Parker was having a ho-hum day when he got the call. One minute he had been absent-mindedly doodling on a legal pad and half-watching clips from The Deadliest Catch on his computer, and the next minute a young woman with an unusual voice had his total attention. She asked for a consult -- the sooner the better -- and Parker happily acquiesced.
"How did you come to hear about me?"
"You were recommended to me by my parents, actually. The McCluskeys, George and Anna." The voice was bubbly yet somehow sensual, and there was a sweetness in the way she spoke. "I just bought this house and, well, calling it a fixer-upper is an understatement." Parker's clients were, more often than not, couples. Sometimes they were newlyweds; sometimes they were older husband-and-wife pairs who were looking for something a little different. The first call usually came from the wife, but there was always a kind of weariness in the voice of a married woman. And he heard her use words like "me" and "I." In conversations with potential clients, every sentence began with "we." His excitement was a testament to how long it had been since he'd been with a woman, though there was a part of him that felt genuinely optimistic about her.
"Well, the first step is for me to take a look at the place. We can see what we can do with it, I can get you a quote, then we'll go from there."
"Sounds great. Let me give you the address."
Parker pulled up to a big ramshackle house on the outskirts of the city. The woman had really been too kind when she called it a fixer-upper -- the front yard was overgrown with weeds, and the building's exterior seemed to sag and heave. Everything about the place had yellowed with age. Parker sighed, slammed the door of his truck, and made his way toward the house. She must have seen him approach and opened the door before he reached the front step. She was as young and lovely as she had sounded on the phone, and the two of them stared at each other for several moments before either spoke.
"Hello. You must be Parker. I'm Chelsea McCluskey," she said, offering her hand.
"Hey, hello. Sorry if I'm a little late." He grasped her hand firmly and shook.
"Oh, no, don't worry about it. Come on in." She pivoted on her right foot like a dancer and moved into the darkness of the hallway, and he followed.
"Sorry it's so dark in here right now," Chelsea apologized as she led him through the house. "The A/C hasn't been installed yet, and it gets pretty gross if I don't close the curtains. " The air inside was thick with heat, and he was well aware of how the combination of humidity and sweat made her sundress stick to her skin. Parker could feel the warmth himself and discreetly tried to wipe away the sweat from his face as they entered the kitchen. She turned suddenly and asked, "Would you like something to drink?"
"Water would be great, thanks." Parker watched Chelsea turn toward the sink to get him a glass. She was a fair woman with thick dark blonde hair and light eyes. Slight but toned, with luminous skin. Her shoulder blades moved rhythmically beneath the straps of her dress as she opened and shut the cupboard. He felt compelled to say something, anything. "This place is lovely, by the way."
"Thank you. I've only lived here about a month now," she said as she turned with a full glass of ice water. She handed it to him, and he couldn't help but notice how delicate her fingers were. "Everything's finally moved in, but it doesn't feel like home yet."
"You a first-time homeowner?" he asked between sips.
"Yes. My grandfather died just last year and left me a heap of money." She toyed with an earlobe and looked absently out the window. "I didn't even really know what to do with it. But buying a house and finally settling down seemed like the obvious thing. The adult thing. I'm happy with it," she said, looking back at him. "Moving from apartment to apartment was getting to be exhausting."
"What do you do for work?"
"I'm an artist," she said and smiled as though she knew the question that would come next.
"I don't mean to be rude, but...that's how you make your living?"
"It is," she laughed. "I hardly believe it myself. I got lucky, I guess. I do a lot of illustrations for different publications. Lots of magazines use my work. Sometimes I do children's books, too."
"I'd love to see your work."
"I'll show you my etchings sometime," she said coyly. Parker must have looked surprised, because Chelsea raised an eyebrow and smiled. "Let's go look at this sad sack of a backyard, shall we?" She motioned for him to follow.
"This is a great arrangement." He indicated an antique fan vase on a table they passed in the hallway, which was filled with button poms, daffodils, and alstroemeria.
"Oh, aren't they?" she responded with a glance back at the bouquet, though she kept walking. "I saw them at the farmer's market and couldn't resist. I'm not usually a big fan of yellow, but this place needs a shock of color. It makes up a little bit for what you're about to see." She stopped at the door and looked at him with concern. "Ready?"
