by Baxter Brown
Sometimes all it takes to change your life is a chance meeting…
Having endured a grueling international flight and a difficult meeting, all lawyer Cameron Kassen wants is some caffeine. When screenwriter Julie Carter accidentally spills hot coffee all over her, Cameron is convinced that her day can’t get any worse. But Cameron’s mood quickly improves when Julie starts to flirt with her. Only in town for a couple of days, they both lament that the flirtation can go nowhere.
The pair keep in touch but are kept apart by distance and commitments. When Cameron jokingly asks Julie to write her a love story—Julie agrees.
Fiction mirrors reality and when Julie decides to add a surprise alternate ending to the story, Cameron is presented with a puzzle. Only by solving it will she be able to unlock the ending Julie intends just for her…but will it also unlock her heart?
The small café with the outdoor patio was like a beacon after the long day I had just endured. The international flight, the brief meeting at my client’s office, and the heat wave that had taken hold of San Diego meant one thing, I desperately needed a pick-me-up. It was the only reason I had decided to stop by this café in the first place. Even though it was too hot for coffee, I could rationalize consuming the one hundred eighty-degree beverage in what felt like one hundred five-degree heat as long as I stayed inside, under one of the chilled air-conditioning vents. Isn’t that what life was all about? Rationalizing one’s decisions, no matter how big or small?
As I squinted against the hot afternoon sun, I could just make out the sign above the bluish-green door, the words Aqua Café written in neat cursive letters. I pulled the door open and a bell chimed. The café was charming with an art deco vibe. Wooden tables and plush chairs were spread throughout, but the Italian espresso machine and the glass case that displayed sandwiches and sweets took up the majority of the space. I placed my order of a large coconut milk café mocha with the twenty-something barista. “Name for the cup?” she asked.
“Do you still want whipped cream with that?”
“Please.” I smiled sheepishly. Although I had almost given up dairy, the one exception always seemed to be the whipped cream. It was one of my few remaining indulgences. I leaned against the counter with my gray suit jacket draped over my arm and my soft leather briefcase hugging my leg. I closed my eyes and hummed along to the acoustic song that played in the background as I patiently waited.
The bell above the door chimed again and I instinctively opened my eyes. A woman who looked to be in her mid-thirties entered the café. My age, I assumed, or slightly older. Her chestnut-colored hair touched just below the tops of her shoulders and looked impossibly perfect given the humidity. When she removed her sunglasses, her eyes were the color of caramel. Her skin was sun-kissed. She was taller than me by a couple of inches, which wasn’t a difficult feat. She was almost the perfect cup of coffee—a tall chestnut, caramel, sun-kissed Americano. I instantly added the combination to my secret drink menu list.
She had a familiarity with the shop and the barista, which eliminated most common pleasantries. It was as if she was perpetually in the middle of a conversation. She was friendly and flirty while she placed her order. Her voice was strong, but layered and complex. I repeated her order over in my head. Iced coffee with a shot of vanilla. If Complex Vanilla noticed me, she didn’t acknowledge it. She adjusted her worn satchel bag to pull out some money.
I was interrupted from my voyeurism when the barista called out my name and pushed the cup on the counter toward me. It brimmed high with whipped cream. I smiled at her gratefully. The tip I’d left in the tip jar with the little sign, tipping…it’s not just for cows, had clearly done the trick. I grabbed a lid from the counter and clutched it in one hand as the other brought the cup toward my mouth. I wanted to devour the whipped cream first. It never tasted as good when it melted into the coffee. I was on the cusp of heaven when my body was roughly jolted to the side and forward, resulting in half of the contents of my cup sloshing up and over the brim and onto my silk green blouse. The pièce de résistance were the mounds of whipped cream piled high on top of my black heels, slowly seeping in between my toes.
“Fuck,” Complex Vanilla muttered in disbelief from behind me. “I’m sorry, I wasn’t paying attention.”
