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A weeper by nature, April Ross was the type to keep tissues at hand in case a coffee commercial took her by surprise. And, granted, the past several weeks had been an emotional roller coaster ride of reunions and massive renovations and reassessments of what she wanted from life. But to find herself nearly in tearsApril dug in the only real designer purse she'd ever owned for one of those tissues and blew her little ice cube of a noseover a bunch of plants?
Especially since she'd been the one who'd said, "What's the big deal? You go to a nursery, you pick out some trees, hire a couple dudes to stick 'em in the ground, done."
No wonder her cousins had rolled their eyes at her.
Now, huddled inside her thick cardigan against the bay wind shunting through the garden center, she turned on the heel of her riding boot and marched past a mess of pumpkins to the checkout area, where the bundled-up, gray-bearded black man behind the register released a soft chuckle.
"Somebody looks a little overwhelmed," he said in the relaxed Maryland shore drawl that immediately evoked memories of those childhood summers. "Not to mention half-frozen. So first off, step closer to the heatergo on, I'll waitthen tell me how I can help. I reckon I know pretty much everything about whatever's in stock. You got questions, you just go ahead and ask."
April's eyes welled again, both at his kindness and the lovely heat waves rippling from the nearby metal obelisk. "What I've got," she said as she removed her gloves, stretching her cramped fingers toward the heat, "is three acres of dirt and renovation mess that needs landscaping. By the middle of December, when my first guests arrive."
The man's eyebrows rose. "You the gal who's fixing up the Rinehart place?"
"That would be me." April tucked her wind-ravaged hair behind her ear, then extended her slightly warmer hand. "April Ross."
"Sam Howell. It's a real pleasure, young lady." Sam shook her hand, then crossed his arms high on his plaid-jacketed chest. "Three acres, you say"
A child's excited squeal cut through their conversation. Grinning, Sam hustled from behind the counter a moment before a tiny, dark-haired blur slammed into him. After a fierce hug, the little girl backed up, all pink-cheeked adorableness in bright blue tights and a puffy purple jacket, and April's breath left her lungs.
"Daddy said I could pick out a punkin for Halloween!" she said, then planted a mittened hand against the front of the counter to awkwardly lift one glittery-sneakered foot. "An' I got new shoes! See?"
"Those are some rockin' shoes, Miss Lili. Your daddy pick 'em out for you?"
"Nope," she said with a vigorous head shake. "I choosed 'em all by myself. Mommy'll like 'em, huh?"
"Oh. Yeah. I'm sure she will ."
She turned her baby-toothed grin on April before letting her foot drop, twisting it this way and that to admire it. "Daddy says they're my princess shoes."
April laughed. "They certainly are," she said, as a toe-curling chuckle behind her sent the breath she'd barely pulled back into her lungs whooshing out all over again. Especially when the mantallish, nicely shouldered, his face partially obscured by one of those silly hats with flaps covering his cheeksscooped up his daughter and pretended to munch on her shoulder, making Lili giggle and sending April into a free fall.
Shoot. Shoot, shoot, shoot.
Automatically her left thumb went to her wedding rings, twisting them around until the diamonds dug into her skin, the sensation oddly soothing. Steadying. Yes, she should take them off already. But they made her feel safe. Like the sweetest, most generous man she'd ever known was still watching over her, standing in the wings and cheering her on.
"Miss Ross," Sam said after the man untwined his little girl's hands from around his neck and set her down to go check out the pumpkins, "This here's Patrick Shaughnessy. And this young lady," he said with a wink in April's direction, "needs you bad."
So much for being cold. Heat swept across her face as she gaped at Sam, whoclearly enjoying her discomfiturechuckled. "The Shaughnessys run one of the best landscaping outfits in the county."
"County, hell," Patrick said, turning just enough for April to see his eyes, a bluer blue than hers, like lasers in a face still mostly hidden in the cap's shadows. Eyes that dimmed inexplicably when they met hers. "On the whole Eastern Shore." After a moment's hesitation, he offered his gloved hand, giving hers a quick shake before slugging it back into his jacket pocket. Canvas, no frills. Not exactly clean. His gaze shifted, presumably to keep an eye on his little girl, who meandered along the rows of pumpkins, like a finicky customer in a used-car lot, her face scrunched in concentration. "So I take it you need some work done?"
Deep breath. "I'd thought I could, you know, just buy some trees and things, hire someone to plant them. Until I got here and remembered I can't even grow a Chia Pet."
She thought his mouth might've twitched. "So how big's the lot?"
