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NORA SIMMONS DROVE past the old Victorian that sat on the outskirts of Emmett's Mill as she went on her way to Sonora to meet with a prospective client, and what she saw made her stomp on the brakes and nearly eat her steering wheel.
A sleek, shiny black import convertible sports car sat in the driveway, completely out of place for the aging home with its chrome wheels and leather interior, parked as if it had a right to be there when it certainly did not.
Sonofabitch trespassers. She made a quick U-turn, kicking up dirt and gravel as her truck chewed up some of the shoulder and barreled toward the house. Whoever it was, they weren't local. Nora was willing to bet her eyeteeth on that score. No one in Emmett's Mill drove a BMW roadster, as far as she knewa car like that would stick out in the little community. Driving such a hot little number around town was likely to drop jaws and send a lot of die-hard American-manufacturer purists shaking their heads in disgust. For a town in California, Emmett's Mill had a peculiar attitude at times.
She hopped from her truck with her cell phone in case the sheriff was needed and prowled for the trespasser, caution at approaching a stranger barely registered. She was sick of tourists thinking that just because the town was small and quaint, the locals enjoyed having their privacy invaded. Well, B.J. and Corrinda might be dead, but Nora was not about to let a stranger wander all over their place.
She rounded the side of the expansive house and found an incredibly tall man with fashionably cut blue-black hair, with an air about him that reeked of money and privilege, examining what had at one time been Corrinda Hollister's prizedroses.
Nora often found herself looking up at the opposite sex, but the breadth of his frame complemented this man's height, creating a strong, powerful build that immediately made her feel distinctly feminine. She scowled and silenced the breathless prattle in her head as she stomped toward him, purpose blotting out anything other than her own ire at his trespassing on private property.
"Can I help you?"
He turned, surprised that he wasn't alone, and no doubt the frost in her voice and the annoyed arch of one brow said volumes, as if she were the one who didn't belong on the property. "Excuse me?" he said, giving her a hard look from eyes so green they almost looked fake.
The breath caught in her throat as she met his gaze. Swallowing against the very real sensation of déjà vu, she continued in a strident tone that betrayed little of what she felt inside. "I said, can I help you? In case you weren't aware, most people don't take kindly to strangers parking in their driveway and trespassing." His perturbed expression egged her on and she launched into him with fresh vengeance. "I happen to know the people who used to live here so don't try to say something like they were friends of yours or some other kind of bull puckey. I'll tell you what if you just get back in your fancy car and get off the property I won't call the sheriff. Fair enough?"
"Your Mayberry Neighborhood Watch routine is cute but not necessary. I own this house."
What nerve. "Nice try, but I happen to know different," she retorted, ignoring the faint glimmer of something at the back of her brain and continuing indignantly. "This house belonged to"
"B.J. and Corrinda Hollister, up until six months ago when they both died in an unfortunate car accident, leaving the house to their only grandson. Me."
The air left her lungs. Ben? She stared a little harder and although she didn't want to see it, that niggling glimmer crystallized in her memory and the image of a boy she'd kissed one summer changed into the strong facial planes of the man watching her sternly.
Oh shiza. "You're Ben Hollister?"
"It's the name on my birth certificate."
She took in the shoulders that filled his dark Henley and hinted at the solid swell of muscle hidden underneath, and the spit dried in her mouth. Where was the skinny twelve-year-old kid with braces and his hair falling over one eye? Who was this man?
He turned away, dismissing her again and all she could think to say was a lame "No, you're not."
He did an annoyed double take. "I am and this is becoming irritating. Who the hell are you?"
She was about to jog his memory, but somethingpride mainlymade her stop. She didn't consider herself a great beautynot that she didn't catch her fair share of men looking her waybut most people said her personality made her hard to forget.
She sent him a suspicious look, but his only response was an increasingly testy glare. Either he truly didn't recognize her or he was a fabulous actor. To be fair, she looked as different as he did when they were kids. Too bad Nora wasn't in a gracious mood.
