"Death house is scary," said Toby. "People go in on a little bed and come out in a locked box." He eyed the sympathy bouquet on my worktable before turning his anxious gaze on me. "Bretta, are you taking those flowers over there?"
I shook my head. "Not this time. Lew will make the delivery to the funeral home."
Toby heaved a sign of relief. "I wouldn't want nothing to happen to you. You're my bud." His cheeks reddened as he touched the velvety petals of a yellow rose. "Get it, Bretta?" he said, casting me a shy look. "Bud. Buddy. Flower lady."
"Very clever. You're my bud, too." I gave Toby a wink, but kept poking flower stems into the bouquet I was working on. This was the last sympathy order. Once it was finished, I could turn my attention to the final details of a local banker's sixtieth birthday celebration. The man, a bass and crappie pro, fished in tournaments all over the Lake of the Ozarks.
I'd suggested to his wife a party theme that featured brightly colored lures, rods and reels, nets, and inexpensive tackle boxes used as fresh-flower containers. For a dramatic touch, and one that would boost the honoree's ego, we would artistically place his trophies among arrangements of cattails, driftwood, sunflowers, and native foliage. She had loved my ideas as long as I incorporated her collection of lighthouses in the decorations.
I glanced around the room and grimaced. Lighthouses in every color and size dominated the flower bouquets. The wife had turned a deaf ear when I'd pointed out that the structures might not strike an identifying chord with her River City, Missouri, guests.
River City is located about twenty miles from the interstate that links St. Louis to Springfield. The Osage River flows below the rugged limestone bluffs where our fair city was settled. We have our share of lakes and streams, but mostly we're a farming community with barns and silos dotting our landscape--not lighthouses.
Since the wife had a generous check in hand, I'd bowed to her wishes, but I wasn't happy. The subject of lighthouses had been exhausted. My staff was sick and tired of hearing me vent. So even on this hectic day, Toby was a welcome diversion.
He nodded to Lois, who was arranging bronze and yellow mums in an antique wicker creel, then to Lew, who was making a list of the afternoon deliveries. "You guys treat me good. I'd wash your windows for free, but I like money."
This honest comment made us laugh. Toby's childlike innocence was in sharp contrast to his appearance. He was six feet tall with curly brown hair and hazel eyes. He looked like any other robust, twenty-eight-year-old young man, but oxygen deprivation at birth had damaged a portion of his brain.
Lois walked around Toby to pick up a container of bear grass. She had joined a gym a few weeks ago and looked better than ever. Lois never divulged her age. I wasn't sure how old she was, but from different things she'd said, I had her pegged at fifty-nine. Now that she was exercising, she'd tossed away her cache of chocolates and replaced it with a bowl of grapes, apples, and oranges. She'd also taken to reading books on cholesterol,fiber, elimination, and other titillating, healthful subjects.
"You're looking mighty fine today," she said to Toby, eyeing his tanned, muscular legs. "Have you been working out?"
"Nah. Just pedaling my bike." Toby stuck out a leg. "It's as strong as a spider's web."
Lois grinned. "It would sound more impressive if you said you had muscles of steel."
Toby shook his head. "You're talking about Superman, but I like Spiderman best."
Lew cleared his throat, which was his way of letting us know he had something profound to add to the conversation. I didn't bother to look up. I knew what I'd see. In his late thirties, Lew was losing his hair. The bright ceiling lights would make his chrome-dome shine. His tie would be straight, his shirt collar still starched and fresh even though it was midafternoon.
He was a pompous man, but I could trust him to deliver my flowers with care. Plus, he had personal contact with some of River City's more affluent families. When it came right down to it, Lew was good for my business, if not for my nerves.
Lew said, "Actually, Lois, Toby's comparison is quite correct. A spider's web is Mother Nature's marvel. Engineers have calculated that a web woven of spider silk the thickness of a pencil could stop a jumbo jet in midair."
