Against her better judgement, struggling single mother and landscape designer Jacqueline Guise agrees to spend the summer “up the mountain” remaking the walled garden at Caisteal anns an Neil, the mountaintop estate of the wealthy and ruthless Gyant family—the very same family whose cruelty and legal machinations left her in emotional and financial ruin fifteen years ago. Not only that, but a member of the Gyant family will be on-site and breathing down her neck all summer. Sure, Dane Gyant is the stuff of which fantasies are made—gorgeous, brooding, quietly charming, even—but he’s also a Gyant. Despite the pair’s obvious chemistry (the moment they clap eyes on one another, the seeds of attraction are not only sown, they sprout on the spot) Jacqueline can’t help treating him the way she would a burning compost pile. No sooner has she made her dislike for him plain, though, than she realizes (much to her dismay) that a casual flirtation has somehow taken root—and that flirtation is threatening to grow right into a full-fledged romance! Fortunately for Jacqueline, landscape designers don’t actually have to know how to grow anything, and when it comes to plants (and relationships) Jacqueline has “the Roundup touch.” According to her best friend, “love grows in mysterious ways,” but how can Jacqueline ever trust Dane Gyant with her heart when the odds are excellent that she’ll be left with nothing but a bumper crop of weeds at summer’s end?

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Chapter One

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.



Chapter Two

“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—”

“Sorry.”

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.



Chapter Three

“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.”



Chapter Four

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.”

“Ah.”

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.”



Chapter Five

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.”

“But why?”

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.’”



Chapter Six

A dance studio full of bodies, rehearsing day-in and day-out, from dawn ’til dusk, produced a miasma of aerobic exhale, overworked armpits, and putrid shoes so dense, Jacqueline could smell it from the bus stop across the street. Inside, the funk would be even worse, so she wasn’t surprised to see her best friend, Gwynnen Ibori, waiting for her outside.
 
The simple act of crossing the street left her out of breath. Probably should’ve just gone home after work, she thought. Her run-ins with Dane Gyant and Tilly had left her exhausted and dejected. Her hope was that spending some time with her friends would cheer her up.
 
Hailing Gwynnen, she called out, “How was Vail?”

“Good,” said Gwynnen. “How’s everything in the valley?”

“Fine.” She closed the distance between them, and leaned gratefully against the brick wall of the studio. “Did you get my message?”

“I did.” She smirked. “I hear I wasn’t the only one.”

Jacqueline cringed, the way she did every time she thought of Dane standing behind her while she ranted into the telephone like a lunatic. She quickly brought Gwynnen up to speed on the particulars of his appearance in her courtyard that morning, including his parting advice about adding Horticulture Magazine to her periodical subscriptions.

“You should’ve owned Girls and Corpses,” said Gwynnen, “instead of hiding it in your cleavage and pretending like it never happened. Getting all weird about it only made him suspect that you are weird. Owning it doesn’t make you weird, it makes you interesting.”

“And what, in your expert opinion,” Jacqueline said, “should I tell him when he stumbles across my back issues of Modern Drunkard? That I only read them for the articles?”

Gwynnen laughed, but just as quickly, her hazel eyes, so striking against skin the color of dark sepia, clouded with concern. She reached out and gently rubbed Jacqueline’s arm. “Are you sure you should be here? You look like a ghost.”

Jacqueline snorted. Standing beside Gwynnen, with her statuesque figure and rich brown skin, Jacqueline was always going to look like a short, spotted specter. “Don’t worry. I’m only here to observe. I wouldn’t make it through the warm-up without collapsing. I just couldn’t bring myself to go home. Turns out that cabin fever is a whole lot worse than what I had. Did you hear about the death of our faithful, decrepit Cow?”

“Yes, and I also heard that Dane Gyant offered to pay you more than it was worth—in cash—which you turned down.”

Jacqueline bristled. She had not been happy to learn from Iko that one of the cashiers at the Stalk had witnessed that particular interlude. “I don’t want to be indebted to the Gyant family.”

“Whatever. A hot man chases you from Gosfield Bury to the Stalk, and you still manage to blow both opportunities.”

Jacqueline’s smile froze. If Gwynnen was aware that she’d turned down Dane’s offer—twice—why was she being so cheerful about it? Something was off here. “That’s not how I’d describe what happened.”

Gwynnen gave her a knowing look. “Oh, believe me, I know all about it,” she said, giving Jacqueline a wink and a gentle poke to the solar plexus.

“Ow! What was that for?”

That is what you get for mocking God’s plans for you. You can’t say He didn’t try—twice.”

“Yeah, well, you know how I am about long-term commitment,” she said. It was true. A majority of her suburban clients along the Denver-Boulder urban corridor wanted whatever run-of-the-mill “backyard sanctuaries” had been showcased most recently on Yard Crashers or Curb Appeal. As a rule, if she was spending more than a month on that kind of generic project, she was losing money.

Gwynnen reached out to poke her again, but Jacqueline leaped away from her and hurried into the studio, Gwynnen hot on her heels.

“I just realized,” said Jacqueline, turning around to jog backwards as Gwynnen fought her way through a line of departing dancers, “that the NBA finals are tonight.”

“Meaning?”

She turned around and entered the dressing room. “Meaning that all major and minor world deities will be way too busy processing free-throw prayer requests to concern themselves with my professional life.”

Gwynnen gave her a quizzical look. “Your professional life? I thought we were talking about your love life.”

Jacqueline kicked off her Keds. “My love life? Why would you think that?”

Gwynnen rolled her eyes. “Oh, I don’t know, maybe because a few certain someones told me that Dane started off trying to sell you on the Castle project, and ended up in the rotunda, waxing poetic about the merits of falling in love.”

Jacqueline blushed, mostly because her mind had spent the better part of the day wandering—against her will—back to Dane. Never satisfied with remembering things the way they’d actually happened, her imagination had spawned a dozen fantasy spinoffs, the most potent of which had transformed him from a wealthy peddler of “bespoke seeds” (whatever those were) into more of a plebeian, pornographic Johnny Appleseed.

“Well, he didn’t sell me on either one,” said Jacqueline. She tensed, waiting for Gwynnen to explode, but the explosion never came.

On the bench across from her, Gwynnen looked up from tying her dance shoe. “So I heard. It’s a good thing Tilly read you the riot act, otherwise, you might’ve done something dumb.”

Jacqueline stared at Gwynnen, bewildered. She just couldn’t make heads or tails of their conversation. If Gwynnen considered “something dumb” to mean “not taking the project,” that could only mean…

She doesn’t know. Which was odd, because while Tilly had definitely read her the riot act, that had happened before Dane’s defense of romantic ardor in the rotunda. Gwynnen’s assumptions about the outcome of her meeting with Tilly, too, were just plain wrong, which meant that Tilly hadn’t told her.

Since Gwynnen had been in Vail all day, Jacqueline surmised that Gwynnen must have relied on the Stalk rumor mill for her information, and that mill must have cranked out a really mixed-up timeline.

While Jacqueline wrestled with the implications of her theory, Gwynnen was busy wrestling her water bottle out of her bag, leaving her too preoccupied to notice Jacqueline’s state of utter perplexity.

Moving slowly, Jacqueline shrugged into an old T-shirt with the name of their all-female amateur performance troupe—“Honey-Nut Cheery ’Ho’s”—written across the front. She was surprised at how much she’d come to miss the grueling weekly practices. Maybe she wouldn’t be strong enough to participate for many weeks still, but changing into practice clothes felt familiar and routine, especially when compared to the chaos that was spinning and lurching through the rest of her life.

The mass arrival of other members of the Honey Nut Cheery ’Ho’s was a welcome interruption that allowed her to avoid telling Gwynnen the truth. Her fellow dancers demanded a hug from Jacqueline, some expressing concern for her less-than-hale-and-hearty appearance, others congratulating her on scoring the Castle project.

“Well, I heard that it’s like being a first-class passenger on a Druidic Titanic,” said fellow Cheery ’Ho’, Kaylee Kirbee, behind her.

Jacqueline turned around. “What is?”

“Staying at the Castle during the festivals,” said Kaylee.

Jacqueline was about to point out the obvious downside of being a passenger on the Titanic—first-class, Druidic, or otherwise—but Gwynnen seized on Kaylee’s opener to talk about her favorite subject. “I read an anonymous blog the other day written by someone who’d been to Mayfest. He or she said, and I quote, ‘Mayfest is a combination of five-star-resort amenities, pagan-ish proclivities, clannish customs, outdated courtesies, and a strictly enforced code of conduct.’”

“Sounds like heaven on earth,” Jacqueline muttered. “When do we leave?”

“Not that you’ll be able to tell us anything,” Kaylee lamented. “I heard they make you sign an ironclad non-disclosure agreement.”

“It’s like a high-altitude Vegas,” Gwynnen said. “What happens at the Castle stays at the Castle, right, Jacqueline?”

We can only hope. “You bet,” she said, and ducked out of the dressing room before anyone could question her lack of enthusiasm.

Luckily for her, Malena Hayes, one of the four leaders of the Cheery ’Ho’s, was at the front of the gymnasium-sized studio, clapping her hands and shouting for them to assemble. Dancers streamed out of the dressing room and sat on the floor in loose groupings around a computer monitor. On the screen, the troupe leaders stood in a line, wearing what looked like lacy lingerie that had been caught in a bag full of angry cats.

“Okay, so the choreography and costumes for this routine were designed to make a specific point about the role of women in our society,” said Malena. “This is a rough cut, obviously, so keep that in mind.” With that, she pressed “play.”

Jacqueline watched, rapt, as the four dancers contorted, twisted, leaped, and thrashed about for an exhausting five minutes. By the time Malena clicked the video off, Jacqueline was practically panting from watching their collective efforts.

“The choppy, synchronized movements at the beginning,” said Malena, “everyone lined up like automatons on an assembly line—the subtext should be self-explanatory.”

“Nightie-wearing robots,” Jacqueline said under her breath.

“Dancing sex dolls,” Gwynnen muttered back.

“Then there’s the middle piece,” said Malena, “where the movements transition from contained and stiff to unrestrained and ferocious. This is the ‘wild abandon’ section. Facial expressions should be fierce but sexy. The jaguar is your spirit animal here: feral but graceful.”

A new dancer, one Jacqueline hadn’t yet met, looked up from the notes she was scribbling. “Is a leopard acceptable? Or a lioness, maybe?”

“Any kind of feline that you’d like to embody is fine with me,” said Malena.

Gwynnen leaned towards Jacqueline, her eyes wide and eager. In a manic whisper, she said, “What about a pussy, Malena? Would a pussy be an okay feline spirit animal?”

Jacqueline shoved her away, gritting her teeth to keep from laughing. When she was confident that she had herself under control, she whispered back, “Personally, I find prey animals to be much more relatable.”

“In the final section of the choreography,” Malena continued with a pointed glance in their direction, “you are the personification of the powerful Earth Mother. This part is all about the source of your womanly and maternal powers: your uterus.”

Jacqueline snorted, a little too loudly.

“You wanted to add something, Jacqueline?” said Malena, glaring at her as everyone in the studio turned and trained their eyes on her.

Blushing, Jacqueline thought fast. “Since I’ve vowed never to use my uterus again, Gwynnen said I could think of hers instead. I’m confident that hers is powerful enough for the both of us.”

Malena was, hands down, the most humorless member of their dance troupe, so Jacqueline wasn’t at all surprised when she replied in all seriousness, “Well, if Gwynnen has no objections to that, neither do I. All right, let’s line up with four rows going across, and we’ll start the warm-up.”

Jacqueline positioned herself in a chair near the edge of the room and watched as the women closest to Gwynnen continued to effervesce about how lucky the two of them were to be going to the Castle. Grinning, Gwynnen sidestepped her way closer to Jacqueline. “I am so excited!” she babbled. “Come to my place after so we can make plans, okay? Do you think we’ll have enough time to go shopping before this weekend? I’ve heard that there’s an entire wing at the Castle filled with designer label cast-offs from people who didn’t want to be seen wearing the same dress twice. They call it ‘Castle Soho.’”

Jacqueline couldn’t take it anymore. “Gwynnen, I need to talk to you.”

“Okay…” said Gwynnen, a confused, half-smile on her face.

“Not here.” She got to her feet and made for the dressing room. Grabbing her bag off its hook, she slipped it over her arm; she had a feeling she wouldn’t be staying long. Taking a deep breath, she screwed up her courage and spit it out. “I’m not going to the Castle, okay? I’m going to turn down the project.”

“Are—are you kidding me?” said Gwynnen, searching Jacqueline’s face for any sign that she was in jest. “Please say you’re joking right now.”

“I’m not joking. I’m sorry.” Jacqueline turned and headed for the studio door, still wearing her dance shoes.

“But Iko told me—I heard that you met with Tilly! And Dane Gyant—you signed a contract!” Gwynnen sputtered matching her step for step.

“Tilly almost tore my head off, and Dane tried to convince me, but I didn’t sign anything. I told Tilly I’d think about it, and I have—all day. I’m not taking it.”

Outside now and free to raise her voice, Gwynnen did so. “You know that it’s a package deal, right? If you say ‘no,’ we all say ‘no’ – you know that, right?”

Jacqueline was miserable. “I know. Tilly told me, but—”

Gwynnen cut her off. “What is it? Can you at least tell me that much?”

“What is what?”

“Your irrational hatred of the Gyant family!” Eyes flashing, she looked angrier than Jacqueline had ever seen her. “And don’t give me any of your bullshit about their unethical business practices or GMO crops, okay, because that’s not what this is about.”

“I just think it will set me up to—”

“No!” said Gwynnen. “No. Don’t even start with the ‘long highs, short hopes’ crap again. I don’t want to hear it.” She made a sound of derision. “God! Ever since I moved here, I’ve wanted to go up the mountain. You know that!”

“Aren’t you even remotely curious about why the Gyant family would hire us?” Jacqueline countered. “Out of all the florists, landscape designers, and garden centers in the state, they chose us. Why?”

“They want to support local businesses?” said Gwynnen. “They lost a bet? They’re doing it on a dare? Who the hell cares why? I stand to make more money off this one contract than I would in a typical year.” Angry tears filled Gwynnen’s eyes. “I love you like a sister, Jacqueline, you know I do, but I swear to God, if you ruin this for me without giving me a pretty damn compelling reason—I—I don’t know how I could ever forgive you!”

Brushing her own tears away, Jacqueline gave a mighty sniff. “I just don’t think I can do it—physically, I mean.” Pressing a hand to her chest, she tried to slow her breathing. “The only reason I dragged myself back to work today is because I need the money. You and Tilly talk about me redesigning the garden up there as if it’s a backyard patio and fire pit for Joe Homeowner. Well, it’s not, okay? It’s not even a whole other ballpark, it’s another universe! And I don’t understand why they can’t just hire you and Tilly separately from me. I think it’s stupid and wrong, but it’s like you and Tilly don’t even want to hear my reasons! And forget about me—has it occurred to either of you how Jack’s going to feel about being ripped out of school a month early and separated from all his friends until August? And—and I don’t even have anyone to take care of my dog!”

She was slowly spiraling into hysteria and she knew it. Fortunately, deliverance arrived in the form of the Vine. “You know what? I just can’t talk about this anymore,” she said, dashing across the street as the bus lumbered around the corner. Ignoring Gwynnen’s protests, she hopped aboard, leaving her best friend standing on the sidewalk, shaking her head sadly.

***

It was a forty-minute bus trip back to Annandale Park, and a ten-minute walk to her house from the bus stop, which was just enough time for her face to lose its splotchy, puffy-eyed, weepy look.

With a deep breath and a forced smile, she pushed the front door open. Inside, she found Jack in the living room, standing in the middle of a pile of outdoor gear that included a fully inflated yellow innertube, the one he used for tubing the spring and summer rapids at Bellflower Creek. There was climbing gear—harnesses and climbing shoes, carabiners and ropes—a hiking stick, even the mountain bike her sister had given Jack two Christmases ago.

“Did you sign up for The Amazing Race without telling me?” she said, dumping her dance bag in the coat closet. “Or are you just running away?”

Jack, clearly in high good humor, grinned. “I wanted to make sure I didn’t forget anything.”

Jacqueline looked over the pile. “Please tell me the kitchen sink is where I left it this morning.”

Jack laughed. “I know you wanted to surprise me, okay? But everyone’s talking about it.”

Jacqueline froze. No, please no. Thanks to social media and cell phones, there was just no keeping a secret anymore. Maybe it hadn’t been easy prior to the internet—especially not in a mountain town like Annandale—but it had been possible, at least. She should know. “Who told you?” she said, her tone tired and colorless.

Jack shrugged. “I overheard Mrs. Henderson talking about it outside. I didn’t believe it at first, but then I saw Michael at the skate park, and he said it was for real, and then other kids started texting me.” He looked around himself at the pile of gear. “Oh, and I wasn’t sure what I should do about school. Most people thought we’d be going up this weekend, but I figured I should wait and talk to you before I email my teachers.”

With a groan of frustration, Jacqueline sat heavily on the second stair tread. “Mrs. Henderson needs to learn how to shut her mouth.”

Jack’s brow furrowed with worry. Abandoning the pile, he crossed into the dining room, stopping just short of the foyer. “You’re not mad, are you? That it wasn’t a surprise, I mean?”

“No, I’m mad because it’s not true.”

Jack’s whole demeanor went from cautiously optimistic to alarmed. “Not true like ‘we’re not leaving this weekend’?” he said slowly.

“No, not true as in ‘we’re not going at all.’”

“What do you mean? Michael said that his mom told him that—”

“I was offered the project, that part is true, but I had to pass on it.”

“But—but I already told everyone I was going!” he said.

What he really meant, Jacqueline surmised, was that he’d snapped a selfie of himself standing on the summit of Gear Mountain, and had posted it on Instagram with a pithy hash tag like #CastleBound. “You probably shouldn’t have done that.”

Jack stared at her, his eyes nearly bugging out of his head. “But…don’t we need the money?” he said finally.

Oh, Lord, what fresh hell is this? “What makes you think that?”

“Mom.” It was just one word, but the tone was familiar because it was the one she used on him when he was stalling for time.

“What?” she said, stalling for time. What should I say? What can I say?

Jack plucked an empty glass off the dining room table and shook it, rattling the few ice cubes still at the bottom. “I poured this out of the Sprite bottle in the fridge, but I know it’s really the Walmart brand.”

“I had no idea your taste buds were so discerning when it came to the finer things in life,” she said, but her voice was wooden in her ears. “If that whole computer-hacker thing doesn’t work out for you, I hear it’s a pretty straight line from carbonated-beverage connoisseur to professional wine taster.”

Jack met her sarcasm with a generous serving of his own. “Whatever! The pancake-dogs in the freezer aren’t Jimmy Dean, the syrup in the pantry isn’t Log Cabin, the shampoo in my shower isn’t Dove for—for Guys, or whatever it’s called, and I wouldn’t even have noticed any of it if I hadn’t seen you sneaking all the bottles and boxes into the recycling bin on Thursday mornings!”

Jacqueline mentally flailed around, grabbing blindly for a way forward. “Trying to save a little money on groceries doesn’t mean we’re on our way to the poorhouse,” she said. “We’ll be fine, Jack.”

Jack snorted. “Yeah, okay.”

Feeling bone-weary, Jacqueline rose. “And anyway, it’s not your problem to worry about. It’s mine.”

“Well, it’s about to become my problem!” He lifted one of the daisy-shaped place mats and slid out a neon-orange piece of paper he’d stashed underneath. “This was on the door when I got home.” Unfolding it, he held it up so she could see.

Most of the print was too small to make out from that distance, but the thrust of the paper’s contents was summarized in large block letters Jacqueline could’ve read from the other side of the house:

NOTICE OF EVICTION

Jacqueline gasped and closed her eyes, but even with her eyes closed, an afterimage of the words hung before her. She wanted to escape, to race up the stairs, away from Jack and the notice, but she didn’t have the strength to move. “Why didn’t you say something?” she whispered.

Jack stared at the floor. His reddish-brown hair had fallen forward, covering the smattering of freckles that adorned his forehead and nose. “I thought since you got that job at the Castle—I guess I thought you’d get some money up-front like you normally do and you’d pay the rent and this”—he rattled the paper in his hand—“wouldn’t even matter.” He took a deep, shaky breath that, in the past, had presaged tears. “I wish—” He stopped.

“What?” said Jacqueline, trying hard not to cry herself. “What do you wish?”

Jack crumpled up the paper and threw it in the direction of the solarium. “I wish my dad was alive,” he said, his voice rising. “Then we’d have enough money, and we’d be a regular, happy family just like everyone else!”

Roused by the loud voices and the sound of the paper skittering across the solarium floor, a very sleepy Jinja bumbled into the dining room and growled halfheartedly at Jack. Turning on her, he roared at the top of his lungs, “SHUT UP, JINJA!” Before Jacqueline could react, he detoured around the dog, raced into the solarium, and banged his way outside through the courtyard door.

With a weary sigh and a heavy heart, Jacqueline slowly climbed the stairs. In her bedroom, she changed into the softest, fluffiest pajamas she could find, wrapped herself up in a fleecy blanket, and waited.

She didn’t have to wait long. Downstairs, the front door opened and closed. After a brief silence, she heard Jack’s footsteps on the stairs and a light thumping sound on the hall table outside her bedroom door. Jack poked his head into her room, looking chagrined. “Sorry, Mom. I don’t know why I said any of that. And I should have given that paper to you.”

Jacqueline pulled herself up into a cross-legged posture and said, “Don’t beat yourself up over it.” She patted a spot on the mattress near the foot of the bed, inviting him to sit. “And for the record, ‘regular’ and ‘happy’ are two very overrated states of existence.”

Jack sank onto the mattress. “Yeah, sure,” he said glumly.

“I’m serious! You know what they say: ‘Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.’”

Jack’s frown deepened. “I don’t know a single person who says that.”

Jacqueline rolled her eyes. “Leo Tolstoy said that.”

He stared at her blankly. “Who’s he?”

“Oh, my God, what the hell are you learning in school? Leo Tolstoy was a famous Russian author. ‘Happy families are all alike’ is the opening line of one of his novels.” When that rundown failed to spark a flicker of recognition, she said, “You know: Leo Tolstoy? Wrote War and Peace?”

Jack screwed his mouth to the side and considered the information. “Nope, sorry, never heard of him.”

Jacqueline suppressed the urge to bang her head against the wall. “The point is that happy families are boring, but unhappy families give you enough subject matter to churn out a thousand pages, evenly split between misogynistic sociopaths and everything you never wanted to know about Russian peasant farming.” She fake-punched him in the shoulder. “Think of it this way: if you were always happy, you wouldn’t have anything to tell your therapist when you grow up!”

“Good to know,” he mumbled, but the corner of his mouth turned up ever-so-slightly. Before she could deliver a second, harder punch, he leaped from the bed and sashayed to the door. “Look what I found outside!” he said, grinning. Reaching around the door frame, he returned with one of the seedling trays she’d doused with hydrogen peroxide and cinnamon and left on the patio that morning.

In the slow-moving disaster that had been her day, Jacqueline had entirely forgotten about Dagny McCormick’s moldy seedlings. And you thought that was your biggest problem when you got up this morning. “Oh, what a relief.” Not only was the fuzzy white mold completely gone, but the peat pellets were no longer swimming in standing water. “I cannot believe that worked.” She’d have to thank Dane for his advice, she supposed. Then she remembered all the havoc he’d inflicted on her life in the last twelve hours and decided that one bit of good advice on his part did not make them “even-steven.”

“The rest of them look pretty good, too,” said Jack. His smile faltered. “I guess I’d better go downstairs and put all that stuff away, huh?”

“Well, I seriously doubt the Castle expects every guest to bring their own inner tube and trail bike.”

Jack blinked. “What do you mean?”

Jacqueline tried to smile but it quickly collapsed into a sigh of resignation. “I’ll go over the project proposal tonight and talk to Tilly about it again tomorrow morning.” If Tilly thought she could extort a little up-front money from the Gyants by citing family disruption or displacement or whatever, then so be it. Someone up the mountain was going to pay for doing this to her, that was for sure. “I can’t make any promises,” she said, “but we’ll see what happens, okay?”



Chapter Seven

“‘From the Ground Up Coffee,’” said Dane, reading the sign above the entrance to the Beanstalk’s in-house coffee shop. “I get it now.”
 
Lettered in chartreuse, the words “From the” sprang up from a tuft of tall fescue. Directly underneath—underground, as it were—the words “Ground Up Coffee” were the color of dirt, with a coffee mug standing in for the letter “U.” A generic seedling, not unlike the ones Jacqueline had tried to slay yesterday, sprouted from the mug, its roots pushing straight through the bottom.
 
“You kind of have to see the sign to get the double pun,” said Jacqueline. “Do you have a seating preference?”

Located inside the Stalk’s original lean-to conservatory, Ground Up Coffee was all glass and light. Half a hundred baskets of flowers hung from its sloped roof, trees grew right up out of the floor, and a “living wall” of trailing vines covered half of the lean-to’s solid wall. The seating was drawn from a rotating selection of Tilly’s outdoor furniture inventory, and included sectional couches, bistro sets, and patio tables. This month’s rotation also featured a ball wicker bed. At least ten times in the last twenty-four hours, Jacqueline had considered crawling inside it for a nap.

“Is there anywhere in here you’re not allowed to sit?” he said, eyeing her Beanstalk-issue T-shirt.

“You’re a client. Anywhere is fine.”

Once she’d given Tilly her decision this morning, Tilly had contacted Dane. Jacqueline was surprised that he was able to meet with her on such short notice, but now that he was here, she just wanted to get through the preliminary negotiations as quickly as possible.

“What about here?” he said, pointing to a seven-piece wicker sectional set anchored by a glass-topped coffee table.

“Works for me.” Jacqueline dropped her purse onto the coffee table, plunked herself down on the closest chair in the grouping, and began flipping through the proposal.

“Would you like something to drink?” he said.

“Hmm?” She put her finger on the page to save her place. “Oh. Yeah. I could use a latte.”

When she reached for her purse, he held up his hand. “It’s on me.”

Jacqueline was tempted to follow him with her eyes as he walked to the counter, but judging by the number of female heads around her that were swiveling his way, Dane Gyant was not lacking for admiration. Besides, Jacqueline was still trying to live down the “what about falling in love?” fiasco from yesterday morning. One barista in particular, Monica Hayes, had sharp eyes and a loose tongue; if she caught Jacqueline ogling him, it would only add fuel to the fire.

Returning a few minutes later, Dane carefully lowered her cup onto the coffee table. “Thank you,” she said without looking up from the page.

He settled into the chair opposite hers. “You’re welcome. I’m not the client, though.”

“Huh?”

“I’m not the client. Just so we’re clear.”

She would’ve been perfectly happy to correct herself, but she was once again struck dumb by his shocking good looks. The Gyants had faults aplenty, but she had to hand it to them: they were not only a handsome bunch, but sharp dressers to boot. And they never looked like they were trying too hard. Dane was rocking indigo jeans, an immaculate white T-shirt, a dark gray cotton zip cardigan and black suede ankle boots. He looked masculine, sexy, warm, and comfortable, and she wanted to crawl over the coffee table and use him like a body pillow.

Focus, Jacqueline. “Castle Hills LLC,” she said, tearing her eyes away. “My mistake.”

Leaning forward, she picked up the cup, failing to notice the unwelcome addition Monica had made to the Ground Up’s standard latte art until the cup was halfway to her lips. The baristas routinely painted a sinuous, miniature beanstalk atop the latte using the frothy steamed milk. This time, though, Monica had topped the beanstalk with a big fat heart. Hoping to disperse it, Jacqueline blew on it—perhaps a little too enthusiastically, as she ended up blasting a tsunami of foam halfway across the coffee table.

“Crap!” she muttered under her breath. In her haste to retrieve a napkin from the pile in the center of the table, she sloshed latte all over her hand. Hissing in pain, she reflexively released the handle. The cup shattered on the tiles, splashing steaming hot latte all over her shoes.

Dane, who had been digging through the vintage leather messenger bag at his feet as her private debacle had unfolded, leaped to his feet. “Are you okay?” he said, crouching beside her as she frantically slapped napkins on the ceramic shards and expanding pool of latte. “Here, let me.”

“It’s fine. I’ve got it.”

“Is that—did you burn your hand?”

Jacqueline opened her mouth to say that only a few drops had touched her skin, but then she saw the crimson Rorschach splotch on the back of her hand. “Oh, great.”

“Here, sit down,” he said. Jacqueline began to lower herself into her chair, but Dane stopped her. “Not there.” Pushing the broken ceramic out of the way with his shoe, he guided her over to the couch. “I’ll be right back with some ice.”

“Thanks.”

Jacqueline suspected that Monica would be watching the scene unfold from behind the counter. The moment Dane turned his back, she looked to see if she was right. Sure enough, there she was, eyes wide, a sheepish grimace on her face. In response to Jacqueline’s stink-eye, Monica mouthed the word “sorry.” Before Jacqueline could shoot her the bird with her non-scalded hand, though, Dane had reached the counter and sent Monica scurrying off for some ice.

Returning with a handful of ice cubes bundled up in a clean white hand towel, he plopped down sideways on the couch next to her, took her burned hand in his, and gently laid the towel over the scarlet splotch, sending her heart into a pounding, double-time rhythm that made her hands shake.

If he mentions it, tell him you’re going into shock.

He didn’t mention it, but she forgot all about it anyway when she realized that she had a bird’s-eye view of the tattoo on the back of his left hand. It was not, as she’d assumed yesterday morning, a gold ovoid nested inside a thick, gold outer ring—the trademark Gyant Agritech “seed logo.” Unlike the darker Dijon gold of the Gyant logo, Dane’s tattoo was closer to “true gold”—or as close as you could get to representing a metal, she supposed, without actually injecting gold flakes into your dermis. And while the shape in the middle of the Gyant seed logo resembled a golden egg, the figure at the center of Dane’s tattoo was very definitely a perfectly symmetrical circle.

It looks pretty new, too. The colors were still fresh and bright. If it had been inked years ago, it would’ve faded by now. “Interesting tattoo,” she said. “Does it mean something, or is it just a rich man’s bullseye?”

“I would tell you,” he said with a ponderous sigh, “but I’m afraid you’ll only jump to the wrong conclusion.”

Jacqueline looked up sharply, a retort on her tongue, but it was plain that he was only kidding.

They couldn’t seem to decide what shade they wanted to be, those eyes of his. Yesterday, standing outside in direct sunlight, she could’ve sworn they were a brilliant, steel blue. At the moment, with the sun on the other side of the Stalk from the conservatory, and the trees and potted plants providing plenty of shade, they were more of a charcoal blue. The color reminded her of Colorado storm clouds in high summer, the kind that obliged the National Weather Service to warn you to get your ass into the basement before a funnel cloud dropped out of the sky to pirouette on your doorstep.

Aware that she was staring at him, Jacqueline returned to her study of his tattoo. “I promise I won’t jump to the wrong conclusion.” Probably, she added silently.

“It’s the alchemical symbol for gold.” Seeing her tense up, he said, “Remember, you promised.”

“Right,” she said, trying not to scowl. “I guess the next obvious question is ‘why do you have the alchemical symbol for gold tattooed on your hand?’”

“I’d rather not talk about my tattoo,” he said, suddenly grave. “I’d rather talk about yours.”

“Mine?”

“Your burn.” He lifted the ice-filled towel to show her. “It looks like the ace of spades, only red.” He frowned. “Very red.”

Maybe it resembled an ace of spades from his vantage point, but from where Jacqueline was sitting, it looked an awful lot like a heart with a dagger plunged into it. An omen if ever there was one. “It only looks bad because my skin is so pale. Here, I’ll take it,” she said, relieving him of the towel. Anything to put some distance between them so that she could think clearly.

And not a moment too soon. Just when he’d ceded control of the hand towel to her, Monica arrived with a dust pan and broom to clean up the broken ceramic. “You want me to make you another one?” she asked Jacqueline.

“No, I’m fine. I guess I just have butter fingers this morning.”

Giving Jacqueline a self-satisfied smirk, Monica bent to her task.

Jacqueline cleared her throat and in a no-nonsense business tone, said to Dane, “We should probably go ahead and get started or we’re going to be here all day.”

She’d hoped Dane would return to his own chair. Instead, he reached across her and dragged his bag to him, repeating the process with his cappuccino. “Where would you like to begin?” he said, pulling a copy of the proposal from the bag and leaning back against the cushions.

The two of them were so close, Jacqueline could feel the heat radiating from his body. It’s probably your body heat, you horny freak. Under the guise of adjusting her position, Jacqueline discreetly bounced a few inches away from him, trying to move out of range of his cologne. It would’ve been far better for her if it had doubled as a Jacqueline-repellent, but the scent was subtle and smelled as good as he looked.

Get your head in the game, Jacqueline. “Let’s start on page five,” she said, flipping to one of the many sections she’d marked with a binder clip, “which describes the project location and budget parameters—no, wait, that’s the part about my mandatory attendance at Mayfest, Midsummer’s Eve, and Harvestfest.” She skipped ahead to the next section. “Page twelve describes the prospective uses of the space, the project timeline—no, wait, that’s the part about disjunes, hoards, carousals, and all manner of incomprehensible things that I’m expected to go to.”

“And your point is?” he said, scrambling to keep up with her page-flipping.

“My point is that I think you accidentally gave me your vacation brochure.” She brandished the proposal. “I was twenty pages into this thing last night before I ran across anything even remotely related to the project you’re hiring me for. As far as I can tell, everything before page twenty is irrelevant. Take it out.”

“They’re never going to agree to that.”

Jacqueline stared at him, incredulous. “Why not? Keeping it in will only extend the project timeline.” That was an understatement. Now that she had an idea of the size of the Castle pleasance, she was certain that she and Jack could be back in the valley by the end of June. Middle of July at the very latest.

“Two reasons. One: you’re a landscape designer. That makes you a part of the Castle’s creative team along with the interior designers, fashion consultants, personal stylists, and chefs. They’re not going to let you put a shovel in the ground until you’ve been there for at least a week. You’re expected to…” He stopped and flipped through the pages. “Ah, here it is. You’re expected to, quote, ‘observe, and absorb the ambiance of the milieu.’” He frowned and shook his head. “I didn’t write that. Just so you know.”

“At no point in this project will I be shoveling,” she said with a sniff. “Not after a week, not after a month, not ever.”

“Fair enough, but I believe the general assumption is that immersing yourself in the day-to-day routine of the Castle—not just the festival-specific events—will inform your final design.”

It was true that one of the initial steps of landscape design involved gaining a feel for the “local area”—its uses, architecture, vegetation and culture—but her contracts tended to be suburban hellscapes that were virtually indistinguishable from one another. The essence of the “suburban milieu,” as it were, could be boiled down to “Parade of Cookie-Cutter Homes,” the kinds of neighborhoods where a kid might commit a crime in the hopes that prison would at least be more interesting.

“And from what I understand,” said Dane, “you’ll have access to the family archives. The Castle was built right around the time that photography came on the scene, so you’ll have a chance to see how the Castle and the grounds have changed over the years.”

“Okay, but I still don’t understand why you think I’d need three months for this project. I mean, it’s a two-and-a-half acre walled garden. Unless you’re planning to pay me to watch the plants grow after they’re installed, there’s no way this project will take more than a month and a half—two months, tops.”

“You’re not factoring in the work stoppages.”

“Yeah, about that,” she said, turning to the page with a map of the estate on it. “There’s no mention in here of the pleasance being used for any of the festivals.”

“It isn’t.”

“Then why would work need to come to a screeching halt every time one rolls around?” According to the proposal, those “work stoppages” would commence five days prior to every festival and end five days afterward. Taken together, they’d tack a month onto the project timeline.

“The work stoppages don’t apply to you,” he said. “You’ll be living at the Castle with a long-term guest pass. The stoppages only apply to subcontractors with day passes. They have to be off the mountain before security locks the estate down.”

Jacqueline frowned. “I guess I don’t see why that’s necessary.”

He took a sip of his cappuccino. “You’ll understand once you’re up there. There are hundreds of people wandering around, and too many activities going on all at once for security to keep track of the comings and goings of a handful of subcontractors. And while we’re on the topic of security, I’m sure you read that you’re not allowed to bring personal electronics up the mountain?”

“I did.” That, at least, made more sense to her, given the Gyant family’s paranoia about unauthorized photos and video. According to the proposal, she and Jack would each be issued a cellphone once they were up the mountain. She fished a folded-up piece of paper out of her purse and handed it to him. “I made a list of the things I’ll need in order to get started. And since I doubt they’re going to allow me to take my office furniture up there, I’ll need a desk and a drafting table, too.”

Reading over her list, he murmured, “Laptop, iPad, desktop computer, printer, Landmaster…” He looked up. “What’s Landmaster?”

“It’s the name of the CAD program I use for designing. I have it on my laptop and desktop, but since personal electronics are banned…” She almost warned him about the price of the software—two thousand dollars, a sum that had nearly given her a heart attack when she’d first looked into purchasing it—but Dane probably had two thousand dollars in his wallet right now. “And make sure the laptop and desktop have all the specs I listed there because Landmaster takes up a huge amount of memory. If the processor is crap, the program will just crash over and over. It’s aggravating.”

“Got it.”

He pulled a book from his bag. “You and Jack will both want to read this cover to cover,” he said, handing it to her.

Jacqueline read the title aloud. “‘Customs, Conventions, and Courtesies of the Castle.’ Sounds riveting.”

From directly behind her came Tilly’s voice. “Personally, I’d rather watch a scab form.”

Jacqueline jumped as Tilly rounded the couch, Dane going so far as to scramble to his feet. For half a second, Jacqueline assumed he was going to make a run for it. Not that I’d blame him.

“Good morning,” he said to Tilly.

“What are you doing here?” said Jacqueline.

“Oh, I’m just hanging out like hair in a biscuit,” said Tilly cheerfully, settling into the spot vacated by Dane.

An awkward silence followed. Jacqueline had long ignored Tilly’s folksy turns of phrase, but Dane looked like he was parsing the words “hair in a biscuit” and trying to fashion an appropriate response.

“Will you be joining us?” he said finally.

“You know, I think I will.” Tilly spread her arms wide and rested them on the back of the couch. “Have you talked about money yet?”

Jacqueline rolled her eyes and sighed.

Dane, shocked by the abruptness of the question, blinked a few times and stammered, “Uh, no—no, we hadn’t quite reached that point.”

Jacqueline wanted to laugh. The Gyant family probably considered it gauche to utter the word ‘money’ aloud. Hell, they probably wrote dollar amounts on pieces of paper and slid them across the table to each other rather than contaminating their upper-crust lips with it, just like in the movies.

“Well, it looks like I got here just in time, then!” said Tilly.

With an uncertain glance at Jacqueline, Dane retrieved his bag from the floor and returned to his original seat. “Uh, well, we’d just finished discussing how the festival work stoppages will affect the project timeline, and while they won’t affect Jacqueline’s ability to continue her design work, we recognize that the loss of heavy-equipment operators or manual laborers during those times may temporarily stall progress.”

Was it just her imagination, Jacqueline wondered, or had his language suddenly become very formal? If she didn’t know better, she might even suspect that Dane Gyant was afraid of Flora Tilly. He certainly looked rattled enough. Jesus, she thought with a surreptitious glance at Tilly, what did she do to him when they met?

“In that vein, we also, uh, recognize that setting a June first deadline for the preliminary estimate may result in financial constraints in the interim. With that in mind—”

“Twenty-five thousand dollars,” said Tilly.

Jacqueline wasn’t sure whose mouth dropped open wider, Dane’s or her own.

