Authors: Alison Strobel
Tags: #General, #Christian, #Contemporary Women, #Fiction
Her eyes caught the profile of a woman ahead of her. A colorful scarf was draped over her head and shoulders in Muslim style. She considered what little she knew about Islam. It had all sounded ridiculous to her, but then again, it had been told to her by Christians, and of course they would accentuate the absurd. But there were millions of people who believed Allah to be the one true God—could millions of people really be completely wrong? Wouldn’t word get out that it was a sham if it was that easy to disprove?
Though she could say the same about Christianity.
Rachel rubbed her forehead. She felt a headache coming on. She needed coffee. Or maybe something stronger.
She forced the thought away, focusing instead on the thought of an iced mocha as she quickened her pace. She was parched by the time she reached All Together Now Café, but not so desperate for a drink that she didn’t notice what a great little shop it was. Truly an independent, its funky vibe made her smile as she drank a cup of water while waiting for her coffee. A Beatles theme was integrated into every aspect of the decor and menu, from a psychedelic mural and framed album covers on the wall to the “Come Together Cappuccino,” “John’s Java Special,” and the “Across the Universe” list of international blends.
Rachel took her drink to a seat in the corner and let her eyes roam the room. Mostly students made up the current clientele—lots of U of C garb and laptops surrounded by thick textbooks and notebooks with bent spirals. The shop was small, but clean and well lit, and the staff seemed to keep busy even when there were no manager types around. The music—she knew it was the Beatles playing, though she wasn’t too familiar with their music—wasn’t loud, and the menu was simple but not sparse: sandwiches, soups of the day, and a few bakery items were listed on the chalkboard menus along with the coffees and noncoffee drinks. She smiled. She could see herself here.
After finishing her mocha, she sent a prayerlike wish to whoever might be listening and stood to approach the register. The barista chose that moment to disappear into the back, leaving the counter unmanned. She was about to sit down when a new barista entered from the back, tying on his apron and singing along with the music. He looked at her and smiled—then smiled wider. Rachel’s heart almost stopped in her chest.
It was her Kiss from Las Vegas.
He shook his finger at Rachel, eyes glinting. “Weren’t you supposed to stay in Vegas?”
She laughed, completely shocked. “I could say the same to you.”
He came out from behind the counter, hand extended. “I suppose I ought to properly introduce myself. Jack Hanson.”
He rubbed a hand on the back of his neck, looking sheepish. “So, um … is it just me or is this a little awkward?”
“Maybe just a little.” She tried to control the nervous grin that threatened to split her mouth. She was completely embarrassed. She looked nothing like she had that night. Certainly he was asking himself what on earth he’d been thinking. “So … were you in Vegas for long?”
“Just the weekend. My brother’s bachelor party. He got married at the end of May. How about you?”
“Just the weekend too. A getaway with a girlfriend.”
The bell on the door chimed the arrival of a group of students. “Uh oh.” Jack made a dash for the counter, then gave Rachel an apologetic smile. “Duty calls.”
“Of course. No problem.” She took her seat and sipped her mocha, trying to regroup. Her job-hunt mojo had gone out the window the minute she’d recognized his face.
Focus, focus! You need to ask him for a manager.…
He finished with the group and came back around to her table. “So how is it that I’ve never seen you before?”
“I just moved here yesterday.”
“You’re kidding! Well there’s kismet for you. Where from?”
“California. I actually came in because I’m looking for a job. I know there’s no sign out front, but I figured—”
“Oh, you’ll want to talk to Ruby Jean then.” He leaned in, smiling. “We just lost a couple people, so you’re in luck.” He disappeared into the back for a moment, then returned with a tall red-headed woman that reminded Rachel of Rosie O’Donnell. “Hey there. How can I help you?”
Rachel forced herself not to be distracted by Jack and turned on the professional aura. “I know you don’t have a sign in the window, but I really like your shop, and I’m looking for a job. I don’t suppose you’re hiring?”
The woman paused for just a beat, then nodded. “I am, actually. You caught me in the middle of writing up the classified. Got a minute to talk? Come on back.”
Kismet is right.
Rachel followed her to the back office, which was also Beatles themed, sitting opposite her in the only other available desk chair. “I’m Ruby Jean Cronin, by the way. Or Ruby, or R. J., or whatever comes to mind when you need me. I own and manage. What’s your name?”
“I’m Rachel Westing.” She offered her warmest smile.
“I haven’t seen you in here before.”
“Well, I just moved from California, arrived yesterday.”
“Oh—welcome to Chicago then. Coming to the university, I assume?”
“No, actually. I have a friend who lives a few blocks down, and I moved in with her. Just … needed a change.”
Ruby Jean chuckled. “I’ll bet this is a change from California. Maybe not now, but in six months—whooee!” She grinned, and Rachel felt the positive vibe growing. “So do you have coffee-shop experience?”
