The Valley Oak shopping plaza had been designed to attract people throughout the day. Customers started at Bugles Bagels, got coffee at The Last Drop, ate their breakfast on the patio then browsed the bookstore and clothing boutiques until the start of an afternoon matinee at the independent movie theatre. Gourmet restaurants and night clubs lured cinephiles to round out the day and stay for the night.
Down the street, the Mariposa strip mall received an uneven flow of traffic throughout the year. Daisy’s Florist Shoppe survived on the regularity of funerals but sixty percent of its sales came on Valentine’s and Mother’s Day. For Mr. Noble of Noble & Virtuous Chocolate, sales peaked at Christmas and Valentines then declined progressively from Easter to Mother’s Day to Halloween.
When Mr. Noble sold the store to Mr. Agarwal, Mr. Agarwal asked if he could keep the storefront sign. A company with the name Noble was a well-known distributor of confectionary products in India. In the transition, Mr. Agarwal relied on the name’s reputation to stay alive until he could afford improvements. He first succeeded with a chocolate fountain display that drew in passing customers picking up their dry cleaning. The fountain’s thick, creamy waterfall poured over plastic strawberries that he had bought in the Kappabashi neighborhood of Tokyo on his immigrant journey to California.
Mr. Agarwal hired three teenagers to work the weekends and gave them extra hours during the holidays. His wife managed the cash registrar and staff, so he could oversee production and packaging at his small factory.
The bell over the door jingled and two retired ladies entered–their third time this week and they had yet to buy anything. Alina, the Agarwal’s niece, suspected these two of coming only for the smells and a chocolatey contact high. Mrs. Agarwal asked her niece to attend to them. She kept her eye on Alina and continued her conversation with Ginger, the other sales clerk, who stocked the shelves near the cash register with raspberry-cream-filled, dark chocolates.
“Alina tells me there’s a dance at the high school tonight. Are you going or do you have other plans with Steve?”
Ginger felt a knot in her stomach. “No, we broke up. Well, he technically he did it.”
Mrs. Agarwal gasped. “Right before Valentine’s Day? That’s sacrilege!”
Ginger ripped open a new box. “It’s karma. I dated his cousin and dumped him on Halloween.”
“That’s not the same. Getting dumped on Halloween almost seems appropriate.”
Ginger could always count on Mrs. Agarwal to defend her decisions.
“I don’t know how young girls like yourself can date so much. It must be exhausting.”
“Dating’s fun. The first date. The first kiss. Hanging off each other while walking around. You get used to the breakups and the gossip and the drama. Alina would love it.”
“Don’t start, Ginger. I like you but I don’t want you being a bad influence on her. She has her man.”
Alina said very little to Ginger about Sanjay. “What’s he like?”
“He’s tall, handsome. He’s studying mechanical engineering at Berkley. They hit it off the moment they met.”
Ginger risked the next question, “How do you know if it will work out?”
“It always works out. If there’s a problem, the family helps.”
The bell over the door jingled once and remained open. Carter Chen, the flower delivery guy from next door, held open the door for the two retired ladies who again left with nothing. Carter entered with a bouquet of purple and yellow pansies.
“Hey, guys. Got a delivery for you.” He posed like the god Mercury from the FTD ads which only exaggerated his lanky frame.
“We’re not making trades, if that’s what you want.” Alina pointed to the door.
Whenever Carter had a steady girlfriend, he would set up a deal to swap leftover flowers for expired chocolate.
“This is a legit delivery. Flowers for Brian Miller.”
Ginger and Alina burst into giggles. Brian was a bit of a project for them. A work-in-progress. A quiet guy in his first year in junior college who sometimes went out on chaperoned dates with Alina’s cousins, in order to make potential boyfriends notice.
“Oh, Brian.” Alina sang toward the backroom. “Could you come to the front, please?”
Brian appeared with an empty box tucked under his arm. He was hired to unpack shipments from the factory as well as process internet orders. Neither task kept him busy so he did some dusting and organizing as it suited Mrs. Agarwal.
