“Better Than Tea"
An aspiring writer finds love in a local coffee shop in this cozy queer romance by Jenny Lane.
It’s officially soup weather! Fall and winter are my favorite seasons simply because I love being cozy. Soups, sweaters, watching my shows in bed, drinking red wine at 5pm: I’m here for all of it. That’s why I’m especially excited to share quite possibly the coziest romance we’ve ever published at Heartbeat: Better Than Tea, by Jenny Lane. Ashley, an aspiring writer, is dreading his upcoming 30th birthday, and the pressure to have done something more adventurous by now. Maybe Thomas, the hot new barista at Ashley’s local coffee shop can help expand his horizons…
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“Better Than Tea”
I’m out of milk. Of course, I’m out of milk. I should’ve noticed three days ago and added it to a grocery list, or perhaps yesterday, when I made my afternoon tea. But it snowed all weekend. So, instead of heading to the store like a grown man with responsibilities, I stayed in my pajamas and wrote while the January snow piled up like a fortress around me.
Staying in is a spectacular idea when it is snowing and it seems the milk will always be there for your kettle and your mug.
I tip the carton upside down, but it’s no use. Can I go now? I check the time, only to discover a reminder on my phone: Ten days until your birthday, Ashley! Do something adventurous! I groan. There’s a blurry memory of my housemate, Lucy, downing a shot and making me create a thirtieth birthday countdown a year ago. She’d dragged me to some pub for my 29th birthday, the week after Rory dumped me, and by our third round, everything was spinny and bright. And, oh god, I think I may have stood on the bar at one point and shouted WHO’S BORING NOW?!
It's all a bit fuzzy. Thankfully.
After my hangover went away from that night, so did any plans for adventure. This isn’t even a break-up, really. Rory’s words echo in my mind. You’re always working or writing. It still stings, even if he was right. Even if he continues to be right, a full year later. So, I’ve continued to stick to my routines, work more than I should on finance spreadsheets, and avoid anyone or anything that could lead to heartbreak.
Now, I close the fridge and press at my temples, willing the memory of Rory to fade. This is not what I need this morning.
But maybe Past Me has a point. I could at least attempt to get something better than tea before my first virtual meeting of the day. There’s a new coffeeshop just a few blocks from here I want to try. It may not be the kind of adventure Lucy would find worthy, but it might be just what I need.
Outside, a blanket of white spreads out across the ground, on the tops of hedges, and across the cars lining the street. The entire world looks dusted with icing sugar and the sky is such a soft grey you might be tempted to call it blue—if you were being generous. I am not being generous.
I walk the ten blocks to the new coffeeshop. From the outside, it looks like any other shop on this street, red brick and a black door and large front window. Inside, artwork lines the walls. A house plant sprawls out from the top of a bookcase, wrapping its dark-green tendrils around the shelving like it’s trying to hug everything at once. Books of every size and color line the shelves.
I let my fingers run along the spines of new books for sale and a smaller collection of well-loved paperbacks, their spines cracked and begging to be opened again. A small sign in perfect script above them reads Lending Library: Help yourself. I think I might.
I choose a book, the spine so worn I can’t make out the title, and scan the pages. I know these poems. Whitman’s words about grass and hope swirl in my mind, conjuring memories of springtime. It’s a nice variation from the grey ice and snow that’s seeped into my socks for the past few months. And my heart for the past year.
I take my place in the queue and continue to flip through the pages of the book, losing all time in the process. Whitman’s best lines are underlined with scribbles in the margins: yes or this, so much. The verses are familiar echoes of a song I used to know, but I’ve forgotten the melody.
I’m still reading when a deep, warm voice draws my attention. “What can I get started for you?”
The barista is much taller than me with dark hair that swoops into a disheveled quiff. A faint shadow runs along his jaw. It’s a terribly strong jawline. Not that I’m staring at it. Oh god I’m staring at it.
“Erm, pardon?” I ask.
A small line forms in the middle of his wide brow, and he tips his head to the side like he’s trying to figure out what to do with me. His lips purse into a thoughtful smile. “What can I get you?”
“Erm, tea? Sorry.” I clear my throat. “I usually drink … tea.”
