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Authors: Barbara Claypole White

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The Unfinished Garden

BOOK: The Unfinished Garden
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James Nealy
to create a garden

James Nealy is haunted by irrational fears and inescapable
compulsions. A successful software developer, he’s thrown himself into a new
goal—to finally conquer the noise in his mind. And he has a plan. He’ll confront
his darkest fears and build something beautiful: a garden. When he meets Tilly
Silverberg, he knows she holds the key…even if she doesn’t think so.

After her husband’s death, gardening became Tilly’s
livelihood and her salvation. Her thriving North Carolina business and her young
son, Isaac, are the excuses she needs to hide from the world. So when oddly
attractive, incredibly tenacious James arrives on her doorstep, demanding she
take him on as a client, her answer is a flat

When a family emergency lures Tilly back to England, she’s
secretly glad. With Isaac in tow, she retreats to her childhood village, which
has always stayed obligingly the same. Until now. Her best friend is keeping
secrets. Her mother is plotting. Her first love is unexpectedly, temptingly
available. And then James appears on her doorstep.

Away from home, James and Tilly begin to forge an unlikely
bond, tenuous at first but taking root every day. And as they work to build a
garden together, something begins to blossom between them—despite all the
reasons against it.

Barbara Claypole White

For Larry and Zachariah
And for my parents, Rev. Douglas
Eric and Anne Claypole White


Many things grow in the garden that were
never sown there
—Thomas Fuller,
Gnomologia, 1732

Worry gives a small thing a big
—Swedish proverb

Chapter 1

Tilly leaned over the railing and prodded the
copperhead with the yard broom. Nothing much scared her these days other than
snakes and hospitals, which she found oddly depressing. You needed jolts of
fear, little hits of adrenaline, to appreciate the buzz of life.

A tailless skink scurried past her gardening clog, and a pair
of hummingbirds chittered as they raced to and from the feeder. In the forest,
the hawk screeched for its mate.

The venomous snake, however, refused to budge.

Growing up in the English countryside, the most terrifying
creature Tilly encountered was a Charolais cow. Isaac, her child guru of
everything indigenous and nasty in rural North Carolina, had stared, gobsmacked,
when she’d shared that gem five minutes ago.

The porch vibrated as he pogoed up and down, no doubt
rehearsing the pleasure of bragging to his chums:
copperhead’s bigger than yours.

So what if she didn’t belong here, any more than that manky
elderberry hiding behind her tropical plants? This was Isaac’s universe, and she
would never rip him away from it. She had failed her son three years earlier.
She wouldn’t fail him again. Although, once in a while, it might be refreshing
to breathe air that wasn’t as congealed as leftover leek and potato soup.

Tilly panted through a sigh. The heat had sprung early this
year, sideswiped her without the gradual warming of late spring. August weather
in the first week of June? Bugger, her summer was set to revolve around
watering. She should have been watering this afternoon—not trying to outwit a
comatose snake. Or repotting perennials. Or planning to fire her assistant. Of
course, firing Sari meant finding time to interview a replacement, since the
business had been twirling beyond her control long before Sari had appeared as
the opposing force that stops an object in motion. Isaac had been reading
Newton! A Giant in Science!
lately. Inertia was his
topic of the week.

If she’d paid more attention on the day Sari torpedoed into her
life like a Norse berserker on Red Bull, Tilly would have realized Sari wasn’t
applying for a job; bloody woman was prowling for a cause. Just yesterday, she
had tried to persuade Tilly to meet with some wealthy software developer about
landscaping his new la-di-da property. Landscaping, really? Piedmont Perennials
was a wholesale nursery. Besides, design clients would expect plans revealed in
drawn-to-scale diagrams, and Tilly couldn’t compile a functional grocery

Isaac stopped bouncing. “What’s next, Mom?”

Damned if I know.
Killing the snake
was neither a thought she could follow nor an example she wanted to set for her
critter-loving son. And no way could she find the courage to shovel up Mr.
Copperhead and toss him toward the creek.

Tilly grinned at Isaac. Sticks of flaxen hair poked out like
scarecrow straw from under his faded cap, and the front of his T-shirt was
caught in the elastic of his Spiderman underwear. As usual, his pull-on shorts
rested halfway down his hips. He was small for an eight-year-old, and every time
Tilly looked at him, she saw playground bait. Which was the real reason she kept
him at the private Montessori, not the math skills or his inexplicable passion
for science.

“I’m fixin’ to find that varmint a new home,” she said. “’Cos
he sure as heck can’t ’ave this one.”

