Bed of roses, p.8

Bed of Roses, page 8

 part  #2 of  Bride Quartet Series


Bed of Roses
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  AT HER WORKTABLE WITH A SOOTHING NEW AGE MIX IN THE background, Emma processed a delivery. For the midweek, off-site bridal shower, she'd opted for fun and female. The gerbera daisies were just the ticket.

  Visualizing the finished arrangement, she cut the lower inch of the stems under water. Fresh and pretty, she thought as she transferred the daisies to her solution of water, flower food, and preservatives. She carried the first batch to the cooler for rehydrating. As she started on the next batch, she heard Parker call out to her.

  "Back here!"

  Parker came in, took a look at the flowers, foliage, buckets, tools. "McNickey bridal shower?"

  "Yes. Just look at the color of these gerberas. From soft to vibrant. They're going to be perfect. "

  "What are you doing with them?"

  "For the centerpiece, a trio of topiaries in pots I'm covering with lemon leaf. I'll work in some waxflower and acacia, add some sheer ribbon. The client wants a couple others, a more elaborate arrangement for her entry table, another with candles to put in her fireplace, and something delicate, fragrant, and pretty for the powder room. I need to get them all processed before my eleven o'clock consult. It's moving along. "

  "Festive and female. " Parker scanned the work space. "I know you've got a pretty full slate. Can you squeeze another off-site event in?"


  "Next Thursday. I know," she said as Emma slid over a cool stare. "The potential client called the main number, and since I knew you were elbow deep in a delivery I didn't transfer it. She was at the Folk-Harrigan wedding. Tells me she just couldn't get over the flowers - which is another score for us over MBB. "

  "You're using that to seduce me. "

  "Yes, I am. She'd planned to just go buy some cut flowers and do some vases, but now that she's seen your work, she's obsessed. She can't get over how beautiful they were. "

  "Stop it. "

  "How gorgeous and creative and perfect. "

  "Damn you, Parker. "

  "She can't sleep or eat or function in any normal fashion now that she's seen what can be done with flowers. "

  "I hate you. What kind of event, and how much is she after?"

  Parker's smile managed to be both smug and sympathetic. Emma considered it a major skill.

  "A baby shower, and it sounds similar to what you're doing here. Except for the fireplace arrangement. Very girly - the baby's a girl - so she's looking for a lot of pink. But told me she'd trust your judgment. "

  "It's cutting it close. I have to see what my wholesaler can do. And I'd have to take a look at next week. "

  "I already did. Your Monday's solid, but you have a block Tuesday afternoon. You start designing Wednesday for Friday's event, Thursday for Saturday's. You've got Tink coming in to help those two days, so is it realistic the two of you could add this in? It's her daughter-in-law," Parker added. "And her first grandchild. "

  Emma sighed. "You knew that would do it. "

  "Yes, I did. " She patted Emma's shoulder, unrepentant. "If you need it, you can call in Tiffany or Beach. "

  "Tink and I can handle it. " Emma carried the next batch to the cooler, then came back to finish. "I'll call the client as soon as I'm done here, make sure we understand what she's after. Then I'll make sure I can get it. "

  "I put her name and number on your desk. "

  "Of course you did. It's going to cost you. "

  "What's your price?"

  "The garage called. My car's finished, but I can't get in to pick it up today. And tomorrow's nearly as full. "

  "I'll take care of it. "

  "Knew you would. " Looking at what crowded her plate, Emma rubbed the back of her neck. "The hour you save me can go toward the expectant grandma. "

  "I'll get back to her, take her off her tenterhooks, and let her know you'll be in touch. And speaking of touch, have you talked to Jack?"

  "No. I'm in the mulling and musing stage. If I talked to him I'd start thinking how much I'd like to jump him or be jumped by him. Which, of course, since I brought it up, I'm thinking about right now. "

  "Should I give you a moment of privacy?"