I was shocked for a split second until the reality of the hot silk on my skin kicked me into gear. I turned to my assailant with a scowl but it disappeared as quickly as it came. She looked shocked and I was momentarily trapped in the color of her eyes. She was so close. Are those freckles? I almost said it out loud but caught myself. I looked closer. Yep, definitely freckles. “Send help,” slipped from my lips and I quickly shut my mouth, unsure of what other words would escape. I was utterly helpless around attractive women.
She reached for the now half-cup of coffee dripping from my outstretched hand and placed it back on the counter. She apologized again, but I didn’t trust my words. She grabbed a wad of paper napkins and waited on my instructions.
I finally looked down at my suit jacket, which was thankfully unharmed. I could not say the same for my blouse. It was ruined. I tossed my jacket over her arm and immediately pulled off the soiled top, leaving me in a dark cotton camisole. I balled up the silk and stepped forward to place it in her hands when the whipped cream squished between my toes. I cringed at the sensation. “This feels so gross,” I said as I slowly eased out of my heels. The whipped cream trickled off my feet and dripped onto the tile floor.
She pushed the paper napkins into my hands. I wiped off my feet and the bottom of my pants, but I was still a mess. I picked up my heels from the floor. “Where’s the bathroom?” I asked the barista who had already approached us with a mop.
“It’s this way.” Complex Vanilla grabbed my heels and led me to the back.
When we got to the bathroom, I held up the once beautiful green silk top, which was now an ugly shade of brown. For a half-second I debated throwing it in the trash, but I reached over and took some soap from the dispenser and thoroughly washed and wrung it out. I draped the damp top over her arm. I took my heels and scrubbed out the coffee and whipped cream stains as best as I could. Thank god, I had packed a second pair. I was mostly clean with the exception of my hair which had become disheveled. I ran my fingers through the blond wavy locks and pulled them together in a loose bun until I was presentable.
“I’m really sorry,” she said again. “I can pay for the dry-cleaning and I insist on buying you another coffee.”
I breathed in deeply and released a steady exhale. “It’s okay. It was just an accident.” I shook my head as I looked down at myself—barefoot in the bathroom—and then back at her and smiled. “I’m getting very close to the no shirt, no shoes, no service policy. Do you think they’ll still serve me another coffee?” I laughed lightly, but my joke was lost on Complex Vanilla, so I tried again. “I haven’t felt this reckless in years. Want to rob a bank this afternoon?”
She looked at me like I was insane.
“I’m Canadian. We forgive easily,” I said as an explanation.
Her shoulders visibly relaxed and she smiled.
“Come on, let’s get out of here. You owe me a coffee,” I said and grabbed my blouse and carried it along with my heels back into the café. “I’m going to grab a table outside so that this stuff can dry in the sun.” I gestured with my hand. “I’ll have whatever you’re having.”
I found a table, half in the sun and half in the shade. I draped my damp top over the back of one of the chairs and placed my heels on the seat. I leaned back with my feet propped up. So much for work this afternoon. I closed my eyes and waited for Complex Vanilla.
A few moments later an iced coffee was placed in front of me, followed by a small dish of strawberry mousse with a mound of whipped cream on top. I raised a single eyebrow in her direction. “A peace treaty?” I asked and dug in deep.
“Something like that. I saw you admiring the whipped cream in your coffee,” she said as a hint of a smile danced across her lips. “I’m Julie by the way.”
I nodded. She was watching me. I brought the spoon to my lips and placed it in my mouth. It was perfect. I sighed and a soft moan escaped. “You’re definitely forgiven now.” I waved my spoon in the air. “Cameron. Please sit.”
She sat across from me in the sun and it glowed against her skin. She placed her sunglasses back over her eyes. “What brings you all the way from Canada?”
“I’m a corporate lawyer. Two days of business, two days of the beach, and then back to Toronto. My client is being deposed tomorrow morning.” I took another spoonful of the strawberry mousse. “You know, that’s not what we call it in Canada. We say, ‘my client is being discovered,’ which is a more accurate description of what actually happens. What about you? What do you do?”
