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23.12.2018

It didn't take two weeks. After two days, Stella decided Hayley was going to be the answer to her personal prayer. Here was someone with youth, energy, and enthusiasm who understood and appreciated efficiency in the workplace.

She knew how to read and generate spreadsheets, understood instructions after one telling, and respected color codes. If she was half as good relating to customers as she was with filing systems, she would be a jewel.

When it came to plants, she didn't know much more than the basic this is a geranium, and this is a pansy. But she could be taught.

Stella was already prepared to beg Roz to offer Hayley part-time work when May got closer.

"Hayley?" Stella poked her head in the now efficient and tidy office. "Why don't you come out with me? We've got nearly an hour before we open. We'll have a lesson on shade plants iN Greenhouse Number Three."

"Cool. We're input through the H's in perennials. I don't know what half of them are, but I'm doing some reading up at night. I didn't know sunflowers were called Helia … wait. Helianthus."

"It's more that Helianthus are called sunflowers. The perennial ones can be divided in spring, or propagated by seeds – in the spring – or cuttings in late spring. Seeds from annual Helianthus can be harvested – from that big brown eye – in late summer or early fall. Though the cultivars hybridize freely, they may not come true from the seeds collected. And I'm lecturing."

"That's okay. I grew up with a teacher. I like to learn."

As they passed through the counter area, Hayley glanced out the window. "Truck just pulled in over by the … what do y'all call them? Pavers," she said before Stella could answer. "And, mmmm, just look at what's getting out of that truck. Mister tall, dark, and totally built. Who's the hunk?"

Struggling not to frown, Stella lifted a shoulder in a shrug. "That would be Logan Kitridge, Roz's landscape designer. I suppose he does score fairly high on the hunk-o-meter."

"Rings my bell." At Stella's expression, Hayley pressed a hand to her belly and laughed. "I'm pregnant. Still have all working parts, though. And just because I'm not looking for a man doesn't mean I don't want to look at one. Especially when he's yummy. He really is all tough and broody-looking, isn't he? What is it about tough, broody-looking men that gives you that tickle down in the belly?"

"I couldn't say. What's he doing over there?"

"Looks like he's loading pavers. If it wasn't so cool, he'd pull off that jacket. Bet we'd get a real muscle show. God, I do love my eye candy."

"That sort'll give you cavities," Stella mumbled. "He's not scheduled for pavers. He hasn't put in the order for pavers. Damn it!"

Hayley's eyebrows shot up as Stella stomped to the door and slammed out. Then she pressed her nose to the window, prepared to watch the show.

"Excuse me?"

"Uh-huh?" Hayley's answer was absent as she tried to get a better look outside. Then she popped back from the window, remembering spying was one thing, getting caught at it another. She turned, put on an innocent smile. And decided she'd gotten a double serving of eye candy.

This one wasn't big and broody, but sort of lanky and dreamy. And hot damn. It took an extra beat for her brain to engage, but she was quick.

"Hey! You must be Harper. You look just like your mama. I didn't get a chance to meet you yet, 'cause you never seemed to be around wherever I was around. Or whenever. I'm Hayley. Cousin Hayley from Little Rock? Maybe your mama told you I was working here now."

"Yeah. Yeah." He couldn't think of anything else. Could barely think at all. He felt lightning-struck and stupid.

"Do you just love working here? I do already. There's so much of everything, and the customers are so friendly. And Stella, she's just amazing, that's all. Your mama's like, I don't know, a goddess, for giving me a chance this way."

"Yeah." He winced. Could he be any more lame? "They're great. It's great." Apparently he could. And damn it, he was good with women. Usually. But one look at this one had given him some sort of concussion. "You, ah, do you need anything?"

"No." She gave him a puzzled smile. "I thought you did."

"I need something? What?"

"I don't know." She laid a hand on the fascinating mound of her belly and laughed, all throaty and free. "You're the one who came in."