Lois asked a question, and Lew had the answer. He gave an impromptu lecture on the wonders of the strength, toughness, and elasticity of a spider's web. How it could stop a bee in flight. How legend had it that Genghis Khan conquered Asia because his soldiers were protected from enemy arrows by wearing clothing that had been interwoven with spider silk.
Lois listened to Lew, then said, "I'm hungry. That salad for lunch didn't stick with me. While you're out making deliveries,pick me up an order of onion rings. That should hold me until I get home."
I was used to this hop-skipping from one topic to another, and picked up on it without missing a beat. "What about your vow to eat healthy?" I asked, wondering if I should get something, too.
"I'll have a salad for dinner," Lois said, digging in her purse for money.
Lew shook his head. "I'm not stopping. The invention of 'takeout,' 'the drive-through window,' and the concept of 'supersized' has put a curse on the human race. Back in my grandmother's day, families worked hard. They ate nutritious meals. They met their obligations without government handouts. It was a matter of pride that kept their noses to the grindstone."
Lew continued in this vein, but I shut him out. I had other, more exciting things on my mind. I smiled to myself. I'd been doing a lot of smiling lately--when I wasn't obsessing about lighthouses. I was in love with a man who loved me, too.
I glanced at the clock. Three hours until I could lock the flower shop door and head for home. Bailey Monroe was coming for dinner, but before he arrived, I wanted to freshen up.
At forty-six, it took more than a dusting of face powder to make me feel desirable. My hair was more gray than brown. My blue eyes had circles under them. Physically, I was showing my age. Mentally, I was twenty again--at least where Bailey was concerned.
I came out of my daydreams when Toby jiggled my arm. Leaning close, he whispered, "Bretta, I don't want to listen to Lew." He pointed to a lighthouse that had been painted to resemble red brick. "I don't like that either."
I agreed with Toby in both instances. Hearing Lew's views on any subject was always irritating. As for the lighthouse, thatparticular one was especially offensive to me. It towered over my arrangement, reducing the flowers to insignificant spots of color. My artistic sensibilities were insulted by my own work, but I'd had no choice if I wanted to please my customer. However, Toby wasn't under my same restrictions. I wondered why he disliked the arrangement.
When I asked him, he pressed his lips tightly together and shook his head. Thinking he didn't want to criticize the bouquet, I said, "You won't hurt my feelings, Toby, if you don't like that arrangement of flowers."
His eyes opened wide with surprise. "All flowers are beautiful." He turned his back to the lighthouse and sighed. "Mostly, I'd like to get paid."
I chuckled. "That can be arranged."
Toby pulled a sales book from his shirt pocket. Directing a quick glance at Lew, he said, "I need quiet so I don't make a mistake on this bill."
There wasn't much chance of that. The amount never varied. I paid Toby eight dollars to wash my flower shop windows, adding a two-buck tip. I went to the cash register and waited for Toby to finish writing up the bill. After he'd handed me the receipt, I counted ten singles into his hand because he only accepted ones as payment.
After he'd carefully tucked the money into his billfold, he said, "Mr. Barker has a new lady at the bakery. I don't like her. She says funny things."
"Funny how?" I asked.
Toby's face scrunched into a frown as he thought hard. "Like I couldn't track an elephant in four feet of snow." He shrugged. "It's September, Bretta. There ain't no snow, and we ain't got no elephants here in River City, so why would I try to track one?"
Lois scowled. "Well, it's clear we've got a baboon."
Toby turned to Lois. "You mean like the three monkeys. 'Hear no evil. See no evil. Speak no evil.'"
"Words to live by," said Lew piously.
"But what is evil?" asked Toby, staring at me with trusting eyes. "Tell me how I'd know evil."
Lois ran a hand down the slender curve of her hip. "If it looks good, feels good, and tastes good, then it's probably--"
Not to confuse the issue, or Toby, I spoke quickly, "Evil is anything that causes others pain or harm."
"Oh," said Toby with obvious relief. "Then I'm okay. I wouldn't hurt nobody."
I touched his arm. "We know that. Ignore this new woman when she makes her comments."
