"Excuse me, could you hurry up?"
Kate counted to three, inhaling, and then counted to three, exhaling. For the most part, people who came into her shop to buy flowers were in pleasant moods, dreamy-eyed and giddy. It made her job easy.
But, obviously, the man who was second in line was determined to make it more difficult.
"I'm sorry, sir, you'll have to wait your turn like everyone else," Kate says, smiling thinly at him.
"I have been waiting for my turn for fifteen minutes," he huffs impatiently. He steps next to the first man in line. "For God's sake, pick the peonies! They're on sale, the woman told you they smell good, and they last a long time. So, they won't wilt while you're deciding on whether or not to give the flowers to her."
The other customer frowns. "But what if she doesn't like the color pink?"
"I'm sure she'll love it because they're from you," Kate adds, trying to control the situation.
But instead of remedying the customer's indecision, he looks more unsure. She's about to tell him more about the peonies when the man behind him starts snickering.
Kate glowers at him. "What's so funny?"
"Nothing, that was a cough," he says, clearing his throat, but there's still a smile on his face. "I have allergies, and there's a lot of flowers in here."
"Perhaps not enough flowers, if it only caused you one cough, it would be nice if they inflicted more discomfort on you," Kate says icily.
The man's eyebrows raise. "Is that how you talk to all your customers, wishing death upon them?"
"I didn't wish for your death. I wished for your discomfort. You should know that emotion well, I imagine, most people probably feel it when they interact with you."
The first customer in line places his card on the counter. "I think I'll go with the peonies after all."
"Excellent. I'll ring you up," Kate says. But, as she's about to put the card through the machine, she pauses. She looks back at the man behind him, who's annoyingly taping his foot. Kate smiles mischievously. "But, are you sure you don't want to go for lilies?
"No, he wants the peonies," the man behind him insists heatedly, just as Kate knew he would. "Don't you?"
"Uh," the customer looks between them both anxiously. "Yes?"
Kate runs the card and goes to the back to grab his peonies. When she hands the bouquet to the customer, he makes a swift exit, causing some petals to shed in his wake.
The angry customer steps forward. Up close, Kate can better see his features. Specifically, how pleasing they are. His jaw is square without being sharply cut. His brown eyes remind her of her favorite chocolate bar growing up that Mary would catch her sneaking out of the pantry before dinner. His hair also falls perfectly against his forehead.
Kate can admit he's a handsome man—but the cruel curl of his lips causes her to snap out of her thoughts as it sours his appearance.
"What can I do for you today?" Kate asks with her best customer service voice.
"Oh, so now that I've reached the front of the line, you'll be nice to me?"
"No, I'm simply asking because the faster I give you what you want, the faster you'll leave."
The man regards her with amusement, his previous anger beginning to fade. "I suspected the owner of a flower shop would be all sunshine and rainbows, but you're more doom and gloom."
"Whenever customers get angry, I try to let it roll off my back because I have no idea what made them agitated," she explains, hardening her stare. "You can walk around with a cloud over you, but don't drench me in the rain when I'm just trying to do my job."
"I'm sorry if I was short with you before," the man apologizes, taking a deep breath. "It's just that I really need flowers, and I'm on a timetable."
The earnest guilt in his expression surprises Kate. She studies him for a moment and notices the way his hands have a slight tremble, and his feet move across the floor anxiously.
Suddenly, Kate’s the one who feels guilty. He did seem somewhat nervous, which probably made his short fuse even shorter. While it didn't excuse his behavior, it did explain it.
However, Kate couldn't come up with an explanation to hers—why she was so quick to tease him and why it was so fun to rile him up. With most customers, she would be extremely apologetic if they waited as long as he did.
But there was something different about him. He turned a light on that Kate hadn't known was extinguished inside of her.
"Alright, let's forget about the past few minutes then and get you some flowers," Kate says, hoping her gentle tone conveys her waving a white flag of peace. "Did you have any in mind?"
"I don't have a particular one in mind. Roses will probably be fine. I think she likes those."
"Alright, and how many?"
He turns up his head in thought. "I don't know, a hundred?"
"A hundred?" Kate asks in disbelief.
"Two hundred? Maybe two-fifty? How many do you need to fill a room?"
Kate drops the pen she had been holding. "Uh oh, what did you do?"
The man's face scrunches up. "What do you mean, what did I do?"
"That desperate of a romantic gesture means you did something wrong, like forgot your girlfriend's birthday or had an affair."
"I would never do either of those things," he replies, so immediately and firmly that Kate instantly believes him.
"But you did something wrong, right?"
The man sighs. "How private are your services? You must have to deal with people sending the same flowers to two different people."
