The Enchanted Garden behind Elliana Allbright’s perfume shop draws people of all ages with its fragrant flowers and lush greenery. But when the magical serenity is interrupted, it’s up to Ellie to sniff out a killer.
Ellie’s life has blossomed in Poppyville, California, since she opened Scents & Nonsense, a custom-made-perfume store. Her skills with aromas and botanical essences—some from her very own garden—seem almost…supernatural. Her perfumes can evoke emotions, bring about change, or simply make people happy. Customers are flocking to the store to buy her wares or just to sit in her beautiful garden, sip tea and enjoy homemade cookies.
But she smells trouble when she learns that her part-time assistant Josie is dating her ex. And before she can tell the young woman to beware of his charms, she finds Josie dead in the Enchanted Garden. Now the prime suspect in Josie’s murder, Ellie must search for the real culprit in Josie’s past—because it’ll take a miracle to nip this problem in the bud....
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THE sweet, slightly astringent aroma of Lavandula stoechas teased my nose. I couldn’t help closing my eyes for a moment to appreciate its layered fragrance drifting on the light morning breeze. Spanish lavender, or “topped” lavender—according to my gamma, it had been one of my mother’s favorites. It was a flower that had instilled calm and soothed the skin for time eternal, a humble herb still used to ease headache and heartache alike. I remembered Gamma murmuring to me in her garden when I was five years old:
Breathe deeply, Elliana. Notice how you can actually taste the scent when you inhale it? Pliny the Elder brewed this into his spiced wine, and Romans used it to flavor their ancient sauces. In the language of flowers, it signifies the acknowledgment of love.
Not that I’d be using it in that capacity anytime soon.
But Gamma had been gone for over twenty years, and my mother had died when I was only four. Shaking my head, I returned my attention to the tiny mosaic pathway next to where I knelt. Carefully, I added a piece of foggy sea glass to the design. The path was three feet long and four inches wide, and led from beneath a tumble of forget-me-nots to a violet-colored fairy door set into the base of the east fence. Some people referred to them as “gnome doors,” but whatever you called them, the decorative miniature garden phenomena were gaining popularity with adults and children alike. The soft green and blue of the water-polished, glass-nugget path seemed to morph directly from the clusters of azure flowers, curving around a lichen-covered rock to the ten-inch round door. I wondered how long it would take one of my customers to notice this new addition to the verdant garden behind my perfume and aromatherapy shop, Scents & Nonsense.
The rattle of the latch on the gate to my left interrupted my thoughts. Surprised, I looked up and saw Dash trotting toward me on his short corgi legs. His lips pulled back in a grin as he reached my side, and I smoothed the thick ruff of fur around his foxy face. Astrid Moneypenny—my best friend in Poppyville, or anywhere else, for that matter—strode behind him at a more sedate pace. Her latest foster dog, Tally, a Newfoundland mix with a graying muzzle, lumbered beside her.
“Hey, Ellie! There was a customer waiting on the boardwalk out front,” Astrid said. “I let her in to look around. Tally, sit.”
I bolted to my feet, the fairy path forgotten. “Oh, no. I totally lost track of time. Is it already ten o’clock?”
The skin around Astrid’s willow-green eyes crinkled in a smile. They were a startling contrast to her auburn hair and freckled nose. “Relax. I’ll watch the shop while you get cleaned up.” She jammed her hand into the pocket of her hemp dress and pulled out a cookie wrapped in a napkin. “Snickerdoodles today.”
I took it and inhaled the buttery cinnamon goodness. “You’re the best.”
Astrid grinned. “I have a couple of hours before my next gig. Tally can hang out here with Dash.” She was a part-time technician at the veterinary clinic and a self-proclaimed petrepreneur—dog walker and pet sitter specializing in animals with medical needs. “But isn’t Josie supposed to be working today?”
“She should be here soon,” I said. “She called last night and left a message that she might be late. Something about a morning hike to take pictures of the wildflowers.” I began gathering pruners and trowel, kneeling pad and weed digger into a handled basket. “They say things are blooming like crazy in the foothills right now.”
Astrid turned to go, then stopped. Her eyes caught mine. “Ellie . . .”
She shook her head. “It’s just that you look so happy working out here.”