"Hear no evil, right?" asked Toby.
"But it's evil to steal, ain't it?"
"Then there's an evil person coming onto my land. I told Sheriff Sid about this stealing, and he said I needed to hire you." Toby frowned. "Is it because my mother's flowers are being cut down?"
I went back to my workstation and picked up another yellow rose. It was easy to visualize Sid's mocking expression when he'd steered Toby in my direction. Before my husband, Carl, passed away, he'd been one of Sid's deputies. Sid had never liked the idea that Carl shared the facts of his cases with me, but then, Sid had never been married. He didn't understand the bond between a husband and wife. Carl and I had discussed everything--my work at the flower shop, his work with the Spencer County Sheriff's Department.
I have to admit that Carl's topics were more interesting thanwhether I should change plush-animal suppliers or add a line of designer chocolates to my flower shop inventory. But Carl had listened, just as I had when he talked about the crimes around Spencer County. I'd given him my opinion, which had some satisfying results.
Since Carl's death I'd done more than hypothesize. I'd taken an active part in solving several crimes, much to Sid's irritation. Sid could be a crotchety, belligerent man. He was also possessive of any notoriety connected with his cases, especially now that he was running a tight race for reelection. When I receive credit, I'm as welcome to him as a ragweed bouquet to an allergy sufferer.
So I ignored Toby's reference to Sid, and zeroed in on the other part of his statement. "Someone is stealing your mother's flowers?"
"That's right. Sheriff Sid said maybe the deer or the rabbits are having supper. But these aren't munchy plants, Bretta. Just big old woody stalks chopped off at the ground. They've got pretty flowers." Toby measured a six-inch diameter with his hands, which I took to be an exaggeration on his part.
"What kind of plants are they?"
"I don't know." Toby's voice quivered as he added, "Before my mama died, she showed me how to pick the seeds and make them grow in a pan by the kitchen window. She told me to plant six new rows every year." He smiled sadly. "I've done just like she said. They look pretty when they bloom."
"Why six rows?" asked Lew.
Toby's chin came up. "Because Mama said to plant six rows. She said some might go away."
Gently, I said, "What did she mean by 'go away'?"
Toby shrugged. "I guess die. Everything dies." He blinked a couple of times, then whispered, "Even Mama."
Agnes had beat cancer twice in her life, but when it reoccurred a third time, she'd put aside her pain long enough to make sure her son's future was secure. My flower shop is located on Hawthorn Street. Agnes had worked at the pharmacy just a few doors down. She'd been friendly in a general way, helping me as a customer, but I hadn't known her well. Fact was, I hadn't known she had a son until a month or so before she passed away. She'd brought Toby around to different shops along Hawthorn, introducing him to owners, explaining that he would be on his own soon and would need work. She'd said Toby couldn't handle being cooped up in a center or a factory, but he could wash windows, sweep sidewalks, and carry out trash.
I'd been deeply touched by the sad situation and had assured her that Toby could come to me if he needed help. I'd also suggested that she talk to Avery Wheeler, a lawyer and a dear friend of mine. He could assist her by tying up any legal ends regarding Toby's future.
Toby took a shaky breath. His voice was stronger as he said, "But these plants didn't die. They were chopped down." Toby stared at me. "You'll come to my house, won't you? Sheriff Sid said you would be there with bells on. I don't think we'll need the bells, unless you think they'll scare off the bad guy."
Lois and Lew snickered. I ignored them and said, "Of course I'll come by. Tomorrow is Saturday, and my day off. I have an appointment at ten, but I can be at your house about one o'clock. Will that be all right?"
Toby's happy smile chased away his gloom. "That'll be good. I gotta go, but I'll see you tomorrow." He walked to the front door and lifted the latch. Before he stepped outside, he looked back at me. "We'll be buds for years and years, won't we?"
I nodded. "Years and years."
