Blue Dahlia, page 22part #1 of In the Garden Series
Stella chewed at it, stewed over it, and worried about it. She was prepared to launch into another discussion regarding the pros and cons of marriage when Logan came to pick up the boys at noon.
She knew he was angry with her. Hurt, too, she imagined. But oddly enough, she knew he'd be by - somewhere in the vicinity of noon - to get the kids. He'd told them he would come, so he would come.
A definite plus on his side of the board, she decided. She could, and did, trust him with her children.
They would argue, she knew. They were both too worked up to have a calm, reasonable discussion over such an emotional issue. But she didn't mind an argument. A good argument usually brought all the facts and feelings out. She needed both if she was going to figure out the best thing to do for all involved.
But when he hunted them down where she had the kids storing discarded wagons - at a quarter a wagon - he was perfectly pleasant. In fact, he was almost sunny.
"Ready for some man work?" he asked.
With shouts of assent, they deserted wagon detail for more interesting activities. Luke proudly showed him the plastic hammer he'd hooked in a loop of his shorts.
"That'll come in handy. I like a man who carries his own tools. I'll drop them off at the house later. "
"About what time do you think - "
"Depends on how long they can stand up to the work. " He pinched Gavin's biceps. "Ought to be able to get a good day's sweat out of this one. "
"Feel mine! Feel mine!" Luke flexed his arm.
After he'd obliged, given an impressed whistle, he nodded to Stella. "See you. "
And that was that.
So she chewed at it, stewed over it, and worried about it for the rest of the day. Which, not being a fool, she deduced was exactly what he'd wanted.
* * *
The house was abnormally quiet when she got home from work. She wasn't sure she liked it. She showered off the day, played with the baby, drank a glass of wine, and paced until the phone rang.
"Hi there, is this Stella?"
"Yes, who - "
'This is Trudy Kitridge. Logan's mama? Logan said I should give you a call, that you'd be home from work about this time of day. "
"I. . . oh. " Oh, God, oh, God. Logan's mother!
"Logan told me and his daddy he asked you to marry him. Could've knocked me over with a feather. "
"Yes, me, too. Mrs. Kitridge, we haven't decided. . . or I haven't decided . . . anything. "
"Woman's entitled to some time to make up her mind, isn't she? I'd better warn you, honey, when that boy sets his mind on something, he's like a damn bulldog. He said you wanted to meet his family before you said yes or no. I think that's a sweet thing. Of course, with us living out here now, it's not so easy, is it? But we'll be coming back sometime during the holidays. Probably see Logan for Thanksgiving, then our girl for Christmas. Got grandchildren in Charlotte, you know, so we want to be there for Christmas. "
"Of course. " She had no idea, no idea whatsoever what to say. How could she with no time to prepare?
"Then again, Logan tells me you've got two little boys. Said they're both just pistols. So maybe we'll have ourselves a couple of grandchildren back in Tennessee, too. "
"Oh. " Nothing could have touched her heart more truly. "That's a lovely thing to say. You haven't even met them yet, or me, and - "
"Logan has, and I raised my son to know his own mind. He loves you and those boys, then we will, too. You're working for Rosalind Harper, I hear. "
"Yes. Mrs. Kitridge - "
"Now, you just call me Trudy. How you getting along down there?"
Stella found herself having a twenty-minute conversation with Logan's mother that left her baffled, amused, touched, and exhausted.
When it was done, she sat limply on the sofa, like, she thought, the dazed victim of an ambush.
Then she heard Logan's truck rumble up.
She had to force herself not to dash to the door. He'd be expecting that. Instead she settled herself in the front parlor with a gardening magazine and the dog snoozing at her feet as if she didn't have a care in the world.
Maybe she'd mention, oh so casually, that she'd had a conversation with his mother. Maybe she wouldn't, and let him stew over it.
And all right, it had been sensitive and sweet for him to arrange the phone call, but for God's sake, couldn't he have given her some warning so she wouldn't have spent the first five minutes babbling like an idiot?
The kids came in with all the elegance of an army battalion on a forced march.
"We built a whole arbor. " Grimy with sweat and dirt, Gavin rushed to scoop up Parker. "And we planted the stuff to grow on it. "
"Carol Jessmint. "
Carolina Jessamine, Stella interpreted from Luke's garbled pronunciation. Nice choice.
