Heather took a deep breath to steady her nerves. Nerves! Her colleagues at work admired the way she kept her head in emergencies, but here she was, as jittery as a teenager.
She twisted the rearview mirror so she could see herself — tousled blond hair cropped short, hardly any makeup, hazel eyes that were steady enough, if a little wary. She ran her fingers through her hair, wiped away a bit of stray lipstick, and sighed. This was as good as it was going to get. She’d showered and changed after her shift, but as usual she’d been rushed. Well, wasn’t that why she was doing this in the first place? Because she could never find the time to do it the “normal” way?
Yes, she’d taken precautions. Her friends had been adamant about that. Meet for coffee first, they’d said. Somewhere indoors and in public, not a park or — God forbid! — his apartment. Tell us where you’ll be and when. Make sure you spend at least a week getting to know him on email before you meet him.
Check, check, check, and check. And now it was 2:55 on a cold, rainy Sunday afternoon in October, and here she was, sitting in her car, parked not right in front of the coffee shop but four doors down and nervous as a kitten.
The wood-trimmed exterior of Mr. Greenbeans looked as inviting as it always did — it was one of her favorite places to sit and read in the evenings, those times she wanted to be alone but not by herself. Today, though, it seemed somehow frightening.
She frowned, and examined herself again in the mirror. Maybe she ought to have put on some eye shadow. She must own some. Well, it was too late now.
She shook her head to clear out the thoughts she couldn’t control and focused instead on the man she was here to meet. He’d been perfectly pleasant in his emails — he could spell, and use apostrophes correctly, and he was polite and not too pushy. He’d balked a bit at her “no photos” and “let’s email for a while before we meet” rules, but she’d given him no choice. They’d traded daily messages for two weeks before she agreed to have coffee with him, and he seemed both interested and interesting, willing to let things develop on her timeline rather than trying to impose his own.
So what was it that was bothering her? Just the idea of meeting a stranger? Or the fact that they’d “met” online and not in the real world? These days, the borderline between online and real grew blurrier every day …
Thinking back over their correspondence, she realized that, when you came right down to it, he’d revealed little about himself. He’d shared a few of his interests — books he’d read, movies he’d enjoyed, restaurants he liked — but he’d stayed almost entirely on the surface, providing little insight into the human being who lived beneath the data points. He’d seemed more interested in finding out about her than in talking about himself. Which, of course, had been flattering.
To be fair, though, had she gone much deeper in her responses than he had? Not really. Her friends had advised her to keep it light and breezy, to convey a sense of what they called girlish enthusiasm. You’re just so — so competent sometimes, Heather, you know? Try to be more, you know, helpless.
Well. She’d find out soon enough. Her watch said 3:03. Don’t be early, they’d warned her. But don’t be late.
She got out of her car and went into Mr. Greenbeans.
The moment she pushed open the heavy glass door, the coffee shop’s busy warmth calmed her down. As always, the big room was crowded, buzzing with a dozen animated conversations, the baristas shouting to be heard over the burr of the espresso machines. Shrugging off her wet coat, Heather looked for a man sitting alone.
Oh, hell, there were three of them! Weren’t real men supposed to be home watching football on Sunday afternoons? She thought back over her two weeks of correspondence with Charles and regretted after all her insistence on their not exchanging pictures. What would the guy who’d written those emails look like?
He’d seemed interested and friendly, maybe not the warmest or fuzziest guy who’d responded to her profile, but there’d been a definite enthusiasm in everything he wrote.
Okay, so look for enthusiasm, she told herself. And what else?
His messages had seemed somehow … precise, that was the word. They’d come across as carefully crafted documents, not the usual rambling stream of consciousness.
Okay, so look for precision.
She scanned the room. She was good at this — drawing sensible conclusions from a quick study of small details — it was a talent that got her noticed at work and made her good at her job.
One of the three sitting-alone guys was absorbed in his cell phone and was way too young for her in a hoodie and unlaced sneakers. She dismissed him without a second glance.
Bachelor #2 was dressed quite well — yes, you could say “precisely” — with close-cut hair and striking light-blue eyes that had looked up only briefly when she walked in. Not interested? Not there to meet someone? Not wanting to appear too eager? Or simply shy?
Heather had no idea. He was the right age, and good-looking to boot. The table in front of him was clean, with cup, saucer, spoon, and napkin arranged — there was no other word for it — precisely. Huh, she thought. Could be. But she found herself strangely intimidated by the thought of approaching him. The clothes were obviously expensive — hell, the man was dressed better than she was!
Bachelor #3 was more rumpled than precise and seemed altogether softer, with his curly brown hair, flannel shirt, and down vest. He was also good looking, but in a more low-key, cuddly sort of way. When he looked up and caught her eye and smiled, a little sugar spilled from his spoon to the wooden surface of his table.
