Thirty-Four and a Half Predicaments

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Chapter One

Cold late January rain beat against the windows of the RBW Landscaping office on a Tuesday morning, and I shoved my hands deeper into my sweater. This weather had to let up soon—I wasn’t sure how much more of it I could take. Especially since so many other things in my life were such a mess.

“Aren’t you the cutest little thing?” Bruce Wayne, my friend and business partner, asked, looking down at my dog. Muffy jumped up and rested her paws on his knees, convincing him to give her a piece of his biscuit. He complied, of course. “How could I refuse that face?”

I loved my dog more than nearly anything else in the world, but I wouldn’t necessarily call her a cute little thing at the moment. At Violet’s suggestion, I’d taken her to the groomer’s, and the woman had tsked the moment I handed her over. Not that I was surprised. With her big ears and pointy nose, her gray and brown wiry hair, Muffy was never going to win any “cutest dog” awards. The groomer had attempted to beautify her anyway. When I stopped to pick her up before coming into the office, Muffy had emerged from the back with pink bows on her ears and a white lace elasticized collar that made her look like she belonged in a clown act at the circus. But every time I tried to remove them, she would release a low growl and run away. “Don’t encourage her, Bruce Wayne.”

“She’s cute.” Bruce Wayne was probably the only other person alive who appreciated Muffy’s special charm. He gave her the last of his biscuit and looked up at me. “Is Neely Kate coming in today?”

“I don’t know,” I sighed. “The doctor’s cleared her to drive, but she only leaves the house if someone forces her. All she does is sit on her sofa and watch TV.”

“She ain’t worked here long, but I miss ’er.”

“Me too.” I looked at my computer screen and the landscape design I’d come up with using our new design software. There wasn’t much call for landscaping in January, even in southern Arkansas, so Bruce Wayne and I were taking advantage of the down time.

The door opened and cold air seeped in as Jonah Pruitt, Henryetta’s own televangelist, walked in.

“Jonah,” I said in surprise, jumping out of my seat. “What are you doing here?”

He walked toward me with a grim expression. “I’ve just come back from visiting Neely Kate.” He unbuttoned his coat. “Ronnie asked me to stop by and talk to her.” He glanced at the other side of the room. “Hey, Bruce Wayne.” Then Muffy ran out from under Bruce Wayne’s desk and Jonah’s eyes widened to the size of plums. “What on earth…”

Muffy stopped in front of Jonah and stood on her back legs.

I put my hands on my hips and laughed at my little dog’s antics. “Apparently, Muffy thinks she’s joining the circus.”

Then, as the finale to her performance, she let out a plume of gas that made my eyes water. “Muffy!”

Jonah began to cough and wave his hand frantically in front of his face. “Oh, Sweet Baby Jesus.”

I stalked over to the front door and started to swing it back and forth, trying to dispel the fumes. “Bruce Wayne! Stop feeding her biscuits!”

He laughed and grabbed his coat. “How about I take her out back and see if she has to go.”

Like that was going to help. Every time I tried a new dog food or routine, her flatulence problem only seemed grow worse. At this rate, I was going to have to hand out gas masks to anyone who visited the office.

Muffy began to dance in circles when she saw Bruce Wayne grab her leash off my desk. As they went out the back door, I shut the front and returned my attention to Jonah.

“How’d it go with Neely Kate? Did she talk to you?”

“Other than the pleasantries of playing hostess, no.”

I pressed my knuckle to my teeth. “I’m worried about her, Jonah. Really worried.”

“So am I.”

I ushered him over to the overstuffed chairs in front of the window and sank into the nearest one. “What can we do?”

“She needs to talk about losing her babies. She’s keeping it all bottled up and it’s festering inside her.” He paused. “But mostly she needs time. Time to deal with her loss and to find a way to accept it.”

I shook my head, tears filling my eyes. “I can barely accept what happened, so how on earth can she?”

“She’ll find her own way.”

I wasn’t so sure. My best friend, who was always so boisterous and loud and fun-loving, seemed deflated, like a balloon after all the air had been let out.

“In the meantime, don’t let her push you away. Keep going over and spending time with her. Try to get her out of the house.” He glanced over his shoulder out the window. “Although today’s not the best day to be out and about.”

“There has to be something more we can do, Jonah.”

He shook his head. “Neely Kate needs lots of time and lots of love.”

I nodded. I wasn’t the most patient person, but I loved that girl like she was my own sister. The loving part wouldn’t be hard. “I’m goin’ to see her this afternoon after I talk to Violet about her interviews for help at the nursery.”

He smiled. “Good. She’ll be glad to see you, even if she doesn’t act like it.” He cast a glance toward the back door, making sure Bruce Wayne was still outside. “You and I haven’t had a meeting in over a month,” he asked in an undertone. “How are you doing?”

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