Forty-two-year-old Mia Thorne is settling into her new life in the small riverside town of Newberry, Pennsylvania. Part of her misses the bright lights of the big city, but Mia is determined to make the best of the cottage she inherited and its surrounding gardens, as well as her blossoming love life. Residents like Scarlet and Patrick have welcomed her with open arms and encourage Mia to embrace her special abilities with the same enthusiasm. Even Ophelia seems to have accepted her presence, although Mia's convinced the ornery cat would be perfectly content to suck out her soul if she dared to leave the bedroom door unlocked at night.
When a body is discovered in the canal outside Scarlet's house and the police suspect foul play, Mia rushes to her friend's aid. Between a creepy birdwatching group and an unfriendly neighbor, Mia ends up with a list of suspects as long as Rapunzel's hair. Unfortunately, Detective Derek Fairfax and Chief Tuck are determined to keep Mia away from the investigation under the guise of being, you know, the actual members of law enforcement--but Mia's specialty is denial, and she's more than happy to ignore their orders.
Can Mia identify the killer before it's too late or will Scarlet find herself up a canal without a paddle?
Life's A Birch is the second book in The Bloomin' Psychic series. If you missed it, be sure to check out Petal to the Metal, the first book in the series.
Release date: May 4, 2021
Publisher: Red Palm Press LLC
Print pages: 216
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Life's A Birch
Standing at the river’s edge, I stared across the water to New Jersey on the other side and inhaled deeply. “There must be a westerly wind today. I can smell the Axe body spray from here.”
Behind me, Scarlet snorted. “I don’t know how you can smell anything other than soil. I must’ve brought you enough to fill the Grand Canyon.”
I pivoted to face her. “And I appreciate your charity.”
Scarlet York was the proud owner of York Gardens, which was the reason she currently stood in the middle of mine. She was the expert and I was in desperate need of assistance. At five-foot-three with dark hair cut chin-length and dyed blue at the tips, Scarlet was petite in stature only. I had no doubt those stubborn weeds would eventually bend to her will and, even more impressively, she wouldn’t spray them with chemicals to do it. Scarlet relied on organic means to help a garden thrive, which apparently meant turning the yard into a trash heap. I agreed to her plan with the caveat that if woodland creatures started showing up for a midnight feast, we would scale back the amount of compost. This was Ophelia’s turf and there was no way the cat would tolerate sharing her space with raccoons and other furry creatures. The only splotches of red I wanted to see out here were on rose petals.
“It isn’t charity,” she objected. “You know I’d love to do more.”
Despite the delivery of spring supplies, Scarlet was acting in an advisor capacity only—except for demonstrating how to do the grunt work. Aunt Hazel hadn’t allowed anyone else to tend to the gardens of Red Clover and it seemed respectful to restrict their loving care to Thorne hands. Never mind that my hands had killed more plants than they’d saved.
“Believe me. I’d be more than happy to turn the entire project over to you if I weren’t afraid of being haunted,” I said.
Scarlet shaded her eyes from the morning sun. “You haven’t actually seen any sign of Hazel’s ghost, have you?”
“No. I was kidding.” Sort of.
I’d inherited Red Clover and its extensive gardens from a recently deceased relative, Hazel Thorne. I felt guilty that I never knew my father’s aunt. My father died when I was twelve and his eccentric aunt was on my mother’s Do Not Disturb list of relations. That basically ruled out everyone who wasn’t my mother or whatever eligible bachelor she was intent on dating at the time. Madeline was on her third husband now. Jurgen Albrecht seemed like a perfectly decent human being, but there was no point in getting to know him. The odds were good that he wouldn’t be my mother’s last consort.
Scarlet’s almond-shaped eyes focused on the swath of overgrown garden adjacent to her. “Not to sound like a task master, but have you managed to do anything since you’ve been here?”
I folded my arms and gave her a smug look. “I’ve figured out all the TV channels and how to work the coffee pot.”
She opened her arms wide. “I’m talking about the outside of the house.”
