pe. It would again, she vowed. One day, she’d stir a pot on that same stove with probably as much faked competence as her grandmother.
For JAson And Kat, As you start your life together.
MAy the gArden you plAnt root strong,
blossom with the colors And shapes eAch of you brings,
And both of you tend, so the blooms fl ourish.
The past cannot be presented;
we cannot know what we are not.
But one veil hangs over the past,
present, and future.
—HENRY DAVID THOREAU
According to legend, Steve McQueen once swam buck-naked among the cattails and lily pads in the pond at the Little Farm. If true, and Cilla liked to think it was, the King of Cool had stripped off and dived in post The Magnifi cent Seven and prior to The Great EscApe.
In some versions of the legend, Steve had done more than cool off on that muggy summer night in Virginia—and he’d done the more with Cilla’s grandmother. Though they’d both been married to other people at the time, the legend carried more cheer than disdain. And since both parties were long dead, neither could confirm or deny.
Then again, Cilla thought as she studied the murky water of the lily-choked pond, neither had bothered—as far as she could ascertain—to confirm or deny while they’d had the chance.
True or false, she imagined Janet Hardy, the glamorous, the tragic, the brilliant, the troubled, had enjoyed the buzz. Even icons had to get their kicks somewhere.
Standing in the yellow glare of sun with the dulling bite of March chilling her face, Cilla could see it perfectly. The steamy summer night, the blue wash from the spotlight moon. The gardens would’ve been at their magnificent peak and stunning the air with fragrance. The water would’ve been so cool and silky on the skin, and the color of chamomile tea with pink and white blossoms strung over it like glossy pearls.
Janet would have been at her stunning peak as well, Cilla mused. The spun-gold of her hair tumbling free, spilling over white shoulders . . . No, those would have been spun-gold, too, from her summer tan. Gilded shoulders in the tea-colored water, and her Arctic-blue eyes bright with laughter—and most likely a heroic consumption of liquor.
Music darting and sparkling through the dark, like the fireflies that flashed over the fertile fields, the velvet lawns, Cilla imagined. The voices from the weekend guests who wandered over the lawns, the porches and patios as bright as the music. Stars as luminous as the ones that gleamed overhead like little jewels scattered away from that spotlight moon.
Dark pockets of shadows, streaming colored lights from lanterns.
Yes, it would’ve been like that. Janet’s world had been one of brilliant light and utter dark. Always.
Cilla hoped she dove into that pond unapologetically naked, drunk and foolish and happy. And utterly unaware her crowded, desperate, glorious life would end barely a decade later.
Before turning away from the pond, Cilla listed it in her thick notebook. It would need to be cleaned, tested and ecologically balanced. She made another note to read up on pond management and maintenance before she attempted to do so, or hired an expert.
Then the gardens. Or what was left of them, she thought as she crossed through the high, lumpy grass. Weeds, literal blankets of vines, overgrown shrubs with branches poking through the blankets like brown bones, marred what had once been simply stupendous. Another metaphor, she supposed, for the bright and beautiful choked off and buried in the grasping.
She’d need help with this part, she decided. Considerable help. However much she wanted to put her back into this project, get her hands into it, she couldn’t possibly clear and hack, slash and burn, and redesign on her own.
The budget would have to include a landscaping crew. She noted down the need to study old photographs of the gardens, to buy some books on landscaping to educate herself, and to contact local landscapers for bids.
Standing, she scanned the ruined lawns, the sagging fences, the sad old barn that stood soot gray and scarred from weather. There had been chickens once—or so she’d been told—a couple of pretty horses, tidy fields of crops, a small, thriving grove of fruit trees. She wanted to believe—maybe needed to believe—she could bring all that back. That by the next spring, and all the springs after, she could stand here and look at all the budding, the blooming, the business of what had been her grandmother’s.
Of what was now hers.
She saw how it was, and how it once had been through her own Arctic-blue eyes shaded by the bill of a Rock the House ball cap. Her hair, more honey than gold dust, threaded through the back of the cap in a long, messy tail. She wore a thick hooded sweatshirt over strong shoulders and a long torso, faded jeans over long legs, and boots she’d bought years before for a hiking trip through the Blue Ridge Mountains. The same mountains that rolled up against the sky now.
Years ago, she thought. The last time she’d come east, come here. And when, she supposed, the seeds for what she would do now had been planted.
Didn’t that make the last four—or was it five—years of neglect at least partially her doing? She could’ve pushed sooner, could have demAnded. She could have done something.
“Doing it now,” she reminded herself. She wouldn’t regret the delay any more than she would regret the manipulation and bitter arguments she’d used to force her mother to sign over the property.
