Alice paused under the cafe awning, swallowing hard. She pulled out her phone with trembling hands and opened her post for the tenth time today. Friday, Juniper, Blue, Jane. Yes.

She tucked errant strands of her short blonde bob behind her ears with both hands, a nervous gesture, and licked her lips.

She could do this.

This was not a big deal.

Actually, she thought, she most likely wouldn’t need to do anything. Nobody was going to show. It would be an afternoon in a cafe, a nice coffee, and, eventually, a chocolate croissant. Not a bad way to spend the afternoon.

A pang of guilt shot through her at the fact that she was spending her Friday afternoon on such a ridiculous task, when Thad really needed her where she belonged, in the kitchen. They had spent the morning planning the workflow of Sunday’s charity event, and she pictured him now, his lumbering form bending over the workstation, making a meticulous list divided into “pantry,” “store run,” and “farmer’s market.” That was a sous chef’s job, not an executive chef. He’d be harumphing while he did it, his eyes squinting at the list. The oaf needed glasses. She had said she had a dentist appointment, and Thad had narrowed his eyes just a fraction of an inch. They had both known it was bullshit, but thankfully, he hadn’t called her out on it.

Well, the damage was done, so best make it worth it, Alice thought, gripping the entryway door handle and going inside. She didn’t know this cafe well, having purposefully chosen a place she’d been to once or twice before, but nowhere she regularly frequented. She didn’t want to run the risk of seeing anyone she knew, and was fully prepared to never step into this cafe ever again after today.

She ordered a peppermint latte, a holiday special she had seen on the chalked A-frame board outside. She also ordered a chocolate croissant, for here. As she waited, she scoped out the scene, choosing a corner of the room that was, at the moment, completely empty. Not a lot of people went for coffee on Friday afternoons. She wanted to be able to see the entrance and the front windows, but not be right alongside them. To see people as they came in. Which no one was going to do.

They called her name and she shrugged off her coat and scarf, going back to the counter and dropping a $5 in the tip jar as she smiled and carried her things back to the table. She was going to be here a while. She had put the bill in her coat pocket this morning, having thought of every little thing.

Alice sat against the cushioned back wall, arranging her things. She checked the clock on her phone. 2:56. She had thought, considering the situation, it would be best not to be late.

She pushed the plate with the chocolate croissant to the far end of the table, and brought the latte towards her. She wasn’t sure if she could actually drink it, she already felt too jittery. Pulling out a book from her bag, she set it face up next to her drink. Taking a deep breath, Alice opened her phone to read the ad one, final time.

Young sous chef curious for a taste of the forbidden. Looking to meet a dom to introduce her to submissive sex. One day only. No money exchanged. If you think you might be the dom for me, find me at Juniper’s Cafe on 34th and Washington, this Friday at 3. I’ll be wearing blue, and reading Jane Eyre. I’ll keep a chocolate croissant on the table just for you. Ask me if I’m waiting for someone.

Then she put the phone away, stowing her purse under the table. She had already set a timer for 4pm exactly. When it went off, she would leave.

And then what? she wondered. Go back to Tinder? Finally agree to be set up with her mother’s chiropractor? Speed dating at the senior center?

She shook her head to dispel the anxious thoughts, and took a deep breath, opening Jane Eyre to a random page. It was Jane still at Lowood. She had forgotten how long it took for Jane to grow up. So much about tuberculosis and starvation.

Alice tried to read, her eyes having trouble concentrating on the small, dense text. But she wanted to at least look like she was reading. She had gotten the idea to bring a book from You’ve Got Mail, a movie her family watched every Christmas. But she couldn’t have brought a rose into this cafe. Too weird. So a chocolate croissant instead, a little more apropos.

Alice resisted the urge to look at her phone already, knowing full well that not even ten minutes would have passed. She tried to focus, but every sound from the door or the register made her look up. The baristas were laughing about something, pouring coffee beans from a large sack into smaller containers. The door opened and an older woman entered with a little white dog, waving to the baristas who smiled back. A normal Friday. Nothing to see here.

