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Rowena gritted her teeth and held her clipboard more tightly, as if attempting to get a literal and physical grip on her fast-disappearing patience. "And one final question
" she said.
"Final? Really? Thank heaven for small mercies," muttered the man who stood beside her.
Without so much as a glance in her direction, he reached into the inner jacket pocket of his perfectly tailored business suit and brought out a cell phone. Apparently empires might crumble if he didn't have it pressed to his ear within three seconds.
And apparently he'd already dismissed Rowena as the slightly prim, conservatively dressed, uninteresting academic type that she waswhich, actually, she was quite comfortable being most of the timeand didn't look at her for long enough to revise this impression. His steely gaze missed the region of her face by at least two yards.
She ignored his rudeness and persisted, "Do you like barbecues?"
"Do I like what?"
"Um, when you have friends over, there are salads and beer, you cook outside on a grill ? Bar-be-cues," she articulated clearly and helpfully, as if speaking to someone who'd begun learning English yesterday.
"I know what barbecues are, Dr. Madison." He favored her with a quarter-second gaze, at last. "Listen, I'm a very busy man"
"Yes, and you're exactly the kind of man I don't like," she cut in. The words spilled out before she'd consciously decided to speak them. Her tone sliced into the balmy Southern California air like an icicle splintering onto a concrete driveway. "I understand very well that you're busy. And seriously, radioactively important. And that I'm not. Please don't feel that you have toparade the fact, with your cell phone as a prop, in order to get it through to me. I'm not stupid, and I don't appreciate being treated that way."
Feeling the angry heat creep into her cheeks, she threw the clipboard onto an ancient wooden workbench that had been abandoned for no discernible reason on the adobe brick veranda. The clipboard's attached pages, covered in her neat blue handwriting, fluttered. Ben Radford dropped his cell phone into his trouser pocket in surprise at her frank speaking and took a shocked step back.
The mouse had roared. Who knew?
His reaction almost made Rowena laugh out loud. His well-shaped mouth had fallen open and then snapped shut again. He was wiping the back of his neck with his lean fingers as if he'd begun to itch or sweat. He was sinfully good-looking and dressed for unquestioning success, and there was something quite shocking about seeing him out of his depth, even for a few seconds.
Should she try harder to choke back her anger, she wondered, or make this potential client aware of exactly how she felt? Roar some more or creep back into her warm, familiar mouse hole?
She went with her gut.
"You've bought this historic, exceptional, wonderful place," she said. "Spent twenty million on it, I should think. You've asked me to consult with you on the restoration of its garden, and as you know, my rates are commensurate with my expertise. High, in other words."
Don't splutter, Row, she coached herself. Stick to the point. Believe in yourself. You're in the right.
"All I'm doing," she went on, "is attempting to gauge your priorities, your budget, your needs and your concerns. How important is historical accuracy? How do you plan to actually use the garden? What is your wish list of features? How much do you want to spend? Those are not trivial issues, and yet you have made it painfully apparent from the first minute of our meeting that I'm an irritant, and that you have more important things to do."
"May I remind you that you arranged my visit here today. If a fantastic opportunity such as the one presented by this property is no more than an afterthought to you, I do have to wonder why on earth you're proposing to employ me. Why not get on the phone, get a bulldozer in and order a bulk delivery of geraniums and precut turf instead!"
She snatched her clipboard up from the ancient bench. Actually, the bench was so ancient that it might be worth keeping as an antique. Not that she'd be a part of such decisions now, after such a frank expression of her attitude.
Was she sorry that she'd said so much?
She pondered the question as she snapped her way over the worn adobe in her neat, sensible shoes, her unbuttoned tailored jacket flapping open at the front like two gray bird's wings and the black fabric of her synthetic-blend trouser legs catching at her calves and generating megawatts of static cling, thanks to her haste.
There was no point in going back through the magnificently restored house. She could take the side exit from this overgrown mission-style courtyard and proceed directly to her car. She would invoice Ben Radford for her travel expenses today, regard their short-lived business relationship as over, and, just by the way, she would never wear these horrible, clingy trousers again.
No, she decided, she wasn't sorry that she'd spoken the way she had. She'd defended both her own professional worth and the worth of Mr. Radford's neglected and unloved piece of ground, and she was proud of having spoken her mind.
It was a huge personal milestone, and her whole body still tingled with the triumph of having reached it.
Two years earlier she would have burst into speechless tears, paralyzed by the very thought of a confrontation with a forbiddingly arrogant and successful man like this, no matter how much justice was on her side.
