O'Neal / THE GARDEN OF HAPPY ENDINGS
seattle, present day
Six days before she turned her back on God for the third time, Elsa Montgomery went to the harvest festival at her church.
It was a bright orange Saturday in October, possibly the last sunny day of the year. She parked her car beneath an old mon- key tree and let her dog, Charlie, out of the backseat. A long-legged black rescue with exuberant energy, he knew to mind his manners in crowds, keeping to her right side as they wandered toward the booths and tents set up on the lawn of the Unity church.
Just as they rounded the edge of the fair, ducking beneath the low arms of a pine tree, Elsa caught the scent of rotten apples. For a moment, she thought it came from an earthly cause, an apple that had fallen behind the booths or lay in the thick grass, forgotten in the rush to get everything ready.
There were certainly plenty of apples. Apples in baskets and apples in pies and apples floating in a tub filled with cold water for bobbing. Washington State was one of the premier apple-growing states in the nation, and local orchards had contributed heavily to the annual church festival.
It took place on the second weekend of October, when the leaves in the Seattle area hung on the trees like construction paper cutouts in shades of red and orange and yellow, and the worst of the winter gloom had not yet set in. The church, a small and humble building that boasted the stained glass art of a now-famous former parishioner, sat unassumingly in the midst of an arts-and-crafts neighborhood, where the houses—and thus the land the church sat upon—were commandingly expensive even after the real estate debacle.
The harvest committee rented booths to local farmers and craftspeople. It attracted a cheerful crowd of well-tended parents, their scrubbed children, and obligatory golden retrievers. The families played games and ate caramel apples and plumped up the church coffers better than any other single thing they did every year.
Elsa loved the fundraiser. It had been one of the first things she had created upon her arrival here as minister nine years ago. This year, the sun was shining, but the air was sharp enough that she wore a pink wool sweater and a pair of jeans with boots. She’d left her hair, crazy as it was, loose and curly on her shoulders, and she walked along the tables that were set up outside. Tents were erected over them, just in case.
As she moved down the center aisle, again she smelled the sulfurous odor of rotten apples. Insistent, dark. She paused, recognizing the warning.
Something was coming. Something dark and wicked.
She turned in a slow circle, looking for clues. Apples of ten varieties spilled out of baskets, along with pumpkins and squashes and piles of freshly baked bread. In the face-painting booth, Kiki Peterson carefully painted dragons on the face of a little girl wearing a fairy tutu. Next to them was a table set up to serve crepes made by Jordan Mariano, a vegetarian chef who attended the church. The menu offered roasted pumpkin and tomato crepes, apples and sugar, or classic chocolate and cream. Nothing seemed amiss. No one who looked out of place. No—
Elsa turned, still half seeking. A tall man dressed in khakis and a gold shirt strode toward her. He was a member of the finance committee.
“How are you, George?”
“You have a minute, Rev? I want to talk to you about the shortfall in fundraising last week.”
“Let’s talk about that at the meeting on Wednesday, shall we?” She peered over his shoulder, seeking a possible escape. “It’s on the agenda—”
“But I don’t think the committee is taking it seriously.”
She touched his arm. “That may be, but let’s enjoy this beautiful day and talk about it on Wednesday.”
“Excuse me.” She headed toward a bent old man sitting in the sunshine. “How are you, Eddie?”
He turned his nearly blind eyes toward her, wispy white hair springing out in Einstein fashion around his head. “If I was any better, I’d already be in heaven.”
She let him take her hand, and squeezed it. “Glad to hear it. How are the new digs?”
“Fine, fine. I have me a cat and some television, so what more does a man need, huh?”
He was eighty-nine, suffering from terminal cancer, asthma, high blood pressure, and crippling arthritis, but he put his love in things beyond himself, and that kept his spirits high. “I’m glad to hear it. I’ll be over to see the new place sometime this week, and we’ll say a blessing. How’s that?”
A trio of girls in plaid shorts and T-shirts swirled over. “Reverend Elsa, we made you some dragonfly wings!” The smallest of the trio held up the tissue-paper-and-coat-hanger wings, pale purple with green and purple glitter. Their faces, too, had been painted with dragons. She looked over to Kiki and winked.
The teenager smiled. “I can paint your face, too, if you want.”
