Disclaimer: We don't own them, as much as we might wish we did.
Note: This story is being co-written by airbefore and Caffeinate-Me as an entry into the Summer 2016 Ficathon. It is our intention to post new chapters each Wednesday but as life is a thing that happens, please bear with us should something prevent that. We hope you have as much fun reading this story as we're having writing it.
"It's such a happiness when good people get together."
― Jane Austen, Emma
"And that is why it is important to make an outline no matter what you are writing. Now, let's talk about - "
The sharp ring of the bell cuts him off. Chair legs scrape across the floor as twenty teenagers scramble to get out of the classroom. Every period ends in a mad dash for the door but there's always a special swiftness at the conclusion of the last class on Friday afternoons.
"Don't forget, your papers on Emma are due Monday. Remember- theme analysis, character development. I don't just want a plot summary." A chorus of groans rises up to drown out his pronouncement. "Five pages, single spaced. And Mr. Simpson -" he points at a lanky boy sporting a crooked grin - "please try to come up with a more creative excuse than an expired grandparent this time, okay? I've been counting. I know you've run out."
The kid gives him a mock salute and saunters out the door, his long arm looped around the shoulders of a petite blonde, the fourth one this semester. Shaking his head, Richard Rodgers drops into his desk chair, the faux leather sighing under his weight. How pathetic is it that a seventeen year old seems to be getting more action than him? Probably not as pathetic as the fact that he's noticed but – still.
The minute hand on the clock above his desk ticks forward and Rick sighs; the quizzes from his third period class won't grade themselves. Grabbing a purple pen from the cup on his desk, he starts at the top of the stack, marking off incorrect answers with his trademark frowny face rather than the traditional X. He gets pretty regular doses of grief from the administration and parents over his less than orthodox classroom practices but the test scores his kids turn in speak for themselves. Teaching may not be his passion but damn if he isn't good at it.
A laugh rolls up his throat when he finds a half-finished, crude drawing on one of the papers in the middle of the stack. He finishes the sketch, turning what he's fairly certain was supposed to be a giant phallus looming over the city into a punctured blimp, the dying body slumping down over a horrified Statue of Liberty.
A violent buzzing starts inside his desk just as he's putting the finishing touches on the blimp. Four o'clock. Finally. Mentally fist pumping, Rick shoves the rest of the papers into his briefcase and fishes his still vibrating phone out of the drawer. He shoves it in his pocket as he stands, muscles quivering with anticipation. He never blames the kids for the way they bolt out his room at the end of every class. He can't, not when he feels that same rush of adrenaline at the mere thought of escape.
Rick slings the strap of his bag over his shoulder and heads for the door, a mantra of grown men don't run away from school the only thing keeping him at a respectable pace. He's halfway down the hall - freedom in sight - when the polite clearing of a throat stops him in his tracks.
He turns on a sigh, a small smile - one he hopes doesn't look too pained - stretching his lips. He's supposed to be happy to see the woman he's sort of accidentally maybe dating, right? "Hi, Stacy."
"I know you're busy tonight - your regular writing time and all - but would you be interested in dinner tomorrow?"
"Or brunch on Sunday?" She cuts in before he can formulate a delicate way to say no.
Brunch. Brunch is a safe meal to have with a colleague. "Sure, brunch sounds nice."
"Great! There's a new place near my apartment that's supposed to be amazing. Amelie's. I've heard they have the best avocado toast. Does that work?"
"Sounds great." Because there's nothing he'd rather spend fifteen dollars on than overripe avocado smashed onto burnt rye bread.
"Awesome!" Stacy claps once, bouncing up onto her toes, and he feels his smile soften into something more genuine. She is a warm and caring person, perfect for someone. Just not him. "I'll make a reservation for eleven and text you the address. See you then?"
"Yeah, see you then."
Stacy trots away, her blonde ponytail swinging, and Rick scrubs a hand down his face. There are very few ideas worse than dating a colleague – a lesson he learned the hard way with Leslie Sylvester his first year on the job – but accidentally dating them has to qualify. He still isn't entirely sure how it happened. Somehow polite chitchat in the teachers' lounge turned into two coffee dates which have now apparently turned into brunch. He has to figure out a way to let her down before he ends up accidentally married with two kids and a dog.
Sunlight reflects off the pavement when he steps outside and Rick squints, yet again cursing himself for never remembering sunglasses. The laptop-heavy briefcase bounces off his thigh as he hustles down the block, the burn of creativity already spreading down his neck and shoulders. The scene has been spinning in the back of his mind all day and he has to get it out. Has to put the words on the page before his head explodes.
The shimmering tinkle of the bell over the coffee shop door only makes it worse. He's developed a Pavlovian response to it over the months since he first found this tiny, hole-in-the-wall cafe. The smoldering fires in his fingertips erupt and all he wants is to sit down and go.
