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: My 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 list.
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 around."
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 system.
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 U-turn.
"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. Like, a 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 someone?"
Please let it not be the chatty wildlife bloke returning with the copperhead. Please.
A silver convertible?Alfa Romeo, fancy?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 mother.
"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, sir?"
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 disapproval.
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 that 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 business.
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 you."
"Is that so?" Was there a hint of amusement in those eyes?
"Sorry. I meant, oh dear, my lovely 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 that 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 life.
"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 boing, 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 height.
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 that."
Sari had discussed a figure with him? Wait 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 Hill."
"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?
"Shall I pay half up front and the balance when you're done?"
"Listen, flattery's lovely, but I have no experience in garden design."
"No experience? What do you call that?" He pointed to the woodland path that snaked through arching sprays of poet's laurel and hearts-a-bursting to open up around a small border edged with fallen cedar limbs. Mottled tiarellas wove through black-stemmed maidenhair ferns; a mass of Indian pinks with tubular flowers embraced the birdbath she'd rescued from the dump; the delicate arms of native Solomon's seal and goldenrod danced behind.
"Instinct," she said.
"Fine. I'll pay $50,000 for your instinct."
She would laugh, but the heat had siphoned off her energy.
"Mr. Nealy." Tilly leaned toward James and gave what she hoped was a firm smile, like opening your door a crack to a stranger but not letting him inside. "I appreciate your willingness to pay such a large sum for my instinct. But Sari told me that you're building a house." Tilly pulled back. "You should be searching for a landscaper, not a nursery owner."
James picked a single, dark hair from his black T-shirt. Was he even listening? Mind you, offering to double his payment without so much as a peeved expression suggested more money than sense. According to Sari, he had made appointments with every local business listed in the yellow pages under landscape architects, landscape designers, landscape contractors and nurseries. That was beyond thorough and not the behavior of someone she wanted to work for?if she were wavering in her decision, which she wasn't.