Authors: Dallas Schulze
He wasn't sure what prompted him to add the last comment. His brother's fiancee was the last thing he wanted to discuss with Dilly. But the words were out and couldn't be taken back.
"Miss Moran." Dilly nodded. "She's a pretty young woman."
Nick murmured a bland agreement and concentrated on his breakfast.
"Pleasant spoken enough," she added. Something in her tone brought his head up. He knew her well enough to read the reservation in her voice.
"You don't like her?"
"I didn't say anything of the kind," she protested, genuinely horrified. "She seems to be a very nice young woman."
"But nothing. Gareth seems very happy."
"But?" he prodded again. He couldn't have said why he was pushing the issue. Common sense told him to let it drop. The less he knew about Kate Moran, the better.
"There is no but," Dilly said, then caught his eye and shrugged. "I worry a bit that maybe Gareth loves her a great deal more than she loves him. It's probably my imagination and I know for certain that it's none of my business. Or yours, for that matter."
She was right, of course. It was none of his business, but the comment lingered in his mind. He wondered if she was right. And if so, did Gareth know?
"So, what do you think of Nick?" Brenda's eyes were bright with curiosity.
"Nick?" Kate gave her friend a deliberately blank look.
Brenda clicked her tongue in exasperation. "Nick Blackthorne? About six-one, dark hair, dark eyes, body like a Greek god, face to die for? You know the one I mean?''
"I know who you mean." Kate wished the description had been a little less accurate. It brought his image all too sharply to mind. She moved farther down the aisle between two tables of bedding plants, waving the watering wand over them. Brenda followed, her long floral skirt brushing against the trailing leaves of a fuchsia sitting near the edge of the table.
''Well?" she prompted.
"Well what?" Kate wasn't trying to be deliberately obtuse so much as she was giving herself time to formulate an answer. She'd been expecting this. Eden wasn't a village, but the town was small enough that news traveled fast. Brenda had gone to school with the Blackthornes. Naturally, she'd be interested to hear that Nick had returned. Now that Kate thought about it, it was astonishing that he'd been back for almost a week and Brenda was just now questioning her about him.
"You have met him, right?"
"I was having dinner at his parents' house the night he came home," Kate admitted.
"And you didn't say anything?" Brenda's eyes widened in surprise.
"I didn't think of it." Kate shrugged lightly and then wondered if her nose was going to grow. In the week since Nick's return, she'd thought of little else. She hadn't seen him again but that hadn't prevented him from dominating her thoughts.
"Well?" Brenda prompted.
"What did you think of him?"
"What's to think?" Kate shrugged again. "He seems nice enough."
"Nice enough?" Brenda's voice rose in disbelief. "You're talking about the guy that had half the girls in high school panting with lust every time he walked into a classroom and all you can say is he seems nice enough?"
"Maybe if I was in high school, I'd be a little more overwhelmed," Kate said. She glanced over her shoulder in time to catch Brenda's disgusted look.
"You don't have to be in high school to appreciate looks like that. You just have to be breathing."
"I am engaged, you know." Kate wished she could find more comfort in the reminder.
"I don't see any reason why an engagement ring should make a woman blind to the wonders of nature," Brenda complained. "Nick Blackthorne is good-looking enough to make a nun take a second look."
"Hmm." Kate made a noncommittal noise in the back of her throat and concentrated on watering a flat of pansies.
"It's not like Vm suggesting you sleep with the guy. Hey!" Brenda jumped back in surprise as Kate's hand jerked and water sprayed into the pathway. "Watch it with that thing. I might melt, you know."
"Sorry." Kate angled the long watering wand over the flats and hoped Brenda couldn't see that her hand was trembling. Idiot, she thought. It was just a casual remark, not an accusation.
"No harm done." Brenda brushed at the dampness on her skirt. Satisfied that there was no permanent damage, she fixed Kate with a bright, inquiring look. "Now, tell me what you really think of Nick."
Kate indulged in a brief moment of fantasy, picturing herself turning the water onto Brenda full force, drowning out the subject of Nick Blackthorne. But she knew her friend well enough to know that, short of physical violence, there was no way to shut her up. She smothered a sigh and gave in.
"He seems pleasant. And very attractive," she added, catching Brenda's disgusted look. "Philip and Sara were delighted to see him."
"They've always been a close family. I was surprised when Nick moved away but then I figured that, with everything that had happened, maybe there were just too many memories here."
"Maybe." Kate didn't ask for an explanation of what "everything" might have been. Obviously, Brenda assumed she already knew and the last thing she wanted was to prolong the discussion.
"It was bad enough when Brian died."
"Brian?" Despite her determination not to encourage Brenda, Kate glanced at her in question.
"Nick's twin." Brenda looked shocked. "You must know about Brian."
"Of course I do. I just drew a blank for a moment, that's all." Kate scowled at a bright red impatiens. She had known about Brian. He was the brother who'd been killed in a car wreck a decade or more ago, but she didn't remember Gareth saying anything about Brian and Nick being twins.
"The accident happened the sununer after we graduated from high school," Brenda was saying. "It was such a terrible tragedy." She stopped and frowned. "Did you ever stop to think what a stupid phrase that is? Terrible tragedy. Like there's such a thing as a good tragedy? Where do you suppose phrases like that come from?"
Kate was accustomed to Brenda's habit of going off on a conversational tangent and knew that an answer was neither expected nor required. Unfortunately, she rarely lost sight of the original topic.
"Anyway, there was a car crash. Brian was killed and Nick almost died, too. I went to see him in the hospital a couple of weeks after the accident. He looked...I don't know." She absentmindedly pinched a faded pansy from its stem, her forehead creasing. "I remember thinking he looked kind of empty, like a part of him was missing." She dropped the flower and looked up suddenly. "You know how you hear that there's a special bond between twins?"