"Right. Right. No, nothing. Now. Later. I've got to get back." Outside, in the air, where he should be able to breathe again.

"It was nice meeting you, Harper."

"You, too." He glanced back as he retreated and saw she was already back at the window.

Outside, Stella sped across the parking area. She called out twice, and the second time got a quick glance and an absent wave. Building up steam as she went, she pumped it out the minute she reached the stacks of pavers.

"What do you think you're doing?"

"Playing tennis. What does it look like I'm doing?"

"It looks like you're taking material you haven't ordered, that you haven't been authorized to take."

"Really?" He hauled up another stack. "No wonder my backhand is rusty." The truck shuddered as he loaded. "Hey."

Much to her amazement, he leaned toward her, sniffed. "Different shampoo. Nice."

"Stop smelling me." She waved him away by flapping a hand at his chin as she stepped back.

"I can't help it. You're standing right there. I have a nose."

"I need the paperwork on this material."

"Yeah, yeah, yeah. Fine, fine, fine. I'll come in and take care of it after I'm loaded."

"You're supposed to take care of it before you load."

He turned, aimed a hot look with those mossy green eyes. "Red, you're a pain in the ass."

"I'm supposed to be. I'm the manager."

He had to smile at that, and he tipped down his sunglasses to look over them at her. "You're real good at it, too. Think of it this way. The pavers are stored on the way to the building. By loading first, then coming in, I'm actually being more efficient."

The smile morphed into a smirk. "That'd be important, I'd think, if we were doing, say, a projection of man-hours."

He took a moment to lean against the truck and study her. Then he loaded another stack of pavers.

"You standing here watching me means you're wasting time, and likely adding to your own man-hours."

"You don't come in to handle the paperwork, Kitridge, I'll hunt you down."

"Don't tempt me."

He took his time, but he came in.

He was calculating how best to annoy Stella again. Her eyes went the color of Texas bluebonnets when she was pissed off. But when he stepped in, he saw Hayley.

"Hey."

"Hey," she said back and smiled. "I'm Hayley Phillips. A family connection to Roz's first husband? I'm working here now."

"Logan. Nice to meet you. Don't let this Yankee scare you." He nodded toward Stella. "Where are the sacred forms, and the ritual knife so I can slice open a vein and sign them in blood?"

"My office."

"Uh-huh." But he lingered rather than following her. "When's the baby due?" he asked Hayley.

"May."

"Feeling okay?"

"Never better."

"Good. This here's a nice outfit, a good place to work most of the time. Welcome aboard." He sauntered into Stella's office, where she was already at her computer, with the form on the screen.

"I'll type this one up to save time. There's a whole stack of them in that folder. Take it. All you have to do is fill them in as needed, date, sign or initial. Drop them off."

"Uh-huh." He looked around the room. The desk was cleared off. There were no cartons, no books sitting on the floor or stacked on chairs.

That was too bad, he thought. He'd liked the workaday chaos of it.

"Where's all the stuff in here?"

"Where it belongs. Those pavers were the eighteen-inch round, number A-23?"

"They were eighteen-inch rounds." He picked up the framed photo on her desk and studied the picture of her boys and their dog. "Cute."

"Yes, they are. Are the pavers for personal use or for a scheduled job?"

"Red, you ever loosen up?"

"No. We Yankees never do."

He ran his tongue over his teeth. "Ura-hmm."

"Do you know how sick I am of being referred to as 'the Yankee,' as though it were a foreign species, or a disease? Half the customers who come in here look me over like I'm from another planet and may not be coming in peace. Then I have to tell them I was born here, answer all sorts of questions about why I left, why I'm back, who my people are, for Christ's sake, before I can get down to any sort of business. I'm from Michigan, not the moon, and the Civil damn War's been over for quite some time."

Yep, just like Texas bluebonnets. "That would be the War Between the damn States this side of the Mason-Dixon, honey. And looks to me like you loosen up just fine when you get riled enough."