Rick tosses a polite smile at the owner, Brenda, on his way to his regular rickety table tucked away in the back corner. In any other circumstance, in any other place, he'd worry about coming across as rude but not here. Not anymore. They know that he's never good for conversation in the afternoons, not until he's spent at least a solid hour pounding away at the keyboard.
Two hours later he lifts his head from the screen and blinks into the hazy light of the shop, bringing the world back into focus. An empty coffee cup he doesn't remember drinking much less ordering sits next to his computer and he smiles. Brenda always takes care of him.
He clicks the save button three times before pushing himself out of his seat, knees and back popping as he wanders up to the counter. He places the ceramic mug in the dish return and gets in the short line. A middle-aged woman in front of him, her long brown hair shot through with confident streaks of gray, chats with Brenda as she waits for her drink.
"Richard, another?" Brenda asks with a knowing tilt of her lips.
"Yes please," he replies, an answering smile spreading across his face. Every day he comes in the shop and every day he finds her behind the counter, apron covered in coffee stains and a warm welcome on her lips. He's sure she knows all of her regular customers by name, but it doesn't keep him from feeling special when she greets him like a friend.
"Johanna, here you go," Brenda continues, turning to the woman standing next to him at the counter. "And be sure to let me know how it goes. This one is cute."
"Will do," Johanna replies with a chuckle before heading over to slide into a chair across from a dramatically younger man.
Rick's eyebrows shoot up to his hairline, still watching the "couple", when he reaches to take the proffered cup from Brenda with a clumsy hand. He wants to pry. Wants to pick Brenda's brain about this Johanna. He wants to know why she's wearing a wedding ring on what seems to be a date with a man half her age.
Maybe she's a recent widow being forced back out into the dating scene by well meaning friends. Or perhaps her husband has recently left her for a younger woman and she's auditioning young men to get back at him. Or maybe she's a CIA operative, part of an elite cougar squad, targeting young men in the tech industry to –
Rick takes a sip of his cappuccino and gives himself an internal head shake. It's never CIA. He should know better by now.
Brenda has moved on to the next customer so he makes his way back to his seat. He shuffles his laptop to the other side of the round bistro table as he slips into the chair, tapping the spacebar to bring it back to life. Johanna and her date chat amicably across the room and he finds his eyes darting up to watch. He falls into a rhythm. Type. Sip. Watch.
Type. Sip. Watch.
Five minutes later he has written two awful sentences and he catches Johanna sliding a photo across to the man. Rick perks up, all pretense of writing gone as he leans a bit too far across the table. Maybe it really is CIA. Or a mob hit. Oh, man. The stories.
"You doing okay there, Richard?"
Rick fumbles for his drink, catching it just in time to keep it from spilling all over the faded and missing keys of his ancient laptop as Brenda stops in the perfect spot to block his view of Johanna's table. If that really is her name.
"Oh. Yes. I'm fine. Good. All good."
"See something interesting?"
Rick raises his head from where he is trying to casually peer around Brenda's hips. She's smirking down at him, arms folded across her chest.
"No. Nope. Just people watching, you know." He forces out a chuckle. "All the best writers do it, so I've heard."
Brenda turns away with a hum, swiping his cup as she goes, saying something him not needing any more caffeine today. Rick redirects his attention to the table across the way. The younger man must have slipped out while he was distracted, but the woman is still there, sitting crossed legged in her chair while she scribbles in a notebook. And just as Brenda plunks a bottle of water down next to him, another young man slips into the vacant chair.
Oh, this is better than HBO.
He watches from under his lashes, face half hidden behind the computer screen, until the second man leaves and Brenda wanders up to Johanna. A moment later both women turn to look at him and Rick drops his head, zeroing in on the laptop. His fingers fly over the keyboard, a string of nonsensical words appearing on the screen.
"You're Richard, right?"
Rick's fingers freeze and his eyes roll up, taking the rest of his face with them until he's gazing up at the woman standing on the other side of the table. He doesn't bother to save his work before clicking the laptop shut- he hasn't written anything worth a damn since this whole interlude started anyway.
"Rick. Yes. Hi. And you are?"
She holds out her hand and Rick pushes himself halfway out of his chair to grasp it. Warm, strong. If it's true that a person's personality can be judged by their handshake, he is in big trouble with this woman.
"Brenda tells me you're a writer." Johanna continues, slipping into the chair across from him, content to make herself at home.
"Sort of. Mostly just aspiring." He admits in response, his gut warning him to be wary of how comfortable it is to talk to this woman. "I teach high school English for my day job," he says, tapping a finger against the school logo embroidered on the pocket of his shirt.
She nods as she flips open her notebook, jotting something in quick shorthand and Rick scrunches his brow as he attempts to interpret it upside down.
"Are you married?"
