The newly married Kate Jasper has to put her honeymoon on hold when she gets stuck in the middle of a murderous muddle.
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Just shoot 'em, I say--"
"Lighten up! Cripes, it's only March. You can't just shoot deer out of hunting season, or in your own backyard for that matter," Dr. Reed Killian tried to reason, bouncing on his heels and waving his hands. Reed had handsome, slightly fleshy features under his dark, exquisitely styled hair. I wondered if he'd sculpted those features himself. He was a plastic surgeon. And there was probably nothing he could do about the unfashionable fleshiness. Nothing but starve.
Reed looked frantically over his lectern, signaling the owner of the nursery for backup. After all, it was Avis Eldora who'd asked him to be tonight's speaker at the Eldora Nurseries Thursday evening Deer-Abused Support Group, or the Deerly Abused, as I was beginning to think of our fledgling membership. And there we were, all neatly arranged in a semicircle of metal folding chairs near the cash register to hear everything that Reed had to say on the subject of deer abuse.
But Avis didn't respond to Reed's signal for backup. She just pulled up a shoulder as if to hide behind it and turned her ageless, elegant profile away under her trademark wide-brimmed hat. I didn't blame her. Battling deer was one thing, but battling members of the group came under another category. Actually, it probably came under a lot of categories, beginning with Bad for Business.
"I don't care if it is illegal," Dr. Sandstrom resumed from his chair, two seats over from me, his voice loud enough to grab everyone's attention without even yelling. Now, Dr. Sandstrom couldn't have been called handsome. His features might have been even,but they were as long and narrow as a stalk of lupine. And the visual assault of his compressed, thin lips and the squint of his eyes under his aviator glasses was enough to make you want to turn your head away. That much anger in a face could turn a person to stone. Not to mention a deer. The back of my neck prickled. "I'm talking the laws of nature," he went on. "Nature isn't a moron. Haven't you noticed how small and sick the deer are these days? Nature doesn't want 'em. Now, a simple coffee-can Claymore mine, that's the ticket. You have to do what's necessary. Bam-bam-Bambi, I say."
Yuck. I hoped Dr. Sandstrom, as he insisted on being addressed, wasn't going to tell us any more about land mines. I looked over at Wayne's sweet, homely face, catching his large hand in mine and squeezing it. Wayne, I cooed inwardly, a coo I would have never repeated aloud. How embarrassing. Wayne, my husband. Even more embarrassing was the giddiness I felt when I said the word "husband," even in the privacy of my own mind. Wayne and I had finally gotten married, secretly, at the Marin County Clerk's office two days ago. I remembered his whispered vows--
"Hey, you lay off, you wickety-wack old man," Darcie Watkins broke in from my other side. She was only thirteen years old. Still, she looked almost as angry as Dr. Sandstrom. Her square face was flushed under her baseball cap and her prominent teeth were bared under dark brown lipstick as she leaned forward in her seat. "You're as messed up as my dad, and that's saying a whole effing lot. Deer are just animals. Nice animals. And you're just a jack--"
"Now, Darcie," her grandmother, Jean Watkins, intervened, her jaw just as square as her granddaughter's under a face very like Darcie's despite the generations between them. She put a hand on Darcie's shoulder, a hand that seemed more loving than reprimanding in intent.
"Aw, Gramma," Darcie whined. But she leaned into her grandmother's hand despite the whine.
"Listen," Reed suggested, forcing a cheery smile. "Let's just keep this discussion upbeat--"
"Yeah, Darcie," Lisa Orton put in. This battle wasn't over yet. "Fathers! I thought the deer were abusive, but you're worse, Doctor Sandstrom. You should be sorry--"
"Lisa," Reed interrupted gently, though there was impatience underlying his mild tone. He bounced on his heels some more.
Lisa looked up at our speaker. She must have been twenty years older than Darcie, but at that moment she looked like a child herself, with her round dark eyes wide open. Or maybe it was her freckles and pony tail. She sucked in her lower lip and pulled on her fingers like a chastened schoolgirl.
"Let's have fun with this," Reed tried again. "We're all here to talk about protecting our gardens from deer--"
But Dr. Sandstrom still had a few of his own licks to get in.
"You," he accused, pointing at Lisa. "Darcie is only a child. Her behavior is excusable. But aren't you old enough to engage in reasonable discussion without bringing up your father? Are you one of those fools who blames their parents for your own problems? Grow up..."
