"Death hasn't diminished Chloe's beauty," said Robbee. "That silver-blue casket was a great choice, Bretta. Too bad her eyes are closed, because their fabulous color would mirror the finish."
I ignored him so I could study the funeral bier without distraction. As the florist in charge, I searched for any minute detail that was out of sync. A bank of floral tributes surrounded the casket and perfumed the air to an intoxicating level. Behind me two hundred empty chairs waited for occupants.
To my critical eye the bouquet on the left overpowered, but the traditional spray of flowers across the lower half of the casket was elegantly styled. The freesia's creamy color matched the satiny lining. The melon-pink tulips, royal-blue iris, and yellow daffodils were the right seasonal touch. It was April, and spring had blossomed in Branson, Missouri.
Robbee lowered his voice. "So young and so-o-o sexy. I had great plans for her, but now I'll have to turn my sights on someone else." He leaned closer. "Maybe someone older and more experienced."
His suggestive tone grabbed my attention. Before I lost one hundred pounds Robbee wouldn't have given me a second glance. I'd never be a skinny-minny, but I had a waistline, and I could cross my legs with ease. For someone who's never experienced"thunder thigh syndrome" the latter might seem insignificant. I knew otherwise. Sitting in a chair and having the option of flinging one leg over the other is damned important.
I wore a blue T-shirt with the tail tucked under the waistband of my jeans. Since the room was ultracool to preserve the condition of the flowers, I'd added a plaid flannel shirt. There was nothing unique about my clothes and that's what thrilled me. Gone were the polyester pants and oversized blouses that had been the basis of my wardrobe.
The experts say it takes twenty-one days to develop a habit. At forty-five, I'd had plenty of time to perfect a routine of overeating. My new figure was almost two years in the making. Twenty-two months ago, I'd become a widow. These facts were tightly woven into the fabric of my spiritual and physical regeneration. Carl's death had raveled a portion of my soul that could never be mended. Other areas had grown stronger in his absence.
Robbee's breath stirred the curls near my ear. "You smell wonderful, Bretta. Let's go--"
I didn't let him finish. My self-esteem could use a boost, but not here and not now. "Shh!"
"Yes, Ms. Solomon," he said, clamping his lips tightly together. He pretended to turn an imaginary key in an imaginary lock on his generous mouth. With an elaborate gesture, he rolled the phantom key in his hands, then seductively tucked it down the front of his shirt, taking great pains to expose his chest for my appraisal.
I'd seen better, but it had been a while. At thirty-two, Robbee's lean good looks paved the way for his brazen manner. His long brown hair was pulled into a ponytail and tied with a strip of rawhide. He had more lines than a Broadway actor, but I was immune to his prattle.
I shook my head at him. "With all the florists in Missouri, I don't know why I've been saddled with you for an assistant."
Before he could speak our "corpse" sat up. "I want out of this thing. I've laid here so long it's beginning to feel comfortable."
"That's not your spiel," said Robbee. "You're supposed to say, 'Welcome to the first annual Show-Me Floral Designers' Competition and Conference.'"
"I know what I'm supposed to say, but I need a break."
"Help her, Robbee," I said, nodding to the dearly departed, whose leg was draped over the edge of the casket.
Robbee folded his arms across his chest. "If I wait, the show's gonna get better." To prove his point, Chloe's dress inched higher, revealing a shapely upper thigh. He waggled his eyebrows. "See what I mean?"
The casket teetered on its stand. "Go," I said, "before she tips it over and we have a bona fide use for the damned thing."
He sighed but strode up the aisle. Once Chloe was safely standing, she smoothed her navy dress into place over her trim figure. Petite, fair-haired, and lovely summed up her physical appearance, but her personality was harder to define. Chloe is quiet and reserved in a group. With me, she acts as if she's found a surrogate mother.
At twenty-five, she's the youngest of the six competitors in our design contest and the most naive. Robbee's flirtatious smile had brought a rosy glow to her cheeks. I sighed. Anyone who thinks all male florists are gay should see Robbee in action. He could charm the pistil from a cactus flower.