"Don't 'honey' me in that southern-fried twang."

"You know, Red, I like you better this way."

"Oh, shut up. Pavers. Personal or professional use?"

"Well, that depends on your point of view." Since there was room now, he edged a hip onto the corner of the desk. "They're for a friend. I'm putting in a walkway for her –  my own time, no labor charge. I told her I'd pick up the materials and give her a bill from the center."

"We'll consider that personal use and apply your employee discount." She began tapping keys.

"How many pavers?"

"Twenty-two."

She tapped again and gave him the price per paver, before discount, after discount.

Impressed despite himself, he tapped the monitor. "You got a math nerd trapped in there?"

"Just the wonders of the twenty-first century. You'd find it quicker than counting on your fingers."

"I don't know. I've got pretty fast fingers." Drumming them on his thigh, he kept his gaze on her face.

"I need three white pine."

"For this same friend?"

"No." His grin flashed, fast and crooked. If she wanted to interpret "friend" as "lover," he couldn't see any point in saying the pavers were for Mrs. Kingsley, his tenth-grade English teacher. "Pine's for a client. Roland Guppy. Yes, like the fish. You've probably got him somewhere in your vast and mysterious files. We did a job for him last fall."

Since there was a coffeemaker on the table against the wall, and the pot was half full, he got up, took a mug, and helped himself.

"Make yourself at home," Stella said dryly.

"Thanks. As it happens, I recommended white pine for a windbreak. He hemmed and hawed. Took him this long to decide to go for it. He called me at home yesterday. I said I'd pick them up and work him in."

"We need a different form."

He sampled the coffee. Not bad. "Somehow I knew that."

"Are the pavers all you're taking for personal use?"

"Probably. For today."

She hit Print, then brought up another form. "That's three white pine. What size?"

"We got some nice eight-foot ones."

"Balled and burlapped?"

"Yeah."

Tap, tap, tap, he thought, with wonder, and there you go. Woman had pretty fingers, he noted. Long and tapered, with that glossy polish on them, the delicate pink of the inside of a rose petal.

She wore no rings.

"Anything else?"

He patted his pockets, eventually came up with a scrap of paper. "That's what I told him I could put them in for."

She added the labor, totaled, then printed out three copies while he drank her coffee. "Sign or initial," she told him. "One copy for my files, one for yours, one for the client."

"Gotcha."

When he picked up the pen, Stella waved a hand. "Oh, wait, let me get that knife. Which vein did you plan to open?"

"Cute." He lifted his chin toward the door. "So's she."

"Hayley? Yeah, she is. And entirely too young for you."

"I wouldn't say entirely. Though I do prefer women with a little more…" He stopped, smiled again.

"We'll just say more, and stay alive."

"Wise."

"Your boys getting a hard time in school?"

"Excuse me?"

"Just considering what you said before. Yankee."

"Oh. A little, maybe, but for the most part the other kids find it interesting that they're from up north, lived near one of the Great Lakes. Both their teachers pulled up a map to show where they came from."

Her face softened as she spoke of it. "Thanks for asking."

"I like your kids."

He signed the forms and found himself amused when she groaned – actually groaned – watching him carelessly fold his and stuff them in his pocket.

"Next time could you wait until you're out of the office to do that? It hurts me."

"No problem." Maybe it was the different tone they were ending on, or maybe it was the way she'd softened up and smiled when she spoke of her children. Later, he might wonder what possessed him, but for now, he went with impulse. "Ever been to Graceland?"

"No. I'm not a big Elvis fan."

"Ssh!" Widening his eyes, he looked toward the door. "Legally, you can't say that around here. You could face fine and imprisonment, or depending on the jury, public flogging."

"I didn't read that in the Memphian handbook."

"Fine print. So, I'll take you. When's your day off?"

"I… It depends. You'll take me to Graceland?"

"You can't settle in down here until you've experienced Graceland. Pick a day, I'll work around it."

