Jo is head down in a story, scribbling madly away to capture all her ideas before they can tumble to the sidewalk and be lost, when a soft, inquisitive cough stops her mid-revelation. Politeness and her mother's training force her to respond, no matter how acute her sense that she should finish the sentence first. She sees long fingers curved around one of those tiny cups Mrs. Kirke uses for espresso, a buttoned-up Oxford shirt with frayed cuffs, a nervous, hopeful smile, and even more nervous, even more hopeful blue eyes that send whatever it was the duke was going to say upon finding his betrothed in bed with another man flying right down the street, around the corner, and gone, forever.
"I'm so sorry. There aren't any other tables available, and I was wondering if I could—"
There's a moment in which Jo can't respond at all, gulping embarrassingly as she follows the contours of his dark hair, the kind of hair Meg would have killed for, back when they tried every As Seen on TV device they could afford to create frizz-free beachy waves.
He clears his throat again. "But I see you are quite occupied. Perhaps I will ask for a to-go cup."
"Oh, don't go! I mean—" Jo sputters as she closes her laptop and gathers the fan of papers and pens that she's spread all over the little bistro table. "There's plenty of room." This is, according to Amy, how they do it in Europe—strangers sharing tables at tiny cafés in Paris and Venice, never even trying to make small talk. Back home in Concord, she would have already been roped into a conversation about the weather—today's brilliant fall sunshine and the snow predicted for next week—by anyone who dared to burst her bubble like this.
"Thank you. I won't bother you." His accent is a little different, Jo thinks. Maybe he is from Europe. Or possibly Quebec. He settles in at the chair across from hers and pulls out a book—a real, hardcover, tattered, dust-jacket-free book almost three inches thick. He holds the book in his lap and sips at the coffee without looking up, leaving Jo to her writing.
But she can't, for the life of her, remember where she was going with the scene. She'd tuned out the distractions of the sidewalk patio so thoroughly that she hadn't even noticed how the early afternoon crowd had swelled, cramming into the tiny space the city allowed the overflow customers of Kirke's Koffee. She'd get up to refill her tea, but there's no room to maneuver back into the shop, and no way to make a graceful exit, not that she wants to. So she shuffles through her papers, locates the outline she came up with after reading a romance writer's blog post about plot points and beat sheets, closes her eyes, and pokes her pencil at the page. It lands on "Beat eight—reversal—Rodrigo's Revenge." She can't remember how she'd planned for him to enact vengeance upon the duke, or even, at the moment, why, but she's stuck here pretending to be a writer for the next few minutes at least, so she turns to a new page in her journal and starts scribbling whatever comes to mind.
By the time she looks up, Rodrigo's brown eyes have changed to blue, his straw-colored hair to dark brown or possibly black, and half the crowd has left, the stranger among them. Not even his espresso cup remains.
"You messed up again, Jo," she whispers to herself, even though she doesn't believe there was anything to mess up. Love at first sight is a fictional construct, after all, and a melodramatic one at that.
A week and a half later, after the first half-hearted snow has fallen and melted, she's claimed an inside table at Kirke's and is transcribing notes from her journal into her story file when he shows up again, tiny cup, big book, wavy hair, and all.
"Excuse, me, may I—oh, hello again."
She catches his accent this time—German, but softer than what she's seen in movies and tv shows. Possibly Polish? It's European, at any rate.
"Of course, please." She doesn't have as many papers to move this time, but she pulls her laptop closer to give him table space.
"You are a writer?"
"I—well, yes." It's still hard to say out loud, even thought it's all she's ever wanted. Meg keeps sending her links to articles about something called "imposter syndrome," but she's not sure she can fully claim the status, since she's not posing as anything. Not until she hits the best seller list. "I'm not traditionally published, not yet, but I have a few titles that I've self-published. E-published, really. I mean, they're not books you can take off a shelf, like that one." She nods at the volume he holds; he blinks at the cover. Goethe. Her cheeks heat up; she should regret the rush of words that just came out of her mouth.
But he regards her solemnly, seriously, as if comparing herself to a famous poet makes perfect sense. "Perhaps I have heard of your work?"
The laugh bursts out of her. "I can one hundred percent guarantee you haven't."
He smiles, and adorable crinkles bloom around his eyes. "Still, there is a chance. I do read a great deal."
Challenge accepted. "The Inheritance was the first one. The second one's called Moods."
He pretends to think; it's so obvious Jo wants to giggle again. "I'm sorry, I don't recall those."
"No one does," she says as matter-of-factly as she can. "It's fine. I'll just keep plugging away until something breaks through."
It seems like he wants to say something, but instead he purses his lips, still with the crinkled-eye smile, and opens his book. Jo re-focuses on her outline, or tries to. It's harder to look like a writer in front of someone else than to actually write, but she can't ask the guy to leave. He's not doing anything wrong, after all, and there's nowhere else he can sit.
