tagRomanceA Birthday Surprise Ch. 01

A Birthday Surprise Ch. 01

byMsJenn©

*seven weeks ago*

"Let me get this right -You want me to buy her a guy...for her birthday??"

My sister sighed.

"Em, c'mon. You said you needed an idea for a present, and this would absolutely put you in the running for 'Best Aunt Ever!'"

"Amy, I'm already the best aunt ever."

I mumbled, "That happens when you're the only aunt."

Then it was my turn to sigh, as I closed my eyes and rubbed my forehead.

"But yeah, you're right, I DO need a great gift idea...Alright, fine...What do I need to know?"

*****

*today...Friday...10:30am*

Yeah, it would have been an awesome gift - if my niece Sydney wasn't sick in the hospital from her latest round of chemo. My sister, Amy, and her husband, Jack, keep telling me that she'll be fine, that it's just a temporary thing, and that she'll be back to her old self in a week or so. Sydney just called it 'bad timing'. She was a brave little almost 11-year old.

Sydney was supposed to be sitting here with me, but instead it was just me - and now 18 parents and 18 anxious 10 to 12-year old girls. I sighed and turned my iPod up a little louder, trying to drown out the nervous giggles and - somewhere to my left - the loud sobs of an overly obsessed fan. I looked down at the lanyard around my neck, to the laminated card with the number '5' printed on it. I then glanced up at the cardboard cut-out of the actor in his role as...I can't remember his name...some gladiator. Someone involved with this 'charity auction' had attached a flip chart to the shield the cardboard fighter was carrying. As I looked up a woman walked over and tore off the top page, silently announcing that it was the next person's turn to go with their adult - in this case, mom - behind the red and black curtain to 'oooh' and 'awww' over the actor who made this movie such a huge success.

I picked up my cell and sent a text to my niece:

'#2 going in now'

And, then a response from her, nearly instantly:

'do you have the posters & the list?'

I could feel the corner of my mouth turn up into a soft smile, my fingers moving over the keys, not nearly as fast as I knew hers did:

'you know I have both. talk to you in 30 minutes. calm down!'

I slipped my cell phone back into the outside pocket of the bag sitting between my feet, taking a quick glance at as much of the room as I could without being obvious about it. I had picked a seat that was against one of the longer walls of the rectangular room, closer to the bar that was at one end of the room than to the curtain-covered door centered on the wall across from me.

I watched an excited little girl drag her mother to the curtain, where a woman who seemed to take her job WAY too seriously stood. The woman checked the lanyard against a piece of paper on a clipboard, and then checked the lanyard again; all the while the little girl was dancing in place like she had to pee.

I thought to myself, 'So, Aunt Emily, this is what $500 gets you: sitting in a room with - now - 36 people, waiting to spend 30 minutes with some actor that you can't even remember his name, to ask him to sign a few posters for Sydney. This kid had better love this!'

I smiled to myself, knowing that she would indeed love this. I sighed again, when I thought it would only have been better for her if she were right here beside me. Off to my left, the sobbing girl got louder. It was to the point where my iPod was turned up loud enough to drown her out, but the music was so loud that my ears were killing me. I turned my iPod off, and that's when I heard what the problem was. She obviously had a higher number and didn't want to wait. That's when my decision was made.

I got up from my seat, and walked over to the way-too-serious woman with the clipboard. I pulled my ear buds out before she could look up at me, and I smiled when she did. Her face looked tired already.

"Excuse me. Hi. I was wondering if it would be a huge problem if I traded lanyards with that girl and her mom in the red shirt."

I tried to point them out without actually pointing to them, but the woman's eyes just briefly scanned the room and then came back to my face. It was then that I turned to look, really look, at the room. Nearly all the people in the room were wearing red and black clothes; some were even dressed in costumes like the cardboard gladiator wore. Most of the shirts were homemade, with appliqués of the actor's - Matt something, maybe? - face all over. There was even a girl dressed in a replication of the gladiator's costume, but her's was made entirely out of duct tape. It was actually quite impressive.

"Oh. Ummm...Okay. Hmm." I bit my bottom lip. "The red-headed woman with the crying kid?"

The woman nodded, instantly knowing who I was talking about.

"Look, I'm #5, and I know #3 is going to be going in any minute now. Honestly, that girl is driving me crazy with the crying. Please? I'll take my chances with whatever number she's got, if she's willing to trade."

