The Bloomfield Garden Club, an all-ages group of lovable oddballs that will stop at nothing to make everything beautiful, maintains this piece of heaven on earth. But even such idyllic places as this have their share of
dramatic characters and stories to be told.
Take, for instance, craft store owner Amber Weathersby. She wants to be a member of the garden club but has never received the blessing of a green thumb. Her friend, Stan the mechanic, has helped as much as he can -- even adding a timed sprinkler system to Amber’s garden -- but the results never live up to the club’s expectations.
Her only claim to fame with that gang is her semi-famous garden gnome, Gnorman, who gets to hold the prized trophy each year in the Bloomfield Spring Fling contest’s winning garden.
But this year, instead of being the life of the party, her little star is gnomegnapped, and worse, the club’s irreplaceable trophy has gone missing with him. While Amber is chasing the gnome around town trying to win the trophy, Stan is chasing Amber, trying to win her heart.
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Amber Weathersby stepped back and rested her fists on her hips. "What do you think? Is it too much?"
Kathy tilted her head, tapping her finger to her chin as she studied Amber's garden gnome standing proudly in the middle of Amber's kitchen. "I'm not sure. Does my son know why you borrowed his sombrero? He's had it since he was a child. Are you sure nothing will happen to it?"
Amber bit back a grin, keeping her face turned toward Stan's small sombrero, which sat atop the gnome's head. He had told Amber exactly what he wanted to see happen to it, but couldn't tell his mother. For some reason, his mother considered it much more special than he did.
Amber pressed one hand over her heart. "I plan to take good care of it." At the end of the party, she planned to carry out Stan's wishes. Someone would either step on it or run over it with their car.
"You do such a great job displaying the trophy every year. The ceremony wouldn't be the same without you. None of our ceremonies would."
Amber smiled. "Creating all the displays for the garden club is so much fun. I love doing this, no matter what the occasion."
Not only was it fun, it was the difference that kept her business alive and food on her table. For the last five years she'd loaned her custom-designed garden gnome to the club for the spring celebration. Then, for every other occasion or party, the garden club purchased a selection of specially designed ornaments from her, raffling them off when the party was over.
As well, with the start of each new growing season, every member purchased a new Bloomfield Garden Club ornament from Amber, a new design every year. For the garden club, it was the most important time of the year. When the new growth sprang forth, the garden club celebrated with The Spring Fling.
Not only was the Bloomfield Garden Club her best customer, the prominent members were also good clients, and almost everyone in the garden club was a good friend.
Her membership had nothing to do with her gardening skills. Whenever she attempted to nurture outdoor plants, her garden either turned yellow and limp or became an artistic arrangement of petrified sticks. Nothing had the color or vitality promised by the little plastic tags that came with the plants.
The only plant that had lived a happy and full life was a potato she'd dropped out of her grocery bag. It had bounced into the flower bed by the front door, where she'd accidentally stepped on it, sinking it into the soil. Then, being out of sight, she'd forgotten about it until it mysteriously sprouted into a plant that eventually grew cute little white flowers. It was the first plant she'd grown successfully from scratch.
The only reason she'd been allowed to renew her membership at the garden club after killing off her entire garden and part of her neighbor's was because Stan found enough spare parts in his auto repair shop to rig a timed sprinkler for her. She'd made him a deathbed promise not to second-guess the sprinklers and never manually water anything in her garden ever again. Because of Stan, she'd kept a few hardy plants alive, even if they were a little burned from too much fertilizer.
Amber extended her arm and opened her palm toward the gnome, who proudly held the annual trophy. "Pamela says the winner of the best early garden for The Spring Fling contest is Becky. I think the Mexican look will work well with the colors that are blooming in her yard. What do you think?"
"I think Becky cheated. She's gloated for weeks about her secret formula for some kind of new fertilizer she's been using. I don't know what she's doing, but it can't be legal."
"I don't think there can be such a thing as illegal fertilizer."
Kathy made an undignified snort. "Becky found it, and she's been using it. No one can grow such full roses so early. It's not right. Not even Libby's roses are so lush this early in the season. I plan to talk to Libby about that."
Even in the garden club, jealousy still reared its ugly head. Amber patted Kathy on the shoulder. "I thought you and Becky were friends."
Kathy made a grunt that sounded like a growling dog. "We are friends. But we'd be better friends if she shared her fertilizer."
Amber bit back a grin. "Then figure out your own secret formula and maybe you'll win next year. But for this year, it's time to get going. The ceremony can't start without the trophy. Stan will help me set up everything at Becky's, and then we'll meet you at the clubhouse. I'll see you there."
* * *
"HOW'S THIS?" STAN WILSON forced himself to smile as he moved Amber's gnome for the fifth time, hopefully placing it at the angle she wanted.
"No, a little to the left. You've got him too close to the tree."
"Like this?" He nudged it exactly two inches then stepped away.
"That's better. People will take pictures of Gnorman and he can't be half in the shadow as the sun moves."