The thought occurred to her that perhaps someone might have arrived early to stake out the place and see her when she arrived. She looked anew at the other patrons, about a half dozen or so tables occupied. A man in his thirties on his laptop, hunched over and typing furiously. Two young women in business dress, holding coffees in one hand and gesticulating expressively with the other. Gossip, she thought, smiling. Another older woman, crocheting something, who had laid her yarn down to await the approach of the woman with the dog. A friend perhaps, or maybe her sister. A teenage boy wearing a hooded sweatshirt, the hood up, a heavy pair of earphones over top. He was absently eating something.

None of them looked like possibilities, Alice mused, trying not to look at the sidewalk outside. Wouldn’t it be something if one of the older women came over, or the younger even? What if one of them pointed out her book, asked if the croissant was for them? Just the thought of it made Alice’s stomach clench. Jesus, what would she do? Should she have made it clear she was heterosexual?

She looked back at the men, suddenly praying it was one of them, and yes, the teenager was looking at her now and she squinted, wanting to make sure he was at least fucking 18. She didn’t want to go to jail. A boy like that couldn’t possibly be a dom. Could he?

The cafe door opened again and, lost in her panic, she didn’t see the newcomer until they meandered over to the counter. A man, tall and broad shouldered, wearing a dark brown trench coat. Thick brown hair. He turned slightly, looking up at the posted menu and pointing at something, and at the sight of his profile Alice felt a bucket of ice water being poured over her head.

Without a second thought, she picked up Jane Eyre and brought the book right in front of her face, slouching down against the bench cushion behind her. She pressed the book so close against her nose she could smell the musty paper. One hand left the book’s spine, frantically tucking loose hair behind her ears.

She waited, heart pounding, as the seconds passed, more and more sure that he would leave without seeing her. She wasn’t sure she’d have the guts to keep on after this. Seeing him had used up all her bravado.

“Alice, is that you?” his distinctive, accented voice called out, and she squeezed her eyes tight.

She lowered the book, a smile already plastered on her face.

“Mateo?” she said, forcing surprise into her intonation. He had his to-go coffee already in one hand and was just a few feet from the exit. She had been so, so close.

“How lovely to see you! It’s been so long, what, almost a year?”

“Yes, yes,” she said, putting the book down and sitting up straighter. “Not since the launch party in February. How are you?”

He smiled, the smile gradual and full, like a bloom on his face. He was dressed for business, a grey suit underneath his coat, a maroon scarf. He carried a leather briefcase in one hand. She didn’t know anyone who actually carried a briefcase.

“Oh, you know. I’m well. It’s been a busy year. And you?”

“I’m fine. Great.”

“Which one, fine or great?” he teased, laughing, and Alice laughed too. She was hating every fucking minute of this. He stood in front of the table, towering down on her from this height. She had forgotten how handsome Mateo was. She knew he was from Brazil, but just seeing him, you wouldn’t know quite where he was from. Italy maybe, or Hungary. Somewhere the men were olive skinned.

“And work, work is good?”

She nodded, remembering now the lilt of his voice, the way all the words seemed to string together into a melodious line. One of his silky curls had fallen across his brow, and she stared at it.

“I am surprised Thad relinquished you for the afternoon, you are always so busy,” he commented, smiling still. His English was perfect, his accent somehow British sounding. Still, the way he put words together was strange, his vocabulary full of archaic words.

Alice hesitated, unsure how to answer that. She didn’t dare mention the fake dentist appointment. Mateo knew Thad, they were friends. What if they saw each other at a holiday party and Mateo mentioned seeing her?

“Yes, so busy,” she laughed again, wishing he would just leave. She had gone from fervently hoping for someone to come to now desperately wishing they didn’t. Please, dear God, if there was a God at all, please don’t make her talk to a Craigslist psycho dom with Mateo right here.

“What brings you to this corner of town? You are far from the restaurant,” he noted mildly, taking a sip of his coffee.

“Oh, just taking a little time off.”

“You live around here?”

“No,” she said quickly, and he blinked, his eyes lingering on her face. She was probably blushing. She knew she was being too vague, too weird. He looked down at the table and its accessories.

“I am intruding, perhaps? I am sorry. You were waiting for someone?”

“No,” she rushed. “No, please, sit.” She started to stand up and he waved her away, pulling out the chair opposite her and sitting down. The scrape of the chair legs made a loud sound and several people looked their way, but Mateo paid them no mind, sitting down and stretching out his legs as he put his coffee on the table. He was a tall man, and took up a lot of space.

