There was no way things could get any worse that day. That’s what Camille thought. Snow was falling from thick grey clouds like confetti, turning everything into a total whiteout. Subways were shut and streets were emptied. And the heel of Camille’s left boot was hanging onto its dear life. But she wasn’t aware in the next two minutes, she would rather prefer having a déjà vu of the moment she slipped in front of the crowd.
Dragging her feet against the white tiles of her once-usual coffee shop, Camille queued up behind the tall, dark-haired man on the counter. The surrounding air swirled with the warm aroma of winter dreams. “Excuse me,” she said, stepping up for her turn. A warm cup of coffee in her hands would make a good prop till she glued her pride and heel back together.
But the man whirled around and rammed right into her as if he hadn’t heard her at all. The heel buckled and Camille staggered against the counter. Feeling the heel give up and clatter against the tiles, Camille’s soul was ready to leave her body. Wide-eyed, she didn’t dare to look down at the disaster.
His hands grabbed onto Camille’s shoulders as he exclaimed, “I’m so sorry!”
The thumping of her heart replaced the dull ache in her torso from being bulldozered. It was him! Camille had stolen enough glance of those eyes to recognize them in her sleep. The polished ambers locked with her gaze and Camille found herself gasping. Every muscle in her arms tightened. Yet somehow, she managed to choke out, “That’s okay.”
Roman Osborne was the man of her dreams for as long as she could remember. Since a year ago, he also became the man who gifted her the most embarrassing moment of her life. And here he was, taking the second spot as well. She could read every face in the world except the one staring back at her. As always.
A glance at her feet, Roman furrowed his brows and asked, “Are you okay?”
“I’m fine,” Camille replied, feeling her face burning up as she slid out of Roman’s grasp. If she ignored him and pretended like her heel was intact, maybe he’d go away. Sweat trickled down her back and she sunk in a sharp breath. Camille had approximately 30 seconds to come up with a plan. Kick it aside? Pick it up?
Plastering a smile on her lips, Camille whispered a quiet “hello” to the petite barista, who stared at Camille with wide eyes and concern painting her features. “One Cinnamon Mocha please,” Camille said, pulling out her wallet.
Against her better judgement, Camille stepped into the cursed coffee shop. Things were bound to go astray. Like they did almost a year ago when she confessed her undying love to Roman in the middle of the busy coffee shop on top of her lungs. Only for him to ask her if he knew her. At least, the place wasn’t filled today. Save for the trio of girls snickering away in the corner. And from the looks on their faces, Camille could tell they had seen it all. They were probably the type to go on and on about what just happened without caring if Camille heard.
When her order arrived at the counter and Roman hadn’t budged. Camille cleared her throat and let the curtain of her hair fall between Roman and herself. She bent down, picking up the ugly piece of heel in a quick sweep.
‘It’s done!’ she told herself, turning away from the counter with her eyes screwed shut and her muscles in her face tensed.
Though walking with a four-inch difference between the height of her left and right foot didn’t make her look graceful at all. Gritting her teeth, Camille continued dragging herself with a limp. Her fingers tightened around her heel before she felt a hand tuck under her elbow.
Camille’s heart leaped in her chest as her foot came down with a thud. If she wasn’t red enough already, the blush would’ve spread from her face to throughout her body.
“Let me help you, please,” Roman said, taking some of her weight off her foot. The warmth of his fingered gloves soaked through Camille’s coat and tingled her skin.
“It’s–” she whispered, unable to take her widened eyes off his face. “–thanks.” She had never seen him that up close. The tiny frown lines on his face became more pronounced as he stared at her lips, and Camille breathed out sharply.
Placing his cup of coffee on the closest table, Roman pulled the chair open. Helping Camille settle in, he asked, “Did you hurt yourself?”
Maybe it would’ve worked out better if she had fallen dramatically and earned herself a ride to the ER. That way, she could’ve saved herself from the walk of shame just now. “No,” Camille replied, letting out a sigh, “I have glue, I’ll fix it.”
“That will not fix it,” Roman replied, shaking his head.