I took in the leafy greenery, the scarlet roses climbing the north fence, tiered beds that overflowed with herbs and scented blooms, and the miniature gardens and doors tucked into surprising nooks and alcoves. A downy woodpecker rapped against the trunk of the oak at the rear of the lot, and two hummingbirds whizzed by on their way to drink from the handblown glass feeder near the back patio of Scents & Nonsense. An asymmetrical boulder hunkered in the middle of the yard, the words ENCHANTED GARDEN etched into it by a local stone carver. He’d also carved words into river rocks I’d placed in snug crannies throughout the half-acre space. The one next to where Dash had flopped down read BELIEVE. Mismatched rocking chairs on the patio, along with the porch swing hanging from the pergola, offered opportunities for customers to sit back, relax, sip a cup of tea or coffee, and nibble on the cookies Astrid baked up each morning.
“I am happy,” I said quietly. More than that. Grateful. A sense of contentment settled deep into my bones, and my smile broadened.
“I’m glad things have worked out so well for you.” Her smile held affection that warmed me in spite of the cool morning.
“It hasn’t been easy, but it’s true that time smooths a lot of rough edges.” I rolled my eyes. “Of course, it’s taken me nearly a year.”
A year of letting my heart heal from the bruises of infidelity, of divorce, of everyone in town knowing my—and my ex’s—business. In fact, perfect cliché that it was, everyone except me seemed to know Harris had been having an affair with Wanda Simmons, the owner of one of Poppyville’s ubiquitous souvenir shops. Once I was out of the picture, though, he’d turned the full spectrum of his demanding personality on her. She’d bolted within weeks, going so far as to move back to her hometown in Texas. I still couldn’t decide whether that was funny or sad.
I’d held my ground, however. Poppyville, California, nestled near the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, was my hometown, and I wasn’t about to leave. The town’s history reached back to the gold rush, and tourists flocked to its Old West style; its easy access to outdoor activities like hiking, biking, and fly fishing; and to the small hot spring a few miles to the south.
After the divorce, I’d purchased a storefront with the money Harris paid to buy me out of our restaurant, the Roux Grill. The property was perfect for what I wanted: a retail store to cater to townspeople and tourists alike and a business that would allow me to pursue my passion for all things scentual. Add in the unexpected—and largely free—living space included in the deal, and I couldn’t turn it down.
Sense & Nonsense was in a much sought after location at the end of Corona Street’s parade of bric-a-brac dens. The kite shop was next door to the north, but to the south, Raven Creek Park marked the edge of town with a rambling green space punctuated with playground equipment, picnic tables, and a fitness trail. The facade of my store had an inviting, cottagelike feel, with painted shutters above bright window boxes and a rooster weathervane twirling on the peaked roof. The acre lot extended in a rectangle behind the business to the front door of my small-scale home, which snugged up against the back property line.
With a lot of work and plenty of advice from local nurserywoman Thea Nelson, I’d transformed what had started as a barren, empty lot between the two structures into an elaborate garden open to my customers, friends, and the occasional catered event. As I’d added more and more whimsical details, word of the Enchanted Garden had spread. I loved sharing it with others, and it was good for business, too.
“Well, it’s nice to have you back, sweetie. Now we just have to find a man for you.” Astrid reached down to stroke Tally’s neck. The big dog gazed up at her with adoration, while I struggled to keep a look of horror off my face.
“Man?” I heard myself squeak. That was the last thing on my mind. Well, almost. I cleared my throat. “What about your love life?” I managed in a more normal tone.
She snorted. “I have plenty of men, Ellie. Don’t you worry about me.”
It was true. Astrid attracted men like milkweed attracted monarch butterflies. At thirty-seven, she’d never been married, and seemed determined to keep it that way.
“Astrid,” I began, but she’d already turned on her heel so fast that her copper-colored locks whirled like tassels on a lamp shade. Her hips swung ever so slightly beneath the skirt of her dress, the hem of which skimmed her bicycle-strong calves as she returned to the back door of Scents & Nonsense to look after things. Tally followed her and settled down on the patio flagstones as my friend went inside. I saw Nabokov, the Russian blue shorthair who made it his business to guard the store day and night, watching the big dog through the window with undisguised feline disdain.