“What?” Brian knew from her voice that Alina was up to something. Another cousin.
“Relax.” Ginger put an arm around him and straightened his collar. “You’ve got a special delivery.”
Carter spoke in a monotone. “Congratulations. You have a secret admirer.”
“What are you two up to?” Brian held the flowers away from his face.
“You’re supposed to smell them.” Ginger eased them under his nose.
“Seriously, Alina. I’m not taking another cousin of yours out to their junior prom.”
“We didn’t do this.” Alina read the sticker on the ribbon. “Who ordered them, Carter?”
The message simply said, ‘From P.’
Carter stood up straight when Alina’s eyes fell on him. “No name on the order ticket. And they paid cash.”
“Did you see them when they came in?” Brian asked.
“Dude, if you haven’t noticed we’re very busy this week. I’m not keeping track of your admirers.”
“But you’d remember if a young woman came in, wouldn’t you Carter?” Alina winked.
“I’ve been on the road a lot making deliveries.” He hitched up his pants like a cattle-driving cowboy.
“Well, let us know if you see a mysterious woman hanging around these parts.” Alina put a hand on her hip and spoke like Marilyn Monroe.
“Yes, ma’am.” Carter tipped an imaginary hat and left.
The phone rang. Mr. Agarwal calling from the factory to check up on sales. Mr. Noble had not told him what to expect when an important holiday as this fell on a Saturday but surely sales would be higher. The only advice Mr. Noble had given him was to be prepared for the unforeseeable whims of Valentine’s Day. So far, four customers had come in. His wife assured him mornings were always slow and curtly told him to hang up in case a customer tried to call.
Ginger twirled one of the yellow pansies. “Brian, who is it? You can tell us.”
He considered a moment. “Maybe it’s that hippie girl who sits behind me in English Comp. Or the hairnet girl who works in the cafeteria, she always gives me extra french fries.”
Alina frowned. Training him on how to talk and behave around her cousins had been difficult. “Brian have you ever had a conversation with any of those ladies?”
“Well, no. Just eye contact.”
“Eye contact isn’t enough, Brian. You need to talk to these young women.”
“Well, I’m working up to it.”
“Junior college is two years, Brian. Then these ladies will be off to a four-year university where the competition is fierce. Find out who this is and ask her out.”
“But seriously, it’s not one of your cousins, is it?”
Mrs. Agarwal chimed in. “That would be an unwise thing for a young woman to do in our family.”
“Don’t take the fun out of it, Auntie. I’m sure it’s all very innocent.”
“I’ve given you a lot of leeway with Brian and those dates you set up, Alina. Your mom wouldn’t let me have any fun in high school, so I won’t treat you the same way. But flowers to a young man is a very serious thing. Now let Brian get back to work, he’s got some internet orders to fill.”
Mrs. Agarwal asked Ginger to attend to the next customer and then called Alina over to the register.
“You shouldn’t flirt with Carter like that.” She whispered.
“Why not? It’s innocent enough.” Alina kept her voice up.
“He doesn’t know that.”
“So I’ll have Sanjay drop by the store and Carter will get the hint.”
“You know that Sanjay is busy at college.”
Alina sighed. “But why can’t he visit on weekends?”
Shortly after lunch, Carter entered the store again with a basket of red tulips. “Another delivery.” He let it dangle off his fingers. “This time there’s a card.”
Alina squeezed between two customers and snatched it.
“Alina!” Mrs. Agarwal hissed. “Give that back. It’s not yours.”
“It might as well be, if it’s from someone I know.”
“Give it back. And return to your customer.” Mrs. Agarwal unclenched her teeth and called to the back. “Brian. Another delivery.”
Carter sauntered over to Ginger and leaned up against the shelf she was arranging. “You know I was wondering why you guys haven’t fixed me up with anyone lately.” He ran a finger along a heart-shaped box. “Saving me for someone special?”
