you go away without talking to you. I mean, I’m, well…”

What the hell is wrong with me?

The woman’s curiosity morphed into mild amusement at his continued fumbling.

He took a deep breath, let it out, and shook his head, not wanting to believe he could be acting like such a dolt. He felt like he was fourteen again, facing Susie Quan, the girl who gave him his first lesson in rejection.

“Wait. Please, let me start again. I swear I’m not usually this much of a loser around women. My name’s Paul. Paul DiLorenzo. And you are…?”

“Wondering how often you stop girls on the street to make yourself look foolish.” Impatience mixed with the amusement in her eyes.

He grinned at her quickness. “Thankfully, this is the first, and please let it be the last, time.”

As before, he found her eyes hypnotic, even though they were now almost laughing at him. He shrugged.

“I really don’t make a habit of accosting women on the street. It’s just that, back there in the coffee shop was the first time I’ve ever heard anyone else use that line. I’ve been saying it since I was a teenager and when I heard you, something sort of clicked. Then, when you turned and our eyes met, something clicked again. I know it sounds crazy, but as I watched you walk out the door, this feeling came over me that I had to come after you, that I had to get to know you or I’d miss out on someone…something really important.”

“You mean, like, the universe or God or something was telling you to chase after me?”

Clearly confused, Paul replied, “Well…I don’t know, but, yah, I guess.”

The woman chuckled, shook her head, and asked, “Does this line usually work for you or are you trying out new material today?” Without waiting for a reply, she turned and resumed her slow stroll down the sidewalk.

She’s blowing me off. Why the hell am I acting like this? What is it about this girl that has me so off-balance?

He hurried to catch up, desperate for a miracle, a way to salvage this mess.

“Wait. I mean, can I walk with you. Walk you to work or wherever you’re going? I really don’t ever do this…you know, approach someone on the street like this. But what I said back there was the truth. Please. I won’t even ask your name. If you don’t think I’m worth a chance by the time we get to your building, or wherever, I’ll leave and you’ll never see me again.”

She paused and appeared to weigh his offer. Then, with a playful half-smile said, “Okay. It’s a deal. You have until we get to my building. Go.”

She started walking slowly again. Paul kept pace on her left, feeling hopeful again.

“As I said, I’m Paul DiLorenzo. I’m an associate editor at Davis Phillips publishers, and…” He turned his head to stare at her as they walked. “…I can’t believe how attracted I am to you when I don’t know a thing about you. My…”

They’d traveled about 30 feet when the woman stopped and turned to face him.

“Well, here we are,” she said, interrupting him.

Huh?

He’d expected to have more time to make an impression.

“Thanks for walking me,” she said as she started toward the office building behind him.

Completely crushed, Paul could only stand there, frozen and speechless.

A quick glance at his face as she passed startled her, but she continued toward the building. Shoulders slumped, Paul stared after her, a poster boy for total defeat.

She reached for the handle, pulled open the door, then turned and stared at him for almost twenty seconds, her gaze hard and appraising. Then her eyes softened and she said, “I usually have coffee at lunch, usually around 12:30.” She started to turn away but glanced back again, smiling.

“And my name is Jillian.”

10:01 AM

Davis Phillips Publishers, the nation’s third largest producer of beautiful coffee-table books that no one ever reads, occupied the fifth floor of the nine-story O’Malley Building on the corner of Tremont and Winter Streets, across from the northeast corner of the Boston Common and two blocks north of the Heritage Building into which Paul had watched Jillian vanish a few hours ago.

Paul shared an office with the three other members of his team, his best friend, Rob Tello, team leader Thomas Driscoll, and the recently hired Priya Kumar.

“Geez, I hate those meetings,” Paul whined as he and Priya walked away from the conference room. “Sixty minutes of my life wasted. You’d think…ah, who cares. Let’s go get coffee.”

“Shouldn’t we tell Tom, first?”

“Nah. He won’t care, as long as we bring him some.”

Passing by the company coffee room, they headed for the elevator. Neither saw any reason to drink brown sludge when Coffey’s was only two minutes away.

The ride down had been silent, but as the elevator doors opened to the lobby, Priya asked, “Mind if I ask you a personal question?”

“I don’t know. About what?”

“Rob.”

“Priya, trust me, you don’t want to go out with him. Besides he’s…”

Her laughter echoed off the marble walls. “Lord, no. It took me about two minutes to figure him out. Besides, remember my first day?”

Paul grinned and nodded.

“I was just wondering how long you’ve been friends. It’s pretty clear you knew each other before working here.”

“Oh yah, we go back to high school. We were best friends. Played ball on the same teams, dated cheerleaders, did stupid stuff together.

“We sort of lost touch after high school. I was going to Tufts and he ended up at Florida State. Then just before the end of his freshman year, his dad landed a great job near where the Red Sox have spring training, so his parents moved south.” He laughed. “While all the other kids were heading to party places for spring break, Rob was watching the Red Sox every day at training camp.”

Priya shared the laugh. “I can see that. He does seem to like his baseball. So when did you connect again?”

“About three years ago, not long after I started here. This girl Jody in accounting brought him to the company Christmas party. I tell ya, Pri, it was like I’d just seen him the day before.”

“That’s the hallmark of a true friendship,” she said, walking through the door Paul held open for her.

“I guess so,” he agreed as they approached the end of the short line. “He was teaching high school English at the time but hated the politics and bullshit. So when his predecessor announced she’d be resigning when her baby was born, I got him to apply for the job.” He laughed again. “I think a lot of women in the company rue the day he started.”

“Why? He seems like such a nice guy.”

“He is. But you’ve only known him since he started going out with Lisa. You wouldn’t know it to look at him, but he’s always been a wicked player. In high school, he developed this kind of…mystique, I guess, as a party animal and chick magnet. Girls seemed to find his personality and charm and sense of humor irresistible despite his looks. I probably shouldn’t admit this, but the best part of being friends with him was the leftovers.”

“Leftovers?”

Paul nodded, looking sheepish. “The friends of the girls he went out with, the ones he broke up with after a few weeks, you know what I mean?”

“You called them leftovers?” Offense blazed in her eyes, but he was saved from having to answer when Barista Manny asked what he could get for them.

Four minutes later, as the door to Coffey’s closed behind them, Priya punched his arm hard enough that he almost dropped the cardboard cup holder. “Leftovers! What is it with men and their need to objectify and demean?”

She stomped off, leaving him rubbing his arm as he hurried to catch up.

“Priya, I’m sorry. That’s what we used to say in high school. We were stupid kids with too many hormones. Come on, don’t be angry.”

 

An hour later, Paul was still getting the silent treatment, much to the amusement of Rob and Tom.

Priya glanced at him.

I suppose I should let him off the hook. After all, it was a long time ago, and he is such a gentleman now. And I guess I was really taking out on him all the crap from other guys.

Tom clearing his throat drew her eyes across the office to the desk that faced hers. She took in his familiar round freckled face, bushy orange-red hair, and trim but stocky five-foot eleven-inch build.

He could change his name to Mahatma Chang or anything else and you would still know he was of Irish descent. Rob, on the other hand, has that everyman look. He really could come from manywheres.

Her eyes returned to Paul as she let her thoughts drift back to her first day at DPP.

* * *

Priya was very nervous. She had arrived early but stayed out of the way until all three guys were safely at their desks. Then she walked in, closed the door, placed her bag on her desk, lifted her arms over her head in a swimsuit pose, and said, smiling, “Good morning, guys. Let’s see a show of hands. Who wants to see me naked?”

The men were stunned into silence. They stared, unblinking, unmoving, like clichéd deer transfixed by the bright headlights of an oncoming car. She stared back for a few seconds then started laughing as she pointed to each in turn and said, “Liar, liar, and liar.”

Her laughter relaxed them a bit and Rob’s hand inched up slowly until it was above his head.

