Daniel and Ella sat along the stream, skipping rocks across the water. After many weeks together, Ella graciously began to extend their periods of silence, allowing Daniel a few moments of peace each day. Daniel was not immune to change. Under Ella’s influence, he, unknowingly, was becoming more open towards other people.
“I’m bored!” Ella cried. She threw one more rock into the water, not bothering to skip it. “Let’s go do something.”
A few weeks ago, Daniel would have rolled his eyes at this exasperated interruption. Now, he gathered a few more rocks to skip as he entertained his companion’s wishes. “Like what?”
“I don’t know. It’s your turn to think of something to do.”
“You can help me think of a gift. My mom’s birthday is tomorrow. I don’t really know what to get her.”
“Well, you’ve got to get her something! What does she like?”
“Hmm, I don’t know.”
“Okay, what does she like to do?”
“I don’t know.”
Ella sighed, “Men.” She sat down next to Daniel as he threw another rock across the water. “I know! You can get her flowers at my mom’s shop!”
“I don’t have any money.”
“Well you can’t get them for free―we have to eat too, you know.” They sat for a moment in silence until Ella finally popped to her feet with an idea. “I can get you wildflowers and we can make a bouquet! C’mon, let’s go!”
Ella took off before Daniel could even get to his feet. “Hey! Wait for me!” He chased her all the way back through town to her house. They rushed into the back yard where they found wildflowers growing along the fence.
“My mom loves these! She won’t mind if you take some to your mom though. Let’s grab some of these… and these,” Ella picked through the flowers, putting together a colorful bouquet she knew her mother would be proud of.
“How about those?” Daniel pointed to bright red flowers which Ella generously added to the bunch. “Hey, look at this!”
Ella turned to find Daniel bent over and plucking a treasure from the grass. “Wow! A four leaf clover!”
“Here,” he said as he tried to hand it to her.
“No, it’s yours.”
“It was in your yard. What do I want with it anyway?”
“You should keep it. They’re good luck.”
“Haven’t you ever heard that?” Ella asked, shaking her head when Daniel shrugged his shoulders. “What would you do without me to teach you these things? Come on!” Inside the house, Ella dug out a vase, filled it with water, and arranged the flowers. Once she was finished, she stepped back to admire her work. “What do you think?”
“She’ll love it. Thanks Ella!”
“You’re welcome,” she replied with a smile, fully satisfied with her work.
Steve grabbed a beer, plopped onto the couch and turned on the TV.
“Steve, we had a day planned. I wanted to go hiking,” Ella reminded him, clearly annoyed. She knew the position he had assumed was intended to last for the duration of the daylight hours. A couple of shows in and he would be snoring on the couch with a hand shoved down his pants and drool dripping from his mouth onto her beautifully colored pillows. In this moment, she scolded herself for not immediately taking James up on his challenge to separate from Steve for a while instead of only agreeing to consider the option.
“Yeah, yeah, we will.”
“You have a cold beer and a remote. Your day is planned.”
“So what? We can go hiking another time.”
“Steve, can you do this one thing for me? I have been working hard all week and just want to unwind. It’s my only day off until… who knows when.”
“Relaxation is exactly what I’m goin’ for, babe. Get over here and cuddle up next to me. Hey, grab me a beer before you do, would ya?”
“No―” Ella’s thought was interrupted by a tapping at her window.
“You’ve got a rodent at your window.”
“Yes, I named him Charlie.”
“Why would you name him? Call pest control.” Steve was annoyed and tired of waiting for Ella. He rose, his body language reflecting a mini-tantrum at having to retrieve his own beer from the refrigerator.
“He’s not bothering me.”
“He’s bothering me.”
“You don’t live here.”
Steve mumbled something inaudible as he snapped open his beer and took a swig.
“So, are we going hiking or not?”
“Hmm, I’d say... not,” Steve fell back into the couch, taking up most of the cushion with a comfortable and unattractive position.
Charlie tapped on the window again.
“I’m going hiking without you then. Enjoy sitting here alone.” Ella picked up her backpack and let the door slam shut behind her. Steve huffed and shook his head, without even removing his eyes from the TV.
Ella bounced down the stairs and nearly ran into Eric as he rushed out his own door, “Oh! Sorry. I’ll be more careful,” she said.
“No problem. Heading out?”
“For a hike.”
“Yeah, care to join?”
“I don’t know; I was just heading out for a jog.”
“It’s basically the same thing.”
“Not the same thing,” he argued.
“Well, let’s call it even for today. Please come? This is my only chance to go and I would hate to go alone.”
