I dropped to the floor behind the counter while a tinny bell jangled through the small shop. The reason for my panic strolled in out of my sweaty, highly awkward teenage memories to fondle the begonias. Probably fondle them. I could only take a quick peek through baskets of scissors to savor the pressed navy trousers cupping his legs.
Tan Nguyen, the hottest guy to ever attend Carmel Cove High School in two hundred years, strolled into the tiny flower shop where I worked. Just walked right in as if the sight of his chiseled, sky-high cheekbones wasn’t guaranteed to give me an instant heart attack. And if that didn’t finish me off, those rich chocolate eyes sweeping across mine would be a double brain aneurysm with strawberries on top.
Oh shit, that voice. How did I forget that voice? Full-bodied like a cello back when he’d been the star of the track team and I’d changed in the showers so no one would see my skinny legs. Now, age had given him a delectable gravel that hummed with an electric spark I wanted to feel strike every nerve of my body. Which would probably be another death at his hands.
“Uh, Jack?” A garish pink Croc knocked into me and I glared up at the face of my bemused coworker, Lauri. Red ribbon circled her arms up to her elbows as we both fought the oncoming war that was Valentine’s Day.
And she’d just revealed to Tan that I was hiding. This required every four-letter word in English! Swallowing down the pile of curses that’d get my mouth washed out with Tide, I muttered to the floor, “Yep. It’s all good back here.”
Slowly, I rose to my feet, wiping my hands on the ugly green apron that boxed in my skinny body. Pivoting away from the gorgeous customer, I focused on Lauri instead. Her face was in full laugh-at-me mode, a finger rising to accuse me of having fallen to my stomach for no good reason.
“Doesn’t look like any possums got in,” I babbled, the smile I forced turning into a terrified grimace. Possums? What the hell was I talking about? “But we should watch them anyway. They sure do love to…smell flowers.”
Mother of God, stop talking!
Some other creature born out of a life of customer service inhabited my babbling meat sack, turning me towards Tan. What brain matter remained after the simultaneous stroke and heart attack combo whimpered that he was in a suit tailored to a perfect V. Without a tie…and he’d left the top two buttons undone. Dead. Fully gone. Jack Dawson is no more.
At least Lauri could bring a nice peace lily to my funeral.
“How can I help you?” the last remnants of my gray matter asked.
When Tan smiled warmly, my gritting lips flopped upward in the stupidest grin of my life. It was a wonder I didn’t collapse my chin to my hand and sigh. Don’t do that. Don’t even entertain the idea of doing that!
“Jack,” that sonorous voice called to me, his eyes shining brighter. “I haven’t seen you since…”
Fifth-period chemistry when I let you copy my notes before the final and risked smelling your hair. It was like oakmoss and cinnamon. “High school,” I answered, proving I didn’t nuke all my brains from one glimpse of him.
“Right.” The smile’s wattage increased, blanking out the sun. “How have you been?”
“Can’t complain, or I’d be fired,” I said without a thought, then winced. But to my shock, he laughed at that stupid comment. Not some polite one either—a snort was in there. “You! You look…” Back up, stop, do not pass Go. “You’re doing good?”
“Well enough. It’s so great to see you,” Tan said, and he drifted down those eyes that hadn’t left my thoughts for five years. No doubt to check out the menu of options splayed across the counter. He’d come into a flower store willingly. No one did that unless they had to appease a parent, a significant other or a corpse. Hopefully not all at the same time.
Sliding a step forward, I tried to clear off the counter covered in fallen petals—which only smeared pink and purple pigment across the glass. Smooth. “You live here often?” my lips babbled while my brain packed its bags and ran for it. Was it too late for me to drop to the floor again?
Tan, far too nice of a guy that he was, chuckled. “I try to live as often as I can, yes. New job, new city, new experiences all around.”
“Well, you’re certainly dressed…”—like a man who wants to take someone across his desk and show them the meaning of life—“nice.”
