“How dare you walk away from me when I’m talking to you! This is my castle, Louis, not yours!”
It would only be a matter of pages before one of them snapped. Elspeth, a fair Anglo-Saxon maiden, was fiercely bantering with Louis, the French earl who had been granted the rights to Elspeth’s plot of land by William the Conqueror after the historic 1066 Norman invasion. Headstrong and feisty, she adamantly refused to back down or to obey orders from a foreign authority. As the lady of the castle, she knew that it was up to her to defend her family’s honor; the land belonged to her uncle, who had been killed during the resistance. Uncle Ælric had been her only family, and she was determined to avenge his death.
Louis, however, was nothing more than amused by the fiery, frustrating redhead and her defiance. As an earl, he was rich and handsome—but, beyond that, he was especially favored by William the Conqueror, so he was not used to having anyone, least of all a maiden, stand up to him. Louis purposely fought and argued with her, delighting in the way she rose to the challenge. Such plucky women could not be found in all of Normandy. The tension between them was palpable and overwhelming as they subtly but surely started to fall for each other; they wouldn’t be able to maintain their distance for much longer.
It was a perfect day to get lost in a good book. Dark, cumulonimbus clouds had rolled in from the west, blocking out the sun and threatening to downpour on an otherwise normal Saturday afternoon. Shannon sat at one of the tables in the busy, bustling café, surrounded by people but lost in the pages before her. Her elbows were perched rudely on the table, her book nestled in her hands. Her eyes flitted back and forth across the lines of prose, soaking up every word as if each one held a special secret, just for her.
She was a regular there on Saturdays, opting for a change of scenery after a long, grueling workweek. Coming to the café was the highlight of her week and the best way for her to unwind and de-stress after forty hours of phone calls and countless rejection letters. She could sit there for hours, only moving to turn the page as she savored the story, chapter by chapter.
All the baristas knew her well. She always ordered a coffee and sipped it until it was tepid—and then she’d get a top off to heat it back up. None of the employees minded though, because she tipped well for the privilege of taking up a table for the majority of the day. On that particular Saturday, her cup sat full and steaming on the table, mostly ignored as Elspeth chased Louis through the dimly lit corridor. He promptly ignored her, bemused by the way she buzzed after him like an insect; as much as Elspeth said she despised the French brute, as she liked to refer to him, she always seemed to be close by.
The café was packed with dedicated college students typing up research papers, working on assignments, and studying for midterms as well as couples stopping by to kill time before or after a screening at the nearby theatre. For the most part, the patrons were a quiet group; they didn’t disturb her as she transported herself to the hallway of the castle, shadowing Elspeth and Louis and eavesdropping on their argument.
“No, it was your castle, but it is mine now. Since I am being nice enough to let you stay here, you should not test my hospitality.”
“Let me stay here? Let me stay here? You are sorely mistaken, sir. This is my land, my family’s land, and I will not just let you take over my home!”
The shop was decorated in rich, deep colors: the walls were a coppery brown, like dead leaves in autumn, with trim in shades of crimson and gold. In the air, delicious combinations of mocha, caramel, vanilla, and steamed milk wafted up from the cups and mugs of the other patrons and mingled with the distinct aroma of freshly ground espresso beans. The storefront was all glass, which was nice for sunny days; that particular afternoon, however, was gloomy and dreary, which lent itself well to create the perfect ambiance for a castle setting. The windowless hallways were difficult to navigate in the dark, but Elspeth knew exactly where Louis was headed. She was right behind him as he stalked toward the grand hall.
Everyone else in the café was equally absorbed in their own individual worlds. They ignored the commonplace activity in the room: customers continuously walked in, placed their orders, and then left, as the baristas barked out commands and effectively manipulated the loud machines behind the counter. That is, until a large group of twenty-somethings walked into the café and disturbed the coffee shop atmosphere. They looked to be about the same age as Shannon but were markedly less mature or considerate.
“I don’t know why you wanted to come here. Coffeehouses are for hipsters.”
“I like it here, they know my order.”
“Well, if I want coffee, I just get it at Neville where it’s free.”
“What is all this? Mocha frappa wha...? What the hell is an Americano? Can’t I just get regular coffee?”
“Oh, look at those cookies. They have sprinkles!”
“They look so yummy. I think I want one of those, too.”
“Really? Did you just say ‘yummy?’”