Thomas, according to the name scrawled on his nametag above a rainbow pin, has eyes the color of hot chocolate, and they widen with amusement. “Usually?” he asks, lips quirking again. “What about today?” Those eyes focus on me, and my insides flutter.
Maybe it’s his smile, or maybe it’s that I haven’t done a single thing but work for the past year, but I clear my throat and say, “I’m up for an adventure. What do you recommend?”
“I love a challenge.” He winks at me and scribbles something on the cup with thick black marker. “Do you trust me?”
His eyes lock on mine again, and I feel it in the back of my knees. My head tells me I should have gone to the store down the street, but my heart pounds trust him with every beat, a thrum in my chest willing me to take this chance.
With a confidence I’m not sure I really have, I say, “I guess we’ll find out,” and pull my card from my wallet.
“Please.” He waves one hand in my direction. “Well, your first adventure is on me. What’s your name?”
He nods, giving me one final smile. My throat feels thick, but my head feels light. I think I better sit down.
Two women gather their bags and abandon the club chairs in the corner. I make my way to them and tentatively sit on the edge of one. The worn leather feels so comfortable that I commit fully, sinking all the way back. New spaces usually make me anxious, but this spot feels like coming home.
My stomach growls, reminding me I forgot to order biscuits. So now, because of one smile from the first guy I’ve let myself truly look at in months, I’m going to drink something possibly awful, and not have biscuits, and also still not have milk when I go home for my meeting.
I should have gone to the market.
Thomas is deftly filling some type of contraption with what I can only assume is espresso. He playfully elbows a barista with strawberry-pink hair and piercings up one ear. I can’t look away, lost in his easy, graceful movements.
“Order for Ashley,” his voice calls from behind the counter.
I collect a cup with my name in black script on it. I can’t decipher the coffee-related hieroglyphics running down the side.
The drink warms my hands, and the smile playing across Thomas’s lips makes the tops of my cheeks flush with heat. “So… What is it?” I ask.
He grins. “Not tea.” When he sees my expression, he places one hand on the back of his neck—is this gorgeous man self-conscious right now? —and says, more quietly, “It’s a latte, my own creation. You looked like you could use something new.”
“Thanks.” It’s probably too low for him to hear. My palms are beginning to burn—I’m gripping the drink like a lifeline.
“Let me know if you like it. Oh, and here.” He slides a small brown bag across the counter. I reach for it and his fingertips graze the edges of mine. A zip of heat rushes up my arm and through my chest. It’s like the first sun coming round after months of rain and sleet.
I can’t risk looking at him, so I mumble another quick “thanks” and retreat to the relative safety of the leather chair. I take a small sip of the drink.
There’s a thickness to the steamed milk I wasn’t expecting; it’s rich and full, heavy on my tongue. The bitter shock of espresso is there, but something else, too. Something almost sweet. Almond? I take another long pull of the latte.
Do I, maybe, not hate coffee?
My phone buzzes in my pocket. It’s Lucy. We’re out of milk. I’m about to respond when I look at the time. My meeting starts in less than twenty minutes. I shove my phone away and rush to the door—not realizing until I’m down the street that I didn’t say goodbye to Thomas. Not like he expects that from customers, I’m sure.
By the time I reach my front door, the cardboard cup is mostly empty in my hands. I feel for my keys, but instead my hand brushes against a bag. Inside are two small shortbread biscuits, bits of them already crumbled from the journey home. That electric heat zips along my pulse once more. How did he know?
And how is it possible that I will be thirty years old in a matter of days, but one thoughtful gesture has me melting into a puddle on my doorstep?
Obviously, Thomas is a shameless flirt. He probably makes free coffees for any man who comes into the shop. That must be it. I shove down my feelings and close the door behind me.
But the shortbread is crumbly and buttery, and I have the distinct feeling that I’m going to be absolutely no good at work today.
The next morning, the notepad on my bedside table reminds me I still need to buy milk. The borrowed book beneath it reminds me it wasn’t a dream. Passages I’ve never noticed are underlined. One of them stops my heart.
Missing me one place search another,
I stop somewhere waiting for you.
I try to imagine the type of person that would underline Whitman’s poetry with such sure marks. The type of person that would leave this clearly beloved book on a shelf for others to take. I should return it.
