Buffalo can be beautiful when it snows. The cracks in the street become invisible along with any other imperfections, hidden until plowed and melted. Tree nudity is celebrated with hundreds of tiny lights and bright Christmas cheer decorates my walk down the block. The sun isn’t yet strong enough to announce the break of day and at a balmy 23°F, my fingers feel about five minutes from frostbite. Picking up the pace as my boots crunch through the icy crust of last night’s snow, I hustle towards the well-lit and already well-shoveled entrance to Green’s Produce, coveting the warmth from the cellphone pressed to my ear under my hat.
“Is it really that bad?” I ask, ducking through the door to the spirited jingle of the bell.
A wave of warmth hits me and my body reacts instantly. Muscles once tensed in defense against the cold, begin to relax and I sigh with relief. Wiggling my fingers back to life, I smile hello to Kimber Green, the owner’s daughter. Waving back with a pen in her hand, the young tween perched at the counter continues writing something in a school workbook whilst munching on toast.
In my ear, my younger brother Tim launches into the all too familiar rant about living in a house full of girls, and how he doesn’t understand the logistics of pre-hormonal treachery betwixt frenemies, and when exactly am I coming home again.
Swinging my big shoulder bag to the floor, I try not to laugh. “I’ve got another day of work before I can leave the city, but if you want, you can come pick me up tomorrow. Can the current problem wait until then?”
“I wish. The party is tonight, Kat. Roslyn’s invited, Liana’s not, there’s some sort of ‘cool crowd’ scenario and Li’s crushed - not to mention Ros is being a right brat about it. I’ve been dealing with the tension all week, and the fallout of last week’s cafeteria incident. I can’t handle much more. It’s your turn.”
Sighing, I pull off my hat and my other mitten, tossing them onto my bag. “Okay. Put Li on first.”
Still scrunching my fingers to encourage blood flow, I run them through my long hair, only to get them wet from the hitchhiking snowflakes that are now melting in my dull auburn locks.
“Kat?” Liana sniffs, already playing the victim.
Softly, Kat, softly.
“Hey Li-Li. Tim-bones tells me you’re upset you didn’t get an invitation to Sarah Matheson’s birthday party.”
Sniff. “She did it on purpose!”
“Well if you think she’s the awful kind of person who would do that, why do you even want to go?”
“Because everyone else is!”
“Everyone?” Rolling my eyes, I scan the bananas looking for one with just a touch of green.
“Everyone who’s anyone,” Li replies with a huff. “And I actually don’t want to go, it’s just that Ros was invited and she’s been rubbing it in my face all week. Sarah’s trying to turn her against me, and it’s working! This morning she made fun of my hair, even though she wore hers like this yesterday!”
Pinching the bridge of my nose, I take a deep breath. “Okay Li. Listen up. I love you, but you guys are driving Tim crazy; and probably Jem too. Here’s what’s going to happen. You are going to focus on the fact that you don’t actually like Sarah Matheson enough to celebrate her birth. I am going to speak with Ros, so go find her and put her on the phone.”
Shivering as an escapee snowflake trickles under my scarf, I throw my hair behind me, and pull the cozy wool closer to my skin. Holding the phone to my ear with my shoulder, I detach the banana I want from its bunch. Looking around at the other fruit and vegetable displays, I mentally re-check my shopping lists for the Christmas break with my family, tonight’s dinner for me and my roommates, and Nina’s requests for the club.
Scanning the low aisles, I come to a sudden stop when my gaze hits the solid form of Mr. Green himself. My eyes rise slowly to his and the familiar heat begins to flame in my cheeks, endangering any stubborn snowflakes that have so far refused to melt.
How long has he been looking at me like that? Was he here when I came in? I return his welcoming smile, sure that mine doesn’t heat a room the way his does.
“Hello indeed,” I whisper, not sure if my ogling of Lennox Green should be accompanied by such a rapidly pounding heart, but it makes sense with all of the very graphic and steamy images running through my head. Would it hurt him in those scenarios if I tugged his beard to pull him closer?
Frowning, I remember I’m holding a phone to my ear. Feeling my whole face flush from the realization that I am being completely inappropriate, I turn away. “Ros?”
“Uh, yeah. Li said you wanted to talk to me.”