"Yes, and I hate doing that, but it is part of my job description," she affirms, feeling an odd sense of disappointment. "So, you want the roses sent to two locations?"
"No, I'm just wondering about your policies concerning privacy. Because of our public jobs, this matter should be kept quiet," he explains. There must be some reservation in her eyes because he leans forward a little, regarding her seriously. "I assure you, I'm not that kind of guy."
Kate scans him curiously. "But you are a guy with secrets, aren't you?"
"Everyone has secrets," he deflects.
"Not me," Kate contradicts, standing up straighter. "I'm an open book."
"I doubt that," the man chuckles, but it's filled with joy instead of cruelty. "People who are open books are open because they have blank pages." He places his elbows on the counter, leaning towards her. "I just met you, but I can tell you have a lot of chapters to you."
Kate feels herself blush but hides it with a scoff. "None that you'll ever read."
"I never leave a book half-read. Even if it takes a while, I read every page."
"You might not have time," Kate says, nodding to the clock on the wall. "You're on a timetable, remember?"
"Right," the man blinks in realization, his nerves from before returning. He takes a piece of paper from her desk, with the information she usually fills out for the customer's delivery orders. But he seems determined, so Kate hands him her pen. "Send a hundred red roses to this address, please. Make sure they get there as soon as possible. I need to show her that I...they need to be there, ok?”
"Of course," Kate nods. She takes the form from him but points to the line he left empty. "Can I get a name for the recipient?"
He hesitates for a moment before whispering, "Sienna Rosso."
Kate thinks she recognizes the name, seeing flashes of magazine headlines before her eyes, but she tries not to linger on it.
"And your name?"
"Anthony, Anthony Bridgeton."
"All right, you're all set," she says, taking his card and processing the payment. He begins to walk away, but as she looks back at his order, she gets an unsettling feeling in her stomach. Before she can second guess herself, she goes through the swinging door that separates the counter from the customers. "Wait, Anthony?"
He turns back at her. "Yes?"
"Flowers can express a lot, but they can't make up for someone who isn't there. So, be there when she gets the roses."
Anthony nods at her advice. "Alright, I will."
As he opens the door, Kate says, "Come back again." Anthony stops, and she grimaces. "That was a reflex, I say it to every customer. You probably won't come back and—."
"I'll come back," Anthony interrupts with a slight smile. "I have a feeling that those roses will have too many thorns, and I'll return for a refund."
"Oh, we have a no refund policy. Did I not mention that before?" Kate smirks.
"No, it must've slipped your mind, as the thorns will probably slip your notice because you want one of them to prick my finger."
Kate laughs as he leaves, and she thinks they both are in better moods than when they both entered the shop today.
A few weeks go by before Kate sees him again.
"You again," she sighs as the bell above him chimes.
"You remember me. I'm flattered," Anthony says slyly. "I didn't know I made that good of an impression."
"I wouldn't call it a good impression. I'd call it an annoying one."
His eyebrows furrow at the comment, and Kate beams in satisfaction.
"I need a bouquet for my sister Daphne to celebrate her engagement," he grits out.
"That's wonderful," she says but begins to frown as she observes his tense demeanor. "So why do you look like you're getting flowers for a funeral instead of an engagement?"
"The guy she's marrying is my best friend."
Kate grimaces. "Oh."
"They hid the relationship. So when they announced that they were getting married, it was quite the surprise."
Kate nods and begins looking around at the bouquets she has ready. "So what do you want these flowers to convey?"
"I want flowers that mean betrayal, and if you ever hurt her, I will see to it that hellfire will rain down upon you," he says sharply.
"Well, I have black dahlias, which do mean betrayal, but I'm not sure I have anything that means raining down hellfire."
"Damn," he sighs. "What about a flower that says that I'll send you each of the plagues for any bad thing you do to my sister?"
Kate crosses her arms. "Aren't these flowers for your sister, who you should be happy for, because she's marrying a guy that you found decent enough to be friends with?"
"I also thought he'd never date my sister, so perhaps I misjudged him."
"Or perhaps, you're just a tad overprotective."
"I'm not overprotective. I'm the right amount of protective," Anthony insists, looking cross. It amuses Kate and makes her wonder how much of his life he spends being crossed. "I'm the eldest sibling of eight; it's my job to look after them. Surely you can't understand that."
Something in Kate's heart softens, hearing him speak with such devotion to his family.
"I don't have seven siblings, but I do understand. I have a younger sister," she tells him. "Our father died when she was young and would do anything for her in the world."
"I'm sorry," Anthony says, sincerely but with no pity, which she appreciates. He steps closer to the counter, and his expression turns wistful. "My father died when I was eighteen. It was terrible, but most siblings were quite younger. I suppose that's why I've been so determined to assure their happiness and protect them from harm—because my father isn't there to do that."
