Free Read – From Latte to Love

by Amber Polo

From Latte to Love

Chapter One
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Surrounded by early Saturday morning Starbucks conversations, Elaine sipped a green tea latte and typed: Tranquility tossed her long blonde curls. Life was easy when you were a powerful white witch—no long hours in the beauty salon, laser hair removal studios, or botox parlors. Beauty was only a spell away.

Elaine’s fingers stroked the keys of her pink laptop purchased from envisioned royalties. Magic Queen of Peaceful Meadows, her second paranormal romance, sequel to Magic Princess of Quiescence Island was due in her editor’s inbox in six weeks. Her mind blocked out the distractions of outside traffic noise and inside conversations and tried to focus on her story.

A guy about Elaine’s age in jeans and a black turtleneck sweater bumped her table as he walked past juggling a laptop and a paper cup. He grimaced and mouthed an apology.

She acknowledged with a polite nod and returned her gaze to her screen. Pretending indifference, she watched him settle at a corner table across from hers in front of the window, took out a red laptop, and begin typing. Her writer’s observation skills told her he was writing a paper for post-doc work. His manner appeared serious and intelligent, but a messy shock of sandy hair over one blue eye gave him a cute, cuddly look.

Elaine liked writing at this Starbucks in Springfield’s old university neighborhood. Surrounded by intellectual people and air so charged with the heady aroma of high-end coffee beans her nose tingled. She felt like a real novelist. Through the window she eyed the bookstore across the street and wondered when she’d be signing her books for loyal fans. What would she wear? What color pen would she use?

She smoothed her short, maddening straight hair and looked back at the guy in the black sweater. Being a romance writer was great, but she wished for her own romance. Why couldn’t she meet someone like him?

Brian gulped his espresso, flipped open his flame-red laptop, and created a new file, “DukeOne.” He typed: Duke StarMaster’s personal spaceship blasted off to conquer new worlds. Mission completed, earth exploded behind him. The lone survivor of Terra Firma had other planets to fry…fly…? He’d fix that later.

Duke gritted his teeth, remembering the women he left behind. Too bad this ship only had room for him and his weapons’ arsenal. He hoped women of other planets were as welcoming as earthgirls.“Another Planet, Another Babe” was his motto. And why shouldn’t interplanetary chicks fall for a tall, dark, ruggedly handsome space adventurer, big in all the right places—biceps, thighs…

Pleased with this great beginning to StarMaster of the Universe, his first sci-fi novel, Brian walked to the counter and purchased a frosted scone and a second espresso. He had to keep up his energy. As much as he loved writing computer games, he knew this sci-fi blockbuster would make him famous.

Back at his table with the second strong brew, Brian’s brain awaited the caffeine rush. The serious girl in the fuzzy sweater at the table across from his looked like an English lit grad student writing a paper on Jane Austen or Charlotte Brontë. He liked the way her forehead crinkled as she concentrated and her dark hair hugged her cute face. Under the table he saw nice legs in tight jeans. Too bad the table and pink laptop hid the rest of her body.

Writing at this Starbucks on weekends would be very cool. Really creative people hung out here. The small tables reminded him of a café Hemingway might frequent. The intoxicating smell of coffee beans already stimulated his creative juices.

He looked at the girl in the pink sweater. If only he had the nerve to ask a beautiful, smart woman like her for a date.

Out of the mists strode Bedwyn Brandonlea, Peacekeeper of Green Meadows, Tranquility’s betrothed. Since her magic kept their world peaceful, Bedwyn didn’t do much, but he sure looked yummy. Bed shook his shoulder-length raven hair. His eyes blazed. She had no doubt he wanted her. Unfortunately, Tranquility valued her virginity. The curse placed on her by the wicked black witch Grimhilda dictated Tranquility would lose her magic powers when…if…she lost her virginity. No small problem for the most powerful white witch of a world where thousands of gentle creatures depended upon her. Bedwyn’s muscled fingers reached for Tranquility’s golden tresses. She faded into a mist…

Where had that mist come from? Elaine deleted She faded into a mist, and substituted Tranquility created a rainbow-hued mist with a toss of blonde curls and disappeared into its essence. She felt so professional catching sophomoric errors. Her editor’s recent email said her writing had improved.

