The Bumble Bean by Steven L. Sears
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Salted Caramel Coffee with Fudge Drizzle on a whipped cream topping was an orgasm in a cup. Aubrey nodded to herself, no doubt about it. She locked her car with a flip of her hand over her shoulder, keying the security button and smiling as she heard Baby "CHIRP" in response. She expertly spun the keyring around her index finger and planted it in the knitted purse hanging under her shoulder like a gunfighter making a statement after a shootout. She loved her Miata, always parked it in the safest space, always searched for the sweet spots, as she called them. The perfect parking space with no cars on either side and no way for cars to park on either side. She had the factory security system upgraded to a perimeter alarm because she loved her "Baby."

But right now, she was concentrating on an orgasm. A Bumble Bean Coffee Cafe Salted Caramel with Fudge Drizzle orgasm. Her mouth watered with the thought. God, she mused, how can a woman get so addicted to coffee? Or orgasms, for that matter, she smirked. Okay, that was an easy one. She had never had a problem in that department. The problem was in the partners. Or, rather, finding one partner.

She quickened her pace toward the escalator that was to take her up to caffeine heaven. Why do her thoughts always fall back on that? She was successful, as much as an attorney can be after only three years in practice. She had a great apartment, a wonderful dog, and.... a wonderful dog, and.... and.... She sighed. It was the "and" that got her. Not that she had to have a man in her life, but she was lonely. And the approaching holiday always made her lonelier. The fact that there was always an approaching holiday was one thing, but Valentine’s Day just made it worse.

She paused at the bottom of the escalator. Why do I always do this to myself? she thought. Every time I look forward to something that can make me happy, I start thinking of why I'm not happy. "Blah, blah, blah!" she said out loud and shook her head. The woman coming off the descending escalator next to her stared. Aubrey blushed, and stepped on the bottom step of the escalator, standing there as she ascended upwards toward the various shops in the mall. She started to smile again. I bet that looked funny to her, she thought. I'm a funny lady, I am! The thought vindicated her and released some of her dark feelings. She got her sense of humor from her father. Or, at least, that’s what her mother told her. Aubrey was the result of a rock concert, pot, booze and a tent just large enough for two people. At one time, that would have been an embarrassing secret. But Aubrey took some pride in her mother’s decision to have a child, late in life, as a single mother.

Unfortunately, that made her think about children. And family. And, again, being alone.

She took a deep breath. Salted Caramel Orgasm! She reminded herself.

Not that she would have made the same choice as her mother, probably not. Aubrey’s biological clock never ticked with a very loud pulse, but she was programmed with the marriage gene, she knew that. And one of the benefits of being the child of a single mother is that she could participate in the wedding if your mother did get married. Aubrey was six years old when that happened, when her mother married an awesome Environmental Engineer named Skip. Aubrey loved Skip right from the beginning. He never talked down to her, he always listened to her, he played her silly games and never tired of hearing her stories about imaginary worlds with unicorns and kingdoms. He was the perfect husband and a fantastic step-dad.

And he was the first one to introduce her to Salted Caramel Coffee with Fudge Drizzle. Five years ago, a moment she will always remember. My step dad introduced me to orgasms! That’s… sick! Then, she smiled. I’ll have to mention that to mom, she’d get a kick out of it.

Aubrey sighed, she really did have great parents. Thank God they found each other, she thought as she stared at the approaching end of the escalator looming above her. The heels of her flats tapped unconsciously on the ribs of the metal steps. She was dressed simply today, unlike the formal business attire she normally wore on her work days. This was her favorite print blouse, very subtle flower designs against a blue background. The kind of blouse you might wear to a garden party and it matched perfectly with her white sundress. She considered wearing a hat today, but she had just washed her red hair and wanted to air it out. She liked it like this, freshly clean and bouncing around like a shampoo commercial. The humidity hadn’t had a chance to do its evil yet, she was going to take advantage of this window of opportunity. Besides, her hair was the envy of her friends and she had no problem showing it off.