For small jobs in the five-thousand-dollar range, it had been Jacqueline’s practice to request a fifty-percent deposit upfront. That formula didn’t scale up well for larger projects, though; no client in their right mind was going to cough up twenty-five thousand dollars for a fifty-thousand-dollar project, especially when the actual work on it might not begin for weeks and could last for months. A general rule of thumb was that the larger the job, the smaller the deposit. For projects over one hundred thousand dollars, a ten percent deposit was customary, but Tilly was throwing out a number for a quarter-of-a-million-dollar project.

“Oh, well,” Dane stammered, “I’m not certain if I can—”

Tilly scowled at him. “Does the Castle have any idea what Jacqui will be doing during the planning stage?” She ticked them off on her fingers. “On-site analysis, base map development, conceptual planning, CAD drawings, research, rough budgets, and elevation sketches—and that’s only if she doesn’t have to do a soil analysis, order topographical maps or aerial photography, perform a tree survey, or consult with an engineer! You’re talking dozens, if not hundreds of hours, and you expect her to do all that for free? No.”

“Of course not,” said Dane, “but I think—”

“Put a pin in that,” said Tilly. Before Jacqueline could interject even one of her two cents into the conversation, Tilly shifted her attention to the Ground Up counter, raising her hand and snapping her fingers like she was summoning a maître d’. Monica immediately abandoned the customer she was helping and practically vaulted over the counter in her haste to reach Tilly.

“What are the highest calorie food and drink items on the menu?” she asked once a flustered and very out-of-breath Monica had arrived on the scene.

“Uh, well, the white chocolate mocha has six hundred calories,” said Monica. “And the, uh, there’s a sausage breakfast sandwich with five hundred and ten calories, but if you get it without the cheese—”

“One mocha,” said Tilly, “and two sandwiches, extra cheese.”

Jacqueline stared at Tilly, incredulous. Tilly was not only a vegetarian, but an enthusiastic consumer of high-protein fruit smoothies. Jacqueline couldn’t even remember the last time she’d seen her eat solid food, let alone wolf down a couple of greasy breakfast sandwiches.

“Where were we?” said Tilly as Monica scurried away.

Dane cleared his throat. “Uh, I believe we were negotiating a deposit.” He turned to Jacqueline. “Do you think you’d be able to draw up a list for the planning phase that includes your hourly rate and a time estimate for each line item along with any probable costs?”

Jacqueline crossed her arms and sighed. “I mean, I could try, but without seeing the site first or at least having a general idea of what it is you want to do with it, I’d only be guessing.”

“And she can’t see the site first, can she?” said Tilly with a noise of derision. “First you strong-arm her into taking a contract she doesn’t want, and now you say you can’t compensate her until she gives you an estimate for a job site that she has no access to!”

Jacqueline had to hand it to Tilly: she really knew how to paint someone else as being the irrational person in the conversation.

“I see your point,” said Dane. “Unfortunately, the maximum deposit I’m authorized to offer at this point is eighteen thousand dollars.”

“Accepted!” said Tilly. “Jacqui, shake the man’s hand.”

“But I—” Jacqueline began.

“But we—” said Dane.

Tilly cut them both off. “When does she leave?” she asked Dane.

“Uh, well, I’d planned to leave from Coaching Inn on Thursday morning, but—”

“Great! Today’s Tuesday, that gives you all day to pretty up the language and slap it all into a preliminary contract. Bring it back to us tomorrow to look over, and don’t forget the check. In the meantime, Jacqui will do her assigned reading and put her affairs in order in advance of her departure on Thursday morning, bright and early. Now how does that sound to everyone?”

“Jacqueline?” said Dane.

It sounds like eighteen thousand dollars! “Uh, yeah, that’ll work for me, I guess.” You guess? It’s eighteen thousand dollars! That would be more than enough to catch up on the rent, not to mention the rest of her bills. Hell, she might even be able to buy a used car so she and Jack wouldn’t have to walk or take the Vine everywhere they went for the next ten years.

Dane gave Jacqueline’s hand a brief, perfunctory wag that was nothing at all like their handshake yesterday. “Well, I guess I’ll see you tomorrow, then,” he told her, collecting his things.

“Tomorrow,” Tilly agreed on Jacqueline’s behalf.

He lifted the strap of the messenger bag over his head and lowered it onto his shoulder so that it hung diagonally across his chest. With a befuddled glance in Jacqueline’s direction, he left them and sort of wandered in the general direction of the exit.

“I do know how to negotiate, you know,” said Jacqueline under her breath.

Tilly watched Dane’s retreating form, her eyes narrowed with suspicion. “You’d have settled for ten thousand, and we both know it. Now look at you: goose eggs to spare and new overalls.”

Jacqueline blinked. “Goose eggs—sorry, what?”

Tilly sighed. “‘Now you’re rolling in money.’ I told you, when it comes to the Gyants, ask for the sun, and you’ll get the moon every time.” She turned to leave just as Monica came rushing up with a plate of sandwiches and a cup of mocha.

“Those are for her,” said Tilly, pointing at Jacqueline. She turned to Jacqueline. “And you’re going to sit there and eat every single bite. I’ll be asking Monica later if you did or you didn’t.”

“But I—” Jacqueline stammered.

Eat,” said Tilly, scowling. “You look like a bag of antlers. You’re going to be at the Castle for the next three months. Trust me: you’re going to need your strength.”



Chapter Eight

On Thursday morning, at ten o’clock sharp, Jacqueline raised her hand to knock on the door of Coaching Inn before snorting at the futility of it. Unless someone happened to be standing on the other side of the door at that very moment, the odds of anyone inside hearing the feeble sound of her knuckle bones on solid wood were all but nil. Instead, she pushed the button in the center of the solid-brass plate mounted next to the door frame.
 
Suddenly, it was as if the entire mansion had transformed into a four-story, 20,000-square-foot grandfather clock chiming the quarter-hour: BONG-BONG! BONG! BONG!

“Jesus!” she said, skittering away from the double doors. She half expected them to explode in a shower of splinters and glass shards.

Next to her, Jack held up one arm as if to ward off the assault on his eardrums. He turned to her, looking not a little shell-shocked, and said, simply, “Why?”

“Don’t look at me. You’ll have to ask whoever answers the door.” For her part, she intended to lead with “How do you people not soil yourself every time someone drops by?”

“Did you happen to pack any Valium?” said Jack. “I don’t know if I can recover from that on my own.”

“Shhh!” said Jacqueline with a giggle. “They’re going to think you’re a drug addict or something.” She turned her head, listening for the sound of footsteps inside the house, but there was nothing. “There’s no way they didn’t hear that in there.”

“Maybe they were all killed by the sonic blast,” said Jack as one of the imposing wood-and-glass doors swung open.

A pink-faced woman in her thirties wearing a tailored black pantsuit peered out at them. “Yes?”

“Hi,” Jacqueline said, adding a limp wave of her hand. “I’m Jacqueline Guise, this is my son, Jack. Uh, a car was sent to pick us up, and, well, here we are.”

“Who is it, Nicole?” a smooth, deep voice echoed from inside the house. Jacqueline couldn’t see him, but she knew Dane Gyant’s voice by the way it made her stomach do back flips.

The woman looked over her shoulder and said, “Ms. Jacqueline Guise and her son are here, Mr. Gyant.”

“Show them into the sitting room, please.”

Jacqueline and Jack shared a glance. She waggled her eyebrows, exaggeratedly mouthing the words “the sitting room,” while Jack pantomimed sipping a cup of tea, complete with an aristocratically extended pinkie finger. By the time Nicole turned her attention back to them, Jacqueline was straight-faced and Jack’s facial expression and posture had returned to its default setting of “apathetic teenager.”

“Please come in,” said Nicole, stepping to one side to let them pass. “You’re welcome to leave your bags here. They’ll be taken up separately in the service car.” Once Jacqueline and Jack were inside, Nicole stuck her head out the door to look around the porch. “Are there more bags?”

Jacqueline lowered her suitcase and overnight bag to the floor. “Nope, this is it.” She smiled. “We travel light.”

Nicole nodded, but Jacqueline could read the heavy skepticism in her eyes, which only added to her overall anxiety.

“This way, please,” said Nicole.

They followed her into a two-story, barrel-shaped room situated inside one of the mansion’s massive towers. To their right, a teak spiral staircase with rosette onlays wound its way up to a mezzanine. “May I bring you something to drink?” said Nicole. “We have coffee and tea”—she turned to Jack—“as well as a large selection of soft drinks and juices.”

Jacqueline gave her smirking son a look of warning and a curt shake of the head, silently communicating, If you ask for something stupid, like a snifter of brandy to calm your nerves, I will decapitate you.

It worked; Jack’s smirk faded away. “No, thank you,” he said, a paragon of politeness.

“We’re fine, thank you,” said Jacqueline.

“Very good,” said Nicole. “Please make yourselves comfortable. Mr. Gyant will be with you in just a moment.” With that, she left them, pulling the doors closed behind her as she went.

Jacqueline wasted no time. The moment Nicole was gone, she made a beeline for the three-paneled mirror on the wall behind an antique writing desk of inlaid wood. She performed a quick makeup check and tucked in all the loose strands that had fallen out of the half-up crown braid she’d woven to keep her long bangs and the front half of her hair out of her eyes.

“You look great,” said Dane from somewhere above her. Jacqueline spun around to find him descending the spiral staircase from the mezzanine at a dizzying clip, a sheaf of papers in one hand. Wearing a perfectly cut black pinstripe suit, and a black Oxford shirt with the top two buttons left undone, he looked like he was on his way to an art gallery opening.

She dropped her hands to her sides and marveled at him. Say something! “Okay.” Good job. How about ‘thanks’ next time?

Dane gave her a curious look before making his way across the room to Jack. He gave her son’s hand a hearty shake. “Are you all ready to go?”

“I’m ready!” said Jack, grinning.

The doors to the sitting room opened and Nicole slipped inside. “Excuse the interruption, sir. Alex has arrived.”

Dane turned to Jack. “I thought it would be nice if you had a friend up at the Castle on day one—someone to show you around and introduce you to people—and since you and Alex are the same age…”

“That was really nice of you,” said Jacqueline, thrilled to be able to speak in complete sentences again.

“It was no problem.” Clapping Jack on the back, he said to Nicole, “Would you mind walking him down to the car and making the introductions? They can take the car to the cage by themselves.”

Jacqueline had no idea what “the cage” was, but it sounded like the perfect place to put two teenage boys. Maybe she could take it home with her at the end of the summer and set it up in Jack’s bedroom.

“It would be my pleasure,” said Nicole. To Jack, she said, “This way, please.”

Jack bounded into the hallway without so much as a backward glance.

“I’ll be right behind you,” she called after him, but he was gone.

Someone’s excited,” said Dane, watching them leave.

“That makes one of us. I don’t suppose you found a buddy for me—you know, someone to show me around and make introductions?”

“That would be me, for the first couple of days, anyway.”

“You?” she said, her heart leaping at the thought. “How is it that the garden and grounds manager of an estate as large as the Castle has time to personally chaperone one lowly subcontractor?”

“I don’t have time,” he said. “And if you’d read your contract, you would know that your status at the Castle will be anything but ‘lowly.’”

He doesn’t have time, but he’s doing it anyway! “I tried reading it,” she said with a snarky smile, “but the plot dragged, the characters were unlikeable and there was hardly any dialogue. Let me know when the graphic novel version comes out.”

The corner of his mouth twitched, his eyes dancing with amusement, which only served to remind her how good-looking he was. No doubt he deployed that same devilish look when he was trying to charm a woman into his bed. Under different circumstances, she could easily see that sort of tactic working on h—

No, she told herself, looking away. Don’t you even think about it, Jacqueline Guise. You’re going to go up there, draw this man some pretty pictures, build him a garden, and go home. That’s it.

“I—I really like that color,” he said awkwardly. “What is that—your sweater, I mean? Lilac?”

Happy for something to look at besides his irrationally attractive face, Jacqueline glanced down at her ensemble, her fingers tracing the scooped neckline of her lattice cable-knit sweater. “Uh, no, it’s lavender blue, I think.”

Dane’s smile faltered. He blinked a few times in quick succession, a reaction that Jacqueline read as “I am a man, and as such, I was already pushing the outer limits of my knowledge of shade, hue and tint with ‘lilac.’”

“Periwinkle?” Jacqueline said, trying to help him out. If that failed, she’d follow up with “purple” and just leave it at that.

“Sorry,” he said, looking a little dazed. “I just—I haven’t heard anyone say ‘lavender blue’ for a long time, not since—” He gave his head a quick shake, as if he was trying to return to his senses, and looked away. “Anyway, it’s a great color on you. It matches your eyes.”

“Oh. Thanks.” What the hell was that about? She shrugged into the matching blazer she’d been carrying over her arm. “I guess I’m ready to go whenever you are,” she said digging her gray scarf out of her purse and wrapping it around her neck. The more clothes she piled on, she reasoned, the harder it would be to reflexively take them off. Besides, she’d been warned to “dress warmly” for the trip up the mountain.

He passed her a packet of papers. “This is the revised contract. All your stipulations are in the addendum.”

“Great, thanks.” Sitting down at the writing table, she took her time looking it over.

Looks like it’s all in there. She took a fancy-looking pen from the penholder and signed the signature page.

“I’ll make you a copy once our estate manager signs it,” he said. Once she’d handed everything back to him, he started for the door. “I guess we should make our way down to the cage.”

Jacqueline raised an eyebrow. “The cage? Why is this starting to feel like a serial killer movie?”

Dane didn’t smile, but he looked like he wanted to. He crossed the room to the hall door and opened it. “Shall we?

***

“Did you know that the Castle sits on top of an abandoned gold mine from the days of the Colorado Gold Rush?” said Dane.

“Uh, yeah, I think somebody told me that at some point,” said Jacqueline. She had no idea where their conversation was headed, but she was more preoccupied with the fact that they were inside an elevator. More specifically, they were in an elevator that was going down, as in “below the level at which humans were meant to dwell.” Just to the garage, she told herself as her sweat glands opened up. They have an underground garage, and we’re going down there to pick up the car. You can tough it out for five minutes.

“Most of the tunnels were dynamited or collapsed on their own,” Dane said as the elevator slowed. “The main shaft of the mine was left open with the original cage elevator in it.”

Even before the elevator came to a stop, Jacqueline didn’t like where his description was headed, and she liked it even less when the doors opened onto an old mining tunnel, complete with stone walls reinforced at regular intervals by beams of dried wood, a rusty camping lantern hanging from each. But the most absurd piece of the tableau was the rusty ore cart on rails.

The elevator filled with the cool, damp air of the tunnel and the sound of water dripping off the rocks. They were unwelcome reminders of just how far underground she was. Her heart rate kicked up a notch as she focused on taking slow, deep breaths.

Dane swung the ore cart’s heavy metal door open, revealing two leather bench seats, each long enough to seat two people. “About fifty years ago, Vorace Gyant hired an engineering company to shore up the shaft, restore the cage, and extend one of the side tunnels all the way to Coaching Inn.”

Jacqueline’s mouth was so dry, she had to swallow several times just to creak out a few words. “I thought—didn’t you say a car was going to take us up the mountain? I don’t remember anything about an ore cart.”

“That’s what I’ve been trying to tell you. This mining car will take us to the cage—the cage elevator under the Castle.” Turning to her, he held out his hand. “Surely, you’ve heard rumors about it?”

Jacqueline hung back. “Yeah, but I just figured—I didn’t think they were true.” Of course reporters had been asking the Gyants about the rumors forever, but the clan was so notoriously tight-lipped and lawyered-up, they never confirmed or denied anything unless they were forced to, and their ironclad non-disclosure agreements kept guests and workers alike mum.

She took a deep breath and forced herself to walk forward. Ignoring his hand, she placed her foot on the absurdly high step, anchored her hands on the edges of the ore cart and pushed herself up into it.

Dane quickly followed suit, settling himself beside her and pressing a button on the control panel. She braced herself, expecting her ears to be assaulted by the metallic grinding of the cart’s wheels on the rails, but the car glided forward smoothly and silently. That eased her fears somewhat, freeing up some psychic energy with which to prepare herself for what was sure to be a harrowing elevator ride. Please let it be a modernized, high-speed ride to fresh air, she thought. Like in a skyscraper.

It was not.

The ore cart eventually came to a stop at an alcove in the rock about the size of her bedroom, although the ceiling was a good forty feet high. The walls were made of the same rock as the tunnel, but the floor here was wood instead of gravel. On the far side of the room stood the two-hundred-year-old cage elevator he’d promised, the one dating back to the gold rush days. It was a mess of copper panels and copper mesh, with one of those collapsible accordion gates stretched across the front. The thing hardly looked big enough to hold the two of them.

Dane jumped out of the cart, ready to help her down. This time, she was too shocked to refuse his hand. “We’re not—that’s not—” she stammered, her eyes never leaving the elevator.

“It’s perfectly safe,” he said. “It’s inspected every year, even though it’s technically exempt from state regulations. I told you, the whole setup just looks old.”

Even after he’d hauled the gate to one side and moved out of the way to allow her to board, Jacqueline was still frozen to the spot. The silence dragged on and on. You’re making a fool out of yourself. Just get on the damn thing! “I’m sure no expense was spared,” she muttered as she hurried past him into the car. Breathe, Jacqueline, breathe. It’ll all be over in a few minutes.

It was not over in a few minutes.

The moment Dane dragged the gate closed and pressed a button on the copper panel engraved with a letter C—for “Castle,” she presumed—the delay between Jack’s departure and their own made more sense. “Did it cost extra to make sure this thing moved at a historically slow speed?” she said as the bright light of the room receded from them at a snail’s pace and disappeared. She could barely see his face in the dim overhead light of the elevator car. “At this rate, it’s going to take us all day.”

“Not all day. More like ten minutes.”

Don’t think about it. Don’t think about it. Trying to keep her breathing steady, she said, “I have a hard time believing that this is what Vorace Gyant uses to get to the Castle, time being money and all.”

“As far as I know, Vorace Gyant hasn’t set foot in this thing for at least thirty years, not since he built the airstrip and installed the helipad.”

Oh, right, she thought, recalling Tilly telling her once about the fight the town had had with him over the flight paths of all the private planes that were suddenly converging on the Castle Hills estate. “I don’t know why we couldn’t just drive up.”

He snorted. “Remind me to show you a map of the route connecting the valley to the Castle some time. In the meantime, trust me when I say ‘you can’t get there from here.’”

Jacqueline fell silent as the black rock slid by just outside the gate. With no solid walls separating them from the mining shaft, the air grew colder and wetter, making her glad she’d followed the instructions and dressed in warm clothes. And you thought it was because it was going to be chilly up on the peak. Ha!

She tried counting “one thousand one…one thousand two” in an effort to gauge how many minutes had passed, but she soon found that counting was next to impossible without a change in scenery to help separate one moment from the next. As her panic rose, her sweat glands swung into emergency-production mode, leaving her shivering. Before long, she began to feel that she’d always been trapped inside this elevator with the man in black, that her memories of sunlight and color were just mad delusions.

Just when she thought things couldn’t get any worse, the light over their heads went out. The car jolted to an abrupt halt, severing Jacqueline’s last tenuous link with sanity. No longer constrained by Dane Gyant’s opinion of her, she scrambled backwards into the copper mesh that separated her from the mine shaft, and screamed.

From very far away, she heard Dane yell, “Hey! Hey, hey, hey—it’s okay, it’s okay!” When that failed to produce results, he took her by the shoulders and gave her a shake. “Jacqueline! Hey! It’s fine, it’ll come back on! It’ll come back on! Hey! Just relax!”

Relaxation was out of the question, but she did cover her mouth with her hands, damping her screams into pathetic whimpers. Tears sprang to her eyes, a single thought playing in her mind on repeat: I’ve got to get out of here. She shook off his hands and stumbled forward until her fingers found the retractable gate. When Dane realized what she was trying to do, he hollered, “No!” and threw his arms around her, pinning her arms to her sides and pulling her backwards. Before she knew what was happening, they’d both dropped into a hard sit, he onto the floor of the car, she directly onto his outstretched legs.

“Arrrgh!” he bellowed into the darkness. “Jesus Christ, I think you broke my leg.” Jacqueline tried to crawl away from him, but he grabbed her by the waist and hauled her back. “Let me explain to you why that is a supremely bad idea—can I at least do that?” Still whimpering, Jacqueline’s only response was a mighty sniff. “Because if you open the gate and go screaming off into the dark, it’s going to take you all of five seconds to realize that you’re in a maze without an exit—and that’s only if you don’t fall headfirst into a blind shaft. So we’re just going to sit here until we start moving again, okay?”

Through her tears, Jacqueline nodded before remembering that he couldn’t see her. “Yeah,” she whispered. Frankly, she was more likely to voluntarily throw herself into the first bottomless pit she ran across, but she doubted that saying as much would improve the chances of him loosening his grip on her. “Okay.”

“Okay. Good.” He shifted his legs so that she was sitting on the floor between them instead of on them. After a moment, he said, “You’re cold.”

She wanted to say, “Really? What tipped you off, my chattering teeth or violent shivering?” but she was too miserable and cold and humiliated to verbally spar with him. Without warning, he leaned forwards, twisting his torso to one side and then the other, squashing her in the process. She heard the whisper of fabric on fabric, and then, before she could protest, he’d swiveled her around sideways, draping her bent legs over his, pulled her into him, and used his coat like a blanket to cover her. All Jacqueline could think about at that point was how warm he was, how warm she was becoming, and all the fight went out of her.

“Do you know what ‘Annandale’ means?” he said, leaning his head back against the wall of the cage once he was confident that she wasn’t going to bolt.

“W-w-w-what?” she managed despite her teeth smacking together like a row of telegraph transmission keys.

“In Scottish Gaelic, you’d pronounce it ow-nin-dahl. It means ‘into the broad valley.’ Or, if you’re my grandfather,” he said, effecting a thick brogue, “‘into th’ braid valley.’ Anyway, long before Gormán Géant built the Castle back in 1890, it was Scottish miners and prospectors who settled the valley, which is why so many of the names around here are Anglicized from the Gaelic.”

He paused a moment to scoot backwards a few inches so that his back formed a tighter angle against the wall, leaving both of them sitting more upright. “That’s better,” he said with a grunt.

Jacqueline couldn’t have agreed more. The new position brought her nose even closer to his neck, allowing her to appreciate his cologne more fully. By inhaling slowly and deeply, she could isolate a few of the base notes that made it up: amber, vanilla, leather. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d been close enough to a man’s skin to do this.

“What about ‘Morvienna Minor’?” he said. “Any ideas?”

Jacqueline shook her head.

He made a series of vowel-bending noises. “‘Moord ven-yuh mayn-yuh oyd.Means ‘great mountain of gold,’ more or less.”

“Frankly, if someone would just explain to me what all the ‘beanstalks’ around here are about, I could die happy.”

She could hear the smile in his voice when he spoke. “There she is.”

Jacqueline tensed and pricked up her ears, but the only sound she heard in the yawning darkness was the two of them breathing. “Who?” she whispered.

You. The Queen of Sarcasm. I knew you were in there somewhere.”

No sooner had he spoken than the light over their heads popped on, allowing Jacqueline to see just how awkwardly close Dane Gyant’s face was to hers, his lips in particular. At the same time, the elevator came alive with a low-pitched groan and began to climb. They stared at each other in the dimness for a few heartbeats. “You can let go now,” she said finally.

“Can I?” he murmured. “I’m not so sure. What if the car stops and the light goes out again?”

In that case, Jacqueline thought, we can just pass the time by making out! Swallowing heavily, she said, not very convincingly, “It won’t.”

Just like that, his arms melted away and the two of them struggled to their feet.

“Why are there so many names around here with ‘beanstalk’ in them, anyway?” she said, handing his suit coat back to him. “Tilly said something once about a mistranslation, but I can’t remember what it was.”

“It’s not so much a mistranslation as another Anglicization,’” he said. “‘Bayn-yuh ay stook.’ Means ‘peak of the mountain.’ Obviously, the original meaning was lost somewhere along the way.”

To Jacqueline, it was as if she’d discovered a missing puzzle piece years after discarding the rest of the puzzle. “Huh. Too bad about the Anglicization though, right? I mean, ‘Mountain Peak Credit Union’ has a much classier ring to it.” She noticed Dane studying her face, his brow furrowed. “What?” she said.

“I don’t suppose you have a tissue in your purse?”

She reached down and unfastened her purse’s magnetic clasp. “Probably. Why? Are you going to cry or something?”

He grimaced as if he had some bad news to deliver. “Your eye makeup is a little smeared.”

“Oh, great.”

“Which is totally fine by me,” he rushed to add, “but if the Castle is anything, it’s a gossip mill on human growth hormones.”

Jacqueline found a folded up wad of tissues stuffed into an inner pocket of her purse and set to work doing damage control. While she couldn’t care less what “people” might say about her, she definitely cared about what Jack would think if he saw her like this.

As if reading her mind, Dane said, “It’s a good thing I sent Jack up separately with Alex, huh?”

Wiping her cheek with a tissue, Jacqueline said, “You must not have any kids. If Jack had been on board, I would’ve held it together with no problem.”

He cocked an eyebrow at her. “Really? How do you figure?”

Jacqueline shrugged. “I don’t know how to explain it, but when Jack’s with me, I can always find a way to be braver than I really am.”

Studying the rocks gliding past the retractable gate, Dane considered that notion. “Just about there,” he said as the car slowed. “Less than a minute. And not to reopen a fresh wound, but I wish you’d told me that you were claustrophobic. We could have made other arrangements.”

She dabbed gently at her nose, not wanting to make it more red than it surely already was, and shook her head. “I’m not claustrophobic, I just don’t like being underground. I’ve made it very clear to my family and anyone else who will listen not to bury me when I die. If I don’t make it out of the Castle alive, consider yourself informed.”

He tilted his head. “What’s your plan, then? Cremation? A mausoleum?”

She shrugged. “I don’t know. Maybe I’ll just wander out onto a compost pile when I sense the end is near. Anything to avoid being buried. And this is just a suggestion, but the next time your family’s looking into refurbishing this whole gold-rush theme park you’ve got happening here, maybe invest in an elevator that’s bigger than a double-wide coffin.”

The corner of his mouth twitched. “I’ll pass that along. Let me know if you have any other ideas for the suggestion box.”

She chuckled “A battery-powered emergency light would’ve been useful. And maybe a couple of those—those—” She moved her hands back and forth over the top of her head. “—I don’t know what they’re called. Flashlight hats.”

Dane snorted. “Headlamps?”

“Yeah, headlamps. Maybe a canary in a cage.” After a pause, she added, “Preferably one that’s alive.”

Bright white light stabbed her eyes, temporarily blinding her. Before the car had fully stopped, Dane had retracted the gate, securing it to the elevator wall with three leather straps. Sweeping his arm in a dramatic arc, he said, “Welcome to the Castle.”



Chapter Nine

“Well, this is a little underwhelming,” Jacqueline muttered.
 
While she hadn’t expected the elevator to rise into the middle of the Castle’s famously awe-inspiring grand foyer, neither did she imagine that they would disembark into a dim and dreary, low-ceilinged tunnel with a sinister, Edgar Allen Poe, Cask of Amontillado air about it. She half expected to hear the faint jingle of jester bells from behind the brick walls.
 
She turned instinctively towards what was literally a bright light at the end of the tunnel, albeit an artificial one, only to have Dane catch her arm. “Wrong way,” he said, his voice echoing as he led her further into the depths of the Castle.

Like the first tunnel down the mountain connecting Coaching Inn to the cage, the walls here were slick with moisture and coated with chalky white mineral deposits. The ceiling was made up of repeating barrel arches that rippled like upside-down waves off into the distant gloom.

“I’ve never seen a brick ceiling before,” she said, studying it with a healthy dose of skepticism. “If you’re dying to tell me how it’s ‘perfectly safe,’ and how ‘the whole setup just looks old,’ don’t hold back on my account.”

Dane eyed the bricks, only a few inches above his head, like he was seeing them for the first time. “Would it make you feel better if I told you that they built things to last back in 1890?”

“Oh, God,” she groaned, fixing her gaze on the concrete floor. Please don’t let the lights go out. “Next you’ll be telling me that there’s a ninety-nine percent chance that it won’t cave in.”

“I grew up here,” he said, “and I never once saw an empty spot where a brick used to be, let alone one lying on the ground. I think we’re safe.”

“What was this used for—in the olden days, I mean?”

“A service tunnel. That’s still what it’s used for. It’s like a rabbit warren down here, though. Great for playing hide and seek if you know your way around, especially in the passages—” He stopped and gave her a sidelong glance. “I was going to say ‘especially in the passages that aren’t lit,’ but I guess that wouldn’t really appeal to you.”

Jacqueline’s mouth went dry at the thought. “Are you kidding me? That sounds like a hoot. I can’t wait to have nightmares about it.” Hopefully, no one would regale Jack about the endless game-playing potential of the tunnels. The last thing she needed was for him to be poking around in the uncharted bowels of the Castle. “Uh, where are we going, exactly?”

“Right here.” He stopped at a heavy wooden door that would have made a medieval dungeon master proud and pulled it open.

She followed him up a narrow stairwell. When he pushed the door open at the top, Jacqueline blinked against the blinding light that flooded the stairwell—daylight. “Thank God,” she muttered, relieved. And then she heard voices—lots of them.

Dane stepped onto the landing and stood aside for her to pass. Jacqueline found herself in an enormous living room and breakfast nook tucked inside the garden level of one of the Castle’s towers. The air was heavy with cinnamon and coffee, the decor “Old-World: Middle Ages.” Every seat was taken, mostly by fashionable young people in their late teens.

“You guys aren’t supposed to be in here,” Dane told the group, prompting every head in the room to turn their way.

“Cousin!”

“Can we get you some coffee?”

“Good morning!”

The greetings and salutations poured in from every quarter of the coterie. A couple of girls bolted from their seats and rushed over, eager to get up close and personal with Dane Gyant.

“You forgot to wish me ‘happy birthday,’ cousin,” said one. An olive-skinned girl with a triangular face and short, gelled, black hair, she batted her dark, heavily mascaraed eyes up at him.

“Did I?” Dane replied offhandedly, never breaking stride. “Could it be because you forgot to wish me a happy birthday?”

The girl’s brow creased. “Wait, when was your birthday?”

“I could ask you the same thing, which is exactly my point.”

“Where are you off to?” said contestant number two, a tanned slip of a girl with wide-set, golden brown eyes, and long brown hair who left a cloud of musky perfume in her wake. It probably cost more than Jacqueline made in a month, but it smelled awful and tasted even worse.

“Maddie Midge?” Dane said sternly, calling her by what Jacqueline dearly hoped was an affectionate nickname.

“Yes?” said Maddie Midge, beaming.

“While you’re busy minding my business, who’s busy minding yours?”

Maddie Midge giggled before peeling off to rejoin her companions.

“Is it true that you and Finn are teaching Swordplay this summer?” a dark-haired boy called out. Man-spreading at the end of the curved sofa, the kid reeked of bored entitlement.

‘Swordplay’? And here she thought that she’d heard of every video game known to man.

“Who told you that, Kaleb?”

“Alex came through here a minute ago with the new kid.”

“Ah,” said Dane. “Well, it’s the first time I’ve heard about it, so my guess is ‘no.’ And ‘the new kid’ has a name; it’s Jack Guise. I’ll be back this way in five minutes, which is exactly how long you guys have to clear out of here. You know the rules. Don’t make me shrink your perimeters.”

Given how casually the kids had behaved towards him when he’d walked into the room, Jacqueline expected lots of grumbling and back talk. She was shocked when his pronouncement was met with a unanimous, if subdued, chorus of “Yes, sir.”

“Why aren’t they supposed to be in there?” she asked once they’d rounded the corner by the stairwell and had started down a hall, aiming for the sole door at the far end. While she could think of about a hundred reasons for scolding a bunch of teenagers, “lounging in a living room, drinking coffee and shooting the breeze” wasn’t one of them.

“Every one of those kids is family,” said Dane. “That’s the staff sitting room—and ‘staff’ includes contractors, too, by the way.”

She still couldn’t understand why the kids being “family” merited booting them out of the room. After all, it wasn’t as if there was a stampede of Castle staff clamoring to use it. “But it’s such a good place to hide from your parents,” she pointed out. I can’t believe I’m defending a bunch of Castle brats.

He looked at her like he couldn’t understand why she was arguing the point. “What’s good for the goose is good for the gander. If Castle staff aren’t allowed in the family rooms without an invitation, then the reverse should be true.”

A real stickler for rules, this one, Jacqueline thought. “And how, pray tell, do you ‘shrink their perimeters’?” She was imagining an invisible-fence-type setup, the kind that utilized buried wires, radio waves, and a shock collar to keep pets from straying over property lines. Now there’s an idea ripe for crossover into the teen market, she thought. Maybe these people are on to something.

“You tell Castle security that their movements are restricted to the fifth floor,” he said.

How does that work? Did they post armed guards to keep them contained? Staple the kids to the wall? She let it go and changed tacks. “Well, they all seem to like you a lot—all your cousins, I mean.” And you sure do have a whole lot of them. How many aunts and uncles did he have, anyway, to yield so many cousins? His grandparents must’ve bred like rabbits.

“Hmm? Oh, them. They’re not my cousins—I mean, they are and they aren’t. Up here, ‘cousin’ almost never means what it means in other families.”

Jesus, they must be even more inbred than I thought. “What does it mean, then?” she said. ‘My aunt is also my grandmother’?

“It means ‘I know that we’re distantly related somehow, but I’m not sure how, and I don’t care enough about you to sit down and figure it out.’” The corner of his mouth twitched. “Or something like that, anyway, although maybe not quite as mean-sounding. And they’re only sucking up to me with all the ‘cousin’ nonsense because they know I have a Voige Pass.”

“A what?” It had sounded like the word “voyage,” but with all the letters crammed into one syllable instead of two.

Dane stopped in his tracks, his eyebrows knitted together. “It means I have unlimited permissions on the estate,” he said slowly. After a beat, he added, “All this stuff was in that book I gave to you at the Stalk. Please tell me that you and Jack read it.”

“Oh, sure I did. Between pulling Jack out of school, cleaning my house from top to bottom, packing, begging the vet for three months of Jinja’s thyroid medication, paying bills, stopping the mail, turning off the water, and setting light timers so my house doesn’t get robbed while I’m gone, I had plenty of time for leisure reading.”

“Look, I can appreciate that you—”

She cheerfully cut him off. “And maybe don’t tell Jack about the pass thing unless you’re dying to have another sycophant following you around.”

“Given the lead story in the rumor mill back there,” he said, pulling open yet another door, this one marked Luggage Storage / Porterage, “I have a feeling that Alex has already filled him in.”

Walking inside was like time-traveling to the present. On the other side of a contemporary, stainless-steel counter, a wide aisle separated two long rows of stainless-steel, floor-to-ceiling racks stuffed with luggage. The waiting area was packed with grumpy, impatient-looking people, most of whom had queued up under a sign reading “Hangar.” Jacqueline followed Dane’s lead to the opposite side to wait in the empty space underneath the “Coaching Inn” sign.

A wiry, dark-haired man in a black button-up shirt pushed a luggage cart up the aisle. “Good afternoon, Mr. Gyant,” he said, smiling at Dane.

“How are you doing today, Marcus?”

“Just fine, sir, thank you for asking.”

“This is Jacqueline Guise, our landscape designer.”

Marcus gave her a pleasant smile. “Welcome to the Castle, Ms. Guise.” He plucked a piece of paper from a printer underneath the counter and slid it across the counter towards Dane.

“The Maiden Tower?” said Dane, reading it over. He pulled a pen from his jacket pocket and proceeded to scribble away on it.

Marcus nodded. “The attic.”

“‘The Maiden Tower’?” said Jacqueline. “Why do I feel like I’m about to take the veil?”

“Hold that thought,” said Dane.

“Some of your bags came up on the service car from Coaching Inn a few minutes ago,” said Marcus. His gaze shifted to a spot on the floor next to him.  “I’m not sure why they split it into two loads, but this is all that’s come up so far.”

Jacqueline leaned over the counter to find Jack’s duffel bag on the floor, as well as her suitcase and overnight bag. “That’s it. That’s everything.”

Dane’s pen stopped mid-stroke. The two men exchanged a glance as Dane leaned over the counter and stared at the luggage. “You do realize,” he told Jacqueline, “that you’re going to be here for three months, don’t you?”

She felt her face turning red. “You do realize that I’m here to work, don’t you? How many T-shirts and pairs of khakis do you think I’m going to need to turn a pile of dirt into a garden?”

Dane said nothing, only leveled a grave stare on her. She, in turn, glared back at him.

Marco seemed taken aback by this development, his eyes jumping from Dane to her and back again. “Uh, all the porters are busy just now, Ms. Guise, but I’ll make sure your bags are brought to your room just as soon as I can.”

“Capable as ever, Marcus,” said Dane, his eyes never leaving Jacqueline’s. “Thank you.”

Marcus, perhaps sensing that a shit-storm was imminent, suddenly remembered people on the opposite side of the room who needed tending to. Excusing himself, he scurried off, leaving Jacqueline to face Dane alone.

“I think I could’ve muscled a couple of bags up to my room,” she snapped.

“No, you couldn’t have, actually,” he said in a low voice, “because you’re not allowed to carry luggage through the Castle, which you would know if you’d read the book I gave to you. You would also know that the Castle has a very strict dress code for staff that even garden-and-grounds contractors are required to follow.” He looked away and abraded the skin on the back of his neck a little more. “Come on,” he said with a sigh. “I’ll take you up to your room.”

Jacqueline followed him back out into the hallway. Once the door had closed behind them, he said, “Look, I know this may all seem like a bunch of random rules and outdated ways of doing things, but believe me when I say that unless you enjoy culture shock that verges on electrocution, you’d better make sitting down and reading that book all the way through your number-one priority.”

“‘Culture shock verging on electrocution,’ huh?” Genuinely curious now, she fished the venerable classic Customs, Conventions, and Courtesies of the Castle out of her purse and opened it to a random page. “‘Trompe l’oeil elevators are for the exclusive use of Gyant family members. Guests and staff must be accompanied by a Gyant family member to use these elevators. The staff elevator (gold doors) is for the exclusive use of Castle staff and contractors.’” She snorted. “And here I thought class distinctions were a thing of the past.”

Dane looked very displeased. Teeth clenched, he turned away from her and strode down the hall, back in the direction of the sitting room, leaving her practically running to keep up with him. “Your mouth is going to get you in a lot of trouble here, Jacqueline,” he said curtly, “and probably a lot of other people right along with you. And I know how much you value my advice, but you might want to think about keeping your head down and your mouth closed until you get your bearings.”

For once Jacqueline had no snappy comeback. She saw to his “head down” and “mouth closed” directives straight away. On an improvisational whim, she also added “eyes welling up with angry tears.” Stewing and simmering in a broth of fury and self-reproach, she followed him past the stairs to an elevator with garish gold doors that were even uglier than her mood. This one could use a new coat of paint, she thought as she boarded and moved to the back, the better to stand behind Dane and stare daggers at his back.

“To answer your earlier question about why it’s called ‘the Maiden Tower,’” he said in a conversational tone, pressing the number four on the panel, “no one knows for sure. None of the towers were named on the original architectural plans from the 1890s, but the theory goes that it was originally called the Maying Tower, as in ‘the celebration of May Day.’ It makes sense; the tower overlooks a grove of hawthorn trees—the family called them ‘may trees’ all the way through the early 1940s—and that’s also where the maypole posthole happens to be.”

“After World War One,” he said, turning around to face her, “the maids were moved to the upper floors of the tower, which, as near as we can tell, was when the name of the tower began shifting from ‘Maying’ to ‘Maiden.’”

