There’s nothing Sophie enjoys more than a bright, sunny winter morning, where the last of the red leaves scatter the pavement. She loves the way she can see her own breath as she bunches her shoulders to hide her face in her knitted red scarf. She loves the way people’s cheeks turn pink from the cold, and the smell of peppermint hot chocolate in the air. She loves when she can sit in her bookstore with a to-do list she’s allowed to ignore and a mug of tea in her hand. Winter is her favorite time of year.
Shame those days are few and far between.
It’s a gray, cold winter afternoon when Sophie smiles for the first time that day. It might be because she finally had the radiators replaced in her bookstore, so it’s no longer freezing the second it hits October. She can sit behind her counter with a book, only in a thick jumper (even though it’s starting to snow outside), and ignore the growing list of errands she needs to complete.
It might be because she took the first sip of a new flavor of tea and decided it already ranks third on her list of top teas.
It might even be because her order of new books came in this morning, and one of her favorite things to do is look at the pretty covers before they’re sold and her customers add their own message inside before giving it to that special person in their life.
It’s probably because she saw a man slip on the icy sidewalk and he looked a little like a cartoon character. He’s fine, obviously—he didn’t even hit the floor. It barely holds her attention for longer than four seconds. Instead, her eyes drift to the dusting of snow collecting on the outside of the wooden window frames. If the snow lasts long enough, she might even remove the fake snow she used to decorate the store windows two months ago in preparation for Christmas.
Still, Sophie lets her smile linger, holding on to the warm feeling until she feels she’s probably acting a bit creepy. She’s not sure how else to get through Christmas and New Year’s to February if not for romanticizing the little things. The red noses of people rushing to buy a book for a loved one, or the teenage girl who comes in every Saturday with exactly the right change for the next installment in the fantasy series Sophie read when she was a child.
She tries to find something good in everyone that comes into the shop, though she’ll never tell them any of these things. They’re a secret, just for her. And if that fails, she’ll stretch her imagination to the people walking past.
Her secret weapon to get through life is to find the happy little things and keep them close to her chest so she never has to share her happiness with anyone. Because if she shares them, they can take them from her. Besides, then she might actually have to talk to someone, and she’s not about to do that if she can help it.
Sometimes it’s harder than she would like. Like when there’s a parent who doesn’t really interact with their child when they’re clearly so excited about what they want to read. At least they’re reading at all! When that happens, Sophie slips a cute bookmark between the pages of their book and imagines how their face will light up when they find it later.
Sometimes, though, sometimes it’s way too easy to find things to like. For example, the guy that just barreled through the door, almost sending the bell flying. He has a smattering of freckles on the bridge of his nose, and freckles are one of Sophie’s favorite things. And that isn’t even the best thing about him!
His chestnut hair is wild like he just took off a hat, even though she can’t see one in his hands. His nose is red, and he keeps scrunching it in a way that suggests he’s trying to warm it up. He stumbles over his own feet as he shakes the snow from his broad shoulders. The shop brightens with every step he takes.
Sophie wonders what he’s here for. His eyes fly across the shelves so fast he can’t possibly be reading any of the titles, but she doesn’t mind. She watches his eyes widen with every step he takes to get closer to her register. The store isn’t huge—two main aisles stacked high with new and second-hand books—so it doesn’t take him long to get to her.
His eyes widen further as he stops in front of her, like he was expecting the shop to be unmanned or something. Maybe he wasn’t ready to talk to anyone.
“Hi, hello . . . erm,” he stutters, gripping his backpack like he also has no idea why he’s here.
“Hi,” Sophie replies, placing her bookmark back and giving him her best customer service face. (It’s a look of being aggressively bored, obviously.) “Can I help you?”
The question seems to shake him out of his thoughts, and he shakes his head as well. It’s frustratingly cute—an emotion Sophie tries not to place on the random customer she’s never going to see again.
“I really need the Advanced Chemistry textbook, please, because I’m going to fail my class for sure . . . for sure, for sure,” he says, his hands fidgeting nervously. His brows furrow further with every word.
As Sophie watches him, she tries to work out if he is actually college-age. Though he has a slight baby face, there’s no way he’s under twenty. Then again, he might be, and that would mean he’s way too young for her. Not that it matters—she wouldn’t talk to him outside of the store anyway. He seems oblivious to her inner turmoil as he continues.