As predicted, Isaac giggled through her English-accented
Southern-speak. His laughter gave her precious seconds to think. No time to
allow him to doubt, even for a millisecond, that his mother was able to handle
every situation that rocked their lives. Except, of course, one involving
snakes. And hospitals. But she wasn’t going there in her mind, not today.

“What about calling that wildlife guy from the school field
trip?” Isaac said. “Doesn’t he rescue unwanted snakes?”

“Angel Bug, you’re a genius. I guess I’ll have to keep you

She expected him to puff up with pride. Instead he frowned and
looked so like David that Tilly had to bite her lip.

“What do you think Daddy would do about the snake?”

Tilly no longer instigated the what-would-Daddy-do game, even
though she screamed silently with memories: David waking from a nightmare, his
voice full of need, “Promise you’ll never leave me, babe”; David reaching for
her with hot breath, greedy hands, and whispers of “Jesus. You make me so
horny.” David asleep on the sofa with baby Isaac tucked into his arm.

Isaac was only five when David died. How many of their child’s
memories were regurgitated stories she fed him? Did Isaac remember his father’s
passion, his contagious energy, his insistence that she sprinkle mothballs
around the sandbox to bar snakes? David had loathed the bugs and the snakes.
Mind you, he’d hated everything about life in the South, although not his status
as the youngest distinguished professor in the University of North Carolina

A memory pounced, and Tilly smiled: David teetering on the sofa
as he hurled an academic tome at a creepy-crawly moseying across the floor.

Her husband had done nothing without panache.

“What would Daddy do?” Tilly scratched the burning itch of
fresh chigger bites under her arm. “Pitch a wobbly, then insist we move to
snake-free Manhattan.”

And once David chose a course of action, there was no

“Daddy would have made us leave? That’s awful.”

But was it? Tilly stared into the forest that isolated them at
night behind a wall of primal noise. This property had been on the market for
two years when she and David bought it. No one wanted the unfinished house that
was falling to ruin, the overgrown creek clogged with decades of trash, or the
forest littered with refuse from a builder who abandoned the site after his
money ran out. And yet the first time Tilly saw this land, she fell in love.
Wild jack-in-the-pulpits poked through the forest floor, and untamed beauty
whispered to her. But she left England for one reason, and that reason no longer
existed, despite the Daddy game.

Tilly never talked about David’s death, but the fact of it kept
her company every day, like an echo. The ICU doctor had given her options and
then asked how she would like to proceed.
word that suggested choice. Funny thing, though, she never considered the choice
was hers. One second of blind, misplaced faith, of assuming she knew what her
husband wanted, of uttering one short sentence: “David has a living will.”
That’s all it had taken to destroy both their lives.

The phone rang inside the house, but neither Tilly, nor the
copperhead, stirred.

* * *

The forest smelled different on hot evenings, like an
oven set to four hundred and twenty-five degrees and cooking nothing but air.
Tilly sipped her gin and tonic, closed her eyes, and listened to the pounding of
the basketball on the concrete slab.

“Mom?” Isaac stopped shooting hoops. “Are we expecting

Please let it not be the chatty wildlife bloke returning with
the copperhead.

A silver convertible—
Alfa Romeo,
—swung into a flawless turn and stopped under the basketball
hoop. Damn, too late to sneak back inside, lock the door and pretend no one was
home. The bearded driver tugged off his sunglasses and sat, motionless, his
fingers pinching the bridge of his nose.

“Who is he?” Isaac whispered.

“Beats me,” Tilly said. “Haven’t got the foggiest.”

The driver opened the door but didn’t emerge.

“He looks like Blackbeard.” Isaac stepped behind his

“He’s most likely lost. Don’t worry, Angel Bug. I’ve got this
covered.” She tottered forward, trying not to spill her drink. “Can I help you,

The stranger, dressed in black jeans and a black T-shirt—
in this heat?
—didn’t reply. He had retrieved a
backpack from the passenger seat and was fiddling with its zipper. Gradually, as
if the movement were choreographed, he turned.

“You’re barefoot.” He made no attempt to hide his

She glanced into the driver’s-side footwell. “And you aren’t.”
Blimey, not so much as a sweetie wrapper on the floor of his car. Now
was impressive.

“James Nealy.” Nealy…was that Irish? James Nealy, a name you
snapped out with a click of your tongue. A name, like James Bond, that meant

He scowled at her, and she tried not to gawp. But really, he
had the most stunning eyes. They were dappled with layers of light and dark like
polished tiger’s-eye. “I have a six o’clock appointment.”

“You’re the software developer? Bugger. I thought I canceled

Isaac tittered.