"That's a lot of responsibility to take on. If you're always trying to assure their happiness, you won't find your own."
"Would you give up your happiness if it meant your sister could be happy?" he asks. Kate opens her mouth but closes it, knowing she would. He seems to read her thoughts, giving a sad nod. "Exactly."
"If you want your sister to be happy, then perhaps you want your flowers to have a more positive message," Kate suggests. "You know, flowers that convey congratulations instead of death."
He relents with a sigh. "Alright, what do you suggest?"
"Let me put together something," she tells him, wanting to put together a custom bouquet instead of the standard ones she has ready to go. "You on a timetable today?"
"Then wait here."
Kate goes to the back and quickly gets to work. She combines lavender dendrobium orchids, bluebird roses, and pink godetia. She harmonizes hues of purple and pink. Once she's satisfied, she ties it together and wraps it up.
When she returns, Anthony’s waiting there as he promised. Kate carefully hands him the bouquet.
"These are beautiful," he notes, looking a bit stunned at the flowers.
She quirks a eyebrow. "You seem surprised that I'm good at my job."
"Not surprised, more like, impressed."
"That's dangerously close to a compliment."
His eyes glint at her playfully. "These colors clash a little, though."
"They do not. Daphne will love them," Kate insists gruffly. "Who's the flower expert here?"
"Alright, alright, I'm buying them."
He gets out his card and hands it to her. As he does, his fingers skim her palm. It sends a chill down her arm, a cold that jolts you awake more so than makes you shiver.
"So, how did the roses go?" Kate blurts out.
Anthony stills. "What?"
Kate sighs, now that she asked, there's no turning back now.
"When you came in before and got the roses, did she like them?"
"She did, and the guy she was sleeping with when I walked in also seemed to enjoy them," he murmurs.
Kate frowns. "Oh, I'm sorry."
"I wasn't there soon enough," he shrugs, but she sees a tenseness to his shoulders. "Perhaps if you hadn't been so chatty with the other customer, I might have made it there before they enjoyed them so much."
"Or, perhaps like I said, roses can't do everything," she defends, even though she can tell by his tone that he's teasing. "Sometimes things aren't meant to be, and no flower will change that."
Anthony's gaze steadies on her. He looks at her like she's the morning crossword puzzle that he has the words to but doesn't know where to put them.
"Maybe you're right."
Kate grins, cupping a hand over her ear. "What was that?"
He narrows his eyes. "I'm not repeating it."
As he opens the door, his hand keeps it propped open and looks back at her expectantly. "Aren't you going to tell me to come back soon?"
"You think I would encourage you to come back and give me more headaches?"
"Maybe if I promise you more than that, you'll be more enthusiastic about my return," he says, looking at her in such a suggestive way that she has to focus harder on her breathing. Anthony laughs. "Oh, now I'm definitely coming back."
"To see that blush on your face again, it's rather becoming on you."
She scowls. "Nothing becomes you, on the other hand."
He grins wickedly and finally exits the shop. Kate slumps into her seat behind the counter, feeling a bit winded even though she had been standing still.
She was starting to think that Anthony Bridgerton had that effect on people.
A week later, Kate's at Penelope's party. Colin planned it to celebrated her promotion. Half the guests are her family, who wear intensely bright colors. Kate feels like she's looking into a kaleidoscope as she surveys the crowd.
The other half of the guests are people who went to their university, and some are people Penelope knew growing up that Kate hasn't ever met.
By the punch table, Kate's currently chewing on a pretzel when she recognizes a familiar set of brown eyes across the room.
"Oh God," Kate mutters, ducking behind the person closest to her. "Please hide me."
The woman who seems a few years younger than her scans her with amusement. "Why?"
"That guy over there, he's a customer at my shop."
When her newfound barricade follows where Kate's finger is pointing, her eyes gleam with glee. "Are you talking about the tall one, brown curly hair, a smirk that could end world wars?"
"Yeah, that's him."
"Why would you want to hide from him?"
"He's also the bane of my existence," Kate adds.
"Really? He's also the bane of mine," the woman snorts. "We should start a club."
Kate leans up, moving out from behind her. "What?"
"That's my brother."
Kate's eyes grow wide. "Oh god, I'm so sorry. I—"
"Don't be," the woman waves her off. "If I had to disassociate with everyone who finds my brother irksome, I wouldn't have much company."
Kate looks back at him and sees two women laughing by his side. They unnecessarily touch his arm as he says something funny. It gives her an unexplainable bitter taste on her tongue.
Well, she could explain it easily, but Kate doesn't want to open a door that she can never close.
