Chapter One

When Satan stepped out of Paradise after the Fall, it is rumored that garlic sprang up from the spot where he planted his foot.

Muslim saying

Afterward, when I thought about what happened at St. Theresa’s, I felt embarrassed and a bit rueful. If I’d been a police officer and drawn those wrong conclusions, my sergeant would have bawled me out for my errors in judgment. If I’d been a private investigator, I might have been fired. But I’m neither, thank God. I’m just an ordinary person who was asked to do something a little unusual, and I made a mistake here and there.

But everybody makes mistakes. And every so often, our mistakes are criminal. If we get caught, we have to pay the prescribed penalty-when the system works right, which it doesn’t, most of the time. But even when justice fails, there’s the universe to be reckoned with, or God, or whatever you call it. One way or another, you pay for what you do. And sometimes, what you think was a mistake, or even a crime, turns out to be something else altogether.

It’s all very mysterious.

But I wasn’t thinking about any of that when I was getting ready to leave that first Saturday in January. I was listening to McQuaid, who didn’t want me to go away. Or, more precisely, he didn’t want me to go away without him.

“If what you want is a vacation,” he said, “how about Cozumel? We can rent a condo and a dune buggy, go fishing, scuba diving, dancing. We can take the ferry across to the Yucatan and see the ruins at Tulum.” He spoke alluringly, his slate blue eyes warm. “Let’s do it, China. It’ll be a belated Christmas present for both of us. We don’t get to spend enough time together anymore.”

My name is China Bayles, and Mike McQuaid is the guy I live with. This discussion was occurring in our bedroom. I was packing for my trip and McQuaid was still trying to talk me out of it.

I stuck a second pair of jeans into my suitcase and counted my rolled-up socks. Seven pairs, all I could find. I would be gone fourteen days, which meant that I’d have to wear dirty socks or do some laundry. I dropped to my knees and fished a pair of sneakers out from under the bed. The toes were scuffed and the laces frayed, but where I was headed, poverty was a virtue. I stuck the shoes in the suitcase, moved Khat (my seventeen-pound Siamese) to the pillow, and sat down on the bed next to McQuaid.

“Look,” I said wearily. “I don’t want to go fishing or diving or bounce around in a dune buggy. I want to rest.” I didn’t want to tell him the whole reason I was going away without him. I settled for half. “Christmas was a killer.”

“You mean you’ve finally OD’d on Christmas?” McQuaid was gently teasing. ‘ ‘I thought you loved the holidays-all those herbal wreaths and candles and staff. You certainly looked like you loved it, and you had lots of business. Thyme and Seasons is a great success.”

“I’m supposed to look like I love it,” I said, scratching Khat’s back. “If I looked like Scrooge, my customers would go someplace else.” Thyme and Seasons is my herb shop. Lately, I’ve been spending most of my waking hours there. Maybe that’s the trouble. I sighed. “To be honest, a person can only stand to make so many bushels of potpourri in one lifetime. I’m beginning to wonder if I’m cut out to be a successful herb shop owner.”

McQuaid was startled. “Seriously?”

“Seriously.”

He narrowed his eyes. “How seriously?”

‘ Enough to think twice about Wanda Rathbottom’s offer to buy me out.”

“I thought you didn’t like Wanda.”

‘ I don’t. But I might be persuaded to like her money-if there’s enough of it.” Wanda owns the nursery outside of town. She’s coveted Thyme and Seasons from the day I opened. Tired as I was right now, I’d almost have given it to her.

Six years ago, I left my busy Houston criminal-law practice and moved to Pecan Springs, Texas. I wanted to have more time for myself, for friends, for doing things I enjoyed. Until the past six months, I’d been pretty successful in balancing my work and my life. But lately, I’d been at the shop from eight in the morning to six or seven in the evening. After business hours and on weekends, there was the newsletter and the bookkeeping and the ordering and the tax forms, not to mention the time I’d spent developing a plan to open a tea shop at the back of the store. I hadn’t been in the garden for weeks, and I certainly wasn’t doing what I started out to do. Enjoy myself. Have a life.

“It’s probably just burnout,” McQuaid said sympathetically. “You need to get away.”

Just burnout? “Isn’t that what I’ve been telling you?” I asked.

“Look, China,” McQuaid said patiently, “nobody made you work fourteen hours a day for the entire Christmas season. You could have taken off whenever you felt like it.” McQuaid teaches in the criminal justice department of the local university. On a long day, he’s in the classroom for maybe three hours. He’s on sabbatical leave this semester, which means he’ll put in mornings on his research project and call it a day. From where I sit, calling it a day at eleven sounds pretty darn good.

“When you’re in business for yourself,” I said tackily, “you don’t get a sabbatical.”

He shrugged. “You could have given Laurel more hours.

Or made a deal with Ruby.” Laurel Wiley helps out in the shop. Ruby Wilcox runs the Crystal Cave, next door. We take turns minding each other’s shops. “And what’s going to happen when you open the tearoom? You’ll be even busier than you are now.”

