Dreams, Decisions, and Destinies

Part 1
Herbal Tea and Chocolate Lattes

Maria bowed her head against the biting wind that threatened to steal her hat from its precarious position hauled tightly over her ears and pushed through the doors to the waiting sanctuary of the Fresh Start coffee shop.  Gasping as she entered, she paused, seemingly frozen in place before shivering violently and shaking the light dusting of snow from her jacket.  In keeping with the general activity affecting everyone in the city with only four shopping days left before Christmas, her hands were laden with overflowing bags and her wallet was seemingly thinner than it had been only hours before.

"Is it still stinging?" the familiar coffee shop owner asked, looking up at her from behind the counter with one of his trademark wry grins spread across his face.

"What's that?" she asked with a smile as she juggled the bags in her hands.

"Your credit card," he said with a slight smirk, the teasing look in his eyes telling her that she wasn't the first customer he'd seen that had fallen victim to the last minute 'must-have' Christmas sales.

"Actually, I'll have you know every purchase was well planned," she offered with a straight face, her serious look cracking almost immediately as she realized that even she didn't believe her own words.  "Who am I kidding?" she laughed as she held up her sagging arms.  "I am a shop-a-holic, I'll admit it."

"Well they say that's the first step," he countered, tipping a mug onto the counter as he gestured towards the selection of tea bags on display.  "The usual?"

"Please," she replied, turning her head to see a couple just vacating a table by the window with a comfortable overstuffed arm chair that she favored.  Glancing back at the man shaking her usual combination of chamomile and mint tea bags before opening them, she nodded towards the empty chair and walked over to unload her purchases.

From behind the counter, Michael watched her walk away, smiling at the soft curve in her hip as she seemingly floated across the room.  He was in the midst of comparing her movements to that of an angel when she stumbled and dropped a particularly heavy parcel, the loud thud it made when it collided with the floor shattering his dream version of her.  He laughed as she glanced back at him, blushing from her clumsiness.

'Even embarrassed, she's still hot,' he mused.

Composing herself, Maria walked as steadily as possible back to the counter, unable to suppress her laughter on her face as she watched Michael fighting to wipe the smile from his.

"It's okay, I'm a klutz, I know it," she offered lightly.

"Well you might be a klutz but you're a graceful klutz," he teased, pouring boiling water over her favored combination of tea.

"Oh really, watching me were you?"

"I might have glanced up once or twice," he admitted, the grin still breaking across his features.

She blushed, pushing the requisite two dollars for her drink across the counter as she accepted the steaming mug.

"Nah, take it," he offered, forcing the money back towards her.  "Consider it an early Christmas present."

"Why thank you kind sir!" she said in her best rescued-maiden voice.  "But now I'm going to have to get you something."

"No, please," he refused quickly, waving his hand to signal that a free tea was no big deal.

"Oh no," she countered, picking up her mug as she turned towards her table.  "I always thank one gift with another—now what to get the brooding coffee guy, I wonder?"

