(Part #1 HERE)
The interior of the lounge was thick with cigarette and cigar smoke when a tall skinny man walked in. Fresh air from the door opening moved the clouds around in a frenzy before they settled again. He ignored the sexy women sitting and standing around trying to catch his eye and the suspicious gaze of the men watching him make a path to the back. When he approached a gold painted door at the back, two large bouncers with guns blocked his bath with crossed arms and severe scowls.
“What you crawling back here for, street rat?” the blond one in the tank top asked.
“He didn’t learn his lesson last time,” the other snickered, flexing his dark skinned muscles against his white t-shirt.
The shorter man didn’t say a word but held up his phone to their faces and waited, a smug expression in place. The ‘roided out bouncers squinted at the phone and then snatched it out of his hand. There was a silent communication between the two; the fear and hope that the one who came forward would bring good news. The blonde one knocked on the door (seeming to win/lose the bet) and a foreign reply was shouted through. He was gone for a minute and then another face appeared, much older, more wrinkled and infinitely more deadly.
Her eyes were as keen and cold as a snake’s.
“Such a clever and resourceful rat. Come. You have been graced with an audience.”
Rhys was waiting for Flora as she strolled up to her salon a few days later She was wearing a pair of paint splattered overalls, a sky blue midriff and a bright yellow bandanna in her hair, tied up like a head band. She had on large aviator sunglasses and she jangled, her multitudes of bracelets in place. Her earrings were laser cut sugar skulls and she carried a bulging spiked leather bag across her body.
“Hey stranger,” she greeted with a red-lipped smile as she neared. “You’re here early. You really are a glutton for punishment huh?”
He felt a bit of tension go out of him as he surveyed her easy smile and laid back greeting. Because of her curt exit the last time they’d parted he was concerned that he’d done something to upset her and it made him anxious for their next meeting. But all seemed to be well.
“I was checking up on your poor doomed plant. Figured I’d stop by.”
His eyes traveled down her ensemble, the neon hurting his eyes in the morning light and he focused instead on the pops of color on exposed skin where she proudly showed her tattoos. What he had originally thought was stained glass or abstract paintings were actually flowers. He recognized belladonna, peonies, lilies, roses, tulips, oleander, freesia and Dianthus among the bouquet and found it was hard to take his eyes away when she stopped in front of him. He wanted to examine them more closely and see if they were true to form.
“Your tattoos–” he started.
“Yeah I know,” she interrupted with a deep sigh. “Kind of obvious right? With my name meaning flowers and all. But beautiful flowers are always noticed.” She elbowed him playfully. “And I like being noticed.”
He closed his mouth, the question dying on his lips. As if the pink hair and neon wardrobe wouldn’t do that already.
“So what ARE you doing here so early? I didn’t expect you for another week at least.” she asked, taking a wad of keys out of her bag and selecting one for the door. “And probably more toward the afternoon. It’s an ungodly hour to be awake.”
“Better with no customers around,” he said simply, shrugging when she looked at him with eye brows raised.
“That’s true. And you get to avoid my She-Wolf Pack. Smart man. Come on in.”
She held the door open for him and he walked past her, breathing in some of her floral perfume. Sweet and warm. She locked the door behind him and set her bag down on one of the couches up front, unzipping it and taking out some containers. He watched her and contemplated. What was that scent that tickled his nose? Jasmine? Rose. Definitely something rosy in it, but musky too. Sandalwood? He normally didn’t like perfume because it always smelled so fake and gawdy and it made him sneeze. This was subtle and natural. Was it oils then? He wanted to ask but she was already talking again.
“Sorry I ran out on you the other day. I had a trippy memory come back to me from my childhood. PTSD kicked in. It wasn’t anything you did.”
He was relieved that it wasn’t him that made her upset and that she’d cleared the air between them. It made his task that much more pleasant without the dark cloud of doubt hanging over him.
“It’s fine,” he said simply and shoved his hands into his pockets. His shoulders relaxed a smidge. “Thanks.”
