Check out the Prologue if you haven’t read it yet.
An Ulterior Motive
Thirteen years later
“Daddy, I want to get the pink ones. And purple. Oh, blue too. Aunt Zara loves blue.”
Zane Wolfe let out a sigh as his daughter, Willow, yanked him all over the flower shop on Main Street. He didn’t have time for this with work pulling at him faster than being sucked into quicksand. And quicksand was what it felt like when he moved from job to job trying to keep his head above the mess. But Willow wanted to get his sister flowers for teaching her how to tie her shoes and he found it hard to tell his little girl no.
He supposed he should be buying his sister all sorts of things for the work she’d done with Willow since he returned to Mystic almost three years ago.
“Why don’t we try to find one of the ready-made arrangements,” he said, nudging her toward a cooler in the back. If he let her start putting one together herself it’d look like rainbows threw up after a night out partying and give Blossoms a bad rep.
Willow let out an exaggerated sigh. “You don’t understand, Daddy. I know what Aunt Zara likes. You’re a boy. You don’t know anything about girl stuff.”
He narrowed his eyes at her brown pigtails when he’d heard a snort and laugh turned into a cough over by the counter. Guess the staff heard his daughter schooling him on all things girlie.
“I suppose I don’t,” he said. “And today isn’t the day to learn it. I need to get home and feed you. You know if you don’t eat you won’t grow. You don’t want to be that short your whole life, do you?”
Willow giggled. “Don’t be silly. I’m going to be tall just like you.”
He squinted one eye at her. “Maybe not that tall.” He didn’t know too many six-foot-three women and he didn’t want his daughter standing out anymore in life than she was going to, having a mother that abandoned her.
“Can I please pick out the one I like though?”
“Sure,” he said, knowing she’d probably go for the biggest and brightest arrangement in the case. Most likely the gaudiest too.
They moved to the back and he picked her up so she could get a view of the flowers on the top shelves. She was small for her age, but she was smart as a whip hitting all her milestones faster than the average kid. Or so Zara told him. She’d know, as a preschool teacher that had his daughter during the waking hours more than him.
“That one,” Willow said, pointing to the design on the second shelf. “The piece with the unicorn stick in it.”
Yep, rainbows and unicorns, bright and glaring and making his tired eyes burn. “Why do you want that one for Aunt Zara?”
“Because I like it,” she said.
“Do you like it for you or do you like it for Aunt Zara?”
He was grinning while he watched Willow concentrate on his question and prepared to buy the flower arrangement that was clearly for a child and not an adult.
“For me,” she said, “Can I have it?”
He backed himself right into the corner there. “Of course,” he said. He had no backbone with Willow when she was putting others first. “How about that arrangement right there for Aunt Zara. It’s pink and purple just like you said she likes.”
“That’s pretty,” Willow said. “We can get both.”
He put his daughter down and opened the door, then pulled out the small one with the unicorn for Willow and the bigger one with pink roses and purple and pink carnations—he knew that much at least—for his sister.
When he got to the front counter, the woman behind it was looking at the computer but glanced up. He was happy she didn’t ask if they needed help because Willow would have been all over starting up conversations like a lonely man on a park bench to anyone that walked by.
“Are you all set?” she asked with a smile on her face. A face he recognized. Lily Bloom.
“We are,” he said, waiting to see if she said anything to him. Why would she? He was just a guy that talked to her years ago in high school and wanted to get to know her better. She hadn’t been interested.
Both arrangements were rung up and the price was more than he thought. He supposed he should have looked at the tags. Who would have thought flowers would be so pricey?
He pulled his credit card out knowing he didn’t have that much cash on him and handed it over. Her long slim fingers reached out and shifted the machine in front of him. He remembered that about her in school. Long and lean. She was tall for a woman. Not six foot three like his daughter wanted to end up, but probably five foot eight or nine. With the high counter in front of her, he didn’t know if she was as skinny as she was in school, but she seemed thin enough.
“Sorry,” he said. “I didn’t see it there.”
“No problem,” she said. “I’m a little cluttered here today. I’m not normally manning the store, but I’ve got someone on deliveries and another out sick.”
He nodded, not sure what to think of her comment about manning the store. Maybe she ran it now? He supposed it was fitting considering she was named after a flower. He remembered her sisters were too.
When the machine beeped, he pulled his card out and put it away, then signed his name on the pad. “Would you like the receipt printed or emailed?” she asked.
He didn’t expect a small place like this to have technology that up to date. “Printed is fine,” he said. He didn’t need any more spam in his email.
“Would you like a box for those arrangements?” she asked.
He thought for a second. “Actually. If you’ve got one handy, that’d be great. This one,” he said, nodding his head to his daughter who was busy looking at some vases on a shelf. He better hurry up or she’d be asking him for that instead of the one arrangement he originally came in for. “Needs to be kept close.”
“Hang on. We’ve got a lot in the back.”
She moved off to the side and he got a better look at her in tan pants that were fitted to her body, letting him know that she was as he remembered. Now she had a few curves instead of the straight boy-like body from high school, but damn, it brought back memories.