I looked back at Wayne. His rough cheeks were pink now. I traveled inward to a world of silent coos and left behind the angry voices surrounding me, breathing deeply of the scents of rosemary and wet potting soil drifting in the doorway. Did my new husband know what I was thinking as I sat next to him? Wayne, my sweet Wayne, one of the homeliest men I'd ever met, with a face dominated by a cauliflower nose and brows so low you had to be below him to look up into his vulnerable, brown eyes. Of course, looking up at him was easy since he was tall and muscular below that gargoyle's face. A gentle giant. An intelligent giant. A loving and sensitive giant. And now my husband. I realized I was getting giddy again and shook my head to clear it. We'd come to tonight's support group because our garden had been mauled by the local deer. And because neither of us had time for a honeymoon. I told myself I should at least listen. I might learn something.
"...to read my manuscript," Howie Damon was finishing up as I tuned back in. I looked over at Howie's undistinguished round face. A little blob of a nose, a small mouth, and even smaller eyes looked back. His manuscript?
"What does your manuscript have to do with killing deer?" Dr. Sandstrom cut back in.
"Not killing deer!" Reed insisted, his voice shrill now as he rolled his eyes in their handsome sockets. "Controlling deer. Come on, get real! There are lots of ways to control deer that don't involve claymore mines--"
"Look, I say what I mean," Sandstrom cut back in. "'Controlling deer,'" he mimicked, his voice unnaturally high. Then he snorted. "No euphemisms for me. Now, maybe you don't want to get your yuppie hands dirty to deal with the critters. Maybe that's what you're afraid of. Yeah, and I'll bet you didn't go to Vietnam either." He sat back in his chair triumphantly.
Reed closed his eyes and took a deep breath.
"Actually, I did, Dr. Sandstrom," he replied, lowering his voice with an obvious effort. "And I did not have fun. But we are here tonight to talk about deer management. Maybe we've gotten off to a bad start, but I think we ought to keep rolling. Since there are many of us here who obviously have some feelings on this subject, let's all introduce ourselves and talk about those feelings, okay?"
Wow, Deer Anonymous.
"Capital idea, my dear chap," the black, thirty-something woman from the end of the row put in. I blinked in surprise and hoped no one noticed. Somehow, I hadn't expected to hear the high, nasal twang of the British upper classes coming from the membership of the Deerly Abused. The woman had laughing eyes in a face the color of true maple syrup. She reached up to twiddle one of the curls in her topknot and smiled, her teeth sparkling white. "Deer are nasty little blighters, it's true. But even as a postmistress of your fair county, I wouldn't go postal on the poor creatures, what?"
A silence descended on our group. I realized I wasn't the only one surprised by the woman's manner of speech.
"Oh, what a nuisance," the woman added with another sparkling smile. "Forgot to introduce myself, what? Gilda Fitch, late of Great Britain, now an American citizen." Then she saluted. "Rah-rah."
Ah, Gilda was having fun. Good. I was glad someone was. She winked my way as though she'd heard my thought. Or seen me smiling back, most likely.
"Well, I've already introduced myself," Howie Damon finally put in. "I'm a high school administrator. I garden. And I write. In fact, I've just finished a manuscript detailing three generations of Californians--"
"Any California deer in it?" Maxwell Yang drawled from Howie's side. Maxwell Yang didn't need any introduction. Anyone in the San Francisco Bay area had seen his well-groomed impish Asian features on TV's Everyone's Talking. Even those of us without TVs had seen his face in the newspaper or heard him interviewed on the radio. Our local answer to Oprah.
"Well, yes, Mr. Yang," Howie squeaked enthusiastically. "Man and deer, their fates entwined. In fact, I hoped you might take a look at my manuscript tonight," he added raising about four inches of paper from his lap. I wondered how many pages four inches made. Too many, I guessed from Maxwell's momentarily unguarded blink of annoyance.
"Will you keep your idiotic manuscript out of this discussion?" Dr. Sandstrom demanded.
Howie ducked his head as if to look down at the doctor's olive-drab hiking boots, but there was hurt in his movement.
