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It started being a bad morning when Hippy Dave backed his van into the workshop door at five o'clock in the morning.
Hippy Dave was one of Penny's less orthodox suppliers. He and his wife, Chandra Dawn, roamed the country, haunting village fairs. They also collected natural things that Penny could use for her arrangements, like interesting pieces of driftwood, bark, dried moss, dead bulrushes and the like.
They often came up with unusual material that Penny couldn't easily find elsewhere, so she welcomed their irregular visits. But she also suspected that Dave and the ethereal Chandra Dawn had other uses for the natural things they harvested; so when she heard the crunch of her workshop door being splintered by Dave's fender, she went out in a thoroughly bad temper.
'Dave! Have you been eating those magic mushrooms again?'
His tousled head emerged from the window of the rainbow-coloured van. 'Sorry, Penny,' he said shamefacedly. 'Wasn't concentrating.'
'Oh, Dave,' she said as she examined the damage. 'This is all I need!'
Dave hopped out of the van, wearing overalls and a pair of yellow boots. 'Just didn't notice the door was open, Pen.'
The workshop of Penny's florist shop opened into a mews, which was useful for deliveries, and where she parked her own smart little red van with its proud logo, PENELOPE WATKINS, FLOWERS & DéCOR. It had been while manoeuvring round her van, to get his own vehicle as close to the workshop entrance as possible, that Hippy Dave had caught the opened door. It now hung mournfully off its hinges.
'I'll fix the door, I promise,' Dave said, squatting to take a closer look at the damage.
'No, thank you,' Penny said firmly. She'd had previous experience of Dave's odd-job capabilities and knew she'd be better off getting a carpenter. And it would be useless asking Hippy Dave to foot the bill; he and Chandra Dawn were perennially broke.
As though reading her thoughts, Dave spread his grimy hands. 'Tell you what. You can have all the stuff in the van for free. Make it up to you, at least in part. OK?'
'You'd better get out of here before Ariadne arrives,' Penny said. 'She'll skin you alive.'
Dave's watery blue eyes widened as he contemplated the wisdom of this advice. Penny's associate Ariadne Baker, half-Greek and with a Homeric temper to match, was not one of his biggest fans. She had expressed her opinion of his shortcomings loudly and pointedly on previous occasions.
'Yeah, you're right. Look, let's get the gear out of the van. I brought you something real special this time. It's yours for nuffink.'
'Oh, don't bother. Just clear off.'
'Take it off my hands. Nobody else will buy this old rubbish,' Dave whined. 'I mean, this lovely natural object, sculpted by nature's own hand. Have a look, Pen!'
'Let's see what you've got, then,' Penny sighed, too depressed to want to look at the ruined door any longer.
Hippy Dave threw open the back door of his van to reveal what looked like an entire tree crammed in among boxes and crates.
'What am I supposed to do with that?' Penny asked blankly.
'It's lovely,' Dave said, hauling the thing out of the van. 'You'll see. There! What do you think of that?'
'I'm a florist, not a tree surgeon,' Penny said, looking at the enormous branch Dave had produced. 'This is no good to me!'
'Look at the shapes in there,' Dave said, half closing his eyes and waving his hands vaguely, the better to visualise nature's handiwork. 'That silvery bark is beautiful, and look at those strands of moss. That's magic, that is!'
'Dave, please take it away,' Penny said. 'I can't use it.'
'It's useless. I don't want it.'
Dave opened his mouth to argue, but just then a new voice joined the conversation.
'What's going on here?'
It was Ariadne Baker, who had just arrived, wrapped up against the frosty morning in a military overcoat, a cigarette in one hand, the other clutching a plastic cup of coffee she'd bought from a roadside stall on her way into town.
Twice-married and twice-divorced, Ariadne was a dramatically pretty woman around thirty, some seven years older than Penny, with jet-black hair and bright green eyes.
Those eyes hardened now as they took in the scene. 'What's that piece of dead tree for? And what happened to our door? Dave?'
Hippy Dave was not known for decisive movements, but a lifetime of evading the long arm of the law had given him a heightened instinct for self-preservation. He dropped the branch and hopped nimbly into his van.
