Byron lay down his pruning shears when he heard the chime of the door alarm. Pushing the curtain aside he entered the front of the flower shop to find a tall, stately woman standing at the counter.
It's Cynthia Graham. It must be. She's just as George described her. She's beautiful...
"Good morning Ms. Graham. I have your orchid ready."
"Why thank you, but where is George? Is he ill?"
"No, he's on a buying trip to the Pacific Rim. He'll be back in a few weeks. My name is Byron."
"A pleasure to meet you Byron, please call me Cynthia. Ms. Graham sounds so stuffy."
Byron grinned and took the orchid from the refrigerated case. He reached for a box to put it in when Cynthia stopped him.
"I'll wear it out Byron," she said in a soft voice. He handed it to her and she fastened it to her dress.
"There," she said brightly. "Now I have errands to run. Very nice to meet you Byron, will I see you again?"
"I'll be here at least three more weeks Cynthia. It was nice meeting you too."
She smiled, showing perfect white teeth, and then was gone.
Byron watched mesmerized until Cynthia was lost in the passing crowds. George had said she was beautiful, but it was a gross understatement as far as he was concerned. From her evening shoes to her fashionably bobbed auburn hair she looked as if she'd stepped from the pages of a glossy fashion magazine. Her carefully applied makeup highlighted her classic features, but it could not conceal a wistful look in her hazel eyes. The simple, yet elegant dress she wore fit every curve of her body, subtly accenting her full breasts and shapely buttocks. She was a dream walking.
He returned to arranging the basket of Nasturtiums, but his mind continued to wander back to Cynthia Graham. When he had agreed to help his cousin George by keeping the florist shop open, he had studied books and websites on flowers and flower arranging so he could be more than a caretaker. His own job as a software designer meant that he could work from anywhere, so being away from his apartment was no disruption.
George had said of all his customers Cynthia was most intriguing. Every Wednesday for the past four years she had bought one Cattleya orchid, wore it out of the shop and he didn't see her again until the following Wednesday. He had thought about following her to satisfy his curiosity, but didn't want to invade her privacy or worse yet have her think he was a psycho stalker. So she remained a mystery.
Orders for weddings, anniversaries and funerals kept Byron occupied and before he knew it Cynthia was walking in the shop. They exchanged pleasantries; she pinned on her orchid, paid with a fifty dollar bill saying "Keep the change," and was gone.
The following week she stayed longer and they chatted about their lives.
Cynthia told of her childhood on a farm in Missouri, there were few neighbors so she and her sister were company for each other. They helped their father on the farm and their mother in the kitchen, learning useful skills and self sufficiency. They attended the same county school one grade apart. Both had married and left home in their early twenties.
Cynthia stopped talking at the mention of her marriage, fished in her clutch purse and dabbed at her eyes with a lace handkerchief.
"Now you must tell me about yourself."
Byron smiled as he recounted his childhood as the only son of a small town general store owner. From the time he could walk he was helping his parents in the store, fetching small items from top shelves and delivering groceries on his bike to older customers. His parents insisted he attend college, where he discovered his ability to write software code and repair computers.
With small town and rural experiences in common, their conversation became more relaxed as the weeks passed. George had called asking if Byron could stay on a while longer as he was in negotiations with Indonesian nurserymen. Wanting to continue seeing Cynthia, he agreed.
Byron had made a decision as he opened the shop Wednesday morning, this time he was going to follow Cynthia and see where she went after purchasing her orchid. Over the weeks he had become intrigued by this mysterious woman, and was more than a little smitten with her. She seemed to act more warmly towards him, which only served to heighten his interest. When Cynthia left the shop he grabbed his jacket, flipped over the 'Open' sign, locked the door and began his quest.
He remained a half block behind her as she strode confidently down the sidewalks, drawing appreciative smiles and stares from men and some women; she politely ignored them all. Rounding a corner, she stopped beneath a blue painted sign reading 'Club San Souci: Cocktails. Dining. Entertainment Nightly.' Looking at the buildings Art Deco façade for a moment, she went inside.
Byron hesitated in the foyer. He didn't want to intrude on her privacy, but his curiosity drove him on. The interior was dimly lit, with candles illuminating each table. To his left was a long bar of gleaming mahogany with smoked mirrors and slender, chair-like bar stools, to his right a bandstand and dance floor, before him a sea of tables, neatly arranged in anticipation of their eventual occupants.
Then he saw her seated at a table against the far wall, a drink in her hand, staring into space. He wended his way between the tables to where she was.
