Despite the brilliantly gold, late afternoon sunlight that filtered in through the frosted windows, Dan Cavanaugh was aware of a growing sense of dejection as he ambled through the big, empty greenhouse. There was a heaviness in his chest that even the familiar scents of clean soil and chlorophyll could not dispel. For five years he had stayed away from home, and in all that time—“Nothing’s changed.”
He had practically grown up here, in his family’s Nursery. As a child, the surrounding fields had been his playground; an entire world, where he was king of all he surveyed. Later, he’d worked weekends and summers here until he could no longer stand either the sight or the smell of the place, nor endure, for even one more minute, the constant bickering with his father over every last little detail of the running of it. When he left Oberon for college he vowed he’d never step foot in this place again, and yet here he was, twenty three years old, and about to temporarily take over as nursery manager while his parents were off on a long anticipated tour of Europe.
He’d hoped that spending the summer here would give him the chance to figure a few things out. But five minutes had already been long enough for him to make a start.
First of all, he now knew that there was no way he could spend the rest of his life locked away in some office or classroom. He needed to work with his hands again. He needed to spend at least part of each day outdoors. And he needed the connection to the earth with which he’d grown up. He’d missed all of that these last five years--more than he ever imagined he could.
Unfortunately, his second revelation in about as many minutes, was that he could never be truly happy working for somebody else. So unless things around here had changed enough for him to handle coming back on a permanent basis, then he very much feared that he was effectively out of options where his future was concerned.
So far, everything seemed all too depressingly the same.
“What are you doing here?” An unfamiliar female voice startled him out of his reverie. He almost jumped in surprise. He thought he was alone. He should have been alone too, damn it—since he’d purposely waited for the end of the day, until the business was closed and he was sure everyone had gone home, before he drove out here, just so he could avoid running into anyone else.
By rights, neither one of us should be here now, he thought, as he spun around to confront the young woman who was regarding him with a cool self-assurance that both amused and intrigued him. She appeared to be about his age, or maybe a few years his junior, and to look at her standing there, hands planted firmly on her very attractive hips, anyone would have supposed that she owned the place and that he was the interloper. He suppressed a smile at her arrogance. What am I doing here? Well, he could ask her the same question!
“I said, what are you doing here?” she repeated impatiently, and he did smile, then. Perhaps there had been a few changes here, after all.
“Ohh, I was just taking a look around.” He shrugged, and took a good, long look at her too, while he was at it. Cute. He felt his smile widen in appreciation. Very cute. Very definitely cute. Even with annoyance flashing in the depths of her chocolate brown eyes, and the damp tendrils of dark hair that clung to her neck.
Her face was flushed with heat, a reaction to the temperatures here in the greenhouse, no doubt, although he suspected that everything about her would still be screaming heat at him, even if they were both blue with cold and standing in an igloo.
Just the same, he couldn’t help but feel fervently grateful for the sultry conditions around them, if that was what was responsible for the abbreviated outfit she wore. Her bare shoulders rose out of a yellow halter top that seemed barely big enough to contain her full, round breasts, and which brilliantly accentuated the narrowness of her waist. Her cut-off jeans had been slit high enough on the sides to expose an extremely gratifying amount of firm, tanned thigh. So, okay, maybe the scuffed work boots didn’t do all that much for him, but, he decided, as his glance slid slowly back up the bronze expanse of bare leg, he could easily overlook a little thing like that.
“Well, I’d say you’ve looked long enough,” she remarked dryly when his eyes finally returned to her face. “So now you can go.”
She appeared neither discomfited by his blatant inspection, nor overly impressed by either his presence or by what he’d come to believe was his most charming smile. Dan felt somewhat aggrieved. He liked women, and they generally liked him, too. He wasn’t used to being so summarily dismissed. Nor did he especially enjoy being ordered out of his own nursery.
He felt his own stubborn temper flare. “Oh, I don’t think so,” he answered, returning her stare coolly. He folded his arms across his chest and leaned back against one of the tables. “I like it here. I think I’ll stay for a while.”
“Think again,” she snapped, and her voice took on an even more steel-like tone. “Perhaps you’re not clear on the concept, but we happen to be closed right now.”
He studied her curiously. “I know that. So why are you still here?”
“That’s none of your business.”
A faint smile tugged at his lips. “Actually it is, you know.”
“Oh, really? How’s that?” For a split second he thought her assurance seemed to waver, but annoyance quickly reasserted itself, and she waved away the explanations he’d been about to make. “No. Never mind. I don’t care. I just want you out of here. Now.”
Dan stared at her for a moment in silence. She was really serious about throwing him out, he realized, and he couldn’t for the life of him figure out how she expected to achieve her goal without his active cooperation. “So, you’re gonna make me leave?” he asked, just to make sure he was getting things straight.
“Damn right I am,” she said, so supremely confident that Dan was almost overwhelmed by the desire to rattle her chain a little. As bad an idea as he’d ever had, since they’d probably end up having to work together all summer; but still...oohh...awfully hard to resist.
“Don’t you even want to know who I am?” he asked, ignoring the temptation as best he could and resolving to give her one final chance to back down. But she was having none of it.
“Seriously? I don’t care who you are.”
It was mostly the fact that he believed her, and was unreasonably annoyed by her obvious disinterest in him, that caused his resolve to evaporate like water dropped on a hot skillet. He shrugged. “So fine, then. Make me.”
Instantly, dark brows snapped together in a fierce scowl. He watched as she raised herself to her full height of maybe five-four, and glared imperiously at him down the length of her nose. “Excuse me?” she uttered in scathing tones that he found unexpectedly intriguing. He found himself smiling again, in spite of himself.