On a scale of one to one hundred, Jacqueline’s interest in the etymological origins of the Maiden Tower was currently negative infinity. “Here’s a question for you,” she said, unable to contain herself. “If the Castle bible states that this elevator is for the exclusive use of Castle staff and contractors, what are you doing on it?”

“I’m on it,” he said, eyes dancing, “because you are escorting me, something you would know if you’d read the book. After I’ve taken you to your room, I’ll take a family elevator back downstairs.”

The elevator slowed, and while he didn’t seem to have anything else to say on the subject, he stayed where he was, staring at her in silence. Just as the situation was getting super awkward, Jacqueline felt a whoosh of cool air behind her. She spun around in surprise.

“On the fourth floor, the doors open on that side,” he said, a hint of a smirk turning up the corner of his mouth. “Otherwise, you’d be exiting onto the roof.”

He’s enjoying this, the bastard.

The elevator landing was large and windowless, its white lathe-plaster walls unadorned, its floor made of cheap-looking, diagonally laid wood planks that had been brushed with so many coats of dark brown stain, they were almost black. Spared no expense for the staff, I see.

She was starting to feel anxious about the room she and Jack would be sharing all summer. Try as she might, Gwynnen hadn’t been able to find a single photo of the Castle’s old servant’s quarters on the internet, so Jacqueline had no idea what to expect. She anticipated a drafty, ramshackle hole in the attic wall with a Victorian-era, cast-iron stove tucked into one corner, one that came with a daily bucket of coal.

“It’s a pretty straight shot to the southeast wing,” said Dane, turning the corner at the far side of the landing. “Once you get off the elevator, go down this hall. When you get to the end, turn left, and the Maiden Tower is the last door on the right.”

Jacqueline rounded the corner and stopped. “Now that is a hallway,” she muttered, trying to gauge the distance between where she stood and the end. It had to be eighty, ninety feet at least. You’re definitely not going to be lacking for exercise.

For all its length, though, she counted only four doors, three on the left and one on the right, leaving her curious about the rooms that lay on the other side. “Just out of curiosity, how big are the rooms?”

“They’re suites, actually, but they’re big enough.”

A suite! Sweet! With any luck, Jack would even have his own bedroom. “Would you say they were gigantic?” she said, just to needle him a little.

Dane shook his head. “Save your giant jokes,” he said over his shoulder. “We’ve heard them all.” Taking a sharp left at the end of the passage, he stopped at the first door he came to and knocked.

Jacqueline shot him a skeptical look. “Should I be worried that you think someone else is in my room besides me?”

Dane rolled his eyes and pointed to the door farther down the hall—much, much farther. “That’s the Maiden Tower down there.”

‘Last door on the right,’ Jacqueline, she thought. Try to keep up.

“This is your son’s suite, he said. “I just thought you’d want to let him know that you were here,” said Dane.

Jacqueline blinked in surprise. “Oh. I didn’t realize—” She stopped to study the thirty feet that separated the two doors. “I don’t suppose there’s a connecting door between our suites.”

“Not that I’m aware. Why?”

“Oh, I don’t know,” she said sarcastically. “Maybe because he’s a teenager? They have a tendency to wander when they think you’re not looking.”

Dane seemed to find the idea highly diverting. “Trust me, Jack won’t be doing any wandering inside the Castle.”

Oh, yeah, they’re definitely going to staple him to the wall. “Because…?”

“I’ll show you,” he said, continuing on to the Maiden Tower.

“I wonder where he is?”

“Hmm? Oh, I’d imagine he’s off with Alex somewhere. Don’t worry, he’ll have to turn up sooner or later if he wants his phone.”

After all the chivalry Dane had forced on her since they’d met, Jacqueline was surprised when he didn’t rush to the door of her suite and fling it open at her approach.

“You’re the only one who can open it,” he explained as if reading her mind.

“Me? But no one gave me a key.”

You’re the key. The door can only be opened by the person assigned to the room. Try it,” he said, lifting his chin at the door.

She gripped the door pull and pressed the thumb latch. At first, it refused to budge, but then there came a whirring sound and a heavy, metallic click! from inside the wall, and it moved easily. “But how does it know that I’m me?”

“Your fingerprint—well, thumbprint, actually.”

“But I never gave anyone my—” She stopped and studied the thumb latch. “Oh. I just did, didn’t I?”

“You did. All the doors and elevators in the Castle operate the same way—which, again, you would know if you’d read your book—so make sure you press the elevator buttons with the thumb of your dominant hand. It might take you a few days to get used to.”

“Clever,” she said. “Also sinister and creepy.”

“Speaking of ‘clever,’ you can only open the doors in the Castle that you’ve been given permission to open. That alone should discourage Jack from trying to take a self-guided tour. He might be able to tiptoe behind somebody with the right permissions into a particular area, but sooner or later, he’ll be trapped in a room because he won’t be able to open the door to get out of it.”

Jacqueline had no doubt that, should Jack attempt to open an unauthorized door, he wouldn’t remain trapped for long. The same high-tech wizardry that controlled the door locks would surely alert Castle security to his exact location.

At the end of a very short, very narrow foyer was a lovely suite with a spacious and light-filled living room, a private bathroom and, inside the round Maiden Tower itself, a sizable bedroom. The floors were polished walnut, the walls a soft, dusty cerulean, a color she knew from her long residence in the Minors was historically authentic.

“There’s an armoire with plenty of drawers in it in the bedroom,” said Dane, “but no closet. I’m sure you know all about the closet thing.”

“I do.” The people inhabiting these rooms back in the day probably hadn’t owned more than a few articles of clothing, thus negating the need for closet storage. Whatever garments they weren’t wearing would have been folded and placed in a trunk at the foot of their beds along with their personal effects. I don’t know how you’d build a closet in a round bedroom anyway.

“The closet in the foyer was added later,” he said, retracing his steps to the door. “That’s why the entryway is so cramped.” He slid the closet door open.  “It’s not very big, but the rod is set extra high so you can hang your gowns without worrying about the fabric touching the floor.”

‘My gowns,’ she thought with an internal eye roll. Listen to this guy. “Good to know,” she said. Why he thought she would need one gown, let alone many gowns—plural—she couldn’t fathom. Yes, she’d packed a “little black dress” for the classier functions that she couldn’t weasel her way out of, but it wasn’t a “gown” by any definition of the word. The hem hit just above her knees, so there was no danger of it dragging on the closet floor, or any other floor for that matter.

“Well,” said Dane with a final look around, “I suppose I’ll let you settle in. I need to see where we are with getting your office set up. Oh, that reminds me: checking in downstairs triggers IT to send up your phone. Give them about an hour on that, though. It’s always crazy two days before a festival.”

“Okay.”

“I’d be happy to give you a tour of the Castle in a couple of hours if you’re interested. If not, apéritifs are at six-thirty in the library, dinner’s at seven sharp. Dress is semi-formal; the details on that are all in the book. I’ll be back to pick you up at six-thirty, so please make sure you’re ready to go. Tardiness is considered a mortal sin around here.”

“Thanks, but I think I’ll pass this time.” Unsure what the dining arrangements would be on their first day, she and Jack had packed sandwiches and snacks, just to be safe. Those ought to be enough to tide them over until morning. Besides, once Jack and their bags materialized, she planned to unpack, and then take a nice long nap while Jack attempted to hack his Castle-issued cellphone. I might even let ‘nap time’ blend right into ‘going to bed.’

“Pass?” said Dane, as if the word were foreign to him. “You can’t ‘pass,’ I’m afraid. Vorace and Evena Gyant are still in St. Bart’s, so it’s up to me to show you around and give you access to the family archives.”

“Here’s a crazy idea: we skip the fancy dinner, you give me a tour of the pleasance, and then you show me to my office so I can get started. Oh, and if it’s not too much trouble, maybe I could talk to whoever wanted me for this gig in the first place. Once we’ve done all that, I’d be happy to go digging around in your family archives with you.”

“We can’t skip—” Dane stopped and let out an exasperated sigh. “Look, I was told to bring you to dinner tonight and show you the archives, so that’s what I’m going to do. And I’m sorry I was harsh with you earlier, but I meant what I said: your refusal to ‘go along to get along’ is going to bring you a lot of unwanted attention here, and since I’m the one overseeing this ill-conceived project, that means it’s going to bring me a lot of unwanted attention. And believe me, that kind of attention is the last thing either of us wants or needs right now.”

Jacqueline had reached her upper limit for politeness. “How in the world would you know what I want or need?” she snapped.

“I think I’m beginning to have an inkling,” he said wearily.

Stalking to the door, she flung it open. “Like you said, you have somewhere you need to be.”

He walked into the hall, his step as springy as ever. “So, I’ll see you at six-thirty?” he said brightly.

She didn’t slam the door in his face, but she did close it with a determined click!—right in his face.



Chapter Ten

You asked for a tour of the Castle, and you got one, Jacqueline thought as she followed Dane into yet another room.
 
In a voice puffed up with pride, he announced with dramatic flourish, “And this is the grand foyer.”
 
“It looks like the grand service tunnel to me,” she said, craning her neck to examine the ceiling forty feet above her head made of gold bricks. Even the grand staircase had been fashioned out of gold bricks. In fact, every room he’d shown her so far had resembled a Fort Knox version of the brick-lined tunnels under the Castle.

“And this is the Maiden Tower,” said Dane, ushering her into her bedroom.

“Uh, yeah, I know,” she said giving him a curious look. “This is my suite, remember?” But when she actually took a look around, it didn’t look like her room at all. Not only were the walls, floor, and conical roof of the tower made of gold bricks, but the bed and armoire were fashioned from them as well. Talk about a firm mattress, she thought, eyeing the bed. What, she wondered, would sex be like on a mattress like that? It gave a whole new meaning to “going for the gold.”

“And people say that you can’t see the view from the Maiden Tower window,” said Dane sarcastically.

“You can’t,” said Jacqueline. “The window’s, like, fifteen feet off the floor.” The next thing she knew, Dane was holding her hand, and she was peering up at him

“How do you like the view?” he murmured in that sexy voice of his.

Heart aflutter, she opened her mouth to tell him that he had the most gorgeous face she’d ever seen, when she realized that he wasn’t holding her hand; she was dangling from his—from the wrong side of the Maiden Tower window. Far below her feet, all she could see were clouds. Terror seized her. “Don’t let go!” she shrieked. “I’ll fall!”

He gave her a knowing smile. “High hopes make for long falls, hasn’t anyone ever told you that?”

“But it’s not the fall that kills you,” she said, sobbing with fear, “it’s the sudden stop.”

He pulled her back up until they were nose to nose. For a moment, she thought he was going to kiss her. Instead, he whispered in her ear, “You’re heading for a fall. Trust me, you’re going to need your strength.” With that, he released her hand.

Jacqueline felt a sickening sensation, like her stomach was attempting to eject through the top of her skull. At first, she was enveloped in clouds, but then she broke free, could see the ground below rushing up to meet her, eager to deliver love’s first kiss. That ought to wake you from your slumber, Sleeping Beauty, she thought, feeling oddly detached from her imminent death.

And then she screamed.

“Jesus!” Jacqueline bolted upright in the bed, soaked in sweat and gasping for air. Her eyes darted around the tower, trying to make sense of where she was. The window was where she’d left it, a good fifteen feet up the wall. The sun, however, had definitely moved.

She scrambled off the bed. “Why am I sleeping? Where’s Jack? Did I miss dinner?” she babbled, her mind still a bleary, terrified, muddle. “What time is it?”

There were no clocks in the suite, she didn’t own a watch, and her phone was at home. She hurried to the foyer and found their luggage in a pile by the door. Perched right on top, still in their boxes, were two brand-new iPhones.

Surely, the porter and IT staffer must have knocked before letting themselves in. How did she not hear them? Must’ve been sleeping like a rock.

“I can’t believe I fell asleep!” she muttered angrily as she rushed down the hall to Jack’s suite. Yes, the events of the day had left her exhausted, but with Jack still unaccounted for, it wasn’t like her to just cavalierly crawl into bed and take a nap.

She knocked several times to no avail. “Where the hell is he?” she said, trudging back to her suite. Of course Jack was going to take advantage of his sudden, unexpected freedom, but she was pretty piqued that no one from the Castle had anticipated her worry and arranged to bring the two of them together.

Maybe he did come here, did you ever think of that? There was no reason she wouldn’t have slept right through him knocking, too. He’d probably interpreted her failure to answer as permission to wander off again. Rather than spin in circles, drowning in her own anxiety, she resolved to back that theory for the time being and move on to the next problem.

She fired up one of the cell phones. Waiting for it to power up, she peered out the living room window. Judging by the sun, she guessed that it was three-thirty, which just seemed crazy.

The car picked us up at ten this morning, right? It couldn’t have taken longer than an hour to weep her way up the mountain, through the Castle, and up to her room. If it really was three-thirty now, then she’d slept for four-and-a-half hours.

“There’s no way I slept that long,” she told the empty room. Except that she really had. When the phone finally booted up, its crisp display read 3:42.

She tried to reconstruct her movements prior to her impromptu nap. “I was waiting for Jack, waiting for the luggage. I used the bathroom, washed my hands, tested the mattress…and then what?” Suddenly, it all came back to her. “I was reading!”

Rushing into the bedroom, she found her copy of Customs, Conventions, and Courtesies of the Castle where she’d likely knocked it onto the floor, probably right after Dane had unceremoniously dropped her to her death.

She remembered everything now. She’d stretched out on the bed and cracked the book, ready to bone up on Castle protocol. And then…?

And then you fell asleep, dummy. Maybe next time don’t choose a book that doubles as a sleep aid.

She returned to the living room with the book and settled on the couch to peruse the dress code. Hardly five minutes had passed before one rather pertinent passage gave her such a shock that she froze in horror. “No,” she breathed, her denial a faint whisper, but it was all right there in black and white: “Semi-formal (ladies): a dress that falls anywhere between the bottom of the knee and the ankle, and is made of satin, velour, gossamer, chiffon, brocade, or taffeta.”

Not a single mention of above-the knee black dresses made out of cotton blend, although the book did state, rather emphatically, that “pantsuits are never appropriate semi-formal attire.” Well, you definitely didn’t pack a pantsuit, so you have that going for you, at least.

Shit,” she muttered, eyes wide as she read and re-read the same page. “What am I going to do?”

She briefly considered calling Dane, but just as quickly dismissed the idea. Reaching out to him would mean admitting that his criticism for her failure to read the book had been warranted. No way, not going to happen, she decided. I’d rather go to dinner naked.

Pacing the fifteen feet of the living room and slightly shorter range of her bedroom, she was nearing tears for the second time that day when she had a sudden epiphany. Maybe Tilly can help.

If someone had tried to tell her before Tuesday that she’d be reaching out to Flora Tilly for help with a personal problem, she’d have felt their forehead for fever or recommended a reputable asylum. But when Jacqueline had complained about being broke, Tilly had stepped in to negotiate an eighteen-thousand-dollar deposit. When Jacqueline had griped about having no one to care for Jinja, Tilly had stepped up and taken the dog for the summer.

She recalled Tilly’s parting words to her at the Stalk yesterday afternoon: ‘Now, don’t go borrowing trouble, but if you’re in a pickle, call me.’

“Does this qualify as a ‘pickle’?” she muttered. More like a fashion emergency than a pickle.

She hunkered down on the couch with her Castle-issued cellphone, and looked up Tilly’s phone number on the paper list she’d been advised to make before leaving home. I can’t believe I’m doing this, she thought as her finger tapped away at the touchscreen.

It’s Jacqueline. How’s Jinja?

Tilly’s reply came quickly. Settling in as the Stalk mascot. How’s the Castle?

Taking to it like a fish out of water.

Ha! A problem shared is a problem halved.

I’m required to attend a dinner tonight. Jacqueline pressed “send” and took a deep breath before adding: Would khaki shorts and a T-shirt reading “I Am an Intelligent, Classy, Educated Woman Who Says ‘Fuck’ a Lot” be appropriate for a semi-formal Castle dinner?

After a very long pause, during which Jacqueline imagined Tilly howling with laughter loud enough to scare every small child in a five-mile radius of the Stalk, she received her reply: You just won’t be told, will you?

Clock’s a tickin’…  “Why did I even bother her with this?” she muttered before thinking, You should’ve called Gwynnen.

Gwynnen had tamped down her enthusiasm for the Castle after the showdown at the dance studio—Jacqueline suspected that she had been afraid of appearing too celebratory in the wake of her friend’s defeat—but she had no doubt that, were she to call Gwynnen, she would happily share whatever insights she had on, say, finding and breaking into that Castle Soho place she’d been going on about.

Jacqueline’s musings were interrupted by the phone’s chime: Help is on the way. She stared at the screen, trying to decipher the meaning behind the words. ‘On the way’?

She was still puzzling over it a few minutes later when her phone chimed again. Is he there yet?

“‘He?’” As far as she knew, the only “he” at the Castle that either of them was acquainted with was Dane, but Tilly didn’t know him any better than she did—or did she? Is that who she was sending in to save the day? “Oh, my God,” she muttered angrily, “if I’d wanted to ask him for help, I could’ve called him myself and saved twenty minutes!”

Jacqueline was searching the screen for a question mark to add after the “Who” she’d already typed, when there came a sudden, solid knock on the door. With a squeal of surprise, she leaped up and yelled, “Just a minute!” She changed her answer to Yes, pressed “send,” and scrambled for the door.

On the other side of it, she found yet another fine example of the male form, a blond one wearing a navy suit with a crisp, dark-purple-and-harlequin-green paisley necktie.

And then it was déjà vu all over again. Her presumed savior blinked, his head jerking back on his shoulders as if she’d jumped out at him and yelled, “Boo!” He narrowed his eyes at her, like he couldn’t quite believe what he was seeing. “Jacqueline?” he said finally.

“Yes?”

With a self-conscious grin, he ran his fingers through his dark-blond hair. Shorter on the sides and longer on top, it left her imagining how it would feel to do the same with her own hands. I will take him home and pet him and brush him and call him ‘George,she decided.

“I’m Finnegan Boucher,” he said. “Gyant family estate manager. You can call me ‘Finn.’”

Fine, she thought. I’ll take him home and call him ‘Finn.’  “‘Boucher’?” she blurted out. “That doesn’t sound like a Gyant family name.”

Finn Boucher’s face turned to stone. “That’s right,” he said, his tone curt.

She’d offended him, she realized. Pointing it out is probably considered an insult up here.

There were a handful of lesser Gyant sub-clans with surnames like Highland and Faize. “Boucher,” however, was not one she’d heard before. He had the distinctive “valley accent,” though, so he must have grown up in the area.

“That’s not a bad thing,” she hastened to say. Actually, it was better than “not bad.” Crushing on a hot man who wasn’t a Gyant wouldn’t completely make up for being forced to interact with a hot man who was, but it was a good start.

“And you must be our new resident landscaper,” he said. Before she could respond, he added with a knowing smirk, “Dane was right about one thing: you’re going to be very popular up here. Every man who grew up at the Castle is going to go crazy when he sees you.”

Now it was Jacqueline’s turn to bristle. Great, she thought, her heart sinking. I meet two gorgeous men in one week, and they’re both fetishists.

When it came to gingers, men fell into one of three camps: In the largest were the haters with a clear aversion for women with red hair, fair skin, and freckles, labeling it the “least desirable” coloring. In the smallest group were the ones she coveted, the agnostics—men who didn’t have strong opinions one way or the other about women like her. In the third, surprisingly robust faction were the fetishists, guys who had no compunction whatsoever about sidling up to Jacqueline and saying, “So…does the carpet match the drapes?” or “Is it true that ‘red on the head means fire in the bed’?”

Maybe Finnegan Boucher had intended to flatter her with his “you’re going to be very popular up here” nonsense, but the way Jacqueline saw it playing out, she was on course to be the main attraction at a Gyant ginger-fetish jamboree.

Just when you thought things couldn’t get worse.

“A little bird told me that some of your things didn’t make it up the mountain,” said Finn, oblivious to her discomfort.

Who told him that? Even if it were true, it certainly was not what she’d told Tilly.

“In short,” he said, “I hear you’re in a bit of a pinch.”

A pickle. Not a pinch. Not wanting to lie but too embarrassed to admit the truth, Jacqueline said, “I don’t suppose you have a dress that you’re not wearing tonight that I can borrow?”

Finn laughed. “Fear not, fair maiden, your knight in shining armor is here to rescue you. I’m afraid I forgot my horse, but if you don’t mind walking…”

How about giving him the benefit of the doubt? She closed the door behind her. “Lead the way, gallant knight.” As they started down the corridor, she said, “Did Tilly call you?”

Finn’s smile vanished. He gave her an odd, sidelong look. “Flora Tilly? No, not that I’m aware.” Before she could elaborate, he said, “I overheard Dane telling Howard about your bags. Howard and I volunteered to find you and see what we could do to help.”

That threw her for a loop. Was Dane Gyant the ‘he’ Tilly had called, or was it this mystery ‘Howard’ fellow? Either way, Dane Gyant knew the truth about her situation. She couldn’t understand why he of all people would lie for her, but then she recalled what he’d told her that morning: ‘Your mouth is going to get you in a lot of trouble here, Jacqueline, and probably a lot of other people right along with you.’

Dane was probably covering his own ass by covering for her. It made perfect sense. Still, his egocentrism had served her well, so she supposed she ought to be grateful.

“I’m not really sure how you can help unless you know someone here who wears a size—” She looked down at her thin frame. “Actually, I have no idea what size I am now. I was a size eight the last time I checked, but I—I’ve lost a lot of weight in the last few months.” She didn’t elaborate. Rattling off the details of her illness was unlikely to dazzle a prospective mate like Finnegan Boucher.

On the other hand, leaving him to wildly speculate might not have been the best plan, either. Great, now he probably thinks your cancer’s in remission or you’ve finally gotten your eating disorder under control.

Finn’s eyes skimmed over her body. “You’re perfect. Besides, I’ve seen women much tinier than you leave Castle Soho with an armful of clothes.”

“Is that where we’re going?” she said as they turned the corner and started down the long hallway. “I wasn’t sure if it was a real thing.”

“It’s real, all right. Nine out of ten women agree that it’s like dying and waking up in shopping heaven.”

“That sounds—” Before she could finish her sentence, she remembered Jack. With a gasp, she came to an abrupt stop in the middle of the hall. “My son! He came up from Coaching Inn before me, and I haven’t seen him since. Do you happen to know where he is or how I can find him?”

“My guess is that he and Alex are still hiding out in the oven.”

Jacqueline blinked. “The oven?” If “the oven” was anything like “the cage,” it seemed like an awfully cramped hiding place for two teenage boys.

Finn laughed. “Sorry, it’s easy to forget how insulated we are up here. There’s a tower on the west side of the Castle called the Oven Tower, but most people just call it ‘the Oven’ for short. When I last saw them, they were in the game room playing The Climb.” In response to Jacqueline’s blank look, he said, “It’s a mountain-climbing virtual reality game.”

Jacqueline’s anger towards Jack melted away. She even laughed. “Well, that explains why I haven’t seen him.” In isolation, either a video game or climbing would be more than enough to keep her son happily distracted indefinitely. Combining the two, however… I’ll be lucky if I see him again before August.

Desperate to keep the conversation going while they walked, she said, “Sorry, I know you already told me, but I missed it. What is it that you do here?”

“Gyant family estate manager,” he said. “Vorace and Evena Gyant have several estates around the world; essentially, I travel ahead of them and prepare their next stop for their arrival, which, for the past few weeks, has involved preparing the Castle for Mayfest.” He shrugged. “After that’s done, my job is to take care of whatever needs taking care of, which at the moment is you.”

Blushing furiously, Jacqueline was unable to hold his gaze. Just when she’d begun to think that Mother Nature had exhausted every possible combination of mouths, noses, eyes, foreheads and cheeks on a man, the old gal managed to surprise her by creating a face like Finnegan Boucher’s, with his soft brown eyes and a perfect nose that turned up ever-so-slightly at the tip.

Operating under the assumption that Finn was aiming for the staff elevator, she was surprised when he skirted both it and the stairs, leading her down an L-shaped hallway. He stopped at a frosted glass door. “Huh,” he said with a frown, looking back the way they’d come. “Howard was supposed to meet us up here.”

Finn opened the door. From somewhere inside Castle Soho, Jacqueline could hear the click of high heels on marble, the sound coming steadily closer. Finn placed his hand on Jacqueline’s back, gently urging her inside. “Howard?” he called.

“Over here, sir,” came a woman’s voice.

Whoa…” Jacqueline breathed, looking up at her surroundings. She turned in a slow circle, slack-jawed at what was essentially a cavernous, two-story, high-end boutique. “Now that is one hell of a closet.”



Chapter Eleven

“What did I tell you?” said Finn, smiling broadly.
 
On one side of the doorway was an open spiral staircase with a silver banister, its stair treads made of the same heavily-veined white marble as the floor tiles that stretched away to her left. At the top of the stairs, Jacqueline glimpsed the bottom half of a clothing rack stuffed with pristine white garment bags.
 
Beyond the stairs, Castle Soho opened up dramatically. Every square inch of wall space not covered in silver-brocade wallpaper or mirrored wardrobe cabinets was taken up by built-in racks, shelves, countertops, and drawers.

“Ah, there’s Howard,” said Finn.

Jacqueline tore her eyes from a tower of glossy white shelves showcasing a rainbow of handbags as a stunning woman with flawless olive skin, perfectly arched eyebrows, and dark hair pinned up in a loose chignon approached them.

“Allow me to introduce Ashton Howard,” said Finn, “the Castle’s house manager. Howard, this is Jacqueline Guise, the landscape designer for the pleasance.”

The woman smiled and shook her hand. “Please call me Howard,” she said. “Everyone does.”

“Nice to meet you.” Jacqueline wasn’t sure what being a “house manager” entailed, but judging by Howard’s attire—a fitted, black pencil skirt, a white silk blouse, and pointed-toe pumps with heels so high, the shoes could have been used as boomerangs—she doubted Howard’s primary responsibilities included scrubbing toilets or mopping floors.

“Howard’s first career was in fashion,” said Finn. “If she can’t help you find something in here, then it’s not in here.”

While Howard humbly demurred, Jacqueline took the opportunity to study the line of demarcation between Finn’s dark blond stubble and his fair skin. The line was so even and precise, it could have been mistaken for a stippled tattoo. His neck was baby-smooth, however, proving that, for one thing, the man was no stranger to a razor, and for another, all the sexy, GQ scruff on his face was calculated. She couldn’t argue with the results, though; his carefully sculpted facial hair made his cheekbones look sharp enough to juice a grapefruit on.

“Which reminds me,” said Finn, “if you need anything—toiletries, clothing, anything at all during your stay with us—you can call Howard.” He turned to Howard. “If you’d be so kind as to make sure Ms. Guise has your number before you send her on her way?”

Howard nodded. “Of course, sir.”

Finn took an exaggerated step backwards in the direction of the door. “And I should probably get back to work.” To Jacqueline, he said, “I hope you don’t mind if I leave you in Howard’s very capable hands?”

Jacqueline masked her disappointment well. “Of course not. And thank you for the rescue.”

“It was my pleasure. I guess I’ll see for myself what you’ve chosen when we meet again at dinner, won’t I?”

He’s going to be at dinner! “I guess you will,” she said, smiling.

With a nod at Howard, Finn turned and left.

Jacqueline caught Howard watching Finn’s retreat. Her full lips were pursed in a tight moue; it was definitely not a look of approval. Uh-oh, she thought. What have I stepped in, here? Were Howard and Finn dating? Exes? If so, what in the world was Finn doing flirting so openly with her?

Howard’s reproachful look vanished, replaced by a soft smile for Jacqueline. “Has anyone explained to you the customary dinner dress for this time of year?”

“Uh, semi-formal, I think?”

“Yes, although the meaning of ‘semi-formal’ here at the Castle is quite different from how the rest of the fashion world defines it.”

“I noticed.” Just tell the woman the truth: you don’t know what you’re doing. “Honestly, I don’t really know that much about clothes or fashion.” She looked down at her outfit. “My best friend had to help me pick this out.” For some reason, she felt the need to add, “Sorry.”

The way Howard’s entire face lit up, you’d have thought she’d matched all five lottery numbers and the red Powerball, too. “Please don’t apologize.” And then, more tentatively, she added, “May I have the privilege of dressing you today?”

Jacqueline was about to explain that, as she’d been dressing herself for going on thirty-plus years now, she considered herself more than capable of shrugging into a fancy gown all by herself, when Howard added, “It’s so rare to meet someone with your coloring.”

Oh, she thought, feeling dumb. When Howard said “dressing you,” she meant “If fashion were a village, you’d be the proverbial idiot. Why don’t I just go ahead and choose everything for you?” Which suited her just fine. “Sure,” said Jacqueline, “but I’m warning you: there aren’t a lot of colors that look good on someone like me.”

Howard frowned. “Who told you that?”

“Uh, my mother for one. She wasn’t trying to be mean,” she hastened to add. “She just said that colors that should look good on me—well, they don’t. I end up looking tired or pale or both.” She left out the part where, lately, she could achieve either effect without wearing a stitch of clothing.

Howard began a slow circuit of Jacqueline, inspecting every square inch of her from her unruly ginger hair to her hiking boots. “And how did she determine which colors ought to complement your coloring?”

Jacqueline scrunched up her face, thinking. “She might have done one of those color season analysis thingies. Or maybe that was my sister. Anyway, I was told that I was a warm spring, but I think most of those colors look horrible on me.”

With a nod, Howard took Jacqueline’s hand, flipped it over, and studied the inside of her wrist. “Lift your arm over your head, please.”

Jacqueline slowly raised her arm skyward. While she was wondering if this was the neurological part of the exam, Howard practically dove, nose-first, right into her armpit. What the hell? she thought, trying not to laugh or squirm while Howard inspected what some of the older folks in the valley still inexplicably called “the oxter.”

“You’re able to tan,” Howard observed, her gaze moving back and forth between Jacqueline’s exposed oxter and the top of her forearm.

From that, Jacqueline was able to deduce that Howard was comparing skin frequently exposed to the sun—namely, the top of her arm—with an area that rarely saw the light of day. Next time, maybe offer her a butt cheek for comparison. It’ll be less intrusive. Trying very hard not to smile, she said, “Actually, I tan pretty easily. You wouldn’t think so given how pale I am, but it’s true.”

“You’re a clear spring, then, not warm.”

Jacqueline raised an eyebrow. “Are you sure?”

“Absolutely sure.”

She was skeptical. “How do you know?”

“For one thing, warm springs burn very easily. And have a look at your eyes,” she said, taking Jacqueline by the shoulders and turning her towards the closest mirror. “The irises of blue-eyed, warm springs have a starburst pattern with a mix of warm shades like gold or green between the pupils and the whites. Your eyes are uniformly cool blue with what’s called a ‘crackled glass’ pattern. Do you see how your sweater very nearly matches your eyes? When warm springs want to wear purple, they reach for grape or violet, not deep periwinkle like you’re wearing.”

Jacqueline leaned in closer to the mirror to examine her irises up close. “Wow, you really do know what you’re doing, don’t you?”

“That’s what I enjoy telling myself every morning.” Smiling, she released Jacqueline’s shoulders. “Do you have a favorite color?”

“Pink.” She grinned. “And now you’re going to ask me what my second-favorite color is, right?” but this only left Howard looking confused. “Because redheads can’t wear pink,” Jacqueline explained.

Howard drew breath, but stopped abruptly without saying anything. Left to infer her unspoken words, Jacqueline assumed they were something to the effect of “And may I ask who handed you that crock of b.s. to hold?”

“I’m confident that we can find a pink that will complement your lovely coloring,” said Howard. “For you, it should be vibrant, but not too warm. Think ‘hot pink,’ not ‘coral.’ Did they tell you that it’s customary for women to dress in florals during Mayfest?”

“Florals?” I should’ve sent Tilly in my place. Tilly probably would have offended everyone from the lowliest janitor to Vorace Gyant himself on day one, but she sure as hell wouldn’t have had to borrow a dress. “Uh, no, but that’s fine. At this point, I suppose I’ll take what I can get. Beggars can’t be choosers and all that.”

“I’ll need to take your measurements,” said Howard. “If you wouldn’t mind coming with me?”

At the far end of the cavernous room, an arched entryway revealed yet another of the Castle’s towers. Inside, a chandelier resembling a frozen crystal waterfall was suspended from the center of the conical ceiling high above them, an enormous island with glossy white drawers, silver drawer pulls and a built-in bench situated directly below it.

Jacqueline sat on the bench and gazed in awe at the tower’s second floor, where even more built-in wardrobes and shelves were packed to capacity with blouses, pants, skirts, gowns, shoes and handbags. “Do you mind if I ask you a question?”

Howard looked up from rummaging through a drawer in the center island. “Please.”

“Is this place someone’s overflow closet, or is it just sort of an upscale Goodwill?”

Howard smiled. “It’s not unusual for fashion designers to court influential customers by sending them their latest designs, and most of the top designers know that a great number of those influential customers are guests of the family here at the Castle many times a year. Often, they’ll tailor their designs to each festival.” She glanced at a nearby rack lined with dresses. “The gowns we’ve received in the last month, for example, all incorporate a floral motif in anticipation of Mayfest.”

“Oh. Well, that must be nice,” said Jacqueline, standing as Howard approached her with a measuring tape. “To have people just send you clothes, I mean. I could probably get used to that.”

Wrapping the tape around Jacqueline’s hips, Howard laughed. “Yes, well, while you’re here, you’re more than welcome to ‘get used to it’ as much as you’d like.” She glanced at the tape, mumbled a number to herself, and repeated the action at Jacqueline’s waist. “Now if you could lift your arms straight out to the sides, please.”

Fifteen minutes later, Jacqueline was standing in front of a wall of angled mirrors, wearing a gown that, had she seen it in a store, she would have dismissed out of hand based on the color of the satin halter bodice alone: pink. As a rule, pink clothing was a pestilence that redheads like her avoided at all costs, but Howard had won her over with this choice.

The bodice color was inspired by the blossoms of the pink dogwood tree, a fact Jacqueline only knew because the white ankle-length skirt was festooned with sprays of the delicate flower. Far from making her look pale or sickly, the shade left her glowing with good health.

“I love it!” she gushed, twirling in front of the mirror in her bare feet.

“Have you had the opportunity to see the dogwood and hawthorn trees in the May Grove?” said Howard.

Jacqueline shook her head. “I haven’t been out to the grounds yet.” Because rooting around in the family archives apparently trumps touring the actual project site.

“The blooms are quite spectacular this year. And the fragrance…” Closing her eyes, Howard sighed wistfully. “It’s absolutely heavenly.”

“The mild winter,” said Jacqueline. “There are always more flowers after a mild winter. I’m surprised they were able to get dogwoods to grow at this altitude. They must have been planted pretty close to the Castle.”

“They are. How did you know that?”

Facing away from the mirror, Jacqueline looked back over her shoulder at the navy-blue bra strap that bisected the open back of the bodice and frowned. That’s going to be a problem. “Dogwood trees don’t tolerate our summer sun very well,” she said, “even in the valley. Back east, they’re usually understory trees—trees that grow in the shade of taller trees. If they were planted close enough, the shadow of the Castle would stand in for a nice, tall tree in the summertime. It probably makes a good wind break in the winter, too.”

“Wow, you really do know what you’re doing, don’t you?” said Howard, smiling.

Jacqueline laughed. “Yes, well, that’s what I enjoy telling myself every morning.” She decided to go right ahead and like Ashton Howard.

Cupping her jaw in her hand, Howard frowned at the sight of Jacqueline’s feet. “What to do about shoes…” she said, tapping her manicured index finger against her chin.

Jacqueline regretted not bringing the Great Castle Compendium with her. The book had had an entire section spelling out what constituted appropriate formal and semi-formal footwear at the Castle. “Women,” it had read, “shall wear dress heels that complement their gown. Shoes may be closed- or open-toe, as long as they are color-coordinated with the dress of choice.” Her hands-down favorite sentence in that section, though, had been the one throwing some serious shade on flats: “Although not preferred, dressy flats are an acceptable alternative to heels for reasons of health or age.”

It took a special kind of snobbery, she thought, to offer a pass on footwear rules to the old and infirm while at the same time making it crystal clear that they’d be judged harshly for taking it.

“A nude heel, I think,” said Howard.

“A nude, non-stiletto, low heel, maybe?” Jacqueline countered.

In her case, neither age nor health precluded her from wearing high heels or stilettos, but her lack of technique sure did. For most of her life, her staple footwear had included sneakers, hiking boots, and flip-flops. On those occasions where heels couldn’t be avoided, she’d found it difficult to abandon the normal heel-toe gait—not a problem on a rough surface like a sidewalk, but on a slick floor, it left her flirting with catastrophe. More than once, she’d found herself shooting across a highly polished floor, balanced entirely on the heel tip of a single stiletto like some kind of extreme slalom skier.

She had yet to see the majority of the Castle, but she was willing to bet that there was a goodly stretch of marble to traverse between the Maiden Tower and wherever the library was located.

Howard smiled. “I’ll see what I can find.”

Howard’s “find” turned out to be a nude, open-toe sandal with a heel about halfway between stiletto and chunky. It was higher than Jacqueline would’ve preferred, but the slightly wider heel would provide some stability, at least. Howard hadn’t been kidding about the “nude’ part, either. The kid leather matched the fair blush of Jacqueline’s own skin, making the shoe seem to disappear on her foot. “I love it,” she said. “Thank you.”

“You’re quite welcome. Will you require any assistance with your hair or makeup? Our personal stylists would be happy to help.”

They have stylists on staff. Because of course they do. Jacqueline inspected her sloppy ponytail and mostly faded makeup in the mirror. “I’m not sure. How much time do I have before dinner?”

Howard turned her wrist to check a delicate gold watch. “It’s five now.”

That gave her an hour and twenty minutes. It wasn’t much time, but she thought she could pull it off if she hustled. “I think I’ll just wash it and blow it out, maybe put a few waves in it with my curling iron.” She wouldn’t describe the dress as “girlish,” exactly, but it seemed to her that a formal updo would detract from the overall “maiden of spring” vibe that the Castle floral directive seemed to be aiming for. Plus, wearing her hair loose meant that she could skip earrings, which was just as well since she didn’t own any.

“That’s just what I was going to suggest,” said Howard. She handed Jacqueline a slim, glossy black cardboard package like the kind that pantyhose came in. “And you’ll need these unless you happen to have a backless, strapless bra with you.”

Not only did Jacqueline not have one with her, she didn’t own one. “‘CradleYou Silicon-Skin Adhesive Bra,’” she read aloud. “Huh. Well, I’ll try anything once.” It’s not like you have a lot of options besides letting the twins hang sweet and low. Knowing her luck, the things would peel off in the middle of dinner, forcing her to spend the rest of the meal surreptitiously shaking slices of silicon past the waist seam and out of her skirt like an afterbirth.

“They work very well,” said Howard, “but the instructions do recommend applying them to skin free of oils and lotions.”

Jacqueline loved the delicate way that Howard worded everything. Had it been Tilly doling out the advice, she’d have bellowed something like “…and lather all that grease off yer dirty pillows before you slap on the chicken cutlets!”

“Will Mr. Boucher be escorting you to dinner?” said Howard.

The question alone was enough to make Jacqueline blush. Howard made it sound as if the two of them had a date. She didn’t seem too put out by the idea, though, which made Jacqueline doubt her own theory of the pair’s romantic history. “Dane Gyant insisted on coming up to fetch me,” she said with a snort.

“Oh, good!”

