Now that they’ve tied the knot, flower shop owner Abby Knight and her husband, Marco, want to put down roots. When it comes to picking a house, Marco can’t wait to get his hands dirty, while Abby isn’t ready for a fixer-upper. But conflict really sprouts when they’re checking out a dilapidated Victorian and watch a construction worker take a life-threatening tumble.
Since witnesses claim the man shouted for help, suggesting that the fall was no accident, the victim’s flamboyant wife hires Marco to find the person responsible. Meanwhile, Abby keeps secret from Marco her own investigation into the home’s inhabitants, a family whose off-kilter behavior has aroused her suspicions. If only Abby’s very pregnant cousin, Jillian, will stop distracting Abby with false labor pains, she can conclude her own inquiries before Marco finds out…and her case blossoms into a disaster.
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“Are my newlyweds ready to go inside for a look?”
Our Realtor pressed her hands together as though praying, her smile as desperate as her enthusiastic nods, as if to say, Of course you’re ready! At that price, you’d be fools not to be. Please, please, please?
I glanced at Marco, who was studying the dilapidated Victorian home with a shrewd and, yes, disdainful eye. Good. We were on the same page.
“No,” I said, just as Marco said, “Sure.”
I turned to my handsome hubby in surprise. “Sure?”
“No harm in looking.”
“I am looking, Marco. The question is, what are you seeing?”
It was peculiar for us to be at odds because our tastes ran in remarkably similar veins. Hand us a menu and we’d pick the same entrée every time. But clearly he wasn’t seeing what I was seeing today, because directly in front of us stood a narrow, wood-sided two-story with peeling paint, a porch that tilted dangerously to the right, a sharply peaked roof whose tiles had curled, dingy gray gingerbread trim, and a detached shed-turned-garage that might have held a Volkswagen Beetle—with no door handles.
The old house, built sometime in the early 1900s, swarmed with roofers and painters who’d been hired to get it ready to be put on the market. Lorelei Hays, our overly eager Realtor, had heard that the Victorian was going up for sale and wanted us to see it before the crowds beat a path to the warped brown door. As far as I was concerned, a path would have been an improvement over the cracked cement sidewalk on which we stood.
I loosened the emerald-and-navy-plaid scarf around my neck and took off my green gloves. The March sun was making a rare appearance in a week that had been rainy and cold. My little dog, Seedy, kept tugging at her leash, so I turned to see what she wanted and saw her wagging her shaggy tail, gazing up toward the roof where a painter was giving the decorative trim along the roofline above an attic window a coat of white paint. I doubted it was the worker who’d intrigued her. Seedy was a rescue dog who’d had an abusive owner, and she was still wary around most men. But I didn’t see anything else that could have attracted her attention.
Studying the Victorian’s shabby facade, I could only imagine what the inside was like. No, I didn’t want to imagine it, because I was definitely not interested. The only positives were that it would be available in a month and it was located five blocks off the town square in my hometown of New Chapel, Indiana. And because my flower shop, Bloomers, and Marco’s business, Down the Hatch Bar and Grill, were located on the square, we could have walked to work.
Lorelei bounced on the toes of her black patent pumps. “So? Are we ready to see the interior?” She was wearing a marine blue two-piece suit trimmed in black braid, with shiny black button earrings and a black tote bag, all nicely accenting her short platinum hair.
Marco had wanted to go with a well-seasoned Realtor, but I had opted to give a newbie our business because it hadn’t been that long since I’d opened Bloomers and I remembered how it felt to be the new kid on the block. In her late forties and just starting out in real estate, Lorelei fit the bill. But so far, she hadn’t shown us a single house we’d liked, and we’d been looking since October.
Our landlady had been patient thus far—she didn’t normally allow pets—but she’d been dropping enough hints lately that we knew we had to find something soon.
Marco was still analyzing as the roofers nimbly navigated the steep pitch. Two painters in blue coveralls stood on scaffolding on the right side of the house applying tan paint to the second story, while the third painter, the apparent object of Seedy’s attention, balanced at the top of a tall extension ladder. All of the workmen wore navy baseball caps and light blue coveralls with the logo HHI—Handy Home Improvements—on them.
“Judging by the condition of the outside,” I said to Marco, “this house is going to need a lot of time and money pumped into it.”
“You look like do-it-yourselfers,” Lorelei said. “It could be the perfect little project for you to work on together, a real bonding experience.”
Or grounds for divorce.
Deep in contemplation, Marco rubbed his jaw. “I can see us working on it.”
“Clearly, Marco, you’ve forgotten about our experience painting the bathroom at Down the Hatch over Christmas.”
“That wasn’t so bad,” he said.
“Sunshine, you’re the one who wanted to put seven coats of paint on it.”
“One application of sugar maple does not cover glossy navy blue, Marco. I can still see blue showing through—and that was three coats, by the way, not seven.”
He put his arm around me. “I think the bathroom looks great. Come on, sweetheart. We should at least have a look at the inside.”
I moved us off the walkway. “Between your long hours at the bar and your private investigations, when would we have time?”
“You’ve been looking for something to do in the evenings,” he said.
“Not renovating a home—alone!”
“You wouldn’t have to do it alone. I’d be there as much as possible, and I’ll bet your niece and your cousin would love to lend a hand.”
That, in itself, was reason to say no. Tara, my fourteen-year-old niece, would need to take a Twitter break every five minutes, while my cousin, Jillian—a spoiled pregnant diva precariously near her due date—wouldn’t even paint her own fingernails, let alone someone else’s walls. Besides, between running her personal shopping service and doing dry runs to the hospital, she was too busy.
“Just take one walk-through,” the Realtor urged. “If you don’t like its charming layout or don’t see any potential, we’ll cross it off your list.”
We had a list? “Sorry,” I said to both of them. “I really don’t like it.”