That thought makes a thrill run down my spine, and I can then imagine warm brown eyes, warm tawny skin … and another warm drink to start my day.
My phone buzzes, jolting me back to reality with another reminder from Past Me. You are turning THIRTY in nine days. Be bold! I dismiss the reminder—and yet.
On Tuesday, I tell Thomas to surprise me again, and he makes me a mocha with whipped cream and rainbow sprinkles that’s dessert level sweet.
“You should sell this during Pride,” I say. “I’d come here every day.”
“I’m kind of hoping you’ll come here every day anyway.”
I have to duck my head to hide my blush.
On Wednesday, he concocts something with chai, leaving my tastebuds dancing with spice. By Thursday, Thomas is expecting me. He smiles and tips his head toward the pick-up counter. A flurry of excitement settles in my chest, and I practically float over to where my drink waits.
I hold up the cup, but there’s no markings on it. Just my name in perfect script. “What’s this one?”
“Try it,” he urges.
I take a small sip. Nutmeg and cinnamon, and— “Is this pumpkin?”
He nods, and I burst into laughter. “But the holidays are over.” I take another long sip and moan, “I don’t even care.”
“See—who says December gets all the fun? I’m keeping this one around.” When I look into his eyes, they’re warm as the drink in my hands, and he says, “Do you have time to stay today?”
Well. This is new. Thomas and I don’t sit and chat. We share flirty banter over hot beverages, and I leave before I get overwhelmed and awkward.
But his expression is hopeful and my insides twist. “I’d like that,” I say. “But I have a work meeting soon. I’m planning to write in that chair very soon. So, another time?”
He nods. “Another time then,” he agrees, his voice low and certain.
When I walk outside, I barely notice the cold wind. I have an almost non-date. Or at least the hope for one.
Something bold. Finally.
When I wander into our kitchen the next morning, Lucy leans against the kitchen counter, sipping a mug of tea. “Hey, Ash,” she murmurs. Her dark hair is piled onto her head, and her light blue scrubs are freshly starched. “Do you have time for some tea?”
I try to ignore the pang of disappointment as I pour from the still steaming kettle. I wait for it to steep and add just the right amount of milk and sugar. But there aren’t any biscuits to go with it.
I glower at the traitorous milk before putting it back.
Lucy notices. “Guess you’re going to need a new reason to visit your hot barista— “Actually… He asked me out. Well, kind of.”
“You should tell him yes.” She pushes away from the counter and squeezes my shoulder before setting her empty mug in the sink. “You’re smiling more. And you just added sugar to your tea. I say go for it.”
“You always say go for it,” I tease. When Lucy enters a room—and she’s always entering rooms—every face turns to her like she’s the sun. When I enter a room—well, I kind of stopped entering rooms a year ago, didn’t I?
I sigh. “I don’t want to go through the hassle of it all, then just … disappoint someone again.”
Lucy frowns through her smudged eyeliner and wipes at her mouth with her hand. “You are amazing, just as you are. Besides, something tells me Hot Barista is into this whole nerdy writer vibe you have going on.” She winks and nudges me before disappearing up the stairs.
When I reach the front of the queue on Saturday, I expect to find Thomas. But he isn’t there. And here I am planning to stay and finally write. Maybe he doesn’t work weekends?
Unfortunately, thanks to his surprises, I have no idea how to order anything for myself. When the pink-haired barista eyes me expectantly, I blurt out, “Do you have any lattes with almond in them?”
A spark of recognition flashes in her eyes. “Why, yes. Yes, we do.” She points a black marker at me and nods.
The two leather chairs in the corner sit conspiratorially empty, as if they’re waiting for me, so once my latte is ready, I make my way over. The Saturday crowd is a steady soft hum of people chatting. I pull my laptop from my bag, and the words flow freely.
A voice smooth as honey speaks softly, pulling me away from my writing. “You’re back.”
My fingers freeze, hovering over the keyboard, and I give myself a moment to silently freak out before I look up. Thomas is gazing at me with gentle amusement. I wonder how I ever thought his eyes were brown. They aren’t brown. They’re dark soil, and they glow green on the edges. There’s an entire forest in his gaze.
The world comes rushing back at me all at once, and I give him a shaky smile. “I’m embarrassed to admit it, but this latte might be better than tea.”
