The third time’s the charm, people say, but people are liars, stupidly follow the strangest rules and beliefs if only enough others do the same. Lemmings.
On my way to the café I bump into one of the few people I really, really don’t want to meet. After two days without unpleasant encounters I must have gotten careless. That’s the only explanation for why I am staring at my phone instead of the road in front of me, and literally run into another pedestrian.
“Oh god, I’m so sorry,” I rush to apologize to his chest before I look up. And freeze.
“Jayjay? Hey, since when are you back?”
Those hazel eyes, the dimples visible now that he smiles, the wonderfully thick dark blond hair that I dreamed of combing with my fingers so often – yep, it’s him. Ben Rosenfeldt, the son of the mayor, my high school crush and the younger brother of my former nemesis. And he can still make my knees weak with that smile and that body of an athlete and that voice like velvet and smoke.
“Bennie? Hey…” I’m so lame. Honestly, after five years you would think I gained some coolness, but I didn’t. I’m back to being the insecure high school girl pining for the star player of our baseball team.
“Are you staying with your Mom?”
“Yes, of course.” Where else should I stay? I wouldn’t be in this town if Mom wasn’t here after all.
“Well, I’m going to visit Dad today. Hey, how about you come over for dinner? We could catch up and I’m sure Dad would like to see you, too.”
Mayor Rosenfeldt is really a nice man, did I mention that before? He granted me some kind of scholarship after graduation, for college books and materials. Of course Mom made a huge fuss and wanted to politely decline, since he’s her boss and it’s basically like taking handouts. But I did graduate as the top of my class and he did declare it an official scholarship, hands it out every year every since. Mom stopped nagging and I suddenly had 500$ extra every semester.
Very generous, but it also makes it hard for me to simply keep my distance. The mayor checks up on me from time to time, but in a nice and not creepy way.
“That’s a bit short notice and I don’t want to intrude on your family dinner,” I object meekly but he brushes my argument off like always.
“Oh, come on. We haven’t seen in ages. And Jake won’t be there, I promise.”
My usual Pavlovian response is to shudder and duck my head, expecting some kind of thunderbolt out of the blue. Nothing good ever happened to me around Jacob Rosenfeldt, oldest son of the probably nicest man on earth, and complete douchebag. As much as Ben makes my heart race, Jake can make it skip for an entirely different reason.
“He’s not in town, then?” I make it sound innocent, disinterested, but my palms are already sweaty.
“No, he’s got a job a few towns over. Doesn’t come to visit Dad that often.”
It’s a complete mystery to me how Ben can be so oblivious to my panic, but I’m grateful for it.
“And you? Do you live here or did you move somewhere else?” I change the topic, away from one brother back to the one I’m really interested in.
“I just came back a few months ago. Got a job here, but I got my own place. So, what do you say? Should we tell your Mom that she has to cook for one more?”
He tilts his head, just a tiny bit, and beams at me with those puppy eyes that bypass my brain completely. I find myself nodded before I can stop my head, smile back at him.
“Sure, sounds good. I have planned to visit your Dad anyway, can as well do it today, right?”
“Exactly. See you at 8 then. And Jayjay?”
I squeak an embarrassingly high pitched ‘Yes?’ when he pats my upper arm.
“It’s good to see you again.”
And just like that I’m back to analyzing every word, every single expression and even the tone of his voice, like I did for years before I went cold turkey and banned Ben Rosenfeldt and his perfectly chiseled jawline from my thoughts.
Finding distractions turns out to be an easy task once I arrive at the café. Miho is cursing, clearing out the cake display.
“What’s wrong?” I ask in lieu of a ‘good morning’ and she grunts in frustration.
“That stupid thing broke. It doesn’t cool anymore and all the cakes are getting warm.” She wipes her hands at a rag and glares at the display. “Dammit, I better sell the cakes for half the prize to make sure they are gone until tonight.”
“Can’t you call someone for the repair?” I set my bag down and join her behind the counter, stare at the display as if me glaring at it would solve anything.
“I can’t get through to them, no one picks up the phone. Stupid Elmar, probably fell asleep and doesn’t hear the phone.”
“The old Mulligan? He’s still in business?” In a small town like ours there are some people who everyone knows and who were always around already.
“Yeah, but he’s almost deaf nowadays and often misses the ringing of the phone – oh…” Her words only seem to sink in the moment they leave her mouth but I’m still grinning.
“Too bad he doesn’t know sign language, huh? In that case I would be able to help.”
“Nah, you can help anyway. Could you have an eye on the café for five minutes while I race over there and kick his ass awake? I don’t expect anyone showing up at this hour anyway and I know how to handle him so he gets over here right away. He likes to put people off but that doesn’t work with me. I’m stubborn.” The stern set of her jaw proves her point so I simply shrug, tell her I will raid her coffee and cake supplies in her absence but also make sure that the place won’t burn down.