“I’m a screenwriter and I do some editing on the side,” she said and took a sip of her iced coffee.
“A writer,” I said with excitement in my voice. “I used to be a writer, but I settled for mediocrity instead.” I winked. “Have I seen any of your work?”
“Do you like horror movies?”
“Not really.” I smiled apologetically. “I scare pretty easily. I once had an apartment on the third story of a triplex. It had this rickety old fire escape attached to the back of the house. There was a wooden chair on the landing for the third floor. One morning I noticed the chair was pushed all the way to one side.” I shook my head at the memory. “That was enough to convince me that someone had been on the landing watching me sleep. It terrified me for months. I set up booby-traps to catch the peeping Tom or ax murderer. Everyone told me the wind had probably just moved it. I accepted the answer as the most logical explanation so I could sleep again, but I never felt the same.” I lowered my voice. “It wasn’t the wind.” I paused and she looked at me curiously. “My friends will tell you I have an overactive imagination. I will tell you that I scare easily.”
She laughed. “You definitely shouldn’t watch anything I’ve written.”
“Do you do slashers, or are you more into suspense?”
She thought about it for a moment and then a devilish smile spread across her lips. “The kind of horror where something goes bump in the night, but you don’t know where it’s coming from until it’s too late. You search frantically through the house and come up empty. Then while you’re lying in bed, trying to block out the fear, the noise starts again. Your body is consumed with panic. You strain your ears to listen for the location of the source when you suddenly realize…The sound is coming from under your bed!” She slammed her hands down on the table, rattling the spoon and my nerves.
I glared at her as I tried to shake away the mental image. “Those are the absolute worst!” I took a sip of my iced coffee and leaned back. “If you steal my fire escape idea, please make sure to give me a writing credit.”
She laughed at my reaction. “Oh, I will. Contribution by Girl I Spilled Coffee On.”
“That seems too lengthy.” I looked at her thoughtfully. “Plus, that’s not going to help me launch my writing career. No one will take me seriously with a name like that.”
“If I’m going to give you a writing credit, I’m going to need your full name.”
“Cameron Kassen.” I extended my hand. “It’s nice to meet you.”
When she gripped my hand, her skin was warm and soft. “Julie Carter.” Sun-kissed Americano, Complex Vanilla and Julie Carter. The secret menu had tripled in size.
We unhurriedly sipped our drinks and the long day lulled me into a false sense of security. I couldn’t stop gazing at her no matter how hard I tried. Caramel is sticky as hell, even in sunglasses. I was attracted to her. I smiled and she smiled back, and there we sat, stuck in a staring contest. She had a distinct advantage over me, as her eyes were covered and I was giving it all away for free. Julie 1, Cameron 0.
“Penny for your thoughts?” she asked as she tilted her head to the side.
“They’re worth so much more than that, Julie.” I lingered on the last letter of her name.
“Really?” She bit down on her bottom lip. “Well, I’m short on cash today. Didn’t the dessert I bought curry any favor?”
“Perhaps,” I said softly.
“Well, before you rudely interrupted my thoughts, I was wondering if we ever made out at Niagara Falls.” It was an obvious line.
“I’m pretty sure it didn’t happen. I would have remembered that, Counselor,” she replied without batting an eyelash.
“But how confident are you, Julie? If not in this lifetime, perhaps another? If I made you swear under oath right now, what would you say?”
She thought about it for a second and then rattled off, “I’m ninety-nine-point-nine percent sure that we never made out at Niagara Falls.” She swirled the ice cubes in her drink. “I would have remembered.” Her gaze held mine I had to bite back my smile.
“Ms. Carter, I want to be clear about your evidence,” I said in my most professional tone. “Are you stating there is a point-one percent chance that it happened?”