Winking at him, she walked away before he had a chance to respond to her not-so-veiled insult; it was obvious that she thought she had him all figured out, and if you asked Michael, he'd probably say that she did.

~~~~~

"So anyway… it was just weird to flirt with someone again, you know?  Like it felt like I was cheating or something."

"Maria," Liz said, sighing audibly behind her words.  "It is not cheating if you just talk to him."

"It is not cheating at all!" Tess piped in, "No matter how you look at it."

The three girls were sprawled across Maria's bed giving joint pedicures—it was a whole lot cheaper than a salon and the three of them ended up with polished toes in under 20 minutes—a Sunday tradition among them.

"I know, but it's just feels wrong.  Like the other day I conjured this whole day dream about dating him," Maria said.

"Well that you can't do," Liz interjected.

"Why not?" Tess asked.  "I say nail him!"

"Tess!" Liz and Maria both exclaimed at the same time.

"What?" the blonde girl argued, "It's a perfectly natural condition."

"What is?  Being nailed?" Maria said, giggling.

"No," Tess chastised, shifting her legs to make them more comfortable in Maria's lap.  "Craving sex.  You haven't had it for what?  10 weeks?"

"More like 20."

Gasping dramatically, Tess shook her head at her sister-in-law.  "Make no wonder you've got the sickness, you need a cure fast."

While Maria laughed, again, at the seriousness Tess applied to an obviously trivial matter, Liz cleared her throat and prepared to impart some of her wisdom onto the situation.

"Being horny is not a sickness, in fact it's not even a recognized medical condition at all, and if…"

"I take it back then," Tess offered.  "You're the one that needs to get nailed."

Sputtering, Liz stopped mid-sentence and yanked the pillow from underneath her arm to toss at her beyond-bold friend.

"Hey watch it!" Tess exclaimed, expertly deflecting the missile while she saved the bottle of pink nail polish she was applying to Liz's toes.  "Just because you are Miss Doctor-lady, doesn't mean you know about every condition there is.  People have died from lack of sex, Liz.  It's a fact."

"I'm sure it is," their resident scientist grumbled.

Maria couldn't stop herself from smiling at her two friends.  They had never seen eye to eye on many issues at all, but their opposing views seemed to somehow be the tie that held them together.  She had been best friends with Liz since grade school and when Tess had become Liz's roommate in college, their duo quickly became a trio.  It hadn't taken much time after that before Tess met Kyle through Maria and the two were forever joined at the hip.  If Tess acted on half the suggestions she often gave her two girlfriends, Maria could just imagine that her brother had quite the eventful sex life.

"Well either way," Maria stated loudly, ending the staring contest the two were waging across the bed.  "What am I supposed to do, sleep with him and then just drop my little surprise in his lap?  Not likely."

"Come on Ria," Tess urged.  "It's not like you've got the bubonic plague—it's just…"

"Girls only or can anyone join?" Kyle called loudly as he pushed open the door to his sister's bedroom.

"No sweetie, come on in.  You want purple or blue toes today?" Tess called back seriously.

Maria laughed at the look on her brother's face as he surveyed the room and turned away again muttering, "Maybe I'll see what Max is doing."

"Don't bother," Liz called after him.  "I think he's at his sisters.  Oh!"

"What?"

"That reminds me—do you want to go over there for Christmas dinner?"

"Liz!" Maria exclaimed.  "You said it would be just the four of us."  She pouted as she stared at her best friend.  Food hadn't exactly been her friend lately and Liz had promised to cook something special for Maria in the absence of her mother's nurturing touch.

"I know," she defended herself quickly.  "But Isabel planned this big family meal, Max's brother is supposed to be there too, and Max really wants to go."

"So let him go, you've only known him for a month," Maria argued.

"Yeah, but she's in l-uu-vv," Tess drawled slowly, giggling as Liz threatened her with another pillow.

"I am not in love," she said primly.  "I am in… like, serious… like."

"Like?" Maria queried, wide-eyed.  "And have you said those precious three words to him yet, 'Oh Max, I like you'?"

"Maria, you are getting just as bad as her!" Liz exclaimed.

"Well she's a bad influence," the other girl grumbled.  Looking at the pleading look plastered on Liz's face, Maria knew she was going to cave to her friend's desire.  "All right, fine.  We'll spend Christmas with a bunch of strangers that we haven't met.  Sounds like a blast."

"Thanks!" Liz squealed, yanking her feet from Tess's hands as she vaulted towards Maria.

The pink nail polish streaked across Tess arm and she cursed as she reached for her own pillow to launch at Liz.  Maria laughed as she watched her two best friends play-wrestle on the bed and slid aside to give them more room.  She was glad to be spending the holidays with them but she could do without the addition of Max's entire family.  Christmas was supposed to be spent with the people you were closest to, not a bunch of complete strangers—joy to the freakin' world.

~~~~~

Maria sank further back into the couch, wondering that if she pushed hard enough could she make the cushions open up and swallow her whole.  She leaned back to try… it didn't work.

Damn.

She was nestled by Liz on the sofa in Isabel's apartment—attending the Christmas dinner with strangers that she still thought was absolutely absurd.  If it wasn't for Kyle she swore she would have still been in bed, but he had sided with Liz and Tess over this being a good way to spend an afternoon, and so she was here, with strangers… on Christmas!

Seeing Kyle cast a worried glance in her direction, she tossed him an over-confident smile, hiding her discomfort beneath her grin.  He was nestled next to Tess on the loveseat, his hand clutched tightly in hers as they shared their first Christmas as a married couple together.  At her side were Liz and Max, all starry-eyed and sickly-sweet in the throws of new love.  Across the room sat Isabel and her husband Alex, obviously still in the honeymoon phase of their relationship even after two years together.

Three couples and her—perfect. 

Feeling much like a third, or rather seventh, wheel, she closed her eyes for a moment and swallowed thickly.  Knowing that this was the last Christmas she would ever have to spend alone was the only fact getting her through this season at all.  'Just play the part of the secure-on-her-own-20-something-woman and get through this,' she told herself.  Her own words having little effect on the dour mood she felt inside.