“But the library doesn’t have any copies left, and my exam is in like two weeks, and I’m so screwed. Marriot is definitely going to drop me from his class . . . ” His eyes are still wide and his cheeks pink, and Sophie would, for reasons unconfirmed, give him everything the store sold if it helped him. “So, I was hoping you sold it?” he asks, rubbing his lips together.
Sophie desperately wants to help him. Because she’s a great bookstore owner, or because her heart has been pitter-pattering far too hard in her chest since he walked through the door?
“You know they’re like two hundred dollars, right?”
He winces like he did know that, and she feels a little bad for him, though the library always runs out of that book. She knows because she took the same course five years ago, so she also knows if he’d been at the library anytime this term, he probably would have figured that out and got there early enough to get it.
“I know . . . I just have to pass this class. I’m already years behind everyone else, and if I fail . . . ” He shakes his head again and pulls his wallet out of his back pocket. Years behind everyone else . . . so maybe not as young as she first thought.
It doesn’t matter. She doesn’t sell it anyway.
Sophie grimaces. “I don’t sell textbooks. Sorry.”
She neglects to mention that she might have the textbook he’s after under her counter right now, because she keeps all her old textbooks in the store in case she needs to prop up a shelf. But she’s also not entirely bothered whether or not he fails . . .
Probably . . .
If she lies to herself . . .
“Oh, man,” he grumbles, pushing his hand through his hair. “That’s alright. Um, I can just wing it, right?”
“You want to just ‘wing’ a project that’s worth forty percent of your grade?” she asks, her brow arched. It’s unkind. He just said he didn’t have the book, and she’s not planning on giving it to him, even if she does have it under her desk. Besides, he’s only trying to make himself feel better.
“Um, aren’t you supposed to agree with me?” he asks, frowning at her, but the playfulness in his tone is reflected in his face. She’s not sure he could be serious if he tried, and she’s only known him for three minutes. The smile he’d been hiding since he started his fake-complaining takes over, and he gives her a stunning grin. The motion makes her throat go dry, the corded muscles of his neck begging her to trace her fingers down his throat. She shrugs instead, her fingers gripping the edges of her book a little too hard so her eyes don’t linger on his dimple.
“I am burdened with telling the truth.”
He smiles at her again, a softer one this time, and his eyes crinkle at the edges despite what she said not being all that funny and definitely true.
She decides he looks like sunshine. The kind she had wanted to see this morning when her alarm went off. The kind that would have made her day just a tad better. The kind she didn’t know she missed until he walked into the store. But his slightly pink cheeks and disheveled hair won’t make her a liar. So, she stands her ground until he speaks again.
“But the customer is always right,” he replies, his thick brows furrowing in mock annoyance. He’s not a particularly good actor; his jaw twitches with his obvious need to smile. She enjoys how clearly he’s trying to mess with her, like he’s not entirely sure he’s allowed to talk to her (even if he is doing so with a nervous energy she’d be blind to miss).
“You haven’t even bought anything. You’re the worst customer I’ve had today,” Sophie says back, her finger flipping the page of her book over as if she’s read a single word since he walked in.
“Hmm,” he grumbles, his lips pouting. He looks around, his eyes sparkling when he spots her collection of bookmarks. She won’t tell him she designs them, because she hasn’t told anyone that, not even her mom, and she’s the only person on earth who really knows her.
Instead, she pulls her lower lip between her teeth to stop smiling when his fingers dust over the ribbons while he chooses between designs.
“One, please,” he says, pulling one out and placing it on the counter.
“Good choice,” she says, looking at the wildflower placeholder. Her finger runs along the light smattering of forget-me-nots, the different pink hues making her as happy as they did when she first put pen to paper.
“Yeah?” he asks, as if her approval of his design choice is the best thing that’s happened to him today.
She wraps it in tissue paper—white, of course—and rings him up. He’s still smiling at her, and she’s not sure what to do about it because it makes her heart thump whenever she looks up at him, and he’s already looking at her.
“Three ninety-nine, please.”
He hands her a five, and she takes the time to dutifully count his change as she wills herself to calm down—he’s just a cute guy she’s never going to see again. Her fingers brush his palm when she passes his money back, and she hopes the dim store lights and the gray skies mean he can’t see her blushing. He immediately shoves it into her—thankfully empty—tea mug.
“You know that’s not a tip jar, right?” she asks, her head cocked to the side as he flounders.