Eric looked around as if there could be someone in the room he just wasn’t able to see. “Weren’t you already going alone?”
“I am now,” she grumbled. “Unless you go. It would be a very neighborly thing to do,” she said sweetly.
Eric sighed, “Alright, I’ll join you. Just let me change and grab a few things.”
“Great!” she said, excitedly. “I’ll wait for you outside.” Ella headed out before Eric and started to stretch in the yard. Ready to go and feeling somewhat anxious, she ran back to the garage and pulled out a bag of seed while she continued to wait for her replacement hiking partner.
“Ready?” Eric asked as he hopped down the porch steps, but Ella was nowhere in sight.
“There you go, Charlie.”
Eric followed the voice to the driveway where he found Ella climbing down a ladder. “What are you doing? And who are you talking to?” he asked, curiously.
“Filling the bird feeder for Charlie.”
“The squirrel,” Ella pointed to the gray squirrel that was perched happily with his seeds. The feeder sat atop a tall pole on the far side of the driveway.
“Why are you feeding a squirrel? You know they can do damage to the house, right?”
“Oh, he’s fine,” Ella tucked the feed back into the garage and pulled the door closed.
“And how do you know it’s a he?”
“I don’t. I just thought the name suited him.”
“Okay…” Eric gave in, reluctantly. “Ready now?”
“You bet!” she snatched up her backpack and walked down the driveway toward the sidewalk.
Eric followed her for a few steps, but paused at the cars parked in the driveway. “You passed it,” he called.
“Passed what?” Ella asked, spinning around.
“The driveway. Your car.”
“Car? Have you ever been on a hike before?”
“Well, don’t we have to get there?”
“Yeah, we’ll walk.”
“But the point of going on a hike is to hike, not walk.”
“Hiking is walking.”
“There is a real and valid difference.”
“Yeah, yeah. Come on!” she said as she turned and continued on her way.
“Insane,” Eric commented as he threw on his own backpack and jogged to her side.
Ella was focused on trying to enjoy the day. She held her head up and looked ahead with a smile as her feet rolled across the ground. They walked quickly across Main Street and followed a dirt path out of town.
“I didn’t take you as the hiking type,” Eric said.
“What is a ‘hiking type,’ exactly?” Ella challenged him.
Though he searched for an appropriate answer, none could be found. “How long have you been hiking?”
“I used to go with my mom. We would pack snacks, lots of water, our camera…”
“A first aid kit,” Eric muttered to himself.
“We would spend the whole day out, enjoying nature.”
“Ideal for a florist, I suppose.”
“Here we are.” She led him across a dirt parking lot to a wooden sign which marked the entrance to the hiking trail.
“They drove,” he mumbled as he followed his partner passed several parked cars.
Ella ignored the comment and led him across a wooden bridge and straight up a hiking trail. There were only a few other hikers in sight, although the parked cars in the lot suggested there were many on the trail. The many sights and sounds of forest life surrounded the two as they they ventured further. Leaves rustled as animals scampered across the ground. The sweet songs of birds echoed within the canopy of leaves above. Sunlight peaked through the leaves and tickled the ground below.
After about forty-five minutes, they stopped for a rest at a check point along a steep hillside. “This is a good place to break,” Ella said, pulling off her backpack. She sat down on a rock, stretching out her legs and sipping cool water. Eric twisted from side to side and stretched out his arms as he gazed through the trees and across the valley. “So, do you have any family around here?”
Eric bent down to retie his shoelace. “Here? Not immediate family, no.”
“Hmm, you must have to keep busy then. What do you do?”
“I used to work in a gym back home. Eventually started working freelance as a personal trainer.”
That explains a lot, Ella thought. “Really? Sounds like you have a lot of freedom.”
“It varies based on my clients. I work out of their homes.”
“Are you the type of personal trainer who can’t be home when the husbands are?” Ella asked, teasing him with her eyes. Slow times with Steve were leaving her particularly aggressive, and she had no desire to hold back on Eric now.
Eric played along as he untied his other shoe to retie it again. “Depends on the husband, I guess.”
“I see, so sometimes they join in on the fu―”
“―Don’t go there!” He straightened himself up, leaving his shoe strings untied.
“I was going to say ‘fantastic workouts’.”
“Of course you were. And, no, I’m not that type of personal trainer. I’m pure drill sergeant―nothing but exercise.”
“So you’re bossy. Interesting to know people are willing to pay for that.”
“Not that kind of exercise. Who are you? I never imagined a conversation with you―of all people―to go down such a… a… dirty road, so to speak.” He was surprised by her sudden loss of modesty, but his curiosity and desire to see more of her hidden natures were quickly growing.