It had to be my imagination that Tan’s forever-sun-kissed skin blushed. A familiar danger rolled in my gut. One born from being the skinny weird kid figuring out his urges in a smallish town. Awkwardness can lead to punches if not played right. Back off. Back off fast!
“Lauri here, she can help you with whatever you’re looking for,” I said, grabbing my coworker and pushing her in the way.
“I can?” she whispered at me, but I was already running back to the small closet crammed with baskets we had to stuff before Friday.
“Nice to see you again, Tan,” I called pathetically in my escape.
“You too, Jack,” were his last words to me. Leaving him in the helpful but belligerent hands of Lauri, I leaped between the long rolls of multi-colored cellophane to hide.
Placing both my hands to my cheeks, I found them so hot I could fry an egg then get a pancake going on my forehead. Christ on a cheese platter. Tan Nguyen, here. In my shop…that I worked at. I never want or will want to own a flower shop. And he’s here right before Valentine’s Day.
Because he’s buying something for his girlfriend.
Truth waddled up and socked me in the jaw, my head splattering back against the cracking drywall. Of course he was. It was nearly the day of love and roses. Of romance and wine. Of handsome boys asking girls to marry them.
I knew two things for certain when I was younger. One, I would literally die for Tan if the man asked me. And two, I would never in a billion years find the courage to tell him. The second-worst scenario to my imaginary confession was that he was as straight as khakis. The absolute worst change-my-name-and-become-a-lumberjack scenario was that Tan was into men and had no interest in a scrawny florist who pretended to be an artist.
Either one would crush my heart to a fine powder, so ignoring it and hoping that my years of pining would vanish seemed like the healthiest option.
When the cash register beeped and the corny bell jangled, I risked a peek out onto the main floor. There was no gorgeous god among men, just Lauri trying to bleach up the mess I’d made. A lump formed in my throat, a lump named ‘You wasted your one chance’, but I swallowed it down deep. Healthy!
Shuffling through the order tickets, I ignored the newest addition to begin a basket of posies for an M. Winthorpe. While I cut the green foam to size, which required my flesh getting dangerously close to sharp blades, Lauri glanced over to ask, “So…who was he?”
“No one,” I mumbled.
“Right. Because when no one wanders in through the door, it’s normal for a person to sweat bullets, fall to the floor, then scuttle away into the storeroom.”
“I did not…!” I thundered, raising the pinking shears high in my hands as if I was about to stab her in the throat. Lauri trailed her caustic gaze up to the glinting blades and I dropped them to the counter. “He’s someone I knew, in high school.”
“I’d give my left nut for that to be true” slipped before I could stop myself. More four-letter words, please. Keep ’em coming.
Lauri spat out a laugh at catching me, ribbon unspooling in her fingers. We had two dozen baskets to finish and there were guaranteed to be more, thanks to the latecomers. Never turn them away. Even if all we have left is a sprig of baby’s breath and a bag of tootsie rolls. Those were the rules of the shop that made getting through February excruciating.
“Well, your little man candy must have something special planned for Val day. He ordered the biggest package we have and something extra, too.”
There was the other reason I dreaded coming to work after New Year’s. Fingers ripped to shreds from thorns, eyes bleary after tying the ten-thousandth ribbon, stems and leaves dug out of my underwear every night, and for what? To watch couples make fish eyes at each other while I hoped for a tip more elusive than pictures of Bigfoot on a jet ski? To cart these hundred- to five-hundred-dollar ‘My love is bigger than all of yours!’ displays from door to door? To listen to the squeals out of offices as they all gathered at the watering hole to prove their boyfriend loves them?
God, I’d give anything to have a boyfriend.
“Hey.” Lauri jabbed her elbow into me. “Fantasize on your own time. If we don’t get this done, Ms. Hellberg will feast upon our eyeballs.”
Arranging the Gerber daisies, I sighed. “She won’t eat our eyes. She’ll go for our feet first so we can’t run away.”
Valentine’s Day. Second-worst day to be a florist after Mother’s Day. And absolute worst time to be a lovesick, anxious fool with his foot permanently crammed in his mouth. I hate this stupid holiday.