Love In Bloom
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Excerpt
The pavement outside the Kansas City Airport radiated heat even though the sun had already sunk below the horizon. Tate held his nearly eight-year-old daughter's hand a little tighter and resisted the urge to shake out his long legs and hurry along as they crossed the traffic lane to the sidewalk. He pushed back the brim of his straw cowboy hat and squinted against the dying sunshine to read the signs hanging overhead.

"That's it down there," he said, pointing. "Baggage Claim A."

They hurried in that direction, Isabella skipping ahead. The hem was coming down on the back side of her favorite purple T-shirt. He'd have to ask his mom to buy her a new one to match the embroidery on her favorite pair of jeans. Meanwhile Ms. Lily Farnsworth would just have to excuse his daughter's attire, as well as his lateness. And the heat.

Lifting his hat, he mopped his forehead with his shirtsleeve. The first day of July had dawned hot and clear. He hoped that Ms. Farnsworth, being from Boston, was prepared for what she would find here in Kansas.

Lily Farnsworth was the last of six new business owners to arrive, each selected by the Save Our Streets Committee, dubbed the SOS, of the town of Bygones. As a member of the committee, Tate had been asked to meet her at the airport in Kansas City, transport her to Bygones and act as her official host and contact. With the Grand Opening just a week away, most of the shop owners had been at work preparing their stores for some time already, but Ms. Farnsworth had delayed until after her sister's wedding, assuring the committee that a florist's shop required less preparation than some retail businesses. Tate hoped she was right.

He still wasn't convinced that this scheme, financed by a mysterious, anonymous donor, would work. But if something didn't revive the financial fortunes of Bygones—and soon—their small town would become just another ghost town on the north central plains. Tate thought of the school where he had met his late wife and of the cemetery where he had buried her nearly eight years ago, and he ached to think of those places abandoned and forgotten, so he would do what he could to revive the community.

Isabella stopped before the automatic doors and waited for him to catch up. He did so quickly, and they entered the cool building together. A pair of gleaming luggage carousels occupied the open space, both vacant. A few people milled about. Some wore uniforms of one sort or another; most just seemed to be waiting. One, a tall, slender, pretty woman with long blond hair and round tortoiseshell glasses, perched atop a veritable mountain of luggage. She wore black ballet slippers and white knit leggings beneath a gossamery blue dress with fluttery sleeves and hems. Her very long hair parted in the middle and waved about her face and shoulders. As he watched, she gathered that pale gold hair in slim-fingered hands with tiny knuckles, twisted it into a long rope and pulled it over one shoulder. Her gaze touched his then skittered away. He felt the insane urge to look closer, behind the lenses of those glasses that gave her a calm, intelligent air, but of course, he would not.

For one thing, Tate Bronson did not interest himself in attractive women. For another, that could not be Lily Farnsworth. Lily Farnsworth was a florist from Boston, not a blonde—he glanced back at the woman seated on the baggage—with the air of a ballet dancer and librarian combined. He turned away, the better to resist the urge to stare, and scanned the building for anyone who might be his florist. Maybe he should have made a sign; but then, he wasn't a limo driver. He was a rancher and farmer trying to help keep his town from dying a slow, certain death. He'd have felt like an idiot standing there with a hand-lettered sign.

One by one the possibilities faded away, greeted by others or disappearing on their own. Finally Isabella gave him that look that said Dad, you're being a goof again. She slipped her little hand into his, and he sighed inwardly. Of course the pretty blonde was not a ballet dancer or librarian at all. And she'd packed up half of Boston to bring with her. Even with the long-bed pickup truck out there in the parking lot, a good number of those suitcases and boxes would have to go into the backseat with Isabella. So, an idiot with or without the sign. Great. Turning, he walked the few yards to the luggage mountain and swept off his straw cowboy hat.

"Are you Lily Farnsworth by any chance?"

