Angela Amman

Frost Flowers – Part Twelve

Frost FlowersContinued from Part Eleven or start at the beginning

Joni picked at the skin surrounding her thumbnails and waited for Grady to bring her shoes to the car. After a few minutes had passed, she took a deep breath and pulled down the car’s visor, wiping the mascara from her face then sitting on her hands. With each moment breathing cool sense against her skin, she felt calmer and more than a little chastised. The only person putting pressure on her had been, as usual, her. Regret, it turned out, felt worse than indignation.

She’d left her phone in Grady’s cupholder, and she pulled it into the cradle of her hands, scrolling through the pictures she’d sent to Gil as she experimented with just the right look for the flowers. The thought of bringing other brides’ floral visions to life terrified and elated her, and she wondered if she’d completely ruined the opportunity to try.

A knock at the window shook her from her own head, and she startled when she saw Ginny smiling at her through the glass. Grady stood just over his mother’s shoulder, and he shrugged a little smile at her when she caught his eye. Unsure what to do, she opened the door to where Ginny held out her shoes in one hand and coat in the other. A fluffy bundle of dark fur wrapped her in its cocoon against the cold.

“I brought your things for you,” Ginny said. “Grady found me and quietly let me know you felt a little overwhelmed. I wanted to come out myself to talk with you.”

“Not much stops my mother,” Grady said, raising his eyebrows just enough that Joni felt an urge to laugh at the absurdity of the entire situation.

“It didn’t occur to me until this very moment that if you felt overwhelmed inside, my hustling out here to talk to you just might make things worse,” Ginny said. Still, her gentle smile stayed on her face, and she didn’t make any motion to leave.

Sliding her plaid heels onto her feet felt even more awkward with the door to the car open, everyone waiting for her. Joni held out the once-cozy slipper, cringing a little. “I’m afraid I ruined these.”

“Oh, don’t worry for a second about that,” Ginny said. “I’ve got so many pairs of those you could take three, and I’d never notice. Those shoes of yours would have been ruined in the snow and salt, too. Completely impractical, if I do say, which was the first sign you’ll fit right in with us.”

Joni blinked. Grady’s mother spoke as though she wasn’t slinking away from the party before it had even started.

Ginny nodded before continuing. “Yes, in a house with six women, none of us ever figured out how to purchase practical shoes. Why do that, when there are so many gorgeous, impractical ones just waiting for you to wear until they hurt your feet and make you so glad to have a pair of slippers to come home to?”

Joni blinked again. Ginny still held her coat.

“I might not always have exactly the right thing to wear,” Joni admitted, thinking of the work smock and the countless cozy leggings lining her drawers, “but I do adore an impractical pair of shoes.”

Ginny smiled wider, as though that changed anything — or everything — at all.

“Of course you do, dear. And impractical hair, though I must admit I would love to try a shocking pink myself one of these days. There’s something exciting about impracticality when you’re always doing the safe thing.”

“Do you know what frost flowers are?” Ginny asked.

Joni’s brow furrowed at the unexpected question, and she shook her head. “No, I’m afraid I don’t.”

“Sometimes, the weather gets cold before the plants expect it,” Ginny said. “And ice forms from within the heart of the plant, making its way into the open air. The ice curls and winds into beautiful furls. They look like flowers, beautiful flowers forming when you’d least expect it, before the plants were ready for ice.”

Joni searched Ginny’s face for a deeper meaning, but her smile stayed exactly the same.

“We’d love for you to come back inside, you know,” Ginny said. “I can practically guarantee no one’s even noticed you disappeared. My grandchildren offer quite a distraction, as does Grace, who’s shocking my poor husband by pretending she’s going to defer her admittance to Brown in order to backpack the world.”

Joni held onto her smile for just another breath, scared to look toward Grady and see he didn’t second his mother’s invitation. She needn’t have worried. He raised his hands in submission.

“I told you, not much stops my mother,” he said.

“I’ll see you inside,” Ginny said, stepping away from the car with a satisfied nod. “I’ll just hang onto this coat for you so you can’t decide to change your mind before you get there.”

Grady looked less sure of himself than Ginny had as he held out his hand to Joni. She reached for him, wondering how to convey how much she appreciated the unconditional welcoming of his family. He closed the car door behind her, and she let herself rest in the circle of his arms.

