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i know i've felt like this before, but now i'm feeling it even more

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There’s something nice about London in spring, isn’t there? After a rainy winter, there’s the hint of sun and a break in the clouds and it feels like things are starting anew. I drink tea in the mornings with the windows open, a breeze coming in, fresh air whisking into every corner, erasing any trace of the months spent locked up in hibernation. Do you like tea? I can’t remember. My mum used to make tea with so much milk and sugar when I was sick, tucked me in bed with a cup of it and read aloud from The Princess Bride, just like in the movie. A gentler voice than Peter Falk, though. I wish I could spend the day writing emails to you, dear friend, whoever you are. A better pastime than work, sometimes. Enjoy the sun and the breeze and I hope to hear from you soon.

-

Ted comes into the book shop smiling, slings his backpack behind the counter, and Beard’s watching him. That man says a thousand words without even opening his mouth, and Ted’s known him practically his whole life.

“D’you ever get a letter or something, an email, that makes your whole life brighter? That makes you think about trying tea again?” Ted drums his fingers on the counter, raps his knuckles once, twice, and doesn’t miss the way Beard’s eyes go wide. “Nah, I’m not saying I’m gonna do it, but that’s just kinda the hope I’m feeling, you know? Spring breezes wiping everything clean, that kind of thing.”

“What’s gotten into you?” Beard says, leaning against the counter, practically staring Ted down.

“Oh,” Ted flaps his hands, “Can’t a guy just be happy that the sun is shining and there are books to sell?” He walks around to the shelves, whistling, can feel Beard’s suspicious eyes on his back, waits a few seconds, just to build up suspense, and then pops his head back out into the aisle. “All right, you got me. Can’t keep anything from you anyway.”

Beard just nods, crosses his arms.

“Remember we were trying to get that copy of The Little Prince for Ms. Shipley?” Beard nods again. “Well, I ended up on some forum somewhere, book collectors and sellers and all sorts of things, and there was this other person also after the same edition, and then we got to talking and, I don’t know, one thing led to another, and we’ve been emailing for a few months now.”

“Emailing.” It’s a question and it’s not, and Beard’s eyebrows disappear into his baseball cap, the one he wears almost every day, except when he’s washing it.

“Just emailing. No hinky stuff. I’m only ninety-five percent sure that it’s a woman, could be one of those catfish out there, but whoever they are, it’s all on the up-and-up. Just emailing.” Her username is booklady74, so he thinks there’s either 73 other book ladies out there, or it could maybe be her birth year, but he’s never asked how old she is and she’s never said.

Sometimes it’s still bonkers to Ted that he’s four thousand miles away from Kansas, from his home, from his son, even crazier that he’s running a bookshop. But his uncle died, left Ted the shop in his will and Ted’s wife asked for space, so Ted came to Greyhound’s Corner, right on the edge of Richmond Green in London, and promised Michelle he’d come back whenever she asked. And then she never asked.

He’s glad he has Beard, but he’s glad he has this internet stranger too. And when the door to the shop bangs open, he remembers that he’s glad for Roy Kent too, the grumpy employee that practically came with the store. Roy did say, on the first day they met, that if Ted was thinking about firing him, “he better have another fucking think coming.” But he’s surprisingly good with kids and does Storytime with Uncle Roy every Tuesday evening, and all the parents know that their children might come home with an expanded vocabulary.

Grumpy employees and moving to London aside, the book-selling business suits him, as a matter of fact. He doesn’t have a head for money or budgeting, really, but he loves books, just loves them, can’t get enough. Reads aloud to Henry when they have their nightly call, buys too much, the shelves of the shop stuffed, making browsing like an expedition, where no one can ever find what they’re looking for, but they often find other things instead. He likes that.

For all that his life is full of books and the store and phone calls with his son, he still goes home to an empty apartment - flat - and it’s lonely. So it’s good that he gets these emails, that he gets to write back, all the thoughts that go clanging around in his head finding some kind of order on the screen in front of him when he sits down to type.

-

Tea and I have never been friends, but maybe I just haven’t been adding enough sugar and milk. I was always a fall guy, leaves changing and football - American football - starting up. Something about a beer outside that really makes my heart happy. I don’t miss too much about being back in America, but I do miss that. Have y’all ever tried to do football - the kind with your hands - over here? Or is that rugby? I’m not sure what the difference is. Anyway, spring is nice too. Makes me think of those high school dances where we’d get all dressed up and take photos in the park. Corsages and boutonnieres and all that fancy stuff. Course, I did wear pajamas my senior year. Ended up running around town with a pal of mine and got into all sorts of trouble. So yeah, spring is good too.

Do you ever feel like you’re doing the thing you’re supposed to be doing with your life, but you never in a million years thought you’d be doing it? I feel like that sometimes. Don’t know how I ended up here, but I’m doing something worth doing. At least I hope so.

-

“Our contractor is running late. Something about hitting a deer or getting a flat? I couldn’t really hear him over the car horns.” Higgins is looking between her and his phone, halfway through a long list of what seem to be mostly problems. If Rebecca’s honest, she’s not really listening. She’s wishing she was back in bed, scrolling through an email on her phone, smiling inanely at the idea of some strange man running around his hometown in pyjamas, causing mayhem. Probably she and Flo would’ve been running around with them if they grew up together.