"It seems like most of these people like him. They probably don't know him well enough," Kate mumbles under her breath.
"Don't get me wrong, he's a great guy, the best. But that doesn't mean you don't want to trade his sugar with salt. Or knock him upside the head every once and a while."
Kate's lips twitch up. "I'm assuming you have done both of those things."
"The best criminals never admit to their crimes,” the woman winks.
Kate laughs. "So, are you Daphne, the sister that's getting married?"
"God no, I'm Eloise," she says, looking disgusted at the insinuation that marriage would have any connection to her. "Can you imagine having to share a bed with the same person for the rest of your life, taking half of everything you own, becoming their property?”
Kate's smile twitches. "Let me guess. You also think Valentine's Day is just a Hallmark card holiday?"
Eloise quirks her head. "You don't?"
"I make almost my entire living off that day, so I understand how you think it's just a holiday for corporations to exploit love. But, I don't see it that way," Kate says, turning to the table and pouring herself a glass of punch. "It's not a day to prove how much you love someone by buying the biggest bouquet or most expensive but disgusting chocolates. It’s a day to take stock of those you love and cherish them. I hope the flowers I give to customers represent that. Not just a declaration of love, but a promise it'll last forever."
"Isn't that a bit illogical?"
Kate jumps, immediately recognizing the voice behind her. She turns, seeing Anthony approaching her with a sly tilt of his lips.
"The flowers you give them die within a few weeks. If the flowers represent your relationship, that doesn't give them much of a chance, does it?"
"Anthony," Kate greets rigidly.
"Did you want to drop in on me unexpectedly for payback for me coming into the store unexpectedly?"
"No, I'm here for my friend Penelope."
"Ah, the lovely woman who's dating my brother," he nods. "I'm surprised we haven't met before the shop."
"I guess my luck ran out," Kate retorts.
Eloise looks entertained by the interaction but mumbles something about going to find Penelope, leaving their side.
"So, did your sister like the flowers?"
"You know she did. Your shop got quite the publicity when she tagged your business in a photo with them."
"I was pretty excited when I saw the notification, but seeing your face in the photo put a slight damper on the excitement."
Anthony steps closer. "Oh really?"
"Yes, really," Kate says, but she can even hear the lie in her voice.
Anthony looks at the room, where the rest of the party-goers are dancing to a slow song.
"You dance?" he asks.
Kate feels her heart jolt in her chest. "What?"
Anthony smiles. "I asked if you dance, but maybe I should be asking if you can hear."
"I can dance, but not well," Kate confesses. "That's why I'm over by the punch bowl, less likely to step on someone's feet."
"Perhaps you just need a better partner," he suggests.
She raises an eyebrow. "And you're that better partner?"
Anthony holds out his hand, a gleam in his eyes that melts something within her. "Let's find out."
Kate debates swatting it away but finds that her body knows better, taking his hand.
"Fine, but I warned you."
They go out to the dance floor, falling into the dance position.
"I think you're all talk. You're probably better than you—ow," Anthony winces as she steps on his foot.
Kate grimaces. "I told you."
"Are your shoes made of lead? I mean honestly—ow!" He looks down at their feet and back at her with amusement. "Why do I feel that one wasn't a mistake?"
Kate bats her eyes with faux innocence. "I have no idea what you're talking about."
He gives her a skeptical look, and she shrugs with a smirk. Kate struggles to fall into step with him. They dance awkwardly for a few more moments before he sighs.
"Alright, you're in your head too much. You need to relax."
"I am relaxed."
"Your back is as straight as a pencil, and you're gripping my hand like it's a cliff you're holding onto for dear life.”
"I would hope your hand wouldn't be my last chance at saving myself from death," Kate says but loosens her grasp on his hand a little.
"Step closer," he tells her. Kate takes one step. "Closer," he whispers again, and she does so with reluctance, their bodies brushing. "That's good. Now, relax your arms, move with the music—don't look at your feet, look at me." Kate looks up at him, and her steps begin to sync up with his, causing them to dance more fluidly. "Good."
"You a dancing instructor when you're not harassing me at the shop?"
"No, do you know the Bridgerton hotel?"
"Yeah, of course, I—oh," she says in realization, the reason why his name sounded familiar clicking with her. "Wait, couldn't you just have your assistant or something get the flowers for you?"
"I suppose so, but I'd rather get them myself. It's more personal. I want to pick it out for my loved ones and see their reaction when they get it," Anthony explains. "What about you?"
"Am I a dancing instructor?"
"No, I would fear for London's feet if you were," he jests. Kate steps lightly on his feet for payback. But he's a good enough dancer to get their steps right back on track. "Do you still give people flowers, or are you sick of seeing them all day?"
