© 2012, Andi Marquette
“Doing anything for Valentine’s Day?”
Marissa gave her a look as she picked up her coffee cup.
“That is, anything for yourself,” Debbie corrected. She set her own cup down on the table and blew a strand of her hair out of her face before she pushed it behind her ear, as if she were scolding it. “C’mon. It’s one of the biggest holidays of the year for flowers and flirting. You’re inundated with it at the shop. But you never do anything yourself.”
Marissa shrugged. “I don’t need to. I get my kicks from everybody else’s running around.” She glanced at the bud jar that sat between them, and contemplated the festive but fake black-eyed Susan in it. She saw whole sagas unfold at the flower shop, many that began this time of year. Romances and love affairs that blossomed, relationships that bloomed, and in some cases, wilted. “It’s a soap opera twenty-four seven this time of year.”
“Has my little starry-eyed romantic become a cynic?” Debbie sat back, feigning horror. Her hoop earrings nearly bumped her shoulders, and Marissa wondered how she managed to wear jewelry the size of a child’s bracelet on her ears. But she did. And it worked. Debbie always managed to look like a cross between a crazy Gypsy fortune teller and a retro Soul Train dancer. Definitely not an easy thing to do, and definitely not for faint-of-heart dressers.
“Not a bit. I just prefer being the medium for others this time of year. I like helping put together just the right arrangement for the occasion. Especially when it’s guys coming in who don’t know the first thing about flowers. They’re always so grateful.”
“So you’re basically a romance enabler.”
Marissa laughed. “Why not? As long as everybody plays safe, we should all have a little bit of romance and mystery. That’s what I like about working this time of year, though we’re totally slammed.”
“What about you?”
She shook her head. “I like the romance this time of year brings, but I don’t want to engage in it myself. I wouldn’t know what to do. Things work for me, when I’m creating arrangements for others, and helping people buy flowers for someone special. You know how I am.”
“Mmm. Always the flower girl, never the girl. Do you have to actually work on Valentine’s Day?”
“You’re kidding, right? When have I not?”
Debbie shrugged and picked up her coffee cup, nonchalant. Like she didn’t have something up her purple puffy sleeve.
“That’s the absolute biggest sales day this time of year, because everyone wants to surprise their squeezes on that day with flowers and whatever else. I’ll be booked solid. And I have regulars.”
“I’ll bet you’re the only person in the city who can say that about a flower shop.”
“What? I have customers this time of year, every year, that want specific arrangements for specific scenarios. Some of them are in long-term relationships, some are just starting, and others do flavor-of-the-month. It’s kind of interesting, how someone’s flower preferences and buying habits can tell you something about them.” She toyed with the handle of her cup and watched the barista prepare a drink. She was cute, Marissa thought, in a hipster art-chick kind of way.
“You’re also the only person I know who can turn a job at a flower shop into a psychological profile.” Debbie finished her coffee. “I’ve got to run, love. What time do you get off work on Valentine’s Day?”
“We close at seven.”
“If you’re not completely wiped out, swing by. I’m having a soiree.”
Marissa raised an eyebrow.
“The usual bunch.”
She raised the other eyebrow.
“Tara, Onisha, Sharon, Teddy, Brandon, LaVon.” She paused. “Gabriela.”
Marissa groaned. “Would you stop?”
“Matchmaking. Stop. I’m not looking.”
“Who’s matchmaking? I’m having a singles unite party, and you’re invited.”
“I appreciate the gesture,” she said, only a little exasperated, “but I’m seriously not looking.”
“Are you referring to Gabriela?” Debbie asked with extra innocence. “She’s cute.”
Yes, Gabriela was cute. But Marissa could do without her. “She’s not my type.”
“Who said anything about type? I just said she’s cute.”
“That’s a gateway phrase. It starts there and goes right to set-up.” For whatever reasons, Debbie liked Gabriela, but Marissa found her tiring, in that “trying much too hard to be cute butch” way that always turned her off. She knew that type, and she’d thus avoided much contact with Gabriela. Debbie, however, was convinced that Gabriela would be a good dating scenario for her. She’d been convinced of this for two months.
“What is your deal? You haven’t even been around her that much.”
“I’ve been around her enough to know she’s not my type.”
Debbie gave her a look, the kind of look that made her feel like a kid who’d said something stupid. “You’re reaching. I’m having people over for a gathering. You’re invited. There’s nothing to read into that.”
“I’ll see how I feel,” she said noncommittally.
“It’ll be fun.” Debbie leaned over and pecked her on the cheek, then stood to go. She left her cologne in her wake. It smelled faintly of lavender, and Marissa remembered how it used to linger on her sheets when they were seeing each other however long ago that was. A year? She answered Debbie’s wave and pulled her iPad out of her bag. A year ago? Really? A few dates here and there since, but nothing that made her want to invest more than a meal or a make-out session. Some didn’t even warrant that. She didn’t mind being single, didn’t mind spending her evenings watching movies alone or by herself or working on her art projects. She liked hiking alone, liked driving alone, and liked eating alone. She wasn’t the type of woman who was uncomfortable in her own company. It frustrated her friends, she knew, especially the ones like Debbie who kept trying to set her up. With women completely inappropriate for her. You’d think Debbie would’ve figured something out about her, since they’d been together about a year.
She checked her email, then started to read an article about a particular author she liked who had just released a book.
Marissa looked up. Gabriela. She stifled a sigh. Nowhere to hide.
“Sorry,” Gabriela said. “Didn’t mean to interrupt. Just thought I’d say hi.” She smiled in a lopsided kind of way that made the corners of her eyes crinkle.
Cute. And it annoyed the hell out of her. “Hi back,” Marissa said, trying not to sound irritated.
“Did you read her last one?” Gabriela asked, gesturing with her to-go cup at the iPad’s screen. “I’m not sure I liked it as much as the first.”
She frowned, momentarily disconcerted that Gabriela would read something that she had. “I did. What didn’t you like about it?”
Gabriela shrugged. “The character got too whiny. How do you redeem that? She wrote her into a corner, I think, and it wouldn’t be believable if she suddenly got her shit together.”
