Paper Flowers Excerpt

Jake

 Another year, another Hell Day.

The sun hasn’t even risen yet as Jake shuffles across the parking lot from his car, steaming cup of takeaway coffee in one hand and keys jangling together in the other. With Eli off today, Jake is forced to take the early shift alone. There’s nobody around to keep him awake so today, coffee will have to do.

There’s not a lot of activity this early except for the coffee shop down the street where Jake bought his five minutes ago. He enjoys the quiet for the time being, locking the shop door behind him and puttering around. He starts to set up for the day as he waits for the truck to arrive bearing the hundreds upon hundreds of flowers necessary for a florist on today’s auspicious occasion.

Yesterday, Jake and two of the girls were stuck in the back room creating as many arrangements as they could to preserve in the cool room overnight. The others had gone home to rest, but Jake had stayed as late he dared, forcing out as many bouquets as possible. Even so, there’s still a lot of work to do this morning.

He begins by filling the gaudy pink, white, and red card stand by the register and ensuring their teddy bear shelf is full. The chocolates will arrive with the pastries for the café before opening. Ann will take care of those so Jake’s able to focus on building arrangements for the day in the hours left before opening.

This shop is Jake’s entire life and even on Hell Day – known to most of society as Valentine’s Day – he cannot think of anywhere else he’d rather be.

Jake is proud of his shop; it once belonged to his mother. Olivia Nicholls died when Jake was only eight years old and he hadn’t known about his inheritance until his eighteenth birthday.

When taking it over, he was reluctant to make any changes to the store but found being inside of it too stark a reminder of his lost childhood. Months later it had a new look. Instead of the white and brown color scheme Olivia had favored, Jake opted for a blue, grey, and white look. He had the wall behind the counter remodeled with an old-fashioned stone façade and had extra windows installed. The overall look became rustic and open. The light, airy feel drew customers in and Jake made his own stamp on the business.

The final change he’d made was the store’s logo. Gone was the basket of wild flowers proclaiming the shop’s name; instead there is a bouquet of pink carnations within a wreath of white heather – a gentle tribute to the mother Jake misses every day.

It hasn’t been easy, and few people take him seriously running his own business, but he’s certain his mother would be proud of the effort he’s made to rebuild the little flower shop she used to run.

Pocket of Posies does good business all year round but today, of all days, is the best day of the year for the flower industry. Other shops have Black Friday, but florists have Valentine’s Day.

The second the clock hits eight the phone will be ringing off the hook with orders and customers will start trickling in until there’s a flood of people clamoring for flowers and cards and chocolates.

That’s why Jake’s here at four thirty waiting for the delivery truck; he wants to try to make up as many arrangements as possible before opening. It’s all hands on deck today so the others will be in to help and two will be in the back room making arrangements to order all day, but Jake likes to make a head start. He hadn’t been at all prepared on his first Valentine’s Day and he’s learnt well since then.

The rumble of the delivery truck announces its arrival and Jake opens the roller door to let the men inside. He helps unload the day’s flowers and soon the cool room is filled to bursting with blooms of every shape, size, and color. After helping them load on the empty buckets from the previous day’s order Jake thanks them and turns to survey his space.

It’s time to begin.

The roses are the first flowers Jake brings out to craft into romantic arrangements. He settles into the familiar rhythm of de-thorning and trimming and wrapping and begins humming to himself as he works.

This is his favorite part of his job. Jake’s good at arranging flowers, at creating stories with their secret language. When he sits down to create, he loses himself. None of his past mistakes haunt him. There are only the stories he weaves into his arrangements and the thoughts of the smiles they will bring.

A tinkle from the bell over the door announces the arrival of Jake’s employees at seven. Jake hears Ann’s laugh as she heads in the other direction to set up the café for the day. This will be the first Valentine’s Day with the café up and running.

Last year the shop next door went out of business. Eli, Jake’s second in command, and Jake’s roommate and best friend Kalli, talked him into buying the space and expanding his business. It took a lot of convincing, but Jake eventually folded. The idea of expanding hadn’t occurred to him but once the thought was in his head he couldn’t resist.

