The wait is over! Gilded Lily, the second standalone in Staci Hart’s Bennet Brothers Series, is LIVE! Trust me when I say you do NOT want to miss this one! Lila & Kash are everything. Grab your copy today on Amazon or snag this beauty in Kindle Unlimited today!
They say there’s no such thing as perfect.
But I’ve built my life to perfection—the perfect boyfriend, the perfect apartment, the perfect career planning celebrity weddings. My job—my only job—is to make sure every event is absolutely and completely perfect.
What’s not perfect? Kash Bennet.
And I wish I didn’t find that so appealing.
I could have told you every perfectly imperfect thing about the gardener at Longbourne. Like his hair, lush and black and far too long. Or his nose, the flat bridge of a Greek god, bent a little like it’s been broken. Or his size. Beastly. Roped and corded with muscles, gleaming with sweat and peppered with dirt.
There’s no escaping him, not if I’m going to use his family’s flower shop for my events.
But nothing is what it seems. And in the span of a heartbeat, my perfect life is turned inside out.
They say the best way to get over somebody is to get under somebody new. When Kash offers his services to the cause, it sounds like the perfect plan.
What’s not part of the plan? Falling in love with the gardener.
But they were right—there’s no such thing as perfect.
And I’m the fool who finds out the hard way.
A SPADE’S A SPADE
Heaven existed within the walls of our greenhouse.
The shuck of my shovel against the iron wheelbarrow was the second hand on my day. Rich soil mounded on my spade, and I transferred it into the bed of Black-eyed Susans, turning it to feed the sleepy dirt already gathered at the flowers’ feet.
I caught sight of the snowy top of my father’s head between stalks of amber amaranth down the row where he knelt, hands in the earth. He hummed along with the music playing from the portable speaker on our work cart, and with another shuck, I drove my shovel back into the wheelbarrow.
It was peaceful and familiar, the rhythm of our day, the slanting sun, the humid air and smell of flowers. I’d worked in my family’s greenhouse during high school—as had all my siblings—but where they made their way into the world, I hung back, content to hang back at Longbourne with Dad, unable to leave Mom without anyone to fuss over. And if there was one thing Mrs. Bennet required from life, it was someone to fuss over.
I found myself smiling at the thought. She’d see us all married off—in fact, she played the matchmaker like it was her full time job—but I had to wonder what she’d do with herself once we were all gone. Press us for grandchildren and divert her attention to them, if the rest of the Bennet brood was lucky.
The crack of the swinging metal door against the wall wiped that smile off my face. I shot up from my task with a hard look, appalled and accusing, prepared to smite whoever had disturbed our sanctuary.
Lila Parker blew in like a gale, heels clicking like hammers against the cement floor. At the sight of her, my fury abated, replaced by a curious wonder and the incremental slowing of time that always accompanied her entrance.
She was a study in white, pristine and stern in a pantsuit that belonged in some fancy lady’s luncheon, not a greenhouse. Her legs were ten miles long in those white pants, the matching jacket cut low. A sliver of silken nude fabric was the only thing to mar the line of her cleavage, which my eyes followed before climbing up her lily-white skin, up the long column of her neck, to the set of her uncompromising little jaw.
God, she was pretty when she was mad. Shame she had a boyfriend.
I’d known Lila since high school, the notorious rule follower and teacher’s pet, thumbing her nose at the trouble the rest of us got in and refusing invitations to parties in favor of SAT prep. Her sister, Ivy, worked here then and stuck around like I had, and though Lila’d had every opportunity to join the gang, she’d happily declined. She’d ignored me then, and she ignored me now, outside of storming into our flower shop to get onto us—or me specifically—for whatever wedding we had, were, or would provide flowers for. As a high-profile wedding planner, I supposed that was her right.
The only bearable thing about it was the chance to give her just a little hell, simply because I knew she could take it and I could take whatever she gave back.
As she approached, her lips set in a firm line, red as blood against the milk of her skin. The bridge of her nose was short, though long enough to look down at everyone from her high horse—or high heels, as it were—but her eyes always struck me beyond all else, cool and gray as a winter’s afternoon, tight with suspicion, hard with the bite of demand. Incongruent to the impeccable, pallid shades of snow was her hair, a shining crimson too bright for all that ivory. It was as perfectly right as it was utterly unnatural, the only indicator that she ran on hot coals and gasoline, just waiting for a match to strike so she could ignite. Just as she had once a week—typically in my direction—since she’d started using Longbourne’s flowers for her events.