“Ah,” she said, “an honest man.” Slowly, she shook her head from side-to-side, turned to face him and said, “Rob, it will never happen. Ever.” Her hands moved to indicate her attractive, but conservative business suit. “This is as close as you will ever get to seeing heaven.”

Shoot. That sounded awfully conceited.

“Look guys, I had to leave two really good jobs in the past year because the men I worked with either wouldn’t take me seriously or couldn’t keep their eyes, and other parts, to themselves. I’m good at what I do, and this seems like a really nice, friendly place, but I came here to work, and that’s all I came here to do. If that’s going to be a problem, please tell me now before I get comfortable in the job.”

Her new coworkers were grinning broadly. Tom stood and gave her a slight bow of appreciation. “Well done, ma’am. Well done.”

* * *

In the three months since then, she’d never once caught any of them looking at her in anything but a friendly and professional way. Even when the office banter turned suggestive, or even sexual, she was just one of the team.

She sighed, decided it was time to forgive Paul, and tossed a paperclip at him to get his attention. “So what happened with the girl this morning? Did you get lucky?”

Paul grinned, happy things were back to normal, then glared at Rob. “I should have figured you’d start blabbing the minute you got here.” He turned his attention back to Tom and Priya. “To answer your question…oh yeah…I was on my game.”

“Sure you were,” Rob jeered, remembering his performance in the coffee shop. “Did you get her number?”

“Number, ha! Who needs a number?”

“He struck out,” Priya said. “He got nothing and now he’ll be getting nothing. Poor Paul.”

Tom snorted his agreement, holding up his right hand with thumb and forefinger forming an ‘L’.

“Lady, gentlemen, please. You forget to whom you are speaking. I was so smooth, so charming, so damned irresistible that I didn’t even ask for her number.

“See, I told you…” Priya began.

“But,” Paul continued, interrupting her. “I did make a date for lunch today.”

11:30 AM

11:30! How could it only be 11:30?

Paul hadn’t been this anxious for lunchtime to arrive since high school, when he’d skip the entrée in the cafeteria and head right outside to meet Sue Ellen for a little lip-locking dessert.

He studied Rob, sitting at this desk across the room, engrossed in whatever he was editing.

I wonder if he remembers the night we went to the Sheepfold with Suzy and…what was her name…the redhead with the big boobs…and he got out of the car in his boxers to take a whiz and…what the hell is her name…convinced Suzy to drive off toward the entrance as if we were going to leave him there. Man, I can still hear us all laughing, still see him running across the parking lot by moonlight, cursing and pleading.

As he forced it from his face, he was glad none of his co-workers had caught his evil grin.

Hmmm…did I ever thank him for introducing me to Suzy?

His gaze drifted right to Priya.

She really looks hot today…I wonder if she has a boyfriend. She must. Probably some muscle-bound face with a big dick. Girls like her can get anyone they want. But she never talks about dating anyone…and she doesn’t seem like the superficial type…unless she’s a great actress…but that stunt she pulled the first day…no way…she’s okay. Just private, I guess. I wonder if Jillian will really show up…damn, what the hell was wrong with me this morning…must have been those eyes…great eyes…maybe she…

Tom’s voice rang out. “Hey, DiLorenzo, you working or dreaming over there?”

12:15 PM

Jillian hurried toward the coffee shop. A curious anxiety nibbled at the back of her mind. She wanted to be there before he arrived but wasn’t sure why. The wind blew her hair around and though she tried to keep it in place, she knew she’d need to fix it once inside.

The lunchtime crowd, like the wind, all seemed to be coming toward her, making it difficult to move quickly. As she drew closer to the shop, she realized she was actually nervous about meeting this guy.

Paul DiLorenzo. Nice name. And he is kind of cute. But he was so flustered this morning. Do I really want to sit through a whole lunch with some spaz? What would Liz say to do? Be cool. Just be cool and detached and make him work to impress me. But lord, that look on his face this morning. If it hadn’t been for that look… Come on, girl, get a grip. You’ve shot down plenty of come-ons before. But that look…not just disappointment… almost…devastation. How can you not at least give a guy a chance when he’s devastated at the thought of not seeing you again. And I guess it was kind of sweet the way he was stumbling over himself to impress me. I never did that to a guy before.

She reached the shop, pulled open the door and stepped inside. It felt good to get out of the wind.

Mmmm…it smells wonderful in here. Coffee mixed with the pastry…I sure wish someone would figure out how to capture it in a bottle, so I can spray it around the apartment.

She was standing a few feet inside the door and when it opened again, the cold air roused her from her reverie. With a contented sigh, she turned to find a table and saw Paul sitting at the one in the corner, his back to the front window. He was reading from a stack of papers and there were three or four cups on the table.

Damn.

She quickly finger-combed her hair.

How long has he been here? And what’s with all the coffee? Are other people coming? Is this some kind of game after all? Maybe I should just get out of here before he sees me.

She hesitated, still trying to smooth out her hair but, without a mirror, not having much success.

What the hell…he takes me as I am or not at all.

She removed her scarf and started toward the table. Holding the scarf in her left hand, she used her right to unbutton her coat. When she was closer, she saw she was correct about the coffees. There were three sitting unopened in the center of the table and one, obviously his and already half empty, near the edge.

“Hi,” she said with a neutral smile as she reached the table.

“Hi,” he replied without thinking. Then he looked up and jumped out of his seat.

“Oh, hi!” he repeated, this time with genuine enthusiasm. “You’re early.”

“Not as early as you, I see.”

Her eyes flicked to the table, then back to Paul. “Have you been working?” She gestured reflexively and her scarf caught his cup, spilling the coffee all over the papers.

When they heard the cup go over, they looked down at the mess and simultaneously groaned, “Oh crap!”

Their heads snapped back up at the matching exclamations as all through the shop, heads turned to see what was happening.

Jillian was mortified. “I am so sorry. I…”

“That’s okay,” he said, interrupting, as he grabbed the few napkins on the table and started blotting at the drenched manuscript. “Just…can you get me some more napkins?”

He continued to blot at the spilled coffee but it was futile now. The napkins were saturated. Jillian hurried off, trying to ignore the stares from other customers, and returned with a napkin dispenser. She pulled out three small napkins which emptied the dispenser. Quickly, she turned it around to find the other side empty as well.

“I don’t believe this,” she moaned, silently cursing her decision to stay.

She hurried off again to return with two handfuls of napkins. Dropping them all over the spill, she began sopping up the coffee, so embarrassed that she couldn’t look at him.

“I really am so sorry. I can’t believe I did that. I’ve probably ruined your work and now…now…”

She wadded up a pile of saturated napkins, still not able to meet his eyes.

“…I…I’m sorry. I should go. Really, I’m sorry.”

She turned to leave.

“Wait! Where are you going? You just got here.”

Paul finished mopping up the coffee and piled the wet napkins on the edge of table against the wall.

“Please, calm down. Didn’t your mom ever tell you not to cry over spilled coffee. Or was that milk. No matter. Come on, sit down. It’s okay.”

He could see how embarrassed she was. Gently he said, “Really, Jillian. No harm done.”

He moved to the other side of the table and pulled out the chair for her.

Jillian forced herself to face him and saw he was grinning.

He rattled the chair a bit, his eyes pleading with her to stay. “Please?”

She forced a weak smile and took the offered seat. As he moved back to his chair, she shrugged off her jacket and nervously ran her fingers through her hair again, suddenly hoping it didn’t look too horrible. They stared at each other for a few moments, neither one really sure what to say. Then Paul started to chuckle. He tried his best to contain it but couldn’t and a full-fledged laugh burst through.

His laughter was infectious. Jillian noticed her mood growing lighter as the corners of her mouth curled into a smile.

He is so strange!

“What’s so funny?”

Paul took a few seconds to get the laughter under control. As he did, she again took in his thick, brown hair with its reddish highlights, his brown eyes flecked with gold, his straight nose, and his full, laughing lips. She remembered from this morning that he carried himself with a casual straightness. She noticed he sat that way, too. His shoulders were not exceptionally broad, nor his arms particularly muscular, yet he seemed to exude a quiet physical prowess.

