About the Author
Janis Harrison, author of three previous Bretta Solomon mysteries, owns and operates a greenhouse in Windsor, Missouri.
With the Bretta Solomon series, which includes Roots of Murder and Murder Sets Seed, Janis Harrison has combined her career as a florist with her love of writing. She and her husband live near Windsor, Missouri, where they operate their own greenhouse business.
Read an Excerpt
A Deadly Bouquet
By Janis Harrison
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2003 Janis Harrison
All rights reserved.
"Death tapped me on the shoulder, so I figured my time was up." Oliver adjusted the strap on his overalls and looked at me. "Bretta, that heart attack nearly sent me to my grave." His eyes sparkled when he grinned. "But I'm still here. I've got holes to dig, only they aren't for my old body."
I touched the leaves of the golden spirea shrub Oliver was about to plant. "Old gardeners never die. They just spade away."
He chuckled. "Ain't it the truth. Fifty years ago, when I began my landscaping business, my only qualifications for a job were my love of plants and a new spade. This is that original tool." Oliver caressed the worn handle. "Whenever I touch this wood memories of bygone years flash into focus."
Oliver lowered his voice. "But I can't trust my memory like I used to. Since I came home from the hospital my old noggin goes out of kilter. I see things, remember things, but I don't always make the connection."
"Your body has been through a rough time."
"Yeah." Oliver nodded. "That's true." His grip tightened on the wooden handle. "One thing is for certain. I haven't forgotten how to plant a shrub. My father was a gardener pure and simple. 'Just as the twig is bent, the tree's inclined.' From an early age I knew what my course in life would be."
I watched Oliver ease the sharp tip of the spade into the soil. He was a nice man, and I enjoyed visiting with him, but I wondered if it was a good idea for him to be working. He appeared to be in fair health, but his heart attack had been just six months ago. His eyes were bright, his weathered cheeks flushed, but that could be from the warm sun shining on us.
River City Commemorative Park was a lovely place on this June morning. A gentle breeze stirred the oak and maple leaves and carried the sweet scent of petunia blossoms. Birds twittered with importance as they brought food to their newly hatched offspring. It was peaceful and should be an ideal spot for a wedding. Just how ideal would be proved a week from today when the Montgomery/Gentry nuptials put my flower shop's reputation on the line.
When Evelyn Montgomery first approached me with plans for her daughter Nikki's wedding, I'd seen the event as a way of stretching my artistic talents, as well as getting the word out that I was capable of more than sympathy and hospital bouquets. I'd visualized turning the park into a floral fantasy. My shop would get the kudos, and my River City floral competitors would choke on my creative dust.
If my husband, Carl, were alive, he'd have cautioned, "Bretta Solomon, when ego comes into play, the brain takes a holiday."
I hoped my little gray cells were stretched on some sandy beach soaking up sunshine, because the rest of this ego-ridden body had been trapped into making sure every floral detail of this wedding was perfectly executed. I would triumph if it killed me—and the way things were going, it very well might.
Since my initial contact with Evelyn, my doctor had treated me for a severe case of hives. I also had a persistent burning in the pit of my stomach that disappeared only when I was sure Evelyn was otherwise occupied. Too many times, I'd been surprised by her popping into the flower shop to have a "brief confab" over a detail we'd settled an hour ago.
Today's appointment was for ten o'clock, but it was only nine thirty. I'd come to the park early so I could look over the lay of the land and perhaps zero in on something that would soothe my ragged nerves. It had been my good fortune to find Oliver Terrell and his son, Eddie, hard at work on the plantings Evelyn had donated to the park.
As Oliver lifted another scoop of dirt, Eddie said, "Dad, take a break. I still think it was a lousy idea for you to come on this job. I could've handled it."
Eddie was around my age—forty-five—and had fabulous blue eyes. I was sure he had hair, though I'd never seen it. A cap bearing his company's name—Terrell Landscaping—usually sat atop his handsome head.
Oliver took a red handkerchief from his pocket and wiped his brow. "I'm fine. I need this work to get in shape for when we tackle Bretta's garden next week."
I flexed my fingers. "I can hardly wait. I plan on being right alongside both of you, pulling weeds, chopping stumps, wheeling mulch—"
"—smoothing Ben-Gay on your aching muscles," finished Eddie.
I grinned. "Probably, but I'm looking forward to the challenge. Being a florist is more cerebral than physical. I don't get much exercise toting bouquets."
Eddie dumped a wheelbarrow load of shredded bark on a tarp he'd spread near the shrubs Oliver was planting. "Surely, toeing Mrs. Montgomery's line has kept you in tiptop shape?"
I reached into my pocket and flashed a roll of antacid tablets at him. "Does this answer your question?"
Eddie grunted. "I should buy stock in that company."
"When Evelyn asked me to design the flowers for her daughter's garden wedding, I listened to her general outline, then calmly replied, 'Sure, no problem.' And there's been problems galore."
