Nipped in the Bud by Susan Sleeman

ISBN: 1602605734 Barbour
$10.99
Trade Paperback

Copyright © 2010 by Susan Sleeman

Chapter One

“This is Harly Davison, your host of KALM’s exciting new show, Whacky World of Motorcycles, hoping you’ll join us every Wednesday morning at ten and reminding you that Hogs, not dogs, are man’s best friend. Now we return to the locally acclaimed show, Through the Garden Gate, with host Paige Turner.”

“Weed Whacker! You can’t possibly want to kill your husband!” I yelled into the boom microphone and looked for advice from my producer and best friend Lisa Winkle.
Tucked safely in her little booth adjoining mine, Lisa shrugged and twirled her finger in our signal that meant I should say something before dead air killed the show.
I shook my head. Her finger picked up speed as if she possessed the power to spin me around and force words from my mouth. But what could I say? What could an unmarried gardening expert know about killing a husband?
“Paige, are you there?” Weed Whacker’s tone bordered on desperation, elevating my concern.
I gave up on Lisa offering any assistance and punched the mute button then searched through the middle drawer of the ancient metal desk. If I could locate the station’s talk show schedule, I could refer Weed Whacker to the self-help program.
“Paige,” Lisa said through my headset. “What are you doing? We can’t have dead air like this.”
“You’re not helping,” I said. Words from my mother with her many years of advice, my pastor’s weekly sermons, and God, already fought for space in my head. I had no room for anything Lisa was saying. I punched the button again and adjusted the mike. “Perhaps you would like to call into our self-help show. If you hold on, my producer will give you the broadcast time.”
“Please, Paige. I can’t wait. I need your advice.”
“Don’t do anything drastic,” I blurted before she changed her mind, disconnected, and did something crazy. Eyes on the drawer, my fingers fumbled around for the laminated schedule. If I gave the wrong advice, how would I recover from being implicated in a murder? “There has to be an amiable solution to your problem.”
She sighed. “We’re way past working things out. It’s bad enough I have to do all the yard work myself, but to face the same thing inside the house? I’m losing it, Paige. I tell you, I’m losing it. I’m so tired of my husband sprouting up every Sunday in the same place, just like the weeds you described.”
I gave up on the search for the schedule and closed my eyes to think. Weed Whacker needed a counselor, not someone like me who only knew how to handle a plant’s 911. Wait. . . counselor. I was a peer counselor in college. If I remembered right, I should repeat what I heard the distraught person saying so they’d know I was listening.
I cleared my throat, a no-no on radio, and charged ahead. “I can certainly empathize with your concerns, Weed Whacker. I understand that your husband pops up in the recliner every Sunday and watches football games. And yes, technically, this type of sprouting in an unwanted place week after week, no matter the effort you put in to stop it, sounds like most weeds.” I raised my fist in the air and shook it in victory over my professional counselor speak.
“Paige, please. I called for advice, not to hear you repeat everything I say.”
I slowly lowered my arm and gave in. If my suggestions ended with my incarceration, so be it. “If you need my advice, then I must caution you. This morning we’ve discussed two successful methods of removing weeds. The first is digging a hole the width of the crown and pulling roots and all from the soil. The second is applying one of the many available herbicides on the market. We both agree your husband might be exhibiting weed-like tendencies. Still, I must ask you to think long and hard about removing this particular species. If you have no other choice but to act, I recommend the plucking method, as the use of herbicides in this particular application could be misconstrued as murder.”
As my words aged on the airwaves like a pile of compost, I cut my gaze to Lisa. She slashed her hand across her throat, either telling me I was dead or to wrap it up. I chose to believe the second one. Barely able to contain my joy over the end of this Monday morning disaster of a show, I nearly shot up like a daffodil on a warm spring day. Weed Whacker was our last caller, and if another show tanked like this one had, she could be the last caller—ever. I needed to stick with plants. They didn’t conspire to kill each other. Sure, some of them were more aggressive than others, choking out their neighbors, but unlike Weed Whacker, their wayward tendencies were never premeditated.
Oops, right. Weed Whacker. I needed to close the show.
“Thank you for calling, Weed Whacker. I hope my advice has been helpful. Unfortunately we’re out of time.” I stifled a sigh then dug deep for my cheery broadcaster’s voice. “Thank you for listening. Join me again tomorrow at nine as we take another trip Through the Garden Gate. Be sure to stay tuned for Success Serendipity Style, where host Tim Needlemeyer brings you up to date on all the exciting activities planned for this weekend’s Pickle Fest. But first, Ollie Grayson and the Farm to Market Report.”
