Fiona stirred the ingredients from the recipe in the metal bowl, carefully scraping the dry ingredients clinging to the side into the middle to wet them. She set the bowl down and turned back to the paper. She loved the old book of recipes her Gran had left her; she always felt closest to her when baking. She measured the herbs and dropped them in the bowl, picking up her wooden spoon and mixing again. Once, twice, BOOM! The mixture exploded, shooting the spoon across the room one direction while the bowl zoomed in the other. Fiona’s mouth made a perfect “O” as she stared in dismay.
Her family clamored into the kitchen, summoned by the commotion of bowl and spoon smacking opposite counters. Fiona stood in the middle of the mess, covered in what was supposed to be cheddar herb scones. She sighed as she met their disapproving faces; her brother barely managing to turn his laugh into a cough, her sister shaking her head, her father giving her a pitying smile, and her mom scowling. Just her luck to have this kind of incident happen when Cat and Charlie were both visiting.
“What happened?” her mother asked.
“I don’t know.” Fiona shrugged. “I was just mixing and then next thing I knew it exploded.”
“Were you mixing too hard?” Cat asked.
Fiona rolled her eyes. “Is that even possible?”
“Not with those stick arms,” Charlie shot back, no longer trying to conceal his laughter.
“I put the herbs in and poof!” Tears pricked the back of her eyes. I will not cry, I will not cry, she thought. At least not in front of them. “Don’t worry, Mom. I’ll clean it up.”
“Alright, Fee. Just try not to create any more disasters in the process.”
Her family returned to whatever they’d been doing before she’d so rudely interrupted, and she set about cleaning up her mess. She gave up trying to stop the tears from falling as she knelt on the floor, scrubbing up dough from the new flooring. She wondered why on Earth she was so different from the rest of her family. They were all so good at everything. And smart, and always looked perfect, and knew what they wanted to do with their lives. But she was a ditzy mess, who only wanted to be more like them. And she had no clue what she wanted to do with her life. Well, that wasn’t exactly true; she knew she wanted to travel. There just wasn’t much call for it when one worked in a floral shop.
Her phone rang as she finished cleaning up the last of her mess— a video call from Max. Sighing, she swiped a quick hand over her eyes to erase the remains of the tears before hitting the button to answer.
Max’s perfect face came into view, and Fiona groaned inwardly. Even her boyfriend always looked impeccable. She often thought he fit in with her family better than she did.
“Hello,” she said.
“Hello, Fee. Good lord, what happened to you? You look as though you got in a fight with a can of crescent rolls and lost.”
“Very funny. Charlie texted you, didn’t he?” There were definite downsides to dating a friend of your brother’s.
Max chuckled. “He did. And you know I think you look adorable when you’re a mess.”
“Well, you must think I’m pretty adorable a good portion of the time then. Seems I spend most of my life messy.” Fiona wrinkled her nose and sighed.
“Oh, Fee, don’t be like that. I hate it when you get down on yourself. No one is perfect.”
She groaned silently. The old “no one is perfect” line was easy to spout when you were practically flawless. And lately, she was getting a little tired of the constant pep talks. What was wrong with the occasional pity party? But she didn’t want to fight.
“You’re right, Max. Listen, I’m bushed after cleaning up the mess, and I have to be at work early tomorrow. Can I let you go?”
“Of course, sweetheart. I just wanted to make sure we’re still on for dinner tomorrow night? James and Rachel are coming. That’s okay, right?”
Awesome, now his scientist buddies were coming, and she could spend dinner feeling more incompetent then ever while they discussed work. Work she barely comprehended and had absolutely no interest in whatsoever. But what could she say?
“Um, sure. The more, the merrier.”
“Great! I’ll pick you up at six.” Max smiled, and Fiona wondered why her tummy didn’t flutter anymore. The sight of his dimples used to stir up butterflies like mad, but lately all it stirred up was a mild apprehension. Loving someone should not cause anxiety.
She managed a halfhearted smile in return. “See you then.” She logged off before he could say, “I love you.” She didn’t want to feel obligated to parrot the words back.
Fiona juggled her coffee cup, purse, and the container of muffins she’d made after cleaning up the cheddar herb fiasco last night, while trying to unlock the door of “Kimberly’s Kreations,” the floral shop where she worked. She dropped the keys and bent to pick them up. As she did so, she noticed a trio of strangers standing on the porch of the Hotel Marmont, just down the street. All three wore dark trench coats, and while she couldn’t tell much with their backs to her, she thought the woman had blue hair. Fiona thought it was lovely. She couldn’t help but wonder who they were. Hanson Mills was a small town, and while tourists were common, these folks stood out like a sore thumb. Realizing she was wasting precious time, she grabbed the keys and opened the door.
