“WATCH OUT!” Dylan White held on to his oar with everything he had. This next rapid looked a lot worse than the last, and that one had almost kicked their collective butts. It was exhilarating, to say the least.
“Hold position on the left.” Amy, their paddle guide, couldn’t have sounded more relaxed. But then, she knew what she was doing or she wouldn’t be in charge. “Everyone on the right, stop paddling.”
Dylan obediently pulled his oar and focused on the wild sensations the swiftly flowing river caused inside him. He’d never done this before, but by the second day on the Salmon River, he had decided this wouldn’t be his last trip. Surrounded by nothing but wilderness around them and blue sky above, the churning water their constant companion, they never knew what was around the next river bend. Since that was usually another exciting bit of river, or a gorgeous view of steep rocks to their left and right, he hadn’t been bored for a single second.
This was exactly what he’d needed after the last disaster of a job he’d taken in Chicago, all to do his parents a favor and live close to them for a while. Being an assistant manager in a major florist shop might have appealed to his father’s sense of stability, but then, his dad was a human resources manager. He lived for orderly processes. Dylan shuddered at the thought. The money had been okay, but he’d been bored out of his skull. The kind of floristry he got to do in that shop was not why he liked his profession; there was no creativity to speak of, and his design skills had atrophied by the day. Three months in, he’d quit, put his stuff into storage, and left on a vacation. His parents were probably still trying to understand why he’d done it.
White water rafting in Idaho, or anywhere else, really, had sounded interesting, and he enjoyed it a lot more than negotiating deals with clients and coming up with boring flower arrangements for serious business dinners and bereavement ceremonies. That Chicago florist was more old-fashioned than Dylan had thought possible. How had he remained in business, when all the money was in weddings and gifting these days? Dylan was no accountant, but still. Unfortunately he did have to work, but it was back to freelance design for him after this, that was for sure!
Their paddle raft made a few more turns, listing right a few times and making two of the participants squeal. Then they came out of the worst of it and started drifting peacefully. It was suddenly quiet enough for Dylan to hear the insects buzzing along the bank, and he took in the changed landscape. With more flowers than even he could name, this valley promised to be a great spot to explore.
“Let’s make camp here.” Amy signaled the second boat behind them and coordinated Dylan and the five other tourists’ efforts to get the boat ashore.
The beach was sandy and flat, so he expected no trouble. As soon as they were close enough, Dylan and Bert jumped out into the reasonably warm water and pulled the boat farther up the bank. They helped the other four: two businessmen, Bert’s wife, and a quiet teacher, out onto the beach and started unloading their gear. Camp was set up quickly, and he left to explore on his own as soon as the trip leader gave the okay. He had an hour before dinner, not being on kitchen duty today, and he was going to make good use of it.
He pulled out his guidebook on native flowers and started hunting for specimens. Wild aster with its small purple flowers might have been his favorite, but the blue columbine and white western yarrow made a nice contrast. Mostly he loved that they were all growing wild and unhindered by human interference. It was inspiring, really. There were lots of ideas here for some really cool designs. As soon as he relocated to somewhere that was not Chicago and close to his family’s meddling ways, he might start a whole wildflower-themed line or something.
Dylan took a deep breath of the fresh mountain air and turned around to face the other people in camp. Some of them were quite nice, but this was a beginner’s trip, so most of them weren’t as adventurous as he’d hoped. Only one more day, then he’d have to return to reality. The busy-looking camp was a welcome distraction from that discouraging thought.
“Can I speak to you for a moment?” Peter, the trip leader, held the satellite phone in a white-knuckled grip as he waved Dylan aside.
“Sure.” Dylan followed him to a small copse of trees at the end of the beach where the rocks rose up out of the ground, framing the river like guards.
“We’ve had a call while you were exploring.” Peter took a deep breath. “Unfortunately, you’ve had some bad news.”
Dylan felt the blood drain from his face. Oh shit. What if it was his parents? He dropped back and let the still warm rock face at his back support him while he tried to breathe.