While I agreed that the gardens were in an unseemly state, I could hardly accept the blame. I’d only lived in the house for about a month and the gardens had started to deteriorate before I got here.
“I’ve been distracted,” I said.
Scarlet’s critical eyes softened. “It’s because Gladys was found in the garden, isn’t it? You’ve been avoiding coming out here.”
I was going to say I’d been distracted by a Bravo marathon that included every Real Housewives franchise, but Scarlet’s reason sounded much better.
“Yes,” I said, nodding. “Plus the garden is so overgrown at this point, it feels overwhelming. I don’t even know where to start.” There was a certain point each day where I felt the urge to cut bait and run. The only thing that stopped me was the provision that mandated I live in the house for twelve months or else the will would be deemed null and void. Red Clover was all I had right now and I was determined to make the best of it.
Scarlet bent over a flower bed. “Dirty ho.”
She craned her neck to look at me. “This hoe is dirty.” She nudged the gardening tool with her foot.
“Oh. I thought we were inventing cute nicknames for each other.”
She slipped on a pair of gardening gloves covered in a sugar skull design and picked up the hoe. They were much cooler than Aunt Hazel’s plain green ones.
“Where did you find this?” Scarlet asked. “It’s sticky and looks like it got dragged through a vat of bubblegum.”
“In the small barn. It may have been covered in spider webs.” I’d worn gardening gloves to remove it from the cluttered barn. “I can hose it down.” I stepped forward to grab the hoe and felt a pang in my knee. No good deed went unpunished.
Scarlet gave me a sympathetic look. “No, it’s fine. How bad is it?”
I shook my leg to alleviate the twinge of pain. “I’d say one painkiller and a heating pad.” Or maybe an ice pack. I was never sure when to use heat versus ice. It was on my never-ending To Google list.
“Have you decided what you’d like to do for work?” Scarlet asked.
I watched as she dragged the hoe across the soil, trying to memorize her technique. “Not yet. No matter what’s out there, I’m not going to be the ideal candidate.”
As a middle-aged woman with a background in ad sales for entertainment-related publications, I was hardly in the right place in the sleepy riverside town of Newberry, Pennsylvania. My last job had been a few blocks from Times Square. Newberry was like a Rockwell painting with an edge. Historic buildings and old-fashioned lampposts lined the riverfront. Buildings that housed a wealthy Newberry family in the 1800s now housed a lawyer’s office or an upscale restaurant. One of the old mills was now a playhouse. There were the usual trendy shops and restaurants alongside psychics, tattoo parlors, boutique hotels, ice cream parlors (one with homemade Liege waffles that I was dying to try), and an art gallery called Pride that featured the works of LGBTQ+ artists. Some of the pedestrianized areas retained their original cobblestone, adding more historic flavor. All pretty to look at, but not necessarily the right job market for someone with my limited skills.
“As my grandmother used to say, there’s a lid for every pot,” Scarlet said.
“That’s for romance, not employment.”
“I think it’s applicable to both.” Scarlet studied the patch of garden she’d attacked with the hoe. “I think the garden is resisting me.”
I glanced at the ground. “How can you tell? It looks the same.”
“Exactly. It should look better than this.” She handed me the hoe. “I hope you were taking notes. I need to get going. I’ve got someone coming to my house to buy a tractor.”
I laughed. “Never would I have anticipated living in a place where people sold tractors.”
“It’s only a small one.” She contemplated the garden and its tangle of weeds. “We’re rushing headlong into spring. I feel like we should’ve made more progress by now.”
“I don’t think these gardens function like other gardens.” From what I’d observed so far, Aunt Hazel’s gardens seemed to have a mind of their own.
“No, you’re absolutely right. Maybe the gardens are like Ophelia. They know Hazel is gone and they’re still mourning her. Eventually they’ll accept the situation. We just have to be patient.” She swiveled toward me. “I’ll come back tomorrow and see if we can make more headway. Mornings are best for me.”
“Scarlet, you have a business to run. You can’t be here helping me for free every day.”
