Family Bonds- Hailey & Rex…Chapter One

If you haven’t read the prologue, check it out now.

Chapter One

Born With The Blood

Two years later

Hailey was almost running into the boardroom at the casino in early September. It was the Island Bond Trust board meeting and as the attorney representing the island trust, she had to be there. 

All she could be thankful for was it was at the casino closer to the Romeo port and not being held at The Retreat on the other end of the island. The meeting places rotated between The Retreat, the casino her cousin Eli owned, and Bond Realty that Scott Bond owned, but Scott’s sons Drew and Bode mainly ran the day-to-day operations.

“Sorry. I’m not late,” she said quickly. She had two minutes to spare and she knew it.

She looked around the room at all the men. Her grandfather, Steven, and her father representing Edward’s side. Scott and Mitchell Bond for James’s side. Bill Bond, the retired chief of police, hated to be here but knew he had to represent his side of the family, William’s. Plus his line worked a lot of the service jobs on the island. Police and fire. Dr. Michael Mills for Catherine’s, Sophia Rauch for Patricia’s side. One woman. She was hoping to change that with her generation.

There were more on the board, but not everyone could make it. And they were men too. Her aunts didn’t want to be here and the only ones on the board that could were Bonds, not ones that married into the family. Born with the blood only.

“You’re not late,” her father said. “We are waiting for one more. You know the big topic of discussion is the investment firm we are going to move to for the island trust.”

“Okay,” she said, putting her head down to check her email on her phone. She didn’t do much at these meetings other than listen and give legal advice. She knew her place and her time wasn’t now.

When the door opened, her jaw dropped to the phone in her hand. What the hell?

 “Everyone, this is Rex Knight. He is president and CEO of the new firm we will be using going forward,” her grandfather said.

This had to be some kind of a joke. 

The guy that bid on her almost a year ago at the annual charity event to raise money for the fund they were meeting on wasn’t sitting in the room with her.

His eyes met hers and he smirked. Yep, it was happening and Rex knew damn well she’d be here and he probably figured, based on her open mouth when he walked in, that she was caught by surprise.

The introductions went around the room, she nodded her head. “We know each other as many of you are aware,” she said, grinning. She’d turn this around like she always did.

There were a few chuckles in the room. “That’s right. Rex had the highest bid at the auction that night for you,” Sophia said. 

She’d figured if anyone was on her side it’d be the only other woman in the room, but since Sophia’s daughter Emily had gotten bid on and was now engaged to Crew Ackley, she might have stars in her eyes.

Not her. They had their one date. It was pleasant enough, but she found Rex to be somewhat dry and dull. Prim and proper. She was anything but.

Besides, she did her duty, went on the date…obligation met. She wasn’t expecting more out of it when it finally happened four months after the auction.

“He put some money in the trust. Now let’s see if he can earn us some more.”

Her father shook his head like he always did when she spoke her mind; others laughed.

She sat there for the remainder of the meeting listening and taking notes calmly when all the while there was agitation in her bones. Her father was going to pay the price for this one. He could have told her.

When the meeting ended, everyone stood and Rex came over to her. “It’s good to see you again,” he said, shaking her hand. 

The heat of his palm in hers had her remembering she’d felt the same thing six months ago when she’d met him in the restaurant.

He sure was a looker and it had to be attraction more than anything. The guy was built. Tall with a tailored suit on that showed he had a lot of muscle. His light brown hair was short, his brown eyes piercing. He was cocky, he knew that, but his personality had been lacking when they were one on one.

“Same,” she said. “Congratulations on your new acquisition. The firm, not the island trust.”

“Thanks. It happened shortly after our date.”

He was from Boston, she knew that much. But he’d been living in Manhattan at the time of the auction. She’d found it odd that he was at the auction, but he’d said his mother had purchased the ticket and couldn’t attend.

The last thing she expected was she’d ever cross paths with him again, let alone have to be working with him at some point.

Everyone was leaving the conference room, the two of them standing there like fools, both of them probably trying to figure out what to say. 

“If you’ll excuse me, I’ve got to catch up with my father before he leaves the building.”

“No problem,” he said, grinning at her. She was positive he knew she might be giving her father hell but wasn’t going to let it bother her.

They walked out together, him going toward the exit to get out of the secure area, her turning down another hallway, hoping to find her father by the offices. They were limited where they could go back here without passes, but she found her father standing with Mitchell by the door to the offices that led to Eli’s wing. Mitchell owned a small part of the casino and could go anywhere. 

“Hailey,” Mitchell said, grinning. “We knew you’d be looking for your father.” He swiped his badge. “Why don’t I find an office you two can use to talk.”

“Thank you,” she said.

Her father sighed and the minute the two of them were behind a closed door he said, “Get it off your chest.”

“Why didn’t you tell me he would be here?”

“I didn’t think it was that big of a deal,” her father said.

“Are you kidding me?”

“You’re getting worked up for no reason. Did something happen on that date that you didn’t tell me?” he asked. “You said it went well.”

“It did. I fulfilled my obligation. He was rather dull, but it’s not like he was going to be my future husband. He bought a date and he got it.”

“Exactly,” her father said, knocking the wind out of her sails.

“You could have forewarned me he’d be here.”

“Again, I’m not sure what the big deal is.”

“How did this even come about?” she asked, pivoting to another tactic.

“You’ll have to explain that,” he said.

Her father was playing her. He said she got it from her mother, but she got plenty from him. “How is this for clarity? Six months ago Rex was working and living in Manhattan. Now he’s in Boston. Did he reach out to you for the business?”

“No,” her father said. “You know we did a thorough background check on him before the date.”

