One would think that a prestigious University such as the University of Cambridge, the second oldest University in the UK, one of the most well-known places in the entire world and home to the likes of Isaac Newton and Stephen Fry- one would think that such a place would not be as much as a hotbed for gossip as it was.
And yet Anna had been working in the Quincentennial Library at Jesus College, Cambridge for the best part of two years and she was still routinely ambushed by her colleagues, eager to impart the newest crumbs of gossip.
Anna exchanged an annoyed look with her co-worker and compatriot in exasperation, Robert Townsend.
“You’d better go and see what he wants,” Robert said. “He’s your friend, and he’ll be insufferable otherwise.”
“He’s your friend too,” Anna said, ducking her head and tapping at her computer, ignoring Abe’s expectant look. “The only reason he isn’t trying to ambush you as well is because you’re a coward and you’re hiding behind the bookshelves.”
“Perhaps,” Robert said. “But I’m not the one that he’s calling out for. And don’t you dare tell him I’m here, or I’ll tell him that you were saying how interested in his collection of historical cabbage seeds you are.”
Anna abandoned her computer and scowled at him. It was almost five anyway; she might as well just leave for the day. “Traitor,” she hissed as she started to pack up her things. She loved Abe, she really did- they had grown up together in the same small town and were closer than brother and sister- but she no matter how supportive she was, there was only so much interest that she could muster when it came to Abe’s research. Historical farming methods were all well and good, but not for three hours stretches.
Robert remained unperturbed at her insult. “You would have done the same to me,” he said placidly.
“That’s beside the point,” Anna said, swinging her bag over her shoulder and turning sharply to leave when-
-she ran straight into an unexpected figure and almost went sprawling back into the Help Desk. She was only saved from this ignoble fate by a pair of arms that reached out and caught her.
“I’m so sorry,” the figure said, one hand clutching his stack of books and the other wrapped around Anna’s waist where he had instinctively grabbed her. “I didn’t see you there.”
“It’s no problem,” Anna replied automatically. The man who she had run into was tall, with dark hair fussily brushed back and out of his face. He was wearing a coat, tightly buttoned against the cold, and his cheeks were flushed red, though Anna couldn’t tell whether it was from the cold or from embarrassment.
He still hadn’t taken his arm from around her waist, Anna noted, slightly flustered. The man noticed at the same time as her, and sprang back with another apology leaving behind the memory of warmth.
“I am so, very sorry,” he babbled, “I would never…it was an accident…I am utterly mortified-”
“You’re sorry that you stopped me from falling against the desk?” Anna asked. “Because as the person who would have ended up with a possible concussion, I’m thankful that you did so.”
The man’s face reddened even more, neatly answering the question of whether its previous colour had been from embarrassment or not, and he started stuttering out what might have been another explanation or apology. Anna didn’t wait to find out. Whoever this man was… he was interesting.
“If you feel so strongly about it, then you can make it up to me by buying me a drink,” she said, stepping forward and laying a hand on his shoulder. “I haven’t seen you around college before and I’d like to know more.”
The man hesitated, and for a moment Anna thought that he would defer and that they would pass out of each other’s lives. Then something crossed his face, some well of resolution, and he held out his hand.
“Edmund Hewlett,” he said, not wincing as Anna took his hand in a firm shake, “and I would be delighted to buy you a drink.”
Anna grinned at him. And then the two of them swept past a gobsmacked Abe and out the door.
Edmund sat back in his seat and took a deep drink of his pint. The beer was rich and delicious and probably too alcoholic for a first meeting, but he found that he didn’t care. In any case, Ms Strong- Anna as she had told him to call her- was already on her second pint of the evening and showing no sign of slowing down. Edmund pushed the bowl of peanuts closer to her and took another gulp of his drink.
“I’m sorry,” Anna said, running her hand through her hair and thoroughly dishevelling it. “I didn’t mean to go on about Abe- I suppose it just burst out of me.”
“It sounds as though you’re close.”
“Close?” A small wrinkle appeared in the middle of her forehead. Edmund hastily took another gulp of his drink in lieu of smoothing it away; a first meeting was far too early for that kind of thinking. He was ashamed of himself for even thinking it- it must be the alcohol.
“I suppose we are close,” Anna said. “I meane, in an annoyingly bratty younger brother kind of way. We grew up together; I don’t know whether I told you that in the middle of my anti-cabbage rant.”
“Not exactly, but the sentiment came through admirably,” Edmund replied. “I would imagine- well, I would imagine that’s how it is with siblings.”
“You’d imagine? You don’t have any siblings yourself, Edmund?” Anna set her drink down on the table and fixed him with a piercing stare. Even with dark bags underneath her eyes and wisps of hair flying every which way from her sensible plait, she was beautiful. No, she was beautiful because of those details.
“Ah, that is-” he hastily choked out once he realised that he had let the silence go on a tad too long, “-I do have an older sister, but with a twelve-year age gap, I’m afraid that we’ve never been close. We get along, of course, but…” he trailed off with a shrug.
“That sounds lonely,” Anna said. “I don’t have any biological siblings, but there was a whole group of us growing up; me and Abe and our friends Ben and Caleb were as thick as thieves. We still are, honestly. I can’t imagine life without them.”
“It wasn’t so bad,” Edmund said. “I had the stars, after all. To keep me company.” No sooner were the words out of his mouth than he wanted to take them back. He quickly closed his mouth, attempting to physically prevent clumsy words extolling the Heaven’s virtues escape him. Here he was, having a drink with a friend, possibly his first friend in his new home, and he was going to scare them off.
But Anna smiled at him. And it wasn’t the polite smile that he had become so well acquainted with, trotted out whenever he started talking just that bit too enthusiastically at family dinner- no. It was sincere. Interested. Edmund’s heart fluttered in his chest.
If he wasn’t careful, he could very well fall in love with this woman.
He had already fallen in love.
He swallowed and felt an unbearable tenderness swell in his chest. Took one last sip of his drink.
“Have you ever considered the stars?”