'Be seeing you, Pen,' he called out of the window as the worn-out engine rattled into life.
And then the rainbow van was bounding down the mews, its still open back door waving a disreputable farewell to the two women.
'He's smashed our door!' Ariadne gasped.
'Yes,' Penny said.
And he's left that rotten old tree for us to clear up!'
'I'll have his guts for garters!'
'You'll have to catch him first,' Penny pointed out. 'He'll be halfway to London by now. Help me get the branch inside.'
'We don't want that horrible old thing in our nice clean workshop!' Ariadne exclaimed.
'No,' Penny said patiently, 'but we need to be able to get our vans up to the door. And we can't leave it lying in the mews or everybody will complain, and the council will fine us. So give me a hand.'
Ariadne's father was a retired colonelhe had met and married her Cypriot mother in Nicosiaand Ariadne expressed her opinion of Hippy Dave in choice, parade-ground language as they hauled the branch into the workshop.
It was, as Ariadne had pointed out, always kept spotlessly clean. There were three work benches, one for Penny, one for Ariadne, and one for Tara, the woman who helped out three days a week. There was a place for everything, and everything was in its place. Dried materials were stored in sheaves on wooden racks, there were large plastic bins for waste, and in the corner stood their most expensive piece of equipment, a climate-controlled cupboard for delicate fresh plants like orchids.
There was a huge sink crowded with zinc buckets for cut flowers, and a 'control corner' with their work book and a chalk board where they kept track of orders. Beside it stood a shelf for the kettle and mugs, which provided the constant flow of life-giving beveragescoffee for Ariadne and tea for Penny which kept them going from before dawn till late afternoon.
The shop part of their business was partitioned off, and faced the High Street. It looked bare right now because they had yet to go to the market to buy flowers for the day.
'Damn Hippy Dave,' Ariadne panted, as they lugged the dead branch into a corner. 'He's a useless, addle-headed idiot!'
'We'd better get moving,' Penny said, checking her watch, 'we're late for the market. We can't lock the back door now that Dave has broken it. Why don't you go on your own, Ariadne? I'll stay here and try to get hold of Miles. Maybe I'll make some pot-pourri arrangements.'
'All right,' Ariadne said, dusting bits of moss and bark off her greatcoat. 'Arrange for a hit man to take Dave out, too, would you?'
'I'll dial M for Murder,' Penny promised. 'Here's the list, don't forget it.'
When Ariadne had raced off to the market, Penny perched by the phone and called Miles Clampett. He was sure to charge an exorbitant fee. He always did. They had met when she had done the flowers for his brother's wedding two months earlier. They had gone out for a few weeks after the wedding, but it had ended quickly, after his sense of humour wore thin on her. They were still on good terms. He was expensive. But he was the only handyman she knew who would come out right away, with no hesitation.
Though it was still well before six, she had no compunction about callingthis was an emergency.
A sleepy murmur answered her call.
'Miles, it's Penny Watkins. Sorry to do this to you, but Hippy Dave knocked my door off its hinges a few minutes ago, and I need a carpenter really, really, really badly.'
'Anything for you,' he yawned.
'You are awake, aren't you?'
'Yes,' he said.
'And you promise you'll come this morning? As innow? We're in and out all day, and unless I can lock the place up'
All right, all right,' he groaned. 'I'll beam down from my spaceship. Give me half an hour.'
'Bless you,' she said, hanging up.
She made herself a cup of tea and set to work making room perfumers. It was undemanding workarranging dried flowers in pots and sprinkling them with aromatherapy essencesbut the arrangements were popular and sold steadily. She had an excellent eye for shape and colour, and she always had an assortment of pretty porcelain containers on hand. She put some of those to good use now.
By seven-thirty, her sensitive nose had had about as much as it could take of 'Floral Bouquet' and patchouli oil. She loved flowers and everything about themtheir smells, their colours, their textures; but synthetic versions of any of those usually wearied her sensitive faculties, and that was particularly so with smells.
She went into the shop, pulling off her cap and untying her hair. It fell in rich auburn waves around her shoulders. Penny was slender and ivory-skinned, with dark blue, almost violet eyes and a full, slightly melancholy mouth. She was twenty-three, but it sometimes seemed as though she were still trembling on the brink of full womanhood, like a flower that had half opened, and was waiting for the clouds to part so that the sun could bring her to full glory.