“Griffin told me,” she said. Griffin was Eli’s head of security who did a lot of other work for the Bond family. She’d made sure she got the report before her father did. She wanted to know what everyone else did about the guy before she spent a few hours with a stranger on a so-called date.

On paper he was impressive. In person, he was at first glance. Until he opened his mouth. He barely smiled or laughed. A smirk now and again, but that was it.

And she wasn’t put off by smirks because she’d been known to do it enough too. She was cocky and confident and had no problem with a man being that way.

Her problem was he was boring and she spent more time talking about the food because everything she tried to talk about ran into a dead end. She’d bet he was just too used to staring at numbers and investment reports all day long.

“Then you know how impressive his resume was. You also know we weren’t happy with the services we were getting with our current firm. You left the last meeting early or you would have known we were talking about contacting Rex.”

She narrowed her eyes. “Who brought his name up first?”

Her father held her stare. “Me. I knew the most since he took my daughter out. I didn’t see any reason to not bring it up as an option. Even your disapproval that I’m getting now wouldn’t have stopped me. It’s business. Unless he did something inappropriate that you didn’t mention.”

She wanted to say she wished, but that would only prolong this conversation and get her father’s back up. “No. He’ll probably be a good choice.”

“Then your only issue is that you didn’t know ahead of time?” he asked.

“Yes. I should be informed.”

“So noted,” he said, firmly.

They locked horns a lot, but when they left it was normally over with.

She hitched her purse on her shoulder. “Are we done?”

“That was going to be my question to you,” he said.

“Yes,” she said, walking out the door.

She needed to get off this island but had a meeting set in her office in two hours. She was torn between going there now and foraging around for food or grabbing some fast food on the way.

There wasn’t much on the island like in Boston though and Hailey decided if she didn’t take the time to eat lunch now, she’d be starving later tonight with her packed schedule and the rush to catch the ferry for the night.

Rather than leave the casino she detoured to the restaurant. She could get something fast and deal with work while she waited.

What she didn’t expect was to see Rex sitting at a table by himself, his face buried in his phone too.

She could leave or move to a table out of the way.

Or she could be herself and make her way closer to him.

That was exactly what she did.

Family Bonds- Hailey & Rex…Prologue

Prologue

“Thanks for meeting with me, Dad,” Hailey Bond said. “I know you’re busy and getting ready to leave in a few weeks with Mom.”

Her father was semi-retired and had promised her mother for years they’d travel. She needed to catch him before he left. It was now or never.

When her father smirked at her she held her grin back. “Meeting? I wasn’t aware this had to be something official. Must be serious.”

This time she did grin. She’d given her father grief enough in her life. She knew it.

She was outspoken and told it the way it was.

The Bonds were big names, but it was mostly attributed to the men. 

Nope, she was making her mark on the world and everyone was going to know who she was. 

The Bond Retreat could only be handed down to a male. A stupid clause in the long-standing legal documents and wills over the years. If she’d expressed interest in it, she was positive her father would find a way to make it work, to give her a role in running it. He may be stuffy and boring, but he was fair.

She could have worked her magic if she wanted to. The law was her specialty. 

She’d rather have her hand in everyone’s pie than having her own though. That could be Hunter’s job to run The Retreat. She’d be the fixer of the family and get things done on one problem, then move on to the next.

What she needed to make that happen was her father’s approval.

It was killing her she needed it too, but such was life.

“It might not be to you, but it is to me,” she said.

“Tell me what is going on then,” he said, leaning back in his chair. They were in her small office on the island when she’d much rather meet at her Boston office. This little satellite one was profitable and made sense, but it wasn’t for her to be here often.

She came when needed, but it wasn’t her time to make a living here. Boston called her and she could balance them both. She’d been doing it for years and was going to continue.

After taking a deep breath that she never needed to do much of in life, she said, “I need to use my trust to purchase a law firm in Boston. It’s my dream. You know it. I can’t pass this up, but to secure it before he puts it up for sale officially, I need to be able to go in with the cash.”

Her father looked stunned. “What firm?”

He was staying calm, which surprised her. Charlie Bond was actually a calm guy but never when it came to her. She named the firm. “I hadn’t been aware they were selling.”

“I heard through the grapevine and called to ask.”

He laughed. “I could see you doing that to find out if it was true. So it is?”

“Obviously. I can’t let this pass.”

“Your firm is growing that you started from the ground up,” he told her.

“It is. But it’d take me until I was your age to build up to this caliber. Purchasing it makes more sense between their reputation and the one I’ve worked hard for. No one can stand in my way if I acquire this.”

“No one has ever stood in your way before. So you want to manage rather than work the law?” he asked. “Because that is exactly what will happen if you go this route.”

“No. Not now. They’ve got good staff; many will stay that choose to. They never wanted partners. I know I can appeal to them knowing that I feel the same way. This will be my legacy.”

She knew where to hit. Her father closed one eye at her, knowing it was a shot at the fact she didn’t have a penis being the reason she could not get The Retreat. “I don’t want to have you empty your trust,” he said simply.

“I can probably go in with half, which I don’t need your approval for,” she pointed out. “The rest would be a loan. I just figured I had a better shot with the all-cash offer.”

“That trust fund is there for your future. For your future family.” She snorted, but he continued. “Rainy days.”

“Please,” she said. “I don’t worry about a rainy day.” 

There were more millions in her trust fund than most in her family would ever see. She was from one of the wealthiest branches of the family. Her father was worth a billion she was sure. Hunter was worth much more than her. Again…no penis.

“I can’t approve it,” he said. She went to open her mouth and argue, but he held his hand up and she shut her trap when arguing was what she did best. “However, because you don’t have a penis as you’ve said so much in life, I will match your half. That will give you what you need.”

“I don’t want a loan,” she said. 

