Hearts and FlowersbyKarennaC©
Hearts and flowers. Damn it, Tori was surrounded by hearts and flowers, and she hated every second of it.
Of course, it was no different from any other Valentine's Day. Tori had been working at the candy shop for five years now, and every year when the red and green of Christmas gave way to the red and white of Valentine's Day, she felt like screaming. It was a good job other than those couple months a year, but damn, those couple months were hell.
Tori couldn't remember a time she'd liked Valentine's Day. In school, when other kids had exchanged at least those stupid little thirty-to-a-box cards, she'd invariably gotten nothing, other than maybe a pity card or two from kids who gave cards to everyone. In eighth grade, when she'd had her first real boyfriend, he'd chosen to dump her the day before Valentine's, and had given her worst enemy a huge, lacy card right in front of her. After that, Tori had made it a point not to have a boyfriend anywhere near Valentine's Day, not that many guys were interested anyway.
So now, at twenty-five, Tori was single, cynical, and wishing Valentine's Day didn't exist. Along with the stupid candy hearts, heart-shaped boxes, and bouquets of flowers that the shop owner insisted on carrying at this time of year.
"Miss, what would you recommend I give my girlfriend?" asked the man at the counter. "It's our first Valentine's Day, and I don't want to be too mushy, but I want to make sure she knows I'm thinking about her."
Tori switched into sales mode. "Well, sir, does she like chocolates?"
"No, she doesn't eat refined sugar."
Good thing he'd come to a candy store to get her a gift, then. Some of these people had to have left their brains at the curb with their Christmas trees. "What about flowers?" Tori asked.
"I think she's got allergies. I'm not sure."
"Then I'm afraid we may not be able to help you here, sir. All our candy contains sugar, and the flowers are real, which means if she has allergies she's going to have problems with them. I'd suggest the greeting card shop two doors down; they may have something she'd like."
"I didn't come in here so you could tell me to go somewhere else. I came in here to get a gift for my girlfriend. What kind of salesperson are you?"
The kind who didn't feel like dealing with an idiot during Valentine season. "Sir, if there was anything we sold here that your girlfriend might be able to eat or to look at without sneezing, I'd tell you. Unfortunately, there isn't."
"You can bet I won't waste my time coming in here again." He stomped away.
Tori shook her head. Obviously romance made people lose their minds. Romance. Like that even existed. As far as she was concerned, it was only an illusion, created by the greeting card, candy, and floral industries to boost their profits.
The evening wore on, with more frantic boyfriends and a few frantic girlfriends coming in to find things for their partners, interspersed with occasional parents looking for things for their children or children looking to buy for their parents. Finally, with five minutes till closing, Tori went to the door to lock it. Just as she turned the lock, a man tapped on the window. Tori sighed and opened the door. "May I help you?"
"Are you still open?"
It was on the tip of Tori's tongue to say no, but a glance at the clock showed her that four minutes still remained. Her boss wouldn't be pleased if they lost a sale because she was sick of dealing with people for the night. "Not quite yet," she replied. "Please, come in."
"Thank you. I promise I won't take much of your time."
The man walked through the shop, stopping at the display of flowers and at the pyramid of candy boxes that Tori had had to rebuild twice that day. "Are you looking for something for your girlfriend?" Tori asked, hoping to hurry him along.
"Someone I hope might become my girlfriend," the man replied. "Do you have any suggestions?"
"It depends on what she likes. We have a wide assortment of candy, and I can put a box together for you if none of our pre-packed boxes appeal to you." Though she hoped he would take a pre-packed so she wouldn't have to be here any longer than necessary. "We also have flowers, though if you want to wait till Valentine's Day to give them to her I'd recommend buying them that day so they don't wilt in the meantime."
"I'm not sure she'd like flowers, but candy usually goes over well." He walked over to the group of flowerpots that held flower-shaped lollipops. "Or maybe some of these, so she gets both. I think I'll go with that."