Crashing back into guardian mode, I nod. “I do want to talk to you. What’s this I hear about you giving your sister a hard time? You better not be using Li to impress some stuck-up little snot-queen like Sarah Matheson, or I will be seriously re-thinking your privileges, Roslyn.”
Grunting some sort of despicable response, Ros sighs. “I knew you’d take her side.”
“I’m not taking anyone’s side.”
“Just because we’re twins, we don’t have to do everything together.”
Taking a steadying breath, I rise above the pre-pubescent drama. “Ros, I know you and your twin are separate people with separate interests and lives. I don’t have a problem with you going to the party, if that’s what you want. What I do have a problem with, is you being completely vile to your sister. We have one rule, Roslyn. Family first. It’s that simple. Liana doesn’t even want to go to the party, so stop being all high and mighty as if you’re the guest of honor and give her a break. Got it?”
The begrudging response of ‘Fiiiine’ does wonders to instill confidence.
“I’m serious Ros. If I hear from Tim that you’ve been at it again, you won’t be going to the party either.”
“What? That’s not fair!”
“It’s perfectly fair.”
“I hate it when you guys try and boss me around! You’re not my Mom.”
Ungritting my teeth, I plaster a smile on my face in the hope that it will carry in my voice. “No, I’m not your mother, but I’m the closest thing you’ve got. We’re all in this together, so quit behaving like a brat and be the amazing sister I know you are.”
“I mean it. When Li slipped on the ice last year and broke her leg, who was it that got her back home before she froze? You love her and she loves you, so forget about the rest of the drama okay?”
A resigned sigh sounds in my ear. “Okay, Kat. When are you coming home?”
“I think Tim is going to pick me up tomorrow. You can talk to him about what time, and whether you guys are coming too. Get him to text me the details. Are we good here?”
“Yeah. We’re good. Seeya tomorrow.”
“Okay. Have a great day, Ros. Love you guys.”
“Love you too.”
Shoving my phone back in my pocket, I set down the banana and rub my hands together to get my fingers nimble again. Picking up my bag again, I turn back to the counter to see Kimber watching the opening to the back area. The heavy plastic strips that hang above it are just settling back into place from her father having gone through them. Turning back, Kimber shakes her head until she sees that I’m off the phone.
“Hey Kat,” she says in the easy way she always does. “You’re in early. Pretty cold out huh?”
“Yeah,” I agree, opening up my bag. “Would have stayed in bed if I didn’t have so much to do. Last day of school for you?”
“Mmhmm,” she mumbles, chewing. Toast with peanut butter and slices of banana, I note. Jem loves that too.
“What have they got you doing for homework if it’s the last day before the break?”
Brushing crumbs from her face, and then from her workbook, Kimber looks up. “It’s not much. I just didn’t do it last night, because Dad took me and Uncle Linc ice-skating. We just have to choose a holiday theme and write a short poem.”
“A holiday theme?”
“You know... peace, joy, that kind of thing.”
“I see. Which did you choose?” I ask, trying to peek at her writing as she covers it up.
“Does it have to rhyme?”
“Mine does,” she informs me. “I’m working on a limerick.”
“I always liked limericks the best. They just seem funny, even when they’re not.”
“Of that, I have no doubt. I’ve got something for you,” I say, digging in my bag for the carefully packaged bundle. “It’s not much. Just a thank you for all the hard work you guys do. We really appreciate it, and so do the homeless that your dad helps to feed by topping up our orders each time,” I explain, taking out the cellophane wrapped box and setting it on the counter in front of her. “Is your dad coming back in a minute? I have a few orders to make.”
“He’ll be right out,” she says absently, squinting at the package as she tilts it sideways. “Cookies and...?”
“Woolen hats,” I reply with a smile as she starts to break into it. “The blue one is for you. I chose the yarn specially; to match your beautiful eyes.”
“This is awesome,” she says in a high-pitched excited tone. “Wait. You made these?” she asks, pulling out the three hats and lining them up on the check-out counter.
“It’s kind of a hobby. And I don’t buy gifts at Christmas, so... yeah. Your Dad and Lincoln will have to fight over the other two.”
Pulling her hat on, Kimber holds up her hands in a model-like pose. “How do I look?”
Kimber returns my smile with a grin and I hold up my chosen banana. “Mind if I eat now, pay later.”