The lecturing face of their former science teacher flashed through his mind. "It's not really the sun that moves, it's the earth that ... Norman? You named a garden statue?"
"Yes, but it's not what you think. It's spelled with a G. Then an N. Gnorman the Gnome."
Stan shook his head and jerked his thumb over his shoulder at the gnome in question. "You can't spell Norman that way. It's not right."
"That's the way it's spelled. Live with it."
"He's custom-designed to hold the trophy, so he's very special. Since he's special, he had to have a special name, and Gnorman, with a G, worked."
Stan stared at the little gnome who had been a fun tradition of the routine for the annual contest. Stan's tiny sombrero made the small man-like statue as tall as Stan's knees. Or was that gnees? He shook his head. He'd never known the gnome had a gname ... er ... name. Norman. No. Gnorman.
Stan shook his head once more to clear the gnocking ... knocking ... in his brain. "I give up. Gnorman, it is. Why is he all dressed up this year?"
"Do you remember a few years ago in the newspaper they had a story about a garden gnome who was kidnapped and became a world traveler?"
"Yeah, that was quite a story."
"Exactly. I think Gnorman would want to travel, but he can't go very far. After all, he has responsibilities. So he'll do the next best thing. He'll wear your old sombrero and the poncho I made for him, and he'll think he's gone on vacation to a beautiful exotic place."
Stan had never thought of Mexico as exotic, but then again, he'd never been there. "I think it's you who really wants to take a vacation in Mexico. It's not that expensive. Why don't you find someone to run your store and go?" Stan held his breath, waiting for her reply. In his dreams she would say she would love to go to Mexico but didn't know who she could ask to go with her on such short notice, and of course, he'd volunteer. He'd volunteer to go anywhere with Amber, even if it was just to the next county.
"Why not? I'm not saying to close the store and disappear. Just that you should hire someone to run things for a few days and have a nice holiday."
Her eyes widened, and he knew she was thinking about it. But instead of the smile he expected, along with her softening and changing of her mind, her expression tightened. She looked away. "I can't do that."
Stan opened his mouth to argue with her, but she turned back to him and gave him that look she'd used since they were in their teens that always froze him solid.
He wanted to tell her that he'd go with her, separate rooms, of course, and if she couldn't find someone to run her store, he would have one of his mechanics do it. Jordan wouldn't be much help if people asked for help on matching colors for the decorative items she carried, but Jordan certainly could be polite to customers and work the cash register. Most of all, knowing Jordan and his wife had a baby on the way, Jordan would really appreciate a few additional days of work to earn a little extra money.
From the look on her face, she'd shoot down any suggestion he made. Even though they'd spent most of their time together when they weren't working, it really wasn't appropriate for them to go on vacation together, no matter how good buddies they were. All things considered, people would be bound to think the wrong thing. He would never do anything to tarnish Amber's reputation, and most importantly he would never do anything to damage their friendship.
He raised one hand in surrender. "Even if you don't take a vacation, I still think you work too much. You need some time off."
Amber planted her fists on her hips and gave him the look. He forced himself not to cringe. She'd worked on that look to get her way back in the days when they reached puberty and he grew taller than her. A dozen years later it still worked. He wondered if she practiced in a mirror and if she used that look on anyone else.
She narrowed her eyes. The look intensified. "Unlike you, I don't have people working for me, so I have to work six days a week unless I shut down for a day, and I can't do that."
He wanted to tell her that, of course, she could. If she didn't want Jordan, he could loan her one of his other two mechanics. But that look kept his lips sealed.
Plain and simple, Amber worked too hard. Saturday was the busiest day for both their businesses, but Stan only worked Saturdays to give his employees weekends off to be home with their families. Unlike Amber, he took two days off — Sunday and Wednesday, and he could be flexible. "If you won't take the time off to go on vacation, how about if you take next Wednesday off and we'll go do something fun. Just something local."
Her face paled. "I can't."
"Why not?" He stood still, waiting for a reason, but instead of explaining, she lowered her head and dug around for something in her purse.
Gathering more courage than it took to tell Andy Barnhardt that he needed a new transmission, he stepped forward and stood close enough that she couldn't ignore him. "You haven't answered me. What aren't you telling me? I thought we told each other everything."
"I ..." Her voice trailed off as she pulled her hands out of her purse and began to close the zipper, but her hands shook too much to pull it in a straight line, and it jammed.
He stepped back. "Amber? What's wrong?" He didn't think taking a day to goof off with him was such a scary proposition.
"Nothing," she mumbled without looking up at him, which told him that something was indeed wrong. "We'd better get to the party. We don't want them to wait for us to announce the winner."
Stan suspected that everyone knew the winner anyway, the way the members gossiped. Every year the garden club did the same thing; they served tea and some bad pastries made by one of the ladies in the group while Amber set up her gnome in the winner's garden. This year, instead of setting up tables and chairs in the courtyard at the amenities building at Lake Bliss Retirement Village, which they used as their clubhouse, he'd insisted on going with Amber, using the excuse that he was entitled to help since it was his sombrero.