“Yours now, Cilla,” she told herself. “Don’t screw it up.”
She turned, braced herself, then made her way through the high grass and brambles to the old farmhouse where Janet Hardy had hosted sparkling parties, or had escaped to between roles. And where, in 1973, on another steamy summer night, she took her own life.
So claimed the legend.
THERE WERE GHOS T S. Sensing them was nearly as exhausting as evaluating the ramshackle three stories, facing the grime, the dust, the disheartening disrepair. Ghosts, Cilla supposed, had kept the vandalism and squatting to a minimum. Legends, she thought, had their uses.
She’d had the electricity turned back on, and had brought plenty of lightbulbs along with what she hoped would be enough cleaning supplies to get her started. She’d applied for her permits and researched local contractors.
Now, it was time to start something.
Lining up her priorities, she tackled the first of the four bathrooms that hadn’t seen a scrub brush in the last six years.
And she suspected the last tenants hadn’t bothered overmuch with such niceties during their stint.
“Could be more disgusting,” she muttered as she scraped and scrubbed. “Could be snakes and rats. And God, shut up. You’re asking for them.”
After two sweaty hours and emptying countless buckets of filthy water, she thought she could risk using the facilities without being inoculated first. Chugging bottled water, she headed down the back stairs to have a whack at the big farmhouse kitchen next. And eyeing the baby-blue-on-white laminate on the stubby counters, she wondered whose idea that update had been, and why they’d assumed it would suit the marvelous old O’Keefe & Merritt range and Coldspot refrigerator.
Aesthetically, the room was over the line of hideous, but sanitary had to take precedence.
She braced the back door open for ventilation, tugged rubber gloves back on and very gingerly opened the oven door.
While the best part of a can of oven cleaner went to work, she tackled the oven racks, the burners, the stove top and hood. A photograph flitted through her memory. Janet, a frilly apron over a wasp-waisted dress, sunlight hair pulled back in a sassy tail, stirring something in a big pot on the stove. Smiling at the camera while her two children looked on adoringly.
Publicity shoot, Cilla remembered. For one of the women’s magazines. Redbook or McCAll’s. The old farmhouse stove, with its center grill, had sparkled like new ho
She started to squat down to check the oven cleaner, then yipped in surprise when she heard her name.
He stood in the open doorway, with sunlight haloing his silvered blond hair. His smile deepened the creases in his face, still so handsome, and warmed those quiet hazel eyes.
Her heart took a bound from surprise to pleasure, and another into embarrassment.
When he stepped forward, arms opening for a hug, she tossed up her hands, wheeled back. “No, don’t. I’m absolutely disgusting. Covered with . . . I don’t even want to know.” She swiped the back of her wrist over her forehead, then fumbled off the protective gloves. “Dad,” she repeated.
“I see a clean spot.” He lifted her chin with his hand, kissed her cheek. “Look at you.”
“I wish you wouldn’t.” But she laughed as most of the initial awkwardness passed. “What are you doing here?”
“Somebody recognized you in town when you stopped for supplies and said something to Patty. And Patty,” he continued, referring to his wife, “called me. Why didn’t you tell me you were coming?”
“I was going to. I mean I was going to call you.” At some point. Eventually. When I figured out what to say. “I just wanted to get here first, then I . . .” She glanced back at the oven. “I got caught up.”
“So I see. When did you get in?”
Guilt pricked her conscience. “Listen, let’s go out on the front porch. It’s not too bad out front, and I have a cooler sitting out there holding a cold-cut sub with our names on it. Just let me wash up, then we’ll catch up.”
It wasn’t as bad in front, Cilla thought when she settled on the sagging steps with her father, but it was bad enough. The overgrown, weedy lawn and gardens, the trio of misshaped Bradford pears, a wild tangle of what she thought might be wisteria could all be dealt with. Would be. But the wonderful old magnolia rose, dense with its deep, glossy leaves, and stubborn daffodils shoved up through the thorny armor of climbing roses along the stone walls.
“I’m sorry I didn’t call,” Cilla began as she handed her father a bottle of iced tea to go with half the sub. “I’m sorry I haven’t called.”
He patted her knee, opened her bottle, then his own.
It was so like him, she thought. Gavin McGowan took things as they came—the good, the bad, the mediocre. How he’d ever fallen for the emotional morass that was her mother eluded her. But that was long ago, Cilla mused, and far away.
She bit into her portion of the sub. “I’m a bad daughter.”
“The worst,” he said, and made her laugh.
“Second worst. How’s your mother?”
