Stanley was one of the contractors I often used. His carpentry skills were unparalleled. I'd hired him for this job to construct an arched arbor, and I was eager to see how it turned out.
Hammering echoed as I walked up the front path and skirted the perimeter of Mrs. Krauss's condo, er, lando.
I paused at the corner, hid behind the brick façade. Everything looked to be well under way.
For the most part, TBS focused on full garden transformations, productions that took months of planning and coordinating. However, about six times a month, we fit "minis" into the schedule. A smaller version of a full TBS makeover, a mini usually had only one or two landscaping elements and was perfect for people with smaller yards or who wanted to focus on just one problem area.
For the most part, after designing the mini, I left the ac tual completion of the project to Kit Pipe, my foreman and head landscaping contractor.
I saw him now, hard at work wrestling pond liner into a six-foot-wide, freshly dug hole. Kit had been my very first employee, long before TBS had ever seen the light of day. Over the years we'd become close friends, and I trusted him completely. I didn't think for a minute he was involved in the thefts of my garden equipment.
He paused in the wrestling, took off his hat and wiped the top of his head with his forearm.
I squinted, the glare from the sun bouncing off his bald head, highlighting the skull tattoo on his scalp, before he replaced his hat.
Behind him, Coby Fowler, one of my part-timers, was helping Stanley Mack assemble the arbor.
I smiled, already able to envision my design coming to life. It was going to be fabulous. I almost hated to waste it on Brickhouse Krauss.
I jumped, cursing under my breath as Claudia Krauss came up behind me. "Hey, Claudia."
Bouncing on the balls of her feet, she beamed at me. "Everything's going so well, Nina. Thank you so much for doing this. I know it can't be easy, with your hard feelings for Mamma and all."
I wouldn't have done it at all except I'd felt sorry for Claudia. She was due to be married in December and her mother had been threatening to move in with the newlyweds.
"That's in the past," I said, hoping the words rang true.
"Ever since she moved in here after Dad died, a garden is all she's talked about." Her curly reddish blonde hair bounced as she talked. "She's been so lonely since he's been gone. Maybe this will give her something to do." A scared look came into her bright blue eyes. "We really, really want her to love this garden, Nina."
"She will," I assured her, even though with Mrs. Krauss you could never be sure about anything.
Claudia pulled me toward the backyard. Kit looked up, the brim of his hat shading his eyes. He didn't seem the least bit surprised to see me.
Panic laced Claudia's tone as she said, "Your design did have flowers, right? I don't see any flowers."
"Deanna's bringing them later. The yard is too small to have everyone working here at once."
"Oh, thank God. Mamma loves flowers. I don't think she could have a garden without flowers."
Her cell phone rang, and she scurried away to answer it.
Kit lumbered over, all six-foot-five, 250 well-muscled pounds of him. "Hey, boss. Whatcha doing here?" he asked, though by the glint in his eye he knew darn well why I was there.
I hedged. "Just thought I'd stop by and check on things."
A smile curled up one corner of his mouth. "A
lot of things?"
"Ha-ha." I pulled him aside. Thankfully, he went willingly or I wouldn't have been able to budge him. "You notice anything else missing?"
"Not since this morning."
"Any idea what's going on?"
His eyes narrowed. Long ago he'd had them lined with black ink. He looked scarier than a pit full of vipers, but it was all for show. "Yeah," he said, folding his massive arms across his chest. "Someone's stealing the equipment."
I rolled my eyes. "You're a big help."
"That's why you pay me the big bucks," he said, walking away.
I moseyed over to Stan and Coby and managed to say hello and admire their handiwork before Claudia came rushing to ward me, nearly knocking me over. "That was Mamma! She's sick of the flea market and wants to come home. My Aunt Elna is trying to stall, but I don't know for how much longer. Two, maybe three hours if there's traffic on I-75."
Kit turned to me, a look of panic in his eyes. "Since you're here, boss, why don't you stay and help out?"
Normally, I would, but I was already late meeting with Bridget, and I knew Kit was capable of pulling it all together. "Sorry, I can't. I've got a
lot of things to do."
