Pliiiink! The small, old-fashioned bell on the door of Jean Christopher's flower shop tinkled. Jean walked, as quickly as her walker permitted, from her flower-arranging area into the shop itself. Her still-lovely face broke into a big smile when she saw who her customer was---Martino Ortona, the famed advertising tycoon, who owned a huge, white house with extensive gardens, right on the beach.
"Buon giorno, Signore. Come sta?" said Jean. "How's that?"
Martino smiled broadly. "Your accent gets better every time you speak Italian to me," he said. "And I keep on buying more and more flowers from you, so I can come by to hear you." They grinned at each other.
"What are you in the mood for?" Jean asked.
"A cup of coffee in your back room?" Martino responded.
"With pleasure. Will you come through? I just started a pot, it should be finished dripping through soon." Jean went ahead. Gesturing to two armchairs with a small drinks table between them, she said, "Please sit down. The coffee is just about ready."
Martino sat down, watching Jean surreptitiously. He thought she was hiding more pain than usual. Would she be upset if he asked? Only one way of finding out, he decided.
"Are you in more pain than usual this morning?"
Jean slanted him a glance. "Just a little, Tino. Not enough to go to the doctor for. Anyway, what can he do? More, stronger pain-killers? No." She shook her head, smiling---her short blonde-and-silver curls dancing. "When I was hospitalized after the accident, they told me there would be episodes of more serious pain. The good thing is that I also know it will subside again." She bent to her visitor. "Tell you something---I have a small wheelchair for when the pain gets really bad. So when you see me with my walker, you can be sure I'm in pretty good shape."
She busied herself pouring two cups of black coffee, opening a tin box and taking out a few oatmeal and raisin cookies, which she put on a small plate, adding a tiny napkin. She placed the cookies and a cup of coffee on the seat of her walker, wheeling it to Martino, who rose hastily to take the items. After going back for her own cup, she sank down in the other chair, with a sigh of pleasure.
"Your son not around to help you?" Martino asked, after taking a sip of the excellent coffee, smiling appreciatively at Jean.
"Jamie gardens, Monday through Friday," she explained.
"Jamie is a gardener?" Martino asked, surprised. "You never told me."
Jean nodded. "Mmhmm. Yes, he and his helper, Juanito, do a lot of the gardens in Ocean Breeze. Actually, Jamie's a landscape gardener, but after the accident--his Dad gone so suddenly--the insurance payments being a tad slow, and me in rehab--we couldn't afford to pay the tuition for those last six months. So he lacks the papers to start a landscaper business--and that's where the money is." For a moment, there was a sadness in her eyes, as if she were contemplating what might have been---and what was.
Anxious not to burden her visitor with the tragedy which had befallen her family, she shrugged a shoulder, smiling.
Martino said quietly, "Yes, I had heard a hit and run driver killed your husband and almost killed you, but I could hardly believe it." He sounded deeply indignant and upset.
She nodded. "We've learned to live with it, and really, we're doing all right now. Believe me, Jamie is a huge help. He built that big greenhouse out back, where we grow most of the flowers I sell, and of course plants as well. And his gardening business brings in surprisingly good money."
"That's what I want to talk to you about, Jean. Would Jamie be able to fit me in, get my gardens into a natural shape? The people from whom I bought the house must've been overwhelmed by a visit to Versailles. All shrubs are topiary, which I detest. And square flower beds so precisely arranged with little box hedges around them, just awful. So far, I've put up with it, because you may recall that Renata--my wife--was ill, and I didn't want a lot of noise outside her windows. By the way, please tell Jamie I'll be very glad to pay him landscaper fees, if only he'll take pity on my garden."
"I'm sure he'll be glad to," said Jean. "But I thought you were planning to go back to New York, heading that new advertising campaign?"
Martino shook his head. "I'm not likely to go back until I absolutely have to," he said. "I like it here so much, and I can keep on top of everything with emails, faxes and the phone." Jean noticed he had finished his coffee, and came back, as quickly as she could, with the coffee-pot on the seat of her walker.
"Have another cup, Tino?" she asked, pouring.
Martino smiled his thanks, getting up quickly to return the coffee to its hotplate. Once seated again, he explained, "The new advertising campaign is for a line of upscale men's toiletries. It'll either be called Tropical Nights or Tropical Passions. A close friend of mine is bringing this line out, and I've promised him to keep a personal watch on this one. As Chairman of the Board and C.E.O, I will sure have the last word. I'm still sorting through photos, videos, to find a model for the campaign." He frowned ruefully, and went on. "He'd have to be around 30, look athletic in a tropical forest...."
Jean smiled. "And you'll have to find a tropical forest. If you hang a lot of fake lianas in a fake forest in some studio, your ads will become a parody."
"I'll have to get you to come work for me in New York," said Martino, dark eyes dancing. "Not one of my overpaid advisers has picked up on that, but it is a major point." He bent to her. "I've asked a friend of mine, who owns a small tropical island, whether he would permit me to shoot there. I'm just waiting to hear back from Julian."
He finished his coffee and his last oatmeal and raisin cookie. "These are delicious, Jean. Where can I buy them?"
Jean smiled. "You can't. But I can bake you a batch."
"Only if you let me pay for them," he countered.
"I'll think about it," she said. "Meanwhile, when would you like Jamie to start gardening for you?"
"First chance he gets, please." Martino smiled at his friend. "I think he'll have to put in a lot of time to eradicate the Versailles design, before he can even begin to make the gardens the way I'd like them to be---natural." He strolled back into the shop, turning to the flowers on display. "What do you recommend, Jean?"
Jean followed him more slowly. "That all depends---have you something to make up for, or is this just a regular bunch of flowers for your wife?"
Martino laughed. "Nothing to make up for. Just something that tells her I love her, but not with red roses."
"Come over here," said Jean. "I think I have just what you want."