Her dark eyes sparkled with enthusiasm. “You don’t understand. For years, I begged Hazel to let me help with this place—it’s a gardener’s paradise—but she didn’t need me.”
But I did.
“Well, if the garden is rejecting your help, I’m not sure there’s much we can do about it,” I said.
Scarlet removed her gloves and sighed. “It’s kind of pathetic how much I want this place to approve of me. I feel like I’m back in third grade and trying to get in with Katie Lang and her squad.”
“And did you?”
She laughed. “Hell no. They were all blondes who liked to dress their Barbies in evening gowns and push them around in convertibles. I was the tiny mixed-race freak who liked to draw Barbie’s hair bright colors and draw butterflies and vines all over her body with Sharpies.”
“I wouldn’t have been allowed to play with you.” My mother would’ve taken one look at a vandalized Barbie and seen destruction rather than creativity. Scarlet would’ve been branded as ‘bad news’ and placed on my mother’s mental list of undesirables.
“Good thing we met in adulthood then.” She gave me a backhanded wave as she trudged across the lawn toward the driveway. “See you tomorrow.”
I spent a few minutes with the hoe, trying to replicate Scarlet’s movements. It felt awkward and unnatural, like I was trying to ride a horse in a ballgown.
Sensing a presence, I turned around, fully expecting to see that Scarlet had forgotten something, although I didn’t hear the telltale crunch of gravel in the driveway. There was no sign of Scarlet, or any visitors for that matter. I peeled off the gardening gloves and walked a few paces. That’s when the hairs on the back of my neck pricked.
Someone was watching me. I sensed it with every fiber of my being. This was how a gazelle at the watering hole must feel when a predator’s lurking in the shadows.
I peered in the direction of the woods and that was when I saw it—a glint of metal where no metal should be. Not a ghost then. I couldn’t decide whether to be relieved or more creeped out.
I tugged my phone from my back pocket, debating whether to call the police or handle this on my own. I squared my shoulders. I was a New Yorker for crying out loud. They were probably local boys skipping school and building a treehouse.
Did kids build treehouses anymore?
No. They were probably local boys skipping school and smoking pot.
I advanced toward the shiny object and was relieved when Ophelia appeared by my side. The oversized tuxedo cat was the best security detail you could ask for. She had sharp claws and little fangs and she was more than happy to use either of them.
I reached the edge of the woods and saw the silhouettes of two men. The glint of metal I’d glimpsed seemed to be a metal square on a strap for binoculars. The men were so focused on the treetops that they didn’t register my presence until I cleared my throat.
Startled, they whipped toward me so quickly that they bumped elbows. In light jackets, knee-length shorts, and fishing hats, neither one appeared particularly threatening.
“What’s with the binoculars on my property?” I demanded. It still seemed strange to refer to Red Clover as my anything.
The men exchanged sheepish glances.
“I told you we were trespassing, Ron,” the man in the blue jacket said.
Ron bowed his head. “We’re very sorry, ma’am. We got caught up in the moment.”
Ron’s companion pointed to the treetops. “We’re birdwatchers.” He stuck out a hand. “I’m Albert and this is Ron. We’re members of the Newberry Birdwatchers Society.”
I eyed him skeptically. “There’s a society for something you can do from the comfort of your kitchen window?” Was there also a Bravowatching and Drinks Wine from a Box Society? If so, sign me up.
“We got separated from our group,” Albert said.
“Because Albert here saw what he swears is a half male and half female cardinal, which is very rare,” Ron explained.
I glanced skyward. “I don’t see anything.”
Ron gestured to the cat, rolling on her back in the dirt. “No bird is going to stick around now.”
Ophelia meowed, unconcerned.
“She’s my security system,” I said. “You don’t want to mess with her. Trust me.”
“I don’t care for cats,” Albert said. “They’re a threat to the delicate bird ecosystem. Outdoor cats murder over two million birds every year in this country.”
I inclined my head toward the cat. “She’s also a threat to you if you venture too close to my house.”
Ophelia rolled back to her paws and stretched. She seemed to be lulling them into a false sense of security.