Marissa nodded, her eyes on Gabriela’s scarf, wrapped rakishly around her neck. Her beat-up black leather jacket only accentuated it. Festive, like the colors an Indian woman might wear as a sari. Were those earrings? Yes. Yes they were. Small diamond studs. And ripped jeans and scuffed men’s black wingtips. But Gabriela was tall, and she could pull it off. Marissa’s annoyance increased.
“But don’t you think she had a reason to be whiny?”
Gabriela shrugged again. “Everybody has a reason to whine sometimes, sure. But I think it’ll be hard for her to write that character out of that space, given the way the series seems to be going.”
“Huh. How about we read it and find out?” she challenged.
Gabriela smiled, and her eyes seemed to twinkle, which added another layer to Marissa’s irritation. “Sounds good. I’ll check back. Catch you later.” She touched her eyebrow with an index finger in a salute that was more cute than anything else, and Marissa waved back, but refused—absolutely refused—to watch her leave. So not her type.
She counted to ten and looked out the café’s windows, the corners fogged on the inside. Gabriela was talking to another woman outside, dressed in a long black coat. She was laughing at something Gabriela had said, and she touched her on the arm and leaned in a little. Uh-huh, Marissa thought. Typical. Look at me, I’m so cute and sexy. I’ll suck you in and drop you like a hot rock once I bleed you dry. She grimaced. No matter what Debbie thought, women who looked like Gabriela were trouble. Women like Gabriela had reps, and they left trails of broken hearts. They went for the pretty girls, but chatted up the not-so-pretty and nerdy, to get their hopes up before they crashed them to earth. Good thing she was immune to women like that. I’m on to you, she thought, as the woman in the long coat handed Gabriela what looked like a business card. I am so on to you.
She returned to reading the article, but looked up again a few seconds later, as if she were trying to prove her theories about Gabriela, who was still talking to the woman in the long coat. As Marissa watched, the woman smiled and walked away. Gabriela checked her phone, then glanced up, through the windows, and caught Marissa’s gaze. She grinned, waved again, and turned away before she, too, walked away in the same direction the woman in the long coat had gone. Nodding satisfactorily because she had Gabriela figured out, she went back to the article on her iPad.
“Hey, someone’s here to see you.”
Marissa looked up from the pile of baby’s breath. “Who?”
Zach shrugged. “Don’t know. She’s not a regular, but she knows who you are.”
“Okay. Thanks.” She wiped her hands off on a small cloth towel she kept on the table, and headed toward the front of the store. Probably a referral. She got a few of those. Zach followed her and pointed to a woman standing a few steps away from the front counter, past the five other customers who were putting in orders. She stared for a moment, then put on her game face and went around the counter.
“Hi. What’s up?”
Gabriela turned from the portable cooler devoted to rose arrangements. Her leather jacket was unzipped, and her faded blue flannel shirt was open at the collar. She had what looked like a cream-colored thermal shirt on underneath, loose faded jeans, and the scuffed wingtips from a couple days ago. Marissa recorded all of these details, and she wasn’t sure if she was more annoyed at how good Gabriela looked or that she sort of approved of her style. Probably both.
“Hi. Thanks. I was—” she motioned toward the roses in the cooler and grinned, sheepish. “I have no clue what I’m doing with flowers, and I was hoping you could help me.”
“Sure. What’s the occasion?” Okay, this she could do.
“Same as everybody else in here this time of year,” Gabriela said, glancing at the people waiting at the counter. “Valentine’s.” She put her hands in her coat pockets. “Sort of.”
“Well, I mean, it’s for Valentine’s Day, but not in an obvious way.”
Marissa waited for her to elaborate.
“It’s—Valentine’s Day is kind of heavy, and I don’t want to give the wrong impression.”
Uh-huh. Marissa forced her frown as far from her face as she could get it short of removing her lips. A flavor-of-the-month kind of woman. “So what impression do you want to give?”
“Uh, that I appreciate someone and I’d like to get to know her a little better, but I’m okay if she’s not into that.”
Appreciate? Sure she did. Like any player appreciated the next conquest. “Roses are definitely too heavy, then. You want something friendly but with a little bit of flirtatiousness. Are you a secret admirer type?”
“I guess you’d call it that. She knows who I am, but she doesn’t know. About this. You know?” Gabriela stopped and laughed. “That sounded stupid. Told you I wasn’t very good at this.”
Amused in spite of herself, Marissa smiled. “Okay, so something that hints of an admirer, has some flirtatiousness, maybe a dash of romance, but enough wiggle room for both of you to save face if this doesn’t go the way you’d like.”
Gabriela nodded, relieved. “Yeah. That’s about it.”
“I can do that for you. When would you like it?”
“For pick-up on Valentine’s Day. When do you close?”
Valentine’s Day was ten days away, but Marissa had to juggle dozens of orders, some of which requested her specifically. But she wanted to show this player a thing or two, so she’d do the arrangement herself. “Sounds good. Let me get an order form.”
“Thank you.” Gabriela sounded genuinely grateful.
Surprising, Marissa thought. She gets some brownie points for manners. She picked up one of the order form tablets lying next to the cash register and returned to the opposite end of the counter, where Gabriela stood.
“Okay, let me get some contact info and we’ll go from there. I’ll show you some arrangements here to see what you think, and explain what they mean.” She smiled at Gabriela’s confused expression. “Different flowers mean different things. So do the colors. And the meaning of an arrangement can change if I reverse the position of something.”
“Wow. Like tarot.”
Marissa looked at her, surprised again. “In a way, yes.”
“That’s interesting.” Gabriela smiled and pointed at the order form and provided her cell number and her last name.
Marissa wrote it down, surprised that her last name would be Ford. That didn’t really match her picture of Gabriela. She picked up the tablet and beckoned her to the front of the shop. “Tell me something about the person who will be getting these flowers.”
“Uh. . .”
“Nothing personal. Just words to describe her. Outgoing? Shy? Cerebral? Funny?”
“Oh.” She relaxed. “Confident and articulate.”
Marissa wrote the words down. Gabriela studied an arrangement that included iris and goldenrod. “Careful.”
“In what sense? She doesn’t drive fast? She eats right?”