It was an excellent decision. He hired kitchen staff and cooks, and Eli bakes different cakes and pies every day for their daily ‘Treat Yourself’ special. Kalli bought bookshelves from IKEA to place around the edges of the café and filled them with the double-up books from their apartment as well as boxes of second-hand novels from the thrift store. She also installed a router so the customers can enjoy free Wi-Fi over their coffees. The books draw in an older crowd and the Wi-Fi draws in college kids and businessmen with their laptops and tablets.

The work finished six months ago, and Jake’s profit margins have increased significantly. Sometimes his friends have good ideas.

Amy, Jane, and Felicity make their way into the back room and greet him with smiles and a fresh cup of coffee before sitting down to help. It’s not often they’re all here at the same time, but Valentine’s Day is always so busy Jake both needs and can afford to have most of his employees working.

As it grows closer to opening, Jake hears his kitchen staff come in right on time for the pastry and chocolate delivery. He leaves the girls in the back room to take some of the bouquets out to the fridges in the main shop.

As he’s carefully setting up the roses his phone starts buzzing. He pulls it out of his pocket and smiles to see his brother’s name on the screen. He hasn’t seen his little brother since Christmas; Aaron’s a sophomore at UCLA and is dedicated to his pre-law degree. They only see each other about four times a year since Jake moved to Kansas City six years ago. He misses Aaron fiercely and is incredibly proud of his little brother managing to earn a full-ride to his dream school.

Jake answers even though he knows he should be busy running around and double checking everything’s ready for the day.

“Hiya bro.” Jake straightens up and closes the glass front of the refrigerated cabinets. He catches sight of his reflection in the door and frowns at how drawn he looks. Maybe everybody’s right, and he works too hard.

Jake knows he looks good; women and men love his classically handsome features and full lips. He has no trouble finding dates regularly, but he realizes right now he looks a lot older than his twenty-four years. He hadn’t taken the time to neaten his hair this morning – it’s a mess atop his head – and his normally sharp, grey eyes appear dull with dark shadows beneath them. At six foot and well-built he usually takes up a lot of space, but he seems almost shrunken, a little hunched in on himself. He tries to straighten his posture.

“How is everything going?” Aaron asks. Jake can hear the teasing in his voice. Aaron is aware of how tense he can get today.

“As good as it can be. We’re nearly ready. Ten minutes to go,” Jake responds, moving over to the counter to check for the third time the register is filled up and the computer is running smoothly. He grabs the order forms and places some down beside the register, some by the phone on the other end of the counter, and slips one into his apron pocket, for the fussy customers who don’t know what they want.

“I can hear Ann, is she taking the day off classes to help you?”

“Thankfully. Without Eli we’re short so she offered to come in. Of course, his niece chose to get married on the most clichéd day of the year for weddings.”

Eli was rather apologetic when he’d told Jake. He didn’t want to leave him on their busiest day, but Jake disagreed and told him they’d be fine – even though he’d been trying to work out how he was supposed to make it through Hell Day without his slave driver.

Aaron is laughing on the other end of the phone and Jake rolls his eyes fondly.

“So, do you have any big plans for today, Romeo?”

Aaron sounds pleased when he answers. “Date with Mia.”

“Obviously. I mean, is it a special date, or just a date?”

“Mm…just a date. She’s not big on Valentine’s but I’m giving her flowers. I was wondering if you could help me think of something better than roses, you know, since she thinks they’re lame?”

Jake huffs in amusement. “You only love me for my floriography skills.”

“Well, what other use are you?” Aaron teases in response. “So, will you help?”

“What do you want to say?”

“Nothing profound. I want to let her know I love her with something other than your most hated cliché.”

“Hey, I don’t hate roses. I only wish people would stop buying their committed partners a dozen roses on Valentine’s. It doesn’t mean what they think it means.”

Aaron laughs. “Well?”

Jake thinks for moment. “Blue and white okay?”

“Mia loves blue.”

“Okay then, ask your florist to put together a bouquet of forget-me-nots, gentian, and honey suckle, with some ivy,” Jake suggests. “And tell her it’s celebrating the strength of your love and her beauty.”

“Thanks, Jake. I’ll order them now. So, what about you? Any big plans for your favorite holiday?”

Jake hesitates. He and Kalli usually go out to clubs and bars on Valentine’s Day and challenge each other to bring home the best-looking hook-up but… for some reason the prospect seems unappealing this year. A strange ache has lodged itself in his gut whenever he thinks about yet another meaningless hook-up. He doesn’t want Aaron to worry, so he makes a noise of agreement Aaron seems to accept, and they say goodbye.