She would have rushed home to hide and not answered the phone for a week, in case it was Mr. Radford calling. She'd have relived the encounter over and over, exaggerating it in her memory until it froze her completely and stopped her from leaving the safety of her home.
This time she'd actually said what she really thought.
She felt a little dizzy, bubbling over with the need to share the victory and to celebrate it somehow. Putting the clingy trousers into a charity rag bin wouldn't be celebration enough. She decided to call Roxher identical twinwith a full report as soon as she could. Rox would probably send her champagne.
Losing the chance to work on such a fabulous garden restoration gave her some regrets, true, but it couldn't be helped. If Ben Radford was this difficult to deal with at their first consultation, he'd be a nightmare further down the track. She should consider this as a lucky escape.
"Wait a minute, Dr. Madison!" he said beside her, just as she was about to push on the rusty iron gate that led out of the courtyard.
She hadn't realized he'd followed her. He studied her in silence for a long moment, as if deciding how she should be handled. Bomb-disposal experts and pest exterminators probably studied suspiciously ticking packages and enormous wasp nests in the same way. "You're being too hasty," he said at last.
"I wasn't the one rushing us through the consultation."
"No, but you're the one bailing out now."
"With good reason. This project has to mean something to you, or there's no point in hiring me." Sheesh, she was going all out today! She'd had no idea it could feel so good. She lifted her chin and stared him down.
To be met with a silence that stretched and stretched.
"You got me at a bad moment," he said abruptly at last, his dark eyes half-hidden by lowered lids. "I'm sorry." He sounded seriously uncomfortable, and Rowena guessed that he hadn't felt the need to apologize for anything in a long time. She had the strong suspicion this was because he very rarely did anything wrong. "You're right, you are a professional. And this project is important to me."
"Okay, good," she murmured vaguely, not knowing how else to respond to such a surprising admission from such a man. Then some devilish part of her that she barely knew existed added, "I hope there's more."
"More to your excuse." She dared a smile. "How often might I expect these bad moments, if you contract me for the project?"
Since she was by now quite certain that he wouldn't, it didn't matter if she burned her boats. Meanwhile, the satisfying sense of having shattered her past limitations hadn't yet begun to fade. It was probably the closest she was ever going to get to jumping out of an airplane and going into free fall with a parachute on her back.
"I was on the phone with my ex-wife just before you arrived," Ben Radford said slowly, "and it was a miserable conversation, as usual. Is that good enough? Divorce is stressful." He said the D word as if he was never going to get used to the bad taste it left in his mouth. "But I shouldn't have taken it out on you. That was wrong of me."
His expression remained wooden, distant and severe, which somehow showed his unhappiness more clearly than a grimace of misery would have done.
He continued. "And you're quite right about any garden designer's need to know my priorities and tastes if this project is going to be done the way it should be. So can we start again?"
He gave a tight, suffering smile, and something kicked in Rowena's stomach. The man was tall, well built, dark-haired, good-looking, and she guessed he could have a great deal of personal charm if he ever chose to use it. Evidently, he wasn't quite ready to use it now.
Still, he had apologized at manful length, she had to concede. Then realized, good grief, that she was almost disappointed about the concessions he'd just made. What was happening to her? She would have very much liked a good excuse to do some more yelling. It felt so exhilarating.
Suppressing such an inappropriate emotion, she said a little awkwardly, "We don't need to start again. I've already taken pages of notes."
"That's not what I meant." He smiled again, dark eyes smoky, charm level rising, vulnerability totally gone, hair catching the morning sunlight for a moment as he lifted his head, and this time the kick in her stomach was stronger and held a warning.
Stay cool, Rowena
A familiar impulse to run and hide began to well up inside her, but she fought it down. She could handle this. Handle him. His charm, his eyes, his wealth, his unsettling moment of honesty about his divorce, the whole package.
And if she couldn't totally handle it, yet, then she had to practice and learn.
"Back to the barbecue question, then," she said lightly, smoothing down the lapels of her jacket. "Could I have an answer?"
He rested his hand on the rusted wrought iron of the gate and surveyed the courtyard. A frown tightened on his brow. He didn't look like an Englishman, with those dark eyes and the natural olive tint to his skin. He didn't even sound like one, some of the time. He'd been in Southern California for a while, and he had the American vowels to prove it. But Rowena knew that he had come from England, originally, because she'd looked him up on the Internet.
