Flower Twelve: Tiger Lily–Wealth and Majesty




It was a Thursday evening, and Tony was in the ballroom quizzing Emma on her list of idioms, while the rest of us were in our rooms, supposedly doing homework.  I was half-heartedly solving calculus problems, but tomorrow was the last day of school before winter break, and I couldn’t care less about limits and derivatives.

So instead of continuing the charade, I decided to take a break and watch Tony in action.  Besides, as soon as he was finished, it would be time for the martial arts session.

When I walked into the ballroom, I wasn’t surprised to see Heath and Stan already there.  We were all eager for winter break to just come already.  I moved a chair next to Heath and sat in it backwards, leaning my arms on the back rails.

“A phrase that’s said about someone who quits an addiction such as smoking almost overnight,” Tony tested Emma.

She thought about it for a second before replying, “To quit cold turkey.”

“If something’s very expensive, one might say it costs two body parts.  These body parts would be—”

“An arm and a leg,” came Emma’s instant answer.  “Too easy.”

Heath leaned over and whispered to me.  “She’s improved a lot.  Before I even started our session today, she asked why I was looking disappointed, and it turned out I was feeling bummed.  She even guessed the reason was because I flunked today’s math test.”

He didn’t seem very bummed now.  In fact, Heath seemed pleased that he was in danger of completely failing math and being forced to repeat the class in summer school all because Emma had been able to figure this out.

Stan perked up too.  “She’s also been good about dropping all the grammar corrections and flower lingo during our role playing.”

I agreed that Emma had improved a lot.  But I wasn’t quite as optimistic as my friends.  Emma still had a long way to go.  I noticed that even though she might do well during these lessons—reciting idioms with the snap of a finger, being able to sense expressions and subtle gestures and the feelings that came along with them, even calling plants by their common names instead of their scientific ones—she still slipped up often when it came to applying the lessons to real life.

Her blunders were even more frequent whenever she was nervous.  And I believed this nervousness was a result of her discomfort around people.  She was comfortable with the four of us, so she was less awkward around us.  But she didn’t have the same confidence around people she didn’t know as well.

And it was supposed to be my job to build up that confidence.  I wasn’t sure what more I could do.  I’d read up on exercises that could help boost self-esteem, and I’d tried most of them.  I let her look into a mirror and say positive things to herself, and Heath and I forced her to dress up in nice clothes and makeup.  These were a few recommendations to improve self-worth.

When Tony finished up his lesson, I took Emma to the gym for ours.

As usual, I used the martial arts lesson to make Emma look me in the eye whenever she addressed me, to make sure she didn’t slouch, and to make her talk in a loud voice.  I had her yell as she punched a sandbag and yell again as she sparred with me to practice the new moves I taught her (thankfully, she hadn’t managed to knock me out a third time).

And during every lesson, she did all of this without reservation.  But it was only because she was no longer afraid of me.  I still noticed a slouch in her walk as I caught glimpses of her in the hallway at school, and she still didn’t initiate conversations with people, unless she’d already talked to them before.  For example, she had no problem talking to Dave and the other guys she’d danced with at the party, but she avoided talking to anyone else, even the lunch lady.

This was a hurtle I didn’t know how to help her get over.  I could only do so much, but in the end, she had to be the one to take initiative.

After our lesson, Emma and I were about to walk back to our rooms when Marlin called after us.

“I have some news,” he said, and brought us back to the ballroom, where Heath, Stan, and Tony were already waiting.

And then he announced in a nice, calm voice that we were all going on a vacation to the Lockharts’ cabin in the woods.  It was basically like telling us we’d just won ten grand each.

The cabin wasn’t just some rustic log cabin, where one had to cut firewood in order to stay warm.  This cabin was worth probably two million by itself.  Equipped with the latest technology and amenities, it was located near a ski resort and the famous Rhine Hot Springs, popular for the said healing properties in the water.  Also, the house was on private property far enough away from the crowds, and the Lockharts had their own exclusive slopes for skiing and snowboarding and all the other snow activities.

So nobody could really blame the four of us for whooping in joy and dancing around the ballroom pumping our fists.

Marlin cleared his throat, bringing us to attention again.  “This will be a one week vacation, and its purpose is not just to have fun.  The four of you will have to prepare Emma for her greatest test yet.”

We all immediately stopped celebrating and froze.  I should have known better.  Penelope Lockhart didn’t take vacations without some sort of work-related activity involved.

