After her accountant husband disappears with millions of dollars stolen from his company’s clients, Alice Hyatt flees New York City and moves to her family’s longtime summer home in a small town in western Massachusetts. There she begins to make a new start, reconnecting with old friends and finding peace—and a growing sense of pride—as a landscape architect.
When extremely wealthy newcomer Graham Mackenzie asks her to design an elaborate garden for him, she can’t turn down the opportunity despite misgivings about Mackenzie’s energy company, which specializes in the controversial practice of fracking.
But just as the project nears completion, she learns Mackenzie’s offer is not all that it seems. Once again, Alice finds herself embroiled in someone else’s crimes, this time putting her newfound success—and possibly her life—in jeopardy....
CONVERSATION GUIDE INCLUDED
|Publisher:||Penguin Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.40(w) x 8.10(h) x 0.80(d)|
|Age Range:||18 Years|
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
PRAISE FOR THE NOVELS OF LIZA GYLLENHAAL
ALSO BY LIZA GYLLENHAAL
“C heater! Cheater! Cheater!”
I stopped on the pathway leading out to the barn to listen to the male cardinal’s repeated cry. He and the missus lived in the stand of hemlocks behind the house and spent their days alternately foraging under the kitchen bird feeders and reminding me over and over again of my folly. Cheater! Most ornithologists identify the call as cheer, cheer, cheer or birdie, birdie, birdie. But I knew better. The soundstage effect of the snow muffled the bird’s cry, but I still heard the warning clearly. Don’t forget! You must never forget!
Not that I could even if I wanted to. It would be like forgetting that I’d lost an arm or a leg. The source of the pain was gone, but its throbbing absence would always be with me. For, in fact, I had been cheated. Something had been taken from me. Many things, actually. Trust. Security. Identity. The wonderful complacency of marriage and motherhood. Of knowing exactly where I stood in the world. And that the sun would come up again over the sugar maples bordering our old Westchester property. The Hyatt house on the corner. I could still see it all so clearly in my mind’s eye! My daughters, bent dutifully over their cereal bowls at the kitchen table. Richard, flapping open the Wall Street Journal. The row of African violets on the windowsill. All of it gone now. Swept away—no, cruelly severed. Without warning. Or recourse. Or even—and this was the worst of it, really—explanation.
“You got a call from the Mackenzie residence,” Mara said as I came into the office, stamping the snow off my boots. Last night’s unexpected late-winter storm had dumped another six inches on the Berkshire Hills of Massachusetts. The thrill of January’s sun-dazzled snowscapes was long gone. It was mid-March, after all. Daffodils were blooming in other parts of the country.
“What?” I asked, shedding my duffle coat and hanging it on the wall rack next to Mara’s oversized parka.
“The Mackenzie residence,” she said again. “That big new place on the mountain. The one you and Mrs. Boyland were talking about last week.”
I’m always a little taken aback when I realize that my self-effacing assistant, Mara, might actually be listening in on my telephone conversations. I guess it’s hard not to overhear each other in the winter when I close off most of the old barn to save on heat, and Mara and I are forced to share the small front office. I know I should probably just shut down Green Acres altogether during the off-season. But a nagging fear that I’ll somehow lose momentum and slip back into the abyss keeps me at my desk. Just as her need to provide for her son, Danny, keeps Mara, a single parent, at hers. Both of us, in the dead of winter, frittering away time on the Internet. And, in my case, talking on the phone, frequently to Gwen Boyland.
“I’m guessing two million when all is said and done,” Gwen had told me the week before. My closest friend in Woodhaven, Gwen takes endless pleasure in talking about money. What things cost. How much people are worth. Lately she’s become obsessed, as have many others in town, with calculating the final tally for the glass and steel monolith on Powell Mountain that’s been under construction for the past two years. Since the recession hit, building in our area has fallen way off. This was one of the few new homes to go up in ages—and certainly the biggest.
“Todd told me they had to tear out all the marble in the bathrooms because the owner thought it was too pink,” I’d said to Gwen. Todd Franey, who works for Green Acres during the summer, picks up odd construction jobs the rest of the year and had been a dogsbody for the tile installer. A sweet-natured local boy, he was dumbstruck over the waste of money and materials. “He told me the marble had all been custom cut, so the owner had to eat the cost. It must have been thousands of dollars.”
“I happen to know it was almost twenty thousand,” Gwen had said. Before she took over as executive director of the Woodhaven Historical Society, Gwen worked as a real estate broker, and she still maintains a wide-ranging network of contacts in that world. “That’s a drop in the bucket for someone like Graham Mackenzie. The man has got to be worth hundreds of millions of dollars.”
“Todd said he’s putting in some kind of fancy landing pad,” I’d told her.
“Oh, folks are going to love that!” Gwen said. “The griping I’ve heard about that damned helicopter!”
I’d heard the sound myself from time to time, though only as a distant irritant. But I knew that people who lived closer to Powell Mountain swore the noise of Mackenzie’s swirling blades overhead was interrupting their sleep patterns and destroying their sense of rural repose. When I’d summered in Woodhaven with my family as a girl, Powell Mountain, which rises eleven hundred feet over the northern edge of town, was a wilderness of hemlocks and birches, limestone outcroppings, deer paths, and cascading brooks. It wasn’t until after 9/11, when the Berkshires were hit by a sudden growth spurt, that anyone seriously considered building there. After all, it would take a ridiculous amount of money to clear the heavily wooded mountainside, cut in switchbacks, and lay down the necessary power and water lines. But by the time I moved up to Woodhaven from Westchester five years ago, a half dozen millionaires—all loosely affiliated through business dealings—had divvied up the 125-acre property and started erecting enormous trophy homes. Graham Mackenzie was building his place on the last and biggest parcel. It was on the very top of the mountain and had panoramic views of three states.
“Where did he get all his money?” I asked.
“I’ve been Googling him. He’s very big in hydrofracking. His MKZEnergy is the third-largest natural gas producer in the country. The stock price has been almost doubling every year for the last four years.”