They’ve done this hundreds of times, remodeled stores, had grand openings, there are Welton Books all over the United Kingdom. She’s been to every airport and train station to cut ribbons, walked along every high street in every borough. Sometimes she feels like she can’t go five minutes without driving past her last name in big letters on the side of a building. A contractor running late doesn’t mean anything, in the long run.

“And there’s still one hold-out among the independents,” he adds, and that pulls her attention. Most of the small stores have sold off their stock and gone out of business, and it’s a small victory with each one, cornering the market, keeping her firm grasp on the bookselling game.

“What?” she asks, and her voice is sharp and she sees the way Higgins reacts, feels almost bad, but remembers how he helped her ex-husband run around, how he lied to her face for years to keep up a ruse. How he pretended to be her friend, when all the time he was Rupert’s ally.

“It’s called Greyhound’s Corner. Used to be owned by a Richard-”

“Lasso, I remember.” Her mum used to tell stories about him, a lost flame, someone she met once and never forgot. And apparently, they both opened stores - one went big, the other stayed small. Not quite a romantic ending. “What happened to him?”

“Ah, well, he died,” Higgins says, looking not particularly pleased to share the news. “And his nephew’s taken over, all the way from America. Apparently making a killing. Sales have gone up since the Welton signs when out.” Rebecca rolls her eyes. That happens often enough, a burst in sales to show support, and then -

“And then they’ll see our prices,” she says. Morals are one thing, but low costs are another, she’s found, and they always get the customers in the end. Higgins purses his lips. She waves a hand and Higgins makes his exit, closing her office door behind him. She spins in her chair to look out the window behind her, just able to make out the little shapes of people walking on the sidewalk below, cars zipping by, looking no bigger than her finger.

Rupert said she’d fail without him, but here she is, sitting in her corner office at the top of a building, opening her two hundredth storefront in just a few days, no competition in sight. Yes, every day there is another story about her failed marriage in the press, and yes, one particular rag has taken to calling her a spinster bookworm and “Old Rebecca,” but she hasn’t failed.

Her phone buzzes on her desk, a message from Sassy, asking if she wants to take Nora out for an afternoon next weekend. It’s the first thing that brings a smile to Rebecca’s face that day, and she types back an affirmative. Something to look forward to, spending time with one of the few people in her life that see her only as Rebecca, nothing more, nothing less.

Then Keeley comes in with updates from their Twitter and Instagram, and a whole social media rollout for the new Richmond location. And Rebecca’s back to thinking about KS152 because Keeley knows more about it than Rebecca ever will and whatever plan she’s got will work.

Keeley’s snapping fingers bring her back, though. “What’s going on, Rebecca? You look like your brain’s off in Majorca.”

“Have you ever corresponded with a stranger?” God, that sounds stodgy.

“I’ve swiped right on Tinder, if that’s what you mean,” Keeley says. “Are you on dating apps!? I can’t believe you haven’t said anything!”

“No, no, nothing like that.” The idea of Tinder or Bumble, or whatever is out there feels horrifying to Rebecca. “Just emails. With a man I’ve never met.”

“You know we can trace emails, right? Like we have the technology. If you want to know who your mystery man is, just say the word.” Keeley’s warming up to the idea, sitting down in the chair opposite Rebecca, thumbs poised on her phone.

“I think,” Rebecca says, considering, “I rather like the mystery.” It’s true, too. There’s something freeing about corresponding with a person who doesn’t know who she is, who doesn’t know that the woman on the other end was dragged through the press after a messy divorce. All he knows (and she does hope it’s a he) is that she loves books. And that her mum made tea. And a million little things that she thinks she’s never told anyone.

But even with all that mystery, there’s the part of her who just wants to know.

-

Do you think we should meet?

-

Ted closes his laptop. That’s one he’s got to think on for a bit. His mama always told him to sleep on the things that stumped him. She also said not to interfere with something that ain’t bothering him. There’s a whole bunch of pros and a whole bunch of cons and he might be an optimist but he’s not foolish.

He feels antsy, even though his computer is closed, it’s like he can see the email every time he closes his eyes. Baking sometimes does the trick, keeps his mind and hands busy as he measures out butter and flour, trying to perfect a shortbread recipeThe only thing he knows to do is go to work, to put the email out of his mind. Maybe Beard’ll tell him something. He’s always swiping left and right, he could have some great insight into the world of meeting someone off the internet.

The shortbread comes to work with him, packed in little pink boxes, another craft to occupy his speeding brain. He remembers to call them biscuits on the little sign he puts out, telling customers that they’re free to take. Beard just looks at him, long and quiet, like he knows something’s up. But the bell on the door rings out, and the first customer of the day appears, and they have no time to talk.

Only a few boxes remain when a tall blonde woman comes in with a young girl, older than Henry but probably not a teenager yet, if Ted had to guess. He always sizes people up when he meets them, tries to look for things that tell him how they work, always ready to change his mind when they show him a different side.

