Teenagers, Jacqueline Guise thought. You can’t live with them; you can’t sedate them and stuff their lifeless bodies into a carnivorous plant.
“Jack!” she hollered up the stairs. “Get up!” She counted to five before landing a few solid thumps on the stairwell wall that adjoined her son’s second-floor bedroom. “Roll your lazy body out of bed, Jack-o! Don’t make me come up there!”
Her threats were interrupted by a wave of fatigue that left her leaning against the banister. Her original Plan B—namely, punching a boy-shaped hole in the wall and dragging him out of his bed if he didn’t materialize in ten seconds or less—seemed not only implausible, but impossible.
She squinted in the direction of the kitchen, trying to make out the time on the microwave. Nine twenty-five—can that be right? It was a rhetorical question; there was nothing wrong with the clock. She was just moving more slowly than she used to.
You’re going back to work today, she told herself. You have to. She touched the spot on her neck where they’d placed the tube for dialysis after she’d lost kidney function in the hospital. There was nothing there now, but the whole experience had been so harrowing, she liked to check now and then, just to be certain.
Retracing her path to the kitchen, she retrieved her mug of cold coffee from the counter and fought the urge to go back to bed. You could’ve had another hour of sleep. “Wasting an hour on hair and makeup just to go to work,” she muttered. “What a great idea that was.”
She did this a lot, scolding herself, but this time, her self-criticism was warranted. All the physical and emotional energy she poured into getting dolled up would only be converted into false hopes and pipe dreams, the net result being a cosmos that was wildly out of balance. Thanks to the Law of Conservation of Misery, the universe would then act to correct that imbalance by removing every good-looking single man in the state from her path for the entire day. It was only when she was dragging herself through a drugstore looking like someone with a mild case of bubonic plague that a baker’s dozen of virile, male-model types would materialize to flash-mob her in the cold-and-flu aisle.
Why’d you even bother?
She thought about going back to bed and trying again tomorrow. After all, the main benefit of being self-employed was the ability to show up whenever—or not at all. Plus, she’d been gone for almost three months; out of all the people she worked with, only two knew she was returning today, but even they didn’t realize that she was doing so against the advice of her doctor. And they definitely didn’t know the reason why: namely, she was dead-ass broke.
Upstairs, a door opened with a tentative, haunted house-worthy creeeak! A beat of silence was followed by the thunderous drum-roll of her son’s size-13 feet battering the stair treads. The cacophony roused Jinja, their miniature long-haired dachshund, from her bed in the solarium. Ever alert to any threat to Jacqueline’s person, the dog shot into the dining room in full attack mode, emitting a string of high-pitched yips.
Jacqueline closed her eyes and sighed heavily. An introvert through and through, she preferred to start her day with a mug of coffee, a glass of orange juice, and peaceful contemplation. Instead, she had to endure the Running of the Bulls first thing every morning, and at least twenty times a day after that. Setting the mug on the counter, she rushed into the dining room to play the role of domestic rodeo clown.
And just in time, too. Jinja had zeroed in on her six-foot-two, sixteen-year-old man-child, forcing him to defend his nether-bits against her teeth by performing an interpretation of Russian squat-kick dancing, complete with an enthusiastic “Hey!”
“Jinja!” Jacqueline shouted, stomping her foot. “I know it’s hard for your ping-pong brain to keep it all straight, but he’s still one of the two people living here!”
Undaunted, Jinja sniffed the air around Jack as if contemplating the idea that the oversized, malodorous, sub-adult human before her might indeed be in permanent residence at that location. Keeping her kielbasa-shaped body between Jack’s feet and Jacqueline’s, she cranked her neck back at a painful-looking angle, stared Jack straight in his nostrils and growled.
The dog was also an unabashed man-hater, a condition that Jacqueline could probably have learned to live with, if not embrace, were the dog’s ire reserved exclusively for murderous types breaking down the door. But in addition to Jinja’s regular assaults on Jack, she bared her teeth at every male who dared cross her path. The one and only time Jacqueline had invited a guy over for a home-cooked meal, Jinja’s rabid determination to turn his man-morsels into organic chew-toys had really dampened the romantic spark. His offer the next day—to have Jinja euthanized at no cost to Jacqueline—had snuffed it out altogether.
The drollest part of the never-ending dark comedy that was Jinja, Misandrist Ninja was that she was technically Jack’s dog. While Jinja had always preferred Jacqueline’s company to his, she’d liked Jack well enough until he’d hit puberty.
So we have that in common, at least, she thought wryly, scooping the dog off the floor and tucking her under her arm in a football hold.
Still bleary-eyed despite his unexpected brush with aerobic exercise, Jack lumbered towards her, looking wary, tufts of his ginger hair sprouting haphazardly from his head. “Yeah?”
“I went to reheat my coffee, and I found this.” Jacqueline pointed at the open microwave, where a stone-cold pancake-and-sausage-on-a-stick was marinating in a puddle of coagulated grease, separated from the glass turntable by nothing but a strip of paper towel. “Do I want to know how long this has been rotting in here?”
“Since last night,” he mumbled. “I forgot about it.”
“Any particular reason you didn’t nuke it on a plate?”
Jack spread his arms in exasperation. “I couldn’t find a plate!”
She reached up and opened a cabinet door, revealing a stack of perfectly serviceable, cobalt-blue plates. “What might these flat, round pieces of glass be, I wonder?”
“I meant that I couldn’t find a small plate,” he said. “They’re all dirty.”
She knew she was going to regret asking, but she had to know. “What difference does it make what size the plate is?”
“The dinner plates are huge! I don’t know—it felt weird to only use part of it.”
Having owned an adolescent for going on four years now, Jacqueline thought she’d become inured to their brand of irrational thinking. “Wow. Okay, first of all, that is exactly the kind of logic that Colorado legislators cite to keep the drinking and pot-smoking age at twenty-one. Secondly, the dishwasher still has to wash the whole plate no matter how much of it you get dirty! If it makes you feel better, lick the parts of it that your food doesn’t touch before you stick it in the dishwasher.”
“But at Grandma’s house you told me not to use a plate that was bigger than whatever I was putting on it!” he sputtered.
“Well, that’s because Grandma doesn’t have a dishwasher.”
He digested that for a second. “So?”
Since tormenting him was so much more fun when he believed she was serious, Jacqueline unleashed her super-stern, if-Mom-ain’t-happy-ain’t-nobody-happy face on him. “So, the size of allowable plate area shrinks in direct proportion to how much manual labor I have to perform to get it clean.” His reaction—eyes wide, mouth agape—it was too much. She tried and failed to fend off a bout of sputtering laughter that ended in a brief coughing fit.
Jack let out an aggrieved sigh. With his gorilla-like arms, he reached over her head and snatched the cold, blubbery, cylindrical stick of nastiness from the microwave.
She realized that he planned to eat the impaled pseudo-food, and wrinkled her nose in disgust. “You know, the thirty-second rule expired about ten hours ago. Aren’t you even going to nuke it, maybe try to kill a few pathogens?”
He shrugged. “That’s okay,” he said, taking a tentative bite. “My stomach acid will probably kill the germs.”
Probably? “Hold on,” she said, catching his elbow before he could turn away. “Before you take to your bed with salmonella poisoning, why don’t you tell me how you snuck in last night without getting caught.”
Jack froze in mid-chew. He blinked a few times before resuming chewing with the focus and fervor of a caveman masticating a strip of tree bark. He even held up his hand as if to say, “Bear with me, this could take a while.”
“Jack,” she said, very softly. Ripe with warning, the tone communicated a very specific message, namely: I don’t have the time or inclination to wait for you to make up a convincing lie, so let’s cut right through the bullshit, shall we?
Message received, he dutifully swallowed the doughy ball and frowned. “I guess I was hoping you wouldn’t notice.”
“High hopes, long falls, Jack—literally, in this case. You went through the attic, didn’t you?” Before he could answer, she added, “And please remember that I rarely, if ever, ask you a question that I don’t already know the answer to.”
“I don’t see what the big deal is,” he mumbled.
That’s because your pre-frontal cortex won’t be fully developed until you’re twenty-five.
While she’d have loved nothing more than to expand on that idea aloud, she knew better. Like most teens, Jack had a keen ear for anything that smacked of a lecture, and a solid history of tuning her out the moment he suspected he was hearing one. The result was a stalemate that forced her to resort to stealth tactics. In much the same way that she tricked Jinja into taking her thyroid medicine by pressing the pills into balls of raw hamburger, she stuffed pearls of wisdom inside snarky yet affectionate commentary before delivering them to Jack. That way, when she crammed them down his gullet, he’d lick his little adolescent chops and ask for more instead of choking on them.
“The ‘big deal,’” she said, “is that when desperate times call for desperate measures, fools are a lot more likely to rush in and do something dumb and dangerous, like climbing the cottonwood tree, crawling through the roof vent, and hopping through the rafters in a one-hundred-year-old attic.”
Jack rolled his eyes at her. “The house is a hundred years old, Mom. That doesn’t mean that the wood in the attic is a hundred years old.”
Jacqueline closed one eye, scrunched up her face, and made a real effort to track down the logic in that assertion. When her brain began to ache, she stopped. “You can’t have a one-hundred-year-old grandmother with fifty-year-old bones, Jack. Trust me: the wood in that attic is a century old, and—ow! Jinja, cut it out!” Tired of being held, the dog bucked and twisted in her arms. Jacqueline tightened her grip and carried her to the adjoining solarium, Jack trailing along behind them.
“But wouldn’t they—don’t people replace their roofs all the time?” said Jack, aghast. “Like if there’s a bad hailstorm or something? And what about the renovation? Wouldn’t they have replaced the roof then?”
“The roof tiles, maybe, for a hailstorm,” she said, depositing Jinja on the dog bed in the corner. Jinja set to work without delay, clawing at the blankets with paddle-shaped paws like she was digging a hole to the Indian Ocean. “The only attic rafters or roof joists they replaced during the renovation were in the houses where water had leaked in and rotted the wood.”
“Like Dannock Hall?” he said, referring to another of the old Victorian homes in their neighborhood.
“Like Dannock Hall.” She stooped, took a corner of the dog’s bed in each hand, and dragged it backwards across the solarium tiles, heading for a sunny spot. “Of course,” she said, grunting with effort, “the best way to test for water rot is to go up there and jump up and down on the beams every now and then. If you wind up on my bedroom floor, staring up at a Jack-shaped hole in the ceiling and wondering why you can’t feel anything from the neck down, that’s a sign that the wood’s probably rotted.”
With a terse “excuse me,” she edged around him, leaving him frozen to the spot, mouth and eyes wide with shock. As much as she hoped that she’d finally made a lasting impression on him, she knew his reaction would be fleeting. Still, if this was the day that he’d be experiencing a life-altering epiphany, the last thing she wanted to do was cut it short.
She turned her attention to three plastic trays of newly sprouted seedlings basking in the April morning sunlight on the wrought-iron baker’s rack she’d found at a garage sale years ago and had repurposed as a potting bench. Should I throw some more water on them before I go? she thought, eyeing the pooled water at the bottom of each tray. They don’t look like they need it, but what do I know?
Behind her, Jack chortled, his mouth full of food. “Did you wake up with the urge to kill a few plants today or something?”
His cheerful about-face came as no surprise to her; the full minute he’d spent being violently disgorged from the sweet bosom of ignorance counted as rigorous contemplation. Besides, her son had been hardwired with what his teachers had deemed a “happy-go-lucky” personality. While Jacqueline thought of his attitude as less “carefree” than “devil-may-care,” what was indisputable was that the kid just wasn’t capable of maintaining a bad mood for very long.
A trait he definitely did not get from you. “You’re hilarious,” she said, frowning at the plants. “Believe me, these weren’t my idea. Dagny McCormick’s father died of a stroke Saturday night; she flew home to South Carolina yesterday morning.”
“So you thought you’d do the neighborly thing and murder her plants for her while she was gone?”
“Hey, I was very clear with her about the pitfalls of asking. Some people just can’t accept it.”
“What, that a landscape designer doesn’t actually have to know how to grow anything?”
“Rude, the man-boy is,” Jacqueline said, doing a fairly credible imitation of Yoda’s reedy high-pitched croak. The trick, she’d found, was to inhale while speaking instead of exhaling. “And yet, speak the truth, he does.”