A sharp knock on the door jerked her from her melancholy and she looked up as Isabel moved to open it.  'Probably the brother and his wife or girlfriend,' she contrarily told herself.  The day was just getting better by the minute.

"It's about time!" she heard the woman exclaim from the foyer of the tiny apartment.  "Laney fell asleep waiting for you."

"Yeah well I had a hard time dragging all her gifts over here," came the rough reply.

Maria listened sharply to the voice echoing from the hidden doorway, wondering for a quick second why it sounded so familiar when Isabel stepped back into her line of vision.

"Everyone, this is my brother Michael."

Maria's breath caught in her throat as she turned her head to focus on the new addition to the room—'coffee shop guy'.  His eyes fell squarely on hers as Isabel moved to introduce him to everyone.

"Michael, you remember Liz," she was saying when he interrupted her.

"Herbal tea chick."

"Coffee shop guy."

"Wha…" Liz questioned, half standing to greet her boyfriend's brother.

"Sorry," he said shifting his gaze back to Liz.  "Nice to see you again," he offered, his eyes immediately falling back to Maria's.  "And nice to see you again too."

Isabel's face crinkled as she stared at her brother.  "Do you two know each other?"

"Yeah, it's herbal tea chick," he repeated.

"It's who?"

"Actually it's Maria," she said, her heart finally starting to beat again after the shock of seeing her flirting partner outside of their usual haunt.

"Michael."

"So I heard."

A silence settled over the room as everyone who didn't have a beverage-related nickname stared at the pair of supposed strangers and waited for an explanation.

Tess got it first, gasping as she exclaimed, "Oh!  Coffee shop guy!"  Nudging Kyle, she started, "It's the guy that Ria wanted…"

Maria quickly shot her a glare that said if she wanted to remain in the world of the living she would shut her mouth immediately and thankfully, for Tess at least, she caught the gesture.

"The guy she wanted to… write about?" she offered helplessly.

Maria shook her head, a flush spreading across her cheeks as she realized that Tess's pathetic attempt at covering up her desires had failed miserably—she was had, her obvious crush on the previously unknown stranger revealed at their first meeting.  The day really was perfect.

Michael raised his eyebrow and smirked at her as he stepped back to take a seat, obviously enjoying his hold on the upper hand in their little flirt-fest until Max stepped in to even the playing field.

"Well if Maria is 'herbal tea chick' then I think she's the girl that Michael wanted to ah… write about too," he said, smiling brightly until Michael quashed his triumph with a look of 'you'll regret I was ever your brother'.

Isabel and Alex burst out laughing, knowing all too well that Michael's bark was worse than his bite and Maria felt relief creep back into the myriad of emotions rushing through her.

"Well, it's nice to finally meet you," she offered quietly, staring at the man who only moments ago had been a nameless stranger to her.  "Officially anyway."

"Same here," he muttered, shooting a final glare at Max before softening his features towards her.

"Well I think we need drinks," Alex said loudly, clapping his hands as he stood from his seat.  Looking at his wife, he asked, "Did I just clap my hands out loud?"

"Yes dear," Isabel replied, patting him lightly on the arm as he moved away.

"That's what I thought," he mumbled.

The entire group laughed as the lingering awkwardness in the room cleared with Alex's antics.  Maria caught Michael smiling at her, and matched his expression, shyly looking away before raising her face to his again.  She felt like she knew him so well, yet in this environment he really was a stranger to her; he had a family, friends she knew nothing about, he had an entire life beyond his coffee shop persona and she suddenly felt stupid for ever thinking that she knew him.

"Well, you may know who this 'coffee shop guy' is, but I don't," Tess said, startling Maria from her thoughts.

"Sorry, Tess this is Michael, the uh… 'coffee shop guy'," she said, smiling brightly at him.  "Michael, this is Kyle and Tess, my brother and sister-in-law."

Michael nodded in their direction, offering a quick 'Hey' to the brother of the mystery girl he had also once thought he knew so well.  Watching her every day in his shop, he had thought he had a pretty good picture of what her life was like.  He never thought she was a friend of his brother's girlfriend.  'It was indeed a very small world,' he thought.

Alex jostled him from his own deep thoughts of how little you really knew about a person, even if you did see them every day, by entering the room with a tray of martini glasses and a large glass jug.

"Oh honey, thank you!" Isabel exclaimed, sitting forward eagerly as he laid the tray on the table.  Reaching for a swizzle stick, she expertly speared two olives from the bowl he presented and placed them in a waiting glass.  "One please," she asked.