“I am coming from my lawyer’s, actually. Pesky stuff. Someone suing us over intellectual copyright. It is all nonsense of course, but expensive nonsense, you know.”

“Oh,” she said meekly, not sure what kind of response that warranted.

“But when I go to his office I always go to the gallery on 36th afterwards, as a treat. I have just come. Do you know it?”

“No,” she shook her head. She couldn’t remember the last time she stepped foot in an art gallery when she wasn’t wearing a spencer jacket and carrying around a silver tray of mini quiches.

“Oh, it is exquisite. You should go, you are so near now.”

She nodded, noncommittal, feeling how exquisitely awful she was doing in this conversation. Mateo was from an entirely different set, she wondered how he and Thad were even friends. Mateo was no salt of the earth. He was cream of the crop. Self possessed, confident. His hands moved easily when he talked, as if the air itself belonged to him.

“Are you alright, Alice?” he asked gently after she made no reply. “You seem… a little flushed.”

Alice felt the crimson stain deepen on her neck and chest. Goddamn it. She reached up furtively and tucked some hair behind her ear. Always, the feeling of its silkiness fitting so nicely there brought her a measure of relief.

“I’m just surprised to see you, is all,” she explained, and at least it was finally the truth.

“And,” she added, pulling at the neckline of her knit sweater. “It feels very warm in here, don’t you think?”

“Hmm,” he murmured in lieu of a reply, still in his coat and scarf. He looked down at the croissant on the table.

“Not going to eat this?”

“Oh, no, I already had one,” she supplied quickly, feeling the lies multiply in her mouth.

“May I try it?”

“Sure,” she laughed, swallowing, cursing him inwardly. Now she’d have to buy another one.

He picked up the croissant and bit in. His mouth was so big he ate almost a third of the delicacy in a single bite. Alice swallowed, watching the muscles in his sharp jaw working as he chewed.

“It is delicious,” he exclaimed, covering his mouth.

She smiled softly at the sight of him wolfing it down, trying not to laugh. She couldn’t believe he was actually eating her croissant.

“And that,” he said, pointing at her, “is a lovely shade of blue on you, Alice. I have only ever seen you in your kitchen white.”

She felt the blush creep up onto her cheeks, and clenched her thighs. He was just being nice. Guys like him, they just said nice things all the time.

“Are you sure that you’re not waiting for someone?” he asked, taking another bite of the croissant.

“No,” she laughed nervously, glancing at the door to make sure there was no queue of naked men trying to fuck her into oblivion.

“A date, perhaps?” he asked, wiping his mouth with a napkin and smiling at her.

She laughed again, faintly this time, her heart beating fast.

“Perhaps this croissant was meant for him. The man you are waiting for.” Mateo said the words nonchalantly, finishing the croissant, brushing his hands and pushing the plate a little away from him.

Alice blinked, her senses on high alert now.

“No,” she said softly.

“I think yes, perhaps,” he replied, bending forward a little and picking up the copy of Jane Eyre, looking at the embossed title and then pointedly back at her.

“Oh my God, no,” she whispered, almost to herself.

“Hmm,” he said, cocking his head slightly. “Not exactly the reaction I was hoping for.”

“Oh my God,” she said again, blinking aggressively, hoping each time she opened her eyes he would be gone.

“Alice, relax,” he murmured, setting the book down on the table. He looked at her sharply, a little alarmed.

“Jesus,” she swore, shutting her eyes tightly and keeping them shut.

“You know,” she said weakly, clearing her throat. “I really need to get going. I… I should go.” She opened her eyes just a slit, reaching out surreptitiously for the book, but his hand darted out and gripped her forearm.

“You should stay,” he said firmly, and she felt utterly anchored. His hand was so large it wrapped completely around her forearm. Caramel skin against her own ivory paleness.

“I can’t,” she said softly, her voice tremulous.

“Why not?”

“I… I know you,” she floundered.

“Wouldn’t it be better with someone you know?” His words were strung together like a caress, seductive, persuasive.

“God, this isn’t happening,” she moaned, pulling her arm out of his grasp and tucking her hair back.

