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The First Gardener

The First Gardener

4.5 86
by Denise Hildreth Jones

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Jeremiah Williams has been tending the gardens of the Tennessee governor’s mansion for over twenty-five years. And like most first families who have come and gone, this one has stolen his heart.
Mackenzie and her husband, Governor Gray London, have struggled for ten years to have a child and are now enjoying a sweet season of life—anticipating the


Jeremiah Williams has been tending the gardens of the Tennessee governor’s mansion for over twenty-five years. And like most first families who have come and gone, this one has stolen his heart.
Mackenzie and her husband, Governor Gray London, have struggled for ten years to have a child and are now enjoying a sweet season of life—anticipating the coming reelection and sending their precious daughter, Maddie, off to kindergarten—when a tragedy tears their world apart. As the entire state mourns, Mackenzie falls into a grief that threatens to swallow her whole.
Though his heart is also broken, Jeremiah realizes that his gift of gardening is about far more than pulling weeds and planting flowers. It’s about tending hearts as well. As he uses the tools that have been placed in his hands, he gently begins to cultivate the hard soil of Mackenzie’s heart, hoping to help her realize what it took him years to discover.
A Southern tale of loss, love, and living, The First Gardner reminds us that all of life is a gift, but our heart is the most valuable gift of all.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
International speaker and author Jones (Hurricanes in Paradise) crafts a heart-wrenchingly believable story that at times mirrors her own life. Mackenzie, the wife of Tennessee governor Gray London, has yearned for years for nothing else but a child. Mack finally conceives, and little Maddie becomes the center of this couple's world until a tragedy shatters the family. In the aftermath, an unremarkable man, a gardener named Jeremiah, begins to pierce the wall of Mack's pain and reach her soul through flowers. Each gift has a specific meaning and, while not always well received, Mack ultimately gets the messages God is communicating through Jeremiah's blooms. One blossom at a time, Mack's heartache mends under the tender ministrations of a master gardener who plants and prays in equal measure. Jones's novel offers comfort and challenge, and readers will find it lingering in their hearts and minds long after the last page has been turned. (Aug.)
From the Publisher
If heaven had a backyard, it would look like the gardens of the Tennessee governor’s mansion.
Jeremiah Williams has been tending those gardens for over twenty- five years. And like most first families who have come and gone, this one has stolen his heart.

Mackenzie and her husband, Governor Gray London, are enjoying a sweet season of life when a tragedy tears their world apart. As the entire state mourns, Mackenzie falls into a grief that threatens to swallow her whole.

Though his heart is also broken, Jeremiah realizes that his gift of gardening is about far more than pulling weeds and planting flowers. It’s about tending hearts as well. So he gently begins to cultivate the hard soil of Mackenzie’s heart, hoping to show her what it took him decades to discover.

A Southern tale of loss, love, and living, The First Gardener reminds us that all of life is a gift, but our heart is the most valuable gift of all.

Library Journal
For over 25 years, Jeremiah Williams has been the head gardener at the Tennessee governor's mansion and has served many first families. But Governor Gray London and his wife, Mackenzie, have a special place in Jeremiah's heart. He watched the couple struggle for years to have a child. Now five years old, their adorable daughter, Maddie, is about to start kindergarten. When a crippling tragedy strikes the family, Jeremiah must offer Mackenzie the comfort she seeks to find her way out of her depression. VERDICT This tender and uplifting read by the author of the Savannah series (Savannah from Savannah; Savannah Comes Undone; Savannah by the Sea) should find its way into the hands of readers who like the Southern novels of Rebecca Wells.

Product Details

Tyndale House Publishers
Publication date:
Sales rank:
Product dimensions:
8.10(w) x 5.50(h) x 1.20(d)

Read an Excerpt

The First Gardener

A Novel
By Denise Hildreth Jones

Tyndale House Publishers, Inc.

Copyright © 2011 Denise Hildreth Jones
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-4143-3558-2

Chapter One


The heat of the stone bathroom floor warmed Mackenzie London's entire body as she took her first steps of the day. Beauty surrounded her. Every fixture, fabric, element in this home had been redone to perfection by the previous occupant. The day she moved in, she had determined that she would appreciate every moment she spent in this exquisite place—because she knew those moments were numbered.

There might not be much certain in this world. But in Mackenzie's world this much was certain: she would not live here forever. She had known that when she moved in. And her Italian-Irish heritage pushed her to embrace every facet of life passionately, wildly, and completely. She was determined not to waste one moment of this opportunity she had been given.

Today, however, the mansion was the last thing on her mind.