A cry from the roof made me turn in alarm just in time to see the extension ladder fall in an arc away from the house, the painter still clinging to the rungs. Everyone, including me, stood frozen in horror as the ladder carried the painter backward until the poor man hit the ground with a loud thunk, his head smacking the cement sidewalk with an audible crack. Then he lay still, the aluminum ladder on top of him.
As though someone had pressed a button, all of us sprang into action. I scooped up Seedy and ran toward the man along with Marco and Lorelei, while workmen scrambled to get to the ground. Marco was on the phone calling for an ambulance before we’d even reached the man’s side.
The Realtor lifted the ladder aside as I put Seedy down and crouched beside the painter, whose coveralls read Sergio on the pocket. “Sergio,” I called, feeling for a pulse in his neck. “Can you hear me? Can you squeeze my hand?”
His eyes were closed and he made no response, but his pulse beat steadily beneath my fingertips.
Another man in coveralls, the name Sam on his pocket, dropped to his knees on the other side, grabbed Sergio’s face, and gave it a shake. “Sergio, buddy. Talk to me.”
“Don’t shake him,” Marco commanded, putting away his phone. “His neck could be broken. Step back and wait for the paramedics.”
The other painters joined us and within minutes the roofers were there, too, all standing in a semicircle around their fallen coworker. In the distance I heard a siren, and then another, and a minute later a squad car roared to a stop and two cops jumped out and jogged over. One of them was Marco’s buddy Sergeant Sean Reilly, whom Marco had trained under during his stint on the New Chapel police force.
“What do we have?” Reilly asked Marco as he knelt beside the man.
“He’s a painter.” Marco turned toward the house and pointed. “When we got here, he was at the top of the ladder painting above that attic window. I heard someone cry out and looked around to see him falling backward.”
Neighbors began to emerge from their houses. Then an emergency van pulled up and the two-man crew hopped out and sprinted toward us. While they began their examination of Sergio, I turned to see why Seedy was tugging on her leash and saw a short, stout woman and two children coming down the steps of the Victorian. They stopped a short distance away to watch the proceedings. I checked my watch. It was noon. What were the kids doing home from school?
The woman wore a thick brown cardigan over a white blouse and jeans, and white athletic shoes. Her long dark-brown hair hung flat against the sides of her head. She had small brown eyes and a wide nose set in a round face devoid of makeup. She was holding her children’s hands as though she was afraid some danger might befall them. They must be the current occupants of this house, I thought.
The boy, who appeared to be around ten years old, had jet-black hair with a heart-shaped face and vivid blue eyes. He was wearing a quilted navy jacket, jeans, and black sneakers. The girl, whom I pegged at six years old, had wide cheekbones in a tiny face and long black hair. She wore a deep purple hooded jacket and black corduroy pants with purple-and-white sneakers. Oddly, neither child seemed interested in the accident. Instead, the boy was watching my dog, while the girl seemed more interested in me.
I was accustomed to people staring at Seedy, one of the homeliest dogs I’d ever seen. Her big pointed ears had tufts of hair on the ends, her lower teeth protruded, her muzzle was grizzly, the ridges of her spine showed, her brown, black, and tan fur was uneven, her tail was bushy, and she was missing a hind leg. But the first time I’d gazed into her loving brown eyes, I’d been captivated.
Considered unadoptable, Seedy had been at the top of the list to be euthanized when I’d found her at the animal shelter. I’d worked hard to find her a home, thinking that Marco wouldn’t want to start married life with a new pet, not to mention that his landlady didn’t allow them, but to no avail. In the nick of time, my intended had swept in and rescued her. Taking her had been the second best decision we’d ever made. The first, naturally, had been to marry each other.
I wasn’t used to people staring at me, however. Maybe it was my bright red hair that drew the girl’s attention.
Seedy wagged her tail and gave a little yip, tugging as though she wanted to go see the children, so I walked her over to where they stood.
“Hi,” I said, and received shy smiles from the children. Their mother was watching the paramedics work, a look of alarm on her face, so I said, “Do you know what happened?”
She shook her head. “I was in the kitchen.” Her voice was like soft cotton.
“One of your painters fell from way high up.”
“Is he dead?” she asked.
“He’s unconscious. I can’t tell how serious his condition is.” I stuck out my hand. “I’m Abby Knight . . . Salvare. I own Bloomers Flower Shop.”
She let go of the girl’s hand to shake mine. “Sandra Jones.” She put her hand on top of the boy’s head. “This is Bud”—she put her other hand on the girl’s head—“and this is Daisy. What do we say to Miss Abby, children?”
“Hello, Miss Abby,” they replied in unison.
“Your dog has three legs,” Daisy said. She pointed toward Seedy, but her vivid green eyes were still on me.
“Yes, she does, but she doesn’t let that stop her,” I said.
Daisy reached out to let Seedy sniff her hand, but her mother pulled her back. “You don’t want to get bit, honey. Remember our rule? We never pet a strange dog.”
The girl gazed at the dog with such longing that I crouched down to show her how friendly Seedy was. “My dog’s name is Seedy. She likes children. She won’t bite.”
“Unfortunately, Daisy is allergic to dogs,” Sandra said.
The child gave her mother a puzzled glance, as though that was the first time she’d heard that information.
The boy stepped forward. “I’m not allergic,” he said almost defiantly, and crouched down beside me to run his hand along Seedy’s back. “She has really sharp bones.”
“She’s a rescue dog,” I said. “She was badly abused. But now she has a good home and gets lots of food and attention; don’t you, Seedy?”
Seedy yipped and wagged her tail. She gave the boy’s hand a lick, making him laugh.
“I had a dog,” Daisy said.
“When?” Bud asked with a scoff.
She thought for a moment, then said to her mother, “I had one, didn’t I?”
