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Authors: Dallas Schulze

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BOOK: Home to Eden
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Chapter 1

If Mrs. Kimmel calls about her strelitzia reginae, remind her that they're heavy feeders and that she needs to give them time to get established. They do best when they're a little crowded."

"If you think I'm going to discuss Mrs. Kimmel's striped reggaes with her, you can think again! If she wants to talk about that kind of thing, she can call her hairdresser." Brenda's forehead puckered. "Or maybe her gynecologist," she added uncertainly.

Kate Moran had been frowning at the clipboard she held but she looked up at that, her blue eyes bright with laughter, her slight frown disappearing in a quick smile. "I'm talking about Mrs. Kimmel's bird of paradise plants."

"Why didn't you say so?" Brenda asked, widening her eyes in exaggerated surprise.

"I did. Strelitzia reginae is the proper botanical name. You know, the Latin name?"

"Oh, Latin." Brenda lifted one plump shoulder in a dismissive shrug. "I don't know why botanists feel they have to use a dead language. Wouldn't it be easier if they just used plain old English? Why confuse things?"

"The Latin names are intended to make things less confusing," Kate pointed out. "When someone tells me they want jasmine, they might mean one of a half dozen likely varieties of jasminum, but there's a fairly good chance that they're talking about trachelospermum jasminoides, which is an entirely different animal."

Brenda looked mildly disapproving. "I'm not sure, but I think it's against the law to use language like that in public."

Kate laughed again. She let the hand holding the clipboard drop to her side and fixed the other woman with a mock stem look. "I don't see how it's possible for you to own a nursery and still know absolutely nothing about plants."

"Practice," Brenda said with a modest smirk. "Years of practice."

"Don't you want to know more about what you're selling?" Kate asked, gesturing to the greenery that surrounded them.

The two of them were in her office at Wisteria, the nursery that Brenda's late husband had left her. There were windows on two sides of the tiny room. One looked out on a display of houseplants, all lush greens, ranging from palest lime to deepest emerald. Outside the other window were tables of bedding plants, many of them already in bloom—pansies, alyssum and Iceland poppies all nodding at the merest puff of a breeze as if greeting the customers who browsed among them. Kate simply couldn't imagine how anyone could be surrounded by such beauty and remain indifferent to it.

"I know everything I need to know about plants," Brenda said, unmoved by the verdant extravaganza that surrounded her. "The green side goes up. I asked you to manage this place because you know all the gory details of what needs sun and what needs shade and when to spoon-feed the little darlings smelly concoctions of manure and compost and what to do when they get an infestation of really gross bugs."

Kate grinned. "You think all bugs are gross."

"Pretty much," Brenda admitted cheerfully.

"You don't even know enough to make sure Tm not ripping you off."

"I don't have to know plants to know that," Brenda said. "I know I can trust you. Besides, I don't really care whether you're buying rarius extrabiggus or geriatric orthopedus. In the year and a half you've been managing the nursery, business has gone up almost fifty percent. As a businesswoman, the bottom line is my only concern."

Kate's grin widened, her blue eyes laughing. "If you're such a tough businesswoman, you would have fired Jim Miller months ago."

"He's a good worker," Brenda said defensively.

"He's eighty-nine and can only make it in to work two days out of five."

"Well, there's nothing wrong with good part-time help."

"Nothing at all, except when you're paying them to do a full-time job."

"Mr. Miller drove the school bus when I was in elementary. He's a nice old man."

"Very nice," Kate agreed, still grinning.

"And working here helps him retain a sense of self-respect."

"Absolutely."

"The customers like him."

"Yes, they do."

"If I only paid him for the hours he's able to work, he would never be able to make ends meet on the skimpy little pension he gets from the school district."

"And the bottom line that you care about so passionately?" Kate inquired gently.

Brenda glared at her a moment and then laughed. "Screw the bottom line."

"Not a very good attitude for a businesswoman."

"That's why I hired you to manage this place."

Kate shook her head, her smile taking on a rueful edge. The argument had come full circle, and she knew it would be a waste of time to continue it Brenda Duncan was more than just her employer. Over the past two years, since the death of Brenda's husband had left her sole owner of the nursery, the two of them had become good friends. Brenda was sweet and funny, kind and generous to a fault. What she was not was a good businesswoman. It was probably just as well that she'd also inherited a comfortable trust fund from her maternal grandmother and didn't have to worry about squeezing every penny from her late husband's business.

"I'd just feel better if you knew more about what we're selling," Kate said finally.

"Maybe you'd feel better but I wouldn't. I know this is going to sound like blasphemy to you, but I think gardening is about as interesting as watching paint dry." She grinned at her friend's exaggerated wince. "You might as well face the facts, Kate. You're never going to make a plant lover out of me. It's not like I bought this place. It was Larry's idea, though why he thought a nursery was going to be his personal road to riches, I don't know. No one gets rich selling plants."

Kate lowered her head and made some meaningless notes on the clipboard. She had her own theories about that. In the year she'd worked for Larry Duncan, his main occupation had been hitting on every moderately attractive woman who set foot in the nursery. In his spare time, he'd occupied himself with issuing various—often conflicting—orders to the small staff just so they wouldn't lose sight of his importance. She didn't think he'd been interested in profits nearly as much as he had been in setting himself up as king of his own little empire, but she could hardly say as much. Not that it would have come as a surprise to his widow. Brenda had been in the process of filing for divorce when he died.

Brenda's thoughts must have been going along the same lines because she glanced around at the display of healthy greenery, the customers browsing among the tables of plants and her wide mouth curved in a smile that held more than a touch of malice. "I take a certain satisfaction in knowing that this place is doing so much better now than it did when he was running it. Running this store isn't quite as much fun as firebombing it would have been, but there aren't as many legal hassles involved."