Every café patron noticed their entrance, passive-aggressively rolling their eyes, turning up the volume on their headphones, and trying to wait it out patiently as the thoughtless customers debated their choices and placed a big, group order. The baristas scurried back and forth as they bagged bakery goods and poured cups of bold blend brew.
Shannon, too, was annoyed by the interruption. Elspeth and Louis dissolved into nothing, and the stone walls of the castle crumbled around her as the artificial, fluorescent light of the café broke through. She tried her best to block them out and continue reading—knowing intuitively that the best part was coming up soon and Louis would finally kiss her.
“This is not your land any longer, Elspeth. I have orders from King William.”
“What the fuck is a macchiato?”
“Matt, there are kids in here! Geez.”
“The Duke of Normandy is not my king!”
“Sorry, sorry. What the heck is a macchiato?”
“May I remind you that I am a loyal servant to William the Conqueror, the rightful King of England. It would serve you well to remember that before you so callously denounce him in my presence.”
“Just get a coffee, asshole, like the rest of us.”
“Then run and go tell your ‘king.’ Leave me and my people in peace.”
“But what is it?”
“Peace? What do you know of peace, wench, when you give me none?”
“Are you going to order one?”
“How dare you speak to me in such a manner! I am the lady of the castle, not a chambermaid!”
“Then why do you care?”
“I am the lady of the castle, not a chambermaid!”
“But don’t you wanna know?”
“No! It doesn’t matter because I’m not getting one.”
“I am the lady of the castle, not a chambermaid!”
When Shannon repeatedly read the same line without it registering, she gave up completely. Instead, she slyly peered over her book like a spy engaging in reconnaissance. She observed their annoying behavior with a cocked eyebrow and tried to send telepathic messages for them to leave the café and quit disturbing her. Reading was her favorite hobby, and her weekly camp-outs at the coffee shop were sacred to her. No one who knew her well had ever dared to disturb her, especially when she was as engrossed in a story as she was in this one.
Shannon nicknamed them to keep track of who was who. First and most notably was Big Blond. He was tan with sun-bleached hair and striking features, probably of Scandinavian descent if she had to guess, and he was tall, with broad shoulders and bulging biceps. She usually was not a good guesser when it came to physical characteristics, but he was well over six feet and definitely over two hundred pounds. He was, without a doubt, the most physically intimidating person she had ever laid eyes on. Big Blond looked like a modern Viking and carried himself like the quintessential alpha male of the pack.
Then there was Big Dumb. He was slighter in stature than Big Blond and an inch or two shorter, but that still meant that he was one hell of a big guy. He was the loudest of them all, and every time he opened his mouth, some ridiculous comment spewed forth and echoed off the walls. She entertained visions of sewing his mouth shut with industrial strength thread just to get him to shut up.
There were two girls at the table who seemed to go along with the group for the sake of fitting in, so she quickly dubbed them Thing One and Thing Two; they didn’t deserve names of their own since they didn’t stick out. They didn’t say much, but their presence among the group of interlopers was nevertheless annoying.
Rounding out the group were three more guys, less imposing but bothersome by association: Cute Quiet, The Aloof One, and The Smart One. Cute Quiet hardly said a word at all, except to place his order for black coffee. When he was asked a question, he merely nodded or shook his head in response—truly a man of few words, but still fully engaged in the scene around him. The Aloof One looked out of place and distant, like he didn’t belong in his group of friends. He laughed at all the appropriate times and chimed in occasionally with an “uh huh” or a “yeah, I know, right” when there were lulls in the conversation, but even though he was present for the discussion, he wasn’t really participating in it. Lastly, there was The Smart One, who was at least somewhat aware that the other human beings in the café were aggravated by their loud and obnoxious behavior. He could recognize the glares and pointed stares directed at him and his group of friends, but he could do little to corral or quiet them.
“Where are we going to sit?” Thing One asked. Or maybe it was Thing Two; Shannon lost track.
“There’s a table.” Big Blond took control and headed toward the last empty table in the room—which just so happened to be the one adjacent to Shannon. They settled in and tried to get comfortable, in turn further disturbing their quiet neighbor who just wanted to read in peace. He set his cup down on the table and pulled out a seat for himself and turned it around so he could straddle the backrest in a display of dominance. “Grab some chairs.”
“They’re all taken,” Big Dumb replied, looking around with an expression of disbelief on his face. “Man, this place is busy. Who knew?”
The Smart One commented sarcastically in a low voice, “Yeah, who knew so many people drink coffee?”