"And I got a splinter. " Luke held out a dirty hand to show off the Band-Aid on his index finger. "A big one. We thought we might have to hack it out with a knife. But we didn't. "
"Whew, that was close. We'll go put some antiseptic on it. "
"Logan did already. And I didn't cry. And we had submarines, except he says they're poor boys down here, but I don't see why they're poor because they have lots of stuff in them. And we had Popsicles. "
"And we got to ride in the wheelbarrow," Gavin took over the play-by-play. "And I used a real hammer. "
"Wow. You had a busy day. Isn't Logan coming in?"
"No, he said he had other stuff. And look. " Gavin dug in his pocket and pulled out a wrinkled five-dollar bill. "We each got one, because he said we worked so good we get to be cheap labor instead of slaves. "
She couldn't help it, she had to laugh. "That's quite a promotion. Congratulations. I guess we'd better go clean up. "
"Then we can eat like a bunch of barnyard pigs. " Luke put his hand in hers. "That's what Logan said when it was time for lunch. "
"Maybe we'll save the pig-eating for when you're on the job. "
They were full of Logan and their day through bath-time, through dinner. And then were too tuckered out from it all to take advantage of the extra hour she generally allowed them on Saturday nights.
They were sound asleep by nine, and for the first time in her memory, Stella felt she had nothing to do. She tried to read, she tried to work, but couldn't settle into either.
She was thrilled when she heard Lily fussing.
When she stepped into the hall, she saw Hayley heading down, trying to comfort a squalling Lily.
"She's hungry. I thought I'd curl up in the sitting room, maybe watch some TV while I feed her. "
"Twist my arm. It was lonely around here today with David off at the lake for the weekend, and you and Roz at work, the boys away. " She sat, opened her shirt and settled Lily on her breast. "There. That's better, isn't it? I put her in mat baby sling I got at the shower, and we took a nice walk. "
"It's good for both of you. What did you want to watch?"
"Nothing, really. I just wanted the voices. "
"How about one more?" Roz slipped in, walked over to Lily to smile. "I wanted to take a peek at her. Look at her go!"
"Nothing wrong with her appetite," Hayley confirmed. "She smiled at me today. I know they say it's just gas, but - "
"What do they know?" Roz sprawled in a chair. "They inside that baby's head?"
"Logan asked me to marry him. "
She didn't know why she blurted it out - hadn't known it was pushing from her brain to her tongue.
"Holy cow!" Hayley exploded, then immediately soothed Lily and lowered her voice. "When? How? Where? This is just awesome. This is the biggest of the big news. Tell us everything. "
"There's not a lot of every anything. He asked me yesterday. "
"After I went inside to put the baby down? I just knew something was up. "
"I don't think
"What are they?" Hayley wondered.
"You've only known each other since January," Roz began, watching Stella. "You have two children. You've each been married before and bring a certain amount of baggage from those marriages. "
"Yes. " Stella let out a long sigh. "Exactly. "
"When you know you know, don't you?" Hayley argued. "Whether it's five months or five years. And he's great with your kids. They're nuts about him. Being married before ought to make both of you understand the pitfalls or whatever. I don't get it. You love him, don't you?"
"Yes. And yes to the rest, to a point, but. . . it's different when you're young and unencumbered. You can take more chances. Well, if you're not me you can take more chances. And what if he wants children and I don't? I have to think about that. I have to know if I'm going to be able to consider having another child at this stage, or if the children I do have would be happy and secure with him in the long term. Kevin and I had a game plan. "
"And your game was called," Roz said. "It isn't an easy thing to walk into another marriage. I waited a long time to do it, then it was the wrong decision. But I think, if I could have fallen, just tumbled into love with a man at your age, one who made me happy, who cheerfully spent his Saturday with my children, and who excited me in bed, I'd have walked into it, and gladly. "
"But you just said, before, you gave the exact reasons why it's too soon. "
"No, I gave the reasons you'd give - and ones I understand, Stella. But there's something else you and I understand, or should. And that is that love is precious, and too often stolen away. You've got a chance to grab hold of it again. And I say lucky you. "
* * *
She dreamed again of the garden, and the blue dahlia. It was ladened with buds, fat and ripe and ready to burst into bloom. At the top, a single stunning flower swayed electric in the quiet breeze. Her garden, though no longer tidy and ordered, spread out from its feet in waves and flows and charming bumps of color and shape.