“I’d ask you why this matters,” I said, “but I’m afraid I already know.” My dear friend is not a gold digger in any traditional sense of the word. She doesn’t yearn to be draped in minks or to be sunbathing on a yacht in Monte Carlo. Her ambitions are far more focused and hardheaded than that. At this point, I think Gwen would do just about anything to raise the funds necessary to restore Bridgewater House. Built in 1751, it’s the oldest standing residence in Woodhaven, and its renovation is the main reason Gwen was hired as the full-time executive director of the Woodhaven Historical Society. Since the announcement of the start of the capital campaign last summer to return the structure to its former glory, Gwen has been relentlessly running down every loose piece of change in the area.
“It makes me crazy that I can’t make inroads into that millionaires’ row up there,” Gwen said. “They throw all their money at Tanglewood and at Shakespeare & Company and totally ignore this historic gem nestled right here in the heart—”
“I’ve already heard your sales pitch,” I reminded her. “Save it for Mackenzie. But I wouldn’t put much hope in someone who rips apart the earth for a living.”
“Oh, right, unlike Andrew Carnegie and Henry Frick and those other robber barons.”
But no matter how Gwen tried to justify it, I was still uncomfortable with what felt to me like her growing desperation about meeting the Bridgewater fund-raising goal. I knew all too well what the campaign meant to her career. Though she tried to put a good face on it, her midlife shift into the not-for-profit sector had resulted from a series of dead-end jobs in the for-profit one. This in many ways was Gwen’s last chance to turn her luck around. We’re both in our late forties now. We’d both been forced to make drastic reductions in our lifestyles and expectations over the past several years. Our options were narrowing. But I believed I was coming to terms with the setbacks I’d experienced. Bitterness welled up in the back of my throat only occasionally now, and the old outrage that had once dominated my waking hours had finally slackened. Green Acres had turned a decent profit for three years running, and I believed I was finally starting to get my life back on track. I wasn’t so sure about Gwen.
“And what did the Mackenzie residence want?” I asked Mara as I sat down at my desk and swiveled my chair in her direction. Though I’d suggested she set up her workstation next to mine in front of the large sunny windows that looked out on the herb garden and greenhouse, Mara had elected to stay in the back of the room near the sliding doors that opened to the rest of the barn. She’d angled her desk so that the back of her computer was facing me, blocking her body and the screen from view. It seemed to me that Mara made a concerted effort to avoid any kind of attention. Though she’d been working for me for more than a year now, I knew very little about her personal life except for the fact that she was raising an adorable toddler on her own. In the beginning, I found her guarded to the point of being rude. But just as I’d become dependent on her quiet efficiency, I’d grown used to her curt and wary manner.
“Don’t know,” she said, getting up and walking across the room to hand me a yellow sticky note upon which she’d written in her loopy schoolgirl hand a local number and “Eleanor—housekeeper.” “You’re supposed to call back.”
I made a cup of tea and sorted through the mail, which was mostly catalogs from nursery wholesalers and garden supply companies. My mind was on the message, though. And what it probably meant. Why else would someone contact a landscaping firm? Like everyone else in Woodhaven, I’d watched Mackenzie’s house taking shape on the mountaintop, the late-afternoon sun blazing across its row of windows. Most people thought it was a monstrosity, but I found its clean, forceful lines intriguing. It was way too big, of course, more fortress than home. But I also recognized that it was modern in the best sense of the word—unexpected and visually compelling. There were very few vantage points in Woodhaven where, looking north, you could miss catching sight of the sprawling edifice. I’d wondered in passing what sort of landscaping Mackenzie had in mind. It wasn’t going to be easy. That kind of bold, in-your-face architecture demanded an equally aggressive garden design. Specimen trees and shrubs. Grasses, perhaps. Lots of stonework.
I played with the sticky note, curling the glued edge inward with my index finger. It was harmless enough to tinker with ideas, but I knew I could never work for someone like Mackenzie—someone who despoiled the land for profit. When my life had imploded seven years ago this past September, the world around me turned to ash. For months on end, nothing gave me pleasure. It was only after I left Westchester and moved up to Woodhaven that my depression slowly started to lift. The old white clapboard Colonial that had been my family’s summerhouse for generations became my refuge, the long-neglected gardens my salvation.
Working almost nonstop those first few months, I uprooted the brambles that had imprisoned my grandmother’s peonies. I pruned back and rejuvenated my mother’s roses. I restored the fencing around my father’s old vegetable garden and dug up and replanted whatever herbs had not been colonized by weeds. My daughters and friends believed that I began to find new purpose in life when I went back to school to get my horticultural degree and then started Green Acres. But the truth was I’d already found it. By then I’d lost all faith in human beings. It was the boundless, selfless beauty of the natural world that led me back to the land of the living.
“I said you’d return her call this morning,” Mara said, interrupting my thoughts. I glanced up at the wall clock. It was a little past noon.
“You did?” It was unlike Mara to make such a promise. Early on, we’d settled on a clear-cut division of labor. I handled sales, client contact, and design. She took care of the billing and scheduling. Though I’d hired her as my assistant, I soon realized that she was more than my equal in terms of organization and efficiency. I’d learned to say she worked with—not for—me. We were both careful about observing each other’s boundaries. I would never take it upon myself to speak for her, and this was the first time that I could remember her doing so for me.
“Yeah, well . . . ,” Mara said from behind her computer terminal, “I got the feeling the housekeeper really wants to talk to you.”
“But I can’t work for this Mackenzie person. Do you know what hydrofracking is?”
Mara leaned around her desk, her gray-green eyes taking me in with an intensity that I often found disconcerting. Mara was hardly out of her teens, but she had the world-weary, unyielding stare of someone several decades older.
“Sure,” she said. “I know what it is.”
“And you don’t think it’s a danger to the environment?”
“Maybe,” she said. “But so are a lot of other things.” Despite her impassive expression, her tone was subtly wheedling. For whatever reason, she wanted me to return the phone call. She wanted me to meet with Mackenzie.
