Blue dahlia, p.9

Blue Dahlia, page 9

 part  #1 of  In the Garden Series


Blue Dahlia

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Chapter Eight

  She was dreaming of flowers. An enchanting garden, full of young, vital blooms, flowed around her. It was perfect, tidied and ordered, its edges ruler-straight to form a keen verge against the well-trimmed grass.

  Color swept into color, whites and pinks, yellows and silvery greens, all soft and delicate pastels that shimmered in subtle elegance in the golden beams of the sun.

  Their fragrance was calming and drew a pretty bevy of busy butterflies, the curiosity of a single shimmery hummingbird. No weed intruded on its flawlessness, and every blossom was full and ripe, with dozens upon dozens of buds waiting their turn to open.

  She'd done this. As she circled the bed it was with a sense of pride and satisfaction. She'd turned the earth and fed it, she'd planned and selected and set each plant in exactly the right place. The garden so precisely matched her vision, it was like a photograph.

  It had taken her years to plan and toil and create. But now everything she'd wanted to accomplish was here, blooming at her feet.

  Yet even as she watched, a stem grew up, sharp and green, crowding the others, spoiling the symmetry. Out of place, she thought, more annoyed than surprised to see it breaking out of the ground, growing up, unfurling its leaves.

  A dahlia? She'd planted no dahlias there. They belonged in the back. She'd specifically planted a trio of tall pink dahlias at the back of the bed, exactly one foot apart.

  Puzzled, she tilted her head, studied it as the stems grew and thickened, as buds formed fat and healthy. Fascinating, so fascinating and unexpected.

  Even as she started to smile, she heard - felt? - a whisper over the skin, a murmur through her brain.

  It's wrong there. Wrong. It has to be removed. It will take and take until there's nothing left.

  She shivered. The air around her was suddenly cool, with a hint of raw dampness, with bleak clouds creeping in toward that lovely golden sun.

  In the pit of her belly was a kind of dread.

  Don't let it grow. It will strangle the life out of everything you 've done.

  That was right. Of course, that was right. It had no business growing there, muscling the others aside, changing the order.

  She'd have to dig it out, find another place for it. Reorganize everything, just when she'd thought she was finished. And look at that, she thought, as the buds formed, as they broke open to spread their deep blue petals. It was entirely the wrong color. Too bold, too dark, too bright.

  It was beautiful; she couldn't deny it. In fact, she'd never seen a more beautiful specimen. It looked so strong, so vivid. It was already nearly as tall as she, with flowers as wide as dinner plates.

  It lies. It lies.

  That whisper, somehow female, somehow raging, slithered into her sleeping brain. She whimpered a little, tossed restlessly in her chilly bed.

  Kill it! Kill it. Hurry before it's too late.

  No, she couldn't kill something so beautiful, so alive, so vivid. But that didn't mean she could just leave it there, out of its place, upsetting the rest of the bed.

  All that work, the preparation, the planning, and now this. She'cf just have to plan another bed and work it in. With a sigh, she reached out, feathered her fingers over those bold blue petals. It would be a lot of work, she thought, a lot of trouble, but -

  "Mom. "

  "Isn't it pretty?" she murmured. "It's so blue. "

  "Mom, wake up. "

  "What?" She tumbled out of the dream, shaking off sleep as she saw Luke kneeling in the bed beside her.

  God, the room was freezing.

  "Luke?" Instinctively she dragged the spread over him. "What's the matter?"

  "I don't feel good in my tummy. "

  "Aw. " She sat up, automatically laying a hand on his brow to check for fever. A little warm, she thought. "Does it hurt?"

  He shook his head. She could see the gleam of his eyes, the sheen of tears. "It feels sick. Can I sleep in your bed?"

  "Okay. " She drew the sheets back. "Lie down and bundle up, baby. I don't know why it's so cold in here. I'm going to take your temperature, just to see. " She pressed her lips to his forehead as he snuggled onto her pillow. Definitely a little warm.

  Switching on the bedside lamp, she rolled out to get the thermometer from the bathroom.

  "Let's find out if I can see through your brain. " She stroked his hair as she set the gauge to his ear.

  "Did you feel sick when you went to bed?"