Great then! Camille stretched her thin lips upwards dropping her heel by the foot of the chair. “I guess I’ll have to walk home bare feet.”
“I’m so sorry about this.” Roman glanced at her foot again. “I’ll be back.”
With his coat tightly secured around himself, Roman pushed open the coffee shop door. A gust of icy wind sent a shudder down Camille’s spine and her eyes widened, watching his tall form melt into the blinding white light outside.
Almost out of her seat, Camille screamed, “It’s not safe–” but the door shut and sealed the aromatic warmth inside. The four pairs of eyes in the coffee shop travelled from Camille to the daring man who had taken flight in the storm. And Camille shrunk into herself, lowering her head.
Her shaking feet created a rhythmic pattern against the tiles, eyes glued to the glass door. Maybe she didn’t scream loud enough for Roman to hear. Or he purposefully didn’t look back. Either way, this didn’t sit well with her. The snow was falling faster than ever and she was holding her breath for his return.
And when the door flung open, Camille’s lips weighed down in a frown at the sight of Roman. Raking his fingers through his tousled hair, flakes melting into them. And he walked in with a white shopping bag clutched against his chest and placed it near her feet.
Sitting on his knees by her feet, he pulled out a pair of white sneakers. And the way he stole a glance of her way, a warm smile ending on his delicate eyes. It was dangerous for Camille’s thumping heart. “I didn’t know what to get…”
“It’s dangerous outside–” she exclaimed when Roman placed the shoes by her feet. Clasping her hands in front of her chest, Camille couldn’t help but let her smile grow as she slid her feet into the shoes. “You didn’t have to.”
Once Roman settled back in the chair next to Camille, he finally looked her way and curled his lips upwards. “You’re welcome,” his voice echoed in the otherwise silent coffee shop.
Hearing a muffled chuckle from the trio in the corner, Camille went rigid as a board. The smile evaporated faster from her face than the flakes on Roman’s shoulder in the heated room.
Whatever heartstrings Roman had tugged on seconds ago, snipped, like a pair of scissors, had cut them off. As if she wasn’t already embarrassed by the day, now this can go onto the list of moments that would keep her up all night. Unable to meet Roman’s gaze anymore, Camille lowered her head. “Thanks…” she whispered, feeling her chest tighten.
“I hope it’s your size?” Roman asked, leaning forward to get a better look at her face. But no matter what Camille told herself, it looked as if his eyes kept lingering on her lips. As always, with Roman, she couldn’t tell his intent.
Was he trying to mock her now? Because it was working. Even the pair of shoes bit her back. As if mocking her for accepting his generosity. But what was she supposed to do? Throw them away and let her feet bleed with frostbite? With the shoes on, at least her legs felt warm.
“Yes,” she replied, nodding. “I’ll pay you.” They were a size bigger than what she wore, but the continuous embarrassment would shrink them, she was sure. Soon enough, they’d be perfect for babies.
“Why should you?” Roman said, his palm stretched out towards her heels, “I broke your heels.”
Camille cringed at how clear and audible his voice was. If he had whispered, maybe she would’ve told him the truth and let him off the guilt. But the least he could do after embarrassing her thrice was take the blame for one time.
Though lying made her feel the shoes growing smaller. And she just couldn’t take that. “Let me buy you a coffee then,” Camille said, springing from her seat. Gesturing towards his coffee, she continued, “yours got cold because of me.”
Roman shook his head. “Don’t worry about it.”
“I insist.” Peeking into his cup, Camille asked, “Was that an espresso?”
As if Camille needed to ask. Maybe she hadn’t completely decoded Roman, but she still figured out back in high school he loved espresso. She remembered him having coffee jitters during the exams when he pulled an all-nighter with too much caffeine. Maybe he wasn’t as open a book as the rest of the world, but he was still a book she wanted to read. Yes, even after embarrassing herself in front of him thrice!
When Camille had replaced his icy coffee with a hot one, the shoes felt a lot less tight. As her movements relaxed, she found the muscles in her left foot bunch, making her wince. Sitting down with a thump, Camille wiggled her toes in the shoes. Nothing seemed broken.