Then she added: “Don’t you kind of wonder what that place looks like on the inside?”
“Is that what this is all about?” I said with a laugh. “Crass curiosity?” Mara’s answering grin—such a rare sight!—reminded me of how young she still was. Young and struggling to keep her head above water. She rotated the same jeans and sweatshirts week after week. I suspected that any extra money she made went directly into caring for Danny. That Mara would be eager to learn about the interior trappings of some millionaire’s house touched and saddened me. She acted so tough and self-sufficient. But, of course, like the rest of us, it was just an act.
“I guess it would be unprofessional of me not to return the call,” I said.
I was doing this for Mara, I told myself. But in fact, my pulse quickened as I reached for the phone. I had to admit that I was curious, too. And something else. Something more complicated. Green Acres was still basically a start-up. There were half a dozen bigger and far better established landscaping firms in the area. Mackenzie was probably seeing them all. But, still, he’d heard of me. I was on the list. Word was getting around. The fact that he was even considering Green Acres allowed me to feel something I don’t often get to experience these days: pride.
Though I still would never work for the son of a bitch.
I used to be such a nice person. Personable, obliging. My husband, Richard, once jokingly told me after a particularly dull dinner with a business associate of his that I “suffered fools too gladly.” He was right, of course. And prescient in ways I couldn’t possibly have imagined at the time. But the truth is, for most of my life, I liked being liked. I’d been raised to be polite and well mannered. But I think it was also in my DNA. So it still surprises me how much my personality was altered by what happened. How quickly my anger can flare these days! I think that many of the people who once formed Richard’s and my circle in Westchester would hardly recognize me now. I’ve become so demanding. I won’t tolerate sloppiness, and I hate being kept waiting. Which is why I almost didn’t meet Graham Mackenzie after all.
“He’ll be with you in just a minute,” Mackenzie’s housekeeper, Eleanor, had assured me as we crossed the enormous sun-filled space that appeared to serve as Mackenzie’s combined dining area and living room. If Mara was expecting opulent Trump-style furnishings and outsized pieces of art, she was going to be disappointed. Someone with restrained, if extremely expensive, taste had decorated what I could see of the downstairs. A small herd of dove gray Italian leather sectionals grazed on a Tibetan carpet the size of a meadow. Eleanor, who didn’t divulge her last name, appeared to be equally understated. If she had any misgivings about being a black woman who was required to wear a uniform, she didn’t show it. In fact, she seemed to take a proprietary pleasure in welcoming me to Mackenzie’s home.
“Can I bring you some coffee or tea?” she asked as she led me to the far end of the room, with its wall of windows overlooking Woodhaven, the valley, and the hills rolling back to the Catskills in the distance. The whole front section of the house was cantilevered out over the side of the mountain, making me feel as though I was suspended in midair with the world literally at my feet.
“No, thanks, I’m fine,” I said. After Eleanor excused herself, I was left on my own to revel in the prospect below. The countryside was still covered in snow, though I noticed that several of the ponds in the area were starting to thaw. The late-afternoon sun glinted off the dam that regulated Heron Lake west of town. From where I stood, the distant meandering course of the Housatonic River looked like a hose looping through a garden.
On my way up the mountain earlier I had, on impulse, lowered the car window to take in a few deep breaths of the chill March air. I’d felt so cooped up over the winter! I couldn’t wait to dig my fingers into the soil again. It’s hard to explain to those who used to know me best, but probably my deepest sense of connection these days is with nature. I’m most alive when I’m outdoors. I think my two daughters view it as some kind of retreat on my part—a need to distance myself from people. But, in fact, it feels to me as though I’m actually in touch with something larger, more embracing—and, yes, more important—than humanity.
I’d missed gardening these past four months with almost the same kind of ache I used to feel when Richard was away on business trips. There was an emptiness in my life right now—just as there had once been an empty space in our bed. As the minutes went by, though, my reflective mood slowly morphed into annoyance. I glanced at my watch and realized that I’d been waiting almost three-quarters of an hour. What the hell was taking Mackenzie so long? I’d seen enough of the house to be able to report back to Mara. And even if Mackenzie deigned to offer me the job, I wasn’t going to take it. So what was the point of waiting around for the man to put in an appearance?
I did, however, feel I owed Eleanor the courtesy of telling her I was leaving. I walked back across the living room trying to remember which corridor—three different ones fed off the two-story entranceway—she had taken when she left me earlier. I heard a voice behind a door to the right of the entrance and stopped in front of it. I couldn’t make out what was being said, but the hostile tone was clear enough. This wasn’t soft-spoken Eleanor. It was an alpha male in full bullying mode.
I realized to whom I was listening, of course, even before the door opened—forcing me to stumble backward—and Mackenzie appeared. He was well over six feet tall, with a substantial belly, a dramatic mane of receding silvery hair, and a flushed, pockmarked complexion. His eyes were a pale, glaucous blue that looked almost milky in contrast with the high color of his skin.
“What the hell are you doing?” he said.
“Nothing,” I told him, straightening to my full five feet four inches. I was furious that he’d thought I was eavesdropping. “I was looking for Eleanor. Please let her know I couldn’t wait any longer.”
“Ah—” he said, exhaling. “You’re the landscape designer?”
“Yes, I’m Alice Hyatt. I own Green Acres. And I had an appointment with you,” I added, attempting to move around him, “about an hour ago.”
“I’m sorry,” he said, extending both arms to block my departure. “I was on an important business call that ran long. Listen, you’re here now—so you might as well stay. Give me a chance to make it up to you?” He added, smiling, “I promise you won’t regret it.”
The smile lit up his face and transformed his whole physical presence. A few moments ago, he’d been rigid with anger. Now he leaned toward me, literally bent on winning me over.
“No,” I said, deciding we’d already wasted enough of each other’s time. “I might as well tell you I’m here under false pretenses.”