“I overreacted,” she said.

“Probably,” Grady agreed. “But I misjudged the situation. I thought you’d be excited about the opportunity.”

“I am,” Joni said, her words tumbling in a rush before she could stop them. “I just needed time to realize it.”

He smiled, dimples deepening, and she thought she could stay in the cold forever if she had that smile to fall into.

“Perfect. Now you just need to act surprised when Gabby brings it up,” he said. “After all, it will make her ecstatic to take some of the attention away from Grace.”

Joni shook her head, thinking of how her own family dynamics paled in comparison to the house they’d be walking into in just a minute, drama and sisters and running toddlers tumbling together in a way that made her outburst feel almost normal. Almost.

“I’m sorry,” she apologized.

“You said that,” he said.

“No, I admitted overreacting,” she said. “I want you to know I’m sorry about it.”

“There’s a distinct possibility you won’t be the only person to cry tonight,” Grady said, pulling her closer to him. “My oldest niece has brought more than one of us to tears.”

“I’ll steer clear, then. I don’t plan on any more tears tonight,” Joni said.

He lowered his face to hers, lips warm and welcoming against the cold. “That’s the spirit. After all, if you think this is overwhelming, just wait until you come to Christmas Eve.”

He pulled her toward the house before she could figure out if he were joking. Joni let herself follow him, let herself laugh at the possibility of spending Christmas with Grady instead of alone in her apartment. Knowing another pair of slippers waited for her inside made her feel, just a little, like she was coming home.

The End

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Frost Flowers – Part Eleven

Frost FlowersContinued from Part Ten or start at the beginning

“Joni!”

She ignored him, walking briskly along the sidewalk. Her toes hurt, and she knew she’d have to go back eventually, because they were miles from her apartment.

“Joni,” he repeated. He didn’t have to yell this time. He’d thought to put on actual shoes, and jogged to her within seconds. Her heart hurt when she realized how quickly he’d rushed out of his family home to follow her. She pushed it down.

“Come back inside,” Grady said. “I’ll intercept Gabby before she can make some sort of grandiose announcement. You can talk to her about it a different time.”

“I just can’t do this,” Joni said. The cliche stuck in her throat, caught between hope and tears.

“Do what? Spend time with people who want to get to know you better?” Grady asked. “Maybe think about moving on to a job that lets you focus on one of your talents?”

“Yes. No,” she said. Her voice hitched, and she knew her mascara was freezing on her cheeks. “You don’t understand, because you’ve got this whole family that just surrounds you and accepts everything you are. I can’t pretend to be someone who fits in with your picturesque holiday.”

She saw immediately that her words wounded him. She could see the slump in his shoulders, the air leave his lungs. The blood rushing in her ears kept time with her heart, counting the seconds until she felt she needed to speak again.

“I can’t pretend to be something I’m not.”

He reached out for just a moment, and she could almost feel his hand circle hers. At the last second he drew back, leaving her gloveless fingers aching in the wind.

“I understand that,” he said. “More than you know, maybe. What I don’t understand is why you’re trying so damn hard not to be something you are.” His spine straightened. Joni cast her eyes downward. She didn’t want to know if any hope lingered there. She’d done enough damage for the night already. She imagined the cracks in the sidewalk as a chasm between them, one he might have crossed for her if she could have been someone else, just for one night.

Instead, he pulled his keys out of his pocket and gestured toward the driveway.

“I’ll take you home if that’s what you want,” he said.

She couldn’t answer. Lying would hurt too much, but she couldn’t let herself explain how much she wanted to stay. She didn’t have the words to express how terrified she was to let him down in any number of ways that loomed on the horizon of her life. He took her silence as agreement.

“I’ll grab your coat and shoes,” he said.

Joni didn’t ask how he would explain her absence to all of the people still smiling and laughing inside the house.

She walked just a step ahead of him, and she heard the lock click open so she could sink into the passenger seat. She let herself be grateful she’d learned to cry silently, though she didn’t stop them from falling into cracks that felt so much emptier than she had imagined they could.