“Hmm, let’s say I’m in a mood.”
What sort of mood? he wondered.
“Do you have any hobbies?” Ella asked, bringing their conversation back to earth.
“Yeah, you know… hobbies,” she smiled.
“Well,” he said, finally retying his shoe. “I used to carve ice sculptures.”
Ella took a quick swallow of her water. “Really, ice sculptures? That is one amazing art.”
“Ugh, I shouldn’t have told you.”
“No, I’m not making fun.”
“I’m serious! You have the ability to sculpt something out of an impermanent material. That really is something.”
“Yeah, that’s something,” he said sarcastically.
“I really wasn’t trying to make fun, I promise. The work I do certainly won’t last forever, and I’m sure it’s not nearly as hard as carving an object out of a big block of ice.”
“Okay,” he smiled.
“So, have you ever had a sculpture fall apart when you were nearly finished?”
“Oh, lots of times. Especially before I started to get the hang of it.”
“And what sorts of sculptures do you do?”
He shrugged his shoulders, “single objects mostly.”
“Yeah, like what?”
“I don’t know… like… a horse.”
“I did manage a swan once.”
“Wow, that’s impressive. And manly.”
“It was for a friend’s wedding,” Eric assured her. “And I had help. What about you?”
“Oh, no, I can’t make ice let alone sculpt it.”
“I believe it.”
“Ouch,” Ella giggled.
“What sort of hobbies do you have?”
“Me? Well you know my passion is floral arrangements, but I also enjoy reading a good book. I love going to the drive-in, although the closest one around here closed a few years ago. I’ve dabbled in horseback riding.”
“I dabbled.” Ella rose to her feet, finding a sturdy place to stand on the steep slope as she slid on her pack.
Eric looked at her suspiciously as she avoided eye contact. “Let me guess, you ran over a stable boy.” Ella faked a laugh and looked away. “Oh, wow. You really did. You ran over a stable boy.”
“No, no stable boy. Just… a friend.”
“A friend? And is this person still a ‘friend’ of yours?”
“Of course,” she said, still avoiding eye contact. “We still ride now and again. We laugh about the time I ran her over.”
“Yup, my friend,” Ella repeated. Eric remained where he was with his arms crossed and a pressuring her with probing stare. “Fine, alright, it was a stable boy, okay?” she finally admitted.
He put his hands in the air and shook his head.
“Oh, just pick up your pack and let’s go.” After barking these orders, Ella turned and continued along the path once again. Eric chuckled and did as he was told. Just as he was about to tag along behind her, Ella stepped on a stone that slid under her foot. She slipped down the hill following the stone as it rolled down and into Eric, knocking him off balance and off of his feet. The two tumbled a short ways until Eric finally caught hold of a tree, which stopped him from rolling further. No sooner had he settled himself then Ella rolled right into him. Eric wrapped an arm around Ella and covered her head as several rocks rolled around them, kicking up dust as they flew by. When the tumbling sounds finally ceased, Eric loosened his protective grip on Ella and she peaked out from where she hid her face in his chest.
“Are you okay?” he asked with genuine concern.
“Yeah, I think so. You?”
“Fine, I think.”
Suddenly, the comfort of being in each other’s arms subsided and was harshly replaced by embarrassment. The two scrambled to their feet and retreated to their own sides of the trail, holding trees for support. Ella dusted herself off to find nothing but scraped knees beneath the dirt. No deep wounds, no blood, no bruises to speak of, as yet.
“Oh wow, your arm!” she said as she looked over at Eric.
He twisted his arms about before spotting the reason for Ella’s concern. Blood dripped from just beneath his elbow. Ella unzipped her bag and pulled out a first aid kit.
“Not surprised you carry one of those around,” Eric joked, rinsing the dirt away from the wound with his water.
“Never know when you might need it,” she said, approaching him with an alcohol swab.
“Try always. I can’t seem to escape danger when I’m around y―. Ssssssssss!” Eric cringed at the touch of the alcohol.
“I’m sure it doesn’t feel great, but it doesn’t look too bad. No stitches necessary. “Here,” she placed a cloth over the wound. “Hold this down.” Eric followed these instructions as his acting nurse fetched tape from her kit. She placed it gently over the bandage, holding it firmly in place. Eric picked up his bag and was immediately scolded. “I’m not done yet.”
“You said no stitches,” he argued.
“You believed me?” Ella asked with a devious smirk. She pulled out the alcohol again. “Sit,” she commanded.
