Britta Johnston and her aunt Elin are delighted that their Portland floral boutique is part of the city’s Rose Festival, which draws thousands to the Pacific Northwest for dragon boat races, fireworks, and other attractions—capped off by a big parade. They’re building a float that’s sure to rock the judge’s boat . . . until a gang of angry protestors shows up. The group, who call themselves Dark Fusion, are decidedly not into flower power, and they want to take down the system . . . including the upcoming extravaganza.
Then their leader is strangled with a garland of violets—and Britta finds the body. With tensions running high and so much at stake, there are plenty of suspects, from the Grand Marshal to a longtime volunteer to a former Rose Queen. But before Britta and Elin can stem the violence, the case is going to get even more explosive . . .
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Portland was flush with spring color: blooming roses, bright flags flapping from the bows of navy ships docked along the waterfront, and neon carnival signs dotting the banks of the Willamette River. The end of the unrelenting rainy season brought a celebration like no other to the city — Rose Festival. The festival spanned three weeks from the end of May through mid-June, attracting visitors from all over the world who joined in Portland's annual street party at the queen's coronation, milk-carton boat races, starlight run, rose show, fleet tours, fireworks, and the pièce de résistance, the Grand Floral Parade. This year, Blomma, my aunt Elin's boutique European-inspired flower shop, where I had been working for the past few months, had been chosen as the showcase florist for the Rose Festival. It was a huge honor. And a huge undertaking. In addition to managing our regular clientele at the shop, we had been spending every waking moment at the float barn, preparing our float and planning for the dignitaries' dinner, which would take place the evening of the Grand Floral Parade.
I'd never been so nervous about my floral designs. Blomma would be responsible for crafting one-of-a-kind bouquets and centerpieces for world leaders and visiting diplomats. Throughout history flowers have marked monumental occasions, from the coronation of queens to the burial of presidents. We had to ensure that every flower and stem we used for the dignitaries' dinner had been researched and handpicked for its symbolism. It was my responsibility to track every bloom's meaning and history. We wouldn't want to cause the next war to break out after accidentally giving the Japanese ambassador a bundle of begonias — known in many cultures as inviting dark thoughts and a warning for the recipient to beware. Or to deliver a spray of foxgloves — welcoming harm — to the visiting head of state from Canada.
This year's theme for Rose Festival was Shine, and we intended to make our float do just that. Elin had sketched out a design plan that mirrored her artistic, Swedish style. Many float designers opted to adorn their moving masterpieces with Portland's signature flower, the rose. Not Elin. Blomma's float would consist of giant violet garlands that stretched across a ten-foot bridge constructed from grape vines. The float would be lush with purple violets, dark greenery, and earthy vines, with touches of brilliant white violets to signal the return of spring. Elin had opted for the dainty flower because they were often one of the first to push through the ground in April. Violets connotate a delicate love.
In my research I had discovered many references in folklore to the violet. Dreaming of violets was a sign of good fortune, and purple violets were an ancient symbol of royalty and power. Elin and I agreed that the lovely, wispy flowers would convey the perfect meaning for the Blomma float.
Her vision for the float was to create an Oregon forestscape that was just beginning to bud to life. Assuming we could pull it off, her ethereal float could have a good shot at winning the judge's award for most outstanding. There were also awards for craftsmanship, best depiction of whimsy, life in Oregon, and community spirit. Winning a coveted award would be a boost for our growing flower shop and wine bar.
When it came to materials, the rules for the Grand Floral Parade were simple — everything had to be organic in nature. Seeds, bark, leaves, berries, flowers, and moss were all acceptable. Gluing thousands of tiny seeds by hand was a painstaking process, but I hoped that our efforts would be worth it. As of late, our biggest challenge (other than black, sticky fingers) was procuring enough product. Nicki Parks, the float-barn director, had told me in passing that each float used enough flowers to send someone a dozen roses every day for thirty years. That didn't even begin to account for the industrial-sized buckets of tapioca pearls, onion seeds, and cranberries lining every square inch of floor space in the float barn, along with stacks of twenty-foot evergreen boughs, corn stalks, and pumpkin vines. Trying to add up how many thousands of seeds and berries were being used in float production made my head spin.
For the moment I needed to concentrate. Elin had sent me to the Portland wholesale flower market in search of Shasta daisies. "Focus, Britta," I told myself as I surveyed Oregon's largest flower trading floor. Over fifty vendors offered fresh cut flowers, potted plants, baskets, vases, and floral accessories. From family farms to large distributors and importers, the wholesale market was floral Disneyland. Many mornings I would wander through the booths, stopping to admire freshly harvested bear grass or Italian ruscus, but this morning I was on a singular mission — Shasta daisies.