“What does a half male and half female cardinal look like?” I asked.
“Half the body is red like the male and half the body is the female’s coloring,” Albert said. He drew an imaginary line straight down the center of his body. “It would be incredible to see one in person. I’ve only ever seen them in photographs.”
“I didn’t even know that was possible.” I scanned the treetops. Now I, too, was interested in glimpsing this gender hybrid.
“Do you mind if we hang around here?” Ron asked. “If we sit quietly, it might come back.”
As tempted as I was to sit quietly with them and see this rare bird, I knew I had to get back to the house and resume my search for employment. I’d arrived here on financial fumes and had been coasting ever since.
I returned to the house, parting ways with Ophelia somewhere along the way. I briefly lingered on the patio that abutted the kitchen door. This was where Aunt Hazel kept her ‘witch’s garden,’ as Scarlet had called it. There were herbs I’d never heard of. To be fair, there were many common herbs I’d never heard of because I paid no attention to plants and I wasn’t much of a cook. My apartment in the city had a cramped kitchen with minimal storage and I’d used the oven as a shoe rack.
I entered the house for a glass of water and to rest my aching body. When did I become so decrepit that I needed a heating pad so early in the day? I used to walk twenty blocks to work without breaking a sweat. They were long city blocks too, not the kind of blocks in a preplanned neighborhood where all the houses were the exact same distance apart with the same types of trees planted on each property line. Real blocks with traffic lights and delis and windows that stretched wide enough for a decent display. Did I mention delis? I missed my weekly corned beef on rye with Swiss cheese and Thousand Island dressing, although my arteries were thankful for the change in diet.
“Hey, Wilson,” I greeted the aloe plant. Scarlet had given me the hard-to-kill perennial as a housewarming gift and, so far, Wilson had proven himself a survivor.
As I drained the glass of water, I opened my laptop on the kitchen counter. Despite having a roof over my head, the money in my bank account was dwindling and I needed a regular source of income. Aunt Hazel seemed to get by like an old-fashioned doctor on the barter system, exchanging charms and love potions for goods and services. I wasn’t comfortable taking her place in the magic department, not when I hadn’t mastered the skills I supposedly possessed.
I could learn to read tarot cards and hang out a shingle like the ones I’d seen downtown, but how would I explain that to people? And by ‘people,’ I meant my mother. She’d have a coronary if I announced I’d become a fortune teller, or whatever people like Aunt Hazel called themselves. I liked the idea of a turban that covered my roots, though. I’d save loads of money on salon visits.
I opened a local employment website and scrolled down, searching for inspiration. Ophelia appeared in the kitchen, meowing with a sense of urgency.
“What is it, Lassie? Did Timmy fall in the well again?”
Ophelia stopped meowing and stared at me with cold green eyes.
“Okay, fine. I take it back. What’s the problem?”
The cat turned and lumbered out of the kitchen. I followed her to the front door where she stood on her hind legs and scratched at the surface. I jerked open the door just as Patrick’s car sped into the driveway, sending pieces of gravel flying.
Rolling down the window, he said in his best Arnold Schwarzenegger voice, “Get in if you want Scarlet to live.”
I frowned. “That’s not the line.”
He reverted to his normal velvety voice tinged with annoyance. “Did you not hear what I said? Get in.”
I closed the door behind me, thankful I was still wearing shoes, and joined him in the car. “What’s the emergency?”
“I couldn’t understand every word, but Scarlet found something unexpected in the canal and she’s having a stroke.”
“The blue heart diamond from Titanic?”
Patrick shot me a quizzical look. “Um, no. Something bad.”
My eyes widened. “An alligator?” Thanks to alligators, I’d specifically crossed Florida off my list of future retirement homes.
Patrick peered at me with a mixture of horror and disbelief. “No, where do you get your ideas? A dead body. Scarlet found a dead body!”
He peeled out of the driveway and I clicked my seatbelt into place, still reeling from the news. A dead body was definitely worse than an alligator—unless, of course, an alligator was to blame.
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