The Rumor(13)


by Elin Hilderbrand

“Look at this one,” Grace said. “‘Bullfrog Kisses.’” She pointed to the photo in the catalog.

“That is not a particularly attractive flower,” Benton said. “Then again, who would want to be kissed by a bullfrog?”

Grace turned the page. She picked out the best-looking flower on the page and said its name before she thought to stop herself. “‘Blue Desire.’”

“‘Blue Desire,’” he said. “I like it.” He raised his head, and their eyes locked. Grace knew the tips of her ears must be flaming red.

He’s going to kiss me, she thought. He moved in. Their lips were just about to touch. Grace sucked in her breath, and the soft sound this made seemed to send a jolt through Benton. He backed away.

“Whoa,” he said. “I’m so sorry, Grace. I think the names of these flowers are getting me riled up.”

“Don’t be sorry!” she said quickly. She was devastated that he’d stopped. She wanted to go back to where they’d been a moment before, the fun intimacy of selecting flowers, but the magic of that had passed. She closed the catalog and decided to ask him the question she’d been wanting to ask for the past two weeks. “Did McGuvvy go with you to Morocco?”

“She didn’t,” Benton said. “She got a job teaching sailing out in San Diego. We broke up.”

As this news settled over Grace, he drummed his fingers on the table nervously.

She said, “So you’re a free man.”

“I’m free, yes,” Benton said.

“Benton…”

“You’re married, Grace,” he said. “To Eddie, who pays my bills.”

“I…”

“Don’t say it,” Benton said. He let out a long exhale and stared into his tea. “You have a house, you have children, you have a whole life with Eddie.” Benton took a sip of his tea. “I’m your gardener.”

“You’re a lot more than my gardener,” Grace said. “This winter, when I got your postcards…”

“Don’t say it.”

“I realized how much you meant to me,” Grace said. “My… friendship with you. This garden, this yard, what we’re trying to create here, means something to me.”

Benton said, “You have to stop.”

“Stop what?” Grace said. “Stop how I feel? Stop how you feel?”

“You don’t know how I feel,” Benton said.

This clammed her up. She thought, Oh God, it’s one sided. Unrequited. The loneliest word in the English language.

“How do you feel?” Grace asked.

“Confused,” he said.

She sat with that in silence.

“I am not that guy,” Benton said. “I never have been. And it’s not like you’re just some random married woman I met at a bar. You’re my client.”

“I know,” Grace said.

“I am not that guy,” he said. He backed his chair away from the table. “I need to shift my focus.”

“Away from me,” Grace said.

“Away from you.”

“But you do like me,” Grace said.

“Oh, Grace,” he said. “I more than like you.”

The next morning, Benton showed up twenty minutes later than usual, and for those twenty minutes, Grace thought he might not be coming at all. She thought, He’s going to drop me as a client. He’s going to fire me. He “more than liked” her, but because of this, they would have to stop working together.

When Benton’s truck did finally pull into the driveway, Grace felt faint with relief. She hurried out to the backyard, and in order to seem like she hadn’t been standing around, waiting for him to show up, she started pulling nonexistent weeds in the tulip bed.

“Hey, Grace,” Benton said as he rounded the house. He held out a brown box from Petticoat Row Bakery. “I brought you something.”

His tone was light. Normalcy had been restored. Grace was relieved but also crushed. She said, “Should I pick some mint?”

“Hell yes!” he said.

In the kitchen, Benton made the tea while Grace washed her hands and tried to calm her nerves. Then, together, they took their established places at Grace’s kitchen table.

Benton opened the brown pastry box to reveal four pale-green macarons with pale-pink filling.

“I became partial to macarons from a French bakery in Marrakech,” he said. “But I think these are just as good.” He held one out to her.

Grace accepted the cookie and took a bite. She couldn’t help herself; she groaned with pleasure.

He said, “Try it with the tea.”

With a sip of the tea, yes. It was a taste explosion.

He said, “Do you like it?”

“Nirvana,” she said.

He held her eyes and smiled at her, and her heart fell to the bottom of her stomach. He set down his glass of tea. He shook his head at her like she had done something wrong. He said, very softly, “Oh boy.”

And then he cupped her chin, and he kissed her.

MADELINE

Brick didn’t want to go to the Pancik house for dinner.

“Honey,” Madeline said, “why not?”

Brick shrugged. He had come home from baseball practice and collapsed on the sofa; now, his eyes were glued to the TV—ESPN, The Sports Reporters.

Madeline sat down carefully next to him. “Honey?” she said.

“Don’t feel like it.”

This was a first. Brick normally chomped at the bit to get over to the Panciks’ whenever Grace invited them for dinner. It was the only time he was allowed to hang out with Allegra in her bedroom—with the door open, of course.

“Honey, is everything okay with Allegra?” Madeline asked.

He shrugged. “Dunno.”

Madeline stared at her hands. Sixteen years she had raised this child, but she had never quite mastered the art of getting him to confide in her. Trevor was much better at it. She waited, literally biting her tongue until she tasted the metallic tang of blood.

She was rewarded. He said, “I’m not sure what’s going on. She’s been acting weird. I thought maybe it was a bad time of the month for her or whatever, but now I’m thinking she’s probably sick of me.”

Would it be awful of Madeline to say that she wasn’t surprised? Allegra had positive qualities, chief among them her beauty, her composure, her confidence. What sixteen-year-old girl had such confidence? She could also be quite funny; she did a dead-on impression of the kids’ English teacher, Mrs. Kraft. But there had been something about Allegra since she was young, something superior and entitled and not quite nice that she mostly saved for her mother. She brought Grace to tears on a regular basis, and, as Grace’s best friend, Madeline had always been there to listen. Yes, that was a horrifying thing for your daughter to say. Yes, that was a selfish and thoughtless action. But she’s young, she’ll grow out of it.