Cold didn't even begin to describe it.
The snow, swirling in thick, ill-tempered flurries seemed determined to lodge itself in whatever chinks it could find in Emma's carefully chosen winter armour. Her lower legs, the small gap above the collar of her overcoat, the nape of her neck where the scarf rode up to reveal skin already peppered with white flecks. She was thankful for the thick, imitation fur hat she was wearing - at least most of her hair was staying dry!
The cold cut through even the soft, thick wool of her overcoat and she huddled lower, as if trying to duck the flurries. It was impossible to move at more than a slow walk. The pavements were glazed with invisible, treacherous ice, and even if she wanted to risk a sprained ankle, the crowds of shuffling commuters on all sides of her would make trying to hurry futile.
She gazed down the street ahead of her, straining to make out the sign of the place he'd told her about amongst all the others. The brightly-lit shopfronts lit the snow with a false yellow warmth, the flakes like so many fireflies against the black January sky.
She almost missed it. The white-brick front didn't call attention to itself, and the sign over the door was a simple wooden one - handwritten cyan letters on a jet-black background: "Vee's Coffee Palace".
She looked up and down the street. The shop was like a dark little island, lost in a vast sea of screaming, flickering neon. Through the window set into the thick wooden door she could see a mass of people - so many that it was hard to gauge the size or shape of the room inside, the walls almost hidden by people leaning against them, most of them nursing gleaming, oversized cups in bright primary colours.
The eclectic crowd inside were a sharp contrast to the sea of besuited city workers who swarmed around her. There was a dreadlocked man with a small beard chatting to a woman in her early twenties in sweater and jeans. A couple of goths were (predictably) in the corner, next to two men in suits and a man in full biker leathers. As she watched, one of the two men nibbled the other's earlobe. Entranced, she swung open the door, noticing how heavy it was. "Keep Out," it seemed to scream to the ant-column of identical suits outside, an oak guardian between the damp, soulless misery outside and the warm delights within.
She was almost pushed back outside by the combined wave of heat and noise. A cacophony of jokes, discussions and requests for more coffee rose around her as she moved forwards. It was crowded, but not uncomfortably cramped. People moved aside to let her pass - quite different to the closed-huddle crowds of a bar or night-club. No hands caressed her rear, no drinks spilled over her as she moved through into the centre of the large room. The atmosphere was inviting, not threatening: happy, not raucous.
She saw now that the room was much larger than it had appeared from the window. The walls were clean, white-painted brick, like the exterior. Brightly coloured rugs seemed to float on the gleaming wood floor like so many slices of marzipan atop a layer of warm caramel. Between them, plump white sofas and armchairs sat like marshmallows strewn around by the hand of a good-natured giant. Sprawled on a sofa in the heart of this sumptuous scene was Dave.
He was looking good, clad in his usual sleek chic black jeans and turtleneck. He'd let his stubble grow into a casual yet carefully controlled shadow, and was sporting black suede shoes with silver laces. A bag with a subtle designer logo by his side probably contained his laptop. Emma reflected that, in any other decade, he'd have had to be an accountant, or perhaps a lawyer. But this was the nineties, and the rich were switched on. Dave was a web designer, a splicer of hot graphics and cool code.
He glanced in her direction and saw her, a smile breaking across his face instantly. He dimpled when he smiled - she'd noticed that when she first met him. He moved the bag to the floor and she sat down beside him, shrugging off her coat and dropping her hat on top of it. Both immediately beginning to steam, their white dusting turning to glistening rivulets that began to spot on the floor.
"Found it, then?"
"No probs. Christ, it's freezing out there."
"Let me get you a coffee. Best coffee in London, this place-"
"Let me get it. I want to have a look round this place. Do you want anything?"
He held up a half-full cup in answer, and she stood and turned towards what she took from the crowd of backs facing her to be the serving area. She joined what seemed to be the end of the queue, which extended the full length of the counter, its dark wooden length topped with a soft-edged cream top like some huge slice of carrot cake. Now she could see the staff behind the counter, the array of whistling, hissing, clanking coffee machines along the back wall, the racks of bright coloured cups as shiny as hard-boiled sweets. Near the ceiling were blackboards detailing a bewildering range of concoctions involving coffee, chocolate, milk, or all three. The wall below these was entirely covered in mirrors, reflecting a dizzying view of the whole queue and, behind them, the rest of the room.
Disorientated, it took a couple of seconds before Emma found herself in the reflection. There... standing next to a man in an expensive gilet and combat trousers. A sheet of mahogany hair that hung midway down her back, shot through with hints of darkest auburn. She brushed back from her face as she focused on herself. Pale skin, very British. Eyes too big, too round, scared-looking. She liked her lips. Full and pouty. At least something's the right shape. She suddenly realised she'd started pouting in the mirror and, cheeks reddening, looked away before someone noticed.
She asked for something called a "Howie's Special" - thick, strong coffee with a chocolate ice cream float, a layer of cream and milk chocolate shavings. With a spoon.
