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Prologue: The Enigma of Mia

She was more graceful than anyone, from the way she floated across the scuffed hardwood floors to the way her sharp hazel eyes, hidden behind cheap green contacts, swept over the coffee shop around us. The scent of her earthy perfume rolled over me like a tidal wave, chasing away the usual smells of freshly ground espresso beans and vanilla-scented candles. As the world parted around her, the murmur of idle chatter and rain against the window pane faded out of existence. When she reached my table, nestled in the corner of the shop next to the fireplace, she hooked her ankle around the leg of a chair and pulled it out in one fluid motion, collapsing tiredly into it. Her arm twisted under the strap of her apron, tugging it over her head and hanging it over the back of her chair.

Was the entire shop staring at her, or was it just me?

“Worst. Day. Ever,” she said, the words singing from her lips the way they did every morning, when she took my order from behind the tall oak counter.

I watched her, speechless, as she tugged her hair free from its hair tie, shaking the long lilac locks out before combing them over one shoulder with shorted, chewed-off nails. After staring at me for a moment in silence, she leaned forward, resting her elbows on the tiny tabletop. A burnt orange glow flickered in the slick surface of her name tag, reflecting the light from the fireplace that crackled behind me. The word Mia shined in messy cursive.

“What?” she asked incredulously, raising an eyebrow at my silence. “Do I have something on my face?”

I answered a little too quickly. “No! You just surprised me. I didn’t expect you to sit here.”

Mia leaned back, crossing her arms over her chest and covering the shop’s logo on her blue polo shirt. Her stare rendered me speechless. 

“I thought we were cool,” she said simply. “You seemed like you liked me. My coworker said you ask for me when I’m not working.”

I tried to flush the blush out of my cheeks, but I was sure that, beneath my dark curls, my ears still burned a telltale color. Forcing a chuckle, I said, “No one makes my lattes like you do.” 

Yup, no one makes a plain vanilla latte like you. What a stupid thing to say.

Mia smiled, and for a moment, I forgot how to speak. After a moment, she nodded toward the laptop I had in front of me, which cast an unflattering, cool glow across my features. “Looks like you’re busy. I’ll leave you to it.”

She began to stand, collecting her apron and letting the pins that hung from it to tinkle lightly as she moved. Before she could retreat, though, I fumbled to shut my laptop and stow it in my bag, knocking my notebook and pencil case off the table in the process. I jumped out of my chair to collect my things, and Mia squatted down in front of me, smiling as she helped gather the pens. When she met my eyes, I froze, and she laughed. 

“So, is that a yes to company, then?”

I swallowed tightly. “I think I found a good place to stop.”

Mia found her seat again as I shoveled all of my belongings carelessly into my bag. For the first time since she joined me, I finally felt like the eyes of the other shop regulars had drifted away, going back to their work or idle chatter. Music faintly drifted from the overhead speakers, which I’d thought were turned off. 

Find your calm, Ivy.

“So, why did you have the worst day ever?” I asked, trying to level my voice.. 

Her smile immediately disappeared, and letting out the biggest sigh, she collapsed forward on the table, burying her head in her hands. The wooden tabletop muffled her voice as she said, “My boyfriend proposed.”

I stared at her in shock for a moment before asking, “And you didn’t want that?”

She shook her head without lifting it. The gesture was so painfully cute that I could almost forget what she’d just said—that she had a boyfriend who wanted to marry her. 

She didn’t speak immediately. Around the shop, business as usual continued, and for the first time since she sat down, I felt like I could hear it again. On the tabletop in front of me, her hair splayed out over the stained wooden surface, and one of her delicate hands rested just centimeters from mine, displaying the tattoo on her thumb that I’d never gotten to see so close. Beneath the table, her sneakers almost touched mine. 

Finally, she slowly sat up, massaging the bridge of her nose as she leaned her elbows again on the tabletop. From somewhere beyond, the bell tinkled as a new patron entered the coffee shop, not noticing the two girls huddled by the fireplace in the corner. 

“I’m gay,” Mia said flatly. 

I could’ve choked on her words, but I forced myself not to. Although she’d said it so simply, I found myself peering around us to see if anyone had heard her. 

I watched her in silence for a few moments, drinking in the intensity of being so close to her for the first time in years—seeing the way her icy purple hair fell over her shoulder, smelling the sweetness of her perfume, feeling the warmth of her closeness. One of her hands was outstretched across the table, just centimeters from touching mine. Would she move it if I took it in mine and blew warmth in between her hands to ward off the chill near the window?

“You don’t want to marry him, right?” I asked. 

She sighed, closing her eyes as she shook her head. 

I took a deep breath, finally looking away from her hand. “Then don’t.”

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