Read an Excerpt
Lieutenant Alexander Steele turned into the parking lot of Gardens & Greens Nursery and pulled up short. Shades of pink surrounded him while huge banners proclaimed the garden center's tribute to breast cancer awareness.
The Southern Tier investigator had three choices. Fight the bile rising in his throat, drive the car away and disappoint his ten-year-old daughter yet again, or man up and choose a parking spot.
He chose the latter and pretended to like it, but he'd been pretending for too long and the garden center's Pink Ribbon Campaign slam-dunked his already damaged heart. Why here? Why now? He'd made the move to Allegany County not only to get away from the city, but also to escape the grief breast cancer had left behind.
Realization hit home. Spring had arrived, finally. May loomed just around the corner. That meant Mother's Day.
Of course. He hadn't thought of that. Was it a deliberate mistake, like so many others of late? Or was he simply bogged down with work and the task of raising three motherless kids?
"Oh, Daddy." Emma's gray eyes rounded as she grasped his hand. "Have you ever seen anything so beautiful in your life?"
The crush of pinks wasn't beautiful. Not to him. Not when every ribbon, every banner, every rose-toned bloom and 5K run reminded him of what he'd lost two years before. His wife. His helpmate, appointed by God.
He'd believed that then.
He believed it now. So pardon him while he internally recoiled at memories of the killer disease that robbed Jenny of her life and him of the wife he'd had for too short a time.
"I um "
She looked up at him. Met his gaze. Her little hand clasped his in solidarity beyond childlike understanding. "I miss her every time I see pink flowers."
The bile rose further. Or maybe it was just a lump in his throat, inspired by Emma's unshed tears. But she recovered faster than he did, and tugged him forward. "We need to see what they have, find Miss Fitzgerald, then do a sketch."
"A sketch?" The look she angled his way said he hadn't been listening. Guilty as charged. "What sketch?"
"Of the yard, Dad." She pressed her lips together, and pulled him to the right. "Let's start over here."
More pink. Great.
A teenager paused in front of them and offered a tray of sugar cookies. Cookies done in the shape of a breast cancer ribbon. Pale pink frosting outlined the loop and a dusting of rose and white sprinkles sparkled in the late morning sun. Emma accepted one with a bright smile.
Alex would rather choke down potting soil than eat one of those cookies. He shook his head, hoping his expression didn't reflect the darkness in his heart.
Who in their right mind expected this many shades of pink? Not him. And he didn't like it at all.
"What are these, Dad?" Emma lingered, her notebook in hand. She took out his digital camera and snapped a pic of the pink flowering bush. "I like them. A lot."
Of course she would. They were pink and Emma was a girl. One plus one equaled "The ticket says it's a Sugar Plum hydrangea."
"So pretty." Emma copied the name into her notebook and studied the card. "Some sun, light shade, keep moist. Which side of our house is best for that?"
They'd bought a historic village home over the winter, a house far removed from the modern center split he and Jenny shared for twelve short years of marriage on the east side of Rochester.
He'd needed different, a new setting. He actively sought change in every way he couldhouse, job and location.
He did manage to keep the same three children, mostly because they were too noisy to bring much on the black market. Or maybe because he could keep them safer here in this sweet, pastoral town.
Down here, in the rolling hills of Allegany and Cattaraugus Counties, he could leave the drug-riddled city streets behind him. A new start, personally and professionally. Safer for his heart, better for his soul. He'd had enough of gang warfare, racketeering and neglected children to last a lifetime. He'd faced every kind of evil known to man, and he'd won the day sometimes.
But not always.
Jenny's death meant it was time to leave. Seek anew. Begin again.
He'd gotten the two older kids settled into Jamison Elementary School, Emma in fourth grade and Becky in second. Little Joshua went to a preschool facility. The day school was pricey but the hours worked well with Alex's demanding schedule. Saving Jenny's life insurance money for Josh's college education would be redundant if the kid flunked kindergarten.
Jenny had possessed a knack for teaching little ones, as if life's lessons were intrinsic to her personality. His knack was for solving crime. Directing a troop of officers. And playing with kids. They'd made a great team. And then she died.
His heart seized again, the garden store celebration a kick in the head to a widower barely getting by. "You look lost."
Alex turned and faced a pair of the prettiest brown eyes he'd ever seen. Dark. Bright. Engaging. Filled with humor.
She nodded and bent to Emma's level, the mid-spring sun sparkling soft rays of light from her dark, wavy hair. "Well. He does." She jerked a thumb his way, and the way she did it, as if she and Em were simpatico and in league against him, made him smile.
