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â€WHAT HAS SHE DONE TO MY YARD?â€
Mitch Wymore stared out his kitchen window and
shook his head. Rubbing a weary hand against his
unshaved jaw, he closed his eyes briefly. Heâ€™d just returned
from a six-month research stint in Chinaâ€”his luggage still
lay heaped on the floor in the foyer. Heâ€™d looked forward
to returning to his brownstone, to his own huge bed, some
real American junk food, and familiar surroundings. But
this place didnâ€™t look familiar! From the moment the taxi
dropped him off in his driveway and he saw the little red
sports car parked in his spot, heâ€™d wondered if he was at
the wrong house.
It wasnâ€™t just the yard. The kitchen was changed. There
were frilly yellow curtains at the window, and copper pots
hung over the cooking island. The last time heâ€™d seen them
theyâ€™d been gathering dust in a box in the basement. A
delicate-looking tea set perched on the sideboard. Pot
holders and matching towels hung from a new towel rack.
Fresh flowers burst out of a cut-crystal vase on the butcher-
â€œSomeoneâ€™s also been messing with my kitchen.â€
Mitch didnâ€™t really expect Fred to respond. Heâ€™d been
speaking more to himself than to his tenant.
â€œYeah, looks nice,doesnâ€™t it?â€
Mitch slowly turned on his heel and stared at him. He
didnâ€™t know Fred that well, despite the fact that the man
had been renting the top-floor apartment in his home for
the past year. Fred was a young grad studentâ€”serious,
studious and quietâ€”the perfect tenant, and, frankly, that
was just how Mitch liked it. Theyâ€™d never socialized, and
in the few encounters heâ€™d had with Fred, heâ€™d never seen
him crack a real smile. Now a huge grin creased his face.
â€œIs there anything else I should know about?â€
Fredâ€™s grin widened, and Mitch nearly groaned.
â€œWell, she painted the dining room, fixed the cracked
chair rail in the living room, and repapered the foyer.â€
Mitch didnâ€™t have to ask who â€œsheâ€ was. Of course, it
He glanced back out the window and rolled his eyes.
The quiet little courtyard heâ€™d left six months ago had been
a nice blend of stone patio, a few rosebushes and a little
grass. Two stately old maples provided shade in the back
corner. Nice and easy. Low maintenance.
Now it looked like the pictures of those English gardens,
a mass of trees, shrubs and flowers. A stone path mean-
dered around clumps of evergreens and mums. Some
green, palmy thing hung right over the gate and he
dreaded having to circumnavigate it when taking out the
trash. A huge mound of wildflowers surrounded most of
the back patio. There was even a fountain splashing
merrily near the fence.
He hated it.
â€œIâ€™m gonna strangle that kid.â€
Tossing his keys onto the kitchen table, Mitch shrugged
off his jacket and loosened his tie. All he wanted to do was
strip away his stale clothes and take a forty-five-minute
shower. Instead, he was going to leap into a confrontation
with Kelsey Logan, the bane of his childhood!
â€œKid?â€ Fred asked.
Mitch didnâ€™t pay him any attention. â€œI canâ€™t believe I
was stupid enough to let her move in here. Sheâ€™s a menace,
always has been, always will be. And she has liked nothing
better than to irritate me since the day we met.â€
Fred seemed surprised. â€œI donâ€™t see her that way.â€
â€œBelieve me, you donâ€™t know her.â€
Mitch wished heâ€™d told her mother no when sheâ€™d
called last spring to ask if Kelsey could rent one of the
apartments in the Baltimore brownstone heâ€™d just reno-
vated. But of all the people in the world, Marge Logan
was one he couldnâ€™t say no to. Sheâ€™d done too much for
him. He shuddered to think where he might be now if it
hadnâ€™t been for Marge and her husband Ralphâ€”in jail,
deadâ€¦no telling. So heâ€™d said yes, hoping the move would
be temporary and Kelsey would be long gone by the time
he got back from his trip.
â€œHow long has it been since youâ€™ve seen Kelsey?â€
â€œNot long enough,â€ he muttered. â€œWhere is she?â€
Fred pointed out the window toward the backyard.
Mitch wasnâ€™t surprised.
â€œIâ€™d better be on my guard. That monster dumped a
bucket of fertilizerâ€”fresh fertilizerâ€”on my head once, just
because her brother and I made the mistake of walking
through her vegetable garden.â€
Fred laughed out loud until Mitch glared at him.