After a long moment, Thomas’s eyes finally drop, looking down with seeming reluctance, and he smiles. “I know,” he says with a low chuckle. “I was hoping to see you again.”
I can’t stop looking at him, studying him. There is a single freckle just under his right ear, and I want to spend however long it takes mapping out every freckle that might be hiding on this man’s skin.
Then his eyes meet mine again, with that soft smolder, now on the verge of turning into a smirk. Oh god, he definitely saw me checking him out.
“I needed to return this book,” I say, gesturing to the tattered paperback sitting next to my laptop. Sadness wells up at the thought, but it’s time.
Thomas hums approvingly. “Ah, yes. You took my favorite. Hope my scribbles didn’t bother you.”
My stomach breaks into a thousand flurries. Those are Thomas’s annotations. I know it now without a doubt. “You marked some passages I hadn’t remembered.” I don’t tell him the words made me feel brave. Reawakened long-forgotten parts of me. “It felt good to read about warmth and spring.”
Thomas nods. “I think I have most of it memorized by now.” He gestures to the art across the room. “My sister painted those for me as a present. And also, to tease me a bit.”
I look closely at the art. It’s a painting of grass. A close-up of roots and earth. “Out of hopeful green stuff woven,” I murmur.
His breath hitches. “Exactly,” he says. Our eyes meet in a drawn-out moment. But before I can speak, he holds up on hand, breaking the spell. “I’ll be right back.”
Thomas returns moments later with a mug of something steamy and a small plate of chocolate biscuits. He sits and smiles at me, abashed and absolutely adorable, and offers me the plate.
“I made them last night.” His voice is softer now. If I didn’t know better, I’d say it was … shy? “It’s a new recipe.”
“So, you love Whitman and you bake?” I ask, giving him a lopsided grin. “What else should I know about you?”
I select one of the biscuits. There’s a snap when I first bite into it, but then it turns chewy. Dark chocolate melts on my tongue. I’m not sure I don’t moan.
Thomas grins at me with satisfaction and takes one for himself. “My ex-boyfriend would tell you I work too much. My sister would say I’m a nerd.” He grimaces a bit and ends with, “And I would say I’m still figuring out the rest.”
He’s so earnest and so gentle. My cheeks flush with warmth. “Well, these are wonderful,” I say. “Do you make all the biscuits here?”
“No, but I made the shortbread the other day. When I opened this shop, I knew I wanted it to feel like home. Hence the books and the art. My flat is empty now, but I don’t mind.”
His book. His art. His… shop? No wonder this place draws me in. It’s all just pieces of Thomas.
“Well, these are lovely.” I take another bite. “I could never bake something like this. I’m not good at creating.”
“Oh, I wouldn’t say that.” Thomas taps the lid of my laptop. “You said you’re writing. Isn’t that art? A form of creating?”
“I suppose it is.” I let out a breathy laugh. Hope whirls up in my stomach, a flurry of snowflakes that match the ones that have begun to fall outside the shop windows. “Did you always want to open a shop?”
Thomas’s eyes roam from one edge of the space to the other. “I worked as a barista through uni and missed it once I graduated. Figured I’d put my business degree to use with something I actually like.” He scrubs at the back of his neck and sighs, but gives me a bashful grin.
“I admire that. I stare at computer spreadsheets all day at my day job.” I contemplate my laptop for a moment. “I like it enough, but I’d much prefer to spend time writing somewhere like this.”
Our eyes meet and the flurry of snowflakes in my stomach burst like a snowball on impact. I could write somewhere like this. Every day. The steady hum of life, the natural light, and the company … all like a muse for my writing.
I have to look away. His gaze is so earnest and open—I’ll get lost in it if I’m not careful. Outside the light snow of a few moments ago has become thick and heavy. The storm has picked up again. The world is washed in white and wonder.
Thomas looks out the window, too. “It’s really coming down now. It’ll stick this time.”
I catch my breath. “I guess … I better stay then. These chairs. Those books. I could sit here all day.”
Thomas smiles. “What are you doing Thursday?” He pushes up his sleeves, and there’s a smattering of freckles on his left arm. Three, four, five. I lose count.