She took off her sunglasses and threw them in her bag.
“Good. Have you eaten yet?”
She laid out several tupperware containers and gestured for him to sit. When he didn’t she looked up at him pointedly with blue shadow streaked eyes. He sat on the edge of the couch to her left and watched her pop off lids with her newly painted rainbow nails.
“Here. Blueberry lemon bread, whole wheat banana chocolate chip bread, yogurt and granola parfait with fresh fruit, mushroom and bell pepper omelet and a selection of teas. We have hot water in the back.”
“You made all this today?”
Everything was still steaming as if it were fresh out of the oven.
She smiled at him and gave him a piece of banana bread on a napkin.
“I’m a morning person,” she said and reached for the omelet. She divided it with a fork and ate her half straight out of the container. He took a tentative bite out of his bread and chewed.
“I thought you said mornings were ungodly.”
“To most other people it is. Good right?” she asked.
He nodded and took a bigger bite. Satisfied, she rose and got hot water from the back in two chipped mugs.
“Do you always make this much food for breakfast?”
“I had some nervous energy to get out. I bake when that happens. Besides, I knew I had to be prepared for when you came back. Breakfast is easier to start people off on when they try new things. It’s light and non-committal, unlike lunch or –GASP–dinner.”
She winked at him when he gave a small smile and continue to eat. He enjoyed the solitude and the meal. The tea she gave was a green variation and he sipped it slowly to savor it. While they ate, Rhys looked around the shop and his eyes picked out potential roosts for the plants he had in the bed of his jeep. He’d brought a wide selection of varying sun/shade plants and flowers based on the lay out of the Salon he’d remembered. But he felt dismayed now seeing that there was little shelving or surface area to put them on.
“Are you allowed to put shelves up?” he asked, a tiny frown appearing between his brows.
Flora nodded and finished her bite.
“We have some. We just didn’t have anybody to hang them. Or the time.
“The owner won’t get mad if we put holes in the wall?”
She answered as she walked back for more hot water and dropped another bag ito his steaming cup.
“She’ll be fine with it.”
“Could you call and ask anyway? Just to be sure?”
She cocked an eyebrow at him.
“So demanding. I rather like this quality. Say something else, Mr. Demandy-pants.”
“It wasn’t a demand–”
She shushed him and dug out her phone, dialing a number. Rhys twitched when the Salon phone rang and Flora rose to answer it.
“Hey boss we got a guy here that’s worried about putting holes in the wall for shelves. Is it cool?”
She looked ridiculous with two phones against her ears and Rhys gave her a sarcastic look. Flora changed her voice slightly and crunched up her face to look like a sour-faced old lady.
“I don’t care. But if he scratches the paint he’s my eternal slave. It’s a discontinued color.”
“Cool! Thanks boss.”
She gave him a cheeky smile and put the receiver down again and clicked off her cell.
“Boss says it’s okay.”
Rhys tried to keep his face neutral but her thoughts had already guessed at his.
“Yes, the pink-haired hippie is a business owner, but only a third of it is mine. I was just the money backer to get it off the ground. The concept was entirely Eta’s idea. The other owner is a distinguished gentleman who took pity on us and got the business side of it all worked out. He travels a lot but we give him free hair cuts when he comes in and a tarot reading.”
“Yeah, like, divining your future with cards? Answering life’s mysteries, yada yada.”
Flora sat back down and took a piece of lemon bread. He had to admit it was nice to be around a woman who could eat and not pick crumbs off a low-fat croissant then complain she’s full. Flora had a healthy appetite for food and life.
“Is that where the ‘Psychic’ come into your Psychic Salon?”
“Yep. Every new client that comes in gets a free reading. Our regulars pay a little extra to get a service of their choice. We got tarot, palmistry, aura reading, chakra healing–”
“I’m sorry but you’re speaking in tongues. I don’t understand any of that.”
“It’s okay. Stick around long enough and you’ll know a lot of things you never thought you would. Are you finished?”
