Marilyn Land, only child and partner of Tom Land, Florist, brought the van to a shuddering stop. It was just on dawn, the road deserted. In one direction loomed the Dandenong Ranges, in the other, the city of Melbourne. Trees lining the road stood as silent witnesses, looking dark and menacing. The kookaburras had begun their raucous chorus to the new day. In the other direction, a pool of reflected light against the sky marked the city of Melbourne. The road was deserted.
With a quiet oath, Marilyn climbed from the van to survey the damage. She was not unduly surprised by the flat tire - occasional punctures had to be expected when the tires were so worn - but it was getting her day off to a bad start. Since her father's heart attack, she did the deliveries as well as all the flower arrangements. And today she had to cater for three weddings.
With a shrug, she reached for the tire lever and pried off the hubcap. The skies were lightening and the rusty lugnuts stood out distinctly. Marilyn removed them, dropping each into the hubcap. She fit the jack into place and wound it up, her worries renewed about the family finances.
Although their shop was kept busy, they never seemed to have enough money left over to cover extras. The business needed a new van and someone to do the deliveries, even on a part time basis. Merry's day was getting longer and longer, as she struggled to cope.
She straightened, and stared absently at the spinning wheel. The van was well canted off the ground. She wound the jack down until the wheel touched the ground again, and reached for the tire lever to prise off the hubcap.
She usually enjoyed the quiet early morning drive down from the hills, but for some reason she felt depressed. It wasn't just the flat tire, or the fact that the business was going downhill. Perhaps it was the last wedding she did? It had been a pretty wedding. The pink of the flowers matched the pink cheeks of bride; the groom was protective and adoring. They were so touchingly in love that Merry was almost envious.
Merry was twenty years old, in vital good health, and loved every minute of her job as working partner in the business. She loved her father, and Aunt Adelaide, who kept house for them all those years since her mother died, but sometimes when she saw a bridal couple who were so obviously special to each other, an inexplicable ache was set up in her heart.
A florist's shop was full of romance, the lingering perfume of love affairs; deliveries of long stemmed roses, flower arrangements for weddings and receptions, sprays, bouquets and buttonholes for everyone. Roses are for romance, but always for other people.
Florists rose before dawn, to collect, arrange and sell flowers. Merry sighed. They were also in bed before any normal social lives started. Merry had lots of friends, but these days, with the extra work of the shop she rarely saw them
"Need a hand?"
Merry grabbed for the tire lever and spun around like a startled cat. The country roads were lonely and sometimes not very safe. The grey bulk of a Mercedes had pulled in behind her, and the slanting rays of the early morning sun gleamed on the black hair of the tall man watching her. The car had purred to a stop so quietly that she hadn't heard it over the morning racket of the birds.
"Yes, thank you," she replied, still wary despite the well-cut sports jacket and tailored slacks.
"Try not to get grease on my jacket, there's a good girl," he warned, as he folded his jacket across her arm.
Merry's cheeks went very pink. She was suddenly aware of her appearance. She was a slightly-built, small girl who looked even smaller in her shabby black sneakers and jeans, and raggy jumper.
She watched in silence as the tall man briskly changed the tire. Muscles rippled under his silk shirt as he slid the flat under the floor of the van, and shrugged his jacket back on. His face looked good-humoured and the sun lit gold-flecked grey eyes.
"You want to dodge the city, little girl," he drawled. "Police are clamping right down on underage drivers." He got back into the Mercedes and it purred quietly into life.
The grey car dwindled down the straight road. Merry stamped her foot in frustration. "I am not an under-age driver," she yelled at the departing car. It really was too bad, that she, a working partner in her own business, should be taken for an underage child!
She climbed into the van, caught a glimpse of herself in the mirror and suddenly grinned. With her wide blue eyes, no make-up, grease smeared across her face, and soft, gold brown hair tumbled down her back, a casual passerby could be mistaken about her age.
The van puttered its steady way along the highway. Merry bit her lip as she looked at her watch. She was going to have a busy morning! She unloaded the flowers at the shop, set up the widow display, dropped the flat tire into the garage, and went home for breakfast.
"You're late, dear," Aunt Adelaide complained as she came in.
"Sorry, Aunt," Merry apologized.
She had a quick shower, and changed into a skirt and blouse. After she had shrugged on her loose blue smock, brushed her hair into order, and tied it back with a matching blue ribbon, she remembered the stranger's remark about her being an underage driver. She took a deep breath and applied her make-up ruthlessly.
She gave a satisfied nod at the attractive reflection in the mirror. Under age kid indeed! She looked very poised and sophisticated, and ready to face the next part of her day.
Her father looked up from some papers he was studying as she entered the kitchen. He glanced at the clock, and the lines of worry on his face deepened.