Then Logan was beside her, and his hands were warm and rough as he drew her close. His mouth was strong and exciting as it feasted on hers. In the distance she could hear her children's laughter, and the cheerful bark of the dog.
She lay on the green grass at the garden's edge, her senses full of the color and scent, full of the man.
There was such heat, such pleasure as they loved in the sunlight. She felt the shape of his face with her hands. Not fairy-tale handsome, not perfect, but beloved. Her skin shivered as their bodies moved, flesh against flesh, hard against soft, curve against angle.
How could they fit, how could they make such a glorious whole, when there were so many differences?
But her body merged with his, joined, and thrived.
She lay in the sunlight with him, on the green grass at the edge of her garden, and hearing the thunder of her own heartbeat, knew bliss.
The buds on the dahlia burst open. There were so many of them. Too many. Other plants were being shaded, crowded. The garden was a jumble now, anyone could see it. The blue dahlia was too aggressive and prolific.
It's fine where it is. It's just a different plan.
But before she could answer Logan, there was another voice, cold and hard in her mind.
His plan. Not yours. His wants. Not yours. Cut it down, before it spreads.
No, it wasn't her plan. Of course it wasn't. This garden was meant to be a charming spot, a quiet spot.
There was a spade in her hand, and she began to dig.
That's right. Dig it out, dig it up.
The air was cold now, cold as winter, so that Stella shuddered as she plunged the spade into the ground.
Logan was gone, and she was alone in the garden with the Harper Bride, who stood in her white gown and tangled hair, nodding. And her eyes were mad.
"I don't want to be alone. I don't want to give it up. "
Dig! Hurry. Do you want the pain, the poison? Do you want it to infect your children? Hurry! It will spoil everything, kill everything, if you let it stay.
She'd get it out. It was best to get it out. She'd just plant it somewhere else, she thought, somewhere better.
But as she lifted it out, taking care with the roots, the flowers went black, and the blue dahlia withered and went to dust in her hands.
* * *
Keeping busy was the best way not to brood. And keeping busy was no problem for Stella with the school year winding down, the perennial sale at the nursery about to begin, and her best saleswoman on maternity leave.
She didn't have time to pick apart strange, disturbing dreams or worry about a man who proposed one minute, then vanished the next. She had a business to run, a family to tend, a ghost to identify.
She sold the last three bay laurels, then put her mind and her back into reordering the shrub area.
"Shouldn't you be pushing papers instead of camellias?"
She straightened, knowing very well she'd worked up a sweat, that there was soil on her pants, and that her hair was frizzing out of the ball cap she'd stuck on. And faced Logan.
"I manage, and part of managing is making sure our stock is properly displayed. What do you want?"
"Got a new job worked up. " He waved the paperwork, and the breeze from it made her want to moan out loud. "I'm in for supplies. "
"Fine. You can put the paperwork on my desk. "
"This is as far as I'm going. " He shoved it into her hand. "Crew's loading up some of it now. I'm going to take that Japanese red maple, and five of the hardy pink oleanders. "
He dragged the flatbed over and started to load.
"Fine," she repeated, under her breath. Annoyed, she glanced at the bid, blinked, then reread the client information.
"This is my father. "
"What are you doing planting oleander for my father?"
"My job. Putting in a new patio, too. Your stepmama's already talking about getting new furniture for out there. And a fountain. Seems to me a woman can't see a flat surface without wanting to buy something to put on it. They were still talking about it when I left the other night. "
"You - what were you doing there?"
"Having pie. Gotta get on. We need to get started on this if I'm going to make it home and clean up before this dinner with the professor guy tonight. See you later, Red. "
"Hold it. You just hold it. You had your mother call me, right out of the blue. "
"How's it out of the blue when you said you wanted us to meet each other's families? Mine's a couple thousand miles away right now, so the phone call seemed the best way. "
"I'd just like you to explain. . . " Now she waved the papers. "All this. "
"I know. You're a demon for explanations. " He stopped long enough to grab her hair, crush his mouth to hers. "If that doesn't make it clear enough, I'm doing something wrong. Later. "
* * *
"Then he just walked away, leaving me standing there like an idiot. " Still stewing hours later, Stella changed Lily's diaper while Hayley finished dressing for dinner.
