Authors: Elise K. Ackers
He stood near a bin on the footpath, picking the beetroot and tomatoes from his chicken and salad roll and discarding them as a biting wind swept down the street. His ears ached and his pants legs flapped and lifted, exposing the flesh above his ankles. He believed in getting away from his desk each day, but this was ridiculous. As was the thought that she would have returned to the café, but that hadn’t stopped him from walking down to check — hence the whir of caffeine.
He would return there tomorrow morning at the same time. Earlier. And he’d wait. She would go there again. If not tomorrow, another day. And he’d be there then, too.
However long it took to thank her, to maybe have a conversation. To tell her what finding that letter had meant to him. She had left it to be found, he was sure of it. There was the small chance that another had penned it, but instinct told him otherwise.
The same instinct which lifted his gaze to the opposite footpath.
That siren colour stood out amongst the blacks and greys of coats, business suits and moods — the red, coupled with the pale blue umbrella. The burst of romance. This morning she had been one of dozens wearing that, but right now she was somehow the only one — striking in her difference.
She moved quickly, her shoulders dipping low each time she stepped around someone.
Lettuce and carrot fell from his chicken roll as he darted between people and checked for traffic. But the lunchtime rush of cars, cabs, trucks and bikes left him stranded on the wrong side of the street.
Then the pale blue umbrella abruptly changed direction, and within moments, it, and the woman concealed beneath, were crossing the street ahead of him. Another abrupt turn and they were moving away.
Ian mumbled his apologies as he bumped people aside, and he was panting by the time he reached the wide revolving doors of the tallest office building on the block. Slowed by these, he didn’t emerge in time to call to her. She’d passed through a set of security gates and stepped into a lift, the doors closing seconds after he saw her.
He ignored the people who regarded him as they passed, and smiled at the security gates and the promise they offered. She would return here this afternoon. And when she did, he wouldn’t have sandwich fillings all over himself, and he’d have a reply.
Three hours later, sitting at his desk and ignoring the tasks he’d set for his afternoon, Ian stared at the latest of the many replies he had written and discarded. He wanted to tell the woman wearing the hearts how her letter had made him feel, except right now that was just anxious — which was hardly the stuff of sonnets.
After everything fate had given him today, would it deny him at the eleventh hour?
He could only guess when she would leave work for the day, had presumed it would be before five because she had started early — but there was so much out of his control. She could have a late afternoon meeting, she could have been called out of the office. She could even have just been visiting that building — access pass notwithstanding.
The sixth draft of his letter followed the others into the bin. He reread his seventh attempt, wished his handwriting was better, and decided to stop torturing himself. Ian wasn’t eloquent. He couldn’t make words flow. He was good with numbers, equations and measurements — and right now everything was adding up to being out of time.
He glanced at his watch.
Her letter suggested that her heart was unclaimed. There was no lover to curl hands into her hair or kiss the constellation of beauty spots on her throat. Thinking this, Ian couldn’t wait any longer. All of those things he’d imagined…her walking through his door, smiling, even laughing against his mouth — it all seemed possible now.
Assuming he didn’t make a fool of himself.
Ian slid the letter inside the pale pink envelope and flipped it over. What to write on the front? Something personal? Or maybe something clever…
He stared at the blank rectangle. Pressure thumbed against his temples and panic tickled his lungs. It was time to leave, but the perfect words still hadn’t come.
Striding to the lift, jacket on and bag in hand, Reese was ready to see the end of February fourteenth. Every minute had felt like two this afternoon. She’d been one of thousands who’d wished her day had been different, and all that dreaming had taken its toll. Despite the letters she’d shared, which had cheered her, she was tired.
She’d thought about lingering in the city this evening — there wasn’t anyone to hurry home to, after all. But her favourite Chinese take-out and a romantic comedy were luring her home. A night under a blanket, maybe a few candles on the side table and a glass of wine. Only a strong arm around her shoulders could improve that picture, but she wasn’t going to wallow, or let that unanswered wish ruin her evening.