“Didn’t I what?” Sandra asked in a schoolteacher’s voice.
“Didn’t I, Mommy?”
“Of course you did, honey,” Sandra said, giving her an affectionate smile. She whispered to me, “Imaginary playmates.”
“They’re home from school early today,” I said.
“They’re homeschooled,” Sandra said with a mixture of pride and exhaustion. “Bud, Daisy, our gingerbread cookies should be about done. We’d better go back inside and make sure they don’t burn.”
The boy rose with obvious reluctance.
“Say good-bye,” I said to Seedy, who obliged by giving two yips and wagging her tail as the children reluctantly took their mother’s hands.
“Bye, Seedy,” Bud said sadly.
I heard a car door slam and turned to see a large, balding man with a bad comb-over, wearing an XXXL shirt and battered blue jeans, climb out of a faded blue Chevy van. He paused to look at the emergency situation unfolding just yards away and then continued in our direction.
Seedy glanced around, saw the man coming, and dropped low to the ground with a whimper, her little body beginning to tremble. I scooped her up and held her close, murmuring assurances as he got closer.
“What happened?” the man asked Sandra.
“One of the painters fell,” she said. “Norm, this is Abby Knight Salvare. She was here to see the house when the accident happened. Abby, this is my husband, Norm.”
“We’re baking gingerbread cookies, Daddy,” Bud said as I shook Norm’s hand.
“We were just saying good-bye to Miss Abby so we could go check on them; weren’t we, children?” Sandra asked.
“I’ll be in as soon as I see what the situation is,” Norm said, ruffling Bud’s hair. “Save me a cookie.”
Norm strode toward several of the workers while Sandra hustled the kids to the front door. Daisy kept glancing back at me and paused at the door to give me a look that I didn’t know how to translate, except to say that it felt as though she recognized me from somewhere.
I put Seedy down and walked toward Marco, still pondering the girl’s puzzling glance. My internal radar was clanging a very distant warning, and I didn’t know why.
Lorelei stood beside her black Camry talking on her cell phone, while the paramedics loaded the painter onto the stretcher and the remaining two painters carried the aluminum ladder to their van. I went to where Marco and Reilly stood, then turned to watch as Norm talked to the roofers, who were heading back to their jobs. One pointed to the peak of the roof and gestured, obviously describing the accident. I expected Norm to come talk to the cops next, but instead he went inside his house.
“Any news on the painter’s condition?” I asked the men.
“He’s still unconscious,” Reilly said, hooking his thumbs through his thick leather belt. “His blood pressure is very low but his other vital signs are holding steady. The EMTs didn’t know any more than that.”
“Does anyone know why he fell?” I asked.
“One of the roofers said he’s had some health problems and thought he might have suffered a heart attack,” Marco said.
Seedy was tugging again, this time in the direction of a small white-and-red tube lying on the ground where the man had lain. Curious, I handed Seedy’s leash to Marco and went over to investigate.
“What did you find?” Reilly asked.
“This,” I said, and handed him a white Magic Marker with a red cap.
As Reilly examined it, Seedy barked and wagged her tail as though she wanted him to toss it for a game of catch. “Sorry, girl,” Marco said. “Not this time.”
“It must have fallen out of the painter’s pocket when he fell,” Reilly said. “I’ll pass it along to the detectives. In the meantime, I’m going to start taking statements from everyone here, but if you need to get going, I can stop by the bar and take yours later. You don’t need to stick around.”
“Make sure you talk to the people in the house, Sarge,” I said.
With just a hint of bemusement, Reilly said, “Anything else I should do, Captain?”
“No, seriously, Reilly,” I said. “Just see if you sense anything off.”
“Like what?” he asked.
“I’m not sure. There was something about the way their little girl looked at me.”
“I can’t question them about a look, Abby,” Reilly said.
“Let’s go, Sunshine,” Marco said, leading me away. “See you this evening, Sean.”
“I just want Reilly to be observant, Marco,” I said as we walked toward his car.
“I’m sure he will.”
But I wasn’t. While I liked Reilly and knew him to be an honest cop with a big heart, I’d had enough dealings with him over the years to know he was a by-the-rules kind of guy. Until I could put my finger on what was bothering me, he wasn’t going to pry.
“You’re leaving, then?” our Realtor asked, hurrying over. “Without seeing the inside?”
“We’ve ruled this one out,” Marco said. “Right, Abby?”
I turned to stare at the front of the Victorian, my internal radar still buzzing.
“Abby?” Marco prompted.
“On second thought,” I said to Lorelei, “I’d like to see the inside after all.”
While Lorelei was on the porch talking with Mr. Jones, Marco studied me. “What made you change your mind?”
“It’s a female’s prerogative,” I said, giving him my sweetest smile.
“Abby, I know you too well. You’ve got your snoop face on.”
That was flattering.
Lorelei came toward us and she wasn’t smiling. “I’m afraid we won’t be able to see the house today. It’s a bad time for them. We’ll have to come back. What does your schedule for tomorrow look like?”
“Let’s go home and think about this house some more, Abby,” Marco suggested. “We’ll let you know what we decide, Lorelei.”
“No sense putting off the decision, Marco. We need to find a new place soon.” I turned to Lorelei. “Say around eight o’clock tomorrow morning?”
Lorelei left with a smile on her face. Not so my disgruntled hubby, who scowled but didn’t speak on the drive back to the flower shop. So I kept busy by pointing out various landmarks to Seedy, who lapped up every word as though she understood.
“And here comes the town square, Seedy. See the big limestone courthouse in the middle? It was built way back in the early nineteen hundreds. There’s Daddy’s bar across the street, and here comes Bloomers. See that bright yellow door? I chose that color because it’s my favorite. And the red-and-white-striped awning? That was Lottie’s idea.”
“Dogs can’t see red, Abby.”