“With people. She keeps herself under wraps.” Gabriela reached toward the iris, then drew her hand back before she touched it. “Self-contained. You’d better have an invitation before you invade her space.”
“Sounds prickly rather than careful.” Marissa added to her notes, curious, now, about this mysterious woman who’d caught the player’s eye. Not at all what she’d expected.
“You’d think, right?” Gabriela kept her eyes on the iris. “She can come off that way, but it’s just a lack of pretense. She doesn’t pretend to be someone she’s not, and she’s pretty comfortable in her own skin.” She looked back at Marissa and smiled in that cute-sexy way she had. “She’s a great dancer.”
“There’s a flower for that. Viscaria.”
Her smile widened to a grin. “Seriously?”
“Yes. It means, ‘will you dance with me’.”
“I like that.”
Marissa made a mental note. At least this woman Gabriela had her eye on enjoyed music and dancing.
Gabriela shoved her hands into the pockets of her jacket. “She’s deep.”
“There’s a depth to her that I think she tries to hide, but you can see it, if you pay attention.”
Marissa looked up at her, surprised yet again. She hid it. “So if she came into the shop and asked me to make an arrangement because she had her eye on you, what would she say about you?”
Gabriela cocked her head.
“I’m trying to get an idea of how well—or not—she knows you. It’ll help me with the direction the arrangement goes.”
“Oh.” She glanced away, then back. “I don’t think she’d say anything, because I don’t think she’d be in here buying flowers for me.”
“She’s not the type.”
“What do you mean? She’s not romantic?” It sounded like Gabriela was crushed out on a self-centered ice queen. Even with the dancing.
“I have no doubt she is. She’s just. . .not someone who would go out on a limb like that.”
Ice queen and boring.
“I mean, she would, but for certain things. Not so much in other respects.”
Selective, boring ice queen. “Does she like flowers?”
“How do you know?”
“Her friends confirmed.” Gabriela gave another smile.
The ice queen had friends. That was a good sign. Decreased her ice queen status a little. “Okay. This is all good information to help me get going. What kind of budget are you looking at?”
“Around fifty bucks, if you can.”
“That’s definitely doable.” Marissa approved of that. Not ostentatious, but not cheap.
“Great. Thanks. Call me if you need any more info or. . .whatever.”
“I will. Thanks for stopping by.”
Gabriela nodded. “Catch you later.” She left, but held the door open for a woman with two small children.
Marissa moved to get the new arrival started right away, because the kids looked bored, and sometimes children’s boredom translated to touching everything in sight. She tore the sheet with Gabriela’s order off the top, folded it into fourths, and slipped it into the pocket of her apron.
Marissa glanced at the ID before she answered the call. Some people she really didn’t want to talk to once she was settled in at home after work. Debbie was not on that list, however, so she answered.
“What are you doing?” Typical Debbie. Right to the point.
“Eating Japanese take-out. I didn’t feel like cooking.”
“Girl, I’m with you there. Long day?”
“Always. What’s up?”
“When do you get off work tomorrow?”
“Lucky me. Three. Guess they don’t want me burning out this week.” She took a bite of yakisoba.
“Come by Ellie’s afterward. A bunch of us are meeting at four.”
“Define ‘bunch’.” Pause from Debbie. Marissa smiled and took another bite. “You’re busted,” she said, not unkindly.
“What?” All innocence.
“It’s another set-up, isn’t it? Who’s going to be there?”
“Oh, come on. You’re paranoid. The usual group. If Gabriela shows up, it’s because she felt like it, not because I ordered her to.”
“So you admit it.”
Debbie huffed. “Admit what?”
“That she might be there. That you’re hoping to get me into the same room with her again, because you’ve deluded yourself into thinking that there could be something between us.”
“Deluded? That’s pretty strong.”
Marissa set the carton of yakisoba on her counter and leaned her back against it. The streetlight outside her kitchen window highlighted the big, fat snowflakes floating lazily to earth, like feathers shaken out of a down pillow. “Okay, fooled. You’ve fooled yourself. Besides, she’s already got her eye on someone.” She said it triumphantly, offering proof that Debbie was on the wrong track.
“Don’t know. She came into the shop yesterday to put in an order for flowers. She says she’s interested in someone, and she wants the kind of arrangement that gets that across without pressure to do anything about it.” Thinking back on it, she had to admit—grudgingly–that it was kind of sweet.
“Did she say who it was?”
“Duh. No. The secret admirer thing is an element to the arrangement she wants.”
“Huh. Well, I guess that’s good news for her, then.”
“Her, who? Gabriela or the other woman?”
“Gab. Good to hear she’s got her eye on someone, but I hope it’s somebody nice this time. She got pretty burned in her last relationship. Hasn’t been into anyone in a while. Anyway, there’s clearly no reason for you not to come by Ellie’s just to hang out, since Gabriela—” she gave the name extra exotic emphasis, “has her eye on someone. Come on. Just stop by and have a cup of coffee.”
“If I don’t have anything that comes up, I’ll probably swing by. But I’m not sure. I’ll let you know closer to the time.” What exactly was Debbie up to? There was no point trying to hook her up with Gabriela, because of whoever she had her eye on.
“Would you stop thinking I have ulterior motives every time I invite you to do something? Maybe I just want to make sure you get out of your pod with some regularity.”
“Pod?” Marissa laughed. “Like, what am I, invasion of the body snatchers?”
“I just worry about you. It’s ’cause I like you. And you’re special.”
The snow had picked up, and flakes swirled outside her window like fairy gatherings, like little stunt planes, as they rode the wind. In the living room, one of her favorite dance tunes started playing. She moved her leg in time to the rhythm. “You don’t need to worry. I’m not like other people.”
“That’s the truth.” Debbie laughed, a wonderfully husky sound that could turn heads.
“You know what I mean. I don’t mind being alone.”
“You live in your head too much, sweets. It’s good to get out and feel, now and again.”
The beat picked up and Marissa started moving a little more, her slippers making scuffing noises on the tile. “All right, all right. I’ll stop by.”
