Blue dahlia, p.12

Blue Dahlia, page 12

 part  #1 of  In the Garden Series

 

Blue Dahlia


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Chapter Eleven

  This, Stella thought, was why dating was very rarely worth it. In her underwear, she stood in front of her closet, debating, considering, despairing over what to wear.

  She didn't even know where she was going. She hated not knowing where she was going. How was she supposed to know what to prepare for?

  "Dinner" was not enough information. Was it little-black-dress dinner, or dressy-casual on-sale-designer-suit dinner? Was it jeans and a shirt and jacket dinner, or jeans and a silk blouse dinner?

  Added to that, by picking her up at seven, he'd barely left her enough time to change, much less decide what to change into.

  Dating. How could something that had been so desired, so exciting and so damn much fun in her teens, so easy and natural in her early twenties, have become such a complicated, often irritating chore in her thirties?

  It wasn't just that marriage had spoiled her, or rusted her dating tools. Adult dating was complex and exhausting because the people involved in the stupid date had almost certainly been through at least one serious relationship, and breakup, and carried that extra baggage on their backs. They were already set in their ways, had defined their expectations, and had performed this societal dating ritual so often that they really just wanted to cut to the chase - or go home and watch Letterman.

  Add to that a man who dropped the date on your head out of the clear blue, then didn't have the sense to give you some guidelines so you knew how to present yourself, and it was just a complete mess before it started.

  Fine, then. Fine. He'd just get what he got.

  She was stepping into the little black dress when the connecting bathroom door burst open and Gavin rushed in. "Mom! I finished my homework. Luke didn't, but I did. Can I go down now? Can I?"

  She was glad she'd decided on the open-toed slides and no hose, as Parker was currently trying to climb up her leg. "Did you forget something?" she asked Gavin.

  "Nuh-uh. I did all the vocabulary words. "

  "The knocking something?"

  "Oh. " He smiled, big and innocent. "You look pretty. "

  "Smooth talker. " She bent down to kiss the top of his head. "But when a door's closed, you knock. "

  "Okay. Can I go down now?"

  "In a minute. " She walked over to her dresser to put on the silver hoops she'd laid out. "I want you to promise you'll be good for Miss Roz. "

  "We're going to have cheeseburgers and play video games. She says she can take us in Smackdown, but I don't think so. "

  "No fighting with your brother. " Hope springs, she thought. "Consider this your night off from your mission in life. "

  "Can I go-down?"

  "Get. " She gave him a light slap on the rump. "Remember, I'll have my phone if you need me. "

  When he rushed out, she slipped on her shoes and a thin black sweater. After a check in the mirror, she decided the accessories took the dress into the could-be-casual, could-be-more area she'd been shooting for.

  She picked up her bag and, checking the contents as she went, walked into the next bedroom. Luke was sprawled belly-down on the floor - his favored position - frowning miserably over his arithmetic book.

  "Trouble, handsome?"

  He lifted his head, and his face was aggrieved in the way only a young boy could manage. "I hate homework. "

  "Me too. "

  "Gavin did the touchdown dance, with his fingers in the air, 'cause he finished first. "

  Understanding the demoralization, she sat on the floor beside him. "Let's see what you've got. "

  "How come I have to know two plus three, anyway?"

  "How else would you know how many fingers you have on each hand?"

  His brow beetled, then cleared with a delighted smile. "Five!"

  With the crisis averted, she helped him with the rest of the problems. "There, all done. That wasn't so bad. "

  "I still hate homework. "

  "Maybe, but what about the touchdown dance?"

  On a giggle, he leaped up and did his strut around the room.

  And all, she thought, was right in her little world once more.

  "How come you're not going to eat here? We're having cheeseburgers. "

  "I'm not entirely sure. You'll behave for Miss Roz?"

  "Uh-huh. She's nice. Once she came out in the yard and threw the ball for Parker. And she didn't even mind when it got slobbered. Some girls do. I'm going down now, okay? 'Cause I'm hungry. "

  "You bet. "

  Alone, she got to her feet, automatically picking up the scatter of toys and clothes that hadn't made it back onto the shelf or into the closet.

