Shhhh...It's just me
The bell over the door dings as Alaine enters the fruits and flower shop where she’s worked since moving to New York to go to college. She ran away from Silver Lake, Idaho at the first opportunity. Those aren’t memories she likes to replay so she suppresses them. Mona Donahue has been her lifesaver from day one.
“Hey Mona,” she greets and the fifty-something year old gasps and motions her over frantically.
“What happened to you?”
“It rained in Manhattan,” Alaine tells her dryly. “Apparently Queens didn’t get the memo.”
Mona cranes her neck to look out the full length glass window, obstructed by flowers, to see the sun blazing outside, the sky a vibrant blue with a few wisps of clouds being driven by the crisp wind. “I keep telling you to walk with an umbrella,” she says to Alaine and walks to the back to retrieve a dry jacket. “The weather is fickle,” she continues, returning to the front of the shop. “And even more so with this global warming thing they keep spouting about.”
Alaine regards her fondly, appreciative of her concern. “What’s the point if I keep misplacing them?” She asks, pulling off her blazer off to hang it over the chair at the back of the counter.
Somehow, she can still smell Lucas Bright on her. His cologne is rich and manly and apparently lingers. Involuntarily she inhales and just like that, her body reacts with a jolt. She frowns.
“Not misplacing, losing,” Mona corrects. “Misplacing something suggests you have a hope of finding it again.”
Pausing in front of Alaine, she lifts both eyebrows at her, before handing her the jacket and asks, “Where did you say you were coming from again?”
“A job interview,” Alaine sulks and shivers while putting her head through the neck of her apron, hand-made by Mona for her. “Why?”
“With a man?” Mona continues to interrogate.
Alaine nods absently, trying to decipher her reaction to the insane and beautiful man.
“Did you get the job?” Mona asks with a little chuckle and moves away to fulfill her many obligations for the upcoming V-day.
Alaine scoffs and shakes her head ruefully. What could she say about the interview? It didn’t take place. She isn’t exactly sure what happened and really doesn’t want to talk about it.
“Well if you don’t get the job,” Mona says to her silence. “I hope he at least takes you to dinner because he got an eyeful.”
Alaine groans, resting her forehead against the cool work table, dying of mortification all over again. “Don’t remind me.”
She’d spent the entire subway ride hugging bag to chest, trying to hide from other straying eyes. She decides to let the conversation die there.
Anger washes over her again at the vivid recollection of how he blatantly ogled her. He’d ogled her and then had the gall to make a comment about it and then tossed her out of his office. Mona is right. He should buy her dinner. And should their paths ever cross again, not like she expects them to, she has a good mind tell him so.
All men are the same - A mantra she adheres to. It keeps her safe from their clutches.
“Your floral arrangements are simply divine,” Mona says two hours later as another satisfied customer picks up their bouquet. “Everything you do is divine. I will be so sad to see you go.”
Alaine smiles her thanks and goes back to the current arrangement she was working on. “I will always come back to help you Mona. How can I not? You’re like the mother I wish I had.”
The lady beams at her in return. She’s not sure how anyone could disown such a beautiful and sweet girl and cast her out on her own to the wicked streets of New York City. It’s that hidden vulnerability that has her shielding Alaine like she does her own children. Though she isn’t privy to the reason behind the rift in her relationship with her family, Mona has her suspicions. Somethings are just plain obvious, no matter how well they are hidden. Like she tells Alaine, it’s their loss and she firmly believes it is.
“My sister is in town,” Alaine reports and looks at Mona through the many mirrors around the store, searching for a reaction to her announcement.
“I didn’t know that,” Mona replies, with a look of surprise.
They work in tandem, snipping and arranging and clearing at their work stations with comfortable ease.
“She has her kid with her,” Alaine continues with a little happy smile. “My niece. Can you believe it? She’s four. They just showed up the other night. I was wondering, if I get another job any time soon, if you would be willing to give her a try here.”
Mona’s hands stop working and she regards Alaine with a thoughtful expression. She’s not sure what to make of her announcement, considering by all accounts, they are not close and the sister is somewhat of a loose cannon.
While she contemplates this new possibility in her young charge’s life, Alaine watches her hopefully, regretting that she complained so much about Delah’s irresponsible nature in the first place. She can tell that Mona is thinking about it.
“I know that I have said that she is irresponsible and a nutcase,” Alaine says, trying to give Mona assurances. “But she says she’s here for a new start and she has a daughter now,” she continues to reason.
As she has deliberately omitted the part about her sister’s abusive boyfriend, Alaine feels a wave of guilt for lying to the only real friend and the closest thing to family she has in New York City. Aside from Seth and now Delah of course. “Please Mona?” she begs.
“Fine,” Mona relents, trimming the thorns off the long stem of a red rose, because in this huge world, people need family, she surmises. “But no dramatics, kid, I’m serious.”