Cilla bit into her sub, rolled her eyes. “Lizzy’s definitely running behind me on Mom’s scale at the moment. Otherwise, she’s okay. Number Five’s putting together a cabaret act for her.” At her father’s quiet look, Cilla shrugged. “I think when your marriages average a three-year life span, assigning numbers to husbands is practical and efficient. He’s okay. Better than Numbers Four and Two, and considerably smarter than Number Three. And he’s the reason I’m sitting here sharing a sub with the never-to-be-matched Number One.”
“Putting the song and dance together requires money. I had some money.”
“Wait, wait. I had some money, and she had something I wanted. I wanted this place, Dad. I’ve wanted it for a while now.”
“Yeah, I bought the farm.” Cilla tossed back her head and laughed. “And she’s so pissed at me. She didn’t want it, God knows. I mean, look at it. She hasn’t been out here in years, in decades, and she fired every manager, every overseer, every custodian. She wouldn’t give it to me, and it was my mistake to ask her for it a couple years ago. She wouldn’t sell it to me then, either.”
She took another bite of the sub, enjoying it now. “I got the tragedy face, the spiel about Janet. But now she needed seed money and wanted me to invest. Big no on that followed by big fight, much drama. I told her, and Number Five, I’d buy this place, named an amount and made it clear that was firm.”
“She sold it to you. She sold you the Little Farm.”
“After much gnashing of teeth, much weeping, various sorrowful opinions on my daughterly behavior since the day I was born. And so on. It doesn’t matter.” Or hardly mattered, Cilla thought. “She didn’t want it; I did. She’d have sold it long before this if it hadn’t been tied up in trusts. It could only be sold and transferred to family until, what, 2012? Anyway, Number Five calmed her down, and everyone got what they wanted.”
“What are you going to do with it, Cilla?”
Live, she thought. Breathe. “Do you remember it, Dad? I’ve only seen the pictures and old home movies, but you were here when it was in its prime. When the grounds were gorgeous and the porches gleaming. When it had character and grace. That’s what I’m going to do with it. I’m going to bring it back.”
She heard the unspoken How? and told herself it didn’t matter that he didn’t know what she could do. Or hardly mattered.
“Because it deserves better than this. Because I think Janet Hardy deserves better than this. And because I can. I’ve been flipping houses for almost five years now. Two years pretty much on my own. I know none of them was on the scale of this, but I have a knack for it. I’ve made a solid profit on my projects.”
“Are you doing this for profit?”
“I may change my mind in the next four years, but for now? No. I never knew Janet, but she’s influenced almost every area of my life. Something about this place pulled her here, even at the end. Something about it pulls me.”
“It’s a long way from what you’ve known,” Gavin said. “Not just the miles, but the atmosphere. The culture. The Shenandoah Valley, this part of it, is still fairly rural. Skyline Village boasts a few thousand people, and even in the larger cities like Front Royal and Culpepper, it’s far and away from L.A.”
“I guess I want to explore that, and I want to spend more time with my East Coast roots.” She wished he’d be pleased instead of concerned that she’d fail or give up. Again.
“I’m tired of California, I’m tired of all of it, Dad. I never wanted what Mom wanted, for me or for herself.”
“I know, sweetie.”
“So I’ll live here for a while.”
“Here?” Shock covered his face. “Live here? At the Little Farm?”
“I know, crazy. But I’ve done plenty of camping, which is what this’ll be for a few days anyway. Then I can rough it inside for a while longer. It’ll take about nine, ten months, maybe a year to do the rehab, to do it right. At the end of that, I’ll know if I want to stay or move on. If it’s moving on, I’ll figure out what to do about it then. But right now, Dad, I’m tired of moving on.”
Gavin said nothing for a moment, then draped his arm around Cilla’s shoulders. Did he have any idea, she wondered, what that casual show of support meant to her? How could he?
“It was beautiful here, beautiful and hopeful and happy,” he told her. “Horses grazing, her dog napping in the sun. The flowers were lovely. Janet did some of the gardening herself when she was here, I think. She came here to relax, she said. And she would, for short stretches. But then she needed people—that’s my take on it. She needed the noise and the laughter, the light. But now and again, she came out alone. No friends, no family, no press. I always wondered what she did during those solo visits.”
“You met Mom here.”
“I did. We were just children, and Janet had a party for Dilly and Johnnie. She invited a lot of local children. Janet took to me, so I was invited back whenever they were here. Johnnie and I played together, and stayed friends when we hit our teens, though he began to run with a different sort of crowd. Then Jo
hnnie died. He died, and everything went dark. Janet came here alone more often after that. I’d climb the wall to see if she was here, if Dilly was with her, when I was home from college. I’d see her walking alone, or see the lights on. I spoke to her a few times, three or four times, after Johnnie died. Then she was gone. Nothing here’s been the same since.