The Rumor(3)

by Elin Hilderbrand

When he saw her, he did a double take that made Grace’s heart sing.

“My God, Grace,” he said. “You look… wow. Just wow. I’m speechless.”

She stepped out onto the front porch and hugged him tightly. He was so strong, he picked her clear up off the ground. And then they both laughed and Benton set her down.

“Good to see you!” he said.

“And you!” she said.

They stared at each other. Grace couldn’t tell if it was romantic or awkward. Awkward, she decided. They were friends; conversation was supposed to come easily. She couldn’t work with the man all summer and achieve their goals if she was going to act like a thunderstruck thirteen-year-old girl. She had to snap out of it!

“Thank you for the postcards,” she said.

“You got them?” he said. “You never know with foreign mail.”

“I got four or five,” Grace said, trying to keep her tone casual. Those postcards, numbering five and tucked safely into her lingerie drawer, had fueled her little crush throughout the chilly, gray winter.

Benton Coe. His reputation preceded him: the most talented landscape architect on Nantucket, even though he was barely forty. He had been on the island five years by the time Grace had hired him, having been brought over originally by the Nantucket Historical Association to overhaul the grounds of their twenty-four properties. Before coming to Nantucket, Benton Coe had designed gardens in Savannah, Georgia, and Oxford, Mississippi—places so lush, he said, that he could hear the grass grow. He’d grown up in Youngstown, Ohio, and gone to college at Ohio State, where his work-study job had been with the grounds crew, fostering his love of landscaping. He did a semester abroad in Surrey, England; he was still partial to English gardens. Nothing like them, he told Grace. The British were good at world domination but even better with phlox, foxglove, boxwood, and the rose.

By the time Benton Coe had finished with the NHA properties—winning awards from every horticultural and historical preservation organization in New England—he was in high demand. He did gardens for the Amsters out in Dionis, and the Kepplings in Shimmo—work that Grace was lucky enough to see through her involvement with the Nantucket Garden Club.

When Eddie bought the house in Wauwinet, with its three undeveloped acres of surrounding land, Grace had her chance. She hired Benton Coe.

They had been in sync from the beginning. Last summer, they had planted grass and carved out beds; they dug, tiled, and filled the swimming pool, and they constructed a footbridge that spanned the creek. Benton supervised the building of the garden shed and the henhouse. There were fifty decisions a day. Normally with clients, Benton was given free rein. But, he admitted, he was enjoying collaborating with Grace. It was more fun than deciding everything himself, he said. It was stimulating to execute plans with someone whose sensibility dovetailed so nicely with his own.

Grace was charmed by Benton Coe’s choice of words. Sensibility: Had anyone before ever appreciated Grace’s sensibility? Her aesthetic? Her taste? Her instincts? No, she didn’t think so. She had been a dutiful daughter and granddaughter, a tolerant sister, a diligent student, a halfway-decent breakfast waitress, a devoted wife and mother, and an exceptional friend. But had anyone—including Eddie, including Madeline—appreciated Grace’s sensibility?

Dovetail: it was such a delicate word, such a sweet and tender way of describing how Grace and Benton matched up, how they fit together without gaps or leaks, without strife or collision.

It was stimulating, he said, a word too sexual for Grace to properly contemplate.

At the end of last summer, Benton confessed that coming to Grace’s house out in Wauwinet had been the high point of each day. He said that the reason he had never brought along his manager, Donovan, was because Benton had wanted to keep this project for himself.

Grace understood. She had begun to feel a flutter in her chest every time his black pickup pulled into the driveway.

Benton stopped by at ten o’clock, Monday through Saturday, even when it wasn’t required. Sometimes, he stayed only ten minutes, enough time for a quick tête-à-tête, another phrase of his that Grace relished. She imagined their foreheads touching. She imagined them kissing.

But… only imagined.

Fall arrived, as it always did, and they put the garden to bed. Then it was winter, and Benton embarked on his travels. The first postcard arrived from Casablanca, postmarked January 4, the day he arrived. Two weeks later, one came from Essaouira, on the coast; a week later, one from Agdz, in the desert; two weeks later, one from the Ourika Valley, in the Atlas Mountains. All of these were signed exactly the same way: Look at this! XO, Benton

Twenty days passed with no postcards, during which time Grace figured he’d forgotten about her; or possibly his girlfriend, McGuvvy, had flown over for a visit. But then a postcard arrived from Marrakech that said: My favorite place by far. I wish you could see what I’m seeing. XO, B

This card set Grace’s “sensibility” ablaze; she read it a thousand times. She used it as a bookmark in the novel she was reading, The Sheltering Sky, by Paul Bowles, chosen because it was as close as she could get to wandering through the souks and traversing the sand dunes of northern Africa herself.

She thought endlessly about Benton’s change of wording. I wish you could see what I’m seeing. The skeptic in Grace said that this was merely a variation on the old postcard message Wish you were here. But the blossoming romantic in her pictured a tête-à-tête, their heads together, their eyes seeing the same thing, their sensibilities dovetailing.

She loved that he had shortened Benton to B.

Grace had gathered all the postcards together and placed them in her top dresser drawer with her underwear, bras, and her black silk pajamas.

Grace said, “Can I get you anything to drink?”

Benton snapped his fingers. “Darn it. I got you a present while I was away, but I forgot it. I’ll bring it tomorrow.”

“You didn’t have to get me anything,” Grace said. A present from Morocco! Grace’s mind raced. She thought of the gauzy harem pants that belly dancers wore. She thought of silver finger cymbals, tasseled silk pillows in deep, rich colors; she thought of burled wood boxes with secret compartments. She thought of a hookah pipe packed with strawberry tobacco. She thought of exotic oils and fragrant spices—threads of saffron, cinnamon sticks, cardamom pods. She thought of the belly dancer again. Benton had bought her a present!