But a person can take only so much frivolity, especially when that person is in charge of the first floral contest our association has held. I'd been asked weeks ago to be the coordinator. Scuttlebutt had it that my name had been nominated because I hadn't attended the St. Louis design semifinals andcouldn't flat-out refuse. I'd accepted the job because it was an excuse to get out of River City.
Since Carl's passing, I'd thrown myself into my flower-shop business with a vengeance. I needed a change of scenery, and the chance to visit Branson was too good to pass up. However, after a day and a half with a bunch of egotistical, competitive florists, I was beginning to doubt the wisdom of my decision.
I rotated my shoulders to lessen the stress. When this weekend was still in the planning stage, I was sure Robbee and I could handle making the display bouquets and setting up the contest area. Before I left home, I'd worried myself into issuing a last-minute invitation to the contestants to participate in the behind-the-scene preparation. From the moment they stepped through the hotel's doorway I'd heard rumblings of discontent, with my abilities as contest coordinator their biggest beef.
In a cover letter to all the contestants, I'd made it clear that the design categories would remain a secret until Saturday when the competition began. I wanted the premise to be interpretation plus ingenuity--creativity under pressure. Now it seemed that the pressure was on me to reveal those categories. So far I'd stood my ground but tension was high.
Today was Thursday. Tomorrow the festivities would commence. I'd thought the conference fee was rather high, but two hundred eager florists had signed on to be entertained as well as educated by guest speakers who had made a name in the floral industry. Add in the cost of lodging at this pricey hotel, and the weekend would be danged expensive. Since I had a major role in the production, I wanted to make sure my colleagues got their money's worth.
But for now, all work would have to cease. I was starving. I glanced at my watch. It was after two o'clock. No wonder.
As I walked to the back of the conference room, I saw some floral supplies that had been left on a table. "Janitor, mother, contest coordinator," I muttered as I swept the mess into my oversized handbag. "Is there no end to my duties?" The pint of flower preservative was a tight fit, but I squeezed it into my purse.
At the door, I called good-bye to Chloe and Robbee. Neither looked around. They lounged against the casket as if they were in a single's bar. Robbee was such a tease, I hoped Chloe wouldn't take him seriously. But that's not my problem, I told myself as I entered the lobby of the Terraced Plaza.
The hotel is a five-year-old structure of glass and concrete and is part and parcel of an estate known as Haversham Hall. The old residence, with its palatial gardens and unique botanical conservatory, sprawls across a bluff overlooking Table Rock Lake. The hotel, located at the base of the bluff, was built to accommodate the surge of organizations needing a place to hold their conventions since Branson had become a vacation hot spot.
Yesterday when I walked in the front door, I'd been tempted to tuck tail and scurry back to my car. For someone who's afraid of heights this hotel levitates my phobia to a new stratosphere. The structure is nine stories high and each floor has a balcony that circles the interior of the building. An adventuresome guest can step directly from her room and look over the railing to the lobby below or across the heart-stopping abyss to the opposite tiers of rooms.
Glass-enclosed elevators bob up and down the walls like fishing lures, beguiling would-be victims. Thirty-foot trees, festooned in clear twinkle lights, shade the lobby with an ambience that's congenial and refreshing. Brick planters filled with tropical foliage edge ramps that carry foot traffic to differentlevels or terraces. A lounge, a café, and a souvenir shop were tucked into alcoves. The floral conference had access to numerous meeting rooms on the ground floor with storage for the mass of donated flowers in the basement.
A formal restaurant topped the building, and I'd been told the view was breathtaking. Tonight I'd have my chance to witness this dramatic display when officers and contestants came together for the introductory dinner. But for now, I was happy to have my feet firmly planted on the lower level of the hotel.
I saw Alvin at the front desk and made a quick detour over to him. Before I went up to my room, I needed to see if my last contestant had arrived. Yesterday, Angelica Weston, or Gellie, as she's affectionately known, had car trouble on Interstate 44 just outside of Springfield.
