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“Yes, Mrs. Emerson,” Lauren said into the phone. “Every single flower that you requested for your holiday party is available. They will each be included in the floral designs that we agreed upon. Trust me, they’re going to be beautiful.”
Lauren stared across the desk at her best friend Sasha, who doubled as her business partner. When Sasha gave her a thumbs-up, Lauren responded with a wink then spun around in her pink suede chair and stared out onto Chicago’s beautiful Magnificent Mile.
“Absolutely, Mrs. Emerson,” she continued, focusing on the holiday lights twinkling in the trees that lined the street. “As soon as we receive the shipment of flowers, I will give you a call to confirm that they’re in. Yes, you are quite welcome. You’ll be hearing from me soon. You have a great day as well. Goodbye.”
Lauren disconnected the call, then twirled back around with her arms out at her sides. “Another satisfied customerrr,” she sang out merrily.
“Yay!” Sasha squealed excitedly. “I think it’s safe to say that In Full Bloom is Mr. and Mrs. Emerson’s official floral design company. Can you imagine how much business we’re going to get now that we’ve been hired to decorate their holiday party for the fifth year in a row?”
Lauren leaned back and stared up at their office’s high wooden ceiling. “Yes, I can. And considering they’re one of the most well-known philanthropic couples in Chicago, their guest list just keeps getting longer and more prominent every year.” She crossed one slender leg over the other and tucked a chocolate brown curl behind her ear. “Who would’ve thought that the business we started in our little two-bedroom Hyde Park apartment would grow into a thriving company, located in this beautiful downtown space?”
The twosome took a moment to stare out at their spacious, modern white loft, decorated with a mix of sleek, colorful furnishings and abstract artwork.
“I knew we’d get there eventually,” Sasha replied. “I just didn’t expect for it to happen so fast.”
Lauren slipped her feet back inside of her nude patent pumps, stood up and strutted over to the stainless steel mini fridge. She grabbed two bottles of iced mocha lattes and handed one to Sasha.
“I should not be drinking this,” Lauren sighed before ignoring her own advice, unscrewing the top and taking a long sip. “That maid of honor dress Tina chose for me is super cinched in the waist. I hope I don’t break a rib trying to walk down the aisle in it.”
“I’m not in the mood to entertain your nonsense right now,” Sasha shot back, “so don’t even get started. You look amazing. Considering all that time you put in at the spin studio, your dress is going to fit you perfectly.”
Lauren took another sip of coffee while rearranging the white lilies perched in a sterling silver vase on her desk. “I hope so. The wedding is a little over a month away, so I still have time to pull it together if necessary.” She paused, a slight smile spreading across her face. “I can’t believe my baby sister is getting married…”
Lauren thought back on the day Tina had called to tell her Cameron finally proposed. In true Cameron fashion, he’d mischievously waited until a week after their ten-year-anniversary celebration to pop the question.
Tina had been so sure that he would ask for her hand in marriage over dinner at the country club back in their hometown of Maple Valley, Michigan. But instead, he did so in the town’s high school gymnasium right after the basketball team won their game.
“You know,” Sasha began, snapping Lauren out of her thoughts, “if my younger sister were to get married before me, I would definitely feel some type of way about it.”
“What do you mean?” Lauren asked reluctantly. “Why would you feel some type of way?” She knew the question would probably take her down one of Sasha’s infamous rabbit-hole rants but couldn’t resist probing anyway. She sat back down and braced herself for her response.
“I’m just saying,” Sasha retorted, tossing her long, curly jet-black hair over the shoulder of her red blazer as her eyebrows furrowed defiantly. “Traditionally speaking, the older sibling is supposed to achieve her career goals first, get married first, and have children first.”
Lauren eyed her curiously, debating whether or not she should chime in on Sasha’s ridiculous revelation. When she bit down on her bow-shaped lips and remained silent, Sasha continued.
“Oh, okay. So you’re gonna just sit there and act like I’m not speaking facts? All right then. Maybe it’s just me.”
“Yeah, I think it is just you.”
“Really?” Sasha spouted, scooting to the edge of her chair. “And why is that?”
“Because…” Lauren began slowly, struggling to choose her words wisely so as not to irritate her best friend any further, “my sister and I aren’t like you and Megan. We don’t compete with one another like you two do.”
Sasha gasped loudly. “What? Listen, Megan and I may do little things here and there to keep each other on our toes, but we are not in competition with each other.”
“Um, yes you are. Particularly when it comes to relationships. You’re both active on every single dating app under the sun and registered with about fifty matchmakers across the Midwest trying to see who can find a husband first.”
“Tuh,” Sasha huffed. She gripped the planner sitting in her lap and began fanning the corners of the pages with her fingertips. “Well one thing’s for sure. We’re not the only single ones around here. Maybe you should try and get in on some of that matchmaking action, too.”