“The NPCA, or National Perfume and Cosmetics Association, is holding their annual Cologne and Beauty Convention nearby,” Marlin said.  He went on to explain that usually the convention was only one week long, but this year, the convention would continue for two weeks, the week of Christmas and the week after.  The convention would have a three day break starting on Christmas Eve.  The participants would be allowed to choose if they wanted to come before Christmas or after.  And if they wanted to stay the entire two weeks, they could vacation with their families at the resort.

He beamed, as though he’d come up with the idea himself.  “Only the most important figures from the perfume business will be there, and Splash and Spray and The Fragrance Stop are co-hosting the convention.”

“Wait a minute,” Stan interrupted.  “Lockhart and Cantin are working together?  I thought the companies were mortal enemies.”

“Not mortal enemies, merely fierce competitors,” Marlin corrected.  “And only in the business world.  In fact, Madam and Michael Cantin are old friends.”  His voice lowered to a whisper as he looked over his shoulder.  “Excuse me for gossiping about your grandparents, Miss Emma, but Mike Cantin was a rival for your grandmother’s affections, but your grandfather won in the end.  And that was the reason Cantin began his company.  Figured if he couldn’t win the lady, he might as well compete with Lockhart in the business world.”

Well, well, Marlin was proving to be an encyclopedia of juicy information.  I’d never thought the man would succumb to gossip, but apparently that one had been too good to pass up.

With that finally out, Marlin’s serious expression was back on.  “Miss Emma, your task is to mingle with the guests.  You’ll go to every party and most convention meetings and try your best to fit in with them.”

“Pardon me.”  This time Tony interrupted.  “But are we finally revealing Emma’s real identity?  Because I’m thinking there’ll be lots of cameras there, and it’ll be impossible to keep that a secret.”

“Which is why she isn’t going as Emmaline Lockhart, heiress to Splash and Spray,” Marlin replied.  “She’ll be Emma Hartley, a young botanist who works for Splash and Spray and has created a new cross of lilies with a unique scent.  You four will be her partners.”

Why wasn’t I surprised?  “Don’t tell me our assignment is to actually make these hot shot perfume dealers interested in buying these lilies,” I guessed.

“Precisely.  Miss Emma needs to sell this product to at least one company.”

“And do we already have this product, or flower?” Heath asked.

“My lilies,” Emma said.  “I’ve grown a new cross with a unique scent.  It’s called the Lilting Lily.”  She frowned.  “But Marlin, I grew those lilies for Splash and Spray.  I don’t want to sell them to the competition.”

“Not to worry, Miss Emma,” Marlin replied.  “If you don’t manage to sell the lilies, Splash and Spray will be the sole owner.  But if you do sell them, the company will have shared ownership, and we’ll also profit from the sales.  It can only be a win-win situation.”

Emma didn’t seem very happy with that answer, but there was nothing she could do about it.  Penelope Lockhart had spoken and had to be obeyed.

We packed our suitcases as soon as we got out of school the next day, and early the following morning, we were driving to the lodge.  Although I wouldn’t be home for Christmas, I didn’t really care.  I’d never remembered a time when my whole family had been together for Christmas.  Sure, Nai-nai and Ye-ye were always there, but Dad was rarely home.  He always chose to work throughout the busy holiday season, making sure others got home in time for Christmas.  And of course my mother had never been a part of my life.

I’d never had Tony, Heath, or Stan over for Christmas either.  There was always some sort of celebration they were required to attend at the foster home, and it was their one chance during the year to get toys or clothes from charity.

But as we drove through the night, I couldn’t help thinking that something felt different this year.  And that something was…it actually felt like Christmas.

Porter was supposed to be driving the four of us plus Emma, but he let us take turns in the driver seat, since it was a long trip, about four hours.  It was about five thirty in the morning, but I didn’t feel tired at all.  I opened the windows and breathed in the smell of winter, as we took a small road into the forest.  The air smelled of pine and fresh snow.  It wasn’t snowing right now, but the snow banks practically glistened from the moonlight, which hadn’t yet been replaced by the sun since it was still so early in the morning.

We drove by a few trace cottages, illuminated by strings of colorful Christmas lights that the owners hadn’t turned off throughout the night.  Earlier I would have said it was a waste of electricity, but now it was such a wonderful sight to see.  Just like the paintings of a calendar.  The front yards were decorated with reindeer and manger scenes and snowmen.  I’d seen more flashy front yards in my own neighborhood, but there was something charming about these forest cottages.  It was as though I could actually feel the warmth radiating from the families who lived inside those houses.