Alvin's gaze was locked on a computer screen. A young woman hung over his shoulder. I stopped at the counter and heard the woman say, "If you can find a 'Mrs. Carol Salmon' registered, I'll quit harping at Daphne. But I still say she didn't try to deliver these messages. They've been on my desk since yesterday, waiting for me to do her work."
I figured Alvin hadn't seen my approach. I was wrong. Briefly he held up a pudgy hand. "Wait a second, Bretta," he said, then continued typing.
Alvin's official job title is "Hotel Event Specialist." He's in his thirties, with thick chestnut hair and skin the color of an unbaked biscuit. He looked as if he never did anything more strenuous than pecking the keyboard. He wore the hotel uniform--teal slacks and a white crewneck shirt. The knit material hugged his love handles like cream over a plump strawberry. I licked my lips. A gnawing hunger was taking over my brain--biscuit, cream, and strawberry.
In the past few weeks, I'd visited with Alvin a number oftimes on the phone as we hashed out details for the floral contest. He'd listened to what I needed in the way of chairs, tables, refrigerated space for the donated flowers, huge trash containers, handy access to water, the casket from a local mortuary, and an ample supply of patience.
Alvin had met each of my demands and then some. It had been his idea to make optimum use of the hotel's banquet facilities by dividing the main meeting room, where we'd set up the funeral bier, from the actual contest area. For added drama, he'd suggested that the florists be asked to wait in the lobby and be admitted all at one time for the opening ceremony. That way Chloe wouldn't have to endure a lengthy stay in the casket before welcoming the visitors to the conference, and the attendees would have the full effect of the body in the casket as they made their way into the room. I was in agreement, so events were moving along.
Alvin finished typing and threw up his hands. "I give up. She isn't registered. In fact, there isn't anyone named Salmon here. I'd say toss the messages."
"I can't do that. The McDuffys are guests here. I'll just make a note that when they return, someone--named Daphne--has to let Vincent know the messages weren't deliverable." She peered at the slips of paper in her hand. "And everyone says my penmanship is atrocious."
She walked off muttering, and Alvin swiveled his chair to face me. His mouth curved into a welcoming smile.
"So," I said, leaning against the counter. "How's tricks?"
Alvin gave a mock shudder. "In this stellar hotel we avoid the use of that word."
I chuckled. "Just for the record, the service and your staff have been superb."
"Things are running smoothly?"
I thought of all the potential problems and sighed. "Let's just say that everything in your power is fine. I'm still a bit dubious about my part in this soiree." I gestured to the keyboard. "Could you tell me if Angelica Weston has arrived? She was supposed to be here yesterday, but she had car trouble. If she's stranded in Springfield, I need to know so I can rearrange my schedule and go get her."
Alvin clicked a few keys. "Yes, ma'am, she's here." He grinned. "See? Another worry resolved. You've got to have more faith, Bretta."
The telephone buzzed before I could give him my personal opinion of faith versus hard work, perseverance, and plain old bullheaded stubbornness. I waved farewell and moved on, giving the lobby a sweeping glance.
A good-looking man seated on one of the sofas peered at me over the top of an open newspaper. I got the impression he'd been giving me a thorough inspection. When I turned my attention to him, he met my gaze with a direct stare before raising the paper.
The brief glance we exchanged wasn't much, but I sucked in my stomach and wondered who I was trying to impress. I didn't recognize him as a fellow florist. He was simply an attractive man sitting in the lobby, but I'd responded to him like a flower taking up water after a drought. Confused by my reaction to a total stranger, I ignored the glass elevators, opting for the stairs.
It was a long climb to the fifth floor, but I needed the exercise. At the door to my room, I slipped the plastic card into the key slot, waited for the little lights to flash from red to green, and then turned the handle. The door met with a bit of resistance before swinging open.
What I needed was a cool drink and a snack. Before I left home, I'd fortified my suitcase for just such an occasion. I hauled my bag out of the closet and flipped back the lid to reveal my cache of goodies--diet style.
I groaned. "What was I thinking?" Fruit and fat-free cookies when I yearned for cashews in caramel or pecans in fudge. "Stop it. Think thin. Think chic." I savored a vision. "Chic ... ken fried to a crusty, golden brown."