“I only came because a coworker wanted to know what you’ve done with the inside of this place.”
“Really?” he said, starting to laugh. Then he kept on laughing—a rolling roar that filled the hallway. “I love it! Is everybody talking about it? Do they all hate it? I bet they think it’s too big and modern.”
“It’s not universally admired,” I admitted.
“Ah, well, fuck them,” he said pleasantly enough. “Come on, let’s have a drink. You can tell me what you have against working for me.” He took off down the hall, and I had no choice but to follow him. No, that’s not true. I could easily have walked in the other direction and out the front door, but the fact is that Graham Mackenzie’s frankness disarmed me. I’d prepared myself for the kind of buttoned-up, self-satisfied CEO that I used to run into when I accompanied my husband to business functions. Mackenzie, clearly, was cut from different cloth. Besides, I was ready for a drink myself.
We came to a stop in front of the windows and that million-dollar view again. It was nearly five o’clock. A voluminous cloud bank drifted over the sun, smearing bright reds and pinks and oranges across the darkening horizon. I took the glass of wine he offered and a seat on one of the couches facing the windows. He folded himself into an Eames chair angled in my direction and crossed his long legs on the leather ottoman.
“So?” he said. “What’s the problem? Is it the incline? I’ve already heard that it’s going to be a challenge. But most of your colleagues think it’s doable.”
“I take it you’re seeing everybody? Halderson’s? Maggione?”
“And Coldwater, too. I also looked into some of the bigger outfits in Connecticut, but, I don’t know, I feel like I just keep seeing the same ideas. Don’t get me wrong—everyone’s work is great. Very professional. But it all looks the same. And then I remembered the enormous limestone outcropping at Sal’s place. I was there for a fund-raiser last summer, and saw that some crazy person had turned that incredible eyesore into this wonderful wall of ferns and dangling trillium and little waterfalls.”
I felt my face flush with pleasure. Though Sal Lombardi, a Green Acres client who was one of Mackenzie’s neighbors down the mountain, had been far more impressed with the fairly standard perennial border I designed to complement his newly installed Olympic pool, I felt the wall garden Mackenzie had admired was, in fact, my most creative and successful effort to date.
“So I called him,” Mackenzie said, “and asked him who the fuck had come up with that.”
I raised my hand.
“Bingo! I did a little digging around—forgive the pun—and found out that you’re the new kid on the block. Scrappy. And opinionated as hell, Sal told me. Which I like.”
I was tempted to smile. It felt good to be singled out by someone who could afford to buy whatever took his fancy. At the same time I knew he was playing me. It was clear that Mackenzie was a deal-maker, and he was trying to close on something he wanted. I was enjoying our conversation, but I knew I had to be careful not to antagonize him.
“It’s not the incline,” I said. “That would be a challenge, but it comes with the territory around here. Have you ever been to Naumkeag in Stockbridge?”
“Love the place. And the whole Margaret Choate–Fletcher Steele collaboration. I want that, too, by the way. Someone who’s open to ideas. Who’ll be willing to listen to me and work with me.”
“You’re aware that it took Fletcher Steele more than three decades to put in the gardens at Naumkeag and, even then, he never felt they were really finished?”
“What great garden ever is?” Mackenzie said, taking me in over the rim of his wineglass. “But I don’t have that kind of time. I’ll want the whole thing designed and installed by the end of June.”
“That’s a tall order. I’m sure it can be done,” I said, hesitating before I took the plunge. “But not by me.”
“Okay, let’s hear it. What’s the problem?”
“I’m opposed to fracking,” I told him.
He looked at me for a moment without saying anything. But I sensed some kind of disconnect. He could have been looking through me. His opaque gaze made it difficult to know for certain where he was focusing.
“So?” he asked. “What’s that got to do with this?”
“You make your living destroying the land,” I told him. “I make mine trying to beautify it.”
“Oh, what total bullshit!” he said, though his tone remained cordial, even amused. “That sounds to me like something you rehearsed on the way over. What do you really know about hydrofracking besides what you read in the New York Times and listen to on NPR?”
“That’s a little condescending, don’t you think?”
“Come on—I asked you a question.”
“Okay. I know it’s bad for the environment.”
“So is driving a car. And I don’t think you walked up here.”
“Yes, but my Subaru doesn’t pollute the groundwater and sicken livestock.”
“Neither does hydrofracking when it’s done right. Which is how my company does it. In fact, I can make a very strong case that fracking—when handled correctly—actually has the potential to help save this planet from global warming. But I didn’t invite you here to debate the pros and cons of clean-air energy. I wanted to talk to you about this property. About this project. I’m looking for something on par with Naumkeag and the rest—but contemporary and truly innovative. That’s why I built this house, frankly. From the beginning I saw it as primarily the backdrop for the landscape design. I realize this is going to sound grandiose, but the fact is I want you to create the most beautiful garden in the Berkshires for me.”
He had gotten up from the sofa and was pacing in front of the windows, which had blackened with nightfall and now mirrored his movements.
“I don’t care what it costs. I’m willing to pay whatever it takes. But what I’m hoping for is something totally unexpected and unique. Like what you did for Sal. Only on a much grander scale. Don’t worry about being able to handle it. Bring me a plan that I love—and I’ll make sure you get the resources you need to make it a reality.”
“I just don’t think so,” I said. “Listen, I’m sure you can make a very persuasive case for fracking, but I’m never going to buy it. And I’ve reached a point in my life where things like this matter.”
“What? Things like principles?” he said, shaking his head before he abruptly crossed the room to retrieve the wine bottle.
“Yes, principles,” I replied, nodding when he held the bottle up in the air in front of me. He refilled my glass.
“You know,” he said, sitting back down, “I often find that when people start talking about their principles, it’s an indication that they’re just not all that up on their facts. It’s easy to see things in absolutes when you don’t know the details. No important issue I can think of is that clear-cut. Good or bad. What I do for a living has allowed thousands of families to stay on their land—to keep their hopes and dreams alive. That’s what I think about when I fall asleep at night. And I sleep pretty damned well.”