“Thank you. Stay warm.” She hung up, and Marissa put her phone on the counter next to the yakisoba and practically raced into her darkened living room where she danced, hair flying around her face, eyes closed, hips swaying, feet moving. When the song ended, she stood, breathing heavily, and smiled. When she danced, she wasn’t in her head. She was in the music, and she was something and somebody else, and it was otherworldly, sometimes, how she’d forget where she was when she danced. She turned the music down a little and went back into the kitchen to put what was left of her dinner in the fridge.
One of the nice things about Ellie’s was that Marissa lived close, so she could leave her car at her apartment building and walk, even in bad weather. The snow had stopped falling late last night, but not until five inches had layered itself on the city, one of those pre-spring storms that wasn’t heavy with March moisture but wasn’t winter dry, either. A weather martini with a little less vermouth. The afternoon sunlight made the snow sparkle, and she stopped to take a photo with her phone of a lone daffodil under a tree, standing like a sentry against the snow that didn’t quite reach it.
Unrequited love, she thought as she checked the photo on her screen. That’s one of the things daffodils meant. Maybe she should slip a couple of those into Gabriela’s arrangement. She changed her mind as fast as the thought entered it. Gabriela wouldn’t be unrequited for long. Women as good-looking as her always got what they wanted. Even the boring ice queen wouldn’t be able to hold off Gabriela for long, though she wondered what Debbie had meant last night, when she’d said she hoped Gabriela had found somebody nice this time. And she’d also said that Gabriela had been pretty burned, and that she hadn’t been interested in anyone in a while. Marissa mulled that.
She put her phone back in her coat pocket and continued walking, thinking about the woman on the other end of Gabriela’s order. Maybe it was the woman in the long coat she’d seen talking to her outside Ellie’s a few days ago. She did seem the ice queen type. Long blonde hair and features sculpted in some Nordic artist’s studio. A pretty counterbalance to Gabriela’s look, which was casual tousled butchy.
She rounded the corner and stamped her feet outside Ellie’s before she went in and wiped them on the big rug they’d put out over the worn wood floor. Debbie had gotten a big table in the corner farthest from the door in the front room, far enough away they wouldn’t be bothered by the cold air that hitchhiked in with each arrival. Teddy and Brandon were with her, Brandon making some overly theatrical gesture that made Debbie laugh. Marissa unbuttoned her coat, a slightly large Navy pea that she’d gotten at Goodwill, and joined them.
“Hey, girl,” Brandon called out in his diva sing-song greeting. “Heard you’ve been a busy flower child.”
“Always, this time of year.” She put her coat over the back of her chair. “Be right back. Let me go order something.”
She returned ten minutes later with a cinnamon latte, and set it on the table before she sat. “So what’s new?”
Debbie got up and gave her side hug. “Hi, honey. Glad you came. We were just talking about the new Underworld movie.” She returned to her own seat.
“Kate Beckinsale is pretty sexy in those,” Teddy said. “That’s a woman I’d go straight for.”
“I’ll let her know. I’m sure she’ll appreciate the sentiment.” Marissa smiled and stirred the foam into her cup.
“Honey, I’d go straight for you,” Teddy said with a leer.
She shook her head, but laughed.
“Admit it,” Brandon said. “Kate is over-the-top hot.” He sat back in his own chair and gave her his “you can’t even pretend to disagree” look.
“I do admit it,” Marissa said. “She is hot. But I feel bad for her, that she has to run around in that catsuit all day. It must be a bitch when she has to pee.”
“She’s a vampire. They don’t pee.”
Marissa looked at Teddy. “Not her character. Her. While she’s filming. Too bad she couldn’t wear black combat pants or something.”
“That totally reduces the sexy factor,” Brandon said in disagreement.
Marissa shrugged. “I think women in comfortable clothing can be sexy.”
“She found me sexy,” Debbie tossed in, with a wicked little smile thrown at her for good measure. “I’m always comfortable.”
Marissa smiled back. “Comfort is good.”
“Oh, I see somebody I know. Be right back.” Debbie got up and flowed across the room toward a table of women. Today she looked like a cross between a fortune-teller and a hippie chick. Her blue skirt fluttered in the breeze of her passage, and Marissa caught a glimpse of the bright red one underneath that. She knew that beneath that skirt Debbie wore leggings, probably yellow, given her color proclivities.
To Teddy, Marissa said, “And how do you know vampires don’t pee? Where does all that blood go that they suck? Does it fall out of their butts or something?”
“Oh, honey. That is nasty.” Brandon pretended to gag.
“It’s a legitimate question. All these vampire books and movies, and nobody really talks about what happens to the blood they drink. If they’re dead, then why do they need blood?”
“They’re magic dead.” Teddy reached for the cookie he was sharing with Brandon. It was nearly the size of the plate. “Just go with it. And enjoy Kate Beckinsale in a slinky black catsuit, would you?”
“So tell us some flower stories,” Brandon said. “What’s the craziest order you’ve had so far this year?”
She had finished her third anecdote and started to mention Gabriela’s order, but she thought better of it and instead talked about the goth guy who wanted a mixture of deep purple and black roses for his sweetheart.
“Shut up,” Brandon said. “I thought black roses were bad news to give someone.”
“He’s goth.” Teddy broke another piece of cookie off. “They have their own code. I dated a goth guy once, and he thought the coolest thing ever was a wreath of dead roses. He thought that was mad sexy. Around here, you probably get a bunch of goth guys buying flowers for their girlfriends.”
“I do have a couple of regulars. One, however, likes orchids in his black rose bouquets.”
Brandon laughed. “That would be kind of cool. Oh, hey. Speaking of mad sexy—hey, girl!” He waved at someone at the counter and Marissa and Teddy turned to look. Gabriela. She smiled and waved back. She was waiting on her order. She wore a pair of black framed glasses, which gave her a Rachel Maddow-ish look. Even in her black leather jacket and slightly baggy jeans, she looked cute-bookish with the glasses. Marissa wondered if she actually needed them or if she just wore them as part of her player routine. Strangely, she wasn’t annoyed to see her. Maybe because she knew her attentions were on someone else and Debbie wouldn’t keep trying to set them up. What did Gabriela think of that, she wondered. Did she know that Debbie had been trying to do that for the past couple of months? She probably did, and she just humored Debbie. After all, Marissa was so not a Nordic ice queen.
“Hey,” Gabriela said as she neared the table with her cup. “Okay if I join you?”
