Written for Jocelyn/ThePurpleMadness/Heidi Erickson's birthday!

There is also now a Russian translation by the AMAZING Ketrin127. Read it here:

(ficbook*.net*/readfic/4262674) (Remove '*'s from URL)


It was that blasted cat's fault.

Rupert Gold still didn't know how the damned thing was getting into his shop. He'd checked the weather (he always did) and he'd known that if he wanted to beat the day's downpour he'd need to leave for The Mug no later than 7:00am. As it was, that feline had knocked out his alarm—again. An extra hour of sleep, some colorful curses upon waking, age-old threats, hasty dressing, and no breakfast later, Gold was standing outside his shop with a magnificent scowl gracing his features.

It was pouring.

Quick as lightening he thought he saw a black flash disappearing 'round the corner. It might have been a tail.

"One of these days, dearie." He growled. "I will skin you and line my gloves."

With a grimace Gold slung his bag across his chest, opened his umbrella with one hand, and took up his cane with the other. This was why he despised the rain. It wrinkled his suit and filled his shoes. Worse, it was always accompanied by the cold; cold that seeped into his leg and stiffened his knee into something resembling concrete. Gold made it two blocks before he had to stop, the fingers atop his cane shaking spastically.

He sighed. There was no way he was making it all the way to The Mug today.

Instead he turned—with no small amount of chagrin—and entered the café two doors down.

"Welcome to Belle's Baked Goods and Books!" a voice shouted. It came just seconds after he'd walked through the door. Gold winced.

Of course there'd be a welcome wagon. Blithely greeting customers at migraine inducing levels… what a horrible business practice.

Still, Gold couldn't deny that the voice fit with the rest of the café's garish atmosphere. There was a reason he'd succeeded in avoiding it for near six months now. Gaudy overstuffed chairs crowded the floor to his left, inadequate lighting had him immediately tripping over another customer's foot ("Watch it, dearie."), and there were books lining every bit of the walls—some hanging from the ceiling on wires too—but Gold would bet a fool's fortune that these youngsters had never read any of them. The overall feeling was one of barely veiled stupidity.

Well, at least it was dry. And the coffee smelled decent.

Getting in line—there were far too many people—and trying to fold his umbrella without wetting his suit even more was a task. As was finding room for his cane, refusing to allow his bag to even touch that boy with his moth-eaten coat… all the while trying to peer up at the board high overhead. Honestly, they used gold chalk here? And why did they have to write everything so small?

"Hey there," came the voice again. Gold was busy trying to pull out his wallet with shivering hands. "Next please!"

He jerked, then stumbled forward.

"Yes, yes, that's me. Apologies. Just one moment I—oh."

Wallet in hand Gold finally looked up… and was infinitely glad that the thoughts of dirty old men remained private.

The woman standing behind the counter was stunning.

Literally. Gold took great pride in his vocabulary and he chose his words well. Stunning: to stun, to strike, to astonish. Her beauty certainly deserved the word because Gold was left reeling backwards, only his cane keeping him afloat, and the breath had been punched straight from his lungs in one, forceful blow. That's how she left him: staggering.

'Classical' was the next word that came to mind. Then 'delicate.' Then—almost in rejection of 'delicate'—came 'solid.' The woman stood firmly even as Gold spluttered awkwardly before her. Running over her shoulders were thick chestnut curls, each ring perfectly sculpted, and her eyes… was she wearing contacts? Did blue even come in that color naturally? Gold couldn't believe it. And yet… pale skin, glossed lips, a hint of blush along her cheeks… her beauty only stood out more by the plain dress she wore; that itself covered by a stained smock. Gold found himself looking at the customers behind him, befuddled that they weren't as struck by this beauty as he.

"Sir?" The woman said again. Was she laughing? "Did you want to order something?"

"Yes. I… ah…"

What had he wanted again?