"Ready, I think." With that, Chelsea threw the door open and walked out onto a concrete porch. Parker followed and took it in. But "it" wasn't much. "So. This out here, uh, it's mostly sludge. And then, as you can see, the rest of it looks a little like a prison yard."
"Good lord. I see what you mean." He exhaled sharply. "Do you know how it got this way?"
"I'm not responsible, if that's what you're asking. The previous owners did this. Concrete everywhere. That moss over there is just about the only green thing back here. And they had kids. Maybe the parents were military?"
"This really is pretty hideous, Miss McCluskey." Parker sighed and tried to map out different solutions in his head. He knew it wouldn't be easy. He looked upward and let the sun warm his face for a second, and he felt himself relax.
"Chelsea's fine. And, you're right." The two of them walked out into the middle of the backyard, which was a long stretch of concrete surrounded by a battered old wooden fence. In some places, the concrete had cracked, and something that looked like mud had oozed out. Both of them looked around as though there were more to see.
"So what were you thinking?" he asked.
"Well, I was going to leave it up to you." Parker was shocked at her answer, and it showed. "Or do you work better with some parameters? I just figured, you know, you were the expert and I'd trust your judgment. The work you did for my parents was wonderful. Honestly, I just want this place as green as possible." She sighed and looked thoughtful. "An herb garden would be nice, too. You know, practical but pretty."
"I appreciate the freedom, actually. Herb garden is doable. Colorful is doable, too."
"My parents said you were a sustainable landscaper. What does that entail?"
"Sustainability is my specialty, really. I like to keep things organic. I'll probably install an eco-friendly irrigation system, something called a 'smart system.' We get a cistern or two back here to collect rainwater. Get some native plants. Use a lot of mulch. Basically what that means is you save water and ultimately money. The liberal approach is really the conservative approach, in this instance. But before all that, we get rid of most of this concrete and find out what's underneath." Chelsea smiled at this.
"Sounds all right to me. What comes next?"
"I'd like to poke around for a bit, take some measurements. I could probably get a few different ideas sketched out and delivered to you within the next few days."
"That soon?" Chelsea's head tilted. Parker nodded.
"I don't have any other projects going right now, so this one is going to have my total attention."
Later that night, Chelsea couldn't sleep. In her dimly lit bedroom, she reflected on her day, and she thought about the landscaper. There was something unusual about Parker. He was quiet, but his silence seemed thoughtful. To look at a picture of him, to take in every single feature, one wouldn't necessarily think that he was handsome: his weathered skin, hooded blue eyes, small mouth. But his bone structure was delicate and his jawline enviable. He had a certain intensity; there was something sensual in the way he interacted with the world around him. The way he'd handled a flower in the vase, how he had turned his face up toward the sun for a moment, just to feel it on his skin. Chelsea had no doubt that any woman who met Parker would find him as attractive as she did. But maybe she was biased.
Chelsea could be brazen and she could be flirtatious, but she had surprised herself when she'd told Parker that she would show him her "etchings." After all, she was his client. It seemed as if she had surprised him, too. It felt as though it had been a long time since she'd even talked to a man. Her career had always consumed most of her attention; now, with the new house, her love life was on the backburner, her sex life nonexistent.
But it hadn't taken Chelsea too long to remember how intoxicating it could be just to be near someone so handsome, and how attraction could sharpen the senses to the point it was almost painful. For the first time in a long while, she relished simple things, like the way her sheets felt against her bare skin or the cool breeze that came in through her bedroom window.
Chelsea rolled over to lie on her stomach and sighed. Her hand found its way below her belly. She worked her nightshirt up to her waist and lay still for a moment. Then Chelsea began to rock forward onto her fingers. She moved her hips back and forth, and she moved them from side to side. She imagined that the fingers were Parker's, and she imagined him filling her. Before long, she bit the pillow and let out a small muffled cry as she came. Sleep came blissfully fast.