There was something besides pleasant surprise in Howard’s tone, she decided. Relief, maybe? Perhaps there was something to Howard and Finn after all. “What should I do with the dress and shoes after dinner?”

“I’d be happy to send a porter to your suite later this evening to pick them up. Or you could bring them back tomorrow if the rest of your luggage is still missing.”

Jacqueline blinked. “Uh, sorry, what’s the link between missing luggage and the dress?”

“If it doesn’t turn up, you’ll still need gowns for Mayfest.”

“But isn’t that what this is?” she said, spreading out the folds of the blossom-covered skirt.

“That’s appropriate for dinner this evening, but you’ll still need an ankle-length white dress for the maypole-raising tomorrow and a ballgown for the coronation tomorrow night.” She stepped behind Jacqueline to undo the clasp at her neck.

“‘The coronation’?” she said stupidly. If there was a king in town that weekend, no one had bothered to tell her about it.

Howard leaned around her and studied her face, no doubt trying to see if Jacqueline was feigning ignorance or if she really was that dumb. “For King and Queen of the May?”

“Oh, of course.”

She was going to have to call Gwynnen later that night to fill her in on the details of Mayfest, but until then, she was just going to play along and act like she knew what everyone was talking about. “I didn’t realize that the ball and coronation were on the same night.” Because out of all the damns I could have given, I gave exactly zero.

Howard allowed the halter bodice to fall forward. “Oh, yes. It all happens over the course of twenty-four very busy hours.”

Maybe it was her dislike of everything the Gyants stood for, but Jacqueline had never been able to understand the valley’s fascination with all the details and minutiae of the pomp and pageantry on display at the Castle. Starting with Candlemas on February first, the entire Gyant extended family converged on the Castle from all over the world to pay homage to Vorace Gyant, a trek the beleaguered clan repeated seven more times over the course of each year.

And you grumble about Grandma’s family reunion at the lake every July. As much as she loved her grandmother, it was hard enough to get to her house in Oregon once a year. She couldn’t imagine dropping everything to haul Jack and herself thither every six or seven weeks. And unlike her grandmother, Vorace Gyant was not known for being the most pleasant of people.

“Which reminds me,” said Howard, unzipping the skirt before gently lowering it to the floor for Jacqueline to step out of, “if you suspect that your luggage might not make an appearance tomorrow, may I suggest stopping by tomorrow morning to choose your gowns? The longer you wait, the fewer choices you’ll have. The rule of thumb is that if you’ve waited until the dew wash, you’ve waited too long.”

“Okay, thanks for the tip,” said Jacqueline, shrugging back into her sweater. ‘What the hell is a ‘dew wash’? She made a mental note to ask Gwynnen later.

Howard glanced at Jacqueline’s jeans, still in a ball on the floor. “You’re welcome to wear jeans to the bonfire, of course. Everyone is permitted to wear street clothes for that.”

Jacqueline kicked off the nude heels. “That’s a relief.” Did you hear that? she thought with an inward chuckle. You can wear your peasant rags to the bonfire because even the rich folks will be slumming it up!

Honestly, Howard was wearing her out with all this information. If it weren’t for the chance of seeing Finnegan Boucher again, she’d tell Dane Gyant she’d come down with a sudden case of explosive diarrhea and skip the dinner altogether.

“There’s no reason to wait for this,” said Howard, taking the dress up from the floor. She began wrestling it back into a white garment bag. “I’d be happy to hang it in your closet—with your permission, of course.”

“Sure, that’d be great, thank you.” Jacqueline was about to brag about her closet’s extra-high hanging rod, but the urge was derailed by a more disquieting thought: Exactly how many people have access to my room? So far, they included the porter, the house manager, and the IT department. All you need now is a butcher, a baker, and a candlestick maker, and you’ll have yourself a nursery rhyme. She pulled on her jeans, grabbed her shoes, thanked Howard, and hurried back to the Maiden Tower.

An hour and twenty minutes later, she was making a nervous circuit of the suite. While pacing had done nothing to calm her nerves, it had given her plenty of practice in the art of walking in high heels. She’d formed a kind of routine: halfway around the loop, she ducked into the bathroom to see how her hair and makeup had fared over the previous sixty seconds; at the conclusion of each lap, she dug her phone out of her purse, hoping to find a response from Tilly waiting for her. So far, she’d been disappointed.

What is that woman doing?

Jacqueline had messaged Tilly the moment she’d returned from Castle Soho, text-ranting on everything from the Castle’s unrealistic fashion expectations to its silly rules and mandated activities. She’d finished with a desperate plea for advice on surviving what was sure to be a confidence-destroying dinner in a room of smug one-percenters, but Tilly had gone radio silent.

Jacqueline was busy stomping a high-heeled furrow through the bedroom hardwoods when her phone finally chimed with Tilly’s response. Racing into the living room, she plucked the phone out of her purse. She was still staring at Tilly’s text when a knock at the door announced Dane’s arrival.

Tossing the phone onto the couch, she took a deep breath, squared her shoulders, and crossed the room with a determined step, Tilly’s four words of advice playing and replaying in her head: Tail up, stinger out.



Chapter Twelve

As nervous as she’d been watching the second hand on the fireplace mantle clock tick-tick-tick its way to six-thirty, Jacqueline had taken Tilly’s parting advice to heart, flinging open the door, ready to go head-to-head with the source of all her woes: Dane Gyant.
 
But damned if the sight of him didn’t take her breath away—most of it, anyway. Sadly, she retained just enough air in her windbags to blurt out, “You’ve got to be kidding me.” Who looks that good in real life? She was tempted to follow that up by asking him if his fifteen years of Castle exile had been spent modeling underwear or perhaps playing boy-toy to some Hollywood starlet.
 
“And a ‘good evening’ to you, too,” he said, his expression inscrutable.

He’d changed out of his art-gallery-opening outfit and into a navy pinstripe suit with a light blue herringbone shirt. His tie, with its scattering of vintage-looking flowers of buttery yellow and cornflower blue, was a deep fuscia color that came dangerously close to matching the dogwood pink of her bodice.

It was the last detail—the matching tie—that saved the day. “Your tie,” she said, thinking fast. “We look like we’re going to homecoming together!” Rather than attending to the sin that was his choice of tie, however, Dane appeared far more interested in studying the folds of her A-line skirt. “Hello?” she said, snapping her fingers under his nose.

His eyes shot to her face. “If I thought that changing my tie would make your evening more enjoyable, I’d do it without hesitation.”

Jacqueline sighed. “It’s too late now. Let’s just get this over with.”

“Here,” he said, holding a clear plastic box out to her. “This is for you.”

“A corsage?” God, we really are going to homecoming together. “Oh. That was really nice—” She stopped, taking a closer look at the blossoms. “Wait, are those pink dogwood flowers?”

Dane snorted softly. “I certainly hope so. I nearly lost a finger to a pair of pruning shears cutting them off a tree in the May Grove.” He held up his left hand to show her the bandage on his index finger. “After all that work, I’d hate to think I picked the wrong tree.”

Jacqueline gaped at him. “You made this?”

“Me?” he said, the corner of his mouth performing its trademark twitch. “No, Howard made it. I can only imagine the carnage I would have inflicted on myself with a glue gun.”

Gwynnen would be impressed, she thought, examining the house manager’s handiwork. After tying several of the slender shoots and a sprig of greenery together with a pink ribbon, Howard had used hot glue to mount the arrangement to a beveled disc attached to the beaded wristlet.

“When did she do this?” Jacqueline had only picked out the dress an hour ago. Either it was a phenomenal coincidence that the flowers on the skirt matched a corsage that Howard had already assembled, or Howard had dispatched Dane to the May Grove to prune dogwood trees in a suit and tie.

“About forty-five minutes ago,” he said with a glance at her skirt. “I couldn’t understand why Howard was so insistent on dogwood flowers. Now I get it.” He took the box from her, opened the plastic flaps, and eased the corsage out.

“Well, I’m sorry about your finger, but it’s really beautiful. Thank you.”

“It was my pleasure.” He stretched the beaded, elasticized band open with his fingers. “Let me see your hand.”

Jacqueline did as instructed. As he slipped it over her hand to her wrist, his fingers skimmed along her skin, leaving her face warm and her heart racing. Would you please pull yourself together?

Her arm was so thin that instead of the flowers perching atop her wrist, they sagged beneath it like a floral goiter. “Here, I’ll just—” She had to push the band to just shy of her elbow before her arm was thick enough to keep the flowers topside.

Dane watched her, bemused. “I forgot how petite you were.”

“‘Petite’?” she said, cocking an eyebrow at him. “I’m five-foot-seven. I think the words you were grasping for were ‘too skinny.’”

He seemed to find that even more amusing than the corsage fail. “I have to say, ‘too skinny’ isn’t a phrase you’re going to hear around here very often.”

“Well, it’s true,” she said, frowning at her corsage-turned-elbow brace. “Maybe I should just wear it as a garter.”

When Dane failed to offer a snarky retort, she glanced up at him. Lips slightly parted, he stared at her, looking a little dazed and confused. “What?” she said.

He cleared his throat and shuffled backwards into the hallway. “Nothing. We should be going.” As she pulled the door closed behind her, he said, “Don’t forget your purse.”

Jacqueline froze. “Why do I need a purse? Am I going to have to pay for something?”

He didn’t smile, but his eyes did. “No, it was just a helpful reminder. In my experience, all women carry purses. Sorry if I overstepped.”

“I hate carrying a purse, especially a clutch purse. It’s awkward to hold, and there’s nowhere to put it once you sit down.” Not to mention I’d just end up leaving it somewhere. She was already nervous about all the assorted drinks and foods she might drop, drool, or dribble onto the designer gown she’d checked out from Castle Soho, but at least she could be reasonably sure that she wouldn’t lose it.

He nodded and held out his arm to her. “Makes perfect sense.”

She threaded her arm through his, trying not to fixate on how solid it felt under her hand, even through his suit coat. Maybe she ought to be concerned about losing her dress after all. “Thank you, by the way.”

He gave her a sidelong glance. “I believe you already did. Thank Howard; she did most of the work.”

“Not for the corsage. For lying for me.”

His eyebrows shot up. “I wasn’t aware that I had.”

“About my so-called ‘missing bags,’” she said. “You could’ve just told everyone that I didn’t read the book.”

“Oh, that. They probably perpetuated the missing-bag story so you wouldn’t be embarrassed. And I didn’t lie. I said that since I’d driven your only beast of burden into its untimely grave on the same day that I blindsided you with the Castle proposal, you’d been far too busy preparing your home and family for your imminent departure to properly build out a Castle-approved wardrobe.” He winced. “Although, I’m ashamed to admit that I only remembered the part where you were doing all those things without the benefit of a car after I’d snapped at you this morning about your lack of planning. I should have made arrangements for a rental car for you. It was poor planning on my part, not to mention inconsiderate. Will you accept my apology?”

Jacqueline looked askance at him, her eyes narrowed with suspicion.

“Is there a problem?” He came to a halt in front of a back-lit wall niche that marked the turn into the long passage. Inside was a formidable iron urn filled with the typical thriller-filler-spiller themed flower arrangement, in this case, blood-red, dinnerplate dahlias, lush pink garden roses, pink verbena, and trailing vines.

You,” she said, releasing his arm. “You go from ‘tyrannical jerk’ to ‘pretty nice guy’ at the drop of a hat. It’s making it very difficult for me to hold a grudge against you.”

He blinked in surprise. “A grudge against me? For what?”

“For forcing me to come up the mountain in the first place.”

She’d meant it half-jokingly, but he turned sour. “I think your grudge is misplaced.” He peered around them then as if he thought that the walls might have sprouted ears. Lowering his voice, he said, “If you’re under the impression that you’re the only person at the Castle who would rather be anywhere else, you’re mistaken.”

Jacqueline was dying to ask him for details, but she restrained herself. Head down, mouth closed, remember?

She’d expected them to continue on at that point; after all, they still had quite a hike ahead of them just to reach the staff elevator, never mind the distance from there to wherever the library was. Instead, Dane reached out and pressed his thumb against a round embellishment in the wood trim enclosing the niche.

The alcove, the wood and the urn split in two, right down the middle, the respective sides sliding away from each other, leaving Jacqueline backing away, mouth open in shock.

“It’s an elevator,” said Dane, helpfully stating the obvious after the fact. The corner of his mouth twitched. “Sorry. When you grow up with these sorts of optical illusions, you tend to forget how real they look.”

You can say that again. She could’ve sworn she smelled the lemony scent of verbena wafting out of the niche when she’d passed it before.

“Everything okay?” he said.

“Yeah, I’m just wondering if humiliation in or near elevators is going to be a recurring theme with you.”

“Hey, look on the bright side: we’re not going underground, and this one has emergency lights.”

“Very funny. I could do without all the surprises, that’s all.” She stepped into the car and waited for him to follow suit.

“Going forward,” he said, holding his hand up as if taking an oath, “I solemnly promise to warn you about any and all surprises the Castle offers up.” He lowered his hand and added, “The ones I can foresee, anyway.”

“If you can foresee a surprise, doesn’t that make it—I don’t know—not a surprise?”

Dane joined her in the car, giving her a quick sidelong glance. “My guess is that you’re going to run across plenty of things around here in the next three months that will come as a surprise to you but not to me.” His thumb hovered over a column of seven buttons, labeled from B to 6. “And speaking of avoiding surprises, we can go to the first floor and cross through the great hall, or we can get out on the second floor and go through the upper level of the great hall to the library. The second floor means you’ll be able to see down into the great hall, but it also means navigating a spiral staircase in the library. Lady’s choice.”

Jacqueline was torn. She very much wanted to see the fabled great hall from an aerial vantage point, but she also knew that, between her high heels and her long skirt, she’d mix with a spiral staircase about as well as a bag of fertilizer and an open flame. “The first floor, please.”

As grand as the name implied, the long, two-story great hall was the size of a train station. At the moment, it was also a beehive of activity and boisterous conversation, with every chair and sofa between the two stone fireplaces bookending the hall taken by beautiful, elegant, glittering people in beautiful, elegant, glittering clothes. Classical music piped in from hidden speakers filled the hall. Castle staff bustled to and fro, weaving through the crowd to retrieve empty glasses and deliver fresh drinks and appetizers to the revelers.

Jacqueline estimated the number of people in the room to be around a hundred, and she wasn’t even counting the ones hanging over the great hall’s second floor balcony. “You didn’t say there’d be people in here!” she said, stepping off the elevator and clutching his arm. “This isn’t the dinner, is it?”

“No, it’s the weekly—” He stopped to give the back of his neck an intense abrading. “Just out of curiosity, do you have a pathological aversion to reading that book? Because—and, again, I know how much you appreciate my advice—I can’t stress enough how many problems that’s going to cause you going forward.”

“I tried reading it, okay?” she said, feeling a little miffed as he led her toward the wall so they could skirt the crowd. “I just accidentally fell asleep while doing it.” And then I was a little rattled after you tried to kill me, so really, it’s all your fault.

“Well, you must have been ‘accidentally sleeping’ all afternoon—”

“Hey! It’s not like I planned it or—”

“—because I called you three times and came by your suite twice.”

Jacqueline’s heart jumped into her throat. “You did? Why? What happened? Is Jack okay?”

“He’s fine, but I came to tell you—oh.” Once he’d uttered the word “oh,” his lips froze in place, as if holding open the possibility of adding “shit” or something even more potent onto the end. With a pained grimace, he said, “To tell you that Jack will be staying with the other teens in the fifth-floor Water Tower dorm rooms for the summer.”

Jacqueline came to a screeching halt. “What?” She could feel her blood coming to a low boil.

Alarmed by her balled-up fists, Dane rushed to add, “And before you take your rage out on me, it wasn’t my idea—”

“I don’t care who’s idea it was!” she snapped, “You can’t just—”

“—but,” he said, raising his voice to be heard over hers, “I’ve checked on Jack twice today, and—”

“Oh, you’ve checked on him? Is that supposed to make me feel better?” she shouted. “Because it doesn’t! He still has three weeks of schoolwork to do, and if I’m not—”

“Which is why he’s meeting with Dr. McPherson first thing in the morning.”

Jacqueline blinked. “Who?”

“Kellina McPherson, PhD, one of the Castle’s private tutors. She’s agreed to oversee the last three weeks of Jack’s schoolwork and proctor his final exams. And for the record, I called you just before noon to take you up there so you could meet her. That didn’t work, so I went up to your room. You didn’t answer, so I tried again—with Jack that time—at around two-thirty, so I settled Jack into one of the rooms in the boy’s wing—a corner room with two windows, by the way, which I’m sure I’m going to have to hear about all summer when the family kids get wind of it—after which he ate lunch with Alex Gyant. Provided that someone was able to pry him out of the virtual-reality headgear in the game room, he’s probably sitting down to dinner with Alex as we speak.

“And I’m sorry I didn’t lead with this when you first opened the door,” he said. “I meant to, but then I saw—” He stopped, colored, and looked away. “Anyway, I meant to, but it went right out of my head. I’m sorry.”

Jacqueline sucked in a breath, ready to continue her rant, only to find that she had nothing left to complain about. “Oh. Well, what’s he supposed to do all day after the three weeks of private tutoring are done?”

“He’ll join the rest of the kids in the summer program. It’s all outdoor stuff. He’ll love it. And would you mind waiting until we reach the library before you tear the rest of my head off?” he said, extending his arm to her. “I’ve heard that a few drinks can really ease the sting of decapitation.”

It was only then that Jacqueline noticed the dramatic drop-off in the number of conversations in their part of the hall. Dane must have noticed it at the same moment she had, as they both turned in unison to find a good number of the people in the hall staring back at them. Some were open-mouthed in shock. Others grinned or elbowed their neighbors. From multiple quarters, she heard the same name murmured over and over: “Mick Debereux.”

Who the hell is Mick Debereux? she thought, slinking behind Dane and using him as a human shield. “I didn’t mean to make a scene,” she said in an undertone. “Sorry.”

“Hey, you were looking out for your son,” he said, his tone flat. “No one here will blame you for that. And if it makes you feel any better, you’re not the only one they’re staring at. Let’s go this way,” he said, urging her towards the closest of the four archways opening onto the grand foyer.

They emerged directly behind the fabled grand staircase, which, unfortunately, blocked her view of most of the grand foyer. The moment they left the rich wood floors of the great hall behind them, Dane doubled his pace, leaving Jacqueline struggling to keep up with him without slip-sliding across the cream-colored marble.

“Why are we running?” she said. She was out of breath and developing a painful stitch in her side. If his aim was to escape the gaze of those in the great hall, then moving parallel to it seemed like the worst possible route. Sure, they were a little farther away from the gawkers, but it didn’t prevent people from tracking the two of them like a pair of hunted animals as they rushed past the archways.

Dane slowed to something like a regular walking gait, his expression grim. “We’re not running.”

Ha! One of us is running from something, and it’s not me for a change. “Are all of those people really members of the Gyant family? Every single one of them?”

“‘Through blood or marriage, like it or not,’ as we say.”

“But they can’t all be your cousins, right? You must have a few siblings or aunts and uncles stashed around here somewhere, maybe even a mother—”

“Jacqueline.” His tone was heavy with warning.

“What?”

“Do yourself a favor: never ask me or anyone else at the Castle what their relationship is to another person.”

“Why? Don’t you know?” It made sense; she could barely keep track of her father’s revolving door of ex-wives and stepchildren, never mind trying to calculate her relationship to her second cousin’s new baby.

His eyes turned stormy. “Of course I know, which is exactly the point. If you have to ask, you’re not family, and if you’re not family, then you’re only asking because you’re trying to gauge a particular person’s connection to Vorace Gyant, and by extension, how close they are to an inheritance.”

“Wow, that’s pretty dark,” she said after a moment. “So tell me this: how does he do it?”

“Who?”

“Vorace Gyant. My grandmother’s lucky if half the family shows up for the annual summer picnic.”

He snorted. “I doubt that Vorace Gyant and your grandmother share the same philosophy when it comes to family.”

“‘As you sow, so shall you reap’?” she said, arching an eyebrow at him. “How does that inspire them to drag themselves all the way out here eight times a year?”

He shook his head. “That’s the Gyant corporate slogan. Our esteemed patriarch inspires us all with the motto ‘Discretion is rewarded, disloyalty is repaid.’”

The string of words, at once innocuous and threatening, sent a shiver up her spine. I was discrete, she thought. Until now, anyway. Whether her situation would end with a reward or a reprisal still remained to be seen.

She cleared her throat. “Yeah, I can see how that would boost turnout.” She doubted that it had a similar effect on family morale, but left that unsaid. “Will all the people in there be coming to dinner?” She hadn’t yet seen the dining room, but unless it was big enough to build a space shuttle in—or a whole lot of people were fine with doubling up on someone else’s lap—there was no way they were all going to fit.

The corner of his mouth spasmed. “No, there will only be around twenty people, including us. Most of the family stays on the other side of the lake during the festivals,” he explained.

“‘Across the lake’? As in ‘they pitch tents’?”

Dane looked bemused. “No, they do not ‘pitch tents.’ The Castle is big, but a lot of that space is taken up by two-story rooms that aren’t bedrooms, like the great hall, the ballroom, and the library. For obvious reasons, it makes more sense to house Castle staff inside the Castle. Most of them are on the fourth floor, like you, and the teen dorm rooms take up the entire fifth floor. The last time the entire family stayed under the Castle roof was just after World War Two. There were already guest houses on the other side of the lake, so it seemed like the most logical place to expand in order to alleviate the space crunch over here.

“Anyway,” he said, his eyes flitting to the great hall, where each person was more svelte than the last, “they’ll eat at the restaurant over there. If they eat at all.”

“Oh.” So little was known down in the valley about the day-to-day management of the Castle; she had to admit it: she was kind of impressed by the resort-like enterprise they were running up here. “Well, my hat is off to you guys. I can’t say that I’d make that kind of an effort to import my family eight times a year.”

“Yes, well, Vorace Gyant’s motivations are not as altruistic as you might think,” he snapped. The moment he’d spoken the words, she could tell that he wished that he hadn’t. “Sorry,” he said in a low voice. “I’m a little frustrated at the moment. I shouldn’t be talking that way, especially not to you.”

“Hey, your secret’s safe with me. Besides, I’m too poor and powerless to contest the ironclad non-disclosure agreement that you made me sign.”

He led her under the last of the archways, right back into the great hall, albeit on the opposite end. They weren’t in it for long; Dane cut the corner at the top of the hall, and they exited into a long, broad passage. Directly ahead of them, a pair of formidable doors carved from solid oak had been folded back against the walls of the passage. “This is the library.” he said. At the threshold, he came to a stop.

When he failed to move, she glanced up at him. “Uh…are we going in?”

Staring straight ahead, Dane Gyant’s expression was that of a man watching a train wreck unfold in slow motion. Deathly pale except for two bright red splotches on the apples of his cheeks, his jaw was a granite block, his wide eyes brimming over with dread and disgust, yet also glinting with something that looked like desire.

“Hey, are you okay?” she said, alarmed.

He stumbled to one side of the doorway and leaned over, hands on his knees, panting for air.

Oh, shit, he’s going to throw up! “Dane, what’s wrong?” she said. “Should I get help?”

Tugging wildly at his tie knot, Dane shook his head violently. “No! I—I’m—just give me—I didn’t—no one told me—” Straightening, he said with a strangled gasp, “Excuse me.”

With that, he staggered down the hall and disappeared through a door at the end, leaving her standing on the threshold of the library with no idea what she should do next.



Chapter Thirteen

Jacqueline was torn. Judging by the way Dane had looked and behaved prior to racing off like a scalded jackrabbit, he was not a man who should be left alone. But she probably wouldn’t be able to unlock the door he’d disappeared through, so it seemed unlikely she’d be able to help.
 
Likewise, barging into a room of people where she knew no one also seemed bound for failure, and held zero appeal regardless. She stood awkwardly in the doorway of the library for a moment before poking her head inside to have a look around.
 
The two-story interior differed dramatically from what Jacqueline had seen so far of the rest of the Castle. The floors, the crown molding and everything in between were either covered in or carved from a rich, dark wood, including the bookshelves that lined the walls on this floor and the floor above, the only exception being an enormous fireplace centered on the opposite wall with an elaborate surround carved from a dark green marble. Citrus-scented wood oil hung heavily in the air, burning her nostrils.

Standing around in groups of twos and threes, yet another collection of attractive Gyants nursed cocktails, the men in suits with the obligatory floral-themed tie, the women wearing flowing, floral-print gowns. Unlike their brethren in the great hall, however, their conversation was muted, their mingling efforts only halfhearted at best.

Jacqueline was seriously considering going after Dane when she made eye contact with a handsome tall man with closely cropped hair, a broad forehead, and slightly chapped lips who was standing near the door. His reaction to her mimicked Finn’s from a few hours before: mouth and eyes wide with surprise, followed by mouth wide and eyes narrowed with disbelief. From there, matters unfolded just as they had in the great hall. The man jabbed his neighbor with his elbow, whispered something to him, and the head-turning and gaping began in earnest.

Following Dane’s example, Jacqueline lunged to one side of the doorway, out of sight. “What is wrong with these people?” she muttered. Either they were the biggest bunch of ginger fetishists she’d ever come across in her life, or the Gyant family was super jazzed about the restoration of that walled garden of theirs.

There’s no way I’m going in there alone. Searching for Dane suddenly seemed like a fantastic idea. With a little luck, she’d find herself trapped in a room somewhere, unable to get out.

Rushing to the end of the hall, she tried the door Dane had gone through, and was surprised when it opened easily. Her surprise lasted about as long as it took for her to see that she was standing in a large bathroom of black marble and gold fixtures, with a second door on the far side. Well, I doubt he flushed himself down the toilet, she thought, crossing to the opposite side. She cracked the door and peeked out onto a narrow hallway that extended about nine or ten feet in either direction.

She didn’t see anyone, so she stepped into the hall and crept around the corner on the balls of her feet, stopping when the passage ended at a lobby with a flight of stairs and a certain tell-tale gold elevator at its center. The latter detail allowed her to orient herself, at least. The staff sitting room is directly below this.

She’d just about resolved to take the staff elevator back to the fourth floor, when she heard low voices—Dane’s and Howard’s, there was no doubt about it. She froze. Where are they? Her best guess was the end of the corridor on the opposite side of the lobby. Their voices drew closer by fits and starts, but it took a minute before Jacqueline could make out their conversation.

“…to know how she figures into all this,” said Dane.

“It may have nothing to do with her,” said Howard.

“Great, then we’ve just dragged a few more bystanders into this damn mess. But hey, as long as I get what I want, who cares if anyone else gets hurt, right?”

“I know you don’t believe that.” After a pause, Howard said, “Do you think he knew she was coming?”

“What do you think? You don’t just land a jet up here without telling somebody first.”

“Well, it’s good to know whose side he’s on.”

“I guess.” He made a sound of exasperation. “God, she hasn’t changed at all! None of them have. Same old games. I should never have come back.”

She may not have changed,” said Howard, “but he has.”

“I sure hope you’re right, or this won’t end well for me. Any more progress?”

“In the last two hours?” said Howard, sounding amused. “No.”

“Sorry,” said Dane with a sigh. “I just feel like I’m about to fall into a giant trap.”

“A ‘giant Gyant trap,’ even,” said Howard with a light laugh. When Dane didn’t answer—Jacqueline pictured him giving Howard some serious side-eye—Howard cleared her throat and turned serious. “I couldn’t resist, sorry. If it’s a trap, it’s an awfully convoluted one, don’t you think?”

“I don’t know. Lots of predators enjoy toying with their prey.”

“True. How is plan B coming along?”

“It’s coming,” he said. “A few more months before I hit pay dirt, though.”

“Well, that’s something, at least.” Another pause. “You should be getting back; I’m sure your absence has been noticed.”

“I’m sure it has,” Dane sneered.

“Did anyone see you leave? The library, I mean.”

“I never went in. But I’m confident that Jacqueline saw me since I lost my shit right in front of her and left her standing next to the library with no explanation.”

At the sound of her name, Jacqueline panicked. Time to go. She took off her shoes and beat bare feet back around the corner.

“Dane, you didn’t!” said Howard, her heels clicking on the wood floors of the corridor.

“Sadly, I did,” he said, his heavier footfall matching hers. “Because that’s the kind of man I am now, apparently.”

“Oh, come on. That’s nonsense, and you know it. I have a dinner to put on the table, and you need to get back to the library. And when you see her, just bite your tongue, leave the past in the past, and be your charming self.”

“‘My charming self,’” Dane scoffed. “I’m still trying to reanimate that corpse. He’s been dead for fifteen years, so it’s been heavy work.”

Go!

With a defeated sigh, he said, “I’m going, I’m going…”

Jacqueline quickly retraced her steps through the bathroom and hurried up the main hallway, stopping just short of the library’s double doors. There, she slipped her shoes back on and tried her best not to look agitated and out of breath.

Her head was spinning, even though, aside from the brief exchange involving her, she had no idea which or how many people Dane and Howard were talking about, what with all the generic “hes” and “shes” they’d tossed around. But their cryptic conversation had served as a useful reminder to conduct herself as if she was deep in enemy territory, and to assume that every single person she met at the Castle was a scheming, manipulative enemy combatant.

Dane reappeared, looking appropriately repentant.

Tail up, stinger out. She met him halfway. “Are you okay? What happened?”

“I’m fine. Sorry about that. I—I’ve been away for so long that I—it’s just been a little overwhelming seeing so many of my relatives all at once, that’s all.” He gave the back of his neck an aggressive buffing. “I feel like a complete jackass.” He stopped and gave her a curious look. “Did you just stand here the entire time I was gone?”

Uh-oh. “I wasn’t sure what to do. I looked into the library, but it was—well, let’s just say that it was awkward.”

“I am so sorry,” he said, looking pained. “I don’t know what happened. If I’d even suspected that I was going to react that way, I never would have—”

“Hey, don’t worry about it.” She looked askance at the library doors. “Did you still want to go in? Because—and I know that this will shock you—I’m totally fine with skipping this shindig.”

“Unfortunately,” he said with a sigh, “we don’t have any choice but to go in now. Vorace and Evena are here.”

Her eyebrows shot up. “What do you mean ‘here’? Like ‘in the Castle somewhere’? Or ‘inside the library’?”

“Both—that is, he’s in the Castle somewhere and she’s inside the library.”

“Oh.” Well, that might explain who landed a jet ‘without telling somebody first.’

Only that wasn’t quite true, because Vorace and Evena had informed someone of their imminent arrival: Finn Boucher. After all, it was Finn’s job to travel ahead of Mr. and Mrs. Gyant and prepare everything for their arrival. Did that mean that Finn was the mystery “he” Howard had referenced when she’d said, “Well, it’s good to know whose side he’s on”?

The real question was this: if there were two sides pitted against one another, what in the world were they fighting over? Head down, mouth closed, Jacqueline, she warned herself. This isn’t some crossword puzzle that needs solving. It’s none of your business, so just stay out of it.

“And I swear I’m not trying to start a battle over the book again,” said Dane, “but I’m going to assume that you are as yet unenlightened about the Evena thing.”

Jacqueline was taken aback. “Uh, well, I’m not sure that calling her a ‘thing’ is particularly productive, but I know that she’s Vorace Gyant’s wife and my beloved, generous patroness.” In response to Dane’s eye roll, she said, “Well, what else do I need to know?”

“For starters, ‘Evena’ isn’t her name, it’s her title.”

She blinked. “Her title? Like ‘General’ or ‘Duchess’?”

“Sort of. According to family lore, ‘uh-venn’ is how you say ‘his wife’ in Scots-Gaelic. I have no idea how or why the extra ‘A’ got tacked onto the end, but ‘Evena’ is the polite way to address the wife of the family patriarch. Just think of it as the equivalent of ‘Mrs.’ and you’ll be fine.”

“The oven!” she said with a wide-eyed gasp.

“You are not about to tell me that you left your oven on, are you?” he said, frowning. “Because there’s no way I can take you down the mountain until—”

“No, I’m talking about your oven—the Oven Tower, I mean. Finn Boucher told me that Jack was hiding out with Alex ‘in the oven.’” She chuckled. “I was a little worried until he explained that it was the name of a tower. That can’t be the original name though, right? It must be another Anglicization, like ‘beanstalk’ and ‘Morvienna Minor.’”

“Very good,” he said, impressed. “That’s where her rooms have traditionally been located—all of the Evenas, not just the current one.  Over time, ‘Evena’ became ‘Oven.”

“Does Evena ever use her own name?” she said. Substituting ‘his wife’ for a woman’s given name struck her as wildly sexist in this day and age. “Or does it become one of those ‘she who shall not be named’ kinds of situations once they’re married?”

“Of course she has her own name,” he said, annoyed. “You asked me to warn you about potential surprises, so I thought I’d spare you from scratching your head over half the people calling her ‘Waverly’ and the other half calling her ‘Evena.’”

“What do you call her?”

Closing his eyes, Dane heaved a heavy sigh. “You ask too many questions, Jacqueline.”

You only say that because you have no idea how many I’ve chosen not to ask.

“Come on,” he said, heading for the library. “Thanks to me, we’re already unforgivably late.”

She gamely followed him. Remember, she thought, staring at his broad back, bite your tongue, forget the past, turn on the charm. It would be interesting to see how long either of them could sustain that philosophy.

***

Jacqueline had no idea what Evena Gyant looked like—like Vorace Gyant, the woman was intensely private and shunned publicity—but Gwynnen had speculated that Evena was at least twenty years her husband’s junior.

That would put her in her—what? Early-to-mid fifties, maybe?

 As they turned into the library, Jacqueline scanned the room, but didn’t see a single person in the room over the age of thirty-five. There was a clear social center of gravity, however. Sipping a ruby-colored liquid from a champagne flute was a tall, dazzlingly beautiful woman with hair the color of honey ale worn in long, loose waves. The dramatic cinched waist of her sheer, white, ankle-length sheath dress drew the eye to a waistline so tiny, Jacqueline couldn’t help but wonder if the woman had had some organs and a few ribs removed. Draped over her arms was a long, diaphanous white shawl, one end of which had pooled on the floor.

The centerpiece of her look, however, had to be the statement necklace, one with so many sparkling rubies, emeralds, diamonds, and pink, blue, and yellow sapphires projecting from it, each cluster creating the leaves and petals of a unique flower, that Jacqueline wasn’t sure if the necklace was hanging from the woman or the other way around.

That can’t be Evena…can it? If it was, then it was the most extreme May-December marriage she’d heard of since the sixty-year age gap between Hugh Hefner and his third and final wife. Forty years between her and Vorace at least, she thought. Yuck.

Whoever the woman was, she’d effortlessly pulled the other guests, along with their conversation and attention, further into her orbit until everything in the library seemed to revolve around her. Not even Finn Boucher had escaped capture. Standing very close to her, he pointed at something on the waist-high crystal floor globe next to them, tilted his head towards hers, and whispered something in her ear. Whatever it was must have been hilarious, because she gave him an affectionate slap on the arm and laughed, the sound of it as clear and shimmeringly beautiful as the etched crystal sphere beside her.

By comparison, Jacqueline felt dull, frumpy, and colorless. “Who is that?” she whispered to Dane.

Dane’s face was visibly drawn. “That is Evena.” Inhaling deeply, he moved forward. “Come on. I’ll introduce you.”

As it turned out, introductions never materialized, because the moment Evena spotted Dane, her face lit up like a bonfire. “Dane?!?” she gasped, holding her glass out in front of her as if ready to launch into an impromptu toast. Finn sprang into action, taking the glass from her, at which point she picked up her skirt, closed the distance between herself and Dane, and with no pretense whatsoever, threw her arms around his neck. “You’re finally home! I can’t believe it!”

Dane looked like a man who had just caught a hot potato and didn’t know whether he should throw it to someone else or just let it burn his hands straight down to the bone. He stood stiffly, arms held away from his sides, as if reluctant to touch her. Jacqueline quickly side-stepped out of the way of the swarm of relatives bearing down on him, the men slapping him on the back or giving his hand a hearty shake, the women kissing him on the cheek and welcoming him home.

Watching the outpouring of affection, Jacqueline couldn’t help but recall what Dane had told Howard just a few minutes before: ‘God, she hasn’t changed at all! None of them have. Same old games.’ Which was odd, because from where she was standing, these were the actions of people motivated by affection, not subterfuge. If Dane had been referring to Evena and the rest of this brood, then they were not only master manipulators, but consummate actors on a scale she’d never witnessed before.

“Well, I don’t know about you,” said Finn, sidling up behind her to whisper in her ear, “but I’m beginning to feel like a third wheel.”

“You can say that again,” Jacqueline said, unable to tear her eyes away from Evena’s tearful, effusive, hands-on welcome and Dane’s response—tepid at first, and then more enthusiastic. “If you gave me a push right now, I’d probably roll away.” Right back up to my room, which I never should have left.

Finn laughed. “In that case, why don’t we roll you up to the archives and let these guys reminisce?”

“That sounds like an excellent plan.” Feeling less like a homecoming queen and more like a carriage that had turned back into a pumpkin, she followed Finn up the winding spiral staircase of the library to the second floor balcony, peering over the railing now and then to see how the reunion below was going.

Based on the way Dane and Evena were gazing into each other’s dewy eyes, it didn’t take a genius to conclude that they had some serious shared history. Whatever it was that had led to Dane’s banishment fifteen years ago, Jacqueline was beginning to suspect that it had involved Vorace Gyant’s young, beautiful wife.

Poor, dumb bastard. After a transgression like that, Jacqueline was shocked that Old Man Gyant had only banished Dane for fifteen years. He must be getting soft in his old age to welcome him back into the fold. After a pause, she thought, But maybe Vorace wasn’t the one who brought him back. Maybe it was her. After all, hadn’t Tilly said that Evena had taken control of the company after Vorace Gyant’s stroke had left him incapacitated? If Evena could pull off a coup like that with impunity, what was to stop her from summoning her banished lover back to her side?

Would you listen to yourself? she thought as Finn led her around the balcony, all the way to the library’s back wall. And you thought Gwynnen sounded like a conspiracy theorist! Pretty soon, she’d be needing a tin-foil hat of her very own.

The real problem, she suspected, was Evena Gyant or, rather, blond women in general. When it came to men, blond bombshells like Evena had been figuratively shoving her aside, upstaging her, and making her feel invisible forever. Not until taking a college psychology class had she learned that her paranoia wasn’t entirely in her head. According to multiple studies, an overwhelming majority of men consistently extolled blonds as approachable, coy, and naively seductive, while deriding redheads as overly direct, haughty, and sexually promiscuous.

Being presented with evidence that men regularly dismissed women who looked like her as brash, stuck-up, angry sluts hadn’t really boosted her self-confidence, but it wasn’t as if she hadn’t already absorbed the lesson through life experience. So, while her passive dismissal after the arrival of Evena had left her deflated, she was far from surprised.

So much for the you’re-going-to-be-very-popular-up-here theory, she thought, glaring at Finn’s back. She had to remind herself that avoiding a ginger-fetish jamboree was a good thing.

“You look amazing, by the way,” he said, stopping in front of a row of floor-to-ceiling walnut bookshelves.

“Thank you,” she said, blushing. “Howard picked out the dress.”

“I knew she’d find something for you. It’s perfect.” Shifting from one foot to the other, Finn cleared his throat, looking inexplicably nervous. “Have you ever been to Film on the Rocks?”

“I’ve heard of it. What is it again?”

“It’s the outdoor summer film series at Red Rocks down in Morrison. It’s only about an hour south of the valley.”