She got off the escalator and turned to the left, heading down the aisle past the cologne kiosks and cell phone salesmen. She vaguely noticed the older gentleman leaning against the bench. He was probably in his middle to late seventies, she thought. Tall, well kept grey hair, somewhat distinguished, dressed in a white business shirt and dark jeans. He seemed to be waiting for someone as he casually flipped through his newspaper. He probably wouldn’t have captured her notice except that he broke into a smile when he looked up at her. Aubrey smiled shyly and obligatorily in return. He returned to the paper as she shifted her gaze down the aisle, toward the caffeine nirvana in her future!

She didn’t notice the older man look back up, watching her walk away. Nor did she see him bite his lip, pausing as if on the cusp of a monumental decision. She might have seen him fold the newspaper, drop it into the trash bin, and start his slow walk down the aisle, following her. But she didn’t look back. Why would she?

The Bumble Bean was located on the first floor, just off the escalator next to the Lingerie shop.

Perfect placement, she thought. Guys would sit on that side of the coffee shop, where they could peer out the window at the women shopping for bras and nighties. She always thought it interesting that guys who were with their girlfriends would opt out of shopping when their significant others went into the store. Aubrey would watch as they would pause at the door, make some sort of excuse, and gesture vaguely toward the Bumble Bean. Their girlfriends or wives would give them a kiss and go into the store. The men would head into the Bumble and get some java, to wait until their chosen one returned, laden with bags of sexiness.

Aubrey could never figure out why the guys weren’t more excited. Hell, why weren’t they in the store? Probably because they were bored, already used to the “goods” they had bought into. That’s a shame. If she had a guy, she would hope he’d want to shop for the nasties with her. Dammit, don’t they know the only reason we wear that stuff is for them??? You want to know real love, gents, try adjusting the under wire of a push up bra while your garter belt keeps trying to slide around backwards! Then try to look fucking sexy lounging on a bed with all that gear, every damn hook getting caught in the blanket, every bit of lace bunching under the parts of you which don’t need things bunching under it. All you have to do is get naked, and we’re fine! she sighed as she stepped down off her fantasy soapbox and returned to reality. Or just go for a walk. Or a drive. Or talk to us, smile at us, let us know you love us… That’s all it would take. She paused in her thought. Then, figuring she might as well go for it, she added, If you could leave the toilet seat down after you pee at night, that would help as well.

Her thoughts of gentleman perfection dissolved as her eyes focused on the entrance to the Bumble Bean. She could already smell the scent of freshly ground beans and quickened her pace, holding her breath so she could appreciate the full effect. She paused in the entrance and inhaled deeply. Coffee! It smelled so wonderful!

The funny thing is that she hated coffee when she was a child. Skip drank it 24/7. There was never a moment that he didn’t have a mug in his hand, filled with his favorite “Joe”, as he called it. She would sit on his lap as he balanced her on one knee. reaching across her for his coffee. She could smell it on his breath and his beard. But she had never liked the taste.

College changed that. Late nights in the library stacks changed that. Having a professor who weighted seventy per cent of her grade on full papers with a twenty-four hour turnaround changed that. It was either speed or coffee. She hated the idea of taking drugs, of losing control of her surroundings, so caffeine was the choice. After a while, she learned to accept it. A bit longer, and it became a part of her educational life. And now, it was a part of her very being.

Who needs a man as long as there are plantations in Africa that grow the bean of life? Unless the man owns a coffee plantation, that would be different. She sighed with the thought as she settled into the line, staring at the selections on the wall. She already knew what she wanted, but there were specials every day. Might as well check them out.

It wasn’t that Aubrey had never been in a relationship, that hadn’t been the problem. But she always seemed to attract the wrong kind of man. No! she quickly reminded herself. I choose the wrong kind of man! Own it, girl! She was too logical these days to assume that it was not within her control. And, honestly, in her middle thirties, she was tired of making excuses. Carl had been charming, but was lousy with his finances and worse in bed. Edward was very smart, and very smart. And he was smart. And… that was it. Jeff? He was a dreamboat, her best friend thought he was the closest thing to physical perfection she had ever seen! Which is probably why her best friend is now her ex-friend and Jeff is now her ex-friend’s problem.

