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 at the top of her lungs. “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 and get down here, Jack-o! Don’t make me come up there and get you!”
Her threats were interrupted by a wave of fatigue that left her not caring about much of anything. 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 undoable.
Leaning heavily against the banister, 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. Her problem was the same as it was every morning: too much to do, not nearly enough time to do it all, and lots of complications sprinkled generously throughout.
And then there was her constant fatigue to contend with. You’re going back to work today, she told herself. You have to.
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, she thought before muttering, “Wasting an hour on hair and makeup just to go to work. What a great idea that was.”
She did this a lot, scolding herself, but this time, her self-criticism was warranted. Because she knew from personal experience that her psyche would take the physical and emotional energy she poured into getting all dolled up and convert it 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 eligible 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.
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. (Official American Kennel Club name “Jinja Ninja of the Dale.”) Ever alert to any threat to Jacqueline’s person, the dog scrambled across the solarium tiles and shot into the dining room in full attack mode, emitting the canine version of emergency alert tones in 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 hot coffee 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. Turning away from 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. It was an impressive display, one that nicely reflected the five centuries of selective inbreeding that had left Jinja and her ilk half-a-dog high, a-dog-and-a-half long, and an entire brain short.
It wasn’t unusual for dachshund puppies to imprint on one person in the family—much like the goslings in Fly Away Home—but Jinja’s psychosis went far deeper than overzealous devotion and a raging Napoleon complex. She was an unabashed man-hater, a condition that Jacqueline could probably learn to live with, if not embrace, were the dog’s ire reserved exclusively for murderous types attempting to break 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—a new vendor she’d met at work—Jinja’s rabid determination to turn his man-morsels into organic chew-toys had really dampened the romantic spark. His subsequent offer the next day—to have Jinja euthanized at no cost to her—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 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 to prevent further mayhem.
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?”
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. “Sorry, I went to my room while it was cooking. I guess I fell asleep.”
“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 approximately ten, 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 two years, 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 crossed her arms and 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.
Jacqueline wrinkled her nose in disgust as he she realized that he planned to eat the impaled pseudo-food. “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 managed to sneak 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, even going so far as to hold 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 while you try 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 forebrain won’t be fully developed until you’re twenty-five. While she’d have loved nothing more than to verbally expand on that idea for him, she know 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, 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 commentary and affectionate jibes 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 hopping through the rafters in a one-hundred-year-old attic.” Or climbing the cottonwood tree, or the fire department hose tower, or the rusty fire escape ladder on the old Valley Hotel.
Jack had always been a natural climber, climbing with confidence long before he could walk. There was nothing he wouldn’t climb, which she supposed was typical for all children. Jack was odd in that not even bruises and a broken arm had served as deterrents. To him, the occasional fall was built into the climbing experience the way the cost of doing business was built into product pricing, a philosophy that, for Jacqueline, had forced her to live most of the last ten years in a state of low-level dread. She’d tried her best not to let him see that, though; teens could smell fear like a shark smelled blood.
As for the attic, the problem wasn’t that it was dangerous to traverse—Jack had been in more danger climbing the cottonwood tree next to the house in the dark or wriggling through the gable vent thirty-five feet off the ground to reach the attic than he had been hopscotching across the attic joists—but she could think of at least five hundred safer and easier ways of getting inside the house.
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.”
Jacqui 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. Jacqui tightened her grip and carried Jinja to the adjoining solarium.
Trailing along behind them, Jack sounded truly aghast. “But wouldn’t they—don’t people replace their roofs all the time? Like if there’s a bad hailstorm or something? And what about the renovation? Wouldn’t they have replaced the roof then?”
“This is why Mother Nature provides 106 male births for every 100 females,” she wanted to tell him. “Those extra six are spares to replace the ones that get themselves killed before reaching adulthood.” As her son was unlikely to find that particular morsel of sagacity palatable, she restrained herself from sharing it.
