Morgantown Morgan Valley, California
Jackson Lymond paused on the corner opposite the Red Dragon Bar and considered his options. The bar wouldn’t open for another half hour, which gave him plenty of time to check the post office for any mail for the ranch, and find something to dazzle Nancy, the bartender, with.
He’d last seen her at the Morgan Ranch Christmas party two months earlier, and she’d told him she barely remembered him from school. He knew that couldn’t be true because he’d been the school quarterback, valedictorian, and head of the newspaper and debate team. Everyone had known him whether they wanted to or not. And he wasn’t being conceited. It was just the truth.
He hadn’t spent much time in Morgantown since he’d won a coveted place at the United States Air Force Academy and set off on his military career. After twelve years he was back, helping his brother Cauy resurrect their family ranch. Morgantown was looking pretty prosperous, which was a nice surprise.
He considered going into Yvonne’s café and surprising Nancy with a box full of pastries, but as she was best buds with the owner, he suspected she could get as many sweet treats as she liked. His gaze turned to the small shop on the opposite side of the street wedged in between the dentist and the sheriff’s office.
“Flowers,” Jackson murmured. “Everyone loves flowers.”
He crossed the street and walked up to the open door, where a diminutive figure with long brown hair was placing buckets filled with flowers and plants on the sidewalk outside the shop.
Jackson paused and tried not to admire her rather cute ass, which was difficult as she was bending down right in front of him. He gently cleared his throat. She straightened like she’d been shot and turned on him, one hand pressed to her ample bosom.
“Don’t do that!”
“Sorry, I didn’t mean to startle you.”
He smiled down into her beautiful hazel eyes and tried to decide whether they were more green or brown. “Is the shop open yet?”
She considered him, her head tilted to one side like a bird about to take flight. “Yes. I’m late this morning, but it will be as soon as I get organized.”
“Can I help you with that?” Jackson asked.
“Sure.” She looked him up and down. “You look fit enough to carry heavy things.”
Jackson resisted the urge to flex his muscles.
“I wouldn’t want you putting your back out and suing me.” She went into the shop, her voice floating out behind her, and he followed like a lamb. The strong smell of greenery, perfume, and cleaning fluids hit him squarely in the face, and he immediately sneezed.
“Don’t tell me you’re allergic to flowers.”
Jackson grinned at her. “Not usually.” He held out his hand. “I’m Jackson Lymond, by the way.”
“Hi.” She shook his hand. “I know. Do you want to carry that bucket of carnations out to the front while I make sure the cash register is up and running?”
“Sure.” Jackson did what she asked, and then returned to the shop. There were two parts to it. A small space with a wide counter covered in wrapping paper, tissue, spools of ribbon, and wire. There was a larger room behind, which he assumed was where she kept the majority of her flowers and did all the fancy stuff.
“You do the flowers for Morgan Ranch, don’t you?”
“Yes.” She gave him a bright smile. “Now, what can I help you with today?”
Wow, she talked about as much as his brother Cauy … “Well, it’s like this,” Jackson confided. “I wanted to give Nancy some flowers.”
“Nancy from the bar, Nancy?” She blinked at him like she’d fallen into some alternate universe.
“Yeah, that one. What do you think she’d like?” Jackson asked encouragingly.
“That’s a really good question.” She worried her lower lip. “I don’t think I have any Venus flytraps or deadly nightshade, but she might appreciate a cactus.”
“You’re kidding, right?”
“No.” She held his gaze, her brow furrowed. “Why would I do that?”
“You do know which Nancy I’m talking about?” Jackson persisted. “The one who works at the bar and changes her hair color every other day?”
“Of course I know her. We were in school together.”
“Then how about some nice roses or something?” Jackson suggested.
“For Nancy? I suppose you could go that way, but I can’t guarantee how she’ll react.” She hesitated. “If you’re trying to persuade her to go out with you again, it probably won’t work anyway.”
“Who said anything about going out with her?” Jackson protested. “I was just trying to do something nice and thoughtful.”
“Oh!” She blushed. “I’m sorry, you must think I’m really rude, but you aren’t the first guy who’s rushed in here wanting to buy flowers for Nancy.”
“To persuade her to go out with them again?”
“Exactly.” She nodded. “If you just want to be nice, maybe I could make you a spring bouquet?”
“That sounds great,” Jackson said.
“How much do you want to spend?” She looked expectantly up at him.
“Why does it matter?”
“Because I’ll pick the flowers depending on your budget.”
“Let’s go with twenty bucks.” Jackson nodded. “I’ve never done this in person before. I usually just go online, pick a picture, and pay for it.”
“I know. You’ve bought flowers from me that way.”
“That’s right! For the Morgans at Thanksgiving.” He smiled at her. “Thanks for that. They looked awesome.”
“You’re welcome.” She came around the counter and studied the buckets of flowers. “Nancy likes bright colors, so how about we start with daffodils, freesias, and sunflowers, and take it from there?”