“Perhaps. It’s possible.” She paused for effect. “I cannot account for all of my past lives.”
I laughed. “Oh Julie, please never get into trouble with the law. You’d make a terrible witness. On the plus side, you’re a pretty good discovery prep partner.”
Her lips curled into a smile.
“So…a point-one percent chance. I like those odds. I may place a bet. You could be my, ‘you wouldn’t know her. She’s from Niagara Falls, kind of girl.’” I scraped the last remnants of the strawberry mousse from the bottom of the dish.
“But, I’m not from Niagara Falls and I’m taken. I just started dating someone.”
A sense of relief instantly washed over me, but I snapped my fingers in mock disappointment. “I’m not surprised. I’m sorry; I get tongue-tied with a mix of verbal word vomit around attractive women. I’m the more charming, less creepy version of most adult men. I’m harmless, maybe a little weird, but most Capricorns are. Did you know that Capricorns make great partners, providers, and are extremely sensible?” I ticked the points off on my fingers and then looked her straight in the eye with a goofy smile. “But a little weird. A little socially awkward. You’re not dating a Capricorn, are you?”
She thought about it for a second. “I think she’s a Scorpio.”
“Lucky you.” I gave her a thumbs-up. “They have voracious appetites in bed. I once dated a Scorpio. Every night was like—” I cut myself off as her eyebrows threatened to touch her hairline. “See?” I shrugged. “So, awkward.”
She put her sunglasses down on the table and looked up at me. “What about Capricorns?” she asked as her eyes melted in the sun.
I tried as discreetly as possible to wet my lips, but her gaze lingered on my mouth. “It doesn’t sound like you’ve ever been with one.” I played with my straw.
“Why do you say that?” she asked, leaning forward.
I lowered my voice and said, “You would have remembered.” I mimicked her earlier words and then caught myself. What the hell was I doing? I cleared my throat. “I’ve taken up too much of your time. Please don’t feel obligated to stay any longer.”
She watched me for a moment and then put her sunglasses back on. “No use for me anymore?”
“I just don’t want to overstep any boundaries.”
“Boundaries?” She raised her eyebrows again. “We may be a little past that, but I’m not worried. I think I can handle you. Are you taken?”
“If I was taken and actively flirting with you, that wouldn’t say much about me, now would it?” She shrugged through a sip. “I’m widowed,” I said, but it never got any easier to say. Saying less allowed me to make the revelation. I could muster up the courage for two words.
The straw slipped out of her mouth and the expression on her face went blank. She wasn’t expecting that. Most people didn’t, given my age. “I’m sorry.”
I hated these types of knee-jerk regrets more than almost anything. I wanted to say, say anything other than that, but it was easier to say, “thank you.” I placed the spoon on the side of the dish. “You don’t have to be sorry. It was a while ago. I’m past the absolute worst of it. The unbearable has become bearable again.”
“The cat finally stopped crying.” I recalled the memory like it happened yesterday and then shook it from my mind. “Right after it happened, the cat lost his mind. I couldn’t console him. He didn’t understand. Sam just stopped coming home one day and the cat didn’t know why. He blamed me like I was the one who did it. I wasn’t surprised by his logic, considering I was always his second favorite. I could rationalize his behavior. Even though it was maddening, it made sense. It’s natural he would blame me for her death, but then one day he stopped.”
“Why did he stop?”
“Who knows?” I shrugged. “The pain lessened or he realized it was just the two of us and he had to accept it. He’s difficult to read. I’m probably giving him too much credit or not enough. Cats are funny that way.”
“Do you think you’ll ever date again?”
A sad smile crossed my lips.
“I’m sorry, if that’s too personal, you don’t have to answer.”
“No, it’s okay. I offered up the information. I could have just said I was married and then you would have thought I was a creep. I enjoy company from time to time. Someone to have dinner with or share a bottle of wine, but I don’t think I could ever seriously date again.”
