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Blue Dahlia gt-1

Nora Roberts

  Blue Dahlia

  ( Garden Trilogy - 1 )

  Nora Roberts

  Stella has a passion for planning that keeps her from taking too many risks. But when she opens her heart to a new love, she discovers that she will fight to the death to protect what’s hers.

  Dear Reader

  I don't have hobbies. I have passions. Gardening is one of my passions, and spring—when it's time to get out there and dig in the dirt—is my favorite season.

  I live in the woods, in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, and my land is rough and rocky. A tough field for a passionate gardener to play in. I've solved part of the problem with many raised beds, but the rocks still find a way. Every spring, it's a battle—me against rock, and most years I win.

  I'm fortunate to be married to a man who enjoys yard work. Because if I want to plant a daffodil bulb in the stony ground, I've got to call my guy with the pick. But it's worth it. Every spring when I see my daffodils popping, watch my willows greening, see the perennials I've planted in place of rock spearing

  up, I'm happy. Just as I'm happy to get out there with my spade and cultivator to start prepping the soil for what I might plant this season.

  It's hard, sweaty, dirty work, and it pleases me to do it, year after year. For me, a garden is always a work in progress, never quite finished, and always a delight to the eye. Nearly twenty years ago, my guy planted a tulip magnolia in front of our house. Now, every spring, my bedroom windows are full of those gorgeous pink blooms. And when they fade and drop, something else will flower to make me smile.

  At the end of a long day, whether it's writing or gardening, or just dealing with the dozens of chores life hands out, there's nothing quite like a walk in the garden to soothe the mind and heart.

  So plant some flowers, watch them grow. The rewards far outreach the toil.

  Nora Roberts


  Memphis, Tennessee

  August 1892

  Birthing a bastard wasn't in the plans. When she'd learned she was carrying her lover's child, the shock and panic turned quickly to anger.

  There were ways of dealing with it, of course. A woman in her position had contacts, had avenues. But she was afraid of them, nearly as afraid of the abortionists as she was of what was growing, unwanted, inside her.

  The mistress of a man like Reginald Harper couldn't afford pregnancy.

  He'd kept her for nearly two years now, and kept her well. Oh, she knew he kept others—including his wife— but they didn't concern her.

  She was still young, and she was beautiful. Youth and beauty were products that could be marketed. She'd done so, for nearly a decade, with steely mind and heart. And she'd profited by them, polished them with the grace and charm she'd learned by watching and emulating the fine ladies who'd visited the grand house on the river where her mother had worked.

  She'd been educated—a bit. But more than books and music, she'd learned the arts of flirtation.

  She'd sold herself for the first time at fifteen and had pocketed knowledge along with the coin. But prostitution wasn't her goal, any more than domestic work or trudging off to the factory day after day. She knew the difference between whore and mistress. A whore traded quick and cold sex for pennies

  and was forgotten before the man's fly was buttoned again.

  But a mistress—a clever and successful mistress— offered romance, sophistication, conversation, gaiety along with the commodity between her legs. She was a companion, a wailing wall, a sexual fantasy. An ambitious mistress knew to demand nothing and gain much.

  Amelia Ellen Conner had ambitions.

  And she'd achieved them. Or most of them.

  She'd selected Reginald quite carefully. He wasn't handsome or brilliant of mind. But he was, as her research had assured her, very rich and very unfaithful to the thin and proper wife who presided over Harper House.

  He had a woman in Natchez, and it was said he kept another in New Orleans. He could afford another,

  so Amelia set her sights on him. Wooed and won him.

  At twenty-four, she lived in a pretty house on South Main and had three servants of her own. Her wardrobe was full of beautiful clothes, and her jewelry case sparkled.

  It was true she wasn't received by the fine ladies she'd once envied, but there was a fashionable half world where a woman of her station was welcome. Where she was envied.

  She threw lavish parties. She traveled. She lived.

  Then, hardly more than a year after Reginald had tucked her into that pretty house, her clever, craftily designed world crashed.

  She would have hidden it from him until she'd gathered the courage to visit the red-light district and end the thing. But he'd caught her when she was violently ill, and he'd studied her face with those dark, shrewd eyes.

  And he'd known.

  He'd not only been pleased but had forbidden her to end the pregnancy. To her shock, he'd bought her

  a sapphire bracelet to celebrate her situation.

  She hadn't wanted the child, but he had.

  So she began to see how the child could work for her. As the mother of Reginald Harper's child—bastard or no— she would be cared for in perpetuity. He might lose interest in coming to her bed as she lost the bloom of youth, as beauty faded, but he would support her, and the child.

  His wife hadn't given him a son. But she might. She would.

  Through the last chills of winter and into the spring, she carried the child and planned for her future.

  Then something strange happened. It moved inside her. Flutters and stretches, playful kicks. The child she hadn't wanted became her child.

  It grew inside her like a flower that only she could see, could feel, could know. And so did a strong and terrible love.

  Through the sweltering, sticky heat of the summer she bloomed, and for the first time in her life she

  knew a passion for something other than herself and her own comfort.