“Is that so?” Was there a hint of amusement in those eyes?

“Sorry. I meant, oh dear, my
assistant was supposed to call and cancel. I’m a nursery owner, Mr. Nealy, not a
landscaper for hire. Can’t help, I’m afraid.”

That was it. Sari was so fired.

James emerged from his litterless car and slung the backpack
over his shoulder. He definitely had that piratical look, although his beard
seemed more like week-old growth. And his grizzled hair, which was straight and
floppy at the front where it hung to his eyes, yet a mess of curls at his neck,
was too short for a buccaneer. For some reason, she thought of contradictions in
weather—a downpour through sunlight or the clear, bright day after a tropical
storm. Maybe it was the result of speeding along in a convertible, but his hair
gave the impression of having recently broken free from a style. Could he be
growing it? If so, bad decision. She stroked her damp nape. Hair
unruly needed to be tamed or snipped off.

He turned to close the car door, pausing twice to tap a silent
rhythm against his thigh with his index finger.

Isaac sidled up to her. “He looks like Ms. Lezlie does when
we’re bouncing off the classroom walls. As if he’s bursting with yells he can’t
let out.”

“Hmm,” Tilly replied.

Insects droned through the forest and the compressor grunted to

“Isaac, love.” She inhaled thick, syrupy air and imagined the
humidity clinging to her like an exhausted two-year-old. “Time to do something
cool and quiet indoors.”

“Awww, Mommmmm.”
Isaac’s basketball
fell to the concrete with a gentle
and James
trapped it with his foot. Isaac glanced up, unsure.

James cocked his head to the right. “Tar Heel or Duke fan?”

“Tar Heel, of course,” Isaac said.

“Good man.” James winked.

Isaac beamed and then skittered into the garage to put away the
basketball before bounding up the front steps two at a time.

Okay, so James Nealy had been nice to her son. That bought him
five minutes.

James straightened up and towered over her. Well, most people
did when you were five foot two, except for David. David had been the ideal

She swiped her palm down her cutoffs and extended her hand.
“I’m Tilly, by the way. Tilly Silverberg.”

James twitched, the slightest of tics, and his hand darted
forward, touched hers and darted back. David always shook hands with a firm,
double-handed grasp, drawing you into his space. But James’s palm was cool, his
loose handshake more of a dismissal than a greeting. His face remained impassive
while his fingers flexed as if he had a cramp.

“Your assistant mentioned $25,000. I’m willing to double

Sari had discussed a figure with him?
a minute.
He was offering her $50,000? She could redecorate, buy a
new truck, go on a cruise—not that she wanted to. Since the crippling bout of
seasickness on her honeymoon, she had avoided boats. And exactly why had she
agreed to go snorkeling off the Great Barrier Reef when she hated snorkeling?
Because it was always easier to say yes to David.

But widowhood had taught her to say no.

A crow cawed deep in the forest, and Tilly shuddered. Actually,
it was more of a full-bodied spasm. Fifty thousand dollars, but at what price?
There was a reason she hadn’t expanded into retail despite Sari’s best efforts;
there was a reason she let Sari deliver customers’ orders. How could she find
the oomph to engage in other people’s lives? Hanging on to Isaac’s and her own
was challenging enough.

And Isaac, her pint-size sage, may have been right about James
Nealy. He was all wound up with nowhere to go, his fingers writhing with more
nervous energy than those of a philandering priest waiting to be skewered by
lightning. She should back away, right?

James flicked his hair from his face once, twice, and tossed
her a look that was almost a dare, that seemed to say, “Go ahead. Ask what
invisible demon snaps at my heels.” And she nearly did, on the off chance it
might be the same as hers.

She sighed. “I can recommend an excellent landscaper in Chapel

“I don’t need a referral.” James scanned the forest, first to
the right, then to the left. “Your property has this controlled feeling, yet the
borders speak of nature rioting. Breaking free, but in an orderly way. Your
garden by the road is organized bedlam.”

Tilly screwed up her face. Was that a compliment?

“The plants all grow into each other,” he continued, his speech
speeding up. “But they’re balanced in height and color, contained by shrubs
shaped to fit. Individuality within structure. It’s perfect.” He cupped his
long, thin fingers into a chalice. “It’s perfect.”

“Thank you.”
I think.
Did he really
believe there was a thought process behind her garden? She worked on instinct,
nothing else, and after thirteen years of hard slog, had barely begun. How could
this man, who was in such a rush that he had extracted his checkbook and a pen
from his bag, understand?

BOOK: The Unfinished Garden
6.34Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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