  "Very funny. I told him we needed to stop and think, so I'm stopping and thinking. " Her brow creased and she made her voice prim. "Sex isn't everything. "

  "Since you have more of it - and offers for more of it - than I do, I'll bow to your superior knowledge. "

  "That's because I'm not intimidating. " She flicked Parker a glance. "I didn't mean that as an insult. "

  "I don't mind being intimidating. It saves time. Which," she added with a look at her watch, "I have to consider now. I'm meeting a bride in town. Mac's got a delivery to make. I'll run and catch her before she goes, have her drop me off at the garage. I should be back by four. Don't forget we have an evening consult tonight. Six thirty. "

  "I've got it on my appointment book. "

  "I'll see you then. Thanks, Emma. Really," Parker added as she hurried out again. Alone, Emma cleaned off her work area before reaching for the Neosporin she used like other women used hand cream. With her latest nicks and scratches tended, she set up for her consult. Satisfied with the selection of arrangements, photo albums, and magazines, she called the number Parker had left her - and made a grandmother-to-be very happy. As they spoke she took notes, made calculations on the number of baby roses, mini calla lilies. Pink for the roses, white for the callas. More calculations as she designed the larger arrangement in her head. Eggplant callas, Bianca roses, pink spray roses.

  Sweet, female, but with elegant touches - if she read the client correctly. She added to her notes, jotted down the time and place for delivery, and promised the client an e-mail contract and itemization by midafternoon.

  Gauging the time, she put in a hurried call to her wholesaler, then popped up to peel off her work clothes and suit up.

  While she freshened her makeup, she wondered if Jack was musing and mulling. On impulse, she dashed to her computer to send him an e-mail.

  I'm still thinking. Are you?

  She hit Send before she could change her mind.

  I N HIS OFFICE, JACK CHECKED THE CHANGES HIS ASSOCIATE had done. The new construction project continued to be tweaked as the clients waffled. They wanted stately, he thought, and they'd gotten it. They'd also wanted six fireplaces. Until they'd decided they needed nine. And an elevator.

  The latest change involved enclosing the projected swimming pool for year-round use and attaching it to the house via a breezeway.

  Nice job, Chip, he thought even as he made a couple of small changes. He studied the result, then the drawings submitted by the structural engineer.

  Good, he decided. Very, very good. The dignity of Georgian Colonial wasn't compromised. And the client could do laps in January.

  Everybody's happy.

  He started to send an e-mail clearing the drawings for submission to the client, and noticed the mail from Emma.

  He clicked it open, read the single line.

  Was she kidding?

  Every thought that didn't revolve around her - particularly a naked her - was a struggle. Everything he'd done that morning had taken twice as long as it should have because he was thinking. No point in telling her that, he decided. So just how did he answer? He angled his head, and smiled as he hit Reply.

  I'm thinking you should come over tonight wearing nothing but a trench coat and elbow pads. After he clicked Send, he sat back and imagined - very well - what Emma might look like in a trench coat. And maybe really high heels, he thought. Red ones. And once he'd loosened the belt of the coat, he'd -

  "Got the go to come on back. "

  With his mind still opening a trench coat - short, black - Jack stared at Del.

  "So hey, where the hell are you?"

  "Ah . . . just work. Drawings. " Shit. Casually, he hoped, he brought up his screen saver. "No work for you?"

  "I'm on
my way to the courthouse, and you have better coffee. "

  Del strolled over to the setup on the counter, and helped himself. "Ready to lose?"

  "Lose what?"

  "It's Poker Night, pal, and I'm feeling lucky. "

  "Poker Night. "

  Eyebrows lifting, Del studied him. "What the hell are you working on? You look like you've just shifted dimensions. "

  "It just shows my uncanny ability to focus on the job at hand. Which I'll be doing with poker tonight. You'll have to do a lot more than feel lucky to win. "

  "Side bet. A hundred. "

  "Done. "

  Del toasted him, drank. "How's it going on the additions for the Quartet?"

