Cut down among the flowers . . .
Britta Johnston might be a late bloomer, but after leaving her deadbeat husband and dead-end job, she’s finally pursuing her artistic passion at her aunt Elin’s floral boutique, Blooma, in Portland, Oregon. It’s on the banks of the Willamette, in a quaint district of cobblestone paths and cherry trees. The wine bar featuring Pacific Northwest vintages is a tasty bonus, offering another kind of bouquet to enjoy. But things aren’t as peaceful as they look.
For one thing, someone’s been leaving dead roses around—and a sleazy real estate developer who wants the waterfront property has put a big-money offer on the table. Then, after a contentious meeting of local business owners, he’s found on the floor of the shop, with Elin’s garden shears planted in his chest. And before the police decide to pin the crime on her beloved aunt, Britta will have to find out who arranged this murder . . .
About the Author
Kate Dyer-Seeley is the author of Scene of the Climb, Slayed on the Slopes, Silenced in the Surf, First Degree Mudder, and In Cave Danger in the Pacific Northwest Mystery series, as well as the memoir Underneath the Ash. Her writing has appeared in Climbing Magazine, The Oregonian, The Columbian, Portland Family Magazine, and The Vancouver Voice. She is an active member of the Willamette Writers Association and the Pacific Northwest Writers Association. Visit her website at katedyerseeley.com.
Read an Excerpt
It had to be roses. Store-bought roses no less. The kind wrapped in cellophane with sprigs of baby's breath. They didn't even smell like roses. They smelled like plastic and looked like they'd been sitting in a refrigerated cooler for way too long. That's how I found out that my husband had been cheating on me. From an uninspired bouquet of stale roses.
I'd been working a double shift that day at the wholesale flower warehouse. The only thing I wanted at the end of a long workweek was a cup of strong tea and a hot tub to warm my aching toes. Minnesota winters had taken a toll on my feet, as if the cold had permanently seeped into my bones. Even after a decade of living in the Midwest, no amount of layering with wool socks or fur-lined boots could stave off the piercing chill.
"Chad, I'm home," I called, tugging off my gloves and throwing my keys next to a stack of mail by the front door. The house felt more frigid than the wind outside.
Must be another late night at the library, I thought cranking the heat to seventy-five. Chad, my husband, had been writing the next great American novel for the last five years. He had promised that he was finally close to finishing his masterpiece. I hoped he was right because I wasn't sure how much longer we could survive on one salary. For the past month or so he had been editing late every night until the library kicked him out, which I took as a positive sign that maybe — just maybe — he really was going to finish the book.
I flipped on the kitchen lights and lit the gas stove. The tips of my fingers were numb from the cold. I blew on them as I filled my stainless steel teakettle and placed it on the burner. Working as the floral manager for a mega wholesale chain meant long hours on my feet walking between rows and rows of sunflower stems, cut mums, and mini carnations. I'd spent half of the day trying to reroute three hundred alstroemeria to a bride in Wisconsin who had accidentally been sent yellow daisies for her winter white wedding. To say the very least she was not pleased about the mix-up and threatened that if I didn't find a way to fix it she would make it her personal mission to see me fired. Part of me wanted to tell her, "Please do."
As I opened my tea drawer, which I kept stocked with a variety of blends, I noticed a vase of roses on the countertop. Chad hadn't sent me flowers in years. I almost looked past their dull color and lack of fragrance. Had he finally finished his novel? Was this some sort of celebration? Or could it be that my self-absorbed husband had rediscovered his romantic streak?
A handwritten note was tucked into the top of the bouquet. I smiled as I ripped open the envelope. What an unexpected surprise.
Darling, What a night. Your kisses are like poetry.
I paused before continuing to read. This was a surprise. Chad never called me darling, and he hadn't kissed me in weeks.
Your golden curls swirl in my dreams at night.
What did that even mean? No wonder he hadn't finished his novel. Talk about terrible writing.
