The Garden – Part II

A FB friend asked me to continue this story, and since she has put up with me for more than ten years, I thought it only right to oblige. Besides, she’s the biggest fan of my fiction (who is not blood-related) that I am ever likely to find! 🙂

For Tina.

The tiny, wooden clock on the fireplace mantle gave off its characteristic, pre-chime click, rousing Branna from her thoughts. She smiled as she watched the little cuckoo dart out of its hole to announce the four o’clock hour. Henry, who had been enjoying the afternoon sunlight, turned his furry head around as if to say, A few more minutes won’t hurt. Branna cooed at him under her breath, and rubbed behind his ears, eliciting a deep purr before he took the hint and bounded from her lap. Branna liked to think of the cat as a gift from the hawk that had taken up residence in the garden behind the farmhouse. Her nest was not a week old before the kitten with matted gray and white stripes showed up at the back door, shivering with cold and half-starved. Amazed that cat had survived the hawk’s hunting instinct, Branna took it as a sign that the bird had wanted her to welcome the furry animal. It surprised her how quickly she came to depend on Henry’s company – almost as much as she had the hawk.

She often wondered what had first attracted the bird to her garden. Perhaps it was the abundance of field mice in the acre of grassy land behind the cottage, or the garden snakes closer to home that Branna refused to kill. She lifted her eyes to the portrait of a handsome, young man hanging on the wall above the cuckoo clock, and said, “Did you ever think it would come to this, Donovan – me, surrounded by pets? But, I wouldn’t be needing company if you hadn’t left, now would I?” she asked petulantly. “I know what you’re thinkin’: only those with fur and feathers would put up with the likes o’ me!” The man in the portrait stared back at her impassively. She sighed. “Well, I don’t suppose you meant to go. Anyway, what’s done is done.” With that, she rose and shook some of the cat hair from the blanket before folding it and placing it carefully over the back of her armchair. Turning back to the painting, she gazed at the familiar features for a moment, then walked over to brush her fingers across the canvas in a gesture of habitual affection. “Miss you,” she whispered.

At that moment, Jack Wallace cleared his throat behind her. Branna had become used to the way the man seemed to appear silently and without warning, but she found it uncanny the way he interrupted her at the most inopportune times. Turning abruptly to face him, she demanded, “Is there something I can help you with, Mr. Wallace?” Immediately she regretted the sharp edge to her voice, and, clearing her throat, removed the scowl from her face with an effort.

“I came to offer my help with tonight’s dinner preparations,” he said, in his soft, deep voice, apparently unaffected by Branna’s tone. “If I could be of use,” he added, palms outstretched as if offering an apology for his presence in her house.

Branna sniffed. She was unsure what to make of the strange man, though she had studied him for many hours over the course of the past month. No guest had stayed this long at a stretch since she had opened the bed and breakfast, but the man came to the Inn looking for work and had offered to repair the cottage on the back side of the property in exchange for a room in the Inn and daily meals. He had assured her the cottage would be ready to rent by the time the first tinges of green appeared in the garden. His last stipulation was that if he completed the work by Groundhog Day, she would allow him to stay in the cottage free of charge for the remainder of the month. If she agreed to his terms, he would bill her at cost for materials, and she would still have full charge of the design. Branna knew better than to refuse such generosity. Of course, before she had agreed, she assured herself the man knew his business. Jack’s references had been impeccable, and so, the work she had been putting off for years, finally began.

The cottage had been the primary reason Branna had purchased the property a decade ago. She had intended for the space to become her living quarters, freeing up the main house to be used exclusively for her guests. But, as things often happened, the management of the Inn took up her time and resources until she all but forgot her original plans. She chose not to disclose her intentions for the cottage to Mr. Wallace, but acted as if the space would be used as additional guest quarters, as he had assumed. What he might suspect she neither knew nor cared.

“You cook too, then?” Branna asked, arching one eyebrow at him, skeptically.

“A necessary skill for someone living on their own for so many years,” Jack said. “But, truth be told, I worked as a chef before I discovered my love for building things.”

“Really?” Branna’s tone radiated disbelief. Folding her arms across her chest, she stared at him for a moment, trying to decide if he was telling the truth, then nodded, as if she had come to a decision, and said, “Alright, we’d best get started if dinner’s to be on time. Just make sure you stay out of my way.”

As the two entered the kitchen, Branna explained the evening’s menu and what needed to be done. She quickly showed Jack where to find a cutting board, knife, and bowls, then began pulling food from the sturdy refrigerator. She was just tying on her apron when Jack said, “The man in the portrait, was he your husband?”

Branna stopped mid-tie and stared at him. “I don’t see as that’s any of your business.”

Jack shrugged, “Just trying to make conversation. It’s clear you cared for him, whoever he was to you.”

To forestall anymore questions, Branna turned on the little radio in the window sill above the sink, taking time to adjust the antenna for a clearer signal and turning the volume up sufficiently. The two worked to the music of the 70’s after that, Branna only speaking to give the occasional instruction; clearly Jack knew his way around a kitchen, and soon most of the prep work was complete.

Savory aromas were wafting through the room in steamy billows when Branna broke the silence, “How’s the cottage coming?”

Jack smiled at the tone in her voice, insinuating he should have been out there working instead of in here cooking. “I laid the tile today. Should be dry enough to grout on Wednesday. The countertops are due to arrive Friday. Probably ten more days before she’s ready to accommodate me, well within the deadline.” Jack looked at her from under black eyebrows shot through with gray, his eyes twinkling in amusement.

“She?” Branna asked, both eyebrows arching up.

“Well,” Jack began, “I think of spaces like your cottage in terms of a refined woman needing a facelift to brighten up her natural beauty.”

Branna sniffed her disdain at the comparison, but smiled inwardly at the man’s odd charm. It did not pass her notice that Mr. Wallace never seemed put off by her  tone. She knew better than anyone how prickly she could be – in fact, she had relied on her brusque manner ever since Donovan had passed. Life was difficult enough for a woman on her own – but running a public Inn alone, that could be downright deadly in this day and age.

“I’m sure she will be pleased as punch to have a new face. I know I won’t mind the extra space,” Branna said, putting to an end any further conversation about the Jack’s work responsibilities.

Soon after the cuckoo announced five o’clock, Branna heard the first of the guests returning from whatever outing they had engaged in that day. She rarely saw anyone between breakfast and dinner, Jack being the obvious exception, of late. She walked to the door in time to catch the middle-aged couple hanging their coats on the pegs by the door. They shared a short conversation while she checked to ensure the sign with tonight’s menu was indeed standing by the entrance to the hallway. Branna reminded the couple what time dinner would be served, then fielded questions about the historic site they planned to visit the next day. When the couple finally moved to return to their room, Branna realized how late it was. The sun had nearly set, casting dark shadows in the shape of trees on the walls. Walking into the living room, she was about to call to ask Jack to bring the bucket of firewood she had chopped and left sitting on the back porch, but was startled to see him kneeling before the hearth to light the fire he had laid out while she busied herself with the guests.

“Am I that predictable, then?” Branna asked, a rare hint of amusement in her voice.

Jack smiled at her and said, “I also took the liberty of preparing some chai – in the dining room.”

As Branna lit the candles on the dinner table she had set earlier, she breathed in the spicy scent from the jug that sat steaming amidst the family photos on the server and smiled, contentedly. “I could get used to this,” she thought.

Day 27 NaBloPoMo 2015