"Do you carry almond milk?"
George Knightley has to restrain himself from rolling his eyes at the statuesque blonde perching a pair of oversized sunglasses on the top of her head. He grabs a towel from the counter and dries his hands as he shakes his head. "Sorry, only soy."
Her pink lips purse and she hums under her breath. "I suppose I can make that work. I'd like a large soy latte half-caf with one and a half pumps of sugar free vanilla and a half a shot of sugar free caramel."
George quickly scribbles her order down on a white paper cup and slips on a sleeve emblazoned with the Donwell Coffee logo. "Give me three minutes."
In two and a half minutes, he slides the warm beverage across the counter and she takes a dainty sip. "Mmm," she groans low in her throat, in a strangely erotic way. "This is wonderful."
He takes the damp towel, runs it across the formica surface. "Glad you like it."
The woman takes another drink and glances around the small coffee shop. "I've never been here before. How long has this place been open?"
George shrugs. "Oh, we've been here for about four years."
She smiles and George can tell immediately that this is a woman who is used to demanding what she wants - and getting it. "Then I'll have to be back soon to make up for lost time."
The blonde returns the next morning in the middle of a rush. Martin, who's running the cash register, hands him the paper cup with an eye roll.
1/2 soy, 1/2 whole. 4 shots espresso. Extra foam. 1/2 shot mint.
George grits his teeth and makes the complicated order. She gives him a grin after she has taken her first sip and it sends that feeling of excitement and dread through him again. "Yummy!"
She comes in every day that week. Sometimes the first thing in the morning. Sometimes in the afternoon. On Saturday she glides through the door looking flawless and gets her drink in a large ceramic mug and curls up in the plush armchair with a laptop.
"What are you working on?" he asks when he comes over to clear away her empty cup (small light roast with skim milk foam and two shots of hazelnut). She tucks a strand of hair behind her ear.
"I write an advice column. The answers come to me better when I'm out of the office and out in public."
"I'm Ask Emma for the Metro News." She grins again and everything clicks in place.
He points a finger. "I thought you looked familiar."
"I suppose I am somewhat of a local celebrity..."
George shakes his head. "I just remembered because of that horrible advice you gave that woman about turning down a proposal two months ago."
Emma Woodhouse (he remembers her name now) blinks stupidly. Has anyone ever told her that her advice was bad?
"What is that supposed to mean?"
"She should have said yes. She was in love with him. He was in love with her. What's the issue?"
Emma bristles and they debate her advice for a half an hour, leaving Martin to handle more customers than the new employee is fully capable of dealing with at once.
George doesn't really care. Arguing with Emma Woodhouse, advice guru, is actually pretty fun.
For the next few months George and Emma talk across the counter every day. She orders complex, ridiculous coffees and somehow finds a way to never get the same thing twice. He tells her when her advice column is on-point (he isn't afraid to compliment her, not at all) and when she is completely wrong.
She becomes his favorite customer.
"Morning George," she mutters as she arrives at the counter. Emma's usually-glossy hair hangs limply from a low ponytail and her face is free of makeup.
"Morning Emma," he answers. He gives her a worried look. "Are you feeling okay?"
She leans against the formica and sighs. "I think what you mean to say is You look like shit."
George grimaces. He opens his mouth to respond and she cuts him off with a raised hand and a bitter smile. "Its okay, I feel like shit. Just give me a black coffee. Dark roast."
His eyebrows shoot to his hairline. "That's all? No foam? No extra espresso shots? No-"
She shakes her head. "Coffee. Black."
(He adds in a half a shot of caramel and a shot of vanilla when she isn't looking. After taking her first sip, the corners of Emma's lips rise just slightly and he feels a weight come off of his chest.)
"Thanks, George. This is perfect."
"How does this week's batch of letters look?"
George places her mug (one and a half shots of espresso, soy milk, extra hot, no foam, half shot of peanut butter) on the the elevated table and leans his elbows on the surface.