“Once was enough.” Ginger shivered. “You showed up in a zebra tuxedo. You danced like an ostrich–your date’s words, not mine–and you raided the buffet then belched after dinner.”
“Isn’t that a tradition in some cultures?”
Brian reached in between Carter and Ginger to take the flowers. The two of them watched him read the card. Alina glanced over while speaking with a customer.
“She wants to spend Valentine’s Day with me. Tonight.”
“Who?” Ginger asked.
“She made reservations at Le Papillon. She wants me to meet her there.”
“It just says ‘from P.’”
Ginger brushed past Brian and grabbed Carter by the collar.
“Who ordered the flowers, delivery man? You must have seen someone?”
“Excuse me but I’ve been making deliveries all afternoon. I do have better things to do than dust boxes all day.”
“Did you think to ask Mrs. Kim who ordered them? A bit strange to get the same order twice in one day. I’m sure she’d mention it.”
“You’re wrinkling my shirt.”
Ginger took her hand away but did not give ground.
“Daisy is too busy right now to worry about repeat orders.”
Brian waved the card. “It’s a typed message, Ginger. She could have sent a friend to order them.”
“Aren’t you a bit curious who it is, Brian?”
“I’m sure it’s a prank.”
“You don’t think someone might like you? A shy, mysterious admirer?”
“Don’t get my hopes up, Ginger.”
In the afternoon, the florist shop continued working at a frantic pace with Mrs. Kim receiving orders over the phone while her sisters frantically created floral arrangements for the three drivers who took off in vans filled with flowers, mylar balloons and pink teddy bears. The store next door was empty. An afternoon lull. At sunset, Mrs. Agarwal called a younger sister on her cell phone for their daily talk. Brian appeared from the back with a half dozen roses and a hand-written letter.
“Carter just dropped this off before heading out for more deliveries.” He set the flowers on the counter. No one looked at them. “It’s Prisha. The kid I took to the Winter Ball.”
Alina gasped. “A friend of a friend. My little cousin swore this wouldn’t happen but Prisha hasn’t accepted Anik yet. What was I thinking trusting her.”
“She said she really loved our evening together last December and hasn’t stopped thinking about us. She thinks Anik is a clod who doesn’t know anything about romance. She hasn’t told her family yet but she thinks if she and I dated they would understand why I’m a better choice. Holy crap!” Brian slapped his forehead. “She’s the one with the ice-cold hands that clamped onto my arm all evening. She kept calling my Brett until I corrected her three times. She said I should drop graphic design and be a doctor.” Brian swooned against the wall. “That was one of the longer nights.”
“What are you going to do?” Ginger asked.
“You guys organized this. You get me out of it.” Brian waited for Alina. She always had a plan.
“I need to talk to my little cousin.” Alina grabbed her phone and went to the back.
“You must have known this would backfire.” Brian pointed at Ginger.
“Relax. This is all part of the dating life.” Ginger smirked.
“You’re enjoying this.”
“Drama is good for you. You need to stir things up.” She grabbed him by the waist and tried to loosen him up. “Go with it, lover boy. Play the part of the bad boy who can’t enter into a forbidden relationship. I’ll lend you my brother’s leather jacket.”
“Easy for you. What if the family comes after me?”
“They’re not the mafia.”
Alina returned from the back. “My little cousin got into a fight with Prisha two weeks ago. They’re not talking and she doesn’t care what happens. Ugh! Freshman!”
“Prisha is a freshman! Oh god, I’ll get arrested.”
“What’s the big, Romeo? A nineteen-year-old goes out with a fourteen-year-old. That doesn’t make you a pervert.”
“There’s still laws.”
“You didn’t do anything!”
“Um. Guys.” Alina stared out the window. “There’s a guy standing next to a car in the parking lot. I think it’s Anik.”
“Holy crap. Holy crap. Holy crap.” Brian paced around the room.
“What’s going on?” Mrs. Agarwal lowered the phone.
“Nothing, auntie. Brian’s just nervous about a date he has tonight.”
Brian bit his lip until Mrs. Agarwal returned to her conversation.