“I’ve endured all I can for one lifetime.” I left it at that. “Besides, I enjoy chatting with strangers at coffee shops far too much to commit to one person again. It’s one of the only perks I have left.” I winked and she smiled warmly.
I unlocked my phone and glanced quickly at the time. “I really should be getting back to my hotel and prepare for tomorrow.” I looked back at her. “Thank you for spilling my coffee all over me,” I said with a hint of sarcasm. “It was a nice break.”
“Let me give you some money for the dry cleaning.” She reached into her satchel and I waved her off.
“Absolutely not. I think everything will be just fine.” I started to put my heels back on. “Only a little damp.” I folded up my shirt and put it in my briefcase. “Sorry for the shameless flirting.”
She cocked her head to the side. “I’m not.”
I left the patio and walked down the street. I was only a few yards away when I turned around and yelled back, “Don’t forget the writing credit!” I waved and then I was off.
I turned to John. “With all due respect, what the hell was that?”
John Stevenson was a very accomplished lawyer sitting directly across me. We had just spent the better part of four hours in a discovery while he asked my client every unnecessary question under the sun. What should have been a two-hour discovery had turned into four and had greatly reduced my beach time. I had known him for years with my multiple trips to San Diego. He was almost twice my age with short gray hair and a trimmed goatee. Even though he was close to retirement, his legal mind was razor-sharp and he could still keep up with the best of them. I liked him from the moment I met him, and he had felt like family ever since, but today he had tested my patience.
“I’m sorry, Cameron.” He smiled broadly and put his feet up on the desk, his black Armani shoes polished and pristine. “You clobbered me on the last one. It doesn’t look good when the Canadian hotshot comes down and gives us an ass kicking. I had very specific marching orders for how today was going to go.”
“John,” I practically whined. “Why didn’t you just say something beforehand? I could have mentally prepared myself.”
“Cameron, when do I ever get an opportunity to get you flustered?”
“You never got me flustered. Irritated maybe, but you go back to the office and tell your client whatever makes you and them sleep better at night.”
“I will,” he said smugly. “Any plans for your next couple of days?” He pulled on a thread attached to his suit jacket.
“Want some company?” He wiggled his eyebrows.
I packed up my things. “John, you’re married. Plus, the age difference, gross, no offense, and let’s not forget the most significant component, where exactly do you fall on the LGBTQIA+ spectrum?”
“It’s got that many letters now?”
I rolled my eyes. “Take the rest of the day off and go home to Stacy.”
“She’s leaving me,” he announced at the same moment he freed the thread from his jacket.
“John, I’m sorry.”
He immediately waved me off. “It was going to happen sooner or later.” He shrugged. “I’ll be fine. She signed a prenup.”
I shook my head at his dismissive nature. That was John, almost nothing ever breached the surface.
“Can I at least buy you lunch and a drink before you go?”
“Had you not purposefully wasted two hours of my day, I would have said yes. Your actions have put me behind and I’m going to have to catch up. Let that be a lesson for next time.”
“Lunch, next time, no excuses.” He pointed in my direction and held out his pinky finger. “Pinky swear.”
I almost giggled. “John, that seems personal. I’d rather give you an undertaking.”
“Not good enough. My granddaughter makes me pinky swear everything. I would never break a promise to my granddaughter, and you’re not going to break one with me.”
“Fine.” I reached across the table and latched my pinky finger onto his and shook it. “I pinky swear.” I laughed when I said it.
“Cameron before you go, there’s something I wanted to talk to you about. A new partner started at our firm a few weeks ago. She’s like you.”
He laughed deeply. “You’re not underpaid, and if you are, you let me know. There’s plenty of room for you at my firm. Anyway, her name is Megan. Very quick, very bright and…” He gave me a pointed look for emphasis. “Very attractive. I’m probably not supposed to say that, but she is. Oh, most importantly, she’s a lesbian. I was telling her about you, I thought—”
“No thanks, John.” I slung my leather briefcase over my shoulder.