“I will talk to her,” Alaine says with a pleased smile.
For the rest of the day she works, trimming and pruning flowers in the little greenhouse, potting new plants and taking orders. It’s calming as always. That’s the time she spends daydreaming. Not the usual daydreams of typical twenty-one year olds, like parties on yachts and raves and relationships - or whatever those may be. She daydreams about inventing things, writing new codes, figuring out how to make things work better, faster. She daydreams of owning her own business, leading the life that she wants - the things someone like Lucas Bright must do every day.
Suddenly, her thoughts shift from technology to billionaires. Not the clean cut kind, but the roguishly handsome ones with dark, shaggy locks falling rebelliously over their foreheads and eyes the colour of silver with a cocksure glint in them and that faint crooked smile he always wears in the papers and magazines - like he is laughing at his own private joke.
Alaine clears her throat, wishing she could clear her thoughts in the same manner. A strange warmth spreads from her stomach and into unexplored parts of her as she recalls the look in his eyes while he stared at her exposed flesh.
It was the same warmth that had stopped her dead in her tracks three years ago when their eyes met across the reception hall. She shakes her head. The mundane task of potting and pruning plants is obviously leaving her mind too idle. She picks up the order list for Valentine’s Day, deciding to work on that instead.
Lucas sits with thrumming nerves in the backseat of his new SUV. The thought of seeing her again fills him with an inexplicable nervous excitement. He breathes deeply again, trying to gain control of the heavy thumping in his heart. It was the same thing that happened while visiting her apartment a little while ago, but she hadn’t been home. His driver pulls up on the side of a Queens road. It is unclear in which part of the borough they are, but he doesn’t like it.
“She works in that flower shop there,” the man tells him. “That’s where she’ll be.”
Lucas considers her resume. What a waste of talent. He imagined, when she wasn’t home, that she had a nightlife. She was maybe on a date, an unappreciated thought, but he certainly had not expected her to be here.
The light switches off and he peers outside while his driver gets the door for him.
The streets are poorly lit, Lucas notes with a scowl, and all the buildings are dark save one. This isn’t safe. There’s no one milling about, except one man around the curb. He’s tall, Lucas notes absently. Stepping into the warm air, he wonders why she hasn’t come outside yet. The idea that she is in the dark by herself unsettles him. Why should he care? But strangely he does.
“Wait here,” Lucas informs his new driver who nods his compliance. At least he knows how to be obedient.
Mona left around four to pick up her grandbabies from school, but at 8:30 P.M Alaine is still at the flower shop. She doesn’t want to guess why, but if she had to she would posit she is avoiding her sister - Her sister she had not seen or heard from in five years. Her sister who just showed up on her doorstep two days ago, black and blue with bags and bundle, pleading for a place to stay. Her sister who is apparently running from her psychotic boyfriend.
It’s not that Alaine doesn’t want her here. It’s just overwhelming.
She scrubs her hands over her face right before switching off the light. Suddenly, thinking about Lucas Bright doesn’t seem like such a bad idea if it helps to escape other more important thoughts. Like how her small salary at Mona’s Fruits and Flowers is supposed to feed two other mouths, pay rent and bills and school fees and God alone knows what other expenses children come with.
Lost in deep thought, she opens the door and steps outside into the darkness, straight into a human wall with strong arms that reach out to hold her. Fear rises swiftly, threatening to choke her. Fight or flight battle with each other as she starts to resist and she screams, a loud piercing sound of terror, like a siren.
“Jeez, whoa whoa, it’s just me. It’s only me.”
There is a deliberate gentleness infused in Lucas’ voice that is meant to soothe the trepidation rolling in waves off her small body. “Shhhh, it’s me,” he repeats. It’s Luc...”
He isn’t given the chance to finish the statement. His voice doesn’t register. She twists around in his grasp and brings her small booted foot down hard on to his.
Pain lances from his instep as the low heel of her shoe connects, vibrating through his entire left leg. Lucas groans in pain. “Calm down Ms. Knight,” he growls out, not releasing his grasp on her.
Her very shapely posterior rubs and pushes against his front as she struggles and his arms brush against soft, malleable breasts. Lucas bites back a groan for a very different reason. He should release her. Again his voice seems to go unheard as she flails around, her elbow connecting with the side of his face when she comes up on tiptoe.
He releases her then, cupping his injured jaw. She takes off back into the flower shop and he hears the lock click behind her.
Lucas stands outside the door recovering from her attack. His temporary soon-to-be-unemployed driver comes up beside him, trying but failing to suppress a laugh.
“She’s feisty like that,” he says with a shrug.
“Like an untamed cat you mean.”