“Not a loan,” he said softly.

She was stunned. “What? No. I don’t need a partner. I can run this on my own.”

“And you don’t want anyone to tell you what to do. Your mother and I have known that our whole lives.”

“Exactly,” she said, crossing her arms. She saw her chances going up in smoke and wasn’t sure what to do. It might be worth it to give in, but she’d fight first.

“Your brother is going to get The Retreat,” he said. “Let me do this for you.”

“To absolve your guilt?” she asked.

He frowned. “No. Maybe. I know it’s archaic and I’ve hated it. I know what is said to you stays with you. My father settled with both of my sisters. They didn’t have any desire to work for The Retreat either and did their own thing.”

Her aunts, Melissa French and Melanie Stone, never had any interest in working with or for any family member. She wondered though if it was because they felt they couldn’t get it in their name anyway. Wasn’t her problem. Grace Stone was the only one that worked at The Retreat as the executive chef. As far as she knew, Grace never felt like she should have had a stake in The Retreat. She stayed out of it.

Besides, there was room in the family for those that wanted to work together. Her cousin Roark French was a defense attorney for the firm she wanted to buy. They were about the same age and got along well. She had plans for him already if she could wrap this up.

“So is this a family tradition then?” she asked.

“No. As far as I know, my father was the first generation to do it. I’m going to carry it on. Hunter can do his own thing if he ever finds anyone and settles down.”

Her older brother always knew The Retreat would go to him and had no issues with it. His bigger issue was their father rode his only son’s ass hard and Hunter never stood up for himself. Hailey…she had no problem.

She wasn’t sure how she felt about what her father was telling her though. “So, it’s going to be in my name only?” she asked. “Even with your half?”

He tilted his head. “How about a small percentage in mine and your mother’s name? Silent investors.”

“I don’t need an investor. I know what I’m doing,” she said, lifting her chin. 

He let out a sigh. “Two votes on the board. One for your mother and one for me.”

The fact he wasn’t negotiating that hard told her how much he really wanted to do this for her. Part of her was extremely touched, the other part knew she had to keep up their game. He’d expect that of her.

“Mom has no interest in this,” she said.

“You don’t know that. You’d have to ask her.”

He had a point. “She might enjoy it. Fine. Two seats on the board. You’re going to do this? I’m not dreaming?”

“No. Because every dream you’ve ever had has come true. Go get your firm and make the name you want for yourself,” her father said. “But anyone that knows you, knows you already have.”

She laughed and moved closer to her father. He stood up and she hugged him. He could be a hard man, but he showed this soft side at times and it reminded her how lucky she was in life.

“Thanks, Dad. You’re making the right decision.”

He laughed. “I know. If I said no, I’m pretty sure you would have filed suit against me to get the money released from your trust, delaying your mother’s trip. Trust me, nothing is going to stand in her way to go.”

Hailey grinned. “Remember that. I’m just like her.”

“Don’t I know it,” he said, shaking his head. “Go do what you need to do and let me know when you need the funds if it goes through.”

She smirked. “It already did. I just need the money to close.”

His shoulders dropped and he shook his head. “I should have figured. You’re going to give some guy fits in the future.”

She laughed this time. “I don’t need a man, Dad. Please.”

“You won’t always say that.”

Yes, she would, but she was in too good of a mood to argue.

Family Bonds- Hailey & Rex

Hailey Bond has it all. She’s worked hard to make her mark in a man’s world. Even in the Bond’s world. “I don’t need a man,” has come from her lips many times over. Only with all her cousins falling in love left and right, the chimes of her biological clock are almost shaking the island her family founded. The problem is…it seems no man she finds wants to live by her rules.

Rex Knight has worked hard for his wealth. It wasn’t handed to him and he takes nothing for granted. His ex playing games for years didn’t turn him sour. But finding someone who can understand his demanding career has been difficult. His charity date with Hailey Bond was a flop and he knew it. A chance to manage the Amore Island Trust puts him back in front of Hailey and this time he’s going to show her that compromise is the name of the game.

River’s Mystic Crush…Prologue

Prologue

“Emma. We’re going out to dinner tonight and you need to do something with your appearance.”

She looked at her mother and wanted to growl, then glanced down at her jean shorts, black Adidas slides on her feet with her multi-colored mismatching socks and Nike T-shirt with a swimmer on it. “What’s wrong with my appearance?”

She thought she looked the same as everyone else her age. Especially those that played sports. If she wasn’t swimming, then she was playing field hockey in the fall and running track in the spring. She was going into high school next year and working her butt off to get on the competitive teams to make her mother proud of her.

Thankfully her father had been paying for all the camps she’d been in. She’d wanted to do them for the past few summers, but her stepfather insisted they spend July and some of August in Mystic, Connecticut, where his sailboat was in the marina close to a house that his family owned.

“If it wasn’t for the long hair, most would think you were a boy,” her mother said with disdain in her voice. “You are going to high school next year and you need to start looking more like a woman.”

“I’m not a woman,” she said, getting sick of being told what she had to do or how she had to look. Especially from her mother who was on her second husband, but had a few boyfriends in between. Nothing was ever good enough for Janice Miller-Ellis-Cox.

With the amount of fighting that had been going on between her mother and husband number two, she figured that wasn’t going to last either. She was surprised they’d lasted three years.

“You’re going to be and no man wants to be with a woman that looks and acts like a man,” her mother said, lifting her nose in the air.

“Leave her alone, Mom,” her brother, James, said coming onto the boat. Richard’s family home wasn’t too far away, easy enough to walk back and forth to his boat. Every year now for three years, pulling her and James away from their friends, they had to spend time here.