“On the house,” she says, waving me off as she bites into an oatmeal cookie. “Mmm. So good. I bet this is what love tastes like.”
Giggling, I shake my head. “That’s exactly what Scarlett says! I’ll give you the recipe and you can make your own.”
Peeling my banana, I take a bite and we eat in companionable silence. Soon Lennox walks through from the back area carrying several boxes of produce that make his muscles bulge enough for their outlines to be seen through his shirt. His tie is in stark contrast to his rolled up sleeves and tattooed arms, and his beard, and his hair. Dark and wavy it always looks perfectly styled - short at the sides and left long on top to be swished back - not slicked down with grease or any other noticeable product, but seeming to stay put by some other architecturally sound method - genetically perfect hair structure is my guess. Probably tall enough and broad enough that he needs to negotiate certain doorways with care, the whole effect of his presence is mouth-watering. Not everyone could carry this kind of half wild, half conformist appearance, but he pulls it off.
My ever-loving stars, does he pull it off.
Doing a double take as he walks by, he stops. At first he seems surprised to see us both eating next to the register. His watchful eyes take in Kimber’s half eaten toast, the cellophane and box of homemade cookies, what’s left of the cookie in Kimber’s hand and her guilty grin as she quickly shoves the rest of the cookie in her mouth. Raising one eyebrow, he says nothing, but Kimber picks up her toast again and gives him another smile.
Then those big brown eyes of his land on me. My eyes are dark brown like coffee, but his are much lighter; more like a rich toffee, and their warmer tones are only emphasized by his long dark lashes. No man should have eyelashes that long. I’d say they’re a waste, but they definitely add to his appeal.
Why am I just staring at him? I should say something. Anything. Hi Lennox, hope you have a nice Christmas and I’ll see you in the New Year. I hope you like the cookies, and although I’ll pretend I don’t care which hat you choose, I hope you pick the gray one, because I made it with you in mind.
Nope! Not that. Remaining mute is safest, though almost impossible for me in his fine presence. Must keep mouth busy by other means - shove food in it, quick.
Lennox’s eyes drop to my mouth as I fill it with banana. Taking on a dark quality, his gaze lingers there. What the hell is my mouth doing? Just bite the damn banana and take it out! This is lewd behavior and there is an impressionable minor, right there!
Kimber says something, but I can’t hear her over the lusty pounding in my ears. Turning in her direction, I try to focus as I chew. She’s looking at Lennox as she speaks, so I’ve blissfully dodged a bullet. Finishing my banana in one more bite, I put the skin into the scraps bin they keep to the side of the counter.
Get yourself under control Kat. Make the orders and leave without breaking anything.
For some reason, whenever I’m in this store, I become a complete klutz. You’d never know that I can be graceful and that I actually dance for a living. I mean, I do other things too, but the bulk of my income comes from dancing in the club down the block.
Risking a glance at Kimber and Lennox, I find them both looking at me expectantly, as if they’ve asked a question. Shocked that I’ve missed it completely, I turn to face them properly. My elbow knocks a festive basket of green and red apples off the counter, toppling them to the floor. Dropping down immediately, I chase them as they scatter in every direction.
Cursing myself under my breath, I scramble beneath a display only to hit my head on it on my way back out. Clutching the back of my head as I kneel on the linoleum, I swear out loud.
A real swear.
The kind that only comes out if I’ve been thrown off-kilter enough to forget about keeping my language clean. The kind with an F in it. Slapping my hand over my mouth I look back to my audience at the counter as my burning cheeks soar to new temperature heights.
“I’m so sorry. I don’t know what’s wrong with me. I shouldn’t be allowed in here. I shouldn’t be allowed in public, really.” Lennox is several steps closer than he was, and after he and Kimber exchange a quick glance, they both continue to watch me with amusement.
The bell over the door jingles, as if it too is laughing at me. A pair of long legs come to a stop in front of me.
“Morning Katarina.” Lennox’s brother, Lincoln, greets me with a grin. “Destroying the store early today, I see.”
Sighing, I sink back onto my heels and hide my face. “Good morning Linc. Help yourself to some cookies. They’re on the counter. Merry Christmas.”
“Cookies? Awesome. Thanks Kat,” he says, moving away to investigate.