And there was one major problem. My hair is brown. Dark brown. Nearly black, as a matter of fact.
The teakettle let out a shrill whistle. I jumped and dropped the note on the floor.
How could he? I thought, removing the kettle from the stove. After everything I'd given up for him? The jerk was cheating on me.
My hands shook as I poured scalding water into a mug over jasmine tea. Steam enveloped my face. Suddenly I didn't feel cold anymore. My husband was cheating on me.
I grabbed the note from the floor and ripped it to shreds. Then I threw it and the flowers into the trash. Maybe I should have felt more conflicted, but knowing that Chad had been cheating on me left me feeling strangely relieved.
Things had been less than great with us for years. I just hadn't wanted to admit it. And if I was completely honest with myself I was partly to blame. Not for the cheating. That was despicable and unforgivable. But for staying. Why had I stayed all this time when I was miserable?
Out of loyalty? No. Probably out of fear. Staying with Chad was easy. He didn't push me to challenge myself. He didn't encourage me to follow my dreams. He was quite content to follow his own and let me tag along. And I'd done it willingly.
My tea had steeped to perfection. I pulled a barstool over to the kitchen counter, sat down, and cradled the warm mug in my hands. The scent of jasmine had a calming effect. I took a deep breath, letting the smell of sweet flowers infuse my pores.
I hadn't been happy in years. In fact, I'd been miserable. Working at a soulless flower warehouse was never what I imagined for my future. Maybe this was the kick in the gut that I needed. I breathed in the tea.
When was the last time I was happy — really happy? I took a sip of tea and reflected on the past decade. My fondest memories were from when I was living with Elin in Portland.
Elin raised me after my parents died. Originally from Sweden, she had moved to Portland, Oregon, when I was seven. The Rose City's laid-back European vibe was a perfect match for her and her floral boutique Blomma. I grew up surrounded by flowers and Elin's impeccable eye for design. I'd always planned to return and help Elin with her busy shop, but then I met Chad. We were both students. I was attending the Floral Institute and he was studying creative writing. He used to whisper poetry in my ear while I sewed garlands of greenery together until late in the night.
In those days his dedication to finding the right words to express himself and crafting a superb sentence seemed romantic. We shared an artistic passion. My medium was flowers. His was words. It wasn't until I followed him to Minnesota that I began to realize that his words were really empty promises. He couldn't get a real job — like me — because crafting brilliant literary prose took hours of concentrated time and focus. Despite working two jobs, at the warehouse and filling in as a part-time designer and delivery girl for a local FTD shop, the cooking and housework fell to me because Chad insisted that his days be free in order to strike whenever the muse appeared. The muse rarely appeared. Usually he spent his days lounging on the couch watching reruns of highbrow television like Saved by the Bell.
I didn't need a muse to inspire me. Mother Nature does just fine in that department. She provides ample material to work with. I love blending nature into bouquets. Like a winter wreath adorned with snow-white lilies and delicate red holly berries. Or a simple summer bunch of blushing pink roses, snipped free of thorns and wrapped tightly in rustic twine.
Chad and I had discussed starting my own shop when we moved to Minnesota, but we were short on cash, so I got a job working for the biggest floral distributor in the Midwest. The pay was decent, but there was no room for creativity. My boss didn't care when the carnations' color was off or that the mass-produced roses we peddled had no scent. He would remind me time and time again that flowers were a business, not an art.
I tried to save as much as I could in hopes that in a year or two I'd have a down payment for my own store, but Chad's writing expenses constantly ate away at my dreams. He needed cash for writers' conferences, a faster new laptop, "how to write" books, and his daily trip to the coffee shop. I took a second job waiting tables to make ends meet, and shoved my visions into the back corners of my mind.
It was only late at night, when I'd soak my feet in a warm tub and drink my tea, that I allowed myself to dream. Just a little. Just enough to stay sane. Every time I came close to leaving, Chad would promise that the novel was nearly done. As soon as it was finished and he sold it, it would be my turn to thrive.