Stan was currently in the driver’s seat, since Heath and Tony were still half asleep.  He turned the music on louder and fiddled with the radio until some jolly Christmas music came on, and he sang along.  Heath and Tony were too dead asleep to care about the noise, but I saw Porter and Emma perk up and hum along.  And while I would never care to join in the singing, which was actually doing the public a service, I didn’t mind.  Stan had a nice voice that was meant to be heard.

After about an hour, I switched places with Stan since Heath and Tony were still showing no signs of wakefulness.  But after my turn behind the wheel, they were finally awake.

A little before eleven o’clock, we finally arrived at the Lockhart’s winter cottage.  The word cottage was too demure a term for the piece of exquisite architecture that lay before us.  True, it wasn’t as big as the Lockhart mansion, but it was still a mansion.  The entire house was only one story, but it consisted of about ten separate buildings that were all connected to each other and expanded across the equivalent of three football fields.  All the compartments were built of stone, with thatched rooftops and blue windowsills framed by crawling vines that were bare now, but would spring forth roses come spring time.  The entire premises had a fairy tale kind of feeling.  I kept thinking Snow White and the seven dwarves would pop out from the arbor gateway and start singing Heigh-Ho.

The chimney was already giving off smoke that smelled of bacon and eggs, making my stomach grumble.  Behind our car, a second limo pulled up.  Mrs. Lockhart and my grandparents had arrived.

We made our way inside, letting the servants unload our luggage, while we all went to breakfast.  Some of the kitchen staff and servants had already arrived yesterday to prepare for our arrival, for which I was grateful, since it meant we could eat all the sooner.

After a brunch buffet that included everything from scrambled eggs to meat pies, we were given the itinerary for the week.  We were required to attend an informal buffet dinner tonight, but that left us the whole day to do whatever we wanted.  So we chose to spend our free time on the slopes, while my grandparents and Mrs. Lockhart stayed in the house, sipping on hot cocoa while they sat next to a warm fire.

The Lockharts had private instructors for skiing and snowboarding, so while Heath and Stan decided to ski, I decided to try snowboarding, along with Tony and Emma.  I wasn’t really a snow person; swimming and surfing were more my thing.  But I was willing to learn how to snowboard.  All the jumps and tricks looked kinda cool.

Within an hour, I’d fallen too many times to count, and the number of bruises on my behind was greater than the number of stars in the sky.  But I had to admit, it was a lot of fun.  I was surprised to see how much Emma was enjoying herself too.  She already knew how to ski but had purposely gone with snowboarding, the sport she had never learned.  I thought that showed she was improving in trying to push herself into the real world, taking risks and stepping out of her comfort zone.  And although she’d fallen more than me, she was able to laugh at herself, something she hadn’t been able to do just a few short months ago.

It would be great if she learned to be that way around not just us, but other people too.  Hopefully this week, she’d improve in being more comfortable around strangers.

By four o’clock, we started getting ready for the dinner.  Since it was an informal dinner, I figured nice black slacks and a white and blue striped button-down shirt would do.  I’d save the tie and suit for the formal party that would take place tomorrow evening.

This dinner was more of a chance for the presidents of the companies to introduce themselves and their companies.  The newbie entrepreneurs just had to eat, smile, and listen to the hot shots talk.  So I wasn’t too worried about tonight.  Emma simply had to pay attention to the names and faces of the hot shots who could be potential buyers for her new cross of lily.

But tomorrow’s party would be the challenge.  Then she’d have to actually mingle with the presidents, introduce herself and her product, and make sure no one found out her real identity.  And she’d have to do all of that in high heels, which might present a potential health risk to all.

The convention was held at the Poway Center, about a ten minute drive from the Lockharts’ cottage.  When we walked into the conference room, I saw that the six presidents of the represented companies were already on stage, one of whom was Penelope Lockhart.  She was talking to an older gentleman with a head full of silver hair, and I guessed he was Mike Cantin.

There were about fifty round tables surrounding the stage, and ten long buffet tables behind that.  The five of us were instructed to get our food and sit down at table thirty-one.  Besides us, there were five others at our table—two women and three men, all new college graduates, as they told us.  They all had majored in business and were seeking jobs in the perfume companies.  They hoped this convention would provide the opportunities they were looking for.