“Well, think about it. Our first meeting this morning was somewhat of a disaster, with me acting unbelievably foolish. And now our second meeting starts with another, ah…small blip. But this time it’s you who…”

He started laughing again, quietly this time, enjoying the irony of the situation. Jillian started to say something but he stopped her.

“Wait, please. Before you say anything else, before anything else happens…what is your last name?”

Somehow, that simple question relaxed her and Jillian grinned at his urgency.

“Marshall. Jillian Marshall.”

Paul started to extend his hand over the table to shake hands but retreated a bit and hooked it around the coffee cups.

Jillian feigned indignation and extended her hand straight over the them. As their hands approached, a small jolt of static electricity made them both jump. Startled, each wondered if the spark was an omen and, if so, what sort. Then, as they shook hands, a spark of a different sort passed between them.

“Paul DiLorenzo,” he said. “I am really happy to meet you Ms. Jillian Marshall.”

“And I’m still a little embarrassed, but happy to meet you, too. I hope I didn’t destroy anything really important.”

Paul picked up one of the wet sheets of paper.

“No, don’t worry about it. It’s just the only copy of a recently discovered manuscript by Ernest Hemingway. It’ll dry.” He paused, looking worried. “I hope.”

Jillian’s wide-eyed stare vanished when she saw him grin again.

“Jerk. I almost believed you for a second.”

“Sorry. I couldn’t resist. How long do you have for lunch?”

“I should be back by one.”

Paul nodded slightly. “Me too.” He paused for a deep breath. “You know, I probably shouldn’t ever bring this up again, but I really am sorry I was so clumsy this morning about meeting you. I’m usually a fairly articulate guy.”

“That’s okay. You were nervous. Nervous can be kind of cute. And let’s be honest here, your clumsy this morning doesn’t come close to my clumsy a few minutes ago.”

“Okay then, we’re even. I hope you won’t mind me saying this so soon, but you are the second most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen in person.”

Jillian blushed, pleased and flattered by the compliment.

“Come on, I know I’m not a beast, but the second…”

“No, really. You are definitely the second most beautiful woman I’ve ever met.

Her blush deepened.

“Okay, but just the second? Who’s the first?”

Paul looked right into her shining, beautiful brown eyes and said. “Everyone else.”

Stunned at the unexpected reply, Jillian stared at him for a second before she burst out laughing.

“You really are a jerk. I owe you big time for that.”

Looking pleased and a little relieved, Paul glanced up to thank God she was laughing.

“I’m sorry. I couldn’t stop myself. And I figured that if I’m on trial, I might as well let you see who I really am. If you hadn’t laughed just then, well, I’d have been heartbroken, but I’d have known we’d never really get along.”

“What do you mean ‘on trial’?”

“Didn’t you come here to decide whether you liked me enough to give me your number and try me out on a real date?”

Jillian looked as if she were about to protest, but Paul continued on.

“That’s okay. That’s what you should be doing when a strange guy embarrasses himself on the street. I mean, anyone can act like a fool for a few minutes in order to charm a beautiful girl, but it takes a special kind of guy to sustain it for a whole lunch. And you don’t strike me as the type of girl who would waste much time on that kind of guy.”

“And how do I strike you?”

“Right through the heart, so far.”

Jillian’s blush had faded, but rose anew at this latest compliment. Desperate to change the subject, she nodded toward the three cups.

“Are these all for me?”

“Yes.”

Three coffees?”

“Well, I didn’t know how you liked your coffee, but I figured one of the three you bought this morning had to be for you, so I talked to Akina and…”

“Akina?”

“The barista who waited on you this morning.”

“You’re on a first name basis with the people here?”

“Not really, just Akina, and only since noon when I got here. I took a chance she might remember you, which she did, since you come in all the time with the same order. Or so she said. So I asked her for the same three coffees and here they are.”

Pointing to them one-by-one, he said, “Decaf regular, black two sugars, and milk dark no sugar.”

Jillian started to reach for one but Paul stopped her. “Wait. Let me guess.”

He studied her for a few seconds, then picked up the milk-dark-no sugar and handed it to her with a hopeful look on his face.

“I’m impressed. How did you know?”

“I didn’t. I guessed. Or rather, I hoped.”

“Hoped?”

“Uh-huh. That’s how I take mine.”

Her disbelief was unmistakable.

“Really! I told you this morning I had a strange feeling when I first saw you. It was like I knew you, even though I didn’t know you. It…but this is all getting a little too heavy.”

Paul picked up his empty cup. “How about sharing some of that coffee?”

Jillian poured half of the coffee from her cup into his, then handed it back.

“I don’t think it’s hot anymore,” she said.

“That’s okay. I’m used to cold coffee. Besides, just looking at you will keep me warm.”

“Oh please,” she muttered, rolling her eyes.

Paul laughed. “Okay, I guess I am laying it on a little thick.” He checked his watch and realized time was getting short. “As much as I’d like to sit here with you all afternoon, we only have about twenty-five minutes left before you have to decide and all you know about me is how I like my coffee, that I can act goofy, and that I have a strange sense of humor.”

He locked eyes with her, his gaze never wavering as he continued.

“So fire away. Ask me anything you want to know. Job, school, shoe size, favorite Backstreet Boy. Anything. Because when I walk out that door in a little while…” He reached across the table to move a tuft of hair away from her eye. The touch of his finger against her skin sent another spark through her, a warm, welcome spark. “…I’ll either have your phone number, or a huge hole where my heart used to be.”

6:20 PM

Jillian closed the door to her apartment, dropped her keys in her purse, shrugged off her coat, and hung both on the wooden pegs on the wall next to the door. The scarf she held up, smiling with the memory of the chaos it caused.

It had been a long, eventful day both in and out of work, but she was still full of energy. Happy and excited her lunch with Paul had gone so well after its disastrous beginning, she was dying to tell her friends all the details. But it was still too early. Neither Liz nor Jenna would be home from work for at least fifteen minutes.

The golden glow of the afternoon sun streamed through the four oversized, Victorian-era double-hung wood sash windows that formed a bay overlooking the street. It cast curious shadows in the two alcoves, one that held her bed, nightstand, and dresser, and the other, an efficiency kitchen.

She took the big feather duster from the umbrella stand by the door and moved around the room dusting the photos, prints, and posters that brightened the room and, even on a gloomy day, made visitors feel welcome. Then she fixed the pillows on the floral print sofa and two overstuffed chairs that reminded her of the wallpaper in her room as a child, all the while, thinking of him.

Suddenly in the mood for music, she loaded her special mix CD into the player.

Always and forever
Each moment with you
Is just like a dream to me
That somehow came true, yeah

The sweet sound of Luther Vandross filled the apartment. Her eyelids drooped, half closed as she conjured an image of Paul smiling at her the way he did when he was holding the chair for her, urging her to stay. Something about him, even the thought of him, made her feel strangely comfortable. He’d been so nice, so easy to talk to once she was past the humiliation of spilling coffee on his work.

She grinned, remembering the exasperation on his face as he tried to sop up half a cup of coffee with a few small napkins. Then her face softened, almost glowed, as she remembered the light in his eyes when he’d moved that wisp of hair and said those sweet things.

Lost in her fantasy, she ambled to the windows to close the curtains, flopped on the sofa, then almost immediately jumped up and headed for the kitchen where she grabbed a bottle from the fridge. Sipping the water, still swaying with the music, she strolled to the bedroom alcove and sat on the edge of the bed, recalling yet again the events of the day. The last strains of the song faded and were replaced by another Vandross standard, Here & Now. She giggled out loud at the memory of how goofy and desperate he’d been when they first met, but was startled out of her reverie by the shrill ring of the phone.

Hoping it would be him, but knowing it was probably some telemarketer, she screwed the cap back on the bottle and rolled backward over the bed to grab the cordless phone on the nightstand.