“You’re no better,” her mother said to James. He looked fine to Emma. The two of them dressed about the same. They were on vacation during the summer and running around acting like kids. She didn’t get the big deal.

But everything was a big deal for her mother lately.

 “Whatever,” James said. “Richard wanted me to tell you that he’s making reservations for seven tonight for dinner. He’s finishing a call and will be here within the hour to go on the water.”

“He was supposed to be here an hour ago,” her mother snapped. “He’s never on time for anything.”

“He’s working,” James said. “I’m the messenger and I’m going back.”

“You’re not going to go on the water with us?” her mother asked her brother.

 “Nope. I don’t like it and you know it. I’m going to chill at the house,” James said.

Her older brother by two years walked off the bow of the boat and onto the dock, making his way back to the house where they’d be for another week. She couldn’t wait to get back home to Loudonville, New York, and see her friends again.

“I suppose you want to get out of going now too,” her mother said with her hands on her hips.

“Yep. If James doesn’t have to go, then neither do I,” she said, lifting her chin, some of it wobbling a little. She always found it hard to put her foot down with her mother.

The past few weeks had been short of hell in her mind. If her mother wasn’t complaining about the way she looked, then she was screaming at Richard in another room. She almost felt bad for the guy that she had no attachment to other than he was footing the bill for this vacation she hated.

“Fine,” her mother said. “This will give Richard and me time to talk.”

“Good for you,” Emma said, following the path her brother had taken.

She was at the end of the dock when she saw River Scarsdale. He worked at that marina and had last summer too. He was James’s age and they did hang out some. She’d tagged along because she had a wicked crush on the kid and thought he’d felt the same.

“Hi, River,” she said.

He dropped the rag into the bucket. He was cleaning a boat; that was part of his job. She knew his father was a mechanic here, working on the boats as needed.

“Hey, Emma. How are you today? Just saw James walk by.”

“I’m good. He went back to the house where I’m going too. Or I said I was.”

“You don’t look good to me,” River said, moving closer. “You look a combination of sad and annoyed.”

It was funny how he was always able to see that. Even when she tagged along with James when River was around, River would spend time with her.

She’d never told anyone that she’d sneak down here and talked to him while he worked either. She didn’t want him to get in trouble, so she’d hide where she wasn’t seen and keep him company.

It might be the only thing she didn’t hate about being forced on this summer vacation.

“Probably because I’m both,” she said, laughing.

He picked his bucket up and brought it back to the building where he got most of his supplies. She followed along. “Your mother again?” he asked.

She’d confided in him more than she probably should. She wasn’t one for airing out dirty laundry, but there was something about River that drew her young teen mind in and made her feel safe and comfortable.

“Of course. She says I need to start looking like a woman or no man would want me.”

She wasn’t about to tell River that she’d said she wasn’t a woman. She might be more on the athletic side, but she didn’t want him to think that of her. She wanted him to think of her more as a girl than a boy.

“That’s crazy,” River said. “You’re pretty. Who cares if someone wants you wearing a skirt and shoes over shorts and slides? Comfort means more.”

“See,” she said. “You get it.”

She moved closer to the wall where he was getting more cleaners. “I do,” he said. He walked over to her and stepped into her personal space. He’d done it a few times and it’d gotten her heart pumping and juices flowing in her body like she’d never experienced before.

A lot of her friends talked about kissing and who their first kiss was, but she’d yet to have that. 

Maybe her mother was right. Boys didn’t look at her like anything other than one of them.

But as River said, who cares?

Only she did care. She cared what River thought.

“Would it bother you if your girlfriend dressed like me?” she asked.

He laughed. “I don’t have a girlfriend, but the answer to that is no. It wouldn’t bother me. I’m not so superficial that I care as much about those things.”

She figured as much. He talked about not coming from the right side of the area. He and his family worked for the rich, they didn’t mingle with them. She hated that he said it let alone felt that way.

He was mingling now though and she was fine with it.

She’d never considered herself rich. Her father had a good job as an engineer, but it wasn’t enough for her mother who was married to an investment broker now. Every boyfriend seemed to have more than the last and her mother stopped working when she married Richard.

“That’s why I like you,” she said, trying to get her flirt on. She hoped the heat in her face was from the sun and not embarrassment.

“I like you too,” River said, inching closer. His hand came up and she was wondering what he was planning on doing. She was frozen in time, their eyes locked. His hand came to her cheek and ran down it. “You’ve got some dirt there.”

She let out a little laugh. Figures. That’s probably part of what her mother was complaining about in saying she looked like a boy. “Thanks.”

So much for thinking he was going to kiss her. 

She was ready to turn and get out of his way for him to go back to the boat, but this time he looked around. She followed his gaze. There was no one she could see, and his mouth landed on hers. It started out soft and sweet and then she opened her mouth hoping he’d get the hint she wanted a real kiss.

He did. His tongue sliding in. She wasn’t sure what to do and followed his lead. When they heard voices, he jumped back. “Sorry about that.”

“Don’t be sorry,” she said, smiling.

“River,” she heard shouted. “Are you in the shed?”

“I’ve got to go. I’ll talk to you later or tomorrow?” he asked.

 “I’ll be here.”

Only she wasn’t. Her mother and Richard got into a huge fight and they all packed up and left the next morning, Emma never getting to say goodbye to the boy who gave her her first kiss.

River’s Mystic Crush

Dr. River Scarsdale was born on the wrong side of the watery banks and many never let him forget it in the small town of Mystic. He busted his butt and proved that where you come from doesn’t stop you from where you are going. And that crush he’d had when he was a teen, the one for the wealthy stepdaughter of the man whose boat he cleaned? Yeah, he always wondered what happened to her.