"I'm trying to understand here. Are you asking me for a date?"

"I wasn't heading into the date arena. I'm thinking of it more as an outing, between associates." He set the empty mug on her desk. "Think about it, let me know."

She had too much to do to think about it. She couldn't just pop off to Graceland. And if she could, and had some strange desire to do so, she certainly wouldn't pop off to Graceland with Logan.

The fact that she'd admired his work – and all right, bis build – didn't mean she liked him. It didn't mean she wanted to spend her very valuable off-time in his company.

But she couldn't help thinking about it, or more, wondering why he'd asked her. Maybe it was some sort of a trick, a strange initiation for the Yankee. You take her to Graceland, then abandon her in a forest of Elvis paraphernalia and see if she can find her way out.

Or maybe, in his weird Logan way, he'd decided that hitting on her was an easier away around her new system than arguing with her.

Except he hadn't seemed to be hitting on her. Exactly. It had seemed more friendly, off the cuff, or impulsive. And he'd asked about her children. There was no quicker way to cut through her annoyance, any shield, any defense than a sincere interest in her boys.

And if he was just being friendly, it seemed only polite, and sensible, to be friendly back.

What did people wear to Graceland, anyway?

Not that she was going. She probably wasn't. But it was smart to prepare. Just in case.

In Greenhouse Three, supervising while Hayley watered propagated annuals, Stella pondered on the situation.

"Ever been to Graceland?"

"Oh, sure. These are impatiens, right?"

Stella looked down at the flat. "Yeah. Those are Busy Lizzies. They're doing really well."

"And these are impatiens too. The New Guinea ones."

"Right. You do learn fast."

"Well, I recognize these easier because I've planted them before. Anyway, I went to Graceland with some pals when I was in college. It's pretty cool. I bought this Elvis bookmark. Wonder what ever happened to that? Elvis is a form of Elvin. It means 'elf-wise friend.' Isn't that strange?"

"Stranger to me that you'd know that."

"Just one of those things you pick up somewhere."

"Okay. So, what's the dress code?"

"Hmm?" She was trying to identify another flat by the leaves on the seedlings. And struggling not to peek at the name on the spike. "I don't guess there is one. People just wear whatever. Jeans and stuff."

"Casual, then."

"Right. I like the way it smells in here. All earthy and damp."

"Then you made the right career choice."

"It could be a career, couldn't it?" Those clear blue eyes shifted to Stella. "Something I could learn to be good at. I always thought I'd run my own place one day. Always figured on a bookstore, but this is sort of the same."

"How's that?"

"Well, like you've got your new stuff, and your classics. You've got genres, when it comes down to it. Annuals, biennials, perennials, shrubs and trees and grasses. Water plants and shade plants. That sort of thing."

"You know, you're right. I hadn't thought of it that way."

Encouraged, Hayley walked down the rows. "And you're learning and exploring, the way you do with books. And we – you know, the staff – we're trying to help people find what suits them, makes them happy or at least satisfied. Planting a flower's like opening a book, because either way you're starting something. And your garden's your library. I could get good at this."

"I don't doubt it."

She turned to see Stella smiling at her. "When I am good at it, it won't just be a job anymore. A job's okay. It's cool for now, but I want more than a paycheck at the end of the week. I don't just mean money – though, okay, I want the money too."

"No, I know what you mean. You want what Roz has here. A place, and the satisfaction of being part of that place. Roots," Stella said, touching the leaves of a seedling. "And bloom. I know, because I want it too."

"But you have it. You're so totally smart, and you know where you're going. You've got two great kids, and a… a position here. You worked toward this, this place, this position. I feel like I'm just starting."

"And you're impatient to get on with it. So was I at your age."

Hayley's face beamed good humor. "And, yeah, you're so old and creaky now."

Laughing, Stella pushed back her hair. "I've got about ten years on you. A lot can happen, a lot can change –  yourself included – in a decade. In some ways I'm just starting, too – a decade after you. Transplanting myself, and my two precious shoots here."