“The roof tiles, maybe, for a hailstorm,” she said, depositing Ginger on her bed in the corner. The dog 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 was in the houses where water had leaked in and rotted the wood.”
“Like Dannock Hall?” he said.
“Like Dannock Hall.” She stooped over, 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, then that’s a sign that the wood’s probably rotted.”
With a terse “excuse me,” she edged around him in order to get to the wrought-iron baker’s rack behind him, leaving him frozen to the spot, mouth and eyes wide with shock. As much as she liked to think 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, so she turned her attention to three plastic trays of newly sprouted seedlings basking in the morning sunlight. Looking them over, she tried to decide if she should throw some more water on them before she left.
They don’t look like they need it, she thought, eyeing the pooled water at the bottom of each tray, but what do I know?
“Did you wake up with the urge to kill a few plants today or something?” Jack chortled behind her, his mouth full of food.
Jack’s abrupt recovery came as no surprise to her. For him, the full minute it had taken him to recover from being violently disgorged from the sweet bosom of ignorance counted as rigorous contemplation. Nothing, Jacqueline knew, soothed cognitive dissonance in the adolescent psyche like the fervent belief in their own immortality. 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 told him as she frowned at the plants. “Believe me, these weren’t my idea. Dagny McCormick’s father died of a stroke Tuesday night; she flew home to South Carolina Wednesday 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 an environmental horticulture and landscape-design degree did not, in fact, make her an “overeducated gardener.”
She leaned forward, hands on her knees, to take 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 came out sounding 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.”
Jacqui 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 right about now?”
With a laugh, he disappeared into the house, 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 the previous September had left her bedridden for months and unable to work. She’d quickly exhausted what little savings she’d had just to meet the rent and keep them fed. Her credit cards were maxed out, 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 to trash the plants 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 leased her space inside Beanstalk Garden Center and Landscaping Services, 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 run Beanstalk Garden Center for over thirty years; she knew it was a false contradiction, but that had never stopped her from finding Jacqueline’s predicament sidesplittingly hilarious. How many times had she explained to Tilly that no book would ever succeed in making a gardener out of her? She’d lost count. Eventually, she’d just given up resisting altogether, resigning 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 box. 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!” A quick perusal was all it took for her to understand why the information had been relegated to the non-fiction equivalent of an afterthought. Cleverly headlined “Breaking the Mold!” it explained the two options for killing all manner of plant-slaying fungi that lurked in the soil. 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, especially if soil amendments have recently been added, may give off an unpleasant odor, one that may find its way into your clothing, carpets, and furnishings.”
Jacqui interpreted the phrase “unpleasant odor” to mean “your entire house and everything in it will smell like composted animal shit and burnt dirt for the foreseeable future.” Yeah—no, she thought. 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 reread the passage carefully, hoping she’d missed 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.
It was then that she first saw him.
Standing on the sidewalk beside the courtyard gate, he was bent over one of the two solid bronze, post-mounted plaques there, the one that read:
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 2007
“How’d the Vic Buff get in here?” she muttered, narrowing her eyes at him.
“Vic Buff,” short for “Victorian Buff, was what Morvienna Minor residents called people like the man outside—or they used to, anyway. Vic Buffs were folks who crisscrossed the country in search of Victorian-era structures to gape at. They hunted 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 in the world 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 six years ago.
“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.
Jacqueline jerked backwards in surprise, nearly dropping the seedling tray in the process. Her addled brain tossed a word salad and served it up to her mouth, leaving her sputtering, “Whoa goodness beautiful holy yum Christ!”
He couldn’t really see her, she knew. The solarium faced east, the sky was clear, and the morning March sun was already high in the sky, so even if he’d been hoping to catch a glimpse of the inside of the house, the only thing he’d find in the wavy, mouth-blown, antique cylinder glass at that distance was his own reflection staring back at him.
And what a reflection it was. A split-second glance of his face was all it had taken for Jacqueline to make the call on “Sexiest Trespasser Alive.” His large, lead-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 really tripped her circuit breaker. Exquisitely shaped, the bottom slightly fuller than the top, Jacqueline could imagine nibbling on them in the throes of passion.