It was delicious - the cream wickedly luxuriant, the chocolate shavings melting on the roof of her mouth. The chocolate ice cream was made with real cream, smooth and delicious, perfectly balanced by the dangerous muscle of the coffee underneath. She sat back on the sofa and stretched, one arm thrown carelessly behind her. Her breasts lifted wantonly, the low neckline of her close-knit black cardigan displaying a generous amount of cleavage and allowing Dave a very tempting view.
"So what do you think?" He asked as she paused between sips. Emma turned to look at him. He really was good-looking. He'd developed a glowing tan from all his trips to California, and this, coupled with his stubble and dark eyes gave him an alluring presence. Leaning back on the sofa, half-turned to her, he reminded her of a cat, his muscles coiled under his body-hugging clothes. She blinked and realised she had yet to reply. "Very good. They use good chocolate, and it's not too sweet."
"The place. What do you think of the place?"
"Oh." She gazed around, feeling utterly at home, taut nerves already unwinding, basking in the coffee shop's warm vibes. "Great. Really great. Nice crowd. Very mixed."
"Lot of arty types. Some caffeine junkies. Mixed gay/straight, too." She smiled. The way he said it, she could almost hear the slash.
"I like it."
He beamed, and settled back, nestling into the cushions in a way that made him look even more cat-like. "It's one of my favourite places..."
They sat in contented silence for a moment. She'd been nervous about this meeting. She'd only met Dave twice before, through mutual friends. On the first time they'd smiled politely, talked. On the second he'd suddenly, unexpectedly asked her out. And now she was on the first date she'd had in a month, wondering what his next move would be, what his would be. A dinner date she could have handled. Food, wine, idle chatter, a cab ride either alone or together. Here the rules were much less well-defined. She didn't know whether to flirt or make small-talk, be direct or mysterious. She decided to go with mysterious and hope he didn't take it for aloof. She settled back, snuggling into the soft white cushions. It was so warm in here... she yawned softly.
"Heavy night?" He said it with just the tiniest hint of mischief. Emma raised her head slightly and looked at him through her eyebrows.
"Meaning nothing..." A wide-eyed innocent look, laughter in his eyes.
"What about you?"
"Oh, I'm fine. Sweet dreams. What did you dream about?"
The question was simple, thrown like a smooth, perfect stone into a plate-glass window. She blanched, started to say something, hesitated. She'd dreamt of him last night. He was looking at her, the innocent look gone, his eyes staring straight back at her, pinning her, daring her to deny what he already knew.
She blinked, took a sip of coffee to cover herself, and mentally slapped her cheek. She could play too, damn it! She nodded, smiling slightly. "It was nice."
He pounced instantly. "Anyone I know?"
He was grinning now. "Good dream?"
She closed her eyes, paused, savouring it, then looked him straight in the eye.
He blinked. Just once. He was confident, she had to give him that. He rallied fast. "Well, I hope tonight's is better."
She stretched out her legs, making sure the skirt stayed where it was so that she revealed another tantalising inch of thigh before she pulled the hem down again.
"We'll see." She stretched her ankles, pointing her toes. "God, my feet ache..."
"You know, I give a good foot rub."
She tilted her head to one side. "That wasn't a hint."
"I know." And before she could stop him, he stood, moved around to her feet and took off her left shoe. He sat cross-legged on the rug, facing her.
"Admit it, this is just a cheap excuse to sneak a peep up my skirt."
"Not at all, merely sharing the benefit of my skills."
He placed the balls of his thumbs against the sole of her foot and started stretching the aching muscles.
"You do this a lot?"
"Quite a lot."
"With every woman you meet?"
"Which, the ones you want to flirt with?"
"You think this is flirting?"
"This is being friendly. If I looked you in the eye," he said, looking her in the eye, "and told you your earlobes looked very nibbleable, that would be flirting."
"You think my earlobes look very nibbleable
?" He wasn't kidding about being good. His fingers were soothing every knot out of her feet, the muscles melting into his hands. He gently put the foot down, took off her other shoe and started on that one.
"I didn't say that, I merely said that if I did say that, then that would be flirting."
"But you did say it."
"Only as an illustration."
"Are you implying there's something wrong with my earlobes?"
He stopped, and looked at her. "Emma," he said sincerely, "You have quite the most nibbleable earlobes I've ever seen."
There was a pause.
"So we're flirting now?" she asked innocently.
"It would appear so, yes." He looked up at her, questioningly. She stared back at him. There was a long pause, neither wanting to break the gaze. Eventually she said, very deliberately, "Well now that we're flirting, I don't think I can allow you back on the sofa. Who knows what might happen?"
He coughed in mock astonishment. "You think you can ban me from the sofa? What makes you think you have unilateral sofa rights? I claim sofa rights. I was there first."
"Doesn't being a lady count for anything?"
"You expect me to sit down here on the floor and rub your feet without reward?"
"What sort of reward did you have in mind?"
"Well..." He looked away, looked back, smirking. "I was rather hoping you might relax those thighs you have clamped so tightly together..."
Emma reached behind her, picked up a throw cushion and used it as the name suggested she should. It bounced off his head as he collapsed in giggles, and she found she was laughing too.
He waved a white paper napkin. "Truce? Can I apply for sofa citizenship?"
"I don't know... I must warn you, it's a very long and drawn out application procedure."