Freesia and Faith
Reese Cutler loves the feel of damp, rich soil and the scent of anything that blooms. A strong faith navigates him through the roughest waters, and nothing makes him happier than watching the family business grow–until Peyton Langley visits the nursery, presenting a partnership venture with her fledgling floral boutique.
Peyton Langley has transplanted from Kentucky to Clover Cove where she's determined to grow her own floral shop. Work keeps her busy, and she has no desire to learn more about God–or ever set foot inside a church, save for the weddings that showcase her impeccable designs.
Until she meets Reese Cutler, and his faith and gentleness steal her heart. At odds over business, Reese and Peyton can't deny an attraction in all other areas–including the desires of their hearts. But will conflicting goals–and Peyton's lack of belief–destroy them, or will faith find a way to knit them together...forever?
*Part of the Wildflowers and Wishes series
Reese Cutler hoisted bags of potting soil two at a time from a stacked palette on the ground, and then tossed them into his truck as he whistled along to a snappy tune pouring from Cutler Nursery’s stereo system. Sunlight, bright and hot, scorched him through the fabric of his black T-shirt while sweat puddled at the small of his back. He had only a couple hours left to get the soil loaded and delivered before he and Wyatt had to head over to the tux shop for a fitting.
Relief flooded over the fact that his brother was taking the marriage plunge and not him. He wasn’t ready for the whole white-picket-fence-and-kids scenario. Not that the thought hadn’t ever entered his mind, though. Just not…yet. Besides, tuxes weren’t his cup of tea, either. Give him his jeans and boots, and he was happy as the day is long.
Of course, Wyatt didn’t seem to mind the fancy stuff. Seemed he’d developed a taste for it during the half-a-decade he’d spent pounding the halls of an upscale management firm in New York City. But Reese and Wyatt were as different as filet mignon and ground beef, and fancy stuff was just one of the many reasons Reese had no plans to marry, at least not anytime soon. He had too much living to do before he got tethered to a woman…Although, he had to admit Wyatt had done pretty well in that department—Kami Moretto was more laid back than most, and he’d be glad to have her for a sister-in-law.
Reese continued to toss the bags into the truck bed, struggling to dismiss the thought that really got his goat and had nothing to do with his brother’s wedding. But his efforts were of no use at all. One glance across the parking lot to the brownstone building a few doors down—the one boasting new signage and draped with a brand-spanking-new green and white striped awning—had that thought tumbling right back.
The building had been rented out from under him. His plans for expanding the nursery—for adding a grafting room—were destroyed in one stroke of a pen. He’d returned home yesterday to find that Wyatt and his mom had leased the building to some out-of-towner so she could open a floral shop. And, to top it all off, they’d agreed to partner with her—and without consulting him. The month-long hike along the Appalachian Trail had been the first vacation he’d managed to take in more than two years, and they’d gone right over his head just because he was in the backcountry and without cell phone service. He probably should have made his plans to use the space for a grafting room a bit clearer. Perhaps in writing—with a permanent marker—across Wyatt’s forehead.
Reese’s temper simmered, so he started a mental list of best-man tasks for Wyatt’s wedding: refine a toast for the reception and make sure said script was tucked safely into a tux pocket—just in case he experienced a senior moment, stash the wedding bands Wyatt had entrusted him with in a safe place where they wouldn’t be forgotten, oversee decoration of the getaway car—
“Excuse me.” A voice embellished with a lilting southern drawl and most definitely female, stole Reese’s attention. “I’m looking for Hattie Cutler. Can you please point me in her direction?”
“She stepped out for a bit, had errands to run. She’ll be back soon.” Irritated to have his train of thought derailed, Reese lifted the last bag of soil, tossed it onto the heap without turning. “Or, if you’ll give me a sec to finish here, maybe I can help you.”
“Oh, I suppose I should have phoned ahead to confirm.” The woman’s wisp of a shadow, slim and willowy and elongated by the late-afternoon sun, slipped over him as she stepped back from a cloud of dust that wafted from the truck as he added soil to the growing heap. “I’ll be glad to wait.”
“It might be a while.” Reese turned, adjusting his baseball cap low over his brow to block the glare of the sun, and nearly stumbled into the woman sporting the voice. She stood just shy of eye to eye with him, a rare occurrence as he topped out at six feet. The navy stilettos on her feet might have had something to do with it. Fascinated that she managed to balance on such unforgiving stilts, he watched the heels sink into damp earth where he’d just finished giving the vast assortment of blooms their morning drink. “Lately, when Mom heads over to the pizzeria, she tends to linger for a bit.”