Lennox silently drops to a knee beside me, collecting several apples back into the basket and holding out his hand to help me up. Staring at it a moment, I look to his face. His expression still holds some quiet amusement, but there’s also a touch of concern.
“How’s your gourd?”
“Probably more of a beetroot,” I reply quietly, touching my flaming cheeks lightly in confirmation before taking his hand and standing up. “I really am sorry for my behavior, and for damaging your produce. I’ll pay for the apples.”
“No need. They’ll make good pie,” he says, handing me the basket and scooping up the last of the apples from the floor to top it up.
“Thank you for the thoughtful gifts,” he adds as he takes the now full basket back to the counter, addressing Kimber as she reaches for it. “Finish your poem, Sprout. Linc will bag these for Kat.”
Turning back to me, Lennox approaches again slowly. “Anything else I can do for you Katarina?”
So many things. Could you maybe just start by running your hands through my hair and pulling my lips to yours? That always looks so hot in the movies. I’d like it if you did that to me. You could follow it up with just about anything else. You look as if you know how to please a woman.
Why is he looking at me like that? Is he blushing? Great. Dork of the week award goes to... Katarina James for her apparent transparency in all things lusty.
Closing my eyes and sighing at myself, I step forward. “I have a few orders actually. Do you think I could pick them up on my way back from the salon? I’m on dinner tonight, and it’s the last night for the club until the New Year, but Prez is out of herbs. I need some supplies before I head home to Franklinville tomorrow too.”
I should stop talking there. A normal person would. Not me. I just keep on going like a flaming imbecile. “I’ll be cooking up a storm to make up for being away from the kids. They probably finished the frozen meals I made last month within a week and have been living on Tim and Jem’s specialties - beans or spaghetti from a can. They’ll be hanging out for a dose of vitamins and some taste sensations, which is where you come in. Your greens are by far the best.” Great. Now I sound like a babbling, brown-nosing suck-up.
“The best.” Lennox tries the words as if tasting them. “By far?”
My raging mortification must surely have reddened my face to the fieriest vermilion. If I could only sink through the linoleum beneath me, or find the right shade of chili pepper to blend into, I could maybe recover, but no. There is no relief from this pit of humiliation. Dig yourself out Kat.
“I don’t know why they’re the best. They just are. And I only want the best for my family. I wish I knew the secret to great greens, but I guess if word got out, you’d have competition and might not be the best for long. Though probably you would be. I’d still come here either way, because it’s so close and you guys are so...” Even Linc and Kimber are staring at me now. Neither of them are doing a very good job of stifling their laughter either. Nice save, dork. What shade of red is the one beyond vermilion?
Lennox isn’t laughing at me, but he does study me with a strange smile on his face. “You wish you knew.”
Without answering, Lennox walks away. Pausing by the plastic strip curtain to the back, he waves me over. I glance at Linc and Kimber, but they instantly lower their eyes, taking entirely too much interest in a blank page of Kimber’s workbook. Looking back to Lennox, I will my feet to move.
Coming to a stop next to him, I try to understand what is happening.
“Can you keep a secret, Katarina?”
Can I what? I keep so many secrets from so many people I can’t even remember who knows what anymore, so I’ve just quit talking about those things. Kat, do not say that out loud!
I don’t say anything, just to be safe. Desperately wanting to avoid another display of verbal hemorrhaging, I simply nod instead.
Pushing the thick plastic strips to one side, Lennox gestures for me to enter before him. As I step into the short hall towards another plastic strip curtain at the other end, I hear the one behind me settle back into place. There are doors on either side of the hall. One has the words Cool Room carved into a rustic wooden board, and the other has a similar plaque that reads Private, making me wonder if that is the way to the secret I’m meant to keep. Sensing Lennox at my shoulder, I look back, uncertain. With just a fraction of a smile, he nods me straight ahead. As soon as I’m through the next curtain, I feel my breath catch.
Not only is the air warm, it’s as humid as a rainstorm in summer, and all around me, is green. There are walls of green, from floor to slanted, glass-paneled ceiling; row upon row of lush vegetation. Greenery hangs down from above and in every conceivable space. The air even smells green; tastes green.
Wide-eyed, I turn back to Lennox. Leaning against the curtained doorway, he’s watching me in that way he always seems to - as if trying to learn my thoughts. Secret stuff there Lennox. Sorry.