“Hello?”

“You forgot to take your cell phone off silent again. It’s a wonder you have any friends at all since you make it so hard for people to reach you.”

“Hi, Liz.” She tried to keep her excitement out of her voice. “You’re home early!”

“Jenna and I both got out early. I just talked with her. We were thinking about Piazolla’s for dinner tonight. Lucy from work said she was there twice last week and there were lots of mighty fine guys hanging and…”

Unable to contain herself, Jillian blurted out, “Liz, stop. I have to tell you something. You won’t believe what happened to me today.”

Elizabeth could hear the particular excitement in her friend’s voice and knew only one thing could have put it there.

“Don’t even tell me his name. I promised Jenna I’d pick her up in ten minutes and if you start talking now she’ll be waiting on me for an hour. We’ll be over as fast as we can get through traffic. And forget about Piazolla’s tonight.”

“Okay, okay. But you and Jenna hurry. And bring Thai.”

7:10 PM

DHL sat on the corner of Charles and Chestnut Streets, two blocks north of the Boston Common. Named for the writer D.H. Lawrence when it first opened three decades ago, it had quickly become a trendy, English-pub-style watering hole. Today, it attracted a loyal clientele who were more interested in a relaxed atmosphere than being seen in the vicinity of whomever happened to be hot at the moment.

Paul and Rob liked DHL because it was never so crowded or loud you couldn’t carry on a conversation. That the place offered thirty-six beers and ales on tap, with another three dozen in bottles didn’t hurt much either.

“Your favorite Backstreet Boy? You didn’t really say that?” Rob’s incredulous stare conveyed more than his words.

Paul surveyed the long mahogany and brass bar that ran along the left wall and the lacquered pine tables surrounded by wood chairs comfortably padded with dark, leather cushions that filled most of the rest of the space. “I swear. It just came out. And I can’t figure out why. I never even liked the Backstreet Boys.” He shook his head. “But it didn’t matter. We hit it off, man. We really hit it off. She was so uptight and embarrassed after spilling my coffee but then she just seemed to relax. And after that, there were no games, no posturing. We were just talking and laughing. Really connecting.”

Rob screwed his face into a grimace. “Geez, man, you realize you’re starting to sound like a girl.”

“Up yours. Are you telling me you and Lisa never talked about stuff?” He knew Rob had suggested drinks for a reason and figured it was time to start the poking and prodding.

In response to silence, Paul said, “Look, buddy. I really didn’t want to come here tonight. I wanted to head home and call Jillian. If you hadn’t practically begged me…you know?”

Rob sighed. “Well, yah, of course. We talked about movies, and food, and sex, and things to do. Stuff like that.”

“Maybe that was the problem. Maybe she wanted to talk about more than that. Feelings and stuff. Chick stuff, you know?”

Rob stared into space for a few seconds then sighed, nodding slightly. “Yah, maybe.”

“So what’s going on there?”

“Same as yesterday. Same as last week. We’re on a break. She wanted a break to think about us.”

He paused for a few seconds, again shaking his head. “What’s there to think about? We go out, we have fun, the sex is great.” He grimaced. “It’s her friends, I know it’s her friends. They don’t like me much. They think I’m a troll.”

Caught off-guard, Paul almost choked on his beer as he tried hard not to laugh. “A troll?”

“They don’t think I’m handsome enough for her. They want her to find some guy who’s more in her league. I’m too ordinary for them, which would be okay if I had lots of money, but I don’t. I guess I embarrass them. When all the beautiful folk get together they don’t want to have to look at commoners.”

“Come on, Rob. Lisa is not that shallow. She…”

“I know, I know. But her friends are. And they’re at her all the time about me.”

“How do you know? You’ve heard them?”

Rob fidgeted with discomfort. “Two months ago we were at a party. It was a benefit thing for some beavers or possums or something like that. Anyway, I’m standing at the bar waiting for our drinks. Lisa’s off with some museum people she knows. These two girls come up behind me talking.”

* * *

“So how long has she been seeing him?” Kiki asked.

“Like, a couple of months,” her friend Rachel replied. “I can’t believe you didn’t hear.”

“How would I hear? Four months I’m in Paris and did anyone call me? You didn’t call me.”

“Yes I did. Two weeks after you left. You said you were having très much fun and met this guy François, and just didn’t have time to talk because he was waiting for you in the lobby and…”

“Oh…well…yes, now I remember. Well…”

“I decided you’d call if you got lonely. Not that I could imagine you getting lonely in a country full of hot guys.”

“Girl, you can not imagine. But that’s for another day. So you say she’s been seeing him for two months?”

Rachel nodded. “Two or three.”

“But why? Does he have this enormous package or something? Or is he, like, really rich? He certainly doesn’t dress it if he is.”

“I don’t know about his package, but he can’t have much money. Nobody ever heard of him.” She shrugged. “None of us can figure it out.”

“Has anyone asked her?”

Rachel didn’t even try to hide her disdain. “Of course,” she said, then added in a mocking tone, “She said he treats her nice and makes her laugh.”

“And that’s supposed to make up for his looking like a truck driver? What is Lisa thinking?”

Rob didn’t usually listen to chatter or gossip but his ears perked up when he heard Lisa’s name. He paid close attention now, as the women continued their conversation.

“I don’t know. But she’s, like, totally into this guy. Everyone keeps telling her she should dump him and find someone in her own league, you know, because this guy is just so far beneath her. Oh, and you haven’t heard the worst yet.”

“What could be worse than no money and no looks?

“His name’s Roberto something. I think he’s from Mexico, or Puerto Rico, or someplace like that.”

“No!”

“Yes!” Rob’s voice mocked her exclamation.

The bartender had just placed the drinks on the bar. Rob grabbed one in each hand, turned, and smiled at the women.

“Actually, my family is from Ecuador.”

Smiling, he introduced himself. “Roberto Tello. It’s so nice to meet you. It’s good to know Lisa has such warm, caring friends who look out for her best interests even when she’s so obviously out of her mind.”

Both girls were embarrassed to discover the subject of their gossip had overheard them, but neither appeared contrite. Just the opposite.

“Well, I’m sorry you heard that,” Rachel sniffed, “but maybe it was for the best. You have to know that you’re just a fling for her.” She smiled viciously. “I mean, we all go slumming once in a while.”

“Really? We all do that?”

“Those of us who, well, you know.”

“Yes, I think I do know.”

Not to be left out, Kiki chimed in. “You really should, you know, save yourself a lot of future pain and move on to someone who’s more your type. I mean, this thing with you and her can’t last. She’ll get tired of people making fun of her because of you.”

Rob’s smile disappeared. Worry lines creased his forehead. “People, her friends you mean, make fun of her because she goes out with me?”

“Yes! All the time!” Her voice lowered as she confided, “You know, people at our level can be, well, mean sometimes.”

“No!” Rob appeared confused. “I haven’t noticed that at all since we’ve been together.”

“Oh you wouldn’t. I mean, we’re not uncouth or anything. No one would come right out and say anything if you or she were, like, around. But people do talk and the talk certainly gets back to Lisa.”

“Yes, I can imagine.” He could no longer hide his contempt. “I guess it is a good thing she has friends like you two who she can count on to keep her abreast of all the mean and hurtful gossip your little minds produce.”

Being chastised by someone she considered beneath her was unthinkable and Rachel’s glare could have melted steel. “Sure, as if you never say anything about anyone. See, that’s what I mean. You think you’re as good as she is but you’re not. Lisa should have someone who’s her equal. Both socially and, ah, visually. You are not that person. And you’ll never be that person.”

Rob was growing tired of the two snobs, but his honor had been offended, something he could not let pass.

“Well…this was very enlightening. Very enlightening indeed. If you’ll excuse me.”

He started to walk between them, but appeared to stumble, sending the contents of one of the glasses spilling down the front of Rachel’s dress. “Oh my. I’m so sorry. How clumsy of me.”