"He is," Emma agreed. "Actually, we both are, Miss.?"
"Lisa." The woman stuck out a hand to Emma, shook hers, then stood again. "Lisa Fitzgerald. And you are?"
"Alex." He accepted the handshake and the smile, and for just a moment felt like he'd been transported into a world of warmth again. Kindness. Gentleness. And it felt good. "Alex Steele. And my daughter, Emma."
Recognition deepened Lisa's smile. "From the 4-H club. I got an email saying you'd be contacting me." She encompassed both of them with her question and expression. "So what have we got going, Alex and Emma? This can seem a little overwhelming when you first arrive."
And then some, thought Alex, but not the way she meant. The vast variety of plants and gardening products covered acres of land. Two sprawling red barns stood along the far side, and a newer building, a retail-store Morton building, linked to the nearest barn. Distant greenhouses stretched north and south in tidy rows of plastic-wrapped metal tubing while closer hothouses lined the brick walk. They were filled with wide rows of potted flowers under blooming hanging baskets done in various shades of pink and rose.
Right now he hated pink with an intensity that rivaled his aversion for cooked spinach, and he'd never hated anything as much as cooked spinach.
"I'm doing a kind of massive project," Emma explained. "And my leader said I should come here and see you first. To see if you could be my adviser."
Lisa didn't look surprised. "That's because my mother was a 4-H leader and worked on all kinds of projects, from raising calves to starting seedlings. I've taken on a tiny bit of what she used to do. And I do believe Mrs. Reddenbach's email used the words 'precociously bright.'" She bent low. "I'm not all that good with cows, so please tell me you're here about gardening tips. As long as it's about plants and dirt, I'm your go-to person." Her wistful face implored the girl to avoid all questions relating to farm animals.
Emma nodded, delighted. "Just gardens. At our house. If you can help us."
"Phew!" Lisa swept a hand across her smooth brow.
Alex relaxed a little more. Maybe this woman could guide them through the intricacies of planning and implementing a garden. It had seemed easy enough when Emma approached him after her first 4-H meeting, but then he realized a garden, in overachiever Emma's mind, meant the entire circumference of their home and would take months to complete.
But it was the first thing she'd shown strong interest in since Jenny's death, and he couldn't deny her a chance to heal. To move on. To embrace life.
You could try taking your own advice. Start living in the here and now.
He ignored the internal ruminations. With three kids and a full-time job, an eight-room house and a yard in dire need of attention, he had enough on his plate. He'd save the psychobabble for some day when he had time to breathe again.
"What kind of garden are we planning?" Lisa asked.
"Landscaping garden," he replied. The face she made said he was in over his head, and her grin indicated she wanted to laugh at him, but held back because Emma was there. Oddly enough, her reaction made him want to laugh at himself. "And as you've probably surmised, I don't have a clue."
"And that shouldn't matter," Lisa told him smoothly, and gained another point when she tipped her gaze down to Emma's. "Because it's her project, right? That's why the 4-H leader sent you to see me."
Suddenly Alex felt a whole lot better. "Yes."
"Although a garden project this size is beyond the scope of a normal." Lisa eyed Emma. "Ten-year-old?"
"Yes." Emma preened, just a little. "I'm kinda small for my age and people always guess wrong."
"Your eyes shine with ten-year-old wisdom," Lisa assured her. Once again Emma's smile blossomed into something Alex had missed for two long years.
"What we need to do is determine the amount of money you want to spend, the shapes of the gardens you're doing"
"Redoing," Alex interrupted. "We bought a house on Mc-Callister Street in February and while the house is in great shape, the previous owners had health problems and the gardens took the brunt of it."
"The Ramsey place."
They had started moving down a row of flowering perennials, following Lisa's lead, but her words stopped Alex's progress. "How did you know that?"
"Small town." She shrugged. "And I have friends a few doors down from you. Trent and Alyssa Michaels."
"Cory is my sister's friend." The new connection brightened Emma's face further. She looked up at Lisa. "Becky and my little brother, Josh, are at their house right now."
"That's perfect," Lisa declared. "Cory and Clay could use some playmates close by. That will keep them out of their big brother Jaden's hair. So." She faced Emma again. "Let's think about what your goals are, now that I know what house we're doing. Do you like bushes? Flowers? Easy care?"
Alex's bullet-quick response to easy care made her laugh.
And when she did a few heads turned their way, as if her joy inspired theirs. Another perk of small-town living, Alex decided.