  She ran her fingers over some of their treasures. Gavin's beloved comic books, his ball glove. Luke's favorite truck, and the battered bear he wasn't yet ashamed to sleep with.

  The prickle between her shoulder blades had her stiffening. Even under the light sweater her arms broke out in gooseflesh. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw a shape - a reflection, a shadow - in the mirror over the bureau.

  When she spun, Hayley swung around the door and into the room.

  "Logan's just pulling up in front of the house," she began, then stopped. "You okay? You look all pale. "

  "Fine. I'm fine. " But she pushed a not-quite-steady hand at her hair. "I just thought. . . nothing. Nothing. Besides pale, how do I look?" And she made herself turn to the mirror again. Saw only herself, with Hayley moving toward her.

  "Two thumbs up. I just love your hair. "

  "Easy to say when you don't wake up with it every morning. I thought about putting it up, but it seemed too formal. "

  "It's just right. " Hayley edged closer, tipping her head toward Stella's. "I did the redhead thing once. Major disaster. Made my skin look yellow. "

  "That deep, dense brown's what's striking on you. " And look at that face, Stella thought with a tiny twist of envy. Not a line on it.

  "Yeah, but the red's so now. Anyway, I'm going to go on down. I'll keep Logan busy until. You wait just a few more minutes before you head down, then we'll all be back in the kitchen. Big burger feast. "

  She didn't intend to make an entrance, for heaven's sake. But Hayley had already gone off, and she did want to check her lipstick. And settle herself down.

  At least her nerves over this date - it was a date this time - had taken a backseat to others. It hadn't been Hayley's reflection in the mirror. Even that quick glimpse had shown her the woman who'd stood there had blond hair.

  Steadier, she walked out, started down the hall. From the top of the steps, she heard Hayley laugh.

  "She'll be right down. I guess you know how to make yourself at home. I'm going on back to the kitchen with the rest of the gang. Let Stella know I'll say bye from her to everyone. Y'all have fun. "

  Was the girl psychic? Stella wondered. Hayley had timed her exit so adroitly that as she walked down the hall, Stella hit the halfway point on the steps.

  And Logan's attention shifted upward.

  Good black trousers, she noted. Nice blue shirt, no tie, but with a casual sport coat over it. And still he didn't look quite tame.

  "Nice," he said.

  "Thanks. You, too. "

  "Hayley said she'd tell everyone you were leaving. You ready?"

  "Sure. "

  She stepped out with him, then studied the black Mustang. "You own a car. "

  "This is not merely a car, and to call it such is very female. "

  "And to say that is very sexist. Okay, if it's not a car, what is it?"

  "It's a machine. "

  "I stand corrected. You never said where we were going. "

  He opened her door. "Let's find out. "

  * * *

  He drove into the city, with music she didn't recognize on low. She knew it was blues - or supposed it was, but she didn't know anything about that area of music. Mentioning that, casually, not only seemed to shock him but kept conversation going through the trip.
/>
  She got a nutshell education on artists like John Lee Hooker and Muddy Waters, B. B. King and Taj Mahal.

  And it occurred to her after they'd crossed into the city, that conversation between them never seemed to be a problem. After he parked, he shifted to take a long look at her. "You sure you were born down here?"

  "It says so on my birth certificate. "

  He shook his head and climbed out. "Since you're that ignorant of the blues, you better check it again. "

  He took her inside a restaurant where the tables were already crowded with patrons and the noise level high with chatter. Once they were seated, he waved the waiter away. "Why don't we just wait on drinks until you know what you want to eat. We'll get a bottle of wine to go with it. "

  "All right. " Since it seemed he'd nixed the pre-dinner conversation, she opened her menu.

  "They're known for their catfish here. Ever had it?" he asked.

  She lifted her gaze over the top of her menu, met his. "No. And whether or not that makes me a Yankee, I'm thinking I'll go for the chicken. "

  "Okay. You can have some of mine to give you a sample of what you've been missing. There's a good California Chardonnay on their wine list that'll go with both the fish and the bird. It's got a nice finish. "

  She set her menu down, leaned forward. "Do you really know that, or are you just making it up?"

