River Song is a creature of habit. Blame it on a childhood of being shuffled from one place to the next, in and out of foster homes until she aged out of the system and found herself on the street. It took her years to understand she was moving from one city to the next, one bed to the next, because it was all she’d ever known.
Once she tries a little structure in her life, it’s like a drug. The one thing she can control, after a lifetime of being at the mercy of others’ whims. She likes her schedule – tea in the morning on the way to work, classes in the afternoon, more tea and dinner on the way back to her flat, an hour or so grading terrible freshman essays, and only then does she allow herself some reckless spontaneity. Usually starting with the nearest pub and a fit bloke. Sometimes a pretty girl. She isn’t picky.
The point is she has a routine. One that had been rudely interrupted when she’d marched up to the door of her usual teashop that morning and found it closed – reparations in progress, the sign had read. River had scowled and muttered under her breath but there hadn’t been time to search out another source of tea so she’d gone to work without it. She’d spent all day snapping at her students and even her pretty TA Ramone.
Which is why she finds herself wandering the streets as evening approaches, looking for a suitable substitute for her usual tearoom. All she wants is a decent cuppa and a table where she can grade the essays weighing down the bag hanging from her shoulder. Her breath clouds the air as she walks and she wraps her coat tighter around her frame, silently cursing the approaching autumn. Weary, irritable, and cold, she turns down a side street and finds herself in a narrow, one-way road.
Darillium Lane, the sign says.
At the end of the street, wedged between two taller and aging buildings, is a bright blue little place with a sign hanging over the door that declares itself Idris Café. It looks a touch on the small side but it appears inviting enough and as long as there’s a free table and some tea, River is well beyond caring about anything else. As she nears the wooden double doors of its entrance, the sidewalk chalkboard catches her eye. In bright, angry block letters it says:
A poem for Mondays
Coffee coffee coffee
Coffee coffee coffee
Shut the fuck up
Arching an eyebrow, River strolls past the sign and slips inside. The moment the doors shut behind her, she’s enveloped in lovely warmth and the scent of coffee grounds and she sighs happily as the feeling begins to return to her fingers and her cheeks.
The first thing she notices when she glances around is that the little café is bigger on the inside. From the street, it had looked like a tiny place with just enough room for a few tables but she can see now that it had been an illusion. It’s a big, open space with plenty of mismatched chairs and wooden tables. Bookshelves line the walls and people are curled up and reading on plush leather armchairs.
There are more chalkboards inside – a huge one behind the counter displaying the menu, and several smaller ones on the walls with passive aggressive messages not unlike the one outside. One reads it’s large not fucking venti. Another says anyone who asks for pumpkin spice will be BANNED.
The grumpy messages aren’t exactly welcoming but River is too intrigued to turn back. Besides, the room is so warm and a table by the massive fireplace is calling to her. She leaves the safety of the doorway and approaches the counter. A gray-haired man in a hoodie and black trousers behind the till doesn’t even look up, sorting through the tip jar and grumbling to himself.
“What do you want?”
River blinks at the abrupt request. “Tea.”
The man sighs. “Yes, and?”
She frowns. “That’s all.”
Hand clutched around a fistful of coins, the man finally looks up. His blue eyes widen and he stares at her for a long moment, lips parted in surprise. River stares right back, lifting an eyebrow. The man blinks and clears his throat, his thin face settling into a scowl. “What, no non-fat latte with a caramel drizzle or triple venti soy latte with no foam? Half sweet non-fat macchiato with an extra shot? Two percent foam? Three pumps? Upside down or some other rubbish?”
Stifling a smile at his harassed and suspicious expression, River shakes her head and says simply, “No. Just tea.”
The man stares at her distrustfully for another moment, his eyes narrowed in thought. “Fine. Sit.” He waves her away. “I’ll bring it to you.”
Amused despite herself, River casts him one last curious glance and retreats to the table by the roaring fire. The table is a sturdy wood with plenty of room to spread out her books and papers and the chair is an Edwardian style with a patterned cushion that looks suspiciously like Van Gogh’s Starry Night. She sits, giving a pleased shiver as the warmth of the fire flushes her cheeks.
She begins unpacking her bag but in the background she can hear the strange barista snapping at a coworker and berating a customer for their order. “Are you illiterate or just stupid?”
The customer – a teenage boy in flannel and a beanie – stares at him. “Excuse me?” The disgruntled barista gestures to the sign about pumpkin spice requests and glares. The young man blinks at him. “You can’t be serious.”
“Almost never. Except about this.” He leans against the counter, his heavy brows drawn together as he stares down his customer. “Order something else or bugger off.”
The boy huffs, his cheeks growing red with indignation. “I want to speak to the manager.”
River stares, laughter caught in her throat, as the barista tosses a handful of coffee beans at the boy and snaps, “I am the manager, numpty.”
As the customer storms out, the barista – apparently also the manager – goes back to muttering under his breath as he goes about preparing River’s tea. She turns her back on him lest he see her growing amusement, focusing instead on sorting through the stack of papers before her. Honestly, the amount of university students who forget to put their names on their papers is horrifying.
Out of the corner of her eye, she can see a petite young woman carrying a plate of pastries to a customer, an older woman with dark hair and red lips following at her heels and hissing something. The young woman rolls her eyes and when she turns, River catches a glimpse of her nametag. Clara. The other one doesn’t seem to be wearing a nametag but she is wearing an apron with an obnoxiously loud print and the words Don’t Give A Frapp emblazoned across the front.
The two bicker all the way back behind the counter and disappear into the kitchen together and even after they’ve gone, River can’t decide if they’ll try to kill each other back there or snog. Before she can make up her mind, a bright blue mug appears in her line of vision.
The grumpy barista sets the steaming cup in front of her and reaches into his pocket, pulling out a handful of sugar packets. He drops them on the table beside the mug and River feels her lips quirk. “Thank you.” He grunts as though uninterested but he doesn’t stalk away, lingering at her table and eyeing her like she’s some sort of puzzle. River wraps her hands around her mug and observes, “You don’t wear a name tag.”
He watches her sip her tea, smirking when her eyes widen and she hums in pleasure. “I’m against them.”
“I see,” she murmurs, taking another greedy sip. She eyes him over the rim of her mug, peeking at him through her lashes. He swallows. “Am I supposed to keep calling you Grumpy Barista then?”
His eyes crinkle at the corners and River finds herself oddly charmed as he says, “I’d prefer something a bit more dashing. Coffee Lord, perhaps. Keeper of the Tea. John.”
She laughs and demurs, “Terribly dashing, sweetie.” He blinks at the name and she looks away, wondering where the hell it had even come from. Hoping to save face, she lifts her head again and gives him a smirk. “That wasn’t so difficult, was it?”
He frowns. “Tit for tat. Go on then or I’ll keep calling you Big Hair.”
Scowling, she lifts a hand to her curls and says grudgingly, “River.”
He actually smiles at her – it’s a small grin but it crinkles his eyes again and when River feels her chest tighten in response, she blames it on the tea.
She doesn’t plan to return to Idris but it’s Saturday, she has an article due to be published in two weeks in both the AJA and the EJA that she hasn’t even started yet, and the reparations at her usual place still aren’t finished. So she finds herself standing in front of the little blue café with her laptop bag slung over her shoulder as she reads the latest sidewalk sign: Unattended children will be given free coffee and taught to swear.
River snorts under her breath and pushes open the doors, getting the distinct feeling one particular person is in charge of all these signs and wondering why anyone lets him anywhere near a stick of chalk. The man must be hell on business – at least when he’s working.