Basket in hand, I hurried down the winding stone pathway to my living quarters. “God, I hope she doesn’t get it into her head to set me up with someone,” I muttered around a bite of still-warm snickerdoodle.
Dash, trotting by my left heel, glanced up at me with skeptical brown eyes. He’d been one of Astrid’s foster dogs about six months earlier. She’d told me he was probably purebred, but there was no way of knowing, as he’d been found at a highway rest stop and brought, a bit dehydrated but otherwise fine, to the vet’s office where she worked. Of course, Astrid agreed to take care of him until a home could be found—which was about ten seconds after she brought him into Scents & Nonsense. I’d fallen hard for him, and he’d been my near constant companion ever since.
“Okay. It’s possible, just possible, that it would be nice to finally go on an actual date,” I said to him now. Leery of my bad judgment in the past, I’d sworn off the opposite sex since my marriage ended. But now that Scents & Nonsense wasn’t demanding all my energy and time, I had to admit that a sense of loneliness had begun to seep into my evenings.
“But you know what they say about the men in Poppyville, Dash. The odds here are good, but the goods are pretty odd.”
A hawk screeched from the heights of a pine in the open meadow behind my house. Ignoring it, Dash darted away to nose the diminutive gazebo and ferns beneath the ancient gnarled trunk of the apple tree. He made a small noise in the back of his throat and sat back on his haunches beside the little door I’d made from a weathered cedar shake and set into a notch in the bark. Absently, I called him back, distracted by how sun-warmed mint combined so nicely with the musk of incense cedar, a bright but earthy fragrance that followed us to my front door.
Granted, my home had started as a glorified shed, but it worked for a Pembroke Welsh corgi and a woman who sometimes had to shop in the boy’s section to find jeans that fit. The “tiny house” movement was about living simply in small spaces. I hadn’t known anything about it until my half brother, Colby, mentioned it in one of his phone calls from wherever he’d stopped his Westfalia van for the week. The idea had immediately appealed to my inner child, who had always wanted a playhouse of her very own, while my environmental side appreciated the smaller, greener footprint. I’d hired a contractor from a nearby town who specialized in tiny-house renovations. He’d made a ramshackle three-hundred-twenty-square-foot shed into a super-efficient living space.
There were loads of built-in niches, an alcove in the main living area for a television and stereo, extra foldout seating, a drop-down dining table, and even a desk that tucked away into the wall until needed. A circular staircase led to the sleeping loft above, which boasted a queen bed surrounded by cupboards for linens and clothing and a skylight set into the angled roof. The staircase partially separated the living area from the galley kitchen, and the practical placement of shelves under the spiraling steps made it not only visually stunning, but a terrific place to house my considerable library of horticulture and aromatherapy books.
Most of the year, the back porch, which ran the seventeen-foot width of the house, was my favorite place to hang out when not in the garden or Scents & Nonsense. It looked out on an expanse of meadow running up to the craggy foothills of Kestrel Peak. Our resident mule deer herd often congregated there near sunset.
After a quick sluice in the shower, I slipped into a blue cotton sundress that matched my eyes, ran fingers through my dark shoulder-length curls in a feeble attempt to tame them, skipped the makeup, and slid my feet into soft leather sandals. Dash at my heel, I hurried down the path to the shop. I inhaled bee balm, a hint of basil, lemon verbena, and . . . what was that?
My steps paused, and I felt my forehead wrinkle. I knew every flower, every leaf in this garden, and every scent they gave off. I again thought of my gamma, who had taught me about plants and aromatherapy—though she never would have used that word. She would have known immediately what created this intoxicating fragrance.
Check her garden journal. Though without more information it would be difficult to search the tattered, dog-eared volume in which she’d recorded her botanical observations, sketches, flower recipes, and lore.
A flutter in my peripheral vision made me turn my head, but where I’d expected to see a bird winging into one of the many feeders, there was nothing. At the same time, a sudden breeze grabbed away the mysterious fragrance and tickled the wind chimes.
Glancing down, I noticed the engraved river rock by the fairy path I’d been forming earlier appeared to have shifted.
For a second, I thought it read BEWARE.
My head whipped up as I wildly searched the garden. When I looked down again, the word BELIEVE cheerfully beckoned again.
Just a trick of the light, Ellie.