  "I like wine. I make it a point to know what I like. "

  She sat back when he motioned the waiter over. Once they'd ordered, she angled her head. "What are we doing here, Logan?"

  "Speaking for myself, I'm going to have a really fine catfish dinner and a glass of good wine. "

  "We've had some conversations, mostly business-oriented. "

  "We've had some conversations, and some arguments," he corrected.

  "True. We had an outing, an enjoyable one, which ended on a surprisingly personal note. "

  "I do like listening to you talk sometimes, Red. It's almost like listening to a foreign language. Are you laying all those things down like pavers, trying to make some sort of path from one point to the next?"

  "Maybe. The fact is, I'm sitting here with you, on a date. That wasn't my intention twenty-four hours ago. We've got a working relationship. "

  "Uh-huh. And speaking of that, I still find your system mostly annoying. "

  "Big surprise. And speaking of that, you neglected to put that invoice on my desk this afternoon. "

  "Did I?" He moved a shoulder. "I've got it somewhere. "

  "My point is - "

  She broke off when the waiter brought the wine to the table, turned the label toward Logan.

  "That's the one. Let the lady taste it. "

  She bided her time, then picked up the glass holding the testing sip. She sampled, lifted her eyebrows. "It's very good . . . has a nice finish. "

  Logan grinned. "Then let's get started on it. "

  "The point I was trying to make," she began again, "is that while it's smart and beneficial all around for you and me to develop a friendly relationship, it's probably not either for us to take it to any other level. "

  "Uh-huh. " He sampled the wine himself, kept watching her with those big-cat eyes. "You think I'm not going to kiss you again because it might not be smart or beneficial?"

  "I'm in a new place, with a new job. I've taken my kids to a new place. They're first with me. "

  "I expect they would be. But I don't expect this is your first dinner with a man since you lost your husband. "

  "I'm careful. "

  "I never would've guessed. How'd he die?"

  "Plane crash. Commuter plane. He was on his way back from a business trip. I had the TV on, and there was a bulletin. They didn't give any names, but I knew it was Kevin's plane. I knew he was gone before they came to tell me. "

  "You know what you were wearing when you heard the bulletin, what you were doing, where you were standing. " His voice was quiet, his eyes were direct. "You know every detail about that day. "

  "Why do you say that?"

  "Because it was the worst day of your life. You'll be hazy on the day before, the day after, but you'll never forget a single detail of that day. "

  "You're right. " And his intuition surprised her, touched her. "Have you lost someone?"

  "No, not like what you mean, or how you mean. But a woman like you? She doesn't get married, stay married, unless the man's at the center of her life. Something yanks that center out of you, you never forget. "

  "No, I won't. " It was carved into her heart. "That's the most insightful and accurate, and comforting expression of sympathy anyone's given me. I hope I don't insult you by saying it comes as a surprise. "

  "I don't insult that easy. You lost their father, but you've built a life - looks like a good one - for your kids. That takes work. You're not the first woman I've been interested in who's had children. I respect motherhood, and its priorities. Doesn't stop me from looking across this table and wondering when I'm going to get you naked. "

  She opened her mouth, closed it again. Cleared her throat, sipped wine. "Well. Blunt. "

  "Different sort of woman, I'd just go for the mattress. " At her strangled half laugh, he lifted his wine. And waited while their first course was served. "But as it is, you're a. . . since we're having this nice meal together I'll say you're a cautious sort of woman. "

  "You wanted to say tight-ass. "

  He grinned, appreciating her. "You'll never know. Added to that, we both work for Roz, and I wouldn't do anything to mess her up. Not intentionally. You've got two kids to worry about. And I don't know how tender you might be yet over losing your husband. So instead of my hauling you off to bed, we're having dinner conversation. "

  She took a minute to think it through. At the root, she couldn't find anything wrong with his logic. In fact, she agreed with it. "All right. First Roz. I won't do anything to mess her up either. So whatever happens here, we agree to maintain a courteous working relationship. "

  "Might not always be courteous, but it'll be about the work. "

  "Fair enough. My boys are my priority, first and last. Not only because they have to be," she added, "but because I want them to be. Nothing will change that. "

  "Anything did, I wouldn't have much respect for you. "

