Angela Amman

Frost Flowers – Part Eight

Frost FlowersContinued from Part Seven or start at the beginning

“I don’t even think you’re listening to me,” Dot Hanson said over the phone.

Joni wasn’t. She dangled a feather toy in front of her cat, amazed every time she realized Kringle might never tire of his favorite toy. He batted the toy countless times, prancing and pouncing. Watching Kringle proved to be just the distraction she needed to answer her mother’s countless questions without sounding exasperated.

“I guess I’m just worried it’s a big project for a single person,” Dot said for the third time.

“I’m not doing it alone,” Joni replied. “Polly’s helping me. Besides, it’s a crazy small wedding.”

“And tell me more about Grady,” Dot said. Polly could hear how hard her mom was trying to sound casual. She got a few points for the effort, at least.

“I don’t want to disappoint you, but there’s not much to tell. We had coffee then grabbed dinner once or twice,” she said.

Two dinners, three coffees, and one desserts, if she were counting, which she obviously was. They lingered so long over their sole dessert that they meandered to a diner to continue talking. His gloves felt like cashmere against her bare fingers. She never left home in the winter without her mittens, but she hadn’t wanted to miss the change to be as close to him as possible, even if it meant having to wrap her fingers around her cup until she could feel them again.. The waitress topped off their coffee until it grew cold in chipped white mugs, forgotten. She leaned forward, hands clasped under the table, and he almost mirrored her pose, except his forearms rested on the table, his fists balled under his chin.

She wanted to listen to him talk until his voice grew incoherent with sleep but could barely work up the nerve to text him without giving herself a pep talk. Kringle nuzzled his head into her hand, and she resumed flicking the feather toy across the floor. Hearing Joni’s distraction, Dot pounced at the same time Kringle did.

“Maybe you should see what he’s doing on Christmas,” she said.

Joni recoiled. “Mom. Absolutely not. I hardly know him.”

“Just think about it, hon. Promise?”

Joni promised, fingers crossed in her lap, just like she’d done since childhood. She flung her phone onto the couch cushions after ending the call, which wasn’t nearly as satisfying as it would have been to dash it against the wall. “But infinitely better for my bank account,” she muttered to Kringle. “Can you believe I’m still crossing my fingers and lying to my mother about boys?”

Kringle, her favorite sounding, paced along the back of her couch without judgement. He did judge her lack of interest in his favorite toy and refused to sit on her lap, curling against her side instead. His comforting purr gave her the confidence she needed to retrieve her phone from between the cushions to text Grady.

Drinks tonight? She pressed send before she could second guess the two words.

Sure. His reply came in a blink, but she could see he was still typing.

But my mom wants to know if you’d like to stop at their house first.

Joni pulled Kringle closer to her side, formulating a million excuses as to why she couldn’t, under any circumstances, have dinner with his family. He perhaps sensed her hesitation, because another message pinged, quickly.

Not dinner. Just some appetizers. Maybe a glass of wine. She’s in hard core Christmas prep mode and no one’s getting dinner there until Christmas Eve.

She’d been the one to ask him to get a drink, and he’d see through any of her attempts to get out of his plan. Screwing her fingers into fists, she took a few deep breaths and tried to relax. After a few beats, she let her thumbs fly over the keyboard.

Can’t wait to meet your family.

to be continued…

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Frost Flowers – Part Seven

Frost FlowersContinued from Part Six or start at the beginning

Polly skimmed the slim contract Joni had found online. Gillian insisted on official paperwork, though Joni would have put together the flowers if the words had been written on a post-it note. It ended up being the final nail pounding close the door on the possibility she’d travel with her family for Christmas, a nail her mother didn’t seem to mind. Of course, she hadn’t admitted that to Joni herself.

“She’s proud of you, Jon,” her dad said, whispering quickly into her ear when she drove them to the airport. “She always loved when you did those bouquets up at school.”

They called once a day, the same way they had when they’d left Joni alone for the week to celebrate their anniversary. Joni had been twenty-five then, living at home for the breath between selling her condo and renting her apartment. She answered in the same way, delicate wisps of conversation skittering around loneliness and resting on the things that made her smile: the practice centerpieces for Gillian’s January wedding, the spicy holiday chai at her favorite coffee shop, the one where she and Polly were currently sharing a table. Polly wanted to see the contract before Joni handed it over. She’d planned her own wedding six months ago and considered herself an amateur planner. Joni capitulated Polly’d seen more wedding contracts than she had in the last five years, and besides, it made her a little nervous to meet Gillian to hand over the paperwork.

“I don’t think she’s paying you enough,” Polly said, eying the numbers again. “But I don’t think she’s ripping you off, either, so that’s something.”

“It’s fine, Pol. I agreed to the price, and I think it’s more than fair considering I’m an out-of-practice dinosaur in the wedding world. I looked online after meeting with her the first time and almost fainted at some of the elaborate arrangements out there. And that doesn’t even take into account the uplighting.”

“No one hired you to do uplighting,” Polly laughed. “She wanted simple flowers, and you’ll do that, and she’ll be thrilled.”