A woman in the lift was holding a bouquet of perfectly bloomed roses. Their gorgeous scent flooded the small space, bringing to mind spring gardens and sunshine. It was such a nice thought that Reese promised herself a colourful bunch of gladioli from the flower shop near the train station. She’d put them in a vase beside the TV, in her line of sight, and she’d smile at them whenever loneliness peeked around her heart.
The night ahead seemed to be improving by the moment.
The lift doors rolled open on the ground floor and she stepped out, her mind on what else she could do to spoil herself. She swiped her access pass at the gates, they sprang apart, and her workday was over.
The lobby wasn’t full of departing staff yet — she’d left earlier than her typical finish time — and the many floors above her were still full of people staring at the clock, wishing for their Valentine’s Day to end, or continue on elsewhere. Reese walked past two women standing together, clutching keep-cups and talking about their children, and a man who was holding a single long-stem rose. He glanced at his watch and stared at the lift banks, waiting.The corners of Reese’s mouth lifted as she pulled her coat tight around her chest.
There was another man sitting on one of the stylish, sharp-lined arm chairs near concierge, staring at something in his hands. When he looked up, he was familiar to her, although she couldn’t guess why. Perhaps he was a client or stakeholder she’d seen in the office a time or two.
Whatever the case, she seemed familiar to him, too. He looked suddenly startled.
She smiled politely and kept walking.
“Wait!” he called. “Excuse me!”
Reese turned slowly, panic and embarrassment doing a dizzying dance in the region of her stomach. She tried desperately to place him, to match his finger-length dark hair, brown eyes and slightly upturned nose to a name, or even to a moment she could refer to, when she spoke. “Yes?” she answered, stalling as her mind scrabbled for information.
“I’ve been waiting for you,” he said. When he reached her, she guessed he was a head taller than her. His suit was the same colour as the weather. The top two buttons of his white collared shirt were undone and it was tucked behind a black leather belt with a subtle silver buckle. He offered her what he carried and she noted the small soccer ball cufflink at his wrist. “This is yours.”
It was pale pink envelope, definitely not hers. Hers had been the colour of sunshine and friendship. But yet the words on the front…
To the woman wearing the falling hearts
She blinked, startled. It wasn’t her name, but it was certainly for her. The man dropped a pen into the breast pocket of his jacket as she hesitated.
“Open it,” he urged. Their eyes met and she felt that same curious flash of recognition.
She liked his voice. A strange thought for the moment, but an interesting one nonetheless. She swallowed and flexed her fingertips against the smooth surface. “How can this be for me?”
“You left a letter,” the handsome stranger explained, “in a coffee shop this morning.”
“You got my letter?” He nodded even as she shook her head. “But it was anonymous.” And she remembered him now. Not from this morning, but from countless other times she had crossed at the same lights as him, or boarded the same train. Their commute routines matched. As had, it seemed, where they had got their coffee today.
“I saw you leave it, and this afternoon I saw you walk into this building. I wanted you to…” His gaze dropped to his feet for a moment, then returned to her face. “I wanted to reply. This is your reply.”
“No one’s ever replied.”
He smiled. “Meaning you’ve done this before?” Without waiting for her answer, he steered her towards the armchairs and sat on the edge of the one nearest her. She sat opposite him, holding the envelope in both hands, blindly feeling it edges.
“I write love letters to strangers.” She swallowed when his smile broadened. “Often. I think it’s a nice thing to do.”
“It’s an extraordinary thing to do. I think it’s great. I loved getting one.” His attention returned to what she held and she realised his impatience.
She pulled the folded sheet of paper out and held it open on her lap.
I have both savoured and endured this day. Savoured it because of the gift you gave me, and endured it because it’s taken me this long to find you again
You say you’ve claimed my heart, my Valentine, but what of my hope? Because that has belonged to you since the moment I saw you today
I hope that you will allow this special, one of a kind, limited edition fool to buy you a cup of coffee
I also hope that you won’t laugh at me. I’ve never done this before
Reese pretended to be a slow reader to give herself time to think. This man, this stranger, had not only replied to her letter but recycled her words. Not with mockery or laziness, but with seeming earnestness.
