Make it Real


Nan Reinhardt

They were only faking it.

A landscape designer for his family’s construction firm, Joe Walker, is nearing completion on one of the most important projects of his career—gardens for spec homes that if they wow, Walker Construction will survive. When a freak accident sidelines him with a broken leg, the firm hires a competitor. Her ideas are radically different, but his stalker ex arrives to play nurse, and Joe needs more than gardening help.

After six-years working in English manor gardens, horticulturist Kara Sudbury returns to River’s Edge to help in her grandparents’ struggling garden center. She’s thrilled when Jackson Walker hires her to execute his injured cousin’s designs. Ignoring Joe is difficult because he’s as sexy now as he was in high school and even more stubborn. But when Joe asks Kara to play the role of girlfriend, they strike a deal that will help Joe handle his tenacious ex and put Sudbury’s Nursery back in the black. Kara’s up for the subterfuge…for a price, but then the pretense feels real, and Kara is reminded that every rose has its thorns.

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Chapter One

Kara Sudbury loved watering. It was a Zen thing, moving from pot to pot to pot outside the entrance to one of the greenhouses that were part of her family’s nursery and garden center. Inside the greenhouse, the huge sprinklers took care of making sure the plants and starts stayed moist, but outside was all Kara and a hundred feet of hose. Watering required little focus beyond making sure every pot got a drink; being careful that she didn’t overwater the succulents; and being certain to get enough water into the burlap-covered root balls of the deciduous trees on the south lot.

The Zen part was simply basking in the warm sunshine and the cool breeze off the river. Another perfect midsummer day in River’s Edge, Indiana, and Kara turned her face up to the sky. She closed her eyes for a second as she sprinkled water over the ready-made pots of geraniums and begonias that lined the sidewalk up to the old farmhouse that was Sudbury’s nursery, garden center, and patio shop.

Kara’s grandparents, Hunter and Ginny, opened Sudbury’s back in the seventies when they were first married. The shop had only been a tiny greenhouse out back and a cash register in the front sunroom. It had grown over the years. Hunter and Ginny added to their acreage on the far west end of River’s Edge, bought more frontage along Main Street to the south and stretched for five acres to the north, where they grew mums for fall and lavender for drying and vegetables for selling in the shop and produce stand. On the west side of their property was the sunflower field—ten acres of golden yellow extending to the tree line that separated their property from their neighbor’s. They sold the harvested seeds to a small oilseed crusher in Evansville for a tidy enough profit that it paid to plant the field every third year, rotating between sunflowers, winter wheat, and letting the field lie fallow for a season. Her granddad had mastered the art, and Kara realized that despite her degree in horticulture, she still had lots to learn.

Kara delighted in every single plant, from the flowers out front, to the trees they nurtured and sold, to the vegetables that grew in the huge truck garden on the eastside of the property. She’d only been back in River’s Edge since the first of May, but she’d rushed headlong into the summer flurry, falling back into the nursery routine as if she hadn’t been gone nearly seven years.

“Hey, Kara.” The greeting jolted her out of her reverie. “Welcome back!” Judge Harry Evans’s smile warmed Kara down to her rubber garden shoes. Over the last few weeks, she’d seen dozens of old friends—folks who wandered into the garden center or stopped her at Mac’s Riverside diner or at the Tea Leaf or on the River Walk. Getting back into her hometown brought so many memories, mostly good, some not so much. But Judge Evans was one of her very favorite people.

“Harry!” Kara turned off the sprayer, stepped over the coil, and went in for a hug from the older gentleman. His embrace was one-armed because in his other hand he held a gaily painted terra-cotta pot with a rather pitiful red begonia in it. “You’re out bright and early. How are you?”

“I’ve got court in an hour.” Harry explained his early arrival, and gave her a rueful smile. “I’m good, hon, but Bosco here is another story.” He held out the pot. “I did everything your grandma told me to do—partial shade, moist, well-drained soil, trim off the dead . . . He looked great for a while, but now look at him. And it’s only July!”

She couldn’t help chuckling. “You named your begonia Bosco?”

Harry shrugged. “It fit.” He handed over the pot. “I even talk to him every morning . . . nicely.”

“Let me take a look.” Kara led the judge along the brick path to the greenhouse, noting as she glanced back that he was still as straight and spry as a man half his age.