"My, my, that's a good-looking man standing in front of that mirror." She leaned against her side of the brown marble countertop and gave her husband a sad smile.

Gray London leaned over his sink, electric razor in one hand. The other hand tugged at the base of his neck, where salt-and-pepper stubble clung. His blue eyes met hers, and she saw their delight in her arrival. "How's my girl?"

"Heartbroken." She scooted up behind him, wrapping her arms around his waist and resting her hands against the top of the towel tied around his hips. She laid her head against his bare back and listened as the buzz of the razor evaporated. Her heart felt heavy inside her chest.

He laid the razor down and placed his hands on top of hers. "It's a new stage of life, huh?"

She moved her cheek up and down against his back.

He laughed and turned so he could face her. His six-foot frame towered over her five-foot-four. He wrapped one arm around her, lifted her chin, and wiped at a tear that had left its wet trail down the side of her cheek.

"I know it's silly." She dabbed a tissue at her nose. She had one in virtually every pocket she owned. "It's just kindergarten. But maybe we should have waited until she was six. You know, five is still really young."

"She's an old five, Mack."

She leaned her head against his chest. "She was an old two."

He laughed. "Yeah, she was. But we talked about this, and she wants to go. I know it's going to be hard. It will be for me too, but it doesn't happen until tomorrow. So let's enjoy today and deal with tomorrow, tomorrow."

She raised her head and batted her eyes. The tears fell freely. She knew he was right, but it didn't change the way she felt. Natural childbirth had been less painful.

He leaned down and pressed his lips against her face, then moved his mouth to her ear as one hand grazed her stomach. "Plus, who knows? You might have another baby here in about nine months."

"I pray so."

He leaned back. "So you want me to give you your shot before you get in the shower?"

She moved her hands up to the soft curve in her hips, a smile fighting with the tears. "You just want to look at my booty."

"Prettiest one I've ever seen."

The smile won. She reached for another tissue and swiped at her eyes, then walked back over to her side of the bathroom. The Pregnyl stayed in prominent sight in her top drawer.

It had taken her and Gray almost ten years to conceive their Maddie—ten years plus four miscarriages and thousands of dollars. But when Maddie came along, Mackenzie finally had the one thing she felt her life was missing—a child. And now, five years later, she was desperate for another. Wanted it like an ache in the soul wants a healing balm.

The latest round of fertility treatments had begun again almost a year ago. They'd bypassed the Clomid altogether this time and gone straight to the injections. To date, the only thing they had to show for it was her sore behind.

Mackenzie let her robe fall to the marble floor. The matching lingerie set in black was all that remained. She saw Gray's expression change. "Just the shot, mister. You might get action this afternoon, but right now, just the shot."

He had been a good partner in this journey. Though she knew he sometimes wearied of the routine, still he was at every doctor's appointment, shared each piece of heartbreaking news, and was a pretty good nurse. He'd even become fairly handy with a needle. As she leaned against the cabinet, she suddenly got the giggles.

He moved the needle back. "You've got to be still, or this is liable to end up in your side. What's so funny anyway?"

She could hardly talk now. The laughter had all but taken over. "Wonder what Tennesseans would think if they knew that their governor was putting shots in his wife's booty this morning. That would make a front-page picture."

"I'll tell you what they would think. They'd think, 'Man, I knew that governor could do anything. What a specimen.'"

She turned her head toward him, and that was it. She threw her head back and laughed until she was wiping a different set of tears. He crossed his arms, the syringe still between his fingers. But it would take another five minutes before the governor was able to take care of his first order of duty on this beautiful Sunday morning in Tennessee.

* * *

The twenty-minute drive from the governor's mansion in Nashville to downtown Franklin, where Mackenzie had grown up, encompassed almost everything she loved about middle Tennessee. America's perception of the area seemed to be limited to country music, rednecks, and the term Nash Vegas. But natives like Mackenzie knew there was so much more. A straight shot down Franklin Road took her from her present house to her childhood home. And along the thirteen-mile stretch, she passed twenty-one churches, acres of gently rolling farmland with grazing cattle and horses, golf courses, schools, antebellum homes, and dozens of "meat and three" restaurants offering sweet tea and chocolate pie that were so good you'd want to slap your mama.

Of course, Mackenzie could never slap her mother. Her mother would declare that none of it was even capable of being as good as hers. Mackenzie couldn't argue because her mother was one of the best Southern cooks she knew. And Sunday afternoon dinners with Eugenia Quinn were as much a ritual as Friday night football in the fall.