“Oh, she’s just across the street?” The woman turned toward Pappy’s Pizzeria. “I’ll head that way, then. I’m sure it’s cooler and more comfortable in the restaurant, anyway. Better for getting to the heart of business talk.”
“Business talk?” That got Reese’s attention. Business was a family affair around Cutler Nursery. He, Wyatt, and their mom had made a pact shortly after Wyatt’s return last spring to keep everything aboveboard. Guess that didn’t apply to renting the brownstone, since it wasn’t technically part of the nursery. Even so...
He leaned against the truck’s side panel and crossed his arms. “What kind of business are you referring to?”
“That’s between Hattie and me. Wyatt, as well.”
“I see.” Reese toed the damp earth with his cowboy boot, his curiosity piqued. Since Wyatt had returned to manage the nursery’s finances, controlled change was the name of the game. Most of the renovations were good, hence the new potting workhouse and a larger and vastly more organized display area. The office suite that flanked a trio of greenhouses had been expanded, as well, to include a large room for Wyatt and one smaller that was shared by Reese and their mother. Reese rarely stepped into the room except to transfer notes from wadded scraps of paper to the computer that held the order and delivery spreadsheets that Wyatt demanded. Given the choice, Reese preferred working out in the sun with his arms elbow-deep in dirt rather than caged inside four stuffy walls staring at a computer screen, crunching endless numbers. That was just one more difference between him and Wyatt, but they made it work, their diversity complementing one another. “And, why haven’t I been informed of this meeting?”
“I have no idea. Should you have been?” Her wide blue eyes pierced beneath thick lashes while she slowly scanned the length of him. Glossed lips pursed into a thin line as she frowned. Golden-brown hair was pulled into a neat twist and bundled at the back of her head tight enough to strangle. “Forgive my brashness. I’m Peyton Langley. And you are…?”
Reese peeled off his work gloves, stuffed them into the back pocket of his jeans as he offered his free hand. “Reese Cutler. Wyatt’s brother, Hattie’s son.”
“Oh.” She frowned at his soil-stained fingers before grasping them loosely in her own. Her nails, polished in some bright splash of color, looked like they’d never been marred by the slightest hint of manual labor. Sunlight fingered through a wisp of high clouds, turning her hair to a shimmer of gold as she drew her lower lip between teeth that, judging by their perfection, had probably spent half-a-decade in braces. “Um, hello. Pleased to meet you, Mr. Cutler.”
“Reese,” he corrected as her fingers brushed his palm. Something jolted, and for the slightest moment, Reese was tossed off balance. He shook off optic stars, guessing the heat was getting to him. Though it was well into late afternoon and inching toward dinnertime, the temperature continued to climb into the upper eighties. He’d be wise to grab some water before heading out with the delivery. Reese drew his hand back. “Mr. Cutler was my father.”
“Was?” She swiped her palm against the neat fabric of a skirt that skimmed her knees. A flirty, sleeveless blouse capped the ensemble. She appeared unfazed by the heat as a flash of realization crossed her baby blues. “Oh, I’m sorry.”
“Thanks. He’s hugely missed.” Reese cleared his parched throat and shrugged to hide the little tug that nipped at his heart whenever he thought about his dad, who’d passed away going on two years ago. He lifted the tailgate of the truck, slammed it shut, and reached into the front seat and grabbed two bottles of water from a cooler. He passed her one. “I only have a few minutes before I have to head out, so we’ll need to make this quick. What can I do for you?”
Peyton uncapped the bottle Reese offered and drew a sip before speaking. “Thanks. It’s hot out here.”
“Goes with the territory.” Reese uncapped his own bottle, tipped his head back and drained it in one long swallow. He followed up with a swipe of his mouth along his forearm as he eyed her shoes. “Must be a workout getting anywhere in those stilts.”
“It’s an acquired skill.” She shrugged, giving the shoes a passing glance. The ground was wet, not a good place to stand. But there was nowhere else to go with him blocking her path “As, I’m sure in your case, is learning to lift and toss a hundred pounds of potting soil at once.”
“Funny thing is, some people dress to suit the current situation, and with a modicum of common sense. A landscaping nursery is no place for stilts.”
Peyton bit back a scathing retort as she plucked a strand of hair from her eyes with freshly-manicured nails in the sassy shade of Cajun Shrimp. She’d splurged, having worn her own to ragged nubs as she spent the entire past week getting the floral shop cleaned, stocked, and ready for business. Good thing, too—her first order had come in just that morning.