A slender forefinger with a blunt tip and a knuckle so delicate it seemed made of paste came up to push those round glasses more firmly onto a nose as straight and fine as a blade. She nodded just once and rose, brushing at her filmy skirt, a clear blue like the darkly fringed eyes behind the lenses of her glasses. Her ivory-pink skin, completely devoid of cosmetics, showed a sprinkling of freckles across cheeks that bunched into pale apples when she smiled—and what a smile it was. She had perfect lips, wide and mobile, not too thin and not too thick, a luscious natural dusty pink against blindingly white, even teeth. A square-tipped chin on an oval face completed the picture.

"I'm Lily," she said in a voice as gossamery as her skirts. "You must be Tate Bronson. What a pleasure it is to meet you. I was expecting a grizzled old rancher, not a handsome, young…well…"

She bowed her head, her blond hair flowing forward to hide her reddening face. Tate frowned, not at all liking the way his heart sped up. Yep, no sign needed. He was perfectly capable of behaving like an idiot without any props.

Looking down at her comfortable flat slippers, Lily willed away the color swamping her face. Honestly, she'd gotten over this awkwardness long ago. Hadn't she? If only she hadn't been staring at him all this time, she'd have had more control of her tongue. That and fatigue had gotten the better of her. To get the best price, she'd flown from Boston to Atlanta to Kansas City, which had made for a long day. Suddenly she wished she'd taken more pains with her appearance, but why bother when she was so tall and thin and wore glasses? Men generally failed to notice her at all, and when they did, they treated her like their sisters or their maiden aunts. This one would barely even look at her. No doubt his wife was the next thing to a fashion model. A man as attractive as him would naturally marry a woman like that.

Tall and muscular, with thick, dark brown hair worn so short that the circular cowlicks at his crown and the center of his forehead were clearly visible, he had smooth features and warm brown eyes in a squarish face marked by dimples even when he wasn't smiling. Given the thickness of his hair, his brows seemed surprisingly slender, and if he had a fault then it was the thinness of his lips. Or was that simply his frown?

The little redheaded imp with him seemed undeterred by his scowl. She skipped forward and put out a chubby hand. "Hi! I'm Isabella. I'm seven, almost eight. How old are you?"

"Isabella," Tate Bronson scolded. "You don't ask a lady her age."

"Why not? I'm a lady, and I told her mine."

"I'm sorry," Bronson apologized, his frown softening. He really was quite attractive, especially when he wasn't frowning. "My daughter is looking forward to her birthday later this month, but that's no excuse for her being rude."

"That's all right," Lily said with a smile. Switching her gaze to the girl, Lily bent forward. "It's a pleasure to meet you, Isabella." Dropping her voice to a stage whisper, she confessed, "I turned twenty-seven on May Day."

Isabella cut her blue-eyed glance up at her father, drawling, "Twenty-seven's good. Daddy's twenty-seven. His birthday's in September. Then he'll be twenty-eight."

Lily felt a jolt of surprise. Twenty-eight with an eight-year-old. That made him a very young father.

Tate made an impatient sound and said, "Can we get going, please? We have a long drive ahead of us."

"Oh, of course," Lily said apologetically, gathering her voluminous handbag and backpack. She slung one over each shoulder, stacked two of the smaller boxes atop one of the larger wheeled bags and prepared to haul out the lot.

"Wait," Tate said. "Let's do this with some organization."

Feeling chastised, Lily ducked her head, her long hair sliding forward. "Okay. Uh, what would you suggest?"

He pulled up the handle on one of the smaller wheeled bags and handed it to Isabella, then tossed a box onto his shoulder and snagged the handle of the larger bag from Lily, saying, "Wait here with the rest. We'll take out these and be back."

Lily bit back a protest. Those were vases and other glass items balanced on his shoulder, going-away gifts from her friends in Boston, things to help her get started in Bygones. Her former employer and coworkers knew how carefully she had budgeted to make this plan feasible, even selling her beloved car to raise the necessary funds to match the grant and choosing a shop with living quarters above it to cut expenses. She had packed those particular items carefully for shipping and sent them ahead of her to be collected when she arrived at the airport; she supposed they would survive Tate Bronson, so she bit her lip and watched him walk away without saying a word. His daughter followed him, her long red curls bouncing merrily. Lily noticed idly that the hem of the child's purple T-shirt had come down, but her mind was too preoccupied with her new venture to assign any significance to that fact.