  The child, her son, needed her. She would protect it with all she had.

  With her hands resting on her great belly, she supervised the decorating of the nursery. Pale green walls and white lace curtains. A rocking horse imported from Paris, a crib handmade in Italy.

  She tucked tiny clothes into the miniature wardrobe. Irish and Breton lace, French silks. All were mono-grammed with exquisite embroidery with the baby's initials. He would be James Reginald Conner.

  She would have a son. Something at last of her own. Someone, at last, to love. They would travel together, she and her beautiful boy. She would show him the world. He would go to the best schools.

  He was her pride, her joy, and her heart. And if through that steamy summer, Reginald came to the

  house on South Main less and less, it was just as well.

  He was only a man. What grew inside her was a son.

  She would never be alone again.

  When she felt the pangs of labor, she had no fear. Through the sweaty hours of pain, she held one thing in the front of her mind. Her James. Her son. Her child.

  Her eyes blurred with exhaustion, and the heat, a living, breathing monster, was somehow worse than

  the pain.

  She could see the doctor and the midwife exchange looks. Grim, frowning looks. But she was young,

  she was healthy, and she would do this thing.

  There was no time; hour bled into hour with gaslight shooting flickering shadows around the room. She heard, through the waves of exhaustion, a thin cry.

  "My son." Tears slid down her cheeks. "My son."

  The midwife held her down, murmuring, murmuring, "Lie still now. Drink a bit. Rest now."

  She sipped to soothe her fiery throat, tasted laudanum. Before she could object, she was drift
ing off,

  deep down. Far away.

  When she woke, the room was dim, the draperies pulled tight over the windows. When she stirred, the doctor rose from his chair, came close to lift her hand, to check her pulse.

  "My son. My baby. I want to see my baby."

  "I'll send for some broth. You slept a long time."

  "My son. He'll be hungry. Have him brought to me."

  "Madam." The doctor sat on the side of the bed. His eyes seemed very pale, very troubled. "I'm sorry. The child was stillborn."

  What clutched her heart was monstrous, vicious, rending her with burning talons of grief and fear.

  "I heard him cry. This is a lie! Why are you saying such an awful thing to me?"

  "She never cried." Gently, he took her hands. "Your labor was long and difficult. You were delirious at the end of it. Madam, I'm sorry. You delivered a girl, stillborn."

  She wouldn't believe it. She screamed and raged and wept, and was sedated only to wake to scream

  and rage and weep again.

  She hadn't wanted the child. And then she'd wanted nothing else.

  Her grief was beyond name, beyond reason.

  Grief drove her mad.


  Southfield, Michigan

  September 2001

  She burned the cream sauce. Stella would always remember that small, irritating detail, as she would remember the roll and boom of thunder from the late-summer storm and the sound of her children squabbling in the living room.

  She would remember the harsh smell, the sudden scream of the smoke alarms, and the way she'd mechanically taken the pan off the burner and dumped it in the sink.

  She wasn't much of a cook, but she was—in general—a precise cook. For this welcome-home meal, she'd planned to prepare the chicken Alfredo, one of Kevin's favorites, from scratch and match it with

  a nice field greens salad and some fresh, crusty bread with pesto dipping sauce.

  In her tidy kitchen in her pretty suburban house she had all the ingredients lined up, her cookbook propped on its stand with the plastic protector over the pages.

  She wore a navy-blue bib apron over her fresh pants and shirt and had her mass of curling red hair bundled up on top of her head, out of her way.

  She was getting started later than she'd hoped, but work had been a madhouse all day. All the fall

  flowers at the garden center were on sale, and the warm weather brought customers out in droves.

  Not that she minded. She loved the work, absolutely loved her job as manager of the nursery. It felt

  good to be back in the thick of it, full-time now that Gavin was in school and Luke old enough for a

  play group. How in the world had her baby grown up enough for first grade?

  And before she knew it, Luke would be ready for kindergarten.

  She and Kevin should start getting a little more proactive about making that third child. Maybe tonight, she thought with a smile. When she got into that final and very personal stage of her welcome-home plans.

  As she measured ingredients, she heard the crash and wail from the next room. Glutton for punishment, she thought as she dropped what she was doing to rush in. Thinking about having another baby when

  the two she had were driving her crazy.

  She stepped into the room, and there they were. Her little angels. Gavin, sunny blond with the devil in

  his eyes, sat innocently bumping two Matchbox cars into each other while Luke, his bright red hair a

  dead ringer for hers, screamed over his scattered wooden blocks.

  She didn't have to witness the event to know. Luke had built; Gavin had destroyed.

  In their house it was the law of the land.

  "Gavin. Why?" She scooped up Luke, patted his back. "It's okay, baby. You can build another."

  "My house! My house!"

  "It was an accident," Gavin claimed, and that wicked twinkle that made a bubble of laughter rise to her throat remained. "The car wrecked it."

  "I bet the car did—after you aimed it at his house. Why can't you play nice? He wasn't bothering you."

  "I was playing. He's just a baby."