Warm brown eyes. Nice eyes, she thought.
She glanced back at the blue-eyed man, who was fussily arranging the collar of his shirt. The color of the shirt matched his eyes, too precisely to be coincidental. She felt a faint undercurrent of unease at the thought of trying to make conversation with him.
How ironic. She was so completely capable in an emergency, but could be so inept in social situations — especially when men were involved.
She looked back at Mr. Flannel.
Be safe, her friends had told her. Make sure you’re comfortable.
Mr. Flannel felt comfortable.
Hitching her purse a little higher on her shoulder, she walked over to him and said, “Couples.com?” She remembered to smile. He looked up at her, grinned, stood up, and offered his hand. It was warm. Or maybe she was just still chilled from outside.
“It’s great to meet you face to face,” he said. “I’m glad you made it, the rain’s awful. What can I get you? Coffee? Tea?”
Heather hung her wet coat over the back of the chair and sat down. “Would it be too Meg Ryan if I asked for a soy milk hot chocolate?”
“No such thing as too much Meg Ryan,” he smiled. “Just hold off on the tuna salad for a couple of dates.”
She laughed and felt herself blush, flattered and impressed both with his response and with the fact that she’d been made to laugh by a man she’d just met. That didn’t happen much in Heather’s world. He had a nice smile — it reached his eyes, crinkling the skin around them.
“Be right back,” he said, and he went over to the counter. She swiveled to watch him and, as she did so, caught the eye of the well-dressed man. He frowned slightly, as if appraising her and finding her wanting.
Your loss, she thought.
And just as well. For reasons she couldn’t articulate, the guy struck her as kind of creepy.
Charles came back with her hot chocolate and more coffee for himself. Heather wrapped her hands around her mug and studied the heart the barista had made in the foam, trying to think of what she should say. She hated this part of Internet dating, coming up with the right words to offer someone who was, if you were willing to be honest about it, really just a stranger.
Charles came to her rescue. “Why soy milk, if you don’t mind my asking? Are you a vegetarian?”
Thank goodness, she thought. A pitch I can hit.
“No, not really. Caffeine and dairy just don’t agree with me, so I usually stick with decaf tea. It’s such a nasty afternoon, though, I thought I’d go with something a little heartier.” She took a tentative sip. A little too hot. “What about you? Any dietary eccentricities I should know about?”
He nodded at his cup. “I’m a caffeine junkie. And I eat way too many Girl Scout cookies in the spring. If I saw a Girl Scout cookie truck on the street, I’d hijack it.”
She laughed. “You like them that much?”
He made a guilty-as-charged grimace. “Did you know that a Prius can hold exactly 55 cases of Girl Scout cookies?”
Startled, Heather frowned at him. “You have got it bad. Um, if it’s not too personal, you don’t have some kind of eating disorder, do you? Or do you just like hanging out with Girl Scouts?”
“I like hanging out with one Girl Scout,” he smiled. “My daughter, Abby. If I buy enough cookies, I’m a hero, and, hey, somebody’s got to eat them.”
Heather raised an eyebrow. “Your daughter?” He hadn’t mentioned a daughter in his emails. In fact, she realized, he hadn’t said anything that even hinted at his being a dad, and he certainly hadn’t seemed like a man who binged on Girl Scout cookies. “Are you married?” she asked, alarmed. There was a sudden coldness in the pit of her stomach. She wasn’t going to make that mistake again.
A look of surprise crossed Charles’ face, then morphed into chagrin. “I’m sorry,” he said, and reached across the table to touch her arm. “I thought sure I’d told you. I’m divorced — about five years ago. Abby’s 11. She lives with her mom. I see her every other weekend.” He looked concerned. “It was pretty friendly, for a divorce, and it’s all ancient history now. I promise you, I’m not some messed-up loser trying to put his life back together by rebounding straight out of a breakup into a new relationship.”
She sighed out the breath she hadn’t realized she was holding. “That’s a relief! I’ve already met that guy.” She tried her hot chocolate again, and this time it was just right. “So what’s your favorite? Cookie, I mean?”
“Oh, definitely Thin Mints. You have to ask? Please don’t tell me you’re a Do-si-do’er. I don’t think I could handle it.”
“Those are the peanut butter ones, right? I’m not really up on my Girl Scout cookies.” She was lying, a little — the few women she worked with sometimes brought in order sheets for their kids. “And I don’t think I’ve do-si-do’ed since seventh-grade gym class. But mint and chocolate, that’s a definite like. I’ll have to make an effort next spring to track some down.”