He lets them browse for five minutes before coming over with a box of biscuits in each hand for them. “Anything in particular you’re looking for today?” he asks, leaning against the shelf opposite them. The woman looks at him appraisingly, and he supposes it’s only fair because he did the same to her when she came in.

Her face flickers into a slight surprise, and then she smiles, a little tightly. “Just seeing what’s on offer.”

Ted nods, he knows the type. “Mmm, mmm, mmhmm.” He rubs at his mustache. “Let me ask you this: what’s the first concert you ever went to?”

“What?” She sounds slightly annoyed now, but he waves that away.

“I like to get to know the people that come in here, looking for books. You know, my uncle always said we’re not just helping people buy books, but we’re helping people become whoever they’re gonna be. So I like to know the people I’m helping. Helping. I said that a lot. Helping.” The woman is looking at him like she’s worried for his sanity, and he does his best to close his mouth, stem the tide of semantic satiation. “So, first concert? Or best concert? Or both - first concert, best concert?”

“Uh - Spice Girls. And...Spice Girls?”

“Hot dog, the same for both?” He’s delighted. Doesn’t really know anything about them except that his cousins loved them, and there was that one song about wanting to be friends or something. He’ll have to look it up when he gets home. Thinking about his computer makes him think about emails, which makes him think about one particular email, and his fingers go a little numb. He shakes his hands lightly, sees the woman’s eyes flick down and then back up to his eyes.

“Right, well, I’m Ted if you need anything and Joe if you don’t. Nah, I’m just kidding. I’m Ted either way.”

It’s not a slow Saturday, but it’s not especially busy, and Ted finds that his eyes keep darting over to the blonde woman, the way she bends down to be at eye level with the girl she’s with, the way there’s part of her that seems on alert at all times, though he doesn’t know why. Maybe she’s a spy, under some deep cover. Maybe someone’s passing her notes in book pages in this very shop.

There’s a pile of books, a mixture of Hunger Games and Jenny Han, and Ted would have to bet that not one of them is for the woman, that they’re all for the girl. He holds up a finger. “Wait right there, I’ve got a book that I think will blow your mind. Metaphorically. There’s not a bomb in it or anything.” Better to be safe than sorry, just in case they are spies.

He slides A Wrinkle In Time onto the top of her pile. “On the house,” he says. “Buy ten books, get one free.”

“Thank you, Ted,” the woman says, her eyes softer than he’s seen them directed towards him, and he’s flattered she’s even remembered his name. “I’m Rebecca.” She holds out her hand, and smiles when he accepts her grasp. “And this is my goddaughter, Nora.” Nora beams up at him, proudly takes the bag of books from the counter, pretends like she isn’t taken aback by the surprising weight.

“Well, Nora, Rebecca, I’d say you’ve got at least a few days worth of reading ahead of you, so I won’t keep you. Hope you enjoy the books and the biscuits, I’ve found they go well together.” He realizes he’s still holding Rebecca’s hand, drops it rather suddenly, covering for it by rubbing at his mustache. He hears Beard cough behind him.

Rebecca seems a little embarrassed or bemused, or something that he can’t quite put his finger on, but she and Nora disappear out the door, and he can just see her blonde head through the shop window, bending down to talk to Nora.

“Know who that is?” Beard asks from behind him, arms crossed.

“Yeah, that’s Rebecca,” he says with a chuckle.

“Rebecca Welton,” Beard emphasizes.

“Like Welton Books?” Ted scratches that back of his head.

“Yeah, like Welton Books. And you gave her one for free.” Beard sighs.

“You know it’s not about the money!” They’ve had this argument before, too many times maybe. “We’re making an impact!” He slaps his hand against the counter for emphasis, a few browsing patrons looking up at the sound, and he holds up his hands in apology.

Beard humphs in the back of his throat, a growl, like maybe he’s been spending too much time with Roy. “We can’t make an impact if we’re not here! You can’t give away things for free! You can’t get caught up in idealism!” His voice goes high and reedy, in a way that makes Ted’s eyebrows shoot up. The remaining shoppers keep their heads down, very studiously not looking at the register.

“We’re in trouble, Ted,” Beard says, softer, “and you can’t give books away, especially not to our competition.”

-

I wish it was easier to make cornbread over here. Add that to the list of things I miss. You ever eat something that transports you right back home? That’s barbecue for me, and every good plate of ribs comes with a side of cornbread. Or corn pudding. We just like putting corn in things.

I think I miss home more when things are hard. When I feel like I’m struggling with no clear way out. I miss sitting at my mama’s kitchen table while she tells me to take a breath and think it over. Even when I was grown, that’s what she’d do. Pour me a glass of milk and say that trouble finds troubled minds, so I better figure things out. Anyway, everything works out one way or another, sometimes it’s never the way you expect, I’ve found.