He glances up at the clock and takes a deep breath.

“Three minutes!” he shouts, loud enough for everyone to hear regardless of where they are. Heads poke out of the back room and Ann, Kirstie, Alan, and James come in from the café to nod at him. “Hell Day will begin the second we hit eight. See you all on the other side.”

“Aye, Captain!” James says, saluting Jake before ducking back into the café. The girls all give him grins and Amy hugs Jane and Felicity with mock sobbing about how she’s far too young to die.

Jake turns to watch the clock and, as he knew it would, the phone starts ringing mere seconds after the clock strikes eight.

***

One of the things Jake enjoys about working Valentine’s Day is hearing interesting stories from customers. A sweet old lady wanders in at nine and requests flowers for her late husband’s grave; she tells him how they met and were married fifty-two years before she lost him. Jake makes her a bouquet of tea roses and periwinkles and charges her half-price. He likes those customers, and he sees a few good ones until the time he hates arrives: the swarm of corporate assholes.

The usual stream of much-despised, middle-aged men in expensive suits come in around lunchtime. They’re far too busy to present a Valentine’s gift to their wife or girlfriend in person, so they have Jake’s driver deliver it instead. He hates them mostly because they talk on the phone while he’s trying to take their order, wear their sunglasses inside in the middle of winter, and treat him like dirt – probably because he’s a small business owner while each of them is oh-so important in their fancy office buildings.

“Yet another douche bag wants a dozen red roses for his wife!” Jake announces, sticking the order on the board in the back room a little after eleven. “Tell James it’s time to make a delivery run, we’ve got the orders piling up.”

“On it, boss!” Jane says, winking at him as she brings in another bucket of roses from the cool room. Jake smiles and heads back into the shop.

There’s a man in a suit hovering by the refrigerated cabinets, tossing a cell phone between his hands and biting his lip. He’s dressed like one of the guys Jake can’t stand but he looks like someone who needs help.

Jake approaches him.

“Can I help you?” The guy jumps and turns to Jake. “Sorry, buddy, didn’t mean to startle you.”

“No, it’s fine,” his eyes flick down to Jake’s apron, “Jake. My name is Marcus. Are you the owner?”

Jake’s pleasantly surprised. “I am. What can I do for you?”

“A friend of mine, Heather, says you do really nice arrangements, and if somebody tells you why they want flowers you’ll make up a special bouquet that means something?” Marcus says hesitantly, eyes roving back to the flowers. He has a pleasant face, round with warm brown eyes and neatly styled dark hair.

“I do,” Jake agrees. “What do you need?”

“I’m proposing to my girlfriend tonight,” Marcus explains sounding equal parts terrified and excited. “I was thinking roses? Twelve? Is that what people do when proposing?”

Jake has no idea what people do when proposing but he’s sure he can come up with something sweet and romantic. He hopes the woman in question says yes, if only to spare this guy’s nerves.

“Well, if you want my professional opinion, a dozen roses aren’t right for the job,” Jake says. Marcus gives him a confused look. “A dozen roses say ‘be mine’ but more in the context of declaring your love initially, not proposing marriage. One hundred and eight roses actually say, ‘will you marry me?’ but I’m guessing you don’t want to buy that many?”

Marcus shakes his head, smiling in amusement. “What should I do?”

Jake tilts his head, surveying the cabinet. He smiles and tells Marcus to wait before heading out back and doing up a bouquet. He wraps it in the pretty gold and white plastic Ann had talked him into ordering, before going back and presenting it to Marcus.

“Eleven roses mean ‘you are my treasured one’, purple tulips mean ‘forever love’, and ivy means several things, one of which is ‘marriage’,” Jake explains as Marcus takes it, looking down at the flowers, his nervous smile back in place.

“They’re perfect!” Marcus says. “Thank you, Jake.”

“My pleasure.” Jake sends Marcus to the front counter. Ann is currently at the register wearing a forced smile. As Jake watches, Marcus talks to Ann and her smile becomes a little more genuine. He feels the ache again and shakes his head, trying to clear it.

This is ridiculous… he can’t possibly be lonely? Right?

He scowls to himself for a moment before ducking into the café to check on things. There, he’s accosted by a group of soccer moms and his mind is placed firmly back on his job.