What did they all have in common? They were convenient. Always convenient. They approached her, she never approached them. Why should she? They initiated things, they asked her out, she went along hoping that, this time, the fairy tale would come true. After all, she rationalized, Sleeping Beauty never had to run after Prince Philip, did she? She frowned. Well, of course, she was asleep at the time. Not a good example. But Snow White never chased… well, she was poisoned and asleep. Her brow furrowed as she mentally searched her fairy tale romance references for justification.

There were plenty of men she could have asked out. Whenever she felt that little “tickle” in her chest, that little pull of breath when talking to someone, she couldn’t help but think that there was magic happening. She just couldn’t bring herself to take that first step. And it wouldn’t have mattered anyway, those guys never asked her out. That made her sad. Was it because they didn’t have the courage? Or that they didn’t feel the same tickle? Or that they just weren’t interested at all? She had no idea and it was too scary to find out.

Hurry up, I need my Salted Caramel! She silently urged the line along. I NEED MY ORGASM! She chuckled out loud.

From the side of her eye, she saw the old man from the escalator as he entered the shop. He paused in the door and inhaled deeply. She smiled to herself with the thought of a fellow connoisseur of coffee. He knows, she thought. In his day, coffee was simple. Ground java, the “Joe”.

“Yes, Ma’am, may I help you?” the cute girl with the Bumble Bean apron grinned at her from the register. Aubrey looked up. This was someone she didn’t recognize. Most of the crew knew Aubrey because she usually rushed in to grab her Salted Caramel on her way to work. But she was off that schedule today and didn’t see any of the familiar faces. The name tag read “Ashely Brooking – Trainee”. She’s new and she already loves working here, Aubrey thought. Who wouldn’t?

“Salted Caramel with Fudge Drizzle!” Aubrey said, with a bit more energy than she intended. “Whoa,” Ashley replied. “I’m assuming that would also mean in a large cup.” Aubrey looked at her with a “do you have to ask” expression. “Abso-tooting-lootly” Aubrey responded.

Ashley pulled a large cup from the rack, then turned back to her. “Do you want it in a paper cup, or do you want to buy one of our crystal mugs?” She gestured toward a display of glass mugs, each emblazoned with the Bumble Bean logo. “Valentine’s Day special, they’re only two dollars with a large coffee of any kind.” Aubrey glanced at them. She did like them, they were cute and a nice reminder of the Bumble. But why did it have to be a Valentine’s Day special? “Not today, thanks.”

The old man, now in line behind her, watched with interest, noting the interchange and frowning when Aubrey refused the mug. “And for you, sir?” Ashley was talking to him. Aubrey had already moved to the end of the counter, awaiting her brew. “White mocha, large.” he said to Ashley. “Whipped cream on that?” she asked. “Abso-tooting-lootly.” he responded. “Hah!” Ashley reacted.

Aubrey breathed in the vapors of her salvation, her eyes closed, focusing every sensation, ever synapse of her brain, on the wafting pleasures emanating from the warm cup she clutched in both hands. Thank you, Coffee Gods! She opened her eyes. And you, too, Caramel Gods! She took a sip, melted a bit on the inside, making a yummy sound, and headed toward the open table near the window. I am not going to rush this, dammit! Not on my day off! She plopped down into one of the two chairs. I’m going to sit here and enjoy it.

She stared off into the distance, letting her mind wander around. Rapunzel? She was still working on the fairy tale conundrum. No, she couldn’t chase anyone either, she was trapped in a castle. She shook her head and took another sip. At least she wasn’t asleep. She blinked, more out of reflex than anything else. So, what should I do today? She pondered the question. This day off was a gimme. She was supposed to be in the office, but a broken water pipe over the lobby and her two meetings being canceled was an unexpected gift. She had thought about working from home until the call of the Salted Caramel Orgasm sang to her like a Siren. So now what? She tapped her fingers on the side of her cup. Do something rash? Something unexpected? What should I do today that I wouldn’t normally do?

She looked around the room, it was now crowded. She was lucky she sat down when she did, there was not another open seat in the place except for the other chair at her table.

The old man she had noticed before was standing next to the cup display. He had his coffee and looked confused and out of place. She could tell he wanted to sit, but there was no place left for him.