-

Rebecca brushes crumbs from the shortbread off her laptop keyboard. It tastes exactly like the biscuits her mother made. Funny that her stranger would ask about that, just when she happened upon her childhood in a pink biscuit box. She doesn’t think about how he never answered her question, how she waited two days to get a response from him. How she’s wondering if she can go back to Greyhound’s Corner to get more shortbread as she just finished her last piece.

How Greyhound’s Corner is the enemy.

It was strange, being in that small bookstore. It felt homey, comfortable, an ebullient mustachioed man asking about her favorite concert, Nora enjoying the sensation of digging through piles of books, the thrill of discovery half as enjoyable as the books themselves. A far cry from the ordered shelves of Welton Books, with it’s bright lighting and clearly labeled aisles.

She kept waiting for Ted’s face to light up with a flash of recognition, pity or sympathy marred with judgment, and it never came, like he’d never seen her before. A fairly unusual phenomena in London, when she’s in the tabloids every other day.

An alert dings on her email, a new message from KS152. I need advice. Still want to meet?

It’s enough to distract her from the thought of Ted and Greyhound’s Corner, and whether or not her mother still remembers how to make that shortbread. She texts Keeley, her first impulse in anything. She’s good for emergencies and commiseration and everything in between.

You have to meet him. Bring a red rose or something, have a book so he knows it’s you. It’ll be super cute. There’s a string of emojis with hearts and blushing faces and Rebecca feels embarrassed just looking at it, like she’s back in school, about to pass notes with the boy she has a crush on and her best friend is giggling over her shoulder.

She texts back It’s just going to be coffee, which is met with an eyeroll emoji. There’s a part of her that doesn’t want to get her hopes up because it really might just be advice and friendship and nothing more. But there’s a part of her that can’t help but hope that months of emails and gentle confessions and sharing truths means something.

-

“What if he’s got, like, the face of Nigel Farage?” Keeley asks, as they’re walking to the cafe. “I mean, he could be anyone. It could be Higgins!”

“I don’t think I’ve been secretly emailing Leslie Higgins for months.” Rebecca’s eyebrow arches.

“Is his name really Leslie?” There’s no judgment in her voice, just gentle interest, and Rebecca hums an affirmative. They stop walking, the cafe in front of them.

“You look,” Rebecca says, suddenly awash in fear that it’s going to be some terrible British politician or her long-standing assistant.

Keeley grabs Rebecca’s hand. “It’ll be okay,” she says. “‘Course I’ll look.” She stands on her tiptoes, looks through the window. “Huh.”

“What?” Rebecca asks, the fear now firmly lodged in her throat.

“What do you think about that - that bookshop guy - Ted?” Keeley steps back so she’s facing Rebecca.

“Ted Lasso? How do you know what he looks like?” He’s not terrible, but he’s not what she might think of as her ideal type.

Keeley shrugs. “Facebook. I do a deep dive on all your competition. Keeps us sharp.”

Rebecca waves it away, shakes her head. “Right - why are we talking about Ted Lasso?”

“The man - he looks - he bears a resemblance - I mean - well, he is Ted.” Keeley is barely looking up at Rebecca, scuffing a very high-heeled shoe against the ground.

“Oh.” The man she’s been emailing with for months, the one who knows stories from her childhood and has made her laugh when there have been too many stories in the press, dragging her name through the mud, that man is her competition, her rival, the one whose business she’s trying to end. “I should go.”

“Without even saying anything? Rebecca, that’s cold. Even for you.” Keeley looks apologetic as soon as the words are out of her mouth, but Rebecca knows what people think of her.

“I’m going to walk by the new store, make sure it’s all locked up for the night, and then I’m going home.” Rebecca pulls at her blazer, twists her neck this way and that. “And I’ll send an email saying I got delayed by something - something.” She walks off before Keeley can say anything else, heels clicking against the pavement.

It’s half an hour later when she walks past the cafe again, curiosity getting the better of her, and she stops, looks in the window, sees Ted Lasso talking to a waiter, they’re both laughing, he’s gesturing wildly with his hands, doesn’t look put out at all. The opportunity is there, to meet him, to see who he is. And he doesn’t have to know her at all.

The decision made, she steps inside, the night air following her in, a few other customers looking up at her entrance, then back down at their books, computers, phones. She holds her own bag more tightly to herself, a red rose inside, the stem broken, hidden from view. It feels silly now, that giddy sensation.

She walks past Ted’s table, sees that he’s got his own red rose, unself-consciously displayed right next to a mug of something that looks to be mostly whipped cream. Carefully sitting in his eyeline, she looks through the printed list of drinks, studiously not looking up until she hears:

“It’s Rebecca, isn’t it?” Ted Lasso is looking at her like they’re long-lost best friends, like he’s seeing her for the first time in ages, not like they only met briefly last week. And he doesn’t even know who she is.

“And you’re Ted,” she answers brusquely. “Meeting someone?” She points at the rose.

“Ah, well,” he looks a little sheepish, “I thought I was, but I guess not.” He fiddles with the stem, rolling it back and forth between his fingers. “Seems silly to have a conversation two tables apart, though. Why not join me?” He nudges the empty chair opposite him with his foot.

She sighs, feigning annoyance, but re-settles across from him, settling her bag on the back of her chair.