"Do you get scared?"

"Every day." She laid a hand on Hayley's belly. "It comes with the territory."

"It helps, having you to talk to. I mean, you were married when you went through this, but you – well, both you and Roz had^o deal with being a single parent. It helps that you know stuff. Helps having other women around who know stuff I need to know."

With the job complete, Hayley walked over to turn off the water. "So," she asked, "are you going to Graceland?"

"I don't know. I might."

With his crew split between the white pines and the landscape prep on the Guppy job, Logan set to work on the walkway for his old teacher. It wouldn't take him long, and he could hit both the other work sites that afternoon. He liked juggling jobs. He always had.

Going directly start to finish on one too quickly cut out the room for brainstorms or sudden inspiration. There was little he liked better than that pop, when he just saw something in his head that he knew he could make with his hands.

He could take what was and make it better, maybe blend some of what was with the new and create a different whole.

He'd grown up respecting the land, and the whims of Nature, but more from a farmer's point of view. When you grew up on a small farm, worked it, fought with it, he thought, you understood what the land meant. Or could mean.

His father had loved the land, too, but in a different way, Logan supposed. It had provided for his family, cost them, and in the end had gifted them with a nice bonanza when his father had opted to sell out.

He couldn't say he missed the farm. He'd wanted more than row crops and worries about market prices. But he'd wanted, needed, to work the land.

Maybe he'd lost some of the magic of it when he'd moved north. Too many buildings, too much concrete, too many limitations for him. He hadn't been able to acclimate to the climate or culture any more than Rae had been able to acclimate here.

It hadn't worked. No matter how much both of them had tried to nurture things along, the marriage had just withered on them.

So he'd come home, and ultimately, with Roz's offer, he'd found his place – personally, professionally, creatively. And was content.

He ran his lines, then picked up his shovel.

And jabbed the blade into the earth again.

What had he been thinking? He'd asked the woman out. He could call it whatever he liked, but when a guy asked a woman out, it was a frigging date.

He had no intention of dating toe-the-line Stella Rothchild. She wasn't his type.

Okay, sure she was. He set to work turning the soil between his lines to prep for leveling and laying the black plastic. He'd never met a woman, really, who wasn't his type.

He just liked the breed, that's all. Young ones and old ones, country girls and city-slicked. Whip smart or bulb dim, women just appealed to him on most every level.

He'd ended up married to one, hadn't he? And though that had been a mistake, you had to make them along the way.

Maybe he'd never been particularly drawn to the structured, my-way-or-the-highway type before. But there was always a first time. And he liked first times. It was the second times and the third times that could wear on a man.

But he wasn't attracted to Stella.

Okay, shit. Yes, he was. Mildly. She was a good-looking woman, nicely shaped, too. And there was the hair. He was really gone on the hair. Wouldn't mind getting his hands on that hair, just to see if it felt as sexy as it looked.

But it didn't mean he wanted to date her. It was hard enough to deal with her professionally. The woman had a rule or a form or a damn system for everything.

Probably had them in bed, too. Probably had a typed list of bullet points, dos and don'ts, all with a mission statement overview.

What the woman needed was some spontaneity, a little shake of the order of things. Not that he was interested in being the one to provide it.

It was just that she'd looked so pretty that morning, and her hair had smelled good. Plus she'd had that sexy little smile going for her. Before he knew it, he'd been talking about taking her to Graceland.

Nothing to worry about, he assured himself. She wouldn't go. It wasn't the sort of thing a woman like her did, just for the hell of it. As far as he could tell, she didn't do anything for the hell of it.

They'd both forget he'd even brought it up.

Because she felt it was imperative, at least for the first six months of her management, Stella insisted on a weekly progress meeting with Roz.

She'd have preferred a specific time for these meetings, and a specific location. But Roz was hard to pin down.