The surrounding lights flickered before going out. As if someone had flipped the switch and drowned them in the dusk. If not for the bright snow outside kissing the ground, everything would’ve disappeared into the darkness. In some ways, this was better. In others, not so much. Especially now that the light was out, the howling of the wind against the floor stood out. That is when the collective groans of the girls in the corner died down.
Raising the corner of her lips again, every fibre of her being told Camille to fill the silence that the dark seemed to have amplified. Especially when Roman was looking at her with a puzzled look on his face. She jerked her head towards the glass door behind him and said, “It keeps getting worse.”
As Roman’s eyes flickered from her lips to her eyes, he asked, “It’s the beauty of winter, isn’t it?”
Camille stared at him, trying to wrap her head around the sudden interest he seemed to have in her… face. She wanted to believe it was her entire face. Did he have amnesia? Last time, he forgot they went to high school together. This time he was behaving like he hadn’t heard a word of her rather lengthy confession. Well, two could play the game. Camille rose her brows and asked, “Do you like winter?”
He clutched onto his coffee cup, taking a quick sip of his coffee. “I like it better than summer,” Roman replied, squinting his eyes, pulling his face closer to hers.
Camille shook her head, feeling a shudder run down her spine. “But you can’t get anything done in winters.”
“You have to be at work?”
Camille could hear every pound of her heart in her ears. Not once in all the 10 years, she had known Roman had they talked half as much as they talked in the past few minutes. And he was still interested in asking her questions and keeping his gaze fixed on her face. She hummed in response and let her head drop as she asked, “Why are you stuck here?” As the silence dragged on, she asked again, “Do you work around here?”
But raising her head, she found Roman staring off into the distance outside the window. Empty cups and howling wind were not the perfect combinations. Neither was Roman sparing a glance in her direction every few seconds but choosing to remain mum. It might not have been so bad if Roman’s eyes didn’t linger so much on her lips. As the caffeine began kicking in, it only added to the jitters. And it made her shift in her seat. As a domino effect, the pain shot up her leg again and she grabbed onto the table, making it rock.
Roman’s head snapped towards her and he scooted closer. “Are you alright?”
Camille nodded fervently. “I slipped around the corner.” If she sat still, it wouldn’t hurt as much. The warmth of the shoe was making it better, anyway. But what was up with Roman and his gaze adorned with furrowed brows?
“Are you hurt?” he asked, throwing a quick glance at her feet and then returning to her face.
“Besides my pride?” Camille asked, letting out a chuckle. “I think my pocket.”
Roman’s brows snapped together, and he squinted his eyes. As if to focus really hard. “Your what?”
Camille blew out her cheeks. “I broke my laptop.” Her eyes remained fixed on Roman’s face before she lowered her head and said, “On the first day of work and now I’m not gonna show up.” As she rose her head again, Camille continued, “that’s some first impression, isn’t it?” Sealing her lips shut, Camille dug her teeth into her bottom lip.
Everything about Roman changed into someone unrecognizable. The signature smile Camille remembered disappeared. A glass barrier in front of his gaze seemed to put him miles away as he toyed with his coffee cup. “First impression?” he whispered, gulping in. “Do they really mean that much?”
Camille nodded. “It tells you everything you need to know about a person.”
“If I look at you, right off the bat I can tell you’re well off.”
Camille was sure he was fighting off a smile that made the corner of his lips twitch. “From everything that’s all you see?” Roman asked, tilting his head to the right and narrowing his eyes. He scoffed. “That’s not a great read on people.”
Roman mirrored the literal pause in Camille’s body. And her eyebrows shot up to meet her hairline. ‘Okay Mr. Pompous,’ she wanted to say. That smile he did a poor job at hiding told her Roman enjoyed that read on him. But she bit back her tongue, placed her fingertips against her lips, and replied, “Being well off tells me a lot about you.” From head to toe, he was dressed in expensive clothes. Even the shoes he bought her looked expensive. That said, a lot about his current situation.
Doing a complete 180, Roman inched closer with his hands sprawled across the table. “I’m sure your boss would understand why you didn’t show up on time on a day like this.”