Someone else is manning the till today. The short brunette called Clara leans against the counter, her back to the door as she shouts in the direction of the kitchen, “I swear to god Missy if you use our last bag of flour to build another bomb, I will personally take that stick of yours and shove it up your -”
River clears her throat.
Clara yelps, turning to face her with wide eyes. Cheeks pink, she mutters, “I told him we needed a bell for the door.”
Hiding a smile, River glances around the relatively empty café and sees no sign of a gray-haired, cantankerous barista. “Not here today?”
“Nope. Give it time and you’ll be able to tell by the shadow that falls over the place when he’s near.” Her smile falters at a crash from the kitchen and the sound of a feminine, Scottish voice cursing but other than a slight twitch of her eye Clara doesn’t react. “What’ll it be?”
“Just tea, please.”
The spot by the fireplace River has already begun to think of as hers is unoccupied so she drops her bag on the table and warms her chilly hands in front of the fire. The day is overcast, gray clouds looming outside and a bitter wind blowing through the streets that seems to slice to the very bones but inside Idris Café it’s warm and quiet and the smell of fresh pastries wafts out from the kitchen. It’s as close to home as an orphan like River will ever get and she smiles to herself, sliding into the chair at her table and opening her laptop.
She works through the morning, stopping occasionally to reply to a student’s email or drink the tea Clara keeps supplying her with. Customers come and go, the old wooden floorboards creaking as people move about. Quiet chatter fills the room, along with the occasional rustle of book pages or the creaking of a worn in leather armchair. As it grows closer to afternoon, the smell of coffee and baking bread grows stronger but River never loses her focus.
At least until a plate drops onto her table and startles the hell out of her. She looks up from the cheese toastie in front of her and finds a familiar face scowling down at her, gray hair rumpled and hoodie wrinkled. He looks as though he just rolled out of bed but her chest does that ridiculous fluttering thing again and River grits her teeth.
She gestures to the plate. “What is this?”
She lifts an eyebrow. “I don’t remember ordering lunch.”
Eyes narrowing, John moves around the table and drops into the chair opposite hers without waiting for an invitation. Not that she would have given one. Probably why he didn’t wait. He crosses his arms over his chest. “How long have you been here?”
She frowns. “I haven’t answered yet.”
“Doesn’t matter, it would have been a lie,” he says glibly. “You’ve got a lying face.”
Unfazed, John continues, “Clara said you’ve been here since seven this morning and haven’t had anything but tea.”
Resisting the urge to turn and direct her glare toward the girl behind the counter, River mimics him by crossing her arms over her chest. She lifts her chin. “Do you keep tabs on all your customers?”
“Only the ones who make camp and starve themselves. Besides, you’ve been muttering. It scares the customers.”
“Pot, kettle.” She pointedly ignores the sandwich, despite noticing how empty her stomach feels or the delectable way the melted cheese oozes from the warm bread. “What are you doing here? I thought you had the day off.”
He shrugs, fiddling with the sleeve of his hoodie. “I’m rubbish at relaxing.” He looks up, waggling his brows at her. “Asked after me, did you?”
Refusing to blush, River only says, “I wanted to know how long before your reign of terror began again.” She pouts. “Not long enough, unfortunately. I’m not finished yet.”
His eyes flicker to her laptop and she resists the childish urge to shield her screen from him. “What are you working on?” His nose wrinkles. “You’re not a writer, are you?”
“No,” she says, deciding not to mention her brief foray into mystery novels. She’s in no mood to be heckled. “I’m a professor of archaeology at King’s College.”
If anything, the news only appears to horrify him further. His face contorts into an expression of profound disgust and he drags a slender hand over his face, peering at her despairingly between his fingers. “Christ, that’s even worse. And I was almost beginning to like you.”
“You? Liking someone?” She smirks, watching him straighten from his slouch. “I know we’re not exactly familiar…” She lingers on the word just long enough to convey all sorts of intimate notions that make his eyes widen. “But that seems like high praise indeed.”
He blinks and looks away, glaring at the table. “I said almost.”
“Ah.” Her smirk deepens. “Got a problem with archaeologists then?”
“Yes.” Apparently more comfortable with something to complain about, he lifts his head again and their eyes meet. She’s startled by the good humor sparkling in his gaze and it makes it impossible to grow angry when he says, “You’re glorified grave robbers and most of the time, you’re not even right.”
She snorts. “Oh and I suppose you know more than someone with a doctorate in the field?”
John reaches for the sugar packets in the middle of the table and starts stacking them, his slender hands surprisingly steady. “I have a doctorate, thank you.”
“In what?” She asks dryly. “Pastry-making?”
His eyes lift from his task and pin her in place. “Physics, actually.”
River stares. “Then what are you doing working at a café?”
“I like the tips.” The deadpan reply makes her bite her lip. “Now eat your fucking sandwich.”
Glowering, she thinks about refusing but her stomach rumbles and honestly, she’s never seen such a tempting sandwich in her bloody life. She reaches for the plate. “Tell me, sweetie,” she says, not questioning the endearment this time as it rolls easily off her tongue. She notices distantly that John doesn’t even blink. “Why do they keep you around? Can’t be for your customer service skills.”
“I make a damn good cuppa.” At River’s unimpressed glance, he outright grins and it startles her into staring, her food half-chewed in her mouth. “And I own the place.”
She swallows and grumbles, “Of course you do.”
John doesn’t speak for a long moment, watching River take another bite. He steeples his fingers beneath his chin and stares at her so avidly that even she starts to feel self-conscious. Finally, without taking his eyes from her, he asks, “How is it?”
It’s the most amazing cheese toastie she’s ever had – almost gourmet, with tomatoes and goat cheese on toasted ciabatta bread – but she’ll be damned if she tells him that. The smug bastard hardly needs the ego boost. She swallows another bite and says, “It could use some mayonnaise.”
His heavy brows knit together and she hides a smile at his disappointed frown. “We don’t have any. Hate the stuff.”
She shrugs. “Then it’ll do, I suppose.”
John huffs. “You’re welcome.”
“I’m not thanking you for a sandwich I didn’t ask for when you’ve been sat here insulting my work.” River reaches for her tepid tea and takes a sip, arching a challenging brow at his outraged face.
“You’re insulting my work,” he insists, but she sees the hint of a smile twitching at the corners of his mouth. “Made that damn thing myself.”
She hums around a sip of tea and advises, “Stick to pastries.”
John snorts and flicks a sugar packet at her. When she leaves, River drops a note in the tip jar – detailed instructions on how to make a proper cheese toastie.
Visiting Idris Café at the end of the Darillium Lane becomes a habit after that, so much so that River isn’t certain she’ll return to her usual place even once the renovations are through. She likes Idris – likes the way it always smells of coffee and fresh pastries, likes the dark and cozy atmosphere and its haphazardly stuffed bookshelves lining the walls. She likes the way the fire in the fireplace crackles and snaps as she sits beside it working. She likes listening to Clara and Missy as they bicker and prepare pastries and usually end up tossing flour at each other. One of them always quits at least once during their shift. She even likes the café’s belligerent owner, though she’d never admit it.
When he isn’t working behind the counter, he prowls through the room, weaving between tables and checking on his customers. He does this in such a way that one feels a little like an unwanted guest, intruding upon his otherwise quiet afternoon and John, not wanting to be rude, plays his part as host but makes it clear he isn’t particularly happy to be doing so. It’s an act that amuses River endlessly and she isn’t the only one. No matter how unbearable John manages to be, people still keep coming back. Clara insists it’s her pastries they keep returning for but River isn’t so sure. She certainly enjoys having a warm blueberry scone with her tea but it isn’t the reason a smile starts to tug at her mouth the moment the café is in sight.