We received a last-minute call yesterday from a frantic bride whose florist bailed on her with her deposit. She needed six bridesmaid's bouquets, a bridal bouquet, boutonnieres, and headpieces for the flower girls by tomorrow, and her budget was minimal, given that her original florist had taken off with the cash she had put down for her wedding-day flowers. Elin and I both had a soft spot for brides in need, so we agreed to do our best. I had explained that the likelihood of finding enough Shasta daisies wasn't high, given that the Grand Floral Parade was in less than a week. Nearly every flower in the state had been purchased and accounted for. However, she had sounded so dejected on the phone that I couldn't turn her down. I assured her that I would give it a shot and that we could create something just as lovely with equally inexpensive white carnations and hints of greenery if necessary.
The trading floor was a mob scene, as always, despite the fact that the sun had yet to rise. Working early hours was part of life as a professional florist. The market opened at five and stayed active until midafternoon, but any self-respecting florist knew that the freshest and rarest stems would be gone within the first hour.
I loved hearing the shouts of florists and vendors battling for the best stems and rarest finds. I loved the sweet, earthy smell of the cold market, and the dazzling color. Usually I enjoyed strolling through row after row of clementines, dahlias, and California figs. The fragrant scent of jasmine and the constant sound of vendors bartering were like home to me, but today there was no time. I squeezed past a florist I recognized who worked for one of the big national chains and made a beeline for the back of the humming warehouse. When I spotted the sign for Abundant Gardens, I nearly broke into a sprint.
"Morning, Britta," Chuck, the owner, greeted me with a smile, tucking a pair of shears into his overalls. "You look like you're in a hurry."
I felt a blush creep up my neck. My skin is naturally pale, which means that the slightest hint of color makes my cheeks look like two ripe cherry tomatoes. Elin has always told me that my porcelain skin is a gift. Fortunately, she also has been a fierce proponent of using sunscreen. "Britta, our Scandinavian skin is like an orchid. We must treat it gently and shield it from too much sun," she cautioned. It was wise advice, especially in our line of work, where visiting local farms and outdoor growers' markets came with the territory.
"Sorry," I said to Chuck. "I'm on the hunt for Shasta daisies. Desperate bride."
He gave me a knowing nod. "That's why I prefer working in the field and on this side of the business. Don't have to deal with any crazy brides. Or worse, their mothers." He winked.
"Oh, I could tell you some stories."
"I bet you could."
My eyes drifted to large buckets that contained hundreds of black dahlias. Technically dahlias aren't black. They're actually a deep burgundy, but their overlapping petals make the flower look as dark as a starless sky. The elegant flower had earned a negative reputation thanks to a 1940s murder case — deemed the disappearance of the Black Dahlia. Dahlias represented strength, creativity, and dignity.
"Those are gorgeous," I said.
"Beauties, aren't they?" Chuck nodded. "Can't sell them to you, Britta. They're already spoken for. Special order for Rose Festival. Secret order. I'm under the threat of death not to sell a single stem or divulge who ordered these beauties. You florists sure get crazy around Rose Festival time." He gave me a lopsided grin.
"It's cutthroat," I bantered back.
"Don't I know it. You won't believe how many people have offered to pay double — even triple — the price. I have half a mind to take the money and run."
I wondered who was using the unique dahlias. None of the floats that I had seen thus far had incorporated the deep, dark stems. But then again, there were dozens of floats in various stages of construction in the float barn.
Chuck pointed behind him to a black plastic tub with bunches of white daises. "However, you're in luck with the Shastas. How many do you need?"
I returned my attention to the task at hand. "Can I have all of them?"
"Consider it done. Let me to wrap them up."
While he bundled the Shasta daisies, I mentally reviewed my day. First, I would head to Blomma and assemble the bridal bouquets and our recurring corporate orders before we opened for walk-in customers. Typically, Elin hosts custom workshops in the cottage attached to Blomma, but we had put those on hold for a week until we were finished with our float and the designs for the dignitaries' dinner. She would oversee volunteers at the float barn this morning, and then we would swap places in the afternoon. With only four days to go before the big event, the organizers were allowing designers and volunteers to work late every night. We would grab a quick bite of dinner and spend the rest of the evening twisting grapevines and stringing evergreen branches into tight bundles. The float prep-work had to be completed by Friday. That's when the real fun would begin. The actual flowers would be the very last thing to go on each float. No floral designer wanted a droopy tulip or wilting rose on their float. The Friday before the parade would be a mad dash to the finish as everyone raced against the clock and the elements to cover their structure with fresh flowers. Elin and I had decided we wanted to create a test garland of violets tonight so that we could put together step-by-step directions for the volunteers who would help with the finishing touches.