Still, I stared at the smooth stone for what felt like a long time. Then I shook my head and continued to the patio. After giving Tally a quick pat on the head, I wended my way between two rocking chairs and opened the sliding door to Scents & Nonsense.
Nabby slipped outside, rubbing his gray velvety self against my bare leg before he touched noses with Dash, threw Tally a warning look, and padded out to bask in the sunshine. A brilliant blue butterfly settled near the cat and opened its iridescent wings to the warming day. As I turned away, two more floated in to join the first. As the cat moved toward his preferred perch on the retaining wall, the butterflies wafted behind him like balloons on a string. It was funny—they seemed to seek him out, and once I’d seen two or three find him in the garden, I knew more blue wings would soon follow.
INSIDE Scents & Nonsense, Astrid had brewed coffee and now stood behind the register chatting with a young woman. The customer sported straight blond hair and a T-shirt advertising Fat Tire beer. I poured my second mug of caffeine and opened the curtains over the big plateglass window that looked out onto the garden. Then I ducked behind the low counter on the east side of the shop, where I manufactured many of the Scents & Nonsense signature products.
I’d discovered early on that there was no way to tend the shop and make my perfumes, bath oils, and the rest unless I combined the two. It turned out that people were actually interested in watching me stir and pour and bottle and label. During working hours I made sure to stick with items that could be easily interrupted for long stretches, so I could take my time with patrons, answering their questions and finding them exactly what they wanted or needed. In addition, I could sample and mix custom perfumes right on the spot, which snagged me a few more sales from tourists who wandered in off the covered boardwalk intending to “just look.”
“I need a gift for my mother-in-law,” the customer said as I sidled up beside Astrid. “Tomorrow is her birthday, and she’s downright impossible to shop for.” Her mouth twitched ruefully for a second before her pleasant mask descended again. Her gaze went up to Astrid’s five foot ten and back down to me, a full foot shorter.
Astrid’s eyes flashed with humor as she put her palm on my shoulder. “Ellie can help you out, I guarantee.”
I stepped forward, and my friend gracefully sidestepped and began to load a plate with snickerdoodles. Astrid loathed cooking of all kinds—except baking cookies. She’d gotten into the habit of whipping up a batch every morning and dropping them by the shop. Called it her “therapy.” I wasn’t about to ask her to stop, either. The woman wouldn’t boil an egg on a bet, but she was a cookie-baking genius.
“Let me guess,” I said to the customer. “Your mother-in-law either has everything—or doesn’t want it.”
Her lips turned down in a slight frown, but her shoulders relaxed a fraction. “Exactly! I thought I’d get her a candle or soap or something. Everyone has to bathe, right?” Her bright tone seemed a little forced.
“I certainly hope so,” I teased. “What are her favorite scents?”
“I . . . I don’t know. She used to like jasmine. But . . .” She trailed off, looking uncomfortable.
“But?” I prompted.
She shrugged. “Her husband passed away a while ago. She hasn’t been the same since.”
Sad. Sad for a long time. I felt the heavy weight of the unknown woman’s grief settle someplace near my sternum.
“I have an idea.” I came out from behind the counter and went to a shelf on the far wall. She followed with a curious expression. I selected a quart-sized, Mason-jar candle, unscrewed the top, and took a deep sniff. The tight sensation in my chest eased as the fragrances of strong essential oils filled my lungs. I held the jar out to the woman, who took a tentative whiff, then with widening eyes, a longer, deeper inhalation.
“Oh, that’s wonderful. What is it?”
I explained. “Cedar.” For courage. “Cinnamon.” For warmth and safety during times of change. “And lemon.” Which in this combination would inspire clarity when things seem muddled.
A smile widened on her face. “You know, I think she’ll like it. A lot.”
I nodded. “Personally, I find the scents of those oils quite uplifting.” In fact, I’d developed that particular combination to help me get through the past year. Starting over at thirty-five could feel pretty scary at times.
She breathed in the scent again and nodded. “I’ll take it. But I’d like to get her something else, too. Any suggestions?”
“You mentioned soap. I think this one might go over well.” I reached for a creamy ecru bar packaged in cellophane to keep the volatile essential oils from dissipating into the dry California air.
“What’s in it?” she asked.