The screen door of the recently remodeled Victorian home slammed against the white wood casing, the noise potentially heard two blocks over on Main Street. "Are y'all still taking my granddaughter to that church where the preacher says 'crap' in the pulpit?" Mackenzie's mother asked.

The same words had greeted them every Sunday afternoon since they had taken Eugenia to their church. It just so happened their preacher used a word she disapproved of that Sunday. She had never let them forget it.

Eugenia was carrying a big bouquet of zinnias and daisies from her garden, but she still managed to reach down and scoop her granddaughter up in her arms.

Gray gave her a kiss on the cheek. "What? You don't do that, Mom?"

Eugenia turned her pink, powdered cheek away from him in mock disgust and returned her affection to Maddie, kissing her multiple times on the face. Maddie giggled beneath the kisses. When Eugenia leaned back, a smile spread wide across her pink-painted lips.

Mackenzie chuckled and shook her head at the exuberant display. Eugenia had been almost as desperate for Maddie as she had been. Since Mackenzie was an only child, Eugenia's hope for grandchildren rested solely on her. A load she rarely forgot.

Maddie wrapped her arms around her grandmother's neck. "Gigi, I learned about midgets today!"

Eugenia raised expressive eyebrows above her crystal-blue eyes and turned her head, her coiffed bleached-blonde bob moving as a unit. Beauty shop day was every Monday. Tomorrow she would get it redone to look just like it looked today. "Of course you did," she answered Maddie, looking straight at Mackenzie. "Your pastor says the c word, darling. Why wouldn't they teach you about midgets?"

She put Maddie down, handed her the bouquet to hold, and led the way through the house to the kitchen, her silver pumps clicking on the refurbished pine floor. When the door of the oven opened, the fragrance of heaven flooded out. The faithful metal pan that held their Sunday afternoon feast was placed on the counter, the aluminum foil piled up in a mound.

Mackenzie knew what was underneath that silver dome. Paradise. The aroma had already leaked into every pore of her skin.

She walked over to the cabinet and pulled out the glasses. "Smells amazing, Mama."

"We're almost ready." Eugenia took the flowers from Maddie and started arranging them in the cut-glass vase that sat on the kitchen table. "I went out and cut these right before you got here. Look as good as flowers from the governor's—"

The back door opened. Mackenzie looked up to see her mom tug at the bottom of her baby-blue linen suit jacket. She still hadn't changed from church herself. Eugenia had attended Southeast Baptist Church since before Mackenzie was born, and at Southeast Baptist they dressed up for Sunday service—another thing she often pointed out to Mackenzie.

Eugenia reached up to pouf her hair just as Burt Taylor's voice boomed through the kitchen. "Well, good afternoon, everybody."

Gray walked over and extended his hand. "Good afternoon, Burt."

Eugenia, fussing with the flowers, spoke to Burt as if he were a last-minute invite. "Hello, Burt. Glad you could join us. Now, dinner will be ready in a few minutes."

Mackenzie stifled her smile. She hadn't seen her mom this nervous in a long time. Eugenia had always been a symbol of strength to Mackenzie, who had seen her cry only once—when Mackenzie's father died ten years earlier. Once the funeral was over, Mackenzie had never witnessed another tear, and she'd only heard Eugenia weeping a few times behind a closed bedroom door.

Eugenia was tough, a rock. Mackenzie envied that about her. If anything happened to Gray, she couldn't imagine surviving.

"Hey, Burtie!" Maddie squealed and took a leap into Burt's arms. He let out a half chuckle, half groan.

"Easy, Maddie," Gray said.

"I love it," Burt responded, leaning down and planting a kiss on Maddie's cheek. "I don't get to see my grandbabies much now that they have all moved away, so it's mighty nice having a little one in my arms." The edges of Burt's plaid suit jacket crinkled beneath her weight.

"Maddie," Gray said, "let's go sit outside with Mr. Burt while Gigi and your mom get dinner ready. You can tell him what you learned in Sunday school about midgets." His laughter erupted as he turned toward Eugenia.

She fluttered her hands at them. "That's a great idea. Y'all shoo on out of my kitchen."

Maddie jumped from Burt's arms, and the three of them walked out onto the front porch. "I think the midget's name was Zach something...." Maddie's words faded as the screen door slammed behind her.

Mackenzie started to put ice in the glasses. "Burt has been coming over a lot lately, huh?"

Eugenia didn't even look up. "He's old. He's hungry. And I'm a good cook."

"That you are. But you and your friends are a pretty wild bunch."

Her mother huffed as she pulled the chuck roast from beneath the foil and laid it on a white platter. "I'm not wild, Mackenzie London. I hang out with old women who get winded playing Skip-Bo and think Starbucks is a newly discovered planet. Trust me. I'm boring."