"Three acres or thereabouts." Another nippy breeze speared through the heater's warmth, making April wrap the sweater more tightly around her. She'd never been here in the fall, had no idea how brutal the damp cold could be. "I'm turning my grandmother's waterfront house back into an inn, so it needs to look halfway decent."
Another twitch preceded, "The Rinehart place?"
"Yes. How do"
It was beginning to bug her that he kept his gaze averted. Especially since, as Sam had wandered out to help Lili select her pumpkin, the child was obviously okay. Patrick straightened, his arms crossed. "Got a budget?"
His eyes met hers and she felt like she'd been burned. All the way to her girly bits. So inappropriate, on so many levels
"A couple hundred bucks?" he said, once more focused on his daughter. "A couple thousand.?"
"Oh. I see. Sorry, I honestly don't know. Even though money won't be a problem."
The shock still hadn't completely faded, how well-off Clayton had left her. She'd had to have the lawyer reread the will three times, just to be sure she'd heard correctly. Clay's accompanying letter, however, she'd read herself.
"Yes, it's all yours, to do with however you like. As you can see, I kept my promise, too
"And yet," Patrick said, "you were thinking of handling the project yourself?"
She laughed. "I think it's pretty clear I wasn't thinking at all. So anywayI'm almost always around, so maybe sometime in the next week you could come out, take a look?"
"I'll have to check my schedule. But sure."
"Great. Here." April set her sunglasses and gloves on the counter to dig inside her purse for a business card, handing it to Patrick. He studied the card as though memorizing it, then pulled his own from his pocket.
"And here's ours"
"Daddy! I found one!"
"Be right there, baby," he said, and April saw the tension slough from his posture only to immediately reappear when his eyes once more glanced off hers before, with a curt nod, he walked away.
Odd duck, April thought, hiking up her shoulder bag as she tramped back out to her Lexus, a car that only five years ago she couldn't have dreamed would be hers. She'd no sooner slid behind the solid walnut wheel, however, when she realized she'd left her sunglasses on the counter. This was why, despite her much improved financial circumstances, she never paid more than ten bucks for a pair. Because she left them everywhere.
Shaking her head at herself, she trudged back to the nursery, plucking themand her gloves, sheeshoff the counter as she heard Lili's musical, and irresistible, giggle again. Curiosity nudged her closer to the pumpkin display, where Patrick teased his daughter by pointing back and forth between two of the biggest pumpkins, saying, "This one. No, this one. No, this one. On second thought I think it has to be this one. ."
Fortunately, his back was to her so she could watch unobserved, finding some solace in the sweet exchange, even though it scraped her heart. He'd ditched that silly hat, so she could see his dark, barely there hair, almost a military cut
He abruptly turned, his smile evaporating when he saw her, his gaze crystalizing into a challenge.
in the midst of the puckered, discolored skin distorting the entire right side of his face.
And God help her, she gasped.
Mortified, she stumbled out of the nursery and across the graveled parking lot to lean against her car, trying to quell the nausea. Not because of his appearance, but because.
Oh, dear Lordwhat had she done?
Expelling a harsh breath, April slowly turned around, her eyes stinging from the ruthless wind, her own tears, as several options presented themselves for consideration, the front-runner being to get in the car and drive to, say, Uruguay. Except she couldn't. And only partly because she didn't have her passport with her. So she sucked in a deep breath, hitched her purse up again and started her wobbly-kneed trek back toward the nursery. Because those who didn't own their screwups were doomed to repeat them. Or something.
Sam chuckled when she walked into the office. "Now what'd you forget?"
"My good sense, apparently," April muttered, then craned her neck to see into the pumpkin patch. "Patrick still here?"
"Just left," Sam said, adding, when she frowned at him, "He was parked out back." At her deflated grunt, he said, "Need anything else?"
The name of another landscaper?
But since that would have required far more explanation than she was willing, or able, to give, she simply shook her head and returned to her car, hunched against the stupid wind and feeling like the worst person on the planet.
Yeah, that was about the reaction he expected, Patrick thought with the strange combination of annoyance and resignation that colored most of his experience these days. What he hadn't expected, he realized with an aftershock to his gutnot to mention other body parts further southwas his reaction to the cute little strawberry blonde. Which, while equally annoying, was anything but resigned.
A humorless grin stretched across his mouth. Guess he wasn't dead, after all. Or at least, his libido wasn't. Dumb as all hell, maybe, but not dead. Because, given how she'd recoiled, he was guessing the attraction wasn't exactly mutual. And even if it had been, those rocks adorning her ring finger may as well have been a force field against any wayward thoughts.