I pulled the tiny stopper out of the blue glass tester bottle at the front of the display and handed it to her to smell. My sensitive nose could detect the combination from a foot and a half away. The remaining pressure in my chest eased, and I knew it was the right choice for her mother-in-law. “Bergamot and jasmine. Cheerful scents, happy scents. The jasmine is the high note, the most noticeable, and you said she’s partial to it. The bergamot underlies it with subtle charm. I’d suggest a box of high-quality Earl Grey tea—which gets its distinct, citrus flavor from bergamot—and make up a little gift basket. Tessa at the tea room down the street has a nice selection of Earl Grey, and I have some unique baskets over here.” I led the way to a selection of sturdy baskets crocheted from stiff multicolored twine. “If you want a little something more to fill out the basket, a couple of packets of rose bath salts would do the trick.” Rose was a scent of deep compassion.
My customer’s head bobbed. “That’s a great idea. Oh, and I’ll take a bar of that soap for myself.” She blushed, then shrugged. “It smells heavenly, and I deserve a treat.”
“Good for you,” I said with a grin, and gathered her purchases.
The door swung open, and Josie Overland strode in, bouncing on the balls of her feet with each step. Her long brown ponytail swayed back and forth.
“Hi! Sorry I’m late! Oh, but golly, it’s so gorgeous up on Kestrel right now!” Her sunburned nose wrinkled in delight, and she bounded into my small office to stow her backpack. “It’ll just take me a sec to change out of these hiking clothes,” she called.
I wrapped the gift basket items and rang up the sale. As the door closed behind the blond woman, Astrid came up and leaned her elbows on the counter. “You okay?”
“Sure. Why wouldn’t I be?”
She quirked an eyebrow. “You know. That”—she waved her hand—“superpower you use to find the right scents for your customers.”
“Ha! I wouldn’t call it that,” I said. “My sense of smell is just . . . fine-tuned, I guess. If that’s a superpower then your ability to diagnose what’s wrong with an animal, or the way Maria can know exactly what book someone at the library needs are superpowers, too.”
“It’s not the same, and you know it,” Astrid said.
I said, “Everyone has something they’re really good at. Or more than one thing. Some people just train and practice. It’s no different from being a good dancer or talented baseball player.”
I truly believed that, though to be honest, my senses of smell and empathy were a unique combination that gave me the ability to sometimes read what scents could help someone. It wasn’t infallible, and some people I couldn’t read at all, but it was so satisfying when I could truly make someone feel better. The first time it had happened, I’d given our neighbor, Mr. Finder, a sprig of lily of the valley because he’d looked tired.
I’d been three.
Later, Gamma had told me that Mr. Finder had been working double shifts at his job, but that my present had helped him feel better. Over time, my ability to decipher people had evolved into something I mirrored on a physical level.
Now Astrid shook her head. “Okay, call it whatever you want, but I saw your face. Was it bad?”
“Not too bad,” I said. “And the fragrances took care of it. That’s how I know.”
“That you’re giving people what they need?”
I dipped my chin. “Yes.”
“But this was by proxy, you might say. How can you know how to help someone you’ve never met?”
I frowned and leaned against the counter. “I don’t know. That doesn’t happen very often.” I shrugged. “Maybe it didn’t this time, either. Maybe she was the one who needed help.” I gestured toward the door where the customer had departed.
Astrid looked skeptical but didn’t comment. Still, I pondered her question until Josie emerged from the office, her shorts and T-shirt replaced with white Capri pants, a coral blouse, and boat shoes. “Ready for work, boss! Where should I start?”
• • •
ASTRID left to jog a German shepherd for some clients who wanted their baby to have her exercise while they were out of town. I started Josie on a labeling project, then called to let Inga Fowler know that the custom perfume she’d ordered was ready for pickup. She didn’t answer, so I left a voice mail and settled in at the counter to make a list of errands.
The beginning of the week tended to be slower for retail shops in tourist-oriented towns like Poppyville. Josie came in for most of the day on Mondays and Tuesdays, which gave me the opportunity to do some of the other things life requires during regular business hours. I’d been happy when she’d applied for the part-time position, since she bartended at the Roux Grill, and I already knew she was a great employee.
“Let’s see,” I said under my breath. “Bank, grocery store, library. Stop by Thea’s and get a bag of mushroom compost for the new herb bed. And Dash is almost out of cookies from Doggone Gourmet.” I paused and tapped my pen on the counter, thinking.
