Series: Stupid Awesome Love #2
Release Date: September 6, 2018
I’m fine, at least that’s what I tell everyone. A series of heartbreaks leads me to move across the country, hide away in my pajamas, until a sexy gardener at the San Francisco botanical gardens gets me off my ass. Hell, he saves me when I step in dog shit. He’s close to perfect.
But the past has a way of catching up to me. A promise I made my husband before he died keeps me bound, keeps any chance at love a distant dream. The more time I spend with Jack, the guiltier I feel for breaking my promise. Everyone’s got their hang-ups, right?
Jack…can’t stay away from Gemma.
Life is good. I’ve got a successful landscaping business and I’m an active member of my community. I know better than most that our tragedies shape who we are. Gemma comes from the world I turned away from, but I can’t leave this undeniable thing I’ve got for her alone. I shouldn’t want her, and yet I do.
Being with Gemma makes me feel like a new man, like I’ve been hiding my true self without even knowing it. But something from her past keeps us from moving forward. Someone. Can a simple man compete with a ghost?
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The cadence of my banter falters. “Oh, no. It’s a New York thing. I moved here not too long ago. I’m still adjusting.”
He shifts on his feet awkwardly, adjusts the tool belt.
“What brought you out west?”
I lost all faith in humanity and decided to run away from my problems.
“Oh, just needed a change of scene, ya know?”
He gives me that long, penetrating look again, like he’s trying to hack my brain.
“You from here?” I ask, wanting him to stop staring at me like a circus freak.
“No, I’m from San Diego originally. My folks moved us up here when I was ten. I moved away after college.”
“Oh, how long have you been back?”
“About five years.” He clears his throat, his voice faltering.
“Why did you return?” I ask, just to continue talking. Though I probably should keep my big mouth shut. It’s the way he says five, like the word is cursed. I shouldn’t press him for this.
“I was in an accident. Needed to come back and recuperate.” He strokes down the fade on the side of his head, his gaze focused on the bench. “That’s all I’d like to say about that, if you don’t mind?”
“Of course. I’m sorry I pried. Blame it on East Coast blunt audacity.” The sound of my laugh is hollow. I should quit while I’m ahead. One month in hibernation and I’ve completely forgotten how to interact with people.
“Thanks for fixing the bench.” I wave awkwardly then turn away, giving him an easy out.
“No problem, but do you want to take that tour now?”
“You’re Lillian’s daughter, right? I’m Jack. I’m giving you a tour.”
Oh, just fuck my life. Really? I cannot spend one more second in this man’s company.
“Oh, Jack. Right. You know what? I’m okay. I think I’ll stay here for a little while longer. I can walk around myself.”
“Listen, if you’re gonna be working here you need to get familiar with the park. The kids can be a little rambunctious, and they’ve been known to wander off.”
“I can look at a map and find my way around. Thanks.”
He crosses his arms, challenging me.
“Those maps don’t show areas like this one, the little hiding spots. Best trees to climb. It’s a big garden. And that’s not even part of the main park.”
“Don’t think you are.”
“That’s not your decision to make.”
“Opal is my boss. She told me to give you a tour. That’s what I’m gonna do.”
My defenses shoot up.
“Whether I like it or not?”
His tone gentles.
“Would you rather walk around a garden on a beautiful day with me, or stand here, talking to a bench?”
Oh, it is on.
“Fine.” I stomp past him. “If you ever tell anyone about that I will put cacti in your utility belt pockets.”
“Ouch.” He cuts me off and faces me, walking backward, sidestepping around roots he can’t even see. “I’ve never met a person so worked up over a tour before. Do you have something against trees? Nature? Instructional experiences?”
“Just show me what you need to show me,” I grumble as we reach the main path and all the pedestrians.
“Jack!” An older woman with curly black hair and a gap-tooth smile encompasses Jack from behind in a big hug. “How are you, darling?”
“Great, Marianne.” He turns to face her, bending low to give her a kiss on the cheek. “How are you? How are the grandkids?”
“Wonderful. They keep asking when you’re going to babysit again. You’re their favorite.”
“That’s only because I let them eat ice cream for dinner and chow mein for dessert. Don’t tell their parents.”
“Ha, you gotta spoil them sometimes.” She elbows him playfully, clearly smitten. “We’re having a cookout next Sunday. Stop by for a bite.”
“I will, thank you. Tell the kids to be good for their folks. Or at least as good as I would be.”
Marianne chuckles and waves him off, shaking her head but charmed.
I get it. He’s good looking. His grin is infectious. He put his hand on her shoulder so gently, yet full of good-natured warmth. Who wouldn’t be affected by that?
Only someone with a dead heart.
“Sorry about that, I know most of the regulars here.”
Jack takes me to the sectioned parts of the garden, but he doesn’t tell me about the trees or the different Latin names of the flora as another tour guide might. Instead he points out hiding places, tricky places that visitors have tripped, plants that might be harmful to kids with sensitive skin. His attention to detail and familiarity with the garden is impressive, but he’s formal, never gives me the bright smile Marianne or any of the other people known to him are afforded. And there are a lot of people that stop to chat with the amiable Jack.
