Rhian McKenna strode through the family owned garden center towards the staging greenhouses, which was by no means an easy task - dodging sprinklers, wagons, and customers. However, despite the various obstacles, Rhian’s gait was easy. Spring was most certainly her favorite season of the year. Besides the fact that this period was the most prolific for the business, she couldn’t help but be drawn into the changing landscape around her.
Everywhere Rhian traveled around the Washington D.C. region, spring was to be experienced in all its colors and textures. Lawns are greening up as emerging grasses make their way skyward after the dormancy brought on by winter. Deciduous trees and shrubs hung heavy with swelled buds bringing promises of the flowers and leaves to come. As one blooming cycle began to wane, another took hold, ensuring a season of continuous color, and for Rhian the task of designing the dynamic landscape that most effectively highlighted this season of rebirth, was a welcome challenge.
She had recently been a guest speaker at a landscape design class offered at the local community college. Her lecture had focused on how abundant the options were for color and texture in this region of the country as the climate suited a wide range of plant species. She’d provided the students with multiple options beginning with the minor bulbs such as the crocus and ending with a large assortment of spring blooming trees. She skimmed over the more common plant materials used in overabundance in home landscapes, such as the yellows of the forsythia and narcissus and the profusion of white blossoms offered by the Bradford Pear. She preferred to concentrate on the lesser-used varieties.
Rhian personally liked to incorporate the red, yellow, orange, and purple blooms offered throughout the season within the diverse range of shapes and shades offered by the tulip family, the hyacinths, and the irises. The clay soil of the region was not the best suited to provide a long life for most bulbs, but the opportunities were outstanding for a lengthy and beautiful blooming season.
The dogwoods always worked well in the woodland setting often growing wild on the wooded fringes of properties throughout the area. She tended to avoid the crabapple as she felt it too was overused in landscape design, and she sought alternatives for the profusion of pink spring flowers. Rhian’s favorites, the stately Weeping Cherry and unpretentious redbud, were fast becoming a signature trademark of her spring designs.
Pausing briefly in her sojourn, the young landscaper took a mental stock of the neatly displayed azaleas in varying container types and sizes. The most common variety of azalea used in landscapes in this area, the Hershey Red, was well stocked. Her blond head nodded slightly in appreciation at her personal choice, the Geisha Peppermint azalea with its large white flowers striped red.
Her eyes wandered to the left of the azalea display and settled on the numerous cherry trees. The cherry tree in most of its forms is one of the biggest sellers at this time of year, and the nursery was well prepared to meet its customer’s expectations. After all, the cherry trees in bloom along the Tidal Basin stood at the center of the largest springtime festival in the Washington DC area.
Everywhere one looked the rite of spring was present, and it fed Rhian like an elixir. Resuming her trek, her mood continued to soar with each breath of fresh spring air. Things were going well. The landscaping business was already ramping up and the planting season was promising.
The young landscaper meandered through three of the staging greenhouses before finally locating her best friend Nicole Mullens in the fourth. Nicole was concentrating on the task of watering a crop of young annuals with a mixture of water and fertilizer.
Rhian's trained eye scanned the neatly placed flats. The plants looked healthy and strong, and it pleased her that they would be able to start setting the flats out for sale within a week or two. It would then be time to start planning the fall cuttings and seedlings. Like the seasons, life in the nursery was cyclic and always proceeded the planting season by months of careful preparation.
She called out to her friend, “Hi Nicole.” The women had been friends for most of their lives. They had shared all the joys and traumas of adolescence, high school, and college. Nicole had been Rhian’s maid of honor, was her daughter’s godmother, and had provided unconditional support when she had faced burying her young husband.
"Hey. What's up?" Nicole responded with a smile reflective of the blonde's. The good humor brought on by springtime was obviously contagious. Or perhaps it was Rhian's good spirits that were infectious. In either case, Nicole felt her smile broaden.
"You almost ready to call it a day? I want to get cleaned up and tell Seana goodnight before we head out for our 'evening of fun.'" Rhian wasn't sure how she felt about this evening's planned excursion. She hadn't socialized outside of the business since Sean's untimely death. Nicole had been steadily working away at her resistance for months until she finally conceded that going out for one evening was not going to kill her. At least she hoped it wouldn't.