Lucas turns to look at him not trying to mask his annoyance. The oaf will be dealt with later. Tapping softly on the glass door, he leans in to peer into the dark shop. After that reaction it’s quite possible she is cowering in a corner somewhere, he imagines. Or maybe she’s calling the police, dimwit. “Shit,” he mutters tapping on the glass more urgently with the knuckle on his right index, while his left hand continues to massage his smarting jaw. “Ms. Knight, it’s Lucas Bright,” he shouts to identify himself.
The light comes on and, sure enough, she is standing behind a counter with a phone pressed against her ear, saying something he can’t hear. She is visibly shaking but sets down the receiver to walk stiffly around the counter to the door. Recognition and relief wash over her as her eyes settle first on him and then his driver.
“You scared me,” she says after opening the door and stepping outside with her arms crossed over her chest. The action has the same effect on her that her blazer had earlier, pushing the very soft and ample mounds together.
Lucas averts his eyes, quickly.
“What are you doing here?” It’s a question to both of them.
His driver is about to speak. Lucas raises his hand in irritation, silencing him. “Are you okay, Ms. Knight?” he asks.
“Yes I am.”
She gives him a strange look - One that expresses surprise at his gentle tone, and the concern in the simple inquiry. For a fleeting moment he wants to take her face in his hand, just to touch her honeyed skin.
A few seconds elapse before she is able to formulate a response. He is watching her with a look in his eyes - One that elicits a light tug in her chest. Her stance and voice turn defensive as she drops her eyes. “It’s dark and I did not see you.”
Lucas bristles, catapulted from the tender moment.
“Did I hurt you?”
He chuckles softly to her question, which is a strange reaction for him. “Only a little,” he responds, flexing his jaw. “Why are you here this late? If you’re this jumpy?” he questions, eyeing her curiously.
“I was working.” She turns to lock the door, obviously uncomfortable with the way he is trying to analyse her.
“Nobody works this late at a flower shop, Ms. Knight,” he accuses.
“They do when Valentine’s Day is coming up. Again, what are you doing here, and with him?” She asks again, and points to her cousin, standing silently to the side.
Lucas glances from one to the other, running a frustrated hand over his eyebrow. This is turning out to be bothersome. There is family drama there, indeed, and everything in him is saying to leave this spectacle, but his feet don’t obey. Neither does his mind. And maybe one other body part, as he studies Alaine Knight in the faint glow of the street lamp some meters away. He understands why she must have been scared.
“He is my very temporary driver,” Lucas says casting a side glance in the man’s direction. Too bad Robert fell ill. What on earth had he been thinking to recommend this guy as a replacement?
“That’s the small gig you were talking about?” Alaine directs to Seth. “Driving around a multibillionaire?”
“Ms. Knight,” Lucas interjects. “I do not have the time to spend jawing with you and your kin. I came here to discuss the interview with you. Business, more or less.”
Alaine huffs, exasperated and offended. “You mean when I walked into your office wet and shivering and practically naked, which you so tactfully pointed out and then proceeded to kick me out of said office, very prematurely?”
Hmmmm, run away Bright. Lucas shakes his head, fighting the urge to tell her to stop talking and listen. “I don’t recall kicking you out,” he tells her opting for a more conciliatory approach. “And I apologize for my lack of tact. I also recall giving you my jacket to cover yourself. I asked you to excuse me a moment and I also recall chasing you down the corridor, trying but failing to get your attention.”
Her eyebrows draw together again as she summons the memory to mind. She’d been so embarrassed and preoccupied with her righteous indignation, that tidbit completely slipped her mind. She looks at him, her expression one of confusion. “Why?”
“I would prefer to discuss this elsewhere.”
“I need to get home, Mr. Bright,” Alaine breathes, realizing she is still consumed with embarrassment from his treatment of her earlier.
Lucas is baffled once again by Alaine Knight as she very clearly brushes him off. His time is worth millions of dollars. His expression must have revealed as much because she sobers, with a sigh.
“I appreciate you coming down here and trying to straighten things out, though I cannot fathom why,” she tells him. “I am more than willing to reschedule an interview under better circumstances, but I am tired and in pain and I need to get home.” Alaine bites into her lip at the mention of her discomfort and deliberately avoids looking at her cousin.
Lucas narrows his eyes at her. She is in pain. He can see it now in the tight lines around her lips. Lips that are as engaging as her upper chest it would seem. He remembers now that she limped into his office earlier and he cannot suppress the questioning look he knows is on his face.
“It’s an old injury.”
She offers nothing more than that, but her eyes dart quickly over to her silent cousin and back to him.
Lucas marks their interplay. A sudden wave of anger rolls through him and it turns into something protective. Had this idiot hurt her somehow? “Please can we talk?” he asks, filing that bit of information away in his brain, subject to be drawn up at a later date. “I am in a slight predicament and I am in need of your services. We can talk right here inside the flower shop.
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