Blue dahlia, p.18

Blue Dahlia, page 18

 part  #1 of  In the Garden Series

 

Blue Dahlia


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Chapter Seventeen

  The pace might have been slow, but the hours were the killer. As spring turned lushly green and temperatures rose toward what Stella thought of as high summer, garden-happy customers flocked to the nursery, as much, she thought, to browse for an hour or so and chat with the staff and other customers as for the stock.

  Still, every day flats of bedding plants, pots of perennials, forests of shrubs and ornamental trees strolled out the door.

  She watched the field stock bagged and burlapped, and scurried to plug holes on tables by adding greenhouse stock. As mixed planters, hanging baskets, and the concrete troughs were snapped up, she created more.

  She made countless calls to suppliers for more: more fertilizers, more grass seed, more root starter, more everything.

  With her clipboard and careful eye she checked inventory, adjusted, and begged Roz to release some of the younger stock.

  "It's not ready. Next year. "

  "At this rate, we're going to run out of columbine, astilbes, hostas - " She waved the board. "Roz, we've sold out a good thirty percent of our perennial stock already. We'll be lucky to get through May with our current inventory. "

  "And things will slow down. " Roz babied cuttings from a stock dianthus. "If I start putting plants out before they're ready, the customer's not going to be happy. "

  "But - "

  "These dianthus won't bloom till next year. Customers want bloom, Stella, you know that. They want to plug it in while it's flowering or about to. They don't want to wait until next year for the gratification. "

  "I do know. Still. . . "

  "You're caught up. " With her gloved hand, Roz scratched an itch under her nose. "So's everyone else. Lord, Ruby's beaming like she's been made a grandmother again, and Steve wants to high-five me every time I see him. "

  "They love this place. "

  "So do I. The fact is, this is the best year we've ever had. Weather's part of it. We've had a pretty spring. But we've also got ourselves an efficient and enthusiastic manager to help things along. But end of the day, quality's still the byword here. Quantity's second. "

  "You're right. Of course you're right. I just can't stand the thought of running out of something and having to send a customer somewhere else. "

  "Probably won't come to that, especially if we're smart enough to lead them toward a nice substitution. "

  Stella sighed. "Right again. "

  "And if we do need to recommend another nursery . . . "

  "The customers will be pleased and impressed with our efforts to satisfy them. And this is why you're the owner of a place like this, and I'm the manager. "

  "It also comes down to being born and bred right here. In a few more weeks, the spring buying and planting season will be over. Anyone who comes in after mid-May's going to be looking mostly for supplies, or sidelines, maybe a basket or planter already made up, or a few plants to replace something that's died or bloomed off. And once that June heat hits, you're going to want to be putting what we've got left of spring and summer bloomers on sale before you start pushing the fall stock. "

  "And in Michigan, you'd be taking a big risk to put anything in before mid-May. "

  Roz moved to the next tray of cuttings. "You miss it?"

  "I want to say yes, because it seems disloyal otherwise. But no, not really. I didn't leave anything back there except memories. "

  It was the memories that worried her. She'd had a good life, with a man she'd loved. When she'd lost him that life had shattered - under the surface. It had left her shaky and unstable inside. She'd kept that life together, for her children, but in her heart had been more than grief. There'd been fear.

  She'd fought the fear, and embraced the memories.

  But she hadn't just lost her husband. Her sons had lost their father. Gavin's memory of him was dimmer - dimmer every year - but sweet. Luke was too young to remember his father clearly. It seemed so unfair. If she moved forward in her relationship with Logan while her boys were still so young . . .

  It was a little like no longer missing home, she supposed. It seemed disloyal.

  As she walked into the showroom, she spotted a number of customers with wagons, browsing the tables, and Hayley hunkering down to lift a large strawberry pot already planted.

  "Don't!"

  Her sharp command had heads turning, but she marched right through the curious and, slapping her hands on her hips, glared at Hayley. "Just what do you think you're doing?"

