Blue dahlia, p.17

Blue Dahlia, page 17

 part  #1 of  In the Garden Series

 

Blue Dahlia


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Chapter Sixteen

  Logan had been in love twice in his life. He'd been in lust a number of times. He'd experienced extreme interest or heavy like, but love had only knocked him down and out twice. The first had been in his late teens, when both he and the girl of his dreams had been too young to handle it.

  They'd burned each other and their love out with passion, jealousies, and a kind of crazed energy. He could look back at that time now and think of Lisa Anne Lauer with a sweet nostalgia and affection.

  Then there was Rae. He'd been a little older, a little smarter. They'd taken their time, two years of time before heading into marriage. They'd both wanted it, though some who knew him were surprised, not only by the engagement but by his agreement to move north with her.

  It hadn't surprised Logan. He'd loved her, and north was where she'd wanted to be. Needed to be, he corrected, and he'd figufed, naively as it turned out, that he could plant himself anywhere.

  He'd left the wedding plans up to her and her mother, with some input from his own. He wasn't crazy. But he'd enjoyed the big, splashy, crowded wedding with all its pomp.

  He'd had a good job up north. At least in theory. But he'd been restless and dissatisfied in the beehive of it, and out of place in the urban buzz.

  The small-town boy, he thought as he and his crew finished setting the treated boards on the roof of a twelve-foot pergola. He was just too small-town, too small-time, to fit into the urban landscape.

  He hadn't thrived there, and neither had his marriage. Little things at first, picky things - things he knew in retrospect they should have dealt with, compromised on, overcome. Instead, they'd both let those little things fester and grow until they'd pushed the two of them, not just apart, he thought, but in opposite directions.

  She'd been in her element, and he hadn't. At the core he'd been unhappy, and she'd been unhappy he wasn't acclimating. Like any disease, unhappiness spread straight down to the roots when it wasn't treated.

  Not all her fault. Not all his. In the end they'd been smart enough, or unhappy enough, to cut their losses.

  The failure of it had hurt, and the loss of that once-promising love had hurt. Stella was wrong about the lack of scars. There were just some scars you had to live with.

  The client wanted wisteria for the pergola. He instructed his crew where to plant, then took himself off to the small pool the client wanted outfitted with water plants.

  He was feeling broody, and when he was feeling broody, he liked to work alone as much as possible. He had the cattails in containers and, dragging on boots, he waded in to sink them. Left to themselves, the cats would spread and choke out everything, but held in containers they'd be a nice pastoral addition to the water feature. He dealt with a trio of water lilies the same way, then dug in the yellow flags. They liked their feet wet, and would dance with color on the edge of the pool.

  The work satisfied him, centered him as it always did. It let another part of his mind work out separate problems. Or at least chew on them for a while.

  Maybe he'd put a small pool in the walled garden he planned to build at home. No cattails, though. He might try some dwarf lotus, and some water canna as a background plant. It seemed to him it was more the sort of thing Stella would like.

  He'd been in love twice before, Logan thought again. And now he could sense those delicate taproots searching inside him for a place to grow. He could probably cut them off. Probably. He probably should.

  What was he going to do with a woman like Stella and those two ridiculously appealing kids? They were bound to drive each other crazy in the long term with their different approaches to damn near everything. He doubted they'd bum each other out, though, God, when he'd had her in bed, he'd felt singed. But they might wilt, as he and Rae had wilted. That was more painful, more miserable, he knew, than the quick flash.

  And this time there were a couple of young boys to consider.

  Wasn't that why the ghost had given him a good kick in the ass? It was hard to believe he was sweating in the steamy air under overcast skies and thinking about an encounter with a ghost. He'd thought he was open-minded about that sort of thing - until he'd come face-to-face, so to speak, with it.

  The fact was, Logan realized now, as he hauled mulch over for the skirt of the pool, he hadn't believed in the ghost business. It had all been window dressing or legendary stuff to him. Old houses were supposed to have ghosts because it made a good story, and the south loved a good story. He'd accepted it as part of the culture, and maybe, in some strange way, as something that might happen to someone else. Especially if that someone else was a little drunk, or very susceptible to atmosphere.

