It's a bitingly cold November dawn, and the scent and warmth of the Starbucks wraps itself around me like a down comforter. I need coffee—soon—or I'll end up falling asleep on my feet.
I look around for her, trying not to be obvious about it. I scan the tables on one side of the café, then I turn to check the other side and come face to face with her. I stifle a yelp and take a short, awkward step back, heart lurching.
"Sorry," she says, her voice every bit as melting and soft as it was on the phone, and she smiles that lighthouse smile again and I remember exactly why I couldn't sleep last night.
I clear my throat. "It's okay."
She takes me by the hand and leads me to a corner table—secluded, away from the front doors that let in swirls of cold air every few minutes. I slide into a chair across from her to find a gently steaming latte in front of me.
"I didn't know what you liked, so I played it safe," she explains, sipping from her own cup. "It's chilly out and I got you up early, so I figured you'd want something hot in front of you."
"Thanks," I say, dazzled all over again. I take a scalding sip and feel the heat drip slowly all the way into my stomach. The warmth and caffeine bring me down slightly from my nervous high, and I pluck up the courage to demand an answer from her. "You have to tell me your name now, you know."
God, she has a laugh like warm honey. "Didn't mean to keep you in suspense," she says lightly, swirling the contents of her cup. "It's Bear."
The revelation staggers me. This little creature, as sparkling and delicate as a bubble, is named Bear?
"That's kind of a weird name," I blurt out, and instantly wish I could smack myself upside the head for it. I open my mouth to apologize, even though I'd probably make things worse, somehow, but she brushes the unspoken words away with a wave of her long-fingered hand.
"Oh, trust me, I know." She giggles and continues. "My dad's kind of a nature freak—wildlife conservation and all that, y'know? My sister's name is Tiger and my brother's name is Wolf."
"He had a thing for tough names?"
She laughs. "My sister was his first kid, and when I came along, he pretty much resigned himself to a house full of daughters and figured I might as well be Bear anyway. Then Wolfy was born and he ended up with big sisters with rougher names than his."
I grin. She's infectious and I love it. "What's your dad's name, then?"
We dissolve into muffled laughter together, leaning onto the table for support. She—God, she feels like my best friend already…
That sentiment sobers me. Don't jump on her, you'll just scare her off… I pull back a little and force myself to look away from Bear, taking stock of the nook she'd led me to. All the lights are on to offset the outdoor dimness, but they glow a soft yellow instead of the harsh glare of halogens. Our table is back in a corner. Shadowy wreaths of steam laced with the scent of coffee beans shroud it against the bustle of the front doors. My insides suddenly lurch with a mixture of euphoria and unadulterated fear. It's intimate—incredibly intimate, and she's within twelve inches of me through the low hum of the place, looking at me with liquid blue eyes, with her hair trailing in waves over one shoulder.
I'm trying to convince myself that it's all just my imagination—wishful thinking—something—when she speaks up again. "I kind of have an ulterior motive for asking you to join me." Her smile is mischievous but her eyes are shy, and the characteristic jolt to my stomach starts to claw its way into my throat.
A thousand scenarios flash across my mind, each more seductive in theory and outlandish in content than the last. I'm so whipped—utterly whipped, and she hasn't done a thing.
"I have this art project," Bear says, putting me out of my tremblingly nervous misery, "and I was wondering if you would, maybe…" She swirls her cup more—she's nervous, and it's so cute I want to scoop her up and hug her. "If you would maybe model for me."
I struggle to keep my jaw from dropping. She seems to notice, since she barrels onward in her explanation. "Not model like catwalk or anything, just… I just need a reference. For anatomy." She winces and drops her head, and I can see a blush creeping up her neck. "And by 'anatomy' I mean… you know, scientifically—"
"Hey." I cut off her reassurances—can't she tell that her voice alone would make me do just about anything? "I know what you mean."
She looks up at me with scarlet cheeks and clears her throat. "I've just made an utter train wreck of that, but… what do you say?"
I smile and lean my elbows on the table. Bear is dangerously, spine-tinglingly close to me, so naturally there's only one possible answer, and I'm happy to give it.