“Hiya, Scout.” Harry bent down to give the Sudbury’s pet beagle a pat. Scout, a rescue from the local county shelter, came to the shop every day with Grandpa and usually followed him and Gram wherever they were. However, since Kara had been home, Scout had been her constant shadow, sleeping under the potting table where she worked, chasing bees as she watered, or wandering alongside her among the mum pots or in the lavender field. He’d even taken to sleeping in the studio apartment that Grandpa had made for Kara in the walkout basement of their house on the property instead of going upstairs with her grandparents each night.

She set Harry’s plant on the potting table that took up the center of the vast humid space, turning the sad little flower this way and that. “I think he’s pot-bound, Harry.”

The judge squinted. “He’s what?”

“This pot’s too small for his roots. We need to repot him.” She pointed outside to a stack of used pots in a corner. “Pick out one about 50 percent bigger than this one.”

Kara went deeper into the greenhouse and brought back some delicate white lobelia while Harry carried a round Talavera pot painted with bright-yellow, red, and blue designs to the table. “How about this one?”

“Perfect.” She smiled. “And let’s give Bosco a friend. This lobelia will fill out the pot nicely, I think.”

Harry grinned. “I had an aunt Lobelia. We called her Aunt Lobby and she was a corker.” He shook his head. “Smoked unfiltered Chesterfields in a long black cigarette holder that fascinated us kids.” He gave her a wry smile. “You’re too young to know about cigarette holders, but they were very cool way back when, before we knew how bad smoking was for you. Aunt Lobby kept her cigarettes in a gold case that had her initials in rhinestones on the cover and a matching lighter. She lived in Cincinnati, wore red lipstick, and to us kids, she was the height of sophistication.”

Kara chuckled. “Sounds like a character from Dorothy Parker’s era.” With quick, efficient moves, she deadheaded Bosco and eased the begonia and the lobelia into their new home.

“How does a kid like you know about Dorothy Parker? And by the way, Aunt Lobby truly was a Dorothy Parker character.”

She pressed the soil around the plants, added a bit of plant food, and then some more soil on top. “Comparative Literature was my minor at Purdue with an emphasis on Women’s Lit. Dorothy Parker is one of my favorite writers.”

“You have taste, kiddo.” He accepted the pot from her. “Thanks, Kara. Does Aunt Lobby need any special care, or the same as Bosco?”

“Just keep them both moist, give them some sun each day, and pluck off the dead flowers.” Kara walked with him to his ancient Mercedes. “Harry, you still driving this old diesel?”

“We bought this car new in Germany in 1974—our tenth-wedding anniversary trip. Shipped it here and went to Norfolk to pick it up. Alicia loved it . . .” He paused, a faraway look in his eyes as he set the pot on the towel he’d spread across the front seat and buckled the seat belt across it. Stepping around to the other side of the car, he started to get in the driver’s seat, but stopped. “What’s your favorite Dorothy Parker quote?”

Kara only had to think for a few seconds. “Easy one. I’ve never been a millionaire, but I know I’d be just darling at it.” She gave her shoulders a little shimmy and winked.

Harry laughed out loud, a gritty laugh that she heard even over the sound of the diesel engine as he started the old car.

She stood in the gravel parking lot, watching as he drove away, warmth flooding her soul as she inhaled the scent of the river breeze and the flowers that filled the edges of the parking lot. Damn, it was good to be back home. Birds flitted among the branches of the ancient maples that shaded her grandmother’s produce stand on the other side of the road. The vegetable garden was Ginny’s bailiwick, and her fresh produce stand was a favorite stop along the highway that followed along the Ohio River into town. A couple of cars were already in the parking area in front of it, and Kara peered across the highway to make sure Grandma didn’t need any help.

All of a sudden, a sharp report quickly followed by another sounded to the west. Kara spun around, almost tripping over a whining Scout. The dog ran toward the sound, then stopped to stare at Kara as if to say, Are you coming or what? Who on earth would be shooting a gun at seven o’clock in the morning in the middle of July? Was it even legal to hunt anything this time of year? She peered into the sunflower field but didn’t see anyone, so she went back to the shop and asked Grandpa and Meredith, the only full-time employee at Sudbury’s, if they’d heard the shot. They hadn’t, but Kara was certain the sound was a gun. She switched out her rubber shoes for her sneakers and headed out to the field.

She got no more than about fifty feet into the sunflowers before she heard another shot, and, as she raced to the far edge of the field, away from the sound and along the rows of flowers, yet another. What the hell?