"Easy care it is. And which sides are shady?"
Emma tapped her notebook. "The house faces north. There's a big maple tree out front and another one off to the side, so the north and east sides are shady a lot of the time."
"And the back? That's a southern exposure, right? Mostly sunny?"
Emma nodded. "It goes back to the creek that flows down to the Genesee River, so there's already a stone walk and a stone wall before you get to the creek."
"Which hopefully will help keep Josh out of the creek until he can swim," Alex added.
"And cost factors?"
Lisa angled her gaze up to Alex again, and her look of honest concern promised to work within the budget he set. He added that to a growing list of things to like about this woman and small towns in general. "I know things are expensive, but it's important to get it done right. Emma's pledged her whole summer to this project." He laid a hand on her head and she tipped a grateful smile up to him.
Her mother's smile. Beneath his eyes. So pretty, so sweet, too young to be touched by the realities of death at eight years old, but he'd had little choice in that matter. And she was a survivor. An optimist. The ensuing two years had made her more so.
Becky, his younger daughter, tended to take the world on her shoulders, more like him. And four-year-old Joshua just wanted to be loved. And fed. Often, if possible. Total boy.
"Well, you can see how crazy busy we are here today," Lisa explained.
Alex nodded. "Great for the bottom line, and that's important in business."
"It is," she agreed, but then placed a hand on Emma's notebook. "I'll give you ideas today, but if you can come back on a quiet weeknight, we can plan with fewer interruptions. I'm here every night this week. And I should swing by your place to get an idea of how you envision this going."
"Could we, Dad?"
"If time is crazy and today's better, we can get started now," Lisa assured him, and something about her willingness to help him, help them, made him more receptive to the idea of coming back. And maybe the pink barrage would be backstaged by some kind of yellow festival. Or purple. Even plain old green would be better than this immersion in bubble-gum-shaded reminders. "Monday afternoon?" He had Monday off so he could grab the girls from school and come straight to the nursery. "Around four?"
"That's perfect. And if it's all right with you, I'll come by your place tomorrow after church. For right now" A voice over a loudspeaker summoned her to the front desk. Her expression said it had been a common occurrence that day. "And that's exactly why Monday would be better, because a project like this needs prep time. 4-H leaders look at the planning steps carefully. This is a big project for a ten-year-old." She winked and smiled down at Emma. "Even a really smart, cute one."
Emma grabbed Alex's hand. "Dad will help us." Her voice and gaze put complete trust in him. No way could he disappoint her on this.
"Considering the size of the Ramsey place, we'll need you to be fully on board," Lisa continued. "While this is Emma's venture, she'll need some muscle to get the ground cleaned up. And then planted. And I'd love to be her 4-H adviser, but we have to have another adult on-site when we work on kids' projects in a private setting."
From a policeman's point of view, Alex understood the rule, but one look at Lisa's bright eyes and quick smile assured him his kids were safe around her. But something about the way that smile tugged his heart said his safety might be jeopardized. The awareness surprised him, but felt good. Real good.
Somehow feeling good felt wrong. Mixed emotions vied for internal control. He hadn't been attracted to another woman in a long time, but right here? Right now?
"That would be awesome." Emma's grateful gaze reflected his sentiment.
Lisa didn't talk down to Emma. Alex liked that. Emma's intelligence levels spiked the charts and he and Jenny had learned not to underestimate their firstborn. Odd but nice that this woman recognized Emma's gift from the beginning, but Alex found that some of his best detectives on the force came by the needed skills naturally. And that gave them a leg up. "Monday would be fine. And thank you, Lisa."
He stuck out his hand.
She took it. Smiled. Then did the same with Emma. "A pleasure doing business with you, Emma."
Emma's smile took Alex back to a time when smiles were a foregone conclusion and not nearly as appreciated as they should have been. "Thank you, Miss Lisa."
"Just Lisa's fine."
Emma's smile widened, the idea of calling an adult by her first name a thrill. Ah, to be young again.
When I was a child I spoke as a child
His children had been pushed to grow up too early.
They turned to go, but Alex paused when Lisa called them back. "A quick reminder. Most plants grow quickly with TLC. Kind of like kids. So let's not overplan, okay? We'll measure carefully and see where that leads us."
Emma grinned and waved the notebook. "Dad and I will do that today."
Lisa turned her gaze to his and waved, just a little wave, but her eyes
Warm, brown, vibrant and full of life Said she was looking forward to working with them. So was he.