Thomas reaches for his mug the same moment I adjust the screen of my laptop. Our fingers brush, and it feels like fire. Like heat and all my protective icy walls melting away. He smiles sheepishly, and my heart skips.
“Erm, Thursday?” I manage.
“Quite,” he says, the amusement back in his eyes, an invitation in his voice. “I close early that day. I thought we could do something that doesn’t involve one or both of us working? Maybe we could try a proper date?”
Thursday. My thirtieth birthday. My do something bold day. A proper date. The snowstorm in my stomach turns to ice again, and I can’t speak. What if I say yes and then disappoint him somehow? He already thinks I’m always working.
Pink-haired barista chooses this exact moment to interrupt our conversation, like some kind of punk-rock fairy godmother coming to rescue me from my own nerves. “Sorry to be a bother, Thomas,” she says. “But a delivery needs your signature.”
“Sure,” Thomas responds. Then he looks at me like he’s nervous I might disappear. I’m nervous about that, too. “So, what do you say? Thursday?”
“Maybe.” It doesn’t sound convincing, but it’s an answer of sorts. I don’t know what I’ve been thinking—that I could just stay in the warmth of this shop forever?
But I couldn’t have said “yes,” could I? Because it won’t last. Inevitably, one day Thomas will want to do something, and I’ll say “no.” I’ll choose work, I’ll choose staying in. I’ll choose comfort over fun. Thomas frowns just as he did that first day. Trying to figure me out again. “To be continued,” he says. And then he disappears into the back.
I leave before he can return.
I don’t go back to the coffee shop the next day. Or the next. Instead, I go to Tescos. I buy milk. I work on my writing.
On my birthday, I expect to wake up feeling brand-new. Or, at the very least, older. More mature.
I do not.
I make my morning tea, and slog through another day of meetings and paperwork, and it’s all terribly, terribly fine.
But today could have been spectacular. Could have been the start of … something new.
I’m just closing my laptop with a weary sigh when Lucy bounds into my bedroom and flops down on my bed. It’s well past when I should be done for the day, and she’s in her work scrubs, her nurse’s badge still clipped in place.
“So, we’re going out, yeah?” she asks hopefully. She does not point out that I could be with Thomas right now, although I told her the whole sad tale last week. “It’s your birthday, babe. You have to do something.”
I can’t think of anything I’d rather do less.
My eyes find the book of Whitman’s poems on my bedside table. In my haste to leave last Saturday, I’d shoved it into my bag with my laptop.
As if in a dream, I flip through the pages again, and I see it. Failing to fetch me at first, keep encouraged.
I stand and tuck the book into my bag. I have to find my courage—and keep Thomas’s.
“Lucy, I have to go. There’s somewhere I’m supposed to be."
The shops on this stretch of town are closed for the evening, but thankfully, there’s light in the coffeeshop. The large front window glows with warmth, and I press my face close, searching for Thomas inside. And there he is, sunk into his favorite chair, writing in some kind of ledger.
I take a shaky breath—keep encouraged—and rap my knuckles against the window. Thomas startles, and his pen drags across the page.
When his eyes meet mine, I see confusionand surprise play out on his face like he’s testing each one. He settles on a tentative smile and rises from the chair.
Instead of beckoning me inside, Thomas steps out into the night with me. It’s dark out here. And cold, with tiny snowflakes dotting the air.
Thomas takes one cautious step in my direction. “You made it.” His words are low. “I wasn’t sure you’d be back.”
I am suddenly very aware of my body and how it responds to his proximity. He’s radiating warmth, even with his sweater pushed up his forearms. Something tugs low in my stomach, a tether pulling me toward him.
“I wasn’t sure either,” I breathe. “But I’m glad that I am. Can we maybe… start over?”
“Start over?” Thomas asks. He must be blissfully unaware of my nerves and my slowly melting heart. “I kind of like where we’ve started. Except for the Ashley Disappearing bit.”
So maybe not totally unaware. “I’m sorry about that.” I clench my hands and look Thomas in the eyes, ready to show him all of me. “The truth is, I couldn’t admit I wanted this because it could mean getting hurt. But I’m done being scared. I should have said yes. To you.”
Thomas steps so close we should be touching. The pull in my stomach dips with a familiar ache.