Joe Walker stomped across his backyard, armed with his trusty .22. The red fox had been at his chicken coop again, digging under the mesh fence, terrorizing the girls as it tried to nab one for its breakfast. Well, by God, that freaking fox has taken its last chicken. The hens’ noisy clucking and the rooster’s crowing had awakened him from a delightful dream, and he’d jumped from his cozy bed, grabbed the rifle from above the kitchen door, and raced out into the yard to see the red-haired beast sauntering through the garden with a hen between its jaws. The shot he fired merely sent the fox racing away.

“Dammit!” Joe had already lost two chickens to the thieving critter in the last month, and his hens were barely laying, they were so traumatized. Plus, fear had made his rooster even crabbier than usual.

He followed a trail of feathers to the tree line and saw movement low in the brush bordering Sudbury’s sunflower field. Eyes narrowing, he stopped and spotted a flash of white tail, heard a faint squawk, then silence. There he is! Joe lifted the rifle, aimed, fired . . . and missed. Suddenly, there was movement on the far side of the field and as he aimed that way, a sole sunflower rose in the air above the others, waving frantically.

Okay, not the fox.

He lowered the gun and watched as Sudbury’s beagle, Scout, emerged from the tall sunflowers and right behind him, a girl—no, a woman—he didn’t recognize. She was medium height with the slim, athletic build of a tennis player or a runner. Curly light-brown hair covered her head like a cap, a few wisps flopping into her eyes. She swatted at the recalcitrant curls with one tanned hand as she walked out of the rows of flowers with purpose. Before she even got to the tree line, she shouted, “What the hell is wrong with you, idiot?”

Joe blinked and scratched at a bug that had landed on his bare chest, realizing a little late that he was clad only in his sleeping shorts and the untied canvas tennis shoes he’d slipped his bare feet into at the kitchen door. “Me?” he called back, taking a couple more steps to the trees. “Who the hell runs toward the sound of gunfire?”

She raised both hands in a gesture of utter frustration. “I was way over here to the side of the sound. Besides, who shoots a gun into their neighbor’s property? You could’ve hit our greenhouse, or worse, a customer.” As she drew nearer, he could see she was pretty—really pretty—and pissed.

“Your greenhouse?” Joe peered through the trees and brush, wishing he had his contacts in because his old glasses simply weren’t strong enough anymore. Who was this woman? As far as he knew, Ginny and Hunter Sudbury hadn’t sold their nursery. He did business with them every once in a while; Hunt would’ve said something. Still gazing at her, he stormed into the trees and promptly tripped over a fallen log, accidentally pressing the trigger on the .22 as he went down on his face into a blackberry bramble.

The gun went off, the woman screeched, and Joe let out a loud oof, then a groan of pain. He released the gun and lay still, his head, face, neck, and bare chest stinging from the blackberry nettles and his left leg feeling very weird. Scout barked and ran up to him, licking Joe’s cheek and panting dog breath all over him.

“Did you shoot yourself?” The woman was there, too, stepping carefully through the brush until she was about a foot from him, her smooth, tanned legs only inches from his head. “Oh my God!” When he opened one eye and looked up at her, her face, which was vaguely familiar, had turned from angry to ashen and horrified. “Your leg!”

The sting of the blackberry thorns had somehow kept him from noticing what was now agonizing pain in his left shin. He started to turn over, but she stooped down and put a dirty gloved hand on his shoulder. “No, don’t move.”

“My face,” he managed, but it was hard to even speak because of the brambles sticking him everywhere, and shit! Was that poison ivy under his cheek? Inanely, his mind went to a couplet, his cousin Jack had taught him and Cam and Eli years ago—leaves of three, let it be; leaves of five, let it thrive. His glasses were gone, and his eye was blurry, but yep, that was three leaves. No. No. No. “I gotta . . . gotta get up,” he mumbled. “Poison ivy.”

The woman held him in place. “That’s the least of your problems. Your leg is really messed up.”

He lifted his head and shoved up with his arms, bringing his upper body out of the brambles, but dropped right back down again as pain shot through his left leg, leaving him nearly breathless. He attempted to peer over his shoulder, but all he could see was his own butt in the slipping-down sleeping shorts. When he tried to move the leg, pain, more excruciating than before, shot through him.

“Stop moving, will you? Your leg is stuck on a branch sticking out of this log and I can see”—she looked down his body at his lower extremities and her pallor grew even grayer—“oh crap, I can see a bone sticking out of your shin.” She plopped down next to him, heedless of the poisonous plants covering the ground, and pulled her phone out of her shorts pocket. “I’m calling 911.”

“You just sat in poison ivy,” he ground out, lifting his head again and biting the inside of his cheek to keep from adding idiot. He was pretty sure he owed her one. But on the other hand, he also needed some help here.