“Think of the banter the two of you could have.” He was definitely the sweet but creepy family member.
“Is that what they called it in your day?”
“Cameron, it’s been over two years.” He looked at me gently. “She would have wanted you to move on with your life.”
“John, do I look unhappy to you?”
“I’ve known you for how long? I remember what you were like before it happened.” His eyes held mine. “There is a distinction.”
I leaned in and placed my hand on his shoulder. “Lunch next time. I pinky swear.” I gave his shoulder a gentle squeeze.
For the remainder of the afternoon, I played in the surf and soaked up the sun along with half of the residents of San Diego. Despite the crowd, it was the best form of therapy I knew because it was impossible to think about anything else. I had to be aware of my body at all times so that I wouldn’t injure myself or someone else as I torpedoed out of control. There was no time for any other thoughts to creep in and take root. It was days like this that made my continuous trips to San Diego worth it. It was days like this that made my life worth living again.
After a while, being pummeled continuously by the waves started to take a toll on me. Even though I had slathered myself in sunscreen, I could already feel the sting of a burn on the surface of my skin. I needed to find something to eat, head back to the hotel, and see where the night took me. I toweled off my hair and dried in the sun. I covered my white and green patterned bikini with a pair of gray board shorts and a loose-fitting white tank top. I threw my hair up in a short ponytail and put it through my ball cap and covered my eyes in a pair of sunglasses.
I walked down the boardwalk without a care in the world, directionless as I wandered. My feet carried me back to the Aqua Café before my mind had caught up. The coffee and food were good I rationalized as I opened the door. I was greeted by the barista from the day before. “Weren’t you in here yesterday?” she asked as she considered my appearance. “You’re the woman Julie spilled coffee on.” She chuckled lightly, but I didn’t feel like it was directed at me.
I raised an eyebrow. “Or Cameron. We could go with, Cameron,” I said. “And, it really wasn’t that funny.”
“It was pretty funny. I’ve never seen Julie look that discombobulated. What can I get for you, Cameron?” she said, smiling.
I looked up at the neat scrawl of the chalk menu, but I didn’t see anything that interested me, so I delved into the secret drink menu. “How about an iced coffee with a shot of vanilla.” I looked into the glass cases and scanned the various food items. My stomach growled. “And the cold udon noodle salad with oranges and candied pecans…Yeah, that sounds good.”
“For here or to go?”
“Here. I’ll sit outside.” I put some money down on the counter and threw the remainder into the tip jar.
“Perfect. Why don’t you find a table and I’ll bring this right out?”
When I stepped onto the patio, the table from the day before was unoccupied. I angled one of the chairs into the shade and sat down. I closed my eyes and let the euphoria of the day wash over me. The long morning coupled with all of my fun in the sun had started to pull me under. I lowered the ball cap over my eyes. I softly moaned through a sigh. I could fall asleep like this, listening to the faint sounds of the ocean as a warm breeze brushed against my skin. I was on the verge of dozing off when I felt the presence of someone watching me.
“Why are you wearing a disguise?” the voice asked as it pulled me further from the warm tendrils of sleep.
I opened my eyes, tipped up the brim of my ball cap and removed my sunglasses. Julie stood in front of me in a pair of blue jogging shorts and a white tank top, a black sports bra poking out underneath. Clutched in her hands was my iced coffee and salad. I felt disoriented as I looked between her and my late lunch. “Where did you come from?” I scrunched my eyebrows together in confusion.
She set the coffee and salad in front of me. “I live around here. I was out for my walk and coffee fix when I saw you walk into the café. I didn’t notice it was you at first on account of your disguise.”
“Oh.” I languidly stretched out my body. “Beach day,” I explained and then stifled the yawn threatening to spill over.
“Are you stalking me?” she asked.
“Stalking you?” I felt disoriented all over again and then defensive as I quickly tried to justify my actions. “I know almost nothing about you. I didn’t even know you lived around here until you told me. I just started walking along the boardwalk and I ended up back here.”