Feeling not only my cheeks, but my whole body heating as I take another step into this secret garden wonderland, I pull the scarf from my neck before I start sweating under the hot, bright lamps.
Firm hands rest on my shoulders and Lennox leans in. “Leave your coat,” he says, helping me from it and hanging it on a nearby hook. I really do try not to think about how good it might feel for him to remove more than just my coat, but I fail miserably.
No less hot, I push my sleeves up as I walk between the green walls of the closest row.
Everything seems to be connected by pipes, and as I lean closer to inspect the plants, I realize the whole system is hydroponic. Not an ounce of soil in sight. Reaching a hand out, I brush it along a wall of mint, breathing it in. With the excitement of a kid in a candy store, I move down the row, my fingers stirring up the fragrance of each type of herb in heady bursts. At the end of the row, I meet a wall of lettuce, and a glimpse down the next row reveals walls of arugula and spinach.
“Lennox this is crazy! And beautiful, and amazing! You grow all the greens on site?”
“And harvest as close to pick up as possible to maximize flavor,” he says, plucking off a sage leaf and bruising it between his fingers before bringing it to his nose.
“No wonder they taste so good. I bet you supply the top chefs in town.”
He nods, his eyes moving up my body to my face. “You would know,” he says, clearing his throat.
“It’s not just ingredients,” he continues. “Some are for garnishing, and at this time of the year, we also stock festive greenery for ornamentation.” His eyes drop to my lips momentarily and he runs a hand down his face, scratching his beard.
What must that beard feel like? Thick and rough? A dark forest to explore.
Looking at the green forest around me to keep from staring at him, I cross my arms to trap my hands lest they wander unsupervised. “Thank you for showing me this... this oasis. I had no idea. It’s so... so...” Where are my words now? Back over by the door?
I head back towards my coat, feeling Lennox on my heels. “I should really be getting to work. I told the girls yesterday that I was making cookies, so they’ll be waiting on me. We really only have a few customers today - it’s more about us celebrating the past year with bubbly wine. Not that I drink wine, but, well, it’ll be nice to celebrate anyway. I hope you and Kimber have a great Christmas, Lennox. Unless you’re Jewish. Or Hindi, or Muslim, or whatever. Happy holidays. And Linc too,” I say in a rush as I reach for my coat, silently cursing myself for being such an awkward goose.
Why does he make my name sound so precious? Maybe because out of the handful of words he’s actually spoken, only a few of them weren’t related to his work, and my name has apparently made the short list of words worthy enough for Lennox to speak them aloud. Clutching my coat to my chest, I turn back to face him.
For a moment, he says nothing.
Raising his eyes to the greenery above me, he smiles briefly before giving a soft sigh and shaking his head. Following his gaze, I look up to see a few branches secured to the ceiling, their ends resting in the shallow, suspended trough. Hanging over the sides of the trough are several clumping, shrub-ish plants with leaves like...
“Is that mistletoe?”
Lennox nods. “Festive greenery for ornamentation. They grow like parasites, so I have to keep the host branches healthy to keep the suckers alive.”
“Yeah. Sorry. I didn’t mean to ruin mistletoe for you,” he says, sighing and rubbing the back of his neck.
Looking back up at it, I consider any feelings I’ve ever had in regards to mistletoe. “I didn’t like it much before anyway.”
Shrugging, I fold my coat over my arms, reluctant to put it back on when I’m still so warm. “No. Why? Were you going to kiss me?”
Oh my ever-lasting froghoppers. Will I ever shut up?
I check his reaction. What’s he doing? Just looking at me? Again? Doesn’t he ever tire of seeing me turn crimson? Is red his favorite color, or is he just distracted by it like bulls are? My face must look like an inflamed pimple with hair. Even if he was going to kiss me, he surely won’t now. That’s good. Right?
“Is that what you want?” he asks, stepping forward.
His words don’t register, but I’m watching his lips, so I know he said something. They definitely shaped words. Why can’t I lip read?
“Do you want me to kiss you?”
Okay. I heard him that time. I heard him, but I’m not sure I can believe my ears now. When did incoming transmissions become so difficult? My processing functions are off. Even swallowing takes more effort than it should. My voice is barely audible and I begin to wonder if my outgoing data is plagued by the same paralyzing affliction. I must have some form of brain malfunction. Maybe the unseasonal heat in here has fried my circuits.