"Smart-ass," he grumbled.
I smiled. "Call in reinforcements, Marty or Jean-Claude."
He was already reaching for his cell. I said my good-byes and rushed out of there.
Guilt nagged. I should have stayed.
But seeing Mrs. Krauss again just wasn't something I wanted to do.
Gus's was a small diner in the heart of the Mill that had been there forever and then some. And I suspected the grease accumulation on the walls was older than my twenty-nine years, not that anyone would complain and risk Gus's wrath.
The stools lining the horseshoe-shaped counter were filled, and my gaze skipped over wobbly tables, balding heads and poofy blue hairdos, looking for Bridget. I found her in the back near the rotary pay phone that hadn't worked since 1976, her head bent over a laptop.
Squeezing my way between the tightly packed tables, I stepped over canes that acted as speed bumps, wiggled past aluminum walkers while smiling and waving at familiar faces. A lock of Bridget's white blonde chin-length bob covered most of her face, but I could see clearly that she hadn't broken the habit of biting pen caps.
"Excuse me. So sorry," I said as the small leather backpack I used as a purse nearly tore the toupee off Mr. Gold bine's wrinkled head. Always good-humored, he grinned toothlessly at me and patted my rear as I passed.
Funny how men never change, I thought, shaking my head.
A gnarled hand snaked out, gripped my wrist like an iron shackle. "Nina Quinn, I need your help."
"Hi, Mrs. Daasch. What is it this time?" Mrs. Daasch never missed an opportunity to pry gardening tips from me.
Now that she had my attention, she peeled her fingers, one by one, from my wrist.
"It's my potted impatiens, Nina."
She said this as though she were speaking to a doctor. I looked over Mrs. Daasch's over-permed head. Bridget hadn't seen me yet. "What's wrong with them?"
"Scrawny! Limper than—" She glanced sideways at Mr. Daasch, who was busy staring into the depths of his coffee mug. "Well, limp."
Much more than I ever needed to know. "Are they in the shade? You know impatiens love their shade."
Mrs. Daasch clutched her chest. "I'm no amateur, Nina Quinn."
I smiled. "Hmmm. Watering every day?"
"How about drainage? Could be root rot."
Her rheumy eyes brightened at that. "I bet you're right! I just bought new pots."
"Some gravel, old stones, or terra-cotta chips at the bottom of the pot should do the trick."
She patted my hand. "You have a good lunch, Nina Quinn. Thank you for your help."
I scooted away before she thought of something else. "Bridget," I called out.
Her head snapped up and she quickly closed the lid of her laptop before struggling to her feet, a wide smile blooming on her face.
I stopped mid-stride, my feet nearly going out from under me. My eyes widened. My jaw hit the floor.
Bridget put one arm behind her head, the other on her hip and posed, model-style, showing off her very pregnant tummy.
I clapped out of sheer instinct and about thirty weathered, puckered faces turned our way. I couldn't take my eyes off her rounded stomach. "You didn't tell me!"
The patrons in the diner began clapping too, calling out their congratulations. Bridget bowed, offered her thanks.
"Are you going to stand there all day?" she asked me.
"I might. I'm in shock. I'm just so happy for you! I know how hard you tried . . ." I felt myself getting teary eyed. Just what I needed. If I started crying now I might not ever stop.
She pulled me into a hug, planted noisy kisses on both my cheeks.
It was strange, our relationship. We could go months and months without seeing each other, yet the second we were together again, time fell away.
She had snagged a triangular booth, built for two—three if you were re
iendly—tucked into the farthest corner of the room. I slid in, ignoring the cracks and tears in the padded vinyl bench.
"You didn't tell me," I said again.
"I wanted to surprise you. Besides we didn't tell anyone until after that tortuous first trimester. Not after all we've been through."
We had to raise our voices to be heard over all the noise. Between Gus cursing in the kitchen and the hearing aids of most of the customers apparently needing their batteries replaced, the room was buzzing.