  "We sold the point-of-purchase planters. I thought this one here would be good out by the counter. "

  "I'm sure it would. Do you know how pregnant you are?"

  Hayley glanced down at her basketball belly. "Kind of hard to miss. "

  "You want to move a planter, then you ask somebody to move it for you. "

  "I'm strong as an ox. "

  "And eight months pregnant. "

  "You listen to her, honey. " One of the customers patted Hayley on the arm. "You don't want to take chances. Once that baby pops out, you'll never stop hauling things around. Now's the time to take advantage of your condition and let people spoil you a little bit. "

  "I've got to watch her like a hawk," Stella said. "That lobelia's wonderful, isn't it?"

  The woman looked down at her flatbed. "I just love that deep blue color. I was thinking I'd get some of that red salvia to go beside it, maybe back it up with cosmos?"

  "Sounds perfect. Charming and colorful, with a whole season of bloom. "

  "I've got some more room in the back of the bed, but I'm not sure what to put in. " She bit her lip as she scanned the tables loaded with options. "I wouldn't mind some suggestions, if you've got the time. "

  "That's what we're here for. We've got some terrific mixed hollyhocks, tall enough to go behind the cosmos. And if you want to back up the salvia, I think those marigolds there would be fabulous. And have you seen the perilla?"

  "I don't even know what it is," the woman said with a laugh.

  Stella showed her the deep-purple foliage plant, had Hayley gatherup several good marigolds. Between them, they filled another flatbed.

  "I'm glad you went with the alyssum, too. See the way the white pops the rest of your colors? Actually, the arrangement there gives you a pretty good idea what you'll have in your garden. " Stella nodded toward the flatbeds. "You can just see the way those plants will complement each other. "

  "I can't wait to get them in. My neighbors are going to be green with envy. "

  "Just send them to us. "

  "Wouldn't be the first time. I've been coming here since you opened. Used to live about a mile from here, moved down toward Memphis two years ago. It's fifteen miles or more now, but I always find something special here, so I keep coming back. "

  "That's so nice to hear. Is there anything else Hayley or I can help you with? Do you need any starter, mulch, fertilizer?"

  "Those I can handle on my own. But actually" - she smiled at Hayley - "since this cart's full, if you'd have one of those strong young boys cart that pot out to the counter - and on out to my car after - I'll take it. "

  "Let me arrange that for you. " Stella gave Hayley a last telling look. "And you, behave yourself. "

  "Y'all sisters?" the woman asked Hayley.

  "No. She's my boss. Why?"

  "Reminded me of my sister and me, I guess. I still scold my baby sister the way she did you, especially when I'm worried about her. "

  "Really?" Hayley looked off toward where Stella had gone. "I guess we sort of are, then. "

  * * *

  While she agreed that exercise was good for expectant mothers, Stella wasn't willing to have Hayley work all day and then walk close to half a mile home at this stage of her pregnancy. Hayley groused, but every evening Stella herded her to the car and drove her home. "I like walking. "

  "And after we get home and you have something to eat, you can take a nice walk around the gardens. But you're not wal
king all that way, and through the woods alone, on my watch, kid. "

  "Are you going to be pestering me like this for the next four weeks?"

  "I absolutely am. "

  "You know Mrs. Tyler? The lady who bought all those annuals we helped her with?"

  "Mmm-hmm. "

  "She said how she thought we were sisters because you give me grief like she does her baby sister. At the time, I thought that was nice. Now, it's irritating. "

  "That's a shame. "

  "I'm taking care of myself. "

  "Yes, and so am I. "

  Hayley sighed. "If it's not you giving me the hairy eye, it's Roz. Next thing, people'll start thinking she's my mama. "

  Stella glanced down to see Hayley slip her feet out of her shoes. "Feet hurt?"

  "They're all right. "

  "I've got this wonderful foot gel. Why don't you use it when we get home, and put your feet up for a few minutes?"

  "I can't hardly reach them anymore. I feel. . . "

  "Fat and clumsy and sluggish," Stella finished.