Alex laughed to cover his wife's excitement, "Martini's are the way to the ladies boys, remember that."

Max laughed nervously as he reached forward for a glass, "Liz, would you like a martini?"

Maria couldn't help herself from laughing; the look on Michael's face did little to help as he rolled his eyes and audibly sighed at the pathetic obviousness that was his brother.

"Smooth, Max," he mumbled.

Alex offered a full glass to Liz while smiling, and quickly poured two more, handing them to Maria and Tess.  Maria sat forward to object as he placed it before her.

"Oh no, none for me, thanks."

"You should try it, he makes a mean martini," Isabel prodded, already well into her first glass.

"Oh, I can't…"

"She hates these things," Tess interjected, shooting Maria a smile as she attempted to make up for her earlier mistake.  "It's the gin, turns her off every time."  Tess reached out and retrieved the glass from its place before Maria, turning to hand it to Kyle.  "Here sweetie, you'll like it."

Holding the 'girlie' glass tentatively, Kyle grimaced at the other males in the room before shrugging his shoulders and taking a large mouthful.  Swallowing the somewhat bitter liquid with a gasp, he shook his head and screwed up his face.  "Are you sure you made this right?"

"Pretty sure," Alex said, smiling.

"It tastes like gym socks!"

"Mmm, gym socks with olives, let me try!" Tess said brightly, laughing at her husband's ineptitude to appreciate new things as she took a sip of her own drink.  "It's delicious Alex, really."

Alex smiled at her and turned to Max, holding out the jug expectantly.  "Sir?"

"No thanks," he refused, glancing at Michael across the room.  "If I know Iz at all, she made sure there was Budweiser for Michael.  I think I'll steal one of those."

"You drink Bud?" Maria asked suddenly, drawing the room's focus to her.

"Yeah," Michael responded slowly.  "Why?"

"It's just that I've never seen you without a cup of coffee in your hand, just weird, I guess."

"I don't drink coffee."

"You do!  You have that cup practically welded to your hand all day."

"It's not coffee."

"It's not?  But…" A thoroughly confused look settled across her features as she pondered his statement.  "But if it's not… oh!" she gasped.  "It's chocolate!"

"Maria, what are you talking about?" Liz asked quietly.

"Michael," she explained impatiently.  "All day he walks around with this coffee mug in his hand and I just assumed… But now I remember, every time someone orders one of his moccachinos he pours up two shots of chocolate syrup but only puts one in the drink and drizzles half of the other on top.  The other half he dumps in this mug and I always wondered why he didn't just pour up a shot and a half, but I figured it was some weird thing, but now I get it… he's making chocolate lattes!"

Seven awed faces stared back at the raving girl, all except one wondering how she knew so much about the 'coffee shop guy'.

"How do you know all this?" Isabel asked incredulously.

Liz laughed first, turning to Isabel to explain lightly, "She's a writer.  She notices everything."

"Who do you write for, Stalker's Anonymous?" Isabel queried, already starting to laugh as the rest of the group joined in.

Maria blushed slightly, fighting to divert her eyes from Michael's as she noticed them trained intently on her.  She wasn't embarrassed to discuss her extraordinary observation skills, but it was still a little weird to be admitting her obsession with watching him before the group.

"She's just very observant," Liz added, smiling genuinely at Maria as she reached up to place her hand across the girl's eyes.  "Go on, quiz her—you wouldn't believe the things she notices."

"Okay, ahh…" Alex started.  "Um, what color is the trim in our kitchen?"

"Lilac, matches the flowers on the dining room table," Maria answered without hesitation.

"How did you know that?  You were in there for 30 seconds!" Isabel exclaimed.

"She sees stuff," Liz explained, her hand still over Maria's eyes.

"Are we finished?" Maria asked quietly, laughing at the paces they were putting her through.

"No, another… um," Isabel said.  "What color are Michael's eyes?"

"Oh she probably knows that one," Alex objected.

"Captain Morgan Original Spiced Rum."

"What?" Isabel exclaimed, spitting her martini back into her glass.

Lowering her hand from Maria's eyes, Liz watched as her friend blushed and shrugged helplessly.

Apologetically, Liz offered, "She's also a bit descriptive."

Michael looked up to meet the eyes of the now thoroughly crimson-faced girl; 'herbal tea chick' was fading fast from his memory as he got to know the newly represented woman before him.  This Maria person was turning out to be more and more fascinating as the minutes ticked by; suddenly, the Christmas dinner with strangers that he too was dreading didn't seem nearly as painful.