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The Azalea Assault

Alyse Carlson - Author

Paperback: Mass Market | $7.99 | add to cart | view cart
ISBN 9780425251300 | 304 pages | 05 Jun 2012 | Berkley | 6.49 x 4.29in | 18 - AND UP
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 Roanoke, Virginia, is home to some of the country’s most exquisite gardens, and it’s Camellia Harris’ job to promote them. But when an out of towner turns up dead, she discovers there’s no good way to spin murder…

Camellia Harris has achieved a coup in the PR world. The premier national magazine for garden lovers has agreed to feature one of Roanoke’s most spectacular gardens in its pages—and world-famous photographer Jean-Jacques Georges is going to shoot the spread. But at the welcoming party, Jean-Jacques insults several guests, complains that flowers are boring, and gooses almost every woman in the room. When a body is found the next morning, sprawled across the azaleas, it’s almost no surprise that the victim is Jean-Jacques.

With Cam’s brother-in-law blamed for the crime—and her reporter boyfriend, Rob, wanting the scoop—Cam decides to use her skills to solve the murder. Luckily a PR pro like Cam knows how to be nosy…



Chapter 1

"Incoming!”

Cam Harris pushed off her kitchen floor, propelling the wheeled kitchen chair she was sitting in to the sliding panel that hid the dumbwaiter. She opened it a hair and yelled to the kitchen upstairs, “Ready!” and shut it again, knocking off the “Over the hill” magnet her sister had recently given her. She heard her neighbor and best friend, Annie Schulz, lowering her treasure, which was how Annie referred to anything she lowered via dumbwaiter, then tramping down the back stairs to Cam’s apartment.

The turn-of-the-century house, gifted to Annie when her grandmother had moved to a retirement home, was split into two apartments, upper and lower. The living arrangement was a perfect compromise for the yin-yang best friends. The two had tried to live together before, but Annie’s free-form approach to order drove Cam crazy; she’d grown tired of photos drying over the bathtub and finding every bowl in the house dirty because Annie had a wild hair and tried out four new cupcake recipes at once. In the current living situation, they got all the bonding time they wanted, but with absolute boundaries about whose space was whose.

Annie let herself in, as was her habit, and plopped into a chair opposite Cam.

“Caffeine?” she asked, blowing a stray curl out of her face.

Cam rolled her eyes, stood, and poured coffee into a travel cup for Annie, then walked over and opened the dumbwaiter to inspect the goods. “Frazzled morning?”

“Just a little wrestling with the juicer Petunia left. First batch was too pulpy, and I had to take apart the stupid thing to clean it.”

“I thought all you had to do was bake and deliver,” Cam said.

“Yes, but juice squeezed yesterday would not be fresh- squeezed, would it? No cream?”

“Do I ever have cream? I’ve got that nonfat hazelnut stuff.”

Annie made a face. “You, my friend, are missing the point of cream. It’s about texture.” They had an ongoing disagreement about coffee supplements. “Are you ready?”

“I am. Just one more load?”

Annie nodded and stood. “But let’s get this to the car first.” She went to the dumbwaiter and grabbed the first of the food.

Annie was helping Cam, albeit indirectly. Cam’s sister, Petunia, was catering a several-day event Cam was coordinating for her employer, the Roanoke Garden Society. Petunia’s restaurant, Spoons, bought sweets from Annie’s cupcake store, Sweet Surprise, and Petunia had convinced Annie to trade delivery assignments. Petunia would trans- port the desserts that went with lunches and suppers if Annie would deliver breakfast, since a baker needed to begin work early anyway.

Cam would have done it, but she needed delivering herself. She was saving for a new Mustang, but purchase was at least six months away. Normally she rode her bicycle, except when she needed to look professional, which was the case with this painstakingly orchestrated feature for Garden Delights magazine. For the next several days, she’d be begging rides from Annie, Petunia, and her boyfriend, Rob.

Cam helped Annie load the breakfast goods into Annie’s Volkswagen. The car was not really suited to catering, since all Annie normally delivered were cupcakes, cookies, and special fancy desserts. After Annie’s return upstairs for the rest of the food, they finally accommodated the juice, coffee, fruit, and bagels, but the only spot for the tray of spreads was Cam’s lap. She wasn’t sure if she was more concerned about the garlic and green onion or the salmon, but she was fairly sure she’d be wearing one of them, given Annie’s driving.