“That’s great, but the decision still looks black-and-white to me.”
“Okay, I think I’m about to make it a little bit grayer. I’m going to tell you something that I haven’t shared with any of the others. It’s not something I like to publicize, because I know that people would be all over me if they knew.”
He got up from the chair again and stretched. I began to realize how physically restless he was. He hadn’t stayed in one position for more than a few minutes the whole time I’d been in his company.
“I’ve established a charity in my name,” he went on. “It’s called the Mackenzie Project. Its mission is to save and protect endangered horticultural spaces, particularly historic arboretums and gardens. As I said, it’s not something I want the general public in on, but I hope your knowing about it will make you realize that I, too, am trying—how did you put it?—‘to beautify nature.’ And I’ll tell you what I’ll do if we end up working together on this. I’ll put into my charity dollar for dollar what I pay out to you, earmarked for this region.”
“That’s incredibly generous of you,” I said.
“Maybe. But I also think it’s probably the only way I’m going to persuade you to work for me.”
I stared up at him, suddenly unsure of myself. How could I turn down such a magnanimous offer? I could already think of half a dozen historic—and now neglected—gardens in the area that could be resurrected by an infusion of cash from Mackenzie’s charity.
But who was this man? All I knew for certain was that he had somehow recognized in me what I’d come to believe about myself: I had a natural talent for what I did. In fact, deep down I knew that I was capable of far more than most of my traditional-minded clients wanted. Oh, to create something truly original! And to have all the money in the world to implement it! Mackenzie was right: getting this commission would establish my professional reputation. But what a huge project it was going to be. For the first time, I wondered if Mackenzie wasn’t perhaps putting too much faith in me. What if it was misplaced? What if I couldn’t come up with a design as spectacular as the one he envisioned? The most beautiful garden in the Berkshires? All of a sudden it seemed an impossible challenge.
It was then, of course, that I realized I’d already decided to take it on.
I first met Gwen Boyland at a sleep-away camp in western Massachusetts when we were both thirteen years old. Though my family summered in Woodhaven, we were essentially city folk. Riverside Park on the Upper West Side of Manhattan was my backyard. The closest I’d ever come to a run-in with wildlife was a neighbor’s German shepherd that had somehow slipped the leash. So the weekend we went on a “wilderness trek” up on the mountain, foraging for kindling and cooking out over an open fire, felt like high adventure to me. For Gwen, who’d been raised on a farm in the Berkshires and had once helped pull a calf feetfirst out of a breech birth, a couple of nights in a tent was pretty tame stuff.
Up until then I’d had no direct contact with Gwen, though I’d been keenly aware of her existence. It was hard not to be. She was starting to develop physically, and she thought nothing of walking around our cabin stark naked, her enviable breasts roosting like little doves between her upper arms. She had older sisters and seemed to know everything there was to know about things that remained painful mysteries to the slow starter I was at that time: the difference between Tampax and Kotex, French-kissing, and how to tell when a boy had a hard-on.
“He puts his hands in his pockets,” she whispered to the circle of girls who’d inched their sleeping bags around her after lights-out. Our counselors were still sitting beside the fire, luxuriating in some much-needed adult time. “And he kind of balls up his fists so the front of his pants puff out. It’s a dead giveaway.”
“Has a boy ever done that to you?” Ada Sawyers asked in an awestruck tone. A year younger than us, Ada followed Gwen around like a puppy.
“No, but I’ve seen it a million times with my sisters’ boyfriends,” Gwen said.
“Quiet in there!” one of the counselors called from outside. “Not another word out of any of you until morning.”
I had a hard time getting to sleep that night. I wasn’t accustomed to curling up on the bare ground. It was chilly and lumpy and it felt odd not having a bed or bunk to help demarcate my space from that of my fellow campers. Ada, who was a restless sleeper, kept turning over and falling against me. At one point, her flailing right arm landed like a dead branch in my lap.
“Hey!” I hissed, giving her a little shove.
“You awake?” Gwen whispered next to me in the dark.
“Yeah,” I said. “Are you?”
“What do you think?” Gwen said, though not unkindly. I’d noticed that for all her worldliness and bravado, she never acted mean or superior. “I got to pee so bad my teeth ache.”
“Me, too,” I said, realizing for the first time that that was another reason I hadn’t been able to drift off. We’d carried canteens with us on the hike up to the campsite and had stopped frequently to swill the warm, metallic-tasting water. We’d had lemonade with dinner and hot cocoa with dessert. One of the counselors had left a plastic bucket by the tent’s entry flap for us to relieve ourselves in during the night, but, for me at least, the very idea of piddling away in front of everybody was mortifying. I’d rather die first.
“Come on,” Gwen said, sitting up in her sleeping bag. “I’m going outside.”
“But—” We’d been instructed to stay in the tent, I was going to remind her. We were out in the woods, in the middle of nowhere, miles from civilization and emergency medical care. But before I had a chance to put any of these worries into words, Gwen had already slipped out into the night. My bursting bladder won out over my better judgment, and I followed her.
The cooking fire had burned down to embers, and the campground was awash in a ghostly sheen. The sliver of moon that hung like a stage prop above the tree line was outshone by the main attraction of the evening—a brilliant, dancing panoply of stars. Gwen and I stopped and stared up into the night sky for a minute or two as our eyes adjusted to the darkness. The woods were alive with sound. Insects hummed like an old refrigerator. And there was something else—a low, rough, raggedy roar—that sent a shiver through me.
“Did you hear that?” I whispered urgently to Gwen.
“That,” she said, grabbing a handful of napkins from the picnic table that was stacked with our supplies, “is the sound of somebody snoring.”
We followed the hiking trail back down the mountain about fifteen yards before squatting a few feet apart in the underbrush. Brambles pulled at my nightgown and weeds tickled my backside, but I was finally able to pee.
“You okay?” Gwen asked as I rejoined her with my nightgown bunched up around my waist.