“So what about you?” one of the guys asked.  His name was Lake, and he had this crazy spiked mohawk, dyed neon blue.

Stan replied to this.  “Our friend Emma here is a botanist, hoping to sell some of the fragrant flowers she’s grown.  She’s not very business savvy, so we’re here to help her.”

“Did you just graduate too?”  This question came from a girl named May, who had the tendency to toss her hair back, as though she was constantly flirting.  “You all look so young.”

“We’re still in college,” Stan managed to reply smoothly.  We all could lie like our lives depended on it, which wasn’t exactly noble, but was highly useful in stressful situations, such as now.  “Freshmen actually.  But Emma’s a prodigy at growing flowers.”

“Oh, what college do you attend?” May flipped her hair back again.

Thankfully for us, we didn’t have to reply, as the speaker buzzed painfully, almost making our ears bleed.  Within two seconds though, the glitch was fixed, and Mrs. Lockhart was starting her introductory speech for the night.

She talked a few minutes about how it was a pleasure to host the eighty-ninth annual Cologne and Beauty Convention, how there were perfumers from at least sixty-two countries from all around the world here today, and the presidents from the six biggest perfume companies out of the forty-six companies here would give a little speech before they handed the stage to representatives from other companies, who were in the audience, should they want to introduce themselves.  Then she passed the floor to the man she’d been talking to earlier.

I was right in guessing that man was Michael Cantin, although he was far from what I’d pictured.  The man actually had a sense of humor, telling a joke about skunks and perfume right off the bat.  And he looked friendly.  How he represented himself now was far from how I’d imagined him to be.  It just reminded me of something Emma had said during the Halloween party—that the real her was a far outcry from what people imagined her to be.

Because The Bulk’s father, a total jackass, had worked for the man, I’d thought Cantin would be the same condescending, menacing bully.  Then again, I’d heard he’d fired Ben Lyons after learning about his escapade onto Lockhart property.  So he couldn’t be that bad after all.  It was a reminder not to be so quick to judge a person before getting to know them.

Mr. Cantin was giving a PowerPoint presentation on research about how certain fragrances were associated with pleasant memories—a walk in the park, a favorite home cooked meal, a first kiss—and other scents were associated with repulsive thoughts—a bad breakup, a death in the family, a prom date gone wrong.

“Our job,” he said, “is to conjure up the good memories.  One of my company’s best-selling candle scents uses cocoa.  Because there’s nothing like the smell of chocolate to remind you of cozying up by the fire on a cold winter’s night.”

From beside me, May twirled her hair and leaned closer to whisper in my ear.  “Mr. Cantin’s a pure genius, isn’t he?  He’s like my idol.  It’s just too bad he doesn’t have anyone to take over the company once he retires.  Most likely he’ll have to sell it.”

“Really?” I replied.  “He doesn’t have family?”  I was thinking this May might know a thing or two about not only Cantin, but the other hot shot perfumers too.  Mrs. Lockhart hadn’t given us any inside information, and Emma sure wasn’t the type to read the latest edition of Perfumers Weekly, but some of this information might actually be useful if we were supposed to be socializing in these circles.  After all, we didn’t want to accidently insult someone.

And May seemed entirely eager to spill all the latest gossip.  “He did have a son, but the guy was a real douche, nothing like his old man.  He slept with anything with boobs, and drank anything that could catch fire, which is why he died of alcohol poisoning.”

“Well, if the guy slept around so much, he must have a kid somewhere,” I said.  “I mean, accidents happen all the time.”

“That’s kind of what Mr. Cantin hoped.”  May shrugged regretfully.  “And some women even tried pretending their kid was a Cantin, but the DNA tests came out negative every time.  Eventually, Mr. Cantin just gave up to save himself the heartbreak.”

By now, Mr. Cantin was making his concluding remarks, and then he passed the microphone over to the next guy, a middle-aged man with an accent that told me he was from New York.  He introduced himself as Wayne Murdove, the CEO of Scentuous Secrets, Incorporated.

“So what’s his story?” I asked May.  “Is he as famous as Lockhart or Cantin?”

She looked at me so incredulously that I figured I’d just revealed my ignorance of the perfume world.  That meant this Murdove guy had to be something special.  “You haven’t heard of Wayne Murdove?” She almost forgot to whisper, and people turned, motioning for us to hush.  “He’s only the man who saved Scentuous Secrets.  He managed to make a company on the verge of bankruptcy rise to a company worth millions.”

