Blue dahlia, p.11

Blue Dahlia, page 11

 part  #1 of  In the Garden Series


Blue Dahlia

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Chapter Ten

  Harper spaded the dirt at the base of the clematis that wound its way up the iron trellis. It was quiet on this edge of the garden. The shrubs and ornamental trees, the paths and beds separated what he still thought of as the guest house from the main.

  Daffodils were just opening up, with all that bright yellow against the spring green. Tulips would be coming along next. They were one of his favorite things about this leading edge of spring, so he'd planted a bed of bulbs right outside the kitchen door of his place.

  It was a small converted carriage house and according to every female he'd ever brought there, it was charming. "Dollhouse" was the usual term. He didn't mind it. Though he thought of it more as a cottage, like a groundskeeper's cottage with its whitewashed cedar shakes and pitched roof. It was comfortable, inside and out, and more than adequate for his needs.

  There was a small greenhouse only a few feet out the back door, and that was his personal domain. The cottage was just far enough from the house to be private, so he didn't have to feel weird having overnight guests of the female persuasion. And close enough that he could be at the main house in minutes if his mother needed him.

  He didn't like the idea of her being alone, even with David on hand. And thank God for David. It didn't matter that she was self-sufficient, the strongest person he knew. He just didn't like the idea of his mother rattling around in that big old house alone, day after day, night after night.

  Though he certainly preferred that to having her stuck in it with that asshole she'd married. Words couldn't describe how he despised Bryce Clerk. He supposed having his mother fall for the guy proved she wasn't infallible, but it had been a hell of a mistake for someone who rarely made one.

  Though she'd given him the boot, swiftly and without mercy, Harper had worried how the man would handle being cut off - from Roz, the house, the money, the whole ball.

  And damned if he hadn't tried to break in once, the week before the divorce was final. Harper didn't doubt his mother could've handled it, but it hadn't hurt to be at hand.

  And having a part in kicking the greedy, cheating, lying bastard out on his ass couldn't be overstated.

  But maybe enough time had passed now. And she sure as hell wasn't alone in the house these days. Two women, two kids made for a lot of company. Between them and the business, she was busier than ever.

  Maybe he should think about getting a place of his own.

  Trouble was, he couldn't think of a good reason. He loved this place, in a way he'd never loved a woman. With a kind of focused passion, respect, and gratitude.

  The gardens were home, maybe even more than the house, more than his cottage. Most days he could walk out his front door, take a good, healthy hike, and be at work.

  God knew he didn't want to move to the city. All that noise, all those people. Memphis was great for a night out - a club, a date, meeting up with friends. But he'd suffocate there inside a month.

  He sure as hell didn't want suburbia. What he wanted was right where he was. A nice little house, extensive gardens, a greenhouse and a short hop to work.

  He sat back on his heels, adjusted the ball cap he wore to keep the hair out of his eyes. Spring was coming. There was nothing like spring at home. The way it smelled, the way it looked, even the way it sounded.

  The light was soft now with approaching evening. When the sun went down, the air would chill, but it wouldn't have that bite of winter.

  When he was done planting here, he'd go in and get himself a beer. And he'd sit out in the dark and the cool, and enjoy the solitude.

  He took a bold yellow pansy out of the cell pack and began to plant.

  He didn't hear her walk up. Such was his focus that he didn't notice her shadow fall over him. So her friendly "Hey!" nearly had him jumping out of his skin.

  "Sorry. " With a laugh, Hayley rubbed a hand over her belly. "Guess you were a million miles away. "

  "Guess. " His fingers felt fat and clumsy all of a sudden, and his brain sluggish. She stood with the setting sun at her back, so when he squinted up at her, her head was haloed, her face shadowed.

  "I was just walking around. Heard your music. " She nodded toward the open windows where REM spilled out. "I saw them in concert once. Excellent. Pansies? They're a hot item right now. "

  "Well, they like the cool. "

  "I know. How come you're putting them here? You've got this vine thing happening. "

  "Clematis. Likes its roots shaded. So you . . . you know, put annuals over them. "

  "Oh. " She squatted down for a closer look. "What color is the clematis?"

  "It's purple. " He wasn't sure pregnant women should squat. Didn't it crowd things in there? "Ah, you want a chair or something?"

  "No, I'm set. I like your house. "

  "Yeah, me too. "

  "It's sort of storybook here, with all the gardens. I mean, the big house is amazing. But it's a little intimidating. " She grimaced. "I don't mean to sound ungrateful. "

  "No, I get you. " It helped to keep planting. She didn't smell pregnant. She smelled sexy. And that had to be wrong. "It's a great place, and you couldn't get my mother out of it with dynamite and wild mules. But it's a lot of house. "

  "Took me a week to stop walking about on tiptoe and wanting to whisper. Can I plant one?"