When it came to the cultivation of “ornamental plants”—a fancy term for grass, flowers, shrubs and trees whose primary function was “looking pretty”—Jacqueline was functionally hopeless. It was a fact that never failed to baffle people, even after she explained to them that spending four years and sixty thousand dollars on a landscape-design degree did not, in fact, make her an “overeducated gardener.”
She leaned forward, hands on her knees, for a closer look at the soggy seedlings. “I swear, if I had a dollar for every time I had to explain to someone the difference between a landscape designer and a gard—” She froze. “Wait, is that normal?” She leaned in closer. “That’s normal, isn’t it?” It sounded more like a plea than a question.
Jack peered over her shoulder. “What?”
Holding her hair back with one hand, she angled the tray towards the light to get a better look at the white wispy substance that enveloped the base of one of the fledgling plants. “Please tell me that’s not mold.” Whatever it was, it wasn’t confined to one seedling; every single plant in all three trays was covered with the cottony filaments. “Oh, my God, it’s everywhere!”
Jack inspected an adjacent tray. “Sure looks like mold to me,” he said cheerfully. “Good job, Mom.”
She covered her face with her hands and let out a terrific groan. “Isn’t there a beam in the attic you could be testing for water-rot?”
With a laugh, he disappeared into the kitchen, leaving her alone to troubleshoot the moldy plants. With every passing second, she grew more pissed off—at Dagny for dumping the stupid plants on her in the first place, at herself for not refusing her, at people in general for not believing her when she told them that the only green thing she’d ever had any luck growing was bathroom mold—and even that was more black than green—and at the damn doctor whose misdiagnosis in February had left her bedridden for months and unable to work. She’d quickly exhausted what little savings she’d had just to keep them fed. Her credit cards were maxed out, she hadn’t paid the rent since February, and she was two months behind on her lease at the garden center, which meant either returning to work before she was completely recovered or embracing homelessness and starvation.
“Screw it,” she snapped, snatching a white plastic trashcan from the floor. She held it level with the counter, ready—nay, eager—to sweep all three trays into the trash. “They’re as good as dead anyway; Dagny’ll just have to deal with it.”
Happily for her neighbor, the urge was followed by a moment of clarity, during which Jacqueline realized that before Dagny would be able to “deal with it,” she’d first have to learn about it—namely, from Jacqueline.
And what better way for you to express your condolences for the loss of her father, she thought, than by shoving three empty plant trays at her and saying, ‘Speaking of things you loved that died last week…’?
“One of these nights,” she muttered, “I’m going to smother my conscience with a pillow while it’s sleeping.”
She dropped the trashcan and dragged a cardboard box overflowing with gardening books off the bottom shelf of the baker’s rack. Gifts from Flora Tilly, the passive-aggressive woman who owned Beanstalk Garden Center and Landscape Design and from whom Jacqueline leased office space, the books were a biennial nod to the false-but-widely-accepted contradiction that existed between her occupation and what Tilly lovingly called “our little Jacqui’s herbicidal tendencies.”
Tilly had been in the plant nursery and landscape design business for over thirty years; she knew it was a false contradiction, but that had never stopped her from finding Jacqueline’s predicament side-splittingly hilarious. How many times had Jacqueline explained to Tilly that no book would ever succeed in making a gardener out of her? She’d lost count. Eventually, she’d resigned herself to receiving the books from the woman twice a year until one of them died.
With a sigh, she plucked Tilly’s most recent gift from the top of the pile. A tome for beginner gardeners called I Tried but It Died, Jacqueline observed that the title could easily serve as the overarching theme of the state of her life at the moment, just by swapping the word “It” for the word “Hope.”
Thanks to the excellent table of contents, she quickly found what she was looking for in a sidebar sandwiched between “Mistake #13: Dead In the Water” and “Mistake #14: Prick, Don’t Pick!” It didn’t take long to understand why the information had been relegated to the non-fiction equivalent of an afterthought. Cleverly headlined “Breaking the Mold!” it offered two options for killing all manner of plant-slaying fungi. The first called for placing the dirt in question outside in direct sunlight for one day. A second, faster method suggested baking the soil in the oven at two hundred degrees for thirty minutes. On the latter approach, the author cautioned, “The heated soil may give off an unpleasant odor, one that may find its way into your clothing, carpets, and furnishings.”
Jacqueline interpreted the phrase “unpleasant odor” to mean “your entire house and everything in it will smell like composted animal offal and burnt dirt for the foreseeable future.” Yeah—no, she thought. Besides, she might not be a master gardener or anything, but even a dumb ol’ landscape designer like her could deduce that sterilizing moldy soil in an oven was a method best tried before there were real, live plants growing in it.
She’d hoped for a less deadly but instantaneous cure, but the book’s take-home message seemed to be: “Once one plant is afflicted, it will relentlessly decimate every seedling within a mile of Plant Zero. Good luck!”
Sunshine it is, she decided.
Sliding one of the seedling trays onto the palm of her hand, she crossed the solarium to the door that opened onto their private, fenced courtyard.
And then she saw him.
Standing on the sidewalk just outside their courtyard gate, he was bent over, reading the solid bronze, post-mounted plaque:
GOSFIELD BURY HAS BEEN LISTED
IN THE NATIONAL REGISTER OF HISTORIC PLACES
BY THE UNITED STATES DEPARTMENT OF THE INTERIOR
ERECTED IN 1888
RESTORED IN 2010
“How’d the Vic Buff get in here?” she muttered.
“Vic Buff,” short for “Victorian Buff,” was what Morvienna Minor residents called people like the man outside—or they used to, anyway. Vic Buffs crisscrossed the country in search of Victorian-era structures to gape at, hunting bronze plaques containing the magical words “National Register of Historic Places” with the same enthusiasm that Jack hunted down wild Pokémon with his cellphone, and neither party was averse to committing a little trespassing when the need arose.
She wondered how the guy had made it past the fence, perimeter alarms, cameras, guards and all the other supposedly high-tech security measures the neighborhood of Morvienna Minor had put in place after the renovations.
“Well this is just great,” Jacqueline said with a scowl. “Why don’t we see how many interruptions we can jam-pack into a single morn—”
The man at the gate looked up from the plaque and trained his eyes directly on her. Jacqueline’s mouth dropped open, the thought left unfinished and forgotten as she beheld what was, hands-down, the sexiest trespasser she’d ever clapped eyes on.
“Holy shit.” Jacqueline jerked backwards in surprise, nearly dropping the seedling tray in the process. “Yum!”
He couldn’t really see her, she knew. The solarium faced east, the sky was clear, and the April sun was already high in the sky. If he’d been hoping to catch a glimpse of the inside of the house, the only thing he’d find in the wavy, antique cylinder glass at that distance was his own distorted reflection staring back at him.
And what a reflection it was. His blue eyes, framed as they were by dark brows and disgustingly long lashes that she could see even from fifteen feet away, were tempting enough, but it was his lips that tipped the scales to “Sexiest Trespasser Alive.” Exquisitely shaped, the bottom slightly fuller than the top, Jacqueline could imagine nibbling on them in the throes of passion.
Mmm-mmm-mmm, she thought. You can invade my home and trespass against me any day.
There was a time when it had been normal to find the occasional stranger pressing their face against a window, or staring up, dumbstruck, at Gosfield Bury’s Queen-Anne facade, but that was back when Vic Buffs had still been welcomed in the upper-valley Annandale Park neighborhood of Morvienna Minor. After the big restoration project, though, the twenty-something mansions had become overnight tourist destinations. Residents quickly grew tired of the neverending stream of strangers photographing, peering at, and generally picking over every square inch of their homes.
Jacqueline had mostly shrugged off the post-renovation incursions until one sleepy summer morning when an overeager Vic Buff—one whose philosophy on personal-property encroachment had consisted of “trespassing, schmesspassing”—had broken a pane of glass in the solarium door and let himself in. Carrying her coffee and orange juice to the solarium as she did most sunny mornings, Jacqueline had been shocked to find a young man in jeans and a red T-shirt examining the built-in cabinet of sun-bleached drawers that made up a third of the room’s only non-glass wall. Oblivious to her arrival, he went over the cabinet with the concentration and fervor of an Antiques Roadshow appraiser. Only after opening and closing all forty-one drawers did he realize that he wasn’t alone. He’d calmly looked Jacqueline over, from her moose slippers and rumpled purple pajamas to the pink mug in her hand, the latter of which featured a bleary-eyed, beleaguered Minnie Mouse in a fuzzy bathrobe and hair curlers, along with the words “MORNINGS AIN’T PRETTY!”
Jacqueline liked to believe that, had she been busted by a homeowner in the middle of breaking and entering, her reaction would include the following: a yelp of surprise, repeated, tearful statements of remorse, and at least one intensive pants-shitting. The kid’s face had brightened, though, like he’d been expecting her. Grasping the knob of one of the miniature drawers between his fingers, he’d briskly slid it back-forth-back-forth before looking to her and asking, “Any idea what these drawers were used for originally?”
In exchange for not calling the police, he’d paid her five hundred dollars to replace the glass. As an added bonus, she got to tell everyone about the home-invading Vic Buff who couldn’t wait to get into her drawers.
Before the week was out, a seven-foot, spike-topped, wrought-iron fence had gone up around Morvienna Minor, door-to-door mail delivery became a thing of the past, and a gate house, stocked with round-the-clock security guards, monitored all comings and goings. While Jacqueline seriously doubted that any correlation existed between her encroacher and the sudden security surge, it had signaled the end of the casual trespasser in the Minors.
Until Mr. Yum, anyway. He walked backwards a few paces and rubbed the back of his neck with one hand as he peered up at the house, drawing her attention to hair the color of light brown sugar that fell across his forehead from a haphazard side part.
She forgot her earlier grumblings about time wasted on her toilette and congratulated herself for having had the foresight to put on a little makeup. Thanks to all the weight she’d lost in the last few months, she practically swam inside her clothes now, but she’d found a pair of jeans deep in the bowels of her closet that worked. Her chartreuse T-shirt and black Keds were, admittedly, the two glaring, embarrassing downsides to the day’s ensemble, but it was too late to do anything about them now.
Balancing the seedling tray on the fingers of her left hand, Jacqueline took a deep breath, opened the door, and stepped outside, smiling. “Can I help you with something?”
Mr. Yum’s eyes went straight to her. His half-smile died before it could fully form, replaced by a look that would have been perfect if he’d been on a plane at 30,000 feet and had just been ordered to “brace for impact.” Shock rapidly decayed into what Jacqueline could only describe as “manic curiosity.” He spared a brief glance for the seedlings before scrutinizing her face with the intensity of a quantum tunneling microscope. It was as if her thoughts were core samples and he was determined to drill into her brain and extract every last one of them.
Jacqueline blinked and took a reflexive half-step backwards.
“Sorry,” he mumbled, ducking his head and giving the back of his neck another vigorous scrub, a nervous tic, she thought, that must leave him with one hell of a friction burn on rough days. As far as self-soothing methods went, though, it seemed to do the trick. Mr. Yum reestablished eye contact, no longer resembling someone with a robust methamphetamine habit.
Judging by the two or three days of scruff covering his face, daily shaving didn’t appear to be a high priority for him. Smokescreen, she decided. A guy with a face like his—conspicuously, outrageously attractive to the point of making women envious—most people’s first instinct was probably to dismiss him as a vacuous pretty-boy. Had she seen him at a greater distance (and clean-shaven, perhaps), she might have done the same. Up close and personal, though, there was no mistaking the magnitude of thought and emotion churning away behind those sexy blue eyes.
“Are you looking for someone?” she said, sounding more alarmed and a lot less charming than she’d planned.
“Believe it ur nae,” he said, “Ah think Ahm lookin’ fer ye.”
Okay, he didn’t really sound like he was doing a Sean Connery or Billy Connolly impression, but there was something unusual about the accent of those born and raised in Annandale Park that a non-local could hear the moment a native opened their mouth. Mr. Yum’s physical attributes alone would’ve unsettled most women, but combined with a Scottish lilt, no matter how subtle, well, it was enough to unleash a lifetime of sex fantasies inspired by bodice-ripper classics such as The Heinous Highlander and Lust by the Loch. A comprehensive mental review of said fantasies would take time, so that would have to wait for later.