"Well, I'm Maxwell Yang," our TV host interposed quickly. That was kind of him. Or maybe he was just tired of the squabbling. "And I, too, have a deer problem. In the animal world, my appeal seems to extend to does as well as stags, not to mention fawns." He waved his hand, smiling that attractive self-deprecating smile that had probably charmed many a man, if not a few women. "But in this case their attention is unwelcome--"
"Deer, folks," Dr. Sandstrom interrupted again. "We are not here to talk about fathers or manuscripts or sexual proclivities. We're here to talk about deer."
Maxwell merely smiled at the interruption, with a faint arching of his eyebrows. Dr. Sandstrom might have been flirting with Maxwell for his response.
"I think the doctor's right," a woman sitting next to Dr. Sandstrom cooed. Ugh. I didn't like hearing my inner coos aloud. Except that hers had a raspy, Southern accent. She had a nice makeup job on her postmenopausal baby face, and her blond hair twirled from her head like a spray of extra-long rotini pasta. She turned to Sandstrom. "I'm Natalie Miner, and I must say that the good Lord knows we're all here because deer are decimating our gardens. Surely you folks ought to appreciate that. I'm sure I do." Then she tilted her head and threw the doctor a sympathetic glance.
Dr. Sandstrom flinched. What all the yelling and reasoning could not do, a little Southern coquetry had accomplished. Sandstrom was quiet. He crossed his arms and turned his head away from Natalie.
"Jeez, what an airhead," Darcie commented in a stage whisper.
"Darcie!" Jean Watkins rapped out. This time, she didn't put a comforting hand on her granddaughter's shoulder.
"Sorry, Gramma," Darcie said quietly. The thirteen-year-old was wearing an awful lot of makeup under her baseball cap, but it couldn't hide her blush. "Sorry, Ms. Miner."
"Why don't you introduce yourself, Darcie?" Reed suggested cautiously.
"Um," Darcie answered. "I'm, like, Darcie Watkins. I'm here 'cause Gramma's got deer in her garden, and they eat her roses, and she feels bad." She paused, then added, "I live with my gramma 'cause my dad is all messed up like Dr. Sand--"
"Darcie lives with me because I love her," Jean Watkins intervened. "And she's right about my garden. I'm afraid I have very high standards for my blooms, and I get upset when the deer eat them. But I do believe we should act responsibly and reasonably to discourage the animals. The way we treat a species such as deer affects the way we treat our entire planet. And each other."
"Good point," Reed chirped, beaming.
"Well, you're not alone, Darcie," Lisa Orton added. "I can understand your feelings. My father was a doctor--"
Dr. Sandstrom started to open his mouth, but Lisa got back on track before he could cut in.
"I have trouble with deer, too. I've been trying to grow vegetables and a nice border. Then I heard about this group. I love support groups." She brought her palm to her face and popped something in her mouth before continuing. "See, it works out great. I have my survivors' group on Tuesday, and Women Without Partners on Wednesday, and on Thursdays I see my therapist at six o'clock, so eight o'clock is perfect for the deer group."
"Kate?" Reed asked quickly, before Lisa could go on.
"Huh?" I said, briefly startled. Then I caught up and identified myself and my trouble with deer. It took a while to cover every kind of plant they'd eaten, from chrysanthemums and roses to tomatoes and strawberries, but everyone seemed to nod at the mention of each. When I had finally exhausted my complaints, Reed's eyes traveled to my side.
"Wayne Caruso," my sweetie--my husband--jumped in without further prompting. "Same garden, same worries." Rank, name, and serial number. Groups have that effect on him.
We all looked around. Reed had introduced himself when he took the podium. Who was left?
"Well, you all know me--Avis," came the hesitant but clear voice of Eldora Nurseries' owner. For a moment I glimpsed the beauty of her aging face under her hat and scarf. Avis obsessed about skin cancer and kept each and every one of her body parts protected from the sun. Or maybe from questioning glances. Her elegant profile, almond-shaped green eyes, and sensual lips were hard to forget once sighted. How many years ago had she been in her prime as an actress? Thirty? Forty? "Lots of you have asked what to do about the deer over the years, and I just thought it would be nice to get together and discuss solutions. And Dr. Reed Killian has studied the subject extensively. Shall we go on?" She turned her head toward Reed.
Reed looked toward Dr. Sandstrom, inviting him with sculpted eyes to formally introduce himself. The doctor got up, pushed his chair back, and then stomped from the room out the front door to join the flats and pots of plants resting silently behind iron gates. Deer-proof iron gates.