She briskly went about setting the shop to rights before heading back to the cooler and retrieving the flowers she’d need for the first order of the day. An anniversary arrangement for Mrs. MacMillan, forty years with Mr. MacMillan, and he still sent her flowers at least once a year. Fiona wondered what it would be like to be with Max forty years from now. She simply couldn’t picture their life together. That apprehension in her stomach stirred again. She pushed it aside. An anniversary was a happy occasion and deserved her good wishes. She pulled red roses for true love, magenta zinnias for lasting affection, ivy for wedded love and fidelity, and baby’s breath to fill in the gaps. She hummed to herself as she arranged the flowers, picturing how happy Mrs. MacMillan would be. She whispered a wish for the couple’s continued happiness and health as she tied the ribbon bow to complete the arrangement. The doorbell tinkled as she stepped back from her work.
“Good morning, Fee,” Ashley called as she breezed into the back. She stopped to stare at the flowers on the table. “Oh my, I think this is your loveliest yet!”
Fiona grinned with pleasure. At least she was good at something. “You think the MacMillan’s will like it?”
“I think they’ll love it,” Ashley said. “I’d love it. Of course, Brian never sends me flowers.”
“He doesn’t have to, he knows you’re well and truly his.”
“Never stops your Max from coming in to pick up a bouquet now and then.”
Fiona shrugged. “Yeah, I never get that. I work with flowers all day, if I wanted some I’d just bring them home.”
Ashley laughed. “Oh, Fee. It’s romantic. It shows he’s thinking of you.”
“But is it? I mean, if he was truly thinking of me, wouldn’t he put more effort into it? Flowers are just so routine. If he wanted to be really romantic, he’d pick me up my favorite coffee, or dessert, or a new book. You know?”
“What’s gotten into you this morning?” Ashley shot her an inquisitive glance.
Fiona sighed. “I don’t know. Existential crisis, I guess.”
“You’re too hard on yourself. Stop trying to live up to everyone else’s idea of perfect, and just be you. Crisis solved.” Ashley winked at her. “By the way, I love your hair this morning.”
“Oh shoot!” Fiona put a hand to her head. “It was drizzling when I left the house this morning so I didn’t do anything with it. I meant to fix it when I got here, but I forgot.” By now her cloud of auburn ringlets must resemble Little Orphan Annie’s ’do. She grabbed a clip and swept it up and out of her way. No time to worry about it now. The day passed quickly; Mr. MacMillan stopped in to pick up his arrangement, one of the Laughlin boys stopped by to get a rose dipped in glitter for the Lewis girl, and a very embarrassed Frank O’Hara asked for a special “apology” bouquet for his fiancé. Fiona accommodated them all while Ashley manned the phones and carted in deliveries. Before she knew it, five o’clock rolled around.
“Oh no,” she cried, glancing at the clock. “I have to go! Max is picking me up at six and I have to change and do something with this hair.” She frantically ran in back to grab her coat and purse.
“Go,” Ashley replied, laughing. “Although, I’d just let your hair down. People pay money for curls like those.”
“But they’re so messy, and we’re eating with two of his perfectly polished colleagues.”
“The messy look suits you though.”
Fiona rolled her eyes and stuck out her tongue at her friend as she turned to leave. She walked right into a solid wall of muscle, and nearly bit the tip of her tongue, which had still been sticking out, clean off. She might have fallen, if strong arms hadn’t caught her and steadied her back on her feet.
“Omigosh, I’m so sorry!” She raised her gaze to face the customer she’d run into. Deep blue eyes stared back at her from a visage some might call too angular to be handsome. But Fiona found it interesting. A slight smile twinkled in the eyes and crinkled the edge of the man’s mouth. Stepping back, she realized he was one of the trench coated strangers she’d spied earlier.
“My fault,” the stranger said. He smiled for real then, and Fiona’s tummy butterflies fluttered to life. Well, they aren’t dead, just dormant, she thought and then blushed furiously.
“I, um, I have to go.” Fiona swept around him and hurried out the door while trying desperately to push the embarrassing incident, and her reaction to the stranger, to the back of her mind.
Two hours later she was stifling a yawn and pretending to follow the conversation. Max and his colleagues were talking about microbiology and genetics, and all Fiona could hear was “blah, blah, blah.” Rachel smiled at her across the table. “I’m so sorry we’re all work and no play, Fiona. It must be very boring for you.”
“Oh, um, no, not at all,” Fiona plastered a big fake smile on her face. “I know how much Max loves his work.”
“Not as much as I love you,” Max picked up her hand from the table and kissed it. Fiona smiled weakly and turned back to Rachel in time to catch both her and James staring at Max in complete admiration. Well, she thought, this is an interesting kettle of fish. Then she tried not to sigh. That had been one of Gran’s sayings. For the millionth time, she wished Gran was still here to advise her.
Finally, James roused himself from his contemplation of Max’s profile enough to ask, “So, Fiona, you’re a florist?” Fiona thought she detected a note of condescension in his voice. And she guessed he didn’t even realize it was there.