How about that? Silent Salvare finally spoketh. “It’s not like she knows what I’m talking about anyway, Marco. Are you annoyed that I set up that appointment?”
“Not if you actually want to see the house.” He cast me a skeptical glance. “Do you?”
I debated my answer. If I said yes, I’d be lying. If I said no, he’d be even more annoyed. Talk about a rock and a hard place.
When in doubt, punt. “Look, Seedy. Here’s Bloomers. And there’s Lottie making a new display for the bay window.”
“That’s what I thought,” Marco said.
“You don’t have to go tomorrow, Marco. I can look without you.”
He glanced at me with raised brows, as though to ask, Are you sure?
“It’s just that if you’re with me, you won’t have to worry about me getting myself into trouble.”
This time Marco lifted one eyebrow as he glanced my way. His message was clear: You’re going to snoop, aren’t you? He might have been a man of few words, but his facial expressions could fill a tome.
“So,” I said, running my fingers through Seedy’s fur. “Coming with me?”
He sighed. “Do I have a choice?”
I leaned across the console and kissed him. “You made your choice when you said, ‘I do.’”
Seedy yipped once and put her little paw on the window, eager to escape the car and return to her haven in my workroom.
“Are we meeting at the bar for supper?” I asked.
“Looks like it. Rafe is off tonight so I need to be there all evening.”
Oh, joy. Another evening alone.
From the time Marco had bought Down the Hatch nearly two years before, he’d spent almost every evening there, so our habit was to meet for supper before I headed home for the evening. But since bringing his younger brother Rafe onto his staff, Marco had been able to cut down on his hours, giving us two nights a week and one weekend a month together, along with our usual Sundays off. However, because his private investigating business had been growing, I found myself home alone more than I liked, even when I worked the more interesting cases with him. Thank goodness for Seedy.
“Then I’ll see you after five.” I slid out of the car and put Seedy down on the sidewalk. I watched her hobble toward the bright yellow frame door; then I stood for a moment gazing at the three-story redbrick building that housed Bloomers.
The shop occupied the first floor, with the display room up front, a coffee and tea parlor off to one side, the workroom in the middle, and a small bathroom and kitchen across the back. A heavy fireproof door opened onto the alley and a steep staircase near the back door led to the basement. We kept larger supplies and huge flowerpots down there, along with pieces of my mom’s art that we were too embarrassed to display in the shop. I tried not to go to the basement very often. It was a scary place.
I opened the door and let Seedy go in ahead of me. No matter how many times I entered, I always got a thrill from knowing Bloomers was mine. Well, okay, the bank’s until the mortgage was paid off—like that was ever going to happen. Yet it was my name on the sign above the door, and I still puffed up with pride when I saw it. Little ol’ me, the law school flunk-out, had her very own business.
I took a moment to gaze around the interior, inhaling the sweetly perfumed air. The flower shop had an old-world charm, with original wood floors, a high tin ceiling, and brick walls that dated back to the early 1900s. I’d worked hard to keep the same feel with the decor, using a heavy round oak table with claw feet in the center of the room to display silk arrangements, an open antique armoire, a wicker settee in the back corner shaded by a leafy ficus tree, and an oak sideboard.
There were also large potted plants on the floor around the perimeter of the room, wreaths, sconces, and decorative mirrors on the walls, silk floral arrangements in the big bay window, and assorted gift items on shelves. The only modern touches were a glass-fronted cooler on the back wall and the cash counter to the left of the door.
Through the wide doorway on the right I could see women seated at three of the white wrought-iron ice cream tables in the parlor. I’d emptied a storage room and added the parlor as a way to draw in more customers, and it had worked better than I’d ever expected. Most of its success I attributed to the woman who ran it for me, Grace Bingham, who not only brewed the best tea and gourmet coffee in town, but also baked scones every morning to sell in the shop. The flavor of the day depended on what was in season. Today it was apple.
“Hey, sweetie,” my other assistant, Lottie Dombowski, said as she stepped down from the bay window. “How’d the house hunt go? See something worth a second look?”
More like someone worth a second look. “The outside of the house was in deplorable condition,” I said, but before I could tell her the rest of the story, she put her arm around my shoulders and gave me a motherly squeeze.
“You’ll find something. Don’t give up the dream. The perfect house will come along when the time is right.”
After months of hearing about one futile house hunt after another, Lottie should have been as disillusioned as I was. But not her. She was a fighter. As the mother of eighteen-year-old quadruplet sons, she had to be.
Born in Kentucky, the large-boned, forty-seven-year-old had brassy curls à la Shirley Temple and wore pink barrettes to keep the hair off her face. In fact, she wore pink everything except jeans, which were white. I couldn’t actually have vouched for her underwear, but she swore it was also pink, and if I didn’t believe her, I could ask her beloved hubby Herman.
Lottie had once owned Bloomers, but Herman had suffered such serious heart problems that the resulting surgeries and insurance expenses had nearly bankrupted them, forcing her to sell the shop. At the same time, I had been experiencing my own kind of failure. I’d been booted out of law school after my first year and subsequently dumped by my then fiancé, Pryce Osborne II. His parents, part of New Chapel’s elite, hadn’t wanted Pryces II through X to bear the stigma of my humiliation.
Down at heart and desperate for a job, I’d returned to the little shop where I’d worked summers during college, a haven that had called to me even back then. When I learned of Lottie’s situation, I took the rest of the college money my grandfather had left me, dashed it over to the bank, signed my life away, and hired Lottie back to train me.
Grace Bingham glided out of the parlor to join us and said to me in her crisp British accent, “I heard a but in your comment, love.”
Lottie gave her a puzzled look. “Excuse me?”
“You cut her off, Lottie, dear—not that you meant to, but there it is, isn’t it? Abby, love, would you like to finish now? The house was in deplorable condition, but?”