Pleased with her progress, she gave in to her craving for a blueberry muffin. She gathered her purse to buy one, stood, and noticed the guy in the black sweater had just returned his gaze to his computer. Had he been looking at her or staring into space, getting brilliant ideas for some esoteric academic treatise?

Zexxa Fkerrax of Gamma 777 hung helplessly, her luscious feminine body chained to a wall of flashing computers. The ominous sizzle of electrons told Duke this blazing hot planet would soon detonate. He stepped closer and let his eyes swallow Zexxa’s body. Her long copper curls coiled out to him like cables, and her titanium bikini left nothing to his imagination. No time for imagination. Duke needed to disable the most complicated alien computer in the universe. He sat at the keyboard, scanned the help screen to learn the Khutxa language, wrote an elegant code, and typed the alien word for execute. In seconds, the screen flashed, “Master!” and Duke turned his attention to Zexxa’s grateful smile.

How many sexual episodes should be in a five-hundred page book? Did writing classes answer questions like that? He didn’t want to stifle his creativity, yet if he could meet girls like the one with the pink laptop, a creative writing class might not be so bad. Teaching high school math and writing games didn’t do much for his social life.

He wished he were the type of guy who could just walk up to a beautiful, sexy woman and say something clever. Looking at the sophisticated woman in the fuzzy sweater in line, he wondered if he were brave enough to ask her for a date.

When she carried her muffin past his table, Brian took a breath and smiled.

Elaine nibbled on her muffin. That cute guy smiled. She forced herself not to look over her shoulder to see if some beautiful woman stood behind her.

She typed, Grimhilda, wicked witch of Chaos Canyon, arrived on Peaceful Meadows in an ominous gray fog accompanied by a cacophony of rap music and professional sports commentary. Every Meadow molecule oscillated wildly. All the dumb creatures cried out for Tranquility to save them. Bedwyn lay helpless, covering his ears.

Elaine stopped. Did she want her hero to appear weak? Never mind, she’d fix that later.

Ears stuffed with cotton balls retrieved from her Magical First-Aid Kit, Tranquility floated into Grimhilda’s energy field and yelled “Stop!”

Grimhilda cackled. Tranquility closed her eyes and sent healing golden rainbow rays from her hands into Grimhilda’s heart. Elaine shivered, responding to her mean villain’s pain.

She finished her latte and looked around the no-longer-crowded shop and noticed the cute guy still bent over his red laptop. He must have sensed her glance, for he looked up. She was sure this time he smiled at her. She returned his smile, trying to look interested but not desperate. Could he tell she didn’t have a boyfriend?

Turning back to her screen, she typed, The old witch shuddered. Grimhilda clutched her heart. The raucous noise faded away. Grimhilda’s expression turned from wicked to rapturous. One by one, the creatures of Peaceful Meadows peeked from dens and tree trunks. Bedwyn removed his hands from his ears. Peace returned to Peaceful Meadows.

Grimhilda, now radiant and pink, cooed, “Call me Hildy, beautiful queen. I am in your debt. Before I leave to make my planet as peaceful as yours, I grant you one wish.”

Tranquility considered for seconds, then spoke, “Please when I lose my virginity, let me keep my magic powers.”

“Done,” said Hildy and vanished in a pink cloud.

Elaine sighed. Now she needed to maneuver the plot subtly into Tranquility’s second adventure, add a subplot, and somehow make Bedwyn less wuss-like. She admitted her writing needed more conflict. Stories couldn’t begin nice and get nicer. How many more books would she have to write before she could quit her job teaching poetry to high school students? As a full time novelist, she could spend every day here drinking tea and writing. Maybe she’d meet someone as cute as the guy in the black sweater.