Big Blond nodded his head in the direction of Shannon’s table. “Take that one.”
Silently steaming, Shannon watched as The Aloof One tentatively approached her. “Excuse me, miss, but uh... is someone sitting here? Are you expecting someone?” When she shook her head, he then asked, “Is it okay if I take it then?” She swallowed her contempt and merely nodded, despite knowing that being polite meant that they’d linger in the room and continue to disturb her.
There weren’t enough extra chairs for all of them all, so some sat while the rest awkwardly crowded around the small, round table. Their constant chatter prevented Shannon from being able to delve back into her book and discover the outcome of their argument. She needed the monotonous drone of routine café activity to serve as background noise to be able to concentrate on the printed words. The longer they continued to talk, the longer she was kept from the best part of the book. She was so infuriated with the invasion of the anachronistic outsiders that she was ready to gather up her belongings and either head home or to the bookstore lounge, either of which would be more conducive to allowing her to submerge herself back into her book and getting lost in that fantasy world. With one last warning, she pursed her lips and shot them yet another sharp glance as she set her open book on the table. The Smart One noticed and tried to tell his friends to turn down the volume, but before he could, the worst possible thing happened.
Whatever effected the following chain of events went unnoticed; all that mattered was that they happened in a quick succession of disaster. One of them, maybe Big Blond, slapped The Aloof One hard on the shoulder. The force of the hit caused The Aloof One to take two hard steps back—right into her table. Her full coffee cup was jostled and knocked over, its hot contents spilling all over her open book and splashing onto her sweatshirt and pants.
She sat stationary in her seat with an open mouth and wide, disbelieving eyes. At first, the heat of her spilled beverage didn’t register in her mind; she was more worried about her book, which absorbed the liquid like a sponge. A third of the pages were soaked through, and her novel swelled in size, unreadable and irrevocably ruined.
“I’m sorry,” he apologized, noting the severity of the situation by the look of anger on her face. His friends snickered behind their hands and loudly whispered smart remarks:
“Smooth move, ex-lax.”
“Way to go, newbie.”
“Fucking hell, dude, can’t take you anywhere.”
The Aloof One wisely ignored them and focused on the disgruntled woman in front of him. She seemed to be the biggest threat to him at that moment. “I’m so, so sorry.”
She hissed as her skin began to burn, and the painful sensation caused her to finally spring into action; she pushed her chair back with a loud, high-pitched, scrapping sound, stood, and grabbed a handful of napkins from a helpful barista. One of the reasons why she liked her corner table so much was because it kept her hidden from plain sight from most of the customers and they all left her, for the most part, undisturbed. The café was such a calming, happy place for her, and now she was embarrassed to be the focus of everyone’s attention. These guys were ruining her experience there, and the unpleasantness was enough to make her not want to show her face around there any time soon.
The other patrons were watching her now, and she knew that they were all waiting for her reaction. The regulars could recognize her, but they knew that she kept to herself, so they weren’t sure what she would do in that particular predicament. They stayed in their seats, not bothering to offer their help as they looked on while trying not to make it so obvious that they were watching and waiting.
Simultaneously fuming and overcome with panic, all she could eke out was, “What are you, an idiot?”
The Aloof One grabbed some napkins as well and began to clean up the mess on the table, despite the fact that it was too late to do anything useful to correct the situation. “It was an accident. I lost my balance. I’m sorry. I can’t believe—” He cut himself off as he cast a pointed glance behind him at his immature friends, who echoed her sentiments and called him an idiot. He was frustrated that he was taking the fall for something that, although was his doing, was not his fault; however, he wasn’t about to do anything foolish, like rat out his friend for pushing him and being the true cause of the commotion. That wouldn’t help him on any front, either with his friends or the angry woman, but he still wanted to atone for undoubtedly ruining her clothes. “I’ll pay for your dry cleaning.”
“Don’t bother,” she snapped quietly, mustering up the angriest look that she possibly could with her reddened face. She was only dressed in a pair of light gray yoga pants and a worn out, white hooded sweatshirt that wouldn’t survive many more cycles in her washing machine and had long been bound for the trash anyway. “But you owe me a new book. I was at the good part,” she added with a mumble, more furious that she would be unable to keep her place in the chapter than upset about her clothes. Elspeth and Louis had been close to their breaking points, and Shannon had been pushed past hers.