* * *
Daisy picked out a selection of flowers, held them in one hand, and showed them to Jackson Lymond. He remembered Nancy from school, but he obviously didn’t remember her or else he wouldn’t have bothered to introduce himself, and he would’ve known her name. Daisy didn’t let it worry her too much. He’d been two years ahead of her in school. She’d been much quieter then, trying to blend in and pretend she didn’t have five older brothers who would’ve killed any boy who’d so much as looked at her.
“They look good.” Jackson admired the flowers. “Now what?”
“Now we add some greenery.” She chose various bits and pieces and took the whole lot back to the counter, laying everything down. She picked up a couple of the flowers, added a spray of green, and turned the whole thing around in her hand, adding from the pile as she went until she had completed the spiral bouquet.
“Wow, you make that look easy,” Jackson said.
“Practice makes perfect.” Daisy grabbed a rubber band and secured the stems before leveling them off with her scissors.
“What color paper and ribbon do you want?”
“What color is Nancy’s hair today?” Jackson asked.
Daisy smiled at him. “Orange, I think.”
“Then let’s go with that.”
He grinned back at her. It dawned on her that he was the most ridiculously handsome man she’d ever met in real life. He positively glowed with good health and charisma, and he had just come out of the Air Force. If he’d worn his uniform, she might have swooned.
“Thanks so much for all your help. I owe you one.”
Daisy considered that as she added the ribbon, shredding the ends and curling it in a vast bundle of bouncing spirals that reminded her of Nancy’s current hairstyle. Owed her what? A kiss? A hug? The thought of him doing either of those things shouldn’t even occur to her when he was off chasing another woman, but it was fun to dream …
She laid the bouquet carefully on the counter and rang up the charges. Jackson handed over twenty-five dollars in cash.
“Keep the change.”
“Thanks.” Daisy handed him his receipt. “Just remember, I don’t give rebates if she turns you down.”
“No worries.” He chuckled and picked up the flowers, stowing his wallet in the back of his jeans. “This is all on me.”
“Then good luck.”
“Thanks, Daisy.” He nodded. “Have a good one.”
He walked out into the sunlight, leaving Daisy openmouthed behind the counter. So he’d known who she was all along …
* * *
Jackson went into the Red Dragon and walked right up to the bar, where Nancy was stacking bottles. As promised, her hair was orange and tied up in two high pigtails like an anime character.
“Hey you, what’s up?” Jackson held out the flowers.
“Daisy said you’d probably prefer a cactus, but I went with a spring theme.”
Nancy looked down at the flowers and then back up at him. “Daisy was right, but they are very pretty.” She took the bouquet and sniffed dubiously. “Thanks. Now, what can I get you to drink?”
Jackson settled onto one of the barstools. He’d hoped she would be a bit more excited to see him, but he wasn’t too worried.
“You should put those in water.” Jackson pointed at the flowers.
“Really?” She picked them up. “I’ll be right back.”
While she was gone, Jackson looked around the empty bar. At this time of day, in full sunlight, the place looked like it needed a makeover. In the evening, when it was full of locals watching sports or playing pool, it felt like home.
Nancy came back with another crate of beer and filled up one of the refrigerators. She’d added the curly ribbon from the bouquet to her pigtails. “Bella says she’ll look after the flowers until I can take them home tonight.”
“I could help you with that,” Jackson offered.
“No, you couldn’t.” Nancy walked around the bar and stood directly in front of him, hands planted on her hips. He opened his mouth to argue, and she held up a finger. “You’re obviously a nice guy, Jackson, but I’m not going to go out with you, so don’t even ask.”
“Why not?” Jackson had never been the sort to give up easily on his objectives. He was a great believer in plain speaking, which sometimes got him into trouble.
“Because you know too many people in this town I care about, and I don’t want things to get messy.”
“Messy?” Jackson asked.
“You know what I mean.” She sighed. “I’m not ready for a long-term relationship, and that’s what you’re going to want because you’re that kind of guy.”
“How do you know?” Jackson persisted. “Maybe I want a one-night thing.”
Nancy’s lips twitched. “Jackson, don’t be silly. You’re way too conventional and uptight to walk away from a woman after one night.”
He stared at her and then exhaled. “You’re right.”
“I know I am. And I also know that after that one night you think you want, you’d want more because I’m awesome, so let’s not go there, okay?” She grinned at him. “Let’s just be friends.”
“Are you sure?” He smiled back at her. “I mean, look at me.”
She let her gaze travel over him from head to toe. “Yes, you are pretty spectacular, but no, I still don’t want you. I always preferred your brother Cauy anyway.”
“Ouch.” He winced. “Got it.”
“Good man.” She went back behind the bar. “Now, what would you like to drink? This one is on me.”
* * *
Jackson had lunch and a couple of beers at the bar and then wandered back along Main Street to where he’d parked his truck. The door to Daisy’s flower shop was open, so he ducked his head in to find Daisy up a ladder banging a nail into the old timbers. Not wishing to scare her again, he leaned back against the wall and just appreciated the soft roundness of her figure.
When she climbed down and spotted him, she blushed and almost swallowed the two spare nails she held between her lips. She spat them out and hurriedly wiped her mouth.