Rachel was livid. “You did that on purpose. You…”

Rob interrupted her. “Please, let me get something to dry you off.”

He turned to Kiki and said, “Here, hold this, while I get a towel.”

He handed her the drink, which slipped from his fingers, bounced off her hand, and spilled on the front of her dress.

Kiki gave a short scream of dismay.

“Oh dear!” Rob said. “Again! I really am sorry.” He turned to the bartender, who winked at him. “May I have some towels please?”

Both women were beside themselves now with fury. They could not believe any man, especially one like him, would treat them this way.

“You asshole!” Rachel seethed, her voice dripping with venom. “You stay away from us. Just remember, Lisa will dump you. And I’ll be standing next to her laughing at you when she does.”

* * *

Paul’s raucous laughter caused a few heads to turn their way. “Are you serious? They really said that stuff? You really did that to both of them? Why did I never hear about this?”

“They did, and I did. When I told Lisa what happened, she couldn’t believe I’d actually do something like that.”

“I can understand. I’m having trouble believing it myself.”

“Well, she insisted I promise never to do that to anyone again, no matter what the provocation, and not to tell anyone else about it.” Rob shrugged. “You know Lisa. What else could I do but promise?”

Paul was still chuckling.

“I guess I see why you think her friends may have had something to do with it. All I can say is, I wish I had been there to see it.”

Paul extended his hand, palm open and they exchanged slaps twice.

“Do you have to hang around a lot with these people?”

“No, not really. They’re not friends like we’re friends. Not any more. They’re the kids of people in her parent’s social circle. They all used to hang out when they were in high school, and I guess many of them still do, but Lisa doesn’t really see them much…once in a while at some social thing.”

“That would be once in a while too much for me.”

“Me, too. But Lisa feels like she has to be friendly for her parents’ sake.”

“So, you haven’t heard from her at all?”

“Not a word. And it’s been, like, almost two weeks now. I called a couple of times but got her voice mail. I left a message once, but she never called me back.”

“That’s tough, dude.”

“Yah, well, she said she wanted time alone to think, so I probably shouldn’t be surprised. But I miss her, man, you know? We were so good together. I loved how proper she was in public and how wild she could be when we were alone.”

He glanced away for a few seconds, trying to gauge whether to risk ridicule by continuing.

Paul read the indecision on his friend’s face. “I know what you mean, buddy. It’s like a big hole, a big empty place she used to fill, but now…nothing.”

“Exactly.” He decided to take the risk. “You know when you were talking about coffee girl before, and you said that when you saw her the first time you felt something click. Well, that’s what happened to me when I first met Lisa.”

“Did you ever tell her?”

“Tell her? No. I don’t think I ever really acknowledged it to myself, much less to her. I mean, you know me. I’ve always been free, having a good time, one girl after another. Do you realize I’d been with Lisa for over five months before this break. Five months! That’s the longest I’ve been with one girl since high school. Even then, I wasn’t really exclusive with anyone. But with Lisa, it’s different.” He sighed. “You know, I realized last week that since I’ve been with her, I never even think about other women.”

Paul looked skeptical. “Man, I’ve seen you ogling…”

“Yah, yah, I know. I look at pretty girls. But it’s the damnedest thing. I look, but I never fantasize about what it would be like to be with them anymore.”

“Sounds like the ‘L’ word to me,” Paul said. “Sounds like you have it bad. Did you ever tell her you loved her?”

“Of course, like when we were doing it and stuff.”

“That’s it?”

“What do you mean?”

Paul was shaking his head. “Rob, how can a man with Latino blood in his veins, a man who’s had more women than most men dream of…how can you know so little about them? Are you seriously telling me you only told Lisa you loved her while you were screwing her?”

“No. Sometimes I’d tell her afterward, or before.”

Rob was beginning to regret taking that chance. He wasn’t comfortable talking about love and emotions. And he really didn’t like talking about sex, although he’d engage in bragging banter with other guys when it seemed to be called for.

Paul noticed his friend withdrawing.

“Rob, Lisa is the steadiest, most unassuming girl I’ve ever met. She’s smart, funny, looks great but doesn’t seem to care, and, well, you know I could go on and on. Five months ago, for whatever reason I’ll never know, she chose you. And until this taking-a-break thing, I thought you two were made for each other. So did everyone else, which is why none of us can figure out what the taking-a-break is all about.

“But now I think I understand. You believe it was her friends dissing you, but from what you say, they’d been doing that right along. No, this is not the fault of her friends, buddy, it’s all your fault.”

Paul took a swig of his beer, sat back, and waited for a reaction.

Rob looked dazed. After a minute he mumbled, “My fault?”

“Your fault,” Paul shot back. “Man, if you want to keep a woman like Lisa you have to work at it. She can have any guy she wants in this town. Hell, she can probably have any guy she wants in the world. But she chose you. Why would she do that?”

“She said I made her laugh, and that I’m nice to her.”

“Okay, that’s what hooked her, but what kept her coming back for five months?”

“I don’t know,” Rob replied. “Good times, great sex?”

Paul signaled the bartender to send over another round.

“Rob, she can get that anywhere, and probably in greater quantity and quality.”

“Hey…”

“Yah, blah, blah, I know. I’ve seen you in the shower, buddy. You ain’t that special. Look, Lisa saw something in you, something that made her want to stick around. But you never gave her any reason to do so. Women want, no, they need to be told, to be reassured all the time. They need to hear the words, and not just when you’re in bed with them. I’d bet money Lisa’s trying to decide if you’ll ever wake up and realize that being together involves more than fun and games, especially if she’s thinking long term. You know what I mean about long-term?”

Rob nodded. “Yah, I guess so. But it’s too late now. I can feel it. If she hasn’t called in two weeks, she’s not going to. Not until she gets up the nerve to tell me it’s over for good.”

“You don’t know that.”

“Yes I do.”

“No, you don’t. But what have you done the past two weeks to help her decide? You’ve done nothing but leave one message on her machine. What do you think that’s telling her? It’s telling her you don’t care enough to pursue her.”

“She said she didn’t want to talk to me, she wanted the time alone.”

“Bullshit. She wants you to come after her, to show her that you really want her, and not just for sex and smartass. She’s waiting for you to decide if you really want her for the long haul. She’s waiting for you to do something, you dope.”

“Do what? What can I do?”

“What can you do? Are you serious? Send her flowers, call her and tell her how much you miss her. And leave that message if she doesn’t answer the phone. Camp out on her door step. Invite her out to talk. Tell her you love her, stupid.”

Paul punched Rob in the arm. “Tell her and show her how much you love her.”

7:35 PM

Jillian opened her door and waited for her friends to hike up the twenty-one stairs to her floor.

She’d spent the forty-five minutes between hanging up with Liz and her friends’ arrival vacuuming her already clean rugs, washing and polishing her already spotless bathroom fixtures, and setting dishes, glasses, and chopsticks on the burled oak coffee table she’d rescued from the trash last year and had spent an entire weekend restoring to beauty. It rested in front of the sofa which was nestled in the large window bay.

The girls bounced up the stairs whispering to each other, then hurried down the short hall when they noticed her waiting for them.

“Jilli’s got a boyfriend, Jilli’s got a boyfriend,” Jenna sang as she pranced through the door and hung her jacket on a peg. “Liz and I discussed it on the way over and we decided we really don’t want to know anything about him. We’d rather watch a movie.”

Liz nodded her agreement as she set the bag full of aromatic Thai food on the bar separating the kitchen from the rest of the studio.

“Oh, well, if you really don’t want to hear about him…”

Just then, the CD Jillian had started earlier played the last chords of I Believe In You And Me and restarted with Always and Forever. The dreamy expression returned as her eyes slowly closed, and she began swaying slightly with the music, her thoughts suddenly far from friends and food.

Liz and Jenna exchanged astonished stares. Jillian was the practical one, not usually given to overly romantic flights of fancy. They watched her for a minute, grinning and pointing, mouthing silent questions and replies to each other.