“You lied to me,” Ted says, but he’s got a goofy sort of grin on his face and she can’t quite figure out if he’s angry or joking.

“About what?” Her eyebrow arches, and she catches the eye of a waiter so she can place her order.

“You’re Rebecca Welton.” It feels like he’s playing a game, but he’s letting her in on the strategy. Even so, she doesn’t know the rules.

“I never said I wasn’t.”

“But you never said you were. According to my sources - my sources being my two employees - you’re my biggest competition!” She’s encountered people who view her as a nemesis before, and they’ve never been so jovial.

“Welton Books doesn’t really view your little store as competition,” she says, the waiter returning with a cup of tea, steaming and warm. Ted’s smile looks a little frozen, and she feels badly, but not enough to apologize.

“Are you excited to be opening a new location?” Ted asks, drinking from his own mug, getting whipped cream on his mustache, wiping it away with his thumb.

“Excited?” She doesn’t know the last time she felt excited at work, can vaguely remember a thrill at her first or second ribbon cuttings, but that feeling is gone now, just going through the motions, caught up in red tape and paperwork and signing a thousand documents a day.

“Yeah, it’s exciting to open a new store! All the people that will get to buy books and hang out in your fancy little coffee shop. It’s like you’re opening up a whole new world right here in Richmond!”

“And it will put you out of business,” she says, unable to stop herself.

“Well, now, that might happen, but my mom always told me things will work out the way they’re supposed to. And just because you don’t like something doesn’t mean it isn’t for the best, somehow. Didn’t always like hearing that, because it usually meant I had to clean my room or do my chores, but I think she’s right, all told. Bad things are just good things in disguise, just have to look at it the right way. Past the Groucho Marx glasses.” He wiggles his fingers, and Rebecca can see the person she’s been emailing in his words.

But she chokes back a derisive laugh. “My husband sleeping with any number of actress/models, model/actresses is actually a good thing? The press taking any opportunity they can to laugh at me and call me old and dried up is a good thing? My personal life being the object of public speculation is a good thing?” She’s gaining steam, can’t stop herself, even as she hates the words spilling out of her mouth.

“Mr. Lasso, you seem like a nice enough person, and I am sorry you will be losing your store - because I’m quite certain there’s no way you’ll stay in business, with your cataloging skills and higher prices - but you are naive and simple if you think this is the way the world works. I can’t help but wonder how you came to be here in the first place, in a situation that is, quite obviously, not made for you.” She stands up brushes imaginary dust from her skirt. “You have, at best, two months of business, and I suggest you spend the time looking for flights back to America.”

Her heels are loud against the floor in the quiet cafe, and when she looks back through the window when she’s outside, she sees Ted looking down at the rose, one hand running through his hair, and she feels quite unimpressed with herself.

-

I was caught in traffic. The elevator broke down while I was inside. My mother had a stroke. My cousin’s dog had puppies.

I’m sorry I wasn’t there.

-

“She didn’t show?” Beard looks at Ted, worry all across his face.

“Nope,” he answers, fiddling with the register, not making eye contact. He’s just been replaying Rebecca’s words in his head, over and over, and how he had nothing to say to it.

“Maybe she came in, saw you, and left,” Roy calls from where he’s shelving books.

“Not helpful!” Beard yells back, hand up.

“I did see Rebecca Welton, though,” Ted says, finally looking up. “And she says we have two months left before we go out of business.” Beard twists his mouth a little, shifts from foot to foot.

“If we’re fucking lucky,” Roy calls out again, and Beard shakes his head.

“She’s not wrong,” he says. “And neither is Roy.”

Ted sighs. “Closing...it feels like quitting. And I promised myself I’d never quit anything.” He doesn’t think about his divorce, about his ex-wife dating the biology teacher at the local high school.

“Hey,” Beard says, softly. “It’s not quitting.” There are miles between words and belief, but Ted knows he’ll have to bridge the gap, otherwise it’ll eat him alive.

“We’ll close,” Ted says. “Say goodbye to this place and Uncle Richard and -” In some ways it’s like saying goodbye to his father all over again. Richard was his father’s only brother, it feels like ending another chapter.

“Keeping the store alive doesn’t keep your dad alive,” Beard says.

“Jesus,” Roy yells, the sound of books falling breaking the moment even more. “I’m going to have to get a job at fucking Welton Books now, aren’t I?”

“Onward. Forward,” Ted says, and raps his knuckles against the counter.

-

Closing the store is surprisingly easy. It’s selling books at fifty percent off, and people telling Ted how much they loved the store, and baking shortbread every day for customers to take with them.

He can woulda-coulda-shoulda all day long, but it’s a tough loss, and when he’s not glad-handing the patrons who are carrying bags from Welton Books along with the Greyhound’s Corner tote bags, he’s trying his best not to sink into a pit of despair.

Emails with booklady74 are a little sparser; she never offered an explanation for her absence that night, just apologized, and told him a story about an old friend telling everyone that her nickname was Stinky before she ever got a chance to meet people. My locker was stuffed full of deodorant on the first day of school.