"I still give people flowers," she answers and begins to frown. The thought she tries hard not to think about enters her mind. It’s something she tries not to think about, doing what she does, but can’t forget as she hands a customer a flower without ever getting one in return. "Everyone should have flowers."
"Are you alright?"
"Yes," Kate says, but her voice wobbles. She steps away from Anthony, letting go of his hand. "I'm just getting a little tired. I think I've had enough dancing."
He doesn't look convinced, but before he can challenge her, Kate quickly walks away from him.
She feels tears pricking her eyes as she heads to the door and a familiar empty feeling residing in her stomach.
It surprises Kate how quickly loneliness can creep up on a person. It's something that's always there, lingering in the background. It waits to pounce, so it can throw her off balance as it settles a crushing weight on her shoulders.
The cold of the night hits her hard as she leaves the house. She walks down the street, and the ghost of his hand from where it rested on her hip earlier warms her a little.
This time, it doesn't take a week to see Anthony again. He's there three days later. She's surprised to see him there so early, waiting outside the doors that are still locked. Honestly, she's surprised to see him at all. Kate thought her sudden escape from the party the other day would have made him steer clear of her.
But there he was, waiting right by the door, and oddly patient smile for a man who she knows to be the most impatient.
"I have many repeat customers, but usually their visits are more spaced out than yours," Kate notes while unlocking the door. "Obsessed with me much?"
"You sound like you want me to be obsessed with you," Anthony points out smugly.
Kate walks behind the counter once they get inside. "What do you want?"
"I thought it’d be obvious, flowers."
Kate rolls her eyes but can't help but smile. "What kind?"
"I'm not sure," he admits, chewing his lip. "I don't know her that well. I don't know what she likes."
"Well, what's she like?"
"Uh, she's pretty, nice, brown eyes—no, I think blue…."
"Wow, you should come up with better adjectives on the note if you want a chance with this woman," Kate scoffs.
"I don't want to date this woman; it's more of a PR stunt," he differentiates. "She gets publicity by getting photos of us walking with me in the park and eating at a restaurant, and I get the press to stop painting me as some rake."
After looking him up after the party and seeing countless gossip columns attached to his name, Kate knows that he very much is a rake. She conveys as much to him with a knowing look.
He ignores her insinuating stare. "Can you help me or not?"
"I can, but—."
"Oh, here we go," he mumbles.
"Anthony, do you really want to pretend to be in a relationship?" Kate asks. "It seems like a lot of effort to go through when you could have an actual one."
"I'm done with those, they all fail, and I don't have time for them."
"Because you're too busy with work?"
"No, because... it's complicated," he says, beginning to fidget with his hands. "This is just easier. It helps get the press off my back, and it'll help Edwina get the publicity she needs."
Kate freezes, her blood going cold.
"Yeah, she's an aspiring actress. She's pretty good," he tells her, even though Kate knows very well that she is. "I saw her at a play the other day and got the idea while she was talking about how hard it was to break into the industry. She's a nice girl, but not one I'd have to worry about falling in love with or vice versa.
Kate purses her lips. "And why not?"
"Because we could barely hold a conversation. We were friendly, but there was no spark."
The anger that had risen ever since he said her name began to lessen. But, Kate still feels defensive and crosses her arms.
"But you want to lead her on anyway?"
"I'm not leading her on," Anthony insists in frustration. "I plan to ask her if she wants to do a few weeks of publicity in a note which I have already written. I just need the bouquet to accompany it. Do you think lavender or maybe carnations—."
"Don't worry. I'll take care of it," Kate interrupts curtly.
Anthony furrows his brows. "You will?"
"I will," Kate nods stiffly. "I'll make the arrangement and deliver it myself."
"That's not necessary. I was planning on delivering it."
"I'll deliver it free of charge. It's the specialty for customers' third visit," she lies.
Anthony's expression brightens. "You've been counting my visits?"
"Three isn't that high a number, don't get too excited."
He looks at her oddly but eventually reaches into his pocket and hands her the note and his card. Kate pockets the note and quickly swipes his card.
After she hands it back to him, he's still watching her with a befuddled expression due to her sudden change in mood.
"Shoo, I have to get your flowers ready," she waves him off.
"I don't get to see them?"
Kate smiles. "No, trust me, it'll be better this way."
After Anthony leaves, Kate gets to work on the bouquet she'd been crafting in her mind ever since Anthony told her of his plan.
What he didn't know was that she has a plan of her own.
Two days later, when she hears furious footsteps stomping into the shop, the smirk spreads quickly on her face.
"You've got some nerve," Anthony huffs.