Emma Ellis has watched her mother marry and divorce more than any teen should. Each husband brought more wealth and higher expectations of her children to follow in her footsteps. The minute she could move out and make her own choices she did. They were nothing like her mother’s and never would be. And if her mother didn’t like she was vacationing in the town they’d stayed in when she was a teen to revisit old memories, then that was just too darn bad too. If only she had more of a backbone to get her point across.

In the quaint seaside town of Mystic, Connecticut, love is in the air—and who knows where you might encounter a look, a smile, a kiss… that moment when you know your whole life is about to change. It could happen at the Seaport Museum, the Mystic Aquarium, at famous Mystic Pizza, or on a romantic sailboat cruise. Maybe even a Sunday outing at the Elm Grove Cemetery like they did in the late 1900’s, strolling in the salt-kissed breeze.

Eight hunky guys, each on his own path through life, navigate their way through the rich history of Mystic, discovering steamy romance along the way.

River’s Mystic Crush- Natalie Ann
Luke’s Mystic Romance – Suzanne Jenkins
Malachi’s Mystic Assignment- Jen Talty
Matt’s Mystic Connection – Katie O’Sullivan
Liam’s Mystic Passion- Alicia Street
Cael’s Mystic Reunion- Stephanie Morris
Ridley’s Mystic Roots- Reina Torres
Max’s Mystic Magic- Tamara Ferguson

Fierce-Cody…Chapter One

Check out the PROLOGUE if you haven’t read it yet.

Chapter One

Wanted A Breather 

Cody McMillan looked around Fierce Engineering on New Year’s Eve and wondered again what he was doing here.

He wasn’t even comfortably moved into his one-bedroom apartment in Durham and he was starting his new job on Monday in a city he was trying to find his way around.

 If anyone told him last New Year when he was at his buddy’s house, throwing back a beer with some friends and then crashing on the couch, that he’d be living in Durham and starting a new life close to his sister’s, he would have dumped his beer on their head to a round of laughter.

But times change. Marissa was now married to his nephew Tommy’s father. The guy no one knew the name of last year.

Everyone was happy. Or so they said.

No, that was wrong. He knew Marissa was the happiest he’d ever seen her. Tommy too. But he had a hard time letting go and being almost five hours away was going to be difficult to handle for a guy that had been the “man” in his sister’s life until now.

What started as a joke that he was going to look for a job in Durham turned into reality. That he had a better job than the one back in Greenville was icing on the next stage of his life cake.

His sister was now part of the Fierce family and that meant Grant and Diane, Ryder’s parents, seemed to have taken him under their wing. Not only did they convince him to come to the firm’s party tonight, but dinner at their house tomorrow.

“Cody.” He turned his head to see Diane coming toward him. She reached up and kissed him on the cheek like she greeted her sons. His own mother didn’t do that. “I’m so glad you’re here.”

“Thanks for asking me,” he said. 

He was learning fast there was no telling a Fierce no when they made a request, but he wouldn’t voice those words.

He didn’t have to when Diane let out a little giggle. “I know we put you on the spot. But it will do you good to meet some people.”

He didn’t need another mother at this point in his life. “I’m sure I’ll meet plenty at work.”

“You will. And if you need anything, you make sure that my boys and the rest of the family show you around.”

He sighed. He didn’t need special treatment, but he knew having an in with the Fierces might have been one of the reasons he got the interview in the first place.

Diane’s son, Sam, was an oncology surgeon at Duke. Her nephew Wyatt was an anesthesiologist. Wyatt’s wife was an OR nurse. Then there was Brock James who was married to Wyatt’s twin, Jade. He was the Director of Security for the entire Duke campus. 

And let’s not forget Diane’s middle son, Bryce, was a professor at Duke and the Fierces were big donors. So yeah, if their name was tied to anything, you were at least getting an interview.

“I’m sure I’ll be fine,” he said. “But if I have any questions, I know who to reach out to.”

“You do that,” Diane said. “Oh, here comes your sister.”

“Hey, little bro,” Marissa said, moving next to him. “Diane isn’t trying to match you up with someone, is she?”

“Please, Marissa,” Diane said. “I had nothing to do with you and Ryder and you know it.”

Cody had heard the story. How could he not? Diane and her sister-in-law Carolyn had set up six of the seven kids. Ryder was the last one standing. He’d bet Diane would have found someone for Ryder if Marissa hadn’t been in the picture.

Nah, it was meant for his sister to be with Ryder. Everyone has said it. That Ryder wasn’t settling down and didn’t want any part of being set up. He’d like to believe it was because Ryder never got over his sister and now he didn’t have to worry about that.

Which still didn’t explain why Cody picked up his life and moved here knowing how happy Marissa and Tommy were.

Maybe it had more to do with the fact that watching over his older sister gave him a purpose, and with her gone, he felt lost. He’d spent most of his life watching over or looking out for people. There was no one else close to him.

Moving here, he could still do it. Or try to if he found someone else that needed his help. 

No, not going there. He’d been told a few times to stop doing that. 

To put himself first. 

Two of the women who’d said it were standing in front of him. Marissa and Diane Fierce.

At least he’d still be able to see his nephew as much living here and that made it worth it too.

“I don’t need anyone to set me up,” he said, turning to Diane. “I’m fully capable of finding my own woman.”

“Every man says that,” Diane said, shaking her head and moving off.

“She really won’t do that, will she?” he asked Marissa.

“I wouldn’t put anything past her. But you know how to say no. You’ve said it enough in your life.”

“I have and I can. Yet I still ended up here tonight.”

“It will be fun. Trust me.”

“I’m sure. It’s hard not to have fun around Ryder’s family. There are a lot more people than I thought though.”

“They come and go from the sounds of it. And here comes Ryder ready to pull me away and make more introductions. Sorry. I’ll be back, I promise.”

