This is a writing exercise that started as an attempt to recharge my creativity and may turn into something bigger. Spoilers for Walking Wounded. First time Tara POV.
“Boys are stupid,” Luke has told her more than once. “Nothing good comes from boys, just stay away from them.”
Every time she questions the wisdom of that statement, he gives her a withering look over the lid of his laptop and says, “Kid, I’ve kissed a lot more boys than you. Trust me, they’re all the same.”
“Hal’s the worst.” And though his voice is still bored, his pale cheeks get touched with a faint pink glow. That’s the point at which he always ducks back down out of sight behind his computer. Tara usually then kicks him in the shin. What a loser he is.
But he’s right. She knows he is. Her life has been much simpler, and even happier, since she made the decision not to date at all. Not to even look. School is challenging – a good kind of challenge, the kind that demands she sink all her teeth and claws into each assignment, log extra library hours, stay up writing until her eye strain gives her a migraine. She works ten hours a week at the university bookstore, showing freshman where to find their textbooks and selling as many impulse purchase pens and computer screen cleaners she can at the register. It’s not thrilling, but it’s a paycheck, and she’s starting to make a few friends there, friends who just want to keep their heads down and work, rather than party and find new ways to insult her family. She’s busy, is the point, and she doesn’t have time to date, even if she wanted to – which she doesn’t. Not at all. There’s no one on her radar.
Which is of course why it happens.
Wednesdays are her favorites, not that she’d admit it to Luke. She gets out of class early and has a three-hour window before work, so she always meets him at Georgetown Grind. He bitches about his book, she bitches about one of her poli-sci papers, and they trade work and offer suggestions over lattes.
The early April sunshine warms her face as she walks the last few feet to the coffee shop’s door. The sidewalks are thronged with shoppers and all the outdoor tables are occupied. She would try to vulture around for one, but she knows Luke won’t go for that; he needs an outlet to plug in his laptop. With a little sigh of disappointment, she lets herself inside and breathes deep the smells of coffee and fresh baked goods.
She glances toward their usual table, which is empty. Luke isn’t here yet. Tara settles at the back of the long line and texts him.
Where r u?
I’m not buying ur coffee, she sends back. But of course she is.
Despite its length, the line moves quickly. One employee takes orders and another mixes the drinks, steam billowing behind the counter, the grinding, hissing machinery drowning out the quiet sounds of conversation and laptop keys.
Tara allows herself to relax, shifting her weight to one foot and letting the morning’s tension bleed out of her shoulders. Her constitution class got into one of those heated discussions that are more like brawls, the kind of fray she doesn’t ever wade into. Everyone has opinions – she doesn’t understand the need to scream said opinions at one another in the middle of a classroom. But it bothered her all the same, and she’s grateful for the chance to take in deep breaths of coffee-smell and let the secondhand anger bleed out of her clenched muscles.
5 mins Luke texts.
The line has moved and now there’s only one customer in front of her. It gives her a chance to do what she keeps telling herself she isn’t doing: check out the barista at the register.
Maybe it’s the eyes – they’re the kind of brown you notice, like coffee with a drop of hazelnut creamer. Or the hair – it’s a shiny, silky chestnut that he wears short on the sides and long on top, just long enough for an errant forelock to curl in the steam of the espresso machine and fall onto his forehead. Or his smile – it’s slow, and soft, and one of his canines is just a touch crooked, in a charming way. But it’s also the way the short sleeves of his Georgetown Grind t-shirt cling to his shoulders and biceps; the tattoo on his wrist he hides behind a leather cuff, but that peeks out at the edges. The tidy handwriting he marks the cups with. He’s a boy, and Luke’s right, boys are stupid, but she likes looking at him. When he isn’t looking at her that is. She tries not to be overt.
The woman in front of her finishes paying and steps aside, and then Tara is in front of the cute barista – his nametag reads Austin.
“Hi,” he greets, and she imagines that his polite smile widens a fraction. Pretends his pretty brown eyes grow a little brighter. He lifts a hand off the register and points at her. “Let me guess: chai latte and double-shot with a dash of cinnamon for your boyfriend.”
He knows her order.
He knows her order.
