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My baby was in the shop.
With the grumpy mechanic.
I chewed my fingernail as I checked my phone for a missed message. There wasn’t one.
Jake said he’d call when he knew what the problem was, but that didn’t ease my nerves. When he’d arrived to tow Berta, he’d asked whether I wanted her fixed. Clearly, he didn’t think she was worth saving, and his opinion burned in my stomach like a hot brand.
Berta was my grandmother’s baby blue VW van. She’d driven it for as long as I could remember. The van was a regular sight around town, filled with the flowers and plants she brought home to nurture.
Even if it was prone to breaking down and being unreliable, it was a symbol of her—the one person who understood me. Who believed in me. Who shared interests that my mother thought were frivolous. My mom didn’t think I’d ever make money selling plants.
I envisioned the van as my brand. I wanted to take photographs of it in front of the red barn, surrounded by flowers, to entice locals and tourists to visit or plan their next event on my farm. But it was a pipe dream because I hadn’t even made my little flower shop profitable yet. Then there was the problem with the van that kept breaking down.
My partnership with Gia’s wedding planning service, Happily Ever Afters, was the only saving grace. The floral arrangements I contributed to the weddings she planned kept my little business afloat.
Gia’s voice drew my attention.
“I wanted to introduce the new additions to our team. I’d like to welcome Everly, who creates beautiful wedding invitations.” Gia held up one of them, which had blue and yellow flowers with gold embellishments. “And my best friend, Harper, who’s going to get us organized with an amazing computer scheduling program.”
Gia’s passion was making plans, rules, and spreadsheets. When she wasn’t meeting with clients, she spent her time on her computer or her tablet. She launched into the logistics of Harper’s plans to organize the business, and I tuned her out. The schedule affected the wedding planners more than it did me.
My mind drifted to Berta and Jake as I chewed my nail. What if he couldn’t fix her? I couldn’t imagine the flower shop or the farm without Berta. The possibilities swirled in my stomach, making me shift restlessly in my seat.
“Everly will be creating custom invitations upon request, but she’s graciously offered a few packages for our budget-conscious brides. Even if a couple doesn’t have a lot of money set aside for invitations, they’ll be of amazing quality.”
“And they’re unique,” Sophie said, smiling as she paged through Everly’s binder.
“Thank you,” Everly said. “I’m so grateful for the opportunity. I’ve been working in an office job and selling online, but it’s my dream to make a go of this. To make it my full-time business.”
“Oh, what are you doing now?” I asked.
Everly’s nose wrinkled. “I work for a medical office, answering phones.”
“We’ve all been there. We’ll support you in whatever you want to do,” Sophie said with a sympathetic smile.
“I prefer to meet with wedding couples in person to get a feel for their love before I create something.”
“You’re in the right place if you want to build your business,” Gia said with an encouraging grin.
We were all business owners and thrived on being our own bosses.
“Harrison is the one who introduced me to Everly,” Gia said.
Harrison owned a supply company and provided the tables, chairs, linens, and silverware for our weddings. I rarely saw him, as our responsibilities never collided, so I didn’t know much about him.
Everly smiled. “We’ve been friends since we were kids.”
“We’re so excited to have you here. We work as a team, but we’re also friends, so we’re happy to have you on board,” Gia said before turning her attention to her tablet.
She probably had an agenda for the meeting and wouldn’t dismiss us until she relayed everything.
“This might seem silly, but it’s important that we’re always seen as professional. Some won’t want to work with female business owners, or they’ll think we’re not business savvy, and we don’t want to give anyone the impression that we’re just here to have fun. We’re here to build a sustainable business, one that will support our families and us for years to come.”
Everyone nodded, clearly on the same page.
Gia held up her finger. “That’s why we came up with some rules.”
My stomach sank as I remembered the meeting when we’d written down rules for the business. I’d even drunkenly suggested the first rule: Don’t sleep with the best man. At the time, it had seemed silly, and I hadn’t really given it much thought. Until we’d found out our photographer, Abby, had, in fact, slept with the best man, Nick, after our friends’, Savannah and Ethan’s, wedding. It happened before the rules were written, but then, no one thought Gia was serious about enforcing them.
I glanced at Abby, whose brow was raised, her cheeks flushed.