While helping her sister pick out flowers for her upcoming wedding, the florist, a former employer of Lily's, had surreptitiously handed her a newspaper article about a place in Kansas taking applications for matching grants for businesses willing to locate in the small town of Bygones. The applicants had to submit a business plan, deposit funds equal to the amount of the requested grant, agree to hire locals and complete a minimum two-year residency. Failure to maintain the required residency and keep the business in operation would constitute a default, in which case, the grant would have to be repaid within five years. Knowing that Lily hated what she was currently doing for a living and much preferred the work that she'd done while attending college and graduate school—namely, floral design—this friend and former employer had encouraged Lily to apply for one of the grants.

Lily had considered it answered prayer when she had been chosen as one of the grant recipients, but she hadn't told her family of her plans until the last moment. They had not taken it well. She couldn't blame them.

It was one thing to find a nail in one's soup; it was another when that nail swam to the top of the bowl and climbed out. Lily was now the only florist in a family of lawyers. Oh, she had the degree and the law license, but she was not, strictly speaking, a lawyer, at least not anymore. Now she was a florist, which meant that it was do-or-die for her here in Kansas.

Everything depended on making this work. Lily had staked everything on this scheme. Should she fail in Bygones, she would be buried in debt, and returning to her former occupation would be her only alternative, even if she wasn't very good at it. Worse, it would mean returning home to the bosom of her family, and that she did not want under any circumstances but especially not in defeat. If she was to be the maiden aunt to her sister's children, she would be so at a distance with a successful business to occupy her time and mind. She would not hang around Boston, pretending she wasn't miserable and envious, while her sister and new brother-in-law started their family, something they were eager to do.

No, it was bad enough that her sister had married the man whom Lily had wanted for herself. Lily didn't have to stick around and watch them have babies, not when she so wanted babies, too. If she couldn't have a family of her own, Lily would do whatever it took to build a successful business in Bygones. That included, she reminded herself as Tate Bronson and his adorable daughter moved toward her once more, those things that went against her nature, such as speaking up. So, as he bent to take up another of her boxes, she found her voice.

"Uh, if you…if you could be careful."

He gave her such a look, as if she were an inanimate object suddenly come to life, but he took great care stacking the boxes and hoisting them onto his shoulders. He then turned and walked away without a word. Isabella took up her backpack, chattering.

"I'll have to sit in the corner, but it's okay. I don't mind. Daddy shoulda left the bags of feed at home. He didn't figure you'd have so much stuff."

"I see," Lily muttered. She quickly took the backpack from Isabella and shouldered it once more, then pulled up the handle on one of the medium bags. "Think you can handle that?"

"Uh-huh."

Using both hands, Isabella began pulling the bag toward the door. Lily stacked the remaining two boxes atop the remaining suitcase and, also using both hands, began backing toward the door. They made the sidewalk before Tate returned to scoop up boxes and bags.

"Come on."

Lily tried to explain herself as they crossed the street and trailed across the parking lot. "I, um, looked into standard shipping, but it was cheaper to check some things as luggage and send the rest as air freight, and this way I have it all on hand when I arrive. I—I'm sorry I didn't think to warn anyone that I would have extra luggage."

He shrugged. "Part of my responsibilities."

"Do you mind if I ask what your responsibilities are, I mean, so far as I'm concerned?"

"Get you there. Make sure you get set up in time for the Grand Opening."

"Very good. I appreciate that."

He seemed to thaw a bit then. "I'm your official contact with the committee and your host, at least through the Grand Opening reception."

"Oh. All right. That's nice. Thank you."

"No problem. When you're ready to hire help, I'll have a list of names for you, too."