He grabbed Ginger and Alina into a huddle. “I’m not going out with her.”
“I know.” Alina said.
“I’m not getting into a confrontation with that guy out there.”
“You have a plan, Alina. Please tell me you have a plan.”
“I have a plan.” She rubbed his shoulder. “Now just relax. I’ll call a friend to come over. She has a brother. You leave with her hand-in-hand, maybe put your arms around her. If Anik, doesn’t buy it then my friend’s brother will intercept him and you can get away.”
“I’m not hooking up with more of your girlfriends.”
“It’s your only option.”
Brian chewed a fingernail. “Fine. Make the call.”
An hour before closing, Carter parked the van in the back lot and shuffled over to the dumpster where Brian was breaking down boxes. Every time the bell on the front door rang, Brian stepped out back in case Anik had gotten bold enough to confront him in the store. The guy had not left his post by his car in the parking lot.
“Dude, I’ve got more flowers for you inside.” Carter rubbed his lower back. “You want’em?”
“Was there a note?”
“Yeah, here.” Carter pulled out a pink envelope from his shirt pocket and smelled it. “I always thought it would be flattering to have a stalker.”
Brian ripped open the envelope and held the letter close to his face. His eyes darted over the note.
“She says her parents won’t be home tonight, if I’d rather stay in. She drew a map with arrows pointing to a heart.”
“Good luck.” Carter chuckled and headed into the back of the florist shop.
Brian cursed the sky. A cold, clear, starry night. Bundle up and it could be romantic…with the right valentine.
The store had filled up with last minute customers, keeping all three ladies busy. This was the time when Mrs. Agarwal raised her prices. Not for the profit but to teach these forgetful people a lesson.
Brian stood in the doorway with his eyes coming out of their sockets. It got Alina’s attention and she appeared in the back moments later.
“My friend said she might not be able to make it. Or maybe at ten.”
“I want to go home now.”
“Right. I’ll call someone else.” Alina left with her phone. Moments later Ginger appeared.
“How’s it going, sport?”
“I was wondering if you could go out with me.”
“You mean pose as your girlfriend. Sure. We can trick that guy.”
“No, I mean on a date.”
“A date? A real date?” Ginger stepped away from him. “What makes you think I don’t have plans?”
“I don’t. I’m just hoping. It’s a long shot, I know.”
“Look Brian. You don’t want to go out with me. Ask Alina to fix you up. She knows a lot of available women, not just cousins. She could fix you up with a real knockout.”
Brian said nothing. His eyes remained fixed on Ginger.
“You’re just desperate.”
“I’ve been wanting to ask you out for a while but you’re never available.”
“Yeah, well. I’m fun. Guys like that. At least until they’re ready for a serious girlfriend.”
Brian pulled out a bouquet of flowers. “These are for you. Mrs. Kim helped me arrange them. They’re not leftovers. I put them together this morning.”
Ginger took the flowers and blushed. Thirty minutes before closing, with customers flooding the store, they walked out with their hands in each other’s pockets. Mrs. Agarwal let the kids go early. A little romance in the air was good for business.
An hour after their normal closing time, a trickle of frazzled husbands continued to arrive. Mrs. Agarwal told Alina she could go home. She didn’t want her niece to hear the lectures she would be giving when she gave the men their receipts. It could get ugly.
Alina met Carter just outside the store.
“Thank you for your help tonight.” She punched his shoulder.
“So it worked? They’re together.”
“And neither one suspected.” She released a sigh through a satisfied smile.
Carter pointed over to the car with its interior lights on.
“Who’s the goon in the parking lot?”
“That’s really Anik. I helped him with Prisha.” Alina waved to the man by the car. “And he’ll be our chaperone tonight. In case you get any ideas.”
“I’ll be the perfect gentleman. But remember our deal.”
Alina held up three fingers. “One slow dance. One fast dance. And one public kiss.”
“A passionate kiss.”
“I’ll curl your toes, Casanova. Now let’s go.”