"Flat tire," Merry explained. "No problems, Dad."
She knew exactly what he was thinking. He hated her doing that early morning run. It was a lonely trip up into the hills in the darkness before dawn. For a while he had insisted on coming with her, but he really needed to rest, and as she kept telling him, she was quite capable of driving up and back without a baby sitter. It wasn't heavy work. The flowers were ready to be loaded into the van when she arrived. It was just that they had to be collected before dawn to be fresh for the day's trade.
Her father sighed and put his papers aside. He was a short, stockily built man, with a shock of grey hair and the same widely spaced blue eyes as his daughter. "I've got an appointment with the accountant and bank manager this morning. I'll see you later this afternoon."
Merry nodded agreement and reached for another cup of tea. She was aware of how slim a margin of profit they worked on. If her father could ease some money out of the bank manager, perhaps they could trade the van in for something reliable.
It was nearly noon by the time Merry had prepared and packed the flowers into the van for the deliveries. Aunt Adelaide waited on the high stool behind the counter, the boxed flowers for the weddings stacked up beside her, sorting out addresses in her neat handwriting.
Merry sighed as she waved goodbye, and drove into the heavy traffic. She had three churches to decorate, two reception rooms and one private home. After that, her day was her own.
It was well after four in the afternoon before she got back. Aunt Adelaide took one look at her and made disapproving noises. "This business of working through without lunch is ridiculous," she scolded. "I've been keeping some soup hot for you."
"Just something to drink," Merry pleaded. "I think I'm too tired to even eat."
However, she let Aunt Adelaide bully her into eating the soup and putting her feet up while she drank her tea. Gradually, she relaxed. It had been a good day. Most of the tastefully arranged banks of flowers in the window were sold, and the reception rooms were particularly pleased with her flower arrangements, and promised her future business.
She was staring out the window when she noticed a grey Mercedes pull up outside. The door opened and her father got out.
"Goodness!" Aunt Adelaide said, peering over her cup of tea. "I do believe it is Tom! I wonder who that is with him?"
Merry propped her chin on her hands and kept watching. It was the helpful stranger who had changed her tire. Her stomach dropped in panic, but she was reassured by the cheerful expression on her father's face. Whatever his connection was with her father, it wasn't bad news. However, she was unprepared for her father's introduction.
"Adelaide, and Merry, my love," her father said, "meet our new partner, Sean Westwood. Sean, my daughter Merry, and sister Adelaide Land."
"Nice to meet you, Sean," Aunt Adelaide said with a smile.
"Westwood flowers?" Merry asked.
Westwood Flowers was a large interstate firm of florists and Merry often envied their lavish advertising and lower prices. Sean Westwood looked down at her and his grey eyes with their curious gold flecks got an amused glint in them.
"That's right, Westwood Flowers," he agreed.
Tom Land gave his daughter a sharp glance. "Sorry, love," he explained, "The accountant's option. We either merged or went bankrupt, and Sean has offered very generous conditions."
It wouldn't be a merge, it would be a takeover! Merry stared at her father. "How could you, Dad?"
"Is there a problem?" Sean Westwood asked.
"My signature isn't going on that agreement," Merry said. "I happen to be a partner as well."
"This is true," admitted her father slowly. "It hadn't occurred to me that you might not be happy about our merger. It just seemed such a good solution to our problems."
"We haven't got any problems we can't handle," Merry said.
Sean looked at her father and then back at her. "Perhaps we could discuss the partnership details, Miss Land. You might feel happier if you studied it in more detail?"
Tom Land's face cleared. "Now that might be an idea, Merry! You've got a good business head. You go over the figures with Sean."
"I'm not interested." Even to herself Merry sounded petulant.
"Just a drive up to my office to look at the figures." He sounded amused.
There were identical worried expressions on the faces of her father and Aunt Adelaide as they watched her. She flushed. She was being childish. She followed him out to the car and slid into the front seat. The car moved out into the heavy traffic, sped quietly down the road towards the inner city area, turned into a traffic-choked narrow street and veered sharply to dive down a ramp that led under a building. The car park was large and shadowy. The Mercedes drove across the area to stop by a lift. Sean got out. He nodded to an attendant, opened the door and helped Merry out.
They stepped into the lift in silence. It hummed its way to the top floor, where he ushered Merry into a carpeted reception area. The girl at the desk smiled at him, and people working in the glassed off areas looked up curiously.
Uncomfortable at the watching eyes, Merry stalked beside her new would-be partner, aware that her blue smock was splotched and stained with her day's work. Why hadn't she remembered to take it off? she raged to herself.
Sean opened the door to a private office, and a pretty, dark girl, immaculate in a tailored linen suit, looked up and smiled. "Sean! There are several dire emergencies for you to handle. Are you officially in?"