The Greenstockings, a loose-knit group of independent businesswomen in Poppyville that Astrid and I belonged to, were meeting later in the Enchanted Garden. The name was based on the famous Bluestocking Society in eighteenth-century England, which was made up of intellectual women discussing culture and literature. The Greenstockings, however, got together to talk about marketing and business strategy. The “green” in our name was short for “greenbacks.”
Astrid would bring cookies—naturally—and Gessie King had promised to bring her signature guacamole. Cynthia Beck, who owned Foxy Locksies Hair Studio, could always be counted on for wine.
I texted Thea Nelson, who assured me she’d be at the Greenstockings meeting.
I put my phone away and went back to my list of errands.
“Um, Ellie?” Josie’s voice wavered from behind me.
I turned to look at her. She shuffled from one foot to the other in the doorway of the office.
“Can’t find the labels for the milk bath?” I asked, ready to climb down from my stool.
She raised her hand to reveal a roll of yellow stickers. “They were right where you said they would be. But, um, I kind of need to . . .” She bit her lip. “I need to tell you something.”
My brow knitted in concern. Josie was normally anything but tentative. “Sweetie, what is it?”
She took a deep breath, and her pale eyes opened wide as she seemed to brace herself. “I’m, uh . . .” She looked away. “Harris and I . . .”
I was vaguely aware of the pen dropping from my fingers. In the ensuing silence, it rolled to the edge of the counter and fell to the floor with a tiny clatter.
“What?” I asked stupidly.
“Harris asked me out to dinner about a month ago, and I said yes. We’ve been seeing each other pretty regularly ever since. God, Ellie, I’m so sorry!”
Slowly, I shook my head. “No need to be sorry. It’s just—” I stopped myself. It’s just that you’re ten years younger than he is. And he’s your boss. And you’re bright and positive and he’s . . . Harris. “I’m just surprised, is all.”
She hung her head, her chestnut ponytail swooping down over her shoulder. “I should have said something earlier.” She looked up again before her gaze shunted to the side. “It’s not that we were trying to keep anything from you, Ellie. Like it was a secret or anything. It just sort of happened. I didn’t know I’d end up liking him so much. I mean, I’ve worked at the Roux for a long time now, right?”
I forced a smile and nodded. She’d started bartending there two years ago when I was still running the place with Harris. At twenty-nine, two years might seem like a long time to her.
Come to think of it, two years still seemed like a long time.
Her eyes filled with tears. “Are you going to fire me?”
My half smile dropped. “Of course not! Josie, you don’t have to worry about your job here at the shop just because you’re dating my ex.”
“Really? You’re so nice!” She threw her arms around me and squeezed tight. I returned her hug with somewhat less enthusiasm. Then I thought of how charming Harris had been when we were dating, how romantic and attentive. And how all that had seemed to drain away the second the rice finished raining down on us outside the chapel. I thought of that, and I hugged her back as hard as I could.
“You just be careful, you hear? Harris isn’t the most faithful guy.”
She stepped back and beamed at me. “Oh, he’s different now. He’s changed. He really has.”
I nodded, unable to speak. I hope so, honey. For your sake.
• • •
A MOTHER brought in her six-year-old daughter to see the Enchanted Garden. They were in town only for the day, but a friend of theirs had urged them to visit.
My favorite kind of referral.
I happily gave them the tour, pointing out the miniature succulent garden, the tiny bridges, a diminutive cottage, and the winged fairy figurines arranged in the rock cress and creeping thyme. By that time, the group of blue butterflies Nabby regularly attracted had grown to two dozen. They’d taken up residence in the magenta Buddleia—commonly known as butterfly bush for good reason. Nabby had crept into its shade to sleep. As we approached, he deigned to open his eyes long enough to stretch into a more comfortable position.
Enjoying the child’s open-mouthed, head-back wonder as she gazed up at the electric blue wings, I asked, “Did you know a bunch of butterflies like that is called a kaleidoscope?”
Silently, she shook her head.
“Stunning,” the mother said, her eyes glued to the insects as firmly as her daughter’s were. “A kaleidoscope, you say?”