"Excuse me, sir, you'll have to go to the back of the line," Kate says sweetly.
"I'm not sure what I want yet. Do you want to take my place?" the woman in front of him asks.
"No," Kate says at the same time as Anthony says. "Yes."
Anthony puts both his hands on the counter, "So, I trusted you, and you sabotaged me."
"I have no idea what you're referring to."
His eyes harden. "You very well know that I'm referring to the flowers you delivered."
"They were perfectly lovely flowers," Kate shrugs but finds it hard not to cackle like a cartoon witch.
"Lovely flowers she was allergic to," he points out thinly. "So she didn't even read my note. Her roommate told me when I called her to follow up."
"I'm sorry, but how would I know she was allergic to them?"
"Maybe because she's your sister? The roommate said Edwina was out with her sister Kate."
Kate looks down at her shoes. "There are many Kate's in London."
"But not many Kate Sharma’s," Anthony points out, folding his arms across his chest. "Why did you do that?"
"Because it was a stupid offer, and she will not be used just to boost your image in the press," Kate says, stepping behind the cash register.
"It would be mutual and agreed upon, and Edwina wouldn't be getting used. So, What's your issue with this idea?
"I told you, it's manipulative and—."
"No, what's your real issue?" Anthony cuts her off, his tone less angry and more hurt. "Do you think I'm that bad of a guy that spending a few seconds around me would corrupt her?"
"Anthony, think about your sisters and how cruel the press can be. When a male celebrity dates a woman, he's praised for it. But any time a female celebrity even goes on one date with a guy, she's slut-shamed." He looks a little guilty, her words sinking in, so she continues. "It's not about you." Anthony gives her a pointed look, and she relents. "Fine, it's a little bit about you, but I did it mostly to protect her."
"I understand that. Believe me, I do. But, aren't you the one that said our siblings should be able to make their own decisions?"
Kate chews on her lip, knowing he's right.
"I'll send her flowers with a new note on the house."
"Thank you, but it's not necessary," Anthony says, and a slow smile arches his lips. "I had lunch with her."
Kate almost trips over a pot on the ground. "You what?!"
"When I was speaking to her roommate, Edwina walked through the door just as I was about to hang up."
"How fortunate for you," Kate replies through gritted teeth.
"We set up a lunch and discussed it, and we both came to the conclusion it was a bad idea."
Kate puts her hands on her hips. "So, let me get this straight. You came in here and argued with me about this even though you agree with me?"
"Well, first of all, I wanted to make you feel guilty about the flower incident."
"And second of all?"
His smirk falls, something softer to his expression. "I wanted to see you."
"Oh," Kate swallows, feeling a fluttering sensation in her stomach. She bites back a smile. "You know, most people, when they want to see someone, don't come up with ways to argue with them."
"I know, but you and I know we're not most people," Anthony points out, his voice low and unfairly making her heartbeat quicken. "Most people also would not send their sisters flowers that could cause an allergic reaction."
"I knew she wouldn't be hurt because she wouldn't go near them when she saw them, which was exactly the intent behind the decision."
"Um, are you going to buy something?" the woman behind him asks.
"Yes, I am going to buy something," he tells her and turns back to Kate. "Flowers for my mother, it's her birthday, there's a party tonight. She likes Hyacinths."
Kate goes to the back to get a bouquet of hyacinths and hands it to him. "I hope your mother likes them."
Anthony's silent for a moment before something akin to hope dawns on his features. "Why don't you ask her yourself?"
"Come with me to the party tonight."
"I wouldn't want to intrude—."
"Oh please, my family keeps going on and on about your flowers. They were upset they didn't get to talk to you in person at Penelope's party."
"Well, alright, I guess I could attend if they wish it," she agrees.
Anthony leans closer over the desk, his breath ghosting across her face. "Not because anyone else wishes it?"
"Ahem," the woman says from behind them.
Kate flinches back and grabs his receipt. "Right, here you go."
He takes it with a smile. "Thanks. I'll pick you up at six."
"Alright, I'll be here," she nods and watches him leave with a newfound giddiness.
"Sorry for the wait," Kate tells the customer. "I'll give you a discount on your flowers."
"That's alright," the woman smiles. "it's not every day you see the beginning of two people falling in love."
"Oh no, it's not like that! We're not—I mean, he's arrogant, rude, and I can't stand that...Never mind, flowers," Kate stutters, trying to get her mind back online to a subject she can talk about. A subject that makes her feel less overwhelmed than Anthony does. "Let's talk flowers."
When he arrives in front of the shop after locking up, he steps out of the car. He moves to the other side quickly to open the door for her. Kate rolls her eyes but inwardly feels warmed by the gesture.