She swallowed and looked up into his anxious eyes. “You’ve really never done this before? It’s a great letter.”
His shoulders dropped a little as he began to relax. “You’re the first, second and third woman I’ve written a love letter to.”
Her lips curved. “Ah, so there were drafts?”
“You’re holding lucky number seven.”
She looked down and folded the page in half. She eased it back into the envelope. When she answered, she felt shy and girlish. “How could I refuse a coffee from the man who’s written me seven love letters?”
His answering smile was dazzling. He offered her his hand to shake. “I’m Ian.”
His skin was smooth and his grasp thrilling. He’d struck that delicate line between gentle and firm and it made her think of other, less innocent things.
When he stood, he didn’t release her. And when it was time to move, he passed her hand from his right to his left, so that he could hold it as they walked. The gesture was so sweet — even more so because he didn’t draw her attention to it — that she smiled for the two blocks they walked. They passed dozens of coffee shops, restaurants, and bars, but Ian clearly had somewhere in mind. And for the moment, Reese was happy to be led. Happy to be escorted somewhere by a dashing gentleman on this most romantic of days.
The bar Ian chose boasted a futuristic industrial theme. There were vintage circuit boards affixed to one wall, a row of hands on another with light cords entwined through the outstretched fingers.
She smiled when he checked her expression for approval.
They didn’t order coffee. Reese ordered a wine and Ian a beer, then he was leading the way again, through the bar to a back corridor.
Beyond the doorway was another world. The raised floor looked like a bleached boardwalk, and the sunken area to its left was carpeted and cluttered with mismatched chairs. A rocking chair, a lumpy couch, a high-backed armchair and a park bench were just some of the seats which filled the space. There was a modified piano in the corner and a fireplace beside it, blessedly lit and breathing warmth into the room. Its flames seemed to spar with the small tea lights on each of the dissimilar tables.
But all of it was unremarkable in comparison to the ceiling.
Suspended above them were dozens of grey painted branches. Faux Spanish moss tumbled between the boughs, ghostly white and as unexpected as it was perfect. It made Reese think of swamp lands, moonshine and mysteries, and the fairy lights strung about the room added sparkle and dazzle.
Reese didn’t know how long she stared, but it was Ian’s soft chuckle which brought her back.
“This place is incredible,” she said, her voice just above a whisper. There was something about the mood of this room which quietened her.
The light was dim and the shadows exaggerated the angles of Ian’s face. He looked even more handsome than he had on the street, and infinitely more mysterious. He nodded, and she could see the glitter of fairy lights in his eyes.
She breathed it all in, and was enchanted.
“I feel like I’m in a New Orleans bayou when I come here. Where would you like to sit?” he asked, wanting her to take the lead this time.
She grinned. There may have been more romantic choices, but it had been twenty years since she’d sat in a rocking chair. She edged towards it and he laughed.
He dragged the high back armchair so close to the rocking chair that their knees almost touched.
“I can’t believe we have this place to ourselves.” Reese gazed around the room then into the warm, flickering face of the fire. “Actually, I’m struggling to believe I’m here at all, to be honest.”
“You were going home?” he asked, propping his elbows on his knees and leaning forward.
“Yes. To take-out and TV.”
He nodded, amused. “I was doing the same. But I’m not sorry my plans changed. How long have you been writing letters to people you’ve never met?”
Reese lifted her heels and the chair rolled back. “About two years. I had a really good day a couple of years ago and I didn’t have anyone to share it with. So I wrote a letter. It said something like, ’I hope that this kind of happiness finds you’. I felt really good about doing it, so I did another, and then another.” She was rocking now. “Now I mostly focus on special occasions. The holidays — Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, that sort of thing.”