“Dylan?” Peter held out a steadying hand. “Are you okay?”
He shook his head at the inane question. “Do I look okay?”
“No, sorry. Just don’t panic, please.” Peter didn’t look so great either, despite his deep tan. “It’s not your family.”
“That’s a relief.” More than he wanted to admit. “But what else could possibly be serious enough for someone to track me here?”
“I have instructions for you to call a Mr. Graham Havens in Jacksonville, Florida. He said he’d explain it all.” Peter held out the satellite phone and pulled a piece of paper from his pants pocket. “Here’s the number.”
“Jacksonville?” Dylan took the phone and paper with shaking fingers. The only person he knew there was Mike Benton, his best friend from his year in floral art school. Mike had lost his parents when he was ten and had been raised by his grandparents. Dylan and Mike had become inseparable and even worked in the same place for a while, shared an apartment. But then Mike’s grandparents died within months of each other, and Mike had moved to Florida to open his own shop with the money they had left him. He’d repeatedly asked Dylan to come work with him, but Dylan had shied away from the responsibility of running his own business.
“Please, just call the number I gave you.” Peter turned around and ran, as if bad news were a contagious disease.
Dylan shook his head, wishing he didn’t have to do this, and dialed.
“Havens, Kettler, and Patel. How may I help you?” The female voice sounded brisk and businesslike.
“Could I speak to a Mr. Graham Havens, please?” What the hell was going on?
“Who may I say is calling?”
“My name is Dylan White, and I was told to speak to Mr. Havens as soon as possible.” Sooner if at all manageable; the suspense was killing him.
“Certainly, Mr. White, I’ll check if Mr. Havens is available. Please hold.” The soft click followed by an annoyingly cheerful tune was the only sign he was still connected.
After a wait that seemed much longer than it probably took in reality, another soft click followed.
“I’ll put you through now.” She was gone before he could thank her.
“Graham Havens.” The voice was deep and sounded serious. “Am I speaking to Mr. White?”
“Yes, you are.” Dylan cleared his throat. “Can you please tell me what’s going on? I’m in the middle of a vacation here, and to get a mysterious message like this isn’t exactly helping me relax.”
“I’m sorry to be interrupting your vacation, but I felt this news couldn’t wait. It has already taken us a couple of days to locate you, but things are always more difficult over the weekend.” Mr. Havens rustled with some papers. “It’s imperative that you come to Jacksonville, Florida as soon as possible.”
“Hold on for a moment.” Was this guy for real? “Before I go anywhere, I’d like to know who you are, what this news is that you keep talking about, and why it would require I come to Jacksonville all of a sudden.”
“They didn’t tell you?” Mr. Havens sounded shocked.
“No, they didn’t.” Dylan rubbed his temple with his free hand, wondering who these mysterious they were supposed to be. He hated tension headaches, and this was going to be a doozy if the mysterious comments didn’t stop soon.
“Again, I am sorry.” Mr. Havens paused as if considering how to begin. “This may be a bit of a shock to you, so I hope you’re sitting down?”
Dylan glanced around and discovered a couple of boulders next to the riverside. Good enough. “I am now.”
“The reason I called is that your friend, Mike Benton, has been involved in a car accident.”
“Oh my God, is he all right?” Dylan closed his eyes and wished he could pray, but he hadn’t done any of that since third grade, so it would be too late to try to return to the fold, so to speak.
“Unfortunately, no. He died last Friday night upon impact of the truck with his relatively small car.” Mr. Havens managed to sound truly sorry, although he probably hadn’t known Mike all that well.
Or had he? Shit, Dylan didn’t know anything about the details of Mike’s current life: whom he had been friends with, who was close to him. Mr. Havens could have been Mike’s new best friend for all he knew.
“Mr. White? Are you still there?” Mr. Havens’s voice called Dylan back to the here and now.
“Yes, I’m still here.” Dylan sighed. He’d really liked Mike, and now he regretted never taking his friend up on his offer to work together. They’d had a really great time at floral school, and Mike had been a loyal friend, even after Dylan had come out to him. He’d had to tell someone, and his family hadn’t been on the list of potentials at the time.