  "Nuh-uh, it was . . . " His body tightened, and he made a little groan.

  She knew he was going to retch before he did. With a mother's speed, she scooped him up, dashed into the bathroom. They made it, barely, and she murmured and stroked and fretted while he was sick.

  Then he turned his pale little face up to hers. "I frew up. "

  "I know, baby. I'm sorry. We're going to make it all better soon. "

  She gave him a little water, cooled his face with a cloth, then carried him back to her bed. Strange, she thought, the room felt fine now.

  "It doesn't feel as sick in my tummy anymore. "

  "That's good. " Still, she took his temperature - 99. 1, not too bad - and brought the wastebasket over beside the bed. "Does it hurt anywhere?"

  "Nuh-uh, but I don't like to frow up. It makes it taste bad in my throat. And my other tooth is loose, and maybe if I frow up again, it'll come out and I won't have it to put under my pillow. "

  "Don't you worry about that. You'll absolutely have your tooth for under your pillow, just like the other one. Now, I'll go down and get you some ginger ale. You stay right here, and I'll be back in just a minute. Okay?"

  "Okay. "

  "If you have to be sick again, try to use this. " She set the wastebasket beside him on the bed. "I'll be right back, baby. "

  She hurried out, jogging down the stairs in her nightshirt. One of the disadvantages of a really big house, she realized, was that the kitchen was a mile away from the bedrooms.

  She'd see about buying a little fridge, like the one she'd had in her dorm room at college, for the upstairs sitting room.

  Low-grade fever, she thought as she rushed into the kitchen. He'd probably be better by tomorrow. If he wasn't, she'd call the doctor.

  She hunted up ginger ale, filled a tall glass with ice, grabbed a bottle of water, and dashed back upstairs.

  "I get ginger ale," she heard Luke say as she walked back down the hall to her room. "Because I was sick. Even though I feel better, I can still have it. You can have some, too, if you want. "

  "Thanks, honey, but - " When she swung into the room, she saw Luke was turned away from the door, sitting back against the pillows. And the room was cold again, so cold that she saw the vapor of her own breath.

  "She went away," Luke said.

  Something that was more than the cold danced up her spine. "Who went away?"

  "The lady. " His sleepy eyes brightened a bit when he saw the ginger ale. "She stayed with me when you went downstairs. "

  "What lady, Luke? Miss Roz? Hayley?"

  "Nuh-uh. The lady who comes and sings. She's nice. Can I have all the ginger ale?"

  "You can have some. " Her hands shook lightly as she poured. "Where did you see her?"

  "Right here. " He pointed to the bed, then took the glass in both hands and drank. "This tastes good. "

  "You've seen her before?"

  "Uh-huh. Sometimes I wake up and she's there. She sings the dilly-dilly song. "

  Lavender's blue, dilly dilly. Lavender's green. That's the song she'd heard, Stella realized with a numb fear. The song she'd caught herself humming.

  "Did she - " No, don't frighten him, she warned herself. "What does she look like?"

  "She's pretty, I guess. She has yellow hair. I think she's an angel, a lady angel? 'Member the story about the guard angel?"

  "Guardian angel. "

  "But she doesn't have wings. Gavin says she's maybe a witch, but a
good one like in Harry Potter!'

  Her throat went desert dry. "Gavin's seen her too?"

  "Yeah, when she comes to sing. " He handed the glass back to Stella, rubbed his eyes. "My tummy feels better now, but I'm sleepy. Can I still sleep in your bed?"

  "Absolutely. " But before she got into bed with him, Stella turned on the bathroom light.

  She looked in on Gavin, struggled against the urge to pluck him out of his bed and carry him into hers.

  Leaving the connecting doors wide open, she walked back into her room.

  She turned off the bedside lamp, then slid into bed with her son.

  And gathering him close, she held him as he slept.

  * * *

  He seemed fine the next morning. Bright and bouncy, and cheerfully told David over breakfast that he'd thrown up and had ginger ale.

  She considered keeping him home from school, but there was no fever and, judging by his appetite, no stomach problems.

  "No ill effects there," David commented when the boys ran up to get their books. "You, on the other hand, look like you put in a rough one. " He poured her another cup of coffee.