“I’m not a very good aim.”
“Let’s find some paper towels,” Gwen said, heading back up the path again. It was only when we started to rummage around on the supply table that we noticed someone had been there before us. Boxes of cereal had been torn apart and Cheerios scattered on the ground like confetti. Bags of corn chips had been slashed open and pulverized. Our super-saver plastic tub of trail mix was gone.
“What—?” Gwen said, looking up from the mess and around the campsite. Neither one of us had seen the bear earlier because he was so big and black and quietly preoccupied. He was sitting on the ground not far from our tent, the tub of trail mix between his legs, shoveling the stuff into his mouth with both paws. A low, rough—and now I realized—contented growl escaped from his maw between bites.
“Oh, God!” I cried. “Oh, my God!”
The bear looked up from his little picnic.
“Shhhhh!” Gwen hissed, holding my arm as I tried to bolt. “Don’t move a muscle. Don’t say another word.”
“What’s going on?” one of the counselors called out.
“Stay where you are!” Gwen called. “There’s a bear out here. He’s feeding. If we leave him alone, he’ll go away when he’s done.”
Like the rest of us, the counselors seemed to hold Gwen in special regard. They quickly came to realize that she knew as much, if not more, than they did about the wild. Just that afternoon, one of them had asked her if a group of mushrooms we’d passed was edible, and Gwen had responded after quick examination: “Only if you want to kill yourself.” So now, though we could hear a certain amount of stirring from inside the tents, no one emerged. And Gwen and I stood stock-still, watching the bear devour the tub of trail mix for what seemed like hours.
He’d ripped a hole in the hard plastic and was getting at the nuts and seeds through the side of the tub. When it was almost empty, he turned the thing upside down and dumped the remaining mix into his mouth, his enormous pink tongue lapping around the raggedy hole searching for one last sunflower seed or chocolate-covered raisin. Then, with a sigh of regret, he tossed the empty tub into the bushes and lumbered to his feet. He started toward us. At the time he looked about ten feet tall, though I later learned he couldn’t have been more than six.
“Oh, God!” I cried.
“Be quiet and put your hands in the air,” Gwen said matter-of-factly.
“Is he going to eat us?” I whimpered.
“Bears are herbivores,” Gwen whispered back. “He’s probably just after more trail mix. We’re slowly—very slowly—going to start to back away from the picnic table, okay? Keep your hands above your head and your mouth shut. Just do what I do.”
Perhaps it was Gwen’s calm and seemingly disinterested response to the bear’s approach, or maybe he remembered that he’d already pillaged the best of our goodies. In any case, he stopped in his tracks as we began our forward-facing retreat. He sniffed the air, turning his head slowly from side to side, let out a huge yawn, and then, with almost balletic grace, pirouetted around and lumbered off into the woods.
Questions were raised about what we were doing outside when we’d been expressly told not to leave our tent, but Gwen’s level-headed handling of the bear “attack”—as it quickly became known—mitigated any disciplinary action. Somehow, undeservedly, my star rose with Gwen’s after the incident. Upon our return to the main camp, word spread quickly about our adventure. Older girls who’d looked right through me until then suddenly knew my name. And, most important and wonderful for me, Gwen Boyland and I became friends.
Initially, I worried that she was too sophisticated and popular for our closeness to last for very long. But I learned over the course of the next few weeks that Gwen, too, had her weaknesses. Ones that, happily for me, tended to be counterbalanced by my strengths. Where she was impulsive, I was strategic. When she tended to get bored or restless, I demonstrated inner resources and initiative. We helped smooth each other’s unfinished edges. And our backgrounds were different enough for each of us to consider the other special and somewhat exotic. For the next half a dozen summers we were inseparable. The Boyland Dairy farm was only three miles outside of Woodhaven, so we saw each other whenever my family was in “the country.”
College changed all that. I went to Brown. Gwen spent half a semester at Berkshire Community College before dropping out to marry a high school basketball star. It lasted less than a year and turned out to be one of her more enduring romances. The brashness that had helped her face down our bear ended up undermining her increasingly less-concerted efforts to forge any permanent relationships, just as the timidity that gripped me that same night made the security and routine of marriage so appealing. We remained friends, though, getting together whenever we could to catch up.
Things changed even more when I became a mother. I remember visiting Gwen at an apartment she was renting in Lee—in a chopped-up Victorian in desperate need of a paint job and rewiring—with Olivia in diapers and Franny in my arms. Gwen was still smoking then, and the place smelled of cigarettes and beer. The shower was running when she opened the door, and a few minutes after we’d gotten settled in the living room a man walked through with a towel wrapped around his waist.
“Behave!” Gwen had told him after he did a little jig in front of my daughters.
“You first,” he shot back.
What bothered me most about the visit was not that Gwen seemed at such loose ends—I think she was working part-time for an insurance adjuster then—but that she showed so little interest in my exceptionally adorable offspring. Or my handsome, loving, and increasingly successful husband. Though, as always, she did seem to care about me.
“You still working on that horticultural degree?” she asked me when the conversation started to lag. I was having a hard time concentrating because I had to keep restraining Olivia—who was teething—from gnawing on the many inappropriate objects within her reach.
“With all of this?” I asked, exasperated as Franny began to whimper. When I was pregnant with Olivia, I’d started taking classes at the New York Botanical Garden with the hope of getting a certificate in landscape design. I remember telling Gwen at the time how excited I was by the courses—how I felt I’d finally found my calling. “No, it’s just not feasible now. But I can always go back.”
“Always doesn’t actually last forever,” she said. “Don’t forget it’s your life, too, Alice.” I remember thinking how presumptuous it was for Gwen—who was rotating through men on a semiannual basis and changing jobs almost as often—to offer me advice. Still, despite our different lives and personalities, something kept us close. Some instinct made us reach out to each other whenever we needed to really talk and, more important, when we needed someone who would really listen.