Beads of perspiration gathered along the nape of her neck. She wanted nothing more than to retreat to her air-conditioned car and head back to the floral shop. She had work waiting on her—loads of it, thank goodness. But the future of her business hinged on finalizing the deal here at Cutler’s Nursery. She needed flowers at an exceptional price, and the Cutlers had them in spades. All that stood in the way of cementing the deal was a facetious, sweaty excuse for the male species.
Peyton forced the thought from her head as she scanned the length of him, noting faded jeans torn with gaping holes at the knees and a black T-shirt that she was sure had seen better days. Hair the color of rich maple syrup spilled from a Tennessee Smokies baseball cap to curl at the nape of his neck. Scuffed cowboy boots, caked with mud, might have been hand-me-downs from a great-grandfather. So what if his biceps strained the T-shirt and his eyes looked like warm, dark chocolates.
“Wow, that’s some look.” A soft laugh escaped Reese’s lips, as if he could read her mind. “Scathing. I think I’ve just been scorched by lasers.”
“If I’d scorched you, you’d know.” Peyton adjusted the strap of her purse over one shoulder. “Look, I just want to see Hattie. I ran into her at the pizzeria just yesterday, and she told me to drop by today at my convenience. I’m sorry I missed her here, but I’ll just step across the street and catch up. I see her through the front display glass talking with Kami.”
“I was gone the past month…a little side trip to clear my head. I guess I’m out of the loop.” Reese scrubbed a filthy hand over his stubbled jaw as his dark eyes captured hers and held tight. His voice was suddenly clipped, and Peyton wondered what she had done to set him off. Did he really dislike her shoes that much?
“Well, let me bring you up to speed, then.” Struggling to repair the damage, Peyton dipped a hand into her purse and spoke quickly. “I’ve brought some brochures and business cards. They might help.”
“Let’s see what all the fuss is about.” Reese took the brochures.
“Hattie and I have been talking, Wyatt too.” Peyton craned her head, stealing a glance around his broad shoulders at the flowers that beckoned. “Your blooms are gorgeous, and the fragrance…”
“We aim to please. We make a good team—Mom, Wyatt, and me. We work hard together to keep the cogs of this place turning smoothly.”
“I see that.” Peyton grinned, acknowledging his labor-soiled clothes. “Now, I’d love to have half a dozen flats of carnations for starters—three each of red, white and blue. And some of the greenery—larkspur and bay laurel would be perfect.” She pulled another pair of brochures from her purse along with a couple of business cards. “Here, take these. You’ll need them if all goes well, since we’re going to be spending a bit of time together.”
“You know your plants.” Reese took one quick glance at them before his gaze rose, heavy with questions. “Wait a minute. You’re that florist?”
“I’m not sure what you mean by that florist.”
“The one who stole my grafting house. Who weaseled her way in and took over while I was away, who has no regard for—”
“Now, you hang on just a minute there. I didn’t weasel in anywhere. I’ve earned my place. I studied horticulture and floral design at the University of Tennessee. Just finished my master’s degree and an apprenticeship at B and B Design, and now I’m planning on putting my experience to good use.”
“Is that so?” He turned the business card over in his hands, soiling it with his dirt-stained fingers. “I’ve heard of B and B Designs. They had a lawsuit a while back that was front and center in the news—a worker got hurt when some of their equipment failed, ended up losing a couple of fingers, as well as his future in landscaping.”
“Yes. Such a horrible and unfortunate event.”
“More than unfortunate, in my opinion.” Reese shook his head, frowning. “Were you involved in that?”
“No, not directly. I’ve already been over that with Wyatt, and he’s fully informed. I was merely an apprentice then with no real control over any of B and B’s day-to-day operations.” She’d tried to warn her supervisor, though, about the faulty equipment, but to no avail. She’d been branded as a whistleblower and let go from her duties in a less than dignifying fashion. Now, her only hope was to make a go of her own business. She had to make it work. There was no other option.
“Sounds like I’m more out of the loop than I thought.” Reese leaned into the driver’s window of the truck and snatched another bottle of water from a cooler nestled between the seats. “So, your verbal resume states that you’re book taught and you’ve had a less-than-favorable experience with a shady firm.”
“That’s one way to put it, although hardly flattering.” Her lips curled into a frown. “You could say I’m a hybrid.”
“I can only imagine what you have on paper.”
“Yes, you can only imagine it, because I don’t have a formal resume.”
“Why doesn’t that surprise me?” He uncapped the water, tossed the lid back into the truck so it bounced along the floorboard before settling beneath the brake pedal. “Tell me Mom at least asked to see it.”
