It was a boiling hot afternoon and the back of Clara's vest was dark with sweat. She re-set her legs and pulled again, grunting with exertion. Suddenly, the thistle came free and Clara stumbled backwards a few paces.
She made a satisfied noise and threw the thistle onto the pile of weeds and wiped her arm across her forehead. She bent down to dig out the roots and Julia watched the material of her shorts tighten across her backside.
Julia shifted, moving her gaze away from Clara and up to the overhanging branches of the apple tree above her. She was pleasantly surprised to find herself aroused. Clara had been their gardener for well over a year now and Julia had never really given her a second glance.
It was Roger who had decided they needed a gardener, of course. Julia had felt awkward about employing someone but Roger had scoffed at this, saying
"Well, who else is going to keep the garden in order? I don't have the time and you're not going to do it, are you?"
He was right -- Julia couldn't seem to summon up the energy to do much at all. She'd watched Roger escorting Clara around the garden, giving orders about what should be planted where. He insisted on referring to Clara as a 'girl', despite that fact Clara was a grown woman in her thirties.
Roger knew nothing about plants but that didn't stop him holding forth as if he was the world expert. A few times, she had overhead Clara gently correct his assertions that this or that flower would be perfect for that corner.
Thereafter, Clara came once a week. Julia had never paid her much attention before but noted with pleasure the colour and vibrancy that had been brought to the garden.
When Roger left, Julia wondered whether she should let Clara go. But Roger was still paying his half of the mortgage and bills and so she could afford to keep Clara on. It was worth it to have the garden as a place of sanctuary, a haven where Julia could lie and think things over. She had a sense that she ought to try and reflect, to contemplate how her life had got to where it was. But every time she tried, lethargy seemed to overtake her. It was all too difficult.
Julia put her sunglasses on, closed her eyes and listened to the birdsong and the gentle rustling of the gardener hard at work. At some point she must have dozed off. When she opened her eyes again, she saw Clara hovering uncertainly by the side of the lounger, still clutching her trowel in one hand.
Julia was about to speak when she noticed Clara's gaze moving to her legs. Julia's halter neck dress had ridden up slightly above her knees, exposing part of her thighs. Clara looked at Julia's thighs, her face very still. Then her eyes travelled slowly up Julia's torso and lingered on her breasts. Julia's skin tingled as if Clara's gaze was a touch.
She shifted slightly and Clara started, her eyes flicking straight to Julia's face.
"Sorry," she said. "I didn't mean to wake you."
"That's all right. I was only dozing."
"I've finished weeding this bed. I was going to ask what you'd like me to do next."
Julia rose from the sun lounger and walked with Clara to the edge of the flower bed.
"I've got all the thistles out," Clara said. "And now there's some space over on that side. Is there anything you'd like planted there for next spring?"
"What would you recommend?"
Julia was a good three inches shorter than Clara and had to look up into her face. Clara frowned as she considered the question.
"Well, it depends what you like. There's plenty of flowers that would give you a nice burst of colour in the spring: marigolds or pansies for example. Or you might prefer to have a shrub in there. Hydrangeas or rhododendron perhaps. Though they have to kept in check or they take over very quickly."
A fine sheen of sweat covered Clara's brow and Julia became aware of the heat of her own body; of the slight stickiness between her breasts and on her lower back.
"Maybe flowers would be better then," she said.
"Any particular colours you like?"
"I like red," Julia said, gesturing at the red pattern of her dress.
"Ok. Maybe some hollyhocks or perhaps lupin. I feel that something with a bit of a height would work well there."
"I'm sure you're right."
"And then," Clara continued, moving past the sun lounger to stand by the trunk of the apple tree, "I wanted to ask you about this tree. Roger told me that he wanted it cut down because of the apples dropping onto the lawn. Is that still what you would like?"
Julia looked up into the leaves of the tree. Although she was not much of a gardener, she had noticed how much the tree had grown since she and Roger had first moved into the house. It had been a tiny sapling then, that looked as if it would never have the strength to bear fruit. But now it produced a bumper crop of large green apples every few years.