“I’m fine,” he said. He didn’t have a problem making small talk with people. He’d stay until midnight and then take his leave. Only a few more hours.

An hour later though, he was still nursing his first beer and looking around. He’d been talking with several people who recognized him from Ryder’s wedding. Ryder had been introducing him around too. But right now he just wanted a breather.

He looked over and saw Raina, Grant’s assistant, trying to inch away from some dude crowding her space. She was one of the first people he met. Ryder brought him over and made the introduction, then to a few more people on his team.

He knew when someone didn’t want to be here and it helped he wasn’t alone in that thought. 

There was something about her in her black pants and a gray sweater that told him she wanted to blend into the room and make a fast exit.

His eyes kept searching her out. She was a tiny thing and right up his alley in terms of attraction with her dark hair, wide innocent eyes, and shy smile.

He saw her shake her head and then move a step back, but the guy followed. Yeah, not happening.

Being protective was in his nature; he was going over to save her. 

“Sorry. I’m good. I don’t need another drink,” Raina said, backing up and hitting the wall.

“It’s not that long before midnight. If you need a ride home, I can take you,” the guy said.

“I believe she told you no,” Cody told the man who was dressed in jeans and a button-down shirt. He wasn’t dressed up like others here so that made him think it was a coworker who stayed at the end of the day rather than going home to change.

“Excuse me?” he said.

“Brian, I’m good,” Raina said. “I don’t need another drink. Thanks.”

The dude…Brian…gave Cody the once over and moved away. He wasn’t here to start trouble, but he was bigger and no doubt meaner than Brian. Not that he had to be bigger because Cody knew parts of the body that would cause someone an extreme amount of pain with little effort on his part.

No, no. He shouldn’t be thinking that way either.

“Sorry,” he said to Raina. “You looked uncomfortable.”

“Thanks. I’m not sure why I came. I mean I was here and it was hard to say I had plans when I didn’t. I’m fully capable of getting myself another drink if I need it.”

He smiled. “I’m sure you are. Does he bother you a lot?” 

“No. He’s never talked to me until tonight.” 

Trying to score was probably the guy’s motivation. “Hopefully he’ll leave you alone now.”

“I’m sure with the look you gave him from across the room,” she said, smiling.

“What look was that?” he asked.

“Oh, I don’t know. One that said you wanted to wipe the floor with him.”

***

“It’s great that all our kids are hooked up,” Diane said to her sister-in-law Carolyn.

“It is. And Mick and Lindsey are on their way. Jolene had to brag about how Devin proposed to Hope at Christmas. You know it’s all on your shoulders now. You said you were going to get to work on Cody.”

She laughed. “I shouldn’t be thinking much since he is going to be starting work this week and is barely unpacked. Tell me I’m nuts, but look over at Raina.”

Carolyn turned her head to look at Grant’s assistant. Raina had been employed with Fierce Engineering about eight months, was young and quiet. Almost reserved but very friendly and respectful. She was raised well, it was noticeable.

“Now that is interesting. Why do you think the two of them?”

“First off, Cody needs someone to look after and protect. He’s been that way with Marissa even though he’s younger. He moved here because he’s not ready to let her go,” Diane said. “My son doesn’t need the interference when he’s starting the life he lost nine years ago with Marissa.”

Carolyn laughed. “Ryder isn’t going to let Cody get in his way and you know it.”

“True. But my point is, Cody needs that in his life. He’s at loose ends and it’s noticeable. Raina, she’s shy. She’s quiet. And she’s been watched over by older brothers her whole life. She’s used to it,” she said.

“How do you know that?”

“Grant told me. He talked to her and she has mentioned she has two older brothers. I guess she’s brought it up in passing when Grant and Garrett talk about our kids and how close they are. She has that relationship too.”

“Okay. I see where you’re going with this,” Carolyn said. “If she doesn’t get annoyed over her brothers being that way…”

“I don’t know that. But look at Cody,” she said.

Carolyn turned her head and saw what Diane did. A coworker was talking to Raina and maybe leaning in closer than he should be. Raina moved a step back and the guy got closer. Cody was frowning and then moved away from the wall and walked toward them.

“Oh my,” Carolyn said. “We need to get closer and hear what might be said. Diane, the ball is in your court. Good catch.”

She walked away from Carolyn and made her way to Cody and Raina to see if she could find out what was going on. “Raina, sweetie. Sorry I’m just making my way over here.”

“You’re busy, Diane,” Raina said. “This is a lovely event.”

“Thank you. Grant, Garrett, Carolyn and I do enjoy throwing this celebration every year. I had to almost twist Cody’s arm to attend tonight.”

She watched Cody squint one eye at her. “Not quite that much.”

“I’m sure you’ve heard from Ryder that Cody relocated to this area to be by his sister. Isn’t that the sweetest thing? You know about brothers being close to their sister, don’t you?”

“More than most,” Raina said. “Sounds like something my brothers would do.”

“It’s a nice trait to have. Caring for your family and being there for them.”

“It is,” Raina agreed. “Until they get on your nerves with it.”

Cody laughed. “Been there myself a few times.”

Diane saw Jade waving her over, so she nodded and said, “I’m being called. You two have a great night.”

Once she got to the other end of the room where her niece was, she asked, “What’s wrong?”

Jade started to laugh. “You. Good lord, Cody probably isn’t even unpacked and you’re getting right to work. You’re almost as bad as my mother with Mick and Lindsey.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about, Jade,” she said. “Oh look, the punch is almost gone. I better get that taken care of.” She made a fast exit before her niece could give her any more grief.

Yep, Raina was her target for Cody. This was going to be fun.

