Gaela’s Gardens

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Gaela Clancy is a loner, and a bit of a shy person. She’s grown a lot in the six years that she’s been head gardener at Eden’s Gate public garden estate; she even manages a few employees. But the strange, scruffy-looking man who has been hanging around lately has set off all her alarm bells and sent her scurrying for the familiar emotional cover of her difficult youth.

Still…is he that dangerous? Or is it that he is, himself, in danger? Maybe at least she can pray for him.

Watch out…when you start to pray, you can never predict the results!

 

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Chapter One

Gaela Clancy was transplanting flowering crabapple slips when she saw the man. He was just standing there, staring at her. Her heart gave an erratic thump and she looked quickly back down at her work.

As head caretaker at a public garden estate, Gaela was certainly used to being watched at her work. But it was still early in the year, and there weren’t many visitors to Eden’s Gate yet. She told herself that was why he had startled her. It was just the unexpectedness of it.

Ragged, dirty clothes didn’t necessarily mean he was an evil person, for pete’s sake. Maybe he was poor. And lots of guys had long, dark hair and beards. Resolutely shutting out the memory that stuttered through her pulses, Gaela gritted her teeth and concentrated on smoothing the mulch just so. She was reacting ridiculously. He was just a guy. He liked to watch her work. People always liked to watch you work. Methodically, she planted three more baby trees, breathing in the comforting smells of damp earth and compost. Maybe he was gone now.

When she looked at the stranger again, he looked away too quickly, gazing out over the lake as if he were meditating on its quiet beauty. She looked at it herself, sparkling and dimpling in the sunshine. Cheery drifts of gold and lavender crocus spread a quilt of color under an early flowering cherry and dappled the stretch of greening lawn that led down to the shore. But when she looked back at the man for a second, she somehow knew he wasn’t even seeing the landscape.

Gaela turned determinedly to the last transplant. The sooner she finished here, the sooner she could move on to another chore, farther away from the unnerving stranger.

 

***

Brown. Curly brown hair, matching golden-brown skin, even a well-worn brown coverall. It was enough to make a man believe in pixies again. Watching as the young woman deftly transferred dead-looking sticks from a plastic bucket of water into rich black soil, Caine wished he dared move closer to see if her eyes were brown, too. Her strong, tanned hands caressed each twig as if it were her child, spreading its roots carefully in a hole she dug with a trowel, then holding it upright with one hand while refilling the hole with the other. She pressed down the dirt and snuggled blankets of mulch around each tall bare twig. For one shaken instant, the gesture transplanted Caine back to his own barely remembered babyhood. He turned away abruptly, shaking his head to dislodge the sharp hook of unwanted memory. The lake drew his eye, but didn’t calm him. A stiff March breeze whipped up a froth of waves, just like the constant churning in his gut. A scattering of water birds flew up from the water, shrieking noisily, as if he spooked them just by watching.

He looked back at the woman. Her eyes slid toward him, and Caine realized he’d spooked her, too. Story of his life. Scaring innocent women just by existing. He ought to go away and leave her alone. He would. In a minute.

Shifting his feet, Caine looked at the lake, doing his best to appear ordinary and nonthreatening. The sign in town–a new sign since he had been here last, though he had to admit that had been years ago–proclaimed that “the fifty-seven acres of Eden’s Gate offer beauty for the eye, and peace for the weary soul.” On a whim, and not without a sneer for the name, he had taken them up on their offer, but he hadn’t found any peace yet.

Truth be told, there wasn’t much “beauty for the eye” to be had in March, either, even though this winter had been short and mild. He had seen patches of shivering crocus, clumps of green blades knifing through the smothering dirt and leaves, and a few white-blossomed trees with birds already squabbling in them. Everything else was pretty much still winter-dead. Like himself. He kicked a stone in the graveled path. How long could winter’s claws keep their grip? How many more years? He might as well leave.

As he turned away from the uneasy heaving of the lake, a movement caught his eye and he looked toward the young gardener again. She was standing, bending this way and that to stretch her back, then bending to pick up her tools. Her hair, a cloud of short, loose curls, caught gleams of gold from the sun. Caine watched her, mesmerized by her grace and tiny size. Even from this distance, he could guess that she wouldn’t reach his shoulder. Maybe she really was a pixie. The woman lifted her bucket and tools to a wheeled cart, then walked quickly away, pushing the cart.