“Oh, that would be so pretty!” the smallest of the girls said. She took Elsa’s hand and pulled her toward Kiki and the face-painting booth. “Please, Reverend Elsa?”
Elsa capitulated, and let them pull her down into the chair, their cool little fingers and hands touching her arms, her shoulders, her neck. Someone pulled her hair away from her face, gently, pressed it to her temple. “I’ll hold it so you don’t get paint on it.”
“Thanks, Alice.” She gave the tiny redhead a kiss on the wrist.
Alice wiggled happily. “You’re welcome.”
Charlie slumped onto Kiki’s foot. “Do you want a dragon or a rose or something else?” Kiki asked.
“I don’t know. What do you girls think it should be?”
Kiki laughed. “A castle? How about a unicorn?”
“Oooh, yeah!” Alice traced a spot on Elsa’s cheek, the touch as light as gossamer. “Right there.”
“Can I fix your hair?” Davina asked, tilting her head sideways. “I have a brush. I’ll be careful so Kiki doesn’t mess up.”
“I won’t mess up,” Kiki said. “I can do this in my sleep.”
“Sure, then,” Elsa said. “You can fix it.”
Kiki dipped her brush into a pot of iridescent white paint. Her extraordinarily long brown hair, straight and glossy, fell in a silky wash over one thin shoulder and she tossed it back. “Ready?”
“Ready.” Elsa closed her eyes as the liquid touched her cheek. The little ones fluttered their hands through her hair, and one hot plump body leaned into her, probably sleepy. The child suddenly bent over and rested her head in Elsa’s lap. Gently, Elsa touched her back. The pink bubble gum smell of girl wafted around her.
“You’re going to be such a good mom,” Kiki said. “You’re so patient.”
“She’s not married!” Alice said, standing on one foot. “You have to be married to have a baby.”
Kiki smiled, a twinkle in her dark blue eyes. “Well, then she needs to get married.”
Elsa gave her a rueful grin in return. Kiki’s mother, Julia, had been trying to matchmake Elsa for months, one very nice man after another, but so far, there had not been a single second date. Julia said she was too hard on men, that Elsa needed to relax a little, but what was the point in that? Why spend your life with someone who wasn’t just right?
Except . . . she wanted children. She’d always wanted them, at least four, maybe six. It was beginning to seem as if that might not happen. She was thirty-eight, and running out of time. And as much as she loved her work, the congregation, and the children of others, she would really mind if she didn’t have a child of her own.
This, please, she said, a soft prayer sent out above the heads of the sweet-smelling girls, whose hands touched her, patting her hair, painting her face.
It was only as she stood up that she again smelled the reek of disaster, deeper now, worse, like bloated fish. She swayed.
“You okay, Rev?” Kiki asked.
Elsa touched her arm. “Fine, thanks. Tell your mother I’ll see her tomorrow.”
“I will.” Kiki screwed the lid of the paint back on. Blue stick-on stars decorated her fingernails. “I think she’s lining up a new one for you.”
Elsa shook her head and left, putting a hand over her upset stomach. She made her way through the crowd and walked into the church, to duck into the haven of her office. She closed the door, as if to leave the threat behind.
It was a small room, with a single window overlooking the grass and trees and a square of earth planted with chrysanthemums. The décor reflected her simple tastes, with airy white curtains that blew on summer breezes, and only a trio of simple photos on the walls, all in a line, memories from her travels. Glastonbury Tor, pointing into a dark heavy sky from the top of an English hill; a shot of a mile marker on the Camino de Santiago, with an abandoned boot on top of it; and a shot of an old man painting a canvas by the sea.
Below the photos stood a small altar table with a pillar candle and a vase she filled with fresh flowers. Today, they were striped pink and white carnations, and their peppermint aroma lent a sweetness to the air. Elsa lit a candle, asking for protection, for goodness to blow this miasma away. She asked for insight to assist those who might need her, and patience, and stillness.
When that was finished, she picked up the phone and dialed Joaquin, her oldest friend, who had once been her fiancé. He answered on the second ring. “Father Jack.”
“Walking, it’s me,” Elsa said. “I’m getting one of my warnings. Will you say some prayers?”
“Thanks, I have to get back to the harvest festival. I’ll call you later.”
“It’s the fundraiser for the soup kitchen tonight. I won’t be back until about ten.” He said something over his shoulder, and Elsa imagined him talking to his secretary. “Your sister contributed a quilt. It’s amazing. She really needs to show them.”