“Okay,” Jenna said, no longer able to keep silent. “Enough of this game. Anyone who can make her do that I have to hear about.”

7:45 PM

Halfway through their third beer, the two had pretty much talked-out the Lisa situation. They’d been sitting quietly for a few minutes, each lost in his own thoughts.

Paul glanced at his watch, ready to split.

Man, I hate leaving him here like this, but I really want to get home and call Jillian. Why the hell is he just sitting there? I’d have been out of here long ago looking for her. It’s like he really doesn’t think he can do anything. But how can he not at least try?

He was about to tell Rob it was time to go when he noticed two women walk in. The shorter one waved their way as they approached the table.

“Hi Rob. Sorry we’re late. We took the train and something happened and we sat there, stopped, for almost twenty minutes.”

She leaned over to give Rob a short kiss. Perplexed, Paul’s glare demanded to know what was going on.

“Hey, Debbie.” He turned to the other girl. “You must be Marianne.” When she nodded, he said, “Hi, I’m Rob and this is Paul.”

“Pleased to meet you both.” Forcing the glare from his face, Paul rose to shake their hands.

Introductions completed, Debbie said, “Pardon us for a minute. We need to find the little girls room.”

The glare returned and as soon as the girls were out of earshot, he blasted Rob. “What the fuck is this? Did you set me up or something and not bother to ask me?”

“Take it easy, man. Debbie said her friend was staying with her for a few days and asked if I could find her a date for the evening. She wasn’t even sure Marianne would want to come out, so I didn’t say anything in case she didn’t show. I didn’t want to get your hopes up, you know?”

“Get my hopes up? Are you kidding? What if I already had a date tonight?”

“But you don’t.”

“But you didn’t know that. Besides, I’m not interested in a date tonight. I want to go home and call Jillian.”

“Who?”

“Jillian. Focus, Rob. The girl from the coffee shop. The girl I’ve been talking about all day. And who’s Debbie?”

“I met her yesterday at the gym. If you think she looks good now, you should see her in spandex.”

Paul’s head moved slowly from side to side, unbelieving.

“And what about Lisa? You just finished telling me how much you love her, how much you miss her, how you never think of other girls, and now you’re ready to date this Debbie? Was that a joke? What if she sees you with her?”

“Hey, she’s the one who wanted to take a break. Am I supposed to sit around and wait for her to make up her mind?”

“I don’t believe this. Did you hear anything I said before? I told you to go after her, to convince her she wants you back. Do you think going out with someone else will accomplish that?”

“I don’t know.”

“Man, I really don’t want to spend the night with…oh shit, here they come.”

Rob glanced over his shoulder as girls emerged from the ladies room.

“Come on, man, be a friend. Be nice to her for a few hours so me and Debbie can get to know each other. I’ll owe you one.”

“A big one.”

“A big one what?” Debbie asked.

Paul raised his hand and wiggled his little finger. “We were discussing Rob’s desire to find a way to overcome his, ah, shortcoming.”

7:55 PM

Laughter rang through the room. Jillian, Liz, and Jenna were sitting on the sofa. The table in front of them was littered with open take-out containers and water bottles.

“I’m telling you, he was so goofy and cute and he was trying so hard, but I really thought it was some kind of totally bad pick-up thing, you know?”

Liz and Jenna nodded.

“So my evil twin took over and I was so mean to him. But then, when I saw his face as I passed him, I started thinking maybe it wasn’t just a line. So I let him know where I’d be for lunch and he, umm, he looked like he’d won the lottery.”

“The lottery?” Jenna asked.

“Uh-huh, all happy and excited. I spent all morning debating if I should really go, you know. I mean, he could have been a good actor or some weirdo, but I went.”

Jillian’s eyes closed as she smiled again.

Liz grinned. “Jeez, she’s at it again.” She poked Jillian’s arm. “Come on girl, snap out of it.”

Jillian made a face but resumed her recitation. She reported everything that happened at lunch. Her friends interrupted frequently with questions, for clarifications, and to laugh out loud. They analyzed every sentence, every word, every inflection, gesture, raised eyebrow, scratched ear, and twitch of the lunchtime conversation. They chewed it all up and spit out every possible shade of meaning of every minute point until there was simply nothing left to scrutinize.

“So how ugly is he?” Liz asked.

“What do you mean?”

“Well, so far, we’ve heard how goofy he was and then how charming he was and blah, blah, blah, but not a word about how he looks. What’s the matter with him?”

“I already told you he was cute.”

“No you didn’t,” Jenna said. “You said he acted goofy and cute.”

“Well my mistake. I’ll tell you…” Jillian took several long sips from her water bottle before checking the various containers to see what morsels might remain. Then she said, “You know, I really should go pee. I’ll be back in a minute.”

Liz grabbed her left arm. “You’re going nowhere.” She motioned for Jenna to hold her right.

“Yah,” Jenna said. “Pee your pants if you have to but you’re not getting up until we know what he looks like.”

Jillian pretended to struggle for a few seconds, until all three were laughing again.

“He is sooo cute. He’s about five-ten, has brown hair, cut short, and these incredible brown eyes that seemed to see right inside me. He’s thin, but not skinny and has a really nice smile with a dimple right here.” Jillian pointed to a spot on her left cheek a little less than an inch away from the corner of her mouth. “Satisfied?”

“He sounds really great,” Jenna told her. “Is he cuter than Aiden?”

Jillian flinched. Liz glared at Jenna, who just shrugged.

“I’m sorry. It’s been so long I didn’t think his name was still verboten.”

“Well, it is,” Liz barked. “And you should…”

Jillian laid a hand on her friend’s arm. “It’s okay, Liz, it just caught me off-guard.” But her dreamy smile had vanished. She turned to Jenna. “Neither one is cuter, really. They’re too different to compare like that. Paul has a kind of Mediterranean look while…the other one had that blond, Nordic thing going.”

Jenna nodded. “I remember.”

“But when’s he supposed to call?” Liz asked, to change the subject.

“I don’t know,” Jillian replied, as her smile returned. “I was hoping he’d call tonight. He said he would, but it’s after eight already so maybe not.”

“Could be he had to work late.” Jenna said.

“Or had a date,” Liz teased.

“Maybe.” Jillian shrugged. “I’m not worrying about it. If he calls, he calls. If he doesn’t, he doesn’t.” She jumped up from the sofa and headed for the television. “Let’s watch a movie.”

10:05 PM

“The guy had been knocking over jewelry stores for six months.” Marianne said, her eyes on Paul but aware of Rob and Debbie playing darts behind him, at the end of the room. “Mostly smash and grab, although once he showed a knife when a store manager started to chase after him. Anyway, we’re taking lunch, and my partner’s sitting in the car while I run in for some stuff I needed. I’m almost at the drugstore when an alarm goes off and this guy comes barrel-assing out of the jewelry store, knocks down two teenagers, and flies off away from me. I yell, ‘Stop, police’ and take off after him. He was fast, but I was faster.

“So I chase the guy through the mall and into the parking garage. I’m only about twenty feet behind him and closing when he decides since he can’t outrun me, he’s gonna whoop me. He stopped so abruptly my momentum carried me right in front of him before I could stop, too. Now he figures to get in a quick punch before I can set myself, so he throws a roundhouse.”

She paused half-a-second, giving her head a quick shake. “I reacted without thinking, you know? I’ve had some martial arts training and it just kicked in. I grabbed the arm and used the momentum to pull him forward and off his feet as I twisted. But somehow, as he’s flying by me, he reaches out, grabs at me with his free hand and suddenly the front of my shirt is ripped open and one side of my bra is up here.”

She ran a finger across her chest from the opening in her v-neck, across the top of her left breast, to her armpit. “Now, the guy is down, but scrambling to get back on his feet, so I pull my weapon and yell ‘Freeze asshole.’ Well, he looks up, sees the gun, then sees my boob waving in the breeze, and his eyes kind of bug out and start flitting back and forth from one to the other. I swear, despite the adrenaline and being pissed and everything, I almost started laughing.”