“It’s not a good look if the wedding planners and vendors are hooking up with the wedding party or guests.”
I was sure Abby had been forgiven because she was in a committed relationship with Nick, and somehow, their initial hookup hadn’t been discovered by any of the gossips in town.
Even if the rules were ridiculous, they didn’t affect me. I had very little interaction with the wedding party or the guests. As the florist, my work was completed in the solitude of my shop. Then I transported the arrangements to the wedding venue, finishing before the ceremony and reception began. I only spoke to the bride, groom, and, sometimes, the mother or father of the bride.
There was no temptation for me.
Unless my van broke down and I called Jake for a tow. My entire body heated, and my heart beat faster as Jake’s image popped into my head. He was exactly the kind of guy I went for. Hard edges, toned muscles, and a growly voice. But something told me there was more to him than met the eye.
“That includes anyone we work with—vendors, suppliers, or competitors.”
Vendors? Would that include the mechanic fixing my delivery van? I supposed Gia would argue it would. If I hooked up with him—and boy, did my body want to—it could complicate things.
I glanced around the room at the partners who were present when the rules were conceived—Abby, the photographer, and Sophie, the baker. Then I scanned the new ones—Everly, the invitation designer, and Harper, Gia’s best friend and organizational guru. Everyone was listening intently. Sophie and Abby were already in relationships. I didn’t know anything about Harper’s situation, while Everly looked a little uneasy. I wondered if her friendship with Harrison was something more, or if she wanted it to be.
Wanting to diffuse the seriousness of the conversation, I interjected, “I think we’re all adults and can make good decisions.”
“Speaking of which, what’s the status of your delivery van?” Gia closed the drawer on her desk where she’d taped the rules months ago.
I couldn’t even breathe a sigh of relief as the focus moved from the rules to me. I shifted on the wooden chair we’d brought into Gia’s office for the meeting. “It’s in the garage.”
We were a partnership, creating wedding packages to make the brides’ and grooms’ lives easier, but at the end of the day, Gia was our boss. The mastermind behind Happily Ever Afters. She was the one who approached us with the idea of partnering our respective businesses with her wedding planning services. She marketed to prospective couples and closed the difficult deals. If she decided our arrangement wasn’t profitable, my business wouldn’t survive.
I competed with online subscription florists that delivered arrays of bouquets to someone’s door in neat and tidy boxes. Those services, unlike me, could also offer a variety of flowers shipped from other countries at a much lower cost.
“What’s your plan?” Gia stood and moved around the desk to sit on the edge. “I think we can agree you need a reliable refrigerated van to transport your flowers.”
“I’m waiting to hear back from the mechanic.” I didn’t say his name out loud because when I thought of him, my entire body tingled with awareness. I remembered how he stalked toward me on the side of the road, his muscles flexing under his worn jeans. My body had felt like a live wire readying itself for battle or something else entirely. As soon as he opened his mouth, it was very clear he was irritated with the situation, my van, and me.
“Can it be fixed?” Gia asked.
Gia was nothing if not practical. If something wasn’t working, fix it. If we needed a new wedding planner, hire one. There were logical steps anyone could take to grow their business. Much to Gia’s and my parents’ frustration, I was ruled by feelings.
“I think so,” I said, infusing the optimism I was known for into my voice.
Sophie straightened on the couch, where she sat next to Abby. “I’m researching the possibility of purchasing a refrigerated van for the cakes. Do you think we should pool our resources and share one?”
My cheeks flushed. I couldn’t afford half of a new van, even if I was interested. “I don’t know that it would work. We both have scheduled deliveries to make.”
Sophie nodded solemnly. “That’s true. My deliveries will increase once I have a van. I’ll be able to take on more customers, maybe even hire a driver to handle them.”
Envy tickled my neck. It shouldn’t bother me that Sophie was confident in the success of her business. But then, her bakery had been in business longer than my flower shop.
When my grandmother died, I quit my boring office job and used my small inheritance to open my dream shop, Petals. I’d always dreamed of owning a store. And Grandma’s note, which she’d left with her will, told me to do just that.
When I first opened, I thought husbands would stop by on their way home from work to choose a bouquet for their wives. Mothers-in-law would stop by during the day for the perfect arrangement for their new grandchild’s mother. The fact was, I got little foot traffic because people could buy whatever they wanted with a click of a button on their cell phones.
