Jeffrey Stepakoff The Orchard: A Novel

ISBN 13: 9781250007469

The Orchard: A Novel

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9781250007469: The Orchard: A Novel

The passionate new novel by the author of FIREWORKS OVER TOCCOA.

Grace Lyndon is a rising ingenue in the world of perfumes and flavors; a stiletto-wearing, work-a-holic in Atlanta, she develops aromas and tastes to enthrall the senses. Dylan Jackson is a widowed single father whose heart and hands have been calloused in the fields of his North Georgia apple farm. When Grace happens to taste an apple picked from Dylan's trees, it changes both their lives forever.

Determined to track down the apple's origin, Grace sets off in the middle of the night where she finds not only a beautiful mountain orchard in the clouds, but the mysterious man who owns it. In Stepakoff's heartbreaking eloquence, their sudden yet undeniable attraction is threatened―leaving readers with a momentous finale that proves Jeffrey Stepakoff is a master craftsman of the heart.

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About the Author:

JEFFREY STEPAKOFF has been writing professionally since receiving his MFA in Playwriting from Carnegie Mellon in 1988. His credits include the Emmy-winning The Wonder Years, Sisters, Major Dad, Disney's Tarzan, and Dawson's Creek (as co-executive producer). The Orchard is his debut novel. He lives with his family north of Atlanta, Georgia.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

THE ORCHARD

The rain came down in steaming waves, pattering on the fat lush leaves like a tribal drumbeat, but by this point, the six trekkers and their guide were oblivious of it. Night would be here soon, and despite the exhaustion they all felt from hiking since daybreak, they picked up their pace, the trekkers following the guide deeper into the tropical rain forest.

Grace Lyndon, mid-twenties, lithe and tanned in her ripped hiking shorts and tank top, walked directly behind the guide. Grace was the only woman in the bunch, and the only one whose English didn’t have a French accent.

“It’s getting too late,” said one of the men, adjusting his heavy pack. “We should turn around, come back in the morning.”

“The winds are picking up,” said Grace. “It might not be there in the morning.” Peeling some wet hair off her cheek and tightening the straps of her pack against her glistening shoulders, Grace looked around, inhaling deeply, struck by the natural beauty of this place. Damp and roasting, the jungle smelled of vanilla beans and wet leopardwood. This is what it’s all about, she thought. Everything we come up with in the lab is just theory. This is the beating heart of the business, the reason I got in it.

“I think I’ve seen that tree before,” one of the men said, and then swatted at an insect. “Are we sure we’re not walking in circles?”

“It’s just up ahead,” the bare-chested Papuan guide said.

“C’est dingue! Ce type ne sait absolument pas où nous allons,” another man said in very pointed French.

“Les aborigènes vont finir par nous manger!” replied another.

“I cannot lead you if I cannot understand you,” said the guide, understanding enough French to know they were complaining about him.

“They said they’re excited because we are so near,” said Grace, glaring over her shoulder at the two men.

The guide stopped suddenly and pointed to the top of a massive tree. “There!”

Everyone halted and looked up, seeing high in the huge expanse of branches, at the very top of the thick jungle canopy, a large exotic orchid.

“The orchid will close as soon as the light is gone,” said one of the men. “We’ll have to hurry. Get the ropes.”

They all dropped their soaked packs to the ground with a thud.

Grace walked up right under the huge tree. It was nearly seventy-five feet tall, with a thick trunk and without any lower branches.

She looked straight up at the magnificent Angraecum granulosa flower, a rare species whose seeds took flight on tropical breezes, setting root only in the hidden treetops, deep in this singular undisturbed part of the planet. Even from the ground, she could see how beautiful it was, just like the antique drawing she’d studied at her company’s perfumery school outside Paris. It was late, she noticed. They really would have to hurry or this might be as close as they ever got—close enough to admire it, but not close enough to tell the world what it smelled like.

While several of the men pulled ropes and cables of various weights out of their packs, Grace carefully unwrapped a rubberized laptop and an openmouthed Plexiglas globe, about the size of a large fishbowl. She powered up the computer, running thin USB cables from it to the inside of the globe. Then she carefully wrapped it all up and placed the equipment back in her pack, which she zipped and readied. Finally, she slipped a climbing harness around her hips and thighs, snapping it at her waist and pulling the straps tight, so when the rope and pulleys were tossed over the high branches, she could be hoisted up to the orchid along with her equipment.

However, things weren’t going very well with the ropes. After tying a fist-sized lead-filled sack to a long lightweight throw line, the men tried repeatedly to toss the sack and line up and over a high limb, but they kept missing, the sack and line falling short. The branches were simply higher than they could throw.