"You said you thought you should meet each other's families and stuff," Hayley pointed out. "So now you talked to his mama, and he talked to your daddy. "
"I know what I said, but he just went tramping over there. And he had her call me without letting me know first. He just goes off, at the drop of a hat. " She picked up Lily, cuddled her. "He gets me stirred up. "
"I kinda miss getting stirred up that way. " She turned sideways in the mirror, sighed a little over the post-birth pudge she was carrying. "I guess I thought, even though the books said different, that everything would just spring back where it was after Lily came out. "
"Nothing much springs after having a baby. But you're young and active. You'll get your body back. "
"Oh, sweetie. "
"Well, it's true. Last week, when Logan came by to bring Lily her doll, and you and the boys came outside? Before I went in and he popped the big Q? You know what the four of you looked like?"
"A family. And I think whatever your head's running around with, in your heart you know that. And that that's the way it's going to be. "
"You're awfully young to be such a know-it-all. "
"It's not the years, it's the miles. " Hayley tossed a cloth over her shoulder. "Come here, baby girl. Mama's going to show you off to the dinner guests before you go to sleep. You ready?" she asked Stella.
"I guess we'll find out. "
They started toward the stairs, with Stella gathering her boys on the way, and met Roz on the landing.
"Well, don't we all look fine. "
"We had to wear new shirts," Luke complained.
"And you look so handsome in them. I wonder if I can be greedy and steal both these well-dressed young men as my escorts. " She held out both her hands for theirs. "It's going to storm," she said with a glance out the window. "And look here, I believe that must be our Dr. Carnegie, and right on time. What in the world is that man driving? It looks like a nasty red box on wheels. "
"I think it's a Volvo. " Hayley moved in to spy over Roz's shoulder. "A really old Volvo. They're like one of the safest cars, and so dopey-looking, they're cool. Oh, my, look at that!" Her eyebrows lifted when Mitch got out of the car. "Serious hottie alert. "
"Good God, Hayley, he's old enough to be your daddy. "
Hayley just smiled at Roz. "Hot's hot. And he's hot. "
"Maybe he needs a drink of water," Luke suggested.
"And we'll get one for Hayley, too. " Amused, Roz walked down to greet her first guest.
He brought a good white wine as a hostess gift, which she approved of, but he opted for mineral water when she offered him a drink. She supposed a man who drove a car manufactured about the same time he'd been born needed to keep his wits about him. He made appropriate noises over the baby, shook hands soberly with the boys.
She gave him points for tact when he settled into small talk rather than asking more about the reason she wanted to hire him.
By the time Logan arrived, they were comfortable enough.
"I don't think we'll wait for Harper. " Roz got to her feet. "My son is chronically late, and often missing in action. "
"I've got one of my own," Mitch said. "I know how it goes. "
"Oh, I didn't realize you had children. "
"Just the one. Josh is twenty. He goes to college here. You really do have a beautiful home, Ms. Harper. "
"Roz, and thank you. It's one of my great loves. And here," she added as Harper dashed in from the kitchen, "is another. "
"Late. Sorry. Almost forgot. Hey, Logan, Stella. Hi, guys. " He kissed his mother, then looked at Hayley. "Hi. Where's Lily?"
"Dr. Carnegie, my tardy son, Harper. "
"Sorry. I hope I didn't hold you up. "
"Not at all," Mitch said as they shook hands. "Happy to meet you. "
"Why don't we sit down? It looks like David's outdone himself. "
An arrangement of summer flowers in a long, low bowl centered the table. Candles burned, slim white tapers in gleaming silver, on the sideboard. David had used her white-on-white china with pale yellow and green linens for casual elegance. A cool and artful lobster salad was already arranged on each plate. David sailed in with wine.
"Who can I interest in this very nice Pinot Grigio?"
The doctor, Roz noted, stuck with mineral water.
"You know," Harper began as they enjoyed the main course of stuffed pork, "you look awfully familiar. " He narrowed his eyes on Mitch's face. "I've been trying to figure it out. You didn't teach at the U of M while I was there, did you?"
