“This way!” said Nora cheerily, her white Reeboks—the kind popular with the 1980s jazzercise crowd—peeking from beneath her long skirt. They must have put some extra spring in her step because she moved at a surprisingly quick pace for an octogenarian.
I stood, adjusted the waistband on my dark skinny jeans, smoothed my black sweater and straightened my back. My mother prided herself on teaching me good posture as a child, a good habit that has followed me into adulthood. I filed in line behind a family that kept trying for a girl but hadn’t succeeded. Four towheaded boys between the ages of twelve and seventeen shuffled along, well-mannered, but uninterested, while their WASPy parents held hands and strode along in front.
The Australian fell into step beside me, his hands jammed into the pockets of his tracksuit. In my flat riding boots, there was no disguising my petite height. He had no such vertical challenges. The top of my head barely reached his shoulder. What had he meant when he said we looked like we belonged together, I thought. In my mind nothing could be farther from the truth. When I look in the mirror I see a short, curvy woman who could stand to lose fifteen pounds with hair that likes to frizz in humid weather. This man was an Adonis, but did not carry himself with the cocky, self-assured air I expected. Instead, he seemed almost self-conscious of his six-foot five-inch frame, walking slowly and with care, keeping his long limbs in check. We progressed side by side through two of the keeping gardens—so named because they were designed as place for the nannies to “keep” the children—before a word between us was uttered.
“Oh,” I gasped as we entered the third space, “An all white garden. They’re my absolute favorite,” I said softly.
“And why is that?” a deep accented voice asked.
I looked up at him through my eyelashes and smiled, “Because of their simplicity,” I said. “There is something so refined and elegant in the restraint of color. One is able to appreciate the layers of texture, the varying shades of green, the symmetry.”
His eyes scanned the shrub-enclosed example of classic garden design and returned to me as I let a finger caress a large, creamy blossom.
“Yes,” he said, his eyes meeting mine, “elegant is just the word.”
He smiled bashfully and looked away as we proceeded down the brick-edged path bordered with fragrant spring narcissus. Our arms grazed against each other as the path narrowed and once again we exchanged smiles that seemed to be growing ever more intimate.
“You’re here by yourself?” he asked.
“I am. And you’re traveling alone as well?”
“I am,” he said, his head cocked to the side as he regarded me in an almost puzzled manner. The group had paused to admire a marble statue of Venus surrounded by budding camellias.
“My name is Marian,” I said simply, thrusting out my right hand.
For a brief moment he appeared even more confused and then said, “I’m Ian.”
He pulled his hand from his jacket pocket and clasped mine. Upon the joining of our palms, an electric current shot through my body, following the nerve path up my arm, to my lungs and then radiated outward. I smiled broadly to mask my surprise, but he feigned horror.
“You’re freezing!” he whispered so as not to interrupt Nora’s explanation of the statue and cradled my small icy paw between his two large ones, attempting to share his warmth. I shook my head mutely and slowly eased my fingers from his loose grasp. I didn’t feel cold at all. We exited Venus’s outdoor room—my body still tingling from the contact—and entered the property’s pièce de résistance, an intricate partier garden trimmed in neat, low boxwoods. I inhaled deeply.
“Can you smell them?” I asked Ian.
“The boxwoods. This particular kind has a wonderful scent you can pick out if you know to look for it,” I said, filling my lungs to capacity. “It’s a sort of musky fragrance, but I adore it”
I looked up at him, baffled at the question. I had shared my affection of boxwoods and their smell with many over the years, but up until that moment no one had ever asked me why. So unexpected was the query that it took me several paces along the manicured walkway to think through my answer.
“My father traveled frequently when I was a child,” I began, “but sometimes Mother and I would get to accompany him. When I was ten he had business in Virginia and that was one of the times we were able to tag along. Mother took me to historic Williamsburg and I fell in love with the place. Something about it felt familiar. It felt like coming home. The gardens are full of this very species of boxwood and the air is heavy with their fragrance. So every time I smell them, I’m ten again, strolling down the Duke of Gloucester Street, discovering my passion for history, colonial architecture and orderly English gardens.”
I half expected him to laugh, because what type of ten year old girl is enthralled by such serious subjects. A dull, dorky one, that’s what type. Why couldn’t I have just said something simple and sane rather than rambling on, I chided myself. But he didn’t laugh. Instead his eyes warmed and he nodded, smiling first to himself and then at me. My heart flipped in my chest. We continued on the rest of the tour together, sharing the occasional whisper about a flower, tree or statue and before I knew it, we’d reached the end. It was over. The group was disbursing and although I didn’t want my magical time with this tall, dark stranger to end, I knew it must.
“I don’t know how to ask this without seeming creepy, but Nora did have a point about the taxi and if you’d like to ride with me back to the city…” Ian’s voice trailed off.
“Well,” I said, as if debating the pros and cons, “it would be nice to see the rest of the plantation and I won’t have time if I take the cab.”
“I was wanting to spend some more time here as well,” he said grinning.
“Are you sure you don’t mind giving me a lift back?”
“It would be my pleasure.”
“Thank you so much,” I said, trying to keep my giddiness under wraps, “Give me just a moment while I call and cancel the taxi.”
I stepped away and rang the limo service.
“Yes,” said the operator, “we can cancel the town car, but the driver is already en route so you’ll still have to pay the fare.”
“That’s not a problem. You have my card on file. Thank you,” I said and pressed the end call button.
“Hullo again,” Ian said as I walked back up to him.
“Hi,” I smiled.
“Shall we?” he asked, holding his hand out to me.
My fingers intertwined with his naturally, comfortably, as if we had done it a hundred times instead of once. Before we rounded the corner to take in the remaining sights, I glanced over my shoulder just in time to see Nora watching us, a knowing smile lighting her beautiful, wrinkled face.