By Kate Winter

 

LISA

I get a genuine fright when I see him walk through the door. Matt has been skulking around in my mind for so long, when I actually see him in the flesh, he seems almost larger than life, like he's stepping off a twenty foot cinema screen.

I consciously control my smile, acutely aware of every muscle in my face, suddenly cursing myself for not paying more attention to my reflection in the mirror this morning.

Matt is looking for someone. He scans the interior of the cafe and his eyes pass over me briefly, before snapping back in a moment of recognition. I raise my hand a few inches from the table, though it feels like it's made of lead, and give a kind of floppy wave.

Let me explain, quickly, before he comes over. Matt is my childhood sweetheart. We kissed once when we were both thirteen. That week was an eventful one. It was my birthday, I had my first proper kiss, I got my period, I kissed Matt's best friend two days later and my father walked out of our house on the Saturday and never came home. Thirteen year old Matt was furious at my betrayal, and told me that even though he loved me, he'd never forgive me. I fell head over feet into those three words and knew that someday, of course he would forgive me, and we would be together; a happy ending for me in my distant future.

I've lived a lifetime since then, but somehow the torch I carry for the gangly, sensitive boy has never gone out, and the older I get, the more painfully it burns. He recently divorced and returned to live in our hometown. I've been somewhat obsessed of late, though I try to live in reality. But my mind does tend to wander into fantasy-land now and then.

He picks up his coffee from the pretty blonde barista at the counter, treating her to a trademark lopsided grin as he pays. Then he comes over to my table, his smile growing wider as he approaches.

"Lisa!" His voice is warm. He's happy to see me. My stomach turns slowly, in a not entirely pleasant way. He makes me so nervous.

"You're up early!" My own voice sounds alien to my ears; too jolly, too forced.

Calm down, you silly mare.

"I know! It's not like me. But I have a meeting, I'm working on a new script with a really interesting guy. Daniel Layton, have you heard of him?"

I squint my eyes and try to look like I'm wracking my brains, though I don't recognise the name. Because, honestly, it could be my brother he's talking about and I'd be so distracted by his proximity, the subtle, citrusy, masculine scent of his aftershave (might even just be his shaving foam, actually), the slight puffiness in his eyes at this hour of the morning which makes him look twenty years younger, and the pleasure of his attention, that I would still be unable to fetch the relevant information from my muddled brain.

"He's been picking up a lot of attention lately for this book he wrote, kind of a sci-fi romance that's just driving a whole new market crazy. And he's recently decided to base himself here permanently. So Jack... You know Jack, at the Simpson Gallery? Jack brought us together and we're kinda smashing his style together with mine and writing a surreal, crazy play that is just gonna be amazing!"

His enthusiasm is incredibly attractive. His eyes sparkle, crinkly at the corners. I feel like a clumsy teenager, way out of my depth. I'm simultaneously loving and hating this, desperate to run away but willing to do anything to hold on to his attention for a few more precious minutes too.

"Sounds good!" I say. "How's life these days?"

He falters, loses a little of the glow I've been basking in. Something's bothering him. I'll draw him out. I'll help him, make him feel better. He'll see how supportive I can be, how warm and perceptive I am; They're good qualities in a woman, aren't they?

"Good, yeah," he says, taking a sip of his coffee and glancing towards the door.

"Has everything with Sam settled down?" I ask quietly. I'm sure his marriage break up is part of the trouble in his eyes. I watch him carefully, channeling as much care into my gaze as I can. 

"Yeah, as much as it can, to be honest. She's a great person. We'll get there."

A great person! Yeah, right.

The thought makes me want to shake him. Everybody knows she was never right for him. I've heard stories about Sam Kennedy that would make your skin crawl, though I don't know her personally. Stunning, yes, but a right bitch, according to local hearsay.

"That's good." I measure my words carefully. "It's good that you're both moving on..."

He looks up sharply, and I smile, encouraging him to share his feelings. His gaze drops to my mouth. It's just a fraction of a moment, but it's enough to make my senses jolt and give me a rush of sexual energy. He looks like he might say something, but the spell is broken when a shadow falls across us and a hand claps him on the back.

"Hey man!" Matt jumps up and the two men greet each other. Daniel Layton is tall, several inches taller than Matt, and handsome too. He's dark, whereas Matt is fair, and has a slightly more weathered face. I'd find him quite attractive if he wasn't in such close proximity to the object of my long-term affections.

There's a short fumble, while they pull up a chair to the table, and Matt steps over to the counter to order more coffees. Daniel gives me a full-wattage smile and shakes my hand. 

"I'm Dan."

"Lisa."

"Have we met before, Lisa?" He's looking at me very intently.

"No, I don't think so."

"Hmm, it must be that Matt's told me about you then. I feel like I know you from somewhere..."

I can't hold back the smile, and I can feel a slight blush creeping up my cheeks. Now that's a good sign. Matt's been talking about me!