Paul grinned, but said nothing, not wanting to interrupt her.

“Well, by this time, there’s about a dozen civilians watching, so I yell at them to stay back, then order the guy face down on the ground. Holding the gun on him with one hand, I get the cuffs on him with the other. Now I can holster the gun, get myself back into the bra and pull my shirt closed, even though most of the buttons were gone. And as I’m doing that, the civilians start applauding.”

Paul was laughing, loving both the story and the easy way in which she was telling it.

“Sure, laugh at the poor cop’s embarrassment,” Marianne said. “But you haven’t heard the best part yet.

“When I ordered him to get on the ground and he was going back and forth between the gun and my boob, you know what the jerk said to me? He said ‘Man, I wish I had a camera. Nobody’s ever gonna believe this in the joint.'”

By now Paul was howling and it took him a minute to get his voice back. “You’re an amazing woman, Mare.” He started chuckling again. “I’m sorry, but I can’t get the picture of you and the gun and the guy looking at you out of my head. Somebody should put that scene in a movie.”

That drew a laugh from Marianne. “Well if you ever write the script, remember to give me credit.”

She swallowed some of her beer. “The strange thing was, though, even though it was a little embarrassing while it was happening, I didn’t think it was all that big a deal until I started writing the arrest report. Then I had to think about whether to put those details in. Technically, I’m supposed to, but it was too much to think of the report being copied and passed around for some cheap chuckles, so I said the guy tore my shirt and left it at that.”

“And nobody found out?”

“Oh, they found out. When the uniforms arrived, they took statements from the civilians who’d witnessed the arrest. I took a pile of crap from the guys for almost a week. But it was worth it. Catching the guy was a real coup. They couldn’t give me a promotion so soon after the last one, but they did ask me if I’d be interested in a special two week training seminar in Boston. I hadn’t seen Debbie in almost a year since she took the job here and these seminars are like paid vacations, so I jumped at it.”

She paused to take another sip from her beer.

“Hey, ummm, I want to thank you for being so nice tonight. It was obvious you didn’t know you’d been set up to baby-sit. Yet you stayed and listened to my stories and had some pretty good ones of your own. You even made me laugh and I really appreciate it.”

Paul started to protest. But she cut him off.

“Stop, please. You don’t make detective at my tender age without being able to read people and situations. So who is she?”

“Who is who?”

Doing her best to sound like a TV cop, she said, “Hey, I’m asking the questions here. Who’s the girl you’ve been thinking about all night while you’ve been paying attention to me?”

Paul’s grin told her she’d been on target. “Was it that obvious?” he asked. “I’m sorry.”

Marianne waved off his apology. “It wasn’t obvious at all. Just an educated guess. So, who is she?”

“You really are good at your job, aren’t you? I’ll have to remember never to commit any crimes in Seattle. Her name is Jillian. I met her this morning in a coffee shop.”

“A coffee shop? Good coffee? You know how we cops like our coffee.”

“The best in Boston. It’s across the common on Tremont Street. Coffey’s Coffee.”

“You’re kidding about the name, right?”

“Nope. It’s been in the same location forever. Way before either of us were born. If you go there, try the blueberry muffins.”

“I will. Thanks. Now tell me about Jillian.”

Paul spent the next ten minutes relating the story of how he and Jillian met, his pursuing her out of the coffee shop, and their lunch date.

When he was done, Marianne’s hand was at her cheek, her face and eyes soft with emotion.

“What a great story,” she said. “What a great way to meet. So when’s the first date?”

“I don’t know.”

“You don’t know?”

“Well, I’d planned to call her when I got home tonight, but, ahh, something came up.”

“You mean…”

She abruptly stood up and waved. “Yo Debbie, Rob, over here now.”

“Mare, you don’t have to…”

“Oh yes I do.”

Hearing the tone of her voice, Rob and Debbie hurried back to the table.

“What’s wrong?” Rob asked. “Did he…”

Marianne cut him off with a glare. “You are in big trouble, pal.”

She turned to Debbie.

“Deb, we have to go. Paul has something important to do and it can’t wait any longer.”

She turned to Paul, leaned in, and kissed him on the cheek.

“Thank you again.” She said. “You were very sweet. Jillian is a lucky girl, even if she doesn’t know it yet.”

“Jillian? Who’s Jillian?” Debbie asked as Paul said goodbye and headed for the door.

“I’ll tell you later.” Marianne turned back to Rob. “As for you…”

10:45 PM

The windows of Paul’s third floor condo on the corner of Charlesgate East and Boylston Street looked out across the busy intersection onto the north end of the Fens, a beautiful and peaceful park of ponds, flower beds, and manicured lawns as well as a running track, basketball court, and a baseball field.

He let himself in, dropped his coat on a chair, and headed for the bathroom.

Man, Marianne was something else. Who knew cops could be so hot? And funny. I really had a good time with her tonight…and she seemed to like me…maybe I shouldn’t have said anything about Jillian…but she knew…damn she’s a good cop. And there is something about Jillian…

Three minutes later, his mind was still racing as he walked back into the living room.

…but there’s no way I’m moving to Seattle or she’s staying in Boston, so forget about her and call Jillian.

He flipped open his wallet, retrieved a small slip of paper, and held it before him with reverence. On it was written the number.

A glance at the clock as he fished his phone from his pocket told him it was 10:50.

Is it too late to call?

He sat on the edge of the recliner, next to the table that held a small lamp. After switching on the light, he studied the clock again for half a minute.

Geez, why am I so nervous?

He jumped up and grabbed a beer from the fridge. After a long pull, he checked the clock yet again as he paced in front of the sink.

Come on, get on with it. She’s just a girl. But what if she’s sleeping? Will she be upset if I wake her? Maybe I should wait and call her in the morning. Maybe…

“What the hell’s wrong with me? This girl’s got me so freakin’ off-balance I can’t think straight. Is this some cosmic joke or something? We’ve both been going to the coffee shop for years and now, suddenly, there she is, right in front of me, stealing my line. I wouldn’t even have noticed her if she hadn’t…maybe it is fate or something…damn, she even has me talking to myself!”

He shook his head to clear it.

“Call. Just call her before it gets any later.”

His thumb started punching keys.

10:55 PM

Less than 350 yards away, Jillian was saying goodbye to her friends. Her second floor apartment at 1171 Boylston Street was across the Fens from Paul’s condo.

“Don’t worry,” Jenna said as she and Liz donned their jackets. “He’ll call tomorrow for sure.”

Liz agreed. “For sure. He obviously likes you.”

Jillian repeated her earlier contention. “If he calls, he calls. I really don’t care one way or the other.”

Liz chuckled. “Sure you don’t. That’s why we spent the past four hours talking about him. ‘Cause you don’t care one way or the other. HAH! You are so in denial girl. Do you even remember what movie we were watching? This guy has you bad, girl, really bad.”

“Bad,” Jenna mimicked, laughing, “really bad.”

Liz turned the knob and opened the door, but before she could move, the phone began to ring. Jillian made no move to answer it.

“What are you waiting for?” Liz asked. “Go get it. It’s probably him.”

Jillian stood her ground.

“Well if you won’t answer it, I will.”

Liz started toward the phone on the table butJillian rushed by her and grabbed the receiver.

“Don’t care one way or the other my ass,” Liz muttered, heading back to the door.

Jillian pressed the talk button and said, “Hello?”

“Hi, it’s Paul. Please tell me it’s not too late to call.”

Jillian’s face lit up. She pointed to the phone and mouthed ‘it’s him’, then waved goodbye to the girls as they closed the door on their way out.

“Hi. It’s not too late. Two of my friends just left.”

“Sorry to call so late. I was with Rob – remember him from the coffee shop this morning? I got tied up with him after work and just walked in a few minutes ago. I’m glad you’re still awake.”

