Authors: Dallas Schulze
Kate lifted her face to the rising sun and drew a slow, deep breath. The air held the crisp scent of green, growing things and the warm, brown smell of freshly turned earth. The temperature was supposed to climb to eighty today, but at this hour of the morning, it was still pleasantly cool.
It had been nearly a month since she'd taken the job of restoring the gardens at Spider's Walk, and she still couldn't believe her good fortune. Every day, she discovered some new treasure—the outline of a pond hidden under a tangle of ivy, a drift of daffodils, naturalized years before and just coming into bloom. She'd found labels for nearly half the roses and had mapped most of the property, sketching in the main features and noting trees and existing flower beds. She had pages of notes to herself—what needed to be replaced, what needed to be pruned, suggestions for filling in the gaps left by time and neglect.
Kate opened her eyes and looked around, her mouth curving in a soft smile. Silly as it was, she sometimes indulged in the fantasy that this was her garden, that she lived in the ornate old house and was building this garden for herself and her family, for generations yet to come. If she narrowed her eyes, she could almost see a dark-haired little boy digging a trowel into one of the flower beds, hunting earthworms or whatever treasure the earth chose to offer up. He looked up, his eyes sparkling with pleasure, his smile revealing a matched set of dimples, one in each cheek. The image was so real and vivid that she almost spoke to him, almost reached out her hand to draw him close.
Looking out the kitchen window—newly cleared of hibiscus—^Nick saw Kate standing in the garden. He'd expected to see her there. As far as he could tell, she came by every morning before going to work. She also came by most evenings and spent a good part of her days off here. He wondered how Gareth felt about her devotion to her job, but he hadn't asked. He didn't much like thinking of her with his brother. And he'd been very careful not to explore that feeling any further.
Kate lifted her face, eyes closed, expression rapt, as if asking a blessing from the pale sunlight. Her hair tumbled halfway down her back, a silk curtain of tawny gold. It was the first time he'd seen her with her hair down, and Nick's fingers curled against the urge to touch it, pushing aside the memory of its softness against his skin. With an effort, he turned away from the window and the innocent sensuality of her.
"She's engaged," he muttered out loud. "To your own brother, you jerk."
But she was yours first, a sly voice whispered.
He squashed the thought with ruthless force and pulled open a cupboard to take out a coffee cup. After a moment's hesitation, he took out a second cup and set it on the counter. They were going to be related by marriage. They might as well start getting comfortable with the idea.
Kate watched a scrub jay sifting through the layers of leaves and twigs beneath a lobelia that had taken over most of a flower bed. As he worked, he moved in and out of the patchy sunshine, his rich blue color alternately revealed and hidden by the light.
"Good morning." Nick's greeting startled her out of her absorption.
Her head jerked toward him, her smile fading as her expression turned wary. She'd seen him several times in the last couple of weeks, usually at a distance, which suited her just fine. When they did happen to speak, she made it a point to be on her way somewhere, but she could hardly say that she had a vital appointment at six o'clock in the morning.
"I thought you might like a cup of coffee," he said, holding a sturdy white mug out to her.
"Thank you." She would have refused the coffee but the smell seduced her. If she'd hoped he'd simply hand her the coffee and then disappear, she was doomed to disappointment. He stood next to her, sipping his own coffee.
He was wearing faded jeans and an ancient blue cotton shirt with the sleeves rolled halfway up to his elbows. His dark hair looked as if he'd combed it with his fingers, and there was a tiny nick on his chin where he'd cut himself shaving. The scent of the coffee didn't completely conceal the more subtle, spicy smells of soap and aftershave. He looked solidly masculine and appallingly attractive, and she hated herself for noticing.
"You're here early," she said, anxious to break the silence.
"I'm staying here now." He caught her surprised look and shrugged. "It makes more sense than staying with my parents. Now, if I get the urge to strip paint at two in the morning, I'm in the right place for it."