Of all the adjectives Mackenzie would use to describe her mother, she was certain boring had never been one. She was a quintessential lady, a master gardener, a lover of beauty, but she would just as soon cuss you as look at you—though she would never do it in church. She kept her husband's 12-gauge under her bed and would shoot you first and ask who you were later. She was opinionated and her tongue could be downright withering, but she was also loyal—fiercely loyal.

And if the world ever fell apart, Mackenzie was certain that Eugenia Madeline Pruitt Quinn alone could put it all back together.

* * *

As usual, Maddie was the first one to burst through the door of the governor's mansion when they finally made it home late that afternoon. Mackenzie heard her pounding up the stairs to the family quarters as she and Gray walked through the front door.

Following Maddie up the stairs, she was greeted first by her daughter's skirt, draped carelessly from one tread to the next. Her eyes moved up the stairwell at the trail of clothing Maddie had deposited on her way to her room. Gray had been the first to use the word poop for what Maddie often did with her stuff. Mackenzie had thought the term was gross, but Maddie was five—she loved it. So it had stuck. And in less than two minutes flat, Maddie had "pooped" her skirt, then her sweater, her shoes, and her socks, leaving a trail of clothing up the stairs.

Mackenzie sighed. When Maddie was three, this habit had been cute. Now, not so much. And though they had been working with her on this for the past year, in moments like these, Mackenzie wasn't sure what all the effort had been for.

"Maddie." Her voice traveled down the hall as she picked up the skirt.

The tiny voice came from what she assumed was Maddie's bedroom. "Yes, Mommy?"

"Want to go outside and play?"

"I'm getting ready to."

"Well, why don't you come here first and see how quickly that is going to happen."

She heard little feet patter in the hallway. Maddie stood at the top of the steps, blue jean shorts already buttoned, yet still topless. She looked down and giggled. "Oops."

Mackenzie held out the skirt. "Yes, oops."

Maddie snatched up her skirt and the rest of her clothes and raced back up the stairs. "Maddie went poop," she announced as she made her way down the hall, filling it with laughter.

Mackenzie had to smile. She was way too lenient with Maddie, she knew. Gray reminded her of that often enough, and so did her mother. But she couldn't help it. Maddie was her miracle baby. And there hadn't been children in the governor's mansion since the Lamar Alexander years. Mackenzie was grateful she and Gray had been able to bring this kind of life back into this magnificent house.

Restored by the former first lady in a massive renovation project, the mansion displayed all the beauty that a governor's residence should. But there was something about children in a home. They brought fingerprints to the artwork and syrup-covered hands to the marble side tables. They brought cartwheels to the foyer and a slight irreverence to what could be an often-stuffy environment. Formal dinners could be interrupted with bedtime stories, and hallways lined with pictures of former governors could turn into dance studios for little ballerinas. Best of all, Maddie and her friends brought a contagious laughter that the entire staff loved.

More footsteps pounded, and a camouflage streak left the smell of sweaty little boy in its wake. "Hey, Oliver," Mackenzie said as their seven-year-old next-door neighbor ran past her on the stairs. She glanced at her watch. "We've only been home a full five minutes."

"I know. I was watching ya from my driveway. Headed up to see Maddie—okay, Mrs. London?" The boy's disheveled curls bounced on his head as he took the steps two by two.

Mackenzie laughed. "Have at it, buddy." The fact that he had just entered the governor's mansion without so much as knocking was lost on Oliver. But Mackenzie didn't care. She liked having him around.

Oliver and Maddie had become bosom buddies last summer when his family moved into Minnie Pearl's old house next door. His mother, Lacy, had tried to keep him away, but Mackenzie had assured her that Maddie loved him. And he had pretty much become as permanent a fixture around here as Eugenia. The security and house staff knew to let him come and go. Maddie adored him and he her. And Gray declared that marriage was in their future.

Mackenzie reached the top of the steps and walked into the family quarters just as Maddie and Oliver rounded the corner. "Mommy! Mommy!" Maddie said. "Oliver has a new French word."

Oliver's family had lived in France for two years, and he did know a little French, but for the most part he simply spoke words with a French accent. But to Maddie, who was American and Southern through and through, he might as well be a French interpreter.