After two more agonizing beats of silence the woman moved. In one fluid motion her shoulders lost their professional stiffness and she collapsed, boneless across the counter. Closer now, Gold could smell a heady peach lotion under the aroma of coffee. It dried his mouth—he really should order something to drink—and when he caught another fruity scent coming from her lip balm his mouth became an all out desert.

Did she still expect him to speak like this?

The woman cupped a hand conspiratorially around her mouth. "So here's the thing," she whispered. "You've just been standing there about a minute now—which is an hour in coffee time—and frankly I'm flattered as fuck." The obscenity rolled off her tongue, sharp as a whip. "Buuut… I think Zach is two seconds away from beating you to death with your own cane, so how about we introduce a little sympathy to keep that from happening? Okay? K."

Wait… What?

"Don't worry, sir." The woman said. Her voice grew louder, smoothing into something performative. "You've got enough to carry as it is. Go ahead and sit. I'll bring you your tea."

What?

When Gold didn't move the woman nudged the wet sleeve of his suit.

"Go on," she whispered. Then winked.

So Gold stumbled away. He looked back to see the guy in the disintegrating jacket—Zach?—losing his scowl as the woman handed him a mug and some kind of iced bread. Tossing her a bill he brushed past Gold, nose in the air, and chose the last chair with a footstool. Gold made a beeline for the corner at the opposite end of the café.

Settled, he pressed a hand hard against the bridge of his nose…. and blinked.

He should be seething. Logically.

That damnable cat had given him a fine start to the morning, a downpour, aches in his leg like he hadn't felt in months (Gold couldn't deny though that his seat was fairly comfortable and it seemdd he'd chosen a spot beneath a heating vent…), crappy cafes, embarrassing himself like a schoolboy, and now… had that woman really implied that he was too unsteady to manage a cup? The nerve! Admittedly, it might have been a bit much with everything else he was carrying but that was hardly the point. What a presumptuous girl.

Pretty though.

Gold actually cursed at that, startling a nearby student. He waved her off. What did it matter if he made a fool of himself now? He'd managed that just fine so far. Honestly, the last time he'd looked at a woman was pre-Milah and his lack of interest post-Milah had been the entire point. Her pretty head had turned his too hard and too fast. It was only after all the paperwork had been signed that he realized her personality didn't exactly match up with her exterior. Not much brains to speak of—at least beyond her ability to plan cheating encounters.

When he'd eventually figured it all out—more fool him—divorce had been a blessing of the highest order.

"Do you always mutter to yourself this much?"

Gold jumped, knocking over his umbrella and cane. The woman stood with two cups of tea in hand and, certainly not waiting for an invitation, sat herself down on the table to Gold's left. She balanced one steaming cup precariously on her knee.

"I don't mind the muttering," she said, shoving the second cup his way. "I quite like it in fact. It's generally a sign of someone who thinks a lot. You know, too many thoughts to keep in your head all at once? Everything spilling over? I get that. What I don't get though is sitting on your bag. That can't be very comfortable."

"I—Oh." Gold flailed a moment. What had she been saying? His thoughts? And… when had she taken his cup back? No matter. Gold took advantage of his free hands and unslung the bag from his chest. He dropped it between them, cheeks heating.

"Better huh?" She laughed. "Here's your tea."

Some of Gold's faculties were coming back. Slowly… but still. It was something. Pretty or no, there was no reason to be intimidated by a woman who, quite frankly, probably thought about as much of him as she did any old man on the street. Gold forced himself to look her hard in the eye, unflinching.

"Dearie," he said. "I didn't order tea."

"Pfff." She waved a hand wildly. "You're absolutely a tea guy if ever I saw one."

"I assure you, I wanted coffee."

"Well you got tea. Oh, watch the chip on the side though. Normally I'd take that one for myself but I've already cut my lip on it four times this week—four! Maybe it'll like you better."

Casting the cup in question a suspicious glance, Gold turned it until, yes, he found the chip along the rim. Why did she bother keeping such a thing? Though the detailing was pleasant… and the chip didn't draw away from that. Perhaps it even added something. Character? Yes. Gold could easily see the delicate object finding a space amongst his antiques.