“Um. Yeah. Um.” Her fingers shake as she reaches into her purse for her wallet. She smiles at him, and hopes it looks less tense than she feels. “But, um…” How many times can she say “um”? “He’s my friend. Not my boyfriend.”
“Oh.” His eyes flick up to hers as he punches buttons on the register.
“He’s in a relationship, actually,” she adds, because she’s a moron. “And he’s gay.”
She wants to beat her head on the counter.
But one corner of Austin’s mouth tucks up in a smile that is nothing less than adorable and oh no, she can’t do this. No. Stupid, stupid, stupid.
“Good to know,” he says, writing their names on their cups. Because he remembers their names.
When she hands him the money, a quarter slips through her fingers and pings off the counter, bouncing off behind it somewhere onto the rubber mats.
“Shit,” she mutters, and then winces, wishing she hadn’t cursed in front of him. He has a sweet smile; he probably isn’t the sort of boy who appreciates a dockhand mouth on a lady.
Not that she’s a lady. Not that she’s interested in boys at the moment.
He chuckles, though. “It’s fine.”
“No, here.” She fumbles in her purse. “I have another.”
“It’s fine, Tara, honest.” And then he winks at her.
She’s so surprised, she allows herself a moment to look at him full in the face while he’s looking at her. To imagine what it would be like if he looked at her with true intent in his eyes. To wonder if, were she to step in close and tuck her face in the strong, tan column of his throat, he’d smell like coffee and cream and blueberry scones. She thinks he might. She thinks she might really like that.
“Thanks,” she says in a rush, and turns away from him before he can tell that she’s blushing.
Luke arrives two minutes later, dumping his bag all over their table like a harried slob, pens and Post-It notes puffing out like feathers from a split pillow. “Damn,” he mutters, absently – cussing is just something he does, not something he thinks about with any great passion – and bends to retrieve them, glasses sliding down his nose in the process. He’s wearing a t-shirt that reads Eat My Shorts under a red plaid flannel, and his hair’s slicked back like a T-Bird. He’s freaking adorable, and he doesn’t notice the teenage girls at the next table eyeing him and grinning to one another.
When he finally gets settled, and straightens his glasses, he takes one look at her face and says, “What happened?”
“Tara. Luke.” Their drinks are ready.
“You have to go get those,” she tells him, shaking her head. “The barista winked at me.”
He frowns. “Carla?”
He blinks, and then smirks. “Oh. Gotcha.” He gets up with a chuckle. “Be right back.” But pauses. “You want me to say–”
He takes too long getting napkins and swizzle sticks, and Tara’s knees are bouncing under the table by the time he returns. When Luke sets her latte in front of her, she pops off the top and guzzles down three swallows that scorch her mouth.
“It’s not laced coffee,” Luke says, dryly.
He takes a delicate sip of his own drink, and settles back into his chair, all casual and relaxed. “So tell me about this wink.”
She groans. “I don’t know what happened. I get up to order, and he already knows our order. And he thought you were my boyfriend, and I told him you weren’t…and he winked at me.”
“You’re a terrible storyteller.”
“It’s not even a story. It was…a possible flirtation.”
“And yet you’re being so dramatic about it.”
“No, I’m not.”
“You think he’s cute.”
She looks out the window and takes a more measured sip of her drink.
“He is cute. If you go for that sort of thing.” When she doesn’t respond, he says, “But you don’t want to think he’s cute?”
“Boys are stupid.”
“Well, yeah. But maybe this one isn’t.”
She shoots him a glare, and finds him giving her a level, non-judgmental look.
He shrugs. “Look at your cup.”
She does. Under her name – written in Austin’s neat block letters – is a small cartoon flower. And beside it, a phone number.
She says, “Shit.”
She doesn’t call him. Of course she doesn’t. She isn’t that kind of girl anymore – the chaser, the one who goes out on a limb and changes her schedule for someone who’s probably only going to kiss her a few times and then ask if he can invite some pothead blonde to join in. Not that she’s bitter about that. Not that she’s allowing previous bad experiences to dictate what she does now.
(Luke is seriously rubbing off on her. They should stop hanging out.)
But if the empty paper cup with Austin’s number and his flower doodle – it looks like a daisy with a face, the plastic toy kind with sunglasses that danced to music she’d had as a kid – happens to sit on top of her dresser amongst her jewelry and makeup cases, well…that’s no one’s business but her own. She sets the cup down and resolutely doesn’t think about it, or Austin, for an entire week.