"Just on time," Kate notes, looking at the clock on his dashboard.
"I'm a punctual person."
"Yes, you seem to show up in my life at the most opportune times."
He smirks, and they drive to his mother's house while talking amicably. It should scare her how easy conversation comes with him. Kate doesn't feel like she has to try as hard or worry about saying the right thing.
Around Anthony, she feels like she can just be herself. Her retorts that sometimes fall flat with others land with him, and he returns them in kind. In the quiet moments, she doesn't feel a need to fill the silence. It’s as if one another's presence is enough for them to be content.
When they get to the house, he turns to her with an excited gleam in his eyes. "I have something for you."
Anthony reaches into the back seat and reveals a bouquet.
They're beautiful, most likely from his mother's garden that she'd heard so much about from him and others. They were tulips. A soft orange color, with swirls of pink, reminding her of a sunset.
Anthony fidgets in his seat. "I know, you own a whole shop of them, probably the last gift you want is something that you're surrounded by all day but—."
"Anthony," she breathes out, cutting him off with a smile. "I love them."
Kate takes them from his hand, marveling at perfect cup-shaped blooms. "I do."
She must have been gazing at them longer than she realized as she felt Anthony's hand fall to her shoulder.
"Are you alright?"
"Yes," she sniffs, looking away. "Of course."
"You're crying," Anthony notes softly.
"I have allergies."
He looks at her bemused. "You own a flower shop."
"I do. I own a whole flower shop,” Kate exhales deeply. “I spend every day giving flowers to other people even though I've never gotten—even though I haven’t..."
Kate's words drift, feeling so ridiculous for getting upset over it. Anthony's eyes widen, reading the words she doesn't say.
"I wish I weren't," Kate chuckles bitterly. "It's pretty pathetic."
"No, it's not pathetic." She huffs and feels Anthony grab her shoulders, forcing her to meet his eyes. "Kate, it's not," he says firmly. "It's a bloody tragedy. You deserve flowers."
She sighs. "Don't say things like that."
His forehead creases. "Why not?"
"Because you say it in a way that makes it hard not to believe you," Kate murmurs, looking back at the flowers.
"I want you to believe me," Anthony says in confusion. "Why don't you want to believe me?”
"Forget it," Kate shakes her head, pushing on a smile. "Let's go socialize with the people who made you the insufferable person I've come to know today."
He looks like he wants to press but plays along. "You really know how to charm a guy, don't you?"
"Well, it's working, isn't it?" Kate asks, tempting the fates.
"God help me, but it is working," he mumbles, getting out of the car and moving to help her out.
As they walk into the house, his hand gravities to her lower back, guiding her through the crowds.
She keeps the tulips in her hands as long as she can before she has to part with them. Mrs. Bridgerton insists on putting them in some water.
After a night of laughter with his family and moments where their hands brush as they navigate the room, Anthony fetches her tulips.
She has a pet peeve of when people take petals from flowers. But when they're back in his car, murmuring to one another as music hums in the background, she finds herself plucking one out.
When she puts the rest of the bouquet in a vase in her flat later that night, she sets the lone petal on the top of her dresser.
Orange tulips convey a sense of understanding, mutual connection, and appreciation between two people.
The fact that one petal of the tulip can consist of all that gives her a bit of hope that a person can feel all those things too.
Perhaps, if she picked the right petal, it meant that one person she thought about as she fell asleep that night felt those things for her.
She stopped counting the number of times Anthony came into the shop or how long it was between each visit.
Anthony would stop by during her lunch break when Marina was operating the store and eat with her. Sometimes, they sat on a bench in the back, surrounded by flowers that she told him to maintain even though he probably already knew from his mother. Other times, they'd walk the streets as they talked, and if his hand found its way to hers, then so be it.
He'd sometimes also come by at closing to help her clean up. He’d keep her entertained with banter as she had to tend to the flowers. Or, Kate would go to his work on her off-days, dragging out of his work to do something fun. They’d see a movie or play a round of miniature golf so competitively and rambunctiously that the other patrons skipped holes to avoid them.
But some nights, they'd spend time at one of their flats. They’d put on a show to binge in the background while he did some work, and she calculated business expenses. Her legs often draped over his lap, and his hands would massage her foot instinctually.
Every time Kate looked at the flowers in her vase, she knew she was in the middle of a maze, one she couldn't find her way out of nor wanted to escape—content to wander the endless paths with all their twists and turns if he was there by her side.
Kate knew he was waiting for her to make a move. Perhaps he was waiting because he didn't want to scare her off. Or maybe, because whatever happened with the woman he sent roses to made him more cautious. Regardless, Kate knew that he wanted something more but was willing to wait until she was ready.