“Oh, of course. Duh.” Every Coloradoan knew about Red Rocks, the natural red-rock amphitheater in the Foothills outside of Denver that hosted festivals and concerts, mostly between May and September. While she’d been to many concerts there, she’d never attended Film on the Rocks, although she imagined that it would be like watching a movie under the stars with 9,000 of your closest friends. “What about it?”

Finn cleared his throat and swallowed heavily. “I, uh, I was wondering if you’d like to go. The series doesn’t start until May fifteenth, but I think they’re playing The Princess Bride.”

“Oh!” It had been so long since she’d been asked out on a date, she was genuinely shocked when she realized what had just happened. Marshaling all her mental resources, she managed to stammer out a response. “That sounds—I’d love to go.” She stopped. “Wait, am I allowed to go? I think my contract requires that I stay on the estate until the contract is over.”

Finn smiled broadly. “That’s true. Luckily, the estate manager has the ability to provide exemptions from time to time.”

“Oh, well, in that case…” she said, smiling. “How would we get there?” Under no circumstances would she be getting in the cage elevator to Coaching Inn—as in ever again. At the end of the summer, her plan was to descend the mountain on foot via the Beanstalk Trail. As for her luggage…well, maybe she’d fling it off the edge of Castle Peak, hope that it cleared the Fingers, and retrieve the scattered pieces at the bottom.

“A friend of mine has a house in the mountains near the amphitheater. We’ll fly there and drive to Red Rocks.”

By “fly,” she assumed that he meant “helicopter,” but who knew with these people? “That sounds fun.”

“Great! I’ll let you know the details once I sort everything out.” With a quick glance over the banister, he turned to the bookshelf. “See this?” he said, directing her attention to the blank spine of an ancient-looking book, one with a cloth hardcover that might once have been bright blue, but had faded over the years to a dull, ashy green.

“I see it.”

He placed a finger at the top of the spine and rotated the book towards them. Instead of tumbling off, it hung suspended from the edge of the shelf.

Leaning to one side, Jacqueline examined what little of the gilt-lettered title was still legible. “‘Garden of Delights.’” She looked up at him. “Please tell me this isn’t more assigned reading. Because I’m still choking my way through the Castle’s magnum opus on courtesy.”

Finn laughed. “No, nothing like that. This is the key to the archives.” He flipped open the cover to reveal the book’s hollowed-out innards, at the center of which was a brushed steel square encased in black plastic. “Put your thumb on that, and we’ll see if security managed to get their permissions right for once.”

She did as instructed. Right away, she could hear tumblers turning inside the wall. Before she could say, “What now?” a three-foot section of the bookcase swung open on whisper-quiet ball-bearing hinges. Jacqueline took a step back and grinned. “Okay, now that is cool.”

“Right?” he said, motioning her inside. “After you.”

Inside was a chilly, ten-foot-by-twelve-foot windowless room that smelled like dust and old books. Gray boxes were stacked to the ceiling on utilitarian gray metal shelving. In the corner was a small table and two chairs. “Charming,” she said.

“It’s not much to look at, I know,” he said, peering up at a column of boxes. “All the Castle photo albums are in these boxes over here, labeled by year. The photos are inside archival polyester sleeves, so don’t worry about touching the pages, but everything has to stay in here.” He turned in a circle, studying the shelves. “What else? Oh, yeah…” Crossing the room, he pulled a thick black binder partway off a shelf. “This is an inventory of everything in here. For the most part, photos taken outdoors anywhere on the estate—well, the ones that don’t have people in them, anyway—are in the green albums, and that includes the gardens, the grounds, and the lake. Family photos are in the blue albums, and pictures of the Castle are in the red ones.”

“Gotcha,” said Jacqueline. “Does it matter what—”

“There you are!” came a voice behind them. She and Finn turned to find Dane leaning around the open bookcase. “I thought I’d lost you,” he said to Jacqueline.

Nope! You just forgot that I existed. “Finn was just showing me how the archives are organized.”

“That’s basically it,” said Finn, sliding the binder back on the shelf. “Take the staff elevator to the second floor, and double back down the hall to the library’s side door—here, I’ll show you.”

“I’ll show her,” said Dane coldly, extending his upturned hand to her even as he leveled a stony stare on Finn.

What the…? Placing her hand on Dane’s, her gaze flitted between the two men, trying to read what had quickly become a tense situation.

Finn shrugged, feigning disinterest. “Suit yourself. I’ll lock up here.”

“Watch your step,” said Dane, still eyeing Finn. Jacqueline opened her mouth, ready to tell him just how out of line he was, when he lifted his chin at the two-foot-thick door frame connecting the archives to the library. “I just noticed a couple of nails sticking out by the floor,” he said, turning to Jacqueline. “I didn’t want you to snag your dress on them.”

“Oh. Okay, thanks,” she said, holding her skirt away from the door frame as she ducked through the opening.

Releasing her hand, Dane leaned back into the archives. “How about finding someone to clip those,” he told Finn, “before they become a problem?”

There were definitely two rusty, exposed nails in the door frame near the floor—Jacqueline could see them for herself—but judging by Finn’s face, which had turned a deep red that rivaled the blossoms of a Bordeaux anemone, there was a subtext to their exchange that had nothing to do with metal fasteners.

“I’ll get right on it,” Finn said evenly.

“I appreciate it,” said Dane. “We’ll see you at dinner.”

With a snort of contempt that left Jacqueline feeling very uneasy, Finn replied, “Oh, I’ll surely see you before then. I’m everywhere.”



Chapter Fourteen

“What was that all about?” she asked Dane, once they’d put a fair bit of distance between themselves and the archives.
 
“Hmm? Oh, sorry to whisk you away, but I thought you’d want to meet your beloved, generous patroness before we go into dinner.”
 
Hey, she’s your beloved, she thought, not mine. Still, he obviously had no idea what she was talking about, leaving her to suspect that she was imagining the hostility between the two men.

One thing she wasn’t imagining, though, was the utterly bizarre way that the Gyants behaved around her, the men in particular. As Dane handed her down the library’s treacherous spiral staircase, the gawking at her began afresh. “By the by,” she said in an undertone, “do you not have any redheads in your family or something?”

“I can’t think of any off the top of my head, but then I haven’t really been around for the last decade and a half. Why do you ask?”

“Because everywhere I go around here, someone’s staring at me like I’m the last member of an endangered species.”

“Oh. Yeah, I probably should’ve mentioned something about that before,” he said, looking sheepish. “She wasn’t part of our family, necessarily, but there is one redhead in particular that you happen to be the spitting image of.”

“Great,” she said, scanning the room. “Is she here? It’s always nice to commiserate on your freckly lot in life with one of your people.”

“Uh, I highly doubt it,” he said, a mischievous glint in his eyes. “Unfortunately, no one has seen her in years.”

Jacqueline was about to follow up with, “Because your family had her killed?” but they were nearing Evena Gyant’s hallowed presence.

“Waverly Gyant-Warrington,” said Dane, “may I present Jacqueline Guise, our landscape designer for the pleasance?”

Clutching the folds of her shawl, Waverly gave her a curt nod. “How do you do? And please, call me ‘Evena.’”

The request struck Jacqueline as odd. To a casual listener, it might have sounded as if Waverly was permitting Jacqueline to address her more casually. But if “Evena” was truly a title equivalent to “Mrs.”, then calling her anything besides “Waverly” was by definition less casual—like the queen of England being introduced as “Elizabeth Windsor,” only for the queen to tell Jacqueline, “Lovely to meet you. You can call me ‘Your Majesty.’”

It was surely meant to be a slight, and Dane’s soft sigh and disapproving shake of the head only confirmed her hunch.

Evena reached out and took up a section of Jacqueline’s hair. “Well!” she said with breathless enthusiasm. “I was going to ask your son if his father was the one with red hair, but you’re the embodiment of the answer, aren’t you?”

Jacqueline pulled away, her bronze-gold locks slipping right through Evena’s fingers. “Please don’t,” she said, her tone polite but firm. Having spent a majority of her childhood as a military brat in countries where red hair was a rarity, she’d had to contend with locals pawing her hair without so much as a “by your leave.” With the danger of sparking an international incident now off the table, she sure as hell wasn’t going to put up with some American trophy wife going over her like she was an Irish setter at a dog show.

After an awkward pause, Evena forced a smile. “Your son is such a lovely boy. Alex adores him already.”

“I’m glad,” she said, returning the smile, although she couldn’t help but wonder how it was that Evena had seen Jack so soon after her supposedly recent arrival. And who was this Alex kid to Evena that she would single him out? “It will be nice for him to have a friend here.” Okay, I’m fresh out of small talk. “I was wondering when we might sit down and discuss the pleasance project. Finn showed me the archives, but I’m sure you have plenty of ideas of your own, and once I’ve seen the site, I can—”

“Oh, let’s not mix business with pleasure,” said Evena, dismissing Jacqueline with a wave of her hand. “Dane is overseeing all the gardeners for me, aren’t you, Dane? I’m sure he’ll fill you in on all the boring details.”

Jacqueline wanted to punch Evena in the throat, or at the very least, to correct her with a friendly, “I’m not yer freakin’ gardener, beeyatch.”

“‘Guise,’” said Evena, abruptly changing tacks. “What an interesting surname. Is it Scottish? French, maybe?”

Jacqueline was caught off guard by the sudden change in topic. “My name? Uh, well, my father once told me that it came from the German word ‘giessen,’ which means ‘to water.’ There’s also a town by that name in Germany.” She shrugged. “Who knows?”

“Your father?” said Evena, confused. “‘Guise’ isn’t your husband’s last name?”

Jacqueline stiffened before answering with a curt, “No.” Jesus, what the hell is this? She thought about asking Evena if she’d ever read Customs, Conventions, and Courtesies of the Castle. Maybe Jacqueline could loan Evena her copy.

Evena shifted her inquiry. “Is that where your family is from originally, then? Germany?”

Here we go, she thought with a mental sigh. “Sort of. My mother’s and my father’s families are both from Brazil.”

Given the Gyant family’s wealth and their globe-hopping tendencies, there was a better-than-even chance that they were cosmopolitan enough to understand how Jacqueline’s Brazilian ancestors had spawned descendants that included a pale, bespeckled redhead, but just in case, she figured she’d better explain. “My five-times-great-grandparents emigrated to Brazil from Germany in 1825. My parents both came to the U.S. as kids. My grandparents speak Portuguese, English, and a German dialect called Riograndeser Hunsrückisch, my parents speak English and a little Portuguese, but I only speak English.” There. That about covers it.

“That’s quite a story,” said Evena.

Jacqueline nodded, but couldn’t help but notice Evena’s emphasis on the word ‘story.’ What was she implying—that she’d made up her family’s history?

“Like Gisele,” said Finn, who had rejoined them, sipping something clear and on the rocks from a glass tumbler. Every head turned his way. “You know: Gisele Bündchen, the Brazilian supermodel? Married to Tom Brady, the Patriots quarterback?”

“Yes, just like Gisele,” Jacqueline said with an explosive laugh. “Except the supermodel part. And the hot quarterback husband. And the blond hair. And the killer body. And the ‘Hottest Women of the 21st Century’ listing in GQ Magazine. Other than that, we could be twins, Gisele and I.”

“I think he meant the ‘German Brazilian’ part,” said Dane. “And for the record, I’d buy that magazine issue if you were in it.”

Jacqueline froze, her eyes involuntarily flitting to Evena, who looked supremely unhappy with the turn the conversation had taken.

“Hear, hear,” said Finn with a jaunty wink for Jacqueline that left her blushing. “I’ll drink to that.”

“I’ll second that motion,” said a man standing just outside their circle. It was the same man she’d made eye contact with in the library after Dane had run off. “Or would I have to ‘third’ it? And can you ‘third’ a motion? That’s the real crux of the matter, I believe.”

Rolling his eyes, Dane said, “Jacqueline Guise, this is Nolan Gyant, bloviating attorney.”

Nolan Gyant all but elbowed Finn and Dane aside. “How do you do?” he said, taking her hand in his cold, clammy one and giving it a squeeze.

“Nice to meet you, Nolan,” said Jacqueline, resisting the urge to wipe her hand off on Dane’s suit jacket.

“Has anyone told you,” said Nolan, “about ‘Rowin’ Mick Debereux’ and the—”

Okay, that’s enough,” said Dane, scowling at Nolan. “I think we’re all showing our age here, aren’t we?”

“I’d say so,” said Evena with a frown.

Jacqueline agreed that the men, at least, were being very childish. Still, this was the second time she’d heard someone mention this “Mick Debereux” fellow in relation to her, although the detail about him being a rowing enthusiast was new.

Before Nolan could press his point or Jacqueline could follow-up, though, Howard slipped into the library from an adjoining room and advanced towards them. Stopping short of their circle, she announced to the room in general, “Ladies and gentlemen, the dinner is served.” She proceeded back to the double doors and threw them open.

“That’s our cue,” said Dane, offering her his arm, which struck Jacqueline as a little much—after all, they were only walking forty feet or so—until she saw everyone else in the library pairing off, including Nolan and Evena, who led the two-by-two procession out of the library.

Jacqueline’s first impression of the dining room was that it was going to be a challenge to get through the meal without one or more persons catching on fire.

There were four gargantuan silver candle holders spaced evenly down the center of the table, each one with half a dozen branches holding long white tapers. Two massive, tiered, crystal candelabra chandeliers were suspended over the table from the twenty-foot ceiling. Even more candles illuminated the sideboards, buffets, and servers around the perimeter of the room, and all the candlelight was bounced back at the diners by the large gilded mirrors on the walls.

Hopefully, she thought, glancing up at the chandeliers, there are no plans to flambé anything at the table.

Once she’d made her peace with the flammability factor, she was in a better mental state to appreciate the rest of the decor. With its green walls, dark red marble columns, and the rich red upholstery of the gilt-legged Louis XV chairs, the room could easily have been inspired by the serrated citron-colored leaves and striking maroon veining of the pineapple coleus plant.

Dane steered Jacqueline towards a seat near the bottom of the table. She was perfectly fine with that since it put the entire length of the table between herself and Evena. Once seated, she noticed her name at the top of a rather tall place card leaning against her water glass. It also doubled as a menu, she saw, listing no less than ten courses. That explains all the silverware and glasses. By her count, each setting contained five forks, four knives, three spoons, two glasses for white wine, two champagne flutes, one glass for red wine, a water glass, and three additional mystery glasses.

One thing was for sure: they were all going to be as drunk as boiled owls before the night was over.

“What are you doing?” she asked Dane. His assigned seat was to her left, but he’d remained standing, hands on his chair back, watching as people found their assigned seats.

“Waiting,” he said.

“For a fire extinguisher?” she wanted to say. Instead, she looked around to find that all the men were still standing, each behind their respective chairs. Only when the last woman had seated herself did they move as a unit, unbuttoning their suit coats to do likewise. Huh. Well, that’s kind of nice. With any luck, their three-month stay would be long enough for Jack to absorb a little etiquette, but brief enough to deflect the Gyant family’s questionable ethics.

She noticed Nolan Gyant’s place at the bottom of the table, opposite Evena. She assumed there was some sort of family hierarchy at work, but out of all the Gyant men present, what made Nolan the guy to take the place of the absent Vorace Gyant? Head down, mouth closed, she decided, recalling Dane’s lecture on the perils of delving too deeply into family relationships. Instead, she spread her napkin over her lap and turned her attention to the menu.

Her perusal was cut short by the arrival of two servers. Lowering their large trays onto collapsible stands at the far end of the room, they served the first course under Howard’s watchful eye, each taking a side and working their way up the table. Howard followed in their wake to pour—according to the menu—the Tattinger Brut ‘La Francaise’ into one of the two champagne flutes.

“You haven’t eaten all day,” said Dane, taking up the tiny mother-of-pearl spoon with engraved silver handle that had been delivered with the panna cotta—because none of the three spoons already on the table would do, she supposed. He scooped up the creamy, gelatinous suspension along with a bit of the glossy black caviar. “You must be starving.”

Jacqueline glanced at what she estimated was about two tablespoons of panna cotta and a scant teaspoon of caviar, and compared it to the generous amount of champagne in her glass. “A little,” she admitted. “But I’m more worried about the food-to-alcohol ratio here.”

“Don’t feel obligated to drink it all,” he said. “Hardly anyone does.”

That seemed like a whole lot of wasted wine, but she supposed they couldn’t really pour less and donate what was left in the bottle to a food pantry. “How long is this going to take?” She was anxious to see Jack before she went to bed, maybe even meet his tutor and give her a heads-up on the lazy, homework-shirking parts of his character.

Dane gave the menu a cursory glance. “About one-and-a-half, maybe two hours. Why? Do you have somewhere you need to be?”

“I’d like to spend some time with my son. You know him, don’t you? Tall, red hair, freckles? I’d also love it if someone would show me how to get from the fourth floor of the Maiden Tower to whatever floor Jack is on in the Water Tower.”

“The fifth floor. I’d be happy to show you, but I’d recommend waiting until morning.”

“Why?”

“By the time we’re done here, they’ll be watching a movie. At least, I think that was the plan.”

“So?” she said, stabbing the milky, mucilaginous concoction with her spoon. “Tearing his eyeballs away from a TV screen for five minutes won’t hurt him.”

“I’m sure it won’t, but I believe they’ll be in the theater watching the latest Avengers film, not in the Water Tower TV room.”

“The theater,” she said slowly. “Like, a movie theater?” Of course they’d have an entire movie theater in their house.

Reaching for his champagne glass, Dane nodded. “I doubt he’ll thank you for stumbling around in the dark shouting his name—or dragging him out in front of thirty other kids, for that matter—but then again, I’m not a parent. No doubt you know best.”

“Fine, she said sourly. “I’ll wait until morning. But I’m calling him tonight, and I want to see him first thing.” Silently fuming, she scooped up every last sturgeon fish egg atop the panna cotta, stuffed it into her mouth, and pretended that the miniature explosions of fishy saline on her tongue were the last handful of Dane Gyant’s brain cells.

“All right, friends and family!” Evena called from the head of the table. “The topics for this evening are as follows: ‘Childish Things,’ in which you describe something you wildly misunderstood as a child that you find hilarious now; ‘Olympic Gamer,’ in which you explain a hobby or talent that you would medal in if it were an Olympic sport; and finally, ‘I Might Be Dead,’ in which you tell us whether or not you’d be alive today without modern medicine.”

“What’s this?” Jacqueline whispered to Dane. If there was one thing she hated, it was public speaking. If there were two things she hated, they were public speaking and baring her soul in front of nineteen strangers.

This is the Gyant family’s idea of fun,” said Dane, throwing back his last swallow of champagne. “Luckily, most of the people here are too self-absorbed to pay attention to what anyone has to say besides themselves.”

Jacqueline leaned against her seat back as the wait staff came through to clear the appetizer plates and champagne flutes, and replace them with bowls of lobster bisque and white wine. She was a little alarmed at the sight of a fully cooked crayfish wearing a skirt of rosemary sprigs rising from the bisque like a cross-dressing swamp monster, but once she’d plucked the little guy out and discarded him on her bread plate, she was able to dig into the soup with gusto.

“Dane,” Evena called out over the seven place settings that separated them. “You’ll start us off.” She shifted her attention to Jacqueline. “Jacqueline, you’re next.” To the group as a whole, she added, “We’ll work our way up to the head of the table, and then back down, one couple per course.” She nodded at Nolan and the woman sitting directly across from Dane. “Since we’ve already had the amuse-bouche, Lacy and Nolan will close us out with coffee in the library.”

Dane shifted uncomfortably in his chair. “Something I misunderstood as a child that I find funny now…” He gave the back of his neck a good rub and sighed. “I thought that adults could read my mind, and that once I turned eighteen, I’d be able to do it, too. Turns out I was just a really predictable kid.”

Jacqueline couldn’t help but smile. Given the frequency with which she told Jack “…and remember that I rarely, if ever, ask you a question that I don’t already know the answer to,” she wouldn’t be surprised if he believed the same thing about her.

“A hobby I’d medal in if it were an Olympic sport,” said Dane, folding his arms over his chest. “Are we allowed to choose something that actually is an Olympic sport?”

“I knew he was going to say ‘archery,’” Finn grumbled, loud enough for everyone to hear.

Dane frowned at him. “It’s not my fault that I’m a better archer than you.”

“Fine,” said Finn. “My second choice was fencing anyway.”

A great deal of playful banter followed as people argued over whether or not choosing an actual Olympic sport violated the rules or just the spirit of the game, but Jacqueline heard none of it. She was far too busy imagining Finn and Dane facing off on a fencing strip, or side by side, bow strings in-hand, their attention laser-focused on the same target.

Yeah, I’d pay to see that, she thought, especially if they dispensed with the fencing face guards. Living out the fantasy wasn’t much use if she couldn’t see their faces.

“What was the third topic again?” said Dane.

“‘I Might Be Dead,’” said Evena.

“Isn’t there a—there must be a more suitable topic for the dinner table. I vote that we change it.”

“Overruled,” said Evena with a playful smile that left Dane looking dazed.

Giving his head a shake, he looked away and said, “Well, if we ignore polio, whooping cough, and all the other things that would’ve killed most of us if we hadn’t been vaccinated, then it was probably when I broke my arm falling off the top of the Coaching Inn greenhouse when I was eight.” He extended his right arm and traced a long line on his suit coat from his elbow to his wrist. “Open fracture of the radius and ulna. Twenty stitches. Given the amount of dirt and grass they dug out of it, I don’t see how it wouldn’t have become gangrenous without antibiotics.” He peered up the table at Evena and smirked. “Think about that while you’re enjoying your lobster bisque.”

The comment prompted several people to wrinkle their noses and lay down their soup spoons, but Evena was undeterred. “Jacqueline? You’re next. Something you misunderstood as a child that you find funny now.”

Jacqueline winced. “Honestly, I’m not sure this is going to be an improvement on gangrene, but I thought that the parking-space handicap logo was a man on a toilet, and that those spaces were reserved for people who had to use the bathroom really bad.”

Her revelation brought the house down. While Dane didn’t laugh—she was beginning to wonder if he was physically capable of doing so—he fought hard against a smile.

Jacqueline sighed. “As far as the ‘death before modern medicine’ thing…I was a pretty healthy child—as far back as I can remember, at least.” She shifted in her chair. “Uh, but I became sick this February: fever, chills, hallucinations, a headache like someone was taking a hammer to my skull. My doctor assumed that my flu shot didn’t work and prescribed an antiviral. It worked at first—the next day I was fine—but the day after that the symptoms started up all over again.

“Unfortunately, I had no idea that I’d contracted malaria during a trip to Brazil when I was three years old, but even if I had known, I doubt I would have thought to mention it to the doctors because I’d never heard of something called ‘recurrent malaria.’ Essentially, the malaria parasites were lounging around in my liver for thirty years, totally dormant.” She shrugged. “Until they weren’t.”

There were gasps from every corner of the table. “Good God,” Nolan mumbled, shocked.

Jacqueline’s hand went reflexively to her neck, the way it always did when she discussed her ordeal. “It took a chance encounter with an ER doctor who’d grown up in the tropics before I received a proper diagnosis, but by then, the damage to my spleen, liver and kidneys had been done. My spleen was a lost cause—luckily, you can live without one—but I was in the hospital for three weeks on dialysis, and I couldn’t work for three months.” Under her breath, she added, “Still not supposed to be working, actually, but whatever.”

Dane stared at her, looking utterly, absolutely aghast.

With a defensive scowl, she muttered, “Hey, I didn’t choose the topic. What was I supposed to do? Say ‘I’ll pass’?”

“I’m not sure anyone here will be able to trump that,” said Evena after a long, drawn-out pause. Jacqueline couldn’t help but notice that even Evena looked a little queasy. “Maybe we’ll drop that topic after all. What about your Olympic sport?”

“My Olympic sport…” Hoping to draw Dane out of his shock, she leaned toward him and murmured, “Definitely not gardening, am I right?” but he only blinked, nodded, and stared at the table. She straightened, leaving him to battle his demons. “Uh, I’m pretty handy at solving crossword puzzles, I guess—any kind of word game, really.”

“Is that right?” said Nolan. “I’m a bit of a cruciverbalist myself, although I’m still not confident enough to tackle the New York Times with a pen. What about you?”

“Oh, pen, definitely,” she said.

“Even the Sunday puzzle?”

“Even that,” she said, smiling.

“Impressive.”

No one seemed to have any appetite for their creature-from-the-bisque-lagoon after that, so Evena signaled for Howard to clear the course and bring in the Alaskan sablefish, baby bok choy, and chenin blanc.

After downing a glass of white wine to give her some courage, she leaned in close to Dane and said, “I have a fourth topic for you.”

He cocked an eyebrow at her. “I doubt Evena’s taking requests.”

Just for you,” she said. “‘Hidden Motives,’ in which you describe, in as much detail as possible, what in the world I’m really doing up here.”



Chapter Fifteen

Dane shot her a sardonic look. “If I were to tell you that all the details are in your contract, would you just end up stabbing me with your butter knife?”
 
“That’s not what I meant.”
 
“Well, then you’ll have to explain, because I’m lost.”

“Whose idea was it to hire me for this job? Because it wasn’t Evena—that much is obvious.”

“And you assume that because…?”

Jacqueline almost rolled her eyes at him. “Please. You went on and on about how your family would retaliate against me if I didn’t take this job, but as far as I can tell, not a single person up here appears to care about this project one way or the other.”

I do,” he told the scarlet, aquatic Gila monster still partially submerged in his bowl of bisque. “It wasn’t my idea, and I was opposed to it at first, but I care.”

“Okay, but you were just the messenger, weren’t you? So whose idea was it to hire me?”

He looked up from his bowl and met her eyes. “Why is it so important for you to know?”

“Well, for one thing, I need to talk to them, whoever they are. Because if I don’t get a little bit of guidance on this project, then they’re probably going to hate what they end up with.”

He lifted his eyes to the head of the table, where Evena and Finn sat with their heads together, studying Dane and Jacqueline with intense interest. Dane leaned towards Jacqueline and said in an undertone, “No one asked for you specifically, but Vorace Gyant asked for the Stalk, okay? Now let’s change the subject.” He straightened and in a normal voice, said, “I have some ideas, but it’ll be easier if I explain tomorrow while we’re standing in the pleasance.”

“Suit yourself,” she said, more confused than ever. If Vorace Gyant’s stroke had left him incapacitated—which is what Tilly had implied—how was the old man in any condition to micromanage the Castle’s fresh flower supply, never mind the overhaul of the walled garden at one of his many estates across the world? And if he was on the road to recovery, then surely he’d be far too busy helming Gyant Agritech and decimating the world’s food supply to meddle in such trivial matters, right? She had about a million more questions, but she supposed that they’d have to wait until tomorrow.

With the “I Might Be Dead” category eliminated from the lineup, the remainder of the meal passed uneventfully, but Dane remained pensive and quiet. The few times he did speak to her, it was only to reassure her that no hedgehogs were harmed in the making of “truffled chicken with hedgehogs”—the hedgehogs in question being the name for the spiny mushrooms in the dish—or to ask her if the Kobe beef was to her liking.

Jacqueline enjoyed the blue cheese and sherry course, and the heavenly green apple mousse with sour-cream ice cream that followed, but in her mind, the true gastronomic revelation came in the form of the spiced, dark-chocolate creme brulée and port pairing. It was so delicious, she debated whether or not it would be appropriate to ask Dane for his untouched portion.

Unfortunately, she never had the chance. Without warning, Evena stood. The men, including Dane, stopped what they were doing and scrambled to their feet. Panicked, Jacqueline struggled to stand up, only to find that one of the chair legs had her skirt pinned to the floor. “What’s wrong?” she asked Dane. “What happened? Is there a fire?”

“What?” he said, startled, eyes darting around the room. When he turned back to her, he was furious. Leaning over her, he hissed, “Why the hell would you say something like that?”

Taken aback, Jacqueline’s face grew hot. “Sorry! I wasn’t sure—everyone jumped up, and I thought…” Feeling supremely stupid, she muttered, “Forget it.”

His expression quickly changed from angry to unsettled. “Nothing’s wrong,” he said more kindly. “Dinner’s over, that’s all.”

Still burning with embarrassment, all Jacqueline could manage was a subdued, “Oh.”

He stepped around her chair, watching her trying to jerk it backwards while still in it. “Need some help there?”

“I’ve got it,” she said as the fabric finally pulled free. With his help, she was able to stand up in time for the assembled company to reverse their earlier migration, returning two-by-two to the library for coffee. Despite everyone else in the library standing, Dane insisted that she sit, settling her into an armchair by the roaring fire with a cup of coffee before leaving to get one for himself. Frankly, she was glad for a few minutes alone to nurse her wounded pride. Once she was fairly certain she wasn’t going to die of humiliation, she spent a few moments appreciating the library’s architecture and decor.

The interior designers appeared to have taken their thematic cue from the forest-green marble making up the elaborately carved fireplace surround and the columns supporting the second-floor balcony, as the furniture was all upholstered in varying shades of the same green. Two forest green leather sofas faced off over a round ottoman the shade of an uncooked artichoke, and the chairs around the square table in the far corner were upholstered in alternating moss green and honeycomb stripes.

She would have been content to spend the rest of the evening sipping coffee and enjoying the gentle buzz from the alcohol-heavy dinner. Alas, Evena Gyant felt it necessary to invade her peace and quiet. “Dormant malaria,” she said, gliding up to Jacqueline, coffee cup in hand. “That was quite a story. Was it true?”

Jacqueline blinked. “Of course it was true. Why would I make up something like that?”

“Why, indeed?” said Evena, a vague response that left Jacqueline wondering what was being left unsaid.

“What are we talking about?” said Dane, returning with his coffee along with Lacy and Nolan Gyant. Finn and another man were also heading straight for her.

Having no further desire to discuss malaria, Jacqueline decided a change of subject was in order. “I was just admiring the marble,” she said, running her fingers over the vines of dark green stone that twisted and coiled their way up the side of the fireplace surround. “It looks so real.”

“Isn’t it beautiful?” said Evena. She stepped forward and, like a professional tour guide, focused their attention on one area of the carved marble. “This section of vines is identical to the Géant Seed Company logo from the mid-1800s. After Gormán Géant made his fortune in gypsum fertilizer, he commissioned these pieces—the fireplace surround and the library columns. They were quarried in the Greek state of Thessaly, hand-carved in Athens, and brought all the way here to the Castle in 1890.”

She spoke, Jacqueline thought, like she’d quarried, carved, and carried the marble slabs all the way to Colorado herself. It wasn’t your ancestor who did any of that, she thought peevishly. You only married into the family.

“In his journal,” said Evena, “Gormán made it very clear that the green marble he’d chosen symbolized his new-found wealth as well as the success of his growing agriculture company. As far as symbols go, I think they’ve stood the test of time, don’t you?”

Jacqueline didn’t mean to, but the idea was so absurd that she snort-laughed. She could almost hear the screeching sound of a needle sliding across a vinyl record as every head turned her way. Uh-oh.

“You disagree?” said Evena, looking none too pleased.

“Uh, yes—well, I mean, not about the wealth part, maybe,” Jacqueline stammered, “but as a symbol for an agriculture company, it was a terrible choice.”

“Why do you say that?” said Dane. Unlike Evena, who was clearly not accustomed to being contradicted, he seemed genuinely curious.

You just won’t be taught, will you? “Uh, so the actual name for this kind of green marble is ‘serpentine marble.’ A few of the houses in the Minors have it, too.”

“And that makes you an expert in symbology?” Evena snapped.

“No, but the same minerals that give serpentine marble that green color—nickel, chromium, and cobalt, to be specific—are toxic to most plants. One of the ways to find serpentine marble is to look for sudden stretches of bare soil in the middle of what is an otherwise thickly forested area. They’re called ‘serpentine barrens’ because no matter what you try to plant in the soil there—aside from a few slow-growing, shrubby conifers— it’ll just die.”

There were a few beats of silence, followed by Finnegan’s sputtering laughter. Lacy’s wide eyes darted nervously back and forth between Jacqueline and Evena, but Nolan and the mystery man quickly joined Finn, adding their guffaws to his raucous laughter. Dane was gazing at Jacqueline with a kind of grudging respect, but Evena, well, she was not. Had Jacqueline been Tilly, she might have observed that Evena was “spittin’ like a goose shittin’ at midnight.”

Evena pointedly turned away from Jacqueline, clapped her hands, and announced to the room, “Lacy and Nolan are going to finish up our game, and then I’m sorry to say that it’s time to say ‘goodnight.’ Lacy? Nolan? Which of you would like to go first?”

Jacqueline shrank into her chair. I must be a little drunker than I thought. She listened to Lacy and Nolan explain their Childish Things and Olympic competitions of choice, but the only thing she could think about was getting the hell out of the library before she swallowed her foot again.

Dane must have been reading her mind, because the moment Nolan was finished speaking, he caught her eye and looked pointedly at the exit. Jacqueline nodded. Ditching her coffee cup on a nearby table, she let Dane help her to her feet and said goodnight to the people closest to her. Thankfully, that didn’t include Evena, who had crossed the room to unleash her charms on a different assortment of people. Sadly, Finn had followed Evena. Jacqueline tried to catch his eye as she left, to no avail.

It’s probably for the best, she thought. After her long convalescence, her alcohol tolerance was at an all-time low. And when she was tipsy, she tended to let down her guard and overshare. Well, we’re going to have to talk sooner or later if we’re going to go to Film on the Rocks. She’d just have to wait for Finn to find her.

Instead of retracing their steps back to the great hall, they left through a door near the back. Jacqueline didn’t realize that she was in the same hallway she’d skulked through earlier that evening until they were standing in the lobby next to the gold elevator.

The next few moments passed in silence, both of them staring at the LED panel displaying the elevator’s progress from one floor to the next.

“A penny for your thoughts,” he said awkwardly.

It was such a breezy departure from the stiff reserve he’d demonstrated so far, Jacqueline almost laughed. I bet the words ‘a penny for your thoughts’ have never passed his lips before. “You know, I can’t understand why we’re still only paying a penny for thoughts. It seems like the only commodity not subject to inflation.” With that, she held out her hand, palm up.

Dane stared at her hand. “If you’re trying to get me to play ‘gimme five, up high, down low,’ I think it’s only fair to warn you that this is the sport my brother would have medaled in, and he taught me well.”

Aha! A brother! She was beginning to suspect that he’d had too much to drink at dinner, too, if he was willing to dish about his family. “You asked me for my thoughts,” she said, “so I gave you my thoughts on the depressed thought market. If you want additional thoughts, that’ll cost you extra, but by my calculations you already owe me about a gazillion dollars.”

“Fine,” he said with a snort as the elevator chimed its arrival. “Keep your secrets, Mick Debereux. I’ve always been partial to freckles anyway.”

Jacqueline narrowed her eyes at him, trying to decide if he was about to have another mental breakdown. Nah. Just a little drunk, like you.

“Are you going to get on?” he said, holding the elevator door open with his hand.

“What secrets? And who the hell is ‘Mick,’ anyway?” She wasn’t even sure how either of those things related to freckles, so she set that aside for another time.

Dane gave her a quizzical look. “Who?”

“Mick,” she said. “Mick Debereux—‘Rowin’ Mick Debereux,’ Nolan called him. I don’t know if the guy’s into boat-rowing or what, but I’m definitely not, which is why I can’t figure out why you and Nolan and the gauntlet of people we ran in the great hall keep muttering his name at me.”

For the first time since they’d met, Dane smiled. That’s not a smile, she thought, that’s a full-fledged grin right there. He might’ve even chuckled a time or two, but she couldn’t be certain, so shocked was she to see so many of his teeth all at once. And then there was the matter of it being the most devilishly sexy smile she’d ever seen in her life. Yeah, he’s definitely drunk.

“‘Rowin’ Mick Debereux,’” he said, still grinning. “That…that is priceless.”

“Well, I’m glad you find it amusing.” She stomped onto the elevator, glad to look at something besides his smiling, sexy face. “Who is he?”

She is Rowan McDappleroy,” he said, enunciating the syllables. “She’s a character in a series of children’s books of the same name that was written in the 1800s. Everyone who grew up at the Castle has either read it or had it read to them—well, almost everyone.”

“Oh.” She moved as far to one side of the car as she could, giving her embarrassment plenty of room to settle in beside her.

“The books had some really fantastic illustrations in them,” he said. “That redhead I told you that you were the spitting image of? That’s Rowan.”

“But you told me I looked like a woman no one had seen in years.”

“The books disappeared years ago,” he said, as the elevator began to move, “which is why the teenagers this morning didn’t give you a second look, but everyone twenty years and older has been staring at you. Sorry about that, by the way. It’s silly and rude. I’ll see what I can do to stop it.”

Suddenly, Jacqueline had an epiphany. “Wait a minute!” she said with a gasp. “The first time I met you…was that why you looked like you’d been struck by lightning?”

Dane visibly flushed. “Not my finest moment, I’ll admit. But imagine your reaction if you were walking along one day, minding your own business, and you ran into, I don’t know, Amelia Bedelia or Pippi Longstocking.”

Jacqueline scowled, remembering all the times as a child that kids had mockingly called her ‘Pippi.’ “Pippi and I are not on good terms,” she said. “Never mention her name again.”

“Noted. But for the record,” he said with what looked to her like a lascivious smirk, “Rowan McDappleroy did not look like Pippi Longstocking.” His smile faded. “And speaking of the first time I met you, why didn’t you say before that you’d been hospitalized and were still recovering?”

“Uh, because I don’t normally regale strangers with tales of my malarial adventures?” she said, as the elevator doors slid open. “Not unless forced to do so at fancy dinner parties, anyway. And not to be rude, but everyone who needed to know about it—well, they already knew.”

“Did you mean what you said in the dining room? Are you still not supposed to be working?”

Jacqueline disembarked. “My doctor still hasn’t formally cleared me if that’s what you mean.”

“Would he put that in writing if you asked?” he said, falling in step beside her.

“I suppose so. Why?”

“I really wish you had said something before. It wouldn’t have prevented Gwynnen and Tilly from being pressed into service, but I think you would have been exempted.”

Jacqueline froze. All the opportunities she’d had to tell him, and she hadn’t. Why? Her stupid pride. She spent about a half-second in the throes of self-flagellation before reminding herself why leaving now would be a terrible idea: You’d have to fork over your advance, which you can’t do since you’ve already used it to pay bills. She had no choice now but to see the project through to the end. Or at least until you do eighteen thousand dollars’ worth of work.

“Now, I know how much you love a one-hundred-percent guarantee,” he said, “and while I can’t give you that, I might be able to use this as a reason to void your contract.”

Jacqueline was stunned. “Wait, what?”

“Finn’s an estate manager before anything else. He won’t have the final say, of course, but I know he’d advise against knowingly taking on that kind of liability, even if it went against what the family or Evena wanted.”

“It’s okay,” she rushed to say. “You really don’t have to do that. Really.” By virtue of her being one of many people contracted at the Stalk, Jacqueline had evaded Vorace Gyant’s notice thus far. The last thing she needed was for Dane and Finn to mention her name to the old man while pleading her case.

Dane seemed surprised by her lack of enthusiasm for his offer, but thankfully, he changed the subject. “Just so you know, Tilly never breathed a word to me about you being sick, let alone you not being well enough to return to work. If she had, I would never have blindsided you at your house that day.” All of a sudden his head jerked back on his shoulders and he blinked in rapid succession, as if something else had just occurred to him. “Wait, is that why you were so exhausted today?”

“The fatigue,” she said with a shrug. “It’s still pretty much a constant thing, but don’t worry: once I woke up from my accidental four-hour nap, I felt right as rain.”

His frown deepened. “Yes, the fact that you collapsed from exhaustion the moment you got to your room really soothes my conscience. I’m surprised that Tilly would be okay with you taking the contract, though, if she knew you weren’t well enough to return to work.”

