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smoothed out the hardwood mulch, spreading it under the newly planted hostas.
Partridgeberry now carpeted her mother’s flower bed with green, but soon it
would bloom with fragrant white flowers, and its red fruit would add a splash
of color come fall.
that it looked ten times better than it had three hours ago soothed her wounded
Anna Thomas dumped
the last load of mulch from the wheelbarrow. “That should do it.” She blew her
long bangs from her face, picked up the shovel, and spread the load with the
vigor of someone half her age.
beautiful, girls.” Clare’s sister Tess set a tray of iced lemonade on the porch
table. Her blue eyes were lit with a joy that only comes from new love.
Not that Clare
knew anything about that.
we’re almost done.” Her younger sister, Zoe, pulled off her pink garden gloves
and appraised the sky. “Looks like it’s about to rain.”
Clare breathed in
the scent of loamy dirt and rain, hoping the organic fragrance would relieve
her unrest. “Smells like it too.”
“God’s going to
water my new plants,” Anna said. “Isn’t he thoughtful?”
Oh, yeah, all was
coming up roses now that everyone was in love. Everyone but her. Clare chided
herself for the selfish thought. She was happy for her sisters, thrilled for
her mom. Still, they all had romance and candlelit dinners and kisses, and she
had . . .
She set down the
rake and frowned at the garden. This isn’t the way she’d imagined it. She was
almost thirty, for pity’s sake. Where were her husband, her two-point-five
children, her devoted golden retriever? Okay, so she had the dog part covered,
She hadn’t even
found love, much less a husband. Somehow her looming birthday hadn’t seemed so
terrible when she’d had a relationship in the works. Now there was a countdown
clock ticking toward an unavoidable deadline. Was she headed toward an Aunt
Violet/Aunt Petunia future?
Her mom nudged
her. “What’s wrong, Miss Perfectionist? Did you miss a wilted leaf?”
Clare began gathering
the empty plant containers. “I was thinking about Aunt Violet.” Sort of true.
“I wonder if she and Grandma Rose are getting along.” Gardening enthusiasts,
the two older women helped out at the nursery during the busy spring and
summer, mostly giving advice to customers.
“I hope they’re
not at each other’s throats,” Anna said. “I shouldn’t have pulled you away.”
too busy to argue. Besides, I needed a break from all the tension.” Clare
intended to sit them down tomorrow and talk some sense into them. Their
argument over Grandma’s old beau, who had also been her sister Violet’s secret
crush, was getting old.
“Some break.” Tess
sipped her lemonade. “I hope Mr. Lewis finally gets you some help. You about
worked yourself into the ground last year, literally.”
“I forgot to tell
you,” Clare said after downing half the lemonade. “He said I could hire
someone. I put up some notices around town. Just hope I can find time for the
interviews and such. Memorial Day weekend is coming up, and after that it’s a
Zoe sat next to
Tess on the porch step. “Speaking of Memorial Day, can you ask Josh to bring
his camping chairs?”
“Uh . . . Josh
won’t be coming.” Clare dumped the containers in the trash bin, mentally
dumping the remnants of any feelings she’d had toward Josh. The memory of their
date two nights ago still left a sour taste in her mouth.
“Tell me you
didn’t break up with him,” Zoe said.
She supposed she
deserved that. “He did, actually.”
She eyed Zoe just as her sister opened her mouth. “And no, I do not need your
help. That’s how I got into this mess to begin with, if you recall.”
puckered in a rosy pout.
“Oh, no,” Anna
said. “What happened, honey?”
“Nothing, Mom, really. We’re just too different, I guess. No chemistry, no
spark.” No interest, especially on his part.
“Oh, rats,” Tess
said. “I thought you liked him.”
Their breakup, if
you could call it that, had nothing to do with the fact that he’d called her
boring. Just remembering it made heat flood to the back of her neck where her
hair was gathered in a loose braid. She couldn’t believe Josh Campbell, Mr.
President of the high school chess team, had the nerve to call her boring.
Okay, so he hadn’t
used that exact word, but she could read between the lines. She’d been raised
in a female household. Reading between the lines was necessary for survival.
So she liked her
routines. So she liked to look before she leaped. That was just smart, sensible. Not boring, Josh Campbell. You should
learn the difference.
Clare rolled the
wheelbarrow up the board and into the truck bed, then checked her watch.
going to be late for her tea run,” Tess said.
Clare,” Zoe said. “Nat will faint dead away if you fail to appear at 7:17 on
Clare frowned at
her sisters. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
they’re only teasing,” Anna said.