She'd already held them in the propagation house and in the field. This time she cornered Roz in her own sitting room, where she'd be unlikely to escape.

"I wanted to give you your weekly update."

"Oh. Well, all right." Roz set aside a book on hybridizing that was thick as a railroad tie, and took off her frameless reading glasses. 'Time's zipping by. Ground's warming up."

"I know. Daffodils are ready to pop. So much earlier than I'm used to. We've been selling a lot of bulbs. Back north, we'd sell most of those late summer or fall."

"Homesick?"

"Now and then, but less and less already. I can't say I'm sorry to be out of Michigan as we slog through February. They got six inches of snow yesterday, and I'm watching daffodils spearing up."

Roz leaned back in the chair, crossed her sock-covered feet at the ankles. "Is there a problem?"

"So much for the illusion that I conceal my emotions under a composed facade. No, no problem. I did the duty call home to my mother a little while ago. I'm still recovering."

"Ah."

It was a noncommittal sound, and Stella decided she could interpret it as complete non-interest or a tacit invitation to unload. Because she was brimming, she chose to unload.

"I spent the almost fifteen minutes she spared me out of her busy schedule listening to her talk about her current boyfriend. She actually calls these men she sees boyfriends. She's fifty-eight years old, and she just had her fourth divorce two months ago. When she wasn't complaining that Rocky – and he's actually named Rocky –  isn't attentive enough and won't take her to the Bahamas for a midwinter getaway, she was talking about her next chemical peel and whining about how her last Botox injection hurt. She never asked about the boys, and the only reference she made to the fact that I was living and working down here was to ask if I was tired of being around the jerk and his bimbo – her usual terms for my father and Jolene."

When she'd run out of steam, Stella rubbed her hands over her face. "Goddamn it."

"That's a lot of bitching, whining, and venom to pack into a quarter of an hour. She sounds like a very talented woman."

It took Stella a minute – a minute where she let her hands slide into her lap so she could stare into Roz's face. Then she let her own head fall back with a peal of laughter.

"Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah, she's loaded with talent. Thanks."

"No problem. My mama spent most of her time – at least the time we were on earth together – sighing wistfully over her health. Not that she meant to complain, so she said. I very nearly put that on her tombstone. 'Not That I Mean to Complain.'"

"I could put 'I Don't Ask for Much' on my mother's."

"There you go. Mine made such an impression on me that I went hell-bent in the opposite direction. I could probably cut off a limb, and you wouldn't hear a whimper out of me."

"God, I guess I've done the same with mine. I'll have to think about that later. Okay, on to business. We're sold out of the mixed-bulb planters we forced. I don't know if you want to do others this late in the season."

"Maybe a few. Some people like to pick them up, already done, for Easter presents and so on."

"All right. How about if I show Hayley how it's done? I know you usually do them yourself, but – "

"No, it's a good job for her. I've been watching her." At Stella's expression, she inclined her head.

"I don't like to look like I'm watching, but generally I am. I know what's going on in my place, Stella, even if I do occasionally miss crossing a T."

"And I'm there to cross them, so that's all right."

"Exactly. Still, I've left her primarily to you. She working out for you?"

"More than. You don't have to tell her something twice, and when she claimed she learned fast she wasn't kidding. She's thirsty."

"We've got plenty to drink around here."

"She's personable with customers – friendly, never rushed. And she's not afraid to say she doesn't know, but she'll find out. She's outside right now, poking around your beds and shrubs. She wants to know what she's selling."

She moved to the window as she spoke, to look out. It was nearly twilight, but there was Hayley walking the dog and studying the perennials. "At her age, I was planning my wedding. It seems like a million years ago."

"At her age, I was raising two toddlers and was pregnant with Mason. Now that was a million years ago. And five minutes ago."

"It's off topic, again, of the update, but I wanted to ask if you'd thought about what you'll do when we get to May."

"That's still high season for us, and people like to freshen up the summer garden. We sell – "

"No, I meant about Hayley. About the baby."