An irrational spurt of panic threatened to rouse the old, never-quite-banished sense of abandonment. Keeping her in sight, Caine followed the young woman to another bed, where she took a rake and began scraping dead leaves out of the edges of some shrubbery. Stopping at a safe distance, he watched. He had been wrong. One thing here brought him a measure of peace. Watching the garden pixie. He wouldn’t speak to her. He would just watch. Why should that frighten her? He leaned against a tree, trying for a nonchalant pose. If she looked at him again, he would gaze calmly out on the landscape. It was a public garden, after all.

***

Gaela concentrated assiduously on raking old oak leaves out from under the dwarf spreading yew. She would not look behind her like some nervous heroine of a cheap TV thriller. Of course that guy hadn’t followed her. He wasn’t a stalker, he was just a garden visitor. She carefully gathered the last of the leaves and scooped them into a large black plastic bag. They would go to the compost bins hidden decorously behind the largest garden sheds. Maybe she would go and take them there right now, although she had intended to fork this bed over, in preparation for the johnny-jump-ups she meant to put in it. Blowing her tangled hair out of her eyes and peering sideways at him, she saw the man. He had followed her. He was still watching her intently.

Gaela looked at her hands. They were starting to shake. Stupid! It had been years since a man had spooked her like this. She’d thought she was over it. She pushed at her hair again and tried to distract herself with the thought that it needed cut. It was too curly to allow it to get past collar length. She ought to make an appointment . . . the distraction wasn’t working. Escape was her only option. But she couldn’t let it look like escape.

Hanging the bag of leaves from the hook at the end of her cart, Gaela marched matter-of-factly in the direction of the sheds. After she had gone a short distance, she looked to her left as if checking out the budding dogwoods along the edge of the woods and peeked behind her again. He was following her! Gaela picked up her pace, fighting not to break into a run. Anger warred with the old fear she had sworn never to feel again. Eden was her sanctuary. For six years she had felt completely safe and at home here. Now she was longing to sprint for the big house and lock herself in.

Gaela stopped suddenly. Deliberately she stoked the anger and ignored the fear. These were her gardens. They belonged to her much more fully than to their legal owners, who seldom even came home anymore. She was an adult, not a terrified fourteen-year-old, and nobody was going to make her frightened or ashamed ever again. Lifting her chin and squaring her shoulders, she transferred her death grip from the cart to the handle of a sturdy shovel, turned around, and opened her mouth to challenge her pursuer.

Mouth still open, she looked around. He was gone.

“There now, see how stupid that was?” she chided herself, not quite out loud, but in a defiant whisper. “You got all upset over -” Gaela let out a yelp as heavy footsteps ran up behind her. She whirled, trying to wrestle the shovel from its rack, but only succeeding in nearly knocking down a whole tray of hand tools.

“Whoa! Hey, what’s the matter, chief?” Ted Waite, one of her assistant gardeners, grabbed the cart, which was in imminent danger of tipping, and pushed the tool tray back into place.

Gaela clutched at her chest, feeling her heart race painfully. “Oh, Ted! Oh, my word!” she gulped breathlessly. Ted, just Ted, she told herself. Blond, clean-cut, football-star-looking Ted. No beard, no long hair, no dirty… well, dirty… but then so was she… Stop it! “You scared me to death!” she accused.

“So I see!” Ted’s gaze took in her white knuckles, still clamped around the shovel. “I’m sorry. Didn’t you hear me coming?” His blue eyes moved to her face and narrowed in concern.

Reining in her galloping nerves, Gaela tried for a laugh. “No–yes–I guess I did, actually, but you know me–just daydreaming!”

All she needed was for Ted to go all over-protective on her again. He was always nagging her to keep her cell phone on, and of course she would, later when the busy season was upon them and the crew needed to be in constant contact. But during the slower seasons, Gaela relished her solitude. Angry all over again at the strange man who had broken the peace of that solitude, she irrationally found herself turning that anger on Ted. Why did men either have to menace her or spend their time trying to take care of her? Not for the first time, she wished she were six or eight inches taller.

She let go of the shovel, hoping he didn’t see the difficulty she had with that simple action, and grabbed the cart handles again, but Ted’s large hand easily prevented any forward movement. “What happened, Gaela?”

“Come on, Ted, I was just taking this stuff to the compost bins.”

“Something terrified you, Gaela. You want to tell me what’s going on?”

Did she want to tell him she had been scared out of her mind by a passerby who stopped to watch her work, as did every other visitor to the estate? Did she then want to explain why she was terrified because a black-haired man’s path happened to take the same direction as hers for a hundred yards? Not in this lifetime!