“Okay. Good. There is more I need to tell you.” Mr. Havens sounded businesslike all of a sudden.
“More?” What more could there be?
“Yes, you see, Mr. Benton left you his entire estate, including the flower shop. I’m the lawyer in charge of handling the paperwork, and I really need you to come out here as soon as possible so we can get this settled. There is a temporary manager in place, and he has the required authority to keep the business running but no more than that. And Mr. Benton made it clear that he didn’t want that situation to last any longer than absolutely necessary.”
“I… I inherited his stuff?” What the hell?
“Yes, and the shop.” Mr. Havens sighed. “It’s quite a large business, so you shouldn’t leave it too long. Since it’s been set up as an S corporation, the business itself will not go into probate, but its shares and the personal part of the estate, Mr. Benton’s house, and personal accounts, will. The day-to-day management of the store is independent of much of that but will need your attention as soon as possible. As I said, the temporary manager only has a certain level of authority, and the situation isn’t meant to last for more than a few days.”
“Hold on, this is too much information. I’m still trying to come to terms with the fact that I lost a friend. Will you leave this shop business alone for a minute?” Dylan rubbed his forehead. He hated numbers. He’d never had a head for business, and now this? The tension was almost killing him.
“I’m sorry.” Mr. Havens sounded almost affronted.
“It’s okay. Just… give me a minute, all right?” More like an entire fucking lifetime. The remorse of never having gone to see Mike, to share his success and celebrate what was clearly a very important part of his life with him, was suddenly weighing on Dylan. And now it was too late, and he’d never be able to fix it.
Fuck! And what the hell am I going to do with a flower shop?
THE TRIP to Jacksonville was a nightmare. Dylan hadn’t been able to leave the tour early; his emergency didn’t warrant an evacuation by helicopter unless he paid for it. Since the cost was prohibitive and he’d only had one day left anyway, he’d stuck it out. Of course by the time they’d been picked up from Carey Creek and had been driven to the tiny airport at McCall, it had been too late to change any of his outward flights. Hours of waiting at Boise Airport followed because the next flight to Jacksonville, with a layover at Chicago, didn’t leave until the next morning.
It was early Wednesday afternoon by the time he picked up his rental car and started to make his way to the downtown accommodation Mr. Havens had arranged for him. Most of the affordable hotels were on the south bank of the St. Johns River, but Dylan didn’t want to face morning traffic across the bridges to make it to any of his appointments the next day. Since Mike’s shop was also on the north bank, close to downtown, it made more sense to stay there. And the special company rate Mr. Havens’s firm was able to obtain made it manageable to stay at the Omni for a few nights, just until he could figure out what to do.
When he finally managed to find the lawyer’s office, he was already late for his initial appointment. He just wanted to get a rough idea of what he was facing, what funeral arrangements had been made, and what he needed to do right away. The receptionist frowned before she called Mr. Havens, but luckily at least the lawyer himself seemed relaxed when Dylan finally walked into his office. The very plush office, decorated in predictably somber and serious tones, all leather and dark wood. Mr. Havens was an older gentleman, probably in his early sixties, and couldn’t have looked more like a lawyer in his charcoal three-piece suit and suitably dark blue tie if he’d tried.
“My condolences on the death of your friend.” Mr. Havens took off his gold-rimmed reading glasses before he rose from a comfortable-looking chair and held out his hand. “I’m sorry this has happened to you.”
“Thank you.” Dylan took the indicated seat and waited for the secretary to finish buzzing around, serving them coffee. When she was gone, he leaned back on the sofa and sighed. “I’m sorry I’m late, but the flight was delayed, traffic wasn’t cooperative in the least, and I had trouble finding parking.”
“Not a problem.” Mr. Havens waved it all away, picked up a file folder from his overloaded desk, and sat across from Dylan in one of the easy chairs. “We’re just going to have an initial chat now, the rest can be dealt with tomorrow as soon as you make an appointment with the probate accountant for the personal part of the inheritance, like death taxes and access to Mr. Benton’s personal accounts. That, by the way, may take quite a while.”