Julia had always had vague thoughts of doing something with the apples but had never quite got around to it, so they had mostly rotted on the grass where they fell. That had been the recurring theme of marriage to Roger, she thought. Ideas and plans she had that had somehow never come to fruition.
Clara cleared her throat and Julia turned to look at her. Clara had the face of someone who spent all their time outdoors, spent their time doing things. Julia laid her hand against the trunk of the tree.
"I'm rather fond of this tree," she said. "This year, I will make something with the apples. To make up for all the years of rotted fruit."
Clara smiled, the corners of her eyes creasing.
"Good. I wouldn't have liked to cut it down." She cleared her throat again and said, "It was...er...Roger who told me what should be done in the garden. But obviously I can check all of that with you now as...as...Roger..."
"Is gone," Julia finished.
"Yes. I'm...I'm sorry about that."
Julia sighed and leaned back against the trunk. The shade was a welcome relief from the intensity of the sun. She lifted one of her bare feet to rest against the tree, enjoying the roughness of the bark against her skin.
"It's all right," she said. "It's for the best."
"Yes." Clara looked down at her feet for a moment, as if deciding whether to speak or not. "To be honest...I thought he was a knob."
This was so unexpected that Julia laughed out loud, prompting startled twitters from the birds nearby.
"Did you really?"
"Yes. I never liked the way he spoke to you. But still. It must be difficult."
"Well. We were married for a long time."
"It must take some getting used to. Being on your own."
Clara's grey eyes rested on Julia's face. Julia was again keenly aware of her own body, of the way her dress was clinging damply to her. She felt a sense of mild shock. It had been so long since she had felt desire but she welcomed its return as if greeting an old friend.
"Yes. Although in many ways, I've been on my own for a long time."
Julia had to look away from Clara as she said this, not wanting to see any pity in the other woman's face. But it was perfectly true. When Roger had announced that their marriage was over, he had done so as if she was an underperforming employee -- enumerating all the areas where her performance had fallen short.
Julia hadn't been surprised by this. She had known that her marriage was failing for some time but she had felt powerless to do anything about it. Taking action of any kind had seemed completely beyond her. Roger had once asked her in exasperation,
"What is it that you want?" She hadn't been able to answer him. Wanting something, desiring something required reserves of energy that she simply didn't have.
Clara placed her trowel on the ground and took a slow, deliberate step towards her. Julia could sense the heat from her body and her eyes were drawn to the sheen of sweat on Clara's chest, just above the swell of her breasts.
"If you ever need any help -- not just with the garden I mean - but with anything. Then...then I'm here."
Julia looked up at her. The sunlight coming through the leaves dappled Clara's face with shadows. This was a chance, Julia thought. A clear invitation for action. For the first time in years, she could actually do something.
Even as she thought this, she saw uncertainty cloud Clara's eyes and she began to turn away. No, thought Julia with a sudden, sharp clarity. I want this.
"Yes," she said. Clara turned back to her. "Yes, I think I would like you..." She trailed off as Clara came closer and leaned her hand against the tree above Julia's head. The earthy, sweaty scent of the gardener filled Julia's nostrils. Clara bent her head towards her and Julia raised her mouth to meet it.
Clara kissed her softly, her lips grazing gently against Julia's. But Julia was overwhelmed by the nearness of her. She put her arms around Clara's waist and pulled her hard against her. Clara's breasts crushed against her own and Julia kissed Clara with an urgency that took her by surprise.
She grabbed at Clara's buttocks and pulled them to her, grinding her hips against Clara's. Clara responded by sliding her hands under Julia's dress and gripping her thighs. Julia lifted the hem of Clara's vest and ran her hands across Clara's lower back, delighting in the damp stickiness.
Julia could not recall the last time she had been so aroused. She lifted one of her legs, desperate for Clara to touch her where she needed it most. Without hesitation Clara placed her hand between Julia's legs.