***

Jake’s the last person in the shop once they close. It’s late and he’s cleaning up the last of the flowers. Usually the others stay to help but he let them leave. They did a great job today, they deserve to head home at a decent hour. He plans on staying until everything is spotless, but his phone buzzes.

From: Eli Glott

You better not still be at the shop, Jake. Go home. Get some rest. The cleaning can wait.

Received on 2014/02/14 21:43

Jake laughs. Still looking out for him even in a different time zone. He looks around. He’s sorted the left-over flowers and stored them in the cool room. He’ll have them taken to the hospital and given to patients in the morning.

Everything is relatively tidy as-is and he knows Eli’s right. Sighing deeply, he goes to collect Kalli’s present so he can go home.

She’s waiting for him when he arrives at their apartment. She’s dressed up for clubbing.

Kalina Ephron is without a doubt the most beautiful woman of Jake’s acquaintance, and she looks it tonight in her tiny, leather-look skirt and tight, purple tank top. Her long black hair is curled to perfection, glistening with some kind of glitter. Her makeup is flawless, as always, a rainbow shimmer highlighting her dark skin and high cheekbones. She’s smiling excitedly, her brown eyes alight with happiness.

“Sorry, I’m late,” he says.

Kalli raises her eyebrows. “You always say that and yet you’re always late.”

Jake struggles out of his coat, placing the flowers he’s carrying onto the hall side table. Kalli spots them and grins.

“Are those for me?”

Jake rolls his eyes. She knows they are. He hands the bouquet of allium and sage to Kalli as he passes her and grins when she laughs.

“Aw, best Valentine’s Day gift ever,” she teases.

Jake has given her those flowers every year for Valentine’s since they started living together and discovered their shared love of all things Star Trek. It had taken only a few hours perusing his floriography dictionary until he found plants whose secret meanings were ‘long life’ and ‘prosperity’. Kalli loves them.

It’s quite funny, considering when she moved in – after answering Jake’s desperate internet ad looking for a roommate for his ridiculously priced apartment – she claimed she could only stand to live with someone ‘like him’ for a few months. Yet, here she remains five years later. It’s probably because Jake is sure they were twins in another life. Kalli is practically his soul mate. Sometimes people confuse them for a couple until they realize Kalli likes the ladies, and Jake doesn’t have any particular preference – though lately he’s been leaning towards tall, strong men.

“Live long and prosper,” Jake shrugs dropping his bag and scarf on the couch.

“More romantic than roses, for sure.” Kalli presses a quick kiss to his cheek. “I have dinner ready, so go eat, then we can hit the bars!”

Jake grimaces. The ache is back. “I don’t feel like it tonight.”

Kalli pauses in the act of putting water in a vase and looks at him with wide eyes.

“Are you ill?” she enquires. Jake raises his eyebrows. “Because that is the only reason I can think of that Jake Nicholls, of all people, doesn’t want to go out and get some on the easiest night of the year to score.”

“I’m not sick I just… don’t feel like a meaningless hook up.”

Kalli studies him and Jake fidgets. He doesn’t want to try to explain how he’s feeling right now and he’s bracing himself for Kalli’s inevitable barrage of questions. He’s surprised, then, when Kalli ducks over to the fridge, pulls out two beers and shoves them in Jake’s hands. She serves up the stir-fry she made and pushes Jake over to the couch where they sit together, and she queues up Star Wars on Netflix.

“Cheers!” she says, plucking her beer from him as Jake stares at her in wonder.

“Kalli, just because I’m boring tonight doesn’t mean you have to stay,” he protests weakly. He hopes she doesn’t leave, though. Kalli gives him a look as if she knows he’s thinking precisely that and settles back more comfortably into their worn couch.

“I know, but it’s not as much fun without my wingman.”

Jake’s not stupid, she’s worried about him – that’s nothing new – and doesn’t want to leave him alone. Kalli’s the only person who knows most of Jake’s history and when he says or does something she deems out of character, she starts mother henning him. He can sense the mother henning coming.

“Though…” Kalli picks at the label on her beer bottle and Jake glances at her. “At this rate we are going to be alone forever.”

Jake chuckles. “We have each other.”

Kalli gives him a once-over and arches an eyebrow. “You might be happy with that, I mean let’s face it who doesn’t want all this? But I am not down with that, Nicholls.”