As for the real reason, she isn’t quite ready to admit it – even to herself.
In the middle of a cloudy, especially cold afternoon, River sits at her usual table and pores over a new batch of essays. This particular class is full of seniors, thank the gods, and therefore not too tedious to read. At least they know how to cobble together a proper sentence. Most of them, anyway. River tuts at a grammatical error and again at a historical inaccuracy, shaking her head as she reaches for the red pen tucked behind her ear. Around her, she can hear the quiet chatter of other customers and the clatter of baking pans as Clara works in the kitchen.
Above it all is the manic humming of Missy, stuck waiting tables today. She’s wearing another hideous apron with a coffee pun – may your morning be brewtiful - which is apparently a punishment meted out by John for some mysterious, heinous misdeed. Missy wears the aprons without much complaint but she hisses at anyone who dares to giggle and spends her lunch breaks concocting new and inventive ways to retaliate against John.
The man himself isn’t supposed to be working today but when Clara had pointed this out, he’d glared at her and settled into a leather armchair with a book. Not half an hour ago, River had witnessed him give a huff and toss the book aside, rising from his chair to stalk across the room and pluck a copy of Twilight out of a teenager’s hand. He’d tossed it out onto the street and promptly replaced it with a copy of Dracula. “That’s a fucking vampire,” he’d told the girl, and awkwardly patted her on the head.
Since then, River has been doing her best to focus on her work rather than the tetchy old man sat in the corner of the café giving out free book recommendations to his customers.
“Doesn’t know how to take one sodding day off,” she mutters under her breath, her pen pressing into her student’s paper nearly hard enough to tear it. She’s aware that it’s ridiculous to feel cross with him for daring to come into his own café whenever he likes but it’s bloody impossible to concentrate when he’s in the room.
Irritating or not, the man is a distraction. How is she supposed to concentrate on the eccentricities of Roman architecture when John is only a few feet away, slipping the first Harry Potter book from a shelf and offering it to a seven-year-old boy? She watches out of the corner of her eye as he explains the plot in that rough Scottish voice, somehow made softer and almost lilting in the presence of a child. He presses the book into the boy’s small hands and River can’t help but abandon her work entirely to stare, scooting her chair into the aisle and nearly craning her neck like an idiot just to watch John ruffle his hair and wink at him.
To make matters worse, scooting her chair back trips the man currently trying to make his way to his own table with a container of iced coffee. Which he then loses his grip on and spills all down River’s front. She gasps in shock, shooting out of her chair as the man sputters and apologizes.
“I’m so sorry – I didn’t even see you -” He doesn’t get to say anything before John, who had somehow made it across the room in the blink of an eye, grabs him by the back of his shirt collar and hauls him away.
“What the buggering fuck is wrong with you?” He barks, and he looks so furious that River can’t help but pity the poor fellow facing his wrath. “Can’t carry something and walk at the same time? Piss off.” He turns his back on the man to look at River and as such misses the way Missy gleefully shoves him out the door and waves at him from behind the glass.
John shoves a wad of napkins into her hands and peers at her, watching her try to soak up some of the coffee staining her blouse. “All right?”
“Fine,” River mutters, refusing to look at him as she fights back a wave of mortification. If she hadn’t been gawking at John she wouldn’t be fishing ice cubes out of her bra. “Bit cold but fine.”
“Consider yourself lucky it wasn’t hot.”
She can hear the frown in his voice and he sounds so concerned it actually startles her into looking up from the coffee-soaked napkins in her hand. Their eyes meet as he stares at her carefully and River swallows. “It’s fine, John. Really. I’m just a little embarrassed.”
His brows furrow. “Why? You didn’t spill it.”
Cursing herself for letting the admission slip but not about to admit it technically is her fault for moving her chair into the man’s path just to sneak a look at him, River clears her throat and looks away again. “Not that,” she lies. “I’ll just have to teach a lecture in this blouse. I haven’t the time to trek back to my flat and change.”
“Ah. Is that all?” When she looks up, his expression has cleared and he’s watching her with amusement. “Probably got something you can wear upstairs.” He eyes her shirt uncertainly. “Not silk but at least you won’t smell like a damned coffee bar.”
“Upstairs?” She frowns. “Got a spare wardrobe up there?”
“Got a flat up there,” he says, rolling his eyes. “Follow me.”
He doesn’t wait for her, turning on his heel and heading for the door behind the counter. She’d always assumed they kept supplies in there but when he opens the door, it reveals a narrow staircase leading up to another door. River follows him up the creaking steps, allowing John to lead her into a small, cozy flat.
There’s a lot of the same dark, rich wood and exposed brick that makes up the café downstairs but up here it’s combined with soft, warm light and several thick rugs. Also much like the cafe, it’s mostly open space with lots of bookshelves. There’s a worn, brown leather sofa, a knitted afghan thrown over the back. A coffee table stacked with books. A dusty television that doesn’t look as if it gets much use. She can see the kitchen, with its hanging lights and breakfast nook, but it’s the set of glass paned doors on the other side of the flat that interests her most of all.
Gratified when John slips around her and heads right for those doors, River moves to follow him but a soft meow and the flick of a tail against her leg stops her in her tracks. She glances down, blinking at the fluffy orange cat rubbing itself against her calf. “Hello,” she murmurs, conscious of John standing in the doorway of the mysterious room and watching her.
“Idris,” he says.
River laughs. “You named your shop after your cat?”
“No,” he says dryly. “I got a cat and named it after my shop.”
She huffs. “Does sarcasm help?”
“Not usually,” he admits, looking rather forlorn for a moment before he brightens. “But wouldn’t it be a great universe if it did?”
River stoops to scratch the cat behind the ears, murmuring sweetly to it and offering her pity about the poor creature’s ghastly roommate. John grumbles under his breath and disappears through the double doors. She stares after him, wondering if it’s his bedroom or perhaps a guest room.
Glancing at the cat again, she confides quietly, “If he brings me an old girlfriend’s shirt to wear, you have my permission to scratch his eyes out.”
Idris purrs, nudging River’s palm with her head. The thought of John rummaging through an ex’s clothes makes her bristle and she rises to her feet, contemplating making her escape. John reappears before she can decide. He holds a white t-shirt with a Fender guitar on the front and River lets out a breath. It’s a man’s shirt. His shirt, probably.
He dangles it between his fingers. “Will this do?”
She glances down at her coffee stained blouse and plucks at it regretfully. “At this point, anything will do.”
He shrugs and tosses it to her, waving carelessly at another door. “You can change in the bathroom if you want.”
“Don’t be ridiculous.” She scoffs. “I doubt it’s anything you haven’t seen before, honey.” As she turns from him, she sees his eyes widen and it makes her smirk. It certainly hadn’t been her intention to tease him but she isn’t one to waste an opportunity. She lifts her blouse over her head and drops it to the floor, silently grateful for her decision to wear something a little less utilitarian and a little more lacy when she was dressing this morning.
Behind her, she can hear John cough and struggle to clear his throat and she might have laughed if she couldn’t sense his eyes on her back. She can feel the heat of his gaze prickling her skin, like some phantom touch, and her mouth grows dry as she reaches for his shirt. She slips it on over her head and bites her lip, hands shaking just a little as she pulls her curls from the neck of the shirt and fluffs them.
Slowly, she picks up her discarded blouse and turns to face him again. John hasn’t moved and for a moment she wonders if he’s even breathing. Honestly, as if he’s never seen a half-naked woman before. He’s a bit too old to play the blushing virgin. But then, she’s a bit too old to be attempting the seductress ploy, isn’t she?