  "Well. " She waited just a moment because his response had not only been blunt again, but was one she appreciated a great deal. "As for Kevin, I loved him very much. Losing him cut me in two, the part that just wanted to lie down and die, and the part that had to go through the grief and the anger and the motions - and live. "

  "Takes courage to live. "

  Her eyes stung, and she took one very careful breath. "Thank you. I had to put myself back together. For the kids, for myself. I'll never feel for another man exactly what I felt for him. I don't think I should. But that doesn't mean I can't be interested in and attracted to someone else. It doesn't mean I'm fated to live my life alone. "

  He sat for a moment. "How can such a sensible woman have an emotional attachment to forms and invoices?"

  "How can such a talented man be so disorganized?" More relaxed than she'd imagined, she enjoyed her salad. "I drove by the Dawson job again. "

  "Oh, yeah?"

  "I realize you still have a few finishing touches that have to wait until all danger of frost is over, but I wanted to tell you it's good work. No, that's wrong. It's not. It's exceptional work. "

  "Thanks. You take more pictures?"

  "I did. We'll be using some of them - before and after - in the landscaping section of the Web site I'm designing. "

  "No shit. "

  "None whatsoever. I'm going to make Roz more money, Logan. She makes more, you make more. The site's going to generate more business for the landscaping arm. I guarantee it. "

  "It's hard to find a downside on that one. "

  "You know what I envy you most?"

  "My sparkling personality. "

/>   "No, you don't sparkle in the least. Your muscle. "

  "You envy my muscle? I don't think it'd look so good on you, Red. "

  "Whenever I'd start a project at home - back home - I couldn't do it all myself. I have vision - not as creative as yours, maybe, but I can see what I want, and I've got considerable skill. But when it comes to the heavy, manual labor of it, I'm out. It's frustrating because with some of it, I'd really like to do it all myself. And I can't. So I envy you the muscle that means you can. "

  "I imagine whether you're doing it or directing it, it's done the way you want. "

  She smiled into her wine. "Goes without saying. I've heard you've got a place not far from Roz's. "

  "About two miles out. " When their main courses were served, Logan cut a chunk off his catfish, laid it on her plate.

  Stella stared at it. "Well. Hmmm. "

  "I bet you tell your kids they don't know if they like something or not until they've tried it. "

  "One of the advantages of being a grown-up is being able to say things like that without applying them to yourself. But okay. " She forked off a tiny bite, geared herself up for the worst, and ate it. "Interestingly," she said after a moment, "it tastes nothing like cat. Or like what one assumes cat might taste like. It's actually good. "

  "You might just get back some of your southern. We'll have you eating grits next. "

  "I don't think so. Those I have tried. Anyway, are you doing the work yourself? On your house. "

  "Most of it. Land's got some nice gentle rises, good drainage. Some fine old trees on the north side. A couple of pretty sycamores and some hickory, with some wild azalea and mountain laurel scattered around. Some open southern exposure. Plenty of frontage, and a small creek running on the back edge. "

  "What about the house?"

  "What?"

  "The house. What kind of house is it?"

  "Oh. Two-story frame. It's probably too much space for me, but it came with the land. "

  "It sounds like the sort of thing I'll be looking for in a few months. Maybe if you hear of anything on the market you could let me know. "

  "Sure, I can do that. Kids doing all right at Roz's?"

  "They're doing great. But at some point we'll need to have our own place. It's important they have their own. I don't want anything elaborate - couldn't afford it, anyway. And I don't mind fixing something up. I'm fairly handy. And I'd really prefer it wasn't haunted. "

  She stopped herself when he sent her a questioning look. Then shook her head. "Must be the wine because I didn't know that was in my head. "

  "Why is it?"

  "I saw - thought I saw," she corrected, "this ghost reputed to haunt the Harper house. In the mirror, in my bedroom, just before you picked me up. It wasn't Hayley. She came in an instant later, and I tried to convince myself it had been her. But it wasn't. And at the same time, it could hardly have been anyone else because . . . it's just not possible. "

  "Sounds like you're still trying to convince yourself. "

  "Sensible woman, remember. " She tapped a finger on the side of her head. "Sensible women don't see ghosts, or hear them singing lullabies. Or feel them. "

  "Feel them how?"