Excerpted from The First Gardener by Denise Hildreth Jones Copyright © 2011 by Denise Hildreth Jones. Excerpted by permission of Tyndale House Publishers, Inc.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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The First Gardener 4.6 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 86 reviews.
BC13 More than 1 year ago
Eepect the Unexpected; I never saw the end coming! Became connected with the characters in the story (I want to read more about this family); grabbed my heart, could not put the book down and yet, in some places I HAD to put the book down. Have not read a book where I was so "Involved" with the characters and storyline in awhile as I was with The First Garener. GREAT READ!
h2oskigrl More than 1 year ago
I have read all of her books and this is the best! Will of Wisteria is a close second. Keeps you guessing and very emotional.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This was such a heart warming gut wrenching story. I would put this in christian fiction. It was a love story and a life lesson story. There was no foul language and the writer eluded to lovemaking between 2 people who loved each other. I would consider this a clean book, and a great read. Jeremiah was so full of wisdom with his correlation between gardening and life.
dj5471 More than 1 year ago
This book had a great story line. I look forward to reading more of this author's writings.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Parts of it were very sad, but what a moving book, with an amazing, surprising ending. That's all I will say :-)
Joyceblessed More than 1 year ago
I was very blessed as I read this book. It was funny and quite entertaining, yet also sad. This book will help those who do not know how to lean and depend on God when they are going through trials and tribulations. This book let's you know that God is always there in any situation and He has everything taken care of and in control. May God continue to bless you Denise Hildreth as you continue to share God in your writings. Joyce Griffin
Christian-bookworm More than 1 year ago
A great story about marriage and how tragedy can affect it. See how God uses others in an intricate way to draw the married couple to him. An excellent and unexpected twist at the end.
itsJUSTme-wendy More than 1 year ago
About the book - Mackenzie London is dying. She is not dying of cancer, not of Aides, not of any other kind of disease. She is dying of a broken heart. Mack is in all but a catatonic state after the death of her daughter. This is not only about the grief that Mack is suffering from but also the grief of all those around her, her husband, Gray (the Governor of TN), her mother, Eugenia, and even the gardener, Jeremiah. They are all suffering from a broken heart as well. First they all lost a beautiful little girl in the tragedy of a car accident and now they are loosing Mackenzie to her depression as she crawls deeper and deeper into herself. This book is about the deepest kind of sorrow you can find - the loss of a child and then loosing the will to live. My review - This is just about the saddest book I have ever read. I have read almost all of Denise's books and they have all touched me in some way. She is a very gifted writer! I consider her to be one of my favorite Christian Authors . Denise has a way with the characters in her books. You absolutely feel the pain and loss felt by Mackenzie and Gray. I loved Mack and was sad for her but was also frustrated with her at the same time. Part of me just wanted to shake her and yell "Snap out of it! Life goes on." I know that some people loose their faith in God after a great tragedy. But it is also God who is always there for us and will help us through if we allow him. We can't shut him out like Mackenzie did in our greatest time of need. You also feel Gray's pain. He is not only grieving the death of his daughter but now the loss of a wife. What can he do to help her as she no longer touches him or talks to him, never leaves the bedroom and won't even eat. Can he help her in time before she slips away for good? And with an upcoming election, he has the decision of running for office again or being there for his wife, or can he do both? Eugenia, Mack's mother is my favorite character! What a feisty old woman she is. She reminds me of Shirley McLaine in the movie "Steel Magnolias". She is trying to be the strong one, giving up her own life and moving in to take care of her adult grieving daughter, bathing her, feeding her, dressing her, all while deep inside she herself is hurting and unable to show it. Even thought I spent a good 3/4 of this book bawling my eyes out I also spent some time chuckling thanks to Eugenia! Then there is sweet old Jeremiah, the black, southern gardener for over 25 years now. He has seen pain before in the death of his own wife, but Mackenzie's grief is stealing his heart. Jeremiah is trying desperately to help Mack to heal.He listens as God speaks to his heart and tells him what to say and what flowers to give her according to their meaning.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I really enjoyed this book!
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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This is one of the saddest books I have ever read. It does deal with grief, love and living! It does show us how we must go on living in the face of grief.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Very moving story.   Very easily became connected to the characters in this story.  I did not want this book to end.  I look forward to more books from this author.
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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This is a powerful story that made me laugh and made me cry. God was leaning over the shoulder of this author while she wrote.
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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I have never read a book that took me to such extremes of deep feelings. I felt that I was not only reading it but living it. It took me days to recover. For those that want to help someone who has suffered a great loss this book can really give you insight into what some have gone through and how fragile the balance can be.
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Friend me.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I absolutely would recommend this book. It tugs at your heartstrings but so very inspirational. Kudos to the author for such a well written book on friendship, heartache, healing, hope & Love. God owes us nothing!
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