“Why such panic, Alice? I make you uncomfortable?” She glanced up and he wasn’t teasing. His expression was one of concern.

“Please don’t tell Thad.” The words came rushing out of her and immediately she regretted them.

He studied her for a long moment before answering.

“Firstly, you don’t answer to Thad. He isn’t your father, and you aren’t a child. You shouldn’t be ashamed of what you are doing right now. It takes courage, bravery. Secondly, Thad and I run in quite different circles, wouldn’t you say? Haven’t you ever wondered what one circle we might share?”

Alice’s eyes darted to him, then away, his words swirling in her mind.

“I’m surprised he hasn’t tried for you himself, to be honest. But then again, Thad is always so ethical. And you are too good of a chef to risk losing.”

“You’re joking,” she scoffed.

“About what? About Thad the dom or your skill as a chef?”

“Thad is… you… you are a dom?” She whispered the last word as if she was saying cunt in the cafe.

If she didn’t know better, she would say Mateo was struggling hard not to laugh at her.

“I was on the SubSpace app, just as you.”

“How did you know it was me?”

“I can’t say I knew with real certainty,” he mused, pulling his chair closer to the table now, setting his elbows down on its surface conspiratorially, as if sharing a secret with her. “I just got a feeling, the same feeling as when I met you for the first time, and every time thereafter. You have a kind of flavor, and I sensed it in that message. A dom can sense a sub, I suppose. It is probably why Thad is so protective of you, though he would not take you for himself.”

Alice was breathing hard now, feeling the crimson flush staining her whole body. She felt a bead of sweat between her breasts.

“Alice,” Mateo said, laughing now as if he couldn’t help it. “You are quite shocked.”

She said nothing, feeling her erratic breath. She had a flavor?

“Is this the furthest down the rabbit hole you have ever gone?”

She heard his question from a long way off.

“By far,” she murmured, feeling dazed.

“Well, there is much, much further to go. Perhaps, little one, you might let me show you what there is to see.”

At this, her gaze zoomed back to his face. She was angry now. He was mocking her. This was all just a joke. What a horrible, cruel joke.

But he wasn’t looking at her face. He had bent to rummage in his coat pocket, withdrawing his phone and putting it on the table. He was talking all the while.

“And yes, while you are courageous and brave, you are also very stupid and naive. If you were my sub, I would punish you for this. What risks you’ve taken. Any crazy person calling themselves a dom could have come here.”

“It was anonymous,” she protested, her voice sharp. He turned abruptly to look at her, and absorbed her upset expression.

For a long moment they were both silent.

Then he took a deep breath, and picked up his phone, unlocking it and searching for something.

“You must make the dom go to a place, Alice. He is the one who dresses in blue, carries a book. That way you can see him from a distance and decide if he is even worth approaching. Here, like this, you are completely exposed. Quarry for the lions.”

Alice glanced down at herself, vaguely afraid. Mateo set the phone down on the table, face up.

“And you never mention sex or money. It will attract the wrong kind of man. It’s just a conversation, like the one we are having now, a conversation that might become something more, if we both decide we want that.”

She narrowed her eyes at him, unsure still if he was just having her on.

“And you need to ask for a clean STD panel. Always, Alice, and make sure it is recent.” He gestured at his phone, waiting.

Mateo, the playboy tech guy whose whitewashed villa had literal statues in it, was talking about STDs in front of her. Alice shook her head. It was all so surreal.

“Look,” he pressed, nodding down at the phone. She took it hesitantly. It was a.pdf dated three weeks ago, with laboratory letterhead, and yes, his name, and a list of STDs in one column, with “NEGATIVE” repeated over and over in the other. She set the phone down gently, thinking it probably was worth a whole month of her pay.

“It is the courteous thing to do,” he explained, as if it was normal to bump into an acquaintance at a cafe and show them your most recent STD panel. “And you want a dom who is careful and courteous, don’t you?”

“I… I don’t know,” she answered honestly.

Mateo waited, as if he expected her to say more, but she had nothing else to say.

“Then what kind of dom do you want, Alice?”

“I don’t know, Mateo,” she hissed. “I can’t believe I’m even talking about this with you.”

He looked away abruptly, breaking his steady gaze, and she could have sworn she saw hurt there.