That red hair bounced with every click of her heels as she rounded the corner of the aisle and marched toward me, her eyes narrowing another tick when they met mine. Tess, our lead florist, followed with an apologetic look on her face.
My lips tilted higher on one side. And with a shield of calm, unaffected charm in place, I leaned on the handle of my shovel, ready to catch whatever Lila threw at me.
“Coral,” she snapped as she approached. “You were supposed to give me coral chrysanthemums for the Berkshire wedding, and you sent pink.” She stopped a few feet in front of me, crossing her arms.
I offered an easy smile. “I cut those flowers myself, picked the best stock from our Gigi mums, just like you asked.”
“Then why were they the wrong color? Do you have any idea the tantrum Johanna Berkshire threw over those flowers? She tried to get me fired.”
A chuckle through my nose. “Sounds like she needs to get some real problems.”
She eyed me as she drew a breath to fuel her furnace. “For years, my sister has begged me to bring Longbourne business, and I refused for exactly this reason. If it hadn’t been for all your recent press, I never would have put my ass on the line. But if I say coral, I expect coral. Not pink. Not fuchsia. Not goddamn watermelon or flamingo or anything but coral.”
“Sorry, Ms. Parker,” I answered lazily. “Won’t happen again.”
“You’re damn right it won’t.”
“How about we issue the Berkshires a partial refund for the trouble?”
Suspicion sparked in her gaze. “I’m sure that would help.”
“Then consider it done.”
Those cool eyes narrowed even more. “I need someone to come to a venue in Midtown to measure for arbors and garlands. They’ve requested an archway, and one of you needs to come take the measurements.”
Dad cast me a glance that said not it. The way Tess glared at the back of Lila’s head, I figured she’d just as soon claw her in the back with a hand rake than help her measure anything. Lila’s sister Ivy—who was a florist at Longbourne—was entirely too pregnant to measure anything but her uterus, and Wendy, our newest addition, just wasn’t experienced enough.
My brother Luke might have done it, but something told me I wanted to be the one to handle Lila Parker.
“Sure. When and where?”
“Tomorrow, if you can manage it. I can meet you at three, 49th and 5th. I’m going to need an archway long enough for the wedding party to stand inside, and the arbor will need a special design built in the shape of a triangle. It’s at the—” She paused, lips flattening. “Shouldn’t you be taking notes?”
I tapped my temple. “Got it all right here.”
Color rose in her cheeks as she drew a slow breath through her nose. “I really think you should write it down.”
“What, don’t trust me?”
“I don’t know what instills more faith—that you can’t tell the difference between shades of pink or that your shirt says Can You Dig It? on the front.”
I glanced down at my chest, flicking at a streak of dirt like I gave a shit what she thought. “Listen, Priss. I’ll be where you say, when you say, ready and at your service.”
A pause while she stared me down, seeming to weigh her options. “All right, Filthy. Can you at least wear a clean shirt? This venue books for two-hundred-thousand per event, and I don’t want to have to get you in through the service entrance.”
“Deal,” I said, extending a hand in challenge. It was as filthy like she’d said, with crescents of dirt under my nails and enough soil in the creases of my palms to grow zucchinis.
Her eyes dropped to my hand, and for a moment, I was positive she’d refuse. But somewhere in that pretty little head of hers existed some form of manners and a healthy helping of pride, so she slipped that spotless, manicured hand into my dirty, callused one.
It was soft and warm, though her fingers were strong, gripping my hand and pumping it once, firm and definitive, before taking it back.
Instantly, I felt guilty for daring her—her skin was spoiled with streaks and flecks of dirt. To her credit, she didn’t even dust it off. Instead, she held up her chin and gave me a quietly confrontational glare.
“I’ll give Ivy the exact address. At least I know she’ll write it down.”
“Whatever you have to do,” I said, returning my forearm to the handle of the shovel, not missing the flick of her eyes to my shoulders and the cross of my arms.
“Tomorrow, then. Don’t be late.” She tugged tugged the hem of her jacket, straightening it to match the yardstick that was her spine, and once again I lamented taking her hand. A scuff of dirt now sullied the very edge of that white tailored coat.
Before I could apologize, she turned on her heel to walk away.
What she didn’t realize—the cat had taken up post directly behind her.
The moment stretched as she tilted in a successful attempt to avoid impaling Brutus with her heel, and when that heel came down, it caught in the seam of concrete. Her long legs twisted, arms shooting out for balance but finding none. Fast, but not fast enough, I moved for her, the shovel hitting the ground with a clang as that pristine white ass of hers landed flat in the Black-eyed Susans and that fresh coat of soil I’d just laid down.