Lauren cleared her throat and turned toward her computer. “So anyway,” she began, refusing to get caught up in yet another one of Sasha’s outbursts concerning her singlehood, “my point is that I’m wildly happy for my baby sister. She loves our snowy little hometown of Maple Valley and swore she’d never move away, and she didn’t. Now she’s working her dream job as a financial consultant, marrying her high school sweetheart, and building her happily-ever-after.”
Sasha slumped down in her seat and slowly shook her head. “Tina and Cameron don’t even seem real, do they? She’s the former captain of Maple Valley High’s cheerleading team and now volunteers as their coach. He’s the school’s former basketball star who now assists the team’s head coach—”
“That is when he’s not putting in work as the mayor’s chief of staff,” Lauren interjected.
“Exactly. I mean, seriously? Their storyline wouldn’t even be believable if it were made into a Hollywood script.”
“I agree,” Lauren giggled as she pulled up an Excel spreadsheet. “Those two are definitely the quintessential storybook romance. But that’s the path they chose to take, and we’re following the one that we laid out for ourselves, right?”
“I guess,” Sasha muttered unconvincingly before slamming her planner down onto the desk.
“So back to Tina’s wedding. I finally heard from the buyer at Blossoms Flower Farm. They do have those white French tulips in stock that she wants for the ceremony and can ship them directly to Maple Valley.”
“Oh good,” Sasha replied, immediately shifting back into work mode as she jotted down notes. “I’m so bummed that you’re going to miss out on the Emersons’ holiday party because you have to head back home early.”
“I know. I don’t want to miss it, either. But as Tina’s maid of honor, there are so many things that I need to help get done before the wedding. Don’t worry, you’ll have Regina and Jeffrey here to help you with the Emersons’ event as well as all the other design jobs we’ve booked this season.”
“Yeah, it’ll be fine. I just can’t help but to feel more secure when you’re working alongside me.”
“And vice versa,” Lauren agreed, maneuvering her computer mouse toward the bottom of the screen and opening her to-do list. “But this will be good for us. If we’re ever going to expand In Full Bloom like we’ve been planning, that’ll require us to split up and work on assignments independently.”
“You’re right. I’ve just gotta grow up and be a big girl. In Full Bloom was always your dream, and you’re the one who piqued my interest in floral design. So I guess I’ll always feel somewhat dependent on you. But Reg, Jeff and I can do this. Oh, and they’ve already confirmed that they’ll be available to help us install the flower arrangements at the Gold Coast Hotel.”
“Awesome. See? Everything is coming together. I was going to ask about their schedules later this afternoon, but now I can knock that off of my to-do list.”
Sasha looked up from her planner and hesitated, focusing intently on Lauren. “So um, back to the whole being single conversation…”
“Uh-oh. Here we go.”
“Now see, why are you being so negative? I haven’t even said anything yet! All I was going to ask is whether or not Mel is going to be at Tina’s wedding.”
Lauren’s fingers froze on her keyboard mid-stroke at the mention of their old friend from back home. “Of course he is,” she replied more nonchalantly than she felt. “He’s Cameron’s best friend and best man.”
“Why is that interesting? And what does Mel Jennings have to do with me being single?”
Sasha smirked mischievously. “Oh, nothing, I guess. I’m just reminiscing on our college days. Thinking back on how I spent all four years watching you two crush on one another from afar. Now that you’re both grown, well established in your careers and still unmarried, maybe you two should consider kindling some sort of romance.”
Lauren snorted at the suggestion. “First of all, Mel appears to be perfectly happy living in Maple Valley and working as a family practice physician at his father’s medical clinic—”
“Totally irrelevant to my point,” Sasha interrupted. “But since you mentioned it, how would you even know whether or not Mel is happy?”
“Well judging from his Instagram posts, it certainly appears that way.”
“So you follow Mel on Instagram?”
“Yes. And he follows me, too.” Lauren peered at Sasha, watching as her smirk transformed into a full-blown Cheshire cat grin.
“Uh-huh,” Sasha murmured, slowly nodding her head. “So you two are keeping up with one another through social media then.”
“Yeah, and? It’s no big deal. Mel and I have always been cool. So don’t start creating a bunch of crazy scenarios in your head. You already know he’s all about Maple Valley. And my roots are firmly planted here in Chicago.”
“As if Maple Valley is that far away,” Sasha retorted. “Plus, what’s a little distance when it comes to a man as perfect as Mel Jennings?” She stared off into space, her eyes sparkling dreamily. “He is tall, dark, handsome, sweet, smart, successful…”
“Sounds to me like you’re crushing on him yourself.”
“Um, no. Not even a little bit. You know word around Maple Valley is that our families are related and Mel’s my distant cousin. That would be gross. But anyway, all I’m saying is that the man is a prize. And as your best friend, I just want to see you win.”
