Chapter 1: It Began with a Tree
There was a strange man in her yard. Aaliyah looked out the window one more time before she reached over for the phone sitting by her bed to call the police. As she was dialing the last digit, she suddenly remembered that she had called the Torres Landscaping Company for a gardener the day before. Putting down the receiver, she pulled the curtain back and actually looked to see what the man was doing. As she had suspected, he was watering her apple tree.
She had seen many crazies since her parents moved back to Cape Verde. Everyone wanted to see the princess living in the castle. It got old, fast. Breathing a sigh of relief, she shrugged on her jacket and called for Darling, her spunky, albeit inefficient, guard dog.
“How’d you let him get as far as the garden before waking me up?” Aaliyah asked Darling.
The dog looked up at her and then barking once started growling at the door, as if she had just noticed there was someone outside.
Aaliyah shook her head, “Completely useless…if you weren’t so darn cute…” then walked out the door with Darling behind her to go investigate.
As she got closer to the garden, she heard someone – presumably the gardener – mumbling. As she rounded the stone arch entrance to the orchard where she last saw the man, she asked, “Are you talking to my tree?”
The man looked up at her and smiled, “Yeah, trees are living things, and all things like to be acknowledged every once and a while, right?”
The man held out his hand, “Good morning, I’m Antonio. You called for a gardener yesterday and so, here I am. You are Ms. Shelby, right?”
Aaliyah just smiled and stared. Wow. This man was, hmmm. Wow. Now, she was not the type to swoon and she definitely believed in, I AM WOMAN. HEAR ME ROAR. But this man was beautiful.
“Umm, hello, are you okay?” Antonio waved his hand in front of her face.
“What? Oh, yeah. I’m okay. The, uh, sun was in my, uh, eye and I, er-,” Aaliyah had no idea what she was saying.
Antonio laughed, “It’s alright. Happens to me all the time.”
Aaliyah blushed furiously and muttered something that sounded like “cops” and “useless dog” and went back into the house.
It wasn’t until she was in the kitchen that she realized Antonio had followed her in. Turning around, she asked, “So, you’re a gardener?”
I mean, come on! At this rate, she would make a complete fool of herself.
Antonio gave her a funny look, “Yeah, sometimes. I wear many hats. I have a couple of questions for you if you don’t mind.”
Deciding not to open her mouth unless absolutely necessary, Aaliyah nodded.
◊ ◊ ◊
Sitting at the library that evening, Aaliyah tried reading but all she could think about was Antonio. That man redefined gorgeousness. And he was funny. That morning they had hashed out what landscaping work needed to be done and he’d promised to stop by the next day with some preliminary sketches. By only saying a few words, Aaliyah had managed not to make too much of a fool of herself – Antonio must have thought she wasn’t very bright.
“Well, better to be thought an idiot then to open my mouth and confirm it,” she muttered.
“You do that a lot, don’t you,” a voice asked from behind her.
Aaliyah turned around and saw Antonio standing behind the couch she was sitting on. Trying not to show her surprise, she stood up and put the book aside.
“Mutter to yourself.” Antonio grinned at her.
“Product of being the oldest child of four,” she looked up at him, “hello again.”
“What are you doing here,” Aaliyah asked.
“There’s a reading of Kim Berley’s new book, Color Us Different: A Rainbowcy. And you?”
Aaliyah caught herself staring again. He had the strongest jaw line she had ever seen. “I’m sorry, what – “
Antonio chuckled, “There you go again. Do you always space out when someone talks to you or is it just me?”
Aaliyah rolled her eyes. This was just ridiculous. She couldn’t even hold a conversation with the man now. At least he hadn’t guessed the real reason she was being a ditz. “I’m sorry. It’s been a really long day and I think I’m just hungry.”
“Well, the reading doesn’t start for another hour; do you want to go grab something to eat?”
Wait. Was he asking her out? “Umm, sure. If you don’t think you’ll miss anything important.”
They decided to go to the coffeehouse and grab something quick since Antonio had to be back at the library in an hour.
“So, you have three younger siblings?” Antonio asked between bites of food.
“Yeah, and an older brother, but he passed away when I was very young.”
“I’m sorry to hear that,” Antonio said.
Aaliyah shrugged, “It’s alright, it was a very long time ago and I don’t remember him at all. What about you, any siblings?”
“None that I know of. My parents never had children of their own.” Antonio must have seen the confused look on her face because he added, “I’m adopted.”
“Oh. How old were you when that happened” Aaliyah asked.
A frown appeared on Antonio’s forehead, “Around four or five. My parents died in a car crash – well, my dad died on impact, but my mother managed to get me out and to safety. Thank goodness for car seats, right? Anyway, from what I was told she died at the hospital a couple of hours later.”
“I’m so sorry.” Aaliyah didn’t really know what to say to that. To have no memory of her mom and dad? She couldn’t even imagine it.
Antonio shook his head, “No need to be sorry. It was a long time ago and my adopted parents were amazing. Enough about me, tell me about your family.”
Aaliyah shifted uncomfortably on her seat. She really didn’t like talking about her family and was always wary of people who seemed overtly interested. Whenever she started to explain why she lived in a castle and who her parents were, people automatically made assumptions about her that were mostly untrue.
“They are amazing,” Aaliyah said. “My parents truly believed that each child deserved the opportunity to receive a good education and have a chance in this world. They have dedicated their lives to increasing resources for educators and organizations that have the same vision and goals as they do.”
Sitting back in her chair, Aaliyah continued, “My brothers are polar opposites of each other. The oldest, he’s just a year younger than me. He’s the epitome of a party animal, I’ve never seen him take anything seriously. AJ, the younger one, he is so serious. He’s more like our parents then we are. Then there’s Kandy. I’m not sure what she’s like. We have a nine-year gap between us. It’s hard to figure her out.” Aaliyah stopped speaking as she noticed Antonio staring at her, “What? Do I have something stuck in my teeth?”
“No.” Antonio said, chuckling, “You’re very passionate about your family.”
If he kept this up, Aaliyah would have to ask for a cold compress for her cheeks.
“Well, I’m full.” Aaliyah made to move from her seat, “You should probably head back to the library for that reading and I should head home and feed Darling.”
“Yeah, my guard dog. You know, the one who did nothing when she knew a strange man had found his way into my garden.”
“Dogs love me. She’s couldn’t have helped herself if she tried.”
Aaliyah laughed aloud, “It would have been nice if she had at least tried.” Putting her jacket back on, she pulled her wallet out to pay for her meal.
“No. Don’t do that. I got it.” Antonio pushed the hand that held Aaliyah’s credit card away, took out a billfold, and put down some cash to cover both meals.
Aaliyah looked at Antonio and wondered, not for the first time, if this could be considered a date. “Thank you,” she said quietly.
Antonio smiled and nodded.
On her way home, Aaliyah made a quick stop at the hardware stop to pick up a manual on how to fix a leaky faucet. Her father was a compulsive tinkerer, too bad she had not inherited that trait.
By the time Aaliyah got home, all she wanted to do was go to bed. She put the book and her supplies down, promising herself she would do it first thing in the morning and got ready for bed. As she lay down to sleep she glanced over at the manual.
“Oh well,” she muttered, “it’s never too late to learn something new.” She smiled as she realized she was muttering again and thought of Antonio before falling asleep.