At the call, Denise looked up from the flat of pansies she held, to see what her assistant manager wanted.
Janie gave her a wry grin. “Your favorite customer’s here! I wonder what he’s killed now?”
Denise followed the woman’s line of sight to the man making his way through rows of potted azaleas and rhododendrons toward her. Sunlight picked out gold sparks in his streaky brown hair. Just like the last couple of times he’d come in, her pulse kicked into high gear. As before, she fought it down.
She could control her hormones. At thirty-two she’d learned to like the quiet contentment of being an old maid. Three years of marriage to Larry Fitzgerald had taught her there were worse things than loneliness.
Denise put down the pansies, fitting them between flats of marigolds, and returned the customer’s smile. Brian Zimmer had bought an old country house outside the city when he’d moved to the area six months ago to take an engineering job. He was single and renovating the place in his spare time as well as landscaping the grounds. Denise had learned that much from him on previous visits to her garden shop. He liked to talk. Aside from having the black thumb of doom for plants, he was also good-humored, persistent, self-confident, and blatantly interested.
“My impatiens died.” The mournful note in his voice belied the smile in his warm, hazel eyes. He wasn’t exactly handsome, but the animation in his face compelled attention and interest. “They were okay for a few days, then the leaves curled up, and they keeled over. I feel like a murderer.”
“Where did you plant them?”
“In the bed at the front of my house.”
“Yes, of course.”
“That’s your problem then. Impatiens like shade.”
He looked charmingly chagrined. “Now she tells me. I suppose those dark spots on the rose leaves are my fault, too. I thought maybe they were caused by the lack of rain, but I’ve been watering them.”
She shook her head. “Have you sprayed them lately?”
Denise went and got him a can. “The black spots are a disease roses get. Especially in our hot, humid weather. Spray them all over with this once a week. What are you feeding them?”
“Food? You mean I’m starving them, too? Lord, I’m a brute.” But the smile that accompanied the words would have lit the city for the next hour. “I can see I’ve got a long haul yet on the yard-care learning curve. I wonder how else I’m abusing my plants. If I plied you with dinner, would you help me review my gardening policies?”
She sighed and smiled. “I appreciate the offer, and it’s very tempting, but I don’t think so, thanks.”
It barely made a dent. “Are you sure? Think of all the poor innocent plants you might be saving.”
“My conscience can handle it. I appreciate the thought, but I’d better decline.”
“Okay.” He bought the rose supplies and a flat of sun-loving petunias Denise suggested to replace the late, lamented impatiens. “I’ll probably kill a few more plants before I’m finished, but I’ll be back. I don’t give up easily.”
Denise wondered if he referred to more than just his yard.
Janie, her assistant manager and good friend, turned a hard look on her when Brian left. “I don’t believe you! Turning him down! I mean if a guy like that invited me out to dinner–”
“Your husband would have a fit.”
“Well, yeah, but you don’t have one. And let me tell you, guys like this do not grow on trees. Any other woman would have snapped him up in one bite.”
“I’m not any other woman. I had a husband once, an experiment I’m not interested in repeating.”
“They’re not all alike.”
“I know.” Denise moved a few celosia to fill in holes in the display. “But Brian reminds me of Larry in all the wrong ways.”
“You barely know Brian.”
“He’s stubborn, persistent, and wants everything to conform to his expectations. It’s frustrating him that he can’t make the plants grow exactly the way he wants them to.”
“Just like Larry tried to make you do and be things you didn’t want to do or be?” Janie ventured.
Denise refused to look up from the tray of flowers. “Something like that.”
Janie dropped the issue with a shrug and a sigh.
Brian came in again the next weekend. “The petunias look great. But I wish it would rain; everything looks kind of faded, even though I’m watering all I can. I suppose the roses will take a while to recover. Now my rhododendrons have a problem.” He showed her a leaf with holes bored through it, and she went to get a remedy for him.
“Are you sure you won’t change your mind about dinner and the advice? Or…” An idea seemed to dawn. “Hey! Can I hire you to do some consultation? I’ve got a section of yard I haven’t decided what to do with, and some plants I’m wondering about.”
Another customer approached her, an elderly man. Brian nodded toward the newcomer. “Help him out while you’re thinking about it.”
“But I’ve already–”
Brian smiled and shook his head. The newcomer wanted to look at fruit trees. Brian trailed along behind as she discussed the relative merits of various pears and plums with the man.