  "And stupid and bitchy. " She pushed back her damp bangs, thought about whacking them off. Thought about whacking all her hair off. "And hot and nasty. "

  When Stella reached over, bumped up the air-conditioning, Hayley's eyes began to sting with remorse and misery. "You're being so sweet to me - everyone is - and I don't even appreciate it. And Ijust feel like I've been pregnant my whole life and I'm going to stay pregnant forever. "

  "I can promise you won't. "

  "And I. . . Stella, when they showed that video at birthing class and we watched that woman go through it? I don't see how I can do that. I just don't think I can. "

  "I'll be there with you. You'll be just fine, Hayley. I'm not going to tell you it won't be hard, but it's going to be exciting, too. Thrilling. "

  She turned into the drive. And there were her boys, racing around the yard with the dog and Harper in what seemed to be a very informal game of Wiffle ball.

  "And so worth it," she told her. "The minute you hold your baby in your arms, you'll know. "

  "I just can't imagine being a mama. Before, I could, but now that it's getting closer, I just can't. "

  "Of course you can't. Nobody can really imagine a miracle. You're allowed to be nervous. You're supposed to be. "

  "Then I'm doing a good job. "

  When she parked, the boys ran over. "Mom, Mom! We're playing Wiffle Olympics, and I hit the ball a million times. "

  "A million?" She widened her eyes at Luke as she climbed out. "That must be a record. "

  "Come on and play, Mom. " Gavin grabbed her hand as Parker leaped up to paw at her legs. "Please!"

  "All right, but I don't think I can hit the ball a million times. "

  Harper skirted the car to get to Hayley's side. His hair curled damply from under his ball cap, and his shirt showed stains from grass and dirt. "Need some help?"

  She couldn't get her feet back in her shoes. They felt hot and swollen and no longer hers. Cranky tears flooded her throat. "I'm pregnant," she snapped, "not handicapped. "

  She left her shoes on the mat as she struggled out. Before she could stop herself, she slapped at Harper's offered hand. "Just leave me be, will you?"

  "Sorry. " He stuffed his hands in his pockets.

  "I can't breathe with everybody hovering around me night and day. " She marched toward the house, trying hard not to waddle.

  "She's just tired, Harper. " Whether it was hovering or not, Stella watched Hayley until she'd gotten inside. "Tired and out of sorts. It's just being pregnant. "

  "Maybe she shouldn't be working right now. "

  "If I suggested that, she'd explode. Working keeps her mind busy. We're all keeping an eye on her to make sure she doesn't overdo, which is part of the problem. She feels a little surrounded, I imagine. "

  "Mom!"

  She held up a hand to her impatient boys. "She'd have snapped at anybody who offered her a hand just then. It wasn't personal. "

  "Sure. Well, I've got to go clean up. " He turned back to the boys, who were already squabbling over the plastic bat. "Later. And next time I'm taking you both down. "

  * * *

  The afternoon was sultry, a sly hint of the summer that waited just around the corner. Even with the air-conditioning, Stella sweltered in her little office. As a surrender to the weather, she wore a tank top and thin cotton pants. She'd given up on her hair and had bundled it as best she could on top of her head.

  She'd just finished outlining the next week's work schedule and was about to update one of her spreadsheets when someone knocked on her door.

  "Come in. " Automatically, she reached for the thermos of iced coffee she'd begun to make every morning. And her heart gave a little jolt when Logan stepped in. "Hi. I thought you were on the Fields job today. "

  "Got rained out. "

  "Oh?" She swiveled around to her tiny window, saw the sheets of rain. "I didn't realize. "

  "All those numbers and columns can be pretty absorbing. "

  'To some of us. "

  "It's a good day to play hookey. Why don't you come out and play in the rain, Red?"

  "Can't. " She spread her arms to encompass her desk. "Work. "

  He sat on the corner of it. "Been a busy spring so far. I don't figure Roz would blink if you took a couple hours off on a rainy afternoon. "

  "Probably not. But I would. "

  "Figured that, too. " He picked up an oddly shaped and obviously child-made pencil holder, examined it. "Gavin or Luke?"