Brandon scoffed. “Girl, of course. Only the sexy people at this table, and you definitely qualify.”
She laughed. “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” She set her cup down.
“I am beholding,” he shot back before he got up. “Be right back.” He left and Teddy became absorbed in his phone.
“Hi,” Gabriela said to Marissa. She set her book bag on the chair to Marissa’s left, then took off her coat and set it on the back of the chair before she slung the strap of her bag on the back of it, as well. “How’s it going?”
“Good. I’m coming up with ideas for your order.”
“Nice to hear, but I was asking how things are going with you in general.” She looked over at her, curiosity in her eyes, which weren’t actually brown. More sort of hazel, with greenish accents. Was there nothing about this woman that wasn’t good-looking?
“Oh,” she said. “Well, good there, too. How about you?”
Gabriela nodded and stirred her coffee, which looked like a cappuccino. “Okay. Work’s kind of busy. Not as much as yours, though. Good thing for small blessings, I guess.”
Work. Where did she work? Marissa didn’t know, probably because she’d blocked out any information Debbie had provided in an effort to avoid the player pit.
“It’s all those wannabe art freaks,” Teddy said, not looking up from his phone. “Guys trying to prove to their girlfriends that they’re cultured, so they can get some for Valentine’s Day.”
Gabriela laughed. “There does seem to be a rush of straight couples in the galleries. But we’re also working on getting that women artists’ exhibit ready. Pain in the ass, but when it’s done, it’ll be cool.”
Art. Museum. “What’s your official title?” Marissa asked as she stirred her coffee again.
“Sexy art goddess,” Brandon said as he rejoined them. “Oh, wait. That’s your porn star title.”
Gabriela grinned but flushed, too. She glanced over at her, with a “please help me” expression.
“I’m sure that’s not what’s on her résumé.” Marissa took a piece of cookie off the plate. “Unless she was auditioning for an Underworld role.” She looked over at Gabriela. “So? Title? Or are you auditioning to be Kate Beckinsale’s stunt double?”
Gabriela looked at her, sort of surprised, like she hadn’t expected her to make that kind of reference. “Assistant curator. And no, I’m not much of a stunt double. I seriously doubt I could fit in her catsuit, anyway. And how would I pee?”
“See?” Marissa said to Teddy, with a note of triumph. “These are things women think about.”
“Vampires don’t need to pee.” He set his phone on the table and made kissy noises at her.
“Then why do they need blood? If they suck blood, they have to pee. Or excrete something. What goes in must go out.”
Gabriela looked first at her, then at Teddy, then back again.
“Don’t mind them,” Brandon said with a shrug. “They’re debating vampire biology.”
Gabriela smiled and picked up her coffee cup, though she almost spilled some of its contents as Debbie slid her arms around her neck from behind.
“Hey. How was work?” Debbie withdrew and took the empty seat to Gabriela’s left, between her and Teddy.
“Busy.” Gabriela sipped.
“How’s the exhibit coming?”
“Right now, disorganized, but it’ll be ready to go on schedule. It’s in that gangly adolescent phase, where everything is everywhere, but it’s all there and it just needs to find its stride. We’re trying to get everything tagged, and make sure the display cases are working. A few pieces are coming in next week, and we have to meet with security again.”
“Is this the ‘Women/Art’ exhibit?”
Gabriela swung her gaze back to Marissa. “Yeah.”
“I’m really looking forward to that. I didn’t realize you were working on it.” Okay, so the player had a little more substance than she thought, though she probably used it as a way to lure women into her clutches. If Marissa didn’t know better, it would have worked on her. But when she looked into Gabriela’s eyes, she found she didn’t mind that scenario, being in her clutches. For just a few minutes.
“Great.” Gabriela’s eyes lit up. “Let me know what day you’d like to go, and I’ll hook you up with some tickets.”
“That’d be very nice. Thanks.”
“You want to go?” Gabriela asked Debbie.
“Definitely. I’ll coordinate with Marissa to make it easier on you.”
“For sure. Just let me know a few days in advance. You guys?” Gabriela directed that query to the other side of the table.
“I’d like to go,” Teddy said. “But Brandon, I think, would rather watch old episodes of ‘Queer As Folk’.”
Brandon gave Teddy a high-diva glare.
“I like the art of the lady,” Teddy continued. “Let’s all go together. Can I be an honorary lesbian?”
“Sweetie, you’re always an honorary lesbian with us.” Debbie smiled sweetly. “Besides, you appreciate Kate Beckinsale in a catsuit.”
“And on that note. . .” Brandon pushed the plate with the half-eaten cookie toward the middle of the table. “LaVon and I are going to shake some booty. I’ll do a pole dance in your honor.” He put his coat on to a round of goodbyes and air kisses and then he bounced out the door.
Teddy broke another piece of the cookie off. “What’s everybody doing for dinner?”
“I have to be up early,” Debbie said. “Leftovers at home.”
“Same here,” Gabriela said, and she sounded disappointed. “Maybe this weekend?”
“Mariss’?” he looked at her.
“Not the Bambi eyes. I can’t withstand those.” She sighed.
“What time do you have to work tomorrow?” he asked.
“Okay, how about this weekend?” Teddy looked at each of them in turn. “Can we all get together for a fab night out the weekend before V-Day?”
“Let’s go to the diner Saturday.” Debbie took charge. “What time works for everybody?”
They agreed on seven, and Teddy gathered himself to go. As he got up, Debbie’s phone rang. She checked the ID. “My sister. Be right back.”
“Later, ladies.” Teddy blew kisses at them all and left while Debbie went into the back room to talk.
“Must’ve been something we said.” Gabriela shrugged and pointed at Marissa’s coffee cup. “Would you like another?”
“Sure. Just regular, though. Decaf.”
“Same here. I don’t like to drink caffeine after noon. Be right back.”
“Wait—let me get some cash.”
“Don’t worry about it. I consider it art patronage for your flowers.” She picked up both cups and went to the counter. Marissa willed herself not to watch her walk away, willed herself not to admit that she enjoyed looking at her, and cautiously enjoyed her company. Assistant curator? Didn’t that require a master’s degree? Okay, so even though she was a player, she could still enjoy hanging out with her. After all, players had friends, too.