That was the thing about Gwen. She never stopped believing in me. When everybody else was viewing me with suspicion or turning their backs, she stood firm. The moment the news hit and it became clear just how bad things were, she dropped everything in Woodhaven and came down to help me ride out the storm. It was a time when I learned all too quickly who my real friends were, and the sad truth is that most of them disappeared into the woodwork.
“Like cockroaches,” Gwen had observed acidly at the height of the publicity. “Running from the glare.”
Shortly after that, it was Gwen who reminded me of what I had put aside twenty years before. It was Gwen who suggested I start again. And it was she who wouldn’t take no for an answer.
So, naturally, it was Gwen I called first after my meeting with Graham Mackenzie.
“Wow! Good for you!” she said. “This is cause for celebration. Let me treat you to dinner at Donatello.”
“Right now?” I asked. It was nearly seven thirty, and I was defrosting a turkey burger for dinner.
“I’ll pick you up in ten minutes,” she told me. The impulsive side of Gwen has never changed. Nor has her generous nature. What time has tempered, though, is her girlishness and unbridled sense of fun. There’s a certain calculation in how she presents herself now that never used to be there. Just recently I realized she’s been adding highlights to her shoulder-length auburn hair. And after the hostess at the restaurant took our coats I saw that Gwen was wearing a leather skirt that barely covered her backside. But if what she wanted was for every man in the restaurant to take notice of her progress across the room, she got it.
“Thank God, you’re finally learning how to play the game a little,” Gwen said after we’d ordered and I began to give her the blow-by-blow of my meeting.
“What do you mean?” I asked, pushing the bread basket across the table. My friend, who has the metabolism of a triathlete, can eat anything and still slip into a size six without wiggling. “I was totally straight with the man.”
“Oh, come on!” Gwen said, buttering a slice of focaccia. “You were playing hard to get. It’s the oldest trick in the book. And for good reason. It obviously works.”
“A part of me is still seriously conflicted,” I told her. “I hate what fracking is doing to the environment.”
“Fine. Feel a little guilty as you walk away with the biggest contract of your life. I think it’s great. And, no matter what you claim, I say you handled the situation beautifully.”
“It’s hardly a done deal. I still have to come up with designs that knock his socks off. And he knows his stuff. If he thinks a firm as well regarded as Coldwater is turning out the same old same old, then you know he’s expecting something pretty sensational.”
“Which is what you’ll give him,” Gwen said as our first courses arrived. “I have no doubt.”
I talked through the whole meal about the project, all the while silently debating whether to tell Gwen about Mackenzie’s not-for-profit. I’d thought of the gardens at Bridgewater House as soon as he’d mentioned the charity’s mission. The gardens were extensive, historically significant, and in a sad state of disrepair, including a beautiful old nineteenth-century greenhouse that had lost half its panes and was disintegrating into a rusted skeleton. I knew that a substantial amount of Gwen’s capital campaign was designated for outdoor restoration. Bridgewater House was a perfect fit for the Mackenzie Project—and a grant of that stature would no doubt help get Gwen’s fund-raising efforts off the ground at last.
“So what’s he like as a man?” Gwen asked over espresso and a plate of cookies. “Is he just all about making billions of buckaroonies—or does he have a soul?”
“You know, I don’t think it’s either-or with him. He’s definitely a high-powered person. And, no matter what he claims, fracking is evil. On the other hand—” It was on the tip of my tongue to tell her about the charity and his dollar-for-dollar offer if I got the job.
“But is he someone I could hit up?” Gwen asked, cutting me off. “Would he be open to an ask, do you think?”
“Possibly,” I said. From what I knew about Mackenzie, he seemed like just the kind of person Gwen should be pursuing: someone with deep pockets, big ideas, and a plus-sized ego. Why was I hesitating? It was probably just what I ended up telling Gwen: “Let me see how things go with him. He certainly knows how to make a great first impression, but let me see if he comes through.” Still, something worried me about the idea. I just couldn’t put my finger on it.
“Marmy! Marmy!” Danny shouted happily as he dragged the heavy-duty tape measure behind him up the hill. Mara had locked the mechanism before handing it over to her son to play with while we investigated the birch grove farther up the incline. But Danny had somehow managed to release it, and now a long aluminum tail rattled behind him, the yellow plastic case bouncing around at the end like a pull toy.
“Be careful, Danny!” I cried without thinking. The tape was sharp as a razor. I’d nicked myself on it often enough. He stopped in his tracks, his wide grin suddenly uncertain. I realized as soon as I said it that I shouldn’t have intervened. I’d asked Mara as a favor if she could help me make a rough survey of Mackenzie’s property that chilly Saturday afternoon in late March, and she’d agreed to do so if she could bring Danny along. Though she seemed so young and inexperienced, I’d come to realize that she was a super-protective and self-sufficient mother. She didn’t want my advice. She’d made it pretty clear to me in the past that Danny was her business. Period. No trespassing.
“It’s okay,” Mara said as Danny’s mouth began to quiver, “you’re unbreakable. Right, bud? But your nose is totally disgusting. Get up here.” Mara squatted down as Danny ran into her arms. She pulled a package of Kleenex from her parka pocket. “Blow!” she said, hugging him to her as she covered the lower half of his face with the tissue.
I enjoyed watching the two of them together. They had the same dark brown hair, in Mara’s case cropped into a raggedy cap that fell slightly askew across her high, round forehead. Danny’s hadn’t been cut yet and it curled, cherublike, to his shoulders. When Mara was around her son, her defensive and closed-off attitude disappeared—as did the carefully maintained noncommittal expression. Seeing her with him allowed me a glimpse of a very different person—someone spontaneous and fun. I felt sad that she wouldn’t allow herself to be that way around me or anyone else she came into contact with at Green Acres. Clearly, something had happened to her—a bad early marriage or relationship, I suspected—that made her such a standoffish and solitary young woman.
“Hello, down there!” Eleanor called, waving to us from the side deck. The housekeeper had greeted us cordially when we arrived and invited us in for cookies and a cup of tea when we’d finished our work. “Warm brownies just out of the oven, if anyone’s interested.”