  "I did. And not all of it because Luke was sick. After he 'frew up,' he settled down and slept like a baby. But before he settled down, he told me something that kept me awake most of the night. "

  David rested his elbows on the island counter, leaned forward. "Tell Daddy all. "

  "He says . . . " She glanced around, cocking an ear so she'd hear the boys when they came back down. "There's a lady with yellow hair who comes into his room at night and sings to him. "

  "Oh. " He picked up his dishcloth and began to mop the counter.

  "Don't say 'oh' with that silly little smile. "

  "Hey, I'll have you know this is my amused smirk. Nothing silly about it. "

  "David. "

  "Stella," he said with the same stern scowl. "Roz told you we have a ghost, didn't she?"

  "She mentioned it. But there's just one little problem with that. There are no such things as ghosts. "

  "So, what, some blonde sneaks into the house every night, heads to the boys' room, and breaks out in song? That's more plausible?"

  "I don't know what's going on. I've heard someone singing, and I've felt. . . " Edgy, she twisted the band of her watch. "Regardless, the idea of a ghost is ridiculous. But something's going on with my boys. "

  "Is he afraid of her?"

  "No. I probably just imagined the singing. And Luke, he's six. He can imagine anything. "

  "Have you asked Gavin?"

  "No. Luke said they'd both seen her, but. . . "

  "So have I. "

  "Oh, please. "

  David rinsed the dishcloth, squeezed out the excess water, then laid it over the lip of the sink to dry.

  "Not since I was a kid, but I saw her a few times when I'd sleep over. Freaked me out at first, but she'd just sort of be there. You can ask Harper. He saw her plenty. "

  "Okay. Just who is this fictional ghost supposed to be?" She threw up a hand as she heard the thunder of feet on the stairs. "Later. "

  * * *

  She tried to put it out of her mind, and succeeded from time to time when the work took over. But it snuck back into her brain, and played there, like the ghostly lullaby.

  By midday, she left Hayley working on bulb planters and Ruby at the counter, and grabbing a clipboard, headed toward the grafting house.

  Two birds, she thought, one stone.

  The music today was Rachmaninoff. Or was it Mozart? Either way, it was a lot of passionate strings and flutes. She passed the staging areas, the tools, the soils and additives rooting mediums.

  She found Harper down at the far end at a worktable with a pile of five-inch pots, several cacti as stock plants, and a tray of rooting medium. She noted the clothespins, the rubber bands, the raffia, the jar of denatured alcohol.

  "What do you use on the Christmas cactus?"

  He continued to work, using his knife to cut a shoot from the joint of a scion plant. He had beautiful hands, she noted. Long, artistic fingers. "Apical-wedge, then? Tricky, but probably best with that specimen because of the flat stems. Are you creating a standard, or hybridizing?"

  He made his vertical slit into the vascular bundle and still didn't answer.

  "I'm just wondering because - " She set her hand on his shoulder, and when he jumped and let out a muffled shout, she stumbled back and rammed into the table behind her.

  "Shit!" He dropped the knife and stuck the thumb it had nicked in his mouth. "Shit!" he said again, around his thumb, and tugged headphones off with his free hand.

  "I'm sorry. I'm so sorry! How bad are you cut? Let me see. "

  "It's just a scratch. " He took it out of his mouth, rubbed it absently on his grimy jeans. "Not nearly as fatal as the heart attack you just brought on. "

  "Let me see the thumb. " She grabbed his hand. "You've got dirt in it now. "

  He saw her gaze slide over toward the alcohol and ripped his hand out of hers. "Don't even think about it. "

  "Well, it should at least be cleaned. And I really am sorry. I didn't see the headphones. I thought you heard me. "

  "It's okay. No big. The classical's for the plants. If I listen to it for too long, my eyes get glassy. "

  "Oh?" She picked up the headphones, held one side to one ear. "Metallica?"

  "Yeah. My kind of classical. " Now he looked warily at her clipboard. "What's up?"

  "I'm hoping to get an idea of what you'll have ready in here to put out for our big spring opening next month. And what you have at the stage you'd want it moved out to the stock greenhouse. "

  "Oh, well. . . " He looked around. "A lot of stuff. Probably. I keep the staging records on computer. "

  "Even better. Maybe you could just make me a copy. Floppy disk would be perfect. "

  "Yeah, okay. Okay, wait. " He shifted his stool toward the computer.