Jake laughs and the weird ache he’s felt all day fades a little.


Max

“Marcus asked me to marry him!”

Max has to hold the phone away at his sister’s shrill cry. He decides to put his phone on speaker in case of further screams.

“I’m sorry, could you repeat that? I think you deafened me in one ear,” Max replies, unable to keep from smiling.

“Marcus. Asked me. To marry him.” Lucy is clearly trying to sound calm but fails miserably. Not that Max can blame her. She does have exciting news.

A grin stretches across his face. Even though he’s not surprised – Marcus having spoken to Max and his three brothers before even purchasing a ring – he’s immeasurably happy for his sister.

“Finally!” Max laughs. “It took him long enough.”

“That’s what I said! He called me a menace and then put the ring on my finger. Oh, Max, it’s gorgeous!”

“Have you called the others yet?”

“What do you take me for? I called you first, of course.”

Max smiles. “Of course. And of course, you’ll say the exact same thing to each of them when it’s their turn.”

Lucy laughs. “Maybe.”

“You could have just conference called us, you know.”

“And have to compete with all four of you for a chance to say something? No thank you.” Lucy makes an impatient sound. “Aren’t you going to ask me how he asked?”

Max looks up at his kitchen ceiling and fights back another grin. Pushy older sisters, he thinks. He takes a seat at the breakfast bar, deciding this will take a while and heating up leftovers for dinner can wait.

“Alright. How did he ask you?” Max dutifully enquires. Lucy launches into a tale involving a bouquet of flowers and a bottle of her favorite wine, a private balcony at a restaurant, and romantic candlelight.

Is it sad, Max wonders, if listening to his sister’s proposal tale is the most romantic Valentine’s Day he’s had in five years? It probably is. Thirty-three years old and perpetually single is not how he pictured his life in college.

“And he actually got down on one knee! A man got down on one knee and asked me to marry him and it was this man!” Lucy announces. “I’m getting married! Can you believe it?”

“I definitely can and I’m very happy for you both.”

“Alright, I should let you go. I’m sorry for being so excitable.”

Max laughs. “I think you have a perfectly good reason for being excitable, Luce.”

“Mm. Yes, I do.” Lucy laughs. Max isn’t sure when he last heard her sound so happy. “I need to call Julius, Augustus, Tiberius, Charles, and everyone else. So, I’ll let you get back to your night.”

“Oh? You really did call me first, then?”

“Of course, Maxie. Who else would I call first?” Lucy sounds sincere and it causes Max’s chest to tighten with affection for his sister.

When there are five of you growing up, it’s difficult not to have favorites and Max is shameless in admitting Lucy is his.

“I love you, too,” Max says.

“Alright. I’m seriously going to hang up now. Max, promise me you’re doing more than sitting in front of your computer tonight?”

“I’m overdue for a new book, Lucy, where else would I be?”

Lucy grumbles. “Getting laid, maybe? Lots of people like to go out on Valentine’s Day, you know.”

“Not me. I have a blank word document to glare at in frustration and a bottle of wine to drink alone. It’s much more fun. Go make your calls and enjoy your first night as a fiancée, I’ll see you at work on Monday.”

Lucy is quiet for a little too long but must decide to pick her battles because she simply says goodnight and hangs up.

Max slides his phone between his hands on the countertop. There’s no point trying to do any work. As soon as Tiberius finds out about the engagement he will undoubtedly call.

The night will end in a conference call with his brothers arguing over who is going to pay for the wedding and who is going to host the engagement party. He may as well eat dinner now while he still has the opportunity.

No matter how annoying they can be, Max will always be glad for his siblings.

Growing up would have been a whole lot harder without three older brothers and an older sister around to keep his head up. It’s probably not surprising, considering how close they were growing up, four of them now work together in their family law firm. Julius and Augustus were given control of the firm by their father upon his retirement and grew it from the single New York office into seven across the country.

When the Kansas City office opened, Julius and Augustus put Max in charge. Taking the position was a strangely easy decision for Max. He’d never wanted to be a lawyer but he’s good at it. There’s also the fact that working for his brothers is better than working for anybody else. He isn’t as competitive as Julius or Augustus, so he is often the peacekeeper between them. He’s the perfect fit at board meetings when things begin to spiral out of control.