Eddie muttered something under his breath. I didn't catch his comment, but Oliver did. "A job is a job, son. We're here to please the customer." Oliver turned to me. "I haven't met Mrs. Montgomery, but from what Eddie has told me, it sounds as if she has more money than common sense."
Wasn't that the truth? I left father and son to their work and meandered down the path that led to the area of the park known as Tranquility Garden—the site of the upcoming nuptials. For weeks, I'd reminded myself that Evelyn Montgomery had a right to be persnickety. As mother of the bride, she wanted everything perfect for her daughter's wedding.
Nikki and her fiancé were on a tour of the United States with a ballet company from France. When the troupe hit St. Louis, they'd be a hop, skip, and a pirouette from River City. There would be a two-day layover before the dance company continued on with the tour.
Two days to be fitted for gowns and tuxedos, the rehearsal, and the main event. Thank heavens, I only had to make sure the flowers were petal perfect.
I stuffed another antacid tablet into my mouth and heard voices off to my left. The tone of one stood out from the other: Sonya Norris, wedding coordinator, had arrived. Brides paid dearly for her services because if a job had to be done, and done right, Sonya would see to it. She wouldn't physically do the work herself, but her instructions would be carried out.
The women came into view. Sonya was tall and thin and favored "power" suits, tailored blouses, and plain gold hoop earrings. Her hair was dark and cut in a no-nonsense style. Today she was dressed in a teal-blue straight skirt and matching jacket. Her blouse was a lighter shade.
The woman with Sonya was Dana Olson, a River City caterer. I liked Dana. She was as sweet as the cakes she baked. Soft and pudgy, her figure was a testimonial to her prowess in the kitchen. For children's parties she not only decorated the cakes but also dressed as a clown. This added bonus had made her popular with frazzled mothers.
As the two women walked toward me, I had a mental flash of Dana in total clown regalia cutting the Montgomery wedding cake. The image made me shudder. Why had Evelyn given Dana, whose forte was birthdays and anniversaries, total responsibility for the food for such a lavish party? Perhaps Sonya was thinking along those same lines. Now that they were closer, I could make out their conversation.
"—can't bring all that food across this path to the tent. There's to be a display of flowers, candles, and hurricane lamps. Think, Dana," Sonya ordered sharply. "You'll have to hire extra help to carry your supplies from the other side."
"I already have three girls on the payroll. I'd like to make a profit for all this worrying." Dana shook her head, and her brown curls bounced. "And to think I turned down four ordinary birthday cakes and a golden anniversary to cater this wedding."
"It will work," said Sonya. "My job is to spot a potential problem, but you have to follow my suggestions." She turned to me. "Bretta. It's good to see you here early. I hope everything is shipshape on your end of this gala?"
I only had time to nod before Dana started again.
"That's all well and good, Sonya, but where were you this morning when Mrs. Montgomery called to tell me to look at the sunrise?" Dana didn't wait for an answer. "Our mother of the bride wants me to match that particular rosy apricot color for the punch." A hot flush stained Dana's plump cheeks. "Who gives a flying fig about the punch when the cake has to tower six feet in the air?"
"Six feet?" repeated Sonya, frowning. "I thought the cake was to be spread over three tables with sugar bridges connecting the tiered layers. When was that changed?"
"Try eight o'clock last night. Mrs. Montgomery says Nikki has decided she wants a cake that will stand as tall as her six-foot fiancé."
"Oh my," said Sonya. "Not a good plan. The tent is to have a wooden floor, but as people walk about, the shifting of the boards might topple—"
"Don't even say it." Dana moaned. "I wish I'd never taken this job. I feel as if I'm being punished. Nikki will be in St. Louis. Why not have the wedding there?"
I added my two cents to the conversation. "I have to admit I'm surprised Evelyn would hold such an important event in a town she's called home for less than a year."
Sonya shrugged. "She's made more influential friends in the last eight months than I have all my life. You should see the guest list. The mayor is coming, as well as bankers, doctors, lawyers, councilmen, judges, and all of River City's elite. At last count there's to be five hundred people milling around this park."
"But why River City?" whined Dana. "Why us? Why—"
"Dana," said a woman coming down the path toward us, "will you stop that screeching? I could hear you clear out to the parking lot."
This new arrival looked like a sixties reject who had found her way back into style. She wore bell-bottom slacks and a tie-dyed shirt. A narrow band of cloth was fastened around her forehead and kept her stringy blond hair out of her eyes. She was as thin as a willow branch. Her arms were like twigs.
"You think you've got problems?" she said, pointing to a mammoth oak. "See that tree? Workmen are coming this week to build a platform so I can take aerial photos of this wedding." She tossed her head. "I've been ordered to dress as if I'm a guest so I won't be intrusive. Can you explain to me how I'm supposed to climb that tree in a skirt and panty hose while carrying a video camera and equipment?"
I shifted uncomfortably. All these last-minute changes bothered me. For the past twenty-four hours I hadn't heard a peep out of Evelyn. I turned to Sonya. "Exactly why were we asked to meet here this morning?"