"Cynthia?" he said hesitantly.
"Byron?" she replied, ceasing her reverie. "Whatever are you doing here?"
There was a faraway look in her eyes, sadness mixed with longing; tears glistening on her cheeks in the light of the flickering candle.
"I ... I followed you when you left the shop Cynthia," he blurted, cheeks reddening in embarrassment. "I wanted to see where you went every Wednesday. I didn't mean to disturb you..." His voice trailed off as he stood there, shifting from one foot to the other like a naughty schoolboy.
"So Byron, I had no idea I was that intriguing or you were so interested in me. Would you care for a drink?"
"I think I would, yes," he replied, sinking gratefully into the chair opposite her.
Cynthia pressed a button at the base of the candle and a waiter appeared, seemingly from nowhere.
"Your order, madam?"
"My friend wishes a drink..."
"Scotch on the rocks," he finished for her. "Dewar's please."
"Sir", the waiter replied and glided away.
"So you followed me. You're curious about the mysterious woman and her obsession with orchids?"
"Guilty as charged. I didn't mean to intrude, but..."
"You surprised me at first, appearing so suddenly like that."
"If I make you uncomfortable, maybe I should go."
Her eyes became misty and her mood softened.
"Seven years ago my husband and I spent our last evening together here,"
The waiter appeared, set Byron's drink before him and walked away without a word.
"He was owner and captain of a commercial fishing trawler; the 'Aleutian Princess'. He'd spend weeks at sea..."
Cynthia's voice broke and tears trickled down her cheeks. She wiped her eyes, sighed and continued.
"We never talked of his work, how dangerous it was, but I knew and I feared for him. He would always hug me and say everything would be fine. For ten years it was."
She paused, visibly trying to compose herself. Taking a sip of her drink she continued.
"I was awakened one morning by the ringing of the bedside phone. It was the wife of the ships engineer, sobbing hysterically. The boat had sunk during a storm. The Coast Guard had rescued some of the crew, but had no other details."
She paused for a moment, shutting her eyes. Byron was unsure what to do. This was obviously painful for her.
Damn! I should have minded my own business, left her alone with her grief.
Cynthia opened her eyes, gave him a half smile, sighed and continued.
"I was in shock. I tried to calm her down, telling her I was sure everyone had been rescued even as coldness formed in the pit of my stomach and I knew it was a lie. When she hung up I went to the kitchen and brewed some coffee. I was on my third cup when the doorbell rang. I put on my robe and looked through the window. Two men stood there; one in a dark suit, the other in a Coast Guard uniform.
I remember thinking please God, no as I opened the door."
"Cynthia," Byron interjected. "I didn't mean to upset you. I'm sorry I intruded. Maybe I should go..."
She shook her head and continued.
"Mrs. Jacobsen?' the man in the suit said. 'I'm Aubrey Davis, Homeland Security; this is Lieutenant Carson, United States Coast Guard. May we come in?"
"I don't remember much after that. I remember the Lieutenant holding me as I cried."
She paused for a moment, taking a swallow of her drink.
"I learned later that the 'Princess' began taking on water and the pumps were unable to handle it. He ordered everyone in their survival suits and the life rafts launched."
Cynthia took a deep breath, her voice was low.
"He held the ship steady into the wind until the crew were in life rafts, then it abruptly rolled over and sank. His body was found floating, still in his survival suit."
Her hand shook as she set her drink down; Byron reached across the table and held it. She seemed not to notice.
"Everyone tried to comfort me, I cried until I couldn't cry anymore."
She lifted her glass and drained it.
"I sold our home and left that life behind. I found an apartment here in the city and tried to begin life anew. It felt as if I died with him and try as I might I couldn't move on."
Cynthia touched the orchid, sighing wistfully.
"Gary bought one like this for me every time we came here for dinner and to dance. He was a wonderful dancer. For a big man he was light on his feet. He always requested the band play 'Whiter Shade of Pale' so we could slow dance. He loved that song."
The waiter appeared as if by magic, placing a fresh drink before her and whisking the empty glass away.
'Six months after he died, I returned here. To remember that last night, since I could not and would not forget. I bought my first orchid from George that day and every Wednesday since."
She smiled and sat up straight in her chair.
"You have a kind way about you Byron. You're the first person I have spoken to about this in years. My sister and I talk on occasion, but she's busy with her husband and their children and I don't wish to bother her."
Cynthia patted Byron's hand.
"That's my sad story. You are sweet to listen to me ramble on."