“Why would you think Tilly would care about that? I told you, I don’t work for her, I just rent space at the Stalk.”

He gave her an incredulous look. “Are you kidding me? When I first met her, I thought she was your mother, what with the way she talked about you.”

Jacqueline couldn’t tell if Dane was joking or not. “Tilly’s just a busybody, mother-hen type. She makes it her business to be up in your business, you know?”

“She didn’t seem to show the same level of concern for Gwynnen,” he said.

Jacqueline turned the corner by the trompe l’oeil elevator without responding, and quickened her pace.

Behind her, Dane gave a snort of disbelief. “Wait a minute, I get it now,” he said, jogging to catch up with her. “You didn’t tell her you weren’t ready to come back to work, did you?” One look at Jacqueline’s face was all he needed to see. “But why? I don’t get it.”

Jacqueline stopped, forcing him to do likewise. “Are you always this nosy? I needed the money, okay? I needed the money, and I knew if I told her the truth, she wouldn’t let me come back. Are you happy now? God!” She felt like stomping her foot. Maybe I should stomp his foot.

“You lied to your boss—”

“She’s not—”

“—yes, I know she’s not really your boss—so you could go back to work before your doctor cleared you because you needed the money. You did this voluntarily, and yet you repeatedly turned down a lucrative contract to work up here? Why?”

With a groan of frustration, she continued down the corridor, doubling her step. Even jogging backwards, Dane was able to keep pace with her in her high heels. “Fine,” he said, his eyes dancing, “but you should know that keeping secrets gives you freckles.”

Jacqueline shot him an incredulous look. “What are you, a dermatologist?”

“Nope, just a believer in the magic of children’s literature. Every Rowan McDappleroy story began with the same poem. Want to hear it?”

Reaching the door to her suite at last, Jacqueline placed her thumb on the latch, relieved to hear the lock turn. “I’m shaking with anticipation.”

In a singsong voice, Dane began:

The secret wishes in her heart did sing a little song:
‘Come and mind me! Seek me! Find me!’
They trilled the whole day long.
No matter how she stopped her ears
Or spurned the song’s refrain
The secret wishes in her heart
Would sing their song again.
How oft’ she’d croon a different tune
Their strains for to replace,
Yet e’ery secret locked in her heart
Left a freckle on her face.

“By the end of every story, she had another freckle. Judging by your freckle count,” he said, his eyes skimming over her face, neck and shoulders, “you’re keeping more secrets than anyone I’ve ever met.”

Jacqueline blushed crimson. “And here I thought that nothing could be worse than Pippi Longstocking.” She stepped inside the suite. “Goodnight, Dane.” She tried shutting the door, only to have it bounce off his shoe. She glared at his black leather oxford. “You know, I’ve found that closing a door is a lot easier when I don’t have to break someone’s foot in half to do it.”

“Remember what I told you this morning?”

“‘Jesus Christ, I think you broke my leg’? Yeah, I remember. And there’s more where that came from.”

“No, when you insisted on denigrating the hallowed traditions governing the Castle elevators.”

“‘Keep your head down and your mouth shut.’”

Dane tilted his head, thinking. “I’m pretty sure I said ‘mouth closed.’”

“Yes, because ‘keep your mouth closed’ is so much fancier than ‘shut your cake-hole.’ That was the moment I knew I was in the presence of my betters.”

Dane rolled his eyes. “Has anyone ever told you that you might be crazy?”

“At least ten times a day. That’s why I keep a teenager around. What’s your point?”

“My point is that if leaving is really what you want to do, getting the powers that be to go along with it is going to require some…finesse on my part.”

“I told you: don’t worry about it. I’m up here now, the money’s been paid.” And spent, right down to the last dime.

“Is it the advance you’re worried about?” he said, reading her mind. “If that’s what it is, then I’d be happy to—”

“Jesus, I’m not your problem to solve, okay? Just let it go.” Too late, she realized how bitchy she sounded. “Sorry. I didn’t mean it like that. It’s just that I—”

“You’re right,” he said stiffly, stepping away from the door. “It’s none of my business. I shouldn’t have presumed to get involved. I apologize.”

“You don’t have to—”

“Tomorrow morning, I’ll take you up to the pleasance,” he said, talking over her, no doubt in a rush to get away, “and then I’ll show you your office.”

“Sounds good,” said Jacqueline, chagrined. “Thank you.”

“As far as what I said earlier about—” He gave a quick look behind him at the empty hallway. “—about Vorace Gyant and the Stalk, you need to act like we never had that conversation.”

“Okay.” The odds of her raising Vorace Gyant’s name in a conversation with someone up here—ever—were absolutely nil, but he had no way of knowing that.

“I mean it. Pretend like Evena is your generous patroness from here on out—that’s what everyone else thinks, anyway—and don’t breathe a word of what you know to anyone.” He gave her a sharp look. “Anyone. Don’t even mutter it under your breath. You never know who’s listening.”

Wow, that’s not ominous-sounding at all. “Who would I tell? I don’t even know anyone up here.” He stared at her, unsmiling, but there was a hint of mischief in his blue eyes. “What?” she said, her voice filled with dread.

Crossing the hall, he delivered three sharp knocks to the door opposite hers. “See you in the morning, McDappleroy,” he said, heading off in the direction of the elevator. “Eight o’clock sharp.”

“But—” said Jacqueline as the other door swung open.

Gwynnen leaned against the door frame. “I thought you said you couldn’t wear pink,” she said, giving Jacqueline’s dress a thorough appraisal. “Liar.”



Chapter Sixteen

For a long moment, Jacqueline and Gwynnen simply took in the rainbow of taffeta, chiffon and organza stretching away from them inside Castle Soho as far as the eye could see. It was far too early in the morning to be facing so much fluff and frippery, especially after a late night spent catching Gwynnen up on Jacqueline’s first day at the Castle.

Jacqueline was the first to break the silence. “I don’t want to tell you your business, Howard, because I can’t say that I’m an expert on pagan garden parties of the rich and famous, but are you sure that by ‘formal’ they mean ‘dress like you’re crashing a princess-themed sweet sixteen?”

“Pastels aren’t kind to pasty skin,” Gwynnen explained to Howard. She took a strapless dress from a nearby rack, a gauzy baby blue chiffon confection with flower appliques overrunning the bodice and tumbling down the full skirt. Holding it just below Jacqueline’s chin, she said, “Five minutes of you in this, and rumors of a Castle ghost haunting the hallways will be making the rounds.”

“I’m afraid it’s too late for that,” said Howard. In response to their blank stares, she elaborated. “We already have a Castle ghost.”

Jacqueline and Gwynnen replied in unison. “You do?”

“Oh, yes. For as long as I’ve worked here, people have claimed to hear noises coming from inside the walls late at night.”

“What kind of noises?” said Gwynnen, wide-eyed.

“Oh, knocking and thumping, that sort of thing.” The pair of them must have looked even more alarmed than before, because Howard hastened to add, “It’s only the old water pipes rattling, of course. And the wood lath inside the walls has been known to expand and contract during long stretches of wet weather.”

“Oh,” said Gwynnen. “Well, I’m not sure if that’s a crushing disappointment or a huge relief.”

Jacqueline rolled her eyes. She snatched the dress out of Gwynnen’s hands and hung it back on the rack. “What she was trying to say about pastels is that they tend to give me a corpse-like complexion that I’d like to avoid if at all possible.”

Howard smiled. “Of course. The stylists normally hang the gowns alphabetically by designer, but I decided that it might be more useful this year to arrange them by color and shade. The pastels begin here, with the jewel and true tones in the back.”

“That definitely works better for me,” said Jacqueline. She turned to Gwynnen. “I told Howard yesterday that it was useless to chatter at me about designers or labels since Nordstrom Rack was about as high-end as clothing got for me.”

“Hey,” said Gwynnen, lightly running her fingers over the gauzy, seafoam green fabric of another dress, “that doesn’t mean you’re not eager to learn.”

“The sizes range from double-zero to eight,” said Howard, “but if something you like runs a little large, our tailor can resize it.”

‘Double zero’? And here you were complaining about being too skinny. Hanging around these people was definitely going to put her in the “robust, recovered, and thriving” category. “Okay, so what’s the procedure, here? We wander around, try on a few, pick what we like?”

“And who keeps track of which person is wearing which dress?” said Gwynnen.

“Oh, there’s no danger of running into someone wearing the same dress,” said Howard. “Designers only ever send us one of each of their designs.”

Jacqueline shared a look with Gwynnen. “I think what she means is that it’d really be a bummer if someone accused us of stealing a bunch of ten-thousand dollar dresses.”

The very idea left Howard flummoxed. “I—I don’t think—I’m confident that that would never happen.”

Huh. You live with rich people for this long, I guess you forget how the real world works.

“As I was telling Ms. Guise yesterday,” said Howard, “you’ll each want a white dress for the pole-raising and Mayfest luncheon. The white gowns are all down that way,” she said, gesturing to a point at the end of the long room that seemed to Jacqueline’s eyes to be receding from them at light speed even as Howard spoke. “For the Mayfest dinner and ball, either the print or the trim of your ballgown must have a floral motif. Everyone is permitted to change into casual clothes for the bonfire.”

“I prefer ‘non-flammable’ over ‘casual’ for bonfires, myself,” said Gwynnen with a wink at Jacqueline. “But to each her own.”

Jacqueline chuckled, but her smile faltered when she saw Howard had become suddenly tight-lipped. She cleared her throat and said, “But not the King and Queen of the—the whatever, right?” Mayfest? Maying? May?

“The King and Queen of the May,” said Howard. “No, they stay in their formalwear after the ball because they lead the procession to the bonfire.”

Gwynnen smirked at Jacqueline. “The king and queen wear flammable fabric of orange or red, preferably something that will burn in a floral motif.”

“Ignore her,” Jacqueline told Howard, who was, once again, looking inexplicably tense. “So, two more dresses…”

“We’re going to be here all day,” said Gwynnen, sounding anything but upset by the prospect.

“Well, I can’t stand around here all day and try on dresses,” said Jacqueline, checking the time on her phone. “I told Dane to meet me here at eight o’clock. He’s taking me up to see Jack, and then he’s giving me a tour of the pleasance.”

Under her breath, Gwynnen muttered, “That’s what she said.”

“Would you like me to choose a few gowns for each of you,” said Howard, “and hang them in the dressing rooms?”

Jacqueline heaved a sigh of relief. “That would be great, Howard, thank you.”

“Ms. Ibori?”

“No, thank you,” said Gwynnen, smiling as she reached for a gown with a nude, princess-style bodice encrusted with a petal-and-leaf pattern of blush peach teardrop crystals. “I’ll be juuust fine spending all day in here.”

Jacqueline rolled her eyes. “Don’t you have some flower arrangements to make?”

“What do you think I’ve been doing around the clock since Tuesday morning? I delivered everything to the helipad yesterday afternoon.”

“The arrangements are lovely,” said Howard to Gwynnen. “I oversaw their transfer to one of the walk-in refrigerators myself. When you’re done here, I should probably escort you outside to the terrace so you can see where the tables and chairs will be set up on the lawn for the maypole dance tomorrow, and on the terrace for the Mayfest dinner tomorrow night. If we have time, perhaps a brief glimpse into the portico and ballroom as well—no doubt you’ll want to see the layout of the dais in the ballroom for—”

She was cut short by the soft chiming of her wristwatch. “My apologies,” said Howard, studying the few lines of text that had popped up on the watch face, “but I’d better get started on finding gowns for Ms. Guise, and then I’m afraid I have some other matters to tend to.” She looked up from the watch. “You’ll both need a tiara as well.” She turned to Jacqueline. “Why don’t you select one—you’ll find them displayed on a long counter on the second floor of the tower—and I’ll meet you over by the dressing rooms in ten minutes?”

“Sounds good,” said Jacqueline, already starting for the stairs. “And thanks again.”

***

It had taken Gwynnen all of sixty seconds to decide on her tiara, a rather bold halo of white dahlias, roses, and ranunculi, but Jacqueline still hadn’t selected one by the time they were due to meet Howard at the dressing rooms. The result was that after settling on dresses for the maypole-raising and the formal dinner and ball, Jacqueline had been obliged to double back to Castle Soho’s second floor and settle on a tiara once and for all.

Jacqueline continued her perusal of the two hundred or so tiaras that remained on the dozens of black velvet-covered “tiara towers” along the counter. Meanwhile, Gwynnen amused herself with scrolling through an online database of flowers on her Castle-issued cellphone and regaling Jacqueline with her insights on the “language of flowers” as it pertained to the corsage Dane had presented her with the previous evening.

“Would you please not do that here?” Jacqueline muttered, glancing around the second floor at the other women who had joined them inside Castle Soho in the last hour. “The last thing I need is people speculating about it.”

Jacqueline repositioned a tiara so that it sat a little farther back on her crown and stepped away from the mirror to take a look. The least ostentatious one she could find, it was delicate and unobtrusive, with a smattering of small, white blossoms and tiny white pip berries set on a woven base of thin, flexible wire made to resemble a woody vine. More of a headband than a tiara, really, she thought before thinking, It’s perfect!

“I’m definitely going with this one,” said Jacqueline. “I think it complements the dress perfectly.” She turned to Gwynnen for her approval. “What do you think? Does it say ‘woodland nymph’?”

“Aha! Listen to this,” said Gwynnen, ignoring her question to read aloud: “‘The dogwood flower represents regret over a specific decision or situation that was beyond one’s control.’”

Jacqueline pulled the tiara from her hair. “Is that really what it says? Because that perfectly describes how I feel about being up here.”

Gwynnen rolled her eyes. “He gave the flowers to you, meaning he’s the one sending the message, dimwit.”

“Oh, well, then it’s definitely not accurate,” she said with a dismissive snort. “Howard not only picked out the dress, she’s the one who sent Dane out to cut the flowers for the corsage—which she also made. If anything, it sounds like Howard is the one sending me a message.” She set the tiara on the counter so she could rummage around in her purse for her lipstick.

“Doesn’t matter,” said Gwynnen. “I make flower arrangements all day long for other people to give to third parties. Does that mean I’m sending all those third parties a message? No, it does not.”

“Did I mention that I’ve missed your Castle conspiracy stories? And what about that Castle ghost? That sounds like a lead you should be running down, doesn’t it?”

“It also says,” Gwynnen continued, scrolling down the screen, “that the flower represents ‘a signal of affection to someone who may not reciprocate it.’”

Jacqueline skimmed the lipstick over her lips and pressed them together to even out the deep, rose-pink color. “One hundred percent accurate,” she said, leaning closer to the mirror to pluck a clump of mascara from one of her lashes. “Whoever wrote that has a gift. Do they do horoscopes and fortune cookies, too? Because I’m totally a believer now.”

Gwynnen shook her head. “I don’t even know why you bother lying to me. Look at you.”

“What do you mean ‘look at you’?” she said, pulling away from the mirror. And then she saw. Oh. Wow. Her face was so red, it was a wonder that her hair wasn’t on fire. “Oh, come on! I blush at the drop of a hat, you know that.”

Gwynnen was skeptical. “You look like you have carbon monoxide poisoning.”

“I certainly hope not,” came Dane’s voice from below. He peered up at them from the first floor of the tower. “Because that might really slow us down this morning.”

“Good morning, Dane,” Gwynnen trilled sweetly over the balcony. “I was just telling Jacqueline that cherry red isn’t her color.”

Jacqueline spun away from the balcony, her back to Dane, and died a thousand agonizing deaths. “Will you cut it out?” she hissed at Gwynnen through her teeth. Oh, my God, oh, my God, how much of that did he hear?

“Well, I couldn’t say one way or the other without seeing her in it,” said Dane, “but she’s looked great in every color I’ve seen her in so far. Are you ready to go, Jacqueline?”

Jacqueline moved forward, away from the balcony, so that he couldn’t see her face. “Yep,” she called over her shoulder, “just give me a second to grab my stuff.” She rushed back to the counter to retrieve the tiara and her purse.

“Oh, yeah, he’s got it bad,” Gwynnen said, keeping her voice low as she followed Jacqueline out of Dane’s earshot.

Jacqueline rolled her eyes. “And you know this because…?”

“Did you not hear him? ‘She’s looked great in every color I’ve seen her in so far.’”

“So he knows how to pay empty compliments,” she said with a shrug. “So what?”

Gwynnen gave her a knowing smirk. “Sweetie, that man has seen you in chartreuse.”

Oh. Good point, Jacqueline thought, blushing even harder. “Whatever. See you at lunch?”

“Sure thing. Just shoot me a text when you’re done, you know, touring the pleasance.” With that, Gwynnen erupted into a gale of giggles.

Jacqueline hurried down the spiral staircase and tried to put the entire conversation out of her head. It was her skin’s only hope for returning to its natural ivory within the next twenty-four hours. “Sorry, about that,” she said, giving his black polo shirt, rugged khaki pants and black trail boots only a cursory glance. She avoided looking at his face altogether; she just couldn’t handle that much physical perfection so early in the morning. “Lead the way.”

A moment later, they were climbing an interminable flight of stairs to the fifth floor, Dane ahead of her. He has a fantastic butt.

“Did you sleep well?” said Dane over his shoulder, forcing her to leave off her admiration of his backside.

Jacqueline laughed. “Sure I did. Right after Jack blew me off with a text saying he’d talk to me in the morning, I stayed up until one o’clock shooting the breeze with Gwynnen. Slept like a baby after that, though.”

“Well, there should be plenty of time for you to nap today if you need one. Everyone else will be far too preoccupied with Mayfest preparations to notice.”

Already winded from the climb and the unexpected burst of conversation, she could barely wheeze out an “okay.” Should’ve taken the elevator. Dane had offered but she’d refused, surmising that the stairs would be faster. They’re only faster if you don’t die before you reach the top, clown.

They emerged from the fifth-floor stairwell into an extraordinarily long hallway similar to the one on Jacqueline’s floor below them. There were more doors on this one, though. They were much closer together, too, and there was a formidable-looking security door at the hallway’s halfway point.

“This is the boys’ dorm,” said Dane. “There are sixteen rooms between here and the Water Tower.”

He pointed to the security door bisecting the hallway. “Down there is the girls’ dorm. They also have sixteen rooms, laid out in a rectangle between the Sky Tower, the Garden Tower, and the Maiden Tower. Each dorm has suites for two adult instructors, and at least one of them is always on the floor. The rest of the instructors’ rooms are on the sixth floor.”

“Only sixteen rooms in each dorm?”

“Well, there are two kids to a room, although the girls’ dorm does have one triple room.”

Jacqueline did some quick math. That’s still less than seventy kids. Surely, the Gyant diaspora had birthed more children than that, right? On the other hand, if only teens came to stay at the Castle in the summer…

“Each dorm has its own communal bathroom and recreation room, but the kids all cook in the same kitchen and eat together in the dining room.”

She raised an eyebrow. “They cook?” God help them when it’s Jack’s turn to man the stove.

About a year ago, she’d insisted that Jack learn to cook. Giving him the simplest recipe she could think of—a one-skillet dish comprised of peppers, onions, rice, kidney beans, and sausage—she’d left him to his own devices. Thirty minutes later, he’d hollered from the kitchen, “Mom, food’s ready!”

Her long experience with cooking at high altitude, combined with her son’s general lack of meal-preparation experience suggested that, although all the ingredients might actually be in the pan, it was highly unlikely that anything was cooked through. “Did you taste a little bit of the rice to make sure it was done?” she’d asked him, walking into the kitchen.

She’d found Jack with the skillet lid in his hand, staring ravenously into the pan. “Who cares? It looks like food. Let’s eat!”

Suffice to say that the meal had not been a raging success.

“Oh, yes,” said Dane, opening the door to the boy’s dorm and motioning her through. “Vorace Gyant requires all family members to learn to be entirely self-sufficient by the time they graduate from high school. The kids even clean the bathrooms.”

Huh. She had to admit, everything he was describing was at odds with her preconceived notions of the pampered life at the Castle for the Gyant teens. No wonder they were hiding out in the staff sitting room yesterday morning. It was probably time for them to scrub the bathroom floor. In this way, they weren’t any different from Jack or the other teens she knew in the valley.

Dane looked at his watch. “Let’s see…they should still be in the dining room eating breakfast.”

He opened the first door on their left. Out wafted the smell of pancakes and syrup, sausage and eggs, orange juice and coffee, the last two bringing Jacqueline’s saliva glands to life. By the time she’d cleared the doorway, she could barely swallow fast enough to deal with the influx of drool.

The dining room was about forty feet long and fifteen feet wide, had hardwood floors, and contained around a dozen black tables with oak tops and padded benches. Every one of them was filled to capacity with chatting, laughing, hungry teenagers.

“Is Jack rooming with Alex?” she said, scanning the tables until she found Jack’s rather conspicuous ginger head.

“Alex? Why in the world would you think that?”

Jacqueline’s impatience flared. “Oh, I don’t know. Maybe because you stuck the two of them together before we’d even made it up the mountain, and they’ve been inseparable ever since?”

Dane’s expression went from confused to bemused, but before he could explain himself, Jack came running up to her, a wide grin on his face. “Hey, Mom!”

If not for his hair color and freckles, Jacqueline might not have recognized her son. For one thing, his shaggy hair had been cut into a much shorter, side-swept style that was tapered in the back and on the sides. For another, his clothes—a royal blue, fleecy pullover (sans hoodie, no less), and khaki pants—were not his.

“Hey!” she said, restraining herself from wrapping him in a bear hug. With this many of his peers looking on, Jack would consider it the kiss of social death. “How’s everything going?”

“It’s going awesome! Hi, Dane!”

“Good morning,” said Dane, giving Jack’s hand a hearty shake. “Are you getting enough to eat up here? Your mother was worried that we might be starving you out.”

“Yeah, I’m getting enough to eat! You wouldn’t believe how much food they have here! I mean, we have to cook it ourselves and everything, but I took dishwasher duty last night and this morning because I knew I’d burn everything, but Alex and the other kids said they’d teach me.”

Before Jacqueline could point out the irony of a bunch of entitled trust-funders teaching a poor valley kid to cook, Jack turned to the dining room, making an eager “come here!” motion to someone, but there were so many kids getting up and down and walking around that she couldn’t figure out who he was beckoning.

“Well, you look great!” said Jacqueline. “Where did you get the clothes?”

Jack looked down at what he was wearing. “They have this place—a sort of store, I guess, but the kind where you don’t have to pay for anything—called Castle Soho that’s filled with clothes—mostly girl’s clothes, but they have lots of guy stuff, too.” He looked at her and frowned. “Why didn’t you tell me that we were supposed to read some rule book before we came up the mountain? They have a really strict dress code up here, you know. If it weren’t for Alex and Waverly, I would’ve looked like an idiot, thanks to you.”

His declaration-slash-accusation left Jacqueline speechless, her head spinning like a top. While her mind tried to tease apart the disparate threads of what he’d said, one word flashed in her mind, again and again, like a warning sign on a highway: Waverly…Waverly…Waverly.

Dane had not been similarly struck dumb. In a low, firm voice overflowing with barely contained displeasure, he said, “Jack, it is unseemly for a man to speak to his mother that way.”

Jack looked like he was about to give Dane a piece of his mind, but before Jacqueline could take a breath to intervene, the flash of anger in her son’s eyes simply went out. Staring at his shoes, he said, “Sorry, Mom. I shouldn’t have said that.”

After a couple of failed attempts, Jacqueline managed to find her voice. “It’s okay. It was my fault that I didn’t plan better.”

“Actually, it wasn’t your mother’s fault at all,” said Dane. “She only had two days to get both of you ready to go, and she did the best that she could, especially considering her health and the fact that I left her without a car. It was my fault.”

Jack raised his head to meet Dane’s disapproving eyes. “Yes, sir.”

‘Yes, sir’? Jacqueline thought, stunned. She was confident that the word “sir” had never before passed her son’s lips.

It was in that moment that she realized something—well, two somethings, actually: First, Dane Gyant was some sort of Boy Whisperer. Second, Jack admired Dane, looked up to him, even. It was no wonder, having grown up without a father and everything, but it made Jacqueline a little nervous all the same. Dane’s ability to persuade Jack notwithstanding, she didn’t know Dane or anyone else at the Castle very well, and had no idea who her son should and should not be looking to as a role model.

Hoping to diffuse the tension, she said, “So, I have to go with Dane to look at the project site, but I thought you might want to show me your room later.” Trying to be upbeat, she added, “I hear you have two windows.”

“Yeah, sure, I can definitely show you later,” said Jack, but he kept turning around, distracted by someone behind him. Suddenly, he said with a broad smile, “I want you to meet my new friend, Alex Gyant.” Turning around, he said, “Alex, come here!”

Jacqueline smiled, ready to greet the boy with whom Jack had been joined at the hip since yesterday morning, only to find herself looking at—

“Alex is a girl?” she blurted out.

“Hence, why they’re not rooming together,” a smirking Dane murmured to Jacqueline.

Alex Gyant was a lovely, fresh-faced, timid-looking thing with long, golden blond hair and an irresistibly sweet smile. Looking like she might bolt at the slightest provocation, the girl scurried over to them.

“Alex, this is my mom,” said Jack.

Dane gave his throat a gentle clearing before prompting Jack with a barely audible “my mother, Jacqueline Guise.”

“Sorry,” said Jack, blushing, “I meant, ‘this is my mother, Jacqueline Guise.’”

“It’s very nice to meet you, Ms. Guise,” said Alex, extending her hand.

Oh, my God, please say this isn’t happening, thought Jacqueline, her smile frozen on her face as she shook the hand of the girl with whom her son was so very obviously infatuated—a girl who happened to bear an unmistakable resemblance to a certain disagreeable woman of her recent acquaintance.

Waverly…Waverly…Waverly.



Chapter Seventeen

You should’ve warned Jack not to get too close to her, Jacqueline thought as she and Dane took the elevator to the basement and walked to what she judged was the southwest corner of the Castle. Because there’s only one way that can end, and that’s badly.
 
“In the interest of full disclosure,” said Dane, “we’re about to take the west tunnel out to the grounds—and before you panic, one side of it is aboveground. It even has windows.”
 
“Excellent. It’s always good to have a backup plan for escape.”

“I don’t think the windows open,” he said, eyes twinkling, “but even if they did, I’m not sure they’re your best option.”

It wasn’t long before she understood why. Whereas most of the Castle’s basement was at what she considered “garden level,” the tunnel cut right through the steep, rocky south face of Castle Peak. The drop wasn’t straight down, but should she manage to open a window and jump out, it wouldn’t be a pleasant descent.

The promised arch windows were spaced at regular intervals along its length, providing Jacqueline with her first look out at the Castle grounds. A long staircase with multiple landings led down to a path that had been mowed through a gently sloping meadow dotted with spring wildflowers, the path ending at the edge of an otherworldly blue mountain lake.

“Sky Lake,” said Jacqueline, stopping to take a good look. It wasn’t hard to understand the inspiration for the name. “What makes the water so blue?”

“The rock flour in the water, mostly.”

Jacqueline blinked. “The what?”

“Really fine pieces of glacial rock. It comes down the mountain in the river with the spring snow melt. The pieces of rock are so small, they float. When the sun hits them, they reflect blue light. It’s basically the same concept behind ‘Why is the sky blue?’ minus the rock flour, the river, and the snow melt, of course.”

“It’s beautiful,’” she murmured.

The lake’s distant northern shore was dotted with structures, no doubt the “overflow housing” for visiting family that Dane had mentioned. To the west, a densely forested slope rose high into a sky the same color as the lake. It was hard to tear her eyes away from the scenery.

They emerged from the tunnel about a hundred feet from a three-story gray stone structure situated on the edge of a wood. Jacqueline turned around, ready to fully admire the towering height of the Castle, but was disappointed to find all but the upper towers obscured by large groupings of sixty-foot-tall Douglas firs and blue spruces that served as a windbreak along the perimeter. As they neared the stone house, she said, “That’s pretty. What is it?”

“The barn.”

Barn, not house. “Barn? Why in the world would you need a barn up here?” For some reason, she envisioned rows of dairy cows, their swollen udders pulled by dozens of milkmaids, all in Castle-approved uniforms.

“I guess it’s because barns are terrific places to keep horses when you’re not riding them.”

“Wouldn’t that be a stable, then?” she said, rather grumpily, as one side of the paddock came into view. A few horses milling near the fence line eyed their approach with suspicion.

He shrugged. “At the Castle, it’s always been ‘the barn.’ Would you like to go riding some time?”

“Thanks, but I don’t think so.”

“Are you sure? Because I’m confident that we can find a horse with your name on it,” he said laughing at her with his eyes.

She narrowed her eyes at him. “What’s so funny?”

“Nothing.” He stopped at a narrow path leading into the woods. “The pleasance is through these trees at the top of the hill, about two hundred yards.”

She glanced up at the trail. Thanks to the mild winter they’d had, they wouldn’t have to contend with tromping through thigh-high drifts of snow, at least. Besides a thin layer of leaf litter, the trail was clear and dry as a bone. “Sounds good,” she said when he made no move to continue. “Lead the way.”

“You don’t want to rest for a minute? There’s a bit of a climb before it levels out.”

“I’m fine.”

“Okay,” he said, plunging into the trees. “But let me know if you need to stop.”

Jacqueline glanced around them to rule out any prying ears before following suit. “I’m fine, but I would like to know why my son is addressing Waverly by her first name, while I’m stuck calling her the equivalent of ‘Mr. Gyant’s wife.’”

“Yeah, I found that pretty odd as well,” he said, rubbing the back of his neck in the unconscious way he did whenever he seemed to find something unnerving or confusing.

“It’s more than ‘odd,’ it’s insulting,” she snapped.

“I know. And it won’t make you feel any better about it, but her doing that probably had less to do with you specifically and more to do with me.”

Oh ho ho! So they did have something back in the day! “You’re right, that doesn’t make me feel any better, but only because it doesn’t make any sense. Why not try saying what you mean instead of being so cryptic about everything? You’d be amazed how well it works.”

“Have you ever heard the saying ‘It’s not fair to ask of others what you’re not willing to do yourself’?”

It was a fairly gentle jab, all things considered, but it left her fuming and feeling petty. “No, but Jack has no problems making friends, so the next time you’re itching to pair him off with someone, how about not choosing Waverly Gyant’s daughter?”

He stopped and turned around, all traces of levity gone from his face. “Who told you Alex was Waverly’s daughter?”

“What do you mean ‘who told me’? No one told me—no one had to. Her name might as well be ‘Mini-Me Gyant!’” She shook her head. “I don’t know what you were thinking.”

“Did you ever think that maybe I didn’t do it for Jack?”

Jacqueline was bewildered. A friendship between Jack and Alex didn’t benefit anyone as far as she could see. “Well, who, then?”

He continued on, his trail boots stomping the underbrush. “I did it for Alex. She’s a good kid who could use a friend—a normal friend, not a bunch of Castle kids who either judge her because of her mother or suck up to her because her father is—” He smacked a tree branch out of his face with more force than was necessary. “Well, you know who. And we shouldn’t be talking about this.”

They walked on in silence, Jacqueline lagging farther behind, slowed by the incline and weighted down by shame. “Dane, wait.” Trying to catch up to him quickly left her out of breath. “You’re right,” she panted. “Children don’t choose their parents. If Alex is the kind of kid who needs a friend, then Jack was a perfect choice.” She paused. “It’s just that I’m a little concerned that—”

“I know what you’re concerned about. I thought the same thing the second I saw them this morning.” He frowned. “Honestly, the summer romance angle never occurred to me when I hooked them up yesterday.” A microsecond later, his eyes widened, no doubt a result of everything implied by the phrase “hooked up.” “When I introduced them, I mean.”

“Oh, God,” said Jacqueline, her hands over her eyes. “I think my hair just turned white. Did my hair turn white? Because it feels like it did.”

“Calm down, McDappleroy,” he said with a smirk. “It’s as red as ever.”

She glared at him. “Would you please stop calling me that?”

“It’s a compliment, I swear.”

“No it’s not. I looked it up.”

“You looked what up?”

“The name. For one thing, ‘rowan’ is a tree with bright red berries, and it also means ‘little red one’ in Gaelic. ‘Dapple’ is another word for ‘spotted,’ and ‘roy’ is Gaelic for ‘red,’ which makes Rowan McDappleroy the Boaty McBoatface of names for befreckled redheads.”

He tilted his head, his blue eyes filled with confusion. “Sorry—who is the unfortunately named ‘Boaty McBoatface’?”

He must have been living in a cave somewhere. How does he not remember that? “It was that—don’t you remember the British research outfit that started the online poll to name their new ship?”

“I’m afraid not. Please don’t tell me that ‘Boaty McBoatface’ won.”

“Of course it won. And you know what? The researchers didn’t even use it for the ship because they knew the name was an affront to the dignity of research vessels everywhere.”

The corner of his mouth spasmed. “Well, in that case, I will endeavor not to call you ‘McDappleroy.’” He turned away and continued up the path. “But I can’t guarantee that it won’t slip out every now and then, especially if I can convince you to go riding with me.”

Jacqueline grasped for a logical connection between horseback riding and unbearable nicknames, but found none. “Meaning?”

“Did you happen to notice the sorrel Appaloosa?”

“The what?” Sorrel was a perennial herb with dark orange-red flowers and leaves that tasted like sour kiwi, while Appaloosa was the name of a bean plant with tasty green pods. She wasn’t aware of any unholy attempts to hybridize the two, but with a company like Gyant Agritech, you never knew.

“The ginger-colored mare at the fence,” said Dane. “The one that looked like she was wearing a white blanket with ginger spots all over it.”

“Yeah, I guess so.”

“Her name is Rowan McDappleroy.”

“Good Lord,” she muttered, rolling her eyes. What was it he’d said a minute ago? ‘I’m confident that we can find a horse with your name on it.’  “Hilarious. Have you people considered seeing someone about this collective fixation you have for a heroine in a Victorian children’s book? Because it’s kind of starting to freak me out.”

“Hey, don’t blame me; I didn’t name the horse. And I’m definitely not obsessed with Rowan McDappleroy.”

She wasn’t sure if he was talking about the girl in the story or the horse, but either way, she didn’t entirely believe him.

The barely-there path eventually widened into a respectable foot path. A little farther on, it opened up even more, becoming a well-maintained, three-foot-wide hiking trail. A few hundred feet on, Dane left the trail, stopping at a dense thicket of big sagebrush, rock spirea, and still-dormant wax currant, and a snarl of opportunistic wild vines like Virginia creeper and frost grape.

“When I first came back,” he said, peering up at the thick wall of interlaced branches and vines, “the trail between here and the barn was completely overgrown. I thought I knew the hillside like the back of my hand, but I was completely disoriented.”

“How long have you been back, anyway?” Somehow, she’d gotten it into her head that he’d been staying at Coaching Inn because he’d just rolled back into town after fifteen years and had yet to travel the final leg up to the Castle. But now she was starting to suspect that he’d been dispatched from the Castle to the valley specifically to contract with the Stalk.

He tilted his head, thinking. “A little over two months, I guess.”

Thought so. “If you’ve been up here that long, then why were you so shocked to see your relatives at dinner last night?”

He gave her a curious look. “I told you, besides the festivals and the teens who come here for the summer program, the Castle is pretty empty most of the time. The people you saw last night are here for Mayfest. They’ll be gone in a few days.”

Jacqueline felt a little dumb. “Right, sorry. Continue.”

“Well,” he said, “after a few days of walking around in circles, I had Castle security fly one of their drones over the area while I watched on a monitor.” He lifted a massive mat of vines away from the wall, revealing a rusty, wrought-iron gate. “And that’s how I found it.”

“Why didn’t you just cut all this away?”

He pushed hard on the gate; it swung inward, its rusty hinges squealing in protest. “I don’t know,” he said with a shrug. “I guess I just liked the idea of it being my little secret for a while.”

Great, she thought, ducking through the opening. Not only was the man obsessed with Rowan McDappleroy, he’d clearly read The Secret Garden one too many times as a child.

Once she’d fought her way through the vines and was inside the pleasance at last, she stopped in her tracks—partly from shock, but mostly because it was physically impossible to take more than a few steps forward. As far as the view was concerned, there was no difference between the inside and outside of the pleasance. In fact, had she not already known what a pleasance was, she’d have guessed, based on the mess before her, that it was “a walled-up, overgrown forest inside a regular forest.”

“Well, this is…interesting.” After a pause, she added, “And I don’t mean that in a good way.” She turned and found him staring ahead at nothing, mindlessly tracing the gold ring of his tattoo with the thumb of his other hand. “Dane?” she said, giving his arm a poke.

“Hmm?” Tearing his eyes from the impenetrable wall of greenery, he looked disoriented, like he was still out scouring the woods for his secret garden.

“You know that most of this will have to go, right?” she said, waving an arm at the jungle in front of them.

He cocked an eyebrow at her. “You don’t say?”

“Well, you could’ve told me that I was going to have to arrange for someone to chop through two acres of overgrowth before I could even get started,” she said, hotly. “Hell, Jack and I could’ve stayed in the valley for another week!”

“You don’t have to arrange for anything.”

He broke to the left, following a fifteen-foot-wide path along the wall that had been mowed and chopped through the brush and trees. The tree stumps had been grubbed, the holes filled, and the remaining dirt graded. Judging by the height of the opportunistic weeds that had already moved in, she guessed that the mechanized scything in question had taken place approximately one month ago, maybe two.

“A crew was scheduled to come up here this week to clear out the rest of this,” said Dane, “but Evena kept reassigning them to Mayfest projects.”

“When are they going to do it, then?” If he says ‘after Mayfest,’ I’m going to scream.

“Don’t worry. There are plenty of things to do between now and the end of Mayfest.”

She sucked in a double lungful of air, ready to shriek, but her scream never materialized, so stunned was she by what she saw next. “What the—what happened to the wall?” she said, her voice rising in pitch.

An entire section of it—a stretch of fifty-feet, at least, that included one of the corners—was simply gone. Not “fallen” or “collapsed,” just gone, with nary a stray brick left on the ground to tell the tale.

“It was torn down years ago,” he said, continuing past the yawning opening without a second glance and with no further explanation.

Jacqueline hurried after him. “‘Torn down’? No one said anything about having to rebuild part of the wall! Do you have any idea how much time this is going to add to this project?” She almost said “not to mention money,” but then she remembered who she was talking to. “I’ll be lucky if I have Jack back in the valley before school starts!”

“I think you’re forgetting something.”

“First you neglect to tell me that the project site is a primeval forest, and then you’re all like, ‘Did I not mention that there’s a whole section of wall missing?’—and I’m the one forgetting something?”

“You’re forgetting that I offered you a ‘get out of jail free’ card, and that you turned it down.”

“‘Get out of jail free’?” she sneered. “There is no ‘get out of jail” with your family. Even their ‘parole,’ is just a fancier jail! And as for ‘free’”—she gave an indignant snort—“in my experience, you never get to the point where you’re not paying, one way or the other.”

Dane seemed shocked by her sudden outburst, although whether because of the personal nature of it or her disparagement of his family, she wasn’t sure. Stuffing his hands in his pockets, he rocked forward onto the balls of his feet, and murmured, “Oh, believe me, I definitely know what you mean.” He studied her for a moment. “I don’t suppose you’d like to expand on your ‘experience,’ would you?”

He’s empathizing with you, she mused, but that thought was quickly met with opposition. No, he’s not. He’s trying to trick you into telling him something. Try to appreciate the difference. “Sure. Love to—just as soon as you explain your ‘I know what you mean’ comment.”

He smiled a closed-lip smile. Shaking his head with disbelief, he turned in a slow circle, giving the overgrown interior of the pleasance a leisurely inspection before returning to her with a new offer: “I’ll show you mine if you show me yours—figuratively speaking, obviously.”