Grace smiled serenely and waited, knowing she was right. Her fingers were interlocked in front of her, her posture as perfect as her short, stylish gray hair. An impeccable dresser, today she wore a lilac sweater set and gray skirt with gray flats.
Lottie looked at me for verification. “I cut you off? I surely didn’t mean to. What else were you going to say about the house?”
“It wasn’t about the house. It was what happened at the house. One of the painters fell off his ladder and had to be taken to the hospital. That brought the occupants out—a mom and two kids, maybe six and ten years old.”
“Home at this time of day?” Grace asked.
“Homeschooled,” I said. “While I was talking to the kids, Daisy, the little girl, kept looking at me strangely.”
“Strangely?” Grace asked. “As in mistrustful? Frightened? Curious?”
“Maybe curious. Anyway, I’ve arranged to go back tomorrow morning.”
“With what intention?” Grace asked. Her fingers were interlocked again.
“To see if my internal radar goes off when I see her,” I said.
“Is Marco okay with this little investigation of yours?” Grace asked with a skeptical eye.
In the length of time it took me to consider my answer, the women had looked at each other and come to a decision. “He’s not,” they both said.
“Let’s just say he’s humoring me,” I said.
The bell over the door jingled and two customers walked in just as a woman in the parlor signaled for more coffee.
“Tallyho,” Grace said, and sailed off toward the parlor with Lottie in tow.
While they took care of the customers, I parted the curtain, stepped into my little slice of paradise, and sighed. There was nothing better than a flower shop on a chill spring day. It was always summer inside my workroom.
I inhaled the floral scents and smiled as I gazed around at my nirvana. A big slate-topped table took up the center of the room, with two walk-in coolers on the right wall, a long counter on the left wall with a built-in desk that housed my computer, fax machine, spindle for orders, and photos, and a doorway at the back that led to the tiny bathroom and small galley kitchen. Vases lined up by size and color filled shelves along two walls, and big containers below the counters held silk flowers grouped by color and type.
I glanced beneath the table and saw Seedy contentedly chewing on a rawhide toy, nestled into the pink-and-blue quilted doggy bed that Grace and Lottie had bought her. When I sat down at my desk, Seedy hobbled out and wanted to sit on my lap. With her perched on my knees, I counted the orders on the spindle, my smile spreading as the number rose. What a change from last year, when we’d gone through such an awful dry spell that I’d feared the shop would close.
I picked up a framed photo of Marco and me taken on our wedding day. “Look, Seedy. You’re in the picture.” The photo next to it was of my family on the same day: Mom with her peaches-and-cream English complexion and neat brown bob; Dad, freckled, redheaded, looking dapper even in his wheelchair; my brothers Jonathan and Jordan and their wives; my niece Tara holding her puppy, Seedling, who was Seedy’s baby; and my glamorous cousin, Jillian, and her fussy husband, Claymore, the younger brother of the scoundrel who jilted me.
As though I had conjured her, the curtain parted and a very round stomach appeared, followed by a snakeskin tote bag, and finally my cousin. Amazingly, even though she was nearly nine months pregnant, Jillian still managed to look like a fashion plate. Today she wore an ankle-length black-and-gray-striped tube dress that was ruched in the abdominal area to allow for her expanding girth.
It was undoubtedly a designer dress—as an independent wardrobe consultant with champagne tastes, she wore little else—but with its skintight fit and stripes, she looked like a snake that had just swallowed a basketball. I dared not criticize her outfit, however, as she had already homed in on my bargain-brand khakis and button-down white shirt with a disapproving eye.
Despite the dissimilarity in our clothing styles, it was easy to tell we were related; we had the same Knight coloring—red hair and pale freckled skin—same nose (Marco had dubbed it “pert”), and same oval face. But where my hair was more of a matchstick red, Jillian’s was a sheen of coppery rose. Where my skin was covered in freckles, hers had an adorable smattering of cinnamon across her nose. And those cosmetic items merely scratched the surface of our differences.
Still, Jillian Ophelia Knight Osborne would always be the younger cousin I regarded as a sister, the frail child with scoliosis I’d protected fiercely and her parents had indulged relentlessly. Surgery at the age of twelve had fixed her spine, but nothing could undo the cossetting. Then puberty hit, and the geeky, spoiled, long-limbed Jillian turned into a tall, slender beauty sought after by all the boys, reinforcing her princess status and leaving her short, freckle-faced cousin in the dust.
Seeing Jillian, Seedy immediately leaped off my lap and dove for cover under the table. She wasn’t afraid of my cousin; she simply couldn’t tolerate Jillian’s Boston terrier, who seemed to be Jillian’s counterpart—a diva dog coincidentally named Princess. The dog barked constantly, disobeyed every command, and ran in continuous loops, making everyone around her irritable. Two professional dog trainers had quit in frustration—not with Princess but with Jillian and Claymore, who treated the dog as though she were a human baby.
Fortunately, Jillian hadn’t brought Princess with her today. She threw her tote bag on the worktable, scattering ivy leaves from the last arrangement, and perched on a wooden stool with a heavy sigh. “My back is killing me. If I ever think of having another baby, smother me with a pillow. So what house did you hate this time?”
“A dilapidated Victorian on Napoleon Street.”
“The yucky tan and brown one? I could have saved you the bother, Abs. If you’d just let me find a house for you, I promise you’d be moving in a month.”
“We have a Realtor, Jillian.”
“Who hasn’t found one single home that you’ve liked. Why won’t you let me take you around town?”
“You don’t have a Realtor’s license, for one thing.”
“Sure I do. I just have to renew it.”
“You have a license? When did you ever sell houses?”
“While you were struggling in law school and didn’t have the time of day for anyone but Pryce.” She studied her shiny silver fingernails. “How sad that for nearly one year you forgot all about the cousin who so looked up to you.”