Brutus took a seat next to Tess’s feet, curling his tail around himself and watching Lila with what I swore was a wry smile.
My urge to laugh was so intense, it caught in my chest, frozen by the sheer outrage on her face and utter hysteria of the sight of her, so clean and white against the browns and greens and golds of the flowerbed. A slow heave of her chest as she breathed fire. The pink of her cheeks flaring to red. The gray of her eyes igniting into a cruel shade of blue, illuminated by the inferno of her thoughts.
I stepped up, unable to school my face as I extended a hand, this time to help her up.
But she scowled, slapping my hand away. “I’ve got it,” she shot, planting her palms in the dirt to push herself up.
As I backed out of the way, I watched her swipe at her ass, too furious to realize she’d only smudged the dirt around.
Tess removed her hands from her mouth, unable to right her face any better than I had. “Here, let me help you—”
“I said, I’ve got it.” Lila’s voice was deadly calm, and at the sound, Tess pinned her lips between her teeth and stepped out of the way.
“Tomorrow,” Lila snapped at me over her shoulder, smoothing the shining waves of her hair, which remained undisturbed by her tumble.
“See you then,” I answered with a nod.
And then I watched that dirty ass stride proudly out the door.
The second it swung closed, laughter bubbled out of Tess, and at the sound, there was no containing my own. Even Dad joined in, shoulders shaking gently.
“Oh, the poor Susans,” Tess said, swiping at a tear. “Look, her ass print is still there,” she squeaked before succumbing to another bout of laughter.
“The look on her face,” I said with the shake of my head. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen anybody so mad. Not even you, Tess.”
“And that’s saying something,” she added, resting her palm on her belly like she’d just done a hundred sit-ups. “God, if Ivy and Lila didn’t look like twins, I’d never believe they were related.”
“I didn’t remember her being this…” I started.
“I was gonna say bossy, but okay.”
Tess sighed. “She wasn’t kidding about sticking her neck out. She’s handling this huge celebrity wedding on her own, and her senior is a total asshole, breathing down her neck and micromanaging her at every turn. Addison is constantly looking for reasons to throw Lila under the bus, and if we screw up, Addison will blame Lila. But even though she’s a pain, the business is good for us. Archer Events handles the biggest weddings in the city, and that’s putting us in the spotlight. We’ve just gotta deal with all the stress that comes with doing weddings.”
“Like bridezillas and entitled wedding planners?” I asked.
“Exactly.” Tess sighed. “Although, I don’t know what we’re going to do with Lila when Ivy is on maternity leave and isn’t here to manage her. Today was bad enough, and Ivy was just at a doctor’s appointment.”
Dad dusted off his hands. “If she got past you, Tess, I fear for us all.”
“I tried to tell her it wasn’t your fault,” Tess said, her eyes full of apology. “Those flowers went through three florists before it got to the wedding—which I told her—but she stormed right past me to yell at you about it.”
I shrugged. “Don’t worry about me, Tess—I can handle her.” At the disbelieving quirk of her mouth, I added, “I mean it. She can get as mad as she wants and I won’t get riled. I’ll hold the bucket so she can dump all her rage into it, and when she’s empty of it, I’ll get whatever done that she needs done. Trust me when I promise you this—Lila Parker cannot get to me.”
At that, Tess laughed. “Famous last words.”
And oh, if I’d only known how right she was.
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Everyone hates parts of their job.
Maybe it’s the paperwork. Maybe it’s the day-to-day grind. Maybe it’s that client who never knows what they want, or the guy who always cooks fish in the microwave.
But not me. I love every corner of the Longbourne Flower Shop, every flower, every petal, every stem. I love the greenhouse, and I love Mrs. Bennet, my boss. I love creating, and I love being a florist. I don’t hate anything at all.
Except for Luke Bennet.
The Bennet brothers have come home to help their mom save the flower shop, and Luke is at the helm. His smile tells a tale of lust, loose and easy. He moves with the grace of a predator, feral and wild. A thing unbridled, without rules or constraint. When he comes home to save Longbourne, I almost can’t be mad at him. Almost.
He doesn’t remember that night I’ll never forget. That kiss, touched with whiskey and fire. It branded me like a red-hot iron. But it meant nothing to him.
Everyone hates part of their job, and I hate Luke Bennet.
Because if I don’t, I’ll fall in love with him.