He returns to the table with two coffees. I can hardly look at him, with all the butterflies taking off in my stomach.

"Did you want another, Lisa?" he asks, twinkling at me with those big blue eyes.

I have a brief but intense internal struggle, before listening to the voice of common sense.

Always leave them wanting more.

Some wise words from a friend of mine who is prolifically successful with the opposite sex. I stand up, feeling my slouchy tee shirt fall off my shoulder and deliberately leaving it there. I feel elated. He's been talking about me! 

"Nope, I'll leave you guys at it, have a great day."

I maintain a moment of electric eye contact with Matt, then smile at Dan, my whole body crackling with chemistry. 

"Lovely to meet you."

I walk out the door, happy, giddy, transported right back to thirteen year old certainty. 

Yep. We are definitely soul mates.

 

Daniel

I'm on my way to meet this guy, Matthew Kennedy. He approached me recently about doing a play based loosely on my novel, The Burnt Sky, and being pretty new in town I said yes. He's had a few successful runs on a national level, though nothing like my kind of success, and he doesn't have a bad reputation, for a playwright. I'm really starting to regret it now, though. He's all over the place. A real nutcase. He can't seem to keep his attention on any one thing at any one time. And as for him "loving my book", I've really started to doubt over the past few weeks that he even read it through once. He's seriously trying to destroy my whole concept. I'm going to this meeting to lay down some ground rules or break the whole damn project up.

I've never been to Ella's Cafe before, and it takes me a while to find the right street. When I do, I walk up and down several times, I just can't seem to spot the bloody place, and I'm just about to take out my phone and call him, when I catch a glimpse of a vintage-looking sign which says Bella's down a windy side lane. 

Typical. Wrong name, wrong street. This guy's a cowboy.

I peer in the window - if he's not in there, I'm waiting outside. I hate sitting alone in busy places waiting. It's almost gotten to the stage where it's a phobia. But thankfully, I spot the back of his head straight away. Perfectly, expertly messed up 'surfer hair'. Matt definitely doesn't surf, can't see him happy to get wet, he's definitely more like a cat than your average man...

I pause in my mental rant.

There's a woman sitting with Matt. She's gorgeous. Small, curvy, great rack. Dimples. Dark hair and big brown eyes. Just my type. I watch for a few minutes before I enter. Their heads are close together, it looks pretty intimate. 

I bumble into the conversation, channelling a 'friendly guy' vibe. I know how to put women at their ease. To be honest, I've got this game down to a fine art. As Matt's pulling up a chair for me, I keep my voice low, and casually say,

"Hey, grab me an americano there, will you bud?"

He obliges, and I pull up close to the hot brunette.

"I'm Dan." 

"Lisa."

She's a shy one. Nice. Probably a romantic. 

"Have we met before, Lisa?" 

The "I feel like I know you from somewhere" line. The quiet ones love that one.

"No, I don't think so."

She's flattered, I can tell. Now I pull back a little, but re-affirm that we're connected in some way. 

"Hmm, it must be that Matt's told me about you then. I feel like I know you from somewhere..."

Bingo!

I can see a blush creeping prettily up her cheeks. I'm just too damn good at this. 

Matt comes back to the table, but she barely acknowledges him. When she stands up to leave, her body language is pretty sexy. This one is a little firecracker. Her tee shirt slips, to reveal a red lacy bra strap and I feel myself stiffen a little in anticipation. Hot.

She says her goodbyes and gives me a sexy smile before she saunters out the door. We both watch her leave. Her ass is peachy in those indigo jeans.

"Nice girl." I watch Matt for his reaction.

"Isn't she lovely? I've known Lisa most of my life. She's a really sweet person."

"What does she do?"

"I'm not sure exactly, actually. She used to be a fantastic artist though. Really good at kinda graffiti-style cartoons."

Well, now. Isn't that handy?

"Really? I'd love to talk to her about potentially working on a cover illustration for my next book."

There is no next book. I've had a complete block since Burnt Sky, haven't been able to do fuck all writing. But he doesn't need to know that. I pull out my phone, and open a new contact tab.

"You got her number?"

"Sure." Matt reaches for his own phone, and there it is.

I'll be calling Lisa the firecracker later on. And she'll be in my bed by the weekend.

 

Matthew

I'm pretty surprised at myself that I'm on time for once, as I push open the door of Ella's and hear the familiar old-fashioned jangle of the bell over the door. I love the smell of coffee and sugar and fresh oranges being squeezed. Sometimes it brings me back to when Sam and I were first married, when we lived in that attic flat round the corner, and every morning we would tumble down here to drink coffee and share a chocolate croissant, crumbs of pastry always sticking to her glossy lips, me always kissing them off.

Feels like a lifetime ago.

Doesn't look like Daniel's here yet. I'll wait for him in the window, this place can be a little tricky to find.