And while she’d very much wanted to believe him when he’d said, “I’m looking for you,” the fact was that he’d looked away again, addressing the words to a clump of creeping thyme sprouting from a sidewalk crack near her shoe. It was too bad, really, because Jacqueline was certain that she’d been looking for him as well—like, her entire life.
“Are you Jacqueline Guise?” said Mr. Yum.
He knows my name! “Only for the next ten hours.” Flashing what she hoped was a playful smile, she flipped her wrist as if checking her watch. “Once I’m on the pole tonight, I go by ‘Amber Waves,’” she said with a wink. She swung the gate open, ready to catalog any anatomical offerings of note that had been obscured by the fence.
He gave her a curious look, glanced at the trussed-up bundle of papers in his hand, and said, “These were tied to your gate.”
Jacqueline’s smile deflated like a cheap air mattress. “Oh!–Sorry!–Thanks!–No worries!” she chirruped, sounding more like an interjection-generator gone wild than a sentient human being.
After a long pause, during which he was no doubt trying to decide which of her sentiments to respond to, he replied with a very confused-sounding, “Uh, sure.”
Having forgiven and apologized for every possible transgression of the last sixty seconds, Jacqueline clamped her mouth shut and looked around for something close-by to set the tray on.
“Here,” he said, jiggling the stack like he was impatient to be rid of it. With his free hand, he reached for the tray. “I’ll trade you.”
His gaze was so damn potent that she instantly forgot what it was that they were trying to accomplish. And then disaster struck. Despite the mail having been packed together and trussed up by an octogenarian, twine-tying, post-carrying expert, a large slick piece slid free of the pile and fell. Jacqueline ran a split-second risk-benefit analysis on the prospect of successfully retrieving it from the sidewalk and returning to a standing position without dropping the tray. Based on the physical and mental prowess she’d exhibited thus far, tragedy seemed the most likely outcome.
He moved fast, though, snatching it out of the air in one smooth movement. With a start of horror, she saw it was a glossy magazine called Girls and Corpses. On the cover was a woman dressed like an R-rated candy striper who, from the looks of it, had just successfully removed the top of a man’s skull with a hacksaw. The sidebar teasers included gems such as “How To Do Your Own Autopsy,” “Sex with Strangers,” and “Traumatized Man with No Brain Speaks!”
Jacqueline didn’t need a mirror to know that her face was as red as a poppy, her many freckles undoubtedly resembling a severe heat rash begging for a topical steroid. Oh, Gwynnen, she thought, visualizing her best friend and the one person culpable for this humiliation, I’m definitely going to kill you now. She supposed she ought to be grateful that only one of the publications in the stack had fallen out. A rather eclectic mix, they included Modern Drunkard, Serial Killers Magazine, and the one that she somehow found most disturbing of all: Sheep!
Without a word, he placed the magazine on top of the rest of the still-bound mail, took the seedling tray from her hand, and held the bundle out to her.
“They do that sometimes,” she babbled, pulling the mail to her chest in an awkward bear hug—anything to hide that awful cover. “If there’s too much mail in your box, the postman—postal carrier, I guess, but he really is a man in this case—ties it all together and takes it to the guys in the gate house to bring to you.” Like it was her failure to regularly retrieve her mail that was the real concern, and not her apparent proclivity for soft porn aimed at the serial-killer demographic. “Anyway,” she mumbled, “thanks.”
“No problem,” he said, lowering his gaze to a spot next to her feet, a piece of “aw-shucks,” shy-guy theater that she’d have bought hook, line and sinker if he hadn’t brazenly brain-scanned her a minute ago.
She wished him gone so she could get started on what would surely be an all-day bout of self-loathing, but he made no move to leave. “I’m sure you already know this,” he said, “but your Chrysogonum virginianum are infested with Scierotinia sclerotiorum.”
For the first time ever, Jacqueline wished that seasoned landscape designers went around saying things like, “Let’s make Alcea rosea the focal point in the back, plant Phlox paniculata in front, Callendula officianalis for the border, and we’ll underplant the whole thing with Narcissus cyclamineus.” But they didn’t. Whether she was placing an order or issuing instructions, she used common names—hollyhocks, garden phlox, marigolds, daffodils—resorting to the genus and species of binomial nomenclature only when necessary to prevent a mix-up where two flowers shared the same common name.
She made a grunting, quasi-interrogative noise, followed by an only slightly more intelligible clarification: “My what is infested with what?”
Something akin to a muscle spasm tugged at one corner of his mouth. Lifting his chin at the tray, he said, “Sorry. What I meant was that your goldenstar seedlings are infested with cotton rot.”
That’s what had you all riled up? she thought, recalling his unhinged reaction when he’d first set eyes on her. A few moldy plants? It was a good thing their conversation hadn’t turned to her proclivity for letting heads of lettuce putrefy in her refrigerator produce bin. And who knew what he would’ve done if the scores of plants she’d neglected to death over the years had lived to tell the tale? “Oh, these aren’t mine,” she said. “I’m just killing them for a neighbor while she’s out of town.” After a half-second pause, she added, “She made me.”
‘She made me’? she thought, cringing. What are you, five years old?
The corner of Mr. Yum’s mouth twitched again. “Gardening not your thing, I take it?”
Jacqueline snorted softly at the colossal understatement. “Not so much, no.”
He cocked his head, considering her. “You picked a strange place to work,” he said with a glance at the words “Beanstalk Garden Center” emblazoned across her T-shirt. “Or do you just wear that shirt ironically?”
Oh, thank God, she thought, relieved by the opportunity to confirm her occupation, especially after the Girls and Corpses cover. “I’m just the lowly landscape designer,” she said. “They don’t let me touch anything green.”
“Well, that’s a shame, although I have to say, for someone with a gardening aversion, you have an awful lot of planters.”
She looked over her shoulder at the menagerie of natural stone, petrified wood, and glazed-ceramic planters, hanging pots, and basket trees lined up along the fence. “Believe it or not, it used to look like the Hanging Gardens of Babylon in here.”
“Really? What happened?”
“Oh, well…” Why did you even bring it up? She stared at an urn-shaped, white-marble planter carved with bunches of plump grapes and even plumper cherubs. Careful what you say, Jacqueline. “I didn’t actually do any of it.” Nice and vague—good job. Now smile. You look like your dog just died. “Once I was in charge of it, though, everything was dead within a month.” Because you were depressed and didn’t water anything. “I did try to grow things after that. Yeah, like, two years later. “When I ran out of money killing store-bought plants, I took a stab at growing them from seed.” She shrugged. “I figured it would be a cheaper way to commit mass herbicide.”
The corner of his mouth twitched. “How did that work out?”
“Ha! I ended up killing everything in sight. I did develop a whole new appreciation for silk flowers, though.”
“Don’t be too hard on yourself; the learning curve is pretty steep if you’re going it alone. It’s a lot easier when you have someone experienced teaching you the ropes.”
She laughed. “I’m sure it is.” Frankly, the thought of him playing the role of master gardener to her eager apprentice was the best damn argument she’d ever heard for indentured servitude. I’d sign those papers in a New York minute. With an arch glance at the tray in his hand, she said “As you can see, my skills haven’t really improved with time.”
“These? They’ll be fine. Just fill a spray bottle with hydrogen peroxide and give the dirt a good soaking. It won’t hurt the plants, but it’ll kill the fungus. It’ll oxygenate the roots, too, which, frankly, is your bigger problem at the moment. You really don’t want to have standing water in the bottom of the tray like that.”
Jacqueline was skeptical, considering that “replace H2O with H2O2” was not a method mentioned in the gardening book. Before she could question his advice, though, he added, “If you have any other seedlings you’re killing for your friend, treat them all; cotton rot spores spread like wildfire. And if you have cinnamon, sprinkle it on top of the soil. It’s a natural anti-fungal.”
She couldn’t tell if he was pulling her leg or not. “Cinnamon.”
“Works like a charm. Promise.”
“If you say so.” Personally, she thought it was going to take a lot more than a dusting of spice to keep them alive. “If you have any other charms I should know about, I’m all ears.” Recognizing double entendres only after the fact: her one true talent. “Uh, what I—if I—” she stammered, trying to recover. “If I do that—the peroxide and cinnamon, I mean—what are the odds that these will live until Wednesday? Because I don’t care if they live forever, I just need them to not die in my possession.”
Mr. Yum’s eyes twinkled with amusement. “I’d place the odds somewhere around ninety-eight percent—ninety-nine if you stop overwatering them and let them breathe a little.”
“Oh.” She hoped she didn’t look as disappointed as she sounded. “Okay, thanks.” Yeah, these damn things are as good as dead.
He snorted softly. “Are you telling me that ninety-nine-percent odds just aren’t good enough for you?”
Jacqueline smiled. “Let’s just say that I prefer guarantees of the one-hundred-percent variety.”
“A one-hundred-percent guarantee, huh?” His gaze softened, his eyes turning about ten shades darker as he pondered that.
Oh. My. God. The man was a heady blend of physicality and intellect. It was too much; she had to look away before her tongue got tied up in knots that couldn’t be untangled.
“How’s this for a one-hundred-percent guarantee?” he said. “‘If you never plant a seed, I can one-hundred-percent guarantee you that nothing you grow will ever flower.’”
She chuckled. “It’s like the pessimist’s version of ‘you reap what you sow.’ Perfect.”
For a half-second, she thought the retort had gone right over his head. His lips parted a little, his eyebrows knitted together, and he looked—well, she didn’t know. Confused? Displeased? Startled?
Good job, Jacqueline. Only you could scare off a man with a proverb.
“Sorry, I don’t think I ever introduced myself,” he said, reaching over the gate to proffer his hand. “I’m Dane.”
“Hi,” she said, but in her head, she was thinking, ‘Dane’? My God, is there anything about the guy that isn’t sexy?
By the time their “handshake” was over—if you could even call it that—she was able to answer that with an unequivocal, Not really, no. It had started off fairly standard, as handshakes went, but instead of releasing her hand outright at the end, he rotated his wrist a quarter-turn. With her palm gently pressed between his thumb and fingers, he liberated her slowly, one inch of skin at a time.
The moment her brain was back online, she wasted no time in demonstrating how unaffected she was by a sexy man’s sexy hand-shaking ways by brain-farting, “Do you know what month it is?”
He raised an eyebrow. “Uh, I believe it’s still April. All the way through Friday.”
Cheeks burning, she rolled her eyes at her stupidity. “Sorry, I meant the time. I was on my way to work, but I—here, I can take that,” she said, relieving him of the seedling tray and sidestepping it over to the patio table.
“Speaking of work,” he said, “Flora Tilly gave me your address. I figured it wouldn’t hurt to drop by unannounced since we’re practically neighbors.”
Still rattled by the handshake, the oddity of a stranger asking Tilly for her home address hardly registered with her.
“So, I have a little proposal for you, Jacqueline Guise.”
Locking onto the “will you marry me?” definition of the word “proposal,” she stood prepared to answer him with a resounding, “Would now be convenient?”
Rolling his shoulders forward, he stuffed his fingers into the front pockets of his jeans, a stance that allowed her to appreciate the sinewy, tanned splendor of his forearms. It also gave her an excellent view of the small tattoo on the back of his left hand, a gold circle nested inside a thick, gold outer ring. Jacqueline blinked and took another hard look at it, but she couldn’t decide if the shape in the center was ovoid or just a regular, symmetrical circle.
And then their interlude went straight off a cliff, starting with nine little words: “How would you like to redesign the Castle pleasance?”
Jacqueline’s attraction for him shriveled up, desiccated, and blew away in a puff of dust. After a stunned pause, she had just enough mental wherewithal to utter a single word. Unfortunately, the word she went with was “What?” when it should have been “No.” Somewhat belatedly, she thought, And what the hell is a ‘pleasance?’
Misinterpreting her reaction as “speechless with gratitude,” he gave her a benevolent, if closed-lip, smile. “Of course you’ll live at the Castle for the summer. The contract comes with free room and board, invitations to Castle festivals, access to all Castle activities and amenities, including spa services, the tennis courts, the natatorium, Castle Peak for hiking and rock climbing, the Fingers for swimming and tubing—”
“I can’t. Sorry,” she said, backing away from the fence.
He looked at her like he couldn’t believe what he was hearing. “You’d live at the Castle for the summer,” he repeated.