Lauren tilted her head to the side mockingly. “Aw, and I appreciate that. Now can we please get back to the topic at hand?”
“And while we’re on the subject of Mel,” Sasha continued obliviously, “I really wish you’d stop letting a few hours’ worth of a drive deter a potential love connection.”
“What potential love connection?” Lauren asked, throwing her hands in the air. “There is no love connection. Plus we don’t even know what Mel’s got going on in his personal life. He may be seeing someone or just enjoying life as a single man.”
“Well there’s only one way for you to find out, now isn’t there? As far as I’m concerned, you and Mel should’ve gotten together years ago. I honestly think he never made a move because all you ever talked about was leaving Maple Valley to pursue your floral design career here in Chicago. It was as if you wanted to leave everything involving our hometown behind.”
“I wouldn’t go to that extreme. But with that being said, look at me now. My dreams came to fruition, Mel’s dream of becoming a doctor came to fruition, and everybody’s happy.” Before Sasha could respond, Lauren grabbed her cell phone and pulled up the Food Drop delivery service app. “Now, not to change the subject or anything, but—”
“But you’re about to change the subject.”
“Without a doubt,” Lauren continued, not skipping a beat. “What are we having for lunch? I’m sick of salad. Why don’t we have sushi rolls and sashimi delivered here to the office?”
“The queen of avoidance is at it again,” Sasha said, standing up and stretching her back. “Don’t think we’re done with this conversation either, because we’re not. But I’ll let you off the hook for the time being. Anyway, sushi sounds good. I’ll have my regular: one spicy tuna roll, one California roll, and an order of salmon sashimi. I skipped breakfast this morning, so I’m starving.”
“Got it,” Lauren said, entering Sasha’s order while ignoring the fact that she wasn’t done with their discussion. Lauren was just glad that for the time being, the subject had been dropped. “After I place the order, let’s meet in the workroom and start sketching out ideas for the Emersons’ wreaths, then finalize which vases we’re going to order for their arrangements.”
“Sounds like a plan. We also need to decide on the look of the centerpieces. I actually pulled together a few ideas to show you.”
“Excellent. I can’t wait to see them.” Lauren pulled a file filled with photos of winter flowers and decorative vases from her drawer. “I’ve got some looks to show you as well. And I think it would be a good idea to accent their arrangements with some nice little touches of noble fir and holly.”
“Love that. And maybe we can place the vases in the middle of miniature wreaths and surround those with candles.”
“Yesss, that would be perfect. Are you jotting all that down?”
“I sure am,” Sasha told her as she scribbled notes inside her planner.
“Awesome. I’ll grab my things and see you in the workroom.”
“See you there.”
After Sasha left her office, Lauren submitted their lunch order then scooped up her sketchpad and colored pencils. Just as she stood up, her cell phone buzzed. A text message from her sister Tina appeared on the screen.
Hey, sis! I hope all is well in Chi-Town. Wanted to follow up on my order of French tulips. Are they in stock? If not, let’s go with the white gardenias. Also, I know you weren’t planning on coming to Maple Valley until next weekend, but can you please come home sooner? PLEASE?! Your baby sis needs you! I’m in over my head trying to plan this wedding. I should’ve taken your advice and hired a planner. But you know me. Overly ambitious and always doing the most, lol. Let me know what you think. Luv you!
Just as she hit the reply button, Lauren emitted a sneeze so forceful that it rocked her back on her heels.
“Whoa!” Sasha yelled from her office, which was located right next door to Lauren’s. “Bless you! Are you okay?”
“I—I…am!” she squealed before letting out three more sneezes in a row. She quickly grabbed a tissue and blew her nose, then swallowed hard. When she did, a slight tingle stung the back of her throat.
Uh-oh, she thought, holding her hand to her head. Don’t you dare start trying to get sick…
Lauren held the tissue to her nose with one hand and replied to Tina’s text message with the other.
Hey, sis! I’ve got awesome news. The white French tulips are available. They’d blend in beautifully with white gardenias, so we could actually go with both. As for coming home sooner, let me see what I can do. Sasha and I are putting the finishing touches on plans for a couple of major events. For you, I’ll try and swing it. Let’s chat more tonight. Luv you!
Lauren sent the message then tossed her tissue into a trash bin.
“I’m heading to the workroom!” Sasha called out. “Did you order the food?”
“I did, and I’m right behind you!” she replied before smoothing her rumpled black pencil skirt over her thighs then shuffling around the side of her desk. On the way out of the office, she released an explosive series of sneezes that practically dropped her to her knees.
“Come on,” she sniffled, clutching her sketchpad while struggling to regain her footing. “This can’t be happening…”
But as Lauren stopped to fan her dampening, slightly heated forehead, she faced the harsh reality that this was, in fact, happening.
End of Excerpt