“It doesn’t bother me. I never get it.” She raked her fingers through her hair as she spoke to emergency services, relating what she believed happened, making him sound like a colossal dumbass as she speculated to the dispatcher that she thought he might have shot himself.

“I didn’t shoot myself,” he said as loudly as he could, given he’d dropped his face back on the ground because even the slightest movement sent red-hot fire through his leg and up into his thigh.

“Yeah, he says he’s not shot, but his leg . . . man, it’s pretty awful. Not bleeding too badly, but there’s a sharp piece of a stick stuck in his calf and his shin’s broken for sure”—she gulped—“I can see the bone. No, no, I won’t touch it. God, no!” She looked down at him. “What’s your address?”

He moaned, his mind a blank.

“It’s on Fourth Street behind Sudbury’s Nursery. Maybe the 2900 block?” she said into her phone.

“It’s 2917,” Joe managed.

“It’s 2917,” she repeated for the dispatcher, paused to listen, then asked, “What’s your name?”

“Joe Walker.” That came out stronger, but the effort exhausted him.

“Oh, crap! Joey? Joey Walker?” She bent her head to peer down at him, and her eyes, which were an unusual golden-brown color, were huge.

Those eyes . . . a faint memory of those eyes shimmering with tears . . . him, and was it Aidan Flaherty? Sitting in a cherry tree at Dykeman’s orchard, tossing . . . No, not stones, never stones, but hard, unripe cherries that resembled green olives at Tim Dykeman’s younger sister Vanessa and another little brown-haired girl in pink shorts and a grimy shirt. They’d run away, crying, but she’d turned around when they were too far for the boys to hit them and yelled, You’re mean, just mean, that’s all. I’m going to get you, Joey Walker! You just wait!

Well, hell. Little Kara Rose Sudbury. He closed his eyes, resigned to the fact that he wasn’t going anywhere for the moment, and clenched his teeth as another wave of pain washed over him. “I go by Joe now,” he gritted, not sure at all why it felt important to say that at that moment. It just did.

Kara untied the kelly-green gardener’s apron that was around her slim waist and carefully lifted his head and, as he moaned, spread the fabric over the foliage, getting as much of his face and neck out of the poison ivy as she could. “What were you shooting at?” Clearly, she was trying to take his mind off his pain.

“Fox.” He grimaced. Even speaking was painful. “Raiding my chicken coop.”

“So, you decided to shoot the poor little thing?” Her tone told him all he needed to know about her feelings toward woodland creatures.

“Poor little thing’s killed three hens.” He turned his head slightly on the apron, grateful for the relief from the brambles and weeds but uncomfortable as heck with her accusing expression.

Kara reached over and plucked a couple of thorns from his cheek. “Maybe she’s feeding kits.”

“Maybe she needs to find—ah, ow—her food in the woods, like all the other wild animals out there.”

“Lie still,” she ordered, smoothing his hair off the side of his face. “You’re going to pull that leg off the stick, and you’ll bleed out before the ambulance gets here. My socks are too short to make a tourniquet, and I’m not tearing up my Tower of London T-shirt or using my favorite bra to save your life.”

“Thanks.” Joe closed his eyes, a wave of dizziness swelling over him, then sudden nausea. He swallowed hard.

“Are you going to hurl?”

He swallowed again. “I’m con-considering it.” He thought he might hear sirens in the distance, but his mind was so fuzzy, he could have imagined it.

“Please don’t.” She raised her head, listening. Then Scout, who had been standing at attention since they’d arrived, suddenly started barking. “I hear it, Scout. They’re almost here.” Kara patted the dog’s head affectionately and tapped Joe on the shoulder. “Hey, is there someone I can call for you? Do you have a wife up there at the house?”

He shook his head, too sick and pained to even form words.

“How about your sister—Annabelle, isn’t it? She still around River’s Edge? Or your brother? Oh, here they are!” She rose from sitting cross-legged by his head, in one lithe move, shouting, “Over here!”

He pictured the ambulance, which had stopped the whining siren noise, driving across his lawn and wondered briefly if they had managed to stay out of the vegetable garden he’d so carefully cultivated—the zucchini were flowering and the tomatoes had buds. He opened one eye long enough to see flashing blue and red lights. Crap, he thought as darkness overtook him.

End of Excerpt

This book will begin shipping August 6, 2024

Make it Real is currently available in digital format only:

ISBN: 978-1-962707-37-4

August 6, 2024

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