Julia pushed her tongue deeper into Clara's mouth as she felt Clara tug aside her knickers and slip inside her as easily as if she was pulling on a glove.
Julia sighed with relief and leaned back against the tree, pushing her hips down onto Clara's hand. Clara bent to kiss Julia's neck as she drove her hand upwards. Julia gasped and bit her lip as she felt Clara reach inside her.
Clara pulled back but then thrust her finger in again as far as she could go.
"Yes," Julia breathed, revelling in the feeling of being taken so completely. "Again."
Clara placed her other hand under Julia's buttocks and lifted her, tipping her back against the tree and angling Julia's hips towards her. Her breath was heavy against Julia's ear as she moved her hand steadily back and forth.
Julia luxuriated in the delicious, sliding friction of Clara's fingers but her need was too acute and she urged Clara to go faster and harder, harder.
Clara increased her speed, her hand slapping wetly against Julia as she thrust determinedly in and out. Julia moans grew louder and when Clara added a second finger she cried out in delight at the delectable fullness.
As Clara's thrusting reached ever deeper inside her, Julia felt her climax building until it suddenly burst over her in a blaze of white heat. She cried out as she dug her fingers into the flesh of Clara's shoulders.
Julia shuddered and gasped as her sex throbbed around Clara's fingers. Dimly, she was aware of Clara laying her gently down on the grass and lying on top of her, the weight of her feeling delicious.
Julia turned her head towards the grass, breathing in its scent as she felt Clara loosen the knot of her halter neck and pull her dress down.
The sunlight was warm on her breasts. Clara trailed kisses across them as she raised herself up on her elbows. Julia ran her hands down Clara's arms, marvelling at their firmness.
Clara put her head between Julia's breasts and drew her tongue slowly up towards Julia's nipple. Julia sighed, still feeling the delightful throbbing between her legs.
Clara took her nipple into her mouth and sucked it gently. Then she released it and kissed her way to the other one. Her tongue flicked across the nipple and Julia groaned as she felt her desire building again.
Clara sucked on her nipple and placed her hand back between Julia's legs. Julia moved her hips, inviting Clara to re-enter her. But Clara placed the hand on her hip and shuffled herself down Julia's body. She layered kisses over Julia's stomach and moved slowly lower, kissing the soft flesh of Julia's thighs.
Then she lowered her head between Julia's legs and kissed the still-wet, trembling flesh. Julia tipped her head back, as she felt Clara's tongue moving gently across her labia. Flashes of the brilliant blue sky showed between the canopy of leaves.
Clara's tongue lapped insistently against her and Julia let out a long sigh, a breath that seemed to bear away with it the misery of many wasted years.
She raised her hips back and forth in time with Clara's lapping rhythm, feeling the soft grass tickling her buttocks.
Clara's tongue grew more assertive, flicking into Julia's vagina and then against her clitoris and repeating the motion again and again.
Julia clenched her fists in the grass as she felt her orgasm building again -- but more slowly this time, a rumble of approaching thunder instead of a lightning flash.
It broke over her in waves, one shuddering convulsion following another as Clara gripped her thighs tightly and buried her face in Julia's sex.
Julia arched her body and gave a tiny cry as the final, pulsing wave moved through her and then she was drifting down very slowly to lie back amongst the sweet-smelling grass.
Clara lay down beside her and Julia turned her head and kissed her, tasting her own wetness on Clara's lips. When the kiss broke, she turned on her side and gazed at Clara's face. She ran her fingers along Clara's jawline and traced the outline of her lips. How was it possible she had spent so long not even seeing this woman before?
"Thank you," Julia said, finally.
"Honestly, it was my pleasure," said Clara, with a sudden, rakish grin.
"Will you come back again next week?" Julia asked, feeling suddenly a little shy. Clara rested her forehead against Julia's as a bee droned somewhere nearby.
"Of course. Next week and every week ever after, if that's what you want."
Julia closed her eyes and listened to the birds singing in the trees.
"Yes," she said. "That's exactly what I want."
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