But then suddenly it’s Wednesday, and she’s a few steps from the door of Georgetown Grind when her stomach tightens with dread. She’s breathing hard through her mouth by the time she gets inside, and for the first time ever, the smell of fresh muffins threatens to make her gag.
She wants to kick herself. She has no reason to be nervous. So she didn’t call the guy – did he actually expect her to? Did he think he could scribble down a number and she’d punch it right into her phone? Like she was so desperate it was just a given?
By the time she reaches their regular table – and Luke’s already there, thank God – the anxiety has turned to anger. She’s offended.
Luke lets out a low whistle as she sits down. “There’s that murderous face that drives the boys wild.”
“You’re one to talk,” she says, rolling her eyes. “Have you seen your murder face?”
“No, but apparently it makes me look like a drowned kitten.”
“You and Hal? You’re disgusting.”
He twitches a grin. “I know.” His eyes cut toward the counter, and Tara resists the urge to look too. “Did you call?” he asks in a stage whisper.
“I talked to you on the phone last night. Don’t you think I would have told you if I’d called?”
“I didn’t call.”
“But you wanted to.” Not a question.
“No, actually.” When his gaze returns to her face, doubtful, she lets some of the anger bleed into her voice. “I’m not a dog. He can’t whistle and expect me to come.”
“Technically, he didn’t whistle…” He trails off the same moment his eyes lift over her head and his expression shifts to panic. “Oh shit.”
“What?” She turns around in her seat the same moment Luke gets up out of his.
“Shit,” he says again, groaning.
At six-three, he’s not only the tallest person currently occupying the coffee shop, but the fittest, most heavily-muscled, too. His smartly-tailored suit highlights the breadth of his shoulders, the narrowness of his hips, and the thick layers of muscle on his torso. He’s got his Security Face on as he scans the room, drawing looks from men and women alike: the men wondering if he’s secret service and the president is about to be escorted in, and the women like they want to pull their weddings rings off.
“Why is he here?” Tara asks, and though she likes Hal, she has a bad feeling she isn’t going to like whatever’s about to happen.
“Uh…” Luke rubs at the back of his neck. “I might have – hold on.” He goes to intercept his husband who is…glaring at the register. Where…Austin is taking orders.
It clicks into place but she refuses to believe it’s happening. Not until Luke gets an arm through Hal’s and manages to drag him (Hal isn’t resisting, obviously) back to their table.
“Hal?” she greets, half-question, half-ice.
“Hi. Is that him?” He jerks a thumb toward the front counter. “With the stupid hair?”
Tara stares at him. Really stares. Gives him her mother’s best, most-withering, man-killing Southern Woman Look. Which doesn’t work on a former solider turned security agent. He flinches a little, but holds his ground.
“Okay, first off, his hair isn’t stupid.” It’s gorgeous, not that she’s spent too much time thinking about it, nope. “And second off, why in the world are you here asking about him?”
Hal has the good sense to blush.
Luke says, “Our brave Lancelot is here to defend your honor. Or some kinda bullshit. I tried to tell him you don’t have any honor, but…”
Hal punches him lightly in the shoulder without looking at him.
“Are you okay?” Hal asks, so serious it’s cute. “Luke said some barista was coming onto you and–”
“He’s not coming onto me,” she breaks in, shooting her traitor friend a glare. “He wrote his number on my cup.”
He lifts his brows in challenge.
“It was just a number,” she insists. “He didn’t do anything.”
Hal makes a dissatisfied face and looks over his shoulder toward the counter where Austin is smiling politely at an elderly lady ordering coffees off a handwritten list she pulled out of her sleeve. Austin hasn’t shaved in a few days, scruff coming in along the sharp edges of his jaw; it’s a good look.
“Sometimes when I tell you things,” Luke says, “it doesn’t mean I want you to do anything about them. I’m just telling you.”
Hal sighs. “I just…”
“We know,” Luke and Tara say together.
And really, Tara does know. Hal is of a rare breed: the truly earnest. The kind of man who takes on his responsibilities as personal crusades, who cares about her entire family; who would literally throw himself between any of them and a bullet. She has no idea how Luke lives with worrying about him. If Hal’s here, it’s because he’s looking out for her. With the exception of her family, no one looks out for her. It’s hard to be angry with him.