“The ropes are too heavy,” someone said, wiping wet dirt off his face.

“It’s just too far up,” someone else said.

“We need to come back tomorrow with better equipment.”

The rain and the wind picked up as the sun began to go down.

One of the men marched forward, picked up the sack, and swung it around forcefully by the throw line over his head in a wide circle. Determination apparent on his face, he quickly let out line as he swung, causing several of the trekkers to duck down to avoid being hit by the lead-filled sack. Letting out even more line, swinging the sack as hard as he could, finally, with all his might, the man released his grip on the line, throwing the sack and trailing line hard, up into the canopy—right at the orchid.

“Careful! You’re going to smash the flower!” another shouted, fatigue and desperation perceptible in his voice.

But again, the sack and line missed the branches and fell straight back down, splashing in the mud. This wasn’t going well at all. As the men stood in the pouring rain, arguing about their options in French and English, the shadows growing longer, one of them looked up and saw something, and then did a double take as he realized what he was looking at. “Grace!” he yelled out.

All the men looked up to see Grace, pack on her back, a length of rope dangling from a carabiner on her harness, climbing the tree.

They dashed to the base of the tree, and she was already a good twenty-five feet over their heads. The guide yelled up to her, very concerned, “Lady, it’s too dangerous to free-climb, please, come down. Come down!”

But the other men simply smiled, some more worried than others, and stood by to help if they were needed. They’d all worked with this young woman long enough to know that when she got something in her head, there was no talking her out of it, or in this case, no talking her down. Her colleagues—most of them, anyway—admired Grace. They also thought, all of them, that she was a bit nuts.

The tree trunk was sopping and slick, but Grace climbed it with virtually every sinew of her body. Pack carefully balanced on her back, she dug her boots into the tree, hugged it tightly with her thighs, shoved her fingers into the deep ridges of the furrowed bark, pulling and shimmying upward with her hands and forearms and knees. Staying focused on the flower above, forcing herself not to look down, she moved surprising quickly and smoothly.

This is crazy! she thought. I know this is crazy, but I’ve heard about this flower like some mythical fable for years, studied what little is known about it obsessively for months, finally located one out here in the middle of a jungle, and here it is, just a few meters away, and if this is what it takes to get my chance to smell it, this is what I’ll do.

At the top, Grace unhooked one end of the rope from the carabiner on her harness, threw it around a thick bough just over the orchid, pulled it back, knotted it, and attached it back to the carabiner, securing herself in the treetop canopy.

Then she dropped the remaining rope to the ground and, self-belaying in midair, lowered herself to the orchid. With the men watching fixedly below her, she ever so carefully unzipped her pack and removed the Plexiglas globe, the wires taped to the inside of the globe running to the computer in the pack on her back.

Globe in hand, Grace slowly approached the big orchid, white and fragile and absolutely gorgeous. She very carefully slid the globe over it, and as she was doing so, she put her face into the center of the open flower, smiling as the breathtaking fragrance washed over her—luscious and nectared, candied apricots, airy notes of strange spice. Nothing she had smelled even in the lab back in Paris, nothing in the tens of thousands of little vials, synthetic or natural, was quite like this novel scent. It was thrilling, this discovery. She felt as though she were the first to set foot on a new planet, see a new land. Dangling in the air, looking out above the jungle canopy, the sun setting behind the high mountains off in the distance, she thought about Hillary, the first person to glimpse the world from the top of Mount Everest.

She slipped the globe the rest of the way over the orchid, and she could feel and hear the computer in her backpack buzzing and vibrating as the equipment absorbed, digitized, and recorded the exact chemical makeup of the scent, providing data that could later be used to re-create the fragrance precisely in the lab, all without ever harming the precious orchid.

After a moment, the computer gave one final shake and click as the hard drive finished recording the data, and a moment later, the sunlight waning, the orchid began to close itself up for the night.

As Grace watched the flower rolling itself up, its sepals and petals folding inward and enclosing its delicate inner parts, she put her face close and inhaled one more scent of it. Looking out once again at the clouds above the jungle treetops, feeling strangely connected to them, as though thin cables were now running from her to the clouds above and beyond, she committed the fragrance to memory.

“Grace! What does it smell like?” yelled one of the men at the top of his lungs from below.

What does it smell like? she thought to herself, struggling as those in her field so often did with the imperfect task of using language to characterize scent.

Her body swaying in the breeze, she smiled and yelled down, “It smells like heaven!”

Paris, eighteen months later

There is nothing on earth more elegant, thought Grace as she sipped vintage Veuve Clicqu...

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