Chapter One ""So?" Laurel Kane's coworker, Angela, looked at her expectantly.
They were standing on the Metro escalator, rising from the warm depths of the Dupont Circle Station into the frigid air of Connecticut Avenue.
A chill wind whipped them both in the face as they emerged. An effective wake-up early on this January morning in downtown Washington, D.C.
" 'So'?" Laurel repeated. "What?"
"So, how did it go this weekend?" Angela flipped the collar of her coat up around her ears, squishing brown, shoulder-length curls against cheeks pink with cold.
Laurel wrapped her gloved fingers around the ChapStick in her coat pocket and squeezed. She had hoped to avoid this topic, at least until she'd gotten into the office and had some coffee, but here she was, not even technically out of the Metro station, having to relive the awful scene. "Not very well."
"You didn't tell him? Or you did and it didn't go well?"
"Oh I told him. And no, it didn't go well." Laurel hunched into her coat as they approached the hot-dog vendor a block away from their office. It was early for hot dogs -- just after 8 A.M. -- but someone was standing by the cart. Someone with even worse eating habits than Laurel's, apparently.
She pondered how hard it would be to get a hot dog down first thing in the morning.
Angela gasped. "Laurel, look!"
Laurel wheeled to glance at her, then looked where she was pointing, expecting to see an oncoming bus or a mugging, or something other than the hot-dog vendor.
"Coffee!" Angela cried. "It's a coffee cart! I was just thinking I'd "kill for a cup of coffee."
"Jeez, Angela." Laurel put a hand to her chest as her heart labored to return to its normalrhythm. "I don't even "need coffee now. You scared me to death. I thought you'd at least spotted Elvis."
But Angela wasn't listening. She was racing down the sidewalk, teetering on the stilettoheeled pumps she favored, toward what had been, until today, the hot-dog vendor.
Despite being more comfortably shod than her friend (she wore flats with everything, fashion be damned), Laurel arrived a minute or so after her friend, only to see that the greasy, vaguely hostile balding man who sold meat products of questionable origin was now a youngish, rumpledlooking guy of indeterminate age. (Could be twenty. Could be forty. It all depended on what was under that army green ear-flapped hat and maroon scarf. Both of which suggested sixty.)
And it was true, he was selling coffee. The nectar of the gods.
Across the front of his cart was an orange-and- black logo, suggestive of Halloween, that said hot stuff.
Laurel had to admit, seeing coffee on this corner after years of smelling grilled fat every time she walked out of her office cheered her. Unbridled coffee consumption was one of her favorite vices.
Angela was ordering a cappuccino when Laurel caught up to her. "Skim milk, vanilla flavoring if you've got it, no sugar and just a single shake of chocolate on the froth." With her cute pixie smile -- she was Irish through and through -- Angela beamed with open interest at the side of the coffee vendor's face.
"I'll let you shake your own." Without even a glance in her direction, the vendor indicated with a fingerless-gloved hand a line of flavorings, sugars, cream and stirrers along the edge of the cart.
Angela giggled as if he'd said something provocative. Angela wouldflirt with the Pope if he had more hair.
"God, I "love this. Don't you, Laurel?" she enthused, her cheeks even pinker than they'd been in the wind. "I'm going to be down here five times a day."
"What happened to Frank?" Laurel asked the vendor.
He didn't look up as he snapped a metal part filled with ground coffee onto the machine. "Who?"
"The hot-dog man. Frank. Who used to be here."
The guy glanced at Laurel. What she could see of his expression -- narrowed, lightish eyes -- seemed to be lit with amusement. "The hot-dog man's name was "Frank?"
It took her a moment to realize what he meant, and once she did, she blushed. In the three years she'd worked here, walked by, occasionally bought from and talked to the hot-dog vendor, the irony of his being named Frank had never occurred to her.
She immediately wondered if she'd just assumed his name was Frank because the front of his cart had said frank's. It could easily have meant franks.
"See the confusion a misplaced apostrophe can create? she thought.
"I hope he's gone for good," Angela said. "I hate hot dogs. Please tell me you're a permanent replacement."
"Permanent's a relative thing," Coffee Guy said, Buddha-like.
"God Laurel, think of it." Angela breathed the words like Marilyn Monroe. "Caffeine, just steps away. We'll get so much more done!"
Laurel glanced again at the guy behind the cart. In addition to the hat, his scarf was bunched over the bottom half of his face as he watched the milk steam in the little chrome pot he held, but the outer line of one eyebrow swept the corner of an eye lined with shallow crow's feet. Not old, she thought, but not a college kid.
"So what's your name?" Angelaasked.
Though Angela had asked the question, Coffee Guy shot Laurel a sly look. "Joe."
"Well, nice to meet you, Joe." Angela held out her hand.
Laurel scoffed. "His name isn't Joe."
Angela looked at her. "What do you mean? He just said it was."
"Joe" handed Angela her coffee and she took it like a supplicant at the altar of consciousness. "Mmmmm."
"Anything for you?" He lifted a brow. "Laurel?"
It startled her, his knowing her name, but then she quickly realized Angela had just said it several times.
"Yes "Joe, I'd like a tall latte." She shifted ...
Elaine Fox grew up in Maryland, graduating from the University of Maryland with a degree in English. For the next ten years she engaged in a series of meaningful jobs during which she did a good deal of writing when the boss wasn't looking. In 1996 she got lucky and landed a publishing contract for her first book. That book went on to become a finalist for the Romance Writers of America's prestigious RITA Award and cemented her love affair with the job of writing. Elaine currently lives in Fredericksburg, Virginia, and loves to hear from readers.