Gabriela returned with two fresh cups of coffee. “I wasn’t sure how you liked yours,” she said apologetically.
“Some cream. A little bit of sugar.” Marissa stood and took one of the cups. Gabriela followed her to the coffee condiment bar. She took hers with a little more cream and a little less sugar than Marissa. They went back to the table where Marissa used her spoon to stir. She handed it to Gabriela.
“Don’t worry. It hasn’t been anywhere but my coffee.”
Gabriela chuckled. She stirred and set the spoon on the plate with the few crumbles of cookie. “So I thought of a couple more terms to describe her,” she said after a few moments.
More about the ice queen. “Okay. What?”
“Care to elaborate?”
“In a good way. She’ll say things that surprise me, that make me think.”
So the ice queen was a little more interesting than Marissa had thought.
Really? The ice queen? “Carnival ride fun? Or conversation fun?”
“Both.” Gabriela sipped her coffee and didn’t look at her. “There’s a sense of whimsy to her, but she doesn’t show it very often. Part of that caution thing, I think.”
Marissa pictured the blonde woman in the long coat, and the way she had smiled at Gabriela before she’d handed her a business card. She could see her as fun. But whimsical? She’d need to talk to her to see if that was true, and that wasn’t going to happen until after Valentine’s Day, when Gabriela had reeled her in.
Debbie reappeared and Marissa was almost disappointed, but at least Gabriela stuck around to chat with the two of them. An hour later, when they were all leaving, Marissa made sure to be the first to walk away, and she kept her eyes forward. If she looked back, Gabriela might think she’d managed to charm the geeky girl, and she certainly wouldn’t hear the end of it from Debbie. So she kept her gaze on the toes of her L.L. Bean winter boots, and cursed herself for dropping her guard. Not my type, she silently chanted. But she wondered, as she walked upstairs to her apartment, how it would feel to be the Nordic ice queen, and attract the attentions of someone like Gabriela.
“Are you sure you have to go?” Tara pleaded. “Tomorrow’s Sunday. Tell me you don’t have to work.”
Marissa shrugged and reached for her coat, stuffed at the far end of the booth. “Not first thing, but yes. Busy season.” She looked over at Gabriela, who smiled at her.
Debbie and Teddy were already getting ready to go, as well. Brandon and LaVon were outside smoking, waiting for Teddy because he was their ride. The puffs from their cigarettes hung in the night air, which hadn’t warmed much after the last snowstorm. The days, at least, were a bit warmer.
“All right. Be that way,” Tara said with an exaggerated “woe is me” tone. Gabriela got up so she could get out of the booth. While Tara put her coat on, Gabriela shrugged into her leather jacket and wrapped her scarf around her neck, this one a medley of blues, greens, and gold. The three of them followed Debbie and Teddy outside, where everybody air-kissed and hugged goodbye.
“Now, remember,” Debbie said. “Singles unite. My house, Valentine’s Day, seven-ish. Bring whatever. I’ll have some wine and beer and snacks.” She followed Tara across the parking lot, waving. LaVon and Brandon piled into Teddy’s car and Teddy backed out of the space, honking. Marissa smiled.
“I’ll see you Wednesday evening,” Marissa said to Gabriela.
“If not before.” Gabriela put her hands in her jacket pockets. “Ellie’s,” she said by way of explanation. “Or around.”
She nodded. “Maybe.” She wanted to ask if Gabriela would be at Debbie’s, but decided that was strange. And of course she wouldn’t. She had a date. She would no longer be eligible for a singles unite party.
“Oh, hey. I’ve got something for you.” Gabriela motioned toward her car, a practical black four-door sedan. Marissa waited on the sidewalk as Gabriela retrieved whatever it was from the front seat. She shut the car door and joined Marissa on the sidewalk. “Your turn,” she said as she handed a paperback to her.
Marissa looked at it for a moment until it dawned on her what it was. She laughed. “You read it already?”
“Is she still whiny?”
“Not going to say. Read it and then tell me what you think.”
“Sure.” Gabriela started to go back to her car, then stopped. “I thought of another term, too.”
“You’re just full of terms.” But she didn’t mind, because it helped her get a picture of Gabriela which, she had to admit, was changing.
“Sometimes. Anyway, respectful.”
The ice queen had manners. That was nice. She waited.
“She takes things at face value, and doesn’t pry into people’s business. It’s nice.”
“But don’t people sort of have to pry in order to have a conversation?” Maybe the ice queen just wasn’t that interested, which was sad.
“There’s conversation, and then there’s prying.”
“Kind of like how’s the exhibit going versus who you went home with last night?”
Gabriela’s eyes widened and Marissa wondered what had made her say that. She hoped it came off as teasing. Oh, God.
“Yeah. Like that,” Gabriela said with another of her smiles. “Catch you later. Call if you think of anything.” She moved to her car and opened the door, then turned to look at her over the top. “The exhibit’s going well. And nobody. Not my style.” She grinned and got into her car, and the flush of embarrassment raced up Marissa’s neck, then flared across her cheeks. Gabriela waved as she backed out of the space, and Marissa waved back, both mortified but relieved that she’d been wrong about Gabriela being a flavor-of-the-month kind of woman. She hunched into her coat and went to her car, face still hot.
The arrangement would be spectacular. Marissa was going to make sure of that, not only because she wanted to impress an assistant curator of art (and make up for her stupid comment a couple nights ago), but also because she wanted to make sure that the ice queen would respond favorably to Gabriela. That was the only way to maintain her guard, and to keep herself from succumbing to the crush she felt stirring, like a lazy cat waking up on a warm windowsill, taking its time. Stretching its claws, its movements leisurely but deliberate. She could not have that, could not allow herself a crush on someone like Gabriela. People got hurt in attractions like that. Might as well drive in traffic on the freeway without a seatbelt.
This arrangement, however, would save her, and the crush would return to its slumber on the windowsill until someone more suited to her came along, someone who truly appreciated a geeky, frizzy-headed loner who loved flowers, books, dancing, and losing herself on a hiking trail. She sketched out two more ideas, and then added gardenia and sweet pea to the list of flowers she was considering for Gabriela’s order. White played a role, because that was the color of secret admiration, but she would also add some purple and blue. It would be a classically beautiful color scheme, with a combination of flowers that was absolutely unique, different than anything she usually did. She was looking forward to it, and she’d put it together tomorrow afternoon so the flowers would still be fresh by pick-up time.