Joni twisted her fingers around each other, letting them remember the way the green stems felt between them, like they could feel the space the flowers should be, even before she could see the right arrangement in her mind.

“Do you think she’s pregnant?” Polly asked.

Joni blinked, though she’d considered it herself the first time Gillian spilled details about the ever-changing timeline for her wedding. “No, nothing like that. He got a job overseas, and they thought it wouldn’t be until next year, but they have the chance to go sooner. So they’re taking it.”

“Huh. I would have guess pregnant,” Polly said.

“Did I ever tell you about the time I tried to get pregnant?” Joni asked.

Polly’s mouth hung open for a moment, and Joni tucked a smile into her oversized mug of tea.

“No. No, you didn’t.”

“My boyfriend was sleeping with our administrative assistant, which is ridiculously cliche, except that I had to work with her, too. For a split second, I thought a pregnancy ultimatum would keep him. Thankfully my body disagreed, because can you even imagine?” Joni asked the question without expecting an answer. “That’s when I quit my job — and my boyfriend and pretty much my life.”

“You had a secretary at the bank?” Polly asked. Joni paused, shocked that was the part of the story her friend asked about.

“I didn’t really work at a bank,” Joni said. “I invested money for customers through a bank. And yes, our group had an admin. Anyway, Gillian’s not pregnant.”

“Who knew you had so many surprises?” Polly said.

Joni barely heard her. The jingling bell on the shop’s door announced its opening, and Grady stood framed in the doorway. He smiled their way and crossed the room before she could register surprise.

“Hi Joni,” he said. His smile included both women, but Joni felt his eyes lock on hers.

“Hi,” she said. Her cheeks reddened, again, and she wondered if she’d ever stop feeling like she teetered on the edge of saying something mortifying in his presence.

“I told Gil I’d grab the contract for her,” he said. “I figured it’d be the perfect place to ask you if you wanted to get a coffee sometime.”

“I’d like that,” she said. Hopefully her smile detracted from her flaming cheeks.

“I need to run to get groceries,” Polly said into the air. Neither Grady nor Joni looked her way, though Joni nodded.

“By sometime, I basically thought now would work,” he said.

Joni’s smile widened. His sincerity jostled alongside her hesitation to bloom into comfortable understanding.

“Now works,” she said.

to be continued…

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Frost Flowers – Part Six

Frost FlowersContinued from Part Five, or you can start at the beginning

Joni pulled lip gloss out of her smock pocket, lamented for a moment that she actually wore a smock, and slicked the gloss over chapped lips. Her stomach lurched at the thought of seeing Grady again. The sticky pink felt heavy on her mouth, and she wiped it off on the back of her hand, shaking her head at the effect his name had on her.

She caught a whiff of him before she saw him, though later she’d realize she’d walked past the cinnamon pine cones just as she approached him. She immediately noticed he wasn’t as conventionally handsome as she’d remembered. His smile stretched a little too far across his face, which was a smidge too narrow to command a big-screen appearance. Her palms dampened when she noticed him studying her studying him, and she bit her lip. When she’d imagined him as larger than life, rejection had seemed inevitable. The crooked smile made it harder to meet his eyes, the eyes belonging to an actual man and not just a figment of an overactive imagination.

Silence stretched between them, but before she could determine whether she felt comfortable or like she wanted to melt into the floor, his sister spoke.

“I don’t mean to bother you,” she said. “Gabby raved about what you suggested for her mantle, and I’m at a loss with wedding flowers, and we’re planning things in like a day and a half, so I don’t have anyone to work with.”

Joni let herself fall into the rhythm of the excited voice. Something about the prattle made her feel like she was in the middle of an exciting secret. Only after she listened for another minute did she remember to interject what she should have started by saying.

“It’s so kind that your sister said that, but I think you should know. I don’t really do that kind of thing. I mean, I don’t do weddings. I’ve helped with weddings, but I don’t do them on my own,” she said. Joni felt her own words tangling with each other, and she knew her face flamed. She’d thought of Grady more times than she’d admitted to herself in the last week, but now that he stood in front of her, she wanted nothing more than to disappear into thin air. She sucked in her breath, holding it for a minute, like she might be able to restart the entire awkward conversation.

“So, I feel like I should say something,” Grady spoke. Joni swore she could smell cinnamon on his breath again.

“First, I think we should introduce ourselves. Gabriela tends to forget she’s not a tiny sun the rest of us revolve around,” he said. “I’m Grady, and this is my baby sister, Gillian.”

“Spelled with a “g,” because our parents couldn’t let go of that all g thing,” Gillian said.

“I’m Joni,” Joni said, though obviously they knew that, or they wouldn’t have been able to ask for her.

“And something you should know about Gabriela,” Grady said, “is even though she makes a terrible first impression, and sometimes a worse second impression, is she’s beyond competent in most areas of her life.”

Joni nodded and tried not to let a hysterical giggle escape. She was pretty sure she wouldn’t have described her own current level of competency as moderate. Hearing about someone else’s mastery felt like a boulder she couldn’t move forward if she tried.