“Yeah, that’s right. You heard me,” he said, standing up then also, and glinting down at her. He towered over her by almost a foot, and probably outweighed her by a good hundred pounds, but she still wouldn’t budge; and he still couldn’t decide how he felt about that--amused, impressed or just really, really pissed. “C’mon, babe. Give it your best shot. Make me leave. That is, if you think you can.”
“Look, you,” she snarled, “I don’t know who the hell you think you are--”
“The name’s Cavanaugh,” he interrupted mildly, “just like the nursery.”
“Or what you think you’re doing here, but I want you out of my greenhouse. And I want you out now!”
He choked back a laugh. “Oh, it’s your greenhouse is it? That’s a good one. ‘Cause, you know, I always thought of it as mine.”
She continued to glare at him, and he was determined to get a rise out of her somehow. “So, uh...if it’s your greenhouse, I guess that would make you a Cavanaugh too, huh?” he asked her with sardonic sweetness, “Now, that’s a real shame, sweetheart.”
She hesitated, but finally curiosity got the better of her. “Yeah? Why’s that?”
“Well, I mean, incest never really held any appeal for me before,” he teased. “But in your case--I don’t know. I just might be willing to make an exception.”
“Huh!” she snorted inelegantly. “In your dreams!”
He wagged his eyebrows and smiled down at her without making any answer.
“I don’t believe this shit,” she muttered to herself, closing her eyes for just an instant, before turning the full force of her glare back up at his face. “Okay, look, do I really have to call the cops for you? Because, trust me, I can have one out here so fast it’ll make your head spin.”
Dan shrugged. “Go right ahead. But you’d be wasting your time. The cops aren’t gonna make me leave, either.”
“Because you’re a Cavanaugh, right?” she said mockingly.
“That’s right, babe.”
“Well, let me tell you something, whoever you are, I’ve been working here for almost three years now. I know all of the Cavanaughs. And you are--” She broke off suddenly, frowning; her eyes narrowed suspiciously as she focused intently on his features.
“Dan,” he supplied helpfully, extending his hand. “Pleased to meet you.”
If she knew any of his family, the resemblance shouldn’t be too hard to spot. Ah-ha! Now she’s got it. He watched the flood of color in her cheeks and knew he was grinning like a fool at the confounded expression on her face.
She recovered quickly, though, he’d give her that. Within seconds she’d buried her embarrassment beneath another scowl. “That still doesn’t explain what you’re doing here,” she said as she continued to ignore his hand.
“Jesus. Are we back to that again?” Dan sighed as he crossed his arms once again and gave up all his attempts to push her buttons. Obviously, it couldn’t be done. “Look, it’s like I told you, I just wanted to take a look around, before--” He paused. Shit. She obviously hadn’t heard about his father’s plan. She was going to hear about it sooner or later; and either way, he had a feeling she wasn’t going to like it.
He shrugged, “My dad asked me to take over for the summer. You know, so he and my mom could get away for a while? They’re going to Europe. They might have mentioned that part?”
“Take over?” He watched her jaw clench, watched her eyes grow narrow again; and no, he thought, she really didn’t like that idea. Not at all. “Do you mean—so, you’d be like--”
“Your new boss?” he couldn’t resist making one last attempt at teasing her. “Sure looks that way, huh? So, I’m guessing my dad didn’t get around to informing you all of his plan yet?”
“No,” she said, shortly. “He didn’t.”
“Yeah, well, Bill’s always been a great one for surprising people.”
She glared at him sullenly, her arms crossed tightly over her chest. “I don’t like surprises.”
“I’ll try to remember that,” he said softly. “Now, how about you tell me who you are and what you’re doing here. Because as one of us mentioned, not too long ago, the place is supposed to be closed.”
She shrugged and looked away. “I just had some work I wanted to finish up.” Something about the way she said it made him think there might be more to the story than that. He wondered if someone--maybe her?--had found and revived his private pot farm. If she had, there was obviously no way he’d get her to admit it right now.
“Do you do this a lot, then? Stay on here after everyone else has gone home?”
“Yeah. I do,” she answered, tilting her head to one side and fixing him with a look that was one hundred percent pure challenge. “You gonna have a problem with that?”
“No, I don’t think so. Not as long as you don’t try to kick me out of here anymore.” He tried the smile on her again, but she didn’t return this one either, or give him any kind of reply; merely nodded shortly and turned toward the exit.
“Hey!” he called after her. “You still haven’t told me who you are. And, you know, I’m gonna find out sometime. Might as well be now, don’t you think?”
She stopped, and turned to face him again. “Greco,” she told him finally, heaving a frustrated sigh. “Lucy Greco.”
Even in the face of her recalcitrance, he couldn’t seem to stop smiling at her. “Well, Ms. Greco, as I said before, it’s been a real pleasure meeting you.”
“Oh, yeah?” And finally she did smile; a brittle, malicious, little grin that didn’t come close to warming her eyes. “Well, I guess the pleasure’s been all yours then, Cavanaugh,” she said, and she spun around and once more headed for the door.
Dan stopped laughing long enough for one parting shot. “I’ll see you around Greco,” he called to her just as she pulled open the door.
“Ha! Not if I see you first,” she called back, not stopping nor even bothering to turn around. The door swung shut behind her, and she was gone.
“Jesus!” Dan announced to the empty greenhouse. What just happened here? His head was spinning and he had to force himself not to follow after her.
He still didn’t know if he could handle staying here long term, but the next few months suddenly looked a lot more interesting than he’d ever imagined they could.
So the pleasure’s all mine, huh? He chuckled to himself. Well, we’ll just have to see about that...
Read another excerpt HERE.