“Yeah.” She nodded her head through a large smile and I could tell she was just pulling my leg. “That sounds like something a stalker would say. I’m practically an expert. I’ve written many storylines for stalkers.”
I played along. “If you think I’m stalking you, why did you come over and indulge me?”
“You’ve really never seen any horror movies, have you? This is Stalking 101.” She gestured between us. “The girl feels a sense of security, engages with her stalker and then bam, she ends up in a ditch somewhere.”
“You feel safe with me?” I teased lightly. “Our imaginations would have a field day together.”
“How was work this morning?”
“Longer than I expected. But, it’s behind me now.”
“And the beach?” She looked down again at my clothing.
“Lovely, absolutely lovely. You are very lucky to live where you do.”
“I know. I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”
“Do you get out much?”
“Usually, once a day for a walk and then a coffee. It’s very calming.”
“It is. Please sit, if you’d like.”
She sat and, her eyes traveled over my body. I felt the early stages of a blush that was thankfully concealed by the faint sunburn. “I can’t get over it; you look so different from yesterday.” She tilted her head.
“Bad different?” I asked, but her eyes already told me she was pleased.
“No, you look relaxed. You dress down nicely.”
“Is that really the best you could come up with? Don’t you do this for a living? How about nice potato sack?”
She pressed her lips together. “I definitely wouldn’t call what you’re wearing a potato sack.”
I quickly looked down at my lunch. That sunburn was really starting to come in handy. I dug into my salad, spearing some noodles, oranges, and pecans. I moaned in delight and swallowed the mouthful. I looked back up at Julie. “Do you moonlight as a waitress?”
“Huh?” She raised her eyebrows in confusion.
“You brought out my food.”
“Well, it was the easiest way to strike up another conversation with you. Far easier than spilling coffee all over you.”
Then it hit me. “You bumped into me on purpose yesterday?”
A guilty look settled over her features. “Technically, but the coffee spillage incident was not the desired outcome. I mean that could have really backfired on me.”
I was momentarily stunned. “Why didn’t you just try a line?”
“Because lines don’t work, Cameron. Action, ingenuity, that’ll get you places.” The guilt was gone and replaced by a charm I found frustratingly endearing.
“I’m definitely sending you my dry-cleaning bill now. Next time use a line.” I shoveled another forkful into my mouth and pretended to be annoyed.
“As if you’ve ever picked up anyone with, ‘did we ever make out at Niagara Falls?’”
“But we did make out at Niagara Falls, don’t you remember?” I lingered on the imaginary thought.
“Really?” she asked excitedly. “How was I?” She leaned toward me.
“Back then?” I frowned. “You needed a lot of work. You focused too much on the end results and not enough on details. Lucky for you, I had a lot of patience and I worked you through it. Overall, a solid C-plus.”
“C-plus?” She gasped dramatically and put her hand to her chest in mock hurt.
“We were much younger then,” I clarified.
She burst out laughing. “Who are you? And where have you been all my life?”
“I’m pretty sure you have a girlfriend,” I reminded us both.
“No,” she interrupted my thoughts. “I said I’d just started seeing someone. I never said that I was dating someone exclusively.”
“Your exact words were, ‘I’m taken.’”
“I thought you were a stalker.”
“Says the woman who purposefully bumped into me.” I scraped the remainder of the salad into my mouth.
“That’s the first real thing that I’ve eaten all day.” I pushed the bowl and fork off to the side of the table and took a sip of my iced coffee.
“So, what are your plans for the rest of the day?”
“This.” I spread my hands. “I’ll eventually head back to my hotel, grab a shower and something to eat. It’s going to be an early night for me.”
“Tomorrow is your last day?”
“What’s on the agenda for tomorrow?” She swirled her straw through her drink as she nonchalantly waited on my answer.