I flipped the switch that kicked off the prerecorded agriculture show and tossed my headset onto the desk.
“And we’re clear,” Lisa shouted, like some big-time producer, though it was just the two of us in a closet-sized studio.
On my feet, I charged toward her and kicked open the door separating our workspaces. “Where are all these whackos coming from, and why aren’t you screening them out?”
“Maybe it takes a whacko host to attract whacko callers,” Lisa said with a slight shrug of her perfectly postured shoulders. She turned away and shoved a manila folder titled Liability into one of the many file cabinets lining the walls.
Mouth hanging open, I watched her work. She’d effectively called me a nut job but seemed oblivious to my rage. The space was so small she had to stand to the side of the open file drawer to wedge another folder into the back. Perspiration sprinkled her face from an hour spent in the airless room. Her mouth wasn’t puckered in a sneer or flopping open in a big goofy laugh.
Lisa was serious. She really did think I was as whacky as my callers. I sighed much like Weed Whacker had. Lisa looked up.
“What?” She laughed and slammed the drawer. “All I’m saying is if you didn’t give such flaky advice, we might attract a different kind of listener.”
“We? I’m the one who has to come up with something to say on the spur of the moment when these nut-jobs phone in. All you do is sit back and make gestures with your hands.” I yanked my backpack from the shelf behind her and pulled out my lip balm. Between the hours I spent gardening and licking my lips in nervousness for the last thirty minutes, they were as rough as my show had been.
“I do my job the best I can, and if you don’t like it, fire me.” Lisa pulled her crisply ironed jacket off the back of her chair and flicked me an irate look before exiting. My five-foot-three dynamo of a friend rushed down the long hall to the front entrance as fast as her fuchsia colored flip-flops allowed. I tromped behind, wondering how the two of us were going to get through the next three hours working on my landscaping job if all we could do was bicker.
I’d decline her free labor and send her home, but this was my first big project since I included landscape design in the services offered by my shop, The Garden Gate. I’d just landed a big fat juicy contract with the city of Serendipity, Oregon to renovate the play area and otherwise spruce up the park. Once the Pickle Fest visitors saw my professional work, they were sure to sign up at my booth for a little renovation of their own yards.
No. No way I’d let one of our many little tiffs blow my big opportunity.
I caught up to Lisa, who studied a chipped fingernail as she tapped her flip-flops in a snapping sound on the asphalt beside my Ford 150. I unlocked the passenger door and waited for Her Highness to slide onto the seat before slamming the door. From a Frendi, Schmendi, or whatever they called those designer purses with the squiggly little marks etched into the material, she pulled out a bag of sunflower seeds and attacked the tiny morsels.
I climbed behind the wheel and nudged her elbow. Eyes downcast, she ignored me and chewed a seed. Maybe I really had hurt her feelings. I’d been a bit testy since signing on to do this job with such a short deadline. The park renovation had to be completed by sundown on Thursday to set up for the opening of Pickle Fest. The whole community was counting on me.
So, testy or not, I needed my friend more than ever right now. That meant I needed to apologize. “Sorry for getting so mad at you. It’s not your fault these people end up on the air.”
“Don’t you know it!” She snapped her fingers near my face then popped another seed into her mouth and grinned like the Cheshire cat.
“You weren’t really mad, were you?”
Her grin widened, giving her the impish look that her twins had when they were up to no good. “So, did I tell you about the problem at the girls’ preschool?”
“What problem?” I shifted into drive and hoped Lisa’s kids weren’t implicated in the current disaster. Last week her daughter Lori snuck into the bathroom with the class hamster to see if he could swim. Fortunately, he could, but the teacher wasn’t too happy about returning a toilet-bowl-swimming hamster to the classroom.
“Well, don’t tell anyone, but they’ve got lice. A big ole breakout of lice.” She graphically described the painstaking process of shampooing then using a fine-toothed comb to remove the little nits from her daughters’ lovely blond hair.
I stifled a groan and said, “uh-huh” in all the right spots as she talked, but really, her fixation with these gross childhood stories was getting to be too much. The entire drive to the studio she’d yammered on about potty training mishaps and ear infections. A single, thirty-four–year-old woman like myself should never be subjected to these gruesome topics. Not if there was any hope that I would aid in the future population of the human race.