Thank goodness. A quick decision. "Would you like those boxed?" Tori asked.
The man picked out half a dozen of the pops and brought them to the register. "Yes, that would be nice if you have time. Or you could just give me a box and I'll do it when I get home. I know it's late."
"Not a problem." Tori carefully put the pops in a rectangular box and rang up his purchase. Their hands touched as he passed her his money and Tori jumped as though he'd shocked her. She ignored it, though, and told him, "Have a nice night."
"Thanks. You too."
He left, and Tori finished closing up, then went back to the efficiency apartment she called home, though there was little home-like about it. She didn't bother staying up for the nightly news, just undressed and went to bed. To her annoyance, she dreamed about her final customer.
The next day, three days before Valentine's Day, was more of the same. People demanding that Tori help them find the perfect Valentine for their loved one, people asking foolish questions, and the smell of chocolate and flowers combining to make Tori nauseated. It didn't bother her any other time of year, of course. Only at Valentine's Day.
The store was empty ten minutes before closing, but Tori didn't lock the door, though she could have. She had a feeling that her final customer from the night before might make a repeat appearance. Sure enough, as the clock hit five of nine, he came through the door.
"Sorry to be here so late again," he said. "The flower pops seemed like such a great idea, I decided to come see what else I could find, but I didn't get out of work till a few minutes ago."
"You must work strange hours, if you don't get out till this late." Tori mentally kicked herself. What difference did his work hours make to her? She didn't want small talk; she wanted him to make his purchase so she could go home.
"Not strange, just long," he replied. "Too long. I was at the office twelve hours today."
"Does your potential girlfriend know about your hours? Some women would want more time with their boyfriend than that, I'd think." Yeah, great, like she was even remotely qualified to give relationship advice.
"Oh, I'm sure they would. I don't have any reason to leave the office now, you see. If she agrees to what I ask her on Valentine's Day, I'll have someone to spend time with, and I won't want to spend quite so much time with spreadsheets and proposals." He went to a display of truffles that Tori had set up earlier that day. "I think I'll take a half pound of these," he said. "I don't know if she likes them, but if not, maybe she'll share with me."
"Or you could get a full pound, half for her and half for yourself."
He laughed. "You're a good salesperson. Sure, I'll do that."
Surprised that he'd agreed so easily, especially given the cost of the truffles, Tori weighed and boxed a pound for him and rang it up. This time when he paid, he looked into her eyes; Tori blushed and looked away. "You've been wonderfully helpful," the man said. "My name's Ryan."
"I'm Tori. Nice to meet you."
He took her hand and held it longer than a typical shake. "Nice to meet you. Have a good night."
"Thank you. You too."
He released her hand, to Tori's relief, though part of her wished he hadn't. What a stupid reaction! Even if she wanted a relationship, or even a date, he was here buying candy for some woman he had a crush on. Thank goodness he walked out the door without noticing her reaction.
The next night, with two days to go before the dreaded holiday, Ryan came in again and bought a bag of jelly beans. "It's kind of a kid thing, but maybe she has a playful side," he explained.
"Could be." Tori wished he wouldn't keep talking about his mystery woman; she was becoming unreasonably jealous.
The night before Valentine's Day, Ryan showed up to purchase a gourmet chocolate bar. "A little more sophisticated than jelly beans," he said. "It'll be a nice balance."
"She's going to gain a ton eating all this candy you've bought her," Tori said. Damn it, why did she have to sound like such a bitch?
Ryan didn't seem to notice Tori's snarkiness. "Then she can go with me to the gym if she wants. I'll buy her a membership; it would be one more way to spend time together. Besides, I don't mind a woman with a little extra. It's what's inside that counts, and I think inside she's a very beautiful woman."
Oh, god, this guy was a total sap! Tori rang up the chocolate bar and, even though it was in a wrapper, boxed it for him. He thanked her and left, just like every other night.