“This,” I said again. “I’ve been coming to San Diego for years now. I’ve done all the touristy stuff. I’ll just enjoy the beach tomorrow, grab something to eat and it will be a great day. What about you?”
“Probably work, but I’m lucky. I have a very flexible job. Except when inspiration strikes, then I usually lock myself away in my house.”
I yawned again but this time I couldn’t stifle it. “Sorry.” I covered my mouth and stretched out my muscles.
“The iced coffee isn’t helping much, is it?”
“Not really. I think jet lag is kicking in. I need a hot shower. I should get an Uber.”
I picked up my phone and Julie said, “Can I drive you back to your hotel?”
“Isn’t that something a stalker would offer to do? Before you know it, I’ll end up in a ditch somewhere.”
“I’m a lover, not a fighter.” She grinned. “Where are you staying?”
I gave her a once-over. She wasn’t that much taller than me. I was sure I could take her one-on-one if it ever came to that. I acquiesced through an unsure sigh. “The Sheraton on Avenue Road.”
She was up and out of her seat like a shot. “Stay right here. I’ll go grab my car and come back to get you.”
“Said the spider to the fly…” I muttered as I finished off the last of my iced coffee.
After a few minutes, Julie pulled up to the café and I climbed into the front passenger seat. Normally, I wouldn’t have gotten into a stranger’s car, but Julie hardly felt like a stranger at this point in time. What were the chances of two separate back-to-back meetings? Certainly not anything I had hoped for when I ended up at the café two days in a row.
As she drove in the direction of the hotel, I took in the new area of town I didn’t recognize.
“You mentioned you come to San Diego a few times a year. Do you vacation anywhere else?”
“It’s almost exclusively for work. One of my biggest clients is based here. They fly me down for anything major, acquisitions or the odd lawsuit, but recently it’s been a lot more than that. At first, I was a consultant advising another lawyer, but I’ve slowly become that lawyer. I had to pass the California Bar, which is considered the most difficult, and it was. So to answer your question, no, I don’t really take a vacation. I have the days but I usually just stick to home. When I come down, I’ll add on a couple extra days at the insistence of my coworkers and friends.”
“All work and no play?”
“Something like that.” I turned and looked out the window, choosing to spend the remainder of the drive watching the scenery.
Julie pulled up to the front entrance of the hotel and cut the engine. I unbuckled my seat belt and turned to face her. “I really appreciate the ride, thank you.”
“No problem.” She lightly drummed her hands on the bottom of the steering wheel.
An awkward moment settled between us. I thought of what I could say to extend the moment. The realization I wanted more time with her startled me. I said nothing and opened the door. “Wait.” She reached out but stopped just short of touching me. “Do you like Thai food?”
“Have dinner with me tomorrow night?”
“You have a girlfriend and I really don’t date.”
“Well, that’s perfect because I’m not asking you out on a date, just dinner.” She flashed a hopeful expression. “Say yes and I’ll pick you up at seven tomorrow night.”
Every reason why I should say no flashed through my mind. She kept trying to catch my gaze as I contemplated my answer.
“What if our paths never cross again?” she asked.
“Maybe they will in the next life?”
“Why not this one?”
I knew I should politely decline her offer in light of her girlfriend and my own self-imposed nunnery, but she had plied me with food, my kryptonite. “Okay…”
A relieved look crossed her features.
“But it’s not a date. It’s a food thing. We can review the restaurant together.” I grabbed onto the handle of the door and got out of car with a quick wave. I ignored her laughter and lingering gaze.
After my shower, I drafted my reporting letter for work, sent out emails on other matters, and texted the house sitter to see how the cat was doing. All was well in Toronto. I could rest easy tonight and just enjoy my last day in San Diego tomorrow, but my mind kept going back to Julie. What the hell was I doing? This wasn’t like the other women I had dinner or shared a bottle of wine with. There was an unexplainable energy between us I couldn’t deny. I wanted to know more about her and it terrified me.