I’m going to make a new friend! She thought, proud of her decisiveness. That’s the best way to take my mind off my life. “Excuse me! Sir!” she called to him. He looked at her, then looked away suddenly as if alarmed. Then he looked back. “You can sit here, sir.” She gestured to the open seat.

He looked unsure, nervous. “I’m not hitting on you, I swear.” She reassured him, thinking that it wouldn’t be the worst thing for someone his age. But she was truly just trying to be nice.

“Well, no… but…” he nervously stammered. “You must be waiting for someone.”

Aubrey looked around demonstratively. “And…. No.” she smiled “Seriously, have a seat. I don’t mind. I insist.”

The old man swallowed, then nodded in resignation. He glanced toward the door, then sat down, perched on the edge of the chair as if ready to bolt.

“Or, maybe you’re waiting for someone.” She said, noticing the tension in his body language.

“Uhm… yes…. well, no.” he seemed to relax a bit. “No, no one.” He sat his coffee on the table and leaned back, staring forward as if afraid to look at Aubrey.

What a strange duck! she thought. It was her grandmother’s phrase for practically anyone who did something she didn’t expect. And it certainly applied here. She waited, for… she didn’t know. The old man just continued to stare forward, occasionally glancing to the door.

I intend to make a friend! She felt almost empowered by her mission. “My name is Aubrey.” She said. He almost flinched at her voice. “And yours is….?” He turned to look at her, but didn’t respond. “You do remember your name, don’t you?” she asked and almost immediately regretted it. What if this man had Alzheimer’s? And just wandered in here, not even knowing his name or address?

“Carleton” he said quickly. “Carleton?” she was relieved to hear him respond. “I love that name. My grandmother has a dog named Carleton. Cutest thing, I love that dog to death.”

Carleton nodded, relaxing a bit as he leaned back in the chair. “I wish I could have a dog,” she continued. “Small apartment, no pets allowed. But when I visit my Nana, that’s one spoiled puppy.”

“Dogs are great,” he offered. Another pause. This is like trying to start an old lawn mower, she thought, despite the fact that she had never tried to. “Do you have a dog?”

He seemed to ponder the question, staring past her as if making a decision. “Is it a secret?” she prompted with a smile. “Does your dog work for the government?”

He laughed. Aubrey felt a bit relieved inside. She broke the ice, that made her feel good. “No,” he replied. “My….. my late wife loved dogs.”

“Oh, that’s great!” she said, then realized the actual import of the answer. “And, I’m sorry.”

He nodded in appreciation. “Thanks. We had three dogs. Well, I still have them. She picked them all out. All mutts from a shelter.” He was opening up now, Aubrey took a sip from her coffee as she leaned on the table, listening. “We got Toby, the first one, for our son, Jacob. But he became ours when he went to college.”

“Awe, Toby’s a great name for a dog!” Aubrey replied.

The man stiffened a bit, then shook it off. “Well…. anyway…. How are you today?” He’s changing the subject, Aubrey thought.

“Oh, busy, busy,” she replied. Then she leaned back and grinned. “Actually, not busy at all. I have the whole day off from work. Kind of unexpected, but I intend to take advantage of it! I might see a movie. Or go to the museum down the street, they have an exhibit on Lincoln this week. Or I might take a drive.” She paused to take another sip, peering at him over the cup. “But first, my special best friend, Bumble Bean coffee.”

“You really do love your coffee,” he said, more as an affirmation than a question. “Abso-tooting-lootly!” she replied. That made him smile again, but it was still a sad, somewhat lost smile.

Carleton glanced toward the door, then took his cell phone from his pocket and glanced at the time. It wasn’t one of those huge gaudy phones that was the fashion of the moment, it was rather thin, but a bit rustic. The face was almost completely black, the time displayed in small numbers, the frame around it seemingly made of antique brass. “That’s a nice phone,” she said. “What kind is it?” He covered it with his hand, as if embarrassed that she had noticed it. “Oh, it’s a specialty. My company designed it.”

Her eyes widened with interest. “Oh, you make, like, phone accessories?” He shook his head. “No. More on the tech side.”