Fierce-Cody Prologue…

Prologue

“Wow, look at you.”

Raina Davenport took her seat at the table with the other single attendees for Ryder Fierce’s wedding. She hadn’t wanted to come, but working so closely with Grant and Ryder for the past eight months, she couldn’t find a way out of it.

She looked at Chloe who’d made that comment. At least she wasn’t the lone one without a date here and that was the only reason she’d talked herself into feeling like it’d be okay to come solo. “Thank you.”

“You should wear more colors like that,” Megan said. She worked in accounting and was a year older than Raina. They didn’t have a lot in common but found they were always eating lunch at the same time and started to bond.

Raina’s wardrobe mainly stuck to browns and blacks at work, at least on the bottom. Tops were dull grays or whites. Somehow her mother talked her into this hunter green dress when they went shopping a few weeks ago. It’s not like she had many dresses in her closet when she’d much prefer to blend in and not draw attention to herself.

At least not now. 

“It’s not too bold?” she asked.

There were a few laughs around the table. She knew some of the others’ names but not them personally. She kept to herself as much as she could. It was easier that way.

“Hardly,” Chloe said. She was an engineer at Fierce Engineering. She’d only been there a year and was around Raina’s age too. At least they sat her with most of her generation for this event. “The color is great, but the fit is better.”

Yikes. That wasn’t what she was going for. She thought it might be tight to her small frame, but her mother insisted it was made for her. Since she could move easily in it, she had to get over it. There wasn’t too much that was tight on her, but this had a belt that showed how tiny her waist was.

“Not too much?” she asked, frowning.

There was more laughter and Megan patted her hand. “Not at all. You look lovely. Loosen up. I can’t figure out how someone as stunning as you seems so unsure of yourself.”

She hadn’t always felt that way, but these women didn’t need to know that. Nor was it something she shared with many outside her family.

“I’m just quiet,” she said. Most accepted that. She talked when there was a conversation going on, but she didn’t always contribute much on a personal level.

“We’ll get you talking tonight,” Mandy said, waving her hand for the waitress to come back over. There was a bar in the back with waitresses moving around while the wedding party was getting pictures taken. “I’ll take a white wine.”

The waitress took the orders around her and then she said, “Diet soda.”

“That isn’t going to make you talk,” Megan said, winking at her. At least Megan wasn’t pressuring her like some of the others looked like they wanted to do when they groaned over her soda.

“No, but I’m driving.”

“One drink isn’t going to hurt,” Mandy said. “I hope you at least have the champagne for the toast.”

“Leave her alone,” Chloe said. “Not everyone likes alcohol nor do they want to drink, socially or not. If you don’t want your champagne, I’ll have it.”

“I will drink the champagne,” Raina said. Since she’d be watching it as it was poured from the bottles that would be brought around for each table. She knew the routine because she’d heard Grant talking about it in a meeting with Ryder. 

This was her first Fierce wedding, but some at this table had been to Drake’s and Jade’s also, who worked at the firm too. The Fierces did everything in style.

She listened to the conversations around her. Mainly about Ryder and Marissa and how their relationship was so fast. Considering Ryder and Marissa had a nine-year-old son, she didn’t think it was fast.

No, Ryder didn’t know about his son until earlier this year and there were a lot in the office who liked to gossip and figure out the whole story. But she worked with Ryder more than the rest of them and, though she’d heard all about him and his playboy ways prior to her start at Fierce, Marissa had been in his life since Raina’s employment and he seemed devoted and in love with his wife and son.

“So who was the guy paired up with Jade? Does anyone know?”

No one answered and then they looked at her. They knew she’d know the answer so she said, “Cody McMillan. That is Marissa’s brother.”

“Damn,” Megan said. “He is a treat on the eyes. Wonder if he’s single or not.”

She shrugged when they looked at her again. “No clue. It’s the first I’ve seen him too,” she said. She only knew who he was because Diane came into the office one day when she was working with Ryder and started to talk about Cody moving here and needing to get fitted for his tux last minute.

And as much as she wanted to agree with Megan’s comment about Cody, she was keeping her lips sealed. All she wanted to do was get through this reception and go back home to her apartment above her parents’ garage.

Not the life she’d thought she’d have, but it was the one she had. She was slowly finding her way and making changes to meet her dreams, but again, no one at this table needed to know that either.

Fierce-Cody

The Fierce women are at it again! Jolene, Carolyn, and Diane have gotten their children settled and it’s time to move on to their nieces, nephews, and friends of their kids. Secretly…of course.

Cody McMillan hasn’t known much in life other than protecting and caring for others. It started in childhood when his closest friend was seriously injured, then his father’s accident, and finally watching over his sister. When his sister relocates to Durham to marry, he decides it’s best to follow her and made sure she’s fine. That’s what brothers do, right? Put everyone before themselves? That is until the Fierces get involved and make him see he should put himself first.

Raina Davenport had the unthinkable happen to her in college. She dropped out and returned home to land a job at Fierce Engineering. She is trying to move on with her life and thinks she’s doing a grand job of it. Men and relationships aren’t in her plans…until the Fierce’s get involved and make her see that baby steps are a start, but sprinting gets you there faster.

A Lover For Lily…Chapter One

Check out the Prologue if you haven’t read it yet.

Chapter One

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.

A Lover For Lily…Prologue

Prologue

Lily Bloom looked over the sea of gray tombstones lined up in their precise locations. She’d never come here before. Why would she? No one in her family had died that she knew of in her eighteen years.

Except now one of the most important people in her life did die. Her mother. Suddenly. Tragically.