Not impossible, but hard.
She lets out a deep breath. “I appreciate the sentiment, Hal, but it’s fine. I’m fine.”
“I’ll be happy to tell him to back off,” he says, like that’s a normal thing that people offer. Like he isn’t an actual white knight.
He nods. “Okay.”
And that’s it.
Luke goes up to get their coffee and Hal leaves a few minutes later. Crisis averted…even though a part of her feels hollow with disappointment, ashamed that she wasn’t brave enough to go up to the counter herself, regretting her fear all the way through the rest of her day.
Turns out, she shouldn’t have worried. Because of course, that wasn’t it.
The next time Tara sees Austin The Hottie With The Coffee – which is what Luke has taken to calling him, insisting the title rhymes, which she isn’t sure it does, and that it’s clever, which it definitely isn’t – she’s working on an intensive team paper about the Supreme Court. She’s enjoying the usual Team Paper Experience, which is to say that everyone wants to meet up all the time, gossip, chew gum, accomplish nothing, and saddle one responsible person with the bulk of the work. In this case, the responsible person is her, and she’s too worried about her grade to argue with them, only stews silently to herself about the fact that they all deserve to flunk. She arrives to her usual coffee date with Luke ten minutes late and thoroughly hassled.
Hey, so I didn’t have time to read over the materials last night, the email from her teammate reads. She scrolls down, growing more disappointed as she goes. Maybe we can do that together this afternoon? Let me know. Thx.
“Oh my God,” Tara mutters, backing out of her inbox without replying. “One chapter. You couldn’t read one chapter?”
“Depends on the chapter,” a male voice says in front of her. “Are we talking a Kurt Vonnegut chapter? Or a John Irving chapter? ‘Cause those bad boys are long.”
Startled, she lifts to head to find that she’s now at the front of the line, and that Austin is studying her with a soft, amused smile that does devastating things to her insides. “Uh…” she says, intelligently.
His grin widens. He has dimples, she notes. “You want the regular?”
“Uh…” She says again, and wants to kick herself. “Um, no. No, I want mocha this time. Please.” She ducks her head to dig some cash out of her purse so she doesn’t have to maintain eye contact.
“Sure.” She hears him punch her order into the register. Thinks she isn’t blushing too bad when she hands over the money. “Who didn’t read what?”
Oh no. He’s trying to have an actual conversation with her.
Which is fine. No big deal. She can handle this, totally. If she wants to work in her father’s world – in which people might actually try to kill you for your opinions – she ought to be able to handle a little small talk with a cute boy.
“One of my teammates,” she says, going for casual, sweeping her hair back behind her ears. “I’ve got this big group paper due in two weeks, and no one will pull their own weight when it comes to the research. I think I’m gonna end up doing the whole thing myself.” There. Now that wasn’t so hard.
“Ah.” He makes a sympathetic sound as he counts out her change. “I hate group projects. I’ve got one due at the end of the semester.”
Asking questions is bad, because it invites more conversation, which invites things like him giving her his number. Then again, he’s already done that, and she’s curious. “You’re in school? What are you studying?”
“American Literature.” His eyes are bright when he hands over her change and receipt. Unprompted, he says, “I want to be a writer,” and then his cheeks color. He ducks his head a little. “Um, you know, ‘cause I’m an idiot who can’t just major in something useful.”
Warmth blooms slowly behind her breastbone, unwanted, but there all the same. “You should come talk to my friend sometime. He’s a writer.”
“Yeah?” He looks hopeful. He looks adorable. “He wouldn’t mind?”
“Oh no. Luke’s much nicer than me.”
The woman behind her clears her throat and Tara steps aside. “I’m sure he could answer some questions,” she offers, and then walks away before his smile blinds her.
“Flirting, are we?” Luke asks when she sits down across from him, never taking his eyes from his laptop.
“No. Austin was saying he wants to be a writer, and I told him he ought to talk to you.”
He groans. “I don’t know shit about writing.”
“He says, while writing,” Tara says. “This whole hating yourself routine is getting super old, you know.”
He snorts. “I know.”