“All that color swirling together when they fly—it makes sense,” I said. “Feel free to grab a drink and some cookies. Sweetie,” I said to the girl, “there’s lemonade in the little fridge under the coffee urn inside if you want some. Spend as much time out here as you’d like.”
“Thank you,” the mother murmured, a smile now tugging at her lips. “We’ll do that.”
I asked Josie to check on them and left her labeling bottles of vanilla-scented milk bath. Dash and I went out to Corona Street.
“Hey, Ellie! How’s business been?” Zach Porter asked. He was hanging a colorful box kite on the wall outside Flyrite Kites.
I smiled. “Pretty good. Yours?”
“It’s picking up. There’s a kite festival over in Silver Wells next week, so that helps.” He lifted his hand in farewell and went inside his shop.
Reflecting that festivals were the lifeblood of tourist towns in the summer months, I walked across to the public lot, where I generally parked so as not to take up a space in front of any of the downtown businesses. After hoisting Dash into the passenger seat of my battered old Wrangler, I used the running board to boost myself in, started up the engine, and began driving toward First Bank over on Gilmore Street.
The butterfly visitation normally would have made me smile for the rest of the afternoon, but not today. “Distracted” didn’t even begin to describe how I felt. Mostly I was torn between anger at Harris and a worried sense of protectiveness toward Josie. However, there was also the vague, sticky shadow of the same humiliation I’d felt at Harris’ betrayal during our marriage. Apparently, that was going to take a bit more time to fade away entirely.
Of course, he wasn’t betraying me now.
Maybe I should start thinking about dating. Dating. Ugh. The thought of shopping for a boyfriend on the Internet made me shudder.
I found myself turning into the parking lot of the stables on the north edge of town, bank deposit still in hand, with no recollection of how I got there. I put the Jeep in park. Dash put his front paws on the door and panted out the open window.
The distinctly musky smell of horses floated in the air along with dust particles that glittered in the sunshine. In the outdoor arena, Gessie King called instructions to a girl riding a buckskin quarter horse. Finally the animal broke into a canter, and a wide grin spread across the teenager’s face. Her hair waved out behind her as she bent the horse around a corner.
“Can I pet your dog?”
Startled, I turned to find a broad-faced man who smelled of tobacco and earth looking in through the open passenger window.
“Sure, Pete,” I said. “He loves attention.”
His lips turned up in a wide smile, and he whirled around to show me the back of his T-shirt. It read KING OF THE BONGOS.
“Bongo Pete,” he said, turning back around and reaching in to pet Dash. Lacking a tail, the corgi wiggled his entire behind in delight.
“Okay, thanks,” the man said, and abruptly turned away and lumbered toward the rear of the barn.
I glanced down at the dog. “You have a fan.”
Dash gave a soft woof and continued to gaze after the man.
Bongo Pete was a strange one, but sweet as they came. Gessie let him camp on the far side of the stables, and he did odd jobs for her as needed.
When he was out of sight, Dash turned back to me.
“I’ve decided the bank can wait,” I said.
He panted his approval.
I toyed with the idea of going to see Thea. After all, I did need that compost. However, it had been months since I’d taken even part of a day off, so instead I drove east into the foothills and found a stream still running fast from the spring snowmelt in the Sierra Nevadas. Dash and I spent the rest of the afternoon there, him dozing on his back in the sunshine and me staring into the sparkling reflections, inhaling the trout-laced scent of water until it washed away the past and my worries, and I felt clean and clear again.
THE CLOSED sign was up in the front window of Scents & Nonsense, and Josie had left by the time Dash and I returned from our impromptu miniretreat a few minutes after six. The Greenstockings would be arriving around six fifteen, so I just had time to review the day’s receipts—nothing to write home about, but it looked as though the customers I’d left enjoying the garden had purchased a selection of naturally scented play clay and a box of orange-and-clove drawer sachets. I added the Monday receipts to the deposit from the weekend. Since I’d failed to complete any of my errands for the day, I’d have to run by the bank tomorrow.
I filled Nabokov’s bowl and fluffed his kitty bed. He came with the building, the real estate agent had told me. No one knew how old he was, but as he flowed through the door, touched his nose to Dash’s in greeting, and wended his way to his food dish, he moved like a young jungle animal. Astrid had declared him to be in perfect health, and that was good enough for me.