They don’t talk about about personal details, nothing identifiable, but everything in his life feels so personal right now, so he doesn’t know what to say to her. I saw a butterfly on the Underground today. Got in at Hammersmith and off at Covent Garden, where I assume it was off to pollinate anything it could find.

A week after he locks the store up for good, the shelves empty, floor swept clean, he gets hit with a flu that knocks him out, tells Beard to stay away, that he’s in a self-inflicted quarantine to save the rest of London from this virus. He watches too much television and wraps himself up in a thick blanket, and orders Indian food from his friend Ollie. Clears out his sinuses but burns his tongue, too, so it’s a mixed bag.

And four days into his illness, there’s a knock at his door. He didn’t order anything, isn’t expecting anyone, and when he peers through the peephole, he sees Rebecca Welton standing there, holding a paper bag.

“I can hear you snuffling through the door, Ted,” she says, and he jumps about a mile because she must have some kind of magic powers, or else his nose is way more clogged than he thought. He pulls a Kleenex from his bathrobe pocket and opens the door as he blows his nose.

“Hello to you too,” Rebecca says. “I heard you were sick.”

“Now how did you hear that?” Ted moves aside, lets her in, and sees his home through her eyes, the half-eaten takeaway, the used tissues, just a mini pig sty.

“Roy.” Ted hums, Roy did tell him that. “He’s revolutionizing the children’s department,” Rebecca adds.

“And he told me that you’re not half bad, if you can get past the whole capitalist monopoly on books.” Rebecca huffs a chuckle at that. “He did use some more, ah, flowery language that I’ve chosen to edit it out, but I’m sure you’ve heard it all by now.”

Rebecca nods, and Ted looks to the bag in her hands. “Oh!” She starts, like she forgot she had anything. “I brought you soup. I don’t know if you like soup, or maybe you’re more of a stew person, and I didn’t think to get crackers, but I can run out to the shop if you’d-”

Ted cuts her off. “Rebecca? It’s good. I like soup.” He takes the bag from her.

“And I got you flowers. Daisies always make me feel better when I’m sick. They’re friendly.” She looks uncomfortable, and Ted just grins.

“The friendliest flower, I’ve always said that. Let me find something to put them in, don’t think I’ve got a vase…” He trails off as he walks away, pulling the soup from the bag, finding a pint glass in the cupboard that he fills with water, plops the small bouquet in, and returns to the living room, where Rebecca’s still standing, awkward and tall, like she doesn’t know where to put herself.

“You can sit, if you want,” he offers, as he seats himself on the couch, where there’s a nice little divot from where he’s been resting all week. She sits gingerly in the chair opposite him.

“Ted, I-I wanted to apologize,” she says, “for the cafe, and for-for putting you out of business. I don’t know how I could’ve avoided the second bit, but I could’ve been more polite to you, and I’m sorry.” It looks like she’s a baby horse learning how to walk, and Ted thinks she probably hasn’t had to apologize for too much in her life. “If-if you want to yell at me, or throw the soup in my face, I completely understand.” She’s wringing her hands now a little, fingers moving back and forth, and he leans across the low coffee table, reaches out to stop the movement.

“Rebecca,” he says, and she looks right at him, her eyes so clear and bright, like there’s tears just threatening to spill. “I forgive you.”

He looked her up, after that night, read all the articles that have no doubt made her life a living hell. It’s a miracle she can even be polite sometimes, with all that happening. And he remembers how she looked with Nora, that soft face, bending down so she could look her goddaughter in the eye. There’s a good person there. “Life’s hard enough without a few friends in your corner,” he says. “And it seems you’ve brought me apology soup, which after stone and alphabet, is my favorite soup.”

Rebecca seems at a loss for words, and Ted squeezes her hand once, twice, pulls back and settles into the couch. “You’re definitely welcome to stay, but I’m afraid it’s just daytime TV and napping for me from here on out.”

“You’ll have to count me out for Countdown, I’m afraid,” Rebecca says, standing. “But I hope you enjoy the soup.” She smiles, and her whole face looks brighter.

Ted plucks a daisy from the makeshift vase. “Take a daisy for the road, Rebecca,” he says. “And thanks for coming by. You livened up my day.”

-

I’ve been sick as a dog for days, and it’s making me think that maybe change is some kind of infection too. Like one thing changes, something you never thought you’d do, and then it’s like a snowball rolling down a mountain. And now my bed is in a different place, I’m looking out a whole other window now when I wake up. I know people change, and it’s good. I love seeing people become a whole new person. But it just feels like my life isn’t supposed to change this much, you know?

I don’t really need an answer, just had to get it off my chest, and you’re the best listener I know.

-

Rebecca finds herself coming to Richmond more often than she strictly needs to. She schedules appointments under the guise of checking on the new storefront, answers emails from coffee shops, and pretends as if she’s not looking for Ted Lasso around every corner.

Ted is the one who finds her, though, when she’s not even paying attention. He taps her shoulder in a Starbucks, and ignores her terse, “That seat’s taken” that is her instinctual reaction to interruptions.