“Yeah, I heard you the first time.” She’d worked her way back to the solarium door, had her hand on the doorknob. “I appreciate the offer, but I can’t do it.”
“But Tilly said—”
“I only rent office space from Tilly. She’s not my boss.”
“I realize that, but—”
She’d opened the door, had made it across the threshold, when he called to her. “Jacqueline?”
Using the door as a shield, she peered around the edge of it. Far from being angry over the wasted trip, he seemed highly amused. “You might want to change your clothes—after you treat your seedlings, I mean—so you don’t reinfect everything. You’re probably covered in white rot spores.”
“Oh. Yeah, okay, I—I’ll…” She never finished the thought, though, because the words ‘covered in white rot’ were still floating in the air before her, much like mold spores. Forget “changing her clothes,” she felt like drop-kicking the seedlings over the fence, stripping naked in the courtyard, diving into the house like she was dodging sniper fire, and taking a bath in rubbing alcohol.
Rot! I’m covered in rot! ROT! She wondered if perhaps it wouldn’t be faster and more effective if she just burned down the house with her still in it.
From his pocket, he produced a business card. Placing it on top of the fence-post cap, he said, “Give me a call today when you have time, and let’s discuss this, okay?” He started to walk away, but then stopped and turned back. “Oh, and if you ever get serious about gardening, I’d recommend subscribing to Horticulture Magazine in addition to, uh”—he paused, looking rather pointedly at the sheaf of mail still interred in her bosom, his bluish-gray eyes overflowing with mirth—“the other publications you normally read.”
With that, he turned on his heel and walked away down the sidewalk.
“A man’s home is his castle,” or so the saying went. In the case of the Gyant family, it wasn’t just an empty metaphor; their home really was a castle. A couple of years before, the Denver Post had included the Castle in a feature spotlighting the state’s historic properties:
Perched atop Castle Peak, the spires, steeply pitched roofs, and gray stone towers of Caisteal anns an Neil—Scots-Gaelic for “Castle in the Clouds”—can be seen from almost anywhere in the valley community of Annandale Park. While it’s tempting to imagine “the Castle,” as it’s known locally, as a relic of the Middle Ages where Sleeping Beauty might have slumbered away the centuries awaiting love’s first kiss, the structure is actually a product of the French Renaissance Revival architectural style of the late 1800s. Built between 1890 and 1894 by one of the Industrial Age’s many “new money” Scottish immigrants, Gormán Géant (who later anglicized the family name to “Gyant”), the Castle comprises just one piece of the vast Castle Hills estate.
Jacqueline supposed that if she happened to be a certain beautiful, yet somnolent, princess looking for a classy place to hole up in while waiting for an eligible prince to wander by—preferably one with a penchant for kissing unresponsive women and a willingness to hack his way through the back forty—the Castle would definitely make her short list. Since none of those descriptors applied to her, however, she was perfectly content to stay put in the valley for the summer.
At least that’s the line I’m going to use on anyone who asks me why I turned down the project.
“You bellowed?” said Jack. Wearing nothing but socks and a gray T-shirt that reached his mid-thighs, her son slid into the solarium like Tom Cruise in Risky Business, took one look at Jacqueline bent over the seedlings, a jar of cinnamon in one hand and a brown plastic bottle of hydrogen peroxide in the other, and laughed. “And you’re lecturing me on ‘desperate measures.’” He frowned at the plants. “You know what you have?”
“A mouthy son?” she said, pouring the hydrogen peroxide into a spray bottle.
“No, you have—oh, what’s it called…?” He snapped his fingers in frustration. “Ugh! You know: when stuff just, like, turns into gold?”
Jack did this to her all the time, peppering her with half-formed questions in expectation of an immediate answer, like she was a Google search box made flesh. Lately, she’d begun treating his incomprehensible utterances like they were speed-round challenges in an imaginary game show called Word Association. It was sort of like brainstorming crossword puzzle clues, if the puzzles in question had been written by a drunk, crazy person.
Jacqueline considered “when stuff just, like, turns into gold” before beginning. “Alchemy. Gold digger. Rich as Croesus. The goose that laid the golden egg. The Midas touch—”
“The Midas touch!” he shouted, relieved. “Only not, because you’re the exact opposite.”
She sighed. “Okay, I officially have no idea what we’re talking about now.”
“You have the Roundup touch,” he said, leaning in to inspect the soggy, fungus-infested seedlings. “Everything you touch turns into dead plants.”
Screwing the lid on the spray bottle, Jacqueline rolled her eyes. “Aren’t you the least bit curious why I woke you up on a teacher’s workday?”
“The microwave wasn’t it?”
She shook her head. “I need you to take care of the Cow today. Tomorrow’s the big day.”
It wasn’t a real cow, of course. Even in the town of Annandale Park, nestled in the wide upland valley of the Colorado Rocky Mountain Front Range, the keeping of pasture animals was frowned upon. “The Cow” was the name of their old, decrepit, rust-colored Pontiac Aztec.
“Take her over to that self-service car wash next to the fire station on Larkspur,” she said. “I left five bucks in quarters on the table. That should be enough to vacuum the inside, too.”
“I still can’t believe you’re selling the Cow,” said Jack.
“I am not selling her,” she said, attacking the cotton rot with blasts of hydrogen peroxide from the sprayer. “Selling is what you do when you have something of actual value that other people are willing to trade for cash.”
“Wait—so you’re just giving her away?”
She had to squint into the sun to look at him. “Jack, the Cow has 300,000 miles on her. Lately, she’s been in the shop more than she’s been in our garage, and now the transmission’s going. As far as Blue Book value goes, she’s practically worthless. And when a car goes from being a solution to a problem to being the problem, it’s time to get rid of it. We’re donating it to charity.”
“Is that what you’re planning to do when I become a ‘worthless problem’?” he said with a snort. “Get rid of me?”
‘When’? she thought with an inner giggle. What do you mean ‘when’? “Sweetie, the IRS gives me a generous tax deduction as long as I keep you breathing for six months out of every year, so ‘no’—well, not until you turn eighteen and graduate from high school, anyway.” Moving quickly, she landed an affectionate kiss on his cheek. “After that, you’re dead to me.”
“Hey!” he yelled, laughing as he stumbled over his clown-shoe-sized feet in an attempt to escape. With one of his disproportionately large hands, he swabbed the side of his face, removing all traces of unwanted mother love.
“Plus,” she said, “the Safe Haven laws in Colorado only apply to mothers who abandon newborns less than seventy-two hours old at fire stations. They don’t accept teenage boys with armpit hair and an attitude problem.” She returned to dousing the seedlings with peroxide. “I already checked.”
“It’s just—I can’t believe we won’t have the Cow anymore.”
“That’s funny, because I can’t remember the last time you drove the Cow. Can you?”
Frankly, his apathetic attitude when it came to driving still chapped her ass, especially considering that the whole point of her shelling out hundreds of dollars to a driving school had been to improve the odds of him one day getting into a vehicle and driving away from her house, preferably towards his own permanent abode, financed by full-time, gainful employment.
“If it makes you feel any better,” she said, “most people tend not to care about their stuff until it’s taken away. Then they suddenly can’t live without it. Economists call it ‘the endowment effect.’ I learned about it on the Hidden Brain podcast the other day.”
Jack rolled his eyes. “How is that useful in the real world?”
Since she’d just used his reaction to her donating the Cow to charity as an example, she was at a loss as to how to answer. Maybe he thinks the jury’s still out on whether or not this is the real world. “Haven’t you ever wondered why car salesmen are so eager to get people to test drive new cars?”
“So people can see how it handles before they buy it.” He looked like he was itching to dip the word “obviously” into a bucket of condescension and tack it onto the end of the sentence to air dry.
She snorted. “What are you, a Car and Driver reviewer?” Taking the cap off the jar of cinnamon, she pinched some of it between her fingers and began sprinkling it onto the soil. “They want you to drive it because they want you in it. They want your hands on the steering wheel. They want you playing with all the buttons. They hope you’ll become attached to it, so that when you get back to the dealership, you won’t want to give it back. That’s the endowment effect.” She turned to him, eyebrow raised. “Sound familiar?”
She wasn’t surprised when he rolled his eyes. “Where are the car keys? In your purse?”
“On the kitchen counter next to the toaster.”
Once she was done spicing up the seedlings, Jacqueline took the trays outside and left them on the patio table to dry while she was at work. Hopefully they won’t be dead when I get home.
She was clearing her fungicide tools from the counter of the baker’s rack when Jack poked his head into the solarium. “What am I doing with the Cow again—after the washing and vacuuming, I mean? Taking her to a fire station or something?”
It was so very, very tempting to answer “yes”—just for fun. Poor kid; he was as gullible and trusting as they came, and she was a practical joke-playing, asshole of a parent, the kind who rustled her kid out of bed on a snowy morning and told him that school was canceled only after he was kitted out like an Arctic explorer, trudging out the door into the blizzard. Sanity prevailed, however.
“Just to clarify,” she said, “the fire station is where you abandon an unwanted baby. You’re taking the Cow to the DIY car wash, which is next to the fire station, ding-dong. In a perfect world, you’d drive her back home when you’re done and park her in the garage. The charity’s sending someone out to pick her up tomorrow morning.”
“I just don’t understand why I have to do this,” he whined.
She glanced down at her chartreuse T-shirt, where three-inch-high, kelly green letters spelled out the words “Beanstalk Garden Center.” “Would I be caught dead wearing this unless I was actually preparing to go there?”
Smirking, he said, “I thought you looked a little pasty today.”
It was another gentle reminder that a teenager’s purpose on Earth was not to boost the flagging self-esteem of its mother. That said, he wasn’t wrong; nothing struck terror in the heart of a fair-skinned, blue-eyed, freckly redhead like the color chartreuse.
She whipped up her hand, palm out, and shoved it at his face. “Silence, minion! Just make sure the Cow’s clean before I get home tonight, or I’ll be forced to smite you.” She eyed his bare legs. “And I need you to give me a ride to work; it’d be great if you were wearing pants.”
Smiling broadly, he snapped his feet together, his back ramrod straight. “Sir, yes, sir!” he barked, performing a snappy salute before disappearing into the kitchen.
For a few seconds, Jacqueline stared at the space he’d vacated. The older Jack got, the more his mannerisms resembled his father’s—his smile, the way he stood, even the way he ate, with his tall frame hunched over the table in an effort to decrease the distance between the plate and his mouth. Given that Jack had no memory of the man, it couldn’t be a result of conscious mimicry.
Must be genetic, she thought, screwing the lid back on the jar of cinnamon. “You reap what you sow,” she murmured. “Reap it and weep.”
“Are you going to the Rally?”
Jacqueline awoke from her snooze with a start. “I’m not sleeping,” she announced.
From the driver’s seat, Jack gave her a sidelong glance. “I never said you were.”
If you’re going to convince people that you’re healthy enough to go back to work, she thought, maybe don’t nod off like an old lady in a rocking chair. Just a thought.
They were idling at a stoplight at the top of Bloody Knock Hill, a “smallish mountain” with a grade so severe, it could double as a climbing wall. From this vantage point, Jacqueline could see all the way up and down the valley. At the bottom of the Bloody Knock, Beanstalk Trail ran alongside Bellflower Creek. Cutting a swath through a prairie grass meadow, the trail rose up and disappeared at the base of Castle Peak into dense, towering stands of Douglas fir, ponderosa pine, and box-elder maples that were dwarfed in turn by the colossal red rock formations looming over them. Known as the Fingers, they erupted from the base of Castle Peak like jagged, bloody fangs from a jaw bone. The largest of them, one-and-a-half times the length of a football field, stretched a third of the way up the side of the peak, eternally reaching for the Castle at the top.
Besides their fabulously wealthy friends and guests, the notoriously secretive Gyant family forbade most outsiders, but there were still a few photos—most authorized, some clandestine—that could be found on the internet. The east-side windows of the Castle overlooked the relatively boring valley of Annandale Park. Judging by the pictures she’d seen, the Castle’s north-, south- and west-side windows offered views that were ten times more dramatic: wide expanses of open meadows awash in a sea of waist-high native grasses and wildflowers, neverending alpine forest, whitewater rapids, waterfalls, and a lake so blue, it was almost turquoise.
As much as she’d have loved to immerse herself in a place like that for an entire summer, it would’ve meant throwing herself at the mercy of the ruthless, controlling Gyant family. Again, she thought bitterly. The price was higher than she was willing to pay.