That was never going to happen, Britta. Never, I thought as I finished my tea. It was time for me to do something different. Time to do something for me. And I knew where to start — Portland.
I deposited my mug in the sink, picked up the phone, and punched in Aunt Elin's number. My pulse rate was steady as I explained that I wanted to come home. Elin quickly agreed. The timing was strangely synchronistic. For months Elin had been renovating the space adjacent to Blomma to become a place where she would host couture workshops and classes. She was preparing to launch her new cottage in spectacular style with a floral fashion show. The party was less than three weeks away, which meant that she was eager for another set of hands and any help I could offer.
Within the hour I booked a train ticket to Portland and packed my bags. I couldn't believe how clear my decision seemed.
Chad came home sometime after midnight. I heard him unlock the front door and tiptoe down the hallway to our bedroom. When he asked if I was still awake I pretended to snore. In truth, I didn't sleep most of the night. I stared at the popcorn ceiling without a trace of regret. My stomach flopped with excitement. I hadn't been back to Portland in almost a decade. I couldn't wait to see Elin and finally have a chance to test out my artistic ability — if I still had any.
I wouldn't even have to change my name. Traditionally, Swedish women didn't take their husband's last names — it wasn't until the end of the nineteenth century that women began adopting them. My grandmother and mother had retained their original surnames after marriage, and I had followed suit, paying tribute to a strong line of women who came before me.
It was still dark outside the next morning as I lugged my suitcases through the dirty snow and left for the train. Chad hadn't stirred when I got up. I wondered how long it would take him to figure out that I was gone for good.
At the station the conductor took my ticket and showed me to my sleeping compartment. The little money that I'd managed to save was mine and I decided I was going to be comfortable on my journey into my new life, so I splurged on a sleeper car and a glass of red wine and double chocolate cake for dessert on my journey west.
I spent the next two days watching the landscape change outside the window. Flat prairies coated in a deep layer of snow gave way to hills and mountains. As the train chugged closer to the Pacific coast the sky began to shift. Gone was the blanket of white. I'd made it into the land of color — majestic evergreen trees, cobalt rivers, and a striated sky. I grinned as I pressed my nose to the window and took in the sight of Portland's vibrant colors. Crayons would be jealous of Portland's complexion. From peppermint striped climbing roses to gardens of neatly blooming rows of tulips, the Rose City looked as if it had been brushed by the hand of a master painter. Henri Matisse's words came to mind, "There are always flowers for those who want to see them." I felt like I was awakening, emerging from a cocoon of darkness, and ready to really see the flowers around me.
"Hej!" I recognized the sound of the Swedish greeting before I spotted my aunt. "Britta!" Elin waved through the clad of travelers wearing raincoats. She stood next to the platform of Portland's historic brick Union Station. "Over here!" She held a bundle of pale purple peonies in her arms.
The years have been kind to her, I thought as I walked toward her. Her pale hair fell to her shoulders in a blunt bob. She walked with a casual elegance and her bright blue eyes sparkled with delight.
I look like my father. No one ever believes that I'm half Swedish. My mother, like Elin, had been tall, thin, and blond. They were both born in Sweden, but moved to Portland as young children. Living in the Pacific Northwest didn't stop them from keeping their Scandinavian traditions or language alive. I grew up speaking Swedish exclusively to my grandparents and Spanish to my dad, who was Argentinian. I inherited his dark hair and olive eyes. Although my pale skin definitely came from my Scandinavian side.
"Aunt Elin!" I hugged her tight, smashing the peonies.
"Britta, darling. Let me look at you." She took a step back, holding onto my arm. "You look absolutely beautiful. You're glowing."
I laughed. "I don't know about glowing. Maybe more like glowering with anger."
She fluffed the flowers and handed them to me. "You know that peonies are flowers of good fortune. They're meant to support your future and bring healing."