She set the Gabriela project aside and buried herself in several other orders, most Valentine’s Day though sadly, another was a memorial bouquet for someone’s grandfather. She worked through the day, immersing herself in color and form, doing mostly standard bouquets for the dozens of Valentine’s Day shoppers interspersed with larger corporate orders for parties. By the end of the day, she was exhausted. But before she fell asleep, she knew what Gabriela’s order would look like.
And the next morning, she worked to clear her schedule early, so she could focus on Gabriela. Fortunately, Linda had called in two extras today to handle the volume, and when Marissa set to work on the one project that had consumed her for over a week, she was able to do so uninterrupted. At five, she stepped back from the counter and appraised the arrangement critically, as if she were judging a competition. She turned the vase—a deep blue cylindrical one she’d brought from home—to assess another angle. She made a slight adjustment to an aster, then turned the vase again for yet another view.
“Marissa, could you—oh, my.”
She turned at Linda’s voice, but Linda wasn’t looking at her. She instead stared at Gabriela’s order.
“That is stunning,” Linda finally said. “Better than stunning. Custom?”
“Yes. My design.”
Linda nodded, her gray curls bobbing with the motion. “That’s competition worthy. And clever. Secret admirer, some romance but not too much, and playful. The blues are a wonderful touch. You’ve outdone yourself, my dear. Superb work. Do you mind if I show it off?”
Marissa smiled, flattered. It took a lot to impress Linda. “No.”
“Good. Let me get my camera.”
Many photos later, and after the entire staff had viewed Gabriela’s order, Marissa was able to put it in a cooler for a bit. She’d taken her own pictures, too, so she could add them to her portfolio. She looked at one of them, now, on the screen of her camera. Good thing she’d had that vase at home. It really set the whole thing off. And it was worth it, to donate it. There was no way the ice queen could resist this arrangement, combined with Gabriela’s eyes and smile. No way at all.
She glanced at the clock on the wall, nervous, but in a good way. And maybe a little sad, too, because of her own crush. But she was realistic about things like that, and she knew it would fade, especially with Gabriela focused on someone else. She wouldn’t see much of her anymore. Romance was like that, and Marissa was a romance enabler. Always the flower girl, but never the girl. She put her camera back in its bag and started cleaning her work area for closing, though she knew they’d have to stay a few minutes later because of late and frazzled Valentine’s Day shoppers.
“Someone’s here to pick up an order,” Zach announced from the doorway to the front. “Gabriela.”
Right on time. “Thanks.” Marissa went to the cooler, pleased that Gabriela’s arrangement stood out, like the best costume by far at a Mardi Gras ball. She took it out, and carried it to the front, where she set it on the counter in front of a clearly stunned Gabriela.
“I—there are no words,” Gabriela said after a while, and Marissa hoped that Gabriela had met the ice queen through her art circles, so that she’d appreciate it, too. “This is. . .gorgeous doesn’t seem to capture it. I don’t know what to say.”
Marissa smiled at her, a little cocky. “Thanks works.”
“No, that’s not nearly enough.” She continued to stare at the flowers.
Pleased, Marissa busied herself with check-out. “Here’s a sheet with easy instructions on care and feeding. Nothing too involved, but it’ll extend the life of the flowers for a few days.” She placed the sheet next to the vase. “And here’s some really good flower food. The sheet tells you how to administer it, since we think our system works better than the food company’s.” She set two small packs on the instruction sheet. “We’re a little over budget. We came in at sixty-eight forty-two, with tax.”
“That seems too low. These are so beautiful.” Gabriela took her wallet out of her coat pocket and handed her a credit card.
Marissa slid it through the machine, got Gabriela’s signature, and handed her a receipt. She came around the counter, then. “Okay, let me explain some of the meanings here. White is a color associated with secret admiration. The gardenias exemplify that, as do the white roses I’ve included. Those symbolize charm and admiration in secrecy. This—” she touched another stalk of a different white flower, “is viscaria.”
“To dance with me.”
Marissa smiled. “Yes. An invitation. You’re asking her to dance with you. And over here—these are asters. They’re a talisman of love, but they also symbolize patience. You’re willing to wait, if that’s what she wants you to do, or you’re willing to go slow. Or you’re willing to back off. That’s what patience is all about.”
Gabriela nodded, and pointed at another flower. “I love this. What is it?”
“Those are gladiolas, sometimes called sword lilies or corn lilies. The shape of the petals are like blades, which tells the recipient that you — the giver — have been pierced, or affected by her. They also symbolize strength of character, which is a reflection of the giver.” She quirked an eyebrow at Gabriela. “I took a shot in the dark with that. Didn’t want to pry.”
Gabriela grinned. “Good shot, I hope.” She gestured at another. “How about that?”
“Blue hyacinth. It means sincerity. And these here are sweet pea. Festive and fragrant, to provide some whimsy.”
Gabriela leaned in and sniffed. “Nice.”
Marissa pointed out the last flowers. “The anemone are indicative of mythical feats and anticipation. They’re supposed to protect from evil, and some lore suggests that they were associated with fairies. So there’s a playful context, which remains in keeping with a romantic meaning, but also injects one that allows that wiggle room we talked about.”
“This is—it’s astonishing. It’s rich, deep, romantic, flirtatious, fun, and just incredibly beautiful. I can’t thank you enough.”
“You’re welcome. I hope it works.”
Gabriela touched one of the gladiolas carefully, as if she was afraid it would break. “What would you think if someone gave this arrangement to you?”
“If I didn’t know much about flowers, I’d think it was really pretty, if I do say so myself. I’d be into the colors, and I’d notice the roses, because people always notice roses.”
“Would you think anything else?”