Each of Black Bung’s five hands each held a laser gun pointed at Duke’s vitals. Bung, the meanest villain in the solar system vowed to vaporize Duke StarMaster when Duke killed his four thousand Bungtunian brothers.

Duke raised his laser-blaster. “You’re finished, Bung,” he roared at the seven-legged monster and pulled the trigger. Nothing happened.

Black Bung sneered, “Your weapons are useless against my powers.”

Brian looked up at Starbucks’ painted pipe ceiling, contemplating ways to get Duke out of trouble. Hoping another espresso would help, he lined up behind the girl in the fuzzy sweater. He envisioned her wearing one of Duke’s hottie’s revealing space outfits. This woman was just as beautiful but in all likelihood better at conversation than any alien.

She turned and he looked right into her seductive brown eyes. Her face, fringed by short dark hair, was even more beautiful close up. He felt hot. His knees weakened. This was his chance. “So, how’s it going?” Did that sound lame or what?

“Good. Really good. And you?”

Her eyes sparkled espresso brown, and the corners of her lips curled up when she smiled. “Good.” Another clever pick-up line.

The barista asked her what she wanted. She ordered a Mango Mocha Frappuccino.

Brian mumbled, “I’ll have the same.” He wanted to talk to this girl and figured a Mango Mocha Frappuccino would take a while. Trying hard not to sound like a stalker, he asked, “Writing a paper for a class?”

“No. A novel,” she answered with a toss of her head. “And you?”

“A novel.” He inhaled, puffed out his chest, and stared into her sparkling eyes. His mind stopped. He couldn’t think what to say next.

She asked, “Do you belong to a critique group?”

The barista set down two Frappuccinos. “Elaine and Brian.”

“Ah…no.”

“Maybe sometime we could share…”

“Yes…yes!”

She wrote her email address on a napkin and handed him the paper.

His fingertips, hot as an un-insulated cup, touched hers. He crushed the napkin, and croaked, “Maybe we could…talk…sometime…Elaine.”

“Yes…Brian.”

She gave him what he considered an encouraging smile and returned to her table. Brian watched her tight jeans cross the room, then strolled back to his table. He realized he’d forgotten his drink and, embarrassed, passed her table twice to retrieve his Frappuccino. Duke StarMaster would not have been so uncool.

He tore his thoughts from the girl. Duke had to win this battle and beat Black Bung. Brian looked up from his screen. Elaine—her name was Elaine—smiled right at him. He smiled. He sipped the Frappuccino—sweet like a really good milkshake—then typed, Duke sent healing golden rainbow rays from his hands into Bung’s three hearts.

Chapter Two
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Elaine stabbed at coagulated, white lumps floating on the transparent, sienna liquid in her cup. She threw the red stirrer into the plastic-lined, metal, wastepaper basket. No amount of weekend fantasy could dull the cold reality of the high school teachers’ lounge.

Her friend Katy shook two pink packets into her cup. “Think real sugar would help?”

“Nothing will help this coffee, nor my dress.” Elaine grimaced and looked down in embarrassment at her dress, so ugly it was safe from anything a high school could do to good clothes.

They found a table in front of the bulletin board. The physics teacher glared at the disturbance, then returned to his laptop solitaire game. Elaine turned on her BlackBerry and checked for messages.

Katy grinned. “So, how’s the romance?”

“It’s not a romance. Just a guy I met at Starbucks.”

She raised an eyebrow. “I meant your book.”

“Oh. My novel’s stuck.”

“What writers call sagging middle?”

“Actually it’s sagging Chapter Three.”

Katy picked at her nail polish. “Too bad you’re involved. Barb in 302 reports the new math substitute is cute. She thinks you should check him out since you’re the only single teacher at Springfield High.”

“I‘m not interested in math subs.”

“So, what does Mr. Wonderful do for a living?”

“Ever heard of the computer game, Space Death?”

“My son wants that one. I think it’s too gruesome. And expensive.”

Elaine raised her chin. “Brian invented it.”

“Cute?”