  "I've got something I like for Mac and Carter. I just want to refine it a little more. "

  "Good. Are you working on Emma?"

  "What? Am I what?"

  "Emma. The second cooler?"

  "Not yet. It . . . shouldn't be complicated. " Then why was it? Jack wondered. Why did he feel like he was lying to his closest friend?

  "Simple works. I've got to go be a lawyer. " Del set the mug down, started to the door. "See you tonight. Oh, and try not to cry when you pay me the hundred. It's embarrassing. "

  Jack shot up a middle finger, so Del walked away laughing.

  Jack waited ten full seconds, ear cocked for any sound of return before bringing up his e-mail again. No reply, yet, from Emma.

  How could he have forgotten it was Poker Night? That sort of thing was engraved on his brain. Pizza, beer, cigars, cards. Men only. A tradition, maybe even a ritual, that he and Del had established when they'd still been in college.

  Poker Night was sacred.

  What if she said she'd be there? That she'd be knocking on his door tonight?

  He thought of Emma in a black trench coat and red high heels.

  He thought of good friends, cold beer, and a hot deck of cards. Of course, he thought, there was only one answer. If she got back to him and said she'd come by, he'd simply explain.

  He'd tell Del he'd come down with a violent case of stomach flu. No man living or dead would blame him.

  M AC GLANCED OVER AT PARKER AS SHE DROVE TOWARD GREENWICH. "Okay, it's just you and me. What do you really think of Emma and Jack?"

  "They're both adults, single, healthy. "

  "Uh-huh. What do you really think of Emma and Jack?"

  Parker let out a sigh that ended on a reluctant laugh. "That I never saw it coming, and I thought I was good at that kind of thing. And if it feels this weird to me, it must feel a lot weirder for them. "

  "Weird bad?"

  "No. No. Just odd. There's the four of us, and the two of them - Jack and Del. Together it's the six of us. Well, seven with Carter, but this is all rooted in pre-Carter. We've been in and out of each other's lives and business for years. Forever for the four of us and Del, and for what, a dozen years with Jack?

  When you think of a man as a brother, it's an adjustment to realize not everyone in that same network feels the same. It's almost as strange as it would be if one of us really disliked him. "

  "That's what's hanging Em up. "

  "I got that. "

  "They get all sexy, and that's good, but then the heat backs off. Maybe it backs off for one of them before the other. That's awkward. " Mac checked her mirrors before changing lanes. "Does the one who's still warmed up get their feelings hurt, or feel sort of betrayed?"

  "Feelings are feelings. I don't understand why people blame other people for what they feel. "

  "Maybe not, but they do. And Emma is the softest of soft touches. She's a whiz at handling men - I bow in awe - but she really feels for them if she doesn't . . . feel for them. You know what I mean. "

  "Yeah. " Because they approached the garage, Parked slipped back into the shoes she'd slipped off when she'd gotten in the car. "She'll end up going out with a guy a second, third, fourth time even when she figured out from the first date she wasn't interested. She doesn't want to hurt his feelings. "

  "Still, she dates more than the three of us put together. Pre-Carter," Mac added. "And she nearly always manages to shake a man off without denting his ego. I tell you, she's skilled. "

  "The trouble is, she's closer to Jack. She loves him. "

  "You think - "

  "We all love him," Parker finished.

  "Oh, that way. True. "

  "It has to be hard to break off a relationship with someone you really care about. And being Emma, she's trying to work that part of it out before they up the relationship. Hurting him isn't an option for her. "

  Mac considered as she waited at a light. "Sometimes I wish I was as genuinely nice as Emma. But not very often. It's too much work. "

  "You have your moments. Me? I'm intimidating. "

  Mac snorted. "Oh yeah, you scare the shit out of me, Parks. " She eased through the light. "But you are pretty scary when you put the Parker Brown of the Connecticut Browns cloak on. And if you give it that little swirl, many fall dead. "

  "Not dead. Temporarily stunned perhaps. "

  "You knocked Linda cold," Mac commented, speaking of her mother.