"Well, are you going to tell me who you are or not? If not, you know your way out."
Temptation to spin on her heel and do exactly that had her toes twitching but she wanted to see his reaction when she revealed her identity. Surely, her nameif not her appearancewould strike a chord, and when that burst of recognition went off like a paparazzi camera flash, she'd unleash the windstorm he'd earned for neglecting his grandparents over the years. For God's sake, the man skipped out on their funeral and now he was here surveying the property as if it were a spoil of war? What an asshole.
"Nora Simmons," she cut in, waiting for that delicious reaction to cue her next comment, which after years of practice, had become rather scathing. But he offered very little for her to grab on to. The momentary glimmer in his eyes didn't blossom into full-blown acknowledgment as she'd hoped, but winked out in a blink and his next question was like a lawn mower over her ego.
"You're the landscape architect who did the gardens at Senator Wilkinson's lakeside estate? Near Bass Lake?" He accepted her slow nod with a smug grin that showcased each of his pearly-white, braces-free teeth, and she could only stare warily. He continued, completely missing her confusion. "How synchronistic. I was planning to call you later in the week. I never imagined you might come charging in like the Neighborhood Watch brigade, but it saves me the time of tracking you down."
Uh. What? "I " Twilight Zone episode? Punk'd? Something wasn't right. "Wait a minute. Are you saying you don't remember me?"
"Should I?" He gave her a blank expression that looked a little too earnest to be believable and her brain started to bubble.
What game was he playing? She eyed him guardedly, deciding to see where he was going with this. "Uh, never mind. Yes, I worked on Jerry's lake house. Fun project. So, you were saying?"
"Right. I would like to hire you to fix up this place."
It was the way he said this place that almost ruined her ability to keep her temper in check, but her curiosity was greater than her desire to pummel him into the ground for his insensitivity, so she made an effort to cast a quick look around the craggy ridge on which the house was perched.
She took in the tall grass, star thistle and twisted branches of manzanita of the surrounding scenery and asked, "What do you mean? What's wrong with it?"
"What's wrong with it?" he repeated incredulously. He pointed at the dead roses and the withered dry grass flanking the house that looked nothing like the beautiful oasis Corrinda had created despite the notoriously hard topsoil that, during the summer, turned to stone without constant tending. In this area of Emmett's Mill it took some skill to grow anything aside from poison oak and manzanita, but Corrinda had coaxed roses and daffodils from the difficult earth.
"Are you kidding me? It's a mess," he said. He turned a speculative eye toward her and she bristled. "Aren't you the best in the area?"
"Some seem to think so." She all but growled. Thank goodness the Hollisters never saw how their grandson had turned into such a haughty jerk. It would've broken their tender hearts. As it was, the fact that he never returned to Emmett's Mill after that one summer told Nora volumes. Her sister Natalie liked to drone on about not judging people too quickly, but frankly, in Nora's book, if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck it ain't a giraffe. And right about now, she was thinking Ben Hollister was a jerk. If he wanted to be obtuse, she could be obtuse, too. "What do you want me to fix?"
He gestured toward everything in the yard, from the grass to the bone-dry fountain that looked older than the house itself. "Everything on the outside. Now that I've seen it again, I'll bet the inside isn't much better, but I'll obviously have to hire someone else for that. It's no wonder it hasn't sold. In four months there hasn't been one call. I figured I better come and take a look myself and this is what I find. A broken-down old house with more weeds than dirt that screams 'fixer-upper.'" He turned away and muttered, "I'm going to kill my Realtor for not telling me what I was dealing with."
"You're selling the house?"
He glanced around the yard with a frown. "It seems the For Sale sign has disappeared. When I call to berate my Realtor about these other issues, I'll be sure to remind her to get another sign out here right away." He looked up to see her staring at him. "Something wrong, Ms. Simmons? You look a little pale."