Byron smiled and they sat silently for several minutes, finishing their drinks, each lost in thought. Then Cynthia stood up.
"I must be off and you must return to the shop. I don't want you to lose customers because of me. Goodbye Byron."
Before he could answer she was walking towards the door.
"Goodbye Cynthia," he said and reached for his wallet.
"The lady has already paid sir," the waiter said from behind him, "Have a pleasant day."
He emerged, blinking into the sunlight. It was as he had awakened from a dream.
When Cynthia arrived the following Wednesday Byron greeted her at the door. She smiled warmly when she saw him. "Why thank you kind sir," she said as he held the door open.
He handed her an orchid then said, "Cynthia, would you care to go to the Rialto Theater tomorrow evening? They're having a film noir festival. Do you enjoy classic movies?"
Her face broke into a broad smile, "I adore old movies. Shall I meet you there?"
"I'll call for you at seven thirty. The first film begins at eight."
"I'll be looking forward to it. Thank you for inviting me Brian."
"May I?" He replied, pinning the orchid to her dress. The close contact made the blood rise in her cheeks and she giggled nervously.
"Such a gentleman you are." She drew a ragged breath. "I ... I must be going now." Retrieving a pen and paper from her purse, she scribbled her address and handed it to him. "This is where I live." Waving goodbye, she was out the door.
Byron stood a moment clutching the paper, watching her go. He couldn't stop smiling.
"I still say Barbara Stanwyck set the mold for all other actresses in the noir genre" Cynthia said, taking a drink of her tea.
"I tend to agree," Byron replied, lifting a forkful of apple pie, "Although Gene Tierney figures prominently in that category as well."
"And Rita Hayworth," Cynthia continued. 'Gilda' is one of my favorite movies."
Seated in a small coffee shop near the theater, the couple chatted happily about the films they had seen. The Rialto was a small and cramped theater from another era, so they were pressed against each other in the narrow seats, neither minding in the slightest. Heads together, they discussed characters and scenes in low tones throughout the showings. The intimate contact could not help to arouse Byron as he felt her warmth and smelled the delicate scent of her perfume. It affected Cynthia as well, as she did not pull away from him and sighed when their faces were but inches apart.
"Orson Welles's movies are the feature next week," Byron said. "Would you... ?"
"Why yes," Cynthia replied. "The Magnificent Amberson's is so dramatic. It's a shame the studio forced him to edit it for feature length..."
Their conversation continued until the coffee shop closed, and Byron offered to walk Cynthia home. Standing at the doorway to her apartment they both became nervous, mumbling inanities until Cynthia said "Would you care to come in for a while?"
Byron hesitated, he would have liked to spend more time with her but something in her eyes stopped him. A look of sadness was there even as she smiled.
"Thank you Cynthia, but I best be on my way. It's late and I have to go in early tomorrow to prepare for the Hargrove wedding. Would you care to have dinner with me this weekend?"
"Of course, I would like that." The relief in her voice told him he had made the right decision.
"Good night Cynthia."
"Good night Byron. I had a lovely time."
She watched from the apartment doorway as Byron stepped in the elevator, and then shut the door behind her.
When George called two weeks later to say he would be on the next flight home, Byron and Cynthia had attended two more screenings, seen an exhibition of Impressionist art and had dinner afterwards. They thoroughly enjoyed each others company and were more reluctant to end their times together.
Cynthia became more relaxed as the days went by, even shyly taking Byron's hand when he offered it as they walked to her apartment.
Byron did not want to go back to his lonely apartment. He decided to ask George if he could stay and help in the shop, maybe sleep on his cousin's couch until he could find an apartment in town. It would not be difficult to leave where he was now living; he knew a few other tenants in the building but had no permanent ties.
He had focused solely on his profession since leaving college; being so involved in his work he had no social life. His apartment had always seemed a cozy refuge; however since meeting Cynthia it held all the allure of a monk's cell.
When he called her with the news of his decision, the enthusiasm in her voice made him feel warm all over. He met George at the airport and asked if he could stay on, his cousin responded affirmatively. He was glad for the help. Moving was easily accomplished, as Byron had few possessions he wished to take with him and in no time was happily ensconced in his new apartment.
"Would you care to come in?"
Byron and Cynthia stood at the door of her apartment where they always ended their times together; tonight her voice and her eyes conveyed warmth he had not seen before.
"Thank you Cynthia, I would."
Her apartment was tastefully decorated in Danish Modern, minimal, yet comfortable and welcoming. He had stepped inside once before, but only to use the phone and left quickly, feeling uncomfortable.