  "You don't have to do it this minute, when you're in the middle of something else. "

  "If I don't, I'll probably forget. "

  With a skill she admired, he tapped keys with somewhat grungy fingers, found what he was after. He dug out a floppy, slid it into the data slot. "Look, I'd rather you didn't take anything out when I'm not here. "

  "No problem. "

  "How's, um, Hayley working out?"

  "An answer to a prayer. "

  "Yeah?" He reached for a can of Coke, took a quick drink. "She's not doing anything heavy or working around toxics. Right?"

  "Absolutely not. I've got her doing bulb planters right now. "

  "Here you go. " He handed her the floppy.

  "Thanks, Harper. This makes my life easier. I've never done a Christmas cactus graft. " She clipped the floppy to her board. "Can I watch?"

  "Sure. Want to do one? I'll talk you through. "

  "I'd really like to. "

  "I'll finish this one up. See, I cut a two-, maybe two-and-a-half-inch shoot, straight through the joint. I've cut the top couple inches from the stem of the stock plant. And on the way to slicing my finger - "

  "Sorry. "

  "Wouldn't be the first time. I made this fine, vertical cut into the vascular bundle. "

  "I got that far. "

  "From here, we pare slivers of skin from both sides of the base of the scion, tapering the end, and exposing the central core. " Those long, artistic fingers worked cleverly and patiently. "See?"

  "Mmm. You've got good hands for this. "

  "Came by them naturally. Mom showed me how to graft. We did an ornamental cherry when I was about Luke's age. Now we're going to insert the scion into the slit on the stock stem. We want the exposed tissues of both in contact, and match the cut surfaces as close as you can. I like to use a long cactus spine. . . . " He took one from a tray and pushed it straight into the grafted area.

  "Neat and organic. "

  "Uh-huh. I don't like bindi
ng with raffia on these. Weakened clothespins are better. Right across the joint, see, so it's held firm but not too tight. The rooting medium's two parts cactus soil mix to one part fine grit. I've already got the mix. We get our new baby in the pot, cover the mix with a little fine gravel. "

  "So it stays moist but not wet. "

  "You got it. Then you want to label it and put it in an airy position, out of full sun. The two plants should unite in a couple of days. Want to give it a shot?"

  "Yeah. " She took the stool when he vacated it, and began, following his directions carefully. "Ah, David was telling me about the house legend this morning. "

  "That's good. " His gaze stayed focused on her hands, and the plant. "Keep the slice really thin. Legend?"

  "You know, woo-woo, ghost. "

  "Oh, yeah, the sad-eyed blonde. Used to sing to me when I was a kid. "

  "Come on, Harper. "

  He shrugged, took another sip of Coke. "You want?" He tipped the can from side to side. "I've got more in the cooler under'here. "

  "No, but thanks. You're saying a ghost used to come in your room and sing to you. "

  "Up until I was about twelve, thirteen. Same with my brothers. You hit puberty, she stops coming around. You need to taper the scion now. "

  She paused in her work only long enough to slide a glance up at his face. "Harper, don't you consider yourself a scientist?"

  He smiled at her with those somewhat dreamy brown eyes. "Not so much. Some of what I do is science, and some of what I do requires knowing some science. But down at it, I'm a gardener. "

  He two-pointed the Coke can into his waste bin, then bent down to get another out of his cooler. "But if you're asking if I find ghosts at odds with science, not so much either. Science is an exploration, it's experimentation, it's discovery. "

  "I can't argue with your definition. " She went back to the work. "But - "

  He popped the top. "Gonna Scully me?"

  She had to laugh. "It's one thing for a young boy to believe in ghosts, and Santa Claus, and - "

  "You're trying to say there's no Santa Claus?" He looked horrified. "That's just sick. "

  "But," she continued, ignoring him, "it's entirely another when it's a grown man. "

  "Who are you calling a grown man? I think I'm going to have to order you out of my house. Stella. " He patted her shoulder, transferred soil, then casually brushed it off her shirt. "I saw what I saw, I know what I know. It's just part of growing up in the house. She was always . . . a benign presence, at least to me and my brothers. She gave Mom grief now and then. "

  "What do you mean, grief?"