“Once you have the little buggers free,” Lisa said in a tone she usually reserved for BOGO sales, “the rest is simple. You just drop them in the liquid medicine and flush it all down the toilet.”
“Aw, c’mon. Please tell me they’re dead by then? Or do they live on and on, waiting to pounce on some unsuspecting person that passes by?” I stabbed my ragged fingernails into the spot right below my ponytail and scratched away.
She swatted at my arm. “You’re not taking this seriously. You can’t imagine the trauma of discovering your child has lice.”
“I can’t even imagine the trauma of discovering I have a child.” I gave one last scratch then turned left at First Avenue and pulled the truck into the empty lot at the park. The lot rarely held many cars, as most businesses, including The Garden Gate and the radio station, were located within five blocks of the town center, where the park was. Lisa and I would have walked to the park if the job hadn’t required a ton of tools. Tools we needed to move to the job site if I was going to meet the deadline. “How about forgetting your Lice Capades for a while and helping me unload the tools?”
Without a word, but with copious sighs, Lisa changed into beat-up sneakers then trudged alongside me, hauling shovels, rakes, and clippers to the play area. Whenever my hand was free, I pawed at the back of my head for imaginary lice. I needed to get the creepy crawlies out of my mind and get to work.
Today we would remove the old mulch from under the play structure. Tomorrow I would enlarge and deepen the fall zone. Despite my rush to get started, I could still appreciate the typical Northwest setting as we entered the playground section of the park. Tall swaying pines dotted garden beds that lined three sides of the area, hiding it from the traffic on Oak, one of the main retail streets in town, and home to my apartment located above the pharmacy.
After I applied my loving touch, the neglected garden beds filled with native Oregon plants would be more in keeping with the healthy lawn adjoining the play area. A quaint old refreshment stand and picnic tables sat in the center of the clearing. Of course, Serendipity, home of the annual Pickle Fest, couldn’t resist sprinkling bright green trashcans in the shape of dill pickles across the park. They were stamped with the slogan, “Listen to Briny. Keep our park shiny.” Briny, the town’s mascot, showed up not only at the annual celebration, but at other events as well. I found it rather odd to see a child snuggle up to a giant pickle, but my fellow residents loved him.
“Hey,” I said as we made our final trip. “Did you do that?”
“Do what?”
I pointed at the heavy zip ties I’d used to secure the temporary fence after I installed it around the play area yesterday. They were scattered on the ground in tiny neon fragments. “Did you cut those?”
“Don’t look at me.”
With fingers once again wiggling over the back of my head, I stared at the gaping hole as if looking at it would clear up the mystery.
“Are we here to work, or are you just gonna stand there scratching?” Lisa pulled on her gloves and walked through the hole I was gaping at, grabbed my short blue-handled shovel, and started tossing mulch onto a tarp.
Normally, I would have rushed into the enclosure and hefted my shovel before she did, but I couldn’t get past the cut ties. I glanced around the park as if I would find the scissors-wielding culprit. I found a culprit, all right, but probably not the one who cut the ties.
“Check that out.” I pointed through the trees toward the Main Street entrance. “Today’s topic on weeds was right on target. Here comes the two-legged variety.” I said weed, but technically, I’d dubbed our city manager, Bud Picklemann, a globe thistle.
Not that he was special or anything. I gave everyone I knew a plant name. Case in point, Lisa, my perfect little Shasta daisy, rested her shovel and swiveled around to watch Bud storm across the lush green grass. If divided regularly, Shastas could be counted on to flower season after season. Plus their creamy white color complements most flowers around them. Like the Shasta, Lisa’s personality is a perfect complement to mine and I counted on her for the support I lost when my mother passed away.
Lisa looked up and rolled her eyes. “Great. Wonder what our fearless leader wants?”
“If his body language is any indication, I’m in for it.” To me, Bud’s clenched fists and red face were just outward signs that he was living up to his globe thistle name—a prickly, troublesome weed, whose painful barbs kept people at a distance. But I hadn’t a clue what set him off today. “He can’t be mad about this project yet. All I’ve done is put up a fence. That’s not enough to cause this kind of reaction.”
“If you’d listened to me, for once,” Lisa’s face grew smug, a look I’d learned to fear yet rarely reacted appropriately to, “you’d have expected this. I told you it’s never a good idea to work with a man whose wife would do anything to get back at you.”