"I might have, but I don't recall you being in any of my classes. "
"No. I don't think that's it anyway. Maybe I went to one of your lectures or something. Wait. Wait. I've got it. Josh Carnegie. Power forward for the Memphis Tigers. "
"My son. "
"Strong resemblance. Man, he's a killer. I was at the game last spring, against South Carolina, when he scored thirty-eight points. He's got moves. "
Mitch smiled, rubbed a thumb over the fading bruise on his jaw. "Tell me. "
Conversation turned to basketball, boisterously, and gave Logan the opportunity to lean toward Stella. "Your daddy says he's looking forward to seeing you and the boys on Sunday. I'll drive you in, as I've got an invitation to Sunday dinner, too. "
"Is that so?"
"He likes me. " He picked up her free hand, brushed his lips over his fingers. "We're bonding over oleanders. "
She didn't try to stop the smile. "You hit him where it counts. "
"You, the kids, his garden. Yeah, I'd say I got it covered. You write that list for me yet, Red?"
"Apparently you're doing fine crossing things off without consulting me. "
His grin flashed, "Jolene thinks we should go traditional and have a June wedding. "
When Stella's mouth dropped open, he turned away to talk to her kids about the latest issues of Marvel Comics.
Over dessert, a rustling, then a long, shrill cry sounded from the baby monitor standing on the buffet. Hayley popped up as if she were on springs. "That's my cue. I'll be back down after she's fed and settled again. "
"Speaking of cues. " Stella rose as well. "Time for bed, guys. School night," she added even before the protests could be voiced.
"Going to bed before it's dark is a gyp," Gavin complained.
"I know. Life is full of them. What comes next?"
Gavin heaved a sigh. "Thanks for dinner, it was really good, and now we have to go to bed because of stupid school. "
"Close enough," Stella decided.
"'Night. I liked the finger potatoes 'specially," Luke said to David.
"Want a hand?" Logan called out.
"No. " But she stopped at the doorway, turned back and just looked at him a moment. "But thanks. "
She herded them up, beginning the nightly ritual as thunder rumbled in. And Parker scooted under Luke's bed to hide from it. Rain splatted, fat juicy drops, against the windows as she tucked them in.
"Parker's a scaredy-cat. " Luke snuggled his head in the pillow. "Can he sleep up here tonight?"
"All right, just for tonight, so he isn't afraid. " She lured him out from under the bed, and stroking him as he trembled, laid him in with Luke. "Is that better now?"
"Uh-huh. Mom?" He broke off, petting the dog, and exchanging a long look with his brother.
"What? What are you two cooking up?"
"You ask her," Luke hissed.
"Nuh-uh. You. "
"Ask me what? If you've spent all your allowances and work money on comics, I - "
"Are you going to marry Logan?" Gavin blurted out.
"Am I - where did you get an idea like that?"
"We heard Roz and Hayley talking about how he asked you to. " Luke yawned, blinked sleepily at her. "So are you?"
She sat on the side of Gavin's bed. "I've been thinking about it. But I wouldn't decide something that important without talking to both of you. It's a lot to think about, for all of us, a lot to discuss. "
"He's nice, and he plays with us, so it's okay if you do. "
Stella let out a laugh at Luke's rundown. All right, she thought, maybe not such a lot to discuss from certain points of view.
"Marriage is a very big deal. It's a really big promise. "
"Would we go live in his house?" Luke wondered.
"Yes, I suppose we would if. . . "
"We like it there. And I like w
"Did he?" she murmured.
"He'd be our stepdad. " Gavin drew lazy circles with his finger on top of his sheet. "Like we have Nana Jo for a stepgrandmother. She loves us. "
"She certainly does. "
"So we decided it'd be okay to have a stepdad, if it's Logan. "
"I can see you've given this a lot of thought," Stella managed. "And I'm going to think about it, too. Maybe we'll talk about it more tomorrow. " She kissed Gavin's cheek.
"Logan said Dad's always watching out for us. "
Tears burned the back of her eyes. "Yes. Oh, yes, he is, baby. "
She hugged him, hard, then turned to hug Luke. "Good night. I'll be right downstairs. "
But she walked through to her room first to catch her breath, compose herself. Treasures, she thought. She had the most precious treasures. She pressed her fingers to her eyes and thought of Kevin. a treasure she'd lost.
Logan said Dad's always watching out for us.
A man who would know that, would accept that and say those words to a young boy was another kind of treasure.