Still looking at me, the woman asked, "You're sure?"

"I'm willing to take the chance. Besides, there's only twenty spots, right? What are the odds?"

She shrugged, and said, "Hey, it's up to you, good luck".

I thanked her, and she thanked me right back. I guess she's not a fan of sobbing kids, either. I made my way to the mom as quick as I could, careful not to step on anyone's homemade posters or anything else they had laying around. I noticed there wasn't an empty chair close, so I knelt down beside her.

Before I could say anything to her, she looked at me with tired eyes and said "Don't say it. I'm trying to calm her down, and I'm sorry," as if she's already repeated those words a million times today.

I smiled at her, and quickly said, "Don't worry, I'm not the bad guy here. I've got #5, and I'll trade with you, if you'd like so you can get her in and out of there and home again as quick as possible. No strings attached." I slipped my lanyard off from around my neck and offered it to her, almost losing the finger it was wrapped around when the mom grabbed it and took her's off to trade with me.

I put it around my neck, and stood up to walk to my seat, with "thank you, thank you, thank you" coming from not only the mom, but a few other moms sitting nearby. I smiled weakly at them, not even imagining what they've been going through. Halfway back to my seat, I glanced down to see my newly inherited number. With the large number '20' glaring back at me, I changed course and headed to the bar.

*****

*Friday...3pm*

Here's what I know so far: Number Eleven just went into the room. The olives in the glass on the bar are for show, not for eating. The bartender's name is Sam, and I think that's a perfect name for a bartender. Sam is really, really sorry that it's a dry bar, and I think Sam is also really, really sorry that he's got to sit here and play babysitter for 10 hours today. Sam didn't tell me that, though. He handed me what seemed like my tenth glass of Sprite with a little smile, and then went back to the girls filling the other stools who were trying way too hard to pretend to be older than what they were. A quick glance over my left shoulder reminded me that we were only on number 11, and I sighed. The room was starting to thin out, but those who were left were getting more and more anxious. I, personally, was just bored. I had already called my neighbor Lydia to tell her about the '#5 to #20' thing, and she told me that it wasn't a big deal, to just stop by to pick up my dog Jasper whenever I got back to our building. I reached into my bag again to get my phone. Sighing, I picked my niece's name from the contact list and gave her cell a call.

Two rings. Three rings. Four rings.

And then finally, a very annoyed "Hello?"

"Hey kid, it's me."

"I know."

"You're still pissed, huh?"

Nothing.

"I'm sorry, Sydney, I really am. But the girl was driving me crazy!"

"If you would have kept your number five, you would have been out of there hours ago! Now you're stuck there until 7:30!"

I smiled to myself, knowing the little brat was 100% right.

"Hey, Syd - I know, alright. Listen, I really am sorry, but I WILL get in to see him, I promise. Is your mom...?"

"Mom, Aunt Emily is on the phone...for you!"

I couldn't help but chuckle, and I had to keep from breaking into a full laugh when I heard Sydney's exasperated sigh. Sam the bartender was in on the story from the beginning, and he gave me a 'been there, done that' look.

"Hey Emily."

My sister sounded tired.

"Amy, how's she doing?"

"She's a little...irritated."

And, then a smaller voice from the background, "I'm NOT IRRITATED!"

I laughed softly, and then told her again how sorry I was for all of this. She replied with, "Look, I probably would have done the same thing. It's not a big deal really. I'm probably going to hang around here, until she gets the call from you at 8 saying you got those posters signed, and then head home. I don't think she's going to be awake much more after that, so you can just bring those by the hospital tomorrow if you want. I know she'll be dying to see them and hear everything that happened. Oh, and while you're at it, could you bring back my pink and tan scarf that you borrowed two weeks ago and haven't returned yet?" she added, with a laugh.

There I was again - getting yelled at for playing dress-up with my big sister's clothes. Obviously, it didn't matter that I was 27, not 7. I looked down and saw the scarf curled up on the top of my pile of things that were my bag, my coat, the cardboard tube holding the posters, and the scarf. I still love how that shade of tan exactly matches my tan coat. My stomach started to rumble, so I thought I'd better go find a vending machine, or something.

"Listen, I'm going to go for a little bit, I've still got about 4 hours to go, and I'm going to see if I can find something to eat around here. I'll see ya at the hospital tomorrow."