Gaping at him, Jacqueline felt her face turning bright red at the thought of standing in this wild place, far away from prying eyes, and stripping him down to his bare essentials. Figuratively, Jacqueline, she scolded herself. The man is talking figuratively. After a long pause, she said, “I just don’t think I can do that.” But give me a call if you ever want to get literal.

“I get it, you don’t trust me,” he said, nodding. “I wouldn’t trust me either, I suppose, not if I were in your shoes.” He pushed at a clod of dirt at his feet. “Here’s the thing, though: I want you to trust me. So what if I told you not to worry about the condition of the pleasance because you’re going to be spending your summer on a totally different project?”

She blinked, confused. “What are you talking about? What project?”

“A friend of mine just acquired an office park in Boulder. She wants to tear out the bluegrass and all the rest of the water-sucking plants and replace everything with artificial lawn and xeriscaping. I gave her your name, and she’d like to meet with you at your earliest opportunity.”

Jacqueline stopped in her tracks. “Wait, are you kidding me?”

“Of course I’m not kidding,” he muttered rolling his eyes. “How would that even be funny, anyway?”

For the first time since she’d been roped into coming up the mountain, Jacqueline felt the tiniest sliver of hope. If she could land a job like that, it would obviate all her worries about having to refund the advance the Castle had paid to her! Once she’d secured an advance from the new client in Boulder, she could simply hand it over to the Castle and then wash her hands of the whole lot of them—maybe for good, this time.

Not only that, but it would mean separating Jack and Alex before matters became even more…entangled. You’re getting a little out over your skis, aren’t you? How about getting the job first? “That would be—I’d definitely be interested in hearing more about it,” she said cautiously. “When does your friend want to meet?”

“Well, I told Anna—her name is Anna Lawrence—that it would have to wait until after the weekend, but she said she’d like to have lunch on Monday if you’re not busy.”

Jacqueline ventured a closed-lip smile. “Well,” she said with a shrug, “since no one seems to know exactly what I’m supposed to be doing up here, tell her I’d love to meet.” She cleared her throat and shifted from one foot to the other. “And thanks for doing that. You didn’t have to.”

“Actually, I did.” He frowned. “I’m aware of your opinion of my family—well, of Vorace, anyway—and trust me, the man has faults aplenty when it comes to family and business adversaries, but there are three categories of people he’d never, ever mistreat.” He counted them off on his fingers. “Children, women, staff.”

Jacqueline drew breath to refute that assertion, but then she realized that he was probably trying to bait her into doing exactly that.

Despite how she’d been treated, though, there was the matter of the other categories. Neither Howard nor Finn—nor any of the other employees she’d encountered so far—looked or behaved like beleaguered, downtrodden employees of a maniacal tyrant. And while the adults in the Gyant family seemed a little on-edge at times, the kids she’d seen in the sitting room yesterday morning and the ones up in the dining hall today all seemed perfectly happy, relaxed, and well-adjusted.

Yeah, but Vorace Gyant has been incapacitated for the last year. Under those circumstances, of course everyone’s going to let down their guard a little. After all, when a dictator died with no one to replace him, people tended to go wild.

“Did you notice how surprised everyone was at dinner last night when you told them about your hospitalization?” said Dane.

Jacqueline chuckled. “Trust me, they weren’t anywhere near as surprised as I was when the doctors finally told me what was wrong with me.”

He conceded her point with a nod. “It wasn’t your diagnosis that surprised them so much as the fact that you were up here at all so soon after being seriously ill.”

Jacqueline snorted. “Oh, yes, I could tell that they were all sick with worry. Evena was so distressed, in fact, that she couldn’t wait to accuse me of making it all up.”

She expected him to be at least a little astonished by this revelation, but he seemed more displeased than surprised. “So I heard,” he said, “but what Evena believes or doesn’t believe doesn’t change the fact that this isn’t how we do things up here.”

With that, he turned away and continued on, following the mowed path along the wall, Jacqueline trailing behind him. Hoping to lighten the somber mood, she said, “I think it’s fair to say that once you’ve seen a twelve-foot brick wall on your left and an overgrown alpine wilderness on your right, you’ve seen them all.”

“What are you saying—that you’re not enjoying the tour?”

“I’m saying that I’m not sure I need to physically walk all twelve hundred feet of the wall to appreciate the scope of a project that, with any luck, I won’t be here to do.”

“I think I’m beginning to see why you’re having trouble keeping plants alive,” he said over his shoulder. “You’re not a very patient person.”

She scowled at his back, but before she could argue the point, there was a glint of sunlight up ahead through the trees, reflecting off what looked like a sheet of glass. Long before the path opened onto a clearing—one that spanned the two hundred and twenty-five feet separating one side of the pleasance from the other—she guessed that they were heading straight for a greenhouse. A moment later, she was at the edge of a clearing looking at a free-standing greenhouse smack in the middle of the pleasance. When they were a few dozen feet from it, she spied furniture through the glass. Part greenhouse, part conservatory. “Is this new?”

It sure looked new. Unlike the pleasance wall, with its weathered, chipped, and faded bricks, the bricks that formed the three-foot foundation of the greenhouse looked like they’d just been pulled out of a kiln.

Following her eyes, Dane nodded. “I bought a kit about two months ago. The base took longer to build than assembling the greenhouse, so I can appreciate your frustration about the missing stretch of wall.” Smiling, he turned back to her. “Would you like to see your office?”

“I guess, but just out of curiosity: how long do I have to keep this up?”

“Keep what up?”

“The charade. I mean, until I land the other job, I get why I’d have to pretend that I’m staying up here, but I’m not sure why I have to do it when there’s no one watching.”

“Because up here,” he said with a pained grimace, “it’s always best to assume that someone’s watching.”

Jacqueline smiled, but then she realized that he wasn’t kidding. Christ on a cracker. Monday can’t get here fast enough.

The greenhouse was long—roughly sixty or seventy feet—and around thirty feet wide. Boosted by the knee wall, the center ridge height rose to around eighteen feet. It was barely half the size of the greenhouse at the Stalk, but for a non-commercial greenhouse, that was huge.

For a brief moment after stepping through the door, she thought she might have developed x-ray vision on her journey up the hillside. Not only could she see from one end of the greenhouse to the other, she could peer into each and every room. On either side of her were offices. Straight ahead was a generous bedroom suite, and at the far end, a combined, open-plan kitchen, dining room and living room. Ironically, the only space in the “greenhouse” that appeared to function as such was tucked away in the back corner.

“Does somebody live here?” she said, grazing her fingers along the glass wall closest to her.

“Yep,” he said, detouring around her and turning the corner. “Me.”

Rather than following him, she simply tracked him through the transparent walls. “You? But I thought you lived at the Castle.”

“Did I say that? I don’t think I ever said that. I mean, I have a tiny guest room on the third floor for when I’m forced to attend the formal functions down at the Castle, but I never sleep there.” Standing in the doorway of the room on her right, he said, “This is your office—well, what would have been your office, anyway.”

On the other side of the glass was a lesson in sleek, contemporary minimalism. A rectangle of frosted white glass sat atop a white desk frame so slender, it was hard to believe that it didn’t collapse under the weight. In the corner was a brand new, state-of-the-art, tempered glass-top drafting table on a brushed nickel tube frame. The overall look might have bordered on “too clinical,” were it not for the wood floors, which were stained a deep, rich hickory.

Jacqueline rounded the corner and followed him inside. It was so gorgeous, that she almost rescinded her wish to return to the valley. She could just imagine what it would be like to watch the pleasance come to life all around her from the comfort of her see-through office.

“Where did all this come from?” she said, glancing over the brand-new desktop computer, iPad, and the latest version of the landscaping software she’d requested.

He seemed amused by her reaction. “Which part?”

She looked up. “Any of it. All of it.”

“Most of the furniture came from our storage warehouse, the tech stuff came from IT. I ordered the drafting table on Tuesday—that and the software—with overnight shipping. It was delivered to Coaching Inn on Wednesday. I sent it up the service elevator, the maintenance guys dragged everything up here yesterday and assembled the furniture. The IT people hooked up the computers, and here we are.”

Jacqueline sank into the leather executive chair and tried really hard not to regret her eagerness to leave. “It’s not really what I was expecting.”

Dane snorted. “Given your general lack of optimism, I’m going to assume that you were expecting something pretty damn awful.”

She swiveled in the chair to face him. “Are you saying that I’m a pessimist? Because I’m not.” Shut up, Jacqueline; you are totally a pessimist.

“I hate to be the one to have to tell you this, but ‘high hopes, long falls’ is not the mantra of a sunny optimist.”

She scowled up at him. “I’m not a pessimist, I’m a realist.”

The corner of his mouth twitched. “In my experience, ‘realist’ is what pessimists call themselves when they’re feeling optimistic.”

Doing her best adolescent impression, Jacqueline muttered, “Whatever,” and swiveled away to look out on the pleasance. “I wasn’t always like this, you know,” she said, her voice wistful.

Dane followed her gaze. After a moment, he said with a sigh, “Neither was I. But since you’re feeling optimistic—well, realistic, at least—how about turning a few lemons into lemonade?”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean that I could use a hand with a side project.”

“What kind of side project?”

“You asked about Magic Beans, remember?”

“Yeah…?”

He tilted his head towards the door. “Come on. I’ll show you.”



Chapter Eighteen

Jacqueline dragged herself out of the chair and followed Dane to the greenhouse. Lining the tile floor were long rows of fiberglass tables for holding plant flats. Most of the tables were bare, save one in the corner that was stocked with plants. Reading the labels on the trays, she found they were mostly wildflowers: California poppy, Johnny jump-ups, purple coneflower, blue flax, larkspurs, blanket flower, Virginia stock.

“If you were just going to install another wildflower meadow,” she said, looking over the plants, “then why did you bring me all the way up here to design a garden for you?”

“That’s not what I’m doing. I’ve been developing some hybrids that I want to test in real-world conditions. It’s just a small bed on the west side of the pleasance. They won’t be in your way, I promise.”

Jacqueline’s horticultural antennae went up—way up. People tended to use terms like “cultivar,” “variety,” “hybrid” and “genetically modified” interchangeably when in fact they meant very different things. Historically, a plant hybrid was created by manually crossing two parent plants in the hopes of manipulating a specific trait, such as flower color or size. It typically took hundreds or even thousands of crossings before an offspring plant with the desired trait was achieved. It was painstaking, long-term work that often as not led to dead ends. It also required far more plants than Dane had here.

And then there was Gyant Agritech, one of the world’s leaders in genetically modified crops. How likely was it that Dane, a member of the Gyant family, was hand-crossing two parent varieties of the same plant to create hybrid offspring when he had all that proprietary genetic technology at his disposal?

‘Slim to none’ is my guess. Trying for a tone of “mild curiosity” as opposed to “wildly accusatory,” she said, “What kind of hybrids?”

That is a proprietary secret, I’m afraid,” he said, eyes dancing. He picked up a flat of plants and walked through a side door to deposit it in a trailer hooked up to an ATV.

With Dane preoccupied, she quickly scanned his home. She found the lab immediately, a long, narrow room connecting the greenhouse to his office. On the stainless steel counter bolted to the wall were microscopes, a seed germinator, a lighted seedling shelf, a centrifuge, a glass cabinet filled with beakers, test tubes, and petri dishes, and a whole bunch of innocuous-looking, squat, beige equipment with digital displays that she had no doubt were used to splice and recombine genes. The only thing in the room that didn’t scare her was the sink.

What had he said back at the Stalk when she’d asked him what kind of business Magic Beans was? ‘Bespoke flower seeds, I suppose you could say.’ By “bespoke,” she realized now, he’d meant “genetically modified.”

As he stepped back inside, she was tempted to ask him, “You do realize that by recklessly and arrogantly playing God, you’ll eventually cause humanity’s downfall, don’t you?” Instead, she said, “This is quite a setup you’ve got here.”

Dane gave his surroundings a cursory glance and hefted another flat. “I suppose it’ll do for now. Luckily, these prefabricated greenhouse kits are easy to expand.”

Yes, she thought, watching him walk back to the ATV, I’m sure that planning a worldwide ecological collapse requires lots of elbow room.

Returning for another flat, Dane motioned to a five-gallon bucket on the floor. Wrapped around it was a canvas garden tool organizer filled with trowels and hand rakes. “You can use that one if you want,” he said, sliding his hand under the next flat in the row. “I already have one in the trailer.”

Jacqueline dutifully picked up the bucket, but just as quickly placed it back on the ground. Come on, Jacqueline, what happened to your principles? You have to draw the line somewhere. Taking a deep breath, she said, “Look, it’s nothing personal, but I can’t do this.”

Dane all but dropped the flat back onto the table and rushed over to her, his brow wrinkled with concern. “Are you okay? Do you need to lie down?”

He thinks you’re too frail to garden. It was a sweet gesture that effectively stripped her of the urge to deliver a diatribe on his ill-advised genetic manipulation of plants. “I’m fine, it’s just that—” It’s just that what? Thinking fast, she said, “It’s just that a landscape designer—I don’t plant, I plan.” As mantras went, it was pretty dumb, but it was either that or her foliage-apocalypse rant. “See the difference?”

Bemused, Dane raised an eyebrow at her. “The letter ‘T’?” When he realized that she was serious, he rolled his eyes. “Oh, come on. This is your chance to be an optimist for once.”

Yes, let’s optimistically decimate the ecosystem. “How do you figure?”

“‘To plant a garden is to believe in tomorrow,’” he said, adding, “Audrey Hepburn.”

Jacqueline had to laugh. “Well, good luck finding ‘my fair lady’ to dig holes with you, because I’m not doing it.”

He shook his head, frustrated. “Then you’re going to need to find something else to do to justify us coming up here, because I told everyone I was giving you a tour and helping you set up your office. If we go back to the Castle now, it will look suspicious.”

“Then I’ll go set up the software. Loading it will take a while.”

“Suit yourself.”

“Would you mind if I got a drink of water?”

“Glasses are in the cabinet next to the refrigerator. There’s some fruit on the counter if you’re hungry. Help yourself to whatever you want.” After loading his supplies into the trailer, he hopped on the ATV and rode away.

Jacqueline returned to her office, booted up the desktop, and started loading the landscape design software onto it. Having set that in motion, she went off in search of water.

No one could accuse him of flaunting his wealth with overdone decor or antiques, that’s for sure, she thought as she walked through the living room. In fact, Dane’s taste might be summed up as “antiseptically spartan,” with a color scheme that utilized exactly four shades: black, white, gray, and silver.

Unlike the two offices, where the hickory floors had offset the cool sparseness of the furniture, the flooring in the living and dining rooms was pale gray marble. The dark gray area rug in the living room was about the only surface in this part of his home she was confident her feet wouldn’t freeze to in the winter.

The kitchen was more of the same. With its stainless steel appliances, veined white marble floors, frosted-glass cabinet doors, and shiny countertops of white crystalline glass, it resembled a futuristic operating room. Talk about being allergic to color.

No sooner had she complained about the monotony, though, than a splash of color popped out at her in the form of seven silver bowls filled with the fruit Dane had mentioned: cherries, donut peaches, blood oranges, lemons, golden apples, limes, and plums. In this sun-drenched, achromatic setting and contrasted against the pristine white counter, the colors seemed saturated far beyond what nature intended, the lemons a bit too yellow, the oranges a little too orange.

Maybe he’s on to something with all the gray after all, she thought. Living in the thin air of the mountains in a home that was essentially made out of windows, there would be no escaping the intense Colorado summer sun. If a few bowls of colorful fruit made her eyes ache like this, she couldn’t imagine what being bombarded by bright colors all day long would do to her. He’s going to find out soon enough, that’s for sure. Once the entire walled garden installation was completed and the flowers in bloom, the color overload would be a permanent fixture until the whole thing died back in the winter.

After rummaging through the cabinets for a glass and filling it with water, Jacqueline nosed around the rest of the kitchen. On the other side of a monster-sized pantry cabinet, she discovered a back door leading out onto a gray deck. On it was the answer to the question “What’s up with all the fruit?” in the form of twelve dwarf fruit trees in glazed ceramic pots. Set on rolling bases and lined up in a row to catch the rising sun, half of them were in full flower, the other half sagging under the weight of their fruit.

She had to admit, she was impressed. While it wasn’t difficult to force most fruit trees to flower, it required moving them in and out of colder or warmer conditions at the appropriate times and ensuring they received just the right amount of sunlight. It was definitely more work than she’d be willing to do for a few bushels of fresh fruit every year. Dane’s right: you’re not a very patient person.

Sipping her water, she walked back and forth the length of the deck a few times, wishing that the groundskeepers had cleared the rest of the pleasance so she could visualize a few possibilities, but then she remembered that she wouldn’t be here for those possibilities. Probably. Hopefully.

She was tempted to finish her self-guided tour of his home by having a peek at his bedroom, but she wouldn’t allow herself to go there, figuratively or literally. In fact, other than the brief glimpse she’d had when she’d first walked in the front door, she’d avoided looking directly into his room. The last thing she needed was more fodder for her fantasies. You think about him enough as it is.

She returned to her office to find that the software had finished loading. For lack of anything else to do, she opened the program and created a file with the rough dimensions of the pleasance wall, even going the extra mile and outlining the missing section. With that done, she resigned herself to being bored until Dane’s return, but then she had an idea. It was a little risky, though, as it presumed he’d meant it when he’d said, “Help yourself to whatever you want.”

Oh, well, if he gets mad: too bad, so sad. She rose from the chair and started for the kitchen.

It took her a lot longer than she’d anticipated, chiefly because she had to scour the kitchen cabinets and open every single drawer to find all the items she required, but she managed to finish and clean up just as she heard the sound of an ATV approaching.

By the time Dane walked through the door, dirt-speckled and dripping with sweat, she was back in her office, pretending to work. “I need to grab a quick shower,” he said, breezing past her office door, “and then we’ll head back to—” He stopped and sniffed. Turning to her, he said, “Do you smell lemons?”

Jacqueline smiled sweetly. “While you were gone, I was overwhelmed by a powerful wave of realism, so I decided to make lemonade out of some of your lemons.”

He flashed his sexy smile at her again, leaving her feeling a little woozy. “You did, huh?” he said.

She nodded. “I also used your water and sugar and a few limes and cherries, too. Chalk that up to my experimental side.” Take that little piece of innuendo any way you’d like.

Now it was Dane’s turn to look dazed. “Am I, uh…allowed to sample it?”

My experimental side or the lemonade? She shrugged. “Your lemons, your pitcher, your sugar. Help yourself.”

Looking a bit disoriented, his eyes never left hers as he raised his hand to the back of his neck and gave it a good burnishing. Channeling Tilly, Jacqueline thought, “That poor boy’s head’s spinning so hard, he don’t know if it’s New Year’s or New York.”

Dane blinked once, uttered, “Lemonade. Right,” and continued down the hall.

Through the transparent walls, Jacqueline watched, smiling to herself, as he progressed from the hall to the kitchen. After guzzling down half the pitcher of lemonade, Dane made a beeline for his bedroom, where his first action was to tear off his sweaty shirt.

Frankly, other than the time-honored admonition against throwing stones, Jacqueline hadn’t really considered the privacy ramifications of living inside a glass house with glass walls. She’d just assumed that there were curtains stashed away somewhere in his bedroom, or that blackout shades would rise up from the floor as needed. It wasn’t until Dane was actually disrobing in front of her that she was disabused of that notion.

Look away, you freak! she told herself, but she couldn’t. The wall of his bedroom was just across the hall from her office door; even with her eyes glued to the computer screen, she could still gawk at him with her peripheral vision.

His torso and upper arms were the same golden color as the rest of him—not even a trace of a farmer-tan—which could only mean one thing: He works shirtless. As much as she’d have liked to spend the summer enjoying a view like that, leaving was for the best. Face it: you’d never get any work done.

Walking to the bathroom, Dane casually tossed his shirt across the bedroom in the general direction of the closet and reached down to undo the buttons of his khakis.

Jacqueline gripped the arms of the chair and willed herself to look away. Fortunately, the choice between “to gape or not to gape” was taken entirely out of her hands when he reached up and touched something on the wall. In the blink of an eye, Dane, the bedroom and the bathroom disappeared, the glass switching from crystal clear to opaque white.

Jacqueline stared at the glass, her mouth hanging open in shock. She’d heard about electric privacy glass, of course, but she’d never seen it in action. Springing from her chair, she hurried over to the office door and the blue LED button mounted next to the light switch. The second she pressed it, it was as if the office and everything in it had been teleported into the middle of an impenetrable cloud. The only thing she could see in the glass now was her own reflection.

Think of it as two-ply protection against vice, she thought with a smile. She was closing the landscape design program and preparing to shut down the computer when she heard the tapping of knuckles on glass coming from outside, and then a man’s voice. “Hello? Anyone home?”

Finn? Jacqueline switched her office walls back to clear to find Finn Boucher pressing his face up to the front door, shading his eyes with one hand in an attempt to see inside.

She hurried out of her office and down the hall, and swept the door open. “Finn!” Having seen him in only suits up until now, she was surprised to find him wearing gray chinos and a navy blue polo shirt, and generally looking like he’d stepped away from a Hugo Boss runway show. “What are you doing up here?”

His warm brown eyes lit up at the sight of her. “Surprise,” he said, giving her a wide smile.

Finn’s smiles came for her more readily, she observed. Whether that was a good thing or a bad thing, she wasn’t sure.

“I was hoping to find you up here,” he said.

“Oh, yeah?” While she was flattered that he’d tromped all the way up the hillside for a little “get to know you,” he must know that Dane lived up here at the conservatory. I sure hope I imagined the tension last night. “Why’s that?”

“Would you believe me if I said that I hadn’t seen you in twelve hours, and I wasn’t sure if I could get through the rest of my day without a visual?” he said, capping this pronouncement with a playful wink that made her blush.  “Actually, seeing you is just an added bonus to the mission. The real reason I came up is because I received an odd report from security about thirty minutes ago. I thought I’d come up myself rather than sending someone you didn’t know.”

Her imagination immediately jumped to Jack. “What’s wrong? What happened?”

“Nothing bad,” he assured her. “Just strange. The security cameras saw you leaving the Castle with Dane an hour ago, but for some reason the computer system flashed an alert that said you were trying to access a restricted area in the Castle.”

What? How is that even possible?”

“I’ll let you know as soon as someone explains it to me,” he said with a smile. “I’ve never heard of something like that happening before. No one has, as far as I can tell.”

“Will I—does that mean I won’t be able to get back into my room?”

“I hope that won’t be a problem, but like I said, this has never happened before—not as far as I know.”

Well that’s super reassuring, she thought. Knowing that Castle security kept such close tabs on each person’s whereabouts was creepy enough; the least they could do was get people’s locations right.

“Don’t worry, the IT guys will figure it out,” he said. “If you get locked out of your room, just give me a call and I’ll get you taken care of. Unfortunately, I’m not much of a computer guy, which is why I volunteered to come up here and have a look instead of, like, debugging code or whatever it is they’re doing.”

She laughed. “Did you, uh, want to come in?” she said with a glance over her shoulder at Dane’s still-cloudy walls. “I think Dane is in the shower.” ‘You think.’ Please. If Dane hadn’t fogged up his walls, you’d be settling in with a bucket of popcorn and a glass of lemonade and watching him lather up right now.

“Sure,” said Finn, but he looked wary as he ventured a few steps into the foyer. “I heard Dane gave you some office space up here.”

“Yep, right there,” she said, pointing. “I just finished loading the landscape design software on the desktop.”

“Good, good… How’s everything else going?”

“Fine so far,” she said, closing the door. “I saw Jack this morning at breakfast; I’ve never seen him so enthusiastic about summer camp before.” Or about a girl for that matter.

“I did the summer program with the family kids one year back in the day. Trust me: Jack’s going to have the time of his life.”

You did the summer program?” she said. “How?”

Finn lifted an eyebrow. “Did I not tell you the other night? Sorry, I thought I had. My father owned a construction company in the valley when I was growing up. He bid a project up here one summer, won the contract, and dragged me right up the mountain with him.”

Given his accent, Jacqueline had already suspected that Finn had grown up in the valley, so that was no surprise, but she was shocked to hear the route by which he’d become intertwined with the Gyant family. All the more reason to get Jack out of here, she thought, before he gets too comfortable. If all the free clothes, gourmet foods, high-tech toys, personal tutors with PhDs, and a summer camp program on an estate that doubled as a swanky resort didn’t skew her son’s sixteen-year-old worldview, she didn’t know what would.

“So, about Film on the Rocks,” he said. “The movie starts at sundown on the fifteenth, like I thought, but I was thinking we could have dinner together beforehand.”

Jacqueline smiled. “That would be really nice.”

“I think so, too.”

She waited for him to expand on the dinner idea, but he only beamed at her. “Um, would we be eating here—at the Castle, I mean?” Rotating through the Castle’s staff dining room together didn’t really sound like a date since they both worked there and the food was free, but at least she wouldn’t have to angst about whether or not he expected her to split the check.

The way Finn wrinkled up his nose, you’d have thought she’d asked if they’d be sharing a frozen pizza and a can of warm beer down in the barn. “The Castle? God, no. I’ll make reservations at l’Énigme in Boulder. Have you ever been?”

She shook her head. “It’s a little out of my price range.” That was an understatement. The row of four dollar signs next to l’Énigme’s name in the online restaurant guides might as well have been four emojis pointing at her and cry-laughing.

“The view of the Flatirons is terrific, plus they have a helipad. After dinner, we’ll fly to Morrison and take a car up to Red Rocks.”

Jacqueline couldn’t stop smiling. “Well, in that case, I guess it’s a date.” I’m going to fly on a helicopter. On a date. To l’Énigme. And Red Rocks. Life was crazy.

“Great! Howard will help you out in the clothes department if you need something to wear.”

“I definitely will. I’ll talk to her about it once Mayfest is over.” It was then that she remembered that she might no longer be at the Castle when May fifteenth arrived. Should she say something now? Just calm down, Jacqueline. You haven’t even gotten the other job yet.

Unbeknownst to Jacqueline, Dane had chosen that moment to turn his bedroom walls from opaque back to transparent. Her first clue that something was amiss was when Finn broke eye contact, his gaze flitting to something behind her. As Tilly might have said: “One minute he was fine, the next he looked fit to shit a wolverine.”

“Uh, I’d probably better get going,” said Finn, reaching behind him for the door handle.

Jacqueline spun around to find Dane charging out of his bedroom and through the living room, looking piqued.

“What the hell is going on?” said Dane, rounding the corner of the living room into the hallway. “How did you get in here?” The questions were directed at Finn, but the next moment found Dane turning an accusing eye on her.

“Uh, I let him in?” she said. “I thought that was the polite thing to do when someone you know drops by.”

“Sorry for the intrusion,” Finn said coolly to Dane. “There was a security problem; I was sent up to check it out.”

“What ‘security problem’?” said Dane, eyes flashing. “You’re looking at the only two people up here and I handle the security here.”

Finn’s gaze went to Jacqueline. “There’s a situation with her permissions and perimeters at the Castle. I’m just verifying her whereabouts.”

“Well, you’ve verified her whereabouts. Now you can leave.”

“Hey!” said Jacqueline angrily to Dane. “What exactly is the problem here?”

“It’s fine,” said Finn. “I was just leaving.” Swinging the door open, he caught Jacqueline’s eye. “It was nice talking to you, though. I’m glad you’re settling in. We’ll talk soon, okay?”

“Yeah, I’ll see you later,” she said.

Turning away, Finn stopped. “Oh, and don’t forget to talk to Howard about the clothes. Cocktail attire will be fine.”

“I won’t forget.” Why in the world did you have to mention that now?

As soon as the entirety of Finn’s body mass had crossed the threshold, Dane not only closed the door, he flipped open the panel on the wall next to it and punched the first in a row of blue LED buttons. One second Finn Boucher was there, the next he was gone, along with the pleasance, the sky, and the world outside.

Dane’s hair was still damp from his shower, and he’d changed into jeans and a form-fitting, blue-and-gray Henley with short sleeves. Jacqueline found it hard to look away from where the sleeve hem cut across his biceps. The pleasing scent of citrus and cedar filled the hallway as she waited for him to say something.

Instead, he squatted down by the door to examine the door latch. A full twenty seconds went by before he spoke. “What did he touch while he was here? How far inside did he get?”

“What do you mean?” Jacqueline said, baffled.

Dane turned to her, his face stony. “I mean: Did you take him into your office? Did he touch your computer?”

“What? No! I didn’t—he never went any farther than right here.”

“Did he touch you?”

Watching him inspect the glass wall next to the door, Jacqueline turned beet red and went mute. What the hell? “I—he—” she stammered.

When her stuttering failed to cohere into a complete sentence, he glanced at her over his shoulder. “Shake your hand? Slap you on the back? Anything like that?”

Jacqueline wondered how he would react if she answered, “No, but we did make out and feel each other up through our clothes for a while.” Not well, she imagined. “No,” she said evenly, “nothing like that. Why?”

“How long was he here before I saw him?”

Jacqueline thought about it. “I don’t know. A few minutes, maybe?”

To himself more than to her, he murmured, “What was he doing up here?”

“He said that security—”

“Yeah, I heard him” he said, standing. “What else did you two talk about?”

“What do you mean?”

“You said he was here for ‘a few minutes.’ You opened the door, he gave you his spiel about perimeter problems, and then what did you talk about?”

“How is that any of your business?”

Dane seemed thrown off by her sudden pushback. In a more measured tone, he said, “There’s a reason that I live up here and not at the Castle, and that reason is that I don’t like being spied on twenty-four hours a day. I took a real risk coming back to Castle Peak, and I have a lot riding on the work I’m doing up here.”

“‘Work,’” she scoffed, glaring at him. “You mean your—your little Frankenplants? Yes, there certainly is a lot of risk in the work you’re doing up here, that much we can agree on.”

Dane said nothing right away, but the corner of his mouth spasmed. “‘Frankenplants’?”

Jacqueline pointed in the direction of his lab and the plant flats still sitting in his greenhouse-within-a-greenhouse. “Those. Your genetically modified monsters.”

Completely unperturbed, he said, “For one thing, if you’d ever read Frankenstein, you’d know that it’s the name of the scientist, not the monster, and for another, I think that dropping a Little Shop of Horrors reference here would have been more appropriate, not to mention a whole a lot funnier.”

“There’s nothing funny about any of this,” she snapped, hating that Dane was mocking her tendency towards “kitchen sinking”—raising unrelated issues in the middle of an argument. Using all her will power, she refocused on the problem at hand. “You and Finn obviously have some beef with each other, fine, but I don’t appreciate you putting me in the middle of your little adolescent squabble.”

Dane’s smirk vanished. Chagrined, he said, “You’re right. I can understand why it made you feel uncomfortable. I’m sorry.”

Jacqueline found herself parroting the same question she’d asked him last night. “What was that all about, anyway?” If he tried the kitchen-sink maneuver on her this go-around, she’d make sure to get him back on-topic. Even if I have to smack him.

Dane heaved a heavy sigh. “When I agreed to come back to the Castle, I made it clear that no one was to come up to the pleasance without a personal invitation from me—ever—and they agreed,” he said. “Finn, especially, knows that he’s the last person I’d want to see up here, which makes me wonder why he’d risk coming up at all. It wasn’t to talk to me, that’s for sure, which means he must have wanted to talk to you. And I’m sorry if you think I’m paranoid, but my experience with—with these people goes back a whole lot further than yours does.”

Jacqueline didn’t know what to say. If she didn’t tell him what he wanted to know and he found out later, he’d think that she’d been in cahoots with “those people” the whole time. Yeah, and if you tell him now, he’ll think exactly the same thing, only sooner. And now that she thought about it, weren’t “those people” his people?

Oh, my God, just tell him. What does it matter now? Jacqueline cleared her throat. “He wanted to know—” She stopped and started again. “Last night in the archives, he offered to take me to a movie. Just now, he expanded that offer to include dinner.” There. Now you know. “And I doubt he rushed up the hill because he just received a limited-time Groupon offer or something, so excuse me if I believe his explanation about the security problem.”

Dane didn’t seem at all surprised by anything she’d said. He nodded, pressed his lips together and looked pensive. “I see.” He looked like he wanted to add more, but stopped to stare at the floor and give the back of his neck an exhaustive chafing. “Look,” he said with a sigh, still avoiding her eyes, “your personal life is none of my business, but if—”

“You’re right,” Jacqueline said. “It’s not.”

She expected him to counter with…well, she didn’t know what, exactly. A date offer of his own? A general disparagement of Finn’s character? The inherent difficulties of a Castle-valley romance? Something. Instead, he shook his head, chortled, and said, “Fair enough. Good luck with that.”

He turned away then, which only made Jacqueline angrier. With a frustrated groan, she said, “God! Why do you have to be so—so exasperating all the time?”

Halfway down the hall, he stopped and turned around, his eyes twinkling with good humor. “Last night, I went from ‘tyrannical jerk’ in your estimation to ‘pretty nice guy.’ After this, you’re only demoting me to ‘exasperating’? I feel like we’re making real progress here, don’t you?”



Chapter Nineteen

Jacqueline could no longer ignore the alarm. With a groan, she rolled over, grabbed the phone from the nightstand, and silenced the honking-goose ring tone, squinting through bleary eyes to check the time.
 
Eleven o’clock. If she showered and did her hair and makeup now, she could pick up her dress from Castle Soho, after which she’d still have a buffer of twenty-five minutes to don her Vestal Virgin garb and report for maypole duty on the east terrace.
 
“Oh, great,” she croaked, frowning at the discovery of a three-hour-old text from Gwynnen: Back from dew wash! U awake?

Jacqueline texted back, Just woke up, and pressed “send.” Before her feet had even touched the floor, Gwynnen was already tapping on her door. With a sigh, Jacqueline shuffled to the foyer to let her in.

“You haven’t even showered yet?” Gwynnen wailed upon seeing her. “You know the maypole thing starts at one, don’t you?”

Must. Not. Punch. Friend. “I’m aware, yes.” Gwynnen came inside and Jacqueline closed the door. “I was just about to get in the shower. How was the dew wash?”

Gwynnen beamed. “It was amazing. After you sit in the hot springs awhile, jumping in the river is easy. You totally should’ve gone.”

At dinner the day before, Gwynnen had schooled her on the dew wash, an old Celtic tradition that had apparently involved bathing one’s face and body with dew collected at dawn on the first of May. Gwynnen had tried to bait Jacqueline into participating by touting some drivel she’d gleaned from the internet: “‘If the maiden was daring enough to undress and roll naked in the grass on May Day, she was given great beauty of person; the dew was also believed to bring immunity to freckles’—immunity to freckles, Jacqueline, are you listening?—‘sunburn, chapping, and wrinkles during the coming year.’”

“‘Immunity to freckles,’” Jacqueline had said with a roll of her eyes. “I think that would be like closing the barn door after the spotted sorrel Appaloosa has already bolted, don’t you?”

Gwynnen had looked at her like she was crazy. “The spotted what?”

“Forget it.”

Jacqueline had also learned that, in lieu of rolling around naked on the Castle grounds, the Gyant women trekked down to Gold River Canyon at five in the morning every May Day to “Do the Dew,” Gyant-style: namely, by lounging in the gently boiling water of the hot springs in the dark before taking a polar bear plunge into the ice-cold river at sunrise.

“Oh,” said Gwynnen, snapping Jacqueline back to the present, “and if you were thinking about cracking jokes about Mayfest or anything festival-related this weekend, don’t.”

“Why not?”

“Because some of these people take this stuff super seriously.”

“What do you mean?” Jacqueline said, heading for the bathroom. “You can talk while I brush my teeth.”

“I mean,” said Gwynnen, trailing behind her, “that there was, like, I don’t know—an invocation or blessing or whatever this morning by the river.”

Squeezing toothpaste onto her brush, Jacqueline eyed Gwynnen in the mirror. “What kind of invocation? ‘In Jesus’ name we pray’—that sort of thing?”

Gwynnen shook her head. “More like ‘Bringer of summer, Dancer of green, Keeper of chalice, Diviner of dreams.’” She frowned. “I can’t remember the rest of it, but there was a whole lot of joining of hands in a circle and bowing of heads, and everyone knew the whole blessing or poem or whatever it was by heart—and not a single person was laughing. So yeah, I’d say they were pretty serious about it.”

Jacqueline froze in mid-brush, her eyes wide. She spit out the paste. “Are you kidding me? God, I hope we haven’t said anything offensive since we’ve been here.”

Gwynnen grimaced. “I spent the rest of the morning thinking about that. Would you like the rundown in any particular order? From most to least offensive, maybe?”

Jacqueline felt ill. “Oh, no…what did we say?”

“Well, you told Howard that you didn’t know much about ‘pagan garden parties of the rich and famous.’” Over Jacqueline’s groans, she continued. “And I suggested that the King and Queen of the May wore flammable fabrics that burn in a floral motif.”

Jacqueline closed her eyes, horrified. “Oh, my God, I think I’m going to die of embarrassment.” Her eyes flew open and she gasped. “That must have been why Howard looked so weird when you were joking about the bonfire!”

“It would’ve been great if she’d have said something to us. I’ve died on the inside about a million times since the river.”

“Well, now we know.”

“Now we know,” Gwynnen agreed. She held up a tiny bottle filled with clear liquid, a gold tag tied to its neck with a gold ribbon. “I got this little souvenir, though. Isn’t it cute?”

Jacqueline turned the tag over and read the words aloud. “‘I washed my face in water that had neither rained nor run / And dried it on a towel never woven, never spun.’ Clever. What’s in it? Water from the hot springs?”

“The river. It’s not dew, but I guess it’s the next best thing.”

“Cute. Have you already picked up your dress?”

“Nope,” said Gwynnen. “I was waiting for you.”

“Okay. I’ll hurry,” said Jacqueline, reaching for the tub faucets to turn on the water. While Jacqueline stripped and hopped into the shower, Gwynnen plunked down on the closed toilet lid and poked through Jacqueline’s makeup bag sitting on the counter.

“Speaking of makeup,” said Gwynnen from the other side of the shower curtain—her friend had never seen any point in making a more subtle segue when abruptly changing topics—“what would you say if I told you that there was a line of Gyant guys queuing up for the services of the makeup artists this morning?”

Sure she’d heard Gwynnen wrong, Jacqueline rinsed the suds out of her ears and leaned away from the spray. “What do you mean ‘makeup artists’? Like, face makeup?”

“Yep.”

Jacqueline tilted her head back as far as she could in order to rinse the shampoo from her hair while still retaining the ability to hear. “What would a bunch of men want with a makeup artist?”

“You got me,” said Gwynnen. “All I know is that the makeup artist team set up shop in the solarium super-early this morning—the solarium is right next to the portico, which is right next to the terrace, which is right above the lawn. Anyway, the whole time I was walking back and forth from the basement out to the lawn with the arrangements, there was a constant stream of guys going in the solarium. When they came back out, they looked exactly the same. Not a single one of them had gotten so much as a shave or a haircut, let alone a makeover, so the question is: what were they doing in there all that time?”

“Maybe there’s a drag show later, and they were all discussing their game plans?” said Jacqueline, combing conditioner through her hair with her fingers.

“One of them was in there for almost an hour! That would be one hell of a Drag-Race-level game plan.”

“I don’t know, then. I guess we’ll find out at some point today. And you know I love you, but I could get ready a lot faster if you weren’t sitting in here distracting me.”

“Fine,” Gwynnen grumped. “I’ll be back in an hour. And you’d better be ready.”

“I will.”