Maybe Lennox Green fried my circuits by asking that question. What’s the answer?
“I don’t know.” Genius.
“You don’t know?” he asks, his eyes scanning my face.
My cheeks are so warm, I think I could serve as a radiant heater for this winter, and maybe even the next without needing to be recharged.
Why is he looking at my lips like that? Why am I looking at his? Where do people usually look at each other? His lips press together in a thin line and his eyes narrow.
“You definitely know,” he says with surety.
I do. I want you to kiss me, Lennox. I want you to more than kiss me.
Do not say that, Kat! Just shrug.
Good. Back it up with a dismissive comment.
“It doesn’t matter,” I mumble, shaking my head as I turn to leave.
Lennox reaches for my arm, slowing me enough to get in front of me. “It matters.”
Why are his lips at eye level? It’s so distracting. Damn heels. “Excuse me?”
“What you want matters, Kat.”
Before I can react to that statement by clumsily destroying his business in a tragic game of greenery-wall dominoes, or opening my mouth and saying something incredibly moronic, I’m stopped - immobilized; barely able to draw breath.
Sliding his fingers into my hair, Lennox leans in close and lightly presses his lips to mine. Pulling back ever so slightly, he repeats the soft kiss as his thumb strokes my cheek. He doesn’t push further, but rests his forehead against mine.
“Merry Christmas Kat.”
Pulling his hand from my hair, and brushing my cheek with the backs of his fingers, he backs up. “Leave your orders at the counter. They’ll be ready when you are,” he says quietly before melting away into the maze of immense foliage.
Ducking back through the heavy plastic curtain, I touch my fingers to my lips. I can still feel the kiss, even though it was such a gentle touch. Making the most of the cool hallway to get myself back into some form of functional being, I inhale deeply before continuing out to the store.
“Wow. It is hot out there.”
Not even a lie.
Wiping my forehead, I act casual as I dig in my bag for my shopping lists. “Can I swing by to collect this order around three?” I ask, ironing out the paper creases against my thigh before handing the first list to Lincoln. “And this one I won’t need until tomorrow. I should know the actual time by this afternoon, so I’ll let you know then?”
Exchanging a secretive glance with Kimber, Lincoln accepts the order and runs his eyes over it. “Three should be fine,” he replies with a smile as he takes the second, much longer list. “Have a lovely day Katarina.”
“You too, Linc. And you have a great last day of school, Kim-bones.”
Her eyebrow quirks at me in the same way her father’s sometimes does.
“Sorry. My brother is Tim-bones. My brain hiccups sometimes.”
“It’s okay,” she assures me, zipping up her schoolbag with a smile. “I kinda like it. How did he get the name?”
Gazing at the ceiling, I remember it clearly. “Well, I did a lot of dancing - you know, ballet and stuff, so I’d always be practicing, and Tim is three years younger than me, so I was his idol for like... five minutes. Anyway, he used to dance around after me - I had to dance in the yard, because Mom said the house was too small to contain my whirlwind - and he had this skeleton costume that he’d wear for weeks after Halloween - way cute, but also hilarious, because it really didn’t fit him very well by the fourth Halloween he wore it - we still tease him about it,” I add with a giggle. “Anyway, early on in what I refer to as the skeleton years, we were dancing and his outfit inspired the boy next door to start singing Them Bones - you know, the ‘this bone connected to that other bone’? Only then we all sang Tim-bones, Tim-bones, gonna dance around, and the name kind of stuck. I think he was maybe four, poor guy.” Linc laughs politely, Kimber smiles, and I run a hand down my face. “Total corn. I talk way too much sometimes. I’m going to head to work now. Catch you guys later!” I call over my shoulder as I head for the door, pulling my coat on.
“Bye Kat. Thanks for the presents!”
“You’re welcome,” I call back to Kimber as I pull on my own homemade hat and mittens. With a quick wave, I head out into the cold as the rising sun struggles to shine through the cloud cover. It’s still snowing lightly, but any flakes that hit my face are most welcome. They’ll help cool it down as I think about non-verbal communication, the expressions of bearded men, and in particular the lips of the reticent Lennox Green, and how to read them. Because if I am reading them right, I need to work out how to close their book when every part of me wants to flip ahead to the juicy bits he seems to be promising.