Shaking her head, River takes a breath and readies herself to thank him and slip out before she does anything else she’ll regret but when she breathes in, an unfamiliar scent startles her. It’s John, she realizes, still clinging to the fabric of his shirt. Coffee and cologne and old books. She hums, meeting his gaze as she lifts the sleeve of the shirt to her face.
John hasn’t even blinked. “What are you doing?”
“Smells like you. I like it.” She winks when his lips part wordlessly. “Well, must be off. Thanks for the loan, sweetie.”
It takes him a moment to answer, and she’s almost to the door when she hears his hoarse reply. “You’re welcome.”
River leaves him standing there in the middle of his flat, his hands clenched into fists and his eyes dark. She smiles all the way to class and every moment thereafter when she happens to catch the lingering scent of coffee and cologne.
“Ramone, really, there was no need for this.”
River walks swiftly in the direction of the café, veering a left down Darillium Lane with Ramone following right on her heels. She refuses to acknowledge exactly why the thought of John seeing her with her handsome TA fills her with such dread. She just clenches her hands in her coat pockets and keeps walking.
“I could have brought you back something.”
Struggling to keep pace with her rapid steps, Ramone shrugs. “Why do that when I could just walk with you? It’s my lunch hour too, you know.” He lengthens his stride until he’s right alongside her and grinning. River sighs inwardly. He really is rather pretty. “Besides, I want to see this place you’re always running off to.”
Squaring her shoulders, she slows to a stop outside the café and gestures shortly. “Well. This is it then.”
“Here?” Ramone glances at the little blue building wedged snugly between two much taller, decrepit ones and laughs. “Not exactly your style, is it? How did you even find it?”
“Luck,” River murmurs, peering through the window and groaning internally when she sees John working the till. Bloody fantastic. Ramone moves to open the door and she whirls to stop him, clutching his arm so tightly her nails bite into his coat.
He freezes, eyeing her with concern. “River?”
“Whatever you do,” she warns lowly. “Don’t order pumpkin spice.”
Brow furrowed and smile bemused, he asks, “Why? Is that some sort of rule?”
“Yes,” she answers simply, and opens the door.
John brightens when he sees her, though it’s hard to tell with a face like his, always perpetually irritated. But his eyes lighten and crinkle at the corners and his mouth twitches like he wants to smile. All they’re doing is looking at each other but River feels warm all over.
Of course, it all changes when Ramone walks in behind her and rests his hand against the small of her back. Shying away wouldn’t accomplish anything. John sees the intimate touch, analyzes it, digests it, and turns away before River even has time to think about brushing Ramone away. He busies himself with the tip jar, all the lightness gone from his expression.
Well, at least she can be certain she isn’t the only grudgingly interested party. River swallows and approaches the counter. “Afternoon, John.” She attempts a smile but he isn’t even looking. “Make anyone cry today?”
“Not yet,” he mutters, his eyes flickering briefly in Ramone’s direction. Satisfied when Ramone’s reaction to his gaze is suitably perturbed, John picks up a pen. “Who’s this? A student? Or are you babysitting?”
River bites back a sigh, laying a hand on Ramone’s arm when he bristles. “Ramone is my assistant. Ramone, this is the git who makes my tea.”
John snorts. “And what sort of assisting does the lad perform?”
“Anything I ask.” River forces as much innuendo into her words as possible, triumphant when John stops looking so amused and resumes scowling.
“What’ll it be?”
“Tea for me.” River smiles pleasantly through her teeth. “And one of your cheese toasties.”
Despite the pen in his hand, John doesn’t bother writing down her order. He taps the pen irritably against his pad of paper, his eyes narrowed and focused on Ramone’s fingers curled around her hip as he leans forward to study the menu.
Humming thoughtfully and entirely oblivious to John’s scrutiny, Ramone finally decides, “I think I’ll try your BLT but hold the bacon. And could you substitute it with provolone cheese?” When John merely stares at him, eyebrow raised, Ramone says, “Oh, and I’ll have a grande soy latte, split shot. Half a packet of splenda, a shot of sugar free vanilla, and no foam. Extra hot. And can you put it in a venti cup and fill up the excess with whipped cream? With a half squirt of cinnamon and a caramel drizzle, please.”
Mortified, River bravely resists the urge to drop her head into her hands in despair. Instead, she meets John’s baleful stare without flinching, lifting her chin in the face of his genuine disdain and refusing to blush. With a grunt of derision, John looks away and waves a careless hand toward the tables. “Have a seat. I’ll bring out your fucking half squirt.”
Ramone stares at him, apparently trying to determine if he’s being mocked, but River steers him away from the counter and towards her usual table by the fireplace. He pulls out River’s chair for her and squeezes her shoulder gently before he settles into the seat on the other side of the table.
Glancing around the crowded café, he says, “The books are nice and the space is certainly charming but…” He trails off, shaking his head. “This is where you like to grade your papers? Around the coffee tyrant?”
River waves him away, unwilling to say the coffee tyrant is mostly the reason she keeps coming back. “Don’t mind him. He’s always like that.”
Ramone stares at her, incredulous. “Which again begs the question: this is where you like to grade your papers?”
“He isn’t so bad.” She shrugs, busying herself with tracing the scratches on the wooden table with her fingertip. “Makes a hell of a cuppa.”
“Starbucks makes a hell of a cuppa,” he grumbles. “I just don’t understand what could possibly be worth the constant threat of ridicule. Not exactly peaceful, is it?”
Instead of admitting that John doesn’t ridicule her because she doesn’t order tedious beverages and force him to drizzle caramel over top of them, River wisely says nothing. She busies herself with shedding her coat and draping it over the back of her chair and answering a few student emails from her mobile. Across from her, Ramone alternates pouting at being ignored and casting John suspicious glances whenever the other man’s back is turned.
She doesn’t look up until John places her cup of tea on the table – poured into her favorite blue mug. Lifting her head as he slides her sandwich toward her as well, River searches out his gaze but John seems determined to avoid her. He drops Ramone’s plate onto the table with a clatter, shoving his latte at him and splattering half of it in the process.
Ramone sputters. “Oi!”
“Oops,” John mutters, and tosses a napkin at him.
Gaping, Ramone glares after John as he turns on his heel and stalks away, retreating behind the counter again. He turns to look at River, bewildered. Eyeing the coffee splatter on his sleeve, River purses her lips and mumbles, “He’ll grow on you.”
“Has he grown on you?” He asks, like he’s expecting her to say of course not. To reassure him and soothe his lingering doubts. She hasn’t the patience for that sort of coddling so she says nothing, sipping her tea and tucking into her sandwich.
She’s eager to finish up here and get away as soon as possible but her first bite gives her pause. She chews slowly, glancing down at her sandwich and inspecting it just to be certain. Glancing up sharply, she’s just in time to see John turn his head away. He’s quick but not quite quick enough. He’d been watching her.
River swallows her bite and calls out, “There’s mayonnaise on this.”
Turning to her, John crosses his arms over his chest and offers her a bored glance she sees right through. “Yes, and?”
“You don’t buy mayonnaise,” she accuses, frowning. “You hate it.”
John shrugs and she’s conscious of Ramone glancing between them uncertainly but she can’t bring herself to care because John is looking at her without accusation in his eyes for the first time since she walked through the door with Ramone in tow. His gaze is soft again, and perhaps a little reluctant. “You said you liked it.”
She stares, oddly touched. “You bought it for me?”
Apparently feeling exposed by the suggestion, John looks away with a scowl. “Don’t read anything into it,” he grumbles. “It was on sale.” He sniffs. “In fact, it might even be expired. Eat it at your own risk.”