She smiled faintly and hoped he wouldn't realize just how little she liked the idea of him being here all the time. Not that it should make any difference to her one way or another, she reminded herself. It was just that she'd liked the idea of having the place completely to herself, at least in these early morning hours. Harry was in the guest house, of course, but that was tucked into a back comer of the property, easily ignored. Now that she knew Nick was staying in the house, it wouldn't be the same.
Kate sipped her coffee and groped for something else to say. For some reason, silences with Nick always seemed to hold an element of danger, as if there were things better left unspoken that might escape into any quiet moment. Coming up blank, she focused on the jay, who was still shuffling through the leaves as if in search of buried treasure.
"Why do you do that?" Nick asked abruptly.
Kate gave him a wary look. "E>o what?"
"Close up whenever you see me."
"I don't know what you mean." Her fingers tightened around the mug and she felt a sharp spurt of anger. Did he really have to ask why she closed up when she saw him?
"Sure you do." His frown was thoughtful rather than annoyed. "You were enjoying the morning, looking all relaxed and peaceful, and as soon as you saw me, your face got all tight and you looked like you'd just swallowed a peach pit."
Stung, Kate snapped at him. "If you knew you were going to ruin my morning, why did you come out here? Has it ever occurred to you that maybe I just flat don't like you?"
Her words seemed to hang in the air. She stared at him, shocked that she'd let her control over her temper slip that far.
Nick's brows went up in surprise and she held her breath, waiting for him to explode. Instead, his expression became thoughtful, as if he was giving her question serious consideration. After a moment, he shook his head.
"Nah. Everybody likes me. I'm charming."
There was a startled moment of silence and then Kate found herself giggling helplessly. Damn him for being right.
Nick shut the Harley's engine off and sighed with pleasure at the sudden silence. Perhaps it was time to replace the big bike with something that made a little less noise and held a lot more stuff. He'd had the motorcycle for three years and he'd enjoyed it, but lately it was losing its appeal.
As he stepped away from the bike, he eyed the small yellow truck that sat next to it—Kate's truck. He'd seen it often enough at Spider's Walk during the past few weeks and lately he'd begun to envy her the simple practicality of the vehicle. A motorcycle was severely limited when it came to hauling lumber.
Momentarily shelving the issue of transportation, he walked across the small parking area and stepped onto the brick walkway. The building in front of him had changed since the last time he'd seen it. An old-fashioned wooden sign hung from the eaves. The Wisteria Place was painted across it in gracefully flowing, deep lavender script.
Other than the sign, the building looked like the comfortably frumpy old farmhouse it had once been. The landscaping reinforced the image. Iceland poppies lined the walkway, their colorful, fragile blossoms nodding on slender stems. Neatly trimmed shrubs softened the foundation.
The deep porch ran the full length of the building and was topped by a sturdy wooden trellis. At this time of year, you had to look twice to see the tangle of vines that covered it, some as thick as your wrist. But Nick knew that in another month the whole trellis would be drenched in soft color. Fat, pendulous clusters of wisteria blossoms would create a magical canopy, and for a little while the chunky little building would rival a Victorian mansion for sheer gaudy beauty. When the flowers faded, the leaves would take over, providing a thick, green canopy that would turn the sharp heat of summer into something cool and inviting.
For as long as Nick could remember, the house had been called the Wisteria Place. He wasn't sure if anyone had ever bothered to find out the name of the elderly couple who'd lived there, and it wouldn't have mattered if they had. The name would have stayed the same. If memory served him, about eight years ago, the couple had died within a few months of each other and the house had been occupied by a succession of renters. The last time he'd seen the place, the house had been sliding into a not-so-gentle decline. The paint had been peeling, the walkway had been a jumble of cracked concrete and a scruffy expanse of half-dead lawn had been the sum total of the landscaping.
The place had now been restored in a way that made it look fresh and new without obliterating the mellow charm that only age could give. He was willing to bet that Kate had had a lot to do with that restoration.