“She doesn’t look the type to…” Camille’s voice trailed off. She just couldn’t get it out of her head. Leaning in, she crossed her arms over her chest and asked, “… what do you mean that’s not a good read on people?”
Roman shrugged. “People have a lot going on than what’s visible on the surface.”
“I think everything’s right there on the surface.” Hearing him chuckle at her response made her brows snap together, and she asked, “What?”
“You used to be timid back in high school.”
“I–what?” Camille leaned away, feeling her breath knocked out of her lungs. What happened to him not knowing her? Roman was giving her a whiplash! He was taking her world off its axis and spinning it like a top. She blinked a couple of times and watched him look out the window again. The darkness was already making it hard for Camille to read his features. And he seemed to have put in more distance between them by shielding his eyes from hers.
But Roman glanced at her again and his frown lines had re-appeared. Playing with the empty cup, he asked, “Isn’t it cold?”
Pressing her lips in a thin line, Camille mumbled, “You remember me, don’t you?”
But as the minutes dragged on, Camille risked raising her brows at Roman. Her heart was already in her mouth and Roman’s stoic face put her over the edge. Instead of giving her an appropriate response, he, too, rose his brows and asked, “What?”
Camille was ready to flip the tables. Was he pretending to be oblivious? It was making her blood boil. “You literally just said ‘back in high school’. Why are behaving all puzzled now?” she asked, springing up from the chair. Sure, she blurted out her feelings, and he didn’t feel the same way. But she thought they were past teenage. Apparently not for Roman. “Do you take me for a fool?” Camille picked her bag off the floor and turned away. “Like the last time.”
“What?” Roman questioned as his chair screeched against the floor. He was out of his seat and loomed closer to her. “Camille!”
Coming to a halt, she whirled around. Feeling the muscles in her jaw bunch, Camille let out an exasperated sigh. “You do know me!”
“I have hearing loss, so if you’re saying something without looking at me or when I’m not looking at you,” Roman whispered, gulping in. “I didn’t get what you said.” The frown on his face deepened and Camille could see him struggle to maintain eye contact.
Before Camille could stop herself, her mouth fell open. Eyes scanning his face, she blinked and rubbed the back of her neck. When did that happen? Shaking her head, she turned towards him. “Sorry I should’ve faced you,” she said, stepping closer, “I asked if you remembered me.”
It made sense now. He wasn’t being pompous, she was making it hard to communicate. Of all the skills she had gained, jumping to conclusions had to be the most developed. He wasn’t stepping close to her to play hot and cold. He was trying to read her lips!
“I do,” Roman replied with a smile.
In the dimly lit room, Roman and Camille settled back in their seat. This time, though, Camille didn’t shy away from his gaze. Arms folded in front of her on the table, she waited for him to speak.
“When we first met, I already remembered you. In fact, I singled out your face in the coffee shop,” Roman began, picking at the sleeve button of his coat. “You stood out as much as you did in high school,” he chuckled, looking away for a moment. “But I was not confident telling anyone about my hearing loss,” he sighed, forcing his lips to pull up in a smile. “It hadn’t been that long since my accident.”
Like ice thawed in front of the fireplace, Camille’s embarrassment melted away. She felt her body relax and nodded. “That’s understandable,” she said, trying not to hang onto the initial words that stumbled out of Roman’s mouth. “What happened though?”
“I had a sporting accident in college. My hearing loss is permanent. It took me a long while to accept it,” Roman replied, weaving his fingers in and out. “I feared the negative reactions, especially since it was my first time out alone,” Roman said, placing his chin on top of his hand. “I’ve had some terrible ones even with company and the last I wanted was from you.” Tensing his shoulder, he continued, “So, I kept my head down, thought I’d get my coffee and leave.”
“But I came up to you.”
“Just the thought of you finding out back then scared me,” Roman replied, pushing back his hair with a sigh. “And I was so bitter about everything.”
Now that Camille thought about it, she had the urge to smack herself. Running up to someone, with her head ready to stick to the ground, rambling on and on. What was she thinking? “My rambling wouldn’t have helped it.”