  "That's right." And it was the look that came into her eyes that had Gavin dropping his. "And if you're going to be a baby, too, you can be a baby in your room. Alone."

  "It was a stupid house."

  "Nuh-uh! Mom." Luke took Stella's face in both his hands, looked at her with those avid, swimming

  eyes. "It was good."

  "You can build an even better one. Okay? Gavin, leave him alone. I'm not kidding. I'm busy in the kitchen, and Daddy's going to be home soon. Do you want to be punished for his welcome home?"

  "No. I can't do anything."

  "That's too bad. It's really a shame you don't have any toys." She set Luke down. "Build your house, Luke. Leave his blocks alone, Gavin. If I have to come in here again, you're not going to like it."

  "I want to go outside!" Gavin mourned at her retreating back.

  "Well, it's raining, so you can't. We're all stuck in here, so behave."

  Flustered, she went back to the cookbook, tried to clear her head. In an irritated move, she snapped on the kitchen TV. God, she missed Kevin. The boys had been cranky all afternoon, and she felt rushed

  and harried and overwhelmed. With Kevin out of town these last four days she'd been scrambling

  around like a maniac. Dealing with the house, the boys, her job, all the errands alone.

  Why was it that the household appliances waited, just waited, to go on strike when Kevin left town? Yesterday the washer had gone buns up, and just that morning the toaster oven had fried itself.

  They had such a nice rhythm when they were together, dividing up the chores, sharing the discipline

  and the pleasure in their sons. If he'd been home, he could have sat down to play with—and referee—

  the boys while she cooked.

  Or better, he'd have cooked and she'd have played with the boys.

  She missed the smell of him when he came up behind her to lean down and rub his cheek over hers.

  She missed curling up to him in bed at night, and the way they'd talk in the dark about their plans, or laugh at something the boys had done that day.

  For God's sake, you'd think the man had been gone four months instead of four days, she told herself.

  She listened with half an ear to Gavin trying to talk Luke into building a skyscraper that they could both wreck as she stirred her cream sauce and watched the wind swirl leaves outside the window.

  He wouldn't be traveling so much after he got his promotion. Soon, she reminded herself. He'd been working so hard, and he was right on the verge of it. The extra money would be handy, too, especially when they had another child—maybe a girl this time.

  With the promotion, and her working full-time again, they could afford to take the kids somewhere next summer. Disney World, maybe. They'd love that. Even if she were pregnant, they could manage it.

  She'd been squirreling away some money in the vacation fund—and the new-car fund.

  Having to buy a new washing machine was going to seriously damage the emergency fund, but they'd

  be all right.

  When she heard the boys laugh, her shoulders relaxed again. Really, life was good. It was perfect, just

  the way she'd always imagined it. She was married to a wonderful man, one she'd fallen for the minute she'd set eyes on him. Kevin Rothchild, with his slow, sweet smile.

  They had two beautiful sons, a pretty house in a good neighborhood, jobs they both loved, and plans for the future they both agreed on. And when they made love, bells still rang.

  Thinking of that, she imagined his reaction when, with the kids tucked in for the night, she slipped into

  the sexy new lingerie she'd splurged on in his absence.

  A little wine, a few candles, and ...

  The next, bigger crash had her eyes rolling toward the ceiling. At least this time there were cheer
s instead of wails.

  "Mom! Mom!" Face alive with glee, Luke rushed in. "We wrecked the whole building. Can we have a cookie?"

  "Not this close to dinner."

  "Please, please, please, pleasel"

  He was pulling on her pants now, doing his best to climb up her leg. Stella set the spoon down, nudged him away from the stove. "No cookies before dinner, Luke."

  "We're starving." Gavin piled in, slamming his cars together. "How come we can't eat something when we're hungry? Why do we have to eat the stupid fredo anyway?"

  "Because." She'd always hated that answer as a child, but it seemed all-purpose to her now.

  "We're all eating together when your father gets home." But she glanced out the window and worried

  that his plane would be delayed. "Here, you can split an apple."

  She took one out of the bowl on the counter and grabbed a knife.

  "I don't like the peel," Gavin complained.

  "I don't have time to peel it." She gave the sauce a couple of quick stirs. "The peel's good for you." Wasn't it?

  "Can I have a drink? Can I have a drink, too?" Luke tugged and tugged. "I'm thirsty."

  "God. Give me five minutes, will you? Five minutes. Go, go build something. Then you can have some apple slices and juice."

  Thunder boomed, and Gavin responded to it by jumping up and down and shouting, "Earthquake!"

  "It's not an earthquake."

  But his face was bright with excitement as he spun in circles, then ran from the room. "Earthquake! Earthquake!"

  Getting into the spirit, Luke ran after him, screaming.

  Stella pressed a hand to her pounding head. The noise was insane, but maybe it would keep them busy until she got the meal under control.

  She turned back to the stove, and heard, without much interest, the announcement for a news bulletin.

  It filtered through the headache, and she turned toward the set like an automaton.

  Commuter plane crash. En route to Detroit Metro from Lansing. Ten passengers on board.

  The spoon dropped out of her hand. The heart dropped out of her body.