There had certainly been clouds in her life so far. Not everything had gone right for her. But she had struggled to overcome adversity, and had usually succeeded, though the price she had paid was perhaps visible in that poignant mouth.
The blinds were still drawn, but through them she could see activity in the High Street. The town was waking up. Buses were running. It was turning out bright, though the rime of frost on everything had yet to melt.
She turned on the computer, and, while it booted up, considered this Wednesday in late autumn. It was going to be a busy day, and it would not help to have Miles underfoot, hammering and sawing away at the broken door, demanding tea every ten minutes.
There were several bouquets to make and deliver all over town. There was a funeral at one of the cemeteries, and several mourners had ordered wreaths and floral tributes. Though she and Ariadne had already assembled most of these, the finishing touches had to be made, and they would need to be taken to the chapel of rest well on time.
Then there was the mayoral dinner tonight. Penny was doing it for the first time, and she was anxious that nothing should go wrong. There was a lot of work involved, very little of which could be prepared in advance. For a start, there were sixty-five vases of fresh flowers to arrange, then the four tables themselves to set out and lay, plus the several larger flower arrangements that would greet the guests in the lobby and flank the high table.
She had long since agreed all the details with Her Worship's office, and she would need to be at the town hall by four at the latest, to start work.
She made herself her second cup of tea of the morning, and waited impatiently for Ariadne to arrive back from the flower market. There had been a lot of things to buy. Perhaps she should have gone with Ariadne. And where was Miles?
She heard the purr of a car in the High Street and looked up over her teacup. A steel-grey sports car, sleek and obviously very expensive, had pulled up outside the shop. Penny frowned, wondering who this could be, at this early hour.
The tall figure of a man got out of the car. She could not see him clearly through the blinds, but there was no question that he was looking into the shop windows as though to see if anyone was inside. She sat still, wondering why there was something so familiar about that tall, dark silhouette.
Then he knocked on the door. A hard, peremptory knock that made her heart sink. Getting a struggling business onto its feet had brought her into contact with all kinds of knocks on the door. Knocks like this one invariably brought trouble. She searched swiftly through her mind. Who did she owe money to? Had she left any taxes unpaid? Bills unsettled? She could think of nothing. Though she was still struggling, she had hoped she had left those precarious days behind her at last.
Her heart filled with unease, she went to the door and unbolted it. Cold morning air blew in her face as she swung it open.
'I'm sorry, we're not open yet,' she began to say. But the words froze in her throat.
She was looking into the unsmiling face of the handsomest man she had ever seen.
And also the last man in all the world she wanted to see.
'My God, I've found you at last,' he whispered, holding her gaze with those grey eyes that could be as cold as the Arctic sea, or blaze like the sun off ice.
Involuntarily, she took a step back. He came into the shop and closed the door behind them. He was much taller than Penny, and he towered over her.
'Ryan, you have no right to be here,' she said in a tight voice. But her heart was racing as though it would burst out of her chest, and she felt her stomach churning. Such familiar feelings, when faced with Ryan Wolfe; they accompanied him the way wild winds and lightning accompanied winter storms.
'Did you think I wouldn't find you?' he demanded, his gaze still locked on hers, as though he were drinking her in through his eyes.
Penny clenched her jaw. 'I didn't want you to follow me, Ryan. Why did you bother? What was the point?'
'The point is that I can't live without you,' he replied.
Her heart seemed to stop for a moment at the harshly spoken words, but she forced herself to answer him. 'Well, I can live without you,' she said with a sketch of a smile. 'I've been doing so for eleven months, two weeks and five days. Very happily, I might add.'
At last he tore his gaze away from her and glanced around the shop. His passionate, beautiful mouth curled. 'You're happy with this? When you know what I could give you!'
Anger brought a flush to her delicately sculpted cheekbones. 'Don't condescend to me, Ryan. Nothing is ever as good as what you can offer, is it? You hold everyone and everything in contempt.'
He shook his head slightly. 'That's not true. But I do know that I would give you the sun and the moon if you asked for them.'