  "A chill, a. . . feeling'' She gave a quick shudder and tried to offset it with a quick laugh. "I can't explain it because it's not rational. And tonight, that feeling was very intense. Brief, but intense. And hostile. No, that's not right. 'Hostile' is too strong a word. Disapproving. "

  "Why don't you talk to Roz about it? She could give you the history, as far as she knows it. "

  "Maybe. You said you've never seen it?"

  "Nope. "

  "Or felt it?"

  "Can't say I have. But sometimes when I've been working a job, walking some land, digging into it, I've felt something. You plant something, even if it dies off, it leaves something in the soil. Why shouldn't a person leave something behind?"

  It was something to think about, later, when her mind wasn't so distracted. Right now she had to think about the fact that she was enjoying his company. And there was the basic animal attraction to consider. If she continued to enjoy his company, and the attraction didn't fade off, they were going to end up in bed.

  Then there were all the ramifications and complications that would entail. In addition, their universe was finite. They worked for the same person in the same business. It wasn't the sort of atmosphere where two people could have an adult affair without everyone around them knowing they were having it.

  So she'd have to think about that, and just how uncomfortable it might be to have her private life as public knowledge.

  After dinner, they walked over to Beale Street to join the nightly carnival. Tourists, Memphians out on the town, couples, and"clutches of young people wandered the street lit by neon signs. Music trickled out of doorways, and people flooded in and out of shops.

  "Used to be a club along here called the Monarch. Those shoes going to give you any trouble with this?"

  "No. "

  "Good. Great legs, by the way. "

  "Thanks. I've had them for years. "

  "So, the Monarch," he continued. "Happened it shared a back alley with an undertaker. Made it easy for the owners to dispose of gunshot victims. "

  "That's a pretty piece of Beale Street trivia. "

  "Oh, there's plenty more. Blues, rock - it's the home of both - voodoo, gambling, sex, scandal, bootleg whiskey, pickpockets, and murder. "

  Music pumped out of a club as he talked, and struck Stella as southern-fried in the best possible way.

  "It's all been right here," he continued. "But you oughta just enjoy the carnival the way it is now. "

  They joined a crowd lining the sidewalk to watch three boys do running flips and gymnastics up and down the center of the street.

  "I can do that. " She nodded toward one of the boys as he walked on his hands back to their tip box.

  "Uh-huh. "

  "I can. I'm not going to demonstrate here and now, but I certainly can. Six years of gymnastic lessons. I can bend my body like a pretzel. Well, half a pretzel now, but at one time. . . "

  "You trying to get me hot?"

  She laughed. "No. "

  "Just a side effect, then. What does half a pretzel look like?"

  "Maybe I'll show you sometime when I'm more appropriately dressed. "

  "You are trying to make me hot. "

  She laughed again and watched the performers. After Logan dropped money in the tip box, they strolled along the sidewalk. "Who's Betty Paige and why is her face on these shirts?"

  He stopped dead. "You've got to be kidding. "

  "I'm not. "

  "I guess you didn't just live up north, you lived up north in a cave. Betty Paige, legendary fifties pinup and general sex goddess. "

  "How do you know? You weren't even born in the fifties. "

  "I make it a point to learn my cultural history, especially when it involves gorgeous women who strip. Look at that face. The girl next door with the body of Venus. "

  "She probably couldn't walk on her hands," Stella said, and casually strolled away when he laughed.

  They walked off the wine, and the meal, meandering down one side of the street and back up the other. He tempted her with a blues club, but after a brief, internal debate she shook her head.

  "I really can't. It's already later than I'd planned. I've got a full day tomorrow, and I've imposed on Roz long enough tonight. "

  "We'll rain-check it. "

  "And a blues club will go on my list. Got more checks tonight. Beale Street and catfish. I'm practically a native now. "

  "Next thing you know you'll be frying up the cat and putting peanuts in your Coke. "

  "Why in the world would I put peanuts in my Coke? Never mind. " She waved him away as he drove out of town. "It's a southern thing. How about if I just say I had a good time tonight?"