“She did not.” Peyton drew a tissue and dabbed a bit of soil from her palms as she made mental notes of the plants she’d need within the next few days for the upcoming Memorial Day holiday. Arrangements were sure to be in demand. At least she hoped so. “It doesn’t matter. I told her all she needs to know. I’ve learned a lot about the right way to do business as well as the wrong way.”
“I’ll bet. But which has won the war?”
“There is no war.”
“That remains to be seen.” Reese flipped open one brochure and scanned the information, nodding. When he lifted his gaze, his eyes caught the light of the sun, turning the irises to rings of gold. “Nice spread…reasonable prices. That labels you the competition.”
“Not exactly.” Peyton recoiled at the flippant words. “I was thinking more along the lines of a partnership—Cutler Nursery and Langley Florist. Hattie has agreed to a more than reasonable rental fee for the brownstone. And, when I order my plants from you, in bulk and at a discount, it will be a tremendous boost to my business and, most likely, to yours as well.”
“You think so?” His gaze narrowed, and the gold tint darkened as the sun played hide and seek with the clouds. “And, in the meantime, the grafting building I’ve been planning to launch for more than a year gets put on the backburner once again. Mom and Wyatt know what an asset a grafting house can be to our future. Why would they overlook that to help someone like you?”
“Like me? What’s that supposed to mean?”
“You don’t have experience, or roots here in Clover Cove, or, well, anything of substance, at least in a business sense.”
“I have a dream and the ambition to accomplish it.”
“Like that will put any bread on the table.”
“Could you possibly be any more disagreeable?” She stepped toward him, her anger flaring. “Hattie and Wyatt think my floral shop paired with your nursery is a good idea, a profitable plan. Kami does, as well.”
“Kami Moretto?” Reese closed the brochure, stuffed it into the back pocket of his jeans along with her business cards. “What does she have to do with this?”
“She’s a friend.”
Peyton frowned at Reese’s careless manner with the materials that had taken countless hours to design and create. She’d done them herself, thus saving a good portion of her meager start-up budget for the floral shop.
“She suggested Clover Cove as a place to build my floral shop. She encouraged me to accept Hattie and Wyatt’s offer.”
“This was their idea?” He shook his head. “I was only gone a month, and I’ve returned to an alternate universe. That’s the only explanation I can come up with, here.”
“They want this, Reese.” She stomped her foot, feeling like a two-year-old who lacked the skills to effectively communicate. “I want it—need it—too.”
“Well, you can save your breath. I’m going to veto my family’s reckless decision and overturn your so-called partnership offer with a firm no.”
“No?” Heat rose from the nape of Peyton’s neck to kiss her cheeks. “You can’t do that.”
“Oh, but I can.” Reese crossed his arms, his gaze narrowing. “Cutler Nursery doesn’t need a partner. We’ve been in business since I was old enough to dress myself and, though we’ve hit a few bumps in the road, right now we’re doing just fine on our own.”
“Dress yourself? Looks like you can still use a little help in that department.” Peyton scanned the length of him, frowning. “Too bad adult clothes don’t come in matched sets.”
“You’re not earning any bonus points here, slick.”
“I don’t need your bonus points” She tore her gaze from him to fan a slow sweep of the nursery grounds. “Because there’s always room in any business for expansion and improvement, as well as a bit of risk.”
“That’s your opinion.”
“I beg your pardon, but last I checked it was the firm opinion of your mother and brother, as well.” The kiss of heat exploded into an inferno. “As a matter of fact, I’m attempting to discuss a situation that’s very likely a home run for all involved. I’d appreciate a little help here.”
“Very likely doesn’t cut it in a business like ours. Very likely”--Reese emphasized with air quotes-- “can only mean trouble.”
“Kami pegged you as more of a risk-taker.” Peyton crossed her arms, lifting her chin to tip back the flash-fire of tears that burned her eyes. “But I guess she was way off the mark. It may come as a shock to you, but I know a great deal about the floral business. I’ve studied various aspects and have the degrees to prove it—multiple degrees.”
“And it may come as a shock to you, but on-the-job experience means more than accolades on fancy paper.” Reece’s gaze swept her head to toe as a smirk caused his lips to flatten into a thin, white line. “And your hands—not to mention the rest of you—look like they’ve never seen a day in the dirt.”
“My hands have seen plenty of dirt.”
“Oh?” He lifted the ball cap from his head, swiping a palm across his forehead as his lips curled into a taunting grin. He nudged his rear end onto the rear bumper and leaned against the tailgate. “Tell me about it.”