"I'm so happy for you, Bridget. I really am." She and her husband Tim had been trying to conceive for years. Procedure after procedure netted nothing but heartache and growing mountains of debt. They'd finally turned to IVF, in vitro fertilization, about two years ago, and gotten good news—until Bridget miscarried at eight weeks. She'd had several more pregnancies after that, all ending the same tragic way. No doctor could tell her why, or even offer any hope.
"I know. Can you believe we weren't even trying?" Her ice blue eyes shone. "One day I wasn't feeling well . . ."
Her eyes clouded, teared up. Her gaze dropped to the table's surface, decoupaged with old newspapers.
"Yes, a miracle," she murmured, tucking her laptop into a leather satchel at her feet.
"Are you okay?"
She waved my concern away. "Fine. Fine, really. I just get emotional sometimes." A quivery smile played on her lips. "How're you? Kevin? Riley? I keep hearing wonderful things about your business—you must be thrilled with its success."
I pasted on my brightest, happiest, fakest smile and hoped it fooled her. "Everything's wonderful." I skipped right over Kevin and Riley and zoomed in on my work. "Business is growing so fast I can't keep up with it."
"That's so great. You know, I'd love for you to come up with a baby-friendly design for us. Something Tim and I could work on ourselves. He loves those do-it-yourself shows—it's one of the reasons we bought our fixer-upper in the first place. We'd pay you, of course."
"Nonsense! I'd love to do it as a gift for the baby. I can probably stop by later this week, take some measurements."
Her face brightened. "Wonderful! Oh, I can't wait to see what you come up with. Everything's going so well for you. I couldn't be happier with your success. And your family too . . ."
This subject needed to be redirected before she could ask anything specific about Kevin. I didn't need to drag her down with my worries. "So, Tim must be beside himself about the baby."
"Oh, he is!" She leaned in, as much as her belly would allow. "Honestly, Nina, I don't know if we'd still be together if it weren't for this baby." Her blonde hair swung as she shook her head. "With everything we went through we had grown so far apart. We couldn't share our grief with each other and it pushed a wedge between us. Add the fighting about the bills on top of that . . ."
"But everything's better now, right?" I interrupted, trying in vain to keep the conversation upbeat.
She smiled. "The truth?"
"It's better. Not great, but better." Her lower lip trembled. "He hasn't touched me in months. Says he's afraid of hurting the baby."
I reached across the table, took her hand. "I can understand that. After everything . . ."
"I can too, I suppose. But it just hurts, y'know?"
Oh, I knew. But I didn't think she needed to hear about my problems right now. "So, how far along are you?"
"About seven months."
My gaze zipped to her stomach. "Is it twins?" I said in shock. Already her stomach protruded right below her breasts. My secretary Tam was six months pregnant and barely showing.
She threw a napkin at me. "I don't care if I gain a hundred pounds. I'm going to enjoy every second of this pregnancy."
"And you should. You look wonderful. I'm so happy for you."
Bridget's dad was Polish through and through, but her mother was a mix of Swedish and Norwegian. As a result, Bridget was a tall, big-boned girl with the most delicate, finest, beautiful features you could ever imagine. Her pale skin fairly exuded good health and happiness, yet sadness clouded her crystal-clear baby blues.
"I'm so glad you had the day off. I needed someone to talk to so bad. I knew I could count on you."
My stomach rumbled and I looked around for Gertie, Gus's daughter and also sole waitress, who was sixty if a day. She was far on the other side of the room, chatting it up with the Molari brothers. The help here was notoriously slow, but the food was oh-so worth it. "We might be here awhile."
"I'm in no rush," she said, looking past me, staring at something over my shoulder, a mutinous expression on her face.
The smell of sausage and sautéed peppers hovered as I swiveled, following her gaze. "What?"
"Look at that baby, sitting there all alone. Why, someone could just walk by and take him."
I looked at the little guy, wedged with a safety belt into a wooden booster seat, his grandmother, Dottie Laredo, not two feet away, gabbing it up with Mrs. Casperian. Besides that fact, the kidnapper would have to deal with a maze of approximately ten canes and three walkers before making it to the door. Not a chance.