He wasn’t much on elaborating but, for some reason, this old man intrigued Aubrey. He had a very easy going nature about himself, she could tell. But he was also sad. She assumed it had something to do with his late wife. She wasn’t going to press that issue, she didn’t want him to be uncomfortable. If he just wanted to talk about his business, or his phone, or his dogs, that was fine with her. She was enjoying the company.

“So, has your company made anything I’d know about? Or use?” she asked. He shook his head. “No, not yet.”

“If you put that phone on the market, I’d buy it.” she said. “It looks cool. Kind of Steampunkish.”

He smiled at the reference. “That’s why I designed the look this way. My wife liked Steampunk stories.”

“Really?” Aubrey reacted. “I just got into Steampunk last year, but I’m really enjoying the world.” There was a pause and she knew that she had, unintentionally, made him think about his wife. To try to change the subject now, when it was so obvious, would be shallow and cruel.

“How long ago…” she almost whispered the question, trying to make it conversational but knowing that she was risking a step too far.

He stared ahead, silently. His eyes began to water and Aubrey felt a huge emptiness in her chest. He was so much in pain, Aubrey sensed it. He had probably come here to take his mind off his wife. This was probably his first day out after who knows how long. And she had stepped right into it.

“Not even a year.” He finally answered. His voice was even, flat, seemingly without emotion, but she could tell he had taken the pause in order to control his reaction.

“I’m very, very sorry.” She was helpless; how do you respond to that? And she wasn’t just saying it, she felt it. He looked down at his feet and grunted an acknowledgement.

“You know, my Nana used to say something that might help.” Aubrey started. She paused, waiting for some sign from Carleton. She didn’t want to add to his pain. He turned his head and looked at her. She took it as encouragement. “She said that the pain we feel when we lose someone is a testament –“

“—to how much love there was. Yes, I know.” He caught her off guard by finishing her statement. She thought it was a Nana original, but it didn’t matter where it came from. It was the truth and Aubrey knew it. “Yeah,” she continued. “I know it doesn’t help at times like this, but…”

Carleton leaned back again, staring at Aubrey. His eyes flickered across her face, as if committing every aspect of her features to memory. It made Aubrey slightly uncomfortable, but she pushed the feelings aside.

“What was her name?” she asked.

“Princess.” He said. “She was my Princess.” Aubrey swallowed at his reply; she loved this old man. She felt for him, she wanted to ease his pain. She opened her mouth to say something, but no words found their way out. She looked away, embarrassed.

“She was the most wonderful thing that happened in my life.” He continued, either not seeing her discomfort or just ignoring it. She wasn’t sure she wanted the burden of his words, but he hadn’t pushed it on her; quite the opposite. Aubrey felt his sadness and that confused her but, at the same time, drew her into his feelings. This was the dark side of love. Not the evil, despicable side of feeling used and disregarded by a mate, but the true darkness of loss. He wasn’t bitter, he wasn’t angry. He was… what was it? She wanted to know. It scared her that she might feel something like this one day. But it scared her more that she might never.

“But that’s just an old man talking,” he laughed dryly. “No!” Aubrey’s outburst surprised herself. “You can talk all you want. It sounds like you’ve earned it.”

She gathered herself up. “Okay, since we’re talking about…. The love stuff… “ she paused, teetering on the edge of the cliff. “…and don’t laugh at my question.”

“I would never laugh at you.” he stated as a fact.

“You had… forty years? With your wife?”

He nodded. “Almost.”

Aubrey swallowed. “It’s silly, but… that’s a lot of love. How did you do it?”

He chuckled. “Ah, the age old question.”

“I guess. I’m curious.”

“But your question is the wrong one.” He shook his head. “It assumes something that everyone assumes about love. Something that just isn’t true.”

“I don’t understand.” Aubrey blinked to herself, mentally examining her question. It seemed perfectly legitimate, something she had wondered every time she had seen two happy people who had been together for years. She had wondered it about her mother and Skip.

Strangely, when asked, her mother didn’t have an answer for her. She said she didn’t know. Is it possible that the problem was in the question?

“How did you do it?” he repeated her question. “That makes it sound like love is a task, like something you have to push your way through. That’s so wrong. Yes, there are struggles you have to go through, but not because of each other.” He paused, as if cautious to continue.