As Jillian was a head taller, it had been a long time since she’d actually had to look up to me. But I did feel a few guilt pangs because I had indeed ignored her during those two semesters of agony. How could I refuse her simple request now, especially when it might actually find me a home?
“Okay, Jillian. If you renew your license, you can show me houses.”
“Perfect! My license renewal is already in the works, thanks to your ex-fiancé.”
“Do you have to constantly refer to him that way? Just say Pryce. Or call him your brother-in-law.”
“Okay,” she said with obvious reluctance, “but you sound less dull having an ex.”
“Less dull? I own a flower shop and help solve murder cases.”
“Exactly. So save tomorrow evening for me, seven o’clock. I’ve got the perfect house already picked out.” She pushed herself off the stool and groaned as she rubbed her lower back. “I wish Baby No Name would pop out. I’m tired of being fat.”
“First baby, Jill. Not gonna pop out.”
“And you know this because . . . ?”
She had a point. “I thought you’d settled on a name for the baby. Rain . . . or Snow . . .”
“So last month, Abs. Try to keep up.” With an over-the-shoulder wave, Jillian waddled out of the room. A moment later, Seedy peeked out from under the table as though checking to see if the coast was clear.
“She’s gone,” I told her.
Seedy sniffed the air, cocked her head, and waited for the bell above the door to jingle; then, after hearing it, she hobbled toward the small kitchen at the back of the building for a drink from her bowl.
* * *
A three-thirty break was the custom at Bloomers. It coincided with school letting out, providing a lull that allowed us a quick ten minutes to regroup. Right on the dot, Grace glided through the curtain bearing a tray loaded with scones, clotted cream, cups, saucers, a teapot, and napkins. Lottie followed and teatime ensued.
“It’s Monday afternoon,” Lottie reminded us at the end of our break. “Your mom should be making her weekly appearance any minute now.”
“I wonder what project she’ll bring this time,” Grace said, taking a final, thoughtful sip.
Amazing how we’d grown used to Mom’s strange works of art. A mention of it used to bring on shudders. Now we merely sighed. And poor Mom always thought she was helping our bottom line by letting us sell her artwork and taking the profit.
My mom, Maureen Knight, or “Mad Mo” as my brothers and I referred to her, was a great kindergarten teacher. She had the perfect temperament for it—calm, patient, loving, and able to rule a classroom without ever having to raise her voice. Mom was not a great artist, however. She came up with the oddest pieces I’d ever seen: sunglass frames covered in bits of sea glass that made the glasses a headache to wear; a tea cart that looked like a giant golf tee with a golf club handle; a six-foot-tall bowling pin painted with a human face that she designed as a hat rack; toilet seat lids covered with mirrored tiles that made a bathroom break a frightening experience—and the list went on.
She’d had a spectacular stroke of luck a few months back when two of her dog sculptures were noticed by an avant-garde artist in town who actually put on a private art show for her. But Mom soon tired of making dogs out of skateboards and shoe soles, so she’d moved on. The question was, to what?
The bell over the door jingled, followed by Mom’s familiar “Yoo-hoo!”
“We won’t have to wonder long now,” Lottie said.
“Abigail?” Mom called.
“In the workroom, Mom,” I answered.
Lottie drained her cup and rose. “I’m outta here.”
“Coward,” I said.
“You betcha. Come on, Gracie.”
“Right behind you, Lottie, dear.” Grace swept up the tray and glided into the shop.
I heard the women exchange pleasantries with my mom, and then the curtain parted and Mom stuck her head in. “Any luck with the house hunt today?”
“No. Why don’t you come all the way in?”
“Because you need to come outside to see what I brought you.”
That old shudder was threatening to make a return visit.
I followed her through the shop and onto the sidewalk outside, where I found my dad sitting on a short, multicolored park bench placed directly beneath the big bay window. His wheelchair was beside the bench. Dad had retired from the New Chapel police force after a felon’s bullet to the thigh put an end to his career. He was able to maneuver stairs with crutches but used his wheelchair for everything else.
“You made a bench?” I asked her.
“Hey, Abracadabra,” Dad said, using his old nickname for me. “How’s my flower girl today? Isn’t this a great place to sit and watch the happenings across the street?”
I had to step back for a better look. The bench was made from what at first appeared to be glossy wooden slats painted in different primary colors. A closer look revealed that the slats were actually pairs of skis, with their curled ends on alternating sides and half lengths running in the opposite direction on the underside for support.
“Crafty use of the old stuff, isn’t it?” Dad asked. “We have a whole ski theme going on here.”
That was putting it mildly. The bench’s arms were constructed from ski poles, and it sat on legs made from what appeared to be lengths of aspen trunks stuck in child-sized ski boots.
“Your dad is calling it the Two Skeater,” Mom said. “A seat for two made from skis.”
I caught a glimpse of Lottie and Grace peering through the blinds in the parlor window. I was almost certain I heard Lottie’s guffaws.
Trying to keep a positive tone, I said, “So this is your new art project.”
“Actually, it’s your dad’s project,” Mom said, sitting down beside him. They squeezed hands. “He’s already started a second one.”
Great. Now my dad was an artist, too.
“It gives me something to do with my hands,” he said. “There’s only so much I can do on the computer.”
And then came the question that I dreaded. “How much do you think you can sell it for, Abigail?” Mom asked.
“I’ll have to do some research on it,” I said. “But honestly, Mom, I’m not sure I can leave it on the sidewalk without getting permission from the town.”
“You put flowerpots out in the summer,” she said. “Why not a bench?”
“Abby’s right, Mo,” Dad said. “She might need a permit.”
“Then let’s find a place inside,” Mom said. She thought a moment, then said, “I know. We can take out your wicker settee and put the bench in its place.”
Was that my ficus tree screaming?