“I do, yes.” Rachel handed Ruby Jean a resumé. “I worked at an independent café called
, first as a barista, and then as a manager. Five years total.”
Ruby Jean took the resume and cocked a brow. “Really?”
Rachel nodded. “And I noticed you operate a portafilter machine—that’s what we used as well. I know those aren’t as common anymore, but I prefer them to the automatic machines. I’m glad to see you have one.”
Ruby Jean smiled. “Why do I get the sense you really know your coffee?”
Rachel matched Ruby Jean’s smile with her own. “I’ll be honest. I’m a bit of an addict. You don’t just get an employee if you hire me. You get an expert.”
Ruby Jean leaned back in her chair as her expression took on the look of a challenge. “I prefer African and Central American coffees over those from South America. Know much about them?”
Rachel took a deep breath, savoring the feeling of familiarity that came with a discussion about one of her favorite obsessions. “Let’s see. Well, Guatemalan coffee comes from one of three growing regions and is usually medium- to full-bodied. It usually has a spicy or chocolatey flavor, and the taste is usually described as rich or complex. Costa Rican coffee is considered to have perfect balance between body and acidity. Ethiopian coffees come from one of three growing regions and are usually named for them—”
Ruby Jean let out a laugh and held up her hands. “Okay, okay, you win. I’m impressed, I really am. I’m used to these college kids who just need a job for beer money; I never thought I’d find someone who actually knew their stuff without me trying to drill it into them. What turned you on to coffee like that?”
“Mission trip to Brazil when I was in college. I’d never had it before that, but the host family my team stayed with gave us each a giant thermos full of it when we left in the morning. After drinking it on and off all day for a week, I was hooked.” She didn’t bother with the rest of the story—how everything about that trip had intensified and solidified her faith and how, for the months following, the taste of coffee had brought back those emotions of being so close to God, so alive in her spirituality. Upon arriving home she’d begun to brew a cup every morning as a symbol of her devotion, and only after getting the job at
had she begun to branch out into other roasts and regions and start experimenting with flavors. Somewhere along the line the connotation had been lost, though she hadn’t noticed it happening. She wondered what had made her stop thinking of God when she drank it.
Ruby Jean’s eyes sparkled. “A mission trip? With a church, you mean? What religion are you, if I may ask? And just so you know, it has no bearing on the job—if your references check out you’ve totally got it.”
Rachel’s jaw dropped. “I do? Thank you! Oh—and I was with a Protestant church.”
“So you’re a Christian.”
Rachel squirmed, embarrassed now that she’d shared so much. “Um, well—I was, yes.”
“Ah.” Ruby Jean nodded. “Well. I’m going to call your previous boss after we’re done here, and assuming his report is as glowing as I expect it to be, you’re hired. I’ll start you at barista just to get you used to the place, but I foresee you moving to manager in a few months, provided all goes well. How does that sound?”
Rachel couldn’t stop the smile that stretched her face. “That sounds fantastic!”
“Great! Well, why don’t we go to the front and you can show me your skills on the machine. Not that I doubt you, but I suppose I should be thorough, eh?” She led Rachel to the front where she made the next three coffee orders that Jack rang up. Ruby Jean promised to call Rachel that evening with her schedule for the rest of the week. She left for home with “Twist and Shout” stuck in her head, Jack’s face etched in her mind, and a nagging reminder that she’d gotten exactly what she’d prayed for.
Rachel nearly pounced on Daphne when she walked in from work that evening. “You are never, ever going to guess what happened to me today.”
“You got a job.”
Rachel laughed. “Yes …”
Daphne let out a whoop and wrapped Rachel in a bear hug. “Congratulations! Where?”
“All Together Now Café. It’s just down the street.”
“Oh, I’ve been there before. Cute little place. My bus passes it every morning—I don’t remember seeing a job sign there, though, or I would have told you about it.”
“They didn’t have one out yet. The manager was writing one when I got there.”
Daphne gave Rachel a high five. “Time to celebrate!”
“I already ordered pizza. It should be here in five.”
“Perfect. I’ll get some drinks for us to toast with.”
“Okay, but there’s more to this story. Remember the night we went dancing in Vegas?” Rachel followed Daphne to the kitchen and hopped onto a barstool as Daphne pulled a bottle of wine from the fridge.
Daphne laughed. “Are you kidding? Of course I do. It’s not often I go out looking like Madonna—or see you actually dancing.”
Rachel rolled her eyes. “Yes, yes, I know. Okay, so—remember the guy who danced with me?”
“Oh yes, absolutely.”
“Well … guess where he works.”
Daphne’s jaw dropped. “You are making this up.”
“Scout’s honor, I am not.”