  He'd been neither. But he'd felt her breath, the ice of it, and her rage, the power of it. She'd wanted to cause him harm, she'd wanted him away. From those children, and their mother.

  So he was invested now in helping to find the identity of what walked those halls.

  But a part of him wondered if whoever she was was right. Would they all be better off if he stayed away?

  The phone on his belt beeped. Since he was nearly done, he answered instead of ignoring, dragging off his filthy work gloves and plucking the phone off his belt.

  "Kitridge. "

  "Logan, it's Stella. "

  The quick and helpless flutter around his heart irritated him. "Yeah. I've got the frigging forms in my truck. "

  "What forms?"

  "Whatever damn forms you're calling to nag me about. "

  "It happens I'm not calling to nag you about anything. " Her voice had gone crisp and businesslike, which only caused the flutter and the irritation to increase.

  "Well, I don't have time to chat, either. I'm on the clock. "

  "Seeing as you are, I'd like you to schedule in a consult. I have a customer who'd like an on-site consultation. She's here now, so if you could give me a sense of your plans for the day, I could let her know if and when you could meet with her. "

  "Where?"

  She rattled off an address that was twenty minutes away. He glanced around his current job site, calculated. 'Two o'clock. "

  "Fine. I'll tell her. The client's name is Marsha Fields. Do you need any more information?"

  "No. "

  "Fine. " He heard the firm click in his ear and found himself even more annoyed he hadn't thought to hang up first.

  * * *

  By the time Logan got home that evening, he was tired, sweaty, and in a better mood. Hard physical work usually did the job for him, and he'd had plenty of it that day. He'd worked in the steam, then through the start of a brief spring storm. He and his crew broke for lunch during the worst of it and sat in his overheated truck, rain lashing at the windows, while they ate cold po'boy sandwiches and drank sweet tea.

  The Fields job had strong possibilities. The woman ran that roost and had very specific ideas. Since he liked and agreed with most of them, he was eager to put some of them on paper, expand or refine them.

  And since it turned out that Marsha's cousin on her mother's side was Logan's second cousin on his father's, the consult had taken longer than it might have, and had progressed cheerfully.

  It didn't hurt that she was bound to send more work his way.

  He took the last curve of the road to his house in a pleasant frame of mind, which darkened considerably when he saw Stella's car parked behind his.

  He didn't want to see her now. He hadn't worked things out in his head, and she'd just muck up whatever progress he'd made. He wanted a shower and a beer, a little quiet. Then he wanted to eat his dinner with ESPN in the background and his work spread out on the kitchen table.

  There just wasn't room in that scenario for a woman.

  He parked, fully intending to shake her off. She wasn't in the car, or on the porch. He was trying to determine if going to bed with him gave a woman like her the notion that she could waltz into his house when he wasn't there. Even as he'd decided it wouldn't, no
t for Stella, he heard the watery hiss of his own garden hose.

  Shoving his hands in his pockets, he wandered around the side of the house.

  She was on the patio, wearing snug gray pants - the sort that stopped several inches above the ankle - and a loose blue shirt. Her hair was drawn back in a bright, curling tail, which for reasons he couldn't explain he found desperately sexy. As the sun had burned its way through the clouds, she'd shaded her eyes with gray-tinted glasses.

  She looked neat and tidy, careful to keep her gray canvas shoes out of the wet.

  "It rained today," he called out.

  She kept on soaking his pots. "Not enough. "

  She finished the job, released the sprayer on the hose, but continued to hold it as she turned to face him. "I realize you have your own style, and your own moods, and that's your business. But I won't be spoken to the way you spoke to me today. I won't be treated like some silly female who calls her boyfriend in the middle of the workday to coo at him, or like some anal business associate who interrupts you to harangue you about details. I'm neither. "

  "Not my girlfriend or not my business associate?"

  He could see, quite clearly, the way her jaw tightened when she clenched her teeth. "If and when I contact you during the workday, it will be for a reason. As it most certainly was this morning. "

  She was right, but he didn't have to say so. "We got the Fields job. "

  "Hooray. "

  He bit the inside of his cheek to hold back the grin at her sour cheer. "I'll be working up a design for her, with a bid. You'll get a copy of both. That suit you?"

  "It does. What doesn't - "

  "Where are the kids?"