“Floral designer is my actual job title. I make arrangements and bouquets.”
“Oh.” Both James and Rachel tried desperately to appear impressed. They both failed miserably.
“It’s not how it sounds,” Max cut in, her knight in shining armor always hurrying to her rescue, whether she needed it or not. “Fee does the most amazing arrangements. They’re almost magical. And she knows all about flowers and their language.”
“Language?” James glanced at Fiona. “Flowers don’t talk, do they?
“Not with words, no,” Fiona answered. “But each flower variety has its own meaning, and the colors add nuance. It really is like a language. The way they are arranged, the species used, and the color combine to communicate sympathy, love, happiness, apology. They can convey what the giver can’t necessarily put into words.”
“Wow. I guess I never put that much thought into flowers,” Rachel said. “But then, I don’t think anyone has ever ordered any special for me. I most often receive those scraggly bouquets you can buy at the grocery store.” She stared off wistfully, and Fiona made a mental note to send Rachel an arrangement in the near future.
“Well, this has been fun,” Max said, rising and grabbing the check. “But we should probably get home. I’m sure Fee has to work tomorrow, and it’s a bit of a drive to Hanson Mills and back.” He gave her sad, puppy dog eyes. She raised her eyebrow in return.
James considered them both for a minute. “Why don’t you just stay with Max?”
Rachel punched him lightly on the arm. “That’s none of your business.”
Fiona smiled. “He’d just have to get up extra early then. Saturday is a huge day in the floral business. I have two sets of wedding flowers to deliver.” She certainly wasn’t going to discuss her sex life, or lack of, with two people she’d only met two hours ago. Let them think what they would. Her refusal to stay at Max’s place had less to do with sex and more to do with her not wanting him to see her first thing in the morning. She was not a morning person, and it took her a good hour and a half to pull herself into some sort of semblance of human being. Whether she succeeded or not was debatable.
“What did you think of James and Rachel?” Max asked once they were ensconced in his Mercedes, the trees bordering the two lane road flying by.
“They seemed very nice,” she replied.
“You thought they were boring, just like me.” He turned his head to wink at her. “I saw you stifling yawns.”
“You are about the least boring person in the world, Max. I was stifling yawns because I couldn’t keep up with the conversation. You know I don’t do science.”
“You could if you wanted to, Fee. You’re smarter than you let people think.”
For some reason his comment rankled. “Did you just say I act unintelligent?”
“No,” he dropped his voice to a more placating tone. “Not at all. You just don’t let most people in enough for them to realize how intelligent you truly are. You refuse to even try keeping up with my work, preferring your artsy studies and fantasy novels.”
“A. I would not get your work, even if I tried. And I have no desire to. Honestly, it puts me to sleep. B. My, um, unscientific pursuits fascinate me.”
“So you do think I’m boring?”
Fiona crossed her arms and stared out the window. She wouldn’t deign to answer his comment. Max was just looking for an argument because he was frustrated she wouldn’t stay at his apartment. But she’d spoken the truth—she really did have to work early in the morning. She drifted into the zone; going over the wedding flowers she’d already planned for tomorrow, when something caught her eye.
“Stop!” she said.
Max flinched. “What?”
“Stop,” she said again, louder. The car screeched to a halt. “Back up, slowly.”
Max did as she asked without asking why, and Fiona was grateful. She wasn’t sure herself what she’d seen. She gazed out the window, studying the trees in the pale moonlight. The moon was gibbous, almost full. With a clear sky and the light of a zillion or so stars, the road was lit up like day, but the shadows between the trees were dark. The hairs on the back of her neck rose, and she glimpsed the anomaly again.
“There.” She pointed towards the trees. “Did you see that?” She rolled down the car window to get a better view, but whatever she’d seen had vanished.
“See what?” Max asked, peering around her.
“I don’t know what it was,” Fiona said. “It was really large, and blue, and moving relatively fast through the trees.”
Max stared at her. “You saw a blue Bigfoot?”
“Well, when you put it that way, it sounds ridiculous, doesn’t it?” She rolled up her window and turned to face him.
“Yes,” Max answered.
“And yet, I saw it.”
Max put the car back into gear and continued down the road. Fiona sat in silence and pondered the strange sighting. Unfortunately, it wasn’t the first time she’d seen something no one else had. She chewed on her thumbnail. She knew she’d seen it though, she never doubted her strange visions, as much as she wished she didn’t have them. But what was it?
Max dropped her off at home, with an apology for their argument and a promise to call tomorrow. Fiona felt a teensy bit guilty for the fight, but mostly intrigued by the glimpse of blue fur she’d spied in the dark woods.
If you enjoyed this chapter, preorder Finding Fiona, the first novel in the Pine Haven Series, on Amazon.