He was working the espresso machine – his head came up when I ordered. I guess not too many customers ask for triple venti half-sweet non-fat caramel macchiatos. He glanced over. I wanted to run.
The last time I’d seen him, we’d both been naked. His eyes flicked over my body before returning, expressionless, to my face. He slid my drink across the counter.
“Thanks.” I ducked my head.
I was already moving away. Normally, I find a spot near the fireplace. Today I headed for the street. I don’t know why I was surprised to hear footsteps running behind me.
I dropped my drink. The top popped off, brown liquid exploding all over the sidewalk. Shit. But I could move faster now that I wasn’t carrying it.
Did I think I could outrun him? I never could, even before.
I stopped when he jogged around in front of me. “Hello, Nick.”
“I looked for you,” he said. “The next morning. I went to your apartment—”
“I wasn’t there.”
I started past him. “I don’t want to talk about it.”
He stopped me. “I didn’t deserve to be ghosted.”
“It was hardly that. We’d only been on three dates.”
Pedestrians streamed past on either side. “Four,” he said. “If you count the day we met.”
“That was hardly a date.” I’d been out for a run that morning. “I was sweaty and gross—”
“Beautiful. You were goddamn beautiful.”
I swallowed. He’d been beautiful, too.
“It was just a few dates,” I said. “It didn’t mean anything. So what, if we had sex—”
His blue eyes flashed hot. “We made love. Un-fucking-believable love. It goddamn did mean something. At least, it did to me.”
Me, too. I blinked hard. No tears. Hadn’t I cried enough? It’d been a year. A lifetime.
“Hardly matters now.” Casual. Go for casual. “So…you still running?” Stupid question. I only had to look at him—lean, fit, gorgeous—to know he was.
“Training for a tri,” he said tightly.
Swim. Bike. Run. A trifecta of lost possibility washed over me.
“What’re you doing working at Starbucks? What about the shop?” When we met, he’d just gone into business selling running gear.
“I open at ten. I’m on my way there now. Business is good, but not quite self-supporting. I pick up early morning hours at Starbucks.”
“That’s great,” I said. “I’m sure the business will take off soon.”
“Teresa.” A muscle flexed on the side of his face. “I didn’t chase you down to talk about the store. I woke up that morning and you were gone. Why? What did I do?”
I exhaled, slowly. “It had nothing to do with you. I forgot I had an early breakfast meeting. I couldn’t very well show up in the clothes I’d worn the night before.”
“You should’ve gotten me up. I would’ve seen you home.”
How many times had I told myself that? “I tried. But you sleep like the living dead! You didn’t have a car, anyway. I figured I’d call you at lunch—”
“Yeah, well, by then I had other things on my mind.”
He paled. “Is that…when it happened?”
I didn’t pretend to misunderstand. “Yes.”
Memory—fucking nightmare memory—slammed into me. Leaving his building. Taking a wobbling step off the curb. Headlights, flashing out of nowhere. Squealing tires…
I looked down at my shaking hands. He didn’t say anything, but I could feel his gaze burning into the top of my head.
I lifted my chin. “Yes. That’s when it happened. Can you get out of my way now? I’ve got to go.”
“Go? Go?” His voice rose. “You expect me to just, what, step aside and let you disappear? After it took me this long to find you? Are you fucking insane?”
A middle-aged pedestrian shot a frown at us. “Can you please keep it down?” I muttered. “I don’t need to be more of a freak show than I already am.”
“Is that what you think you are? A freak show?”
Yes, I thought.
“No,” I said. “Of course not. But you must realize why I didn’t call. You didn’t sign up for—” I made a helpless gesture. “—this.”
“You think that wheelchair matters to me? You think I’m that shallow?”
“I’ll never run again, Nick. I’ll never walk.”
“You think I give a fucking damn?”
“You should!” I cried. “You would, if you knew what it was like.” I shook my head fiercely. “It’s better this way.”
“You didn’t think much of me, did you?”
“You know that’s not true. But when I couldn’t feel my legs—”
He grasped the arms of my chair, putting his eyes on level with mine. “I didn’t fall in love with your legs. I fell in love with you.”
“But…you couldn’t have. It was only three dates—”
“Still. You hardly knew me.”
“I knew you were smart and funny and sexy,” he said. “I knew you liked Beethoven and Hamilton. I knew you talked in your sleep—”
“What? No way!”
He grinned. “You do. You play board games. You read poetry, but not the kind that rhymes. And you order the weirdest fucking drinks at Starbucks. Every single barista hates you.” His smile faded. “Except me. I love you.”
“Tell me the truth. Did you love me?”
My vision blurred. This time I didn’t blink the tears away. I reached out and brushed a stray lock of blond hair off his forehead. “How could I not?”
“Think you could do it again?”
“I—” I couldn’t lie when he was looking at me like that. “Yes,” I whispered. “I could. I do.”
“Thank God.” He bowed his head.
I wrapped my arms around his neck. Our lips met. I can’t run. I can’t walk.
But in that moment—that fragile, magic moment—I discovered I could fly.
Story note: a shout out to Nickie and Terry from the classic 1957 movie An Affair to Remember
An actual straight-up love story? One sweeter than the macchiato in the Starbucks? Not an archangel or a shape-shifter in sight! You’re either experimenting with genres or harking back to RWA days….
In the spirit of Christmas Unplugged!