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There was just something so appealing about dirt.
Jessica Holliday couldn't remember a time in her twenty-six years when she hadn't been fascinated by the stuff and the miracles it generated. She breathed deeply of its comforting smell and lightly massaged the site of her knee injury.
Atlanta's top orthopedic surgeon had performed the anterior medialization, grafting bone and marrow, inserting titanium screws and closing the knee with thirty-five staples. But no amount of medical skill would ever restore full strength to her leg.
A small price to pay, considering Adam Crockett was lost forever to his grieving family. A family who blamed her for his death.
At least she had the chance to start again. She'd planned better than her mother, who'd ended up with no education and a child to support after her ex-military husband had abandoned them. Thanks to a green thumb and a very tight budget, Jessica had learned something besides dance. She could design, plant and tend gardens of all kinds, and the proof covered the ten-acre campus of Sacred Arms.
Sitting cross-legged in the shade of six-foot-high fuchsia and white azalea bushes, she admired the beds in bloom. Tall clusters of purple iris and feathery, light pink plumes of astilbe surrounded her. Fragrant bunches of lavender waved in the warm spring breeze.
An afternoon sun glinted through the shady gardens of the town-home complex and she ducked her head to avoid the momentary brightness. Her downcast eyes were drawn to her hands, to the nails that were in desperate need of a manicure. The fashionable mid-town salon had probably figured out months ago that she wouldn't be keeping her regular appointment any longer.
She'd kept her nails maintained only out of responsibility anyway, hating the busy metallic clicking of the clippers and the rough filing and the smell of acrylic. But a principal performer for the Atlanta Dance Theater could hardly greet supporters with soil under her fingernails. Now the trace of dirt beneath her short nails was a welcome sight.
How quickly priorities could change. One moment she had been navigating the dark highway, the next she'd been blinded by the overhead lights of the operating room.
From where she sat, Jessica had a clear view of the security gate. It swung open to admit a fancy white sedan that pulled a little too quickly into the parking lot. That could mean only one thing. Valentine was late to meet a prospective buyer.
With the always immaculately dressed real estate agent close by, Jessica paused to consider her own attire. She surveyed the baggy sweat suit, stained with everything from mulch to mustard. She needed new clothes desperately, but refused to acknowledge the result of her sixty-pound weight gain in such a permanent manner.
From outside the gates, a sports car's too-loud engine growled. A shiny blue car glided to a stop beside the sidewalk and a hulk of a man rose from the car and stepped into the sunshine. Standing ramrod straight, he surveyed the community of private town houses. With an arm raised to shield his eyes against the glare, he appeared to salute.
Jessica scoffed at the memory it evoked. Her worthless father had teased her mother with a similar gesture on the rare occasions when he'd meandered through their lives.
She wagged her head to shake off the daydreaming, a thick ponytail swishing about the neck of her shirt, and swiped at her forehead with a dirty hand.
With an aluminum cane tucked beneath her arm, she returned to the task of fertilizing the prize-winning azaleas. She scooted backward across the grass to the next spot needing attention, eased over, careful to avoid the still-mending leg, and returned to work.
Drew Keegan had emerged from the shady interior of his perfectly restored '67 fastback into the afternoon sun. He stood, hand raised to block the glare, admiring the grounds of Sacred Arms. In many ways the property, located in the historic Grant Park district of Atlanta, still had the look of the 1920s Christian school it had once been.
"Very interesting." He spoke aloud to himself.
Making the scene even more interesting, the same white luxury car that had blown past him on the interstate was now pulled to the curb farther inside the gate.
The driver swiveled to the left, extending shapely legs. She offered an appealing view of tanned calves that led to a knee-length, pale pink linen skirt.
Just as he realized the long, low whistle came from his own lips, the matching pink jacket appeared and above it a charming face, sporting a devilish smile.
"Dahhhlin'! You must be Drew. How sweet of you to make a pass at a woman old enough to be your mama."
The woman was actually old enough to be his grandmama, but she'd probably never look it as long as there were good plastic surgeons in Georgia.
"Ms. Chandler?" Drew had a terrible suspicion that he was blushing, something he'd rarely done in his adult life. "Please accept my apology, ma'am. I don't know what possessed me to do such a thing."
"Oh, honey, you couldn't help yourself.
I've always had that effect on handsome young men."
Realizing she was quite serious, he accepted that he was excused for having no control over his own actions and reached to shake the brightly jeweled hand she offered.