“I’d think you wanted a date, that you liked me on some level, but that you weren’t the desperate kind of admirer—the kind that gives a dozen red roses. That’s a dangerous arrangement if you’re not sure how you feel about someone or how she feels about you, because red roses are heavy duty passion flowers. I’ve always thought that they’re a flower of desperation if you don’t know the person yet. Once you’ve been together a while, then red roses make sense. Or if you’ve had a few really hot dates,” she added. “Go with the red roses, then.”
Gabriela laughed. “So you’re saying that if you’re someone who liked flowers, but didn’t know much about them, this arrangement would work. It would get her attention.”
“Yes. It would get my attention.”
“Definitely,” said Linda, who stood at the cash register.
“Totally,” agreed a woman waiting to pay for a bouquet of carnations. “If someone gave those to me, I’d be waiting for the phone call to ask me out.”
“There you have it,” Marissa said, turning back to Gabriela. “And if she does know something about flowers. . .well, that’s another story.” She raised a shoulder in a half-shrug.
“Thanks again.” Gabriela picked the vase up, carefully, and cradled it next to her shoulder. “Hope you don’t have to work tomorrow.”
“No. I have the day off.”
“Good to hear. Happy Valentine’s Day.”
“Same to you. Good luck.”
Gabriela smiled, nodded, and left the store, taking the arrangement and a little bit of Marissa with her, though she’d never know that.
“Fabulous work,” Linda said as the door shut behind Gabriela. “You’ve no doubt brought another couple together with that.”
Marissa smiled, but it didn’t dispel the sadness that still nibbled at her.
“Now go. Have some of your own Valentine’s Day fun.”
“Okay. Thanks, Linda. Happy Valentine’s Day.” She went to get her coat and bag, and then she sat in her car in the parking lot, not really wanting to go to Debbie’s, but not wanting to go home, either. Debbie’s was the better option, she decided, because even though Gabriela wouldn’t be there, she’d at least be able to avoid thinking too much about her giving the flowers to the ice queen. Seemed kind of a waste, actually, when she thought about it. On the other hand, the look on Gabriela’s face was well worth it.
She put her car in gear and left the parking lot for Debbie’s.
Marissa slept late, dressed late, and had her coffee late. She was always tired after Valentine’s Day, but even moreso after this one. She was in a Black Keys kind of mood, because their music made her think about summer and stomping out winter’s melancholy and, in this case, the remnants of a crush on a woman she’d misjudged. She’d admitted that to herself at the diner last weekend, and it made her laugh a little now because Debbie would not let her hear the end of it, if she found out. Which she wouldn’t. She sipped her coffee.
No doubt they’d all meet the ice queen, whoever she was, and Marissa would find out how close Gabriela was in her descriptive terms. She hadn’t shown up at Debbie’s last night, as Marissa predicted, but nobody brought it up, much to her relief, and by nine, she’d come home where she’d sat on her rug in the dark with a glass of wine listening to Norah Jones, thinking about misconceptions, black leather jackets, and green-flecked eyes.
She poured herself another cup of coffee and looked out her kitchen window, at the street two stories below. How many of the people she saw down there got flowers last night, and how many of those bouquets came from her shop or even her hands? Kind of cool, to think about that. Being a romance enabler wasn’t so bad. Maybe next year she’d be the girl instead of the flower girl.
A knock sounded at her door. She set her coffee down, puzzled, and padded through her living room. She peered through the peephole, and stood back a second later. She didn’t know the woman on the other side, but she knew who it was, and a thousand thoughts whirled through her head. Why was the ice queen here? How did she get her address?
She knocked again. “Hello? Anyone home? I’m looking for Marissa Schaeffer.”
Marissa looked through the peephole again. The ice queen had the arrangement with her, still in their vase. Marissa wiped her hands on her jeans and opened the door.
“Hi. I’m Marissa.”
“Hi. These are for you.” She handed the vase to her.
She took the arrangement, completely confused, and it must have shown on her face because the ice queen smiled and said, “Read the card.” Then she turned and headed back down the stairs.
Marissa watched her go, and wondered if she should follow her, but she didn’t have shoes on. Instead, she closed the door and set the arrangement on her coffee table. It looked even better in the daylight that streamed through her windows, accentuating the shades of blues and bringing the whites and purples out. The only thing different about it was the small gray envelope taped to the vase. Her name was written in black on the front of it, in a bold, strong script. She pulled it off, opened the envelope, and took the card out. More writing, same hand.
You captured exactly what I wanted to say to you. Hoping you’ll call to find out what I’ll say next. Happy Valentine’s Day, Gabriela
She’d included her phone number, though Marissa already had it. She’d entered it into her phone the day after she took Gabriela’s original order, thinking she might have to phone her for follow-up. She sank onto her couch, staring first at the flowers then at the card. There was no ice queen. She sat back and stared at the ceiling. Well, yes. There was. Her. She called Gabriela, who picked up after the third ring.
“Hello?” Gabriela’s tone was tentative, since she probably didn’t recognize the number.
“Hey. It’s Marissa.”
“Oh! Hey. Um, how are you?” Still tentative. It was cute, like most things about her.
“Really good. Before I turn the floor over to you, I need to ask you a couple of things. Do you have time?”
“Who was that, who brought the flowers over?”
“Someone I work with. Karen Sanders.”
“And my address?”
“I got some help from Debbie.”
Marissa laughed. “At some point, I want this whole story. But for now, your turn.”
“Okay.” Gabriela cleared her throat a little. “I would really like to get to know you better.” She paused, like she was trying to figure out what to say next, and Marissa could practically hear the struggle over the phone. She stepped in.
“Yeah? I mean, that’s—that’s great. That’s perfect. Would you meet me for dinner, then?”
Marissa smiled, and it was the kind of smile that might make others think impure thoughts. “Yes. Will it involve dancing?”
Gabriela laughed. “Definitely.”
“Okay. Excellent. I’ll call you when I finish up here, and—where do you want to meet?”
“Come by my place.” She smiled. “You know where it is.”
“Great. Thanks. Talk to you soon. Bye.” She hung up and Marissa regarded the flowers, thinking that they were everything she’d wanted to say to Gabriela, too. And they’d worked. She texted Debbie and waited for the callback, which came about ten minutes later.
“What’s up?” Debbie asked.
“Something interesting happened. Got a minute?”
“You know it.”
“Well, there’re these flowers…”
but also beginning