“Looks pretty empty to me,” he says, “Unless you’re waiting for a friend.”

“Oh, Ted!” There’s more excitement in her voice than she’s entirely comfortable with. In Ted’s mind, they’re just people who have encountered each other three times, nothing more, soup or not. There’s a part of her that feels uncomfortable with the power imbalance, how much she knows, but there’s a part of her that would feel uncomfortable with him knowing who booklady74 is too.

“Please, sit,” she says, pulling the chair out, and he settles in right next to her, doesn’t even get a drink first.

“Just saw you as I was passing by, couldn’t resist saying hello.” He’s smiling, and so she’s smiling, and there’s something about her that makes her feel warm. “Now we’re even for surprising each other in coffee shops.” He taps out a drum sting with his fingers on the table.

“Ted, I’m sorry for that, it was not my be-”

“Nah, nah, we’re past all that, Rebecca. ‘Sides, it was good you showed up so I didn’t look all foolish being stood up.”

“Oh?” she asks, the syllable coming out a little strangled. “Who was she?”

“You know what? I don’t even know her, not really. We email back and forth, but that’s all I know. That, and I’m guessing she was born in ‘74, but I have not confirmed her age. Thinkin’ that might be a rude question. Never ask a woman her age or her weight, that’s why my mom always says.”

Rebecca coughs, tries to pull her thoughts together from where they’re spiraling out into a million different directions. “Your mother gives good advice,” is what she comes up with. “Easier to stick to subjects like favorite books. Or concerts. You never said what your first and best concerts were, by the way.” It’s like fumbling for solid ground, trying to find a safe perch.

“Oh ho ho, first was Kenny Rogers. The Gambler himself. And best? Well you better believe it was the Beastie Boys at Hordefest 1995. You got Hordefest over here?”

“I’m almost positive we do not.” She sips her tea.

It’s as easy to talk with Ted as it is to email him, and when he asks if she wants to meet up for lunch later in the week, she says yes without even thinking about it. She hasn’t had lunch with anyone besides Keeley or Higgins in - well, she doesn’t want to think about how long.

He talks her into getting hot dogs in Brixton, and she doesn’t think she’s ever eaten something that comes in a bun.

“Gotta get it Chicago style, that’s the only way,” Ted insists, “and they even do the poppyseed buns!” His excitement is palpable, and she has to admit that the pickle relish is amazing, even if the black seeds litter her blouse. She finds them when she’s at home, later, shaking loose as she undresses.

They have dinner together a few days later, a pub in Richmond that Rebecca’s seen on her walks around her store. There’s a football match on, a rowdy crowd enjoying the game. Apparently the team’s been on a bit of a winning streak, from what Rebecca can gather, and there’s quite a bit of enthusiasm.

“My uncle loved the AFC Richmond, named his bookstore after them and everything,” Ted says. “Me? I never understood the offsides rule, and I don’t know that I ever will. Give me a pigskin any day” He drinks from his beer, foam coating his mustache, and she stops herself from reaching out to wipe it away, slides a napkin across the table instead.

“Do you think you’ll ever meet your mystery email woman?” Rebecca asks, cautious, like she’s dipping her toe into a cold swimming pool.

Ted runs his hand through his hair, wipes at his mustache again. “Well, I think that all depends on her. I went out there like a filly at the state fair, and all I got was a participation ribbon.” Rebecca’s learned to let his metaphors go, unless she wants an in-depth discussion of some American pastime she’s never experienced.

“But you still talk to her?” This is the closest she’s come to lying, because she got an email from him this morning, talking about his job prospects in London, how he’s just starting to feel like he’s made a home here, even after a few years. Rebecca just hopes she’s part of that, selfishly.

“Oh, yep, sure do. Hey - what if the 74 in her username isn’t actually the year she was born, but something else. Like seventy-four warts on her feet? Or seventy-four pictures of that guy who bends it like himself on her wall? Not that there’s anything wrong with either of those things, of course, this is a no judgment zone, but isn’t it interesting what we don’t know about people? Even the people we know best?”

Rebecca fiddles with her fork, smiles at Ted, soft and small. “It is interesting,” she says, and is grateful that the football team scores a goal, the pub filling with loud cheers.

-

Change is hard. Especially when it’s change you notice. I’ve found change sneaks up on me and it’s twelve years down the road and I don’t recognize where I am or who I am.

But emailing with you? These letters? It feels like I’m finding my way back. Thank you, for that. For giving me the chance to find myself. You’ve changed me more than you know, KS152, and you’ve made me happier than I’ve been in a long time.

I didn’t meet you before, and I’m still sorry for that. But I’d like to meet you now.

-

“Rupert seems like a gosh darn idiot, excuse my language,” Ted says when Rebecca shows him the headline of the day, another woman coming forward to admit to being a part of his long-running affairs. He’s glad he gets most of his news from The Guardian and whatever Beard tells him, that nobody knows who he is, nobody’s writing about him on the front page of The Sun.