  It threw her off stride. "My father and his wife picked them up from school today. They're having dinner there, and spending the night, as I have a birthing class with Hayley later. "

  "What time?"

  "What time what?"

  "Is the class?"

  "At eight-thirty. I'm not here for small talk, Logan, or to be placated. I feel very strongly that - " Her eyes widened, then narrowed as she stepped back. He'd stepped forward, and there was no mistaking the tone of that slow smile.

  "Don't even think about it. I couldn't be less interested in kissing you at the moment. "

  "Then I'll kiss you, and maybe you'll get interested. "

  "I mean it. " She aimed the hose like a weapon. "Just keep your distance. I want to make myself perfectly clear. "

  "I'm getting the message. Go ahead and shoot," he invited. "I sweated out a gallon today, I won't mind a shower. "

  "Just stop it. " She danced back several steps as he advanced. "This isn't a game, this isn't funny. "

  "I just get stirred right up when your voice takes on that tone. "

  "I don't have a tone. "

  "Yankee schoolteacher. I'm going to be sorry if you ever lose it. " He made a grab, and instinctively she tightened her fist on the nozzle. And nailed him.

  The spray hit him mid-chest and had a giggle bubbling out of her before she could stop it. "I'm not going to play with you now. I'm serious, Logan. "

  Dripping, he made another grab, feinted left. This time she squealed, dropped the hose, and ran.

  He snagged her around the waist, hauled her off her feet at the back end of the patio. Caught somewhere between shock and disbelief, she kicked, wiggled, then lost her breath as she landed on the grass on top of him.

  "Let me go, you moron. "

  "Don't see why I should. " God, it felt good to be horizontal. Better yet to have her horizontal with him. "Here you are, trespassing, watering my pots, spouting off lectures. " He rolled, pinning her. "I ought to be able to do what I want on my own land. "

  "Stop it. I haven't finished fighting with you. "

  "I bet you can pick it up where you left off. " He gave her a playful nip on the chin, then another.

  "You're wet, you're sweaty, I'm getting grass stains on my - "

  The rest of the words were muffled against his mouth, and she would have sworn the water on both of them went to steam.

  "I can't - we can't - " But the reasons why were going dim. "In the backyard. "

  "Wanna bet?"

  He couldn't help wanting her, so why was he fighting it? He wanted the solid, sensible core of her, and the sweet edges. He wanted the woman obsessed with forms who would wrestle on the floor with her children. He wanted the woman who watered his pots even while she skinned him with words.

  And the one who vibrated beneath him on the grass when he touched her.

  He touched her, his hands possessive as they molded her breasts, as they roamed down her to cup her hips. He tasted her, his lips hungry on her throat, her shoulder, her breast.

  She melted under him, and even as she went fluid seemed to come alive with heat, with movement.

  It was insane. It was rash and it was foolish, but she couldn't stop herself. They rolled over the grass, like two frenzied puppies. He smelled of sweat, of labor and damp. And, God, of man. Pungent and gorgeous and sexy.

  She clamped her hands in that mass of waving hair, already showing streaks from the sun, and dragged his mouth back to hers.

  She nipped his lip, his tongue.

  "Your belt. " She had to fight to draw air. "It's digging - "

  "Sorry. "

  He levered up to unbuckle it, then just stopped to look at her.

  Her hair had come out of its band; her eyes were sultry, her skin flushed. And he felt those roots take hold.

  "Stella. "

  He didn't know what he might have said, the words were jumbled in his brain and tangled with so much feeling he couldn't translate them.

  But she smiled, slow and sultry as her eyes. "Why don't I help you with that?"

  She flipped open the button of his jeans, yanked down the zipper. Her hand closed over him, a velvet vise. His body was hard as steel, and his mind and heart powerless.

  She arched up to him, her lips skimmed over his bare chest, teeth scoring a hot little line that was a whisper away from pain.

  Then she was over him, destroying him. Surrounding him.

  She heard birdsong and breeze, smelled grass and damp flesh. And heliotrope that wafted on the air from the pot she'd watered. She felt his muscles, taut ropes, the broad plane of his shoulders, the surprisingly soft waves of his hair.

  And she saw, as she looked down, that he was lost in her.

  Throwing her head back, she rode, until she was lost as well.