“Very cute.” Elaine smiled, remembering Brian’s shy grin. Her cell phone played the “Potter Waltz” from Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire soundtrack. She read the instant message. “Hi E Gr8 day Flix Wed? B” Eschewing IM abbreviations, she composed her response. “Dear Brian, Thanks for the invitation. I’d love to go to the movies on Wednesday. Best, Elaine.” She didn’t believe a writer should sink to codes and bad grammar because everyone else did. She saved her reply, not wanting her answer to be too instant.

Katy grinned. “From him?”

Elaine nodded, pressing her lips together to silence a squeal of delight.

“What’s he say?”

“Just a date.” She refused to show her excitement, though Katy could probably see Elaine’s heart beating through her dress.

“I’m so jealous. Bet he takes you someplace romantic. Me? I go to ball games and kid’s birthday parties.”

Elaine shrugged and sent her IM.

Brian looked out over thirty bored, high school freshmen. Baffled by the math problem he’d written on the board, his students stared through him, just another teacher dressed in worn, wrinkled chinos and a shirt with buttons, as if buttons instead of words commanded respect.

If he’d given them a pop quiz, he could have taken out his laptop and written another adventure for Duke. In ten minutes he could escape to the teachers’ lounge. By now the coffee would have evaporated to a consistency potent enough to jolt him through to last period.

Teaching was his fall-back career, so he took substitute jobs although he didn’t need the money. A voice inside told him writing computer games wasn’t a real job. He worried too much about paying his condo fees and mortgage if royalties fell off and wished he could have exciting adventures like Duke. Adventures? He’d settle for a date.

Brian checked his BlackBerry again. He’d sent Elaine an IM fifteen minutes ago asking her out Wednesday night. Still no reply. He felt as restless and distracted as his class.

On top of everything, Duke’s latest adventure stank. Duke’s Essence of Uranian Skunk, more aromatherapy than a weapon of mass destruction, failed to subdue invading alien creatures.

He eyed the geeky Goth boy in the back row. He sensed that kid loved computer games a lot more than homework. He dismissed the class and stopped the kid in black by handing him a demo disk of Duke IV 1.0 beta. “Check this out. Let me know what you think. You know, like test it. Find the bugs. Extra credit.” The kid actually registered emotion and mumbled thanks.

Elaine still hadn’t answered his IM. What if she had a boyfriend? Her emails sounded like flirting, but her formal language confused him. Maybe she’d say no.

He headed for the teachers’ lounge as two women who looked like Home Ec. teachers headed down the hall in the opposite direction. He couldn’t wait to see sexy Elaine again.

Chapter Three
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Halfway through dinner, Brian had already passed the first three steps in Elaine’s internet Romantic Date Test. Number One—he’d arrived looking absolutely delicious wearing a sport coat over his black sweater. Number Two—he asked her to choose between Italian or Thai food. Three—he opened her car door. He was so polished and confident, he must date a lot. His chopsticks clicked as he scooped pad thai onto his plate. She loved men who were adventurous with food.

He laid the chopsticks on his plate and leaned toward her. “Where do you teach poetry?”

“A high school in the valley.” She hoped that sounded vague. Maybe he’d think she taught super rich kids at some exclusive private school. “Did you always know you wanted to design computer games?” she countered, hoping he’d talk about himself.

“I’m a computer nut. Designing games is a no-brainer.” He smiled and reached for the bottle of Thai wine. “I also taught for a while. More wine?”

She slid her glass toward him.

He tilted the wine bottle and refilled her glass. As he handed her glass back their fingers touched.

She felt his fingertips quiver and clasped her glass tighter, responding to their first intoxicating touch. What would Tranquility do? Elaine gave Brian a meaningful look and laughed. He raised his glass in a toast. She raised hers.

“To…Starbucks,” he said and she laughed again. He smiled and looked into her eyes. “What luck we both write at the same Starbucks.”

She felt warm and a little off balance as if she’d already had wine. They drank.

He reached across the table and took her hand.