“She knows a lot about plants, doesn’t she?” Brian asked, peering at the customer through the branches of a peach tree.
“Sure does,” the other man agreed.
“You’d think she’d be willing to advise me on my yard.”
“Don’t see why not.”
“That’s what I thought. Of course she’d have to come out and take a look at it. It’s a real mess,” he said, expounding on the extent of the disaster to the man. “I’d pay her, of course,” he concluded. “Doesn’t sound unreasonable, does it?”
The customer looked from Brian to Denise and back again. Since Brian had his back to her at that point, she couldn’t see what passed between the two men, but the customer’s grin suddenly broadened.
“Definitely think she should help you out,” he said.
Brian nodded and insisted on helping carry the selected trees out to the man’s truck.
“Have a heart, lady,” the customer begged Denise as he opened the cab door. “Give him a break. It sounds like his yard needs one.”
“I’ll think about it,” Denise said, the words sounding more like a concession than she intended. Both men looked smug.
“Made a decision yet?” Brian asked as he approached the register to pay for his purchases.
“You must think I’m some kind of computer.”
“What? Oh, fast thinker?” He took the change she held out to him. “You seem to be pretty quick about–”
A loud creak, a bang, and a series of lesser crashes blew out from the back room, followed by a string of pleading threats and near curses. Janie didn’t indulge in profanity, but her euphemisms sounded pretty desperate.
Denise slammed the cash register drawer shut, threw a hasty, “Excuse me,” in Brian’s direction, and ran to the back.
Janie stood on the step just below the top of the ladder, swaying slightly as she tried to hold up a light fixture that appeared to be coming apart in her hands. A couple of pieces had already fallen onto the table below, knocking over several potted begonias.
“What are you doing?” Denise asked, grabbing the ladder to hold it steady.
Janie rolled her eyes. “Would you believe I’m trying to change a light bulb?”
She heard a chuckle behind her and Brian asked, “How many plant experts does it take?”
Janie frowned at him. “The bulb didn’t want to come loose. When I banged it, the whole thing sort of… dissolved.”
“Get down off there and let me take a look,” Denise said.
“I can’t,” Janie moaned. “If I let go, it’s all going to fall.” She nodded to the fixture she held. “Besides, you hate heights.”
Denise drew a deep breath. “I know, but need drives, or something like that. Hold on; I’ll see if I can find the other ladder.”
“Wait a minute.” Brian picked up the pieces from the table, examined them, then looked at the light. “I think we can handle this.” He climbed the lowest two steps of the ladder and gave Janie directions on how to remove pieces, handing them down to him, until she could let go of the rest without raining parts on the plants. Then he traded places with her on the ladder and put the fixture back together himself, finally fitting the new bulb in.
“Voila,” he said, triumphantly as the light glowed brightly, spotting him in its glare.
“Thanks, I owe you one,” Denise admitted.
“No sweat,” he answered. “In fact, I can think of a way you–”
“I concede,” Denise said. “When?”
Once they’d arranged a date for her to look at his yard, and he’d left to get his rhododendrons sprayed, Denise turned to Janie. “How’d you manage to time that so well?”
The younger woman gave her a wide-eyed stare. “Time what?”
“The light debacle. Getting the ladder and climbing up was easy, but timing the drop exactly right? From back there you couldn’t have heard that he’d already paid for his plants, so I couldn’t offer them free in exchange for his help.”
Janie shrugged. “Fate, I suppose.” Her tone refused to acknowledge responsibility.
Brian arranged to get off work early the next Tuesday. The omens didn’t look encouraging that afternoon; storm clouds gathered low on the horizon and thunder rumbled in the distance. They needed rain but not the damaging storms early summer could bring. Undaunted, the two of them stopped by his house, which Denise found more charming than she wanted to admit, then headed out for a tour of his grounds.
The petunias bloomed colorfully in a mulched stretch of garden. The rhododendrons still had holes, but he’d applied the spray she’d given him, and only time would repair the damage. Everything looked thirsty.
As they circled the house, Denise suggested some plants to fill bare spots and identified resident shrubs and trees he didn’t recognize. Despite the dark clouds closing in, they headed away from the house, to tour the farthest corners of the yard. The rose bed was the last stop. The wind picked up and thunder boomed while Denise checked the tags clinging to some of the bushes. They were popular varieties and should thrive in their climate.