Kate. As Nick started up the walkway, he was uneasily aware of a feeling of anticipation at the thought of seeing her. Since the morning when he'd startled her with a cup of coffee, he'd made it a point to be somewhere else when she was around. Propinquity, he'd told himself. It was just propinquity that made her appealing. With a little distance this—whatever it was he felt—would fade away.
A bell jangled cheerfully as he pushed open the nursery's front door. Okay, so he was attracted to her, but there was no crime in that. Engaged or not, she was an attractive woman. What bothered him was that, when he was with her, it was much too easy to remember their brief history together and easier still to forget that she was engaged to marry his brother.
A teenage girl told him that Kate was going over the inventory and directed him out the back door. As he stepped outside, Nick thought he knew how Dorothy must have felt when she landed in Oz and found herself in a Technicolor world. There were plants everywhere, on tables, hanging from the slats of the lattice roof, in large pots on the ground. It was like stepping into a cool, green jungle. Flowers provided bright accents of color, like accessories on a woman's gown.
Kate wasn't hard to find. Her khaki-colored shirt and pants stood out from the surrounding greenery. The teenager inside had been wearing a similar outfit, and Nick assumed it was a uniform of sorts. Her head was bent over the clipboard she held but she looked up, as if sensing his approach.
"Nick. What are you doing here?" Her smile was pleasant but there was an unmistakable wariness in her eyes. Join the club, he thought ruefully. He felt more than a little wary himself.
"I'm here as Harry's emissary. He said you asked him to look at some trees."
Kate's laugh held a touch of exasperation. "He was supposed to come himself. I want him to have some input into what I'm doing. It is his property, after all."
"I don't think Harry's much for gardening," he said apologetically.
"That much is obvious from the condition of the gardens at Spider's Walk."
There was a disapproving edge to her voice and
Nick grinned. "When he hired you, he said that you looked like you'd have him hauled off by the plant police, if you could."
"If there was such a thing, Yd be able to send him up the river for life." She sighed and gave him a questioning look. "Do you want to look at trees?"
Nick knew she wouldn't protest if he said no. They might have agreed to forget the past but it was always between them—a faint thread of tension that could be ignored but not erased. Truthfully, his interest in trees was about on a par with his interest in the sex life of South American tree frogs. There was no reason to say yes and some very good arguments for saying no.
"I live to look at trees," he said, and called himself seven kinds of fool.
The large trees, in their wooden boxes, were in the far comer of the nursery, set against one wall of an old bam, which was now used for storage. Kate was acutely aware of Nick as she led the way between the rows of plants. He was wearing the familiar uniform of faded jeans and T-shirt. The fabric of the black T-shirt molded the solid muscles of his shoulders and clung lovingly to the width of his chest, making her vividly aware of his size and sex.
Why was she always so conscious of how big he was? she wondered fretfully. Gareth was nearly as tall and every bit as broad-shouldered. So why did Nick always look so very large?
"The place looks great," Nick commented. "When I was a kid, half the town used to come out here every spring to gawk at the wisteria when it bloomed."
"They still do. For the last couple of years, we've had a sale and the PTA sells lemonade and cookies as a fund-raising project. It's done very well for us. Last year, a news crew from L.A. came out to film a segment on it."
"I bet they couldn't resist making a comment about finding 'a little slice of Eden right here in California.'" Kate smiled at his dead-on imitation of a commentator's manufactured enthusiasm.
"They did say something along those lines."
"They always do." He shook his head and one comer of his mouth curved in a sardonic smile. " Any time something happens here that's big enough to make it into the news, they can't resist making some comment on the town's name. If it's bad news, they look solemn and say something about violence striking even in Eden.' If it's good news, they talk about finding Eden right here in California. For a couple of weeks, smog-crazed Los Angelenos drive out here to take a look at the place. They eat at a quaint little cafe, drive around gawking at the genuine farms and then scuttle back to the city."