"Oh. Well, she'll have to decide that, but I expect if she decides to stay on at the nursery, we'll find her sit-down work."

"She'll need to find child care, when she's ready to go back to work. And speaking of nurseries …"

"Hmm. That's thinking ahead."

"Time zips by," Stella repeated.

"We'll figure it out."

Because she was curious, Roz rose to go to the window herself. Standing beside Stella she looked out.

It was a lovely thing, she decided, watching a young woman, blooming with child, wandering a winter garden.

She'd once been that young woman, dreaming in the twilight and waiting for spring to bring life.

Time didn't just zip by, she thought. It damn near evaporated on you.

"She seems happy now, and sure of what she's going to do. But could be after she has the baby, she'll change her mind about having the father involved." Roz watched Hayley lay a hand on her belly and look west, to where the sun was sinking behind the trees and into the river beyond them. "Having a live baby in your arms and the prospect of caring for it single-handed's one hell of a reality check. We'll see when the time comes."

"You're right. And I don't suppose either of us knows her well enough to know what's best. Speaking of babies, it's nearly time to get mine in the tub. I'm going to leave the weekly report with you."

"All right. I'll get to it. I should tell you, Stella, I like what you've done. What shows, like in the customer areas, and what doesn't, in the office management. I see spring coming, and for the first time in years, I'm not frazzled and overworked. I can't say I minded being overworked, but I can't say I mind not being, either."

"Even when I bug you with details?"

"Even when. I haven't heard any complaints about Logan in the past few days. Or from him. Am I living in a fool's paradise, or have you two found your rhythm?"

"There are still a few hitches in it, and I suspect there'll be others, but nothing for you to worry about. In fact, he made a very friendly gesture and offered to take me to Graceland."

"He did?" Roz's eyebrows drew together. "Logan?"

"Would that be out of the ordinary for him?"

"I couldn't say, except I don't know that he's dated anyone from work before."

"It's not a date, it's an outing."

Intrigued, Roz sat again. You never knew what you'd learn from a younger woman, she decided.

"What's the difference?"

"Well, a date's dinner and a movie with potential, even probable, romantic overtones. Taking your kids to the zoo is an outing."

Roz leaned back, stretched out her legs. "Things do change, don't they? Still, in my book, when a man and a woman go on an outing, it's a date."

"See, that's my quandary." Since conversation seemed welcomed, Stella walked over again, sat on the arm of the chair facing Roz. "Because that's my first thought. But it seemed like just a friendly gesture, and the 'outing' term was his. Like a kind of olive branch. And if I take it, maybe we'd find that common ground, or that rhythm, whatever it is we need to smooth out the rough spots in our working relationship."

"So, if I'm following this, you'd go to Graceland with Logan for the good of In the Garden."

"Sort of."

"And not because he's a very attractive, dynamic, and downright sexy single man."

"No, those would be bonus points." She waited until Roz stopped laughing. "And I'm not thinking of wading in that pool. Dating's a minefield."

"Tell me about it. I've got more years in that war zone than you."

"I like men." She reached back to tug the band ponytail-ing her hair a little higher. "I like the company of men. But dating's so complicated and stressful."

"Better complicated and stressful than downright boring, which too many of my experiences in the field have been."

"Complicated, stressful, or downright boring, I like the sound of 'outing' much better. Listen, I know Logan's a friend of yours. But I'd just like to ask if you think, if I went with him, I'd be making a mistake, or giving the wrong impression. The wrong signal. Or maybe crossing that line between coworkers. Or – "

"That's an awful lot of complication and stress you're working up over an outing."

"It is. I irritate myself." Shaking her head, she pushed off the chair. "I'd better get bath time started. Oh, and I'll get Hayley going on those bulbs tomorrow."

"That's fine. Stella – are you going on this outing?"

She paused at the doorway. "Maybe. I'll sleep on it."