He and Dash got along well, though Nabby barely tolerated other animals. Still, I couldn’t convince him to sleep in the house with us. He was a shop cat, through and through.
Astrid arrived first for the Greenstocking meeting, elbowing her way through the garden gate with a platter of lemon bars in one hand and Tally’s lead in the other.
“Oh, heavens,” I said. “Let me help you.” I hurried to take the sweet treats from her and led the way to the patio. She let Tally off the leash, and the big dog ambled over to join Dash under the ancient apple tree.
On my way through town, I’d picked up an order of bacon jalapeño poppers from the Sapphire Supper Club as my contribution to the meeting snacks. They sat under foil on the bistro table, and I set the lemon bars beside them. Astrid helped me arrange the mismatched rockers in a semicircle around the table, and we were lining up paper plates and napkins when the latch to the gate rattled.
“Looks like the mantrap has arrived,” Astrid muttered under her breath.
“Stop that,” I admonished with a little laugh as Cynthia Beck picked her way down the path in her open-toed pumps and a cloud of Chanel No. 5.
It was true that at thirty-six she had already been married twice and was not in the least bit shy when she was interested in a man. Tall, blond, super feminine and the most hard-driving business woman I knew, Cynthia was my polar opposite in almost all respects. Since she owned Foxy Locksies Hair Studio down the street, she was inevitably highlighted, manicured, polished, and buffed to perfection, and she was one of the few women in Poppyville who wore business suits. Today’s was seashell pink over a white blouse.
“Ladies!” she called, and lifted the bottle of chardonnay in her hand. “I bring libations!”
“You are most welcome then,” I assured her with a grin.
“I’ll find some glasses,” Astrid said, and went down to my house.
Cynthia had started the Greenstockings a few years before, determined that women should band together to help one another in the same way men did. When she’d invited me to join a few months back, I’d been flattered, but a little nervous. I’d still been learning about running my own business at that point. It had been great, though, and I’d learned a lot.
Gessie King came in as Cynthia was uncorking the wine. She still wore riding chaps but had changed out her mucky knee boots for well worn but clean paddock boots. She smelled of horse and alfalfa. Her iron gray curls clung close to her scalp, and her open-necked shirt revealed an elk’s tooth on a leather thong around her throat. She was carrying a bowl of her famous guacamole.
“Yes!” Astrid exclaimed, returning with the glasses. “I swear, if I weren’t a member, I’d still crash these meetings for your guacamole.”
Gessie grinned and added the bowl of dip to the table along with a bag of corn chips. “Flatterer.”
“Seriously. You should market that stuff.”
The horsewoman just shook her head. “Good to see you, Ellie. Cynthia, you’re looking well.”
“Wine?” Cynthia asked with a smile.
“God, yes.” Gessie plopped into one of the rockers with a sigh. “I exercised four horses and washed them down this afternoon, on top of my regular lessons. I’m tuckered.”
Thea Nelson arrived next. We’d been in the same grade in school and had been casual friends ever since. However, we’d grown quite close during the creation of the Enchanted Garden. Rangy and slow-moving, Thea was a brilliant horticulturist and landscape artist who was willing to take the time to do things right. She was also willing to talk with me for hours about anything and everything plant related. She was a good listener, too. More than once, she and Astrid and I had spent pleasant evenings together while I mined them for advice on starting my business, dealing with Harris, and working with contractors.
“Girls,” Thea said by way of greeting, and plopped a bag of peanut M&M’s on the table. She didn’t like to cook, and she didn’t care who knew it.
We settled in with snacks and drinks. Gessie donned her reading glasses, and Cynthia brought out her electronic notebook.
“Anyone have any news to share before we get started?” Cynthia asked, looking around at us.
“I have a group of thirty-five coming in for a full hayride at the end of the week,” Gessie said. “That means dinner and dancing and live music. It should be a hoot.”
“Excellent!” Cynthia proclaimed.
Thea spoke up. “I got a message from Sophia Thelane. She wants me to do another landscaping project at their place.”
“Nice,” I said. The fashion model was rarely seen in town, but had put a lot of money in Thea’s bank account over the years.
Excerpted from "Daisies For Innocence"
Copyright © 2016 Bailey Cattrell.
Excerpted by permission of Penguin Publishing Group.
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