Emma takes a sip of her drink and makes her normal noise of pleasure and relief. She is makeup-free again and George is more sure than ever that her sadness has been brought on by problems of the heart. She gives him a small, weary smile. "I have a tough letter this week."
She sighs. "Sometimes I get a letter that hits too close to home. The person is having the same problem that I'm having and I don't know what to do." She lifts a creased piece of paper that has obviously been read and re-read a dozen times.
"May I?" George reaches for the letter and she hands it to him after a moment's hesitation. He takes a deep breath, hoping she does not see his heart threatening to beat out of his chest, and reads it out loud softly and slowly.
"Dear Emma, I own a small business and I have fallen for one of my regular customers. We have been talking every day for months and the thought of a day without her breaks my heart. I'm afraid that she is in love with someone else. Should I tell my dear friend that I am in love with her or let her be with a man who doesn't deserve her?"
He smiles wryly and hands the letter back. "You're a small business owner who's fallen in love with one of your regular customers?"
She takes the paper back with a trace of her usual snap. "No," she replies coldly. "But I am trying to figure out if I should tell someone how I feel."
George's heart rate doubles. "So what are you going to do?"
Her fingers curl around the mug and she blows on the steaming surface. "I'm not sure." Emma's eyes are unfocused. "Maybe tell him to go for it. Take a chance. The worst thing that happens is she stops frequenting his business."
"But then-" he stumbles over his words, a lump rising in this throat, "his heart will break."
Her eyes finally meet his and - who cares if she breaks his heart? It is already hers. It is already broken, seeing her dim eyes and sloped back. Maybe it is better if she knows that he pours his heart and soul into every absurd drink she concocts.
His shoulders straighten and he gathers her perfect hands into his large, burned ones. Her mouth drops open and he speaks in a rush before she can tell him to stop. "Emma, that letter was from me. I'm a small business owner who has fallen in love with one of my regular customers." His fingers squeeze hers. "You."
She blinks in surprise and he is transported back to that Saturday morning so many months ago.
He gives her a nervous smile. "Emma, I'm not good with words. That's why I sent the letter. Maybe.. Maybe if I loved you less I could be more poetic about it."
After a moment that feels like a lifetime, Emma Woodhouse frees her hands from his grip, grasps his face, and tugs him down for a kiss. When she pulls away his breath has been completely stolen and her fingers dig into the soft flesh at the top of his spine.
"I think that was just poetic enough," she whispers coyly.
George's entire body melts in relief and he leans forward to kiss her again because apparently that's okay. And after months of dreaming of the feel of her soft pink lips upon his and her golden hair tangled in his fingers and her spicy perfume wrapped around him -- well, the real thing is even better than his imagination.
Emma stretches up on her tiptoes to reach the coffee mugs on the top shelf. As she does, her short silk nightgown rides up to expose a few more lovely inches of creamy skin. George only sits back and watches, enjoying another bite of fresh scone.
A minute later, she slides a mug across the breakfast nook table and tucks herself up next to him. He takes a first sip and lets out a low, appreciative moan. "This is really good."
She grins. "It's the almond milk. It makes all the difference."
George takes another drink and frowns down at her, suddenly realizing. "If you have an espresso machine at your house, why have you been coming into Donwell for months now?"
Emma's eye grow wide and she shoves a bite of scone in her mouth to buy some time. George keeps staring her down until she swallows and a lovely blush works its way across her face.
"I've been coming in because I liked talking to you."
"Oh really?" His arm tightens around her waist and she lets out her own noise of appreciation.
He leans in closer, his nose hovering an inch above hers. George enjoys the way her pupils dilate in surprise and excitement and the cluster of tiny freckles that dance on her cheeks. "Well I'm glad you did. This way I finally get to see you on my day off."
Emma's eyelashes flutter. "What have you been doing all these months then?"
"Waiting for you."
He leans forward and captures her lips with his own. She tastes like almond milk and blueberry scone and espresso and a future together.