Nicole nodded her head causing her dark blond curls to bob slightly. “Yep. Just let me finish here and I’ll meet you up at the office.”
"Okay. See you in a few," Rhian called out as she left the greenhouse to begin the return journey across the garden center back to the office in the main building. Passing the statuary area, she heard her brother ranting about something but couldn't quite make out what the issue was that had him so upset. Changing directions, she followed the sound of his voice and found him standing amid an assortment of crates.
Studying him in silence for a few seconds, she attempted to gauge the seriousness of the problem. Her younger brother stood an inch or so taller than her five feet six inches. Both siblings had inherited their mother’s blond hair and possessed similar features including a sprinkling of small freckles across their noses. Few people missed the family resemblance between them though Michael’s eyes were more hazel in color than Rhian’s. “Michael, what’s the problem?”
Turning to face his sister, a look of relief crossed his face. “We just received a new shipment of statuary and half of the pieces are damaged.” It was obvious from his tone that he was frustrated. Rhian knew from experience that Michael preferred to dodge frustrating situations such as this, and let someone else deal with the problem. Looking up into the blue sky, she smiled. Even this inconvenience was insufficient to dampen her good humor.
Turning her attention back to her brother she asked, “Is the shipper still here?” Michael nodded his head slightly. “Fine. Tell them to take it all back. Then get the vendor on the phone and tell them the shipment is on the way back. Then you tell them they have forty-eight hours to replace this shipment, or we won’t be doing business with them anymore. We won’t accept delivery and we won’t pay for this.”
"Easy for you to say," he grumbled.
Rhian regarded her younger sibling. Like her, Michael had grown up in this business. He had, unlike her, grown up with the benefit of an older sister to take care of the more difficult challenges. She was the first to admit that she had coddled her brother probably more than was good for him. She also had no doubt that their father was grooming her to take on more of the managerial aspects of the family business. She needed her brother to increase his responsibility on a personal level as well as in supporting the business. “Michael, sometimes you just have to take the bull by the horns. Call the vendor. Don’t take ‘no’ for an answer. Okay?”
He sighed deeply. "All right."
"Good. I know you can do this." Rhian quickly changed the subject in hopes of lightening her brother's mood. "So, are you going with us tonight?"
"Yeah, I thought I would tag along."
Her easy laughter caused him to smile. “Michael, it stopped being ‘tagging along’ a couple of years ago you goof.”
Leaving her brother in a better humor, Rhian once again resumed her journey. Cutting through the main building she maneuvered her way around clientele and displays towards the stairs leading up to the offices and employee locker rooms. She was pleased to find her father in the manager’s office.
Ryan "Mac" Mackenzie looked up from the office computer as his daughter entered the room. Mac was of average height and build. His weather worn skin an indicator of the years of outdoor work it had taken to build this business up from its beginnings on the back of a flatbed truck into one of the areas top garden centers and landscaping businesses.
His reddish blond hair, though beginning to show tinges of gray, still stood in stark contrast to his gray blue eyes. Eyes that tended to twinkle with a look of mischief - a gift of his Irish legacy. People were drawn to Mac, and Rhian seemed to have inherited this tendency as well.
He sat back and regarded his eldest child. She had her mother’s green eyes and slight build, but she also possessed the strength born of years in the landscaping business. Her strength was deceptive, but Mac was no fool. He knew that long exposure to this kind of labor was not healthy for his daughter’s frame, and was striving to remove her from the more physical aspects of the business towards that of management and design. She had a good eye for textures and colors, and an excellent memory of species characteristics. She also had an innate talent in managing people.
"Hey, Pop," Rhian said as she planted a kiss on her father's sun worn cheek.
Mac couldn't help but smile at his daughter's good mood. "Hi honey. How's it looking out there?"
"Great! The seedlings are coming in a little ahead of schedule. We'll have a good crop of annuals and perennials this year. We do have a problem with the statuary but Michael is taking care of that with the vendor. And our landscaping calendar is filling up fast," she replied.