…to be continued

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Frost Flowers – Part Ten

Frost FlowersContinued from Part Nine or start at the beginning

Grady wrapped his arm comfortably around her waist and walked through the cavernous heart of his parents’ home. Joni had watched enough home improvement shows to know ninety-percent of home buyers would faint with happiness over the way the kitchen flowed into the great room in clean lines and color-coordinated harmony. His introductions passed in a blur, and though she’d memorized his sister’s names earlier, she wasn’t sure if Gia was the twin in the cream sweater or royal blue silk tunic.

Gillian’s words echoed in her head the entire time.

Grady finally steered her to the edge of the overflowing buffet, grabbing two small plates for them. Despite being distracted, Joni blinked at the amount of food it apparently took to feed Grady’s family. Dips and a never-ending fruit tray were only a fraction of the food crowding the marble countertops, and she hoped her stomach wasn’t flipping around too much to eat  at least a few bites of the brie and cranberry appetizer she heaped onto her plate. She gulped the red wine he pressed into her hand before leaning into him to try to figure out what his sister had meant.

“Grady, Gil said your sister has some news for me. Do you have any idea what she’s talking about?” Joni delivered the question in a whisper, being sure to keep a smile on her face, just in case anyone happened to look over at them talking. She didn’t want them to see the nervousness in her eyes.

“Gil shouldn’t have said anything,” Grady said. Joni could hear the disappointment in his voice. “I don’t want to ruin the surprise.”

“Ruin it. Please,” Joni said. She tried to temper the panic she felt rising in her throat. She tried to remember if she’d ever mentioned to Grady how much she loathed the idea of surprises. She’d spent the last few years of her life carving it into a series of routines and people that made her comfortable, and the idea of being taken off guard the first time she met his family made her feel like crying.

“I don’t know,” he said. His eyes met hers, and he must have seen her worry, because his eyebrows drew together in concern. “Oh, Joni, it’s not a huge thing. I don’t want you to think you’re being ambushed.”

I feel ambushed. The thought came unbidden to mind, but she didn’t voice it, choosing to breath deeply one more time before responding.

“I’m just already nervous,” she said. “And Gabriela makes me a little extra nervous.”

Grady nodded. “I get that. Maybe I should have…No, not maybe. I should have said something.”

“It’s not too late,” she said. Her smile felt watery, but it must have made him feel like she wasn’t about to cry anymore, because the crease between his eyes smoothed, and he smiled, too.

“She’s been so impressed with the mockups and the prices you and Gil have worked on,” Grady said. “She knows the banquet manager over at Montgomery Hall, and he happens to be looking for a floral manager. She felt like it was the perfect combination of fate and good timing.”

Joni’s panic returned. She pushed back the slight thrill she’d felt at his words and gave in to the irritation she felt with the word manager anywhere near her name. The pressure of overseeing anything at all felt suffocating, and she bristled at the idea of someone supposing she wanted anything more than what she had.

“Grady. I have a job,” she said, buying time with an obvious statement that meant nothing.

“Well, I know that. Gabriela knows that,” Grady said. “She just assumed you’d be interested in doing something you obviously love.”

“Something I obviously love?” Joni said. “That’s overstating things.”

It wasn’t. She did love working on Gil’s flowers, even more than she remembered from doing it part time in college. In fact, she’s spent a solid evening looking into having small postcards made to put on the bulletin board at the front of the store that local businesses used to advertise their services. But still, she couldn’t help pulling away from him, pulling back into herself.

“I’m sorry,” Grady said. Confusion flooded over her, and she wanted to correct him, to apologize to him, almost as much as she wanted to run away.

“I’m sorry, too,” she said. Looking with regret at the bustling family only steps from their conversation, she gently placed the wine and the small plate on the counter. She tried to meet his gaze and failed. Taking one more breath, she cut her eyes to the front door. “I need to go. I need some air.”

“Joni, I…”

“No, it’s fine. I just need some air. Tell everyone I got called into the store for an emergency.”

She rushed toward the door, knowing how absurd it would be for a sales clerk to be called in for an emergency, like a doctor on call. Pulling open the door, she stepped into the cold and escaped toward the sidewalk. Only when the bottom of her feet felt the biting cold did she remember she was wearing a pair of Grady’s mother’s slippers, and only then did she let herself start to cry.