  * * *

  She lay sprawled over him, damp and naked and muzzy-headed. Part of her brain registered that his arms were clamped around her as if they were two survivors of a shipwreck.

  She turned her head to rest it on his chest. Maybe they'd wrecked each other. She'd just made wild love with a man in broad daylight, outside in the yard.

  "This is insane," she murmured, but couldn't quite convince herself to move. "What if someone had come by?"

  "People come by without an invitation have to take potluck. "

  There was a lazy drawl to his voice in direct opposition to his grip on her. She lifted her head to study. His eyes were closed. "So this is potluck?"

  The corners of his mouth turned up a little. "Seems to me this pot was plenty lucky. "

  "I feel sixteen. Hell, I never did anything like this when I was sixteen. I need my sanity. I need my clothes. "

  "Hold on. " He nudged her aside, then rose.

  Obviously, she thought, it doesn't bother him to walk around outside naked as a deer. "I came here to talk to you, Logan. Seriously. "

  "You came here to kick my ass," he corrected. "Seriously. You were doing a pretty good job of it. "

  "I hadn't finished. " She turned slightly, reached out for her hairband. "But I will, as soon as I'm dressed and - "

  She screamed, the way a woman screams when she's being murdered with a kitchen knife.

  Then she g
urgled, as the water he'd drenched her with from the hose ran into her astonished mouth.

  "Figured we could both use some cooling off. "

  It simply wasn't in her, even under the circumstances, to run bare-assed over the grass. Instead, she curled herself up, knees to breast, arms around knees, and cursed him with vehemence and creativity.

  He laughed until he thought his ribs would crack. "Where'd a nice girl like you learn words like that? How am I supposed to kiss that kind of mouth?"

  She seared him with a look even when he held the hose over his own head and took an impromptu shower. "Feels pretty good. Want a beer?"

  "No, I don't want a beer. I certainly don't want a damn beer. I want a damn towel. You insane idiot, now my clothes are wet. "

  "We'll toss 'em into the dryer. " He dropped the hose, scooped them up. "Come on inside, I'll get you a towel. "

  Since he sauntered across the patio to the door, still unconcerned and naked, she had no choice but to follow.

  "Do you have a robe?" she asked in cold and vicious tones.

  "What would I do with a robe? Hang on, Red. "

  He left her, dripping and beginning to shiver in his kitchen.

  He came back a few minutes later, wearing ratty gym pants and carrying two huge bath sheets.

  "These ought to do the trick. Dry off, I'll toss these in for you. "

  He carried her clothes through a door. Laundry room, she assumed as she wrapped one of the towels around her. She used the other to rub at her hair - which would be hopeless, absolutely hopeless now - while she heard the dryer click on.

  "Want some wine instead?" he asked as he stepped back in. "Coffee or something. "

  "Now you listen to me - "

  "Red, I swear I've had to listen to you more than any woman I can remember in the whole of my life. It beats the living hell out of me why I seem to be falling in love with you. "

  "I don't like being . . . Excuse me?"

  "It was the hair that started it. " He opened the refrigerator, took out a beer. "But that's just attraction. Then the voice. " He popped the top and took a long drink from the bottle. "But that's just orneriness on my part. It's a whole bunch of little things, a lot of big ones tossed in. I don't know just what it is, but every time I'm around you I get closer to the edge. "

  "I - you - you think you're falling in love with me, and your way of showing it is to toss me on the ground and carry on like some sex addict, and when you're done to drench me with a hose?"

  He took another sip, slower, more contemplative, rubbed a hand over his bare chest. "Seemed like the thing to do at the time. "

  "Well, that's very charming. "

  "Wasn't thinking about charm. I didn't say I wanted to be in love with you. In fact, thinking about it put me in a lousy mood most of the day. "

  Her eyes narrowed until the blue of them was a hot, intense light. "Oh, really?"