He chuckled at her enthusiasm. “Look’s like it’s going to be a good spring season.”
"Counting on it, Dad."
Mac looked closely at his daughter. Sean McKenna had been gone for almost two years, and Rhian still hadn’t shown any interest in much beyond the business and her daughter. “What you got planned for this evening?”
The young woman didn't respond right away. Why is it so hard to take this step? Sean had been gone for a long time, but still she found it difficult to move on. Perhaps it was the guilt that she had survived the crash and Sean hadn’t. Perhaps it was the guilt at having failed him while he lived. “A group of us are going to check out some place Nicole goes to occasionally. Nothing special.”
A slight wave of relief passed through Mac. Maybe things were going to finally be okay. “Are you going to stop by the house first?”
Rhian laughed at her father. “Of course I am. I want to tell Seana goodnight before we go. Besides I’m not going out looking like this. I’m just waiting for Nicki.”
As if on cue, Nicole entered the room. “Hey, Rhian, you ready? Hi, Mac.”
Mac smiled at his daughter’s best friend. She’d always been a good companion to Rhian. To Mac and his wife Kate, Nicole was their second daughter. “Hi. Rhian was just telling me that the two of you are going cruising tonight.”
"I said no such thing," Rhian gasped. The man dissolved into hearty laughter, and soon both women joined in. Rhian gave her father another quick peck on the cheek before following Nicole out the door. "See ya later, Dad."
He regarded the now empty doorway. “Have fun, Rhian,” he said to the vacant room.
Rhian maneuvered her 4x4 through quitting time traffic. It didn’t seem to matter which route she opted to take at this time of day, getting anywhere during rush hour was a lesson in futility with a heavy dose of patience and endurance thrown in. As it was, even the slowly moving traffic with the interspersed maniac jumping from lane to lane, wasn’t enough to diminish her mood.
Not moving any time soon, she turned her attention to the radio. Scanning the dial she settled on a local station just in time to hear “Goody Two Shoes” by Adam Ant. Unable to restrain herself, she began singing along with gusto despite the knowledge that singing was not her forte. She wasn’t horrible at it. She just didn’t possess a voice that was good for more than singing in the shower.
Rhian glanced in her rearview mirror. Following in her new Jetta, Nicole seemed to be having a rather animated conversation on her cell phone. Rhian felt a kernel of fear at the thought that her friend might be trying to find her a date for this evening. Shaking her head, she chastised herself for thinking her friend would do that to her. Of all the people in her life, Nicole knew she wasn’t ready to face dating.
Twenty minutes later than they should have, Rhian and Nicole finally arrived at the Mackenzie’s residence in the suburb of Springfield, Virginia. Rhian had spent most of her life in this house. Her parents had spent many years remodeling and modernizing the residence, which had included a build out of the basement level. It was quite comfortable – almost an apartment. There was a large living room area with fireplace, two bedrooms, a bathroom, and a separate entrance.
It was to this area that Rhian had retreated with Seana after Sean’s death. It afforded her a certain degree of privacy while providing the support of her family only one floor above. Nicole had spent many nights with Rhian in this house, and had practically moved in with her after Sean’s funeral.
It had been difficult to convince Nicole to leave and get on with her own life. Rhian had become aware of her growing dependence on her friend, and with that awareness came the understanding that she had to let Nicole go. Her dependency on the woman wasn’t healthy for either of them. She needed to stand on her own two feet – if not for herself, then for her child.
The thought of her child caused her lips to curl into a gentle smile. Seana had only been ten months old when they lost Sean. She was still too young to understand the loss of her father. That was a lesson that the child would learn over time. Right now she was a happy, healthy almost three-year-old, and Rhian was grateful to her family for taking such good care of Seana, of the both of them, over the past two years.
As they pulled into the driveway, Seana exited the front door and ran to her mother as quickly as her toddler legs would allow. Watching the child try to run caused Rhian to laugh out loud. Seana’s little legs pumped up and down as quickly as possible, but unfortunately did not serve to propel her forward. She still hadn’t quite mastered the sprint, but when it came to running in place, she was a champion.