“Arrogant…rude.” The words rushed out in a clipped whisper as Peyton took a step toward him, jabbing a finger into his chest. “And Kami sang your praises. How could she be so off base? Better yet, how have you managed to stay in business with such a charming attitude? It’s a complete and utter—” The heel of her shoe, skewered in the mud, refused to release. Her foot slipped from the pump and she tumbled into Reese with a startled cry as the final word of her analysis spewed. “—mystery.”
“Whoa, easy there.” He dropped his bottle of water, splattering them both as he caught her just before her forehead connected with the truck’s tailgate. “Are you OK?” His T-shirt held the warmth of the sun as his arms, strong and sure, circled her.
“Ouch. That could have been…” Peyton pressed a hand to her forehead as she caught a whiff of damp earth with an undertone of clean, crisp soap. “I’m…oh, this is less than pointless. All I’ve managed is to make a fool of myself trying to talk some sense into you.”
“That’s not all you’ve managed.” He motioned to where her pump was buried in the mud. “It appears you have a wounded soldier.”
Peyton’s pulse stammered and a freight train screamed through her ears as the nursery swirled around her before coming back into focus. She drew a breath and pushed back from Reese, staggering as her equilibrium righted. She bent, tugged at the uncooperative shoe, and groaned as the genuine leather upper separated from the spiky heel with a sick-sounding squish while her bare toes, painted in the same perky Cajun Shrimp as her fingernails, curled along the muddy ground. Mortified, she released the mangled shoe and carefully righted herself to find Reese laughing.
“Stop that.” One hand went to her hip as she glared. “Your behavior is deplorable, you know.”
“Sorry.” He clamped a hand to his mouth, disregarding the soil-stained skin across his palm, then lowered it to his chin. “Can’t help myself.”
“Then, I guess that’s my cue to leave.”
“Well, this ought to be a show.” Reese readjusted the cap on his head as sunlight broke through the clouds once again. “Let me at least get you a towel first. The mud is slippery.”
“No, thank you. You’ve done quite enough.” Peyton glanced across the lot, sizing the distance back to the floral shop. What had seemed like a short walk on the way in had morphed into the gaping mouth of the Grand Canyon. How would she ever get there from here with her dignity intact? And what about her meeting with Hattie, and the blooms she needed? How would she ever get the memorial arrangements made now? It wouldn’t help her business at all to miss filling the first order she’d received. But, her shop, not to mention the pizzeria, might as well be clear across the country. She blew damp hair from her eyes. “I’m perfectly fine without your help.”
“Man, you’re stubborn.” Reese tugged the hem of his T-shirt from his jeans and, before she could lodge a protest, reached for her hands. Two quick swipes and the splatter of mud transferred from her fingers to the fabric. “There you go. That’s better.”
“Wow. Oh, wow.” Flames licked along Peyton’s spine as Reese released her. Her fingers tingled as her belly cartwheeled. His hands, warm and rough with calluses, were much gentler than she’d imagined. Warning sirens screeched through her head…no time for this unwelcomed tumble of emotions, no time at all. “I really should go.”
“You can’t walk away covered in mud like that.” Reese grabbed a roll of paper towels from the bed of the truck. “At least take these.”
“No, thank you.” Peyton managed to hop away from him a few steps before nearly stumbling once more. She gave up the fight, slipped her second shoe off, and, hiking up her pencil skirt just enough to gather a bit of leverage, squished across the lot, hobbling toward the shop. Glancing back as she neared the sidewalk, she was mortified to find Reese doubled over against the bumper of his truck, belly-laughing.
Dismissing him with a stiff shake of her head, she caught sight of herself in the reflection of a car window. The image had her scowling in mortification. Not only had her hair loosed from the sleek chignon she’d painstakingly twisted that morning, but smudges of dirt shadowed her right cheek. To top it off, her blouse was splattered with mud; might as well pair it with Reese’s ripped jeans.
Now that would be a vision.
A quick tap on her shoulder launched her pulse to a gallop.
“What now?” She turned, her heart pounding, to find Reese’s face dead-even with hers. The scent of sweat and aftershave, pure male, drifted as she sucked down a breath. “I told you I don’t need a towel.”
“I got that memo.” He winked, grinning. “I just thought you might like to know Mom’s crossing the street now, on her way over, so if you want to hash this all out you’d better hike on your mangled stilt and get back to the nursery.”
“I…oh.” She avoided her reflection—no point reminding herself of the disarray she was in. “Yes, I see her.”
“And, FYI, I’d just love to sit in on this conversation.”
Freesia and Faith is a wonderful follow up to Daffodils and Danger. Manners knows just how to craft the world of a series and build it from story to...