Number Four on her list—Caring Physical Contact. His palm felt clammy. Was he nervous? That could mean he really liked her.

Brian whispered, “I love the way your eyes sparkle when you laugh.”

Number Five—a Meaningful Compliment. Her heart beat faster. This was the best date she’d ever had. She’d found her soulmate…just like Tranquility. Just like Tranquility would by the end of her novel.

Brian paid the bill, and as they began the two-block walk to the movie theatre, he took her hand and squeezed.

Elaine squeezed back and relaxed. Brian really liked her.

His cell phone rang. He turned it off without checking the caller ID. Number Six.

This showed he really cared more about being with her than talking and texting other people. She was in love.

In the ticket line, his arm brushed her waist. He leaned toward her. “What movie do you want to see?”

His words jolted her back to the present. She’d let her mind drift off in a Tranquility moment. She’d been fantasizing that she was Tranquility and Bedwyn led her to… But Tranquility and Bedwyn never went to movies. “Movie? Oh, Brian, you pick it. I chose the restaurant.”

She watched him scan the marquee. Soulmates would always like the same movies.

Brian led Elaine into the theatre lobby. This was the best date he’d ever had. She’d told him to pick the movie because she loved all old movies.

“They have at least six great classic films. When I come with my girlfriends, we always see something wonderful, Gone with the Wind, An Officer and a Gentleman or anything with Hugh Grant or Matthew McConaughey.”

Brian knew Matthew McConaughey played Dirk Pitt in Sahara. But who was Hugh Grant?

At the concession stand, he bought popcorn, a box of chocolates, Coke for him and a Snapple for her. Her sparkling eyes told him his choices pleased her.

In the lobby, two girls with blue hair and black lipstick and a boy in baggy black pants leaned against a poster. The boy recognized Brian. His mouth dropped open and he sputtered, “Mr…er… ah.”

Brian nodded, accepting the polite greeting.

“Cool game.” The boy reached deep into one immense pants pocket and pulled out Brian’s thumb drive. “Made a few changes. Added a file of notes.”

Brian held up his hand. The kid tossed the drive. “Dude. Thanks.” The kid had slept through class, but Brian hoped he’d played the game all night. Substitute teaching had great benefits for his computer game business.

One of the girls smiled at Elaine. “Miss Summerfield.” She rolled her eyes in twin black circles of eye shadow. “Um, I wrote that poem for your class. I like…um…poetry…especially the cool love poetry.”

Elaine smiled at the girl. Brian could tell she enjoyed teaching.

As they entered Theatre Number Three, Elaine said, “I’ve never seen Barbarella, but Jane Fonda’s great in On Golden Pond.”

Brian had seen Barbarella five times. Just as well, it would have been impossible to concentrate with Elaine, sitting so close he could smell her flowery perfume. He inched his elbow close to hers and by the time they’d finished their drinks, he held her hand. Yes!

After the movie, while he drove to her apartment, she talked about writing. He nodded and smiled. “Would you like to stop for coffee?” He didn’t want the evening to end.

She shook her head. “It’s a school night.”

And for him, too.

Standing in front of her door, Brian was certain he wanted to kiss her. Elaine kept talking. He leaned one hand against her door, affecting a casual move he’d seen in a spy movie. Her beautiful brown eyes looked up and she stopped talking.

He leaned. She leaned. Their lips touched. He felt her sweet, soft mouth.

Without moving his head, he raised his free arm and touched her shoulder. So far, so good. Next he’d move the arm against the door and pull her close to—

The door opened. A woman in green pajamas held a plate. Brian lost his balance and toppled onto the woman and a dozen pink-frosted cupcakes.

Chapter Four

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Elaine arrived at Starbucks early Saturday morning. She couldn’t wait to see Brian. Since last week, emails, instant messages, and their movie date made her feel she knew him very, very well. Besides his successful computer game business, he admitted he worked as a substitute teacher and wanted to be a writer.