“And if you’d listened to me, you’d know that Rachel has forgotten all about our little misunderstanding.”
“Hah!” Lisa pointed a gloved finger at me. “You don’t steal Rachel’s prom date and not live to regret it.”
“I did not steal Todd from her. He didn’t even ask her to the prom. She just thought he was going to take her.”
“As did the whole school.”
“So what? That was seventeen years ago. Water under the bridge.” I glanced at Bud. Wearing a short-sleeved white shirt cinched at the neck with a narrow black tie, he surged toward me like a bamboo shoot on a garden-conquering rampage. Was Lisa right? Was Bud planning on taking revenge for his still-embarrassed wife? Nah. No way.
I turned back to her. “Even if Rachel wants Bud to fire me, he can’t. The city council signed my contract.”
“He can make things difficult for you.”
“How? I could do this job in my sleep.” After twelve years in the landscaping business in Portland, I’d hoped my first job in Serendipity would be more challenging, but I believed this was only the first step. I pointed at the playground. “This project is cut and dried. How can Bud mess with that?”
“Okay, Miss Know It All. If everything’s so simple, why’s he glaring at you?”
“Doesn’t matter. I’m doing this job no matter what. It’s going to get me the public exposure I need.” Bud picked up speed, and I hoped I’d be able to stand behind my words when he arrived.
My eyes locked on Lisa’s. We stared at each other as we often did when we hit an impasse. She was shorter by a good seven inches but made up for her height-impairment in attitude. We frequently found ourselves nearly duking it out until something happened to make us laugh it off.
Bud wouldn’t be the source of our humor today. His huffing and puffing arrival as if he intended to blow my house down guaranteed that. “Take a hike, Lisa,” he grumbled. “I need to talk to Paige. Alone.”
Lisa wrinkled her nose at him and stabbed her shovel into the soil. The bright blue handle pinged back and forth as she came over to me and leaned close. “Watch your back,” she whispered. “Or you might be exposed in ways you never dreamed.” In full voice, and with a glare for Bud, she said, “I’ll head over to your shop and get a cup of coffee. Call me when he’s through.”
“Thanks for the help.” I glanced at my watch. Ten thirty. If I were lucky, Bud would only snipe at me for a few minutes, and Lisa and I could get back to work.
As if he’d read my mind, Bud didn’t wait for Lisa to get far before he turned on me. “Well, you’ve done it, Paige, just like I predicted you would. I knew you’d mess up. Just didn’t think you’d mess up this fast.”
Caught off guard by the vehemence in his tone, I mouthed, “Huh?”
“Yesterday, someone saw kids playing inside this poor excuse for a safety fence.” He grabbed the top slat of the orange plastic and shook it until his face turned red from the exertion. Unfortunately for him, all he succeeded in doing was making his long comb-over flap up and down. “We can’t have kids on a construction site.”
I took a few deep breaths and thought. Not about Bud’s unique hairdo, as that took few brain waves. I was more interested in his notoriety for jumping to conclusions. And I wasn’t about to take the fall for something he couldn’t prove. “Are you sure whoever told you about the kids isn’t making it up?”
He ripped his hands from the fence and crossed spindly arms. “Don’t try to squirm out of this, Paige. You chose this flimsy fence instead of chain link. You’d best upgrade it if you hope to keep this job.”
I stared at him, his puckered lips, his closed stance. He wasn’t going to listen to me at all. I could say most anything. He’d have the same comeback and we’d have the same result—I’d be shelling out big bucks for a chain-link fence.
Bud came close and clapped his hands in front of my face. “Don’t just stand there staring at me. What’re you gonna do? If a kid got hurt on your job, the liability’d kill us.”
“You know, Bud,” I said, stepping back from his barbs and trying to infuse a level of calm into my tone that I didn’t feel, “I think you’re overreacting. I’d like some proof before making any changes.”
“I have pictures.”
Now we’re getting somewhere. “Mind if I look at them?”
He yanked a photo from his back pocket and waved it like a decorative garden flag blowing in the breeze. “Here. See? Kids inside the fence.”
“I’d like a closer look.”
He shook his head, settling the last of his wayward hair back into place. “You know all you need to know. Now, what are you gonna do about it?”
“Picklemann, you big old scammer,” a husky male voice called from behind us. “I want to talk to you.”
We both turned and watched pharmacist Charlie Sweeny stomp our way. He wore a white lab coat over black pants that looked as old and fashionable as men’s double-knits of the eighties. His reading glasses hung around his neck on a frayed red cord, dangling below a crimson face and eyes filled with rage.