Kneeling down on one knee, Rhian opened her arms wide for her daughter. That small gesture proved all the incentive Seana needed as she managed to find forward motion and propelled herself to her mother. A shrill “mama” cut through the quiet suburban neighborhood as the little girl finally reached her destination, and was engulfed in a hug.
"Hi, baby. Did you have a good day with Grandma?" Rhian inquired as Nicole walked up to them.
"Me and Granma made cookies, mama," the exuberant child managed to respond. Upon spying Nicole, Seana's powerful voice once again broke the peace of the neighborhood with a shrill, "Aunt Nicki." Rhian wasn't sure, but she believed she might have actually suffered some hearing loss from that last greeting.
"Hi Sweetie," Nicole replied while scooping the child up in her arms. Seana squealed with delight as the woman planted kisses all over the child's face.
Rhian watched the display with great fondness. I really am lucky, she mused. “Come on you two,” she spoke with mock seriousness.
The three made their way to the front door where Rhian’s aged Beagle, Daisy, greeted them. The dog had been a gift to Rhian on her twelfth birthday, and the dog was now succumbing to the effects of age. Nonetheless, she was wonderful with Seana and remained a staunch confidant for Rhian. Daisy was followed a short distance behind by Rhian’s mother.
"Hiya, Mom. I understand you've been teaching Seana to bake." Rhian's eyes showed her affection for her mother. She would be forever grateful to her mother for having stepped in and taken over the care of Seana while Rhian had recovered from the accident.
"Unlike you, she's a natural, Rhian. Hi, Nicole," Kate greeted the other woman.
"Hi, mama K," Nicole beamed at Kate as she gently placed Seana on the floor. Kate had always displayed a tenderness and support to Nicole that had been lacking in her own home.
"You girls want some coffee?" the older woman called over her shoulder as she made her way into the kitchen.
"Actually Mom, Nicole and I need to go get cleaned up. We're meeting Michael and some friends for dinner and drinks over at one of the places in Annandale. We'll be back up in a few," Rhian advised as she and Nicole made their way to the steps leading to the lower level.
Kate stared with surprise at the door her daughter had just passed through. Is Rhian finally ready to begin living again? She sure hoped so. Her daughter was bright, beautiful, and needed someone in her life. She lifted her head in a silent prayer. Please let her find some happiness. She has been alone too long.
Rhian was a nervous wreck. She had showered and was now trying desperately to find something to wear. Am I ready for this? She kept repeating under her breath, “this is not a date, this is not a date, this is not date.” Then, why am I so nervous?
Studying her reflection in the mirror, she ran her fingers through her short hair to straighten out the layers as her eyes tracked down her body clad only in a bra and panties. The scars from the accident were fading, but to Rhian they still stood in stark contrast to the rest of her skin. She slowly ran a finger across the scar just above her left breast. A jagged piece of glass had impaled her in the chest. The doctors had been quick to note that if the shard had entered her chest a little lower, she would have died.
Instead she lived, and Sean had died. She knew on some level that the accident had not been her fault, but because she had been driving, she still felt she had failed somehow to avert it. In truth, she felt she had failed Sean in almost every aspect of their life together with the exception of their daughter.
Rhian had cared for Sean, perhaps even loved him at one time, but something had always felt wrong about their relationship. They had been friends all through high school, and he had been the only person she had dated. That they would marry eventually had seemed a given. Both of their families expected it. He had even opted to attend the same college she went to, so that they could be together.
It was during her junior year that she began to feel smothered by him, and after a long internal struggle, she had decided to break off their relationship. Coincidentally, it was at that time that he proposed. Worse for her, he had asked her father’s permission before he asked her. How could she have said no and disappointed all those people? She had buried her concerns about their relationship and accepted his proposal.
The summer after they graduated, they were married and Rhian realized much too late what a mistake it was. Their relationship began to deteriorate from the beginning, and she knew it was her fault. She had endeavored to be a good wife using her mother as an example, but it didn’t take her long to understand that what she and Sean shared, lacked a depth she saw between her parents.