  "You don't have any gloves. I can get - "

  "Hell, I don't mind a little dirt under my nails. A lady was in today? She said it's like good luck for a pregnant woman to plant gardens. Something about fertility, I guess. "

  He didn't want to think about fertility. There was something terrifying about it. "Go ahead. "

  "Thanks. I wanted to say . . . " And it was easier with her hands busy. "Well, just that I know how it might look, me coming out of nowhere, landing on your mama's doorstep. But I'm not going to take advantage of her. I don't want you to think I'd try to do that. "

  "I've only known one person to manage it, and he didn't manage it for long. "

  "The second husband. " She nodded as she patted the dirt around her plant. "I asked David about him so I wouldn't say something stupid. He said how he'd stuck his hand in the till, and cheated on her with another woman. " She chose another pansy. "And when Roz got wind of it, she booted him out so hard and fast he didn't land till he was halfway to Memphis. You gotta admire that, because you know even with a mad on, it had to hurt her feelings. Plus, it's just embarrassing when somebody - oops. "

  She pressed a hand to her side, and had the blood draining out of Harper's face.

  "What? What?"

  "Nothing. Baby's moving around. Sometimes it gives me a jolt is all. "

  "You should stand up. You should sit down. "

  "Let me just finish this one. Back home, when I started to show? People, some people, just figured I'd got myself in trouble and the boy wouldn't stand up for me. I mean, Jesus, are we in the twenty-first century or what? Anyway, that made me mad, but it was embarrassing, too. I guess that's partly why I left. It's hard being embarrassed all the damn time. There. " She patted the dirt. "They look really pretty. "

  He popped up to help her to her feet. "You want to sit for a minute? Want me to walk you back?"

  She patted her belly. "This makes you nervous. "

  "Looks like. "

  "Me too. But I'm fine. You'll want to get the rest of those planted before it gets dark. " She looked down at the flowers again, at the house, at the gardens surrounding it, and those long, lake-colored eyes seemed to take in everything.

  Then they zeroed in on his face and made his throat go dry.

  "I really like your place. See you at work. "

  He stood, rooted, as she walked off, gliding along the path, around the curve of it, into the twilight.

  He was exhausted, he realized. Like he'd run some sort of crazed race. He'd just have that beer now, settle himself down. Then he'd finish with the pansies.

  * * *

p; With the kids outside taking Parker for his after-dinner walk, Stella cleaned up the mess two boys and a dog could make in the kitchen over a pepperoni pizza.

  "Next pizza night, I buy," Hayley said as she loaded glasses into the dishwasher.

  "That's a deal. " Stella glanced over. "When I was carrying Luke, all I wanted was Italian. Pizza, spaghetti, manicotti. I was surprised he didn't pop out singing 'That's Amore. '"

  "I don't have any specific cravings. I'll just eat anything. " In the wash of the outside floodlights, she could see boys and dog racing. "The baby's moving around a lot. That's normal, right?"

  "Sure. Gavin just sort of snuggled and snoozed. I'd have to poke him or sip some Coke to get him moving. But Luke did gymnastics in there for months. Is it keeping you up nights?"

  "Sometimes, but I don't mind. It feels like we're the only two people in the world. Just me and him - or her. "

  "I know just what you mean. But Hayley, if you're awake, worried or just not feeling well, whatever, you can come get me. "

  The tightness in her throat loosened instantly. "Really? You mean it?"

  "Sure. Sometimes it helps to talk to somebody who's been there and done that. "

  "I'm not on my own," she said quietly, with her eyes on the boys outside the window. "Not like I thought I'd be. Was ready to be - I think. " When those eyes filled, she blinked them, rubbed at them. "Hormones. God. "

  "Crying can help, too. " Stella rubbed Hayley's shoulders. "And I want you to tell me if you want someone to go with you to your doctor's appointments. "

  "He said, when I went in, that everything looks good. Right on schedule. And that I should sign up for the classes, you know? Childbirth classes. But they like you to have a partner. "

  "Pick me!"

  Laughing, Hayley turned. "Really? You're sure? It's a lot to ask. "

  "I would love it. It's almost as good as having another one of my own. "

  "Would you? If. . . "

  "Yes. Two was the plan, but as soon as Luke was born, I thought, how can I not do this again - and wouldn't it be fun to try for a girl? But another boy would be great. " She leaned forward on the counter, looked out the window. "They're terrific, aren't they? My boys. "

  "They are. "

  "Kevin was so proud, so in love with them. I think he'd have had half a dozen. "

  Hayley heard the change in tone, and this time, she rubbed a hand on Stella's shoulder. "Does it hurt to talk about him?"