“Well?” said Jack. “Are you?”
Jacqueline snapped out of her reverie. “Am I what?”
“Going to the Rally.”
She shot him an incredulous look. “Jack, when have I ever gone to a Rally? And why would I even want to?”
“Um, because it’s fun?”
“Fun.” The word sounded odd to her, foreign, even. Probably because it’s been so long since you’ve had any. As far as she was concerned, “fun” was second cousin to “love,” or maybe fifth cousin, thrice removed to “heroin.” Magnificent, life-altering, and addictive when you had it, but once it was withdrawn… She couldn’t quite recall who it was that had written, “’Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all,” but she’d really like to punch him in the dick.
“Jack, the Valley Rally is a city-sponsored, group hug and consolation prize for all the valley dwellers without invites to the real festivals up the mountain.” She shuddered to think how he’d react if she told him that she’d been offered one of those exclusive invites less than an hour ago. Probably pull a Thelma and Louise right off the side of the Bloody Knock. “Its only purpose is to discourage people from the valley from trekking up the mountain and crashing the Castle parties.”
“Well, I’m going,” he said, eyes sparkling with excitement.
Leveling a finger at him, she uttered one word: “No.”
His enthusiasm faded. “No, what?”
“No, you’re not going to the Rally.”
“But they’re announcing the clues for the Gyant Treasure Hunt! Drew says the prize this year is a billion dollars or something!”
Closing her eyes, she inhaled through her nose and slowly released it. Yes, a billion dollars in gold, son. Because a tractor trailer loaded up with twenty-something tons of gold bars, off-roading through the Rockies in search of the perfect wilderness hiding place wouldn’t be obvious to anyone.
“Jack, you have to be twenty-one to get into the Rally because of the alcohol. And you have to be eighteen to participate in the treasure hunt because of the risk of death and dismemberment. And even if you were old enough, I wouldn’t let you waste your summer roaming over hill and dale to find a pot of gold at the end of some hinterland tunnel.”
His ice-blue eyes narrowed in confusion, Jack tipped his head to the side. “I thought pots of gold were at the end of rainbows.”
“I was referring to that college kid who died a few years ago. Remember him? The one who learned that the abandoned railway tunnel he was exploring was actually an abandoned mine shaft—only after he fell a hundred and fifty feet to the bottom of it?”
“But they say—”
“‘They say,’” she echoed. “Who is ‘they,’ exactly? I’ll tell you who.” She stabbed at the air, her index finger pointing to the top of Castle Peak. “That’s who. That—that soulless, creepy old man up the mountain who isn’t happy unless he’s sitting in his castle, looking down on everyone and counting his gold. And don’t get me started on that evil company of his, which, in case you haven’t been paying attention, has zero qualms about encouraging people to run out and get themselves killed looking for gold every year in exchange for a little bit of publicity for Gyant Agritech and—”
She stopped abruptly, feeling supremely foolish. “Sorry. It’s just that…” She trailed off before saying something she knew she’d regret. High hopes, long falls.
“It’s fine,” said Jack, looking more annoyed than angry.
At the bottom of the hill, Jack turned the Cow into the Beanstalk parking lot before doubling back and driving around the back side of the greenhouse. He stopped in front of the door next to the glass walkway that connected the behemoth greenhouse to Stalk House, the only one of the old Victorians in town located outside the confines of Morvienna Minor.
“Don’t forget that I’ll be in Boulder tonight,” she said. Stepping out of the car, she reached back inside to retrieve her purse and a bag with sweatpants and a T-shirt in it from the floor. “I won’t be home until late.”
“How are you going to get there?” said Jack. “The Cow will be at the house.”
“I’ll take the Vine,” she said, referring to the bus line connecting the tech corridor that ran between Annandale Park and Boulder. “Love you. Promise me I won’t come home and find that you’ve given the Cow to the fire department.”
Jack laughed. “Love you, too. And I promise.”
Because of the elevation difference between the greenhouse and Stalk House, the glass walkway left her standing in the basement of the latter, inside a four-and-a-half story tower that housed one of the mansion’s staircases. She climbed, emerging on the ground level of Stalk House inside a three-story rotunda, in the middle of which was a gigantic beanstalk sculpture measuring over six-feet wide and forty-feet high, rising up to just below the cupola. Pale green glass formed the banister of the circular staircase, affording customers an unobstructed view of every leaf, stem and petiole of the beanstalk sculpture as they climbed from the first to the second floor.
Jacqueline had hoped to sneak up to the second floor unnoticed, but she was spotted by Iko Antell, the slight, dark-haired greenhouse manager. “Jacqueline!” Iko’s face lit up at the sight of her, lending a rosy tint to the warm beige of her skin that Jacqueline couldn’t help but envy.
Rushing across the rotunda, Iko wrapped her in an enthusiastic hug. “Oh, my God, it’s so good to see you. Welcome back!” She pulled away, her smile flattening, eyes narrowing as she looked her over. “No offense, sweetie, but you still look really pale—even more than usual, I mean.” Her frown deepened. “And thin. Are you sure you’re ready to come back?”
Jacqueline gave a halfhearted chuckle. “I guess we’ll find out.” She was feeling more tired with every step, but she couldn’t go home now. “What’s the floral report?” The question was Beanstalk code for “Do you have any idea where our fearless leader, Flora Tilly, is at this very moment?” Once Tilly discovered Jacqueline’s intention to refuse the Castle project, she was going to throw one hell of a wild tantrum. Since Tilly wasn’t known for restraining herself in public, Jacqueline’s only hope for avoiding an embarrassing scene was to corral the woman into a confined space—preferably one with four walls and a door—and tell Tilly herself.
“I haven’t seen her,” said Iko.
As much as Jacqueline wished she could charge up to the third floor—Tilly’s private residence—and have it out with her right then over the Castle situation, that was impossible. For one thing, she was likely to collapse from exhaustion before she’d made it halfway there, and for another, as far as she knew, no man or woman had ever breached the sacrosanct third level. In Tilly’s case, “not in” meant that she hadn’t yet descended the stairs to the store, and until she did so, she was as good as unreachable.
“Holy shit,” Iko said with a gasp, “I almost forgot. Congratulations on the Castle project! How excited were you when you found out?”
I don’t know, she thought. Can enthusiasm be measured with imaginary negative numbers? “How did you hear about it?”
“Liz told me as soon as I walked in this morning. I’m not sure who told her—Gwynnen, maybe?”
I’d bet money on it. Including the magazine debacle, it would be the second time that morning that her best friend’s meddling and machinations had made her look like a fool. “I don’t suppose she’s in yet?”
Iko shook her head. “Today’s the Talbot wedding.”
Jacqueline frowned. “Right. I forgot about that.”
Like Jacqueline, Gwynnen rented space inside the Stalk for her florist shop. Gwynnen would be spending the bulk of her day in Vail at a big society wedding, delivering bouquets, corsages, and boutonnieres to the bridal party, decorating the church, and setting up the flower arrangements in the Four Seasons ballroom for the reception. Jacqueline wouldn’t see her until they met up in Boulder later that evening.
With a sly smile, Iko said, “I heard you get to live at the Castle for the summer. Do you think they’ll give you extra guest passes to the Mayfest events? I don’t care so much about the ball, but I’d love you forever if you could get me an invite to the bonfire. I watch it every year from down here, but it would be so amazing to be standing right there when they light it up.”
“Nothing’s been set in stone,” said Jacqueline. “Probably best not to say too much about it until the details are all sorted out, though.” Detail Number One, for instance: I’m not freakin’ doing it.
Iko gave her an incredulous look. “Yeah, well, good luck jamming that genie back in the bottle. Everyone’s already talking about it.”
Of course they are, she thought. Damn it, Gwynnen, why can’t you ever mind your own business?
Jacqueline accepted a second, gentler hug from Iko and said her goodbyes. Slipping up the stairs to the second floor, she circled all the way around the rotunda to the open area that made up her “office space.” Her desk and drafting table were pushed up to the edge of the see-through banister, affording her a bird’s eye view of the rotunda. As she drew closer to her desk, she spotted something propped up on the seat of her chair, but before she could get close enough to make out what it was, a voice exploded inside the rotunda like a sonic boom.
“Jacqueline Guise,” Flora Tilly bellowed, “did your recent illness kill off your last brain cell?”
“Jesus!” Jacqueline said with a yelp of surprise. Gripping her purse, she turned around, doing her best not to look rattled. “Not as far as I’m aware. Why?”
Standing in her office doorway, hands on her hips, Tilly glared at her. “My office. Now.”
Jacqueline found Tilly standing at the bay window in her office with her back to her. Jacqueline took a seat and stared at her shoes, waiting for Tilly to say something. After a few seconds, she decided that Tilly’s shoes were much more interesting, and stared at them instead.
Unlike Jacqueline’s boring, black Keds, Tilly wore patent leather sneakers with a solid turquoise midsole and heel, and a bright white Nike “Swoosh” overlaying a swirl of pink and turquoise flower petals. Jacqueline couldn’t imagine that there were a lot of shoes out there that would have matched Tilly’s blouse, an impressionist hallucination-on-fabric that Tilly had once claimed represented “flowers bursting into bloom.” Personally, Jacqueline thought it looked more like what happened when your kid left their crayons on the car dashboard on a hot day, but she kept that to herself.
Besides, “floral” was a look that Flora Tilly never failed to pull off. Her flowery patterns were an extension of her personality and her brand, which was why it had always puzzled Jacqueline that she went by “Tilly” instead of “Flora.” Tilly was a plump, crass, middle-aged woman with a Southern drawl who dressed from head to toe in loud florals, and who happened to traffic in flowering plants for a living. Did she think that going by “Flora” would push the limits of the town’s tolerance for eccentricity? Brand-wise, it seemed like a lost opportunity.
Tilly abruptly came to life by the window. “Have you completely lost your mind?”
Jacqueline jumped in surprise. “It would help if you could be more specific.”
Pacing back and forth in front of the bay window like a caged animal, Tilly stopped short, shooting her a sardonic look. “You know, I might’ve been born at night, but it wasn’t last night. Weren’t you the one who called me two days ago saying, ‘Tilly, I’m back on the job,’ and ‘Tilly, help me find a new project’? Well, I found you one, didn’t I? So when someone from the Gyant family comes down the mountain and lays an offer to redesign the Castle pleasance right at your feet, your answer better not be ‘Thanks, but no thanks.’”
Jacqueline crossed her arms over her chest, defiant, and delivered the rebuttal she’d been crafting in her head all morning. “I passed on bidding the pleasance project because it took me exactly thirty seconds to calculate that I’d need at least three weeks to survey the site and come up with a proposal—three weeks during which I wouldn’t be able to work on anything else.” She omitted the part where she’d had to look up the word “pleasance” in a dictionary to find out that it was an old expression for “a walled garden.”
“It was a gamble,” she went on, “one that would’ve only paid off if I was awarded the project, and the odds of that happening were somewhere between slim and none. It’s the laws of diminishing returns. You know who taught me that?” She jabbed a finger at Tilly. “You did.”
“So you took it upon yourself to turn down the biggest opportunity of your career without even consulting me?” said Tilly.
Jacqueline was incredulous. “Why is this situation different than any other project? There are lots of big projects that I don’t bid on.”
“Like?” said Tilly.
“Like Lost Creek. I didn’t bid on that, and for the exact same reason, I might add. My failure to consult you didn’t seem to bother you then.”
Tilly took the seat next to Jacqueline. Leaning back, she tapped out an irregular, frenetic rhythm on the arms of the chair. “Comparing the Castle to Lost Creek is like comparing a Japanese toilet to a chamber pot.” Her dark brown eyes suddenly seemed very far away. “Have you ever gone?” she said, staring dreamily into empty space.
Jacqueline shifted in her chair, bewildered at the strange turn in the conversation. Does she want to know if I’ve ever used a Japanese toilet? Or a chamber pot? Her long acquaintance with Tilly had taught her that when in doubt, the craziest, most eccentric choice among many was the one to run with. “Uh, no,” she said. “Well, I mean, unless you count the time my dad refused to pull over on a family road trip, and I had to pee into an empty pickle jar.”
Tilly glared at her. “The Castle. Have you ever gone up the mountain to the Castle?”