River stares after him as he stomps into the kitchen and disappears. Despite the chatter of the other customers, she can hear him shout to Clara that he’s going on break and don’t let Missy man the till or she’ll rob us blind like the last fucking time.
Sighing, River turns to stare at her sandwich.
“River?” Ramone stares at her like she’s gone round the twist and she can’t say she blames him. “All right?”
“Fine.” She forces a smile.
“Are you sure?” He reaches for her hand and River struggles not to pull away when mere weeks ago she would have laced their fingers together and offered him a flirtatious grin that would have made him forget all about grumpy coffee baristas. “It’s just… I’ve never seen someone so emotional over mayonnaise.”
He chuckles, clearly confident she has some rational explanation. She’s very sorry to say that she doesn’t. “I’m fine,” she repeats, and tosses her hair to distract him. It works and his smile doesn’t even waver as he lets go of her hand and reaches for his own sandwich. He starts talking about plans for that evening, hinting about coming by her flat while offering her hopeful glances.
River ignores his subtle clues that he’d like to stay over, listening only distantly. Her mind is far too busy working to untangle the mystery that is John the Coffee Tyrant. Some days, she thinks the idiot couldn’t possibly care about anyone and watching him throw coffee beans at customers he doesn’t like only further convinces her. But then he looks at her and she thinks maybe…
Except the infuriating git refuses to do anything about it if he is interested. Buying her mayonnaise and glaring at Ramone hardly counts as making a move. If he doesn’t hurry up, she’ll be forced to do the chasing herself. And River doesn’t like chasing. It’s much more fun to be chased.
Across from her, Ramone bites into his BLT – with a cheese substitute, of course – and immediately grimaces, scrambling for a napkin to spit into. He drops the sandwich back onto the plate with a cry of disgust. “There’s bacon on this!” He opens the sandwich and grimaces, his pretty face contorting in horror. “Bloody hell, I think there’s even extra bacon.”
River covers her mouth with her hand, biting her lip against a smile.
The next time River slips away to Idris Café, she makes certain to leave Ramone behind. John’s petulance is hardly the deterrent he probably thinks it is but she’ll never manage to get any work done if Ramone is nattering away about getting coffee stains out of his cashmere scarf or asking John if he has a vegetarian dinner menu. Her relief only intensifies when she sees Clara working the till and John nowhere in sight. Perhaps this time she’ll get a bit of peace and quiet.
And she does. A full five minutes of it.
“Left Half Squirt with the sitter this time, did you?”
Slipping her reading glasses from her nose, River glances up from a stack of midterms and smiles. “There’s nothing half about him, honey.”
John scowls and she’s gratified to see some of the color drain from his cheeks, like he’s fighting back a wave of nausea. “You’re not in your usual seat. Why?”
She blinks, glancing longingly at the table by the fireplace she usually occupies. “It was already taken when I got here.”
He turns, eyes narrowing at the customer sitting at her table, flipping through a magazine. “You, pudding brain.” The customer glances up, startled. “That’s her seat.” Mortified, River sinks further into her chair and refuses to make eye contact. “Move.”
“John,” she hisses, but he ignores her and the other customer’s grumbling as they move to another table. He sweeps her things up into his lanky arms and drops them onto the table by the fireplace instead. River sighs and follows him, sliding into her usual seat. The warmth and light of the fire is perfectly cozy and now she has a view of the rest of the café, rather than having her back to everyone. Despite John’s less than subtle methods, she has to admit this is much better.
A sigh of content escapes her mouth before she can stop it and John smirks. “You’re welcome.”
“Oh sod off,” she mutters.
He drops into the seat across from her, still looking unbearably smug. “Where were we?” He taps his slender fingers against his chin in thought for a moment. “Ah yes. The toddler.”
River rolls her eyes. “Stop it. He’s perfectly legal.”
John snorts. “What could you possibly see in that numpty?”
“Have you seen him?” He offers her nothing more than an unimpressed glance and River has no idea why she feels inclined to answer him. It’s none of his business. “I like him. He’s sweet and he’s romantic…sometimes he brings flowers to my office for no reason at all.”
“You call that romantic?” He scoffs. “A bundle weeds that’ll be dead in a few days? That’s not romance. That’s a bad omen. No, there must be another reason.” He straightens in his seat and cracks his knuckles like he’s about to perform a magic trick. “Legal, I’ll give you. Barely.” John holds up his hand and begins ticking off his fingers. “Attractive? Possibly, if you like that pretty, boy band sort of look.” River licks her lips and John huffs, wrinkling his nose. “I’m sure his relative youth has its appeal. Probably makes you feel younger, doesn’t it? And just a bit naughty.”
“Excuse me?” She crosses her arms over her chest. “I don’t believe I asked to be psychoanalyzed by my barista today.”
John ignores her. “And his stamina is probably very impressive.” River makes a noise that’s half agreement, half indignant. He ignores that too, fingers twitching. His eyes brighten as he looks at her. “But he’s pretentious and dull and I can’t imagine you have enough in common to keep the conversation stimulating enough for you.”
He looks far too sure of himself, content in his own genius. River clears her throat, lifting an eyebrow as she murmurs, “Ramone doesn’t need words to stimulate me.”
For a moment, John looks like he might gag and River delights in watching him attempt to recover his usual aloofness. He scrubs a hand over his eyes and glares at her though his fingers. “Maybe not right now,” he admits, still looking as though he’s tasted something sour. “But you’re clever. Eventually you’ll need more. Conversation. An emotional connection. Things Half Squirt won’t be able to give you.”
“You seem awfully invested. Got someone in mind?”
“Of course not.” He glances away. “Just making an observation.”
She sighs, hiding her disappointment with a glare. “My sexual partners are none of your business, John.”
He shrugs. “Only trying to help.”
River watches him avoid her gaze and study his hands. “You could just admit it, you know,” she says softly.
“Admit what?” He lifts his head, eyes darting somewhere over her shoulder.
“That you’re jealous.”
He sputters and before this moment, River would never have believed that her grumpy barista had the ability to blush but the tips of his ears are turning red right before her eyes. “Don’t be ridiculous,” he finally snaps. “You’re smug and bossy and your hair could fit the entirety of the Grecian debt crisis.”
River keeps smiling, if only so he won’t see her falter.
“Besides,” he continues ruthlessly. “I don’t date archaeologists as a rule. Piss poor company, the lot of you.”
Clenching her jaw, River glares. All right, well that answers that. He’s nothing more than a grumpy barista with anger issues. She’s usually much better at reading signals, especially from men. They’re rather easy to read most of the time. But somehow she’d gotten it all mixed up with John, reading far too much into things like blue mugs and mayonnaise and the way he always smiles when he sees her.
“Pity,” she murmurs, and stands.
John watches, brow furrowed, as she begins to gather her things. “Where’re you going?”
“Just sparing you my poor company.” Her eyes snap to his, gratified to see him looking scolded. “Keep the table. I’ve papers to grade.” Arms laden with essays, she retreats to a comfy looking armchair in a far corner of the room and doesn’t look back.
Once she’s settled, it’s easy to keep track of John out of the corner of her eye. She tells herself it’s only an act of defense, in case he tries to follow her. He doesn’t. Instead, he stares after her helplessly for a moment before he leaves the table to be commandeered by a group of university students. She watches him stalk to the kitchen with one last glance in her direction that she pretends she definitely doesn’t see before he disappears through the doors and out of sight.
It isn’t nearly as convenient cradling all of those papers on her lap as she reads them and makes helpful notes in the margins but sitting at that table with John one more moment would have seen her getting thrown out for assaulting the owner. She’s still seething an hour later, half of the essays graded and her eyes strained from the poor light in this corner of the café.