  "You handled that yourself. You stood up to her. "

  Mac shook her head. "I'd stood up to her before. Maybe not like this last time, not as tall and straight. But if I started it, you finished her off for me. You add in Carter, and the fact that as, God, kind as he is, he's not susceptible to her bullshit - then the fact she's getting pampered by her rich fiance in New York? My life's gotten a lot smoother. "

  "Has she contacted you since?"

  "Funny you should ask. This morning, in fact, and as if we'd never had that really ugly last scene. She and Ari have decided to elope. Sort of. Those crazy kids are jetting off to Lake Como next month, and they'll be married at the villa of one of Ari's dear friends once Linda's planned all the details - which is her version of eloping, I guess. "

  "Oh God, if you say George Clooney, I'm going to go. "

  "If only. I don't think we're invited anyway. She mostly called to make sure I understood she's doing a lot better than Vows for her wedding. "

  "What did you say?"

  "Buona fortuna. "

  "You did?"

  "I did. It felt good. And I actually meant it. I do wish her luck. If she's happy with this Ari, she'll leave me the hell alone. So . . . " She turned, turned again, and pulled into the lot of Kavanaugh's. "It's all good. Do you want me to wait, just in case?"

  "No, you go on. I'll see you back at the house for tonight's consult. "

  Parker got out, adjusted her grip on her portfolio bag as she checked the time. Right on schedule. She scanned the long building that housed what appeared to be offices attached to a large garage. She heard the whoosh of some sort of compressor as she approached, and saw through the open garage doors the legs, hips, and most of the torso of the mechanic who worked on a car on a lift. She caught glimpses of shelves, which she assumed held parts and other paraphernalia, racks of tools. Tanks, hoses.

  She smelled oil and sweat, not offensive to her mind. Work odors, productive scents. She approved of them, especially since she saw Emma's car sitting in the lot, very clean and very shiny. Curious, she detoured to it. The chrome glinted in the sunlight, and through the window she noted the signs of meticulous detailing.

  If, she mused, the car ran as good as it looked, she'd bring hers here instead of to the dealer for its next regular service.

  She crossed the lot toward the office to settle the bill and get the key. Inside, a woman with hair more orange than red sat on a stool at the short leg of an L-shaped counter, pecking with two fingers at the keyboard of a computer.

  Her brow furrowed, her mouth twisted in a way that told Parker the computer was not her friend. She stopped, sized Parker up over the top of a pair of bright green cheaters. "Help you?"

  "Yes, thanks. I'm here to pick up Emmaline Grant's car. "

Parker Brown?"

  "Yes. "

  "She called, said you'd be coming to get it. "

  When the woman made no move, just continued to stare over the tops of her glasses, Parker smiled politely. "Would you like to see some identification?"

  "No. She said what you looked like when I asked, and you look like what she said. "

  "Well then, if I could see the bill?"

  "I'm working on it. " The woman shifted on the stool, pecked at the keys again. "You can sit right down there. It won't take me long. Take less time if I could just write it out on an invoice pad, but Mal has to have it this way. "

  "All right. "

  "Vending machines through that door there if you want something to drink. "

  Parker thought of her client, and the distance to the bridal boutique, the traffic. "You said it wouldn't take long. "

  "It won't. I'm just saying . . . What does this demon from hell want from me?" The woman raked long red nails through her orange frizzy hair. "Why won't it just spit the damn thing out?"

  "May I . . . " Parker leaned over the counter, scanned the screen. "I think I see the problem. Just point and click here, with the mouse. " She tapped the screen. "Good. Now see where it says Print? Click that. There you go. Now click on Okay. "

  Parker leaned back as the printer clicked into life. "There you go. "

  "Click this, click that. I can never remember which click comes first. " But she looked over the counter and smiled for the first time. Her eyes were as bold and engaging a green as the frames of her cheaters.