â€œI canâ€™t begin to tell you the number of acts of terror
sheâ€™s inflicted.â€ Mitch mentally ticked off memories in his
head of the times sheâ€™d run his underwear up a flagpole,
hidden dirty diapers beneath his bedâ€”and then there was
the time sheâ€™d told half the neighborhood that Mitch slept
with a stuffed bear and liked to dress her Barbie dolls up
as Southern belles. Oh, the list went on and on. And those
were only the harmless pranks. Sheâ€™d gotten him into real
trouble a couple of times.
Mitch had, of course, retaliated. Heâ€™d considered
pounding her into the ground, and if sheâ€™d been a boy, and
five years older, thatâ€™s exactly what he would have done.
Instead, heâ€™d reacted by treating her exactly in the way he
knew sheâ€™d hate most: he ignored her. It drove her nuts.
He smiled at the memory.
â€œThat was a long time ago, though,â€ Fred said.
â€œOf course, fifteen years ago,â€ Mitch conceded. â€œAnd
Iâ€™m certainly not the type to hold a grudge. But Iâ€™m still
going to strangle her.â€
Mitch burst through the French doors onto the back
patio, wondering why heâ€™d been surprised at what sheâ€™d
done. He should have expected it. After all, her mother
owned a plant nursery in western Virginia, and Kelsey
had always spent more time digging in the dirt than
playing with dolls.
Mitch stopped staring at the changes in his yard and
took a brief moment to enjoy the slight breeze. It was an
utterly gorgeous afternoon. Indian summer had stretched
into the last week of September and everything was golden
and glowing. The aroma of honeysuckle and apples floated
on the wind. For a moment Mitch let go of his anger to
enjoy breathing clean air.
The months heâ€™d spent in China doing research for his
newest book project had been difficult. Much tougher than
heâ€™d expected. The initial thrill he always felt when im-
mersing himself in a culture he planned to study had faded
quickly amid the crowds, congestion and rigid political
policies of the country. In retrospect, the months spent re-
searching his first book, a text on the ancient Mayan civiliza-
tion, now seemed like a cakewalk, though heâ€™d been living
in a small jungle village that didnâ€™t even have a telephone.
Now that he was home, all Mitch wanted was quiet,
solitude and privacy. He was ready to think, ready to absorb
what heâ€™d learned, and begin putting his thoughts on paper
for the college textbook he was under contract to produce.
Fat chance, he thought. Solitude and quiet were two
words he had never yet been able to associate with Kelsey
Logan, the demon-child. He wondered how Baltimore had
survived her presence.
Feeling a splash of water on his cheek, Mitch noticed he
was standing directly in the path of a sprinkler. He
grimaced, squared his shoulders and went to find Kelsey.
Mitch tiptoed along the stone walk and rounded a
newly planted evergreen. Smothering a curse when he
saw a little ceramic chipmunk, he restrained an impulse to
kick it over the fence. Then he looked to the far corner of
the yard and found her.
She obviously had been working. The pruning shears
lay near some bushes, and a rake lay sprawled, spines up,
across the lawn, just waiting for a Three Stooges-like
accident to occur. Kelsey lay in a lounge chair with her
back to him and he walked softly, being extremely careful
to avoid potential mishaps with gardening tools. His shoes
sank into the soft soil next to a leaking watering can.
Glancing ruefully at the dirty Italian leather, he figured that
was just one more thing to thank Kelsey for.
She didnâ€™t notice him. He was a step or two behind her,
far enough that he cast no shadow over her face to warn
her of his presence.
Then he stopped dead in his tracks. This curvaceous, vo-
luptuous even, woman in the lounge chair could not be
Kelsey! Heâ€™d made a mistake. Kelsey was the skinny, ob-
noxious, freckle-faced younger sister of his best friend. So
he hadnâ€™t seen her in several years. She couldnâ€™t have
changed this much, could she?
She wore a devil-red bikini, which was damp with the
sweat of her exertions and clung to her skin. Her legs were
slightly bent and raised, a golden honey color, slender and
about a mile long. His gaze slid up, taking in the gently
flared hips and small waist, then on to the trim midriff and
the deep vee of cleavage revealed by the low-cut bathing
suit, and up to the top of her sun-streaked hair.