Tucking her legs beneath her, River caps her red pen and lets her head fall to rest against the back of her chair. It isn’t as warm here as it is by the fire at her usual table but it’s still quiet and cozy and she finds her eyes drifting shut. She just needs to rest them for a moment, she tells herself firmly. Just for a moment.
She starts awake to a tentative, gentle hand on her shoulder. Her eyes fly open and she finds John peering down at her, looking mildly apologetic. His hand lingers on her shoulder a moment too long as he clears his throat and gestures to where Clara is wiping down tables in the deserted café. “We’re closing up shop.”
River groans, dropping her numb legs to the floor and nearly upending the stack of papers on her lap in the process. John scoops them up before she spills them, shuffling them neatly into place and reaching for her bag, slotting them in alongside her books. She watches him, quietly grateful, and rubs at her sore neck. She isn’t as young as she used to be and crashing on random chairs in cafés isn’t as restful as it once was.
She glares at John through the curls hanging over her eyes. “Why didn’t you wake me?”
He lifts a brow at her. “Isn’t that what I just did?”
Sighing, she snatches her bag from him and stands slowly. It’s clear how long she’s been asleep with one glance out the windows. Darkness has fallen and the streetlamps have switched on, illuminating the slick streets as rain pours down in sheets. River lets out another groan, already dreading the trek home in it.
Behind her, John clears his throat.
She turns, perplexed by the hesitation in his expression and the way he shoves his hands into the pockets of his hoodie, looking anywhere but at her. “You could stay here,” he offers gruffly. “Flat’s got a sofa…”
For one brief moment, River almost accepts before she remembers how angry she is with the idiot. “That won’t be necessary,” she says, lifting her chin. “I wouldn’t want to force you to house an archaeologist. I’m sure you must have some principle against that as well.”
John sighs loudly. “Fucking hell, I didn’t mean it like that.”
“Oh? Sounded fairly straightforward.”
“It doesn’t – I just -” John huffs, scowling. He’s so close they’re almost nose-to-nose and River catches the familiar scene of coffee and cologne. She swallows, meeting his gaze steadily. “I wasn’t trying to insult you.”
She glares. “Well kudos to you, darling, because you managed it brilliantly anyway.”
“Oi, lovebirds.” Clara wipes her hands on her apron, smirking at them. “No need for a domestic. I can give River a lift.”
John turns to glower at her and River, realizing just how close they’ve gotten as they bickered, takes a hasty step back. Colder without the heat of John against her, she wraps her arms around her middle and offers Clara a weak smile of acceptance. “That would be lovely.”
She tenses when his fingers brush her arm. “Forget it, John.”
He sighs, dropping his hand. “Fine. Clara, you can lock up.” He turns on his heel with a muttered goodnight and disappears upstairs to his flat. It’s only when River hears the door shut behind him that she breathes properly again, relaxing her shoulders.
Watching her closely, Clara says nothing. She only grabs her purse and keys, smiling gently. “Ready?”
They brave the rain and duck into Clara’s car, damp and shivering as Clara turns the ignition and mutters indignantly about her crap heating. River gives her address and Clara pulls out onto the street, navigating through the rain. Satchel on her lap, River warms her hands against the car’s lukewarm heating vent and glances at the girl.
She doesn’t just mean for the lift and Clara takes her eyes away from the road long enough to smile at her like she knows, shrugging. “Don’t mention it. Can’t say I blame you for not wanting a sleepover with that grumpy sod.”
River bristles, not quite sure why she feels the need to stick up for John. He certainly doesn’t deserve it. “I might have,” she ventures, ignoring the quirk of Clara’s lips that says the information is hardly new or surprising. “If he hadn’t been such an arse earlier.” She crinkles her nose, attempting a mocking version of his accent as she says, “I don’t date archaeologists.” As Clara laughs, she mutters under her breath, “Pompous git.”
“That he is.” Clara hums. “Although…” She glances at River out of the corner of her eye. “I did hear through the grapevine you went up to his flat once before.”
“Grapevine?” River asks skeptically.
Clara makes a face. “Yeah, all right. Missy is a snitch.”
River frowns. “It was nothing. Someone spilled their drink down my shirt. I just needed to change.”
“You could have gone home.”
“I didn’t have time. I had classes.”
“All right, you could have stopped on your way to work and picked up something.” Clara shrugs. “Or John could have fetched you something from his flat and brought it downstairs. None of those things happened. He brought you up to his flat.”
River shrugs. “So?”
“So?” Clara laughs, flicking her signal and turning onto River’s street. “I’ve only been in his flat maybe twice the entire five years I’ve known him. He’s a very private man. He may be exceptionally pants at showing it but trust me, John letting you into his flat meant something. Whatever he says about archaeologists.”
They pull up to the curb outside River’s flat and Clara lets the car idle. Outside, the rain has slowed to a drizzle and River is already looking forward to darting inside and getting out of her damp clothes and into something warm. Clara’s hand on her arm stops her.
“We have open mic night at the café every Friday.” She peers at River through the dark, her brown eyes wide and genuine. “You should come.”
River laughs softly, shaking her head. “I’m not really a performer, dear.”
Drunken karaoke not withstanding.
“You don’t have to participate.” Clara smiles, a secret, knowing grin that piques River’s interest instantly. Damn her. “You never know. You might hear something you like.”
She doesn’t know what possesses her to actually walk to Idris Café the following Friday evening but she’s wearing a little black dress and her favorite red lipstick, watching Missy stand in the doorway in an apron that says I love you a latte and hand out flyers to everyone who walks by. From inside the café, River can hear the faintest strains of live music – “with charcoal eyes and Monroe hips” – and she squares her shoulders, striding across the street and approaching the door.
She doesn’t take a flyer from Missy, choosing instead to filch an extra from one of the pockets of her apron as she passes her by. She replaces it with a pamphlet she’d nicked from a nearby church about the evils of gossip and lets herself into the café. Someone is playing a guitar, crooning softly into a microphone.
The lights are low, twinkle lights sparkling overhead, and the scent of scones and coffee is still heavy in the air. Clara is sitting on the front counter, legs tucked under her. She beams at River when she sees her, waving enthusiastically. “You came!”
“You’re very persuasive,” River says, opting to give up trying to find a seat. She stands beside Clara instead, leaning against the counter. The café is crowded tonight, every single table and armchair occupied. Many others around the room have also decided to simply stand. They’re all facing the makeshift stage at the front and River finally lets her eyes fall to the musician.
The moment she does, she nearly chokes. It’s John.
John is onstage, slouched elegantly on a barstool with a guitar on his lap. His slender hands move expertly along the neck of the instrument, plucking strings as he coaxes out a gentle melody. He presses his lips to the microphone standing before him and with a fluttering heart, River listens to the smoky, gravelly sound of his voice as he sings. Her breath hitches and she licks her lips, entranced. God help her but John is…sexy.
Beside her, Clara elbows her with a grin. “Told you you might hear something you liked.”
River glares but she can’t bring herself to speak. Around her, everyone else is just as quiet and still. Some of them are holding their coffee cups halfway to their mouths, as if John had woven some sort of spell with his music and frozen them in place. All eyes are on him but John doesn’t seem to notice. It’s like he’s alone in his flat, playing for no one.
“Take my hand, I’m standing right here. You gotta hold on…”
He lifts his head then, his eyes scanning the crowd, and River knows the exact moment he spots her. The music doesn’t falter and he doesn’t forget any of the words to the song but his eyes soften and his face creases into a smile though his mouth doesn’t curl at all. He looks right at her and it feels as if the teasing lilt of his Scottish grumble is crooning right in her ear as he sings, “You don’t meet nice girls in coffee shops.”