“Nothing happened, and you aren’t my daddy, Ted.” Gaela hoped she sounded sufficiently quelling. Gathering up her most straightforward expression, the one she hoped would cover any remaining trace of nerves, not to mention any deceit, she gazed innocently into his narrowed eyes. “I was somewhere out in la-la land, and you startled me. Sorry to make such a production of it. If I need a bodyguard, I’ll be sure to give you first consideration. However, what I need is a gardener. Did you finish tilling that new bed by the drive?”

Ted stared at her a minute longer, then sighed and let go of the cart. “Sorry, chief, ma’am, I guess I got carried away again. I actually came to ask you something. I wish you kept that cell phone on!”

“All right, all right, I’ll try to remember. What did you want to ask me?”

Ted rubbed his head. “I have no idea. You knocked it straight out of my brain. Are you sure you’re all ri—”  Her eyes must have flashed visibly, because he did an about-face in mid-sentence. “No, fine, never mind. What did I—oh, yeah, I did finish that bed, and I had an idea that we could extend it in a curve along the bend up to the first rhododendrons. Come and see, and let me know what you think. There’s still gas in the tiller, and the day’s young.”

He grinned, and Gaela smiled back, relieved. “Sure, just let me get rid of this stuff.”

She continued on the path to the sheds, and Ted walked along with her. “Here, let me.” He reached for the cart and she let him take it. Her heartbeat was only now returning to normal.

As irritating as Ted could be, she was glad to have him on her staff. He was big, for one thing, a handy characteristic for a gardener. More than that, he was almost as “green” at heart as Gaela herself was, and he often had creative landscaping ideas. Besides, Ted was . . . well, Ted was Ted. Kind of cute, definitely endearing, and if there had been any kind of real danger, instead of precisely nothing but her own stupid, erratic brain fevers, she’d be awfully glad to have him at her back. At her back? Not likely! He’d throw her behind him as fast as any TV superhero. She grinned to herself.

“Ted?”

“Hmm?”

“I guess I overreacted. Sorry about that.”

He smiled at her, and she had to admit that smile did something to her insides. Not that she would let him know it under threat of torture and death!

They dropped off the garden cart at the work shed and passed the big house, headed for the new bed by the drive into Eden’s Gate.

“Here we are,” said Ted, as they reached the spot where the big tiller waited silently at the edge of a sweep of freshly tilled soil. “What I’d like to do is extend the bed in a curving line over to that bank of Fortune’s rhododendrons. They’re great for a month or so in spring, but after that it gets kind of dark and gloomy there, don’t you think? I’ve been wondering for a while what would like acid soil, bloom most of the summer, and complement the foliage of the rhodies. What do you say to flax and white lilies, with a carpet of lungwort in front?”

Gaela forgot her worries. “Cool!” Ted’s quirky eye for gardening was one of his best assets. She’d never seen lilies and flax together, but as soon as he mentioned them, they seemed so perfect for each other that she wondered why not. And the blue purple of the lungwort would be wonderful in front of the purple rhododendrons. The bloom time would be short, but lungwort foliage would remain attractive all summer. “This is one of your best ideas yet, Ted!”

She left him happily wrestling the monster tiller and decided to check on her other workers. Never mind that they all knew perfectly well what they were doing and didn’t need checking on. Gaela wasn’t as enamored of the idea of working alone today as she usually was.

Besides herself, there were four people who worked year-round at the estate. Randy Bowman and Chuck Knowles, the groundskeepers, were cleaning up the woods from the last of the winter storms. Maybe they could use a hand. She went on up the drive to the woods on the other side of the parking lot.

A long trill of whistling and warbling told her the wrens were back, and she shaded her eyes with her hands and tried to find them in the bare tree branches. She couldn’t see them, but their cheerful singing began to relax her.

As she rounded the stone restroom building and went toward the signs marking the trail heads, distant yelling replaced the birdsong. Gaela grinned. Not far up the Forest Lake Trail, she came within sight of Randy, short, bowlegged, and round, staggering in the general direction of the riding mower and trailer, under a load of brush bigger than himself. His vociferous complaints were easily audible from a hundred yards away.

“Can’t you at least pick up the blasted thing? You could have got it before you loaded up, couldn’t you? Howdy doody, this stuff is heavy! And prickly? My neck’ll be as raw as hamburger!”

Chuck, long and narrow in every dimension, strode silently along with a chain saw in one hand and an even bigger pile of brush balanced on the other shoulder, held there apparently effortlessly with one bony hand. Gaela’s grin widened as she came nearer. Apparently Randy’s ubiquitous cowboy hat had parted company with his head and Chuck was as unresponsive to demands that he retrieve it as he was to any and all of his partner’s generic complaints.