“We like that
you’re predictable,” Tess said.
Zoe grinned and
flipped her dark hair from her eyes. “Please. There’s a picture of you by the
word on Wikipedia. I just saw it yesterday.”
“I go to the
coffee shop at 7:17 because I get off work at 7:00. Besides, there’s no line
then. It just makes sense.”
“And we love that
you’re so sensible, dear.” Her mom rubbed Clare’s rigid shoulders, but it
failed to calm her. “It’s a very comforting quality in a world of constant
brushing off her jeans. “I have to run too. William’s coming over in a bit, and
I need to de-grime.” She looked down at her hands. “So much for my manicure.”
Clare shut the
tailgate with more force than necessary, then turned to say good-bye.
“You’re not mad,
are you?” Tess asked, giving her the hand tools she’d gathered.
Clare stashed them
in the pockets of her handy-dandy coveralls. “I’m just touchy today. No
Her mom thanked
her with a big hug and a kiss on the cheek.
“See you later,”
Zoe called as Clare pulled from the drive.
The first droplets
of rain hit the windshield when she pulled onto Lookaway Lane. Within seconds
the slow, fat drops turned into a hard, heavy downpour. She turned on her
wipers, her sisters’ words ringing in her ears, louder than the pattering on
She wasn’t boring.
Or predictable. Well, maybe a little predictable, but that didn’t make her
Man bored to death by girlfriend. News at
She squashed the
thought, though the mood persisted as she entered town. Tourists huddled under
colorful canopies, waiting for the storm to pass. Judging by the gray abyss
above, that wouldn’t be any time soon.
She parked in a
parallel spot on Main Street and dashed in for her warm tea. Her cousin Natalie
had it ready, and Clare was back out the door in sixty seconds flat. See? No
line, no waiting. Sensible.
She put the truck
in gear and headed toward the nursery. It was closed, but her own shed was
full, and she couldn’t let the tools sit in the rain all night.
When she passed
the Wind Chill Creamery, her mind returned to Saturday night. Josh had ordered
two medium razmataz cones.
“Oh, make mine vanilla,”
she’d told Bethany Hopkins, who was looking frazzled on their first open night
of the season.
“You don’t like
razmataz?” Josh asked.
Truth be told,
she’d never tried the multicolored fruit-flavored ice cream. She shrugged. “I
just prefer vanilla.”
The other comments
had come three licks into her cone, and the night had only gone downhill from
So she liked
vanilla. That didn’t make her boring. Maybe it was the whole sensible thing
that made her come off as boring. Now that she thought about it, she recalled
Josh saying something about taking a chance once in a while. He probably
thought she wasn’t spontaneous enough.
obviously agreed. Maybe she was stuck
in a rut. Well, she could be spontaneous if she wanted to be, take a chance now
And she would. She
nodded her head once, confirming the promise. That’s what she’d do. Her next
decision—completely and utterly spontaneous. No weighing it out, no pondering
for days, and above all, no safe choice. It would be good for her. Healthy. And
she’d be sure to let her sisters and Josh know about it. Not that she had
anything to prove.
She turned onto
the rutted shady lane, passing the old wooden sign that read The Red Barn Nursery and Greenhouse, Since 1973.
Clare had started working there as a cashier during her high school summers and
had learned everything there was to know about growing healthy trees and
plants. When she graduated, Mr. Lewis, wanting to cut back his own hours, hired
her full time as manager.
Last year she’d
talked him into staying open year ’round. With the added tourists, she thought
it was a feasible plan. They’d offered holiday plants and decorations, and
Clare had started growing tropicals in the greenhouse. They’d made a nice
profit selling them to the local flower shop, but the gift shop hadn’t done as
well as they’d have liked. Sure would’ve been nice if Smitten had gotten the
train contract. She didn’t want to go back to finding winter work.
The sun was long
gone by the time Clare crested the hill, the night pressing in through the
woods. She passed the deserted barn with all the artistically arranged potted
trees and bushes and rounded the corner, pulling up to the old lopsided shed.
Thunder roared and
rain pelted her as she dashed from the truck and lowered the tailgate. She
guided the wheelbarrow down the plank and hurried toward the shed. The door
opened with a loud squeak, and she pushed it inside.
A movement against
the far wall caught her eye. The sight of a man hunkering in the shadows made
her jump. Even in the dim light, she could see he was big. And hairy.
She grabbed for a
tool and came up with the rake. Her heart thudded as loudly as the rain on the
roof. “Who’s there?”