I said goodbyes with my sister, put the phone away, and looked back to Sam. He gave me a sideways glance and rolled his eyes, while an excited girl was asking him about the bottles on the shelf behind him. I sighed, yet again.

*****

*Friday...7pm*

The carpet in this room is starting to annoy me. I don't know why, though. I think it's because I think it would look better in a funeral home, rather than in a convention center; swirls of browns and grays meant to give people headaches, I determined. I checked my watch again. 7pm. Number Nineteen just slipped behind the magic curtain. I wonder if the Great Oz is back there, and I've paid $500 for a 'You're on Candid Camera!' moment. Sigh. I'm hungry. I haven't eaten a thing since I left to catch the bus at 8 this morning, and my rumbling stomach is beginning to remind me of that fact. I saw moms, who were as prepared only as moms can be, with granola bars and snacks and juice boxes and bottles of water passed among the kids when they asked for it. The 'bar' was set up more for show than anything, but there were free non-alcoholic drinks. I had enough to drink about two hours ago, and I only sat there to talk to Sam the bartender because there was no one left at this point. And he was a good guy, don't get me wrong. As he started his cleaning up, I suddenly felt very under-dressed for this...occasion. While a few moms wore what I'd call 'office clothes', a few had been wearing slacks and t-shirts made at home with pictures of...Matt? Mark? Dammit, what is this guy's name?

"Hey Sam?"

"Hmm?"

"What's this guy's name?"

"What guy are you talking about?"

"The Great Oz behind the curtain."

He turned his full attention on me now, just looking at me.

"You...don't know...his...name?"

I shrugged, and guessed.

"Mark? Mike?"

Again, another blank stare.

"Sam, c'mon! I've got, like, 13 minutes before I go back there and make a complete ass of myself, because I don't know the guy's damn name!"

"You paid $500 to meet a guy whose name you don't know. Oh, that's definitely going on Facebook!"

"Sam!"

He was laughing now, and I was plotting his death.

"Simon...Simon Lowdry," and another deep laugh from Sam the soon-to-die bartender.

Simon.

I wondered if that was his real name, or if Sam was just being a smart ass. I decided to risk 'Simon', and just go with that.

11 minutes to go.

I checked around me to make sure I got everything that I came in with. My shoulder bag was sitting on the seat beside me, and my thin coat I wore in was laying on top of that. The scarf was back around my neck; I had decided it looked kinda cute against my medium brown and white layered t-shirts I was wearing. The cardboard tube that protectively held Sydney's most favorite posters that she wanted signed was leaning against the chair beside me, and her infamous list of questions she wanted me to ask for her was safely tucked into the front pocket of my jeans. Seems like I'm all set to go. I reached for my phone, and sent a quick '10 minutes, I'll call at 8' to Sydney's phone. I stood up, preparing to move to the chair closest to the curtain. Sam saw me stirring and, still chuckling, came to say bye.

"Mark? Really?"

"Shut up, Sam."

But I couldn't stop laughing with him, and soon we were both laughing so hard we had tears in our eyes. I checked my watch.

"Crap, 2 minutes. You've got my email, right?" He nodded, as he wiped his tears away with the sleeve of his shirt. I fumbled in my bag for my makeup to see exactly how horrible I looked. I added a little this, retouched a little that - good to go.

"Hey, listen...Not sure if you're gonna be here when I get out of there, but call me, okay? I definitely want you to meet my friend Lydia."

He smiled his cute little smile and said, "You got it, Markie."

I rolled my eyes before glancing over at the now sitting woman with the clipboard. The curtain opened then, and a near hysterical girl was being dragged out of the room by her mom. The woman with the clipboard didn't even bother tearing away to reveal the number twenty on the cardboard gladiator's shield; instead she just waved me over. Suddenly I felt really, really out of place. Biting my lip, I stepped through the curtain.

*****

*Friday...7:30...finally*

Walking into the room, the first thing I noticed is how much darker it is in here compared to the waiting room. Not that it was too dark in here, it was just...darker. The walls to my left and right were lined with cardboard cutouts of different guys dressed as gladiators, presumably from his movie. I had no idea, I'd never seen it. Blood and guts weren't for me.

"So, lucky number 20, huh?"

I turned my head to look forward, to the short balding man in front of me, who stood only an inch or two more than my 5'5".

"Yeah, that's me."

I looked around, not really sure how something like this works.

"OK, well, first thing's first...Where is she?"

I looked at him, confused.

"Where is who?"