Bud, dense as usual, must not have noticed the threat I saw in Charlie’s eyes as he glared back. “I have nothing to say to you, old man. I’m busy. Take a hike.”
Charlie sneered. “Oh, you’ll talk to me all right, or I’ll blab your secret to everyone in town.”
I stood in the war zone, wondering if I should risk hanging around as they hurled bombs at each other just so I could learn Bud’s big secret. If a fight broke out, exposure to their fallout could be deadly. I saw Charlie as a foxglove, and that meant you didn’t cross him. The genus name for foxglove was digitalis, the medicine still used today to treat heart problems. The plant was pretty, but deadly, and as the local pharmacist, Charlie could end someone’s life with one simple mistake.
Since I leased one of the few apartments in town from Charlie, I didn’t want to make him mad. I smiled at him with so much syrup dripping from the corners of my mouth that I had a sudden craving for pancakes. “We’re almost done here, Charlie,” I said, followed by a quick lick of my lips. “Do you mind if I finish with Bud, first?”
Charlie kept his heated gaze fixed on Bud. “I’ll be back, Picklemann, when a little bit of a girl isn’t protecting you.” He turned and marched away in a gimpy cadence.
I glanced at Bud to gauge his reaction to the turn of events. It seemed his full attention rested on Charlie’s animated departure.
What’s that saying about opportunity knocking? I inched toward Bud and snatched the photo.
“Hey, give that back,” he shouted.
I studied the picture on my way to the other side of the fence. “You sly old dog.” I flicked the picture back and forth. “These are your kids. You cut the zip ties and let them in to the play area to get me in trouble.”
“Doesn’t matter whose kids they are. The council agreed with me. You’ve got to put up a more secure fence, or we’ll pull the contract.”
I resisted the urge to stomp my foot like Lisa’s preschoolers and decided to beg or maybe even whine. “Renting a chain-link fence will take time I can’t afford to lose. Then I’ll have to hire laborers to do the work I planned to do by myself just to catch up and meet the deadline. I might get done on time, but I’m sure to lose money.”
“You should have built a contingency into your bid.”
I snorted. “Right, and come in as the highest bidder. Even as the lowest bidder, the council had to force you to give me the job.”
“You want to stand here all day arguing or get to work before time runs out?” His snide smile dissolved the last of my manners.
I picked the first thing that came to mind to use as a weapon. “This is about Rachel, isn’t it?”
“What? What could my sweet Rachel have to do with this?”
Sweet? Hah! “Seriously, Bud Picklemann, you were the densest boy I knew in school. If it’s possible, you’ve gotten worse. Your wife has you doing her dirty work. Man up and admit it.”
His mouth fell open and flapped about. I guess no one had never confronted him with his puppet status before. I snapped my own mouth shut before more offending words flew out, and offered a quick prayer for guidance. I wasn’t known for my subtlety, and I was close to losing it. Only God could help me keep a lid on it when my inner child took over.
“C’mon, Paige,” I mumbled under my breath. “Stop. There will be other jobs.”
“You say something?” Bud snapped.
I had no other jobs lined up. Still, the wisdom of giving in before this became more personal seeped into my brain. “Fine. I’ll get the fence.”
“About time. Remember, no more work until it’s up.” He turned and charged toward the parking lot.
His dismissal grated on me as if a real globe thistle had brushed against my skin, and the little bit of wisdom I had found took a hike. “You do anything else to interfere with this project, Bud Picklemann,” I yelled at his back, “and so help me, you’ll wish you hadn’t.”
“Ohh, I’m shaking in my boots.” He laughed in a tone that fully released my wrath.
“I mean it, Bud. You do anything, and I mean anything else, and I’ll have your. . . your job. . . and your. . . your head on a plate.”
I cringed as the last words passed my lips. The morning had come full circle. If I had a spray bottle of pesticide with me, I’d be as tempted as Weed Whacker to douse the human weed in my life.❖
________________________________

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___________________________________

Susan Sleeman writes romantic suspense for Love Inspired Suspense and cozy mysteries for Barbour Publishing.  She lives in Florida with her husband and has two beautiful daughters, a terrific son in law and an adorable grandson.Indiana.

Website: http://www.susansleeman.com

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About Vicki Hinze
USA Today Bestselling and Award-Winning Author of 40+ books, short stories/novellas and hundreds of articles. Published in as many as 63 countries. Featured Columnist for Social N Worldwide Network and Book Fun Magazine. Sponsor/Founder of ChristiansRead.com & CleanReadBooks.com. FMI visit www.vickihinze.com.

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