Wednesday night’s date had been perfect. Though their goodnight kiss was brief—due to her roommate’s unfortunate interruption offering fresh-baked PTA cupcakes—she was certain Brian was her romantic and literary soulmate. Energized, she wrote late every night and now wanted to share her latest work.

She opened her laptop and watched the door over the screen. Brian walked in. She’d planned to give him a sophisticated, sexy smile, but when she saw his tall frame and excited expression, her lips parted in what she knew looked like a silly, toothy grin. She hoped they’d spend the entire weekend together…writing. He was nice and funny and…hot.

Brian waited for the barista to finish making their drinks. He smiled at Elaine at the corner table she’d chosen. After only one date, he thought of her as his girlfriend. He’d made dinner reservations at an excellent restaurant conveniently close to his condo. She was nice and funny and…hot.

In the glow of Starbucks’ red glass lights, Elaine’s fuzzy sweater turned rosy pink. Roses. Yes, on Monday he’d send roses to her school. Her co-workers would know she had a classy boyfriend. All week he’d thought about her. He searched the internet for first date dos and do nots until he found an Internet Romantic Date Test and followed every tip.

He hadn’t fixed the bugs on his Pirate Vixens of the Alien Galaxy or even thought about the Duke StarMaster manuscript.

Elaine watched Brian walk toward their table. Their first date had been heavenly. He told her he’d made reservations for dinner tonight. Not just a burger place. She’d googled him and wondered how such a nice, shy guy could write violent computer games, but gamers considered his work brilliant.

Brian handed her a Raspberry Mocha Frap, his fingers jerking when they touched hers around the cold container. He sat, readjusted his computer, and slowly slid closer until their denim-covered thighs touched.

She stopped breathing. His breath came faster.

Elaine recovered her voice first. “I asked one of my students, who always wears baggy black, if he knew Wham!*&%!Game!Planet, Inc. games. He said he bought every one.” She did not tell Brian she’d bragged that the designer was her boyfriend. “The next day, he’d read his homework assignment and wrote a poem. He was impressed I knew you.”

“I downloaded your Magic Princess of Quiescence Island eBook and read all night. You’re a talented writer. I printed out all two hundred pages. One of my students borrowed it. I told her my girlfriend wrote it.”

“I’m glad you liked my book.” Elaine felt her face flush. He’d called her his girlfriend.

“And for the next class she’d read the textbook chapter on mathematics of space travel. Your book inspired her.”

“So, how’s your writing?” she asked with a hopeful smile.

“Uh, didn’t get much new work done. Did you like the Duke StarMaster chapters I sent you?”

“Well.” She avoided his gaze. “I got this idea… Maybe you won’t like it, but I think we could…collaborate.”

“Yes…sure.”

She looked up in time to see him nodding like one of the dopey aliens in his Vixen One game. “Let me read what I wrote.” She took a deep breath before starting. “Tranquility’s pink cloud hovered above Peaceful Meadows. Her psychic nature sensed something important was about to happen. Bedwyn had been a royal pest since she told him if she lost her virginity, she’d keep her magic powers. Sadly, beautiful Bedwyn was not enough man for Tranquility. Just then with a roar and a cloud of smoke, a red personal spaceship landed and out stepped a tall, muscular man with an arrogant, take-charge attitude.

Duke StarMaster gazed upon the gorgeous, blond queen. Stunned by her beauty, he’d never seen a woman like this. This peaceful planet held no aliens or monsters to be quelled, but he could not get back in his ship, blast off, and leave her.

Tranquility, surrounded by her rainbow mist, floated close to the handsome blue-eyed space adventurer. ‘Duke StarMaster,’ she whispered, ‘you are my destiny. I will leave my peaceful planet and travel with you. We will spread peace throughout all galaxies.’ Her lavender eyes sent the silent message, No more Another Planet, Another Babe for you, Duke. ‘We’re soulmates forever.’

Duke smiled. She could read minds, too. ‘Yes. Together we shall spread peace, no matter how much blood is spilled.’”

Brian looked at Elaine. “Duke and Tranquility are truly in love.” Just like us.

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