I’m not sure what to do with all this want blooming inside me, so I keep talking. “I’m saying yes now. I’d like to take you out. On a date.”
He leans against the window. But my heart is beating fast, the best I can do is count the freckles along his arms. When I look up, the smile is entirely gone from his face, replaced with gentle determination.
“I like you,” he says in that honey-warm voice. “I like the way your forehead crinkles when you’re writing. Your lips move as if you’re telling yourself the story. I like that you borrow books and can’t bear to return them. And I like that you took a risk. On coffee. And maybe on me.”
The snow’s gotten heavier during our declarations. Icy flakes run down the back of my neck, hit the tip of my nose. Each one melting the moment it hits the pavement. The translucent crystals dance like a thousand fresh starts in the glow of the shop’s window.
I try to smile at him. “So, that’s a yes?” Hope blooms in my heart, a steady thrum inside my chest, and I want … something. Reassurance?
Thomas is in no rush, though. His head dips, his eyes searching mine, then dropping to my mouth. This is too good to rush through.
Thomas’s mouth hovers over mine, waiting for me. I stare into his eyes, searching for the spark of green along the edges, but they’re blown black now—all I can see there is hunger. I step into him, lift my mouth to his. And then his lips are on mine.
For an endless moment, there is only heat and heartbeats and snow flurries melting everywhere we touch. It’s not a long kiss. Just enough to make me want more.
Thomas pulls back before I’m ready and rests his forehead against mine. Tiny crystals of snow are melting in his hair, on his lashes, soaking cold into his sweater where my hands have found themselves.
“Right,” he says, a little breathless. His fingers run along the damp shoulder of my coat. “How about I make us something warm to drink? We can try the going-out thing another time. But do you mind if we just stay in, warm up, and watch this snow fall?” Speechless at this, I gape at him. He ducks his head and says, “I know it might be boring, but it’s my favorite thing.”
I lace my fingers through his—my version of bold—and warmth spreads out from my chest and up into my cheeks. “That sounds… perfect.” I’m reaching up to initiate another kiss when my phone buzzes in my pocket. I ignore it, but it buzzes again.
Doesn’t Past Me know I am having a moment here?
Thomas pulls back a bit, eyes still heavy-lidded. “Do you need to get that?” he asks.
“It’s fine,” I insist, pulling him back. “Probably just birthday messages.”
Oh god, oh god. I wasn’t going to tell him that.
His eyes dance in a moment of realization. “I see,” Thomas says. “It’s your birthday, then?”
It’s not the sort of thing you tell someone when they’ve just kissed you for the first time. “Yes,” I sigh.
He straightens up. “Then,” he says in a serious tone, “I’ll just have to bring out some biscuits, too.”
I laugh and let Thomas pull me into the empty shop that somehow still feels cozy and full of life. And I no longer care whether what I’m doing is a normal, adult thing to do when it is snowing.
I never imagined my thirtieth year would start like this. With someone awakening things in me I didn’t dare hope for. With coffee, a side of biscuits, and all this possibility.
Next up on Heartbeat, get ready for a short story from Jonnah Dayuta.
Follow Heartbeat on Instagram at @storiesbyheartbeat for upcoming behind-the-scenes sneak peeks at Jonnah’s story!
Three quick things from Georgia:
The Generation Women Writers’ Retreat, hosted by yours truly, is now open for applications! Join 11 other talented creatives in a sprawling Catskill manor, March 24th - 27th. Cost is all-inclusive. See our website for more details and testimonials. No fee to apply, and applications close Feb. 13th. I’d love to see some Heartbeat fam there!
I adored Weather Girl by Rachel Lynn Solomon. It’s a sweet, heartfelt love story between a recently dumped TV meteorologist and a shy sports reporter. I found the mental health rep especially engaging: the main character has depression which the author note describes as similar to her own.
I’m currently neck-deep in revisions for my new book, a holiday romance that I am obsessed with. I’m already sad that one day this book will be finished! I always feel that way. My rec is the writing software I use, Scrivener. If you’re still writing in Word or, god forbid, Notes: there is another way.
What did you think of this week’s story? Let us know in the comments below!
What perfect story to read with my tea this morning!! 🥰🥰