Authors: Dallas Schulze
"I was way out of line. I don't know what I was thinking, why I reacted the way I did."
"It's an awkward situation," Kate said faintly and then wondered if she was trying to make excuses for him.
''It doesn't have to be." For the first time, Nick hesitated, and when he spoke, it was obvious that he was choosing his words with care. "What happened between us—it was a long time ago. It doesn't have anything to do with... anyone else."
She noticed that he avoided saying Gareth's name and wondered if he felt the way she did—that they'd somehow betrayed his brother, even though the single night they'd spent together had happened long before she and Gareth had met.
"Look, this whole situation is based on a coincidence so bizarre it's like something off daytime television."
"Like Geraldo?'' she asked softly, and Nick winced, remembering his comment the last time they met.
He gave her a lopsided smile. "Actually, I was thinking of General Hospital. This goes way beyond the scope of Geraldo.''
Despite herself, Kate felt herself softening. He seemed to be honestly trying to smooth things over between them. She wanted to hold on to her anger, she admitted, looking away from him. It was safe to be angry with him.
"You're going to be part of the family," Nick continued. "I don't want any awkwardness between us."
"It's a little late for that, isn't it?" She watched a bright green, long-legged insect step delicately onto a rose leaf and thought that awkward didn't really begin to describe the situation.
"We can rewrite history a little—^pretend we're meeting for the first time today." His smile was coaxing. "Hell, politicians do it all the time and get away with it."
Kate kept her eyes on the insect, which had settled near the tip of the leaf. She wondered if it was either waiting for some smaller creature to get within reach or contemplating its first bite of rose leaf. If she slid her eyes to the left, she could see Nick's feet. He was wearing scuffed brown work boots and a pair of faded jeans—casual, working clothes. The first time she'd met him, he'd been wearing a similar outfit. Harry had said that he'd spent the last five years working on Wall Street. She had a hard time picturing him in a suit and tie.
Kate shifted her gaze to the insect, which seemed to be basking in the sun. Apparently, the dangers of LTV exposure had yet to reach his part of the world. It must be nice to be a bug—lolling in the sun with nothing to worry about but whether you were going to have dinner or be dinner.
Nick's suggestion seemed good—a chance to wipe the slate clean, pretend past mistakes had never happened. Gareth would never have to know. It was what she'd wanted and more than she'd dared to hope for. But now that it was within reach, she hesitated. Shared secrets were intimate things, she thought uneasily. They created ties, linked those who knew the truth. The last thing she wanted was any kind of a bond with Nick. Then again, maybe it was a little late for that.
"I love my brother," Nick said when she remained silent. "I would never do anything to hurt him."
Reluctantly, Kate looked at him, her eyes searching his. He looked as if he meant what he was saying. She looked away. She didn't want to see Gareth hurt, either. She could argue that something she'd done long before she met him shouldn't cause him pain but emotions were not always logical. Instinct told her that learning she'd once slept with his brother was not something Gareth would be able to shrug off, no matter when it happened.
Nick looked relieved. "It's the best way to handle it."
"I hope so." Kate felt a mixture of relief and guilt. Her engagement was safe, but she couldn't get past the feeling that she was protecting it by lying, at least tacitly, to Gareth.
Nick smiled and held out his hand. "Nice to meet you, Kate Moran."
After an almost imperceptible hesitation, she took his hand. She hoped she wasn't making the mistake of a lifetime. She hoped even more that the spark of awareness she felt when they touched was the product of too much sun and anxiety.
"I'll let you get back to work," Nick said as he released her hand. "Harry's very pleased with himself for hiring you, by the way."
"I hope he'll be pleased when he sees the results." She rubbed the tips of her fingers over her palm, as if to erase the faint tingle she felt there.
"I'm sure he will be. Gareth says you're the best."
She knew he'd mentioned his brother deliberately, an assurance—or reminder?—that the past was no longer relevant. It gave her the courage to ask a question that had been haunting her.
"Wait." He'd already started to walk away but he stopped and half turned toward her, his brows raised in question. "Five years ago, when we...met, were you... I know your wife—" At the sudden bleakness in his eyes, Kate stumbled to a halt but she'd gone too far to stop. "Were you married when we...?"
Nick's face looked as if it had been carved from solid granite. She thought he might turn and walk away, leaving her question unanswered. The silence stretched, along with her nerves.
"No, I wasn't married." He turned and walked away without waiting for a response.
Not that she had a response, Kate thought. What could she say? I'm so glad to hear that your wife was already dead when we made love? Not exactly appropriate. She felt guilty for being relieved that she hadn't slept with a married man.
Nick disappeared around the edge of a wildly overgrown hedge of Korean box and Kate released her breath on a sigh. Forget the past, he'd said. It would be nice if they truly could. Just pretending to forget was only going to make her remember more. She rubbed her fingertips over her palm again, and tried not to think of the awareness she'd felt when he took her hand.
Looking around the garden, she tried to regain some of her earlier sense of elation. She should be happy. She had a fabulous new job. Her engagement was safe. Everything was going just the way she wanted. Life was practically perfect. There was nothing to worry about. Nothing at all.
Lowering her gaze, she saw that the green bug was still perched on the rose leaf. He was dining on a smaller winged creature, which answered the question of his dietary preferences. As she watched, he tilted his head and she had the distinct impression that he was looking up at her. She couldn't help but think that he looked smugly triumphant.
Late suddenly became aware of a prickling sensation along the back of her neck. She'd been on her hands and knees, halfway under a rose bush, scraping her hand through the layers of half-rotted leaves in search of a label that might give her a clue to the plant's identity. But she couldn't escape the feeling that she was being watched. Moving carefully, in deference to the wild tangle of canes that surrounded her, she backed out from under the plant. Turning, she sat down in the grassy path.