Nothing was different on that particular Wednesday night. But Kate found herself suddenly not overwhelmed by what she felt, but instead, liberated by it. It was like a flip had switched, turning on a light that illuminated a truth long kept in the shade.
Kate knocks gently on his door three times and then harder twice when he doesn't answer. She considers giving up, but she starts to hear footsteps on the other side of the door. She stands her ground, straightening her posture and determined not to shake with nerves.
But when Anthony opens the door, wearing a soft-looking shirt with his hair tousled, her legs wobble ever so slightly.
"What are you doing here?" Anthony asks, wiping at his eyes tiredly.
"You can show up unannounced, but I can't?" Kate jokes.
"You can, but it's three in the morning. I was sleeping. You know, the thing that everyone besides vampires do at night. Unless…"
"I'm not a vampire," she interrupts but pretends to study him in interest. "Although, biting your neck does sound appealing."
"It does to me too," Anthony grins, suddenly looking more awake than before. She raises a brow at him, and he seems to realize that he's blocking the doorway. He steps back while propping the door open. "Oh, you can come in. I forgot vampires have to be invited."
She ignores the comment and walks inside. Kate's eyes the pictures that hang from silver frames all over the living space walls.
"I don't think I've ever told you that I love your collection of family photos."
"Growing up in a house with seven siblings makes a flat like this feel so empty. The pictures help a little."
Kate had been holding something behind her back, and her hands tightened around the stems. "I'm sorry I came by so late. I couldn't wait to give you something once I finished it."
"Give me what?"
She reveals the bouquet she's been crafting in her mind for the past few days, holding it out to him.
The bouquet contains daffodils, which mean a love unequaled, and that the sun always shines with the person you give them to. There are also white tulips accompanied by purple irises, conveying a deep affection and hope for that fondness to grow. Kate had additionally intermixed some baby’s breath. It melds together the colors and conveys the sincerity of every feeling Kate tried to put into the bouquet.
"Wow, this is a beautiful arrangement. You've really outdone yourself," Anthony says, looking impressed as he takes the flowers from her. "I'm surprised you're giving such a masterpiece to me."
"They're to tell you how I feel," Kate blurts, causing Anthony to look up at her in surprise. She takes a breath and tempts a step towards him. "Because I know if I tried actually telling you, I'd end up saying something stupid."
"I'd say something about how there's a very good chance that I'm falling in love with you," Kate confesses in a rush.
Kate feels such relief in saying the words. It's as if the water contained by a dam had finally been set free, allowing the waves to drench her in all the love she felt for this man.
Anthony's mouthparts in surprise, but before he can speak, Kate puts her hands up. "You don't have to say anything. I just realized that I spend my whole career helping other people express their feelings, but I never do it myself." Kate leans back and forth on her feet awkwardly. "So, that's it. That's all I came here to do, and now I'm done."
Kate begins to turn around, but Anthony's hand jumps to grab her elbow.
"Where in the hell do you think you're going?"
"Uh," she mutters, thrown by his words. "Back home."
Anthony's hand travels up her arm, landing on her cheek. "No."
Kate feels herself smile. "No?"
"No, this is what's going to happen," he says, his fingers grazing her cheek with one hand and holding the bouquet in the other. "I'm going to go put these in some water, and you're going to stay right there."
Kate doesn't know what else to say, feeling a bit too happy and a bit too anxious, so she just nods. Anthony looks at her warily for a few seconds, as if afraid she's going to disappear before his eyes. But, he eventually turns and heads to his kitchen.
When he returns, he's holding a small brown box in his hands.
"What happens now?" Kate asks.
"Now, I'll show you this."
He opens the lid of the box, revealing the contents inside. Kate leans forward to look and frowns when she sees a bunch of slips of paper.
"Why are you showing me a bunch of old wrinkled receipts?"
"There from your shop. From all the times I came in and talked with you, and all the times I came when you weren't there these past few months," Anthony explains, and Kate feels her heart swell. He closes the box and puts it on the table. One of his hands goes to her waist, tugging her closer. Kate looks up at him and is greeted by a smug smile. "Do you honestly think if I wasn't falling for you too, that I would've spent all this money on flowers I didn't need?"
Kate's heart soars and leans into his touch. "Well, my flowers are pretty irresistible."
Anthony's lips dive forward, clumsily but intensely to capture hers. Kate melts against him, deepening the kiss. She feels a rush of need that makes every inch of her skin ache, her nerve endings screaming at her to get him closer. He kisses her achingly slowly and thoroughly. It’s as if he's trying to make a point with his lips.
Kate knows that point is that he finds her irresistible, not the flowers.
Perhaps just this once, Kate thinks, she can allow him to win an argument.