“Oh, well, I tipped anyway, so . . . ”
“I’m your favorite customer of the day, right?” he asks, his brows high, like he’s not sure if she’ll say yes or no.
“Hmm,” she replies, crossing her arms over her chest. The way he effortlessly brings her playful side out isn’t lost on her, nor is the loud laugh he lets out at her pouting.
“You have to tell me I won’t fail now!”
“I don’t have to do anything,” she replies. Her tone is the same as it always is when she’s talking to strangers, customers, or anyone that’s not her mom, if she’s honest, but she internally recoils all the same. It’s around now (no more than ten minutes, usually) that someone decides they don’t like her. That maybe she’s rude, even though she doesn’t mean to be—she was just being truthful.
Not that she would expect anyone to have formed an actual opinion of a stranger in under ten minutes—as if she hasn’t got many thoughts about the guy in front of her, but that’s neither here nor there—but someone can decide if she’s worth their time or not in hardly any time at all. Sometimes, it’s clear people aren’t attracted to her personality, which is rude, because she’s hilarious, but they will power through her sarcasm and eye rolls because they find her attractive.
Sophie doesn’t care either way, but she would prefer to know if someone is being nice to her because they want to be—not because they think they might get something out of it. Either way, she regrets the way she spoke, even if she shouldn’t.
He doesn’t seem to mind, though. His smile never falters.
“You’re right,” he agrees, with a shrug. He leans in slightly, the smell of his aftershave invading her senses. She’ll probably dream about it later. “What if I buy two?”
He ponders the bookmarks for a little longer, and she appreciates the effort he takes to look like he’s not about to throw them in the bottom of his bag the second he leaves.
“Which one is your favorite?” he asks, his brown eyes flicking up to hold her gaze for a beat too long, then back to the task at hand.
Sophie doesn’t like to tell people things. She values keeping information to herself in case anyone finds something to use against her. There’s probably a reason she’s terrified to give someone any piece of her in case they decide they actually don’t want it, but she’s not going to try to figure that out in her bookstore at one p.m. on a Thursday.
So, she doesn’t let the information slip. Not even her favorite bookmark. It’s her entire personality, really. That and romance books. And early noughties R & B. And lasagna. And a good mascara.
“I like all of them,” she replies. It’s not a lie, of course, and, though he won’t know it, it’s the most personal thing she’s told anyone in years.
“My favorite is this one,” he replies, twisting the bookmark he just purchased from her in his fingers. It’s her favorite too. “But this one is pretty as well,” he says, picking up the blue one with yellow daffodils. It is pretty, she thinks. She did design them, after all, so she’s biased in thinking they’re all nice for different reasons. It’s nice to hear it from someone else. He continues before she says anything, which she’s grateful for, because sometimes speaking is just too hard.
“I mean, they’re all pretty, obviously!” he stammers, his eyes wide as he blushes slightly. It makes her smile. It doesn’t require a spoken response, not really. His face settles as she smiles at him, so she could leave it there, but something in her wants to give him just a little more than she gives anyone else. It’s silly.
But she does it anyway.
“Obviously,” she says. And he smiles.
The monthly orders are finally in, and Sophie almost does a tiny dance in the middle of the store. It’s been a busy few months. The Christmas period near kills her every year (she’s only had the store two years, but two for two—she can’t argue with the stats) and then people have New Year’s resolutions to read more books or lose weight or cook more, which mainly means people buy more books. By the time February rolls around, she’s wiped out and wants to say “what a year” every three seconds when it’s barely a third of the way over.
But she’s feeling better today than she has done in the past weeks. She could say it’s the order arriving, or the new jam she tried on her toast this morning (cherry), or the lingering thoughts of the guy with slightly curly hair yesterday (even if she did check whether her textbook was the right one as soon as he left yesterday, and it wasn’t). It doesn’t really matter what it is. She’s in a great mood.
So, she does the only thing she can think of: a dance party. She puts her favorite song on her headphones, steps out from her counter, and awkwardly sways in place. It always takes her a little time to get into the groove, to forget that at any moment someone could look in her store and see her. Sophie doesn’t care what people think . . . but sometimes it takes her a minute to remember that.
It doesn’t take long before the music seeps into her bones and she has no choice but to close her eyes. Sophie is not a dancer, but that’s never stopped her before. It probably should have, at least in public, she thinks, as she hears the door chime before she has time to pull her arms down and stop swaying her hips.
It’s the guy, because of course it’s the guy.