And when things at the office start to get to him, Max can go home and focus on his true passion. He spends most evenings planted in his study, tapping away at his computer, trying to churn out a new novel.

It’s a good life, Max knows, even if something always seems to be missing. It’s hard to notice the gap when you have four incredibly interfering but loving siblings, and two careers to focus on.

As Max places his dinner plate in the dishwasher his phone begins to ring. As expected, Tiberius is calling him. Max shakes his head, fondly amused at the predictability of his siblings.

“Let me guess, you have the other two waiting to join in?” he asks.

“It’s no fun when you already know that, but yes, Jules and Gus are waiting for me to connect you. You in?”

“Of course.”

Tiberius successfully transfers him into the conference call and Max moves into his living room to settle onto the couch. Augustus and Julius are already in the midst of a heated debate about which one of them will be paying for the wedding. Julius argues he is the eldest sibling, so it is his duty. Augustus argues he has the most the money, and Julius is only ten minutes older than he is, so it hardly counts.

It reminds Max of so many days during his younger years. Julius and Augustus are identical twins, but they have such different personalities, clashes are inevitable. Tiberius is like Augustus, and Max, Julius, and Lucy are all quite similar in temperament. Arguments were often predictable in the way they would split. Max and Lucy would often take turns keeping the peace between their brothers, or else covering for Augustus and Tiberius when they were pulling their rebellious stunts. The endless prank wars and heated arguments of their youth have continued to this day to the board room of Christiansen Brothers and Associates, much to Max’s endless exasperation and amusement.

Apparently, even today, with such wonderful news as their sister becoming engaged, is to be a battleground for their competitive and argumentative natures. Max isn’t sure how he feels about spending his evening refereeing arguments between his older brothers, but there is something comforting about knowing each of them also has nothing better to do on Valentine’s Day than discuss their sister’s engagement. Max shakes his head before interjecting with his own opinions. This is infinitely better than struggling with writer’s block.

***

Whilst Max and his brothers are excited Lucy is going to be marrying Marcus, they’re not pleased when she decides that she wants to have the wedding on April fifth.

This year.

“Lucy, it takes months to plan a wedding properly,” Augustus protests.

Julius, Augustus, and Tiberius have all flown to Kansas City to have a small celebration for Lucy and Marcus. They’re sitting by the fireplace in Lucy and Marcus’ formal sitting room with coffee and cookies Tiberius baked for them. It’s not often they can do this with Julius based in LA, and Augustus and Tiberius living in New York. Max enjoys the opportunity to spend time with his family.

“You’re insane,” Tiberius mutters. “Wasn’t one stressful wedding enough for this family?”

Augustus kicks Tiberius and he yelps.

Julius ignores them both and focuses on Lucy.

“Why not April next year, sweetheart?” he reasons, but there’s no reasoning with Lucy when she wears that stubborn set to her jaw.

Lucy might look the least like the rest of them with her red hair and round, freckled face next to their blond hair and square jaws, but when she glares and grits her teeth a certain way, she looks so much like Augustus and Julius it makes Max laugh. There’s a reason people hate sharing a courtroom with his brothers and Lucy shares the same incredible ability to look utterly terrifying when she wants to.

“I do not want to wait more than a year to get married!” she explains.

Augustus looks to Marcus pleadingly, but Marcus raises his hands and grins.

“Sorry, guys, not my call,” he replies. “The lady wants to be married in six weeks. I’m just the poor sap who proposed.”

“Rude.” Lucy rolls her eyes.

“Luce, most people spend at least twelve months planning a wedding,” Augustus tries, in one last ditch effort. “It might not be possible to do everything you want in six weeks.”

Lucy smiles, but it is perhaps more terrifying than her glower. Max sighs, already resigning himself to what is about to happen.

“It will be if you all help,” she says.

“Hell no. I’m going home,” Tiberius announces.

“Sit!” Lucy, Julius, and Augustus all shout together before he can take one step out of the room.

“I am not planning your wedding for you. You want to get married in six weeks, that’s your problem.”

Lucy smiles in a way that appears sweet unless you happen to have grown up with her. Tiberius, recognizing the look, becomes immediately wary.

“Julius,” Lucy begins without taking her eyes off Tiberius, “do you remember when you were seventeen and–”

“Fine!” Tiberius cuts in. “Fine, fine. I’ll help. I’ll organize the catering and I’ll make your cake for you. How’s that? Do not bring that up.”