She knew that she was a disappointment to him especially on a physical level. For her, there had never been any passion in their couplings. She had tried. She had wanted their marriage to work, and had finally resorted to deception - faking her pleasure.
Rhian shook her head adamantly to clear the painful ramblings. She didn’t realize that Nicole, clad in a large bath towel donned after her own shower, was standing in the doorway watching her. For her part, Nicole was lost in the helplessness that she often felt when it came to Rhian.
She didn't know how to diminish the guilt her friend carried. Nor did she know how to move her beyond the past. She pushed Rhian as much as she dared to move forward and start living again. Rhian had made many healing strides, but the sense of guilt and failure over Sean still held her in place.
Clearing her throat, she attracted Rhian’s attention away from the mirror. “You aren’t planning on wearing that are you? I mean, you look good, but somehow I don’t think it would be in your best interest to go dressed in only a bra and panties.”
Rhian looked at her friend then back at the mirror. “I don’t know. I could start a new trend.” Her eyes tracked back to her friend as a look of desperation covered her fine features. “Nic, I don’t know about this. Maybe I’m not ready.”
Nicole quickly stepped towards her friend. “Stop it. We’re just going out to dinner. I’m not looking to hook you up with anyone, okay?” Nicole’s eyes took in the room for the first time. There were cloths everywhere. Obviously, Rhian had pulled outfit after outfit out of the closet in an effort to select something to wear. Oh, this is not good. “Rhian, how many of these articles of clothing are you planning on wearing tonight?”
Rhian slowly looked around her room. Did I really take out all these clothes? “Um, actually I don’t have a clue what to wear?” She admitted sheepishly.
Looking from her friend to the clothes and back again, Nicole took charge. “Okay, let me see what we’ve got.” She made quick work of hanging each article of clothing back up except for a pair of dark slacks and a long sleeved green silk blouse. “Put these on while I get dressed, and don’t take all night. We’ve got to get going soon.”
The two women finished dressing and made their way back upstairs to the kitchen. Seana was sitting at the kitchen table eating her dinner and smiled broadly at the site of her mother. “Hi, Mama.”
"Hi, kiddo. What have you got there?" Rhian queried her daughter.
"Sketti. My favorite!" the child grinned. To the three adults in the room she appeared to have more spaghetti on her face then could possible have made it into her belly. Nonetheless she was happy, and to Rhian, that was all that mattered.
The young blonde knelt down next to her daughter careful to avoid any stray spaghetti that might somehow find its way onto her clothing. “Listen, baby. Mama is going out to dinner tonight with Aunt Nicki, okay?”
Seana's hazel eyes met those of her mother, and Rhian suddenly felt she was going to be ill. How can I go out to have fun and leave my child? She hadn’t missed one night with Seana since she’d been released from the hospital after the accident. She expected the child to complain or cry…something, but instead her daughter smiled at her. Standing back up, the thought occurred to Rhian that she really was behaving foolishly, but realizing that fact was not enough to diminish the internal conflict.
"Mama, will you read a story?" the child inquired.
"Not tonight, baby. You'll be asleep before I get home, but Grandma or Granddaddy will read you one." She looked intently into her daughters face expecting to see disappointment, but found none.
Sensing her daughter's turmoil, Kate stepped into the conversation, "Don't you fret, Seana girl. Your Granddaddy and I will both read you a story."
"Yay!" the little girl squealed with delight.
Rhian flashed a grateful smile at her mother as Nicole grabbed her arm and started leading her towards the front door. “Wait!” She pulled free and walked back to her daughter. Leaning forward she placed a gentle kiss on Seana’s head. “Sleep tight, baby. I’ll see you in the morning.”
The child smiled sweetly at her mother. “You too, Mama.”
With that Nicole did manage to drag Rhian out of the house to her car. The drive to bar was introspective. Nicole could sense Rhian’s discomfort, but was unable to get her to discuss her concerns. Instead of adding to the turmoil, Nicole opted to leave her to her thoughts, at least for as long as it took to reach the bar.
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