Half an hour later, she's changed or deleted more words than she's added to the story, and her tea mug is as empty as her brain. She keeps bringing it to her lips anyway, and is surprised every time to sip up nothing but mint-scented air.
"If I may?"
She looks up, and he's standing over her—she never heard him get up—offering her one of those espresso mini-mugs.
"I understand writers must rely upon their imaginations, but surely this is more sustaining than your empty cup."
She takes the cup. He sits down again, watching as she sips at it. "You like it?"
"I do," she tries to say, but coughs as a bitter kick hits her throat. "It's strong, but good."
"You need cream," he declares, and brings her a small silver jug of it.
"Thank you, but you really don't need to go to all this trouble." She swirls a quick pour of the cream into the cup and tries again.
"Better?" At her nod, he adds, "It's the least I can do. You have shared your table with me twice now."
It's not like she's had much of a choice, but if he can be gracious about it, so can she. "Thank you, Mr--?"
"Friedrich--Mr. Bhaer. Friedrich Bhaer."
"Wow," she says before she can stop herself. "I mean, you must be—"
"German," he acknowledges, and whether he realizes it or not, it's another favor, because she's not sure which of her guesses would have come out of her mouth.
"Is that what you're reading?" She nods at his book when he looks confused. "I mean, is it in German?"
"Oh, yes, yes. Goethe."
"I've always liked Rilke myself," she says. "'I want to be with those who know secret things or else alone. I hold this to be the highest task for a bond between two people—'"
"'--that each protects the solitude of the other,'" he finishes with her, and his cheeks turn red. "My apologies, I have intruded—"
"Oh, no, no, no! I didn't mean--it was the first quote I remembered, that's all. I enjoy having a little company while I write. And the coffee." She takes another sip, trying not to wince, hoping it makes her look sophisticated and European. "It's wonderful." At his slightly dubious raised eyebrow, she adds, "I'm Jo. Josephine, really, but only my aunt calls me that."
His expression eases into an understanding smile. "Jo." Something about the way he says it makes it sound like her own name, and not as though she's "absconded with a nickname meant for boys," as Aunt March likes to snap. He opens the Goethe and settles back in his chair. "I will leave you to your work."
She takes another sip of the coffee. It doesn't seem so bitter this time; in fact, it might be just the fuel she needs to plow through to the end of this draft.
Before long, they've fallen into a rhythm: every few days she arrives at Kirke's a little after lunch, and he shows up an hour or two into her writing session, buying her espresso when her tea runs out or turns cold. While she takes the first few sips, they exchange bits and pieces of their lives; stories about her sisters and his nephews; favorite lines from literature and movies (and, in Jo's case, television); anecdotes about the girls she's nannying and the stories she's writing and his students. He's an adjunct at Columbia, teaching German and philosophy and whatever classes they'll give him. They commiserate about the weather and the city and the godawful hockey puck Mrs. Kirke calls scones, and then Jo gets back to her writing and Friedrich (he could never, ever be a Fred) and he opens his book, or, occasionally, a folder full of papers to grade.
They work companionably until Jo has to pick up the girls at school, and she spends the evening helping with homework, braiding hair, and trying not to obsess about what every turn of phrase and crinkle around his eyes might have meant.
One afternoon, while she's comparing the taste of a lemon scone to solidified Pledge, he laughs mid-drink of espresso and coughs some of it out onto his shirt. Jo's on her feet, sponging at it with a napkin, before she realizes what she's doing, realizes she's touching him, realizes how warmth and solidity and steadiness—steadfastness—can be conveyed in just one breath, felt through a slightly damp Oxford shirt. He captures her fumbling attempt in a calm grip, his long fingers curling around her much smaller hand. "Thank you."
"Oh, I'm sorry, I just—I'm so used to cleaning up when the girls spill their juice—"
"Jo," he says, and there's that warm, impossible smile that's almost entirely in and around his eyes. "I thank you, and I promise to be less messy in the future."
She can't help but snort as she sits down again, brushing scone crumbs off her laptop and papers. "You're hardly the messy one in this equation."
"Are we an equation, you think?"
"I—I don't—I didn't mean—" She meets his gaze, and stammers to a halt.
"More like a couplet, perhaps," he says after a second or an eon.
"The answer to a sonnet?"
"Exactly. I'm going for a refill. Would you like more?"
But she's already vibrating, whether it's with caffeine or something else. She turns back to a story that feels more predictable than whatever just happened here.
One rare, rainy afternoon in late February, it all falls apart. They're the only ones in the place, other than Mrs. Kirke, who's pretending not to watch their every move while she wipes down the counter. Jo hasn't even finished her chamomile tea before she gets so frustrated with her characters' lack of cooperation that she flops back in her chair.