An hour later, she and Gwynnen were in the long hallway on their way to Castle Soho. “I like that darker mascara on you,” said Gwynnen, scrutinizing her face. “It makes your eyes pop.”

“It’s the same mascara I always use,” said Jacqueline. “I just used darker eyeliner. But thanks.”

“I thought you were going to de-freckle?”

Jacqueline frowned. “I was going to. I ran out of time.” De-freckling was the labor-intensive process by which she buried the freckles on her face and neck under several layers of primer, stick foundation, and concealer using a stippling brush.

“Good,” said Gwynnen with a satisfied nod.

“Why is that ‘good’?”

“Because,” said Gwynnen, “a certain somebody obviously has a freckle obsession. You wouldn’t want to deny the man what he craves, would you?”

“I’m not even going to see him until dinner tonight,” said Jacqueline, her face growing hot. “I’ll have plenty of time to de-freckle before then.”

“You’re not listening,” said Gwynnen with a sigh. “Keep your eye on the prize. No de-freckling.”

Jacqueline snorted. “You’re the one not listening. The ‘prize’ isn’t D—” she stopped before the last three letters of Dane’s name could leave her mouth. “The prize isn’t him,” she said in an undertone, “it’s getting out of here.” She nodded politely to three women in their mid-twenties as they passed by, but they were too busy chattering up a storm to notice. Unlike Gwynnen and Jacqueline, they were barefooted and already clad in their long white Mayfest gowns that only emphasized the tall, lithe, tanned state of physical perfection that every member of the Gyant extended family appeared to possess.

Even in her dress, Jacqueline predicted that she was going to feel a lot less like a maidenly Vestal Virgin, and more like a mature sacrificial virgin—the kind that could be spared because every man in the city had already passed on her, thus dooming her to a life as a homely, sexless spinster.

The three women behind them stopped at the trompe l’oeil family elevator. Despite the increasing distance as Jacqueline and Gwynnen continued down the hall, Jacqueline could hear every word that was spoken.

“So Julia told me that her cousin Carlin is coming along nicely,” said one. Jacqueline glanced over her shoulder at the brunette wearing a bohemian-style dress with a fitted waist and oversized angel sleeves. “I haven’t seen him in a few years, so I don’t know.”

“Well, you’ll get an eyeful of him today, and then some,” said a raven-haired woman with even darker penciled-in eyebrows. Her fitted, A-line gown had off-the-shoulder straps that hung so far down her arms that Jacqueline doubted she’d be able to lift a wineglass to her mouth, never mind wrapping ribbon around a maypole. “And not to dis good ol’ cousin Carlin, but I’m pretty sure he isn’t the one everybody’s come to see. I haven’t seen this many people here since I was in ninth grade.”

“Oh, my God, yes,” the brunette gushed, flipping her hair so that it cascaded over her shoulders and down her back. “I saw him yesterday in the great hall, and let me just be the first to say that I’d erect Dane’s pole any day.” The trio collapsed against each other, squealing and laughing.

Jacqueline and Gwynnen glanced at each other, both of them trying their damnedest not to burst into laughter themselves.

“You couldn’t do anything with his ‘pole’ even if you wanted to, Olivia,” said the still snickering dark-haired one to the brunette. “He probably has no idea who you even are.” She lowered her voice. “And aren’t you two second cousins or something?”

Jacqueline suspected that the trio was oblivious to the amazing acoustical properties of the long hallway. The only way their words could have been more clear was if Jacqueline had been holding an ear trumpet to her ear, and the women were speaking directly into it.

Olivia—the brunette—seemed to take great umbrage at that. “Fifth cousins once removed,” she sniffed.

“Still too close. You know how they are about bringing in fresh blood.”

‘Too close’? thought Jacqueline. If she remembered her genealogy correctly, fifth cousins shared a great-great-great-great grandparent. Barring any other common ancestors in their family tree, Olivia was probably about as related to Dane Gyant as Jacqueline herself was. And who was “they”? Did the family heads really micromanage the love lives of people that far out on the branch of their family tree? Inbreeding sure would explain a lot of the crazy, though.

“Well, as a guest and the only vessel of ‘fresh blood’ in this group,” said the third, a petite woman with corkscrew blond curls wearing a one-shoulder, lace-strap chiffon gown, “I hereby offer myself up to any gorgeous Gyant man who will have me.”

“Well, it doesn’t matter anyway,” said Olivia, “because I heard that Dane is chasing some girl from the valley.”

“No!” the blond gasped.

“Yeah, I heard that, too,” said the dark-haired one, fiddling with a pearl choker necklace.

Shell-shocked, Jacqueline and Gwynnen shared another look. This time, Gwynnen’s unspoken message was clear: ‘See? I told you so.’

Jacqueline felt faint. They’re talking about some other woman. They must be. No sooner had she convinced herself of this fact, than she was nearly overcome by a wave of rabid jealousy. Suddenly, she hated this mystery “girl from the valley,” whoever she was.

Not wanting to hear any more, Jacqueline tried to quicken her pace, but Gwynnen grabbed her arm, slowing their progress to a crawl, the better to hear more of the juicy gossip behind them.

“Does anyone know who she is?” said the blond.

“No,” said her friend, “but she’d better hope that Evena doesn’t learn about her.”

“No shit. She’s been biding her time for fifteen years. I doubt she’ll be like, ‘Hey, I carried a torch for you all these years, but if you’d rather be with someone else—cool.’”

“I don’t know,” said Olivia, smoothing her chignon. “If Dane ever looked my way, I might be willing to take my chances with Evena.”

As the three stood there tittering, their elevator arrived. They squeezed into a car already packed with other giggling, similarly clad maidens on their way down to the east terrace.

The moment the doors closed, Jacqueline made a sweeping gesture in the direction of the elevator. “Multiply that,” she said, “by a hundred, okay? Because that is how many young, clear-complected, childless supermodels Dane Gyant has to choose from this weekend.”

Gwynnen shrugged. “Except they aren’t from the valley, and they aren’t hanging out in his glass house, watching him take off his shirt, are they?”

Jacqueline rolled her eyes, sorry she’d ever shared the events of yesterday with Gwynnen. You only shared some of them. Not all of them. Good call. “If they were basically working for the guy,” she said, “then yes, they would be. And I’m not sure ‘forced proximity’ is the same as ‘mutual attraction,’ but that ‘girl from the valley’ could be anyone!”

Leave it to Gwynnen to latch onto the least relevant part of Jacqueline’s retort and ignore all the rest of it. “Ah-ha!” said Gwynnen with a smirk. “So you are attracted to him.” Under her breath, she said, “She admits it at last.”

“Well, who wouldn’t be?” Jacqueline muttered, frowning. “I’d rather not be, believe me.”

Ignoring the negative circumstances under which Finn had chosen to express his continued interest in her yesterday up at the pleasance, she was glad that he’d made the effort. Finn would be a nice, safe distraction from Dane’s boundless charms. Unfortunately, Jacqueline had no idea if or when she’d see Finn again before the fifteenth, whereas Dane’s daily company was becoming irksomely unavoidable. If his company was as irksome today as it had been up at the greenhouse yesterday, she mused, she’d just have to try harder to avoid it.

On the other hand, the trek from the pleasance back to the Castle the day before hadn’t been so bad, probably because neither Dane nor Jacqueline had spoken at all for nearly half the trip. Only when they’d reached the end of the trail had Dane suddenly perked up. “Are you looking forward to the dew wash tomorrow?” he’d asked.

“There’s no way I’m going to be able to go to that,” she told him.

“No?” Dane tilted his head, curious. “Why not?”

Jacqueline laughed. “My system doesn’t handle five o’clock in the morning very well. Trust me, it’s in everyone’s best interest if I stay in bed until at least nine o’clock. Besides, if I have to get started before dawn, I won’t make it to the maypole thingy without collapsing, never mind dinner and the ball.”

Dane groaned. “Ugh! I’m such an idiot; I forgot all about that, sorry. I guess you’ll need some rest tomorrow, huh?”

She smiled. “Many rests, I’d imagine.”

“Well, I’ll make sure that you do” he said, giving her a lingering sidelong glance that left her face warm. “Rest, I mean.”

In her head, Jacqueline tested and rejected her knee-jerk response to that promise: ‘And I, in turn, will make sure that you join me in my bed during any and all rests.’

Before she could settle on something more suitable, though, Dane continued. “I meant to tell you: Anna Lawrence is a guest here this weekend.”

Jacqueline raised an eyebrow in surprise. “She is?”

Dane nodded. “But if you don’t mind, I think we should hold off on formal introductions until Monday.”

She nodded. “I understand.” And she did. Jacqueline had already found herself under increased scrutiny following the unexplained security snafu. The last thing she wanted to do was to turn the Castle’s suspicious eye on Anna Lawrence.

“Good. As for Monday, we should probably discuss how we’re going to get to Boulder.”

Jacqueline turned cold. “Please don’t say we’ll be taking the cage down to Coaching Inn.”

Dane smirked. “Since discretion is key, the cage isn’t an option. Neither is flying out. I have an idea, but I’m not sure how you’re going to feel about it.”

“Unless it involves bungee-jumping off the side of the Fingers, it can’t be worse than the cage.”

“No bungee jumping, just a motorcycle.”

“A motorcycle,” she said slowly.

My motorcycle,” he clarified.

Honestly, she wasn’t sure how much more raw material for her sex fantasies she could handle. No sooner had the word “motorcycle” left his mouth than her imagination had kicked in, sketching the scene for her: She, situated behind him on the long leather seat, gripping his body with her thighs, her chest pressed tightly against his broad back, arms around his torso, her hands roaming freely over the taut muscles of his—

“It’ll look like we’re just going for a ride on the estate,” said Dane, popping her fantasy balloon. “Which we will be, at least at first.”

Jacqueline closed her mouth and swallowed a few times. “But what if someone we know sees us in the valley?” she said.

“We’ll head west from here, not east. Once we’re on the main highway, we’ll double back over Golden Goose Pass. We won’t be anywhere near the valley.”

She narrowed her eyes at him. “Why in the world are you doing all this? I mean, I’m grateful and everything, but—”

“I don’t want anything from you, if that’s what you’re getting at,” he’d grumbled.

“Come on, that’s not what I meant,” she’d said, glaring at him. “I meant that I’m not sure you should be risking losing your family’s newfound goodwill by helping me out. Aren’t you just asking for more trouble?”

As they’d approached the paddock, Dane’s smile had been tight and close-lipped, his reply vaguely ominous. “Oh, I’d say that helping you is the least risky situation I’m involved with at the moment.”

Turning back to Gwynnen, Jacqueline was glad she’d omitted this latest exchange with Dane when she’d shared yesterday’s events at the pleasance, just as she’d kept the conversation she’d overheard between Dane and Howard on her first night to herself. She had no idea what any of it meant,  and knew that Gwynnen’s imagination would run wild with pointless—and likely incorrect—speculation.

“My only objective at the moment,” Jacqueline told Gwynnen,“is to get through this Renaissance-festival cosplay weekend without collapsing from exhaustion, and yet still appear ill enough to make my immediate departure necessary. If you’d dispense with the irrational matchmaking, it would help my chances a lot.”

Gwynnen smirked. “If you say so, McDappleroy.”

Jacqueline glared at her. “Et tu, Gwynnen?” Like it’s not bad enough I have to hear it from Dane and half his relatives. “And by the way, our contracts only state that we have to attend the Mayfest functions; it doesn’t specify how long we have to stay, ergo I plan to minimize the time I’m at each function.”

Gwynnen wagged her finger under Jacqueline’s nose. “Uh-uh. I did not get up at four a.m. so I could go to the dew wash and still set up the arrangements and hang all those garlands— all so we could ‘drop in’ for a few minutes. No.”

“Well, it’s not like we’re going to know anyone at this thing, anyway,” Jacqueline said peevishly. “I mean, unless you were bosom buddies with the Gyants prior to today and never bothered to tell me.”

“No, but that’s not what this is about,” said Gwynnen. “Not according to Howard, anyway.”

“‘Howard’?” said Jacqueline, surprised. “When did you talk to Howard?”

“I saw her this morning when I was setting up the arrangements.”

“Oh, right. What did she have to say about it?”

“She told me that Mayfest is the family’s annual matchmaking extravaganza,” said Gwynnen.

“Matchmaking?” Jacqueline wrinkled her nose. “I thought this weekend was one of their family reunions? Wouldn’t that put ‘matchmaking’ in the ‘totally skeevy and possibly illegal’ category’?”

Gwynnen rolled her eyes. “Every Gyant family member gets guest passes to hand out. They give the passes to hot, rich friends of theirs, and the hot, rich friends come here and try to hook up with a hot, rich Gyant.”

Jacqueline shot Gwynnen a skeptical look. “Howard didn’t really say it that way.”

Gwynnen smiled. “No. But that was the gist of it.”

“Well, I guess that explains why we didn’t get those guest passes everyone at the Stalk assumed we would. Our friends aren’t hot or rich enough.”

Gwynnen laughed. “I guess not. Howard said there’d be lots of people here we might recognize, though: the former lieutenant governor of Colorado, an actress I’d never heard of, some Silicon Valley billionaire, an aerospace magnate—people like that.”

Jacqueline’s interest was piqued. “Really?” Maybe you’ll meet someone tonight after all—preferably someone who’s not a Gyant. Gyant-adjacent” wasn’t ideal, but it might be okay, depending on the guy.

Gwynnen nodded. “She said it was about half family, half outsiders this year.”

“Huh. I don’t suppose the Gyants, like, wear a special color, do they? So you know who to avoid?”

Gwynnen gave a soft snort. “I don’t think you’re going to have any luck avoiding Dane, no matter what color he’s wearing.”

“Well, given that we’re about to go outside and hang out with a bunch of chicks for the next two hours, I think I’ll be able to avoid him until dinner at least.” After a pause, she said, “What did it look like? The setup out there, I mean.”

Gwynnen smiled. “It looked posh, that’s what it looked like. When I was out there at seven, the tables and chairs had already been set up. It was like a five-star, outdoor restaurant. Howard says there will be Celtic folk music, too. Oh, and they’ve even covered a bunch of couches and armchairs with white sheets and hauled them out there.”

Jacqueline raised an eyebrow at that revelation. “Couches? Why do we need couches at a maypole dance? Won’t we all be, like, dancing around the maypole?”

“You must have mistaken me for some other independently wealthy florist, Jacqui-lantern,” said Gwynnen. “But judging by the number of wine glasses waiting for us on the side tables, it’s not going to double as an AA meeting.”

“What about the pole?” said Jacqueline. “Wasn’t the maypole the whole point of this stupid thing?”

Gwynnen cocked her head and narrowed her eyes, thinking. “No pole. I think I would’ve noticed. Maybe the pole’s metaphorical. Or imaginary. Or something.”

Jacqueline frowned at her. “You made the ring of flowers that goes on top of it, remember? How do you put flowers on top of an imaginary maypole?”

Grinning, Gwynnen pulled the door to Castle Soho open. “I believe that’s where the alcohol comes in.”

Castle Soho was pandemonium. It seemed as if every woman from the Castle and across Sky Lake was either picking up a dress or picking over what dresses were still available. It took the two of them longer than Jacqueline had anticipated to retrieve their dresses from the tailor and fight their way to the dressing rooms to check the fit.

“God, I love this dress,” said Jacqueline. She ran her hand over her stomach where the basque waistline of the heavily embellished lace bodice met the floor-length, layered, handkerchief-hem chiffon skirt. “It’s a good thing I remembered the silicon bra strip thingies, or I’d be in real trouble.” The dress wasn’t completely backless, but the wispy lengths of lace framing the illusion back left enough skin exposed that even a nude racerback bra would have shown through.

“We could’ve just gone back for them,” said Gwynnen, admiring her own ivory satin halter gown. Once they were both done oohing and aahing over their respective dresses, they pushed their way back out of Castle Soho and waited what seemed like forever for the gold elevator before giving up and taking the stairs to the first floor. Opening the stairwell door, Jacqueline almost ran straight into Howard.

“Sorry, Howard!” she said.

A somewhat frazzled-looking Howard spared only the briefest of glances for them. “You both look lovely!” she said over her shoulder as she hurried away. “Sorry you had to take the stairs. It’s the only elevator to the kitchen, so we had to commandeer it. You know the way, don’t you Gwynnen? The windows in the portico are all down, so you can walk right out onto the terrace. Have a lovely time!”

“Thank…” said Jacqueline, trailing off as Howard rushed around the corner, “…you?”

“‘All the windows are down?’” said Gwynnen. “Does that mean something other than what it sounds like?”

“I’m assuming that you didn’t crawl through a window to get to the terrace this morning,” said Jacqueline.

“No, I walked through a door,” said Gwynnen, leading them outside onto a covered porch. “Sometimes I even used the doors on the other end of the portico. You know, just for variety.”

On the other side of the porch, they reentered the Castle and hurried down a long hallway that took them past the solarium and out to a cavern-sized portico. “Oh, wow…” Jacqueline murmured. She closed her eyes and breathed in deep to savor the sweet, almost overpowering scent of hawthorn and dogwood tree blossoms that saturated the air.

“You’re kidding me!” said Gwynnen.

Jacqueline’s eyes flew open. “What?”

Gwynnen pointed at the closest of the twenty-foot arches between the portico’s stone columns. “Those—there were windows there this morning! Huge arch windows!” She hurried over to the closest archway and, after a brief glance at the floor, looked up at Jacqueline. “They retract right into the ground. Can you believe that?”

Jacqueline rolled her eyes. “You act like that’s the weirdest thing I’ve seen since I’ve been here.”

Gwynnen took her arm and pulled her towards the terrace. “Let’s get this party started.”

The terrace overlooked a vast lawn that ended at the edge of the May Grove. Couches and love seats draped with white sheets and about twenty, four-person table-and-chair sets had been arranged around a small concrete apron, at the center of which was a still-empty posthole. Seated in a semi-circle about twenty feet from the posthole, a group of musicians on fiddles, guitars, banjos, flutes, tin whistles, and a Celtic drum were hard at work playing a lively Scottish folk tune that made Jacqueline want to dance.

Descending the long staircase to the lawn, she estimated that there were nearly a hundred women in white lounging on couches, clustered at the tables, and huddled together in groups around the lawn, sipping champagne and picking at the pyramids of fresh fruit, cheese plates, and the veritable feast of finger-foods laid out on trestle tables. The air was filled with music and tense with a kind of giddy anticipation.

How can this many sophisticated, worldly women get so excited over skipping around a maypole? Honestly, it was a little embarrassing.

She hurried ahead of Gwynnen, eager to secure a table on the outer perimeter of the party. That way, she reasoned, she could sneak away later without drawing a lot of attention. There were no completely vacant tables, but the closest table to them had three empty chairs. Facing away from them was a woman wearing a wide-brimmed, white hat festooned with white roses and enormous ‘dinner plate’ dahlias. Jacqueline approached her from the side so as not to startle her. “Excuse me, are these seats taken?”

The woman whirled around, looked Jacqueline and Gwynnen over and drawled, “Well aren’t you two all drunk an’ dressed up!”

Jacqueline and Gwynnen responded in shocked, open-mouthed unison: “Tilly?”



Chapter Twenty

Jacqueline had barely recovered from the shock of finding Tilly at the Castle, when Tilly dropped another bomb. “Seems like no matter how many times you’ve been here,” said Tilly, gazing wistfully off into the May Grove, “it feels like the first time.”
 
Thankfully, both Gwynnen and Jacqueline had already taken their seats. “What do you mean ‘no matter how many times’?” said Jacqueline. From her conversations with Tilly at the Stalk, she’d surmised that Tilly had been up to the Castle once or twice before in a professional capacity, but she was beginning to suspect that there was much more to Tilly’s relationship to the place. “How many times are we talking about, here?”
 
Tilly laughed, but there was a hollowness to the sound that left Jacqueline feeling uneasy. “More times than I can remember.”

What?” said Gwynnen, blinking in surprise. “But you—you—why in the world did you not tell us this before?”

“For the same reason you won’t be running your mouths when you’re back in the valley,” Tilly said with a frown. “Not if you’re smart, at any rate.”

It was a testament, Jacqueline thought, to the fear the Gyant family inspired in people; Tilly was the biggest blabbermouth she’d ever met, and yet she’d not breathed a single word all these years. Watching Tilly, she couldn’t help but wonder if Tilly knew about Jacqueline’s own situation. But how could she know? It certainly wouldn’t have been in the Castle’s own interests to widen the circle of those with insider knowledge.

“I suppose you’ve been to Mayfest before, too?” said Jacqueline.

Tilly nodded. “Sure. All eight turns of the wheel, as they say.”

The “eight turns” were Candlemas on February 1, Ēostre on the vernal equinox—how many years had Jacqueline lived in the valley before realizing that this was some crazy spelling of “Easter?”—Mayfest on May 1, Midsummer’s on June 21, Augustine on August 1, Ingathering on the autumn equinox, All Hallow’s on November 1, and Yuletide on December 21.

Glancing around them, Jacqueline leaned over the table. “Then would you please be so kind as to explain why a group of grown women in white are about to prance around like a bunch of kindergarteners?”

“Trust me, Jacqui, honey,” said Tilly with a smirk, “if the parents of kindergarteners knew what the maypole was all about, they wouldn’t let their little angels within ten miles of it.”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean that if you think of the maypole dance as an exotic pole dance, it’ll make the rest of the explanation a lot easier to follow.” She gave them each a knowing glance. “Are you sure you want me to rip off the mask? Because once you know it, you can’t go back to unknowing it.”

Jacqueline shared a glance with Gwynnen and shrugged. How bad could it be? “Let’s hear it.”

Tilly leaned forward and clasped her hands together on the tabletop. “The pole represents the phallus of the god. The pole is driven into the earth as a sign of his, er, potency, shall we say.”

“Oh, brother,” Jacqueline mumbled, already turning red.

“The wreath that Gwynnen made for the top of the pole represents the fertile goddess.” Tilly turned to Gwynnen. “What colors did they tell you to use for the wreath?”

“Uh, red, white and green,” said Gwynnen.

Tilly nodded. “Green for fertility, red for the vitality of the god, white for the purity of the goddess.” She paused. “Although I’ve also heard it said that red is the lifeblood of the goddess and white symbolizes the semen of—”

O-kay,” said Jacqueline, jumping to her feet so fast, she nearly knocked her chair over backwards. “I don’t think I can listen to this until I have a little alcohol in me.”

“Me either,” said Gwynnen, pushing away from the table.

“Suit yourselves,” Tilly said, grinning as Jacqueline and Gwynnen made a beeline for the food.

Jacqueline piled two plates sky-high with miniature quiches, phyllo-wrapped asparagus with prosciutto, mini cornbread crab cakes with lemon caper sauce, and a smorgasbord of cheeses and fruits. Meanwhile, she sent Gwynnen to fetch three glasses of champagne. Gwynnen went one better, though, returning with three empty glasses and an entire bottle.

Thus provisioned, they reseated themselves and were happily occupied with stuffing food into their mouths as Tilly continued with the, er, climax of her Mayfest tale. “When the women weave the pattern with the ribbons, they’re enclosing the pole of the god in a sort of Chinese finger trap.”

Jacqueline winced at the imagery. “Um…ouch?”

Tilly ignored her. “As the ribbons wrap the pole, the wreath sliiides down the phallus—”

“Stop, stop, stop,” said Jacqueline, waving a hand in front of her in the hopes of dispersing Tilly’s words before they reached her ears. “I just—I can’t—just no. I feel like I’m getting the birds-and-the-bees talk from my parents all over again.”

“Yeah,” said Gwynnen, frowning at Tilly, “and you forgot the part where ‘the god and the goddess love each other very much.”

“But we haven’t even gotten to the cosmic orgasm yet!” Tilly said, chortling so hard that Jacqueline feared she would choke on her own tongue.

While Gwynnen smacked Tilly on the back, Jacqueline swallowed a generous mouthful of champagne and fervently wished she were somewhere else—anywhere else. God, what am I doing here?

“Well, I just hope that I’m not the one responsible for attaching the cosmic yoni to the symbolic phallus,” said Gwynnen, looking over her shoulder in the direction of the still-empty posthole, “because I have no idea how to do it.”

“That’s assuming that we ever get a maypole,” Jacqueline muttered.

Tilly gave a mighty clearing of her throat. “They should be here with it any minute now.”

“Who? The maintenance crew?” said Gwynnen.

“‘The maintenance crew’?” said Tilly, incredulous. “I surely hope not, or I just wasted myself a trip up the mountain.”

“Well, who, then?”

“The Gyant men. Who else?” said Tilly.

Jacqueline raised one skeptical eyebrow. “That seems like an awful lot of Gyant men sharing one giant phallus. I have a feeling that they’d all demand their own pole.”

“That’s all the guys do?” said Gwynnen. “Grab the pole from some storage shed, throw it in the ground, and go about their business?”

“You really don’t know, do you?” said Tilly, her eyes shining with mischief.

“Know what?” said Jacqueline.

“That the men stay and watch.”

“They stay and watch,” Jacqueline said slowly. I’ll bet they do. “Let me get this straight,” she said angrily. “We get all gussied up in our virginal attire in order to pay homage to every man’s fantasy phallus, and they get to sit on their butts and watch us do this?”

“Yyyep!” said Tilly, making a popping sound with her mouth on the “P.”

Jacqueline folded her arms over her chest and scowled. “That is the biggest bunch of sexist, exhibitionist bullshit I’ve ever heard.”

Tilly’s peals of laughter were loud enough to turn the heads of their virginal compatriots at the other tables. “I could—explain everything—to you—” Tilly wheezed, not so much rebutting Jacqueline’s accusation as interjecting handfuls of words between guffaws and gasps for air, “but I—don’t want to ruin it—for you!”

Jacqueline was undeterred. “Explain or don’t explain; I’m not doing it. And what the heck is that noise?” she said sharply, twisting around in her chair.

For the last few minutes, the distant sounds of all-male choral music could be heard whenever there was a lull in the folk music. At first, the singing was hardly audible, but it had been growing steadily louder—not to mention more boisterous and often out-of-tune.

And then, somewhere up by the posthole, the whooping among the women began. In no time, every woman, save Jacqueline and Gwynnen, was on her feet “a-hootin’ an’ a-hollerin’” as Tilly was wont to say. Only Tilly couldn’t say that now, Jacqueline saw, because she’d stepped into the role of Hooter and Hollerer in Chief.

Even after Jacqueline stood up, her line of sight was blocked by all the women in front of her. “What is it?” she said to Gwynnen, who had just clambered up onto her chair for a better vantage.

Balanced on the chair, Gwynnen said, “I don’t know. I can’t tell what—” She must have spotted something, though, because her mouth fell open, her eyes flew open wide, and she cried, “Oh. My. GAAAWD!”

“What? What?” Jacqueline pleaded, but Gwynnen was far too preoccupied to take any heed of her now. Stuffing her index and middle fingers partway into her mouth, Gwynnen produced a wolf whistle that nearly blew Jacqueline’s eardrums in.

This had better be good, Jacqueline thought, eyeing her own chair. With a heavy sigh, she lifted her skirt with one hand, grabbed the back of the chair with the other, climbed onto the seat, and looked across the crowd to see what all the fuss was about.

Because the Castle sat at the highest point on Castle Peak, looking out in any direction meant looking downhill to one degree or another. Standing on her chair at the apex of the gently sloping green, Jacqueline looked north to where a set of wide stone steps led down to the broad, grassy avenue bisecting the formal gardens.

Progressing up that avenue were around twenty-five handsome, fit, and mostly shirtless men bearing the weight of a newly felled tree—a lodgepole pine by the looks of it—on their shoulders. While they struggled with the log, their thirty or so companions walked alongside, some carrying axes, hatchets, and two-man crosscut saws. That scene alone would have provided Jacqueline with puh-lenty of fantasy fodder for the next few decades, but those details were far from the sweetest part of the man-candy display before her.

Jacqueline narrowed her eyes, craning her neck. “Are they wearing…kilts?” No one answered her question. No one had to. Suddenly, her eyes felt like they were telescoping out of their sockets. Her tongue fell out of her mouth, hit the soft grass, and rolled away from her like a red carpet.

They were kilts, all right. It was the fabric that had thrown her off at first. Rather than decorative tartan, the men’s kilts were of either leather or the heavy, canvas-type fabric used in the pants manual laborers wore. Utility kilt, she thought. She’d heard of such a thing, but never in her wildest dreams did she think she’d ever get to see one on a real live man in her lifetime, let alone a couple dozen at one go.

Kilts, she thought before poking Gwynnen in the arm and launching into a word scramble of epic proportions. “They’re shirting kilts!” she yelled before trying to correct herself. “I mean ‘they’re shirtless and wearing trees’! Ugh, I mean ‘wearing kilts!’ And they chopped down a tree! Kilts!” Gwynnen grinned and yelled something back, but hell if Jacqueline could understand what it was over all the shouting and whistling around them.

As the men continued up the avenue to the green, Jacqueline faintly remembered Gwynnen wondering aloud why a bunch of men would need the services of a team of makeup artists. “I guess we’ll find out,” had been Jacqueline’s reply. She never thought that the answer to that particular riddle would come in the form of bronze and woad-blue Celtic knots and dots, swirls and symbols—all painted on flexing pecs, washboard stomachs, straining biceps, and gorgeous male faces.

Oh, and they were singing, too, belting out what sounded a lot like a Scottish pub drinking song:

I love a lassie, a bonnie Highland lassie,
If you saw her you would fancy her as well.
I met her in September, popped the question in November,
So I’ll soon be havin’ her a’ to ma-sel’.
Her faither has consented, so I’m feelin’ quite contented,
’Cause I’ve been and sealed the bargain wi’ a kiss.
I sit and weary weary, when I think aboot ma deary,
An’ you’ll always hear me singing this…

Besides the kilts, perhaps the tastiest part of the visual feast before her was the headgear. In keeping with the whole “pagan fertility rite” spirit of the party, about a third of the men sported either stag antlers or steer horns which, she decided, must be Styrofoam or resin—she’d held a set of genuine steer horns before; they’d weighed a good ten pounds.

The whole tableau was a hedonistic display of raw masculinity, an entire bookshelf of bodice-ripper covers sprung to life. There’s no way this day doesn’t end in a first-class debauching. As for which group would be debauching which, she couldn’t say. Forget The Heinous Highlander and Lust by the Loch, she thought, looking around at the women standing on their chairs and aiming lascivious stares at the approaching pagan horde. Around here, it was starting to look more and more like The Lusty Lasses and Horny for Heathens.

Jacqueline stepped down from her chair and sat heavily on the seat. And you haven’t even seen Dane yet, she realized. Grabbing the champagne bottle, she took a few generous swigs before thumping it back onto the tabletop. “God help me,” she muttered, but then a new idea struck her: There’s no way Dane would come to something like this! He was far too stuffy and straight-laced to participate in this crazy theatrical, his family’s expectations be damned. Hell, he was probably up at the pleasance right now, hiding inside his greenhouse with all walls set to “cloudy.”

Emboldened, she climbed back onto the chair—a little less steadily this time, thanks to the adrenaline-and-champagne cocktail coursing through her bloodstream—to find that the men carrying the felled tree had nearly reached the steps to the green, close enough now for her to make out individual faces.

Just when she was congratulating herself for being right about Dane, she spotted him at the top of the line of tree-bearers. His gray kilt, ragged and stained, was one of the canvas ones. Either it was a ceremonial, tree-felling, maypole-raising kilt that had been handed down in the family for generations, or Dane had personally worked it into its current shabby state, right along with a pair of ratty brown lace-up work boots.

Like the other men, Dane’s chest was covered with bright blue tracery, the pattern resembling a cluster of filigreed trees with dots between the branches. The coils and whorls of blue extended all the way up onto his neck and face and down his upper arms. Whatever body paint the makeup artists had used, it must be waterproof; while there were places where the designs had been rubbed away, the sweat and grime seemed to have had no effect at all.

Dane Gyant in a kilt, body paint, and stag antlers was, hands-down, the most arousing sight she’d ever beheld. “Oh, my God,” she moaned, covering her eyes with her hands. If she didn’t look away, she was going to combust nearby objects with her mind. That she was already burning was an absolute given.

By the time she’d worked up the courage to lift her head again, Dane and the rest of the team had propelled the log up the stairs to the green. With the cat-calling from the women intensifying to a crescendo, she was surprised when the men didn’t maneuver the log into the posthole. Instead, they stopped in front of the concrete apron and lowered one end of the log onto a squat sawhorse.

Before Jacqueline could ask Tilly what they were doing, Dane pointed at something on the ground and laughingly shouted a few words at a second man. The second man—Nolan Gyant, Jacqueline realized when she could tear her eyes away from Dane long enough to notice anything else—growled something back at Dane. Whatever it was, it made the women near him—the same three women from the fourth-floor hallway, she realized—laugh uproariously.

Nolan tossed Dane a tool. She couldn’t remember the name of it—a knife with a handle at each end set at right angles to the blade—but she knew its purpose: to strip the bark off logs.

No, she thought, wanting to look away, but unable to. No, no, no, God, no, please no.

Her pleas and prayers were to no avail. Dane promptly straddled the log and removed the plastic guard from the blade. Holding a handle in each hand, he proceeded to draw the blade towards him over the surface of the log in long, leisurely strokes, peeling the bark away like it was the skin of a potato, albeit a potato shaped like the Mother of All Engorgements.

A smirking Tilly, taking note of Jacqueline’s slack jaw, bulging eyeballs, and red face, bellowed at her over the approving whoops and whistles of the women, “Well, if that don’t get your fire started, your wood’s wet, now isn’t it?”

***

Over the hour that followed, Jacqueline made a heroic effort to consume more food than champagne. Unfortunately, most of her mental energy had already been used up forcing herself to sit with her back turned to the phallus worship taking place up at the maypole. Thanks to her alcohol tolerance being at an all-time low after her hospitalization and long recovery, the only two things standing in the way of her getting good and drunk were named “Tilly” and “Gwynnen.” Still, there was no denying that she was more than a little tipsy.

Dane’s turn at bark removal on what an otherwise genteel woman near her had crudely referred to as a “cock-rocket” had been mercifully short. As Jacqueline saw it, her only hope for avoiding Dane now was to hunker down in her chair at the back of the party, remain as inconspicuous as possible, and try not to imagine what it would be like if he pressed his sweaty, grime-covered body against her pristine, virginal white dress, and—

“It’s time,” said Gwynnen, cutting that reverie short.

“No,” said Jacqueline for the hundredth time.

“Come on, Jacqui-lantern. It’ll be fun!” she said, determined for Jacqueline to join her in the maypole dance.

“How do you know?” she snapped. “When was the last time you trapped a god’s penis in a Chinese finger trap?” As Gwynnen drew breath to answer, Jacqueline held up her hand. “Never mind, scratch that, forget I asked.” Gwynnen was liable to regale them all with sordid tales of sexual-exploits past. “I’m too tired to do it right now. Besides,” she said, twisting around in her seat to glance at the now-vertical maypole, “there aren’t enough ribbons for every woman here.”

Gwynnen rolled her eyes. “They take turns, Jacqueline, that way everyone gets a chance. You’ll only be up there for a few minutes, then you hand off your ribbon to someone else.”

“Maybe later,” she said rather unconvincingly.

Gwynnen heaved a long, disappointed sigh, muttered, “Whatever,” and left to join Tilly up where the action was.

Following Gwynnen with her eyes, Jacqueline was surprised to see Waverly Gyant step up to the maypole to personally brief the uninitiated on the basics of the steps involved in weaving the twenty-odd ribbons around the pole.

Where did Evena come from? She hadn’t even realized that Evena was there. That’s because you were either covering your eyes or gawking at half-dressed men hefting a tree across the estate.

Evena looked like a goddess incarnate herself in a beaded, one-shoulder, white chiffon gown with a classic Greek empire waist and a flowing train. Her diamond teardrop earrings were so large, Jacqueline could see the sunlight flashing off them all the way from where she sat. Oddly enough, Jacqueline hadn’t seen Finn at all, but maybe that wasn’t so odd, given that he was an employee and not technically a member of the family or a guest.

Yeah, well, so are you. While that was undeniable, she imagined that, as the estate manager, Finn’s hands were probably too full with organizing and overseeing the smooth implementation of Mayfest to participate in it, whereas the estate was unlikely to notice the loss of its landscape designer for the day.

In stark contrast to the way the women had behaved watching the Gyant men muscle the log to the green, there was no mobbing of men to the maypole to leer at the dancers, no ribald jokes or even cat-calling. The men dispersed among the tables and simply mingled, sometimes sitting down when a seat was vacated by a woman taking a turn at the maypole, but mostly standing around and chatting amiably with the women or each other, stuffing themselves with food and beer, or pouring glass after glass of champagne for the ladies. Honestly, the whole event had turned out to be more of a glorified, pagan-themed bachelorette party than anything else.

This is probably your best chance to sneak away, Jacqueline thought, watching as a smiling Gwynnen, holding a red ribbon, wove gracefully in and out of the other dancers. The flower wreath, she saw, had slipped about a quarter of the way down the pole. If she didn’t leave now, Gwynnen would surely badger her into running a ribbon around the thing at some point.

“A hundred dollars for your thoughts,” came a voice behind her.

Jacqueline froze like a rabbit in a hunter’s crosshairs. No! She slowly turned to find Dane standing behind her chair, a crisp one hundred dollar bill in his outstretched hand. Not that she lingered on it for very long. How could she when his forearm was encased in a suede and embossed-leather bracer, the kind worn by archers to protect their wrists from the snap of a bow string? Maybe he’s come over to shoot you and put you out of your horny misery.

It took all her mental fortitude—and then some—to turn away from him. “Please,” she sniffed. “Come back when you have the whole gazillion dollars you already owe me.” And after you put on some more clothes.

Honestly, even if he were to stack up a gazillion dollar right in front of her, right this very second, she still wouldn’t share her thoughts with him, especially as they involved pushing him to the ground, sitting astride him, and settling once and for all what, if anything, the modern Scots-American wore under his utility kilt.

“If that attitude is meant to deter me,” he said with a soft snort, “then you clearly haven’t seen the back of your own dress.”

Jacqueline blushed and then blushed some more. If she couldn’t find a way to get herself far, far away from him—and fast—she was going to melt through the Earth like an overheated nuclear reactor core. “Did you want something in particular, or did you only come over here to tease me?” Also, please specify which parts of me you want—a bulleted list would be great—as well as detailing in what forms said teasing will manifest.

Smirking, he dragged Gwynnen’s chair closer to hers, turned it around backwards, and lowered himself onto the seat. “I’ve been tasked with rounding up the resisters.”

“‘The resisters’?” As if any woman could resist him for long, especially when covered in a sheen of sweat and body paint, and smelling of leather, pine sap, beer and, well, maleness.

“Those individuals shirking their maypole duties,” he explained, frowning. “That would be you, I’m afraid.”

“Oh, that,” she said, dismissing him with a wave of her hand. “Yeah, I’m not doing the maypole thing.”

His eyes overflowed with good humor. “Excellent. It’s always more fun to drag resisters up to the front, kicking and screaming.”

He was deadly serious, she realized. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw a few of his buddies, including Nolan Gyant, converging on her, penning her in.

“Do we have a resister?” said Nolan with a mischievous grin.

Dane studied her, all the while drumming a rhythm against the back of the chair with his fingers. “Nah,” he said finally. “This one will go willingly, I think.” He rose, stepped away from the chair, and held his hand out to her. “Let’s go. What’s good for the goose is good for the gander.”

Jacqueline went pale. They’re just kidding. They must be.

Sensing her indecision, Dane closed the distance between them. Leaning down over her, he half-growled, half-murmured in her ear, “Come on, Amber Waves. Get up there and get on the pole.”


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