Reluctantly she leaves, not because of me but because Mr. Coffee grande wasn’t there yet, I figure.
She’s gone for more than ten minutes already when the door opens and the mysterious customer walks in. His steps falter briefly when he sees me smiling at him, but doesn’t immediately walk out again. I chalk that up as victory.
“Hi, what can I get you?”
He looks behind me, searches the room for someone else.
“Miho? She will be back shortly. I’m Jazz, I’m the new trainee. It’s my first day, so please be gentle with me.” My bright service smile helps him over my choice of words before he stumbles over the ‘gentle’ part.
“Oh, okay. I’d like a Kenian roast, black, please.” He reaches for his wallet and I for a paper cup.
“Small, medium or grande?” The typical singsang sneaks into my voice, I worked retail too much already.
“Yeah, I bet,” I mutter under my breath, turn to the coffee monster and freeze. I watched Miho wrestling with it a few times before but I never touched it myself. Can’t be too difficult, can it? I hit a button and it rumbles to life, heats up for my order.
“On what name?” I ask, sharpie in hand, its tip hovering over the cup.
“Your name, sir. I have to write it on the cup so I won’t accidentally mistake it with someone else’s coffee.”
A crease forms between his brows when he furrows them, this is new to him but I stubbornly smile.
“Is that a question, sir? Or are you sure?”
“No, I’m sure. Jared. Sorry, this is just – the other lady never does that.”
I nod and scribble his name on the cup. “Yes, sir, I know. But the book says that’s how I have to do it. And her name is Miho.”
This is fun. Not sure how Miho will think about this, maybe she actually wants this whole strange coffee thing between them to be awkward and anonymous, but I’m determined to find out as much as possible about him. Jared.
“Miho, yes. I will remember it.”
“And your phone number, sir?” Completely business-like I look at him expectantly. Inwardly I’m holding my breath, unsure if this will work or not.
“My number? Why do you need it? Are you afraid the coffee might be done and you won’t find me in the crowd?” He pointedly lets his gaze sweep over the empty café but my poker face is still in place.
“I’m sorry, sir, I’m just following the procedure. It might have been developed for bigger stores, but it’s not my place to adjust it.”
“You know what? I will just stay right here, that way you won’t need my number.”
“Of course, sir. Sorry, I’m still a bit nervous, it helps me to follow the guide.”
He nods and watches me staring at the buttons and levers. I grab the can with the Kenian coffee beans, pour a generous amount into the grinder and wait until it’s done, scoop a small pile into the portafilter and manage to cram it into place.
“Here we go,” I mutter and pull a lever, jump back when the machine hisses and splutters. The aroma of coffee fills the air and I inwardly rejoice. I’m a damned genius! If I can’t make it as sign language interpreter I can still be a barista. With ridiculous pride I hand the coffee over and he takes a tentative sip before his eyes go wide.
“Too strong? Should I add some more water?” And there goes my barista career.
“It’s like a triple espresso. If I finish this I won’t sleep for a week.” But he takes another sip, furrows his brows again. “It’s not too bad, though.”
He’s just polite, I can tell how he struggles not to make a face.
“It’s okay, sir, just give it back and I try again. No need to actually drink it.”
“Have you ever made coffee before?” he asks with a hint of laughter when he hands me the cup. I just pour it into the sink, grab a new cup and start anew.
“And what do you think you’re doing?”
I must have missed the bell chime because Miho hurries over to me without a warning.
“I’m serving this customer, Miss Miho. But the coffee machine isn’t cooperating.” I step aside, let Miho brew a cup of coffee with practiced ease. She hands it over, still breathless from running and apologizes with a straight face.
“I’m sorry if my – stand-in caused any inconvenience. This one is on the house.”
Jared smiles thinly and takes the cup from Miho, eyes trained on hers. “Thank you. But it was no trouble.”
After a first sip his smile widens. “Although I have to admit, your coffee is much better than hers.” A curt nod and he leaves, me laughing and Miho half furious, half baffled.
“Come on, spill it!”
I let her make me a cup of coffee before I serve her the details.
“His name is Jared and he has actually some humor. You should try talking to him sometimes.”
“Talking? You talked to him? Why? How?” Wailing over the injustice of the world Miho plopped down on a chair.
“It’s not that hard. I mean, you open your mouth and make some words come out. You do that all the time, why not with him?” I consolingly pat her back, sit down next to her. “What did Mr. Mulligan say?”
She waves with her hand, a lazy gesture. She’s done with the world but life goes on. “He says he comes over in half an hour. You could have already put the cakes in the fridge in the back.”