“And I’m glad you called. Did the manuscript dry out?”

“Sure. After you left, I took it to the Laundromat and put the wet pages in the dryer.”

“You did not!”

“No, not really. But it sounded good, didn’t it?”

Jillian laughed and realized she’d been laughing a lot since lunch today.

“Are you like this all the time?”

“Like what?”

“Funny.”

Paul thought for a few seconds. “I try. I like to laugh, and I like to make other people laugh. Especially people I like.”

“Oh, so you’re saying you like me?”

“Yes, I’d definitely say I like you. The big question though, the one on which the future of this whole conversation rests is…” He paused for effect. “…do you like Italian food?”

“It’s my favorite.”

“Whew. Okay. Everything’s fine now. I was really worried. I could never date a woman who didn’t like Italian food.”

“Really?”

“Absolutely. You see, Italian food is more than just food. It not only nourishes the body, it nourishes the soul. It makes your tonsils dance and your heart sing. It fills your stomach, yes, but it also fills you with a sense of peace and contentment. Especially when accompanied by a couple of bottles of Chianti.”

Jillian was laughing again. “My, my. Is it only food, or are you this passionate about everything?”

Paul knew what he would have liked to say, but instead offered, “I think I’ll let you discover that for yourself, a little at a time. So, tell me about your friends.”

Jillian’s eyebrows arched at the unexpected question. “You want to hear about my friends?”

“Of course. If they’re over there this late on a work night, I’m guessing they’re a big part of your life and someday I hope to meet them, so why not get to know a little about them now. Unless you’d rather not talk about them.”

Someday I hope to meet them? Someday I hope to meet them! Does he know what he just said? Is he actually thinking that far ahead? How could he be? We just met.

Jillian thought she should be feeling funny about his self-assurance, his presumption that he’d be around long enough to meet her friends. Instead it made her feel warm inside, peaceful and happy.

What is it about this guy that keeps making me feel so opposite to what I should be feeling?

“So you’re serious? You really want me to tell you about Liz and Jenna?”

“Of course. I wouldn’t have asked otherwise. How did you meet them?”

“Okay then,” she said, reclining on the sofa. “I hope you’re sitting down.

“Liz is Elizabeth Farrell. She’s my oldest friend. We met in the third grade and hated each other until half-way through the fourth grade. Then this pint-sized terror named Eddie Lepage started picking on both of us, so we called a temporary truce so we could figure out a way to get back at him. We schemed for almost a week before deciding on a plan.

“Are you bored yet?”

“Not at all. I love revenge stories.”

“I see. Well, one day during recess, I started taunting Eddie until he started to chase me. I ran halfway around the yard, then around the back of the school where Liz was waiting. As soon as he turned the corner, she jumped out and screamed at the top of lungs, which didn’t bother Eddie at all, but did get him to stop. That’s when she threw a glass of water at the front of his pants, soaking them.

“The two of us ran back out to the yard where all the other kids were playing. When Eddie came around the corner to get us, we started laughing and pointing, telling everyone Liz scared him so much he peed in his pants.”

She could hear Paul chuckling softly.

“Eddie’s denials were long and loud but to no avail. From that day, until his family moved away the following year, he was known as Eddie LePee.”

She heard his chuckles become laughs. “Eddie LePee! That’s a riot. I bet his folks moved to save him from the humiliation.”

Jillian matched his laugh. “Maybe so. Anyway, with our mission accomplished, we found we had a lot in common and since neither of us could remember why we hated each other, we decided to be friends, instead. That was eighteen years ago.”

“Whoa…eighteen years! My oldest friend is Rob and I met him in high school. What about the other one? What’s her name?”

“Jenna. Jennafer Williams. Liz and I met her freshman year in college.”

“Which school?”

“Boston University.”

“Oh! Good school. I went to Tufts.”

“That’s a pretty good school, too.”

“It was close to home. And I got a discount because I lived in Medford. Hmmm…I wonder if they still do that? Anyway, Jenna?”

“She was the third girl in a triple dorm room.”

“Holy crap! Three girls in one room? With one bathroom?”

“You have no idea! But anyway, we’d all won scholarships…or rather, the school gave Liz and I scholarships. Jenna got hers by winning some national science contest.”

“Wow, she must be pretty smart.”

“She sure is. But she’s such a goofball you’d never know it outside the lab where she works.”

Jillian found herself telling him things about Liz and Jenna, what they did, what they liked, things she might have expected to tell a new girlfriend, but not some guy she’d just met.

“Man, I wish I had a friend like Liz. You two sound more like sisters than friends.”

“I guess we are, really.”

“At our age, it’s hard to imagine having had a best friend for eighteen years. And speaking of age, if I’ve done my math correctly, you would be 25?”

“Your math is correct,” she replied. “Now, to get your age, how much should I add or subtract from mine?”

“You should add three.”

“Twenty-eight! You’re twenty-eight? I never would have guessed. I thought you were my age, or younger.”

“It’s my boyish good looks. They’re a curse, really. But it’s true, I’m only two years away from the big three-oh. Can Social Security be far behind?”

As the conversation continued, each offered tidbits of information, about work, friends, likes, dislikes; the things two people usually offer up at the beginning of a new relationship.

Paul was charming, constantly making her laugh. Both were so caught up in the dialogue, time flew by.

When Jillian thought to check, she was shocked to see it was well after midnight.

Didn’t the phone just ring a few minutes ago?

“You know I was so embarrassed at lunch today, I just wanted to go hide somewhere.”

“I remember,” he said, chuckling, “but there was no reason to be embarrassed. You were nervous. So was I. Heck, if you hadn’t knocked it over, I probably would have. Actually, I was more relieved than anything else.”

“Relieved?”

“Sure. After all, I made such a fool of myself this morning, and I had this vision of you as, you know, so cool and calm and detached. I had no idea what to say or do to impress you. I just knew I had to. And when the coffee went flying, and you got all flustered…well, I knew we were okay. I knew you’d laugh at my ‘most beautiful’ joke and I knew we’d hit it off.

“You knew that? How?”

“I’m not sure. I guess because if you really were the cold, aloof type, you wouldn’t have reacted that way to the spill. And to tell the truth, by then I had a feeling, but it was probably more hoping than knowing how you’d react to the joke.”

Jillian found herself nodding, pleased that his answers were so honest and unguarded.

“Since we’re doing True Confessions here, I had planned to come in all cold and aloof, what you were expecting, just to test you. I was really afraid you were playing me and I didn’t want any part of it, if that’s what it was. Knocking over the coffee and you being so nice about it sort of reset my attitude I think.”

“Well I’m very glad it did.”

“Me too.”

Her eyes flicked to the clock again. “You realize it’s way after midnight, and I have to get up for work in the morning.”

Paul sighed. “I know. So do I. I just don’t want to let go of your voice…”

That warm, comfortable feeling flowed through her again.

“…but I will. So now the moment of truth has arrived. Would you like to go out with me Friday night?”

“No.”

There was dead silence on the phone line. Paul’s face had drained to a ghostly white. Was she really turning him down?

“I’d like to go out with you tomorrow night but I can’t because I have yoga class and then dinner plans with some friends. So I guess I’ll have to hold out until Friday.”

It took a moment for Paul to recover his voice and for the color to return to his face.

“You know you almost gave me a heart attack. Was that…”

“Payback for the joke this afternoon? Yes it was.” Jillian laughed. “Still want to go out with me?”

Paul was laughing now as well. “Oh yes. I have a feeling getting to know you will be the most interesting thing I’ll ever do.”

– * – * –

Thank you for reading the first 36 pages of Coffee in Common. I hope you enjoyed meeting Jillian, Paul, and some of their friends.

If you’d like to read the remaining 303 pages to discover what happens to everyone, please use one of the Amazon links below. And when you’ve finished the book, please stop by Amazon and leave a review to let me and others know what you thought of the characters and story.

Thanks again! —Dee Mann


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