  "Gavin, age seven. "

  "You avoiding me, Stella?"

  "No. A little," she admitted. "But not entirely. We've been swamped, here and at home. Hayley's only got three weeks to go, and I like to stick close. "

  "Do you think you could manage a couple of hours away, say, Friday night? Take in a movie?"

  "Well, Friday nights I usually try to take the kids out. "

  "Good. The new Disney flick's playing. I can pick y'all up at six. We'll go for pizza first. "

  "Oh, I. . . " She sat back, frowned at him. "That was sneaky. "

  "Whatever works. "

  "Logan, have you ever been to the movies with a couple of kids on a Friday night?"

  "Nope. " He pushed off the desk and grinned. "Should be an experience. "

  He came around the desk and, cupping his hands under her elbows, lifted her straight out of the chair with a careless strength that had her mouth watering. "I've started to miss you. "

  He touched his mouth to hers, heating up the contact as he let her slide down his body until her feet hit the floor. Her arms lifted to link around his neck, banding there for a moment until her brain engaged again.

  "It looks like I've started to miss you, too," she said as she stepped back. "I've been thinking. "

  "I just bet you have. You keep on doing that. " He tugged at a loose lock of her hair. "See you Friday. "

  She sat down again when he walked out. "But I have trouble remembering what I'm thinking. "

  * * *

  He was right. It was an experience. One he handled, in Stella's opinion, better than she'd expected. He didn't appear to have a problem with boy-speak. In fact, during the pizza interlude she got the feeling she was odd man out. Normally she could hold her own in intense discussions of comic books and baseball, but this one headed to another level.

  At one point she wasn't entirely sure the X-Men's Wolverine hadn't signed on to play third base for the Atlanta Braves.

  "I can eat fifty pieces of pizza," Luke announced as the pie was divvied up. "And after, five gallons of popcorn. "

  "Then you'll puke!"

  She started to remind Gavin that puke wasn't proper meal conversation, but Logan just plopped a slice on his own plate. "Be smarter to puke after the pizza to make room for the popcorn. "

  The wisdom and hilarity of this sent the boys off into delighted gagging noises.
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  "Hey!" Luke's face went mutinous. "Gavin has more pepperoni on his piece. I have two and he has three!"

  As Gavin snorted and set his face into the look, Logan nodded. "You know, you're right. Doesn't seem fair. Let's just fix that. " He plucked a round of pepperoni off Gavin's piece and popped it into his own mouth. "Now you're even. "

  More hilarity ensued. The boys ate like stevedores, made an unholy mess, and were so overstimulated by the time they got to the theater, she expected them to start a riot.

  "You've got to remember to be quiet during the movie," she warned. "Other people are here to see it. "

  "I'll try," Logan said solemnly. "But sometimes I just can't help talking. "

  The boys giggled all the way to the concession counter.

  She knew some men who put on a show for a woman's children - to get to the woman. And, she thought as they settled into seats with tubs of popcorn, she knew some who sincerely tried to charm the kids because they were an interesting novelty.

  Still, he seemed to be easy with them, and you had to give a man in his thirties points for at least appearing to enjoy a movie with talking monkeys.

  Halfway through, as she'd expected, Luke began to squirm in his seat. Two cups of pop, she calculated, one small bladder. He wouldn't want to go, wouldn't want to miss anything. So there'd be a short, whispered argument.

  She leaned toward him, prepared for it. And Logan beat her to it. She didn't hear what he said in Luke's ear, but Luke giggled, and the two of them rose.

  "Be right back," he murmured to Stella and walked out with his hand over Luke's.

  Okay, that was it, she decided as her eyes misted. The man was taking her little boy to pee.

  She was a goner.

  * * *

  Two very happy boys piled into the back of Logan's car. As soon as they were strapped in, they were bouncing and chattering about their favorite parts of the movie.