I still shrugged blankly, and she gave an exasperated sigh.  “Scentuous Secrets used to be called Sensual Secrets and only sold lingerie.  The previous president was about to close it for good, but Murdove was a novice perfumer.  He’d just invented a new perfume he believed had great potential.  So he took over, changed the name to Scentuous Secrets, and started a perfume line.  The perfume sold millions instantly.  Certainly, you must have heard of the fragrance line Starlit Dusk.”

Again, I cast her a blank look.  “Honestly, how can you go into the perfume business if you don’t know the first thing about perfumes?  Starlit Dusk is about as popular as Midnight Rose.  The only difference is that Scentuous Secrets’s fragrances are more musky and sensual, while Lockhart’s scents are more flower-based and innocent.  It’s like comparing full-out sex between consenting adults and a first kiss between starry-eyed teens.”

She went on about how Murdove was looking to develop a fragrance line dedicated to his wife, who wanted a flower-based perfume.  Then May started ranting about Mrs. Murdove, who was supposedly a bitch of the highest order, and it was a miracle how she’d ever been able to catch a husband like Wayne Murdove.  “It’s obvious she’s a gold-digger,” May said.  “She’s had like twenty plastic surgeries done within the seven years they were married, and after she gave birth to their son, she had lipo just to get rid of the pregnancy fat.  Look, that’s her right there.”

She pointed to an extravagantly dressed woman sitting in the front row.  Mrs. Murdove’s dress was brighter than Las Vegas night life, and she wore an awful hat—though she probably thought it was fashionable—that stood almost three feet high.  Orange flowers stuck out the top, adding another six inches to it.  The man sitting behind her kept trying to adjust his position to see the stage clearer.

“Honestly, any woman who’d purposely make tiger lilies a part of her trademark look is a bitch.” May scoffed.

I asked her what she meant.

“Tiger lilies mean wealth and majesty,” May replied with another toss of her hair.  “She likes to display that on her head for all the world to see.”

As the rest of the keynote speakers took turns at the podium, May gave me the full rundown of all of their backgrounds.  Her information was more complete than anything the speakers themselves had to say.  By the time all six had finally spoken, I probably had more information on them than they knew about themselves.

So as we made our way back to the cottage that night, I was thankful that we’d bumped into May, however annoying her hair flips had been.




I wondered why Marcus had been talking so much to that irritating girl with the hair flips last night.  They’d looked so cozy together, whispering secretively while they were supposed to be paying attention to the speakers.  Marcus was supposed to be focused on helping me with this week’s test, not flirting around with other girls.

I confronted him about this at breakfast before anyone else was up.  “You were supposed to be listening to the speeches last night, not admiring some girl’s glossy hair and perky boobs.”

He merely smirked.  “Is someone a jealous?”

“No,” I said defensively.  “I’m just saying, I doubt you learned anything last night.  In fact, I bet you still don’t know what Mr. Cantin looks like.”

“I’ll bet I learned more than you,” he said.

“Not likely.  You were too busy whispering sweet somethings to Miss Hair Toss.”

“You so are jealous,” he said, his grin spreading wider.  “But there’s no reason to be.  I wasn’t whispering sweet nothings.”  The way he corrected the error in the idiom I’d used was highly irritating.

“Then what were you doing?”

“Finding out valuable information,” he said.  “Learning about the CEOs we’re trying to impress.  For example, did you know Cantin had a good-for-nothing son who died from excessive alcohol use?”

That made me pause, as it was a piece of information I had not known.  Grandmother rarely talked about the private lives of her competitors with me, and I wasn’t at all interested in knowing anyway.  “Where’d you hear that?”

“From the girl with glossy hair and perky boobs,” he replied.  “Turns out May was a walking encyclopedia on all things perfume.”

“It’s all trivial information though.  I fail to see how knowing some stupid gossip will help us sell the Lilting Lily.”

“Well, maybe not all the gossip will help, but I managed to find out Murdove is trying to develop a flowery fragrance made especially for his wife, who has a thing for lilies.  He’s on the lookout for a special kind of flower, one with a unique scent, which means…”

“His company’s our primary target,” I finished, a little appeased that Marcus hadn’t been completely wasting his time after all.  If we could get him interested, then other people would follow suit.

After breakfast, we began preparing for the showcase that would take place after lunch.  It would be our opportunity to pass out flyers and talk to the passers-by about the Lilting Lily.  It would be my job to approach strangers and hopefully guide them to our booth.  By the time we’d set up our display at the convention center, I felt like hyperventilating.