Her hair remained a light brown, straight and falling to the middle of her back. She didn’t have much makeup on, but she was more put together than she was years ago.
“Daddy, this candle smells so good. Here, smell it.”
“Don’t pick it up,” he said to Willow of the glass jar. She’d probably drop it.
“But smell it,” Willow said.
He leaned down to indulge his daughter while he waited. It did smell good. He picked it up and saw it was lemon verbena and the jar had the name Blossoms on it. Must be their own brand. Then he glanced at another wall and saw a bunch of candles in jars lining shelves along with what looked to be lotions and soaps.
“Here you go,” Lily said, returning and putting the box on the counter, preventing him from checking out the rest of the inventory. He wasn’t sure why he was interested in it anyway. He was here for flowers and got them.
Once the arrangements were in the box, he picked it up with one hand, then grabbed Willow’s hand with the other and made his way to his truck out front.
It didn’t take long to get to his sister’s house. She didn’t live far from his little cottage by the water. The one he’d bought on a tax sale and fixed up years ago. It was the right size for him and Willow, but he was more interested in the land and barn that held all his tools.
“What are you doing back here?” Zara asked when he walked into her house. Her nursery school was in a building in the back. One he spent a lot of time in getting set up for her two years ago when she decided to go out on her own. Guess neither of them was meant to work for someone else.
“We got you flowers,” Willow said. “I picked them out.”
“Flowers?” Zara said. “Why is that?”
“A thank you for everything. But it was Willow’s idea to thank you for teaching her to tie her shoelaces. I should be thanking you for so much more.”
“It’s all part of my job,” Zara said, grinning. “But Willow doesn’t like Velcro. She has her eyes on a pair of sneakers she wants with laces on them.”
He snorted. “I should have figured there was an ulterior motive.”
“Girls and their shoes,” Zara said. “Better get used to it.”
“Willow is the only girl who is having shoes in my house,” he said.
“Zane. Come on.”
“Zara,” he said. “No. I don’t have the time so don’t go there.”
His sister was determined to set him up, but he’d said more than once he had no time or interest in it. A woman to warm his sheets was about all he was looking for.
Lily, the woman he’d just seen at the florist shop, might have been the first girl who wasn’t interested in him and he didn’t take it to heart.
He didn’t expect all women to fawn over him. Or want to go on a date if he asked.
But he sure the hell didn’t expect the woman he had a child with to up and say she was done, that it wasn’t for her, forcing him to end the career he’d always dreamed of.
“Willow, why don’t you go play in the other room while your father and I have a talk?”
“Daddy told me he was bringing me home to feed me so I could grow,” Willow said. “I’m hungry.”
His sister lifted her eyebrow at him and shook her head. “Why don’t you have a banana.” Zara pulled one out of the fruit bowl and cut it up quickly to give to Willow and sent her in the other room.
“Now that you got rid of her, what is it you want to say? No, I’m not going on a date with one of your friends.”
“That isn’t what I was going to say. I wanted to say you didn’t need to do this. To bring me flowers, but I appreciate it. I love Willow like my own and everything I do for her I’d do for my own child. I don’t like seeing you working yourself into the ground.”
“I’m busy,” he said. “Business is booming and calls are coming in fast enough I’m having to turn people away or hire more. I’m not sure I want the liability of more than the three guys I’ve got.”
“That’s your choice,” Zara said. “But you know as well as I do, that turning business away isn’t always good either. You’ll figure it out.”
“I will. I always do,” he said firmly.
His sister started to examine the flowers more. “What did you think of Blossoms? It’s not like it used to be.”
“I don’t know. Looks like a flower shop to me. I don’t think I’ve ever been in it before. I did recognize Lily Bloom though. She waited on me and made some comment about not usually being behind the counter.”
“I’m sure she’s not,” Zara said. “I’m surprised she was. I didn’t know you knew her.”
“She was a few years behind me in school. We talked for a period of time.”
“Ahh,” Zara said.
“Don’t go there either. But you obviously know her to make the comment about her not being behind the counter. Does she manage the place?”
Zara laughed. “You are so out of touch. I guess you weren’t around when it all happened and there wasn’t a need to fill you in about things over the years.”
“What happened?” he asked.
“Lily owns Blossoms and she and her sisters are millionaires. That little flower shop was the start of their ecommerce empire.”
“You’re joking, right? I don’t remember much about her other than she and her sisters had names like flowers.”
“They do. Lily, Poppy, and Rose Bloom. A few weeks before graduation, Lily’s mother was killed when she was hit by a driver on one of her nightly walks. Lily ended up marrying the owner of Blossoms where she worked. Rumor has it the owner always had a thing for their mother, who worked there, and figured Lily was easy pickings in her grief. I mean the guy was older than her mother.”
“So she’s married?” he asked.
“A widow. He died about six years ago. She got the flower shop and her sisters were adults then and out of college. They went from barely having a roof over their head to extremely wealthy. Guess there is something to be said about being with an older man.”
He didn’t bother replying. Why would he? It was not his concern if Lily was just like most women he’d crossed in his life who used a man to get what they wanted or needed in life. Then they’d moved on when they were done or had no need for the guy anymore.