  "Hey, guys. " Logan slipped behind the wheel, then draped his arm over the seat to look in the back.

  "You might want to brace yourselves, 'cause I'm gonna kiss your mama. "

  "How come?" Luke wanted to know.

  "Because, as you might have observed yourselves, she's pretty, and she tastes good. "

  He leaned over, amusement in his eyes. When Stella would have offered him a cheek, he turned her face with one hand and gave her a soft, quick kiss on the mouth.

  "You're not pretty. " Luke snorted through his nose. "How come she kissed you?"

  "Son, that's because I'm one fine-looking hunk of man. " He winked into the rearview mirror, noted that Gavin was watching him with quiet speculation, then started the engine.

  * * *

  Luke was nodding off when they got to the house, his head bobbing as he struggled to stay awake.

  "Let me cart him up. "

  "I can get him. " Stella leaned in to unbuckle his seat belt. "I'm used to it. And I don't know if you should go upstairs again. "

  "She'll have to get used to me. " He nudged Stella aside and hoisted Luke into his arms. "Come on, pizza king, let's go for a ride. "

  "I'm not tired. "

  "'Course not. "

  Yawning, he laid his head on Logan's shoulder. "You smell different from Mom. And you got harder skin. "

  "How about that?"

  Roz wandered into the foyer as they came in. "Well, it looks like everyone had a good time. Logan, why don't you come down for a drink once you settle those boys down. I'd like to talk to the both of you. "

  "Sure. We'll be right down. "

  "I can take them," Stella began, but he was already carrying Luke up the stairs.

  "I'll just get us some wine. 'Night, cutie," Roz said to Gavin, and smiled at Stella's back as she followed Logan.

  He was already untying Luke's Nikes. "Logan, I'll do that. You go on down with Roz. "

  He continued to remove the shoes, wondering if the nerves he heard in her voice had to do with the ghost or with him. But it was the boy standing beside her, unusually silent, who had his attention.

  "Go ahead and settle him in, then. Gavin and I want to have a little conversation. Don't we, kid?"

  Gavin jerked a shoulder. "Maybe. I guess. "

  "He needs to get ready for bed. "

  "Won't take long. Why don't you step into my office?" he said to Gavin, and when he gestured toward the bathroom, he saw the boy's lip twitch.

  "Logan," Stella began.

  "Man talk. Excuse us. " And he closed the door in her face.

  Figuring it would be easier on them both if they were more eye-to-eye, Logan sat on the edge of the tub. He wasn't sure, but he had to figure the boy was about as nervous as he was himself.

  "Did me kissing your mama bother you?"

  "I don't know. Maybe. I saw this other guy kiss her once, when I was little. She went out to dinner with him or something, and we had a babysitter, and I woke up and saw him do it. But I didn't like him so much because he smiled all the time. " He demonstrated, spreading his lips and showing his teeth.

  "I don't like him either. "

  "Do you kiss all the girls because they're pretty?" Gavin blurted out.

  "Well, now, I've kissed my share of girls. But your mama's special. "

  "How come?"

  The boy wanted straight answers, Logan decided. So he'd do his best to give them. "Because she makes my heart feel funny, in a good kind of way, I guess. Girls make us feel funny in lots of ways, but when they make your heart feel funny, they're special. "

  Gavin looked toward the closed door and back again. "My dad kissed her. I remember. "

  "It's good you do. " He had an urge, one that surprised him, to stroke a hand over Gavin's hair. But he didn't think it was the right time, for either of them.

  There was more than one ghost in this house, he knew.

  "I expect he loved her a lot, and she loved him. She told me how she did. "

  "He can't come back. I thought maybe he would, even though she said he couldn't. I thought when the lady started coming, he could come, too. But he hasn't. "

  Could there be anything harder for a child to face, he wondered, than losing a parent? Here he was, a grown man, and he couldn't imagine the grief of losing one of his.

