Manhattan – 1920
Coffee ground, milk simmering, and a hint of cinnamon.
The scents tantalized Sal as he flipped the sign to open. His cap-toe oxfords tapped the polished black-and-white checkered floor. Apron stark and white, complete with a new bow tie, he waited. Another breath in and out. Someone would enter his shop soon. His first customer. A dream about to bubble into reality. The years-long struggle to learn the art of coffee. Even a few trips to Brazil to study the actual bean he now roasted. One his parents deemed as ridiculous. Coffee was coffee, they’d say.
Oh, how little they knew.
He strode to the counter and swiped the first cup. His alone. Just him and the whir of the fan in the corner. He’d imagined his first day many ways. But never like this.
“It’s early. They will come.” Great, now he was muttering to himself. Another of his downfalls, according to Mother. He glimpsed his mug in the gleaming metal of the coffee machine. Polished with more pride than a jeweler cleaning a prized emerald. He wet his finger and pushed down an ever-escaping curl when the doorbell rang and in sauntered his first customer.
He shoved hands into his pockets and approached the register. Shiny and gold, just like the one he’d envisioned during those nights when the idea of owning a shop was a daydream.
“Good day, ma’am. What can I get for you this fine morning?” When he finally summoned the nerve to glance up, all words fumbled out of grasp.
Short blonde hair bobbed in the latest style—some would call it scandalous. On his customer, it looked just right. A sprinkle of sass, perhaps but no hint of scandal. He liked it. She wore a drop waist peach number that was all the rage these days. Her dimpled grin beckoned him.
“Do you sell tea?” The dimple deepened as his eyes met her solid sea-green ones.
Tea? In a coffee shop? “Would you like to try espresso? Beans straight from Brazil. I’m friends with the very man who harvests them.” He rocked back on his heels and tugged at his checkered bow tie, the lump in his throat enormous.
“I need tea.” Her painted eyebrows arched as if he’d grown another head.
He patted his shoulder. Nope. No extra head. “I’ve got a simple black tea. Will that do?”
“Oh, good.” She leaned her elbows on the counter as if she were a mobster about to spill the location of a speakeasy. “I despise coffee and I’ve yet to find a place with tea.” Her hands swung to her hips as she surveyed his sparkling shop. “Keep me in good supply and I’ll return daily.” Then, she had the audacity to wink at him while plucking a coin from her pocketbook.
“First one is on the house.” He tried to push the smile from his lips, but it clung anyway. “New here?” He poured hot water into a mug and dunked a tea bag in.
“Just arrived.” Again, the mysterious smile.
“Welcome to Manhattan.” Sal tipped his hat and bowed in a mock gesture. “Sugar? Cream?” Did tea drinkers use those? He wasn’t sure, being a strictly coffee man himself.
He poured a generous amount of both, gave the tea a stir, and slid it over. As she took the proffered mug, their fingers grazed. A simple gesture. But he whipped his hand away as if scorched and heat coursed up his neck.
“I say. This is the best tea I’ve had in a long while.” She glanced at the menu chalkboard. “You should include this. On second thought, keep it a secret. Only those in the know will order tea.” A chuckle bubbled from her lips. “The Secret Tea Society of Sal’s Coffee Shop.”
Sal leaned against the counter, staring at his first customer. Not what he’d expected. He anticipated a clientele made up of men rushing to work. That type wouldn’t linger and shoot the breeze. And they certainly wouldn’t be tied up in as nice a package as the one before him.
“The Secret Tea Society of Sal’s Coffee Shop. Got a good ring to it.” He straightened, took a deep breath, and set his jaw. “Would you care to discuss the bylaws of said society? Say … over dinner? Clearly you must be the president of said club.” And despite himself, he found a wink on the end of his lash.
The dimple deepened further. How was that even possible? “Can’t say no to such an offer. President of a secret society. What a fantastic start to my day.” She pulled out a scrap of paper from her pocketbook, wrote her address, and dangled it between red painted nails.
“How about tomorrow night?” He tugged his apron straight.
“Why not tonight? To celebrate your grand opening.”
He did a double take. “Tonight, it is. Pick up you up at seven?”
“Great. And bring a cup of this?”
“Wouldn’t dream of coming empty-handed.”
“Then I’m forever yours. Name’s Ruby.”
“I know.” She waved toward the shop sign. With a wink, she strolled out, leaving the empty mug on the counter, red lipstick clinging to the rim.
Secret Tea Society. He needed more tea. Lots of it. Did it come in different kinds? Perhaps he wasn’t a strictly coffee man anymore.
You may connect with Dani at Instagram or Facebook.