Before Sonya could answer, another woman sprinted toward us. Her hair was a shrieking shade of green. Her eyes glittered like emeralds. She wore an orange uniform with a lemon-colored apron tied around her narrow waist. "Hi, guys. Am I late?"
"Would it matter?" asked Dana, staring at the green hair.
"Nope. I've got a business to run, and Claire's Hair Lair has to come first. I can't be away for more than an hour. I'm on the trail of a hot piece of gossip, and Mrs. Dearborne is coming in for a perm. If I phrase my questions just right, she'll never know what I'm after, and I'll—"
"Claire, what have you done to your hair?" demanded the photographer. "All those chemicals aren't healthy."
Claire gave the woman's own limp hair a sharp study. "Cut, color, curl. The three C's will earn you a man."
"Like your track record makes me want one."
I laughed politely with the others, but had the feeling I was being left out of some private joke. While Sonya and I had a professional acquaintance, and I'd often sold Dana fresh flowers to decorate her cakes, the other two women were strangers.
I asked for an introduction, and Sonya quickly responded, "I'm sorry, Bretta. Since we know each other, I never thought you'd be left out of the loop. The woman with the broccoli-colored hair and contacts is Claire Alexander, beauty shop owner." Sonya turned to the other woman. "This is Kasey Vickers. She's a local celebrity. Her photo-essays have earned her national recognition in environmental circles."
I must have looked as confused as I felt. An environmentalist was shooting the photos for a wedding?
Sonya said, "I know what you're thinking. But regardless of the subject, Kasey's photo techniques will give Nikki a wonderful keepsake."
Impatiently, Claire said, "What are we waiting for? I have to get back to my shop." She lowered her voice. "After I talk to Mrs. Dearborne, I may have some news that will knock you all onto your fannies."
Sonya frowned. "You keep hinting at some great secret. Are you going to let us in on it?"
"Not till I get more information."
Sonya said, "It's no wonder you became a beautician. You thrive on gossip. What's going on?"
Claire shook her head. "I'm not saying another word."
"That'll be the day," muttered Kasey.
Dana turned to me. "Ignore their bickering. Our friendship goes back to high school."
I looked from one face to another. "You're all the same age? What year did you graduate?"
"Nineteen sixty-six," said Dana, fluffing her brown curls. "I'm the baby of the group."
While the others razzed her, I did some fast calculations. If they had graduated when they were eighteen that meant these women were fifty-four years old. Of the four, only Sonya looked her age. Dana's plump cheeks were wrinkle-free. I wouldn't have guessed the green-haired Claire to be past forty. As for Kasey, her skin was stretched so tightly over her bones my estimation of her age would've been way off the mark.
Claire thrust her hands into her apron pockets. "That's how we can get away with the insults. We've been friends too long to let a little criticism separate us. Besides, nothing any of us could say would be new." She studied her friends and softly chanted, "You can boil me in oil. You can burn me at the stake. But a River City Royal is always on the make."
Dana's mouth dropped open. Sonya stiffened. Kasey said, "No, Claire. You—" But then she stopped and bit her lip.
In the silence that followed, we heard Evelyn's voice. Her tone was sharp. "I want everything perfect, right down to the leaves on the shrubs."
Evelyn walked toward us with Eddie and Oliver trailing along behind her. When I met Eddie's gaze, my stomach muscles tightened. The man had fire in his eyes. Oliver's skin was mottled. His chest rose and fell with sharp, agitated breaths.
I looked back at Evelyn. She was a beautiful woman—blue-black hair and deep brown eyes, her complexion as smooth as a magnolia blossom, her makeup flawless. She possessed a figure a teenager would have envied. Pointed breasts, a narrow waist, and nicely rounded hips were displayed in a bronze-colored dress.
"As I've told Mr. Terrell," Evelyn said, coming into our circle, "my goal for this wedding is a tribute to an exquisite woman." She dazzled us with a smile. "Thank you for coming this morning. I thought it best to be on-site for this discussion. If you have any questions, suggestions, or complaints say them now. You'll have my undivided attention. Oliver and Eddie have heard what I want." She nodded to them. "You may both go back to work."
It was a cool dismissal, but Eddie had something else to say. Oliver tugged on his son's arm, but Eddie wouldn't move.
Evelyn ignored him and said, "All right, ladies, who wants to go first?"
Claire stepped forward. "I have to get back to my shop—"
"That hot piece of gossip from Mrs. Dearborne won't wait, huh?" asked Dana.
Oliver stared at Claire. "Dearborne? Gossip? Who are you?"
Claire raised an eyebrow. "I'm Claire Alexander, owner of Claire's Hair Lair."
Oliver studied her face and shook his head. "I don't know you, but suddenly something is niggling at me." He gazed at the ground. "I wish I could remember."
Evelyn said, "Please, we have to discuss the fine points of Nikki's wedding."
Oliver closed his eyes and cocked his head as if listening to some distant sound. His hand moved up and down the handle of his spade. "So long ago," he murmured.
Excerpted from A Deadly Bouquet by Janis Harrison. Copyright © 2003 Janis Harrison. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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