Holding my dress up so I wouldn’t trip, I dashed toward the door. I could already hear the bridal anthem. Of course, Samara Spade would be late for her own wedding. But the church kept slipping farther and farther away.
I woke up and groaned. Drool covered the ink blotter on the desk. Half of my mountain of bills was now in a pile on the floor.
One date. That’s all I’d had so far with the delicious Aba Menatari. One mediocre movie, and my nightmares were already marrying me off. The craziest thing was that every time I fell asleep, I was running toward a thousand different churches.
I bent over to pick up the papers as the door swung open. Aba. Along with the beautiful dark-haired girl he had his arm around. She was nearly as tall as he—willowy in a way I could never aspire to—with flawless golden skin.
I wanted to kill her.
“Sam!” Aba cried as he walked in. “We need your help!”
Of course, they did. My imaginary wedding dress burst into flames. “As a detective?”
“Why else we come here?” He urged the girl into our guest chair. “Anurtari will explain.”
He said her name like on-ur-tar-eye. Exotic, like her. Words jammed in the back of my throat, so I just nodded.
“I am horticulturist. You hear of that?”
I did. I wasn’t that uncultured. “Specialist in beautiful growing things?”
She dipped her regal nose in assent. “I don’t space in city to groom my blooms. But I work hard. This weekend, there will be yard competition. Of the participants, one walks away with trophy and contract to improve the city’s parks.” She folded her hands so tightly they whitened. “It will be making my career.”
I don’t know what it was about my job that made people think that I read minds. It was hard enough when I felt on top of life. And since Aba was with her, not me, I didn’t have two words to ignite my brain. “And?”
“Someone has been burning my lawn!”
Ah. “You want me to find out who?”
She lunged out of the chair towards my desk. “I want you to rip off their fingers and throw them in a dungeon.” Her pupils burned with an intensity that could start a fire on their own.
“They don’t do that anymore.”
“Well, whatever is the worst. I want that.”
On the heels of her demand and after securing my retainer, I agreed to follow them to the crime scene.
“I thought you ride with us,” Aba protested.
Not in a million years. It was bad enough to see him touching her. But sharing a close space? “I feel like driving.”
Thankfully, he didn’t argue. But the puppy eyes he shot my way made me wish I didn’t have a job to do.
But I did. Making sure I had film in my instamatic, I grabbed my keys and followed them out.
The garden was about a mile, as the crow flew. But since this was the city, one-way streets made it a fifteen-minute drive.
The yard was immaculate. Trellised flowers made a romantic archway. Colorful hedges framed the space… Sure enough, scorched into the five by five lawn was B-E-A-U.
“Do you know someone named Beau?”
She raised her elegant nose. “As if.”
What was sweet Aba doing with this viper? “You said this wasn’t the first?”
She lifted a corner of a sod square. “Already, I have replaced twice. The first said N-U-R-I, the second said L-U-V-U. Total gibberish.”
I wasn’t so sure. “Do you have any paper?” It had to be some sort of message.
I wrote it out, in order, but I couldn’t make roses versus rhododendrons of it. I stuffed the paper in my pocket and pulled out the instamatic. After snapping a few pictures, I knelt to inspect the burnt lawn. Rather than broad swatches of burnt grass, it was a series of nearly heart-shaped marks. It reminded me of a branding iron, only smaller. I crawled over the teeny city plot. Every bit of burn used the same shape.
Whoever did this took their time. It was almost a work of art.
“Ani!” Someone on the sidewalk called.
Aba grimaced. Jealousy maybe?
“Hello, Giovanni.” The greeting dripped from Anurtari’s lips like ice.
His gaze dropped to his leather boots. “Have you thought any more about my offer?”
She scowled. “Why go to school if just to work with you?”
He raced to her side and grabbed her hand. “I thought that’s why you went to school. We are a team, Ani. I do the woodwork; you do the plants. Between us gardens are born.” The heat radiated from his eyes when he looked at her. “I need you.”
Aba jumped between them. “Keep away from my sister.”
Wait. Sister? Aba was just being the defensive big brother. I’d read it all wrong. Some detective I was…, but maybe Gio had read Anurtari wrong, too.
Gio… woodwork? The clues clicked in place.
I sidled over to Aba, gazing into his warm eyes. Putting my arm through his, I pulled him away. “Let them work it out.”
“It wasn’t damage. Not like we thought, anyway. It was a love message. A proposal, if you will.” The emptiness faded with my jealousy.
I nodded, leading him to my car. “She’ll be fine. He seems like a good guy.”
He looked back, and I tugged on his arm. “I’ll drive us to my office, and we can walk back.” I was looking forward to the time alone with him.
He nodded. “But you explain?”
I poured my heart into a smile. “The yard is small. He couldn’t get it all into the space, so he shortened his message. It would have been, ‘Anurtari, I love you, beautiful.’”
I’d seen it in Gio’s eyes.