"I, uh, no?" The response trips along his tongue and he watches as she scribbles another note with a hum.
"Not - not really."
"Not really? What does that mean? Oh, nevermind," Johanna huffs, the wrinkles around her mouth deepening as she looks up and assesses him with shrewd eyes. Up close in this lighting, he can see the through the age lines and the streaks of grey in her chestnut hair. She must have been a knockout when she was younger. "Gay?"
Rick chokes on his tongue and Johanna chuckles. "Is that a yes or a no?"
"Look, you seem like a perfectly nice, if direct woman - not that that's a bad quality, I appreciate directness in people - but I'm not interested."
One eyebrow lifts as Johanna tilts her head to the side, something he cannot quite name dancing just behind the ghost of her smile. "And what exactly is it that you're not interested in?"
"Dating you? Or being a spy in the unlikely event that theory is actually correct. Though you might be able to convince me on the spy thing, provided the gadgets are cool enough. But like I said, you seem very lovely, but I generally date within my own age bracket and prefer those dates to be with unmarried women," he finishes pointing a finger at her left hand.
The force of her laughter makes the water in his bottle ripple. "You're a confident one, aren't you? I like that."
Rick feels his face slacken, mouth opening and closing like a fish. "Mrs. Beck-"
"Oh, call me Johanna," she says, waving him off with the hand that still clutches her pen. "I'm not that much older than you."
"Even so -"
"And get that look off your face. I'm not about to drag you into Brenda's stockroom and have my way with you - handsome as you may be. "
"Then what -"
"I'm looking for dates for my daughter," she says and Rick has to wonder if anyone ever gets to finish a sentence when Johanna Beckett is around. "Katie. Well, Kate. She decided when she was nineteen that Katie just wasn't who she was anymore and so now she insists on being Kate but, you know, old habits die hard. Anyway," Johanna takes her first breath and Rick grabs the opportunity with both hands.
"I'm sure Katie - Kate - is just as lovely as yourself but I'm not really interested in dating right now."
Johanna's eyebrow lifts again and he's pretty certain she can tell he's lying. Because he is interested in dating. Just not coworkers or women who have to be set up by their mothers.
Without a word, Johanna pulls the five by seven photograph out of the back of her notebook and slides it across the table, her mouth tilted into a smug grin. "You sure about that?"
He was right. Johanna was a knockout in her youth. She had to have been because the woman in the picture - with her caramel hair and tanned skin and fathomless green eyes - is Johanna thirty years and a handful of wrinkles ago. Rick can't help himself. He reaches for the picture, his ragged nails struggling to pry it up off the scuffed wooden table top.
"She's beautiful," he breathes, the words coming without his permission.
"Mm-hmm," Johanna nods, preening like a proud momma hen. "And whip smart and talented to boot. Not just saying that because I'm her mother either."
Rick can't bring himself to look away from the picture. Even in a still image, she's captivating. A playful grin curls her pink lips but it's the sadness behind her eyes that draws him in, has him wanting to know more - everything - about her.
"She's even better in person," Johanna says with an easy laugh and Rick forces his gaze up. The edge of the thick paper shakes as he hands it back across the table.
"I'm sure she is." His eyes track Johanna's hand, drawn to glossy image of a woman he's never met as her mother tucks the photograph back into her notebook. "And I'm also fairly sure she doesn't know about this," Rick says, snapping back to himself.
Johanna shrugs, no trace of shame in her face. "What Katie doesn't know, won't hurt her."
"She might hurt you when she finds out," Brenda says, walking over to the table, a rag tucked into the waist of her apron.
"Oh hush," Johanna clucks, waving her hands. "I meddle because I love. She knows that. If she'd try living her own life instead of just taking photographs of other people's, I wouldn't have to do this. But -" She turns her attention back toward Rick and he feels himself shrink under her gaze. "I think it's safe to assume from your reaction to her picture, that you are not, in fact, gay."
He shakes his head.
"Good," she exclaims, clapping her hands together. "I think you'd be just perfect for -"
"No," Rick cuts in. He starts packing up his laptop, and stands. "Johanna, it was lovely to meet you," he says, stuffing his power cord into the side pocket of his briefcase. Grabbing the water, nods to the two women staring at him. "Brenda, I'll see you tomorrow."
Brenda smiles and wiggles her fingers in a tiny wave. Johanna stands up from her chair and trails him to the door. "Rick -"
"You just don't quit, do you?"
She shakes her head. "That's what made me a great lawyer."
Rick laughs, hand pressed against the glass door of the cafe. "Should have known. Look, Johanna, you're - you're something else. And your daughter is gorgeous." He pushes the door open and steps out onto the sidewalk. "But I'm just not your man."
He turns to walk away, an involuntary smile pulling at his lips as Johanna calls after him.
"No. You're not my man, Rick. You're Katie's."
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