For Parker, Chelsea became the subject of a long series of vivid dreams. In the dreams, she smelled like lavender and lemon. Her skin was warm and as soft as down, her mouth wanting. She wrapped herself around him, and, as he'd hoped, she wasn't wearing anything underneath her sundress. In the dreams, he touched the wing of her cheekbone, so small beneath his hand. Parker awoke drenched in sweat each morning, hungrier than he'd ever felt. And each morning, he would try to draft a design for her garden, but the only images in his head were of her. He tried to find release in pleasuring himself, but the images stuck with him and the hunger remained.
After only a few days had passed, Parker had to speak to Chelsea again. He called her in the early morning. She answered on the third ring. He got right down to it.
"So, I'm a little stuck on the design. Or, honestly, I have too many design ideas," he lied. "I think it'd be better if you came with me to a nursery and told me what you liked."
"Sure, when were you thinking?"
"I have some free time this afternoon, but if that's too soon, then maybe this weekend or sometime next week." Parker was worried. Maybe he seemed desperate or unprofessional. He felt unhinged and hoped Chelsea was none the wiser.
"Afternoon is great." He was relieved at her easy response. "Where's the nursery? Should I meet you there?"
"I can pick you up," he offered. "2:30 too soon?"
"2:30 is perfect. I'll see you then."
The ride to the nursery was quiet but comfortable. Chelsea wondered what it might take to make Parker chatty, or if this was how he'd always be.
The nursery was organized by climate. Parker led her past the store front, past a greenhouse surrounded by fountains and massive pots, and into a section that seemed to be comprised mostly of succulents.
"Most of the plants that are native to this area or climate are here," he explained. Chelsea reached out to touch the tiny white flowers of a tall plant to her left. She had only been half listening, but tried to tune back in. "How about rosemary?" he asked. "Sage is an option, too."
"Rosemary's perfect. And I like these poppies over here."
"I was thinking maybe an aloe plant or two, also. One of your options for the hardscape is recycled gravel and recycled brick. 'Vintage' brick, really. When we demolish the concrete in your yard, we can turn it into gravel for a walkway."
"Where do you get vintage brick? Ebay?"
"I have some demolition contractor friends who end up with a ton of it. My idea was to install a fireplace in the yard and use the brick to complement your house's exterior. What do you think of bougainvillea for the fence? It has a tropical vibe but it's perfect for a summer-dry climate."
"It sounds like you're doing okay in the idea department, Parker," she remarked and eyed him suspiciously.
"Well, it's good to have feedback, you know? Most of my clients have an idea of what they want. Some of them even come to me with their own designs, and I just execute them." Parker seemed distracted by a massive potted plant to his left.
"So what made you decide to become a landscaper?"
"It wasn't my first career, actually," he said, turning his attention back to her. He leaned against the fence behind them. "I was a psychiatrist. But when I was growing up, my mom had this beautiful, lush garden and I would help her tend to it. I was good at it, and I really loved it. It's relaxing to me, meditative even, once I'm in a rhythm. Everything about landscaping feels that way to me, from design to execution. When psychiatry didn't work out, it seemed like the natural thing. The logical choice." Chelsea reeled. She wasn't sure she'd ever heard him talk so much at once.
"Psychiatry? What about it didn't work out for you? It's a little more lucrative, right? Cushy."
"Oh, yeah, undeniably. But I left for the obvious reasons. It just became too much for me. I got too involved. I never was good at keeping a cool distance. And that's the number one thing you need to be a psychiatrist, it's even more essential than compassion."
"And you're happy with your decision?"
"It's one of the best I've ever made." Parker stopped to look at a tiny tree in a squat planter, then looked up at Chelsea thoughtfully. "So you're an artist. Do you have an artist's temperament?"
"Yes and no," she laughed. "I'm probably a little more lucid than the stereotype might suggest. I'm rational and self-aware. I don't play with crystals or believe in horoscopes. But I am prone to insomnia and anxiety. Nothing out of the ordinary, though." Chelsea smirked. "Do you still find that you psychoanalyze the people you meet? Is that way of thinking ingrained at this point?"
"Well, sometimes," he responded sheepishly. I only practiced a few years, but it stays with you. Plus, I always felt I was a little more perceptive than most. What I'm trying to say is that sometimes I just can't help it."
"What have you deduced about me?"
