Penny settled the shopping bags more comfortably across her arm as she made her way through the crowd. The annual Holiday Gift Fair took place every December, turning the Pasadena Fairgrounds into a bustling outdoor mall. A cool breeze brought the sweet fragrance of kettle corn to her nose. She was tempted to buy some, but the line was a mile long and she was on a mission. She was nearly finished with her Christmas shopping, all but for one final gift.
This year, she was going to give Sheldon an epic present - just to drive him nuts. It would be difficult to top the napkin signed by Spock, but she refused to give up. She wanted to see him freak out again, and watch his robotic mask crack to reveal genuine human emotion. Sheldon liked to pretend he was some advanced being, but he was just as human as the rest of them. Penny had decided it was her duty as his friend to remind him of the fact. She just hadn’t expected it to be so difficult to find him the perfect gift.
Sighing, she entered a forest green colored tent. Tall cinnamon scented pillar candles covered one table. They were gorgeous and most definitely out of her price range, though she knew the deep red color would look great in her apartment. The other table held plates of various types of cookies including sugar, ginger, chocolate chip, oatmeal raisin, and peanut butter.
“You’re welcome to try one.”
Penny jumped, caught with her hand stretched out above a plate. The tall woman standing beside her had the most beautiful silver hair she had ever seen. It flowed over one shoulder in a shining wave.
“Have you ever considered modeling for L’Oreal?” Penny blurted out.
The woman laughed, crystal blue eyes sparkling behind a pair of horn-rimmed glasses. “I haven’t, but I’ll keep that in mind. Are you looking for anything in particular?”
Penny cast a wistful glance at the candles and cookies. “I’m looking for a Christmas gift for my friend. He’s really hard to shop for. He’s not much of a fan of candles.” At least, not unless they were for disaster preparedness or part of some weird science project.
Her face lit up. “Oh, I love a challenge! My husband is notoriously difficult.”
Penny rolled her eyes. “Sheldon doesn’t even want a Christmas present. He tried to get me to sign some stupid contract preventing me from getting him anything.” Like that would have stopped her.
A bell dinged and the woman glanced down at her watch. “Why don’t you share my coffee break with me and perhaps I can steer you in the right direction?”
“All right. I could certainly use the help.” Her sore feet were more than ready for a break.
The woman winked at her and picked up the plate of sugar cookies Penny had been eying. “Follow me.”
Passing through a flap in the tent, they entered into another room which held a round table and two chairs. The strong fragrance of dark roasted coffee filled the air. It smelled like heaven. The woman waved her into a seat and poured the steaming liquid into matching red mugs. Sitting across from her, she set the plate of cookies between them, then offered her hand. “I’m Jessica, by the way.”
“Penny,” she replied, grinning at her firm grip. Most of the women she met had wimpy handshakes, but not this lady. Penny liked her already. She had a timeless beauty about her and could have been anywhere between forty and sixty years old. Penny prayed she looked that good when she got older.
“I suggest you eat a cookie before taking a sip. I make my coffee strong.”
Penny took a bite of the sugar cookie and couldn’t help a small moan from escaping, as a mixture of spicy cinnamon and vanilla sugar melted in her mouth. “Oh my God. These are amazing!”
Jessica smiled and nibbled the side of a Christmas tree shaped cookie. “I’m glad you like them. I sell the refrigerated dough, if you want to take some home.”
“I’m sold,” Penny said taking a cautious sip from the mug. She needn’t have worried. The coffee contrasted perfectly with the sweetness of the treat.
“Excellent. Now, tell me about your friend.”
Penny shook her head. “I don’t think I can explain Sheldon Cooper, but I’ll try. He’s one of those beautiful mind guys, you know? He’s a physicist at Caltech. I don’t understand most of what comes out of his mouth, but his life goals are to win the Nobel Prize and solve the mysteries of the universe.”
Jessica’s eyebrows rose. “He sounds like an interesting young man.”
She snickered. “He also freaks out about germs, schedules his laundry nights, and has a special spot on his couch where nobody else can sit. He’s pretty much a complete whackadoodle.”
The older woman laughed, wrapping her hands around her mug. “I’m sure he has some redeeming qualities.”
Penny nodded thoughtfully. “Yeah, he does. He rescued me when I dislocated my shoulder falling in the shower and took me to the emergency room even though he’s terrified of driving. He loaned me money without ever asking for it back and after I broke up with his roommate, he went behind Leonard’s back to spend time with me.”
“You sound quite fond of him.”
“I am, but it’s not what you think,” Penny protested, sliding a stray blond hair behind one ear.
Jessica tilted her head to the side. “What is it that I think?”
Penny flushed. Maybe she’d jumped the gun there. “There’s been a few people who’ve mistakenly thought we were together. But it’s not like that between us.”
Blinking surprise, Penny sat back in her chair. “Well, for one thing, Sheldon can’t handle intimacy. He did have a girlfriend for a while, but she dumped him because he couldn’t even bring himself to kiss her. And, well, he isn’t really my type.”