As Annie pulled out of their neighborhood, Cam spotted the giant neon star atop Mill Mountain, just visible through a sea of blooming dogwoods. She breathed in the scent of honeysuckle, laid her head against the headrest, and smiled. The dogwoods always made her happy. There was nothing better than pink trees.

She had never been sorry to return to Roanoke, “America’s Most Livable City,” according to her PR peers at the chamber of commerce. Cam couldn’t have agreed more. She’d lived here twenty-seven of her thirty-two years, leaving only to attend graduate school at Northwestern and then work at a public relations firm in Chicago for a couple of years. When her mother died, Cam returned because she worried about her father. She was glad she had.

Cam had to use a towelette to dab a spot of cream cheese from her gray linen slacks when they arrived. The Ann Taylor silk blouse, though, would have been far less salvageable, and it had survived unscathed. Cam felt it was a victory.

“Cammi! There you are! You look lovely!” Neil Patrick stepped onto the porch to greet her. He was host of this event, founding member of the Roanoke Garden Society, and a perfect blue-blooded Southern gentleman. Cam adored him in all ways but one: he insisted on calling her Cammi.

She would have thought, given his love for flowers, he would prefer Camellia, her full name. She preferred that to Cammi herself, though she liked Cam best. She chastised herself. Most men her father’s age got a free pass, but Neil’s young wife, Evangeline, had changed her charitable attitude. A man married to someone born in the same decade as Cam should be more attentive to her preferences, but, as usual, she bit her tongue. “Mr. Patrick, it’s wonderful to see you. Have you met my friend Annie? She’s helping Petunia with some of the catering.”

“Oho!”

Mr. Patrick looked as if he’d never seen anything quite as outrageous as Annie. Cam felt a little defensive, though Annie probably should have known the nose ring wouldn’t fly with this crowd. Her clothes were actually rather conservative, so far as Annie went—a gypsy skirt, Birkenstocks, and a peasant blouse.

Fortunately, Annie was unfazed by anyone else’s judgment. She’d decided as a teen she didn’t care for anyone’s approval who judged on first impressions. “Where would you like me to set up breakfast, Mr. Patrick?” Her smile was straight and sincere, and it had the effect it always did. Mr. Patrick’s short white mustache twitched in a smile.

“There’s a tent off the patio, just through there.” He gestured and Annie began to carry the various trays through the house, leaving Cam to Mr. Patrick.

“You have a lovely home, Mr. Patrick.” It was true— classic Georgian architecture, perfectly decorated. “The magazine crew should be here in an hour. I hoped we could make a list of ‘can’t miss’ features before they get here. Does that sound good?”

He nodded, smiling, less shy than usual, probably because there was no media spy pestering him about his marriage to the youthful former Miss Virginia. “Let me show you something.”

He looked like a boy with his hand in the cookie jar. His blue eyes twinkled as he held out his elbow for Cam. She allowed him to guide her up the stairs, realizing halfway up how it might be misinterpreted if a photo were snapped. When she reached the top of the stairs and saw all the natural lighting through the French doors, though, she pushed ahead of her host into a room with a full wall of windows. It was a drawing room of sorts, but the focus was obviously the natural beauty behind the glass; the garden below spanned an acre, at least. When Cam threw open the other set of French doors and gasped, Mr. Patrick chuckled.

She looked down on his property and the majestic background.

“I’ve never seen such a thing. It’s amazing!” Mr. Patrick led Cam onto the balcony.

At the center of his garden was a fountain with streams of water shooting up like stamen; the yellow water lilies floating in the fountain’s pool looked, from a distance, like the pollen at the center of a flower. The arrangement radiated outward, a pattern of flowers that, from this height, created a perfect mural of a stargazer lily. Whites, reds, and pinks were perfectly distributed, allowing the bushes and smaller plants to create a breathtaking illusion.

Cam was surprised, then, when Mr. Patrick leaned forward over the rail, pointing to a near corner, not part of the magnificence at all. “That trellis over the sundeck was built by none other than your daddy.”

“Really? I didn’t know you knew my father.” Now that she’d noticed the trellis through the lush wisteria, she could see the beautiful craftsmanship; it had just been humbled by the extravagant floral display.

“I don’t, really, not well. He built it when my father lived here.”