“Now, then,” Mom said, pulling out a large tote bag from beneath the bench.
“Are you ready for my newest piece of art?”
No amount of preparation in the world could help me with that.
“I call it the iPot,” she said, and out came a twelve-inch terra-cotta flowerpot that she’d painted neon orange. The pot might have been tolerable if she’d stopped there, but no. She’d covered it with row upon row of one-inch black-and-white stick-on eyes that jiggled when the pot moved. It was like having an audience of eye-rollers.
“So it’s actually an E-Y-E pot,” I said, spelling it out.
“That’s my Mo,” Dad said, putting his arm around her. “Always the clever one with those names.”
“I’ve got more in the van,” Mom said. “I’ll bring them in as soon as we get the bench inside.”
I heard screams again, but this time they were coming from inside my head.
* * *
Eight o’clock a.m. couldn’t come soon enough for me. I’d thought about Daisy all evening and had even dreamed about her. In my dream, we were seated at a child-sized picnic table in the middle of a backyard drawing pictures. I’d made a vase full of daisies, which wasn’t hard to interpret. Daisy had drawn a picture I couldn’t interpret, and when I asked what it was, she said it was her puppy and it was missing not one but two legs. Then she’d pulled out a brown-and-white stuffed dog with the back legs ripped off.
I hadn’t awakened in the best of moods. The dream had, however, cemented my desire to see Daisy again.
Marco and I met Lorelei shortly after eight o’clock in front of the old Victorian. She rang the bell and turned to smile at us. “Excited?”
“Very,” I said, while Marco grunted noncommittally.
When no one came to the door, Lorelei rang the bell again and then knocked. “They might be upstairs.”
When still no one answered, Marco said, “Looks like they’re not home. Let’s go.”
I grabbed his arm as he started down the porch steps. “Give it another minute.”
“Surely they didn’t forget,” Lorelei said, pounding now.
“Do you have a key?” I asked.
“The owner didn’t provide one.” She pressed the doorbell frantically.
“Let’s go,” Marco said, tugging on my elbow. “We’re wasting time here.”
Lorelei turned the old-fashioned glass doorknob and the door opened. She pushed it wide, calling, “Hello. It’s Lorelei. I’m here to show the house.”
It was completely silent inside.
“Something’s not right about this, Abby,” Marco said quietly.
Which made it all the more intriguing. I followed Lorelei into the tiny front hall and looked around. If the exterior hadn’t turned me off, the scarred wood floor, cracked plaster walls, stained ceiling, and rusty iron light fixture at the entrance would have.
“Come on,” I said to my obstinate mate, who stood on the porch with his arms folded across his leather jacket, scoping out the neighborhood. “Let’s have a look.”
“I don’t like it. Unanswered knocks, unlocked door . . . I think we should leave.”
“If you want to leave, Lorelei can give me a ride back to Bloomers.”
Muttering something about stubborn redheads, he followed me inside.
A few feet from the front door, an uncarpeted staircase led to the second floor, where all appeared dark. To the right of the stairs was a hallway that ran from front to back, punctuated by two arched openings along the outer wall. Through an arched doorway at the back, I could see grimy white metal kitchen cabinets.
“Hello? Mr. Jones? Mrs. Jones?” Lorelei called, heading up the hallway.
I was about to follow, but Marco put his hand on my shoulder. “Let’s wait here.”
I didn’t like it when he got bossy, but I knew he was only concerned for my safety, so I held my tongue and watched as Lorelei glanced in each doorway.
“See? No one’s home,” Marco said. “Let’s go.”
At that moment our Realtor reached the kitchen doorway—and gasped.
That was all it took to send me darting after her. I glanced through the two doorways as I ran past, quickly taking in a dilapidated green sofa and two mismatched chairs in the first room and a round oak table and four ladder-back chairs in the second. By the time I reached the kitchen, Marco had not only caught up with me, but also had pulled out his phone and was making a call, no doubt to the police, not that I could blame him. Judging by Lorelei’s shocked expression, I fully expected to see a dead body inside.
Instead, I saw absolutely nothing. No kitchen table, no chairs, no curtains, no decorations, not even a spoon rest on the stove. Some of the cheap metal cabinet doors were open, revealing bare insides. A microwave cart stood empty. There weren’t even any crumbs on the old black-and-white linoleum floor.
I opened the refrigerator door to find that all of its contents were gone.
“I don’t believe it,” our befuddled Realtor said, taking out her phone to make a call. “They’ve moved out!”
Excerpted from "A Root Awakening"
Copyright © 2015 Kate Collins.
Excerpted by permission of Penguin Publishing Group.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
What People are Saying About This
“Another triumph in the well-loved Flowershop Mystery series.”—New York Times bestselling author Lorna Barrett
Praise for the New York Times Bestselling Flower Shop Mystery Series:
“One of my favorite mystery series.”—Kate Carlisle, New York Times Bestselling Author of the Bibliophile Mysteries
“Engaging characters and witty dialogue.”—Fresh Fiction
“Kate Collins’s Flower Shop Mysteries are always an auto-buy for me!”—New York Times Bestselling Author Julie Hyzy
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Wow! This is the best one so far in this series. Abby was certainly the star in one. Marco and Abby are so charming and the other characters ~ well , let's just say they are characters that make you smile. The storyline was amazing and I love the way Abby followed her heart and instincts to help solve this mystery.
Clever story line, a fresh look at murder. Great writing and makes me laugh. I enjoyed this book as much as the others. Awesome writing and never a blah or boring storyline. As usual, looking forward to the next book.