"Ah. That will be useful."

"When do you think you'll be ready to hire someone, by the way?"

"Um, soon after the Grand Opening, I should think."

"I see."

"That is, if it's successful."

"The town's done its part," he told her.

"That's good to know. What can you tell me about the town? I mean, beyond the statistics."

He seemed to consider for a moment before saying, "Nothing much to tell." Lily's spirits sagged. She was tired and uncertain and hoping for a warm welcome, not this terse, tepid greeting. "You'll see soon enough," he added, stopping next to a dirty white double-cab pickup truck. He placed one of the boxes in the bed of the truck. Lily took a deep breath.

"Um, do you.do you think we could put those boxes inside?"

He turned a surprised look on her. "You want those particular boxes inside, not the suitcases?"

"What's in the boxes is more valuable," she said, pushing up her glasses.

He lifted his eyebrows. "Okay. If that's the way you want it."

"Yes, thank you," she replied softly.

He reached into his pocket and an electronic beep sounded. He opened the back door of the cab and wrestled the big suitcase to the ground then transferred boxes to the inside. It took some shifting around, but they finally got everything loaded. As soon as they were all belted into their seats, Tate behind the wheel, Lily on the front passenger side and Isabella in a booster seat behind Lily in the back, Isabella spoke up.

"Daddy got on the SOS 'cause we're Bronsons."

"SOS?"

"It's short for Save Our Streets," he explained, starting the engine. "That's the name of the committee that chose the businesses that got the grants."

"Yes, I remember reading that in the paperwork, but what does being Bronsons have to do with it?"

"Bronsons founded the town," he answered brusquely.

"They were brothers," Isabella volunteered, "and one of 'em runned off with the other one's sweetheart, so they hated each other."

"Oh, dear," Lily murmured.

"They got over it," Tate stated matter-of-factly, and that was that.

Lily sighed mentally. She'd imagined a sweet little town, pulling together to do something grand, not feuding founders and "nothing much to tell."

Suddenly Isabella piped up from the backseat again. "Are you married?"

"What? Uh. No."

"Daddy's not married, either."

So, no fashion model wife then. That explained the falling-down hem on Isabella's T-shirt. No conscientious mother would let such a pretty little girl go out with the hem coming down on her T-shirt, or so Lily imagined. A single father, now, he probably wouldn't even notice such a thing. While Lily wondered about Isabella's mother, Isabella wondered about other things, and she wasn't the least bit shy in letting Lily know.

"Have you got a boyfriend?"

"Isabella!" Tate barked.

Lily cringed. "No, I don't have a boyfriend, either."

"How come?"

"Well, I—I just." Lily felt her face heat.

"Don't you want to get married and have children?" My, what a direct child. "Y-yes. Very much."

"Do you like babies? I like babies."

"I love babies."

"My friend Bonnie has a baby sister. I want a baby sister."

Lily shot a glance at Tate Bronson, who was not married. Perhaps he and Isabella's mother were divorced, and his ex-wife had remarried, and Isabella was hoping for a baby sister from that quarter. If so, that might explain the granitelike tightness of Tate's profile just then.

"Isabella, that's enough!" Tate ordered. "You pipe down now."

"Okay, Daddy."

"I mean it. Not another word."

"Yes, sir."

Lily sank down in her seat, feeling the undercurrents swirl around her. She didn't know Tate Bronson's story, but she knew her own.

Didn't she want to get married and have children? Oh, yes. Very much. But that wasn't likely when she didn't even have a boyfriend, when she hadn't ever had a boyfriend. And why was that? Wasn't it obvious? Painfully obvious, she imagined, at least to Tate. Maybe not to his precocious daughter.

She just wasn't the sort men noticed or in which they developed interest. She'd had ample proof of that already. She didn't need any more, not from Tate Bronson or anyone else.

Lily turned her unseeing gaze out the quickly darkening window and prayed that she hadn't made a horrible mistake in coming to Kansas.
 
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