“Which one is it?”
“It’s a garden, which makes it sound ordinary, only it isn’t.”
“Shoot a cellphone picture and send it to me.” Someone tapped on her door. “I’ve gotta go. Talk soon.”
A thousand miles away, Elsa’s sister, Tamsin, knelt in a flower bed, using a hefty pair of garden shears to prune the frost-killed plants. In the high desert of Pueblo, Colorado, the sun could be very hot even so late in the season, but a giant old elm protected the backyard at high midday. Even so, Tamsin wore a sun hat and long sleeves and gloves to protect her pale white skin.
Any day she could spend in a garden was a good day in Tamsin’s book. She had restored every inch of the 110-year-old garden beds herself, reviving ancient peonies and climbing roses; Naked Lady lilies and a bed of poppies that bloomed like lush courtesans each June. Just now, there were only seedpods and withered flowers, so she gave the plants their haircuts, leaving coral bells and intriguing stalks to stand for winter interest. She pruned the roses mercilessly, trimmed the irises to fans of three inches, yanked up annuals and tossed them into the compost heap. It was hard work, sweaty and dirty, but that was what it took to make beauty.
Her husband, Scott, called to her from an upstairs win- dow. “Tamsin, do you know where my black dress shirt is? I can’t find it.”
Tamsin rocked back on her heels, and pushed her hat off her hair so that she could see him. Her husband was a big man, tall and broad, and lately a little stout, though she didn’t mind. He worked hard as an investment banker, a career that had given Tamsin more luxury than she’d ever dreamed of. He played hard, too, with an epicurean lustiness that made her worry sometimes that he’d give himself a heart attack.
He was packing for yet another business trip, this one to Memphis. They were more and more frequent lately. Some, she suspected, were mainly gambling trips, high stakes poker games in back rooms in big cities. He loved gambling, and the black shirt was his favorite for poker.
None of her business. As long as he kept his head, what did it matter to her? “Check the dry cleaning in the downstairs closet.” She straightened, slapped dust off her jeans, and her mind drifted back to the garden. Maybe she should divide the peach irises next year. They were looking a little crowded.
“Hey, Tamsin,” Scott called again, and she looked up.
He leaned from the window and tossed her a small, colorful cloth bag, the kind you could buy at shops that sold Tibetan goods. It landed at her knee with a plop of dust. “What’s this?”
“A little something, that’s all.”
Smiling, she thought he must have made a good deal. Through the years both she and her daughter, Alexa, had become accustomed to surprises like this. The strings of the bag were tied, and she loosened them, pouring the contents into her hand. A pair of diamond solitaire earrings winked at her. Each was the size of a fingernail, and they glittered even in the shade, sending out rays of yellow and blue and violet.
Holding them cupped in her palm, she looked up. He was fond of surprise presents, but not this big. “What’s the occasion?” she asked in some bewilderment.
For a minute, he looked too sober, then his usual twinkle returned. “Maybe I just want to get lucky before I have to leave.”
She laughed, because it was acknowledged between them that Tamsin was by far the more sexual of the two. And lately, he’d been very stressed and busy with work. “Is that so?”
His hands hung loosely over the windowsill on the third floor of the red sandstone Victorian, one of the most beautiful in the city. Her pride and joy, this house, this garden, the tower room where she created her quilts. “Come upstairs, Tamsin,” he said.
“I’ll be right there.” She headed inside, tucked the earrings into the secret drawer in her bread box, and dashed into the downstairs shower. Clean, still damp, she wandered through the house naked and feeling deliciously wicked about it. There were benefits to an empty nest.
He waited on their enormous bed, tucked demurely beneath the sheets. His bearish chest showed some gray hair lately, and he had started shaving his head because he was balding. He was fifteen years older than she, but she still found him attractive. Loved his size, his twinkling blue eyes, his wicked sense of humor.
Tamsin took her time walking toward him, knowing her body was still in great shape, that he was immensely proud of her, and that this would be good, hot sex.
“God,” he said, holding out a big hand toward her, “I’m the luckiest man in the world.”
“You are,” she agreed with a chuckle, and dived in beside him.