He'd changed the pattern on her. He'd planted a bold blue dahlia in the middle of her quiet garden. And she wasn't digging it out.
"I'm going to marry him," she heard herself say, and laughed at the thrill of it.
Through the next boom of thunder, she heard the singing. Instinctively, she stepped into the bath, to look into her sons' room. She was there, ghostly in billowing white, her hair a tangle of dull gold. She stood between the beds, her voice calm and sweet, her eyes insane as she stared through the flash of lightning at Stella.
Fear trickled down Stella's back. She stepped forward, and was shoved back by a blast of cold.
"No. " She raced forward again, and hit a solid wall. "No!" She battered at it. "You won't keep me from my babies. " She flung herself against the frigid shield, screaming for her children who slept on, undisturbed.
"You bitch! Don't you touch them. "
She ran out of the room, ignoring Hayley, who raced down toward her, ignoring the clatter of feet on the stairs. She knew only one thing. She had to get to her children, she had to get through the barrier and get to her boys.
At a full run she hit the open doorway, and was knocked back against the far wall.
"What the hell's going on?" Logan grabbed her, pushing her aside as he rushed the room himself.
"She won't let me in. " Desperate, Stella beat her fists against the cold until her hands were raw and numb. "She's got my babies. Help me. "
Logan rammed his shoulder against the opening. "It's like fucking steel. " Rammed it again as Harper and David hit it with him.
Behind them, Mitch stared into the room, at the figure in white, who glowed now with a wild light.
"Name of God. "
"There has to be another way. The other door. " Roz grabbed Mitch's arm and pulled him down the hall.
"This ever happen before?"
"No. Dear God. Hayley, keep the baby away. "
Frantic, her hands throbbing from pounding, Stella ran. Another way, she thought. Force wouldn't work. She could beat against that invisible ice, rage and threaten, but it wouldn't crack.
Oh, please, God, her babies.
Reason. She would try reason and begging and promises. She dashed out into the rain, yanked open the terrace doors. And though she knew better, hurled herself at the opening.
"You can't have them!" she shouted over the storm. "They're mine. Those are my children. My life. " She went down on her knees, ill with fear. She could see her boys sleeping still, and the hard, white light pulsing from the woman between them.
She thought of the dream. She thought of what she and her boys had talked about shortly before the singing. "It's not your business what I do. " She struggled to keep her voice firm. "Those are my children, and I'll do what's best for them. You're not their mother. "
The light seemed to waver, and when the figure turned, there was as much sorrow as madness in her eyes. "They're not yours. They need me. They need their mother. Flesh and blood. "
She held up her hands, scraped and bruised from the beating. "You want me to bleed for them? I will. I am. " On her knees, she pressed her palms to the cold while the rain sluiced over her.
"They belong to me, and there's nothing I won't do to keep them safe, to keep them happy. I'm sorry for what happened to you. Whatever it was, whoever you lost, I'm sorry. But you can't have what's mine. You can't take my children from me. You can't take me from my children. "
Stella pushed her hand out, and it slid through as if slipping through ice water. Without hesitation, she shoved into the room.
She could see beyond her, Logan still fighting to get through, Stella pressed against the other doorway. She couldn't hear them, but she could see the anguish on Logan's face, and that his hands were bleeding.
"He loves them. He might not have known until tonight, but he loves them. He'll protect them. He'll be a father to them, one they deserve. This is my choice, our choice. Don't ever try to keep me from my children again. "
There were tears now as the figure flowed across the room toward the terrace doors. Stella laid a trembling hand on Gavin's head, on Luke's. Safe, she thought as her knees began to shake. Safe and warm.
"I'll help you," she stated firmly, meeting the grieving eyes again. "We all will. If you want our help, give us something. Your name, at least. Tell me your name. "
The Bride began to fade, but she lifted a hand to the glass of the door. There, written in rain that dripped like tears, was a single word.
When Logan burst through the door behind her, Stella spun toward him, laid a hand quickly on his lips. "Ssh. You'll wake them. "
Then she buried her face against his chest and wept.
NORA ROBERTS SERIES:
Other author's books:
- Vision in WhiteThe Next AlwaysBorn in FireDance Upon the AirJewels of the SunThe WitnessKey of LightBlue Dahlia
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