Daphne howled. “Did he recognize you?”
“Surprisingly, yes. Even without the hair and makeup.”
“Tell me everything!”
Rachel described their exchange as Daphne poured two glasses of wine. “It was so embarrassing,” she said when she reached the end of the story. “But at least he seemed as embarrassed as me.”
Daphne handed her a glass of wine. “A toast!” Daphne raised her glass. “To Rachel, on whom the goddesses of love and fortune have chosen to pour their blessings. May some of it rub off on me.”
They laughed and clinked glasses before Rachel took an eager taste. Her lips puckered against the taste despite her attempt to keep her face neutral, but it wasn’t enough to stop her from a second—and third—sip. “So, I do have one problem,” she said when she put down her glass. “I’m supposed to start at eight tomorrow morning, but my bed is supposed to arrive between ten and noon.”
” Daphne said. “I don’t have any appointments tomorrow morning, so I’ll just go in once it arrives.”
“Saving my butt once again.” Rachel bowed in gratitude.
“Happy to do it! So tell me about the job. That’s a neat little joint; I’ve been there before.”
The doorbell rang and Rachel answered, wallet in hand, to pay the delivery boy. Daphne brought their drinks to the living room, and they sat on the couch as they ate and Rachel recounted the details of her interview. “Anyway, I like the feel of the place, and being told I practically have a promotion already is exciting.”
Rachel took another few sips of the wine. The taste was growing on her. “I feel so good right now. Everything is falling into place. This was such a good decision.”
“Well, it was long overdue. Maybe the universe has just been waiting for you to step up and take control of your life. I can’t wait to see what else is in store for you.”
They made sundaes for dessert and popped in a movie to round out the evening’s celebration. The opening credits had barely ended when the phone rang, and hearing the sexy tone in Daphne’s voice was enough to tell Rachel she’d be preoccupied for a while. Rachel turned off the television and wandered into her room to admire her new furniture. Though mismatched, each piece had character and potential and required only a new paint job. She began contemplating a color scheme, then noticed a change in Daphne’s voice as her muffled words floated under the doors.
Rachel turned on her radio, determined not to eavesdrop, but Daphne emerged moments later and poked her head in the door. “Sorry about that. Man trouble.” She rolled her eyes. “Still up for the movie?”
“Oh—yeah, sure. Everything all right?”
“Yeah, yeah, it’s fine. Paul’s just giving me grief about tomorrow.”
“About coming in late? Look, I can call the mattress place and tell them to wait until the weekend—”
“No, no, you need a bed, the couch is totally awful to sleep on, I know. Don’t worry about it.” She flashed a smile that Rachel could see right through, but she resisted the urge to push the subject, choosing instead to follow Daphne back to the living room and lose herself in the sappy romance they’d selected.
The light bulb in Rachel’s head went off an hour into the movie. She grabbed the remote, hit pause, and blurted, “Paul’s your boss, isn’t he!” Daphne’s cheeks reddened. “Daphne, you can’t date your boss.”
“Well, he’s not exactly my boss. I mean, I report to him, but it’s not like he’s a whole level above me or anything. He’s a personal shopper, too, but sort of, like, the head one, you know? Honestly, it’s not a big deal.”
Rachel opened her mouth to protest, then promptly shut it again. After a moment she raised her hands in surrender. “Okay, I’ll trust you, but it just doesn’t sound kosher to me.”
Daphne just smiled. “Kosher is overrated.”
Rachel walked into All Together Now with five minutes to spare before the start of her first shift. She felt bouncy with nervous energy despite the kink in her neck. She couldn’t wait to sleep on her new bed.
Jack flashed her a smile as he finished creating a latte. “Hope you’re ready to dance,” he said with a wink, nodding to the line that snaked from the register nearly to the door.
She felt her cheeks flush. “I hope so too, for your sake.” She made her way to the office and poked her head into the open door. “It’s busy out there.”
Ruby Jean nodded and pointed to a paper-clipped stack of forms in the center of the other desk. “It is—let’s get this paperwork filled out so you can begin working.” When Rachel was done with the forms, Ruby Jean tossed them into an inbox and handed her an apron. “Here you go. I’ll get a name tag made up for you in a bit. Ready to start?” Rachel tied on the black apron with the café’s logo on the front and nodded, butterflies fluttering. She followed her new boss to the front counter, where Jack was tag-teaming with another employee—the male version of Julia from
, it seemed—whose name tag said “Cole, manager.” Ruby Jean pointed to a flat, silver surface with a handle in the center. “Sandwich fixings are in here.” She pulled it up to reveal a row of condiments, lettuce, sprouts, and tomato slices, as well as three loaves of sliced bread and three canisters of deli meat. “Turkey, roast beef, and ham,” she said as she pointed to the canisters, “and white, wheat, and rye. Refills of everything are in the fridge in the back room.” She continued to point out various supplies and explain procedures until the door opened and a gaggle of backpack-toting twentysomethings poured in. “Ready to jump in?”