"That's what I said. The sign must've disappeared after I had it listed. Some kid probably used it to play mailbox baseball." Nora's continued stare prompted him to ask with a short sigh, "Ms. Simmons are you hard of hearing? You've been echoing everything I say."
She jerked at his question and the implication that she might be hearing impaired. "No," she answered indignantly. "I'm just surprised, is all."
"Why is that?"
"Because it's your grandparents' house. I would've thought you might like to hang on to it," she said, taking great effort not to clench her teeth.
His black brows furrowed with irritation and her blood pressure peaked as he asked, "Why?"
Why indeed? She refrained from letting sarcasm drip from her voice. "Never mind. My mistake. You were saying? No, I take that back. Why wouldn't you want to keep this beautiful house?"
"Not that it's any of your business, Ms. Simmons, but I plan to use the proceeds from the sale to open my own law practice in the Bay Area. I have no need of a house in the country. I rarely vacation."
He turned away and Nora was struck by a fleeting moment of sadness for a man who never took the time to enjoy what life had to offer. A flash of the boy she'd known for one summer made her wonder where that natural curiosity had gone and whyuntil she realized she was sympathizing with the enemy and stiffened.
He turned to her, more annoyance on his face. "Are you always so full of questions for your potential clients? I can't say I agree it's a good business practice."
"I don't need business advice from you, thank you," she said, chafing openly at his criticism. "And no, I don't usually care."
Keen interest flared in his eyes but it was gone a heartbeat later. "Why do you care with me?"
"I don't," she answered, not quite convinced she hadn't seen what she'd seen. "I'm just trying to figure out why you'd want to sell the only possession your grandparents owned. Now I know." Subtlety was not her forte, but she was pleased to see her comment rubbed him the wrong way. "Most people I know tend to cherish gifts, especially one with such value."
He'd have to be an idiot not to catch the insult couched inside that seemingly benign statement, but he didn't take the bait as she'd hoped. Instead, he cast a long look around the property, saying, "Well, I can't say much for the Realtor I've listed the house with. I'd have thought as her client she would've told me what I was getting into."
"Who's your Realtor?" she asked for appearances' sake. There were two in Emmett's Mill and only one was female.
"Janelle" he paused, searching his memory for her name "Grafton, failed to tell me what a hard sell this was going to be. I figure by hiring you, a local landscape architect, I might create some goodwill and perhaps word of mouth will help move this giant money pit."
"Do you think just because I've grown up in this town once people hear I've done the work on the landscaping the house will sell faster than it would otherwise?"
His mouth twisted. "Of course I do. Two reasons. First, small towns are all about supporting the locals. Second, as I've said, I'm familiar with your work and I know it's good."
"And how is that?"
"How is what?"
"How do you know my work? You mentioned Jerry's lake house and that house is not on my Web site."
He offered a small smile. "I know the right people."
"Yeah? Me, too. I know the sheriff's home number by heart. How'd you know about that job?"
He raised his hands and his mouth tightened. "Calm down. The firm I work for travels in certain political circles. Jerry was bragging about the work you'd done and I was curious, so I started asking around. If it's any consolation, my snooping uncovered only favorable results. Like I said, you do good work. Don't get me wrong. I shopped around and checked other landscape architects, but I kept coming back to you. Your work speaks for itself."
Nora tried not to soften under his praise because, in all honesty, although the words were complimentary, she got the distinct impression they had been delivered with a hint of cynicism. She met his stare. "This isn't Stars Hollow or Pleasantville or any other fictitious town where everyone is nice and the neighbors bring apple pie when you move to town and the mayor owns a soda shop and holds town meetings in a community garage. You know, it really drives me crazy when people come to a rural area and assume just because we're not choking on smog or rushing to the nearest gourmet coffee shop for some overpriced whipped mocha soy latte with nonfat foam and an organic blueberry muffin, that we're stuck in a time warp. My working on the house won't make a bit of difference. For a lawyer, I gotta tell you, you're A game leaves much to be desired."
"Do you always insult potential clients?"