I’d gotten my dream, but would it work, or would I need to close it down, sell Grandma’s house, and move back into my parents’ home? Panic pressed on my chest, making it difficult to breathe.
“I think we can all agree that you need a reliable delivery van,” Gia said reasonably.
I smiled, but it felt brittle. “Jake was confident that he could fix Berta.”
Abby raised a disbelieving brow at me. She’d been present when Jake towed Berta, and she knew he wasn’t pleased with the prospect of reviving my baby.
“Jake knows how important she is to me.” A tingle ran down my spine when his name traveled over my lips. The fact was, Jake didn’t understand my attachment to Berta, but he would. I’d make him understand. A fire grew in my chest. I needed to talk to him, but Gia didn’t need to know that.
I was determined to get Berta back on the road, and that was the only thing that mattered.
Gia dipped her chin. “If she’s not serving your business, you need to think about replacing her.”
My heart skipped a beat at her words. She was an amazing businesswoman because she didn’t have the pesky emotional attachments that others did, or maybe she’d never lost anyone. She had a big family who seemingly loved and cared for each other. She couldn’t understand how devastating the loss of my grandmother was. But then, I hadn’t confided in these new friends about it.
Abby reached over to pat my hand. “You don’t want to be stuck on the side of the road again, do you? It’s not safe.”
Jake might not be there next time. There was comfort as he took charge of that situation. When was the last time anyone worried about me or my safety? My parents were more concerned about my perceived failures.
Gia’s lips turned downward. “Frankly, it’s not good for business. I need to know that you’ll arrive on time. The couples depend on us to make their dreams a reality. We don’t want to get a reputation for flowers not showing up on time. I worry about these things so that prospective brides don’t have to.”
I swallowed hard, knowing exactly what was at stake. “I understand. I’ll make sure she’s ready to go.”
Gia nodded tightly before she rounded the desk and sat in her chair. She turned to our calendar for the next month, going over the details we’d confirmed many times before. Gia was nothing if not thorough.
The meeting wrapped up soon after, and I rushed out, needing to see Berta for myself.
Outside the building, I called for a driver since my only means of transportation were Berta and an old bike I kept at Grandma’s when I visited her over the summers. Jake’s garage was located on the edge of the town’s historic area.
He and his friend, Ryan, had taken over another garage that went out of business. They’d painted and restored the old building, but it looked much the same as I imagined it had twenty years ago. White walls, a gently sloping roof, and blue lettering declaring it Harbor Garage & Service Repair Center.
My baby was parked on the side of the building, looking forlorn and abandoned. I walked around it and inspected it for any damage. The problem was, she looked exactly the same as the day Jake towed her away.
My stomach sank. What if Jake and Ryan hadn’t worked on it? How long could I go without a reliable vehicle to make my deliveries?
“Can I help you?” a voice came from behind me.
I wrapped my arms around myself before I turned. “This is my van. I was hoping someone could tell me whether she’s been fixed or not.”
As the man raised a brow, I noted his name tag, which read Ryan. “Jake normally calls before he handles any repairs to get the owner’s approval.”
My shoulders lowered. “He hasn’t called.”
Ryan nodded. “He probably hasn’t had a chance to look at it. We’ve been busy.”
His words felt a lot like a dismissal.
“I don’t think you understand.” I gestured at Berta. “This is my only means of transportation, and I run a flower business. I need to transport my flowers, or I can’t work.”
I tried to keep the desperation out of my voice and Gia’s concern out of my head, but I couldn’t. I needed Berta, or my dream wouldn’t get off the ground. I felt panic in the depths of my soul.
Ryan tipped his head to the side and said carefully, “I’m not sure Jake realized it was a rush job.”
I hurried to keep up with him as he strode toward the open bay, worried what a rush job would cost. “I wouldn’t say it’s a rush job. It’s just important she be fixed quickly.”
When he stopped in front of booted feet protruding from under a white Mustang, I straightened, drawing up to my full five-foot-two height.
Ryan cleared his throat, and the person under the car pushed out from under it.
“What’s up?” Jake asked gruffly as he stood. His greasy hands held a metal tool of some sort.