What he did have to consider, however, was whether to follow through on the job bid himself, or hand it off to his dad or one of his brothers. God knew he didn't need the temptation. Or the frustration. On the other hand, he thought with another perverse grin, who was he to turn down the opportunity to get up the gal's nose? Yeah, he was one ugly sonuvabitch these days, but you know what? The world was full of ugly sons of bitches, and the pretty little April Rosses of the world could just get over it.
At the four-way stop that had come with the new development south of St. Mary's Cove, Patrick laboriously stretched the fingers of his right hand, the muscles finally loosening after four years of physical therapy and innumerable surgeries. But at least he had his hand
And at least his little girl had a father, pieced back together like a cross between Frankenstein's monster and Dorothy's Scarecrow though he might have been. A lump rising in his throat, he glanced in the rearview mirror at the main reason he was still alive. Not that he wasn't grateful for the dozens of burn specialists and therapists and psychologists who'd done the piecing. But whenever the physical agony had tempted him to check out, he'd remember he had a baby who still needed himeven if her mother didn'tand he'd somehow find the wherewithal to make it through another day. And another. And one more after that.
"C'n we give the punkin a face tonight?"
Patrick spared another glance for his daughter, out of habit, taking care to avoid his reflection.
"Not yet, baby," he said, focusing again on the flat, field-flanked road, the vista occasionally broken by a stand of bare-limbed trees. "It's too early. If we do it now, it'll get soft and sorry-looking by Halloween."
"Five sleeps." He grinned in the mirror at her. To her, he was just Daddy. What he looked like didn't matter, only what he did. And what he'd done, since her mother left, was make sure his daughter knew that he wasn't going anywhere, ever again. "Think you can wait that long?"
"I guess," she said on a dramatic sigh that reminded him all too much of Natalie, which in turn reminded him of Nat's brave-but-not expression after he was finally home for good, only to watch his marriage sputter and die. Not really a surprise, after what had happened. As opposed to his ex's decision to give Patrick full custody of their daughter, which had shocked the hell out of him.
"Where are we going?"
"Back to Grandma's."
The silence from the backseat was not a good sign. Patrick preempted the inevitable protest by saying, "Sorry, honey, I've gotta go back to work."
Among the many blessings of being one of seven kids, most of whom lived within a few blocks of each other, was that there was always someone to take care of Lili. In fact, his mother and oldest sister Frannieat home with four of her offspring anywayusually fought for the privilege. His child was in no danger of neglect. But over the past few months, Lilianna had become clingy and anxious whenever Patrick left. Especially since his ex's rare appearances only confused Lili, rather than reassured her.
He pulled into the driveway of his parents' compact, two-story house in St. Mary's. In her usual cold-weather attire of leggings, fisherman's sweater and fleece booties, a grinning Kate O'Hearn Shaughnessy greeted them at the front door, hauling her granddaughter into her thin arms. If you looked past the silver striping Ma's bangs and ponytail, the fine lines fanning out from her bright blue eyes, you could still see the little black-haired firecracker who'd rendered Joseph Shaughnessy mute the first time he laid eyes on her at some distant cousin's wedding forty years before. What his mother lacked in size, she more than made up for in spunk. And a death-ray glare known to bring grown men to tears.
"Go see Poppa," she said, bussing Lili's curls before setting her on her feet. "He's in the kitchen." Then she lifted that same no-nonsense gaze to Patrick he'd seen when he'd come out of his medically induced coma at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio. If there'd been fear or worry, he imagined they'd been kicked to the curb before he'd even been airlifted from Landstuhl. "I made vegetable soup, you want some?"
Feeling like a burrowing gopher, Patrick followed her down the narrow, carpeted hall to the kitchen, careful not to let his wide shoulders unseat four decades' worth of baby pictures, school photos and wedding portraits plastering the beige walls. Like most of the houses in St. Mary's Cove proper, the house had been built in a time when people were smaller and needs simpler. That his parents had raised seven kids in the tiny foursquare was amazing in itself; that they'd never seen the need to upgrade to something bigger and better was a living testament to the "be content with what you have" philosophy they'd crammed down their kids' throats right along with that homemade vegetable soup.
Not that flat-screen TVs, cell phones and state-of-the-art laptops weren't in the mix with seventies furnishings and his grandmother's crocheted afghans. His parents weren't Luddites. But their penchant for shoehorning the new into the old had, over the years, shaped the little house into a vibrant, random collage of their lives.
This was also the home, the life, he'd returned to in order to heal, the safety and stability it represented restoring his battered psyche far more than the damn lotion he applied every single day to keep his skin supple.