“Hey! How did it go?”
“Well, I’m still alive.” Jackson waited as she collapsed the ladder and propped it up against the wall. “She loved the flowers, but she still turned me down.”
“It’s probably for the best,” Daisy said comfortingly.
“I suppose so.” Jackson sighed. “She said we had too many friends in common and that things would get complicated.”
“Oh well.” Daisy picked up the ladder. “I’m sure you’ll find someone else.”
He held the inner door open for her, and waited until she returned from the interior of the shop.
“I just had a thought,” Jackson said.
Daisy looked at him inquiringly, again reminding him of a cute bird. “Do you need more flowers?”
“Nope. I was wondering if you’d like to come out with me sometime?” He regarded her expectantly.
“Wow. Smooth.” To his surprise, she marched over to the door and held it open. “Bye, Jackson.”
“What did I say?” He followed her over, pausing at the door to look down at her. “I really would like to go out with you — in fact, the more I think about the idea, the better I like it.”
In response, she shoved gently at his chest until he was out on the sidewalk and shut the door in his face, making the bell jangle like crazy.
Jackson stared at the door for quite a while before he backed up and headed for his truck.
He was still pondering exactly what had happened when he arrived home and found his older brother Cauy drinking coffee in the kitchen. Since Jackson had come back, the two brothers had made enormous strides in cleaning up the ranch buildings and pastureland. At some point they’d have to make a start on the house itself, because nothing had changed for thirty years.
He dumped the pile of mail on the table and helped himself to coffee.
“How was your day?” his brother inquired as he sorted through the mail. “Did you finally get it on with Nancy?”
“She turned me down flat.” Jackson took a seat and added cream to his coffee. “I even took her flowers.”
Cauy snorted. “Can’t say I’m surprised. She’s way out of your league.”
“Thanks, bro.” Jackson hesitated. “Do you know Daisy at the flower shop?”
“Yeah, of course I do. She’s up at Morgan Ranch all the time when I go to see Rachel. Did you get the flowers from her?”
“She knows Nancy, and she definitely gave me the benefit of her advice,” Jackson said. “When I popped back into the shop to tell her how it had gone, she shut the door in my face.”
“Daisy did?” Cauy looked up from the letter he was reading. “Daisy Miller? What the heck did you say to her?”
“Why would you assume it was my fault?” Jackson demanded.
“Because you have a big mouth, and you usually put your foot in it. What exactly did you say to Daisy?”
“Well, while we were chatting, it occurred to me that she would make a far better girlfriend than Nancy, and that I was, in fact, quite attracted to her.”
Cauy stared at him. “Go on.”
“So, I asked her out.” When his brother just continued to stare at him, Jackson shifted on his seat. “What?”
“Wow.” Cauy sat back and shook his head. “You really are dumb, aren’t you?”
“In what way?”
“You ask Daisy to help you pick flowers for another woman and then, when that fell through, you immediately asked her out?”
“What’s wrong with that?” Jackson frowned.
“Dude, how would you feel if some woman made you her backup plan? Like she’d only chosen you because her favorite hadn’t come through?”
Jackson thought about it. “Oh. You think I should’ve waited a day or two?”
“Yeah, genius.” Cauy flicked a letter at him. “And buddy, if I can work that out, you’re really in trouble.”
* * *
Daisy jumped about a mile in the air and hastily scrambled to shut down her laptop before Adam, her oldest brother, came striding into her workroom.
“Hey!” She swiveled in her seat and smiled at him. She’d forgotten he had the spare key to the back door. “What brings you into town?”
“You.” He leaned against her workbench and regarded her.
“You’re never home these days. We’re concerned.”
“Only because you’re worried you won’t get fed,” Daisy quipped, even though all her brothers could look after themselves perfectly well. “I had a lot of planning to do for the next wedding up at the ranch. I was checking in with my suppliers.”
“You could do that at home,” Adam pointed out. “Thanks to the Morgans, we have the best Internet you can get in the valley, and you have a designated office space.”
“I know, but sometimes I need to check on my stock, and calculate how much I can actually fit into my cold space, and …” Daisy waved her arms around. All the reasons she was giving Adam were perfectly true, but she still felt like she was making stuff up. That’s what having a guilty conscience did for you …
“And you like your own space and privacy.” He finished the sentence for her. His keen gray gaze fixed on her face. “I get it. Having five brothers breathing down your neck all the time must drive you crazy sometimes.”
“I know you love me, but sometimes all that concern does get to me,” Daisy admitted. “I’ve been back home for three years now and I’m fine.”
“You sure about that?” Adam asked. As the oldest of six kids, he took his responsibilities seriously and was both bossy and way too well-informed. “You’re not sleeping too good either. I see your light on at all hours of the night.”
Daisy tried not to squirm in her seat. She often got up at night to complete her assignments, or talk to people in her team who traveled all over the world. But she couldn’t tell Adam that because he and the rest of the family thought she’d broken off all contact with her previous life in Silicon Valley.
Adam straightened up. “Are you sure there isn’t anything you’d like to tell me?”