“Consarn it, Chuck, if you can’t pick it up on the way by, you at least better not step on it with those big gunboats of yours!” Randy dumped his load of brush into the trailer with a sigh of relief and turned to rescue his hat. “Gaela! Come to crack the whip, have you?”

“Came to catch a glimpse of that bald head of yours. I thought that hat had grown to your head by now.”

Randy grabbed the hat and crammed it on to his head, yanking out a spotted handkerchief with the other hand to wipe his sweating brow. “Hot enough for March, ain’t it?”

“Only because you’re working hard. Need a hand?” Gaela watched Chuck drop his brush into the trailer and shove it around to make room for the chain saw, still without speaking.

“Nope, I reckon there’s just about enough work for one hardworking man and one lazy bum.” Randy winked at her. “If you worked, too, old Chuck, here, wouldn’t do anything at all!”

Chuck ignored this byplay and started the tractor, galvanizing Randy into action. “Oh, no, you don’t, you horse thief. That’s my bronco!” Randy sprinted for the tractor, shoved Chuck aside, and climbed on. Chuck shrugged and climbed aboard the pile of brush, long legs dangling over the tailgate. Gaela thought she saw a glimmer of a smile on his lined face, but couldn’t be sure.

Clearly, she wasn’t needed here. Turning away, she decided to see what Lillian was doing in the greenhouse.

Lillian Blumfeld, greenhouse expert and bonsai enthusiast, was usually good for a “chinwag”, as she herself expressed it. Today, however, she was apparently involved in some complicated procedure concerning her tiny trees. Gaela found her bent over a work table in the warm, moist greenhouse, an empty dish in front of her, dirt everywhere, and an uprooted tree about six inches tall in her hands.

“What are you doing?” Gaela leaned past Lillian’s elbow to watch. Bonsai was a fairly new endeavor at Eden, and she knew little about it.

“Root pruning,” mumbled Lillian, cutting back tiny, threadlike roots with nail scissors. Almost as tall and bony as Chuck, she was hunched over in a position that Gaela suspected would give her a backache, if not a permanent hump. She watched silently as Lillian carefully pruned the roots, eased the tree and its soil back into its pot, and watered it.

“There you are, little guy.”

Did Lillian even remember Gaela was there?

The older woman reached to pick up another bonsai. Turning back, she started visibly and pushed wiry, graying hair behind her ear, leaving a streak of dirt on her cheek. “Oh! Gaela!” Guess that answered that question. “Did you need something?”

“Uh, no, nothing. Just came to see what you were doing.”

Lillian bent to the new tree, crooning to it. Gaela smiled and left. Might as well give it up and get back to her own neglected work.

She had almost managed to forget the strange man of the morning when she saw him again. This time she was perched precariously on the top of a six-foot step-ladder, with one foot braced against the trunk of the storm-damaged ornamental cherry she was pruning. Her first glimpse of the ragged black head near a stand of hollies almost made her fall off. She prudently brought both feet to the ladder and descended two steps to the rung labeled, “To Prevent Injury, Do Not Climb Higher Than This Step.” Gaela was usually strict about safety procedures. There was only one broken branch she couldn’t reach, and she hated to ask Ted. But if he saw her teetering on the ladder’s top, he would forget who was boss again and scold her like the mother hen he insisted he was not.

Her mental babble never succeeded in distracting her. Gaela peered through the lacy branches of the cherry toward the hollies. There he was. Still just standing there, looking at her. What was it about him that frightened her, anyway? She looked over her shoulder, gauging the distance to the drive. She could hear the distant roar of the tiller, which meant Ted would not hear her if she screamed. She should have gone to her cottage to get that dratted phone. Of course, he probably wouldn’t hear that over the tiller, either.

The stranger just stood there, gazing around with his hands in his pockets. Gaela looked back up to where the last branch was half cut through. She couldn’t leave it like that. With exaggerated care, she climbed to the top of the ladder again. It was nearly lunchtime. She would finish this job, put her tools away, and retreat to her private cottage. He would never find her there. Not if she took a roundabout route and made sure he wasn’t following. And then, by the time she had finished lunch, surely he would have gone back to wherever he came from.

Placing her right foot cautiously on the trunk, she reached for the branch with her pruning loppers. They needed sharpening. She should have been able to finish this the first time. The not-very-firm platform under her left foot shook suddenly. Gaela gasped and looked down.

The stranger’s grimy, black-nailed hands had a firm grip on her ladder.

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