I thanked Chuck for the daisies and headed for Riverplace Village. It was a short drive from the flower market. The village was located on the west side of the Willamette River and had cobblestone streets, charming shops, and an elegant yet laidback vibe. The small community of business owners in Riverplace Village were a tight-knit group. Most of the shops and the world-class Riverplace Inn had been operated by the same owners for decades.
Blomma sat at the corner of the village with welcoming brick-red, windowed garage doors that could be rolled up in the spring and summer months. In honor of Rose Festival, we had draped the front windows and door with strings of pink lights and filled the front display cases with pastel bouquets of roses in soft peach, creamy whites, yellows, and pale pink. A sandwich board propped near the front door greeted customers with a special Rose Festival quote:
TRUTH AND ROSES HAVE THORNS ABOUT THEM. — HENRY DAVID THOREAU.
As I pulled Elin's Jeep into a parking space in front of the shop, I wanted to pinch myself. I couldn't believe I was so lucky.
Of course, when I first made the decision to return home to Portland, I hadn't considered it luck. Quite the opposite. I had discovered that my deadbeat husband, Chad, had been having an affair instead of working on the next great American novel, as he promised. It turned out that his late-night trips to the library didn't involve writing. That is, unless you counted terribly cheesy poetry, "writing." At first, I'd been hurt and embarrassed, but after the shock wore off I recognized that his infidelity was actually a blessing in disguise. I'd been miserable for years. And as much as I hated to admit it, part of that blame was on me.
After graduating from the floral institute, I had imagined myself opening a shop much like Blomma, where I could leave my flower mark on the world, but instead I'd ended up in Minnesota working for a lifeless wholesaler. Chad couldn't take a traditional job because he claimed it would interfere with his creative process. That left me as our sole provider. Every time I suggested that Chad find a part-time job to help ease our financial burdens, he would have a burst of energy and swear that he was days away from finishing the book. Shocker. That never happened. Leaving Chad and the Midwest had been the best decision I had made in a long time. To be honest I didn't miss much about Minnesota, not the bitter cold winters or my unfulfilling job that had crushed my creative spirit. Portland in its springtime glory had reawakened long-forgotten dreams and reignited my passion.
I shook myself from my thoughts and turned off the ignition. Then I removed the bunches of daisies from the back and went to open Blomma's front door. Immediately I was greeted by the scent of honeysuckle and sweet roses. I flipped on the lights, but kept the sign on the door turned to CLOSED. The chandeliers overhead cast a warm glow on Blomma's shiny hardwood floors. Cozy furniture had been arranged in the front of the shop. Perfect for customers to take a break and breathe in the scent of flowers after a busy afternoon shopping in the village, and for casual meetings with potential clients. There were tins of fresh-cut stems and succulents displayed on tables. The back of the space housed a concrete workstation and sink, a display case with prearranged bouquets, and a distressed-wood wine bar with a black iron candelabra, complete with a wall of Northwest wine available to purchase by the glass or bottle. Elin had learned early on that flowers and wine were an excellent pairing. Our customers often came in looking for a gift and wound up lingering over a glass of Oregon pinot noir at the bar while waiting for us to create a gorgeous arrangement.
The cottage was attached to the main building through two sliding barn doors next to the wine bar. Walking into the homey, warm space with its exposed timber beams and stone walls reminded me of a childhood fairy tale. A large workstation in the center of the cottage had been crafted from salvaged barn doors and was stocked with every floral tool imaginable, from pruners to knives to clay, wire, and thorn-strippers. Whenever we hosted classes and workshops in the cottage, clients gushed about the space, saying it felt as if they were stepping into a rustic European castle. This morning, I left the barn doors shut and focused on our rush bridal order.
Before I began gathering supplies to create the bouquets, I quickly filled a bucket with warm water and a mixture of "love juice" to process the daisies I had bought at the market. It's critical when working with fresh flowers to trim their stems and douse them in a healthy bath of water, sugar, bleach, and vinegar. This preserves the life of the flower and ensures a long-lasting bloom. Once I had the vibrant, white daisies soaking, I removed a pair of shears, wire, scissors, and a silky forest-green ribbon from the workstation. For the bridal party, I wanted every bouquet to be symmetrical, with a tight weave and exposed stems. Next, I wound the bouquets with wire and wrapped them with the silky ribbon. I would finish them with a small bow and drape the ribbon on both sides to give the inexpensive flowers an elegant, romantic look.
Soon I was immersed in the creative process. Any worry about the Grand Floral Parade and our float faded away as I trimmed stems and plucked off any imperfections in the daisies' petals. Flowers are art and an expression of the soul. It was my job as a floral artist to infuse love and joy into every arrangement. I had found my true purpose, my calling. This was exactly where I wanted to be, and nothing could change that.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Violet Tendencies"
Copyright © 2018 Kate Dyer-Seeley.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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