He stared as she reached a slim arm over the side of the
chair and felt around until her hand brushed against her
cool water glass. She caressed the side of it, her fingers
becoming damp and slick with the condensation, and she
smoothed a little of the water over her fingertips. Then she
reached into the glass to fish out a piece of ice, shook it
gently and brought it toward her chest.
He swallowed hard. The womanâ€”Kelsey?â€”moved the
ice just above her flesh, and Mitch watched each drop of
water as it fell in a trail along her collarbone. When she
finally lowered the ice to the hollow of her throat, he
released the breath heâ€™d been holding. Then he slowly
drew in another as she moved the cube down her skin,
allowing it to melt on her chest. He heard her small moan
of contentment at the cool relief and very nearly echoed it.
The ice disappeared quickly until her fingers were moving
over her neck and shoulders with nothing but the tiniest
sliver, and then just a few drops of water. Her hand
remained motionless for a few moments, lightly resting on
her throat, and he thought sheâ€™d perhaps fallen asleep. He
considered backing up and retreating into the house, but
she shifted slightly, and he remained still.
No. No, this couldnâ€™t be Kelsey.
The last time heâ€™d seen her had been at her high school
graduation, seven years ago, back home in Virginia. Sheâ€™d
looked skinny and gawky and uncomfortable in the
flowery dress her mother had made her wear under her
graduation gown. They hadnâ€™t exchanged more than a
dozen words that day, as Mitch had spent most of the time
catching up with his buddy Nathan. Sheâ€™d just beenâ€¦
thereâ€¦little Kelsey the pest. When had she become little
Kelsey the temptress? And where the hell had he been
during her amazing transformation?
When she reached toward the glass, ostensibly for
another piece, Mitch cleared his throat. He was not about
to watch a repeat performance of what had undoubtedly
been the most unconsciously seductive moment heâ€™d ever
â€œITâ€™S ABOUT TIME YOU SHOWED UP, Fred,â€ Kelsey said, not
turning around to greet her upstairs neighbor. She felt too
warm and lethargic to even open her eyes. Sheâ€™d been
working all morning, wanting everything perfect before
Mitch returned home the next day. She suspected he
wouldnâ€™t be too happy about the work sheâ€™d done, but it
was too late to worry about it now.
The warmth of the sun felt relaxing, not vicious as it
could be in mid-July, but hazy and soothing, the way only
an Indian summer sun in the mid-Atlantic states can feel.
A light breeze blew across her body, and where the ice had
touched her skin, it brought delicious coolness. She could
lounge like this all day. But it appeared Fred had finally
come to help out.
â€œIâ€™d just about finished without youâ€”you said youâ€™d be
down by ten. Are you still going to help me get this place
Kelsey sat up and stretched a little. Arching her back,
she moved her head from side to side to work the kinks
out of her neck. If she didnâ€™t get back to work now she
might never be able to. Her shoulders already felt achy.
â€œIâ€™m going to pay for this tonight,â€ she said, not even
turning to face him. â€œMy arms are killing me from lugging
the wheelbarrow around.â€
Fred didnâ€™t say anything, which wasnâ€™t surprising. The
man was incredibly shy. Until his girlfriend, Celia, had
become friendly with Kelsey, he hadnâ€™t spoken much more
than a half-dozen words to her. After that, heâ€™d come out of
his shell and the three of them had become the best of friends.
â€œLet me,â€ he murmured very quietly. She didnâ€™t know
what he meant until he moved behind her chair and put
his hands on her shoulders. Kelsey scooted forward on the
lounge chair, dropping her chin to her chest so he could rub
the back of her neck. He worked expertly on her tight
muscles, and she instantly felt better. Kelsey was a little
surprised. His hands felt rougher and stronger than sheâ€™d
expect from someone who spent ten hours a day in a lab.
He also pressed and stroked with complete confidence, not
typical for a guy who seemed so shy around women.
â€œWow,â€ she said with a lazy drawl, â€œI think you have a
future as a masseur.â€
He still didnâ€™t say anything. She didnâ€™t mind. Fred was
sturdy and dependable, a little too serious, but a great
neighbor. He minded his own business and yet always let
her know she could call on him if needed. She hoped
Mitchâ€™s return tomorrow wouldnâ€™t upset the peaceful
balance theyâ€™d created in the brownstone.