“I know where you can get your hands on 55 cases,” Charles said, with another of his melting smiles.
“Maybe just a couple of boxes. I have to watch what I eat.” Heather remembered something from their correspondence. “Didn’t you tell me you do Crossfit? How do Girl Scout cookies fit into that picture?”
He tilted his head quizzically. “Crossfit?”
“You said you …”
She let the sentence trail off, thinking, Uh-oh. “You have no idea what I’m talking about, do you?”
“Not a clue,” he said, realization beginning to dawn in those gentle brown eyes.
At that moment, the young guy in the hoodie jumped up, knocking over his chair and swearing. Heather and Charles watched him right it and storm out into the rain, almost bowling over a woman who was just coming in.
The newcomer paused inside the door and scanned the room, exactly as Heather had. She was a bit on the plump side, soft where Heather was harder and more toned. Medium-length auburn hair curled around a face that wore a lot more makeup than Heather’s ever did. She was petite — practically tiny — and dressed almost entirely in ruffles. After a moment’s hesitation, she made up her mind and marched purposefully to the table where the carefully dressed man was sitting. He looked up, startled, as she spoke to him, then rose and pulled out a chair for her and helped her with her coat.
Smooth, Heather thought, admiringly. Very smooth. Then she remembered the Crossfit that apparently didn’t fit and returned her attention to the man in flannel.
“Your name’s not Charles,” she said. “Is it?”
He shook his head. “Which makes you not Kimberly,” he said sadly.
They sat there in uncomfortable silence.
“But you said the secret password,” he finally said.
“Couples.com?” Heather turned her cup slowly in its saucer. “I’ve been emailing a guy named Charles for the last two weeks. We never exchanged photos, so I have no idea what he looks like. I thought you …”
She felt her face redden.
“And I’ve traded half a dozen emails with Kimberly. That must be her with all the froufrou.”
“I’m such a nitwit,” she said. “I should go over there and — ”
She fumbled for her bag and reached around for her coat.
He put a hand on her arm and stopped her. When she turned back, he was smiling again. “I didn’t swap pictures with Kimberly, either, so I just assumed — who knew there’d be two sets of us meeting in the same place at the same time?” His smile turned into a grin. “I’d love to know what made you pick me. Maybe you can tell me over a tuna salad some time.”
Heather caught the Meg Ryan reference but hesitated. She didn’t want to leave this good-looking, comfortable guy in flannel who made her laugh and had an 11-year-old daughter and a cookie obsession, but her sense of duty nudged her. “That’s a nice thought,” she said. “But I probably ought to clear this up with Charles, let him know there’s been a mistake.” She rubbed a hand over the back of her hair, where it was cut the shortest, the way she did when she was embarrassed.
Mr. Flannel was silent a moment, looking out the plate-glass window at the ragged line of bushes that separated Mr. Greenbeans from the sidewalk. Then he turned back to her and patted her arm. “I don’t know about you,” he said, “but I think I came out ahead on this deal. What if we just pretend we came here to meet each other, after all?”
A man’s hearty chuckle and the bubbling laughter of a woman made them turn and look — Charles and Kimberly had their heads close together, and he was just taking hold of her hand.
“What do you say we start over?” the man in flannel said. “I’m Mark, and I’m very happy to meet you.”
She relaxed. “I’m Heather,” she said. “And I’m happy to meet you.”
Early the next morning in her sunlit kitchen, Heather, dressed for work, took an appreciative sniff of her jasmine tea. Indian summer had arrived overnight, and the warmth felt lazy and peaceful. Picking up the morning paper from the mat outside her front door, she returned to her kitchen and shook it open — and a wintery chill ran through her, almost knocking the mug from her hand.
“Local Woman Brutally Murdered,” read the headline above a professional photograph of Kimberly from the coffee shop. Heather took a closer look, hoping she was wrong, but she knew better than to doubt herself. She recognized the face, the ruffles, the hair. It couldn’t be anyone else.
She set down her mug, her hands suddenly shaky, and read the article. Kimberly Scanlon, 32, local high-school English teacher. A couple of teenagers out for a midnight stroll had spotted her crumpled over the steering wheel of a car on Wiehle Avenue and called the police. She’d been strangled, probably some time between 5 and 10 last night, according to the coroner. There were lacerations and abrasions on her face and upper torso, but no defensive wounds.
Heather recognized the address where the car had been found. It was less than a mile from the coffee shop. “Charles,” she whispered.
There was no time to waste on breakfast. Heather poured out her tea in the sink and buckled on her gun, clipped her badge to her belt, tucked the paper under her arm, and headed for her car.
It was going to be one hell of an interesting day, and she’d have a lot to tell Mark tonight over dinner.
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