“They started out so well this spring,” Brian said, “but then they hit the wall. Stopped growing, stopped blooming, and began to develop these spots. I didn’t realize they needed so much feeding and spraying. I’m surprised they didn’t just keel over and die.”
“Plants keep trying, but if they don’t get what they need–water, food, sunshine, pest control–they’ll quit growing and just try to survive for a while.”
“Waiting for the situation to improve? It takes a sort of miracle for them since they can’t transplant themselves.”
“Whereas people can?” Denise looked up at him, sensing double meanings. “You’ve been talking to Janie.”
He nodded and shrugged without a trace of chagrin. “I went in last Thursday when you were off. I wanted to find out if she thought there was any chance for me. She said your first marriage had put you off men.”
“She had no right to discuss my personal affairs.”
“She likes you. So do I. Plants aren’t the only living things that need help sometimes.”
A gust of wind blew Denise’s hair across her face. “I’m not in the market—”
“You’d rather curl up in your corner till you die?”
A loud crack of thunder exploded overhead, and heavy drops of rain splattered on them, sparing her the need to answer. They turned and ran back toward the house. “The plants are really going to appreciate this,” Brian said, over the whistle of a sharp wind.
“If it doesn’t get too vicious,” Denise agreed, shivering as the rain increased.
The clouds loosed a deluge before they got to the back door. Both of them were soaked and dripped on his porch floor as they wrung out their clothes. Brian invited her into the kitchen, dug a couple of thick beach towels out of a closet in the hall, and handed one to her. Outside the rain came down in a torrent as lightning threaded the sky.
“You think I’m stagnating,” Denise said as she wiped water from her hair. “Don’t you?”
“I hope you’re just waiting for conditions to improve,” Brian countered. “I understand you’ve needed time to regroup and recover. But like the roses, if you don’t start to grow again, you’ll wither and fade. The difference is you have a choice.” He ran a finger down the side of her face. “It would be an awful waste.”
A new sound penetrated the room, an ominous drumming on the roof. Brian frowned and went to the window. “Oh, no. Hail. Just what my poor plants need.” He sighed and turned back to the kitchen. “Shoot. I need a cup of coffee.”
He poured cups for both of them out of the carafe he’d been keeping warm. As they drank and listened to the storm rampage outside, Denise told him about her marriage and its problems.
“Larry was dead set against my buying the garden shop. He said it was a waste of my talent and all the time and effort I’d put into getting my business degree.”
“But isn’t that what you’re doing? Running a business?”
“Not a big, important, prestigious business.”
“Oh.” A wealth of meaning came through the simple word: comprehension, sympathy, irritation with her ex-husband’s stupidity, and even a hint of surprise that she’d been foolish enough to let it get to her.
“I worked for a big multi-national for a while,” Denise said. “I hated it. I felt stifled. I love running the garden shop. Larry couldn’t figure out why.”
“Yo-yo,” Brian said.
She had a sudden, surprising urge to hug him but fought it down.
By the time they finished the coffee, the storm had blown itself off, and the sun reappeared. Denise went out with Brian to inspect the damage. Most of his plants had survived the hail, but the new petunias were smashed flat and shredded.
“Oh, Lord, Brian, I’m sorry,” Denise said, surveying broken stems and torn petals.
He winced and drew a deep breath. But as he studied the devastation, his expression lightened until he was grinning, a bit ruefully.
“Looks like I’ve done it again,” he said. “Another batch of plants bites the dust. Mud, actually, in this case.”
“Not your fault. You can’t help the weather.”
“I know.” He put an arm across her shoulders. Telling herself he needed the comfort, Denise didn’t shake it off. “Maybe I should just give up,” he added. “I’m not meant to grow plants.”
“Don’t say that! You’ve just had a run of bad luck. It’s bound to improve, though. Lots of people grow perfectly beautiful gardens, even under difficult conditions…”
She looked up and saw the smile in his eyes.
“They do?” he asked.
“Yes.” She couldn’t seem to look away from the appeal in his face.
“Even after setbacks and failures?” His eyebrows crooked. “It takes courage to start over again.”
She nodded. Her throat clogged up.
He reached out to touch her cheek. “Gardeners are a persistent lot, though.”
She nodded again.
His smile broadened and lit to at least a hundred watts. “I thought so. Let’s dry off and celebrate new beginnings, shall we?”
Denise found more than just her voice. She discovered a spring of joy, capped for far too long, welling up inside her. “Yes. Oh, yes. Let’s do!” she agreed.