“You’re just mad because I got his name in four minutes while you haven’t managed that in four months.” I stick out my tongue at her but follow her to take the cakes to the backroom.
She’s miffed, her answers to my questions are curt so I decide to just give her some time and space to sulk and get to work. A few emails later I find myself dancing around Sam’s social media accounts. I don’t open them of course, but I check what happens on the sites of our mutual friends and if I happen to find any comments by or news about Sam, it’s not really stalking. At least that’s what I tell myself.
Mr. Mulligan comes and works at the display so Miho has someone to grumble at and Mom sends me a text about the dinner that pulls me right back into the maelstrom of swirling emotions and teenage thirst for the cutest boy I ever met.
I manage not to embarrass myself when I stand in front of Mr. Rosenfeldt. He’s not even sixty, seems not that tall anymore now that I’m all grown up, but he still has the same kind smile that crinkles the corners of his eyes like when I was a kid. I know that he can be a calculating, serious business partner and he is a politician so there are most certainly one or two skeletons in some cupboard, but since Mom cleans the house I’m sure I won’t stumble across them by accident. So I can keep the image of our town mayor being this caring, smart and just guy. If I was 20 years older I would have the hots for him, but as teenager I fell head over heels for his son and now with 23 I’m not as clearly over him as I told myself the past few years.
“Jazz, you have gotten even prettier. And congratulations on graduating college. Your mother couldn’t be prouder and as my very first scholarship student I am also delighted to see that you took your chance and turned it into something solid.”
As solid as a degree in communication and marketing can be at least. But I smile and thank him like the good girl I am sometimes.
“What a nice idea of Benjamin to invite you to dinner tonight. He’s also here somewhere.” Mr. Rosenfeldt lets go of my hands that he has been holding until now and turns towards the hallway that leads from the foyer to the back of the house.
“Benjamin! Jazz is here!”
I snicker quietly, he hasn’t changed a bit.
“Your mother has prepared a wonderful meal for tonight, I’m so happy that you can join us. And since you are old enough now, how about a glass of wine?”
He keeps chatting while he steers me towards the fancy living room. The good one, the parlor for special guests, not the living room with the TV and the comfy couch I have spent so many hours on, waiting for my Mom to finish work.
“Jayjay!” Ben comes over and pulls me into a startling hug, it’s the first time he does this.
“I see you already had some wine,” I tease when he lets go of me again. “Must be some good stuff.”
Together they escort me into the parlor where the next surprise waits for me.
The girl sitting on a couch used to be one of my closest friends until the accident, after that we somehow lost touch. But she looks the same, chestnut brown hair, matching her eyes, cascades in carefully styled waves over her shoulders. She’s wearing a dress that makes me feel underdressed in my simple skirt and T-shirt.
“Hello, Jazz.” She nods but stays on the couch, doesn’t get up to greet me.
“Jazz, you remember Madeline? She’s my girlfriend.” Ben sits down next to her, one arm draped around her shoulder.
“I’m your fiancée, darling,” she reminds him and flashes me a ring that makes me dizzy. “He asked me last week.”
“Oh, wow,” I stammer, remember my words and manners just in time to add some generic well wishes. So the boy I was in love with for years will marry the girl who knew me best for years. Who also knows about that crush. Great, just great.
Mr. Rosenfeldt hands me a glass of wine.
“To the happy couple,” he declares and raises his own glass. I prefer to down mine.
We fill the time until dinner with awkward small talk. Mr. Rosenfeldt asks about my graduation and my plans for the future. My replies are cagey and before I admit that I have no clue about what to do next I turn to Maddie and do what girls do when they don’t want to answer uncomfortable, personal questions. I ask another girl that kind of question.
“And? Have you already made plans for the wedding?”
After some lamb with roasted potatoes and needle beans Mom and I go home together.
“It was so nice of the mayor to invite you.” She carries a container with leftovers but I have enough food for thought already.
“Mom? Did you know about Ben and Maddie?” She has to remember Maddie, she was one of the few friends I actually brought home once or twice.
“I heard about it. But, muffin cheeks, you know that I don’t gossip about my boss and his family.”
This isn’t about gossip, but I could have used a little warning. On the other hand though, Mom and I haven’t really talked in a while.
“Hey, what is Ben doing anyway? I mean, he said he lives here again, but what does he do for a living?” That’s not really a personal question, not as if I’m asking for a secret.
“He’s the new baseball coach at the High School. Coach Myers has retired last year and Benjamin has been the assistant coach until then. Now he’s the only coach.”
Baseball coach. How fitting.
Mom keeps chatting and I try to contribute more than a few grunts, but my mind is racing and I can’t shake off the memory of Maddie’s triumphant grin when she showed me that ring.