…to be continued

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Frost Flowers – Part Nine

Frost FlowersContinued from Part Eight or start at the beginning

Joni tugged at her sweater, pulling it down even further over her thighs. She’d believed the mirror in the department store when she’d tried on the faux leather leggings and slouchy sweater, sliding her rarely-used credit card over the counter for her first clothing purchase in months. She regretted it now. Her favorite jeans hung in her closet, within arm’s reach. Even better, her favorite leggings sat on her bed, where she’d discarded them before changing.

Her apartment buzzer pulled her from her self-doubt just in time to keep her from switching out the new pants for the old. The way Grady’s smile crinkled his eyes when he saw her pushed her butterflies to another part of her stomach, a twist of desire supplanting nerves. She rose on tiptoes to kiss him hello, letting her lips linger on his a moment longer than she’d planned.

“You look beautiful,” he said, his forehead still against hers.

“Did you bring me that cheat sheet of your sisters?” Joni said.

She’d meant the comment to sound lighthearted, but she could hear her nervousness raising her tone to almost a squeak. He cupped her chin in his hands, kissing her again.

“You’re going to be fine. Everyone’s excited to finally meet you,” he said.

The word weighed heavily on her shoulders. Finally made it sound like she’d had months to prepare for this dinner instead of what felt like seconds. Her dating history stopped and started in little bursts, except for that one, disastrous engagement, and she honestly couldn’t remember the last time she’d considered meeting someone’s family.

“I’m bound to disappoint someone,” she said, twisting her hair behind her shoulders nervously. “You told them about my hair, right?”

“Yes,” he reassured her, not for the first time. “Besides, my youngest sister somehow got her belly button pierced right after finals. My mom’s still trying to figure out how she worked around the eighteen and over rule.”

Joni’s smile felt watery on her face, ready to fall into nonexistence at a moment’s notice.

“Besides. I think your hair’s perfect, and you like it, and you’re not in charge of making my family comfortable. They should be worried about making you comfortable,” Grady said.

His words made her even more nervous, but she laced her fingers in his as they walked to his car and tried not to think too much about facing his parents and his five sisters around a dinner table. Christmas music piped through his speakers, and her smile began to feel more secure.

Stepping over the threshold of the front door took a huge effort, but she needn’t have worried about their entrance. Noise and music filled the rooms, mingling with the scent of cloves and spruce.

“It’s just some sort of candle or something,” Grady whispered. “My parents haven’t had a real tree since my mom bought her first silver one sometime in the 70s.”

Joni barely had time to wonder if they still owned it before a woman enveloped her in a hug. Grady’s mother barely came up to Joni’s chin, but her dark curls twisted up on her head to give her at least another two inches.

“Joni! Welcome! Grady, find this girl a pair of slippers. Your father keeps turning down the heat, like that electric fireplace he just installed is going to keep this drafty old place warm. We’re so glad you’re here, dear,” she said, wrapping Joni in a second hug, like she’d forgotten she’d given her one already.

“It’s lovely to meet you,” Joni said, hoping no one could hear the worry in her voice.

Grady’s mother seemed to.

“Now, I know it’s not going to make a difference if I say it, but don’t be nervous here, dear. With six kids coming and going from this house, I have seen everything you can possibly imagine, as you might guess. In a few minutes, you’ll feel like you’ve always known us.”

“Thanks, Mrs.—“

“Don’t be silly. Just call me Ginny,” she said, leading Joni into a cavernous kitchen that had obviously been updated to knock out walls and become the heart of the home. “You know, that’s how we started on that whole name-the-kids-G-names, thing.”

Joni did know. Grady told her the story minutes after he’d shocked her by revealing he was the only boy in his family of six children. Still, she smiled and let his mother tell it again as she saw Gillian smile at her. Seeing a familiar face in a sea of unknown family members helped Joni feel like the world might finally stop spinning.

“I’ll introduce you to everyone when Grady gets back with some slippers. Mom’s on a slipper kick. I swear she found them at some shoe store going out of business and stocked up on enough to give them away to people,” Gillian whispered, pressing a glass of red wine into Joni’s hand. “I can’t wait for you to hear the news Gracie has for you.”

Joni’s stomach dropped. “What? Gil, what news?”

…to be continued

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