Lucy laughs and grins. “I thought so.”

Julius looks between them with narrowed eyes.

“Was that about my first car?” Julius demands.

“No!” Tiberius says quickly.

Lucy shrugs, she leans over and opens a manila folder on the coffee table.

“This is the list of everything that needs to be done. You can all decide what you want to do and together we’ll get everything done on time.” Lucy looks up at them all with wide, dark blue eyes. “Or are you not capable of this?”

Max rolls his eyes at the way Augustus grows immediately insulted and snatches the list to claim as many things as possible.

“I run two companies, I can do anything,” he mutters before Julius plucks the list away and begins assigning jobs logically.

Max starts to stand up.

“You are not going anywhere!” Tiberius protests.

“You’re getting jobs, too!” Augustus agrees.

It’s only amusing because they all know Lucy is most likely to let Max off easy, and Augustus and Tiberius won’t allow it. Max shakes his head at them.

“I was going to make more coffee, I figure this is going to take a while,” he explains. “I’ll do whatever you want except helping Tiberius with the food. He’s a menace and I am not tasting whatever weird flavors of cake he tries out before inevitably settling on chocolate.”

They all ignore Tiberius’ protests to the contrary, and Lucy begins writing a list of acceptable cake flavors.

Julius chuckles. “Music?”

“I could, but you all hate my music taste.”

“Good point,” Augustus agrees. “Put Marcus on music, he has decent taste, but none of that country shit.”

“It’s my wedding, if I want country music there will be country,” Marcus protests.

“Not if you want a wife at the end of it,” Lucy mutters and they all laugh.

“Flowers,” Julius decides. “You’re on flower duty, Max. And organizing the rehearsal dinner.”

“Sounds good. I mean, I don’t know anything about flowers, but I’ll do my best. Want me to go make that coffee now?”

The enthusiastic nodding is all Max needs before he slips out of the room. It takes him a few moments to notice Marcus followed him. He passes Max the jar of coffee grounds and smiles, somewhat nervously.

“I need to ask you something,” Marcus begins.

“I figured. What is it?” Max replies, switching the coffee maker on and watching it spill out its black ambrosia. Marcus clears his throat and Max turns to give him undivided attention.

“Lucy and I decided on our bridal party. I was wondering if you would accept being one of my groomsmen?” Marcus offers, sincerity painted across his features.

First Max is surprised, then he’s touched. He and Marcus have spent a lot of time together since he came to work for Max five years ago. Introducing Marcus to Lucy is a decision Max still believes was one of his best. The two are perfect for each other and Max couldn’t imagine a better man for his sister to marry.

There’s only one possible response to Marcus’ question.

“I would be honored,” Max replies with a smile. Marcus grins.

“Great. We probably won’t have time to do a bridal party get-together between now and the wedding, but I’ll let you know the rest of the party once we’ve received their answers.” Marcus squeezes Max’s shoulder and leaves him to finish the coffee. Max watches the pot fill with a tiny smile on his face.

He returns with the fresh pot of coffee and places it on the table. Lucy isn’t in the room any longer and he spares a moment to wonder where she is. He sits beside Julius and leans over to observe his work on the list.

In addition to flowers and the rehearsal dinner, Max has also been assigned the programs and seating chart.

“You’ll need me to finalize the guest list first,” Julius explains to him, indicating the seating chart job. “I’ll start work on that this week once we’ve booked a venue.”

“Is Lucy doing anything?” Max whispers.

“She’s in New York for two weeks before the wedding,” Julius replies quietly. “A case with Augustus. She’s doing all the clothes and hair and makeup bookings this week but then she’s basically relying on us.”

“Naturally.” Max shakes his head. “Admit it, you’re kind of itching to do everything.”

“I wish I had more than six weeks,” Julius grumbles. “Still, we’ll manage. Some people pull together weddings in less time than this.”

“But as extravagant as Lucy’s going to want?”

Julius chuckles. “Yes, well. We’ll do what we can.”

Augustus eyes them. “They’re plotting a coup d’état. No whispering during wedding planning sessions. New rule.”

“We are not plotting,” Julius replies with narrowed eyes, “we’re the only two actually doing something.”