He'd come from a comfortable, classy background and had attended a very expensive school. He'd earned two degrees at Oxford University and married an American bride. He'd made his fortune in the field of biotechnology, sold his company a year ago and moved into new and more-varied business interests. He now owned an art gallery, a Hollywood casting agency and a restaurant, amongst other things.
The Internet hadn't told Rowena that he was in the middle of an obviously unpleasant divorce.
"I wish I could tell you," he murmured.
"You don't know whether you like barbecues?"
"I don't know whether my liking for the occasional barbecue means we should build a barbecue in this courtyard, if that's what you're trying to work out. Look at it!" He gestured at the wild, intimidating jungle in front of them, sounding daunted? Surely not. He didn't look like the kind of man who could be daunted by anything. "I'm fascinated by the idea of restoring the place, but can't begin to imagine how it will work."
"That's why you're considering the possibility of hiring me," she reminded him.
They both stood in silence, contemplating the sprawling space. It was bracketed at one end by the three sides of the old adobe ranch house, already well on its way to being a showpiece thanks to the injection of Ben Radford's money and effort.
He was still in the process of restoration, but the rooms that were already finished were spectacular without being overdone, and with a personal touch that had spoken to Rowena immediately as she'd passed through them. Clean lines, unexpected colors, well-chosen antiques, pockets of warmth and coziness that made you want to curl up in them with a good book.
The contrast between the yard and the house was almost shocking.
Barring one or two dusty pathways, the entire expanse well over an acrewas a towering tangle of cactus, some of it probably a hundred years old. Rowena had identified prickly pear, several species of agave, ocotillo, barrel cactus and half a dozen other species. The plants twisted together like some bizarre maze. Dead husks rattled on the ground, painful spines reached out to snag the unwary. There would be birds' nests in there, insects of all kinds and snakes
"You mentioned bulldozers a minute ago," Ben Radford said. His voice held a thoughtful note.
They were both standing quite still. San Diego, Oceanside and La Jolla were each less than an hour's drive away, along with the urban sprawl that marched farther in from the ocean year by year. Here, beyond the vineyards and nursery plantations closer to the coast, the old Spanish-land-grant ranch sat poised at the foot of the mountains, surrounded by air you could really breathe. The house seemed more a part of the earth than a human creation. There were cattle grazing in the distance and horses inhabiting the old stables, and it was very peaceful.
"I wasn't serious," Rowena said quickly.
"Why not?" He frowned at her. He wasn't the kind of man to accept setbacks or contradictory opinions.
"Because we don't know what's beneath all this," she explained, knowing she wouldn't have much opportunity to convince him. "It would be a crime to come in with heavy machinery. There could be a treasure trove destroyed in the process. Old household items that would belong in a museum, and heirloom plant strains that might be very hard to find now. Do you see these powdery silver-white patches on the prickly pear?"
"They look like damp erupting behind whitewash in a mildewed basement," he said.
"They do, but take a bit of it and crush it in your fingers." He reached out and did so, then looked up at her in astonishment at the brilliant crimson red that had stained his skin.
"That's amazing. What is it?"
"Cochineal. Those white patches are colonies of living creaturesa kind of scale insect. They store the red pigment in their bodies. Before the Spanish arrived in Mexico, the Mixtec Indians farmed these insects on the cactus and used them to make dye. There were periods when it was almost as precious as gold. It was used as a food coloring, too, for a long time, in jams, medicines, candy."
"I've heard of it."
"You've probably eaten it."
"This might sound strange," Rowena went on slowly, "but I have a feeling that the whole garden could provide the same experience as you've just had with the cochineal. Nothing to get excited about at first glance, but if you take a closer look, if you approach with delicacy, you discover its magic. I'd hate to bring in a bulldozer, Mr. Radford"
"Call me Ben," he ordered. "I won't need to tell you that again, I hope."
"Ben," she repeated, and that warning thunk hit her stomach again, more powerfully than ever. Why did she like the idea of calling him Ben? "Um, I hope you won't. And, uh, Rowena, for me. Or Rowie." Why had she added that? It was the nickname her sister called her by, and sometimes Mom and Dad. A client had no need to know it.
He was still looking at the crimson stain on his fingertips, and he had incredible handsstrong and lean and smooth. Sure hands, the way almost everything about him seemed sure.
Oh, except for that one very telling moment when he'd mentioned his divorce.
She could smell the aura of soap and coffee and clean male skin that hovered around him and it did something to her, quickened the blood in her veins and muddied her thoughts in a way that was unsettling butlike her outburst a few minutes agoexhilaratingly new.
"We could lose some really valuable things," she finished vaguely.