"Ugh! Just fight already!"
Friedrich blinks up from his book—Rilke, this time—with a bemused grin. "I take it things are not going smoothly?"
"I want these two characters to get into it with their swords, but they won't stop talking about their motives and feelings. It's like trying to wrestle Jell-O, getting this scene to move forward!"
Friedrich's brow creases at that mental image, but he asks, more carefully than usual, "You are writing a sword fight?"
"Well, yeah, I mean, they're Eighteenth Century dukes. It's not like they're going to pull out laser guns and go at it."
He closes his book, one finger stuck inside to mark the page. "So you are writing historical fiction?"
"That makes it sound so fancy. It's more like historical romance. Maybe even melodrama.—maybe that's the solution. I could have the villain tie the hero to the railroad tracks. Or would that be an anachronism?"
"Forgive me," he starts.
All Jo's hackles go up. No one asks for forgiveness ahead of time unless they know they're going to say something unforgiveable.
"But I must ask—are such stories really the best use of your time?"
She's so taken aback she doesn't know how to respond. It must show in her face, because he jumps in again.
"I mean only that you seem so—no, you are--such a warm, funny, intelligent person, and I thought you must be writing stories that are more—"
"You really don't want to finish that," Jo manages. She takes a breath to avoid saying the first, worst things that spring to mind. "Look, Friedrich, this kind of story is what I know how to write, and write quickly. Most of the time," she mutters with a dark glance at her laptop. "People buy these e-books. Not a lot of people, but enough that I have money to help my parents with expenses. I told you, my sister is sick. There's a lot she needs. These silly stories sell."
"I'm sorry." Friedrich dips his head, and he really does look chastised. "I meant no offense, only that, perhaps someday, when things are easier, you might try to write something that is...somewhat more like the Jo I have come to know." Before she can answer, he's on his feet. "I think it's time for your espresso, no?"
"Things will never be easier," Jo mutters as he walks away, wondering if she should bolt right now or engage in the polite fiction that he hasn't just opened up her chest and laid bare her deepest fears about what she's writing and what it means.
And then her phone buzzes. It's Meg. Four words.
It's Beth. Come home.
She's on her feet, stuffing everything into her backpack, and out the door before Friedrich comes back with their drinks, before she can explain. What would it matter if she could? Her feet pound the sidewalk as she dodges crowds, bobbing and weaving toward the subway stop so she can get home before the worst happens. Meg wouldn't have sent that text if the worst wasn't happening already.
Come home. It's Beth. It's Beth. Come home.
"Wait, please, Jo—"
She's a block from the entrance to the subway when she's jerked to a stop by a hand on her shoulder. He pulls her around and it's Friedrich, gasping and dripping.
So is she, for that matter. She hadn't realized it was raining, but it is, a cold relentless downpour that's already soaked through her and probably her backpack, too, ruining her laptop and good riddance, because she's never going to be able to go back to that story, not after what he said, and not after that text.
"I'm sorry. I shouldn't have said—"
"It's not you." She doesn't have time for this, but she can't walk away from those eyes without an explanation. She holds up her phone, which is probably also ruined. "My sister Meg says—it's Beth. I think she's—she's worse. I need to get home. If I give you the number for the family I nanny for, could you contact them and explain?" She doesn't want to pack a bag, doesn't want to deal with school pickup and good-byes. She just wants to get to the subway and the train station and home and Beth and--"I'll just—do you even have a cell phone?"
His hold on her shoulder has eased, from a desperate grip into a steadying support that's keeping her from flying into a million pieces. "Jo. I. I thought—" He blinks up at the sky, as if he, too, has just found out about the rain. "Wait, please."
As the crowds jostle around them, he releases her shoulder and pulls an umbrella out from under his ridiculously huge overcoat. He pops it open and huddles close to her, sheltering them both.
"I don't have time."
"Jo," he says again, and suddenly she realizes her name is the only thing keeping him from flying into a million pieces. "Jo, I want to help. I said it badly, I—I do have a cell phone, and I can help."
He's patting his pockets, and she realizes he left his book back at Kirke's, and suddenly, despite everything, despite the rain and the crowd and her rush and Come home and It's Beth, she knows the only thing that will make the next step forward remotely possible is if she doesn't have to take it alone. She pops up on tiptoe and kisses Friedrich before he can start away. He melts into her, filling her mouth with the taste of espresso, and his hand comes back to her shoulder, gentle and steadfast.
When they break apart, ignoring a whistle from somewhere outside the umbrella, he bends down to rest his forehead on hers. "Let me help," he whispers, and Jo nods. He holds the umbrella and she holds his hand and together they head for the subway, and whatever might come next.