“Oh, sorry, I thought you meant—I can’t say that I have. I told you, my decision was based solely on the law of diminishing returns—namely, my diminishing returns.”
“That law only applies if you’re sure you wouldn’t have been awarded the contract.”
Jacqueline made a noise of exasperation. “Tilly, I’ve never taken on a project of that size! I’m a landscape designer, not a landscape architect, which they’re going to figure out for themselves when they get my RFQ.” Jacqueline knew absolutely squat about the administrative hierarchy up at the Castle, but surely there was someone whose job it was to sign off on this harebrained idea. No administrator in their right mind, and certainly not one working for a family like the Gyants, would solicit a bid for a project of that size without first making a “request for qualifications,” especially not from a one-man operation like Jacqueline’s.
“Do you really think that the Castle’s going to be wowed by all the suburban backyards and school playgrounds I’ve designed?” she said with a sharp laugh. “I mean, we’re talking about one of the richest families in the country! They’ve probably solicited proposals from every landscaping outfit from Annandale Park to Abu Dhabi.”
Tilly shook her head, and sighed. “I forgot that you don’t know a thing about the Castle.”
Oh, I think you’d be surprised. “Clearly not,” Jacqueline said slowly. “Feel free to enlighten me.”
“Before she took over up at the Castle,” Tilly said with obvious distaste, “the Gyant family understood its obligations to the town. They hired locally, bought locally—hell, half the people in this town worked for them, either directly or indirectly—and everybody won.”
Jacqueline blinked. “Sorry, who’s ‘she’?”
“Vorace Gyant’s wife.”
Vorace Gyant, the current reclusive patriarch of the wealthy Gyant family, was also chairman of the board of Gyant Agritech, Inc. The wealth amassed by Vorace Gyant’s great-great grandfather, Gormán Géant, over one hundred and fifty years prior was so enormous, not even an army of profligate Gyant trust-fund-baby descendants had been able to squander it all. Forbes Magazine had speculated that Vorace Gyant was one of the wealthiest men in the world, although it was hard to know for sure, given that the company he oversaw was privately held, managed, and controlled by members of the Gyant family itself.
“That little gold digger started her takeover of the Castle after they married,” said Tilly, “and as far as I can tell, she’s been in total control of the family and Gyant Agritech since Vorace Gyant’s stroke last year. And you may not want to hear this, but you don’t have any choice but to take that project.”
Jacqueline laughed. “That’s the thing, Tilly, I do have a choice. I lease space from you, I don’t answer to you. And nothing in my lease says that I have to consult you about what projects I do or don’t take on.”
Tilly frowned. “No. But there is a ‘protection of reputation’ clause in your lease.”
Jacqueline knew the clause Tilly was referring to. Essentially, it prevented Jacqueline from engaging in any conduct that might injure, harm, demean, defame, libel, slander, destroy, or diminish the reputation or goodwill of Beanstalk Garden Center and Landscape Design, LLC. She and Gwynnen—whose lease included the same clause—had vented, on occasions too numerous to count, their various and sundry frustrations with Tilly by imagining all the creative ways in which they might violate that particular clause. Jacqueline’s most recent idea had been to send out a statewide press release claiming that Tilly restricted access to her third-floor sanctum because she secretly preferred plaid to florals, and that her home’s decor strongly resembled a gaudy, obnoxious pair of golf pants.
Jacqueline snorted in contempt. “I think you have it all backwards. I can think of about a thousand ways that taking the Castle project and botching the job would damage your business reputation. Give me one example of how not bidding on it would harm you.”
Tilly gave her a closed-lip smile. “‘Harm’? Oh, Jacqui, honey, if any of us—you, Gwynnen, me—were to refuse Evena Gyant’s generous offer, believe me, she’ll take it very, very personally.”
“What do you mean ‘you, Gwynnen, me’? The guy who came to my house never mentioned anything about the pleasance being a group effort.”
“They’ve agreed to use the Stalk for the materials and to coordinate the subcontractors on the project. They’ve hired Gwynnen to do the household flower arrangements and the flowers for all the festivals going forward.”
Oh, fabulous, she thought, frowning. Gwynnen’s involvement threw a whole new wrench into the works. Despite having never been there herself, Gwynnen knew more about the Castle than anyone Jacqueline knew. She’d eagerly consumed every book ever published on the Castle, had an entire scrapbook filled with newspaper clippings, and participated in what Jacqueline considered to be some rather sketchy, conspiracy-leaning Reddit forums devoted to Castle gossip. She even had a four-foot-by-five-foot framed print of the Castle—an aerial shot taken from high above Castle Peak—hanging on her bedroom wall.
In short, Gwynnen Ibori was a swooning Castle fangirl. Even if the Castle’s offer did not affect Gwynnen in any way, she’d still never let Jacqueline hear the end of it for refusing it. But if Jacqueline killed a project which would have allowed Gwynnen herself to set foot on Castle grounds?
I’d need to make discreet inquiries about entering a witness protection program.
“Evena Gyant won’t retaliate right away, of course,” said Tilly. “That would be too obvious, but sooner or later it’ll happen. If you think you’re struggling financially right now, think about how hard things will be when you’re trying to start over in the ashes. And you won’t be able to turn to Gwynnen or to me for help, because we’ll both be in the same boat as you.”
You reap what you sow, Jacqueline, she told herself. Reap it and weep.
There had been a time when, presented with a problem, her mind would set to work, exploring solutions, formulating a plan, but it seemed as if her brain was all out of ideas. There was a faint buzzing sound in her ears, which, for all she knew, really was the last of her brain cells fizzling out. She felt so tired, so utterly defeated that she couldn’t even work up a sigh. “Why do I get the feeling that you’re talking from personal experience?” she said finally.
Jacqueline expected one of Tilly’s classic, tart retorts. Instead, she shocked Jacqueline by wrapping her arms around herself in a protective embrace before sidestepping the question altogether. “The smart thing to do,” said Tilly, “is to use their pride to your advantage.” Never able to contain her pent-up energy for long, she sprang to her feet. “The Castle has deep pockets, and they’re not afraid to be frivolous, so you ask for the sun. They’ll hem and haw and counter with the moon, but that’s all you ever wanted anyway, right?”
“But I wouldn’t be able to ask for anything until after I submit a proposal! Not to put too fine a point on it, Tilly, but I need money now. Even if I submitted a bid today, it could be months before we’ve hammered out a contract. If I have to wait even one month for them to pay a deposit, I won’t have to worry about them retaliating, because I’ll be out of business.” Not to mention homeless.
Tilly rolled her eyes. “Then you charge them a ‘pre-proposal fee,’ to be paid immediately. Charge them a ‘change-in-altitude fee,’ due immediately.”
“Right,” she said with a snort. “That’s just the kind of unethical practice I want to be known for. Besides, I’d have to live up there. And not just for a few weeks, for the entire summer!”
Tilly stomped over to her desk and snatched up a thick sheaf of papers. “Mayfest through Augustine, according to this,” she said, dropping the packet into Jacqueline’s lap.
“And what am I supposed to do about Jack?” Leafing through the pages, she felt more and more frantic. “School doesn’t end until just before Memorial Day.”
“Have you not been listening to a word I’ve been saying? Amend the proposal. ‘Jack Guise will enjoy the services of a private tutor for the duration of his stay.’ And while you’re at it, add a ‘family displacement fee,’ due immediately.”
How long Jacqueline sat there, weighted down by the Castle proposal and everything it portended, she wasn’t sure. Eventually, she stood, clamped the packet under her arm, and headed for the door, leaving Tilly with a rather ambiguous, “I don’t know, I’ll sleep on it.”
Tilly’s response was curt and to the point: “Fine.”
Jacqueline was in the hallway, closing the door behind her, when Tilly called her back.
Swinging the door open, she found Tilly staring at her legs with a worried frown. “Eat something, will you?” she said, not unkindly. “The last time I saw a leg that skinny, it had a message tied to it.”
The mystery object on her chair turned out to be a magazine.
“What. The. Hell,” Jacqueline muttered, snatching it up to inspect the glossy cover photo of a Grecian alcove tucked into a corner of a leafy, English walled garden. For half a heartbeat, she thought that Dane had somehow managed to deliver a copy of Horticulture Magazine to her in the last hour—a disturbing thought to say the least. But the distinctive left-handed scrawl on the pink, flower-shaped Post-It Note covering the magazine title definitely belonged to Gwynnen. “Weekend forecast,” it read. “Mayfest with a chance of drinking!!! P.S. Peel this off, and let this be a warning to you…”
Jacqueline did as instructed to reveal the magazine’s title: Garden and Gun Magazine. Where Gwynnen found these insane publications, Jacqueline did not know, but all the low points of her day rushed to the forefront, especially the two that could be laid right in Gwynnen’s meddling little lap. Since killing her would likely land Jacqueline on the cover of Girls and Corpses, she’d have to settle for giving her a thorough, long overdue verbal flogging.
She crumpled the pink paper flower in her hand, dropped it into the trashcan next to her desk, and sat down. Wrenching the phone receiver out of the cradle so hard she nearly tore the cord out of the base, she speed-dialed Gwynnen’s cellphone. She wasn’t surprised when she reached voicemail—Gwynnen was probably up to her elbows in flowers at the moment—but it did give her pause.
Maybe I’ll wait until she gets here and scream at her outside, she thought with an uneasy glance in the direction of the beanstalk sculpture.
Somehow, it had never occurred to Tilly’s architects that retaining the open aspect of each floor around the rotunda would mean turning the center of her business into one big echo chamber. All day long, the beeping of cash registers, the clanking of ceramic flower pots and rolling of carts, the thumping of footsteps and the voices of half a hundred conversations coalesced on the ground floor of the rotunda like swamp gas before rising to the second floor and detonating in her ears. On weekends, when the store was especially busy, the rotunda sounded like a stock exchange pit. When she was bored, Jacqueline would sometimes lean back in her chair, close her eyes, and pretend that the people below were roaring commodities prices through a bullhorn.
When the complaints poured in, Tilly had insisted that the open layout would foster “spontaneous collaboration” and “employee connections.” Jacqueline had retorted that the only example she’d ever seen of “spontaneous collaboration” during all her years of working there was when she and Gwynnen had designed signs for the glass wall dividing the flower shop from Jacqueline’s workspace that read: “DO NOT TAP THE GLASS. We are used to working exclusively with plants. As a result, we are easily startled, and may begin to weep violently. Avoid an incident by approaching slowly and singing ‘(I Never Promised You a) Rose Garden.’ Thank you.”
Tilly had remained unconvinced, even after Jacqueline explained in great detail that, thanks to the rotunda, she had more involuntary knowledge of the financial difficulties, problem relatives, and favorite sex positions of Tilly’s customers and employees than was necessary to effectively peddle flowers, design landscapes, or deliver general gardening know-how to the masses.
Unfortunately for Jacqueline at that moment, the rotunda’s megaphone qualities were a two-way street; it was always best to operate under the assumption that every word she uttered on the second floor could be heard by the people below. As much as she would love to rip Gwynnen’s head off in person, she knew it would be in everyone’s best interest if she vented her pent-up wrath on Gwynnen now, lest it explode in the face of the next person who looked at Jacqueline the wrong way. Leaning low over the desk, her face almost touching the desktop, she redialed Gwynnen’s cell, shielded her mouth with her hand, and waited for the beep.
“Good morning, Gwynnen,” she said in a hurried undertone. “This is your former BFF. Thanks to those stupid magazines you keep sending me, I made a complete asshole of myself this morning in front of a prospective client—a client, by the way, that I didn’t even know I had—again, thanks to you.” She paused, trying to decide if she should add a quick appraisal of Dane’s striking good looks, but concluded that it would only distract from her main grievance.
“I swear to God, Gwynnen,” she growled, “if you don’t cancel those magazines, you’re going to find that Girls and Corpses wasn’t so much a gag gift as a premonition. Because the next time I have the flu, I’m going to sneak into your house and spit on your toothbrush. I might even lick all your utensils. Then I’m going to get completely hammered on whatever alcohol I can find in your house, sit on your front lawn, and read Modern Drunkard excerpts to your neighbors—in between drunk crying jags, that is. And if that doesn’t work, I’m going to tie you down and rub your face with a sheepskin blanket until you have a solid case of ovinophobia. That’s ‘fear of sheep,’ by the way, and it’s a real thing—ask me how I know!”