Augustus appears offended and opens his mouth to reply but he’s interrupted.

“Let’s talk color scheme and themes!” Lucy announces as she returns to the room with a large, recognizable binder. It’s the binder in which Lucy spent her entire teenage years collecting articles and photos from every wedding magazine she could get her hands on.

“Most people use pinterest these days,” Augustus says, eyeing the binder. “Saves trees and is far more organized.”

“Pssh. Keep your technology superiority away from me. I like my binder.” Lucy drops the folder on the coffee table and opens it. She beams at them all. “You need to be taking notes.”

Augustus groans and flops on the couch. “Marcus, I need Scotch. Stat.”

Marcus laughs but stands and walks to the bar on the far wall and pulls down six tumblers.

Tiberius eyes the binder as though it’s a poisonous snake. “Do we have to?”

“Yes.” Lucy nods. “You need to know all of this, so everything works together. I know you guys will make my wedding perfect for me. You’re the best brothers in the whole world.”

“You’re so evil,” Augustus mutters.

“Shut up, Gus. Pay attention. This is all important. So, it’s an April wedding, which means spring colors. I’ve been thinking…”

Tiberius leans over to Max to whisper in his ear.

“We should start another business, Christiansen Brothers’ Wedding Planning,” he says making Max laugh and they both receive glares from Lucy and Julius. Max sits up straight and pays attention, nodding in all the correct places and wondering how they’re going to get all of this done.

His first job is flowers. Where is he going to manage to arrange wedding flowers with this short notice?


Jake

Monday, two weeks after Valentine’s, Jake is manning the main shop on his own. Eli’s off on a delivery run and he’s sent Amy to lunch.

As he’s killing time rearranging the books underneath the counter, the bell over the door chimes. He doesn’t get up right away; his head is in the cabinet and he’s trying to reach the books pushed into the back corner.

“Hello?”

Jake startles violently and whacks the crown of his head on the roof of the cupboard.

“Fuck, fucking, fuck, fuck!” he curses as he crawls out.

“I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to sneak up on you. I couldn’t see anybody in here.”

Rubbing the top of his head, Jake looks up to find the source of that deep, soothing voice. The man leaning over the counter, peering down at him, must be the best-looking person Jake has ever seen in his life.

With eyes of dark blue beneath blond hair, a square jaw, and a straight, perfect nose he has a face that could have been painted by Michelangelo. But the five-o’clock shadow that has Jake’s mouth-watering, and the tousled mess of hair which makes him look like he’s just rolled out of bed, belong on the pages of a sexy magazine instead of the Sistine Chapel. It’s a beautiful contradiction.

What was he going to say again?

“No worries…” Jake eventually mumbles. A smile begins on the man’s face.

“So, I need some help,” the man states and Jake flushes, realizing he is still kneeling behind the counter, staring at his customer.

Scrambling to his feet, Jake’s eyes roam up and down his customer, taking him in. He’s dressed in a nice, tailored suit, much like Jake’s least-favorite brand of asshole. This guy doesn’t carry himself the way those other men do; there’s every chance his personality is as sexy as his face.

“Sure, right, sorry,” Jake says, oh-so coherently. “Uh, what can I do for you?”

“I’m on a wedding mission.” The man’s eyes flick down to Jake’s chest and back up to his face. “Jake… you would be the owner?”

“That’s me, Jake Nicholls.” He manages to put his hand out for a handshake without knocking anything down so Jake counts it as a win. A double win when the man accepts his handshake with another small smile, his hand firm around Jake’s.

“Maximinus Christiansen,” he introduces himself. He releases Jake’s hand after a moment too long and Jake subtly flexes his fingers against the warm tingles flooding them. “My sister, Lucy, is getting married. Unfortunately for myself and my brothers, she decided she wants the wedding to be in early April and thus has given us all jobs to assist in the planning, uncaring of the guaranteed difficulties of having only six weeks to plan.”

A smile grows on Jake’s face as he imagines a stressed bride ordering her brothers around to make her big day perfect.

“And you got stuck with flower duty?”

Maximinus nods, smile bigger as he studies Jake. “It was mostly my own fault. I refused to cake test for Tiberius, so I was given this job instead.” He hesitates slightly and leans towards Jake. “I have to confess, I don’t know anything about flowers or weddings, so I really need your help or she’s going to murder me.”