As Toby closed the door, he gave me a fond look. His expression brought a lump to my throat. He was such a sweet young man, but he was so alone. After Agnes died, I'd asked around and discovered that he lived on Hawthorn, at the edge of town. He had no other family. The individual store owners his mother had introduced him to were his only friends. So sad.
Behind me, Lois called, "Hey, Bretta. I thought this big lighthouse was supposed to shoot out a beam of light. I get nothing when I plug it in."
Before I could reply, Lew said, "Let me handle it, Lois. I watched your husband last week when he rewired Mother's favorite floor lamp. I know exactly how to proceed."
I rolled my eyes and sighed. Yeah, right. This ought to be good.
Six hours later, I was in the company of the man I loved. We were stretched out in a hammock, in my garden, staring up at the sky. The September evening was cool, but I was warm, wrapped in Bailey's protective arms. I lay with my back against his broad chest. My head was cradled under his chin. I'd been telling him about my day, ending the tale with a "shocking" conclusion. Lew had tried to fix the lighthouse's electrical connection, but had gotten zapped in the process.
Bailey's laughter rumbled in his chest. "What does a proper man like Lew say when he comes close to getting electrocuted?"
"He couldn't speak at first, but when he recovered, he blurted out, 'I'm tingling like I just got laid.'" I grinned. "I still can't believe Lew said that. And you should have heard Lois. She wouldn't let up on him. Kept asking him what kind of wattage he was used to. What was her name? Why didn't he bring his hot mama around so we could meet her? Lew said hishand was burned. He left work early to have it treated, but I think he left because he was tired of Lois's teasing."
Bailey nuzzled my ear. "Speaking of hot mama, why don't we take a walk over to my house? Maybe I could interest you in a little tingling?"
I grew still. Over the last few months, we'd done our share of fooling around, but we hadn't done the deed--yet. Bailey's invitation couldn't be plainer. He wanted me in his bed. I wanted to be there, but I hesitated. I had issues. They weren't of a sexual nature, or at least I didn't think so.
I was fully conscious of how our bodies melted together. How his legs twined with mine. How his arms tightened around me. I closed my eyes and tuned into my body's rhythms. My heart thudded. My pulse raced. A flash of heat warmed my face and spread down my neck at the thought of being intimate with Bailey.
Nope. My problems didn't stem from a lack of carnal urges. I had plenty of those. It was other areas in my life that needed tending.
He cleared his throat. "Since you haven't leaped up to lead the way to my house, I'm taking that as a no."
I twisted around so I could see his face. I'd met Bailey when I was in Branson at a floral convention. He'd been a working undercover DEA--Drug Enforcement Administration--special agent. I'd been exposed to the lying, scheming, suspicious persona that made up his disguise, but some part of me had seen the true Bailey Monroe. My attraction to him had held through the long weeks after I'd left Branson, thinking I'd never see him again. Then out of the blue, he'd popped up on my doorstep, the proud owner of the cottage located next to my property. We'd shared some rough times, but our love hadgrown. He was retired now and was writing a book about his career as a federal officer.
There was just enough light left from the sunset to shine on his coppery eyes. His full lips were turned down in an exaggerated frown. I stroked his cheek. "Buck up, sweetheart. Tingling is on my mind, just not tonight."
"What's bothering you? More important, do you want to talk about it?"
I settled back against his chest. "Not particularly, but it doesn't have to be a long conversation. I can sum it up in two words--my father."
Bailey chuckled. "Two words, but they encompass a passel of emotions."
"Isn't that the truth? I've forgiven him for running out on me when I was eight years old. I'm trying to accept him as the meddlesome busybody he is. He's likable. He's kindhearted. He has good intentions, but they always seem to backfire on me."
"I sensed a coolness between the two of you at dinner. What's going on?"
"Without asking me, Dad hired an interior decorator to do the upstairs bedrooms. He and this DuPree woman have been plotting and planning for the last two weeks, but he only deemed it necessary to tell me this morning before I left for work."
"DuPree? Does she have a business here in River City?"