A very little girl and a very large dog stood a few feet away, watching her with nearly identical expressions of interest. Kate regarded them both warily. She didn't have much experience with either children or dogs. As far as she knew, one was prone to tears and the other was prone to bite.
"Hello," she said when neither of her visitors showed any inclination to speak.
"Hello." The child offered a friendly smile along with the greeting. The dog simply continued to look at her. They were an odd pair, Kate thought. The little girl was as delicately pretty as a china doll, with big blue eyes and a short cap of wispy blond hair that framed her fragile features. The dog, on the other hand, was not only large, he was, quite possibly, the ugliest animal she'd ever seen in her life. His coat was the exact color of steel wool and looked just about as soft. He was built along the stocky lines of a draft horse and was nearly as large.
"I'm Laura and this is Leroy.'' The child patted the dog on the head.
"Leroy?" The name seemed improbable.
"Like in the old song. You know, bad, bad Leroy Brown. Meaner than a junkyard dog?' Only Leroy isn't mean at all. Are you?"
She leaned against the dog, who supported her weight without effort. Kate was inclined to think he could support a small building without exerting himself. Laura looked at her, her wide blue eyes questioning.
"You're the lady who's going to fix up Harry's yard, aren't you?"
"I'm going to try to." Aware that she hadn't exactly done her part in the introductions, she smiled at the child. "I'm Kate."
"I know. Nick told me your name. He said you were going to make everything pretty but I think it's pretty already." It was evident that she viewed any possible changes with suspicion.
"I think it's pretty, too, but it can be even prettier."
Laura looked politely doubtful and changed the subject. "What were you looking for under the rosebush?"
"I was hoping to find a label that would tell me the plant's name."
Laura looked surprised. "It's a rose," she told Kate kindly.
"Yes, I know that." Kate bit back a smile. "I want to know what kind of rose it is."
"You mean whether it's white or red?"
"More or less." This didn't seem the time to go into an explanation of alba versus damascus. "Are you visiting Harry?" she asked.
"I live next door." Laura waved one small hand toward the north. "Harry lets me come over here to play when I want."
"How long have you and...Leroy lived next door?" Kate couldn't quite shake the feeling that the big dog was eyeing her with dislike.
"I've lived next door forever. Since I was a baby." Laura managed to make it sound like that had been centuries ago. "Leroy isn't my dog. He's Nick's."
"Nick's?'' Kate felt the name catch in her throat a little.
"Nick is a friend of Harry's. He's fixing up the house," Laura explained graciously.
"Yes. I know." Kate stood up, dusting her hands against the seat of her pants and then leaning over to brush bits of grass off her knees. "I didn't realize he had a dog."
"Nick found Leroy last week. Somebody hit him with a car and drove off." She threw one thin arm around the dog's massive neck, her voice crackling with indignation. "He was hurt but Nick healed him all up."
"That was very nice of him," Kate said sincerely. "I'm glad the doctor was able to help Leroy."
Laura frowned. "It wasn't a doctor. It was Nick He—"
"What am I being accused of now?" Nick's voice came from behind Kate. She turned quickly, struggling to keep her expression under control. She hadn't seen him in several days, not since they'd stood in this same garden and decided to forget the past. If only it was that easy.
"Hello." Nick's smile was friendly.
"Hello." The word was little more than a croak, and she cleared her throat before trying again. "Hello. Nick." The name was an afterthought, intended to show that she was perfectly comfortable with him—with the situation. The quick flash of humor in his eyes suggested that she hadn't been particularly successful.
"Kate," he said, his solemn tone inviting her to see the humor in the moment. Reluctantly, Kate's mouth curved in a fleeting smile.
"Hello, Nick." Laura's tone had gone from briskly adult to coyly feminine.
"Hey, short stuff." Nick's shoulder nearly brushed Kate's as he walked past her. He smelled like sunshine and sweat—^warm, masculine smells that conjured up images of bare chests and rippling muscles. Kate pushed the images firmly away.
"Don't get too close to me," he warned the little girl when she lifted her arms for a hug. 'I'm filthy."
His jeans were covered in a fine layer of dust. Patches of dirt made his T-shirt look like camouflage gear. Even his dark hair was coated with dust, giving Kate a preview of what he would look like when he was older. It hardly seemed fair that gray hair should suit him as much as his natural deep brown.
"I don't mind if I get dirty," Laura said, looking at him with worshipful blue eyes.
"Yeah, but I bet your mom does." He brushed his hand affectionately over her golden curls.
Laura looked as if she might melt on the spot, and Kate was annoyed to realize that she knew just how the little girl felt. Those dimples were hard to resist. Not that they affected her, but she couldn't help but notice them. She became aware that she was rubbing her thumb against the band of her engagement ring, as if it was a talisman to protect her against powerful magic.
"You look like you've been rolling in the dirt," she said briskly, relaxing her hand with an effort.
"Crawling in it." Nick bent to scratch Leroy behind his ear, and Kate was half amused, half irritated to see the huge dog turn his ugly face upward with a look of adoration. Really, what was it about the man that turned children and dogs into putty? Not to mention grown women, she added reluctantly, thinking back to the first time they'd met.
"Harry says I'm making too much of a mess in the house, so he's going to move into the guest house. I was just in the crawl space repairing a leak in the plumbing." Leroy shifted position, leaning his not inconsiderable bulk against Nick's leg. Nick braced himself against the weight and grinned at the dog. "You're a lazy bum."
"I was telling Kate about how Leroy was hurted and you made him better," Laura said, looking at him adoringly.
"I didn't do much. Leroy did most of the work himself, didn't you, boy?" He rubbed his knuckles over the top of the dog's head, and Leroy's human-sounding sigh of pleasure surprised a smile from Kate.