” Laurel was away for the holidays,” I said defensively, “and Ruby had her hands full at the Cave. Anyway, it wasn’t just the shop, it was the season. I had the house to decorate and the presents to wrap and the cooking. I don’t think our Christmas guests would have appreciated it if we’d sent out for tacos.”

“Nobody made you cook all that stuff, either,” McQuaid went on, in the even, logical tone that he uses when he’s lecturing his classes. ‘ ‘Mom and Dad would have been perfectly content with sage stuffing-we didn’t need oyster and corn bread stuffing, too. We’ve got enough fruitcake to last until next Christmas. And how many hours did you spend on the gingerbread house? And the tree decorations? You must have put in two days on those angels.”

I wanted to slug McQuaid for not appreciating my efforts to make Christmas special, but I had to agree with him. This was the first holiday he and Brian and I had lived together, and I’d wanted to give us something to remember. The best Christmas of our lives. What I’d given myself was one huge Christmas hangover.

“You’re absolutely right,” I said. “I’ve been doing too much. I need to slow down. I need to think. I need some time alone.”

McQuaid and I had lived together for six months, and I have to admit that it’s been pretty good-better than I expected, actually. He’s a patient man, and fair, a former cop who plays by the rules even when he doesn’t particularly like them. For the most part, he’s respected my need for independence, and he’s been willing to let our relationship develop without asking for more commitment than I can give. And on my side, I’ve been learning to care for-love is a word I’m still not sure about-McQuaid and Brian.

But living together creates its own pressures, and lately, I’d begun to feel that somebody else was organizing my life. The house that seemed big enough for a circus when we leased it last May now felt like a crowded elevator stuck between floors. When I came home at night, someone was always there, expecting me to act more or less sociable. There were also wet towels to pick up, dirty socks to wash, the cooking and the shopping and the errands to do. McQuaid and I shared these chores, of course, but I was expected to make my contribution.

There were other expectations, too, some of them uncomfortable. McQuaid’s parents were obviously hoping we’d make it legal before long, my mother let me know at least once a week that she was eager to arrange a wedding, and our friends acted as if we were already married. On top of all this, the shop was like a runaway horse, taking me someplace I wasn’t sure I wanted to go. My life wasn’t my own anymore. I needed a break.

Business is slow the first week of January, and half of Pecan Springs closes down for a midwinter vacation. Ruby and I usually take a week to catch up on our bookkeeping and do our spring ordering, and Ruby often goes away for a few extra days. Nobody would be surprised if Thyme and Seasons was closed too.

McQuaid was frowning. “If it’s space you’re after,” he. said, “you won’t get it where you’re going. Won’t you and Maggie be staying in the same cottage? And isn’t Ruby going too?”

“Ruby’s driving us, but she’s going on to Albuquerque to see some friends. She’s only staying overnight. And Maggie and I will each have our own cottage.”

Maggie is Maggie Garrett, who runs the Magnolia Kitchen, the restaurant across the street from my shop. A few weeks before, seeing how frazzled I had become, Maggie had suggested that a winter retreat might give me a different slant on things, and arranged for the two of us to stay for two weeks at a place she knew, where we could relax and be quiet. It sounded heavenly. Fourteen days with nothing to do but breathe the fresh scent of Texas red cedar, watch the morning mist rise off the Yucca River, and see the white-tailed deer picking their way across the meadow at sunset. Ah, paradise.

The bedroom door opened and Brian came in, trailed by Howard Cosell, McQuaid’s overweight basset hound. Brian’s tee shirt was flapping around his knees like a ragged kilt, his untied Reeboks were the size of ski boots, and he was wearing a large green iguana on his shoulder. The iguana is named Einstein. He lives in Brian’s closet, along with a tarantula called Ivan the Hairible (I am not making this up) and a varying assortment of lizards, snakes, and frogs.

“Some woman named Maggie is here,” Brian said. “She wants to know if you’re ready.” Howard Cosell gave a mournful cough and flopped full-length in the middle of the doorway.

Khat growled deep in his throat, tensed, and leapt from the bed to the dresser, where he sat, staring malevolently at the dog. Howard Cosell bared his teeth. I glanced with distaste from one to the other. Was I ready, or was I ready? “Tell her I’m on my way,” I said. I glanced in the mirror, picked up a brush, and ran it through my short brown hair. The gray streak at the left temple is getting wider and Ruby tells me I should color it, but I don’t want to be bothered. “All I have to do is find a couple good books,” I added, stowing my camera and a flashlight in my bag. “There’ll be plenty of time to read.”

Read? When was the last time I’d read anything but The Business of Herbs! How long was it since I’d given myself a manicure or soaked my weary self in a leisurely bath? Most mornings, I was lucky to duck under the shower for three minutes, and my nails would make an armadillo blush.

“I wouldn’t be surprised to see you back in a day or two,” McQuaid remarked astutely. “You weren’t cut out to be a nun. Poverty might be tolerable. You might even manage celibacy. Lord knows, though, you’re anything but obedient.”