A pretty brunette catches my eye, and I realise it's Lisa Jones, an old friend from my schooldays. I've seen her about a bit since I moved home, but we haven't had a proper chance to catch up, really, aside from the odd couple of words shouted in a noisy bar here and there. I'll join her while I wait for Daniel.

"You're up early!" She greets me in a teasing tone. I must look like I just rolled out of bed, which in all fairness, I did. I'm more of a night owl, which she must know from seeing me out and about all the time.

"I know! It's not like me. But I have a meeting, I'm working on a new script with a really interesting guy. Daniel Layton, have you heard of him?"

She shakes her head, I didn't expect her to know him, he's only recently blown into town, on a big-city wave of success from his debut novel. The guy is a complete egomaniac, but incredibly talented with it. We're going to make something explosive together and I'm pretty excited about it. 

"He's been picking up a lot of attention lately for this book he wrote, kind of a sci-fi romance that's just driving a whole new market crazy. And he's recently decided to base himself here permanently. So Jack... You know Jack, at the Simpson Gallery? Jack brought us together and we're kinda smashing his style together with mine and writing a surreal, crazy play that is just gonna be amazing!"

"Sounds good!" she says, noncommittally. "How's life these days?"

I feel a short spike of annoyance, but I squash it quickly. Not everybody wants to talk about the same things. Just because I'm excited about this project doesn't mean she has to be too. And she's a sweet chick, she doesn't mean any offence.

But shit, man, haven't I just answered this question, pretty enthusiastically?

"Yeah, good," I respond, catching the slightly sulky tone that comes out of my mouth and feeling bad about it instantly.

She lowers her voice, speaks in that conspiratorial tone everyone assumes when they talk to me about my divorce. Here we go. And sure enough;

"Has everything with Sam settled down?"

No, of course it hasn't settled down. We were together for nine years and we split up six months ago. We have a child stuck in the middle of this, and neither of us has the faintest idea if we're doing the right thing. Last night we had mind-blowing sex and today I feel the loss of her again like it was only yesterday I walked out that door. No. No, it hasn't settled down.

But, of course, I give the trademark, neutral line.

"Yeah, as much as it can, to be honest. She's a great person. We'll get there."

"That's good," she says, quietly. "It's good that you're both moving on..."

I feel a lurch in my gut like someone has kicked the wind out of me. What's she saying? Does she know something I don't? Has Sam 'moved on' without me knowing about it? I stare at Lisa, trying to see behind her words. She's smiling, in a kind of sad way.

Then I realise I'm just being paranoid. The bile slowly retreats back down my throat. Lisa doesn't even know Sam. They probably met a grand total of twice in all the time we were married. And Sam told me just last night, as we lay sweaty, tangled and lost together in the half-light of dawn, that she still couldn't imagine ever letting another man touch her.

I take a deep breath and open my mouth to change the subject, but thankfully, Daniel's sudden arrival sorts out the awkward situation for me.

I pull myself together while I order our coffees, only realising as I return to the table that I've been pretty rude and neglected to ask Lisa if she wanted one. I try to rectify the situation, make her feel welcome.

"Did you want another, Lisa?"

She seems distracted. Probably already thinking ahead to what her own day involves.

"Nope, I'll leave you guys at it, have a great day."

We say our goodbyes and I turn my attention to Daniel. This guy takes a lot of work. I need to give him my full and uninterrupted focus, so I push all thoughts of Sam, of last night, of my completely uncertain future to the very back of my mind. This project is my now. My work has saved me time and time again over the years. I'm ready to get stuck in. But Dan's mind is clearly elsewhere.

"Nice girl," he says, his eyes unabashedly following the sway of Lisa's hips as she disappears around a corner outside.

"Isn't she lovely? I've known Lisa most of my life. She's a really sweet person."

I try to imbue my words with warmth and camaraderie, but frankly I'm less than interested in this sleazeball's interest in my friend. We've got a lot of work to do.

"What does she do?"

I resist the urge to grit my teeth. Force myself to respond in an easy tone.

"I'm not sure exactly, actually. She used to be a fantastic artist though. Really good at kinda graffiti-style cartoons."

Daniel's eyes light up.

"Really? I'd love to talk to her about potentially working on a cover illustration for my next book."

He pulls out his phone and starts typing in her name. 

"You got her number?"

For just a moment, I consider telling him I don't, but I'm pretty sure that would just prolong this conversation. And Lisa is a grown woman. She can look after herself.

So I give him her number, thinking to myself as I do so,

good luck to you, buddy. She's far too good for a creep like you.

And finally we get down to work.                                              

 

---

 

Kate Winter lives in a small, seaside village in North West Ireland, where she tries to combine writing, motherhood and whiskey in a functional manner. Her life imitates her art, in that it's a bit of a weird rom-com, but thankfully her handsome fiancé is a very tolerant man. Kate's debut novel The Happy Ever Afterlife Of Rosie Potter (RIP) was shortlisted for the 2015 Love Stories Awards’ 'Best Romantic Read'.