"Yes. Ms. Abigail DuPree is the owner of Par Excellence Interiors. When Dad told me he'd set up an appointment so I could meet her tomorrow at ten, I decided that forewarned was forearmed. I drove by her store. I planned to go in and scope it out, but I was overwhelmed when I saw the display in her front window."
Bailey rubbed my shoulder. "That bad, huh?"
I wanted to wail my frustration but settled for a pitiful moan. "It was ghastly. Bolts of zebra-striped material formed the backdrop that showcased some crudely carved furniture. Accents of leopard skin, vases of peacock feathers, and, would you believe, there was a stuffed armadillo perched on a red leather ottoman."
"It sounds ... uh ... unique."
I snorted. "That's one way of putting it." I swung my feet over the edge of the hammock and, after a couple of tries, I managed to stand up.
Bailey sighed. "I guess our moment of togetherness has passed." When I didn't comment, he got up, too. Once he was at my side, he said, "Don't take offense at what your father has done. Redecorating seven bedrooms is a big project. In the long run, you might welcome Ms. DuPree's assistance."
I didn't answer because Bailey had stated the obvious. It was a big project, but it was my decision on how the renovated rooms were to be finished. Granted, I had turned the supervision of the remodeling over to my father, but I'd never dreamed he'd take on the decorating, especially without consulting me before he called in what he termed a "professional."
As a florist, I knew color, contrast, and design. But most of all, I knew that my Greek Revival home did not warrant zebra print or leopard skin accents.
I tried to ignore the voice inside my head that told me I wasn't being fair to Abigail DuPree. The whole point of a window display was to grab the attention of potential customers. I used that ploy at the flower shop, but I'd learned to soft-pedal the outrageous. Abigail's mistake had been combining too many flamboyant components in one exhibit. If I'd been doing it, I would have--
I shrugged. Why go there? It was obvious that my approach to design differed from hers. There was no getting around it. I'd been put off by her window display, so I didn't have confidence in her ability to decorate my beloved home.
The trunk of a gigantic maple tree blocked my view. I moved around it so I could see the house. I sighed with satisfaction. There it stood in all its historic glory--gleaming white paint; tall, stately columns; wide, elegant veranda.
My home. My pride and joy. My sanctuary. Or it had been until my father moved in and took over. I frowned as I pondered those last two words. Maybe I was being too harsh on Dad, too.
"Bailey," I said softly, "am I wrong to feel betrayed by my father? It's as if he doesn't trust me to make the right decisions for my own house."
"I don't think he had that in mind. He knows you're busy. He's trying to help."
My shoulders slumped. "I've heard that before. Remember when he poked his walking stick at that crack in the plaster and the entire ceiling came down?"
"And what about the time my car was vandalized? My father arranged for salesmen to bring all those new vehicles out here just so I could choose one."
Bailey nodded. "I still think you should have picked the Viper. That's one hell of a car."
I raised an eyebrow. "Are you missing my point?"
Before he could answer, DeeDee came out the terrace doors. She had the cordless phone in her hand and a concerned expression on her face. "What's wrong?" I asked, hurrying to meet her.
She thrust the phone at me. "It's the sh-sheriff. H-He wants to s-speak to you."
DeeDee is my twenty-three-year-old housekeeper. When she came into my employment, she was a shy waif of a girl. Because she stutters, her overprotective parents had nearly ruined her prospects for a happy, productive life. Giving her the responsibility of running my household had bolstered her confidence. Now, I'm proud to say, she's full of vim and vigor and even has the courage to speak her mind, especially where my welfare is concerned.
I took the phone, placing my hand over the mouthpiece. "Did he say what he wanted?"
"No, but if h-he's calling you, it can't be good n-news." That was true, but I put a positive note in my voice. "Hi, Sid. What can I do for you?" I was prepared for his usual caustic tone, which was always present when he spoke with me.
"Bretta," he said quietly. "I thought you'd want to know. We just put Toby Sutton in an ambulance. He's in bad shape. The outcome doesn't look good."
BINDWEED. Copyright © 2005 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.