  "Doesn't mean he isn't watching over you. I believe stuff like that. When people who love us have to go away, they still look out for us. Your dad's always going to look out for you. "

  "Then he'd see you kiss Mom, because he'd watch over her, too. "

  "I expect so. " Logan nodded. "I like to think he doesn't mind, because he'd know I want her to be happy. Maybe when we get to know each other some better, you won't mind too much either. "

  "Do you make Mom's heart feel funny?"

  "I sure hope so, because I'd hate to feel like this all by myself. I don't know if I'm saying this right. I never had to say it before, or think about it. But if we decide to be happy together, all of us, your dad's still your dad, Gavin. Always. I want you to understand I know that, and respect that. Man-to-man. "

  "Okay. " He smiled slowly when Logan offered a hand. When he shook it, the smile became a grin. "Anyway, I like you better than the other guy. "

  "Good to know. "

  Luke was tucked in and sleeping when they came back in. Logan merely lifted his eyebrows at Stella's questioning look, then stepped back as she readied Gavin for bed.

  Deliberately he took her hand as they stepped into the hall. "Ask him if you want to know," he said before she could speak. "It's his business. "

  "I just don't want him upset"

  "He seem upset to you when you tucked him in?"

  "No. " She sighed. "No. "

  At the top of the stairs, the cold blew through them. Protectively, Logan's arm came around her waist, pulling her firmly to his side. It passed by, with a little lash, like a flicked whip.

  Seconds later, they heard the soft singing.

&nbs
p; "She's angry with us," Stella whispered when he turned, prepared to stride back. "But not with them. She won't hurt them. Let's leave her be. I've got a baby monitor downstairs, so I can hear them if they need me. "

  "How do you sleep up here?"

  "Well, strangely enough. First it was because I didn't believe it. Now it's knowing that in some strange way, she loves them. The night they stayed at my parents' she came into my room and cried. It broke my heart. "

  "Ghost talk?" Roz asked. "That's just what I had in mind. " She offered them wine she'd already poured. Then pursed her lips when Stella switched on the monitor. "Strange to hear that again. It's been years since I have. "

  "I gotta admit," Logan said with his eyes on the monitor, "creeps me out some. More than some, to tell the truth. "

  "You get used to it. More or less. Where's Hayley?" she asked Roz.

  "She was feeling tired - and a little blue, a little cross, I think. She's settled in upstairs with a book and a big tall glass of decaffeinated Coke. I've already talked to her about this, so. . . " She gestured to seats. On the coffee table was a tray of green grapes, thin crackers, and a half round of Brie.

  She sat herself, plucked a grape. "I've decided to do something a little more active about our permanent houseguest. "

 

  "An exorcism?" Logan asked, sending a sideways glance toward the monitor and the soft voice singing out of it.

  "Not quite that active. We want to find out about her history and her connection to this house. Seems to me we're not making any real progress, mostly because we can't really figure out a direction. "

  "We haven't been able to spend a lot of time on it," Stella pointed out.

  "Another reason for outside help. We're busy, and we're amateurs. So why not go to somebody who knows what to do and has the time to do it right?"

  "Concert's over for the night. " Logan gestured when the monitor went silent.

  "Sometimes she comes back two or three times. " Stella offered him a cracker. "Do you know somebody, Roz? Someone you want to take this on?"

  "I don't know yet. But I've made some inquiries, using the idea that I want to do a formal sort of genealogy search on my ancestry. There's a man in Memphis whose name's come up. Mitchell Carnegie. Dr. Mitchell Carnegie," she added. "He taught at the university in Charlotte, moved here a couple of years ago. I believe he taught at the University of Memphis for a semester or two and may still give the occasional lecture. Primarily, he writes books. Biographies and so on. He's touted as an expert family historian. "

  "Sounds like he might be our man. " Stella spread a little Brie on a cracker for herself. "Having someone who knows what he's doing should be better than us fumbling around. "

  "That would depend," Logan put in, "on how he feels about ghosts. "

  "I'm going to make an appointment to see him. " Stella lifted her wineglass. "Then I guess we'll find out. "

 
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