"Tack!" I thanked her in Swedish and took the bouquet. "I could use some of that right now."
"That's what I thought." She kissed both of my cheeks.
"Where did you find them this time of year? They're not in season."
"Not here, no, but my suppliers can get me almost anything. I put in a special order for these when I learned that you were coming home."
I sighed. "That's the nicest thing anyone's done for me in a long time, Moster." I fell into using an old Swedish term of endearment for my aunt.
She shook her head. "Well we're going to have to do something about that, aren't we, lilla gumman?" She too lapsed into Swedish. Loosely translated, lilla gumman meant my little darling. Warmth spread up my body. It was good to be home and back with someone who knew and loved me.
She motioned to the parking lot. A light drizzle fell from a patchy gray sky. "Bundle up. There's a chill in the air today."
"A chill?" I grinned. "This is beach weather compared to Minnesota." I craned my head upward and let the rain mist on my face. "It feels blissful."
Elin helped me with my bags and directed me toward a black Jeep with the Blomma logo printed on the sides. Like everything that Elin touches, the logo was a simple understated design. The word Blomma was written in a pale mint green modern script that reminded me of whimsical ivy vines.
We put the bags in the back. Elin turned the heat on, while I shrugged off my winter parka. Hopefully I wouldn't need it again. Ever.
"Do you mind if we go to the shop first?" Elin asked as she maneuvered the Jeep onto Broadway and headed toward downtown. She wore a cable-knit sweater, jeans, and rain boots. Standard Portland attire. I couldn't wait to ditch my Midwest layers for good.
"Not at all," I replied staring out of the rain-splattered window. "I'm dying to see the workshop."
Elin pointed out a variety of new buildings and high-rise condos as we made our way through downtown. Portland had grown dramatically since I last visited.
I glanced toward the riverfront, where bikers and joggers exercised despite the rainy sky. I couldn't do that back in Minnesota right now, I thought.
After a quick drive, Elin steered the Jeep into Riverplace Village. My heart thumped with excitement. This was the home that I remembered.
Riverplace Village is like its own little city within the city. It's easily accessible by foot or bike from downtown. The Willamette River is just steps away from the village of eclectic shops, restaurants, and the famed Riverplace Inn. It's a favorite stop for tourists, as there's no need to leave the village. You can spend the afternoon reading a book and watching the geese on the grassy hill next to the river, stroll along the riverfront footpath, stop for an espresso, and of course grab a gorgeous bouquet of flowers or glass of Oregon pinot noir at Blomma.
When Elin emigrated from Sweden she brought her European culture with her. Blomma is the only flower shop–wine bar in town.
"It's just like I remember," I said, squeezing Elin's hand as I stepped out of the Jeep. Blomma's front windows were draped with olive leaf garlands intertwined with clementines, lemons, and gold LED lights. Forest green awnings hung above windowed garage doors that had been painted deep red. A sandwich board sat near the entrance. Elin had written a quote in her lovely handwritten script: "Deep in their roots, all flowers keep the light." ~Theodore Roethke.
I adjust the bundle of peonies. "What a wonderful quote."
Elin smiled. "It's true. Wouldn't the world be a much kinder place if we all held more flowers and light, yes?"
"Yes." I glanced at the blooms in my hand and then down the long cobblestone path that connected the other shops in Riverplace Village. Two doors down the windows of Demitasse, an artisan coffee shop, were thick with steam. Torch, a candle and specialty gift shop, sat on the other side of the street from Blomma. Farther down there were a hotel, an Italian restaurant, and an American bistro. Cherry trees strung with twinkle lights and antique lampposts flanked the path. Every storefront had tempting window displays, collections of outdoor seating, giant planters, and welcoming signage. I'd forgotten how quaint and homey the village felt.
Excerpted from "Natural Thorn Killer"
Copyright © 2018 Kate Dyer–Seeley.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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