River bites back a laugh, shaking her head, and John is truly smiling now. Damn him. She’s supposed to be angry with him. Instead, she’s standing in the middle of his café and struggling not to outright grin. She can feel her heart softening the longer she looks at him and she finally brings herself to look away, studying her manicured nails in an effort to appear unflustered. By the sound of Clara’s quiet snort, she doesn’t quite manage it.
The sound of applause breaks whatever enchantment John had cast over the audience and River watches as he sets aside his guitar and hops from the stage. He doesn’t acknowledge the clapping, waving on the next performer impatiently. As someone else clambers onstage and the applause starts up again, John’s eyes find River and pin her in place. Her breath catches and she watches him stride right toward her. He doesn’t look away until he’s standing right in front of her, his eyes flickering reluctantly away from her to look at Clara.
“How’re we doing?”
Clara holds up the overflowing tip jar for his perusal. “Not bad.”
John squints at the jar, clearly unimpressed. “Looks emptier than last week.”
“Well maybe if you didn’t banish anyone who happened to accidentally spill their drink on your…lady friend-” Clara wrinkles her nose, glancing pointedly at River. “We might be able to collect a bit more.”
Snatching the jar from her with a glower, John grumbles, “It was once.”
Clara hums, lips twisting thoughtfully. “You also banned the last person to dare sitting at her table on a Saturday just in case she might come in for breakfast and want her usual seat.” River’s eyes widen and she turns to stare at John but he isn’t looking at her. He’s glaring at Clara with a look of outraged betrayal. “And before that, you actually bodily threw out that regular who asked you for her name and number.”
“He had the look of a serial killer,” John snaps, the tips of his ears turning pink. “It was for her own good.”
Doing her best not to outright gape at him, River presses her fingers to her lips. When John risks a peek at her and sees her biting back a smile, his shoulders sag and he scowls. “You’re dismissed,” he tells Clara. “Forever. And I’m keeping the tips.”
Clara watches him stuff a fistful of pound notes into his pocket and shakes her head fondly, sliding off the counter. She grabs her purse and kisses John on the cheek, ignoring his grimace. “See you tomorrow.” She winks at River and strides out the door, snagging Missy by the hand and dragging her along.
After she’s gone, there’s a brief moment of awkwardness between them while River pretends she’s listening to the poet onstage and John is looking anywhere but at her, struggling to gather his scattered dignity. Finally, he huffs and meets her gaze. “I was a bit of a twat the other day. Happens occasionally.”
“Oh?” River affects a surprised glance. “I hadn’t noticed.”
He smirks, his eyes lingering on her face for a beat too long before he looks away again and shoves his hands into his pockets. “Anyway, I just wanted to…” He trails off, looking pained.
River arches a brow. “Apologize?”
“No, nothing so dramatic as that.” He shoots her a quick grin full of teasing warmth she hadn’t thought John even capable of and for the second time that night, he’s managed to surprise her. “Technically, I was just pointing out the obvious. There’s no way that pretentious git would keep you satisfied for long -”
She shakes her head, crossing her arm over her chest. “I wasn’t angry about that.”
John pauses, eyeing her uncertainly. “No?” When she simply stares at him, waiting, he frowns. “Well what else… oh.”
Watching comprehension dawn in his unsettling sharp eyes, River says softly, “Awfully rubbish to lead a girl on and then reject her like that.”
“I wasn’t rejecting you,” he blurts, and then curses under his breath.
He looks angry at himself for letting that particular secret slip but River isn’t feeling merciful. “What were you doing then?”
John sighs, looking as though he’d rather the ground swallow him up than admit what comes out of his mouth next. “Would you believe I was trying to flirt?”
She blinks. “You’re kidding.”
“Afraid not,” he mumbles, frowning somewhere over her shoulder.
River presses her fingertips against her mouth, struggling not to laugh. “That’s the saddest thing I’ve ever heard.”
His eyes flicker back to her and he looks absurdly pleased. “Is it?”
She nods. “Almost makes me feel sorry for you.”
“Sorry enough to agree to dinner?” He asks, and her heart skips a beat.
“Perhaps,” she says, refusing to relent so easily. “Keep talking.”
John glances about, as if to make sure they have no eavesdroppers, and leans in closer. River catches the scent of his cologne and stops breathing, staring into eyes twinkling with mirth as he says, “What if I told you I’m such a bad flirt no one will shag me?” She laughs out loud and he presses, “Honestly, it’s pathetic. I’m technically still a virgin, you know.”
The seriousness with which he delivers such utter rubbish only makes her laugh harder and John grins down at her, looking entirely too pleased with himself. Still smiling, River rests a hand on his chest. John leans into the touch instantly and her heart gives a girlish flutter. “Something tells me you know exactly what you’re doing, sweetie.”
He presses his hand over hers on his chest and she can feel the beat of his heart against her fingertips as he moves closer. Trapped in his gaze and unable to look away, River watches his eyes drift to her mouth and linger there. She swallows, waiting for him to lean in. He doesn’t and when she finds herself disappointed, she wonders if it had been part of his plan. Leaving her wanting more.
“That I do,” he finally answers, and his voice is a low rumble she feels down to her toes.
River licks her lips. “This establishment of yours is rather lacking tonight. I can’t get a table or a cuppa.”
He smirks and it’s only when he steps away that River realizes she’d scarcely been breathing with him so near. “Give me ten minutes and I’ll put the kettle on.”
It’s another forty-five minutes before John manages to get rid of everyone, ushering them all out the doors and locking up after them. River wanders around the room scooping up coffee mugs and plates with biscuit crumbs, carrying them all into the kitchen while John tucks in the chairs and empties the till.
He doesn’t ask her to stay but he holds out his hand and she takes it, letting him lead her up the stairs to his flat. He slips out of his velvet coat and drapes it over the back of an armchair where Idris lounges, turning on a lamp on his way to the kitchen. River follows him, amused to find him putting on the kettle.
“Someone is a man of his word,” she teases, watching him pull mugs from the cabinet.
“I’m a man of many things.” He waggles his brows at her and she laughs, hopping onto the countertop to watch him work. He rummages through another cabinet and pulls out several boxes of tea, stacking them up beside her. “Take your pick.”
Swinging her legs, River scans the wobbling tower of tea boxes and finally selects the cinnamon spice. John picks English breakfast and shoves the others back into a cabinet. She watches him putter about tidying up and bites her lip. “Clara and I had a chat when she gave me a lift home the other night.”
His back to her, he pauses. “Oh?”
She hums. “She told me you don’t invite people round to your flat.”
“No,” he admits after a moment, going back to straightening a bowl of fruit. “I don’t.”
He shrugs, still refusing to turn and look at her, and River wonders if perhaps she’s overstepped one of his invisible boundaries. She never knows if he’s going to brood or tease her. It’s unsettling but she likes it. She likes that she doesn’t know what he’s going to do or what he’s going to say. He keeps her off balance in a way that no one else she’s been with ever has. She’d never tell him but he’d been right about Ramone – pretty would only keep her interested for so long.
“I like my privacy,” he finally answers, and she knows it isn’t the whole story. Not even close. But he hadn’t just brushed her off and she hopes maybe, if she sticks around long enough, he might tell her the real reason someday. She’d like to know his secrets. Might even like to tell him some of hers. “And people are annoying.”
“You invited me,” she points out softly. “Twice.”