“He can be very charming,” she says delicately, and Ted figures he must be, that there’s no other reason she’d stay with him for twelve years. Well, there’s lots of reasons, but none of them are all that great, and he already feels like he’d bop Rupert in the nose if he ever came across him, so whatever the other reasons are, it might be for the best that he doesn’t know them right now.

“You know, I hated my divorce, but at least the only people who ever talked about it were me and Michelle,” Ted says, and that’s true enough. “Well, and Henry, but he didn’t really understand what was happening at the time. Now he thinks it’s pretty neat that he can get to London whenever he wants to, says ‘cheerio’ and calls me ‘guv’nor.’ I think he learned that from Mary Poppins.”

He doesn’t talk about the pang of missing his first baseball game or the fifth grade graduation that didn’t really mean anything in the first place. But Michelle’s good about sending videos and pictures, and Henry never makes him feel bad. He’s getting used to the distance in some ways. They all are.

“Also,” he adds, “You don’t have to be nice to Rupert when it’s just us. Call him a doo-doo headed poopy face if you want. That’s what Henry used to call me, anyway. Kids sure know the ways to hurt you the most.”

“I’m not being nice. He is charming.” Rebecca moves her fork back and forth between her fingers; Ted’s noticed she does that when she’s nervous about something. He almost reaches out to grab her hand but stops himself. Feels a little too forward.

“When Michelle and I were in couples therapy, we had a code word, and whenever we said ‘Oklahoma,’ it meant we had to tell the truth, no matter what. Ruined the musical for me, but it did its job. So. Oklahoma.”

He sees Rebecca’s shoulders sag a little, like she’s deflated, and that’s not what he’s after. He does take her hand now. “All I’m saying is you don’t have to protect his feelings when he’s not around. Heck, I don’t even know the guy. I’m Team Rebecca, all the way, and if you want to tell me that he’s an illiterate baboon, well, that’s between you and me.” She’s staring at their joined hands, and Ted pulls away, doesn’t want to make her uncomfortable.

“He said things that sounded kind, but were just weapons wrapped up in flowers. He’d say eat this, and wear that.” Her voices breaks a little. “And I listened. And now I’m alone, just like he said I’d be if he left.” Her arms wrap around herself, like that’s the only way she’s keeping it together, and Ted hates that there’s a table between them when all he wants to do is wrap her in a hug.

“Hey,” he says, and she looks at him, those eyes welling up, “you’re not alone. You’ve got me. And Keeley, and Higgins. You’ve got lots of people.” She huffs out a watery laugh

“Do you ever think-” she stops herself, hands dropping to her side.

“The answer to that is yes, if that’s the question,” Ted says, and Rebecca laughs again, a little more strongly, a little less teary.

“Do you ever think, if you didn’t have this woman you write emails to, and you and I met in a world where we weren’t enemies…” Ted can sense where she’s going, can see how carefully she’s going about it.

“She wants to meet,” Ted interrupts, because the answer to her question is a little terrifying to him. “I just have to tell her the time and place.”

Rebecca seems a little closed in on herself, like he said the wrong thing and gave the wrong response, but he doesn’t want to say that in another world, in another life, he would be sitting next to her, not across from her. In another life, he would hold her hand and say Rupert was wrong.

In another life, he’d ask her to a movie, and maybe their hands would brush over the popcorn, and he’d lean over to kiss her across the armrest.

But it’s not this life, and instead he watches her pay the bill, and they leave, walking away in separate directions.

-

What about the botanic gardens? Always wanted to see what some royal flowers would look like. 3pm on Monday?

-

She knows Ted will be there, waiting. She paces around her flat, back and forth, until it’s time to leave, unable to settle, unable to calm her nerves. Her driver is prompt, cordial, takes her along the fastest route.

Rebecca hasn’t run anywhere in a very long time, and she has to stop herself from little spurts of jogging in her haste to see him, in her eagerness to see the look on his face when he realizes it’s her, that she’s the one.

He’s standing with his hands in his pockets, looking away from her, and it slows her, stops her, as she pauses to take it all in. The flowers blooming around him, and she thinks of the butterfly that got off at the Covent Garden stop. And then he turns, and it’s like slow motion, the flicker of recognition, then realization, then - heart-stoppingly - relief. Happiness.

Ted is the one who runs, loping towards her. “Thought you might meet me halfway,” he says, when they’re close, so close they’re almost touching. “Guess not in those heels. Which, by the way, are very striking.” She turns her ankle slightly, and he whistles softly.

“Surprise?” she says, and his gaze whips back to hers so quickly she’s worried he’s injured himself. But he looks serious and confident and sure. When he takes her hand, her heart flutters, just like the petals behind them, swaying in the breeze.

“I was hoping it’d be you,” he says. “People always say I keep hoping for the impossible, but sometimes,” he squeezes her hand, “sometimes the impossible happens.”

She’s kissing him before she can think, their joined hands caught between them, her free hand on his cheek, holding him close, feeling him under her palm.

“Does this mean you’ll make me that shortbread again?” she asks a little breathlessly when they part, and Ted chuckles.

“Every day for the rest of your life, if you want it,” he says, and leans in to kiss her again, soft and sweet.

She smiles against his lips. “I do.”