Cam admired it a moment and then focused on the main garden again.

“We’re lucky it’s been an early spring. This is a lot more advanced than normal for April, isn’t it?”

“It is.”

“We’ll definitely need shots from here, probably at several times of day, as I’m sure that view changes with the sun.”

“Oh, that’s true. It’s spectacular at sunrise. You don’t suppose that fancy photographer would come for sunrise, do you?”

He looked so hopeful that Cam couldn’t bring herself to answer honestly. “I’m sure he’d be delighted.”

The truth was, it was a huge coup for the Roanoke Garden Society to have lured Jean-Jacques Georges to do the photography shoot. It was an effort somehow managed by Samantha Hollister, the current RGS president, but Cam had heard he could be a bit difficult.

Garden Delights was the premiere national magazine for garden lovers, and Cam had been courting them for seven months. Jean-Jacques was exactly the enticement they had needed to believe RGS had a package worth presenting. A famous photographer would do nothing to hurt their circulation, so they agreed to come to Roanoke for the feature. Cam was sure it would be worth it.

“Show me ‘Summer.’” She smiled at Mr. Patrick. One of the reasons the Patrick estate, La Fontaine, had been chosen for the shoot was a row of three greenhouses kept in specific conditions to display the region’s finest foliage of all four seasons, with the fourth displayed outside—a full year of Virginia’s glory on any given day.

He led her down the stairway at the side of the balcony that allowed access to the gardens directly from the upper level. The house had definitely been adorned with all the details to allow maximum garden enjoyment.

As they approached, Cam could see none of the greenhouses had a spot of discoloration, though the “Summer” house did have the telling haze of humidity gathered on the roof. The greenhouses always held samples of in-bloom flowers for each season. It was labor-intensive, but Neil Patrick had a fabulous gardener. Mr. Patrick also helped maintain the grounds. He loved gardening, and he spent time pruning and preening almost every day. Cam doubted he spent much time weeding, though. His nails looked too well manicured for that.

After the greenhouse tour, a woman approached them. “Monsieur, the magazine staff have arrived.”

“Thank you, Giselle.”

Cam frowned as Giselle walked away. The woman’s Southern drawl was not French, whatever pretending she tried. “She’s not really a Giselle, is she?”

“No. Sally, I think. I find the staff is more content if they feel they’re playing a role.” He smiled indulgently. “It was Evangeline who taught me that,” he said as he led her in. Cam smirked at how adoring Mr. Patrick was of his young wife. She supposed she was happy for them, no matter how odd the age difference seemed to her.

“You’re here! Wonderful!” Mr. Patrick bellowed a few moments later as he met the new arrivals in the foyer. “I’ve got you in the servant’s house!”

The servant’s house was opposite the greenhouses, and quite nice, but Cam could see the magazine staff was a little put out, so she added, “It’s beautiful, and closest to every- thing you’ll be shooting. You’ll love it.” She hoped they would believe her, then realized she needed to introduce herself. “I’m Cam Harris, the RGS public relations representative.”

The taller man wore his hair in spikes that were bleached at the ends. He held out his hand but didn’t smile. “Ian Ellsworth, photo editor.” He then introduced his lighting man and his assistant. Cam wished he at least had the courtesy to make eye contact with Mr. Patrick.

“Mr. Patrick, would you like me to do the tour?” Cam asked, feeling it unwise to pit artistic arrogance against privilege.

“Do! Do!” He shooed them away. “I’ve got three board members arriving soon, so you kids go ahead and get to work.”

Cam gave a reverse-order tour, thinking the mosaic of flowers from the balcony was a wonderful finale. She explained the seasonal greenhouses as she led them on a sweep through, pointing out the highlights. “Winter” included several varieties of berries on decorative bushes and evergreen shrubbery; “Autumn” held caryopteris, scotch heather, and witch hazel; and “Summer” had such variety that Cam felt lightheaded from the brightness and aroma just entering.

She addressed the highlights she and Mr. Patrick had discussed. Ian largely ignored her, never acknowledging her suggestions. He pointed out other items of interest, though “interest” seemed the wrong word, based on his bored expression. The assistant, Hannah, made copious notes while Tom, the lighting man, just squinted and alternately nodded or frowned, mumbling about the amount of work needed to put various selections in optimum lighting.

