Genre: Paranormal Romance
Type of Short Story: Novella
Summary: The day Adam Cowan walked into the coffeehouse she managed, Ella Southards panicked. Here was the man of her dreams, literally, but he had made his appearance twenty years and a failed marriage too late for her bruised heart.
Adam came to Cullowhee to take a much needed breather from his past. In the reluctant Ella, he sees the possibility for a fresh chance at love, if only he can convince her to gamble on him.
As Adam persuades Ella to make a place for him in her life, she begins to wonder at the timing of his arrival there, and if her life might hold more promise than she'd ever dared to dream.
He came in early that Monday, shaking off the cold rain with the absent-minded air of a man with things to do.
When Ella Southards saw him, her heart flipped in her chest, then boomed so hard it took her breath.
His features were astonishingly familiar to her: the wavy brown hair that tended to curl at the ends because he'd forgotten to cut it; the long nose and thin lips and heavy brows above chocolate eyes in a face that was thin, intelligent, friendly; the athletic build, earned through work and not trips to the gym; clothes that were more shabby than chic, but still labeled him as Somebody. Not somebody famous, but somebody with a life, somebody with a purpose.
She recognized him, but she'd never met him. Never seen a photo of him, never heard anyone talk about him. But she knew him, nonetheless.
The voice of the customer in front of her, waiting for the coffee-like concoction she was supposed to be preparing, brought her back to the present. With a smile of apology, Ella finished making the drink and rang up the sale. As she shut the cash register drawer, a soft glint of gold winked from her ring finger, and the surprised astonishment she'd felt at seeing him faded into a muted despair that had been her companion for far longer than she liked to contemplate. She'd remembered him, but had forgotten that she had nothing to offer any man, especially not this one.
Without giving herself the time to look at him again, to wallow in the reality of his presence, she signaled to her co-worker that she needed a bathroom break. Carrie Long, a petite twenty-year-old chemistry major, was a sweet young woman, but her effervescent optimism was a bit more than Ella could stand at the moment.
She slipped into the back, used the bathroom so she wouldn't be caught in a lie. Dawdled for a moment in front of the mirror. Caught herself smoothing her hair back and wishing for better makeup, a face lift, a tummy tuck, and nicer clothes, all at the same time. Exasperated, she checked her watch, determined that he'd had enough time to order something from her eternally perky co-worker, and that it was safe for her to get back to work.
On the way back in, she grabbed a box of coffee cups, hoping Carrie would forgive her for taking a bit too long in the restroom, and not talk about the dishy gentleman who was currently uppermost in Ella's mind.
Carrie sidled up to her and grabbed some cups to help restock. "Check out Mr. Hottie over there by the door," she said.
Ella suppressed a sigh. Carrie refraining from noticing, and talking about, a good-looking man had probably been too much to hope for. "Who?" she asked, not looking up.
Ella caught the are-you-kidding-me eye roll out of the corner of her eye. "Tall, dark, and handsome at number two," Carrie said, as if it were perfectly obvious. "Coffee, straight up, and a doughnut. No froufrou crap for him."
"Ah, a manly man," Ella said.
"And nice, too." Carrie gave up all pretense of work and settled her elbows against the counter.
"So he asks politely before he drags a woman back to his man-cave?"
Carrie laughed and nudged Ella playfully with her elbow. "Har, funny," she said. "Aren't you even curious?"
"Nope." Ella purposely used her no-nonsense Mommy tone. "I have a firm policy of not ogling manly men. Besides," she added, "I'm married. Takes all the fun out of it."
Carrie snorted. "Yeah, right. You're married, not blind." She grabbed the empty coffee cup box and tugged a bit. "And you're only half-married, anyway. It'll be over soon, right?"
Ella relinquished the box and shook her head. "Not soon enough, but that doesn't really matter. Until it's legally settled, I'm still married."
Carrie's face melted into sad sympathy for a moment before she abruptly stuck her tongue out and made a funny face. "Neener, Ms. Stick in the Mud," she said in a light tone. "One of these days, I'll get you to admit you think he's hot." And she flipped her blonde ponytail and grinned when Ella muttered a mock stern, "Very mature, Miss Priss."
He stayed at the small table for an hour while he drank coffee (black) and ate a doughnut (powdered sugar) and peered intently at the screen of his open laptop. The rain abated, people drifted in and out. Ella discovered a pressing need to clean under the counter any time he looked up. Carrie chattered prettily away until they'd run out of chores and people to wait on, then took a textbook and highlighter out of her backpack to study in the fits and starts around customers.
Another hour passed with him typing madly away, hunched over at the small table. The cup of coffee sat forgotten among crumpled napkins. Ella hadn't the nerve to bus the table around him or offer a refill, as she normally would. Thankfully, Carrie didn't notice the aberrant behavior, being absorbed in a weighty tome on the ethics of responsible journalism, her minor.
Finally, he rose and stuffed his laptop into its bag. He picked up his trash and stood for a moment as if unsure about the etiquette of leaving it on the table or discarding it on his way out. Carrie was putting away her book in anticipation of the lunch rush and noticed his dilemma. With a pretty smile (and, really, Ella admitted with some envy, what about Carrie wasn't pretty?), she bounced over to help, chatting with him in a friendly way that brought a matching smile to his face.
When he left, Carrie turned to Ella with a triumphant grin. "Adam Cowan," she said. "New to town, divorced, one child. Paleogeologist with multiple degrees, one in math, by the way, coming out of a long stint of field work, and writing a book on his finds. Sexy voice." Carrie sighed dreamily. "If only he were a bit younger."
"You got all that from a one minute conversation?"
Carrie laughed mischievously. "I'm good, but not that good. No, I recognized his name. He's doing a lecture series at the college on science and math journalism. Every Monday night at seven 'til the end of term." She paused and slid Ella a sideways look that was not as innocent as it should have been. "Not that you're interested or anything."
Ella pulled a wry face at her co-worker and shooed her back to work.
"Very mature, Madame Grouch," Carrie said, and Ella entered the lunch rush in a lighter mood for the co-ed's antics.
He came back to the coffeehouse several times over the next few weeks, and more than a few times she saw him jogging shirtless past the window along the sidewalk. Ella avoided him whenever possible, and passed that time without ever having to wait on him personally. Carrie was deep in the middle of juggling a heavy course load and managed only a few knowing looks. To her credit, she only teased Ella once about attending Adam's lecture series.
As the days passed, Ella settled into life as a nearly-single woman. She met with her lawyer, learned that a final hearing had been set for the divorce, and ignored her husband's phone calls. After leaving the coffeehouse each day, she worked on some freelance accounting work she'd taken in to make ends meet, and finished knitting a sweater intended to be a Christmas present for her son, with whom she spoke by phone or e-mail nearly every day.
She met Harold Tennenbaum, her old math professor, for lunch one day, but didn’t give in to his urgings to return to school to finish her degree; nor did she agree, at his request, to join a research project in desperate need of her particular skills. "I'm too old," she insisted. He merely shook his head sadly, as if he understood that it wasn't her age holding her back at all.
Most of all, she did not think about him, the man who had haunted her for so long, or the reason fate might have brought him into her life at that moment and not another.
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