Authors: Dallas Schulze
"This was Gareth's idea," she said abruptly, throwing him a quick, challenging glance.
"Yeah, I know. He said you'd be perfect for the job." Nick's broad shoulders lifted in a shrug. "I told him the decision was Harry's to make. I'll handle the work on the house but, when it comes to the landscaping, I'm completely useless. To tell the truth, I wouldn't know a parsnip from a petunia."
He made the confession with a self-deprecating half smile that, at another time, Kate might have found charming, but her memories of their last conversation were still vivid and she was in no mood to be charmed by him. She returned her attention to the pittosporum.
Nick's smile faded in the face of her chilly silence. He pushed his hands deeper in his pockets and contemplated the difficulty of coming up with an adequate apology.
"Good morning." Harry's greeting preceded him down the steps. Kate and Nick turned toward him. They were both grateful for the interruption though for different reasons. "You must be Kate Moran. According to Gareth, you're the greatest landscape designer in the state of California."
"He's a little biased," she said, smiling as she took his hand. "It's a pleasure to meet you, Mr. Wallace."
"The pleasure's mine." His handshake was pleasantly firm, his smile warm. "Call me Harry, please. If you're going to be digging up my yard, I think we should be on first-name terms."
Before Kate could protest that she hadn't agreed to work for him yet, he turned his faded blue eyes on Nick. "Don't you have something you're supposed to be doing? I'm not paying you to stand around chatting with every pretty girl that comes along, am I?"
"I wasn't aware you were paying me at all."
"Some jobs are worth their weight in gold in experience alone." Harry's faintly pompous tone was at odds with the twinkle in his eyes.
"You're too good to me, Harry," Nick said dryly.
"Yes, I know." Harry set his hand under Kate's elbow and led her toward the side of the house. "Pay no attention to his whining," he said in a tone pitched loud enough for Nick to hear. "He's spent the last five years working on Wall Street, a parasite sucking the life from the common man. I'm probably saving his soul from eternal damnation by providing him with the opportunity to do some honest work."
Nick's quick bark of laughter was cut off as they turned the comer of the house.
Kate's first impression of Harry Wallace was that he looked like an unmade bed. Everything about him was rumpled. His thick gray hair was a little too long for neatness though not long enough to be a fashion statement. He wore a dark blue shirt that looked as if he'd pulled it out of the dryer and put it on immediately. His faded gray pants looked much the same. Scuffed leather loafers and mismatched socks completed the look of gentle disarray.
But his eyes were at odds with the image. The clear blue had faded a little with time but there was a shrewdness in them that made it clear that age might have slowed Harry's body but it had done nothing to slow his mind.
"I'm not a gardener," he said, leading her past an apple tree that looked as if it hadn't been pruned since the last world war. Seeing her frown, he chuckled. "I guess that's self-evident. My grandmother laid the foundations for the gardens while my grandfather was laying the foundation for the house. My mother took over in her turn. She loved these gardens so much that I've always half suspected her of marrying my father just to get her hands on them. My own wife was honest enough to tell me that, if it hadn't been for the gardens, she'd never have been willing to put up with marrying a man named Wallace."
Catching Kate's startled look of inquiry, he grinned. "Her name was Wanda, " he explained, and was pleased by her soft choke of laughter.
"She must have loved you very much," she said solemnly;
"Yes, she did," he said, his smile gentle with memories. He shook himself, and his tone became brisk again. "Unfortunately, she's been gone for more than thirty years now, and I'm afraid the gardens have pretty much gone wild since then. I've hired gardeners over the years but most of them know more about repairing lawn mowers and power blowers than they do about plants. They did manage to keep the place from becoming a complete jungle, but that's about all,"
As she looked around the property, Kate could feel her determination to refuse the job fading beneath the wild beauty of the place. The house sat on nearly an acre of land and, from what she'd seen so far, it must have been a showplace at one time. She could make out the outlines of flower beds overgrown with Bermuda grass and withered remains of long dead perennials. The only thing blooming in them now was a healthy population of oxalis, their delicate yellow flowers nodding in the slightest breeze.
"Mother put in the rose garden," Harry said, as he led her down a cracked brick walkway and past an empty fountain. "I was still living at home when she put it in. That was during the thirties. The Depression was on and money was tight but plants were cheap and I provided free labor." He grinned at her. "Reluctantly, I might add."
Kate returned the smile absently. Her attention was all for the four formal beds laid out in front of her. Wide grass pathways separated them, and in the center, where the paths met, was a life-size statue of the goddess Diana, At the base of the statue was a rusty wrought-iron bench, a silent invitation to sit and enjoy the view. If she narrowed her eyes just a little, she could see what the garden must have looked like in full bloom. The scent of roses would hang heavy on the summer air and bees would drift from blossom to blossom, gorging themselves on nectar. She sighed faintly as the image faded.
"The roses still bloom," Harry said, interrupting her fantasy. "I thought they were supposed to be fussy but it looks to me like you can't kill 'em with a stick."
"In this climate, they can tolerate a lot of neglect."
Kate turned slowly on one heel, eyeing the overgrown hedges and underpruned shrubbery. The place had been shamefully neglected but it wasnH beyond saving. Like a wild, unruly child, all it needed was a firm hand to turn it in the proper direction.
"It needs a lot of work. It's been let go for much too long."
"I know." Harry looked abashed. "I kept meaning to do something about it but time just slipped by."
"Well, it's not too late," she said grudgingly. She had told herself she wasn't going to take the job, but now that she saw the property, it was difficult to turn away from it.
Nick was working on the house, but by his own admission, be knew nothing about plants so it wasn't like she'd have to work with him. If she was careful, their paths might not even cross.