Reed sighed loudly, looked at our group, and then followed Dr. Sandstrom out the door.
"Well, shall we have a little break?" Avis suggested shyly. "Maybe we can just mingle informally for a while. Enjoy the evening. Feel free to look around the nursery. It's really pretty this time of evening."
"Righto," Gilda Fitch agreed, popping out of her chair. "Just the thing." She exited the front door too. This time, I caught a glimpse of twilight-blue sky and the fragrance of narcissus.
Metal chairs clattered as the remaining members of the Deerly Abused stood.
I vacated my chair simultaneously with Wayne.
"Walk outside?" he asked, and I nodded silently, internalizing my romantic sigh. Flowers, magical twilight, Wayne. You betcha.
He took my hand, and we made our way to the door. But not out of it.
"Surely you appreciate the fact that the man is just trying to help," I heard Natalie Miner say to Avis.
Avis stood cornered, her panicked eyes just visible under her hat.
But before I could think of any words of defense to offer Avis, Lisa Orton was already speaking, her freckled face earnest.
"My therapist would say that a man with that much anger is suffering from estrogen deprivation," she told Natalie.
"My therapist is great, she hypnotizes me and everything. If anyone can get me through the abuse I suffered as a child--"
"Gramma sent me to a therapist too," Darcie interrupted. "But then I stopped going. The old wackhead wanted me to say I did dirty things with my father."
"There are other forms of abuse besides sexual," Darcie's grandmother put in. "But this young man didn't seem to understand that physical and verbal abuse can wound too, wound very deeply." She sighed. "All this insistence upon sex as the root of all evil forgets the basic human need for compassion and love."
"Yeah," Lisa agreed, with what I wasn't sure. "Wounded, that's it. My therapist has even uncovered memories--"
Reed blew back in the door, chatting with Gilda.
We all turned his way.
"Dr. Sandstrom is ranting out there," he told us. "God, I'd hate to be a deer in his gunsight."
"Or a human," Maxwell added, laughing easily. "He's quite a character, isn't he?"
"A character!" Lisa objected. "He's worse than a character. He's real. And nasty. And abusive!"
I was really getting tired of the word "abusive." And so, apparently, was Natalie Miner.
"Hon," she whispered, grabbing Lisa's hand in hers. "Y'all just don't understand what the man's been through. You've got to appreciate--"
But Lisa yanked her hand back and was next out the door before Natalie could even finish.
And now I was curious. Just what had Dr. Sandstrom been through? What abuse had he suffered?
I worked on formulating the question. But not quickly enough.
"He wasn't even interested in my manuscript," Howie Damon piped up before my thoughts could become words.
"Mr. Yang," Howie pleaded, "you're interested in my manuscript, aren't you?" Grasping his four-inch stack of paper in both hands, he thrust it in Maxwell's direction.
Maxwell Yang must have spent years controlling his facial expression. He maintained his smile as he spoke to Howie.
"Call my secretary, and we'll see what we can arrange," he suggested.
"Oh, thank you," Howie breathed, never asking the secretary's phone number. I had a feeling Maxwell was counting on that.
Avis stuck her gloved arm in the crook of mine. Even at night, her fair skin was covered, head to foot.
"It's beautiful outdoors, Kate," she told me. "Maybe we could walk for a minute?"
I turned to Wayne, longing for his arm tucked into mine, his hand holding mine, but Avis sounded shaky.
Wayne just nodded. I left with Avis out the front door.
The sky was magical, a shimmering blue over the rows of plants. No wonder Avis ran a nursery for a living. What a beautiful way to live. If it weren't for customers.
"Dr. Sandstrom is usually okay, Kate," she confided as we passed the flats of late primroses. "Courteous, doesn't argue over prices. I don't know what's come over him tonight. This deer thing has him all churned up." She sighed. "I just wish people would get along."
"They do, mostly," I answered inadequately, looking at this women swathed in layers of cloth and a straw hat. How much of the swathing was a protection from the incivilities of life? Plants were easier than people, that was for sure.
We continued our short stroll, arm in arm. At the end of a row of sweet alyssum six-packs, I stumbled over something.
Something substantial. I looked down and blinked, hoping I wasn't seeing what I was seeing.
Was that Dr. Sandstrom crumpled on the ground, a dark sticky patch on the back of his head?
And was that a bronze deer statuette lying beside him?
If it was, the deer had clearly won.
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