But for now its home was here. Angling it away from him Gold took a sip of a decent black tea. She'd added a generous spoonful of honey and God, how he hated honey in his tea.

Gold took a long swallow anyway.

"Thank you," he murmured.

The woman was staring at him. Gold could feel his cheeks heating again as he remembered his own staring from before. Desperate he fumbled to reclaim his wallet.

"How much was it again? Never mind, never mind, it's of no concern. Please take a bit for yourself too. For the service." Did that sound forward? Or patronizing? Too late now. Scowling Gold turned his head away and thrust his MAC at her.

Her lips twitched. "Sorry. We don't accept cards."

"You…" Gold blinked. "I don't carry cash."

"Really? That's very 21st century of you."

"I don't deal in small sums," he said dryly.

"Your work?"

"Antiques."

"Seriously?"

"It's quite lucrative provided you know the right deals to strike."

The woman nodded, looking contemplative.

"Your own work?" Gold ventured.

She spread her arms, nearly knocking both their drinks over. "Ta-da! You're looking at it. I'm Belle. Of Belle's Baked Goods and Books. Well. The baked goods aren't actually mine. The books are. Ruby makes all the sweets. I tried making scones once. Set the kitchen on fire. Ruby says there was nothing in the recipe that could have produced a fire but she's absolutely lying about that."

"… I see." Belle. Gold ducked back into his tea, savoring the name as well as the flavors. Belle. He coughed when the silence stretched too long though.

"And is this lucrative?"

"Meeeh." Belle made a wibbly, non-committal hand motion. "Not really? But I'm happy. There's just enough for me and Regina."

"Regina?"

"My temperamental cat."

Gold snorted. "Ah. Well then we have that in common. I've a feline that's terrorized me for the last month. The wicked creature keeps getting into my apartment somehow."

"She—?" Belle's face scrunched in thought.

"Belle!"

Just then though a call came. Both turned to find a redhead in killer heels waving their way. Belle waved back.

"Duty calls," she sighed and a new pain settled in Gold's stomach. Right. Of course.

"Hey," Belle suddenly said, turning. "You want coffee?"

Gold morosely lifted his tea. "This is fine, thank you. You have my word that I'll bring in cash tomorrow."

Belle laughed. "Okay one, it's a tea. I'm not breaking the bank covering you for that. Two, glad to hear you're coming back tomorrow. And three, I meant coffee later. With me. You know, on a date?"

Gold gapped.

"Belle!" The redhead had pursed lips now. "C'mon!"

Belle spread her arms in a, 'well?' gesture but Gold was still picking his jaw up off the floor.

"W-wait!" he called, just as she was turning away. He bumbled to his feet, fully intending on saying yes, absolutely, he'd be delighted… but what came out instead was: "Books?"

"Books?" Belle parroted.

"Ah, that is…" Gold gestured around them. "You said these were your books. You've read them?"

"Of course." A smile was spreading across Belle's face. "Is a love of reading a pre-date requirement for you?"

"Absolutely."

"Then yes?"

"Yes?"

"Say yes." Belle urged.

"Oh… yes. To the date? That is… yes. I'd be—ah. Yes." Gold spluttered to a stop.

"Great." Belle bounced a little, swinging her hips, hair flying and peach lotion assaulting Gold's nose. She suddenly stilled and peered at something over his shoulder.

"I need to get back to work but… the house-invading cat you mentioned? Yeeeeeah. Regina's made a bad habit of that."

As Belle flounced away Gold whirled. Sure enough the she-devil was prowling the café's windows, brushing against the back of people's chairs. She cocked her head haughtily at Gold.

Well then.

Collapsing back into his chair Gold picked up his now cold tea. He drank it anyway as he gazed at Regina over the rim.

"You're safe this time, dearie" he muttered.

After all, his date was the blasted cat's fault.