They exited the last greenhouse and began walking the “lily leaves” of the garden, Cam stopping at the collection of rhododendrons and azaleas. The areas of brightest coloring had rhododendrons at the center, surrounded by the azaleas, which then tapered toward the white of tulips, hyacinth, and assorted flowering ground cover.

Hannah, the assistant, was drawn farther up a tributary, so the rest followed her. “It’s too bad we can’t do scratch-and-sniff photos. This is heavenly!” she said.

Cam agreed, explaining that the most fragrant flowers had been segregated. She and the magazine crew now stood among the sweet olive, a deep green bush with small, wonderfully scented white flowers.

“It’s so visitors can enjoy each, rather than having their senses saturated to the point where they don’t notice the fragrances anymore.”

As she shared the information, she guiltily thought thishad only been a rumor. She would double-check with Mr. Patrick later. Unfortunately, the photo editor and lighting man didn’t seem to share their girl Friday’s fascination with aroma.

As noon approached, Cam decided it was time for the finale, so she led them up the outside stairway to the balcony. They followed diligently, though the lighting man now looked as bored as his boss. As they reached the top of the stairs, though, Ian threw his arm out, stopping the rest, and went to the balcony rail alone. Finally, after what seemed a long time, he looked back at Cam.

“That’s spectacular.”

“Isn’t it? Mr. Patrick said it’s best at sunrise, but I think it’s always spectacular.”

“I’d have to agree. It’s high noon, and though the white reflects too much to photograph right now, it’s still phenomenal.”

Cam asked about getting a sunrise shot, and Ian, without refusing, confirmed her fears about Jean-Jacques Georges and how prickly he could be. Tom, though, pointed out a true artist knew the magic of timing and would surely cooperate. It was the most she’d heard him say—out loud, at least.

Hannah looked vaguely adoring, and Cam wondered if the mousy girl had a crush on this odd, quiet man. Ian spoke hesitantly, breaking the moment. “I don’t know . . . Jean-Jacques is used to fashion models and artificial settings.” It was the first break in Ian’s confidence she’d seen.

Cam bit her lip. “Can’t hurt to ask?”

Tom nodded and Ian shrugged. Cam could tell the request fell to her. She had been hoping for an ally, but Ian looked afraid.

When they went downstairs, her sister, Petunia, was bringing in lunch. Petunia seemed all elbows as she maneuvered trays. Cam was thin, but Petunia was positively skinny.

Fortunately, she was stronger than she looked.

Several tables had been set up on the back patio under the shade of the balcony, and to the side was the tent with fans to keep the area cool. It was furnished with a buffet table. A handful of Garden Society members milled about, filling plates or holding drinks. After curious glances at Cam and her guests, they went back to their conversations.

As they reached the back patio, Hannah sniffed deeply again, returning to her scent heaven. “Another fragrance!” Neil Patrick walked out just then and smiled. “Just so! Don’t get too close. The bees love the wisteria, but did you know it was Cammi’s father who built that trellis so that seventy-year-old tree could continue to thrive?”

Joseph Sadler-Neff, the RGS historian, who’d been sipping sweet tea and watching from the edge of the patio, launched into a long lecture on the year, the building materials, the time it had taken to construct, and the history of the tree. This was common for Joseph. Most people who knew him only half listened, though they were polite colleagues, so at least they faced him and pretended. Cam quickly explained to the magazine crew who he was and why he knew so much.

Ian, listening to neither Joseph nor Cam, gave the trellis and wisteria his full attention.

He circled the structure with an artist’s eye. “It would be great to get a shot of the builder next to the trellis. Most well-meaning builders do some damage to the tree, but this looks perfectly executed. Is he still alive?”

“Yes, but he has a busy social life,” Cam answered uncomfortably. Cam’s father seemed to unintentionally become the center of any gathering he attended, and she wanted this to be a Garden Society event. She was vetoed, though, when Neil Patrick spoke.

“Oh, Cammi! You’ve got to invite him to the party tomorrow night. We’ll convince him to do the photo shoot! It’s a wonderful angle.”

“Um . . . I’ll see if he’s free.”