  "Not anymore. It did for a while, for a long while. " She picked up the dishrag to wipe the counter.

  "But now it's good to remember. Warm, I guess. I ought to call those boys in. "

  But she turned at the sound of heels clicking on wood. When Roz breezed in, Stella's mouth dropped open.

  She recalled her first impression of Rosalind Harper had been of beauty, but this was the first time she'd seen Roz exploit her natural attributes.

  She wore a sleek, form-fitting dress in a muted copper color that made her skin glow. It, along with ice-pick-heeled sandals, showed off lean, toned legs. A necklace of delicate filigree with a teardrop of citrine lay over her breasts.

  "David?" Roz scanned the room, then rolled dark, dramatic eyes. "He's going to make me late. "

  Stella let out an exaggerated breath. "Just let me say, Wow!"

  "Yeah. " She grinned, did a little half turn. "I must've been insane when I bought the shoes. They're going to kill me. But when I have to drag myself out to one of these charity deals, I like to make a statement. "

  "If the statement's 'I'm totally hot,'" Hayley put in, "you hit it dead on. "

  "That was the target. "

  "You look absolutely amazing. Sex with class. Every man there's going to wish he was taking you home tonight. "

  "Well. " With a half laugh, Roz shook her head. "It's great having women in the house. Who knew? I'm going to go nag David. He'll primp for another hour if I don't give his ass a kick. "

  "Have a wonderful time. "

  "She sure didn't look like anybody's mother," Stella said under her breath.

  * * *

  What would she look like in twenty years? Hayley wondered.

  She studied herself in the mirror while she rubbed Vitamin E oil over her belly and breasts. Would she still be able to fix herself up and know she looked good?

  Of course, she didn't have as much to work with as Roz. She remembered her grandmother saying once that beauty was in the bones. Looking at Roz helped her understand just what that meant.

  She'd never be as stunning as Roz, or as eye-catching as Stella, but she looked okay. She took care of her skin, tried out the makeup tricks she read about in magazines.

  Guys were attracted.

  Obviously, she thought with a self-deprecating smile as she looked down at her belly.

  Or had been. Most guys didn't get the hots for pregnant women. And that was fine, because she wasn't interested in men right now. The only thing that mattered was her baby.

  "It's all about you now, kid," she said as she pulled on an oversized T-shirt.

  After climbing into bed, plumping up her pillows, she reached for one of the books stacked on her nightstand. She had books on childbirth, on pregnancy, on early-childhood development. She read from one of them every night.

  When her eyes began to droop, she closed the book.

  Switching off the light, she snuggled down. "'Night, baby," she whispered.

  And felt it just as she was drifting off. The little chill, the absolute certainty that she wasn't alone. Her heartbeat quickened until she could hear it in her ears. Gathering courage, she let her eyes open to slits.

  She saw the figure standing over the bed. The light-colored hair, the lovely sad face. She thought about screaming, just as she did every time she saw the woman. But she bit it back, braced herself, and reached out.

  When her hand passed through the woman's arm, Hayley did let out a muffled scream. Then she was alone, shivering in bed and fumbling for the light.

  "I'm not imagining it. I'm not!"

  * * *

  Stella climbed up the stepstool to hook another hanging basket for display. After looking over last year's sales, crunching numbers, she'd decided to increase the number offered by 15 percent.

  "I could do that," Hay ley insisted. "I'm not going to fall off a stupid stepstool. "

  "No chance. Hand me up that one. The begonias. "

  "They're really pretty. So lush. "

  "Roz and Harper started most of these over the winter. Begonias and impatiens are big-volume sellers. With growers like Roz and Harper, we can do them in bulk, and our cost is low. These are bread-and-butter plants for us. "

  "People could make up their own cheaper. "

  "Sure. " Stella climbed down, moved the ladder, climbed up again. "Ivy geranium," she decided. "But it's tough to resist all this color and bloom. Even avid gardeners, the ones who do some propagating on their own, have a hard time passing up big, beautiful blooms. Blooms, my young apprentice, sell. "

  "So we're putting these baskets everywhere. "

  "Seduction. Wait until we move some of the annuals outside, in front. All that color will draw the customers. Early-blooming perennials too. "

  She selected another basket. "I've got this. Page Roz, will you? I want her to see these, and get her clearance to hang a couple dozen in Greenhouse Three with the extra stock. And pick out a pot. One of the big ones that didn't move last year. I want to do one up, put it by the counter. I'll move that sucker. In fact, pick out two. Clean off the discount price. When I'm done, they'll not only move, they'll move at a fat profit. "

  "Gotcha. "

  "Make sure one of them's that cobalt glaze," she called out. "You know the one? And don't pick it up yourself. "

  In her mind, Stella began to plan it. White flowers - heliotrope, impatiens, spills of sweet alyssum, silvery accents from dusty miller and sage. Another trail of white p
etunias. Damn, she should've told Hayley to get one of the stone-gray pots. Good contrast with die cobalt. And she'd do it up hot. Bold red geraniums, lobelia, verbena, red New Guineas.