Across the world, Tamsin’s twenty-two-year-old daughter, Alexa, wore a blue dress and stood on a rooftop garden in Madrid, sipping a glass of Rioja. Around her, sibilant Spanish rose and fell, a perfume for the ear, the most musical of all the languages. There was nowhere in the world she would rather be than in Spain. She inhaled the air of it, dry and light.
She had first fallen in love with Spain through her aunt Elsa’s stories. Elsa and her boyfriend had walked the Camino de Santiago when they were young, and they had met bandits and ghosts and angels, and travelers from all over the world. Elsa spoke of cows wandering up a street in front of an old woman with a stick in her hand. She told stories of black dogs that seemed to appear out of nowhere, and cidra, a hard cider that was cold and refreshing after a long day of walking. Elsa had seen the enormous censor swinging from the rafters in the cathedral at Santiago de Compostela.
Curled up in her arms, with her aunt’s warm voice pouring over her, murmuring words in lispy Spanish, Alexa fell in love with the magical far away. Spain became a siren to her, calling and calling. The yearning drove her to study Spanish in a serious and focused way, and to learn about the history and culture of Spain.
Not Mexico, as many of her friends in Pueblo had, but Spain. Sometimes they thought she was being arrogant by dismissing the new world in favor of the old; they cited the bloody stories of the Inquisition. She countered with tales of the Moors and the high degree of medical knowledge that had been their legacy, and the flamenco, and the great cities and cathedrals.
Mostly, she didn’t care what anyone said. Only Spain would do.
In her senior year of high school, she was an exchange student in Madrid. Her host family had been cold and unfriendly, but Alexa loved the city, the people, speaking Spanish all day long. She made friends and had a string of sweet boyfriends, and promised herself she would be back.
Sometimes, it felt like she had been born in the wrong country. How could she have been born in America, when she clearly belonged in Spain? It was the most fanciful thought she ever had, and she was not a particularly fanciful girl. Her mother always said that Elsa was mystical enough for the whole family, so she was free to focus on the beautiful, beautiful world. Alexa loved the world of the mind.
When the opportunity to return to Madrid arrived in college, Alexa leapt. Honestly, the opportunity didn’t just show up. She’d had to track it down and then beg her parents to let her go, and she still didn’t get to spend her junior year abroad, but instead had to finish her course work and achieve her degree before they would let her spend the year there. Her parents were worried that she would not return. They were worried about terrorist attacks.
Mainly, she thought, they were worried that they would lose her to the far away. And perhaps that was not so far off the mark.
But she had at last succeeded, as she usually did with her parents, who doted on her, both of them. She tried not to take advantage of it too much, but in this case, it had been important. She’d had to get back to Madrid. Had to. Her life was waiting. She could feel it, ripe and ready beneath a thin skin of distance.
And this time, her host family was much kinder, a wealthy family with connections. They liked her manners, her excellent accent, her knowledge of Spain. Tonight, they had brought her along to a dinner party that began at ten p.m., with cocktails on this elegant rooftop garden with the stars overhead.
It was warm. Alexa wore an aqua dress with a loose empire skirt that floated over her body, and a beaded shawl. Her hair was her pride, long and thick and shiny, and she’d left it loose, curling over her shoulders.
One of the brothers of the host family came over, bringing with him another man. “Alexa,” David said, “may I introduce my friend?”
He rattled off a string of names, but all Alexa caught was “Carlos.” He had the long face and bedroom eyes of a Spanish actor, but his eyes were bright, bright blue, and his beautiful mouth smiled at her.
Alexa thought, Oh! Here is the reason I have come to Spain. To meet my husband. It made her cheeks flush, but not with embarrassment. With anticipation. She smiled, meeting his eyes directly. “I am pleased to make your acquaintance.”
He took her hand and kissed it with courtly grace, and there was a smell of sugar in the air, and a fine blue ring of enchantment that fell down around them. For a moment, they only hung there, suspended in the magic—at last!—and he asked if she would sit beside him at supper.
“I’m afraid I am dependent on what our hostess has planned,” she replied.
David laughed. “Oh, I think she will allow him to make the choice.”
“Well, then, I would be honored,” Alexa said.
It was only several days later that she understood he was a count, in line for the throne, obscenely wealthy and much too much for a girl like her to want.
By then, it was too late.
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Excerpted from The Garden of Happy Endings by Barbara O'Neal. Copyright © 2012 by Barbara O'Neal. Excerpted by permission of Bantam, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.