Her head tipped slightly. Her coffee was growing cold, but she didn’t care, she wanted to hear more. She was drawn to him, to his words. “Tell me. Please. If you don’t mind.”

The silence lasted for hours, or for seconds. Aubrey couldn’t tell. She couldn’t explain to herself why she wanted to know, but she did. The old man finally took a deep breath and began talking.

“Looking back, you know that you’ve had bad times along with the good. That’s the way life goes. And when you’re going through it, it’s pretty intense. There are times when you wonder if you will ever survive, whether you really know the person. It’s easy to give up then, to decide this wasn’t what you bought into. But the friendship… the friendship is the rock. Never stop making her laugh! And don’t let the idiocy of pride get in the way of laughing with her. Trust her. Trust yourself. You’re only human, the two of you, and that’s both wonderful and scary as hell. Because of her, you find feelings, emotions, and parts of you that you never knew existed. How do you tell her, how do you express every feeling in your soul for her?”

He was staring at her now, talking directly to her. Normally, she would feel condescended to, when someone tried to explain something she obviously didn’t understand. She always got that way when she felt lectured. This wasn’t one of those times. He wasn’t speaking down to her. He was….

It hit her, suddenly, in her heart. This wasn’t a lecture, this was his confession. These were the words he never said to her. The tears in her eyes started to flow as she realized. He was talking to his wife. Through her. And it was… wonderful!

“Time goes by, each day is a new day with your best friend. The sun rising and setting aren’t numbers on a calendar, they’re events that you share. There isn’t a day that you don’t think about her, not a moment where she’s far from your mind. And you feel horrible if, by any chance of accident, you bring sadness to her smile. And one day, when you look back, when all the years you’ve had together are stacked in a row, all you can see are the high points. The joy, the love, the moments where you realized you could never have imagined life without that person.”

The pain of biting her lip did nothing to quell her feelings.

He shook his head. “No,” he sighed. “Love is not something you have to push yourself through. Love is something that pulls you in. You couldn’t stop it if you tried.”

Overwhelmed and mesmerized, she opened her purse and dug in it. He was ahead of her, handing her a napkin. She nodded her thanks and dabbed at her eyes. “Wow…” she exhaled. “That was incredible!”

“No,” he replied. “The incredible part is the first step that leads to it all. That first feeling you had when you met her. There’s just something magical about it, you know it when it happens but you have no idea what just happened. There’s no reference point. Nothing in your background, no relationship you’ve ever had, will ever match up to that moment. That moment when love works! It’s something that happens once in your life.”

“If it happens in your life” she said under her breath.

“It does. Most people are so wrapped up with how they think things should be, they probably just miss it. You don’t see it at the moment. How could you? Even the memory of it… it isn’t the same. You just wish that you could watch it happen, once more, like a fly on the wall. To relive it and to convince yourself it really was what you remember.”

“Even then, it would be different, wouldn’t it?” she pondered. “I mean, the not knowing at the moment is kind of what makes it… so magical.”

“Yes, that’s probably true.”

He fell silent, for a moment. Then he turned, his eyes flashing with feeling, piercing her heart. “But then again, wouldn’t such a thing be wonderful? Wouldn’t you risk everything, just to feel something like that again?”

“You have no idea how jealous I am of your Princess right now!” She reached out and took his hands, leaning across the table and looking directly into his eyes, hoping that she could reassure him. “Listen to me. Her life was wonderful. Because you are wonderful. She knew that, never doubt it.”

He choked for a moment. Then, he reflexively looked at his phone, and his demeanor changed to one of urgency. “I have to go! Sorry, I’m late, I have to get out of here!”

“No, no, wait!” She put her hand on his arm, keeping him from rising. “I’m going to refill my coffee and we’re going to exchange info, okay? No arguments!”

She stood up, giving him her firmest look in order to cement him in the chair. He relented and leaned back again.

Her feet were unsteady as she walked back to the counter. She had never felt more emotionally drained. Ashely, bright and cheerful Ashley, was waiting for her.

“Would you like me to refill that?” she asked.

“Yes,” Aubrey handed her the cup. “Just with your drip, nothing special.”