  She added, subtracted plants in her mind, calculated the cost of pots, stock, soil. And smiled to herself as she hung another basket.

  "Shouldn't you be doing paperwork?"

  She nearly tipped off the stool, might have if a hand hadn't slapped onto her butt to keep her upright.

  "It's not all I do. " She started to get down, but realized being on the stool kept her at eye level with him. "You can move your hand now, Logan. "

  "It doesn't mind being there. " But he let it fall, slipped it into his pocket. "Nice baskets. "

  "In the market?"

  "Might be. You had a look on your face when I came in. "

  "I usually do. That's why it's called a face. "

  "No, the kind of look a woman gets when she's thinking about how to make some guy drool. "

  "Did I? Mind?" she added, gesturing to a basket. "You're off the mark. I was thinking how I was going to turn two over-stock pots on the discount rack into stupendous displays and considerable profit. "

  Even as she hung the basket, he was lifting another, and by merely raising his arm, set it in place. "Showoff. "

  "Shorty. "

  Hayley came through the doorway, turned briskly on her heel and headed out.

  "Hayley. "

  "Forgot something," she called out and kept going.

  Stella blew out a breath and would've asked for another basket, but he'd already picked one up, hung it. "You've been busy," she said.

  "Cool, dry weather the last week. "

  "If you're here to pick up the shrubs for the Pitt job, I can get the paperwork. "

  "My crew's out loading them. I want to see you again. "

  "Well. You are. "

  He kept his eyes on hers. "You're not dim. "

  "No, I'm not. I'm not sure - "

  "Neither am I," he interrupted. "Doesn't seem to stop me from wanting to see you again. It's irritating, thinking about you. "

  "Thanks. That really makes me want to sigh and fall into your arms. "

  "I don't want you to fall into them. If I did, I'd just kick your feet out from under you. "

  She laid a hand on her heart, fluttered her lashes, and did her best woman of the south accent.

  "My goodness, all this soppy romance is too much for me. "

  Now he grinned. "I like you, Red. Some of the time. I'll pick you up at seven. "

  "What? Tonight?" Reluctant amusement turned to outright panic in a fmgersnap. "I can't possibly just go out, spur of the moment. I have two kids. "

  "And three adults in the house. Any reason you can think of why any or all of them can't handle your boys for a few hours tonight?"

  "No. But I haven't asked, a concept you appear to be unfamiliar with. And - " She shoved irritably at her hair. "I might have plans. "

  "Do you?"

  She angled her head, looked down her nose. "I always have plans. "

  "I bet. So flex them. You take the boys for ribs yet?"

  "Yes, last week after - "

  "Good. "

  "Do you know how often you interrupt me in the middle of a sentence?"

  "No, but I'll start counting. Hey, Roz. "

  "Logan. Stella, these look great. " She stopped in the center of the aisle, scanning, nodding as she absently slapped her dirty gloves against her already dirt-smeared jeans. "I wasn't sure displaying so many would work, but it does. Something about the abundance of bloom. "

  She took off her ball cap, stuffed it in the back pocket of her work pants, stuffed the gloves in the other. "Am I interrupting?"

  "No. "

  "Yes," Logan corrected. "But it's okay. You up to watching Stella's boys tonight?"

  "I haven't said - "

  "Absolutely. It'll be fun. You two going out?"

  "A little dinner. I'll leave the invoice on your desk," he said to Stella. "See you at seven. "

  Tired of standing, Stella sat on the stool and scowled at Roz when Logan sauntered out. "You didn't help. "

  "I think I did. " Reaching up, she turned one of the baskets to check the symmetry of the plants. "You'll go out, have a good time. Your boys'll be fine, and I'll enjoy spending some time with them. If you didn't want to go out with Logan, you wouldn't go. You know how to say no loud enough. "

  "That may be true, but I might've liked a little more notice. A little more . . . something. "

  "He is what he is. " She patted Stella's knee. "And the good thing about that is you don't have to wonder what he's hiding, or what kind of show he's putting on. He's . . . I can't say he's a nice man, because he can be incredibly difficult. But he's an honest one. Take it from me, there's a lot to be said for that. "

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