John sighs, abandoning his post on the other side of the kitchen. His eyes are on her now and she feels that same heat she’d felt earlier, when he’d been onstage and sliding his hands over the neck of his guitar. He stands between her legs, those same warm and elegant hands on her knees. “You’re not people.”
His mouth is on hers before she can say another word and River sighs softly, lips parting to taste him. Coffee, of course. He tastes like coffee. She smiles against his mouth and threads her fingers through his hair, unsurprised when John lifts a hand from her knee to stroke her curls.
“Soft,” he mutters, kissing her again and again – teeth and tongue and enthusiasm – until she’s breathless and panting against him. “Didn’t think it would be soft.”
She rakes her nails across the back of his neck, nipping at his bottom lip when she feels him shudder. “Why not?”
“Just a theory,” he admits, kissing her chin.
River smiles, letting him brush his lips over her face – her eyelids, her forehead, down the bridge of her nose. “You had a theory about my hair?”
“Have lots of theories about you,” he mutters, sounding distracted and just as breathless as she is. She has a feeling if he were thinking properly, he’d have never admitted such a thing. “I think you’re secretly an assassin for the government. Or Indiana Jones. Possibly a sun goddess in disguise.”
She laughs out loud and John uses the opportunity to duck his head and kiss her neck. “Why not all three?”
“Interesting,” he muses. His hot tongue dips into the hollow of her throat and her breath catches. “Should probably test it.”
River bites her lip, listening to the kettle whistle. “John, the tea.”
With a growl, he wrenches himself away from her – but only long enough to take the kettle off the heat. He’s in her arms again in seconds, kissing her with renewed desire. River stifles a moan against his mouth – so sharp and biting with everyone else but so soft and eager on hers now. A half-hearted protest dies on her lips.
His hand slips beneath her skirt and she tears her mouth from his to bury her face in his neck, panting raggedly against his skin as John strokes her through her knickers. Fingers curling into the collar of his shirt, she whimpers her encouragement and John presses a warm kiss against her shoulder. His long, calloused fingers slip into her knickers and she gasps sharply, her hips jerking.
“Beautiful,” he whispers, and strokes those clever fingers through her slick folds. His thumb finds her clit and circles it teasingly. He plays her with the same confidence and tenderness he’d played his guitar earlier that evening, every brush of his fingers calculated to wring all the best notes from her. When her breath stutters and her leg wraps tight and demanding around his waist, tugging him near, John nips at her jaw. “I wanted you the moment you walked into my café and ordered nothing but tea.”
River chokes out a laugh but his thumb is still on her clit and for a moment all that escapes her mouth is a strangled moan. She fumbles between them, wrapping her hand around his wrist, and finally manages, “You were terrible at showing it.”
“So were you.” John nips at her collarbone, brushing her hand away with a quiet tsk. His fingers tease at her entrance until she squirms. “Bringing the toddler with you to lunch? Letting him hold your hand and make eyes at you?” The clear note of jealousy in his voice is nearly as delightful as what he’s doing between her thighs. “Doesn’t exactly scream you’re interested.”
“Who says I’m interested now?” She cries out, throwing her head back against the cabinets behind her as John slips two of his slender fingers inside her. Though she’s thoroughly soaked, he still takes his time working her open. The appreciative, guttural noise he makes in the back of his throat is almost enough to do undo her entirely. River clutches at his sleeve and rolls her hips, gritting her teeth. “This is just pity, remember?”
“Right.” John groans softly against the shell of her ear. “I’m very pathetic.”
He ducks his head and sinks his teeth into the side of her neck, simultaneously curling his fingers inside her. River moans, eyes fluttering open. “Yes.”
“Going to take ages to work on my self esteem.” John smirks against her skin, dipping his head to kiss his way down her chest.
“God, I hope so,” she mutters, and curls her fingers into his hair to halt his progress just before he ducks his head between her exposed thighs. She guides him back to her, kissing him roughly with tongue and teeth and every ounce of desire she’s felt since the moment he threw a handful of sugar packets at her and grinned. Nose brushing his sweetly when they part, she licks her lips and requests, “Take me to bed, John.”
His smile against her mouth is wicked. “If you insist.”
John’s bed is warm and soft and his sheets are heaven against her bare skin. River barely stirs as he settles onto the edge of the mattress, only opening her eyes when he strokes his fingertips along her spine. She peers at him in the morning gloom, frowning when she realizes he’s dressed – hoodie, jeans, and Doc Martens. She moves to sit up, wondering if he’s changed his mind and decided to kick her out.
“No. Don’t.” He nudges her back into bed, bending his head to press a firm kiss to her temple. “I’ve just got to open the shop.”
“I could go,” she whispers, stroking a hand over his cheek.
He leans into the touch, glaring at her. “Don’t you dare.” She bites her lip against a smile, letting him kiss her again before she pulls the covers over her head and goes back to sleep.
It’s hours before she wakes again and John still hasn’t returned. She sits up in his bed, shoving her rumpled curls out of her eyes as she peers sleepily around the room. Idris is curled up at the foot of the bed, lounging in a ray of sunlight slanting through the blinds. River casts her a fond glance, the blankets slipping around her hips as she reaches out to scratch the cat on top of the head.
Spotting John’s button down lying discarded on the floor, she smiles to herself and bends over the bed to pick it up. She slides it on and buttons it, crawling out of bed and leaving Idris to her nap. She locates her knickers in the living room, along with John’s boxers. She slips into both of them and turns to stare at the kitchen, contemplating making herself some breakfast.
The sounds of the café downstairs filter up and she tilts her head, listening to the morning rush. She can hear John shouting at someone who had dared to order sweet tea and doesn’t bother stifling a laugh since he isn’t around to hear it. “Idiot,” she mutters fondly, and starts for the door.
John turns to stare when she steps into the café in his boxers and shirt, and he certainly isn’t the only one but River pays them no mind. She’s far too used to being the center of attention to let it bother her now, not when her body is so wonderfully sore and there are love bites in places she’ll never be able to hide, not when she can still taste John’s kiss in her mouth. Humming quietly, she helps herself to a scone and ignores the stares.
She passes him on her way to fetch a mug and stops to press a kiss to his jaw. “Good morning, darling.”
He catches her wrist before she can move away, drawing her near again. Ducking his head to press his lips to her ear, he asks softly, “What are you doing?”
“Getting breakfast.” She blinks innocently up at him. “You seem a bit busy so I’m helping myself. Don’t worry, I tip well. As I’m sure you remember.”
Somewhere behind her, she hears Missy gag.
John sighs, his eyes soft and his mouth curling into an exasperated smile. “Fine. Sit. I’ll bring you tea.”
She beams. “Thank you, sweetie.”
While she can’t be sure, she’s fairly certain he mutters something under his breath as she walks away. Sodding woman will be the death of me. Her usual table is open and River pads barefoot over to it, sinking into her seat by the fire. People have gone back to their mobiles and their papers by now, all of them seemingly uninterested in the woman sitting amongst them barefoot and wearing John’s boxers, her hair rumpled to very recently and thoroughly shagged heights.
In fact, they only turn to stare again when their usually grumpy barista brings her tea and drops an uncharacteristically fond kiss to the top of her head. “Busy tonight?” He asks out of the corner of his mouth, as though it’s a secret.
She smirks. “Better be.”
“You are,” he mutters, glaring playfully, and stalks off.
River watches him go, feeling embarrassingly soppy and besotted, before she turns her attention to her tea. It’s then that she spots the daisy – freshly plucked with bright yellow petals – looped through the handle. Beneath the mug is a note and River slides it out carefully, smiling as she reads.
A poem for Saturdays
Flowers and weekends aren’t so bad
Now that I know what you taste like