As she gaped at him, he ran a hand through his hair. Slightly damp with sweat, it was the color of light brown sugar and fell across his forehead from a haphazard side part. With material like that to work with, Jacqueline could draw up one hell of an inspiring Naughty v. Nice-themed list of all the ways the two of them could spend their time together. Mmm-mmm-mmm, she thought. You can invade my home and trespass against me any day.
There had been a time when it wasn’t at all unusual to find a stranger pressing their face against one’s living room window, for example, or staring, dumbstruck, at Gosfield Bury’s Queen-Anne facade, but that was back when the occasional Vic Buff had still been welcomed in the upper-valley Annandale Park neighborhood of Morvienna Minor. Six years ago, though, after the big restoration project, the twenty-something Victorian-era mansions had become overnight tourist destinations. The neighborhood residents had quickly grown tired of the never-ending stream of strangers who showed up at all all hours of the day and night to photograph, peer at, and generally pick over every square inch of their homes.
Jacqueline had mostly shrugged off their incursions, until one sleepy summer morning during the restoration when an overeager Vic Buff—one whose philosophy on personal property encroachment had apparently consisted of “trespassing, schmesspassing”—had broken a pane of glass in the solarium door and let himself in. Carrying her coffee 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 pajama to the pink mug in her hand, one featuring a bleary-eyed, beleaguered Minnie Mouse in a fuzzy bathrobe and hair curlers along with the words “MORNING’S AIN’T PRETTY!”
While Jacqueline couldn’t say with certainty what her reaction would’ve been if she’d just been busted by a homeowner in the middle of a B&E, she liked to believe that it would’ve included the following: a yelp of surprise, a terror-filled countenance, 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 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 single pane of antique glass in the door. As an added bonus, she got to tell everyone she knew 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 the Minors, 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. After that, residents could no longer have so much as a pizza delivered to their door, and while Jacqueline seriously doubted that any correlation existed between the student and the sudden security surge, it had pretty much been 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.
Her earlier grumblings about time wasted on her toilette were entirely forgotten. Now she congratulated herself for having had the foresight to blow out her long hair, put on a little makeup, and shave her legs. Thanks to all the weight she’d lost in the last few months, she practically swam inside most of her clothes now, but she’d found a pair of rolled-cuff denim capris deep in the bowels of her closet—pants she hadn’t been able to fit into for years—that worked. Hopefully, the highlights of her ensemble would divert his attention from her chartreuse T-shirt and black Keds. They were, admittedly, the two glaring, embarrassing downsides to the day’s ensemble, but it was too late to do anything about them now.
She took a deep breath and opened the door, but before she could take another step, Jinja fired past her in a silent, mahogany blur of fur. She watched, horrified, as Mr. Yum spotted the little misandrist before she’d made it halfway to the fence. Jacqueline sucked down a lungful of air, ready to bellow a warning to him, when something unbelievable happened. Jinja locked her legs and dug in, coming to a near-standstill before ambling across the patio like she was on a leisurely walkabout in a world devoid of men. She reached the fence, stood on her hind legs, front paws pressed against the pickets, and craned her neck in attempt to reach him. When that failed, she actually whined.
Mr. Yum reached over the fence to give her head a scratch and murmur a greeting to her in a rich baritone, the only part of which she could make out being “Jinja.” Before she could even ponder how in the world he knew her dog’s name, though, she heard him asking Jinja what her name was, even hunting for her name on her metal dog tag.
On the bright side, she realized, Jinja had provided her with the perfect opening. All she had to do now was step outside and call Jinja’s name, upon which she would greet Mr. Yum, upon which he would explain to her how he’d inadvertently guessed the dog’s name based on her fur color, a coincidence that he would find so charming that he would insist on engaging her in charming, laughter-filled conversation. The details of their first encounter would be repeated for years to come whenever someone asked either of them, “So, how did you two lovebirds meet?”