Brian turned, startled. “You’re going to be a nun! I thought you were taking a vacation.”

“I am going on retreat,” I said with dignity. “To St. Theresa’s monastery. For two weeks.” I didn’t look at McQuaid. “Fourteen entire days. Not an hour less.”

“A monastery?” Brian blinked. “You mean, where they like pray all the time and stuff?”

“I doubt that they do it all the time,” I said. J went to the bookshelf. “But I expect they do pray a good bit. That’s what they’re there for.”

“Will they make you pray?”

“They won’t make me,” I said. “But maybe I’ll want to. Maybe I’ll start by saying thanks.” Thanks for no customers, no Howard Cosell, no Einstein, no twelve-year-old kid, nobody with expectations. Thanks for peace and harmony and an ordered, spacious quiet among women who cherish the inner life.

St. Theresa’s monastery-which is known among herb people for its great garlic-is only a couple of hours’ drive to the west of Pecan Springs, in the beautiful, rugged Yucca River country near Carr, Texas. I would have my own private cottage, eat somebody else’s cooking, and walk in a garden that I didn’t have to weed. I’m not especially religious, but I was looking forward to a spiritually uplifting experience. The only hitch, apparently, was getting approval for my retreat from the abbess, Mother Winifred. But that wasn’t likely to be a problem, Maggie assured me. And Maggie-formerly Sister Margaret Mary-should know. She’d been in charge of St. Theresa’s kitchen until just a few years ago, when she’d left to open the restaurant.

Now that I think about it, maybe I should have been suspicious of the way everything all came together, as if it had been preordained. At the time, I was just relieved that there weren’t any hassles about rates or dates or vacancies.

Maggie phoned in our request for two cottages for the first two weeks in January, plus a third cottage for Ruby for one night, and the next day Mother Winifred called me to say that she would be delighted to have us come for a visit. Maggie had obviously told her about my interest in herbs, because Mother Winifred added that she hoped I would enjoy seeing the monastery’s garlic farm. She didn’t sound like the kind of person who would twist my arm about prayer. She did say she’d like me to help her solve a problem, though.

“A minor mystery,” she said lightly. From her voice, I guessed that she was an older woman, in her sixties, maybe. “I hope you can share some of your expertise.”

My herbal expertise, I figured she meant. Was there a problem with the garlic? If so, there are plenty of people who know a lot more about it than I do. The few garlic varieties I grow hardly qualify me to be a consultant. “If it’s the garlic you need help with, Mother,” I said, “I don’t think I’m the best person. You might get in touch with-“

She cut me off firmly. “I won’t bother you with the details now. I hear the voice of God in this, my child. Your cottage will be ready for you.”

Brian shifted Einstein from one shoulder to the other. ‘ ‘I guess prayer is like having a direct line to God,” he said. “He probably hears nuns better than ordinary people. Because they’re so holy, I mean. And they get a lot of practice praying.”

“That’s the theory, I suppose.”

“I guess I won’t ever be holy enough to ask God for a favor,” Brian said regretfully. “Do you suppose you could ask the nuns to put in a good word for the Cowboys? If they hurry, it’s not too late to do something about tomorrow’s game. Tell them it’s, like, well, crucial.”

“I’ll inquire,” I said, and dropped several mysteries and a romance into my bag. No herb books this trip. I would feed my fantasies while I relaxed.

McQuaid picked up my suitcase. “Want me to carry this?”

“Thanks,” I said. “I just need to get a jacket.”

Brian was still looking at me, his brow furrowed. “You will be back, won’t you, China?”

I nodded as I took a denim jacket out of the closet and pulled it on over the tee shirt Ruby had given me for Christmas. On the front was the declaration I Am a Woman, printed in big, bold letters. Beneath, smaller but still firm, was the statement I am invincible. Beneath that was a small, shaky scrawl: I am tired. It was entirely appropriate, I thought.

Brian’s question came again, anxious. “You’re sure you’re coming back?”

“I’m sure.” I knelt and gave him a hug. I could understand his anxiety. After all, his real mother-who, just last summer, had threatened to jump out of a hotel room window right in front of him-had moved away. He hadn’t heard from her for months. For all he knew, I was about to do the same tiling. I was touched. I might feel burdened by the responsibility of being a stand-in mom to a twelve-year-old boy, but it felt nice to be wanted.

“Of course she’ll be back,” McQuaid said complacently. “Where else would she go?”

I started to protest at the idea of being taken for granted, but Brian cut in.

“Boy, am I glad,” he said, relieved. “I need a costume for the Valentine’s Day play. I found out about it before Christmas, but I forgot to mention it. I’m going to be the King of Hearts.” He looked at me. “Mrs. Howard’s got this pattern you’re supposed to sew it by, China. I’m supposed to have a crown too. Gold, with emeralds and rubies. She’s got a picture you can look at so you’ll get it right.”

A costume for the King of Hearts. A gold crown with emeralds and rubies.

Maybe I wouldn’t come back.

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