The stranger stood
She’d been right.
He was every bit of six foot three and broad as a boxwood hedge. He remained by
the wall, his body seemingly on full alert.
Clare raised the
tool over her head. She wished she weren’t alone, wished she’d taken the time
to lock up earlier, wished she were holding something more substantial than a
“I said, who’s
there?” She heard the fear in her voice and knew he did too.
Hairy Man stared
back. “Name’s Ethan Foster. Just taking shelter till the storm passes.” His
voice was deep as a country well. He nodded his chin toward the corner.
Her eyes darted to
a motorcycle parked against the wall, then back to him. He had longish dark
hair and a face that hadn’t seen a razor in weeks.
Without taking her
eyes from him, she reached for the string on the naked bulb. Sixty watts
flooded the dank space. He was a little older than she’d first thought. Not
some kid, but a man of thirty-three, thirty-five. He wore a black T-shirt and
jeans that had seen better days.
She gripped the
rake. The nursery was well off the road, not the most convenient place to seek
shelter. “What are you doing all the way back here?”
Dark eyes stared
back, calm and knowing. “Sorry I scared you. Looking for Thomas.”
It was her last
name, but all the better if he thought there was a man on the premises.
“About . . .”
He shifted. “A
Her heart started
to settle to a dull throb. He seemed less threatening now that the light was
on. She wasn’t sure why; he hadn’t shrunk. Maybe it was his gentle eyes.
She lowered the
rake a smidge, loosened her grip. “I don’t charge by the word, you know.”
“Heard he was
hiring. What is this place anyway?”
She knew he wasn’t
referring to the nursery. “Smitten is a honeymoon destination . . . home of
country star Sawyer Smitten . . . Haven’t you heard of it?” After Sawyer’s
wedding the year before, she didn’t think there was a soul left in the country
who didn’t know about their little town.
“Not from the
area. Thomas around? I could really use the work, and I heard he was hiring.”
“We’re closed for
the night.” She looked at his motorcycle. There was a big bundle on the back.
Was he a drifter? Homeless? One thing was sure, Mr. Lewis would have her head
if she let him bunk here tonight.
“You can’t stay
“When will he be
lowered the rake to the ground, keeping hold of it—just in case—and stuck out a
hand. “Clare Thomas.”
His eyes flickered
with comprehension. He reached across the space and wrapped his hand around
hers. It was warm despite the spring chill. He squeezed her hand before
releasing it. She missed the warmth immediately.
Great. Now she was
going to have to turn him down. The rain let up, ushering in sudden silence.
“I’m a hard
worker, good with my hands.” He looked away as a flush crawled up his neck. A
moment later he found her eyes again. “Good with plants. And I’m a fast
Clare pushed her
wet hair from her face, not letting go of the rake just yet. “Listen, I don’t
think this is going to work out.”
From people she
didn’t know. “I don’t think so. Sorry.” Someone else would apply soon. She
wasn’t desperate enough to hire a stranger. A big, tall, hairy stranger.
“I’ll work a day
for free. Give me a chance.”
thought again about Josh and vanilla ice cream. About the vow she’d made only
moments before to make her next decision spontaneously.
She looked him
over, instantly regretting the promise. This wasn’t a matter of her blue blouse
versus the white one. She bit the inside of her cheek.
“Two days free.”
hard. Stupid economy. “It’s temporary. Probably only through July.”
“Suits me fine.”
“It doesn’t pay
“Didn’t expect it
Of course he
didn’t. Her pulse sped, not liking this spontaneity thing one bit.
I don’t like it either, heart.
It felt wholly
unnatural. Like when your food comes up instead of going down.
She stared at him,
searching for a reason, any reason, to say no. Something besides his too-deep
voice, his all-seeing eyes, and the memory of his warm hand.
But she came up
empty, and he was waiting. “All right.”
His lips lifted in
something just short of a smile. “All right.”
She cleared a
space as he walked his bike past her, out the door, onto the wet gravel. He
straddled the seat and started the engine.
She wondered where
he was going. Night had fallen, and Timber Lake Lodge was likely full. She
doubted he could afford it anyway. Carson’s cabins were no cheaper, and
besides, she couldn’t picture the man under a down duvet or in a heart-shaped
tub . . .
“What time?” he
She stared at him
“In the morning.”
She crossed her
arms against the chill. “Oh. Eight, I guess.”
He nodded once and
let off the clutch, then sped down the dark gravel drive.
Well, Clare, there goes your spontaneous
decision. I hope you don’t live to regret it.
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