Jessica nodded. “I once felt the same way about a guy I knew. He was the complete opposite of me. He had no business sense at all and nearly went bankrupt from being overly generous. I thought he was an idiotic philanthropist with a bleeding heart.”
Penny leaned forward, always up for a juicy piece of gossip. “What happened?”
“I got to know him better and realized I was wrong about him. He truly cared about people. And one day I realized he cared about me too.”
“What did you do?”
Jessica sighed. “I ran away. I thought we were too different and I was afraid his work would always come first.”
Penny didn’t know what to say. “That’s so sad.”
The other woman shook her head. “Yes, if it had ended then. He came after me. He’s stubborn like that. He convinced me that while his work involved caring for others, his heart would only ever belong to me. That’s when he gave me this.”
Jessica held out her left hand and wiggled her ring finger.
Light refracted across a sparkling blue diamond. Penny’s mouth fell open. It was gorgeous, the heart-shaped stone set in a woven band of white gold. “You married him?”
She nodded. “He convinced me that our differences only made us stronger. The reality of being with him is far better than any preconceived notion or fantasy I had about the type of man I was supposed to be with. He’s my soul mate and I’m his.”
A small wistful sigh escaped Penny’s mouth. “That’s beautiful.”
“Thank you, but enough about me,” Jessica said as she refilled their mugs. “So, this Sheldon of yours, do you find him attractive?”
Penny nearly inhaled a cookie crumb in shock. “No. Well, maybe.” She took a large gulp of coffee to hide her sudden nerves and burned the tip of her tongue. “He’s good looking if you ignore his super hero shirts, plaid pants, and the crazy coming out of his mouth.”
The older woman made a clucking sound with her tongue. “Plaid pants? The fashion gods are crying out in agony.”
“Tell me about it.”
A mischievous twinkle filled Jessica’s eyes. “That should be your Christmas present to him. Burn his pants.”
Penny chuckled. “I would, but the last time we had a prank war, my panties ended up on the top of a street light outside his window.”
“Impressive,” Jessica said, a wide grin on her face. “So, no pants burning, then. What is he interested in?”
“He’s a huge nerd. So, anything to do with super heroes, Star Trek, Doctor Who, video games, and especially comic books.”
Jessica’s brow wrinkled. “Well, that doesn’t sound so difficult.”
Penny shook her head. “You don’t understand. If he sees something he wants, he buys it. How do you get a gift for somebody who has everything?”
The other woman pursed her lips. “He can’t possibly have everything.”
She sighed. “Well, he’s always looking for vintage comic books, but they’re really tough to find and super expensive. I’ve looked everywhere. The vendor I visited next door to you was already sold out.”
Jessica’s face brightened. “I’ll be right back.”
She disappeared through the flap in the tent and came back a few minutes later, moving the plate and mugs out of the way to accommodate a flat bag. “Will this work?”
Penny opened the bag and removed a comic book encased in protective plastic. Her mouth fell open. On the front cover, was The Flash. It was clearly vintage, but the ink looked brand new. “The Flash is Sheldon’s favorite! Where did you find this?”
The other woman shrugged. “I was Christmas shopping for my nephew and traded the vendor some of my candles and cookie dough for the comic book. I can always find something else for him. I doubt he’d appreciate it as much as your friend.”
“I don’t think I can afford it,” she said, running a hand through her hair in frustration.
“It’s not as expensive as an original since it’s a reprint, but it’s still a worthy gift. By the way, the flower in your hair is lovely.”
A proud smile spread across Penny’s face. “I call them Penny Blossoms. Sheldon actually helped me make this one. I’ve got a retail business on the side. He’s my investor.”
Jessica set her mug down, eyes alight with interest. “Do you take custom orders?”
“You bet,” Penny said, excitement filling her over the possibility of a new client.
The other woman tapped her fingers against her lips in thought. “How would you like to barter with me?”
Penny’s heart leapt, but she kept a calm expression on her face. Who said her acting classes hadn’t paid off? “What do you have in mind?”
“Let’s say I were to order one hundred red Penny Blossoms. Could you also add sprigs of mistletoe to them?”
“That wouldn’t be a problem,” Penny said, already picturing the design in her head.
Jessica tapped a finger on the comic book. “In return, I’ll give you this and a set of my cinnamon candles. How does that sound?”
Penny bit her lip. “How soon do you want them?”
The other woman waved a dismissive hand. “I’m shopping ahead for next year. Could you ship them to me by the end of February?”
She considered. “Throw in a container of cookie dough and you’ve got yourself a deal.”
“Agreed.” Jessica held out a hand and Penny shook it, grinning at the sudden turn of events.
“I’ll be right back with a bag for you,” the silver-haired woman said.
As soon as she left the room, the magnitude of what she’d just accomplished set in. Penny gave in to a little victory dance, utterly thrilled. Not only had she found the perfect gift for him, but she’d come away with a few fun items for herself as well.
She caressed the orange Penny Blossom nestled in her blond hair. An unexpected warmth filled her. “Thank you, Sheldon,” she whispered.