"You're kind. You're spontaneous and unafraid but you seem to have it together. Difficult to read, though, but I wouldn't go so far as to say aloof. I mean, if you want me to get Freudian with you or something, that takes time. I'll have to get to know you a little better."
"Oh, no thanks, that'll do," Chelsea laughed.
"How'd I do?"
"Sounds about right. It's funny that you think I'm difficult to read, because I thought the same thing about you. Would you say you're hard to get to know?"
"Maybe. It just takes time." He paused and took one last long look around him. "I think I'm set, idea-wise. You ready to go?"
"Sure." The two left the nursery by way of a narrow flagstone path, Chelsea following closely behind Parker. They both caught the look of a nursery employee who checked out Chelsea as they passed. Parker sauntered up to the passenger side of his truck and opened the door for her.
"Hey, I need to make a quick stop at the gas station, is that okay?"
"Not a problem. I don't have anywhere I need to be today." Chelsea wondered whether she sounded boring or too available, but she wanted to let him know that she didn't mind spending time with him. She tried not to think about it and toyed with the radio dial instead.
When they came to their first red light, Parker made a quick stop, and something slid out from underneath Chelsea's car seat. She studied it for a moment. A ring box. She furrowed her brow and looked to Parker. He was facing straight ahead, concentrating on traffic; he hadn't noticed. She shifted in her seat, casually stretching one foot to cover the box.
At the gas station, Parker went inside to buy a cup of coffee. Chelsea watched him until he was inside and hurriedly reached for the ring box. When she opened it, her worst fears were confirmed: it was a man's wedding band. Chelsea was deflated, and she was upset at herself for feeling as disappointed as she did. It wasn't as if they were courting, but she would have expected him to say something. When Parker returned to the car, he handed her a tiny chocolate bar. She forced a smile almost all the way home.
When Parker pulled into the driveway, Chelsea found herself asking him to stay. "Do you want to come in for a second? Get something to drink before you hit the road?" She wasn't sure what she was hoping to accomplish. Even if he turned out to be unhappily married or just plain willing to cheat, an affair wasn't quite her style. She did know that, despite the ring, she wanted to maximize her time with him.
"What would you like to drink?" she asked Parker as they entered her kitchen.
"Would asking for a glass of wine be pushing it?"
Chelsea paused, and Parker noticed her hesitance. "Of course not," she responded after a few moments. He worried that he'd overstepped his bounds. He didn't want to push too hard. "Red or white?"
"Whatever you've got."
Parker watched as Chelsea pulled herself up and into the corner where the sink and countertop met. She sat there for a moment as if to get comfortable, then opened the cupboard and reached for the highest shelf, which was apparently where she kept her wineglasses.
"You know, you could just ask me to get it for you."
"Oh. I'm just so used to doing it, I didn't even think of asking," she explained, looking embarrassed. "Will you get it for me then, please?"
Parker moved toward the cupboard and reached for two glasses. As he reached, he brushed her knees and felt himself flush with heat at their sudden closeness. He turned to her and stared as he set the glasses down. Chelsea reddened, and Parker couldn't help wonder whether he imagined that her breathing had quickened. They watched each other for what seemed like hours. The waiting was endless, and despite his best efforts, Parker couldn't think. So he acted instead.
Parker was kissing Chelsea before either seemed aware of it, their minds one step behind their bodies. Then he was thinking again and everything was perfectly clear, no detail went unnoticed. Her one small hand was at his jaw, the other hand tugging at his hair. He'd moved between her legs, so close he could feel her body heat through her dress. And she was radiating unimaginable heat; she hummed with it. He felt the pollen in her hair from the nursery, the arc of her waistline. He wondered whether she could feel his hard-on, and he wondered whether he could move his hand between her legs. It was more than his dreams, better.
And in an instant, it was over. Chelsea had pulled back, and her hand was against his chest.
"We shouldn't," she feebly explained.
"What happened? What do you mean?" Parker's heart and hard-on both ached at this sudden turn. Something was wrong, but there was no way to divine what this might be. Chelsea jumped off the counter and looked distraught.
"Uh, I think we both know why we shouldn't." A look of determination replaced her look of distress. But Parker was more confused than ever.