Petunia, who’d just deposited a dessert tray that appeared to be her last, met Cam’s gaze, an eyebrow raised under her blonde bangs. Cam knew her sister read her thoughts, but there was no helping it. She would have to invite her father to the festivities and hope he was busy. Cam mouthed “thank you” as Petunia turned to leave. When Petunia reached the door, Evangeline Patrick emerged, making a beeline for Joseph. Petunia scowled, or maybe it was only a face caused by the difficulty she was having balancing, since she was removing the breakfast remains as she left.

Evangeline and Joseph began bickering, but in a moment their tone was cordial again.

“Don’t mind them, hon.” Samantha Hollister put a hand on Cam’s, mistaking her frown for a response to the bickering. “Evangeline wants progress, and Joseph feels called to preserve history. They’re both right in small doses, but they sure have trouble finding balance. They get into it all the time.”

That would have made sense, had Petunia’s scowl not left Cam with the distinct feeling she was missing something.



That afternoon the magazine crew began testing the lighting in the various locations they had discussed, a task that would take the next day and a half. Cam made notes. When the photographs were complete, she wanted to be able to hand off a press packet with the information about the plant types and their origins, including the history of the particular plants in Mr. Patrick’s collection, to the reporter. Jane Duffy was rather prestigious in gardening circles and would interview the Roanoke Garden Society members. It was Cam’s job to make sure the background details were easily accessible so Ms. Duffy could concentrate on the story.

When Petunia brought in supper for the house guests at six, she gave Cam a ride home, and Cam got to work at her computer, composing the various press packet pieces. Cam had extensive files on area plants, some from her own education and interest, but more of them from the historic files she’d gotten from Joseph Sadler-Neff. It was more an organization project than writing from scratch, so she cut, pasted, and proofed until she heard the rattling of the dumbwaiter. Some “treasure” was being lowered.

Two minutes later Annie came from Cam’s kitchen with a tray that held a bottle of wine and two tiki cups shaped like shrunken heads. Cam glanced at her computer screen clock and saw it was a little after nine. She’d not gotten to her own garden all day, but it was too late now.

“All work and no play makes Cam a dull girl.”

“Pooh! I’m a baseball widow, remember?” It was true. Her boyfriend, Rob, played baseball for a city league, which had recently begun practicing for the season. It meant he was busy at least three nights a week, and Cam used that as an excuse to work too much.

“I remember when you could out-party Theta Chi.”

Cam laughed. That had been many years ago. “You know I cheated, only pretending to drink half the time.”

“You hush. You’ll lose me my reputation as the evil twin.” It was an old joke. They’d been best friends since seventh- grade science, when the study of genetics identified them as the only two girls in the class with indefinable hair color.

“It’s not red enough to call red, not blonde enough to call blonde, but it certainly isn’t brown.” Annie had been the one to declare it the “uncolor,” and Cam had laughed and given her a thumbs-up. They had moved their desks together and become science partners and, within weeks, best friends. Of course, twin jokes aside, hair color was where similarities in appearance ended. Cam was tallish and slim, with straight, stylishly cut, shoulder-length hair. Annie was shorter and curvier, with a broad friendly face, unruly curls, and an instant huggability Cam sometimes envied.

“You know people have been permanently silenced for revealing smaller secrets,” Cam said, getting back to her cheating at the Theta Chi drinking games.

“You’re threatening murder? I’m stung!”

Cam eyed the cups. “Not murder, head shrinking. Unless . . . will you go to the RGS welcoming party tomorrow night?”

“You honestly think I’d fit in at that high-society thing?”

“Okay, don’t take this wrong, but I need some middlers. We’ve got the blue-blooded Garden Society, and then we have the helper types—the gardener and his son . . . Petunia . . .”

“You better not be saying I’m classier than Petunia, because that’s blasphemy! I got no class, Cam Harris, and if you say I do, I’ll come in here when you’re sleeping and shave your eyebrows!”

Cam broke into giggles; a single glass of wine was enough for her to fall under her best friend’s silliness spell. Annie was the daughter of a former senator, though he held title under a political party Annie swore she would never vote for. Annie had been fighting the “stigma” thrust upon her since middle school.

“I swear I’m not saying you’re classy. I honestly just need some help. They’re making me invite my dad.”

Annie nodded, finally getting the picture. Annie and Mr. Harris had a longtime understanding that was far more honest than what went on between father and daughter. Cam didn’t mind. She didn’t want to know. But she was glad someone she could count on was in the loop to help prevent anything unexpected.

“I suppose your eyebrows are safe for now.”




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