I passed over the apples and bananas and grabbed a peach. While munching the succulent fruit, I opened the draperies, taking care to stand a few feet away from the floor-to-ceiling window.
Haversham Hall had rounded out its tourist complex with a miniature golf course that was in the final stages of completion. The theme "The Wonders of Missouri" was played out in Lilliputian detail: a small-scale version of the St. Louis arch. From Mark Twain's Tom Sawyer a partially whitewashed board fence. A log cabin portrayed Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House on the Prairie. A natural cave was rumored to be a real tourist treat, but it was the distant, natural view that inspired me.
The Ozarks were beautiful in the spring--miles and miles of country overlaid with trees. Stark branches were budded with nubs that would soon open and flourish under the warm Missouri sun. Cedar and pine spiced the vista with hope of life everlasting. White dogwoods looked as if they'd been caught in a freaky snowstorm, their four-petaled flowers bursting into a frothy cloud of bloom. Redbuds appeared like a rosy mist, rising from the earth, spreading color to a forest of greens and browns.
In crowded spots the trees rose tall and spindly, their limbsspaced farther and farther apart as they competed with their neighbors for room to grow. Others less pressed for space were compact; their limbs set at intervals that showed good nutrition as they maintained their correct cycle for maturity.
Breathing deeply, I allowed the true reason for this trip to surface. I'd come to Branson to get away from all that was familiar, so I could concentrate on what I wanted to do with the rest of my life--a life that didn't include Carl.
My flower shop in River City made me a good living and gave me an outlet for my artistry. I'd used Carl's life insurance money to buy an old mansion and was renovating it into a boardinghouse. I had friends. I had work. I had a fabulous home in the making. But I wanted--no--I needed more.
In the two years since Carl's death, I'd jumped from one project to another--always busy, always working, always on the move. I gave those tall trees another speculative look. Was I like them? Trying to reach new heights by stretching myself beyond limits that weren't healthy? During the next storm would I splinter because my foundation was weak from having tried to cover too much space in too short a time?
Carl had been a deputy with the Spencer County Sheriff's Department. He'd made me privy to his investigations--everything from assault to murder. My interest in his job and his trust in me had cemented our marriage as a partnership. Carl had used me as his sounding board by laying out the facts of a case he was working on. We'd discuss the evidence, and I'd point out possibilities or weak links. My lips twitched. Carl hadn't always agreed with my assessment--he could articulate with the best--but after I'd been right a few times, he'd listened to my theories and publicly given me credit.
After his death, I'd been drawn into doing some amateursleuthing on my own, which had almost gotten me killed. Abruptly I turned from the window and tossed the half-eaten peach into the trash.
The afternoon sunlight streamed into my room and highlighted a five-by-seven manila envelope lying on the floor by the door. I hadn't noticed it when I walked in. My mind had been on food.
Before picking up the envelope, I pushed a portion of it under the door. Tight fit, but I figured that's how it had been delivered. A note had been taped to the outside, and when I caught sight of the salutation, my eyebrows winged upward in surprise. It had been twenty-two months since anyone had referred to me as:
Mrs. Carl Solomon:
Last month my wife and I were in your shop buying flowers for our daughter's funeral. A nice lady helped us with our order because you were on the phone. We shamelessly eavesdropped on your conversation and learned that you would be in Branson this weekend for a floral convention. We've timed our trip to coincide with this event.
Your husband, Deputy Carl, was a fine man and a thoughtful officer. My wife and I live in the outer reaches of Spencer County, and when he was on patrol, he would stop in and visit with us. He often spoke of you and told us how you helped him with some of his investigations. We've since read in the River City Daily that you were instrumental in assisting the sheriff's department in solving two murders.
We don't have enough evidence to take to the authorities. You, Mrs. Solomon, are our only hope to right a terrible wrong. Please keep this envelope safe for us. If we haven'tretrieved it by 7:00 A.M. on Friday, you have our permission to open it and assess its contents.
Our highest regards, Vincent and Mabel McDuffy Spencer County, Missouri
LILIES THAT FESTER. Copyright © 2001 by Janis Harrison. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address St. Martin's Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.