Ella bent down and gently dabbed a small cut on his forehead. As she lingered before him, Eric watched Ella’s eyes. How beautiful, he thought. He didn’t notice the sting of alcohol now. While Ella became lost in her own thoughts, Eric noted her smile: subtle, framed with soft curves. Their closeness sent tingling sensations across her skin and shivers through her body. The wound was well cleaned by the time the two came back to reality.
“Well,” Ella said, turning back to her kit. She pulled out a bandage and placed it carefully over the wound. “There you go.”
“Thank you,” Eric said. His voice melted into soft sincerity.
Ella remained where she was before him. “You know, I really don’t mean to put you through all of this. I can be spacey, but I’m not normally so dangerous.”
“It’s okay. Just as long as you have enough supplies in that kit of yours to get me home alive. Preferably in one peace, but I’ll take alive.”
The next day, Ella, regretfully, shared her latest adventure with her friends.
“So you hung out with him after all,” Lilly said, nodding with approval.
“Oh, his big muscular man body must have been sparkling in the sunlight,” James noted. “Describe it to us again, but in greater detail this time.”
“Stop,” Ella laughed.
“And you hurt him yet again. I have to tell ya, I’m not sure he’s safe around you,” Lilly suggested.
“He feels the same way. But we were both fine; just a few bumps and bruises… and a few minor cuts.”
“Did his strong body call out your name before you landed on top of him?” James was leaning in like a high school girl daydreaming about her biggest crush.
“What? No! Cut it out!”
Ding! Ding! Ella’s eyes instinctively turned toward the shop entrance, and her cheeks immediately turned rosy at the sight of Eric. “Welcome back! Need help picking anything out today? I don’t have any tourniquets here, but I’m sure I could order a few.”
“Good to know,” he laughed. “Actually, I’d like to have the same thing you put together last time.”
“Ahh, the gerberas were met with approval?”
“Yes, very… much.” Eric paused at seeing Lilly and James blatantly staring at him as they rested both elbows on the counter, chins comfortably planted in their hands. He tried desperately to ignore them, a seemingly impossible task.
Ella returned to him with the daisies in hand and instantly noticed his uncomfortable stance. “What’s the matter?” Her eyes followed his behind the counter to discover the cause of his discomfort. “Excuse me,” she said to her customer as she left him and set down the flowers gently at her workspace. “You two get in the back―now!” she ordered, shooing Lilly and James into her office. “I’ll be just a minute,” she called back to Eric. With the two trouble-makers cornered in her office, the scolding began. “What are you doing? You’re embarrassing me!” Though she whispered, Eric heard every word from where he stood.
“We’re sorry, but we can’t take our eyes off of him,” James explained.
“Oh, come on, it hasn’t been that long for you, has it?” James asked. Eric laughed at this comment, but couldn’t help but wonder at the answer.
“Stop it. Leave him alone!”
Ella came back out and offered an innocent smile to her handsome customer and moved forward to finish checking him out. As she passed a rack of ribbons on the wall outside the office her apron pocket snagged the end of a bar holding up the ribbons and pulled them all down behind her. Ella closed her eyes and took a deep breath as she turned to peek at the damage. Lilly and James poked their heads out of the office, saw the mess of ribbons on the floor, and slipped back inside, quietly closing the door behind them. Ella’s shoulders sank and she turned back to Eric.
He smiled at her, but kept his silence.
“How are your war wounds?” Ella inquired as she prepped a vase, ignoring the mess that sprawled out behind her.
“I’m alive and in one piece, thanks.”
Ella set the finished bouquet on the counter. “It’s on me. It’s the least I can do.”
“It’s not a problem,” Eric answered as he reached for his wallet.
“I insist,” Ella picked up the vase and walked it to the entrance. The bell rang as she propped open the front door.
Eric followed the stubborn shop owner, accepting the vase when she offered it. “I was going to buy something else.”
Ella’s confidence faded, “Oh, sorry. I…”
“I’m kidding,” Eric smiled.
Ella shook her head with a sigh and a smile.
“Have a good day.” Satisfied with himself, Eric slipped out the door and continued on his way.
Lilly and James had emerged from the office and were fully prepped for teasing. “Way to go, El,” they began.
“Shut up,” she replied as she went back to help with the mess of ribbons.
The day carried on as normal until lunch neared. “Who’d like to order lunch?” James called.
Ding! Ding! A delivery boy carried a hot cheese pizza to the counter, complete with three side salads. “I have an order for Ella,” he said.
“Oh,” James was dumbfounded. Looking upward, he shouted, “Who’d like to win a million dollars!” He paused for a moment as the delivery boy stared at him, curiously. “Hmm, worth a shot. Thanks for the pizza, boss,” he said to Ella as he snatched up the box.
