The Forbidden Garden, published in April, is a page-turner romance/mystery and definitely a “chick book.” But it has one difference from others in its genre: It could not be more about gardening. Indeed, the villain in the book is a curse that supposedly kills plants—and people—in an old British estate garden. It’s even written on a plaque: LET NO ONE ENTER THIS GARDEN WITH THOUGHT TO PLANT. LET NO WOMAN BRING FORTH FRUIT OR FLOWER LEST SHE GIVE HER LIFE FOR IT.
The main character, Sorrel Sparrow, is one of three New England avid-gardener sisters who run a charmed (truly charmed) garden in Massachusetts. She is imported by Lord Graham Kirkwood to fix their cursed estate garden; only, of course, Sparrow doesn’t know the real trouble she’s getting into. (And, of course, she finds romance along the way.)
The Forbidden Garden, sequel to The Sparrow Sisters (an equally garden-based tale about dark troubles the three women have in their nursery), assumes you’ve read the first book, so in the beginning it took me a while to sort things out. That said, it’s an entertaining read—and as horticultural as you could ever want. Even the chapter titles (like the one above) are all plant names. And how many romance novels casually drop the word trug?
Here’s an excerpt:
I have to say I’m anxious to get back to the country,” Stella said as she sorted through the post.
“You always are, darling,” Graham said and closed the newspaper.
“Indeed, but with the weather cleared and Sorrel properly in the garden I am missing more than just the estate.” Stella stood.
“Let’s head back early.”
“No,” Graham said sharply, and Stella raised her eyebrows. “What I mean is that Sorrel should have unmolested time with the garden. We will only be a distraction and”—Graham grinned and rubbed his hands together—“I do believe Andrew has found in Sorrel a distraction of an entirely different sort.”
“Just as I hoped,” Stella said and bent to kiss her husband’s leonine head. “You are right, of course. We’ll leave your gardener and my brother to find their pleasure together.”
“Come with me, Stella, let’s walk by the river before I head to Westminster.”
As they walked, Graham made several false starts at coming clean about his lingering fear of the Shakespeare Garden. Certainly hiring Sorrel Sparrow was the tip of the spear, but what he had not shared with his wife was how much danger he really suspected lay beneath even the richest new soil. Finally, he drew Stella to a bench beneath the flowering chestnut trees and cupped her cheek until she had no choice but to look deeply into his worried eyes.
“I am afraid I have not been totally honest with you, or with Sorrel,” Graham said. “I realize now that my actions have been selfish, but you must understand that everything I have done, every plan, every move, has been to keep my family safe.”
“Gray, what is the matter?” Stella asked. “Why are you so unsettled? Have you done something regrettable?”
“I may have,” he said. “But only because I saw no other way.”
And so Graham confessed to how calculated his plan really was. To be fair, when his sister, Fiona, had first told him about the Sparrow Sisters and their trials in Granite Point, he’d barely listened. This new world Fiona had chosen over Kirkwood Hall had always felt like something of a fairy tale anyway, so hearing the story of the enchanted sisters only provided a vaguely interesting bauble at first. But with time he began to wonder about the Sparrow women. If they were, in fact, as gifted as Fiona believed, surely one of them could bring her gifts to his world. And if such a thing happened, a special gardener like Sorrel Sparrow might be immune to the darkness of the garden, if there were such a thing as a garden with that kind of power.
“Graham, are you saying that you have some knowledge that the blight in that garden is actually physically dangerous to humans?” Stella had a moment’s thought that her beloved husband had lost the plot before she briefly considered some sort of illegal toxic waste dump.
“I have no real knowledge, my love,” he said. “I haven’t had the soil or bedrock tested. But surely you have made the connections?”
“Long ago Elizabeth’s unexplained death, the death of the garden, Cosima, Mathilde, your illness…” his voice trailed off. “I know it’s mad, but I can’t help but believe that something happened in that place that poisoned it in ages past and does the same to every woman or girl who attempts to revive it.”
“That is mad,” Stella said. “What is madder is that if you believe this theory, then you have deliberately put Sorrel in harm’s way.”
“I know, I know,” Graham said. “What was I to do, Stella? You were so ill, and I was so afraid I’d caused it all with my curse. It does seem to be limited to Kirkwoods, mostly.”
“Good God, Graham, you can’t be serious.”
“Well, obviously I am,” he said. “I called a stranger into our world precisely because she is not a Kirkwood. I won’t let you back into that garden until and unless Sorrel does what she promised.”
“You mean if she doesn’t get sick, too. And if she fails or breaks trying?”
“Now, Stella, I could hardly ignore family history. And look, Sorrel is perfectly fine, isn’t she? Please don’t be angry with me for trying to save the garden and ourselves.”
“At what expense, hmm, the health of a newly precious friend, a perfectly lovely woman who has brought nothing but joy to people all her life? Is that the price, Gray?”
Stella was more than angry. She was frightened. All her research now seemed nothing but a dilettantish folly, or worse. She’d fed Graham’s obsession and never made the connections he did. Women and men died throughout the Kirkwood family tree, this is what history is, but now Stella could glimpse the patterns that Graham was so sure of. First, Elizabeth, whose death so soon after the garden’s demise now looked very much as if it was linked. And then, the midwife who delivered Elizabeth’s children in the eighteenth century disappeared from village records shortly after the last of Thomas Kirkwood’s sons was born, the same year that Elizabeth made the first recorded attempt at reviving the garden. Stella could only assume she had died or moved on soon after Elizabeth succumbed to what was most probably pneumonia—although that was in question now, too. And Cosima, dear harmless Cosima, dead at forty only months after she oversaw a team to work on the damn garden. Then again, the world was a dangerous place all those years ago. Even with every ounce of sense firmly in place Stella wondered, Who else, who next?
“Now you listen to me, Graham,” Stella said. “I am going straight back to Kirkwood Hall. This minute, in fact.”
“You can’t, we’ve only got the one car. Wait for me, please,” Graham said. “We’ll leave first thing in the morning, I promise.”
“I can leave and I will,” Stella said. “I’m driving. You may take the train. I’ll have someone collect you tomorrow while Sorrel and I are in the garden. I won’t have her in there alone.”
“I forbid you,” Graham roared. “I forbid it; do you hear me?”
“Silence!” Stella snapped. “You have no right to forbid me—or Andrew or Poppy for that matter.”
“Oh, please, not Poppy, not our girl!” Graham was tearing up, and Stella had no wish to comfort him. She did love her husband, but this man was someone else entirely.
“Get a grip on yourself, Gray, or I will have to slap you.” ❖
From THE FORBIDDEN GARDEN by Ellen Herrick. Copyright (c) 2017 by Ellen Herrick. Reprinted by permission of William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.
This article was published originally in 2017, in GreenPrints Issue #111.