Tea was in a nearby coffee shop which really did tea and didn't just pay lip service to it. It was a quirky place with a wall full of teacups and another wall full of books, coffee books jumbled haphazardly together with cookbooks, novels, and biographies. Feeling a little shy and like she had suddenly gone insane, Grace got in line, while the man she seemed to have picked up examined the bookshelves. (Picked up? She didn't pick up men!) She saw his hand go out and seize a book, which he brought over with a suppressed air of triumph.
"It's the only one of his I haven't read. I was saving it for…something special."
She looked at it, and her eyes went wide. "The Mystery of Edwin Drood? I just read that few months ago. I'd never read it before, either."
His eyebrows went up, though he didn't look actually surprised. Had he already pegged her for someone who loved Dickens? "Well, don't tell me what happens. Or what doesn't happen, since it was never finished."
"What were you saving it for?"
"For something that would always make me remember, This was what I was doing when I read the last book Dickens ever wrote."
"Oh." Suddenly she blushed and looked away. "Don't you just love Dickens?" she blurted out, to cover it. It sounded stupid when she said it.
"Yes," he said softly. "I do. Do you have a favorite?"
"All of them," she said with a laugh. "I like each one best while I'm reading it. I think I have favorite characters, not favorite books. Edith Dombey, for one."
"Now, that's unusual. Why her?"
"She's so…proud and sad and tragic. I like Lady Dedlock for the same reason. The tragedy of them, and the beauty. Also the vivid characters. He did write such vivid characters, and they weren't always the main characters or the heroes." She laughed softly again. "Often they were the antagonists."
"Like Mr. Pecksniff?"
"Yes! He makes that book! I want to kick him every time he enters a scene, and I love hating him, because I would never be able to kick him in real life."
His mouth tipped to the side in his wry smile. "Nor would I. Which is why reading him in fiction is so pleasurable."
At that moment, they both realized that it was their turn at the counter and the barista was leaning his elbows on it listening quizzically.
"I'm sorry," Grace apologized.
"No problem. Who's Mr. Pecksniff?"
"A character from Martin Chuzzlewit, by Charles Dickens."
"In that case, what'll you have?"
"Tea. I suppose I should have figured out which I wanted before I got here."
"You were busy talking about Dickens, so you're forgiven."
"What if we had been talking about Dostoevsky?" Grace's new friend asked.
The boy made a face. "Not forgiven. Lit major," he said in explanation. "Never read Martin Chuzzlewit, though."
"Not many people have."
"Sencha," Grace said definitively.
"In a pot to share?"
"Yes, please." The man brought out his wallet and passed over a credit card.
"Have a seat. Choose your teacup from the wall. I'll bring it out when the water is at the requisite 162°."
"Will you choose a table?"
Grace nodded and went to the wall of teacups, chose two that were elegant, old-fashioned, and unchipped, and found a small table near the bookshelves. The man soon joined her, bearing, with his book, a basket of tiny scones.
"I didn't know what you might like, so I purchased an assortment."
She realized she was starving. Now if she could just keep herself from gobbling up the whole basket… She chose orange-cranberry.
The tea came just behind him, and she got up to get some sugar. The barista gave her a shocked look.
"Sugar in green tea? I may have to withdraw my forgiveness."
"I just like it with sugar," she said, slightly defensively.
The man sitting opposite her was emptying a packet into his teacup. The barista winced and went away.
"I'm glad I'm not the only one who likes it sweet."
"I'm not sure if I do or not." He poured tea in her cup and his, stirred, and tasted. "Yes, I do. I usually drink Ceylon or Yunnan, but I may have to switch to sencha."
He liked Dickens and sencha. Over the top of her cup, she looked at his odd face and the way his hair stood straight up and the neatness of his suit and glasses and thought, Why he's adorable. And then she blushed as only red-haired persons can when she caught his large eyes catching her looking at him. "I'm Grace," she said. "I don't know your name."
"Oh, how discourteous of me. My name is Harold Bird."