“Okay, yeah, definitely.” He threw away the soggy clump of napkins and wiped his wet hands on his jeans. Now that his hands were empty, he thumbed in the direction of the street, glad that making this right would be as easy as a quick trip down a few blocks to the nearest bookstore and as cheap as a paperback. “We can get you one now, there’s a place right down the street.”
“Now? You’re joking, right?” She yanked on her sweatshirt, pointing out the large, brown stain on her white clothing. “I’m not going anywhere like this.” All she wanted to do was leave the café and get away from everyone’s stares and be alone.
“Oh, uh, okay,” The Aloof One shakily replied, now even more frustrated that this was becoming more complicated than it needed to be. He was struggling between diffusing the situation with the angry stranger and not looking like a complete pussy in front of his critical friends. It was already bad enough that they were laughing at him for causing the disturbance in the first place—even though it wasn’t his fault at all. “So, um, I guess I’ll....” His voice faded out with uncertainty over how to now handle the situation.
She picked up her waterlogged book and dropped it in a nearby trashcan, along with all the soggy napkins and her now empty cup. “You’ll meet me there tomorrow,” she ordered, wiping her sticky hands on her pants before slinging her purse over her arm and heading for the door. Desperate to leave, she called out over her shoulder, “Eleven. Don’t be late.”
He replied in the affirmative, his head spinning by all the recent activity. Everything had happened so quickly, in the span of only a minute, and he realized that he knew where he had to be on the following day and when, but he didn’t know her name or what he could have possibly gotten himself into. Since the woman had left, there was an empty chair available next to their table, so he sunk down on it and covered his eyes with his hand.
The remarks began anew. “Way to go, Brownie. Wow. Nice display of coordination there,” the dumb guy laughed.
“It wasn’t my fault!” he grumbled, pointing at the blond guy. “It was his! He knocked me over!”
“Didn’t know you were such a klutz,” the blond guy chuckled. “Sorry for assuming you could stay on your feet.”
He wiped his hands over his face, unable to argue back. He could list excuses and valid reasons for why he had hit into the table and spilled her coffee, but he knew his teammates would make fun of him anyway so he didn’t bother.
“So tell us, Brownie,” said the smart guy, shifting subjects, “are you really gonna show up tomorrow at the bookstore?”
“Well, yeah,” he answered naïvely. “I can’t not go.”
The dumb one snorted loudly. “Sure you can! Why should you bother with it?”
He looked around the shop at the other customers who could have been listening to their conversation. None of them were obviously eavesdropping, but that didn’t mean that they weren’t listening. There were at least two dozen witnesses to the coffee-spilling incident, and he was positive that all of them would back her side. She was one of them, just one random face amongst a crowd, who he wouldn’t have noticed if he hadn’t have disturbed her, and he felt that these patrons would surely rise up against him if he didn’t say he’d make it right. “Because I ruined her book. It’s polite. The right thing to do.”
“It’s an inconvenience.”
Shrugging, he told him, “It’s not like I had cash on me anyways to pay for it now. And I can kill two birds with one stone and pick up something for the road.”
The dumb one rolled his eyes with exasperation. “Oh, newbie. What are we going to do with you? There’s so much for you to learn. No one reads anymore.”
“Maybe we should head out of here,” the smart guy suggested, noticing now that even the baristas were giving them sharp looks and interrupting their conversation. It wasn’t a good idea to chase their loyal, paying customers out of the shop, and they weren’t doing themselves any favors by hanging around. “I know I’ve got things to do.”
“Yeah, sure,” the dumb guy said, stretching an arm across the shoulders of one of the girls and leering at her. “I’ve got things to do, too.”
She giggled and bit her lip, feigning demureness. She stood and so did he, and everyone else followed suit. As they headed for the door, the blond guy pointed at the group’s new troublemaker and let out a loud guffaw. “Dude, Brownie, what did you do? Shit yourself?”
He pivoted his head on his neck and looked down at his backside to find a large, dark stain on the seat of his pants. “Oh, fuck,” he muttered. Glancing down at the chair, he saw that he had unwittingly sat in a puddle of coffee that had flowed off the table and onto the chair. He was already feeling bad enough for the scene he’d caused, and he felt even worse knowing that he’d have to walk down the street like that. Rather than complain, he swallowed his pride once again and decided that, maybe, it was his just desserts to have to head out in public in coffee-covered clothing, too, and to have to wear his mistake so awkwardly. And then, once he was on the sidewalk and in full public view, he sprinted toward the parking lot to avoid as much exposure and embarrassment as possible.