Rachel took a deep breath. “I think so.”
“Great. Why don’t you fill drink orders while Jack takes them; he’ll take three or four, then help you catch up. We’ll train you on the register when it’s slower.” She gave Rachel a pat on the back. “Glad you’re here, Rachel.”
“Thanks, Ruby Jean. So am I.”
Jack greeted the next customer at the till and marked her order along the side of a cardboard cup, then handed it to Rachel. She gave the machine a quick looking-over before diving in and mixing an Act Naturally Vanilla Latte. With the unfamiliar layout of the supplies on the counter and an espresso machine that sported a few differences from the one she was used to, it took a couple orders before the rhythm Rachel was used to fell into place. But by the end of her first hour she was back in the groove and keeping pace with Jack, who only had to mix a few drinks to keep up with the customer flow.
The morning rush began to dwindle, and after placing the lid on the last standing order and handing it off to the customer, Jack held his hand up to her for a high five. “You’re fast. You’ve done this for a while, haven’t you?”
Rachel slapped his hand and straightened a listing tower of cups as Jack wiped down the counter in front of the espresso machine. “Five years, full time for three.”
He laughed. “Guess that counts as ‘a while.’ No wonder. It’ll be nice working with someone who knows what she’s doing. The guys who quit were clueless, even after two months.”
“You know what you’re doing too. How long have you worked here?”
“Here—nine months or so. Was at Starbucks during my undergrad in Indiana for two years, though.”
“Are you at the university here now, or do you just live here?”
He made a face she couldn’t decipher. “Just living here, for now. You a student?”
He pulled a can of Coke from the glass display case and popped the top. “So what made you come out here—that fiancé of yours?”
Rachel frowned, puzzled. “How did you know I’d been engaged?”
“In Vegas you, ah—”
“Oh, right, I told you after we, um ...”
He gave her a sheepish smile. “Yeah … I should apologize for that, by the way. I don’t usually go around kissing strangers. I think I’d had one beer too many before we got to the club.”
Rachel felt her face warming. “Oh, it’s all right.”
“So … you said you’d
engaged. Meaning you’re not now?”
“I’m sorry. It’s not because I kissed you, is it?”
She laughed. “No. It’s not.”
“Okay, good.” He grinned, then frowned. “But that still sucks. I’m sorry.”
She waved a hand, then busied herself with straightening a display on the counter that didn’t really need straightening. “Dodged a bullet, actually. So no worries.”
“Well, I hope Chicago treats you better.”
She couldn’t help smiling. “It has so far.”
Another customer rush brought their conversation to an end, and for the next half hour they danced around each other behind the counter, taking orders and making drinks. Rachel was steaming milk when her phone vibrated in her pocket; Daphne’s name showed on the screen when she took a peek. The rush had died down, and Jack waved her toward the door when he saw her glancing at her phone. “Ruby’s cool with personal calls, so long as you’re not neglecting customers. Go ahead; I’ll be fine.”
The voice-mail icon popped up just as she reached the sidewalk. “Hey girl.” Daphne’s voice was heavy. “The mattress people haven’t come yet, but Paul’s giving me grief about coming in late, so I need to go. I’m so sorry. I hope you get this in time to come home or call them to reschedule or something. Please don’t hate me! See you tonight. Bye.”
Rachel groaned. She could call the store and reschedule—but another night on that couch would be awful. Her neck twinged just about every time she raised her left arm. She went to the office. “Ruby Jean, I’m so sorry, but I need to go home, just for a bit. The people delivering my bed are supposed to be coming before noon, and my roommate was supposed to be there but now she won’t be, and the couch is a nightmare—”
Ruby Jean held up a hand. “Breathe, Rachel.” Rachel shut her mouth, embarrassed. “We’ll call it an early lunch. Just come back as soon as possible, okay? We really need all hands on deck when the lunch rush starts.”
Rachel had her apron off and was halfway out the door by the time Ruby Jean finished talking. She threw a “Thank you so much!” over her shoulder before the door closed behind her, then broke into a run.
She felt like an idiot. Dodging pedestrians, she panted her way down the sidewalk, willing the mattress people not to arrive before she got there. Daphne had called around 10:10; by the time she got home it would be about 10:25. The delivery window had been ten to noon. What were the odds they’d arrive in the fifteen-minute block that no one was home?
She had her answer as she caught her breath at a red light with the house within view. A truck sat in front of it, and while Rachel couldn’t see the side to read the name, she knew in her gut it was them.
Come on, stupid traffic light!
Unable to stomach the wait, she scanned the intersection for oncoming cars, then made a mad dash against the signal.