Eager to bring Mr. Yum’s lovefest with Jinja to an end so that the two of them could get started on their own, Jacqueline stepped outside. Holding the seedling tray aloft on the fingers of her left hand like a waiter, she snapped at the dog, “Jinja, get down!” She smiled at him and said, “Sorry about that. Can I help you with something?”
Mr. Yum’s jerked his hand away from Jinja and straightened. The moment their eyes met, 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.” His shock rapidly decayed into what Jacqueline could only describe as “manic curiosity.” His eyes flitted down to Jinja and then back to Jacqueline’s face, the latter of which he scrutinized 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, looking away. Ducking his head, he mumbled a few more words that she couldn’t make out at all and gave the back of his neck another vigorous scrub, a nervous tic that must’ve left him with one hell of a friction burn on rough days. As far as self-soothing methods went, though, it seemed do the trick. Mr. Yum reestablished eye contact, no longer resembling someone with a robust methamphetamine habit.
“Are you looking for someone?” she said. It came out a sounding more alarmed and a lot less charming than she’d planned.
“Believe it ur nae,” he said, “Ah think Ahm lookin’ fer ye.
He didn’t really sound like he was doing a Billy Connolly impression of King Fergus in Brave. What she’d actually had heard had sounded more like, “Believe it or na, I think I’m looking for yeee(w),” but what was undeniable was that 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. It was subtle though, making tracing the accent back to its country of origin difficult. Eventually, Jacqueline had been forced to ask Tilly. It turned out that the enisled valley was filled to the brim with the descendants of Scottish settlers. Mr. Yum’s wasn’t the most noticeable accent she’d ever heard from the mouth of a valley native, but if she were to count on one hand the number of people she’d heard with accents that were stronger than Mr. Yum’s, she’d still have three fingers folded down.
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 took time, however, forcing Jacqueline to stare at him over the fence while she sought temporary refuge in the warm arms of catatonia.
She wanted to believe him when he’d said, “I’m looking for you,” but the fact that he’d been addressing a clump of creeping thyme sprouting from a sidewalk crack near her shoe hadn’t escaped her notice. It was too bad, really, because Jacqueline was certain that she’d been looking for him as well—like, her entire life. Please, oh, please say you’re not leafleting, she thought. If he handed her a flyer for a free sandwich or an oil change after that sexy opener, she was going to pack herself off to a nunnery. On the other hand, the anemic state of her love life in recent years would’ve made a formal vow of chastity on her part a little redundant.
“Are you Jacqueline Guise?” said Mr. Yum.
He knows my name! “Only for the next ten hours,” she said. Flashing what she hoped was a playful smile, she flipped her wrist as if checking her watch, sending the twenty-something flower-shaped charms on her bracelet jingling as they tumbled and rolled over one another. “Once I’m on the pole tonight, I go by ‘Amber Waves.’” She swung the gate open, ready to catalog any anatomical offerings of note that had been obscured by the fence—and to invite him into the solarium to open her drawers, of course.
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 that she could 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 forget what it was that they were trying to accomplish. And then disaster struck. Despite the mail having been packed together and trussed up by a 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 that the escapee 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 Brains 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.
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. Head cocked slightly, he then stood extremely still and considered 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,” she said, like it was her failure to regularly to 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 looked forward to him leaving so she could get started on what would surely be an all-day bout of self-loathing, but he made no move to go. Instead, he told her, “I’m sure you already know this, 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 six Phlox paniculata in front, a grouping of 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.
That Mr. Yum was trying to impart something to her about the seedlings was clear, but even if she’d had an clue as to how the Latin was pronounced, she wouldn’t have been able to say what that was. Perhaps, she thought, she could dispel the notion that she was a stripper by asking him an informed and intelligent question such as, “And what do you recommend for a vaginal yeast infection of that magnitude?” Instead, 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—a single twitch and then it was gone. Lifting his chin at the seedling tray, he said, “Sorry. What I meant to say was that your goldenstar seedlings are infested with cotton rot.”
