Twice Shy by Sarah Hogle

Chapter 1

I AM UP IN THE clouds now, drumming my fingernails on a countertop. Outside the window, in an ever-swirling fog, there’s a pink neon sign that spins at an all-the-time-in-the-world tilt, which reads: maybell’s coffee shop au. Beneath, with one of the letters blinking out: Open 24 hours.

            My AU (alternate universe) café has taken years to build, the past three months being its busiest season yet. I’ve put up fairy lights and aqua tiles, floppy houseplants and red vinyl booths. A jukebox comes to life whenever I glance its way, spontaneously playing one of my favorite songs. Maybell’s Coffee Shop AU is the most beautiful place I can imagine, and I’ve imagined lots of places.

            The fog breaks on cue. I glance up, on high alert, knowing what happens next because it’s happened before a hundred times. A story with a scripted beginning and boundless possibilities for how it might end.

            The man who throws open the door is tall, broad shouldered, strong jawed, in a suit of blackest black. Dark blond hair falls in tousled wet waves that make me think of a fallen angel who almost drowned, thrust out of the sea by Poseidon and made alive again with a lightning strike. If he were in color, his eyes would be topaz—a glass of root beer held up to the light.

            He’s all edges and shadow, black and white. Raindrops sheeting off the windowpane behind him project onto the right half of his face like a monochrome film reel, and his gaze sweeps the café before settling on me. I suck in a deep breath, gripping the counter to stay tethered. This is the moment I’ve been waiting for all my life.

            “I’ve been looking everywhere for you,” he tells me. “Why haven’t you returned my calls?”

            My having seen all of this before does nothing to dull the elation of seeing it again. Joy bursts in my chest, no room for air. “Jack! What if someone sees you here?”

            “I don’t care anymore.” He leaps over the counter to gather me up in a passionate embrace. “I’m not hiding us. Yes, you’re a coffee shop girl and I’m the prince of Effluvia. What does it matter? I love you. That’s all there is to it.”

            “You love me?”

            This is my favorite part, the love-declaring. I rewind so that I can hear it again, and make some small adjustments for dramatic flair.

            “Yes, you’re a coffee shop girl and I’m the prince of Effluvia,” he repeats, a bouquet of stargazer lilies materializing in his left hand. And in his right, a glittering engagement ring. I silently mouth the rest of his lines along with him. “What does it matter? I love you. That’s all there is to it.”

            “But . . . the monarchy,” I whisper against his shoulder. “They don’t want us to be together.”

            “They can’t stop us. Our love is a force too powerful to be defied.”

            “Maybell,” I hear a faraway voice chirrup. I rearrange the sound into background noise, letters becoming rustling leaves.

            Jack lowers to one knee. The stargazer lilies triple in size. A string quartet appears.

            “My beloved . . . light of my life . . .” Jack clears his throat, but my gaze flits uneasily to reflections that don’t belong here. They stir in the silver napkin dispenser, the coffeepot, the gleaming backsplash, like they’re two-way mirrors. A tiny knob on the vintage rotary landline, boxy and beige, lights up red a half second before the phone’s metallic ring interrupts Jack’s proposal.

            “You are the most special person I’ve ever met,” Jack begins, totally oblivious, tears in his eyes. “Intelligent. Beautiful. Capable. Unparalleled. There’s nobody else like Maybell Parrish.” According to my schedule, we’re going to kiss in thirteen seconds. The passionate kiss that follows the declaration of love is another very favorite part. It’s the essential ingredient to every romance that ensures it bakes properly.