Virtuous
Author:M.S. Force

Only because we are the best of friends—most of the time—did I resist the urge to punch my director and business partner in the face. We’ve been grating on each other’s nerves for weeks as this interminable shoot comes to an end with these final shots in Greenwich Village.

 

A half hour isn’t going to make or break our budget, and Hayden’s cozy trailer is nearby to keep everyone warm. That is, if the selfish bastard chooses to share it with the crew. In case he doesn’t, I gave the key to my trailer to one of the grips, with orders to invite the crew inside for a break.

 

The dog named Fluff-o-Nutter growls at me as I contemplate her stunning owner, Natalie Bryant. “So, coffee? Yes?”

 

Her deep brown eyes take an assessing glance at the neighborhood. “We can go to Gorman’s. They’ll let me bring Fluff in.”

 

I’ve never heard of Gorman’s, but it’s fine with me if it means I get to spend a few more minutes with her. “Lead the way.”

 

We walk the short distance in awkward silence and step into a coffee shop where Natalie and Fluff are clearly regulars. The owner, a big woman named Cleo, makes a fuss over Fluff, who wriggles with delight at the chin scratch.

 

“How’s school going?” Cleo asks Natalie as she serves up what looks to be a skinny latte with skim milk.

 

I’m guessing, because Natalie doesn’t actually place an order.

 

I can feel Natalie’s gaze darting between me and Cleo and can sense her trepidation as she carries on a conversation with Cleo, who either hasn’t noticed me or hasn’t recognized me. Yet.

 

“It’s good,” Natalie says. “I got the best possible class for my first year. I love them all, and even the parents are great.”

 

“You’re lucky. My daughter is a teacher uptown and got the exact opposite this year. Bunch a brats, and the parents are worse.”

 

“Yikes. That’s got to be tough.”

 

“Does Fluff want a biscuit?”

 

“No, she’s been naughty this morning. No treats today.”

 

Fluff whines in protest.

 

“That’s three twenty-five, honey.”

 

“I’ve got this.” I step up to the counter before Natalie can pull out her wallet. I invited her. I’m paying.

 

Cleo’s eyes widen, and her mouth falls open. “You. You’re. You’re…”

 

“Flynn Godfrey. Nice to meet you.”

 

She screams. Loudly. So loudly that Fluff starts barking frantically while squirming in Natalie’s arms.

 

Cleo’s scream brings the entire staff to the counter along with some of the patrons. By the time I sign autographs, kiss Cleo’s quivering cheek while one of the staffers takes pictures, and get around to ordering a coffee for myself that she won’t let me pay for, I’ve used up a big chunk of my precious thirty minutes.

 

Looking at Natalie, I point to a table in the corner. “Join me for a minute?”

 

She glances around at the prying eyes fixed on us, and I hate how uncomfortable she seems. “Um, sure, for a second.” She settles into the chair I hold for her, adeptly managing the squiggling dog and her coffee.

 

This is the part of fame I absolutely hate. I’ve met a woman I find interesting, but I can’t take her for coffee without causing a three-ring circus. In fact, I rarely go out in public anymore without security, but I’ve decided to risk it for a chance to talk to Natalie. By now she’s probably convinced I’m far more interested in myself than I am in her.

 

I walk a fine line—how do I deny Cleo and her staff a few autographs and a couple of pictures without looking like a jerk? On the other hand, how do I indulge them without appearing self-centered to Natalie?

 

“Sorry about all that.” I tip my head toward the counter where Cleo leans, her rapt attention fixed on us.

 

“Probably happens all the time, huh?”

 

I shrug, not wanting to talk about myself. I’m sick of myself and far more interested in her. “So you’re a teacher?”

 

She seems surprised by the question. “That’s right. Third grade at the Emerson School, one of the top charter schools in the city.”

 

“Impressive.”

 

“Sure, it is,” she says with a laugh that makes my gut clench with desire. She is stunning. Fresh-faced and full of life and exuberance and passion.

 

“It’s very impressive. I give you so much credit. I’d go crazy spending seven hours a day with seven-year-olds.”

 

“My kids are eight, and it’s six hours a day.”

 

“I stand corrected,” and captivated, which I don’t share with her. She’s young, I think, as I take a sip of my coffee. Far too young and fresh for me, and yet… I’m captivated. “Are you from the city?”

 

She shakes her head. “Nebraska. I applied for a special program that brings first-year teachers to the city. They help us find housing and roommates and get settled in exchange for a two-year commitment to the program. They also help with our student loans.”

 

“You’re a long way from home.”