He picked up another piece of banana bread and Flora packed everything away again.
“Alright my gentle knight, lets see what we can do today.”
Working along side Flora in the quiet of the morning wasn’t a bad way to pass the time. It wasn’t pruning and watering in his green house, but it was a nice change. She talked a lot and he listened, helping her wade through the back storage room to locate the shelves he needed and then dragging furniture out-of-the-way to hang them. She was handy with power tools. He liked that. He also liked that when he held the latter for her, he got a closer look at her tattoos. The shading and detail were intricate and vivid, just like any real flower. He wondered how long it had taken for all of them to be done.
“There,” she said, drilling in the last screw and handing the tool down to him. “Good enough?”
All together they’d hung six shelves and a couple random pictures to change out the decor a little bit. “To complement the new greenery.”
“I’ll get my plants.”
“Ohhh can I come see what you brought me?”
He set the drill on the counter and fumbled for words.
“Well, they’re not for you. I mean, yes they are but–”
She smirked at him and patted his pink cheek affectionately.
“You are a gentle knight after all. I should go easy on you. Lets go before the morning early birds come in.”
Flora unlocked the door and let him out and he led her to his jeep. A small forest greeted her when he opened the back and she made an excited “oh!”
“Is this Old Fashioned Swedish Ivy? It’s so mature and full! I’d love to hang that outside but in this neighborhood, it’d probably get stolen. Wait. Is that–”
Flora reached for a purple striped plant and held it up to the sun.
“Oh my gawd a Rhoeo! My aunties had a huge one in the window of the living room. I loved watching it grow as a child. Purple was my favorite color so they got it just for me.”
He reached past her to pull out a tray of potted plants. “Herbs are pretty hardy. Lavender, lemon balm, mint–”
She bent down and buried her nose in the fragrant purple buds.
“I hope you have more of that. Eta loovveeeessssss lavender. She has me make her hypoallergenic lavender lotion every month.”
Rhys smiled a little and made a mental note.
“I’ve also got spiral grass for texture and Hot pokers for some color. A ficus that’s been growing for a few years now. I transplanted it recently so I’ll have to keep an eye on it but it can go in the corner between the two chairs by the window for optimal sun and minimal damage. Most of the rest are succulents that do really well without regular watering. I brought a variety of colors and textures…”
Flora grinned up at him as he rambled on and on about his precious green babies. She didn’t mean to tune him out but she liked the way his lips moved and the warmth in his voice when he talked about a subject he liked. He also looked stunning in black and she was trying hard not to let her switched be flipped all the way on.
He came back. That’s what mattered right now.
She helped him carry pots and trays inside the salon and started to clean up their mess and prep stations while he got to work. Every now and then he whipped out a small notebook and penned a few words and muttered to himself. She kept the Rhoeo at her station, making room for it among the brushes and irons. She made him take a break right before opening and offered him a “get out of jail free” card by reluctantly saying he’d done enough and she appreciated it.
“I can’t leave yet.”
Flora’s heart skittered around her rib cage and she took a sip of her now cold tea to mask her surprise.
“Not that I’m eager to shoo you away or anything but why?”
“I have to take pictures of the light inside every hour.”
She gave him a blank look.
“Some plants might burn or wilt if they don’t get proper amounts of sun. I have a few questionable placings and some alternatives if they don’t do well but I have to make an accurate analysis.”
A whole day looking at eye candy? Her female clientele would be ecstatic, she chief among them. She just hoped no one came in needing anything too complicated because she would be a little distracted. Very easy to mix up the purple and blue hair dyes when tall, dark and hunky was sitting on a chez.
“Alllriigghhttttttt,” she sang and stepped down from the front desk to open the door for the few waiting customers outside. “But you’re buying lunch.”
He blanched. She squeezed his cool fingers and smiled brightly at him.
She unlocked the door and then looked back at him, her face warm and open.
“Thank you for coming back Rhys.”