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Love Beyond Words

By:Emma Scott

ce to meet you, Natalie.”

“You too,” she murmured, and her words were drowned by the dinging cash register.

“I’m sorry?”

“I said, you too. It’s uh, nice to meet you too.” Natalie bit her lip. Customers didn’t typically introduce themselves to her; she fought for something to say. “Is it Russian?” she blurted.

“Russian? Oh, you mean…?”

“Your name.” She prayed he didn’t see the blood flood her cheeks. “I mean, it sounds Russian.”

“Croatian, actually.”

He didn’t look Eastern European and his accent sounded Spanish or maybe Italian. Natalie managed to keep these observations to herself, but struggled to come up with something better to say instead.

“It’s all right. I get that all the time. A common mistake,” Julian said, obviously mistaking her silence for irritation at being corrected.

Natalie waved her hands. “No, no, I wouldn’t know. I mean…it’s a nice name.” She thought that if the ground opened up and swallowed her she’d consider it a mercy killing.

Julian smiled again. He wasn’t just handsome or good-looking, he was beautiful. With reluctance, Natalie handed him the pastry bag.

“Right, well…thank you.” He grinned sheepishly. “Again.”

“You’re welcome.”

His gaze found hers, and his smile softened, looked almost wistful. “Okay. Good bye, Natalie.”

“Good bye, Julian.” She loved the sound of his name on her lips. A smart, sexy name, she thought, that suited him perfectly.

“Have a nice evening,” he said.

“You too.”

Natalie battled her shyness, fought for something to say, or the courage to simply call him back and see what happened next. She leaned forward, opened her mouth, and…he was gone. The bell above the door tolled his departure. Natalie watched him cross the street; her gaze stuck on him. A bus trundled past, obscuring him completely, and when it was gone, so was he. Vanished, like a ghost or a mirage.

“He may as well have been,” Natalie said, her words swallowed by the café’s emptiness, silence descending once again.

The hours dragged after that. Her book couldn’t compete with the memory of Julian Kovač’s gentle voice, or impossible blue eyes, or that last, wistful smile he’d given her.

At eleven o’clock she shut off the lights and locked the café doors. A night-owl bus rumbled down the empty street, burping and hissing its way toward her. She watched it go past, saw the tired-looking faces of its few riders. She wasn’t tired at all. In fact, she felt strangely awake. Her nerves hummed like the electrical lines that harnessed the buses from above and kept them tethered to their routes. She rubbed her fingers on her dress—she imagined she could still feel where they’d touched Julian’s hand—and berated herself for feeling so distracted over some strange man she was never going to see again.

From Niko’s threshold, it was a two-step walk to her own front door, as she lived directly above the café. She unlocked the white metal gate in front of the stairwell that led to her place and started up the dark, airless passage; her footsteps clapped hollowly on the old stairs.

She opened her front door and flipped on the entry light. Her bedroom—an area only big enough for a bed, a closet, and a nightstand—faced the front door and remained dark, closed off by a curtain. To the right of the entry, the rest of her apartment—a rectangle of living area, kitchen, and a bathroom at the far end—was illuminated faintly by streetlights. She’d decorated sparingly to keep it from being swallowed by furniture, but it was in danger of being overtaken by books instead. The entire wall facing the couch was dominated by bookshelves, and a homeless pile of hardcovers sat stacked at the threshold of the kitchen. Stalagmites of paperbacks ringed her desk by the window, but she couldn’t bear the thought of getting rid of any of them, not even those she’d read multiple times. Especially not those.

Natalie slipped between her couch and coffee table, past her one ratty chair, and stood at the curved window overlooking the street. She started to close the heavy, thick curtains she had installed upon moving here three years ago but paused, hands clutching the scratchy material as she replayed her conversation with Julian Kovač.

In her mind, she edited it like a script; every awkward moment smoothed out, every cringe-worthy snippet of dialogue reworked. She exuded charm and confidence, her dialogue witty, her demeanor self-possessed. The conversation ended, not with him walking out the door, but with an exchange of phone numbers, and then a date in which a maroon dress swirled around her knees as she and Julian danced swing—her favorite—in the dark of a small club.

She was smiling coyly at him over her cocktail when the phone rang, jarring her from her reverie. The machine picked it up and regaled Natalie with a lecture from Liberty Chastain.

“Nat. It’s Lib. You know how I feel about your ancient answering machine. I can just hear my voice bouncing around your place and I hate not being able to see my audience. Anyway, it’s possible you got hung up at work, but it’s more likely that you’ve got your nose buried in a book and can’t be bothered to speak to another living human being. So be it. It’s a Tuesday, you’re allowed.

“But tomorrow I have a show at the Kyrie and you must come because you haven’t been to one of my shows in, like, an eternity. And it’s possible I miss you, dummy, okay? I know Wednesday’s your night off so don’t give me any ‘I have to work’ bullshit. Get dolled up and be there by nine o’clock. Marshall’s coming because he understands the true meaning of friendship, and if you don’t come I’ll have to assume you’ve forsaken me and I’ll cry forever. Okay? See you there. Kiss, kiss.”

Natalie closed the curtains and sank onto her worn couch. The next day was to be spent finishing up her summer coursework at the university. She’d looked forward to curling up with “yet another book” as reward for completing the summer semester.