"I appreciate you meeting me so late in the afternoon, Ms. Chandler."
"Please call me Valentine, and it's no problem at all. Besides, Sacred Arms is so beautiful this time of day, don't you agree?" She extended her right arm in a sweeping gesture, as if presenting the property for his approval.
The sun played off the colorful Tennessee fieldstone, producing every shade of brown, gold and orange. Fighting for attention were the beautifully restored stained-glass windows that had been painstakingly assembled three quarters of a century earlier. The colorful patterns glowed beneath the warm rays.
Drew let his gaze wander from the structure that had been the chapel and sweep the rest of the spacious compound. There were four primary buildings that had been converted into living space. The fifth, containing an extraordinary copper-domed rotunda, was what Valentine had described over the phone as the Commons.
"I know it's warm out here and you'd like to visit the models, but let's just take a minute to walk around back so you can see the gardens. A good friend of mine, a precious girl, really, grows the most amazing plants in this old red clay."
They approached a waist-high stone wall. Behind it, a bright bed of tall azaleas graciously set off the gray river rock. As they rounded the end of the wall, his eye caught some movement beneath the blossoms.
Expecting to see a house pet enjoying a roll in the grass, he was surprised to witness the grass-stained backside of a woman slowly emerge as she scooted precariously out of the bushes on her hands and one knee. Her left hand clutched a bag of fertilizer spikes. Her right hand reached for a cane.
"Jessica, dahhhlin', there you are. Come and meet the gentleman who's about to buy a home here."
Trained for years to embody grace, Jessica found herself in the most ungraceful position of her life. She stopped her backward crawl, face pointed toward the foliage, back end toward the unexpected visitors, and ground her teeth at the unwanted interruption. With her damaged knee, rising quickly to recover from the embarrassing introduction was simply not an option. She folded her good leg beneath her, dropped to her hip and turned to face them.
Smiling down at her from a towering height was one of the biggest men she'd ever seen. No doubt the guy was part of a major football team's defensive line. She didn't mean to give him the once-over, but from her position she couldn't help but take him in from the bottom up.
Expensive loafers peeked from beneath well-tailored khakis. His chest and shoulders were broad, arms well developed, neck thick and jaw very square. A silly Rhett Butler mustache twitched above a smiling mouth, while warm hazelnut eyes clashed with military-issue, close-cropped dark brown hair.
"Ms. Jessica Holliday, may I introduce Captain Andrew Keegan. He just moved here from Virginia and is hoping to make Sacred Arms his new home. Jessica, Drew was a Green Beret."
Oh, great, Rambo for a neighbor!
The judgment must have shown on her face. His smile disappeared, stealing with it the slight dimple in his left cheek. But the intense look in his eyes never changed. He glanced from her face down to the cane and back again.
"It's a pleasure to meet you." He leaned from the waist and offered her his hand.
She took it and they shook briefly. When she tried to release his strong grip, he held fast, an offer to support her weight if she wanted to stand. She considered staying where she was, but decided the disadvantage of her present position was worse than accepting help.
He maintained their grip as she reached for the cane. He squatted, taking a firm hold on her right elbow with his left hand. Fixing her eyes upon his, she nodded, a signal to stand. With him as the anchor she rose to her full height, taking care to lean on her right leg gently until the aluminum support was planted firmly at her side.
Drew took in every nuance of the effort, along with the rest of her, as well as he could without appearing to be completely without manners for the second time that hour.
She was much taller than he'd expected, with a full figure, although it was difficult to tell much about her shape under her rumpled, ill-fitting clothes. Beneath the smudges of red clay she had clear, fair skin. She was pink from the sun or the exertion or possibly embarrassment.
Her makeup-free eyes held a familiar glare. He couldn't quite make out what she was telling him with it. He knew only they were the most enchanting shade of emerald he'd ever seen. He was tempted to remove the sprig of hedge perched in the bangs that were many shades of blond.
She snatched her hand free.
Defiance. That was the look. He'd seen it so many times in the eyes of new recruits that he should have recognized it immediately.
"Jessica, honey, I believe these purple delphiniums are gonna be even more spectacular than last year. If that's possible," Valentine observed.
"I think you may be right. But it's probably because they've had so much more attention this season." As she spoke to Valentine, Drew noticed that Jessica rubbed her hand on a stained pant leg, cleaning off any traces of his touch.
"Are you the groundskeeper here?" he inquired.
"I suppose that's what I am now." She glanced at her dirty nails and back again.