"It can't be done overnight and it won't be cheap," she warned.
"I guessed as much," he said meekly.
Kate nibbled on her lower lip, common sense struggling against a gut-level hunger to get her hands on Harry's yard. Of course, it would be a good business move. There would be the design fee, which, at Brenda's insistence, was hers alone. There would be the cost of plant material and mulch, all to be ordered through the nursery. And it would also be a good advertisement, both for the nursery and for her abilities as a designer. If she could restore these gardens to their former beauty—and she knew she could— she'd have a wonderful addition to her resume.
Watching her, Harry found himself hoping that she never tried to lie on the witness stand. Her face was utterly transparent, revealing her shifting emotions with perfect clarity. Her professional demeanor had cracked the moment she saw the gardens, and it had been crumbling ever since. He wouldn't have been surprised if, with a little negotiating, he could have had her offering to pay him for the privilege of taking on the job.
"We're really very busy right now," she said, looking longingly toward the back of the property. "Is there a stream back there?"
"A small one," he said casually. "If you don't have time to take it on, I understand." He should probably feel guilty for tugging on the line when he knew she was already hooked, but the urge was irresistible.
"I can work it in," she assured him hastily, and he hid a smile. ''I'd like to take the job, if we can work out the details."
Privately, she was determined to work out the details, even if she had to cut her own fee out entirely. She wanted this job more than she'd wanted anything in a very long time. She was going to get it, and to hell with Nick Blackthorne.
Nick was lying on his back under the kitchen sink when he heard the back door open. He tensed, but there was only one set of footsteps, which meant that Kate hadn't come in.
"What are you doing?" Harry asked irritably. "Every time I turn around, you're poking around looking for dry rot or sticking your head under a sink."
"That's why I came back," Nick said as he slid out from under the sink and sat up. He looked at Harry and raised one brow. "You wanted me to put the house in shape to sell. Remember?''
"Of course I remember," the old man said irritably. "But I didn't expect you to spend your every waking moment with your head stuck in dank holes." He waved one hand, cutting off Nick's attempt to point out that most plumbing work involved dank holes. "Never mind that now. I wanted to tell you that we've got ourselves a landscaper."
"She took the job?"
"Sure did. She can't wait to get started. Wouldn't make much of a poker player. I could see she was anxious to get her hands on the place." Pleased with himself, he chuckled. "I'm not sure, but I think she might have me brought up on charges of plant abuse if there was such a thing."
"The landscaping is in pretty bad shape," Nick said absently. He got to his feet and glanced out the window, only to find his view blocked by a nearly solid wall of hibiscus leaves. The shrub had grown up over the window, filtering the sunlight so that the narrow kitchen was always tinted the faint green of a deep jungle.
So, Kate was going to be working on the yard while he was working on the house. He wasn't sure how he felt about that. He was glad that she hadn't turned down the job just to avoid him, but he wasn't all that crazy about the idea of having her underfoot, figuratively speaking. He'd be better off keeping a little distance between himself and his brother's fiancee.
"Did she go back to work?" He hadn't heard her car leave, but he probably wouldn't have with his head stuck under the sink.
"Not yet." Harry opened the refrigerator and pulled out a box of Chinese take-out from the night before. He took a fork out of the drawer, then speared a hot pepper directly from the box. Nick winced as he bit down on it.
"Jesus, Harry, I can't believe you actually put those things in your mouth. They're hot enough to strip paint."
"We've got plenty of paint to strip. Maybe I should buy a carload of them." He grinned as he bit into another pepper. "Save a fortune on chemicals."
The phone rang, cutting off Nick's answer, which would probably have been nearly as pungent as the peppers. Carrying the take-out carton with him, Harry went to answer it. Nick hesitated only a moment before pushing open the back door and going outside.
Kate wasn't hard to find. She was on her knees next to one of the roses, studying the tangled canes with an expression that was equal parts adoration and annoyance. Nick thought of Harry's comment about Kate wanting to bring him up on charges and half smiled.
"Need a machete?" he asked.
Kate hadn't heard him approach. She'd told herself that she was assessing the condition of the rose in front of her, but in her heart of hearts, she knew she was engaged in nothing less than nature worship. The idea that this garden was hers—more or less—was so incredible that she could hardly absorb it. She'd felt the need to touch the soil, as if that would make it all real. The sound of Nick's voice shattered the moment like a hammer striking a pane of glass.
He was the single, glaring flaw in the whole arrangement, she thought as she got to her feet. She bent to dust off the knees of her slacks, using the moment to regain control of her expression. Knowing that it was inevitable that she'd see him here was the only thing that kept her from shouting with joy.
"I need to get back to work," she said, glancing at her watch without seeing it "Excuse me."
"Wait." Nick reached out, catching her arm when she would have walked past him. "I think we should talk."
Kate stared past his shoulder, her expression rigid, her stomach churning with nerves. She was painfully aware of his hand against her arm but refused to give him the satisfaction of pulling away. "I don't think we have anything to say to each other."
"I have something to say to you. Please." The last word drew her eyes to his face. What she saw made her heart thud suddenly and painfully against her rib cage. This was the man she'd met five years ago, the one who, for a little while, had made her feel less alone. She almost thought she'd prefer to see the cold, angry stranger of a few days ago. That seemed safer somehow.
"I really don't have much time." She stepped back so that his hand fell away from her arm.
"I'll try to grovel quickly."
"It's the least I owe you. I want to apologize for the things I said and for the way I acted the other night."
"Apologize?" Kate felt like an echo, but she couldn't seem to manage anything original.