As the afternoon wore on, I did my best, but it was almost impossible to get anyone to stop long enough to even say hi.  Most of the visitors were new recruits, only interested in getting hired by perfume companies.  Hardly any of them were already actually employed by the major companies.  I suspected it was because they were too busy manning their own booths.

After about two hours of standing, my feet started to ache from the dratted high heels I wore.  I longed to fling them aside and go barefoot, but then Grandmother would flunk me from this test immediately.  But then I felt the beginnings of a cramp on the arch of my foot, which quickly progressed into all-out torture.

Casting my flyers aside, I crouched to the floor to quickly release my foot from its prison and massaged the painful spot until the cramping eased.  Then I stood slowly, testing the sole of my foot tentatively just to make sure the pain wouldn’t come back.  But the klutz in me didn’t see as a woman stepped right in front of me, and we nearly collided.

She gave me a disgusted look, then saw my bare foot and took three huge steps back, as though I had the swine flu.  “We have a strict dress code here, young lady, so I suggest you cover your feet immediately.  We can’t have the smell of sweaty feet at a perfume convention, for goodness sakes.”

I apologized immediately, stepping into the awful heels again.  And then the lady’s gaze dropped to the flyers I’d discarded onto the floor.

“Wait a minute, are you trying to sell the copyright to this flower?” she asked.  “My husband’s company is looking for a flower with a unique scent.”

I looked at the way the woman was dressed—sparkling, skin-tight dress, stilettos, a diamond necklace and matching earbobs, and a three-foot tall hat decorated with Lilium superbum—and I made a educated hypothesis.  “Your husband is Wayne Murdove of Scentuous Secrets, am I right?”

“Yes,” she looked surprised.  “How did you know?”

“Lucky guess.  Please, take a flyer.”

She already had one in her hands and was flipping through it, fascinated.  “Do you have the oil extract of this lily here with you?  I’d like to smell its fragrance.”

“I do have a sample,” I told her.  “If you could just follow me to my table…it’s right over there.”

As she followed my gaze, I noticed for the first time that her skin was extremely pale.  Typical pampered rich person.  Mrs. Murdove needed some more time in the sun.  Probably lacked vitamin D.  “Actually, I have important business to attend.”  Was it just me, or did she sound nervous?  “I’ll have one of my representatives contact you.”

I made my way back to our table.  Heath, Stan, and Marcus were nowhere in sight; they were probably somewhere passing out flyers, but Tony was there, and he was giving me a very odd look.

“What?  Do I have something on my face?”  Just my luck, if I’d been talking a rich, powerful lady with food on my chin.  I swatted at my face.

“Who was that lady you just talked to?” Tony asked.  There was a strange hike in his voice.

“Oh, good news,” I said.  “That was Mrs. Murdove, wife of Scentuous Secrets’ president, and she’s interested in the Lilting Lily.”

His face visibly relaxed.  “Oh, so she’s just another rich lady.  For a second I thought she was…”

He trailed off, making me curious.  “You thought she was…”

“My mom.”  Tony mumbled and swallowed, looking a bit embarrassed.  “Just my overactive imagination, I guess.  That woman was wearing tiger lilies, which happened to be my mom’s favorite flower too.”

I studied his face for a minute, and it was his turn to swipe at his face for stray crumbs.  “No, she definitely can’t be your mom,” I confirmed.  “Her cheekbones are high, whereas yours are flat, her nose is straight and narrow, but yours is wider, and her eyes are set closer together.  If a woman that gorgeous had given birth to you, I’d say your features would be more classically handsome.”

“Wow Emma, what a way to deflate a guy’s ego,” he groaned.  “I thought Stan taught you what not to say to a guy on a date.  You’d definitely have chased the guy away by now.”

“Given we’re friends, and not potential dates, I’d say we’re safe.”  Then I grinned.  “Besides, what you lack in beauty is compensated by your personality.  What girl would want a pretty boy when she could have a guy who makes her laugh?”

“Since that’s what they all say to comedians without the looks necessary to become big-time stars, I’ll take it.”  He smiled, but there was something different about this smile.  It wasn’t bubbly like usual.  I knew I hadn’t offended him, since I’d told him thousands of times that he wasn’t very attractive.  But I wondered if maybe I’d said it once too many times.  Especially when he didn’t smile again for the rest of the showcase.

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