  "Ask Mom. But I don't know why you'd bother, since you don't believe in ghosts anyway. " He smiled. "That's a good graft. According to family lore, she's supposed to be one of the Harper brides, but she's not in any of the paintings or pictures we have. " He lifted a shoulder. "Maybe she was a servant who died there. She sure knows her way around the place. "

  "Luke told me he saw her. "

  "Yeah?" His gaze sharpened as Stella labeled the pot. "If you're worried that she might hurt him, or Gavin, don't. She's, I don't know, maternal. "

  "Perfect, then - an unidentified yet maternal ghost who haunts my sons' room at night. "

  "It's a Harper family tradition. "

  * * *

  After a conversation like that, Stella needed something sensible to occupy her mind. She grabbed a flat of pansies and some trailing vinca from a greenhouse, found a couple of nice free-form concrete planters in storage, loaded them and potting soil onto a flatbed cart. She gathered tools, gloves, mixed up some starter solution, and hauled everything out front.

  Pansies didn't mind a bit of chill, she thought, so if they got a few more frosts, they wouldn't be bothered. And their happy faces, their rich colors would splash spring right at the entry way.

  Once she'd positioned the planters, she got her clipboard and noted down everything she'd taken from stock. She'd enter it in her computer when she was finished.

  Then she knelt down to do something she loved, something that never failed to comfort her. Something that always made sense.

  She planted.

  When the first was done, the purple and yellow flowers cheerful against the dull gray of the planter, she stepped back to study it. She wanted its mate to be as close to a mirror image as she could manage.

  She was half done when she heard the rumble of tires on gravel. Logan, she thought, as she glanced around and identified his truck. She saw him start to turn toward the material area, then swing back and drive toward the building.

  He stepped out, worn boots, worn jeans, bad-boy black-lensed sunglasses.

  She felt a little itch right between her shoulder blades.

  "Hey," he said.

  "Hello, Logan. "

  He stood there, his thumbs hooked in the front pockets of his work pants and a trio of fresh scratches on his forearms just below the rolled-up sleeves of his shirt.

  "Picking up some landscape timbers and some more black plastic for the Dawson job. "

  "You're moving right along there. "

  "It's cooking. " He stepped closer, studied her work. "Those look good. I could use them. "

  "These are for display. "

  "You can make more. I take those over to Miz Dawson, the woman's going to snap them up. Sale's a sale, Red. "

  "Oh, all right. " She'd hardly had a minute to think of them as her own. "Let me at least finish them. You tell her she'll need to replace these pansies when it gets hot. They won't handle summer. And if she puts perennials in them, she should cover the planters over for winter. "

  "It happens I know something about plants myself. "

  "Just want to make sure the customer's satisfied. "

  He'd been polite, she thought. Even cooperative. Hadn't he come to give her a materials list? The least she could do was reciprocate. "If Graceland's still on, I can take off some time next Thursday. " She kept her eyes on the plants, her tone casual as a fistful of daisies. "If that works for you. "

  "Thursday?" He'd been all prepared with excuses if she happened to bring it up. Work was jamming him up, they'd do it some other time.

  But there she was, kneeling on the ground, with that damn hair curling all over the place and the sun hitting it. Those blue eyes, that cool Yankee voice.

  "Sure, Thursday's good. You want me to pick you up here or at the house?"

  "Here, if that's okay. What time works best for you?"

  "Maybe around one. That way I can put the morning in. "

  "That'll be perfect. " She rose, brushed off her gloves and set them neatly on the cart. "Just let me put together a price for these planters, make you up an order form. If she decides against them, just bring them back. "

  "She won't. Go ahead and do the paperwork. " He dug a many folded note out of his pocket. "On these and the materials I've got down here. I'll load up. "

  "Good. Fine. " She started inside. The itch had moved from her shoulder blades to just under her belly button.

  It wasn't a date, it wasn't a date, she reminded herself. It wasn't even an outing, really. It was a gesture. A goodwill gesture on both sides.

  And now, she thought as she walked into her office, they were both stuck with it.

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