Two cups of tea, one old flame and a stolen flash drive plunge Karen Winters into the past she’s determined to leave behind. Caught in the middle of someone else’s fight, she’ll need every ounce of strength to get back to the man who never really let her go.
The delicate bells on top the door jingled softly and she turned away from the tea canisters that didn’t need dusting to smile at her first customer.
“Welcome to Cup & Saucer. What can I get you today?”
The woman was nearly a caricature, wearing a white wrap-dress with black polka dots cinched by a thick black belt, saddle-style black and white pumps and huge dark sunglasses that looked like something from the eighties. The outfit was topped off with a wide-brimmed white straw hat, the band of which matched the fabric of her dress.
“Do you have cups to go, dear?” she asked with a glance at the china lined up and waiting. “I’m really in kind of a hurry, but I could use a hit of something strong. English Breakfast, perhaps?”
Karen nodded, reaching for a paper cup and insulating band. “Of course. I’ll have that ready for you in a minute. It will be two-fifty, please.” She placed a scoop of tea leaves into a wide filter bag and placed it in the cup, then poured boiling water over it from the hottest tap. Snapping a lid over the top of the cup and filter, she set a timer the size of a child’s watch face and stuck it to the side of the cup before taking the money the woman laid on the counter.
“What’s that?” the woman asked, frowning at the device as she picked up her cup.
“It’s a timer. When it beeps, your tea is done, and you should remove the teabag for optimal taste.” Karen held her breath, hoping it didn’t sound too odd. Everyone had scoffed when she came up with the idea, but she couldn’t think of any other way to ensure to-go patrons would get a cup that wasn’t over steeped. She’d approached a local company to build a prototype and paid far too much for the first batch, hoping they’d catch on.
The woman shrugged, her frown dissipating. “What a novel idea – thank you.” She pulled something out of her purse and laid it on the bar. “Now if you wouldn’t mind, a gentleman will come in later today and order English Breakfast as well, in a china teacup. Be a dear and give that to him, won’t you? Thank you!”
It was Karen’s turn to frown as she picked up the small black flash drive. “What’s his–” she looked up as the bells on the door jingled again. The woman was gone.
Karen examined the drive again, and then hesitantly put it under the bar beside the cash register, stifling the urge to plug it into her laptop and see what was on it. Her last job had been at the same security firm her now ex-fiance worked for, doing forensic discovery on hard drives, networks, and anything else that spoke binary. It had been rewarding, but draining, and she was glad that part of her life was over.
A fleeting image of Patrick entered her mind, fresh from the shower in nothing but a towel, smiling at something she’d said. She pushed the memory aside as she’d done for the past year since leaving him and her old life behind.
Turning her focus back to the present, she wondered what she should do if more than one man came in and ordered English Breakfast. How would she know which one to give the drive to? If she gave it to the wrong guy, would it be a security breach of some sort? She shook her head. It probably didn’t matter, and it definitely shouldn’t matter to her. Not anymore.
Maybe the guy would ask for it. That would help.
Measuring out a teaspoon of her best Yunnan tea into a stainless steel filter basket, she placed it in her favorite mug and filled it with water just barely under the boiling point. She set a timer for four minutes and waited. At least if the shop failed, she would never run out of tea.
* * * *
Patrick O’Neil parked across the street from his ex-fiancee’s new tea shop. As expected, it was perfect, from the lacy cream window swags to the jaunty teacup and saucer hanging from a wrought-iron fixture above the door. It would be neat and tidy inside, with everything clean and in its place. Karen had always liked everything in order. Everything had to make sense, or it would eventually have to be purged.
Just as he had, though he still wasn’t sure exactly what hadn’t made sense about their relationship. They both loved their jobs – or he’d thought they had, until Karen turned in her notice. She hadn’t even discussed it with him first. That night, she’d called off the wedding, given him back his ring and moved out, refusing to say another word.
He got out and locked the door, looking up and down the quaint little street full of shops similar to hers before he crossed the cobblestone street, one of the last of its kind in Bellevue. She wouldn’t be happy to see him, he knew, but she was the only one he knew who could decrypt this particular information. There wasn’t time to find someone else with a similar skill set.
An airy, tinkling sound announced his arrival when he opened the door, and Karen glanced up absently from her place at a long, beautiful wooden bar.
“I’ll be right with you,” she called out, looking down again. He kept moving forward, through the neat rows of small square tables set on the diagonal with matching chairs. She froze in place the moment his identity finally triggered in her brain, and slowly lifted her head.
“What are you doing here, Patrick?” She didn’t smile, pinning him with the intense stare meant to intimidate. Somehow she still didn’t seem to realize that it had never worked on him. Not in the way she wanted it to, anyways. Carefully adjusting his trousers, he slid onto a barstool and tried to focus on his purpose for being there.
“Good to see you too, Karen. I’ll take a cup of English Breakfast, if you don’t mind. And a woman should have brought in a flash drive for me?”
Karen retrieved the drive and slid it across the bar to him.
“I’ll make you a cup to go. That will be two-fifty.” Her words were measured and professional, with a healthy layer of stress threaded through. It probably would have been wise to send someone else, considering her reaction, but he’d wanted to see her again, selfish as that was. She’d turned his life upside down when she walked out, and for what? Some mid-life crisis? He wanted closure. Deserved that much, after five years together.
Right after she unlocked the contents of the drive for him.
“I’ll stay,” he said, earning a sharp glare. “Karen, I need your help.”