"Your...daughter?"

Still looking at him, I asked, "What are you talking about?"

It was his turn to look at me now.

"You...came alone?"

I nodded, wondering how odd that was. Was it odd?

"Oh, I see," and then he gave me the weirdest look, like I had two heads or something. This bald little man was starting to annoy me, and I wasn't ready to put up with him after the day I've had.

"Look, do I get my 30 minutes, or what?" I asked probably more impatiently then I should have. I instantly regretted it, but I wasn't going to dare apologize for it.

Then I heard him. Well, I heard his laugh. A deep chuckle, but slightly muffled. When the bald little man in front of me stepped to the side and waved me past, I could see him sitting behind a dark wood table, his face in his hands. His laugh had quieted, but his shoulders were still shaking. Looking around the room, I was sure that my jeans and layered t-shirts were way too under-dressed for this.

While his left hand fell into his lap, his right hand moved back through his hair, messing it up just enough to not look messy, like every hair had landed right where it was supposed to. When he finally lifted his head up, his eyes were warm and friendly, but his face was drawn and tired looking. His smile was easy though, and he motioned me over to one of a pair of empty seats off to the side of the table he was sitting behind. Across the room, the short little bald man joined another man and a woman, but no names were exchanged and I have no idea who they were. I smiled as I took the closest seat towards me, and he settled into the other one, his long legs stretched out.

"You look like hell." Seriously, did I just say that out loud? I could feel the blush in my cheeks starting already, but not before I heard the low murmurs from across the room.

Then he laughed again, this time louder and with more feeling than the chuckle from before. He slowed to a low chuckle, and then said, "So how do you look the way you do, and I look like hell?" My defenses were up, and I was instantly mad at him. How dare he say that to me! Who did he think he was to talk to me like that? But before I could say anything, his hands came up defensively and there was a true look of regret on his face.

"No, no, I didn't mean it that way. I meant, you look great, and I look like hell. I hardly think that's fair, that's all. Dammit. I'm sorry if I insulted you, I really didn't mean to." His hands came up to cover his face, and he mumbled something behind them. I reached out to touch his arm, to tell him that it was alright, that I was sorry for the misunderstanding.

"Please, don't touch Mr. Lowdry."

Then before I could think, I snapped to the group of three, "What is he, an exhibit at the Louvre?"

Then again, that same hardy laugh from before. But this time, I couldn't help but join in. His laugh was infectious, sincere in it's most basic form, and addicting. Before I knew it, those same tears that were running down my cheeks when I was laughing with Sam not 10 minutes ago returned, and I couldn't stop laughing. The hours of being stressed and bored in that room on the other side of that curtain were finally catching up to me. He stopped laughing before me, and when I realized he'd stopped, I suddenly felt very self-conscience and stopped laughing too. I was looking down, shaking my head.

'You look like hell.' God, I could never tell Sydney I said that to him - EVER!

When I finally looked up, he was looking at me. His chocolate brown eyes warm and caring. His brow furrowed; he looked like he wanted to say something, but not sure about it.

"What is it, is something wrong?" I asked carefully.

He smiled, his lips parting slightly.

"Nothing wrong at all, just..."

"What?"

"I'm afraid of...offending you again. I didn't mean to, I swear." Then a pause. "What, you're looking at me weird."

"You're...English." It was a statement, not a question. The snickers were there again, but this time came from across the room. I looked back at him and shrugged, and this time he dropped his American accent all-together, and the words just flowed easier.

"I am, yeah. Sort of odd for someone to not know that about me, so I'm sorry if I'm caught a bit off guard. It's easier, when I do these sorts of things, to put on the American accent. I've found that it confuses some of my...younger fans." He chuckled again. I could tell this was the real him; his body language was much more relaxed, his smile was back, wider than before, and his arms were crossed on his chest. Yeah, definitely a comfortable pose.

"What about you, you're from around here?"

"I am, yeah. I grew up about an hour from here, in a small farming town. Then I moved into the city about 2 years ago. Me and my dog, Jasper, share a place."

'Lord, why am I telling him all of this?' I thought to myself.

"Just...you and Jasper then, hmm?" and I felt the blushing come back. I could do nothing more than that, though I was desperately thinking of a smart ass comment to make him blush just as much. But it was him that broke the short silence. "Was that you I could hear laughing outside right before you came in here?" His eyes were smiling as he waited for me to answer.

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