Lily stood holding her younger sisters’ hands on each side of her. Poppy was sixteen, Rose fifteen. The three of them stared at the tiny marker on the ground. They couldn’t afford much and there would have been no casket or burial without the help of her mother’s boss, Carl Blossoms. Lily wouldn’t take advantage of his kindness and told him she was grateful for any arrangements he made. That and the donations coming their way for the three girls that were now orphans was the only way this small gathering could happen.

“Do you need another tissue?” she asked Poppy.

Her sister turned and stopped wiping her nose on the sleeve of her black shirt. It was June and hot, but the girls didn’t have a lot of clothes and certainly not dark clothing. The trickle of sweat between her shoulder blades reminded Lily she was actually wearing a black dress of their mother’s. Pulling it out of the closet this morning almost caused her knees to buckle.

She’d held it together because she had to.

“Yes,” Poppy said. Lily, being the oldest of the girls and the one who looked out for them when her mother wasn’t around, pulled a small packet of tissues out of her purse and handed one to each girl.

Rose shook her head and looked away. Her eyes were still dry, as she was holding it all in. When it came out it was going to be an explosion of epic proportions, Lily was sure. She just hoped she would be around to care for Rose then.

The priest that Carl had arranged spoke, but nothing he said registered. He was a stranger to the family. Not many knew the Blooms. Or they didn’t care that much about the single mother that lived above Blossoms Florist and worked there full time. Mystic was more a tourist area so those passing through were just that…passing through like most did in their lives.

“I’m so sorry for your loss,” Maggie said. She worked at the florist shop too. Nice older lady that was a part-time employee with Lily and her sisters. Carl was kind enough to give them all jobs and help out the best he could. She had no idea how old he was, older than her mother for sure, and single. She’d never known him to ever date that she could remember. Not that she paid much attention. Maybe he was gay. She’d heard the rumors but brushed them off. He treated her and her family well and that was all she cared about.

“Thank you,” she said to Maggie.

One by one, shop owners and employees that worked on Main Street and had the time to stop their busy day came over to the three girls and gave their condolences. It was a blur of voices and faces. As sad as it was, the only thing going through her mind was how she could hold her family together when she only worked part-time and was starting college in the fall.

Community college might not seem like much to many people, but it was more than her mother had and it was a start for her. Anything to get out of the working poor trap she’d been in her whole life.

“What’s going to happen to us?” Poppy asked. She was the most open and sensitive of the three of them. Rose internalized everything. Lily was just serious. She had to be. The stand-in mom had been her role for way too long.

“Let’s not worry about it now,” Lily said. “I’ll figure it out. I’m legally an adult, so until or unless someone comes knocking on our door, we are staying together.”

“Where?” Rose asked. “We don’t make enough money to pay rent and everything else we need.”

“Don’t worry about those things,” she said, running her hand over Rose’s dirty blonde hair. It was tied back, but the warm breeze had worked some strands loose and they were floating along her cheeks making her look younger and more vulnerable.

That was the word that was screaming in her brain over their current situation. Vulnerable.

“How can we not?” Poppy asked, starting to sniffle. The dramatic one, but if any time called for it, it was now.

“Leave it to me. I’ll figure it out.”

They got back into her mother’s car, Lily wondering when the next payment was due and how that was going to work too. Today couldn’t be the day for any of this.

When they were back in their apartment, she heard a knock at the door and went to open it. A few people had dropped off food already, which was going to be helpful.

“Carl,” she said to her boss. “Hi.”

“Can we talk?”

Great. Just what she needed. She’d bet this was when he told her they had to move out of the apartment. She wasn’t about to beg though.

“Sure,” she said, opening the door wider.

“Downstairs in my office would be best.”

She nodded her head. Carl looked more skittish than normal. He wasn’t much taller than her, probably just as skinny. His hair was thinning and there was some sweat on his brow. He looked nervous, which only made her more nervous.

“I know what you’re going to say,” Lily started as soon as he shut the door to his office. “Can you give me a little time to figure things out and then you can have the apartment back?”

“What?” he said. “You think I’m going to kick you out?” He looked shocked and almost hurt over her words.

“I figured you probably need the space to rent. But I want to see if I can handle the expenses and find a full-time job.”

“No,” he said quickly. “I’m not kicking you out. I mean not like you think.”

That sounded like having to leave to her. “So then what?”

“I know this is going to come out of left field to you. And some are going to talk and I don’t care. I liked your mother as a person. She was nice to me when a lot of people weren’t, even including me in holiday dinners. I’ve watched you girls grow and consider you a family of my own on some level.”

“Mom was that way.” Holly Bloom was a kind gentle soul who happened to fall in love with a loser that never wanted to marry her and then abandoned her to raise his daughters alone.

“She’d want me to take care of you girls. I want to do it. But I’ve got no legal tie to you or your sisters. I’m not sure how it would work. Guardianship takes time. I’ve never been through those channels. There would be lawyers involved. All sorts of things.”

“I appreciate that. Going through the courts might raise attention to us and I’d rather not do that. Maybe we can skate through for a few years until the girls are older and adults. I’ll try to find full-time work and pay the bills.”

“No. You wanted to go to college and it’s your mother’s dream that the three of you would. I think the best way to make sure you stay together and survive is that you marry me.”

“What?” Lily asked, not sure she heard him right. She turned eighteen a few months ago. She was an adult in number only. She should be able to keep her sisters…maybe. Well, definitely not on her own, but she had no intention of letting the girls know that.

“I know it sounds crazy. But it would solve a lot of problems and worries for you girls. You can stay in the apartment for now, but my house is big and empty and there is plenty of room. We could figure things out as we go. I won’t pressure you for anything. It can be short term. Just a few years if you want. I really mean it.”

 There was so much going through her mind, but the hard truth and basic facts were—Carl was the only solution she had. And she’d do anything to keep her family together.