“What I need to know first is the timing and place of the funeral.” Dylan hoped he wasn’t too late to pay his respects. It was the least he could do, and he’d feel really bad if he’d missed it. Not that it changed anything about how he’d not been there for Mike when his friend had still been alive, but guilt was a strange emotion.
“The body has already been cremated, but the service will be tomorrow afternoon at 3:00 p.m., at Evergreen Cemetery. Upon his instructions, I delayed it until you could be here.” Mr. Havens pulled a small brochure from the file and handed it to Dylan. “Since Mike had no remaining family, we don’t expect a large crowd.”
With no idea how to respond to that, Dylan busied himself with adding sugar and milk to his coffee before taking a few careful sips. God, he hated the whole situation with a vengeance already, and the hardest part, dealing with all the paperwork that was sure to follow, hadn’t even started yet.
“Our meeting is set for 9:00 a.m. That should give us enough time to go through the initial documentation.” Mr. Havens looked more comfortable now that he was in control and talking about familiar-to-him topics.
“The initial documentation?” This was going to be torture of the first degree.
“Yes, well, I have to read the will to you, then I’ll need your signature on a few things, just to make sure both the business and the private part of the estate are properly transferred to you. The probate accountant will also be here at that time. We don’t want you running into issues later on, do we?” Mr. Havens nodded as if to confirm he was right and drank some of his coffee.
“I guess not.” Dylan felt more out of control than he ever had before. “Can you give me directions to the shop, please? I’d like to have a quick look, if possible.”
“But you can’t do anything before the paperwork is signed.” Mr. Havens looked indignant. Did he think Dylan was planning a robbery or something?
“Of course not.” Dylan barely stopped his eyes from rolling. “I just want to have a quick look before anyone realizes I’m the new owner.”
“That sounds acceptable.” Mr. Havens nodded and finished his coffee before pulling yet another piece of paper from the folder. “Here, that should make it easy to find the shop.”
Who is he? My new babysitter?
“Now, if there isn’t anything else? I’m sure you’re keen to get going.” Mr. Havens clearly was of the opinion that time was money, and in his case that was probably true.
“Nothing for the moment.” Dylan gulped down the rest of his coffee and rose, making sure he had both pieces of paper with him when he left. “Thank you for your help.”
“You’re welcome.” Mr. Havens got up and took the file back to his desk with him, his gaze already on the paperwork sitting there waiting for him. “I’ll see you tomorrow morning at nine sharp.”
Sharp indeed. This guy was definitely a stickler for detail and punctuality. A regular paper pusher if Dylan had ever met one. He was still busy mumbling unhappy thoughts into his nonexistent beard when he ran into a wall.
He looked up, sure he’d aimed for the elevator. What was a wall doing in the middle of the corridor? Especially one that hadn’t been there before?
His eyes widened at the sight right in front of him. The man who stood there was a good four inches taller than his own five foot ten, had a body like a Greek god dressed in an elegant three-piece suit, and blue-gray eyes that seemed to look right into Dylan’s soul. His hair was dark brown and cut fashionably short, and his face had a rugged attractiveness that made Dylan wish he could run his hands across the five o’clock shadow. The stranger even smelled good, like a mix between soap and spicy cologne. His body was so hard and muscular that the man could have passed for the wall Dylan had first thought he’d run into.
A very attractive wall indeed.
Then the man smiled. Deep dimples graced his cheeks, and his eyes lit up. Dylan was about to drool. The only thing he could think of to avoid that total embarrassment was to get away as fast as possible. So he turned and ran, not even waiting for the elevator. He tore open the door to the stairwell and dove for cover. He stumbled down the stairs and didn’t stop until he reached the ground floor.
What he wouldn’t give to be in that man’s arms and maybe be the reason for his gorgeous smile. Not that it was going to happen. The guy looked way too straight-laced to be interested in a wanderer like him. What a shame!