“This woman”—Ryan threw a thumb in my direction—“wanted to check on the van. You know, the blue one?”
From his tone, I suspected they’d discussed my van at length. I wondered if Jake had complained about me and my stubborn refusal to let him junk her.
“It’s Lily,” I said.
Jake smirked and extended his grease-stained hand to me. “Nice to see you again.”
It felt like a test—one I’d surely fail if I didn’t enclose my hand in his. I felt a jolt when his calloused palm touched mine. My cheeks heated as tingles spread from the place our hands were joined up to my forearm into my elbow.
“You too.” Needing to sever the connection, I pulled away first.
“You want to talk about that old van outside?” He was already moving through the open bay.
Fury flowed through my body, hot and fast, as tears pricked my eyes. As I followed him slowly, I sifted through possible responses before settling on the truth as he stopped in front of Berta. “My grandmother died last year. She left me her farm, this van, and strict instructions to follow my dreams. So I don’t consider Berta old, and I’d appreciate it if you didn’t describe her that way. She’s an antique.”
During my speech, Jake’s gaze moved from the van to me.
My face heated as I realized how ridiculous I sounded. I was overreacting to his comment, but Gia’s words at the meeting kept flowing through my head. I needed him to understand. “Berta’s important to me.”
A muscle ticked in his jaw. “I’m getting that.”
“I’d like to get her running again. Is it possible?” I tried to keep my voice level.
“I can get anything running again. The question is—is it worth it?” He shot me a heated look, and I wondered what he was talking about—Berta or me?
“I think she is. Can you help me?”
“That depends on your budget.”
I let out a long exhale, unsure how to answer. I didn’t have much cash available to sink into the repair costs, but I didn’t have a choice.
Jake braced a hand on Berta. “You need the van for sentimental reasons, but you can’t afford to fix her up.”
I winced at his accurate assumption. “I don’t know yet. You haven’t given me an estimate.”
“You want her in tip-top shape or just fix her up enough to drive her off the lot this time?”
I tipped my head to the side. “What does that mean?”
“It means you’ll need to make more trips to the garage, or I can completely restore her. Make her shine like new again.” Pride soaked into Jake’s voice as he patted the side of the van.
The thought of Berta being restored sounded amazing, and the passion I heard in his voice had my heart thumping. “Could you work up an estimate for both and let me know?”
Jake nodded as he pushed off the van. “You’re the boss.”
I liked to stay positive, and it was always possible that business would pick up. When I inherited the property and decided to open the store, I hadn’t known about the large taxes Grandma paid on her property. There wasn’t much cash left because she’d lived in a nursing home at the end.
I fidgeted with the strap of my cross-body purse. “If I decided to just fix her up quickly, how long would that take? I need her to make deliveries.”
“Listen, I can probably get her running within your budget, but even with a small fix, you can’t drive her as your primary vehicle. You can’t rely on her to make daily or even weekly deliveries.”
I stared at Berta, ignoring the heat of his gaze on the side of my face. My stomach churned at the news. “You said you would get me the estimate for both options. Then I could decide.”
Jake remained stubbornly silent. He’d answered all my questions and probably needed me to leave so he could get back to work. There was no point in dwelling on the negative. Smiling, I touched his forearm. “Besides, you never know. She might surprise you.”
I moved to leave when his hand wrapped around my wrist. My gaze was fixated on his larger hand encircling my slender wrist, tan skin covering white. The heat of his palm wreaked havoc on my nervous system.
“Keep Berta parked in front of your store for novelty reasons. Customers can still get a look at her. Then you’re not left on the side of the road.”
“She’s all I have.” I gave him a look, one that hopefully told the story of how important she was to me. When his fingers uncurled from my wrist, my shoulders sagged with the weight of the truth—I couldn’t afford to buy a car, much less a proper refrigerated delivery van. “Thank you for your help. I’m looking forward to your call.”
I forced myself to walk away from him. I was a twenty-eight-year-old woman who didn’t own anything outright. The house, the farm, and the van had all been given to me. I had nothing to show for the first however many working years of my life. My heart felt like it was in a vise, one that kept tightening.
I pulled out my phone to find a driver, breathing in deeply to remind myself I was a competent woman who’d taken a risk opening a business. There weren’t many people who’d done what I did. It was something to be proud of. I could do it.
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