She sucked in a lungful of air and delivered her closing argument. “And if you think I’m dragging my ass up the mountainside for the summer to slave away for—for those people, then you must be growing something in your garden besides flowers, because I am not doing it.”
Satisfied, she dropped the receiver into the cradle, crossed her arms, and leaned back in the chair. Behind her, a familiar male voice said, “My God, you are absolutely terrifying, you know that?”
Jacqueline spun her chair around to find Dane, aka Mr. Yum, standing on the second-floor landing. She glared at him. “Do you make a habit of eavesdropping on other people’s conversations in addition to ambushing them at home?”
“Uh, no, I don’t, actually,” he said. “I normally just wiretap them and listen in from my Acme Plumbing surveillance van.”
“What does it say about you that I can’t tell if you’re joking?”
Without a word, he handed her a business card. She couldn’t help but wonder if it was the same one he’d left her on the fencepost cap, but as she hadn’t retrieved it before leaving for work, she couldn’t say for sure.
She plucked the gold-foil-edged and gold-embossed card from his outstretched hand, hoping her embarrassment wasn’t too obvious. “Dane Gyant,” she said, reading it over. Ha! I knew it. “Magic Beans, Incorporated? As in ‘beans, beans, the magical fruit’?”
She really hoped not. While she’d probably never see Dane Gyant again after today, odds were good that he’d occupy a long-term spot in her fantasies. That said, there was no way she could stay attracted to a man who knowingly contributed to the world’s annual flatulence output.
“Uh, no, not exactly,” he said. “More like…bespoke flower seeds, I suppose you could say.”
She waited for him to elaborate, but he didn’t seem eager to volunteer more information.
“Can I ask you a question?” he said.
“‘A question?’” She tilted her head and twisted her lips, as if thinking it over. “Yes,” she said finally. “Are we done here?”
The corner of his mouth twitched. “Not counting that one?”
Jacqueline considered going along with a round of Twenty Questions just so she could stare at him a little longer. His teeth were a blinding white contrast to his skin, which was that tan-loving shade that every pale freckled woman wished she had. Maybe she should agree to answer his questions in exchange for his commitment to disrobe and wrap her pale skin in his golden nakedness from time to time.
“Bathrooms are on the first floor at the back of the store,” she said. “All the coffee at Ground Up is organic and fair trade.” She smiled sweetly up at him. “Any other questions you have that I haven’t already answered at one point or another this morning?”
Before he could respond, their tête-à-tête was interrupted by three beeps from her desk phone. “Jacqueline, sorry to interrupt.” It was one of the cashiers—Liz was Jacqueline’s guess, although the phone’s crappy speaker made it hard to tell.
At the words “sorry to interrupt,” Dane’s eyebrows shot up. He looked around them at the otherwise empty second floor, no doubt wondering how a woman he couldn’t see somehow knew that she was interrupting them.
Trying very hard not to laugh at him, Jacqueline said to maybe-Liz, “You’re not interrupting anything. What’s up?”
“Your son’s on line one,” she said. “He said it’s urgent, and that he tried your cell phone but you didn’t pick up.”
Jacqueline jumped to her feet and leaned over the desk, hands planted on the desktop. Jack never called her at work; she doubted he even had the Beanstalk’s phone number programmed into his cellphone. “Okay, thanks.”
Behind her, Dane said, “Before you take that, there’s something I need to tell you.”
“Not now!” she snapped, stabbing the button for line one. “Jack? What’s wrong?”
“Mom, please don’t kill me,” Jack said, panicked, “but I had to go back home for my phone, and I was leaving to take the Cow to the car wash, but then I saw Aaron and I pulled over to talk to him, and then some other guy came up, and he said he thought he might want to buy the Cow, so I let him take it for a drive—you know, so he could put his hands on the steering wheel and push the buttons, just like you said—but he hasn’t come back, and I’ve tried calling him, like, a million times, and now I don’t know what to do!”
“Whoa, slow down, Jack,” she said. “What ‘guy’? Do we know him? How did you get his number?”
Standing beside her now, Dane tapped her on the shoulder several times. Furious, she shook him off, even sidestepping away from him, without so much as looking at him.
“I’ve never seen him before,” said Jack, “but he said he was at the house this morning. He told me he talked to you—something about mail tied to the gate? He gave me a card for a company called Magic Beans, but I tried calling the number over and over, and no one answered!”
Before the full impact of that could sink in, a familiar set of car keys—keys attached to Dane Gyant’s long fingers—slowly descended in front of her face. Behind her, he said, “I think I accidentally stole your cow.”
With a mighty groan of frustration, Jacqueline said, “It’s okay, Jack, the guy’s standing right here with the car keys. I’ll call you right back.” She punched the button to disconnect, whirled around, and snatched the car keys out of Dane’s hand. “Was one of your questions ‘What’s the average prison sentence for grand theft auto’?”
“‘Theft?’” he said, looking anxious.
“How long were you planning to chat me up, exactly, before telling me that you stalked my son and stole my car?”
“Whoa, whoa, whoa, hold on!” Holding his hands up, palms out, he took a few paces back. “I didn’t steal anything. I was—” He stopped and cocked his head. With a wary glance over the railing at the rotunda—which was now conspicuously silent—he said in a low voice, “Is there somewhere that we could talk privately?” Seeing her reluctance, he added, “Please?”
Jacqueline sighed. “I don’t have an office. Not one with a door anyway.” The flower shop would be locked, and Gwynnen and Tilly were the only ones with keys. No doubt Tilly would gladly give up her office for Dane Gyant, Castle emissary and harbinger of doom, but that would necessitate telling Tilly that he was there. She couldn’t handle watching Tilly fawn all over the guy.
“What about outside?” he said. “According to Tilly, there are ten acres out there. We’re bound to find a hedgerow or a potted tree we can hide behind for five minutes.”
Jacqueline snorted. “You talk like you’ve never been here before.” When he didn’t answer, she said, “Wait, are you telling me that you’ve never been here before?” It seemed impossible. Not only did Tilly provide the Castle with most of its plants, but Beanstalk Garden Center had been a tourist destination in the state almost from its inception. Even Gyants and Castle staff came down the mountain to traipse through the Stalk on a regular basis—mostly just to grab a cup of joe at Ground Up Coffee, but still.
He looked down and shuffled his feet. “Uh, no, none of this was here the last time I was at the Castle.”
A bark of laughter escaped her. “The Stalk’s been here forever! Where have you been?” Watching his uneasy reaction, she murmured, “Wow. You must’ve really been on the Castle’s shit list.” She tapped his business card against the palm of her hand, considering whether or not it would be in her interest to take their discussion outside. Finally, she pocketed it and locked her purse in one of the desk drawers. With a sigh, she said, “Come on, then,” and headed for the stairs.
Their descent couldn’t have been more awkward. It was unusually slow in the store for a weekday morning, freeing every female Beanstalk employee within gossip range to congregate around the kiosks and aisles near the rotunda and pretend to stock and straighten merchandise. As she and Dane crossed the rotunda, her coworkers tracked Dane Gyant like he was a freezer pop in the middle of the desert.
For his part, Dane couldn’t take his eyes off the beanstalk. “I can’t believe the state historical society didn’t lose its mind when Tilly put that up,” he said, peering up at it.
She laughed. “Oh, they freaked out plenty, believe me.” She gave him a sidelong glance. “How long have you been in time-out, anyway?”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean that I don’t know anyone up or down the mountain who doesn’t already know this story.”
“A while,” he admitted.
The Stalk had been there for fifteen years, meaning that “a while” could be translated as “at least fifteen years.” Given the long list of unethical and criminal practices of Gyant Agritech and its shareholding family over the decades, he must’ve done something pretty damn bad to be ostracized for that long. The extended Gyant clan was notoriously tight-lipped, but occasionally, rumors would tumble down the mountainside to the valley floor. Typically, the more scandalous the transgression, the higher the likelihood that they’d eventually hear about it in Annandale Park, but she couldn’t recall anything particularly notorious happening fifteen years ago involving a guy who would have then been in his early twenties—certainly not anything that would’ve resulted in a decade-and-a-half-long banishment.
“Well, thanks to Tilly’s remodel,” she said, “Stalk House is the only Victorian in Annandale Park without the ‘historic home’ designation. In Tilly’s defense, though, it was a ruined hulk when she bought it. I mean, back then, the only locals who hadn’t been screaming for it to be condemned and torn down were the ten thousand stray cats who lived in it.”
His eyes were suddenly very far away. “I do remember the cats,” he said, his voice chock-full of mystery.
So he does know the valley. Or he used to, anyway. Curious…
Jacqueline could feel the metaphorical ground beneath her transforming into a thin layer of ice. Worse, she was dangerously close to strapping on a pair of ice skates and performing a few toe loops, a triple Salchow, and a flip jump, and falling straight through it—and it was all Dane Gyant’s fault. Mysterious men were her true weakness, her Achilles heel, her kryptonite—her thin ice, as it were. The harder they were to read and the more difficult they were to predict, the more alluring she found them.
Suddenly, she was dying to know every last thing about him. No biographical tidbit or personality insight was too mundane. For instance: Did he ever get pissed in public to the point of shouting? Was his shampoo-conditioner routine comprised of one step or two? Did he weep openly at guy-cry movies? Was he capable of openly emoting at all, or had he always been one of those “bury-your-feelings-and-don’t-leave-a-marker” types? Early bird or night owl? Whole milk or two-percent? Boxers or briefs? Dirty talk or pillow talk?
Critical questions, all, and she wasn’t afraid to roll up her sleeves and force some answers out of him, by God.
Absolutely not, Jacqueline, she told herself. There’s no way you’ll come out the winner in that bracket.
Instead, she brought him up to speed on the beanstalk sculpture as they walked, explaining how, after the animals had been removed, a demolition crew wearing hazmat suits had gutted the interior from the widow’s walk to the root cellar. In the wake of criticism from the state’s Historical Society that she had “wantonly destroyed a valued historical structure using crude methods” Tilly had come out guns blazing. She accepted an eager-beaver Denver television reporter’s request for a live interview, one where she might tell the public “her side of the story.”
Using the dilapidated mess of a mansion as a backdrop for the live segment, the reporter, a man by the name of Peterson, had shoved a microphone in Tilly’s face and said, “I think what the people of Annandale Park and the members of the state historical society most want to know is: why did you do it?” Fully aware that the interview was being broadcast live, Tilly had looked straight into the camera and in her gentile southern drawl, said, “Because, Mr. Peterson, the stink of cat piss in that house was so bad, it would’ve knocked a dog off a shit wagon.”
“Excuse my language,” said Jacqueline with a laugh, “but that’s a direct quote. The broadcast was on a delay, but for some reason they didn’t bleep the cursing, so of course Tilly turned into an instant media darling.”
“I can see why.” He didn’t smile, but his eyes twinkled with merriment. “When did this happen?”
“Oh, about fifteen years ago. The woman knows how to drum up publicity, I’ll give her that. Tilly’s interviews just got crazier after that. She was all anyone talked about for months.”
It was then that she noticed that Dane had stopped walking. She turned around to find him staring ahead, mouth slightly open, looking absolutely stricken. “Everything okay?”
He blinked, giving an abrupt shake of his head, and kept walking. “Sorry, I was just trying to remember something. Carry on.”
What the hell was that all about? she thought as the automatic doors leading outside slid open at their approach. The floor was starting to feel slick and icy underneath her feet again. Better not to ask.
At the top of the stairs, she scanned the various paths stretching away from them like a quarterback searching for an open receiver. Tilly considered employees “on the clock” the moment their vital organs cross the threshold, and expected them to offer help to any customers they passed on their way around the property. And since Jacqueline chose to wear the same T-shirt as the hourly employees—occasionally assisting customers, she’d found, was a great way to raise awareness about her landscape design services—she was expected to do likewise. With all the frustrations and anxieties percolating in the back of her mind at the moment, she really didn’t have the mental fortitude to fake even sixty seconds of cheerful chitchat with Gladys and Gordon Gardener over the relative merits of, say, rubber mulch versus shredded cedar.
Keeping her head down to avoid eye contact, she slunk down Birdbath Boulevard and past the elaborate fountains on Stoneware Street, making it all the way to Outdoor Living Lane without a single person stopping her.