Kate nodded reluctantly. She didn't want to hear this, didn't want to hear anything that made Nick more real to her, let alone something that roused her sympathy. She knew what it was to lose someone you loved.
"Well, I don't know if that's true but I do know Nick was never really the same after the accident."
"Losing someone you love changes you," Kate said slowly, speaking half to herself. "Losing a brother or sister is sometimes harder than losing a parent because it feels so unnatural. It's not the way life's supposed to go."
"I thought you were an only child," Brenda said, her expression both surprised and curious. "You sound like you're speaking from experience."
Kate gave her a startled smile, though her fingers suddenly ached from the force with which she gripped the water nozzle. "I read about it somewhere. Or maybe I heard some psychiatrist on a talk show. They're all the time delving into that kind of thing. Family dynamics is a hot topic these days."
"Yeah." Brenda looked at her a moment longer, a trace of doubt lingering in her eyes. She shook her head abruptly. "You're probably right—about losing a sibling, I mean. It's hard to imagine what that would be like."
"Hmm." Kate moved away a little, focusing her attention on watering every single flat thoroughly.
"Nick was certainly never the same after Brian died," Brenda said, moving after her. "The whole family was devastated, of course."
"Of course." Kate threw a quick, hopeful look over the nursery, hoping to see a pack of ravening gophers descending on the vegetable seedlings or maybe a customer being attacked by a man-eating delphinium—some crisis that would demand her immediate and complete attention and enable her to put an end to this conversation.
"You know, it makes you think of that old question of why bad things happen to good people," Brenda continued thoughtfully. "I mean, you couldn't find a nicer family than the Blackthornes."
Kate wasn't lucky enough to sight a major disaster but there was a customer browsing near the perennials. She was pathetically grateful to see her.
"That woman looks like she needs some help," she said, cutting Brenda off. She thrust the watering wand into her friend's unwilling hand. "Finish watering this table, would you? After I'm through with this customer, maybe we could spend some time going over the plant orders for next week."
"Whatever you want to order is fine with me,'' Brenda said. She held the wand over the table, her expression pained. ''Besides, I really should be going. I have tons of stuff to do this afternoon."
"I could hold the order until tomorrow," Kate offered, ignoring the sharp pinch of her conscience. She knew that being forced to look at long lists of plants was sheer torture to Brenda, and she felt a little guilty for using that knowledge to manipulate the other woman.
But she didn't want to hear any more about Nick Blackthorne—past or present. In fact, if she never had to hear his name or see him again, it would suit her just fine.
Nick was inspecting the front porch for dry rot when Kate's car pulled up in front of Spider's Walk He'd known she was coming. Harry had told him about the appointment yesterday. He'd known, even before that, that she would be here, he just hadn't known when.
It struck him as painfully ironic that it had been Gareth's suggestion that brought her here. When Nick had mentioned that Harry wanted to do some work on the landscaping, Gareth had immediately suggested Kate for the job. A year or so ago. she'd begun doing landscape design, working through the nursery she managed. The business was still in the fledghng stage but the initial response had been good and she'd had several referrals from satisfied clients. Listening to Gareth had brought five-year-old memories rushing back. And he'd heard Kate's voice, telling him about her desire to create beautiful surroundings for people's homes, how much she hoped she'd be able to fulfill that dream now that she'd settled in Eden. He remembered wishing her luck and offering some platitude about dreams coming true. He hadn't really believed it. At the time, he hadn't believed in much of anything, least of all dreams, but he was glad to see that Kate had fulfilled this particular dream.
She got out of her car and started up the walkway. After enduring a hundred years of earthquakes and subtle attacks from the roots of the ancient sycamore that shaded the front of the house, the once smooth concrete was cracked in so many places it resembled a jigsaw puzzle. Cautious visitors tended to watch their feet as they approached Spider's Walk, but Kate seemed oblivious to the potential danger. All her attention was for the faded remnants of what had once been flower beds and carefully tended shrubbery.
Standing in the shadows of the porch, Nick watched her. She was wearing khaki-colored cotton slacks and a matching camp shirt. The only touch of contrast was the soft purple scarf she'd used to catch her hair from her face and the summer sky blue of her eyes. The austerity of the outfit suited her slender figure and gave her streaky gold hair the tawny look of a lioness.
Five years ago, there had still been traces of the girl visible beneath the woman. Those traces were gone now. He'd thought she was pretty then, but that prettiness had been refined into something more, something not so easily defined. He frowned as he looked at her. She wasn't beautiful. Her mouth was too wide and her nose was a little too short for true beauty. She was...lovely. The old-fashioned word suited her. There was a certain quiet elegance to it, a sense of control that seemed to fit the woman she'd become.
Nick shut the Swiss army knife he'd been using to probe the wooden posts and slid it in his pocket before starting down the steps toward her. He knew the exact moment she saw him. Her shoulders stiffened, and even at a distance he could see her expression ice over. She hesitated and he wondered if she was going to turn and leave rather than speak to him, but he underestimated her.
He winced at her flat tone. "Hello, Kate."
'I'm here to see Mr. Wallace."
"I know." Nick slid his hands in his pockets and tried a half smile. It was met with a cool stare. Not that he could blame her. He hadn't exactly done anything to endear himself to her the last time they'd met. "Harry's in the house. He probably heard the car so he'll be on his way out."
Kate nodded and looked away, focusing on an overgrown pittosporum. Pride kept her where she was, though every instinct urged her to run. Fight or flight, she thought ruefully. When confronted by danger, the human animal still responded on the most primitive level. The danger Nick represented wasn't physical, but that didn't make it any less real, and her instinct was still to flee.