“Honestly,” Roman replied, chuckling, “it made things worse.” Shaking his head, he continued, “I got more nervous and before I could stop myself, I blurted out…” scrunching up his face, he said, “… do we know each other?” Screwing his eyes shut for a brief second, he massaged his temples. “Since I was struggling to communicate without letting someone know about my hearing loss. And I thought it’s not like we’re going to run into each other ever again.”
“It took a storm though,” Camille replied, jerking her head towards the window.
“And a lot of courage for me to talk to you again,” Roman said, nodding. His face grew stoic. “I’m sorry for my behaviour.”
“You shouldn’t be,” Camille whispered, furrowing her brows. “That must’ve been a hard time for you. As you said, you were bitter about everything, you did what you needed to do.”
“I did a lot of stupid things,” Roman said, narrowing his eyes and setting his lips in a straight line. His forehead puckered as he let out a sigh. “But I’m trying not to make the same mistakes again.”
Extending her hand across the table, Camille placed it over Roman’s forearm. “You’re being too hard on yourself.”
“I ought to be after what I’ve put my family and friends through.”
“You’re allowed to make mistakes too,” Camille replied, shaking her head. The corner of her lips twerked upwards. “And you’re working on yourself as you said. Appreciate it.”
“I made the same mistake again today,” Roman said, letting out a sigh, “I was trying so hard to find ways to tell you.” Looking at Camille from under his lashes, his grin spread from ear to ear. “It seems I was scared over nothing.”
Camille mirrored his smile, nodding. She pulled her hand back, tucking it under her arms. Of course! If only Roman looked at himself through her eyes, he’d know there was no reason for him to worry about.
“What did you say that day, anyway?” Roman asked, scooting closer. With his brows raised and arms crossed in front of his chest. “I didn’t catch any of it.”
Camille chuckled, feeling her ears burn up. “I said a lot of things,” she said, resting her cheek on her palm. Letting out a deep breath, she bit back her smile, “but I think all I really wanted to say was that I have had the biggest crush on you since high school and I was hoping we could get coffee together…” feeling Roman’s eyes on her face didn’t help the butterflies in her stomach, “… some time.” She screwed her eyes shut and continued, “Which we did…” pointing at the cups in front of them, Camille said, “… already.”
A frown tugged at Roman’s lips. “Did I use my chance then?”
“If I may add,” Camille said, holding up her finger. “I assumed the chance to be planned,” a grin spread across her face, “not left it up to a storm to make us run into each other.”
“Planned, unplanned, I’m glad this–” Roman replied, tapping on the cup in front of him, “–worked out.”
The kitchen door swung open, and bright light from the phone appeared in Camille’s vision. As the barista drew in a sharp breath, she dashed around the counter. “The subways are working!” she announced, drawing the attention of the girls in the corner.
Before Camille could open her mouth, she watched the barista walk over to their table.
“Sir,” the barista whispered as she tapped on Roman’s shoulder. Catching his attention, she smiled and raised her hands. Moving her hands in perfect sync with her words, she signed and whispered, “The subways are working now.”
Roman grinned. “Thank you,” he signed and whispered back.
“Shall I get your order now?” The barista signed again.
“Yes, thank you.”
The thick blanket of snow made everything look tiny. The newly clothed pavements and roads were beginning to see footsteps. Camille smiled, standing outside the coffee shop.
“You won’t be missing your first day after all,” Roman said, with his gloved hands shoved inside the pocket of his overcoat.
Back in the coffee shop, it didn’t seem like a bad idea. “Seems so,” Camille replied, nodding with a sigh.
“Thank you.” Turning on her heels, Camille watched her feet sink into the heavy layer of snow that covered every inch of the ground. She wondered if she should just turn and ask for Roman’s number. This time properly.
“Camille!” Roman’s voice made her turn around. His body went rigid as he asked, “Would you like to go out sometime?”
A smile slipped onto Camille’s lips. Raising her hand, she signed like she had seen Roman do a few moments ago. “Yes.”