The barista's eyes narrow, but she nods her head towards the back of the store.
There's a rubbish bin by the counter, so I drop the Starbucks cup in it, feeling the penetrating glare of the barista as I do. Then I make my way up the three steps that separate the seating area from the bookshop, and hunt through the aisles to find her.
A tall girl is crouched down, sorting through books in a bottom shelf, her long green skirt bunched at her ankles.
'Kitty,' I say, and she looks up at me through her messy blonde hair.
I'm holding my coat and scarf in one hand and my handbag in the other, so there's not much I can do when she jumps up and grabs me into a hug.
I'm overwhelmed by Kitty's hug, and how pleased she is to see me. After everything that's happened recently, the last thing I expected right now was for Kitty to pull me into a hug. Kitty usually hates hugs.
'Oh, Jane,' she says. She's blinking back tears when she pulls back, and she looks surprised at herself that she's hugged me. 'It's so good to see you. How've you been? How was your Christmas?'
'Uh, Christmas was okay,' I falter. 'Bit weird, I guess. I wish you'd been there.'
'And how's your dad?'
'He's fine,' I say, feeling awkward. 'He, uh, well, he got me this Michael Kors bag, so that was nice.' I look down at the bag, which is hanging limply on my arm.
'I am really sorry I didn't come on Christmas day,' Kitty says. 'My friends here, Ed and Matt, their parents have, like, a ski chalet in France and they weren't using it...' Kitty trails off. 'It was really nice of Matt to suggest it, actually.'
'Well your photos on Instagram looked amazing,' I say warmly. 'It looks like you have a really good group of friends here.'
Kitty looks like she's on the verge of tears again. I'm startled to think I could have this affect on her. We haven't seen each other in a long time, I know, but I didn't think she'd care about me.
'So you're in London!' Kitty says brightly, trying to wipe away her tears. 'Why are you here? Are you visiting friends? I thought you were at university!'
I feel a tug of anxiety in my stomach. 'I dropped out of uni,' I admit, and then, 'I broke up with Drew.'
Kitty actually gasps. 'Drew? What? Why?'
'It's complicated,' I say, and then glance around. 'Is there somewhere we can sit and talk?'
'Oh, doll. Yes, of course. Come on, I'm like pretty much finished. We're closing the shop early because we don't have enough staff,' she glances at the barista behind the counter then says, 'But it's too cold to go back outside, um, I'm sure no one's downstairs, so we can talk privately there.'
Kitty shoves a few loose books into a shelf at random, and then grabs my hand in her heavily-ringed fingers and leads me to the back of the store.
Behind all the bookshelves is a door that says "WC". We push through it, and head down a thin, dark stairwell. I can hear indie rock music from somewhere down here, and when we pass the bathrooms we emerge out of the hall into a basement bar, where the music is blasting.
The lights are up, revealing polished concrete floors, exposed red brick and industrial-style pendants over the bar. A chalkboard behind the bar displays an extensive cocktail list. There are a few sofas at the back of the room, but towards the front there are tall bar tables and stools. The front door leads up a set of iron steps to street level. That's the only source of natural light, so it feels quite moody down here with the dim lighting.
'Oh, Harper's down here,' Kitty says, as the two of us reach the bar.
A guy who was crouching down, reaching for something below the bar, stands up in surprise.
'Uh, hey,' he says.
'Jane, Harper. Harper, this is Jane,' Kitty says.
Harper reaches out a hand to shake, then glances down to see the yellow rubber glove covered in soap. He retracts it immediately. I watch as his cheeks redden. He grins, closes his eyes and shakes his head a little, and then pulls off the soapy gloves.
'Sorry, hi,' Harper says, as he wipes his hands hastily on the front of his black jeans. He has chin-length dark curls, broad shoulders and handsome features that allow him to pull off the dishevelled, long-haired look. And I already love his smile, and the way it spreads across his whole face. He extends a hand again. 'Yeah, I'm Harper. And so you're the mysterious Jane. I've heard all about you.'
I'm surprised, and glance at Kitty. Why is Kitty telling her colleagues stories about me?
'What are you doing down here?' Kitty asks Harper.
'No one else had time to clean up yesterday,' Harper says. 'We've all been working too much since Matt...' he steals a glimpse at Kitty. 'Since Matt left.'
I glance at Kitty too. 'Matt left? Why?'
In the photos I've seen on Kitty's Instagram, this group is inseparable. I just can't imagine why one of its members would leave.
'Let's not go into details...' Kitty is saying, but Harper cuts her off.
'No idea,' Harper says. 'He's always been his own man. Always makes his own decisions. Left us reeling, though.'
'That sucks,' I say. 'Pretty inconsiderate of him, really.'
Harper chuckles. 'Yeah, you said it. So, you sticking around for a few drinks tonight?'
I glance at Kitty, debating the possibility in my mind. I have a return ticket to Brighton booked, but I can always stay at my aunt's house in London tonight and catch the train back to Brighton tomorrow. I love the idea of meeting the rest of Kitty's group.
'You may as well,' Kitty says.
'Sure,' I say brightly.
'Okay, well, Jane, let's find somewhere else we can talk,' Kitty says firmly. She leads me away from Harper, and the bar. She heads in the direction of the stairs back towards the bookstore.
I follow her, but glance back towards Harper. He grabs one of the yellow gloves and waves it in the air. Soap spuds fly across the bar. I wave back.
• Author's Note •
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19-year-old Jane, newly-single, moves to London to work for her friend, Kitty. But Kitty is hiding something about the café - and about Jane and Kitty's past. ***** If you looked...