  "That'll work. "

&
nbsp; It hadn't been complicated, she realized, or boring, or stressful. At least not after the first few minutes. She'd forgotten, or nearly, what it could be like to be both stimulated and relaxed around a man.

  Or to wonfler, and there was no point pretending she wasn't wondering, what it would be like to have those hands - those big, work-hardened hands - on her.

  Roz had left lights on for her. Front porch, foyer, her own bedroom. She saw the gleam of them as they drove up, and found it a motherly thing to do. Or big sisterly, Stella supposed, as Roz wasn't nearly old enough to be her mother.

  Her mother had been too busy with her own life and interests to think about little details like front porch lights. Maybe, Stella thought, that was one of the reasons she herself was so compulsive about them.

  "Such a beautiful house," Stella said. "The way it sort of glimmers at night. It's no wonder she loves it. "

  "No place else quite like it. Spring comes in, the gardens just blow you away. "

  "She ought to hold a house and garden tour. "

  "She used to, once a year. Hasn't done it since she peeled off that asshole Clerk. I wouldn't bring it up," he said before Stella spoke. "If she wants to do that kind of thing again, she will. "

  Knowing his style now, Stella waited for him to come around and open her door. "I'm looking forward to seeing the gardens in their full glory. And I'm grateful for the chance to live here a while and have the kids exposed to this kind of tradition. "

  "There's another tradition. Kiss the girl good night. "

  He moved a little slower this time, gave her a chance to anticipate. Those sexy nerves were just beginning to dance over her skin when his mouth met hers.

  Then they raced in a shivering path to belly, to throat as his tongue skimmed over her lips to part them. His hands moved through her hair, over her shoulders, and down her body to her hips to take a good, strong hold.

  Muscles, she thought dimly. Oh, God. He certainly had them. It was like being pressed against warm, smooth steel. Then he moved in so she swayed back and was trapped between the wall of him and the door. Imprisoned there, her blood sizzling as he devastated her mouth, she felt fragile and giddy, and alive with need.

  "Wait a minute," she managed. "Wait. "

  "Just want to finish this out first. "

  He wanted a great deal more than that, but already knew -he'd have to hold himself at a kiss. So he didn't intend to rush through it. Her mouth was sumptuous, and that slight tremor in her body brutally erotic. He imagined himself gulping her down whole, with violence, with greed. Or savoring her nibble by torturous nibble until he was half mad from the flavor.

  When he eased back, the drugged, dreamy look in her eyes told him he could do either. Some other time, some other place.

  "Any point in pretending we're going to stop things here?"

  "I can't - "

  "I don't mean tonight," he said when she glanced back at the door.

  "Then, no, there'd be no point in that. "

  "Good. "

  "But I can't just jump into something like this. I need to - "

  "Plan," he finished. "Organize. "

  "I'm not good at spontaneity, and spontaneity - this sort - is nearly impossible when you have two children. "

  "Then plan. Organize. And let me know. I'm good at spontaneity. " He kissed her again until she felt her knees dissolve from the knee down.

  "You've got my numbers. Give me a call. " He stepped back. "Go on inside, Stella. Traditionally, you don't just kiss the girl good night, you wait until she's inside before you walk off wondering when you'll have the chance to do it again. "

  "Good night then. " She went inside, drifted up the stairs, and forgot to turn off the lights.

  She was still floating as she started down the hall so the singing didn't register until she was two paces away from her sons' bedroom.

  She closed the distance in one leap. And she saw, she saw the silhouette, the glint of blond hair in the nightlight, the gleam of eyes that stared into hers.

  The cold hit her like a slap, angry and sharp. Then, it, and she, were gone.

  On unsteady legs, she rushed between the beds, stroked Gavin's hair, Luke's. Laid her hands on their cheeks, then their backs as she'd done when they were infants. A nervous mother's way to assure herself that her child breathed.

  Parker rolled lazily over, gave a little greeting growl, a single thump of his tail, then went back to sleep.

  He senses me, smells me, knows me. Is it the same with her? Why doesn't he bark at her?

  Or am I just losing my mind?

  She readied for bed, then took a blanket and pillow into their room. She laid down between her sons and passed the rest of the night between them, guarding them against the impossible.

 
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