Bouquets can open doors --- What do a man on a ladder, a child who looks at Abby strangely, a woman with a mop, and a possible murder have to do with a search by Abby and Marco for a house of their own? Throw in help from Abby's very pregnant cousin Jillian who has renewed her real estate license to find the perfect house, her seemingly everlasting false labor pains, and Abby prowling after possible criminals and what do you have? A book that is a quick, easy read that will have you scratching your head, as one possible crime becomes entangled with another possible crime to keep you on your toes. What or who caused Sergio's fall? If it was deliberate, which of his co-workers may have seen something or even might have pushed the ladder away from the roof? Marco and Abby, now married and living in Marco's loft, are finding their quarters cramped and really want to move into their own place. Business is brisk at Bloomers, the flower shop Abby owns and operates, and Marco is kept very busy with his two businesses, his bar "Down the Hatch" and his private investigator business. Abby is almost always his assistant on top of her own job managing her store. This series is fun and captivating. The kooky items that Abby's mother brings in to sell in the shop gives Abby grief, but they are so creatively awkward they are entertaining in their own right. The camaraderie between Abby and her assistants is comforting, and fortunately allows her time to work on what she calls her "hobby", sleuthing, her three-legged rescue dog Seedy often accompanying her. Rosa, Sergio's wife, is absolutely sure that someone pushed her husband off the roof and has hired Marco to find the culprit. In the meantime, she begins working part-time in Bloomers when she isn't by Sergio's side waiting and hoping for him to regain consciousness. There is so much going on in this book, with some very strange twists, but the story line remains intact and quickly moves in action and excitement. Another strong plot in the Flower Shop Mysteries from Kate Collins.
Dollycas’s Thoughts House hunting can be fun but most times it is pretty daunting. Buying a house is a huge decision and Marco and Abby are not exactly on the same page as to the type of house they want. Marco is okay with a fixer upper but Abby knows with them both owning businesses and a private investigating company they are not going to have much time for fixing anything up. But she is willing to look. They arrive to check out a Victorian that is already receiving a bit of a facelift just in time to see one of the workers fall many feet from his ladder to the ground. It looks like an accident but the victim’s wife hires Marco and Abby to investigate. Abby also thinks there is something off about the people renting the house and her brain just can’t let it go so she does a little investigating on her own. Not sure what their next move is regarding finding a home a very pregnant comes to the rescue and offers to find them the perfect place to purchase. The trick will be finding it before she actually really truly goes into labor and has the baby. Hilarity ensues! This is the 16th book in this series. That should tell you something right there. This is an excellent series and Kate Collins is a wonderful storyteller. She continues to keep these character fresh and their adventures colorful and entertaining. They are definitely blooming in the place she has planted them. As someone who has worked on a construction crew the man falling from the ladder sent extra chills through my entire body. Those Victorian homes are tall, my first thought was where was his safety harness but then I quickly became enthralled in the mystery. Did he just lose his balance or was he really pushed? Why? and Who? and was he going to survive? Abby and Marco seem to be getting nowhere in their investigation. This was one of those books I just couldn’t put down. I knew what Abby was thinking but the author twisted it in a way I didn’t see coming at all. An extraordinary WHODUNIT! I am a huge fan of this author and I anxiously await each installment and am never disappointed, in fact she always exceeds my expectations. We have already learned #17 is called Florist Grump and it hits stores in November! I truly can’t wait!
A Root Awakening was a fantastic addition to the Flower Shop Mystery series. I have read the entire series and recommend the same. However you do not have to read the entire series to enjoy this book. It was a great continuation of the characters I have come to know and love and I cannot wait for the next installment in the series to see what happens. This book was full of twists and turns and I could not put it down.
A Root Awakening is the sixteenth book in the A Flower Shop Mystery series. It's always a joy for me to sit on a bench in the village square watch for the wonderful characters that work at Bloomer's and Down The Hatch. Bloomer's being Abby Knights flower shop and her able assistants, Grace and Lottie. Grace who can be counted on to add timely quotes and Lottie's great sense of humor. Down The Hatch is the bar that Abby's husband, Marco, owns. The newlyweds have returned to New Chapel to begin the married life together. The first thing on their agenda is to find a home. The first house that they are going to look at is having a new roof put on and us being painted. As they are about to go into the house, the extension ladder the painter, Sergio, is on beings to fall and throws him to the ground. Sergio is taken to the hospital in serious condition and the police feel that it was a workplace accident. But Abby is concerned that something isn't right with the daughter of the family living there. Soon, Rosa, Sergio wife ask Marco and Abby to look into the matter, as she feels that there was a vendetta against Sergio. Marco and Abby begin to interview the crew that was working on the house. But at the same time Abby starts her own investigation into the little girl and her family. She wants to find out the young girl is upset and to show Marco that she really does have the necessary investigative skills to handle investigations on her own.
I found A ROOT AWAKENING to be every bit as entertaining as the other volumes in this series. With the same great writing style, it’s packed with mystery, fun, and colorful characters. It’s hard to believe this is already the sixteenth installment in the Flower Shop Mysteries. Yet, somehow, Ms. Collins has kept this series as fresh as the flowers she writes about. For indeed, it is a wonderful bloom in an ever growing bouquet. There is a superb “whodunit” with plenty of false leads to keep you guessing. I had no idea who the culprit was until lead character, Abby Knight, knew herself. While I do love to be able to guess sometimes, I really enjoy when a book like this one leaves me with my mouth hanging open and saying, “No way!” One of my favorite parts of the story was the house hunting involving Abby and her new husband, Marco. It reminded me so much of looking for a new house a couple of years ago. Some of the “fixer uppers” we were shown were in pretty rough shape. Like Abby, I was not enthused with the prospect of being the one to do the fixing. You’re really going to enjoy A ROOT AWAKENING. If you haven’t read this series yet, please start adding them to your TBR stacks! You won’t be sorry. And if you already read this series, well, you are in for the same wonderful treat you always get when reading the Flower Shop Mysteries. Check out the end of the book for a blurb on, FLORIST GRUMP, coming in November 2015!