"No, Jane, and I don't want to be disturbed."
He opened another door, and Merry went through ahead of him. She waited in the centre of the room upset and angry. Yet there was nothing in the room to have caused her displeasure.
The room was furnished in unobtrusive good taste; a large desk with several phones and a laptop, and three lounge chairs against panelled walls. From the window, the city spread out below them, and further across was a breathtaking vista of the bay. Against one wall, a magnificent floral arrangement was displayed to full advantage.
Sean gestured to a chair. Merry sniffed, and sat down in the comfortable chair. Sean handed over a thick file. She studied the columns of figures.
"Your father took a mortgage over the house," he began, leaning over to point at the figures.
"That was to cover the hospital bills for his heart attack," Merry remembered.
"Your lease on the shop was renewed at a higher rental."
"The position was worth hanging on to."
"The position is why I am prepared to suffer a partnership," Sean explained. "Your father wasn't interested in selling outright and I don't have an outlet in that particular location."
Merry remained silent. They had received a lot of offers because of the position, but her father had never even considered them before today.
"You are nearly two months behind on your account with the farm."
"We always pay thirty days," Merry defended. "That only makes us two or three weeks behind."
Sean leaned back. His grey eyes watched her face. "Your business is barely breaking even. The only thing you have a clear title on is that heap you were driving this morning. I am treating Merriland's very generously in offering a part partnership."
Merry placed the file back on the desk and stood up. "So, Mr. Westwood, I still have no intention on putting my signature onto that agreement. We will get by without your help."
Sean sighed. "Your father is two months behind in payments on the mortgage, three months behind on his lease, and of course only two or three weeks behind on his payments to the farm. The money you are making from that shop is going on day-to-day expenses. There is no way that the bank is going to lend on that sort of scene. When Merriland's Florists goes bankrupt, the house will be sold to pay the creditors anyway." He paused before speaking again. "I could of course let you go bankrupt and buy up the business anyway."
Merry picked up the file again and again studied the figures of the bank statements, the neat lists of itemized debts, and the mortgage payments.
"We could sell the van."
"And get about three hundred dollars for it."
"We'll manage somehow. We always have." Even to herself, her voice sounded strained and unnatural.
"Possibly," was the reply, "In the past your father was healthier. Have you bothered to consider that the hard work and worry is going to aggravate his heart condition?"
Merry bent her head lower. The sheet in front of her blurred and wavered. His logic was unanswerable. It would break her father's heart to let the business go. It was his whole life. Then again, if they went bankrupt, Westwood Flowers would pick up their little business for a song. If they tried to struggle along as they had been doing, the extra work and worry could cause her father to have a relapse.
Somehow, the carpeted, beautifully furnished office was an affront to herself and her father. It was unfair that Westwood Flowers should be so successful when Merrilands was struggling to survive. It was unfair that the good-humored man facing her was in such a strong position to dictate terms.
"I hate you," she whispered, her head still lowered. She raised her head, trying to blink away her tears. "I'll sign."
He lounged back and pressed a buzzer. "Bring in the Merriland's Agreement, Jane. There's a signature to be witnessed."
The door opened, and the dark-haired girl came in with a folder. She opened it up on the desk and handed Merry a pen. Merry signed where she indicated, and watched as Jane, whose second name appeared to be Mollison signed against her name. She gave Merry a cheery smile, unfolded a copy for her to keep and headed out the door. The door shut behind her.
"I'll drop you back at the shop," Sean said, looking at his watch. He took her arm, and she wrenched herself away from him.
"I can walk without support, thank you," she said coldly.
"I'm sure you can, but now we are officially partners, drop that sulky expression," he advised. "Try to look as if you are pleased about the partnership, if only for your father's sake."
He opened the door. Merry swept out ahead of him, across the office and reception area to the lift. The way back to the Merriland's Florist's shop was passed in silence.
"Thank you for your trouble," Merry said as she opened the door of the Mercedes.
"No trouble," he replied cheerfully. "See you in the morning."
Merry slammed the car door hard as an expression of her outraged feelings, but the door muffled gently against the car body. The car accelerated smoothly away from the kerb.
Her father and Aunt Adelaide watched her entrance through the door, with identical anxious expressions. Merry managed a reassuring smile.
"No problems, Dad," she said calmly. "Sean went over the figures with me, and I'm quite sure you've made the only decision possible."
Her reward was the look of relief on Aunt Adelaide's face, and the easing of the strain and worry lines on her father's face.
"That's my girl," he smiled. "We should be able to keep the wolf from the door from now on. I think Sean has been most generous with his terms."
Merry wasn't prepared to agree to that, so she smiled and changed the subject.