Ashely took the cup with a “Gotcha!” and turned away. Aubrey glanced back at Carleton. He was fidgeting a bit, fumbling with his phone. She was only going to take a second, she didn’t want to lose track of this new friend.

As she turned back to the counter, she spied the Bumble Bean mugs on display. I want to remember this day! she thought. She grabbed one up, placing her credit card on the counter and calling to Ashely. “And put this on my charge!”

“Got it!” Ashely called back over her shoulder. Aubrey smiled as she turned to show her friend her latest acquisition.

He was gone. The chair was empty.

“No…. oh no…..” she whispered as Ashley handed her the coffee and took her card.

She stumbled back to the table, still staring at the empty chair. She glanced around quickly, perhaps he just stepped away. He might be in the bathroom. She sat down. I”ll just finish the coffee, she decided, hoping that would give enough time for him to return.

But she knew it wasn’t going to happen. She had no words to express how she felt. A gift had been bestowed on her. She knew her world would never be the same.

“Excuse me, Miss, is this yours?”

She turned, her eyes focusing on the man in front of her. Tall, dark hair, wearing jeans and a button up shirt. He smiled as he extended a Bumble Bean mug toward her. “Ashely said someone bought it and left it on the counter. Yours?”

“Yes,” she took it. “But, how did you know?”

“Well, I didn’t.” he admitted. “I had every girl here stick their foot into it, but not one fit. Take off your shoe, you’re the only girl left.”

Her mouth dropped as she processed his words. “Cinderella!” she blurted out, recalling her earlier search for the perfect fairy tale. He grinned. “Oh, you got that, eh? I thought it was a bit obscure.”

“Cinderella…” she mused, then frowned. “But she ran from the Prince after the party.”

He peered at her, a bit confused. “Uhm, okay, I’ll play along. Cinderella did run from the Prince. But…“ He held up his finger with the emphasis of someone making an important distinction. “At least she went to the party!”

“What?” Aubrey looked up at him.

“Nothing would have happened if she hadn’t taken that first step.” He smiled in satisfaction. “Your turn.”

That first step. Aubrey repeated the words in her head.

Putting the Bumble Bean mug decisively on the table, she turned to him. “Would you like to sit down?” she asked him.

“Yes. Yes, I would.” And he sat next to her.

From across the aisle, next to the Lingerie Shop, Carleton watched. He smiled and turned away, pulling out his phone and sliding his finger across the face to unlock it.

He was back home now, back in his old, comfy chair, breathing heavily, but feeling only a bit worse for the wear. There was, apparently, some compensation for the movement of the earth. Even though the departure time and return time were supposed to be virtually instant, it was that word “virtually” that was of concern to the team. Most of the scientists working on Chronos had considered it a minor risk. Thank God, they were right. He’d have to make a note of that.

He carefully wiped his fingerprints from the brass edges of the Chronos phone and placed it in the open metal box on the end table. He had to get it back into the vault of the research lab before the government suits showed up tomorrow, but he didn’t think it was going to be that difficult. Though he was retired as president, he was still the owner of the company and had a key for every lock in the place.

He picked up the framed photo from the cabinet next to him and leaned back in his chair. It was the last vacation they had taken, that small cabin in the Rockies. The two of them look so happy, so much in love. How could they know they only had three more years left together? She was beautiful, she always had been. The decades had only lightened her fiery red hair, the twinkle in her eyes never left her, the smile… the smile was eternal.

And her laughter… just to hear it again. Just to see her again. Just to experience that wonderful, blissful moment, when all the improbable possibilities of the universe seemed to line up, and he met her for the first time. The risk was worth it. God, it was so worth it! His eyes drifted over to the faded Bumble Bean mug, still sitting on the cabinet. A tear rolled down his cheek.

He closed the metal box containing the Chronos phone and settled back in his chair. “It was abso-tooting-lootly wonderful…” he whispered and drifted off to sleep.

The jump through time had taken more out of him than he knew. More than his frail body could survive. When they found him the next day, he was still in his chair, a smile on his face. The photo of him and his Princess, Aubrey, held gently in his lap.

Next to the Bumble Bean coffee mug.