  "Appreciate it. "

  "No problem. "

  Parker took the bill, sighed a little as she ran down the work. New battery, tune-up, timing, oil change, fan belts, tire rotation, brake pads. "I don't see the charge for the detailing. "

  "No charge. First-time customer. Complimentary. "

  "Very nice. " Parker paid the bill, then tucked her copy in a pocket of her bag. She took the key. "Thank you. "

  "Welcome. Come back when you need to. "

  "I believe I will. "

  Outside, she walked toward Emma's car, clicking the key lock as she went.

  "Hey, hey, hold it. "

  She stopped, turned. She recognized the legs, hips, torso she'd seen under the belly of the car in the garage. This view added chest and shoulders. The light spring breeze fluttered through dark hair - that needed a trim - disordered either from work or carelessness. She supposed it suited the strong, sharp lines of his face, and the dark stubble that indicated he hadn't picked up a razor in a day or two. She took it all in quickly, just as she took in the hard set of his mouth and the hot green of eyes that transmitted temper.

  She'd have looked down her nose if she hadn't been forced to look up when he stopped in front of her. She angled her head up, met his eyes with hers, and said in her coolest tone, "Yes?"

  "You think all it takes is a key and a driver's license?"

  "I beg your pardon?"

  "Your battery cables were covered with corrosion, your oil was sludge. Your tires were low and your brake pads damn near shot. I bet you slather yourself with some fancy cream every day of your life. "

  "Excuse me?"

  "But you can't bother to get your car serviced. Lady, this car was a disgrace. You probably spent more on those shoes than you have on maintaining it. "

  Her shoes? Her shoes were none of his damn business. But she kept her tone bland - insultingly bland. "I appreciate that you have passion for your work, but I doubt your boss would approve of the way you speak to customers. "

  "I am the boss, and I'm fine with it. "

  "I see. Well, Mr. Kavanaugh, you have an interesting business manner. Now, if you'll excuse me. "

  "There's no excuse for the way you've neglected this vehicle. I've got it up and running for you, Ms. Grant, but - "

  "Brown," she interrupted. "That's Ms. Brown. "

  He narrowed his eyes as he studied her face. "Del's sister. Should've seen it. Who's Emmaline Grant?"

  "My business partner. "

  "Fine. Pass on what I said to her. It's a good car. It deserves better. "

  "Be sure I will. "

  She reached for the door, but he beat her to it, opened it for her. She got in, placed her bag on the seat beside her, fastened her seat belt. Then froze the air between them with a "Thank you. "

  He grinned, fast as a lightning strike. "You mean go to hell. Drive safe," he added and shut the door. She turned the key, found herself mildly disappointed when the engine purred like a kitten. As she drove away, she glanced in the rearview mirror, saw him standing, hip-shot, watching her. Rude, she thought - absurdly rude, really. But he apparently knew how to do his job. When she parked near the bridal boutique where she intended to meet her client, Parker pulled out her BlackBerry to e-mail Emma.

  Em. Car is done. Looks and runs better than it has since you bought it. You owe me more than the bill. Will discuss tonight. P

  A T HOME, EMMA USED THE TIME BETWEEN APPOINTMENTS TO write itemized contracts. She loved the choices made by her last client, a December bride. Color, color, and more color, she thought. All that hot and bold would be a pleasure to work with in winter. She sent the contract to the client for approval, copied Parker for Vows' files. She smiled when she spotted an e-mail from Jack. Then snorted out a laugh as she read it.

  "Trench coat and elbow pads. Good one. Let's see . . . "

  You'll need to choose between my red lace elbow pads and the black velvet set. Or I can just surprise you. I'll try them on later with my collection of trench coats. I have a particular favorite. It's black and has a shine so it always looks . . . wet.

  Unfortunately tonight won't work for me. But that gives us both more time to think.

  "That ought to give you a moment or two," Emma murmured, and hit Send.

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