"Isn't there some quote about revenge being a poor motivation for taking action?"

"If there is, whoever said it would have changed their minds if they'd known Larry," Brenda said flatly.

Kate opened her mouth to protest and then closed it without speaking. She hadn't known Larry Duncan long, but it was long enough to know that he'd been small-minded, tightfisted and lecherous—and those were his least objectionable qualities. It was no surprise if Brenda was a less than grieving widow. The only real surprise was that she'd ever married him in the first place.

"I think there's also a quote about revenge tasting sweet," she said with a wry grin.

"I like that one much better." Brenda glanced at the big round clock on the wall above the desk. "You'd better get going if you want to have time to shower and change clothes before having dinner at your in-laws."

"Future in-laws," Kate corrected her. Following Brenda's glance at the clock, she dropped the clipboard onto the cluttered desk. "They won't be my in-laws for another six months."

"One thing about marrying Gareth Blackthorne, you know you're not going to have in-law trouble," Brenda commented. She reached up to push a mass of unruly red curls from her face. The scrunchy band of elastic that was supposed to be holding them in place had gradually yielded to a superior force and dangled forlornly from the ends of her hair. Sighing, she tugged it loose and began the process of trying to capture the heavy mass and force it into some semblance of order.

"In-law trouble is the least of my worries," Kate agreed with a smile. "Sara and Philip are so wonderful that I'd be tempted to marry Gareth just so I could be a part of their family."

"But you're not, are you—marrying Gareth because of his family, I mean?" Brenda's tone made the words half-statement, half-question and Kate gave her a startled look.

"I was just kidding."

"Of course you were." Brenda shook her head, her fair skin flushing. "I know that. I guess I just feel a little responsible, since I'm the one who introduced the two of you."

"Lucky for me you did." Kate pulled open the deep drawer where she kept her purse.

"Lucky for Gareth," Brenda said loyally.

"Thanks." Kate slid the strap of her purse over her shoulder and glanced around the office to see if there was anything she'd forgotten.

"I mean, I know you're marrying Gareth because you love him madly!," Brenda said.

"Why else?" Kate asked with a smile.

Sometimes, Kate worried that life might be going too well. After spending her entire childhood following her father from one city to another while he chased some dream that only he understood, she'd wanted a home, a place to put down roots. Eden, California, had seemed nearly as idyllic as its name. The town was small enough to feel cozy yet big enough for her to find work. The first couple of years, she'd worked odd jobs—waiting tables, checking groceries, anything she could find to keep body and soul together. In those days she'd gone to school part-time, taking every class on botany and landscape design she could find. It hadn't been easy, but it had all paid off when she was hired to work at a nursery.

Putting up with Larry Duncan's heavy-handed flirtation and pompous posturing had been a small price to pay for the chance to indulge her love of green, growing things. A year after she was hired, Larry, assisted by half a dozen margaritas, managed to wrap his car around a telephone pole, leaving his wife the new and extremely reluctant owner of a fledgling nursery. Brenda had planned to sell the place but Kate had convinced her that it could be turned into a profitable business. So Brenda had given her a chance to prove herself.

Kate treasured her success with Wisteria, but her friendship with Brenda meant even more. Her father's peripatetic life-style had made childhood friendships such fleeting things that she'd soon given up trying to make friends. It hurt too much when each new move broke the fragile ties. Settling in Eden had given her a chance to develop lasting friendships for the first time in her life.

As if that wasn't enough, she was engaged to marry the kindest, most decent man she'd ever met. Gareth Blackthorne was solid, dependable, settled— all the things she wanted in her life. She'd never have to worry about him waking up one morning and deciding it was time to move a thousand miles away because of some wonderful opportunity he'd heard about.

Gareth had been born and raised in Eden. He'd spent four years attending college in Los Angeles, getting an English degree, and then, when he came home, he'd surprised everyone by becoming a cop rather than a teacher. As far as Kate knew, that was the last time he'd done anything completely unpredictable, which was one of the things she liked most about him. She could count on Gareth.

And there was his family. The Blackthornes were the embodiment of her childhood fantasies about what a family was supposed to be. They had welcomed her with open arms, making her feel as if her marriage to Gareth was the best thing they could imagine. Philip Blackthorne was a minister, and his wife, Sara, was a doctor. They had two children living. A third, a son, had died at a tragically young age. Gareth was the eldest at thirty-six, there was another brother a couple of years younger than Gareth. Kate knew little about him beyond the fact that he hadn't been home in several years. When his name came up, it seemed to carry with it an indefinable air of regret and sadness. All she knew about him was that he'd left Eden soon after the death of his wife and son.

Kate assumed there had been some split with the family, and her sympathy for his loss had been diluted by the pain his memory seemed to cause the Blackthornes. She hadn't asked Gareth for an explanation. She told herself it was because she didn't want to bring up a painful topic, but she was guiltily aware that she didn't really want to know anything that might tarnish her image of the Blackthornes as the perfect family. Whatever had happened between Gareth's brother and his family, it had nothing to do with her. Privately, she labeled him "The Black Sheep" and dismissed him. Anyone who could walk away from a family as special as this wasn't worth thinking about.

"Kate?" The sound of her name startled her and Kate blinked, her eyes meeting Gareth's across the table. The quizzical way he was looking at her made it obvious it wasn't the first time he'd tried to get her attention. She smiled apologetically.

"Sorry. I guess I faded out for a minute."

"I was going to offer you a penny for your thoughts but you looked so absorbed, I figured the price might be higher."

BOOK: Home to Eden
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