“Yes!” Danny said, his face brightening again.
“You guys go ahead,” I told Mara. We’d been at it for more than an hour, and the temperature was starting to drop off as the afternoon lengthened. I still had a lot of ground to cover, but Mackenzie had given me permission to walk the property whenever I wished. And I already knew that I’d need several additional visits to get all the readings I wanted. “I’m going to take some more photos before the light goes. I’ll see you up there.”
What People are Saying About This
Praise for Bleeding Heart
“The multilayered plot and deceptive characters makes this a strong crossover chick lit/mystery novel. Great for book club discussion groups.” —Library Journal
“’Gardening thriller’ may seem an unlikely genre, but Gyllenhaal pulls it off. The novel deftly balances comforting descriptions of gardens and small-town life with the suspenseful unraveling of a mystery. A compelling story of one woman’s attempt to find herself, build her business and solve a mystery.”—Kirkus Reviews
“Gyllenhaal nicely weaves environmental politics, financial shenanigans, and murder into Alice’s compelling story. Could get heated for book groups.”—Booklist
“A compelling, adroitly crafted novel of suspense about a woman’s second chance at happiness. Her lucid prose illuminates everyday life while shining a light on the darkest secrets and desires. The taut and evocative prose is psychologically astute and powerful. Liza Gyllenhaal is one of our finest novelists of the heart writing today.”—Carol Goodman, author of The Lake of Dead Languages and the Blythewood novels
“In this tautly paced mystery set in the bucolic Berkshires, Liza Gyllenhaal delivers a tale of betrayal, greed, and murder with more twists than the paths through the gardens she describes so poetically along the way. Gyllenhaal also handily highlights a contemporary social issue sure to spark debates in every corner, as well as creating female characters with heart and ambition who have the courage to get their hands dirty, live by their convictions, and reinvent themselves. Fans of Jodi Picoult and Chris Bohjalian, this book's for you!”—Holly Robinson, author of The Wishing Hill and Beach Plum Island
“Full of intrigue and heart, Liza Gyllenhaal’s new novel is sure to leave you feeling as if you’ve taken a stroll through your favorite flower garden and found that strength was in full bloom.”—Jennifer Scott, author of The Sister Season
Praise for the novels of Liza Gyllenhaal
“Gyllenhaal has written a lyrical, psychologically astute, heart-stoppingly suspenseful novel about what it means to be part of a family.”—Ellen Feldman, author of Next to Love
“Gyllenhaal’s novel is a snapshot of a family and a community in crisis. It is a thought-provoking, all-too-familiar story of young people attempting to navigate the often treacherous road to adulthood and adults attempting to parent on an equally dangerous path.”—Booklist
“Unexpected, jarring and beautiful…Gyllenhaal demonstrates a deft hand at lyrical writing that subtly balances metaphors, philosophical realizations, and the realistic complexity of emotions.”—Berkshire Eagle
“This is a book to savor.”—Publishers Weekly
“Gripping and deeply perceptive...Small-town life and work are rendered in vivid detail, as are the memorable characters who come alive in the hands of a gifted new writer.”—Ben Sherwood, author of Charlie St. Cloud
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Check out the full review at Kritters Ramblings Alice Hyatt has already endured one crazy spouse scandal and I love how this book opens beyond the scandal and even beyond her recovery from the sandal. She has moved and set up her own business that is slowly building at the perfect pace. Through a series of events, she ends up working for someone new building in town and although it takes a while drama ensues! It was so quick and easy to get into this book and to root for Alice. I wanted to succeed even more so than most folks because of the past that she had overcome. I also completely enjoyed reading a book about a character that had passion for gardening - I actually learned a few things which is always a plus. Reading books with characters who have different hobbies is such fun because you as the reader may learn a thing or two, but you aren't aware that you are learning!
Liza Gyllenhaal brings readers another great novel set in the Berkshires. Bleeding Heart is one part chick lit, one part mystery and one part gardening tale and that adds up to one very special book. Readers who are looking for a strong female lead character, who is observant, smart and a wonderful gardener will love Alice Hyatt. Gyllenhaal not only engages the reader by providing a solid mystery, but her attention to detail and description is simply exquisite. What I liked: I wasn't really sure what to expect with this book since I had never read any of the author's other work. But I will have to say, I was really impressed with Bleeding Heart for several reasons. It is obvious that the author knows her subject matter. Her descriptions and way of writing about gardens felt very authentic and believable. Gyllenhaal has to be a gardener in her own right to be able to write this way. I not only wanted to dive into this book for a good read, but I afterwards I really wanted to plan out my own garden right down to the flowers and accents that I wanted in it. That's definitely going beyond the book. Alice Hyatt was a woman who was used to scandal. She was implicated in her husbands scheme to steal millions of dollars but she lived through it and not only survived but thrived. She moves to her grandparents home in Berkshires where she spent many a pleasant summer. She has moved on from her trauma and has her own thriving landscaping business, appropriately named, Green Acres. I liked Alice right away. She was resourceful and resilient. She took a bad situation and turned it around. When she becomes embroiled in yet another situation that ends her up as murder suspect she doesn't go down without a fight. She starts poking around and looking into things and she really struck me as woman who was determined not to let life get in her way. I loved her! Graham was such an interesting character. He is rich man who has made his wealth from a less than environmentally sound business practice, called fracking. If you don't know what that means, you will after you read this book. I love it when a book not only entertains me, but also educates me. And I felt like that was one of the things I took away from this novel. Not only did a learn what fracking meant, but why is was bad. I learned a ton of things about gardens that I had no idea about before and I learned the ins and outs of gardening as a business. It was a very good read, interesting and thought provoking. Bottom Line: There are so many good reasons to read this book. It was insightful, very descriptive and had a strong main character that readers will want to root for. I felt the authenticity of the authors gardening abilities on every page. It was just a joy to read. Who ever thought of a garden thriller? Great concept. Exceptional book!