“I didn’t order anything,” she said, confused.
“Well someone did, here’s the receipt.”
“Thanks,” Ella accepted the receipt and scanned it over as the delivery boy made his exit. She found a note on the bottom that read: “Thanks for the flowers.”
James peaked over her shoulder and read the note. “He bought you lunch.”
“And he brought your friends lunch,” added Lilly as she grabbed a hot slice of cheesy goodness from the box.
“You know what they say, El.”
“What’s that James?”
“The best way to a person’s heart is through their stomach.”
“That’s the best way to your friend’s hearts too,” Lilly said with a mouthful of cheese and sauce.
“Hmm.” James and Lilly were intrigued when Ella turned to them with a devilish smirk. “You have a point there.”
The sun moved along its path across the sky. Lilly ran to get groceries while Ella and James closed up shop at the day’s end. When all was done, the three of them hurried to Ella’s and began to cook. Ella and James were prohibited from entering the kitchen, but Lilly had enough talent for both of them. As she busied herself with dinner, James worked on Ella’s face, hair and wardrobe. It would have taken an army to convince Ella to wear her hair down, allowing the beautiful, natural colors to glide over her skin; luckily, she had James. He was small, but packed a force equal to ten armies. The minutes ticked by until the scent of dinner eventually lured the two to the kitchen.
Lilly looked Ella over. Her makeup looked natural but the eyes were seductive in a subtle way. Her long hair flowed over her shoulders in flirtatious waves. A few inches were added to her height by the sexy heels decorating her feet. She wore casual jeans and simple button-up blouse that hugged her curves and boosted her tiny boobs enough that she actually had some cleavage. “Wonderbra?”
“Tissues,” James corrected.
“Hey!” Ella took offense.
“Face it, you have no boobs,” Lilly said. “Nice job, James. She looks perfect.”
“Sexy, but not ‘take me now.’”
“Forget what I’m wearing, what’s that smell?”
“Carbonara with Saffron. And for dessert…” Lilly opened the fridge and pulled out a small dessert plate with a neatly created tiramisu. “You’re favorite.”
“Why my favorite? What if he doesn’t like it?”
Lilly placed one plate in each of Ella’s hands. “If he likes it then you know he’s for you.”
“And if he doesn’t?” Ella asked as James ushered her to the door.
“Then you know he’s definitely for you because he won’t touch your favorite dessert. I.E, more for you.” James opened the door and sent her out. “Now don’t come back here until you’ve made his jaw hit the floor!”
As the door slammed shut, Ella took a breath and headed down the stairs. Once at Eric’s door, she couldn’t figure out how to knock with a plate of food occupying each of her hands. Ella placed the small dessert plate on her left forearm while carefully balancing the dinner plate in her left hand. She reached out and knocked on the door quickly before hurrying back into position.
As she grabbed the dessert plate, the spaghetti tilted a bit. In trying to regain balance the tiramisu tipped and nearly spilt all over her. She held an awkward position until the plates―and the food upon them―settled. Hearing footsteps approaching the door, Ella leaned her head back to toss her hair a bit. Just as the door swung open she held the plates back into position just below her breasts, giving Eric a chance to look her over as he observes the food.
Eric was silent when he saw Ella standing before him. She said nothing, but offered a gentle smirk. Ella watched as Eric’s eyes moved from one plate to the other, to her breasts, and down her body. It worked, she thought. Eric felt his mouth go dry and void of words.
“I thought I would return the favor.”
Still trying to gather his thoughts, “What?”
“You sent lunch to the shop today. So I made you dinner.”
“Oh, right.” Eric took the plate of carbonara and held it with both hands as if it was keeping him steady. “Thank you,” he said as he set the plate upon the coffee table in the room behind him.
“Care for dessert?” Ella asked while Eric was turned away.
Eric turned to face her with surprise in his eyes.
She held up the dish of tiramisu and offered it to him.
“Oh! Yes, great. Thank you, again.”
“Hope you enjoy it,” Ella said in a whispery voice as she turned and walked away.
At the first step, just out of sight, she paused for a moment. The light of Eric’s living room still poured through the open door. He hadn’t yet grasped what had just happened. He was captivated by how stunning she was, and how intriguing her gesture. Finally, he closed the door slowly and went to sit down in a daze.
Ella went into her apartment, closed the door, and leaned against it as she took a deep breath. When she opened her eyes, Lilly and James were staring at her, anxious for details. “Did you knock him off his feet?”
“Yeah,” she said with a satisfied smile. “I think I did.”