They drove the four blocks in silence. As he expected, when they joined the party already in progress, everyone stopped talking and stared at Amber. Pamela Jasper, the president of the garden club, waved to her and then stepped up to the makeshift podium.
"May I have your attention, please?" Pamela shouted, not having the benefit of a microphone, as if anyone in the group would dare talk during a moment like this.
The hush spread like oil leaking from a filter that hadn't been tightened properly. Amber grinned from ear to ear while Pamela called out, "The winner of this year's Spring Fling Early Bloomer contest is ... Becky!"
Everyone, except Stan's mother, clapped enthusiastically.
"Now let's all go to Becky's and continue the party!"
The whole garden club, complete with spouses, friends, and guests, prepared themselves to change locations. A few headed to their cars, but most of the members picked up their teacups and walked the short distance to Becky's house. Stan could imagine what their mismatched group looked like to the people on the street who weren't members. Including the guests for today's party, there had to be over a hundred people in their group.
Considering that some of the garden club members were elderly, they made the distance in pretty good time.
Everyone gathered in a semicircle in front of Becky's garden.
Pamela made her way to the front and faced the crowd. "Here we are! Congratulations again, Becky. It's that time we've been waiting for all year; it's my great pleasure to award you The Spring Fling trophy." She smiled and clapped her hands, encouraging everyone to do the same. "Becky, please come forward."
The crowd separated to allow Becky to join Pamela.
Pamela turned to Amber. "We're getting pretty excited to see our faithful little friend. Where is he?"
Despite the heat of the warm spring day, a chill rushed up Stan's spine. He knew exactly where the gnome was supposed to be. He'd been the one to put him there.
He turned to look at Amber at the same time as Amber turned to the center of the garden.
Her purse dropped on the ground and a bunch of girl stuff bounced out. Amber gasped and pressed her palms to her cheeks. "Gnorman! He's gone!"
Amber stared at the place in Becky's garden where Gnorman had stood holding the trophy. Stunned, she pressed her hands to her face until she felt a gentle tugging on the hem of her blouse.
"Amber?" She looked down at Becky's young niece, whose eyes were wide. "You dropped your purse and a bunch of your stuff fell out. Want me to help pick it up?"
Without moving her head, Amber scanned the ground. Sure enough, half the contents of her purse lay strewn about her feet.
Out of the corner of her eye, she registered Stan approaching from his position beside the end of Becky's fence.
Quickly hunkering down, Amber grabbed the most embarrassing items first. "Yes, thank you, Sasha. A man should never see the contents of a woman's purse."
Little Sasha nodded and giggled. "My mom says that when she's got a chocolate bar and doesn't want Daddy to find out. You don't got any chocolate, but you got some good gum."
Amber dearly wished her last piece of Wrigley's was a biggie-sized Three Musketeers. There probably wasn't a better time for chocolate than right now. Everyone would ask her where Gnorman and the trophy were, but she had no clue. She had to find him, and fast. Even though Gnorman had made a place for himself, and for her, in the garden club, the most important absence wasn't really the ceramic gnome, but the trophy that she'd strapped to his hand.
As she reached to pick up her lip balm, Stan's black leather shoes blocked her hand's trajectory. She withdrew her hand, tilted her head back, and looked up, way up, at Stan, who looked down at her.
Usually when they stood side by side, she had to look up at him anyway, since he was nearly six feet tall and she was merely five and a half feet. But kneeling on the ground, she felt even smaller than usual beside him.
Stan crossed his arms over his chest. "What's going on? The gnome was here less than half an hour ago."
Amber stood, checked around them to make sure no one was close enough to listen to their conversation, and then stepped a little closer to be sure. "It's obvious someone's taken him. I can't figure that out. He's just a garden gnome. I wonder if it was a bunch of teenagers up to mischief, but a garden gnome isn't something I can see a bunch of kids stealing."
Stan shook his head. "I don't know if any of the local teens who usually pull pranks like that would be out of bed this early on a weekend. Besides, if you're thinking of the same group as I am, most of them have relatives in the garden club, and they wouldn't dare steal your gnome. They'd get off lighter if they'd stolen a car."
Amber turned to look at her aunt's vintage Cadillac. "Except Aunt Edna's car. That one's pretty untouchable."
Stan squeezed his eyes shut and sighed. "Please, I touch that thing way too often. It's almost impossible to find parts for it. I've actually wished someone would steal it." He shook his head. "Never mind that. We need to find out who took your gnome."
They both scanned the crowd. "It can't be anyone here. When we got to the party, everyone here was there."
Stan lowered his voice to barely above a whisper. "That's not necessarily true. This is quite a crowd. If anyone disappeared for five minutes, which is all it would have taken if they had their car parked half a block away, no one would have noticed they were missing. It wouldn't have been hard for anyone to sneak off for five minutes. The courtyard was a huge free-for-all."
Amber glared at Stan. "Sneaking off to a car sounds rather devious."
Excerpted from "Take the Trophy and Run"
Copyright © 2012 Gail Sattler.
Excerpted by permission of B&H Publishing Group.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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