Like every single person that crosses our path.
Toward the end of our tour, I’m a bit frustrated by all the interruptions.
“Are you the mayor of the Botanical Gardens, or something? How do you know all these people?”
He laughs, shaking his head.
“Your Mom calls me the town mayor sometimes. Says I know everything about everyone.” He shrugs like a good old boy. “I like getting to know people, hearing stories from their past, their hopes and dreams. Connecting to people on a level beneath the surface is a special gift. One I’ll always treasure and respect. The least I can do is provide human connection.” His mouth tightens as he says, “If they want it.”
A hot bitterness wells up inside me, the great tide threatening to pull me under. I take a deep breath, think of coffee and loud subway trains. Times Square at Christmas. Sangria with Sophie. Playing hooky with my best friend, Adele. Moments in my life I love and miss…but where they used to bring comfort, now all I feel is loss.
God, I made such a mistake coming here. There’s nothing I can connect with. Nothing to keep me from drowning.
“Want to talk about it?” he asks as the silence between us grows tense.
“There’s nothing to talk about.”
“Because I’m a really good listener.” He dips his head, trying to get me to look at him.
“You’re also annoyingly persistent.”
We walk a bit longer, in silence this time. When I start to recognize where we are I decide to make my escape. Being around someone so shockingly open is like razor blades on my skin, and he is too nice to say he doesn’t want to be near someone as rude and closed off as I am.
“Thanks for the tour. I can find my way back from here.”
“Listen, I don’t need to talk. I don’t need any more lessons on being cordial to your neighbors. I just need to get back to the office. Goodbye.”
“You don’t want to do that, there’s—”
I walk backward as I talk to him, fed up with his highhanded attitude.
“I may be a lost out-of-towner who talks to benches, but I’m also an adult in full possession of all my faculties. You don’t need to babysit me.”
A big, cushy, squelching sound wafts from beneath my shoe, and the smell of shit pervades the air. I don’t look down. I don’t need to look down. I know I just stepped into a massive pile of crap.
“What the fuck?”
“I tried to tell you.” He grimaces, wincing at the massive turd I stomped into.
“Who doesn’t clean up after their dogs?” I start to pace, trying to scrape my boots against the sidewalk. “I mean, come on, people.”
“Stop walking around on it, you’re making it worse. God, that smells. How did you not see it there?”
“Why does life hate me so much?”
“No, really, you’re trailing it all over the place. Stay still.”
I close my eyes, and fist my hands at my side, trying to absorb the intense anger rising inside me. I tamp it down. No one needs that. No one wants to see me pissed. Better to be polite, and play it off like it’s nothing. Don’t let him see this literal shit affect me.
A hand on my ankle, my foot lifting from the ground. I start to wobble and brace myself on Jack’s shoulder. He’s at my feet, taking my boot off.
“Now I’m gonna step on it with my sock.”
“If you hadn’t stomped all over the place you would have had less of a chance of that.”
“I was trying to wipe it off.”
“On the cement?” he asks, incredulously.
“Just stop talking.”
Jack places my defiled boot near the edge of the path and stands.
“I’m gonna lift you, all right?”
I don’t have the wherewithal to speak so I just nod. He scoops me into his arms like a princess. But instead of being saved from a fiery dragon and a nest of thorns, it’s stinky poo I’m rescued from.
He places me on a large, curved root protruding from the ground then fetches the boot.
“Where are you taking my shoe?”
“I collect shit-covered shoes, and I’m adding this one to my secret lair buried deep below the garden.”
I stare at him a second, confounded.
He rolls his eyes. “Where do you think? There’s a hose connected over there, I’m gonna rinse it off. Don’t step in anymore shit while I’m gone.”
“Ass,” I grumble. Refusing to be thankful. But when he comes back with my shoe, slightly wet but sans poo, I say the words.
“You’re having a crap day, huh?”
I glare at him.
“No pun intended.”
I snort. That’s the understatement of the year. “More like a crap decade.”
“Take it from me—there’s no better place to recover from a crap day, or year, or decade, than this city.” Jack kneels at my feet and helps me put the shoe back on, blessedly free of poo stench.
“Speaking from experience?”
He looks up at me after zipping my boot, guileless. “Yes.” Without further explanation Jack stands, looking me up and down. “See you around, crazy lady.”
He leaves me on the tree root and walks away.
I am crazy. Crazy for thinking that moving here would solve my problems. Crazy for getting with Murray in the first place. Crazy for getting out of bed.
Although, watching Jack’s ass tense as his legs account for the incline in the path makes getting dressed and leaving the apartment slightly worth it.
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A New York native, Ceri now lives in California with her two cats, Mercy and Eugene Fitzherbert, who should be very thankful she didn’t name him frying pan. She is a proud functioning introvert and lover of all things geeky. You can find her haunting the Twitter machine or posting pictures of her ridiculous cats on Instagram.
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