“The thing is,” Gillian said, “Max and I wanted to get married in Cancun. I had everything planned to get married in Cancun. I don’t want it to seem like I don’t care about this wedding. But for a million complicated reasons, we’re not doing that anymore, and trying to find someone to do flowers for a wedding happening next month, when this month is Christmas, is proving impossible.”

“So she told Gabriela she’d buy a bunch of roses and throw them on tables, and I’m pretty sure Gabs passed out on the spot,” Grady said.

“And that’s when her lovely mantle caught her eye, and she suggested I come talk to you and see if we could hire you to do flowers. If you even do flowers. I know nothing about designing anything except buildings,” Gillian said.

“Gil’s an industrial architect,” Grady said.

Joni’s head spun. Work chaos swirled around her constantly, but she hadn’t had this much personal information tossed her way in a long time. She took a breath and started again.

“I’d love to help you,” she said, surprising herself by the sincerity in her words. “But I don’t know if I’m qualified to do that. I did work with a florist when I was in college, but I haven’t done a wedding since I worked with her. And that was a while ago.”

“Well, that’s more experience than I have,” Gillian said, undeterred by Joni’s uncertainty. “It sounds like you could arrange some roses on tables and call it a day, right?”

Joni inhaled. She probably could. The five dollar bouquets she’d pick up at the grocery looked far more expensive after she tinkered with them in one of her vases. And the longer she talked to Gillian, the longer she’d be in Grady’s orbit. Before she could talk herself out of it, she spoke.

“I might be able to help.”

to be continued…

Frost Flowers Angela Amman

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Frost Flowers – Part Five

Frost FlowersContinued from Part Four — or start at the beginning

Joni knew she shouldn’t let it get to her. Even before her job at the store, she’d worked enough retail jobs to understand the mentality of shoppers as the holiday rush intensified. From her first job as a greeter at an ultra-preppy mall store to the teeny boutique she’d worked at for a few months in college, shoppers acted the same way. So when the fifteenth person of the day lamented loudly about how close Christmas was, Joni wanted it to roll off her shoulders. Instead, they curled higher and higher until they practically crowded out her ears.

To Joni, who bought presents for only a handful of people and who baked even less, the holiday season stretched in front of her like an ocean she’d never cross — a loud, frantic ocean that would shove her out of the way for the last snow-tipped poinsettia wreath.

She took over a register from one of the seasonal staff members, and the resulting smile made her feel marginally better until a customer insisted on looking for her emailed coupon for at least four of the twelve days of Christmas.

“Ma’am,” Joni said, the address tentative. The rebuke from Gabriela weighed on her mind, a sore spot in a long series of irate customers. She returned to it more than she’d like to admit because it meant returning to the charming dimples accompanying Grady’s smile. Only an impatient cough from one of the customers in the growing line pulled her from thoughts of that smile.

“Ma’am,” Joni repeated. “I can just scan one of our coupons.”

“No, thank you. I know it’s here somewhere, and I really want those reward points, you know? I’m in here so often, and — oh! Here it is. No, that one’s expired. Just another minute,” she said.

Joni’s shoulders rose higher and her customer smile hurt her cheeks. Out of the corner of her eye, she could see other customers stepping up to registers and finishing transactions while she waited. Finally, the pesky coupon emerged from email purgatory and Joni scanned the phone. The savings of under two dollars seemed paltry compared to the time spent, time crawling toward the end of her shift. She handed the receipt and the bag across the counter, her eyes already on the next person in line.

“Thank you, dear,” the woman said. Joni looked back at her. The face staring back at her smiled, not just the lips-lifted smile Joni practiced all season, but a smile that crinkled eyes. “I know you didn’t have to wait for me to find that silly thing, but I appreciate it.”

“Oh, it’s nothing,” Joni said. She curled her hands into tight balls and found the pockets of her smock.

“No, dear, it’s not. It means a lot to be kind,” she said.

Joni opened her mouth to answer, but nothing came out, so she just nodded. For the first time she wondered if the reason she had so few wrinkles had anything to do with how rarely she truly smiled. Regret bloomed in her chest, but she pressed it down until it could consume her later than night, keeping her awake. Polly walked up to her register, pointing the next customer down the line to an open terminal.

“Hey,” she started. Her voice sounded conspiratorial. “That guy’s back from the other day — and he asked for you.”

Joni flushed. “What?”

“I know! He’s asking if you design centerpieces,” Polly said. “He needs wedding flowers.”

Joni’s heart plummeted. Disdain for herself for picturing his eyes and smile countless time flooded her gut.

Polly rewound her words when she noticed Joni’s face. “Oh. No. I’m talking too fast again. He asked if you did wedding flowers, but he’s not here with his fiancee, he’s here with his sister. A different one this time. She seems nicer.”

Her heart righted itself in her chest, and she felt something else there, too. The smile lifting her lips continued to her eyes this time, and she felt the crinkles there with her finger. She felt hope.

to be continued

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Frost Flowers Angela Amman

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