  "Feel better now, though. "

  "Oh, that's fine. That's lovely. Get me my clothes. "

  "They're not dry yet. "

  "I don't care. "

  "People from up north are always in a hurry. " He leaned back comfortably on the counter. "There's this other thing I thought today. "

  "I don't care about that either. "

  "The other thing was how I've only been in love - the genuine deal - twice before. And both times it. . . let's not mince words. Both times it went to shit. Could be this'll head the same way. "

  "Could be we're already there. "

  "No. " His lips curved. "You're pissed and you're scared. I'm not what you were after. "

  "I wasn't after anything. "

  "Me either. " He set the beer down, then killed her temper by stepping to her, framing her face with his hands. "Maybe I can stop what's going on in me. Maybe I should try. But I look at you, I touch you, and the edge doesn't just get closer, it gets more appealing. "

  He touched his lips to her forehead, then released her and stepped back.

  "Every time I figure some part of you out, you sprout something off in another direction," she said.

  "I've only been in love once - the genuine deal - and it was everything I wanted. I haven't figured out what I want now, beyond what I have. I don't know, Logan, if I've got the courage to step up to that edge again. "

  "Things keep going the way they are for me, if you don't step up, you might get pushed. "

  "I don't push easily. Logan. " It was she who stepped to him now, and she took his hand. "I'm so touched that you'd tell me, so churned up inside that you might feel that way about me. I need time to figure out what's going on inside me, too. "

  "It'd help," he decided after a moment, "if you could work on keeping the pace. "

  * * *

  Her clothes were dry but impossibly wrinkled, her hair had frizzed and was now, in Stella's opinion, approximately twice its normal volume.

  She dashed out of the car, mortified to see both Hayley and Roz sitting on the glider drinking something out of tall glasses.

  "Just have to change," she called out. "I won't be long. "

  "There's plenty of time," Hayley called back, and pursed her lips as Stella raced into the house. "You know," she began, "what it means when a woman shows up with her clothes all wrinkled to hell and grass stains on the ass of her pants?"

  "I assume she went by Logan's. "

  "Outdoor nookie. "

  Roz choked on a sip of tea, wheezed in a laugh. "Hayley. Jesus. "

  "You ever do it outdoors?"

  Roz only sighed now. "In the dim, dark past. "

  * * *

  Stella was sharp enough to know they were talking about her. As a result, the flush covered not only her face but most of her body as she ran into the bedroom. She stripped off her clothes, threw them into a hamper.

  "No reason to be embarrassed," she muttered to herself as she threw open her armoire. "Absolutely none. " She dug out fresh underwear and felt more normal after she put it on.

  And reaching for her blouse, felt the chill.

  She braced, half expecting a vase or lamp to fly across the room at her this time.

  But she gathered her courage and turned, and she saw the Harper Bride. Clearly, for the first time, clearly, though the dusky light slipped through her as if she were smoke. Still, Stella saw her face, her form, the bright ringlets, the shattered eyes.

  The Bride stood at the doorway that connected to the bath, then the boys' room.

  But it wasn't anger Stella saw on her face. It wasn't disapproval she felt quivering on the air. It was utter and terrible grief.

  Her own fear turned to pity. "I wish I could help you. I want to help. " With her blouse pressed against her breasts, Stella took a tentative step forward. "I wish I knew who you were, what happened to you. Why you're so sad. "

  The woman turned her head, looked back with swimming eyes to the room beyond.

  "They're not gone," Stella heard herself say. "I'd never let them go. They're my life. They're with my father and his wife - their grandparents. A treat for them, that's all. A night where they can be pampered and spoiled and eat too much ice cream. They'll be back tomorrow. "

  She took a cautious second step, even as her throat burned dry. "They love being with my father and Jolene. But it's so quiet when they're not around, isn't it?"

  Good God, she was talking to a ghost. Trying to draw a ghost into conversation. How had her life become so utterly strange?

  "Can't you tell me something, anything that would help? We're all trying to find out, and maybe when we do . . . Can't you tell me your name?"

  Though Stella's hand trembled, she lifted it, reached out. Those shattered eyes met hers, and Stella's hand passed through. There was cold, and a kind of snapping shock. Then there was nothing at all.

  "You can speak," Stella said to the empty room. "If you can sing, you can speak. Why won't you?"

  Shaken, she dressed, fought her hair i
nto a clip. Her heart was still thudding as she did her makeup, half expecting to see that other heartbroken face in the mirror.

  Then she slipped on her shoes and went downstairs. She would leave death behind, she thought, and go prepare for new life.

 
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