The Gardener and the Marine (Ellery Mountain #9) by R.J. Scott



Chapter One





Toby


The last time I’d been this nervous, I was five and about to step out as sheep number one in the Ellery Elementary Christmas Nativity play. Of course, it didn’t help that sheep number two, my nemesis Clare, had yanked at my fake ears, and that my new baby sister was out in the audience with Mom and Dad, and I heard her crying.

The one thing I hated as a kid was when Kate cried, but that was because I was the big brother, and it was my job to look after her. So, with her crying, plus Clare, plus the fact I had a very important baaaaah to deliver as we walked on, it was understandable that I lost my breakfast all over Clare.

Me 1, nemesis 0.

But I’d been five, and eighteen years later, I shouldn’t have been nervous about this meeting. I knew my stuff, had prepared folders of information for Daniel Skylar, his husband Luke, and Jason I’m-a-famous-actor McInnery. I’d even practiced my speech on Mom twice this morning. I knew the three men by sight. Luke had been my homeroom teacher in high school, and he was a good guy. I’d met Jason before—it was hard not to when he lived right in Ellery— and despite being Mr. Hollywood, he was kind, and spent time talking to my star-struck mom whenever he came to the garden center we owned.

It was Daniel I was worried about because he was the most mysterious of them all. The former soldier had created a place for veterans right here in town, and he fought a hundred battles every year—singlehandedly combatting local prejudice and fear, raising funds, and being all kinds of badass. Daniel had my life in his hands, and I know that sounded dramatic, but this project was everything I wanted, and getting the nod meant that college, plus years helping at the nursery, would pay off with the best thing that could happen to me.

I could’ve taken the easy way out—worked for my parents, taken over the nursery when they retired—but I wanted something different, and I was willing to fight for it.

“Hi, Toby, you want to come in now?” Luke asked from the doorway.

I stood so fast I got a head rush and nearly dropped all the files. Three months I’d waited for this meeting, and now I was there, the last thing I wanted to do was come off as someone who wasn’t prepared.

“Thank you.” I kept in mind my dad’s warning that I tended to run my mouth at the drop of a hat, and aimed for polite and concise, following Luke in and shaking everyone’s hands. Then I took the seat opposite them, and my chest tightened as they all stared at me. Jason was smiling, Luke seemed encouraging, and Daniel thoughtful. They’ll laugh me out of here. I have no money for this, it’s just a—stop it!

“So, we have your proposal letter.” Daniel indicated a file in front of him and I nodded, then pulled myself together and handed over the three information packs.

Jason immediately opened it and nodded as he glanced at the summary. That was a good thing. Nodding meant he liked what he saw. Or is he just being polite?” Could you tell us a bit more about your proposal?”

I cleared my throat. “My name is Toby Geffner, and my parents run the Geffner Nursery out on Ridge Road, you already all know that, but I want you to understand that I’ve worked around gardens since I was old enough to hold a shovel.” They all blinked at me. “I started with a very small shovel.” I added the joke to lighten the tension, and Luke and Jason both smiled. Daniel remained stoic, but the Veteran Center was his baby, and it was him I needed to convince.

“My brother has autism. He’s an exceptional person, and growing up he found a sense of great peace in the garden. Maybe it’s the family genes or his need for routine and freedom, but he’s happiest when he’s pottering around the yard.”

“I remember seeing him any time I went to the nursery,” Luke encouraged me, and I genuinely felt as if I had someone in my corner.

“You would have. It became vital for him to connect to nature, and to learn that he had a choice between active and passive involvement, depending on his moods or medical demands. So, when it came to college, it was a slam dunk that I study at Walters State and get my degree in horticulture to work for the family business. But I took extra courses in therapy and specialized in supporting clinical care workers. They routinely offered horticulture-based therapy to anyone with anxiety or depression, young adults with special needs, and—even more interesting to me—veterans, as a potential part of a care plan on admission. When I came home, I just thought, why not do that here at the Center?”