The next day was Valentine's day, and it was a sheer nightmare. From the time they opened at ten, the store was mobbed with people desperate for last-minute Valentine candy and flowers. Customers knocked down displays, yelled at Tori and the other workers who'd come in to help, and generally made Tori wish she'd gone into some other line of business. Like trash collecting.
But finally, around eight thirty, things tapered off. Most people were either out to dinner with their chosen Valentine or were in bed with them. Tori swatted that thought aside quickly. She hadn't been to bed with a man in so long she couldn't even begin to remember it.
She sent the other employees home and started cleaning up the shop. Every time she heard footsteps outside, she glanced up, then rolled her eyes at herself. Of course Ryan wasn't going to be here tonight. He'd probably given the woman of his dreams all the candy, and if she hadn't whacked him over the head for loading her up with it they were probably in each other's arms right now. That mental image made Tori want to punch something.
She was trying without much luck to sweep up the spilled sugar from a bunch of Pixi Stix in the back corner when the shop door opened. She glanced at the clock; five of nine. Her heart jumped, but there was no way...
"Tori?" Ryan called. "Are you here?"
Tori stood up. "Right here," she said. "Did you think of something else you wanted to give her?"
"Oh, there's plenty I want to give her." Ryan held up all the boxes she'd packed for him that week. "These are for you."
Was this some kind of joke? "What... what are you talking about?" Tori demanded.
"You never guessed. I didn't think you had." Ryan set the boxes on the counter and came over to her. "I told you these were for a woman I wanted to be my girlfriend. That's you, Tori."
"You never even met me before the other night!" Love didn't happen that way, did it?
"True, but I've seen you for years now. Every night as I walk home from the office, I go past this shop, and every night I see you in here alone. The first thing I noticed about you is how your hair has this reddish glow in the lights. Then I saw how careful you are about arranging things, and how much you seem to like being here most of the time. Except this time of year. Valentine's Day hasn't been very good to you, has it?"
"Valentine's Day is an illusion," Tori said. "Romance is an illusion. I can't believe we're even having this conversation."
"Neither can I. I never thought I'd work up the guts to tell you how I feel. I might not have talked to you before the other night, but that was because I didn't think you'd talk to me. I thought a woman as beautiful as you must have a husband, or at least a boyfriend. But you're here every night till nine, and I've never seen any guy stop to visit you, so I thought I might be lucky enough to find you unattached."
"I haven't had a boyfriend since..." Tori trailed off, trying to remember. "I don't have boyfriends often," she finished after a moment.
"And I rarely have a girlfriend. Not many think I'm worth the hours I work. I'm a workaholic, I admit, but there are times I haven't a choice in the matter." He took both of Tori's hands. "But there are times when I know that if I found the right woman, I'd spend a lot more time outside work. And I think I've found her."
"You don't know anything about me," Tori protested.
"Not much yet, but I want to learn. Come to dinner with me. I know it's late, but I know a place that's open late tonight, and the food's pretty good." He nodded toward the boxes on the counter. "And we've already got dessert."
Tori had to laugh. "Why'd you buy all that, anyway?"
"So I'd have an excuse to finally talk to you. Will you go out with me tonight?"
It was ridiculous. This man couldn't possibly want to spend time with her. He wouldn't for sure after dinner; she'd probably drive him away somehow. But he seemed sincere, and even if Tori didn't believe in romance, she believed in miracles. Maybe this was one. "Sure, I'd like that," she said.
Ryan kissed her on the lips, sending the same shock through her that the touch of his hand had. Hopefully he would want to see her again after tonight; Tori wanted more of that feeling. "Wonderful!" Ryan said. "I'll wait while you close up, and then we can go."
He started to pick up the candy boxes from the counter, but Tori shook her head. "Leave them, unless you want them."
"But they're your Valentine's gifts."
"I know." Tori grinned. "But I can't stand candy."