“This looks like a good spot,” said Dane, sliding a chair away from a wicker-and-teak dining set that made up one of Tilly’s luxury patio mock-ups. For the low, low price of twenty-five thousand dollars, the set was, according to the signage, “perfect for out-of-doors entertaining.”
“Not here,” said Jacqueline. “We can’t sit here—or at least I can’t. Not in this shirt, anyway.” Tilly, she explained, had deemed employee backsides unfit to grace the high-end furniture.
He gamely followed her to the other side of a faux-stone wall, all the way to the end of Compost Court. Boxed in by towers of bagged mulch, compost, and fertilizer, the hidden corner formed an informal, if malodorous, outdoor employee lounge, perfect for hiding from customers. The smell alone was enough to ensure its near perpetual vacancy. Other reasons included the furnishings, which were unlikely to impress those who incorporated a lot of teak or wicker—or cushions for that matter—into their “out-of-doors” decor.
Jacqueline stopped next to a rickety white plastic table and pulled off the zip-up hoodie she’d tied around her waist.
“Here?” said Dane, wrinkling his nose against the smell.
“Welcome to the Outhouse.” Jacqueline staked her claim to a brown steel mesh chair by draping her sweatshirt over the seat. It would keep the lattice pattern from being stamped into her butt cheeks, an unfortunate condition that employees referred to as “basket ass.” Depending on how long you’d occupied the chair, it could take half a day to fade.
Dane moved behind her chair, placed his hands on the back of it, and pulled it abruptly towards him in a territorial way that said, “Mine!”
Jacqueline froze. “Uh, I was kind of planning on sitting there.”
“Yes,” he said, looking perplexed, “that was the impression I got as well.”
Blushing furiously, she sank into the chair. It had been so long since anyone had pulled out a chair for her, it had totally thrown her off. Chivalry isn’t dead at the Castle, I see. The Gyant family’s ethics might be questionable, but their manners had always been beyond reproach. Etiquette covers all manner of sins, she reminded herself.
Dane pulled the opposite chair well away from the table and sat. Elbows propped on his knees, hands clasped together, he said, “Look, I apologize for the car and for scaring your son, okay? But I wasn’t stalking anyone. I didn’t even realize that Jack was your son.”
Jacqueline shot him a highly skeptical look. No other person who’d met mother and son within such a short space of time could fail to conclude that they were related. For better or worse, her red hair and freckles were the only proof of maternity she’d ever needed.
The corner of his mouth twitched. “I suspected, yes,” he admitted, “but it wasn’t as if he was parked in front of your house when I came across him. After I talked to you, I walked through the neighborhood to look at the renovations. When I was growing up, the houses in the Minors were—well, let’s just say that they didn’t look like they do now.”
“How did you get into the Minors, anyway? The security has always been pretty good.”
“I didn’t have to get in. I was already in.”
She nodded. “You’re living at Coaching Inn.” It was the only explanation.
Coaching Inn was by far the largest and grandest of the mansions in the Minors. In the time before cars, it had served as a luxurious way station where Castle guests could rest while stagecoach drivers swapped exhausted horses for mules in advance of the arduous trip up the mountain. All the new-money families who’d built mansions in the Minors after that time gave their homes lofty, aspirational names such as Gosfield Bury, Smooreyhill Rise, Dannock Hall, and Dunhaven Carse, but the much wealthier Gormán Géant had no need to put on such airs. After the coaching inn had ceased to formally function as such, it had been converted into a guest house, stripped of its article, raised to the status of a proper noun, and was known ever after as, simply, “Coaching Inn.”
“Only for a few days,” he said, sitting up and placing his right ankle on his left knee. “When my business in the valley is done, I’ll head back up to the Castle. I was on my way back to Coaching Inn when I ran into your son. He was on the other side of Gosfield talking to a neighbor about how his mother was donating their car to charity. I hadn’t counted on it breaking down on me during the test drive, obviously, but I didn’t realize that I’d left my phone back at Coaching Inn until that happened. At that point, the Stalk was closer than your house, so I walked here.”
He shrugged. “I didn’t have a phone to order an Uber, there was no bus stop nearby, and walking seemed smarter than hitchhiking.”
She shook her head. “No, I mean why would you want a twenty-year-old car?” If it were her, she’d just fire up the family Bentley or have servants ferry her around in a litter.
Looking very uncomfortable, he uncrossed his legs, shifted in his chair, and promptly avoided the question. “Look,” he said, “there’s something you have to understand, here. I’m aware that tensions between the Castle and the Park tend to run a little high whenever a Gyant is stupid enough to venture into the valley. I’m not interested in starting a battle with the locals, okay? It wasn’t my idea to contract with the Stalk for Mayfest and the rest of the summer festivals. And for the record, I made it clear that I thought it was a terrible idea. I mean, based on your portfolio, you’re clearly not qualified for the job—”
“Wow,” she said, scowling. “Thanks a lot.”
“—which I assume you already knew or you wouldn’t have turned it down in the first place, but now that the decision’s been made, it’s been made.”
Heartened, Jacqueline stood up. “Exactly! I’m really glad that we had this talk. I’ll walk you out.” With that, she grabbed her sweatshirt and headed right back the way they’d come.
Dane scrambled to his feet and hurried after her. “That’s not what I meant by ‘the decision’s been made.’ I meant ‘you don’t have any choice but to take the project.’”
She laughed a shrill laugh. “Look, you’re right, okay? I’m just some local-yokel landscape designer who specializes in backyard sanctuaries for suburban McMansions. I’m well aware that the Castle could hire some award-winning architectural firm, which is why this whole thing doesn’t make any sense. Like Tilly always says, ‘I may have been born at night, but it wasn’t last night.’ Which begs the question: What’s really going on here?”
“I have no idea,” he said in an undertone, rushing to keep pace with her, “but if I were the one calling the shots at the Castle, I’d wonder why you were so quick to assume that this has something to do with you, specifically. I’d find that very curious.”
Jacqueline quickened her pace. Why can’t he just take no for an answer and go the hell away?
“And my family will, too. I mean, come on! A chance to live at the Castle and redesign the Gyant family’s private walled garden? It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. They’re going to be very interested to know why you would let an opportunity like that pass you by. How do you plan to explain it?”
Stopping at the top of the stairs, she gave him an arch glance. “Well, that’s the great thing about being an independent contractor: I don’t have to explain myself to anyone.” Turning away, she began her descent. “And speaking of evasive tactics, why don’t you explain why you told my son you were interested in buying the Cow? Because if taking a worthless, broken-down car off my hands is the Castle’s idea of arm-twisting, I think they’re starting to lose their touch.” She marched through the sliding doors, back into the Stalk.
Trotting alongside her, Dane reached into his back pocket and pulled out his wallet. “That had nothing to do with the Castle. That was all me.”
She gave him a baffled look. “What—because after being shuttled around in private jets and limos all through your childhood, your dream was to own a twenty-year-old junker of your very own?”
“Honestly? I thought it would give me an opportunity to talk to you again.” Coloring, he added in a rush, “About the project, I mean.”
Jacqueline snorted. Figures. The Gyants are all the same. Bunch of manipulative bastards…
“Here.” In his outstretched hand was a very thick stack of one-hundred-dollar bills. “I have no idea how much a transmission costs. Go ahead: make fun of me and get it out of your system.”
Jacqueline came to a stop in the middle of the rotunda. She stared at the money, her lips set in a tight line. All sorts of emotions welled up inside her: disbelief, contempt, rage. It was all she could do not to slap him. “Like I’d fall for that again,” she said evenly.
He cocked his head. “‘Again’?”
“Is that the answer to every problem at the Castle?” she snapped. “‘Bribe the victim’?” She was digging a hole for herself that wasn’t going to be easy to fill in later on, she knew, but restraint was becoming more difficult with every passing second.
With an awkward chuckle, Dane’s eyes flitted around the rotunda to see who might have overheard them. Fortunately for the both of them, there wasn’t a single soul in sight.
Tilly must’ve finally made an appearance down here, Jacqueline thought. Nothing inspired productivity and fervent dedication to one’s job responsibilities like Flora Tilly personally breathing down your neck.
“Look,” he said in a low voice, moving closer to her, “at least let me take you to lunch and tell you about the project. You can ask me anything, suggest anything you want, and I promise that whatever you say will stay between you and me.”
Oh, you’re good… She crossed her arms over her chest. “Sorry, I’m not falling for that, either.”
With a huff of frustration and a shake of his head, he turned away from her and peered up at the beanstalk. After a long moment, he said, “Have you ever climbed it?”
“That? It’s nothing but polystyrene foam and paint.”
Of course it had been Tilly’s idea. She’d commissioned it herself from a company specializing in props for stage and film productions, and while it looked like it had been carved out of green, glossy rock, Jacqueline had watched them build it and knew better. At its core was a three-foot PVC drain pipe overlaid with chicken wire and burlap and sprayed with a mountain of expandable foam. Once the foam had cured, workers had used chain saws and hot foam knives to carve the tendrils, stems and leaves. After the spackling and the sanding had come the adhesive, followed by many, many layers of hard-coat acrylic paint over many, many days, in every shade of brown, green, and yellow imaginable. They’d sprayed so much hard-coat, in fact, that the fumes had drifted out the open doors and windows of the mansion and settled across the valley. By the time the workers were done, half the people in town had massive headaches, and the other half were so high, they thought they’d climbed a beanstalk.
“Jack tried to climb it once when he was little,” she said. “That kid will climb anything.” She gave Dane a light slap on the back. “Don’t let that discourage you from trying, though. I hope you don’t mind if I don’t stick around to watch; I need to get back to work.”
“What about the Beanstalk Trail?” he said. “Have you ever climbed it all the way up to the Castle?”
“I can’t say that I have,” she said after a moment.
“Now, see, I find that odd as well.”
He was trying to corner her again, trying to get her to admit something. Be careful, Jacqueline. “In what way?”
“Tilly told me that you’ve been to Versailles, Villa d’Este, Sans Souci…”
She stared at him. “So?”
“I’m just wondering how it is that a landscape designer who would travel all the way to Europe to visit some of the horticultural wonders of the world never thought to climb the Beanstalk for a peek at the Castle gardens.”
That’s what they do, she told herself. They pick at you, trying to find something they can use against you. “Hmmm, let me see,” she sniped, “I suppose I’ve never found the idea of getting shot off the top of Castle Peak for trespassing a particularly appealing idea. Stupid me.”
Dane went on as if he hadn’t heard her. “It used to really be something, you know—the pleasance,” he murmured, still staring up at the beanstalk. His eyes softened, like he was suddenly somewhere long ago and far away. “I spent more time in there than I did inside the Castle. When I came back and saw it, I—I can’t even tell you how upsetting it was.”
“All the more reason to hire someone qualified who can help you restore it to its former glory,” she said cheerfully.
He blinked, returning to the here and now. “Do you mind if I give you some advice?”
“Oh, by all means,” she said.
“Take the damn project, Jacqueline. Because if you refuse it, my family is going to take your refusal as a deliberate snub. They’ll strike at you in ways you can’t even conceive of right now. That’s my advice. Take it, do it, move on with your life.”
Maybe she was imagining the haunted look in his eyes, but Jacqueline had a sinking feeling that Dane Gyant’s advice came from the heart. He might be arrogant and irritating, but he spoke like someone who’d experienced the retaliatory tactics of the Castle firsthand.
“I’ll be going back up to the Castle this weekend for the rest of the summer,” he said. “I really hope, for your sake, that you’ll decide to go with me.”
She smiled. “High hopes make for long falls, hasn’t anyone ever told you that?”
“Oh, I don’t know,” he said after a moment. “Not all falls are bad.”
Jacqueline gave him an arch look. “Fall from grace,” she said. “Falling apart at the seams, heading for a fall, fall flat on your face, fall like dominoes, fall through the cracks, fall for a trap, the bigger they are, the harder they fall.” She smirked. “Tell me again how ‘not all falls are bad’?” Turning on her heel, she headed for the stairs.
“What about falling in love?” he called after her.
With her foot on the first tread, Jacqueline threw her head back and brayed with laughter. The echo inside the rotunda was deafening, as if Aphrodite herself had descended to personally mock Dane Gyant for his irrational, romantic idealism. Leaning on the banister for support, she said, “Well, you know what they say: ‘It’s not the fall that kills you, it’s the sudden stop.’”