Suddenly, his initial, unhinged reaction when he first set eyes on her made a lot more sense. That’s what had you all riled up? she thought. A few moldy plants? It was a good thing that 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 houseplants 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 to herself, 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.”
“You picked a strange place to work,” he said with a glance at the lettering on the front of her T-shirt It read “Beanstalk Garden Center.” “Or do you just wear that shirt ironically?”
“I’m just the lowly landscape designer,” she said. “They don’t let me touch anything green.”
“Well, that’s a shame.”
Jacqueline laughed. “I doubt all the plants I’ve massacred over the years would share your opinion. When I ran out of money killing fully grown, store-bought plants, I took a stab at growing them from seed.” She shrugged. “I figured it would be cheaper.”
The corner of his mouth twitched again. “How did that work out?”
“Ha! I ended up killing everything in the cradle, so to speak. Talk about a case of misplaced optimism. I did develop a whole new appreciation for silk flowers though.”
“Did you try germinating the seeds in the house? The growing season at this altitude is so short.”
“‘Did I try inside’…” she said, rolling her eyes. “Please. I tried under grow lights, inside on the window sill, outside after the last frost. I tried peat moss, perlite, vermiculite, and coco fiber. I planted seeds, bulbs and cuttings, annuals, perennials, biennials. I tried container gardening, raised beds—you name it, I tried it, and not a single plant ever lived long enough to produce a flower.” With an arch glance at the tray, she said “As you can see, my skills haven’t really improved with time.”
“Those?” He gave the plants a dismissive wave. “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 at the same time. Cotton rot spores spread like wildfire; it won’t be long before your other seedlings are affected. 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,” he said. “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,” she said, thus inadvertently showcasing what had to be her only true talent: recognizing double entendres only after the fact. “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. Yums’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 the challenge.
Oh. My. God. The way he looked—a heady blend of physicality and intellect—it was just too much. She had to look away before her tongue got tied up in knots that couldn’t be untangled before it was her turn to speak again.
“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 might’ve 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, Jacqui. Only you could scare a man off with a proverb.
“Sorry, I don’t think I ever introduced myself,” he said, reaching over the gate and proffering his hand. “I’m Dane.”
“Hi,” she said, but in her head, she was thinking, ‘Dane’? My God, is there anything about this guy that isn’t sexy?
By the time their two-second “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. She was grateful that he already knew her name, because she was pretty sure she would’ve choked on it if she’d been forced to offer it herself.
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 raises an eyebrow. “Uh, I believe it’s still April. All the way through Saturday.”
Cheeks burning, she rolled her eyes at her stupidity. “Sorry, I meant the time. I was on my way to work and—here, I can take that,” she said, relieving him of the seedling tray and depositing it on the nearby patio table.
“Speaking of work: Flora Tilly said you were taking a stay-cation,” he said, “but when she found out that we were neighbors, she was nice enough to give me your address.”
Still rattled by the sexy 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,” he said.
Her brain locked 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 oblong circle nested inside a thick, gold outer ring. Jacqueline blinked and took another hard look at it, but before she could decide for certain if the inside circle was oblong or just a regular, symmetrical circle, their interlude went straight off a cliff, starting with nine little words: “How would you like to redesign the Castle pleasance?”
Her attraction for him, her interest in his identity and life story—all of it—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 she should have gone with “No.”
Misinterpreting her reaction as “mute with gratitude,” he gave her a benevolent smile. “Of course you’ll live at the Castle for the summer.” He leaned over the fence and gave the dog a scratch behind the ears. “Jinja, too, obviously. The gig comes with a clothing stipend, free room and board, 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 crossed the threshold, when he called to her. “Jacqueline?”
Using the door as a shield, she peered around the edge of it and found that, far from looking 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 or infectious yeast. 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 entire house with her still in it.
“And if you ever get serious about gardening,” he said, “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 slapped the top of the fence post with the palm of his hand, turned on his heel, and walked away down the sidewalk.
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