by Marteeka Karland and Elizabeth Jewell
When Jessalyn visits the Café Midnight coffee shop on her friend's recommendation and orders a chai latte, she doesn't know what she's getting into. But as soon as she places her order, the natural magic of the place brings her her perfect mate -- or, actually, two of them.
Tam and Gunnar have been trapped in limbo, waiting to be reunited with their true, perfect mate. They have three shots to win her love, or they'll be cursed forever by the sea goddess they offended centuries ago. Problem is, they've already used two of their chances, and now it's do or die -- literally.
Jessalyn Barbour glared at the skinny barista, irritation crawling up her throat. "Yes. I ordered the chai latte. Give me the chai latte."
The young man still looked skittish. His long, thin hands folded over each other, unfolded again. "It's just... it's a very intense drink."
Jessalyn clenched her teeth. "Chai. Latte. Please."
God, what kind of lame coffee shop was this Cafe Midnight place, anyway? Her regular stop, the Java Station, never tried to talk her out of an order.
Still, her friend had told her this was the place to go. "More than just coffee," she'd said. "You won't believe it till you try it."
Well, of course they had more than just coffee. They had mugs and French presses and teapots. Teabags, loose tea, biscotti, and gourmet chocolates. It was a well-rounded coffeehouse.
Maybe her friend had just lost her mind. She'd told Jessalyn this, after all, right before she'd disappeared with her new boyfriend, a gorgeous hunk of hunkiness who seemed to have appeared out of the blue. Jessalyn had had the feeling her friend wasn't getting much blood flow to her brain.
The skinny barista still seemed hesitant but nodded, took her five dollars, and disappeared through a door behind the counter.
Weird. Jessalyn moved toward the pick-up counter to wait.
After a few minutes, the barista appeared again. "I'm sorry, ma'am. Your drink might take a bit longer than usual. Please have a seat, and I'll bring it out when it's ready."
"Sure." Still weird. What was so damn complicated about a chai latte anyway? Some spicy tea, some foamed milk -- it wasn't that difficult.
However, it was a good excuse to relax for a few minutes. She settled into one of the lushly upholstered chairs and closed her eyes.
She hadn't relaxed in so long she practically couldn't remember how. Something about releasing tension in the body, she was fairly sure, but her tense body didn't seem to want to release. She took a deep breath, another, let it out...
Wow, that really wasn't working at all.
She was about to give it all up for a lost cause when she sensed someone else had approached her. She opened one eye, then the other.
A man stood next to her chair. Well over six feet tall, he had massive shoulders, long, blond hair, and the palest blue eyes she'd ever seen. In one hand he held a huge, steaming mug. She could smell the spicy chai.
"Your drink, ma'am." His voice was low and rumbling with a faint accent that sounded German to her untrained ear.
She reached up to take the cup from him. He bent forward at the waist, almost bowing. Her fingers brushed his. For a moment she just stared at his fingers where they touched hers, his so pale, hers so dark. A shiver ran through her. She fought back a sudden urge to lean forward and lick him.
Good Lord. Where had that come from? She cupped the mug a bit more firmly and drew it toward her, out of his grasp. Mostly to avoid looking at him, she bent her head over the mug, inhaling the steam. It was redolent with the smell of spices -- cardamom, cloves, cinnamon, pepper. An appreciative hum emerged from between her lips.
"If you would be so kind --" the man began. Jessalyn's eyes popped open. She'd almost forgotten he was there. "If you could take a drink to see if it is to your taste?"
"Um... sure." She couldn't decide if she should file the request under Extra Good Customer Service or Creeptastic Stalker Barista.
She took a sip, carefully, because the steam rising from the mug suggested she might burn her tongue if she wasn't careful. But the smooth, milky tea rolled onto her tongue at the perfect temperature.
And it was amazing. She drank a lot of chai tea, but she'd never tasted one quite this perfect. Not too sweet, and the perfect balance of milk and tea. Too often, the sugar or the milk overwhelmed the spice of the tea. Not this time. And the tea itself -- the spices were brilliantly balanced, from the earthy cardamom to the biting pepper.
She closed her eyes, letting the flavors mingle on her tongue. A distinctly embarrassing noise rose from her throat, but she found it hard to care. This tea was Nirvana. Orgasmic, even.
"You like the tea?"
"Yes --" she started, then realized she didn't recognize the voice. Opening her eyes, she found another man standing next to Big, Broad and Nordic.
This man was shorter but not by much, and his features carried a distinctly Asian cast. The combination surprised her. She mentally smacked herself for the stereotype. His fine, black hair was pulled back into a long ponytail, and he held something in both hands -- a complex-looking, folded up contraption that resembled a chair.
Jessalyn eyed him warily. Where had all these people come from? Perhaps more importantly, if all these people worked here, where were the customers? She seemed to be the only person who'd stopped by for tea.
"Yes," she said, cautious. "The tea is very good."
"Wonderful! Wonderful!" She got the impression the Asian man would have clapped his hands in delight if they hadn't been full of the folded-up-chair thing. Nordic dude, in the meantime, was grinning like a loon.
Jessalyn was seriously considering asking for a to-go cup for her tea -- this place was weird, but there was no way she was abandoning that cup of tea -- when the Asian man took a step forward and unfolded the contraption next to her recliner. It was indeed a chair -- sort of -- the kind of chair itinerant masseuses used to give chair massages at the mall.
"Please enjoy your beverage of choice," he said. He sounded almost like he was reading from a script. "When you have finished, we will be pleased to provide you with additional pampering and relaxation."
Nordic dude frowned. "That didn't sound very natural."
The Asian man's bright smile dissolved into a tight-browed glare. "You do it then."
Nordic dude shrugged. "It was fine."
"Then shut up."
Jessalyn took another long, deeply satisfying drink of her tea, eyeing the men speculatively. They were large and strong and stupidly attractive. "How much do you charge for this additional relaxation and pampering?"
"On the house," said the Asian man.
She took another drink, glancing toward the coffee bar. The skinny barista was still there, but he seemed to be ignoring them, focused on cleaning the espresso machine.
"Really." Jessalyn's skeptical tone made the word a statement rather than a question. "Buy one chai latte, get a chair massage free? Sounds a little too good to be true."
"Oh, I assure you, it is," said Nordic dude, and Asian dude elbowed him in the ribs.
"What he means is, it's entirely gratis, and the relaxing, recuperative experience will seem too good to be true."