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"Anna Volente, keep your mind on your work."
How many times in the past had I heard those words from my dad or mom or one of my teachers? Even from Glenn, now that I thought about it, though I tried to think of him as little as possible. Of course I knew I should be concentrating on the project at hand, the hanging of the window treatment I held.
But how could I ignore the strange man skulking in the backyard of the unfinished house kitty-corner from the backyard of the completed model home I was working in?
He wasn't one of the construction workers. I was certain of that. They had all gone home a couple of hours ago, lunchboxes and thermoses in hand, leaving me alone to finish my work in the warm, sultry August evening. The prowling man wasn't dressed right for building anything either. He wore khakis and a red short-sleeved polo shirt hanging outside his slacks. I couldn't tell from this distance if the dark mark he had over his heart was an alligator or a pony or a spot of dried gravy from his dinner.
I studied him. His clothes might be ordinary, but there was something not quite right about him, though I couldn't decide what it was with the lowering sun shining so brightly in my eyes. I raised my hand to shield my eyes.
Was he just moving awkwardly, like someone who had a sprained ankle, or was he really skulking? Either way, as far as I knew, at this time of day no one should be anywhere near any of the houses in this very new, very upscale development. I excluded myself, of course.
From high on my ladder at the tall back window of the living room which ran the depth of the model house, I eyed the interloper. If I'd been hanging one ofthe front or side windows, I wouldn't have seen him. If I'd been standing on the floor, I wouldn't have seen him. The fence across the backyard and the plantings artistically fronting it, especially the weeping cherry, would have blocked him from view.
I frowned. Should I tell someone about him? Call someone?
Oh, Mr. or Ms. 911 Person, there's a man walking around in the backyard of one of the houses in Freedom's Chase.
And what is this man doing?
Walking around in the backyard of one of the houses in Freedom's Chase.
That's it? Call me back when he does something illegal, okay?
But isn't trespassing illegal?
Then again, what if he was just looking around with the idea of buying a house here?
"How much longer will you be?"
The question, asked from behind me in a very male, rather abrupt voice, startled me, and I almost lost my precarious footing. I put a hand out and caught the upper sash to steady myself. With my sudden movement and less firm grip on the material, the heavy window treatment I held began to slip from my grasp. The slick silk flowed south with determination, a fabric Mississippi heading for the wooden Gulf of Mexico.
See No Evil
"No!" I couldn't let that wonderful fabric get all wrinkled, maybe even damaged, not after all the hours I'd put in working on it. I lunged for it, the man outside forgotten, the man inside ignored.
Then the curtain was forgotten too as I belatedly realized that you can't lunge when high on a stepladder. Maybe, I thought desperately as I flailed my arms, I could sort of step backwards and find the floor without falling flat on my back or stepping on the precious material. Of course that would be quite a step; the floor was several feet down.
"Watch it! You're going to fall!" the man behind me yelled helpfully.
Tell me something I don't know!
I scrunched my eyes shut as I felt myself plummet in a graceful sort of slow motion, at least until gravity got hold of me. Then it became full speed ahead.
Lord, don't let it hurt too much!
How would I ever finish my decorating job if I broke my leg"or broke anything, for that matter? And then there was school, which started Monday. How could an art teacher ever manage one hundred and fifty-plus intermediate school kids and all the supplies for their various projects while on crutches? I could barely hold my own on two feet.
Suddenly strong hands grabbed me none too gently about the middle. The man they belonged to staggered under my weight, not the most complimentary thing that ever happened to me, but he didn't go down. Thanks to him, neither did I. No broken legs after all. Just wounded vanity.
He set me unceremoniously on my feet. Yards of glorious Scalamandré fabric billowed about us. I watched as it settled on the floor, burying my sneakers and his dirty workboots.
"Be careful," I cried. "Don't move. Don't get that fabric dirty! It costs a fortune."
He snorted. "Tell me about it. I got the bill yesterday."
I carefully lifted the drapery off his boots, laying it over one of the plaid slipper chairs. I examined it minutely and couldn't see any dirt on the pale-cream background. Relief washed over me.
I turned to my rescuer. Now that I could spare him a glance, I saw he was what Dad always called a man's man: big, physically fit, ruggedly handsome with dark eyes and wavy dark hair that needed a haircut. He wore jeans and a white T-shirt, and he had a phone clipped to his belt and a pair of sunglasses hanging from the neck of his T-shirt.
All in all, very impressive, but I'd given impressive men a wide berth since Glenn. Once burned was more than enough.
A pad of lined paper filled with notations and a black leather carrying case holding what I assumed was a laptop lay on the floor where he'd dropped them when he grabbed me.
"That would have been a nasty fall," he said, picking up his tablet and case.
I nodded. Of course I wouldn't have fallen at all if he hadn't scared me to death, but I decided not to mention that little fact. "Thanks for the rescue."
He grunted, frowning at me. "What are you doing standing on something as unstable as that ladder? It looks like it's going to collapse under you at any moment."
"What's the matter with my ladder?" I looked at the paintsplattered contraption. It was my father's. He'd used it for all his home projects for years, as had Granddad before him. It bordered on family heirloom.
Dad had loaned it to me almost ten years ago when, to help pay college expenses, I began sewing curtains, slipcovers, pillows and anything else a customer wanted for her home.
I was now long out of college, but the ladder was still with me, as was my part-time business, Anna's Windows Plus. When I'd picked that name years ago, I'd never given Bill Gates and his Windows program a thought. I didn't get too many calls about malfunctioning computer programs.
"What's the matter with your ladder?" He looked amazed I would ask. "You're kidding, right? The brace on one side is broken. It has more potential splinters on it than a porcupine has quills."
Yowzah! The guy spoke in poetic images. "In short, it's an accident waiting to happen, and when you break your neck, I'll get the blame."
I blinked. "Why would you get the blame?" But I was pretty sure I knew since I'd just figured out why he looked so familiar.
"Because I'm the contractor, and Freedom's Chase is my project."
"You're Edward Grayson." Just as I'd thought. I'd seen his picture in the News often enough. I'd guess everybody in the Amhearst area knew his name, probably everybody in Chester County, if not Philadelphia and the whole Delaware Valley. He built wonderful homes like the one we were standing in and sold them at outrageous prices, though rumor had it he didn't need the money. His family was supposedly drowning in Texas oil or something.
Maybe that's where he got the financial backing for the massive renovation of downtown Amhearst he had planned and which City Council had just approved after much dispute. All the deteriorating buildings in the four-block area that had once been a thriving shopping and business district were to be torn down, and condominiums and apartments built, with all the facilities such a community would need.
I had followed the newspaper reports about the huge project every step of the way. I loved Amhearst, and anything that would make it a more healthy community had my support.
"You're younger than I thought, Mr. Grayson." Not too much older than I was. Mid-thirties to my late twenties, I thought. Young for such responsibility.
"That's Mr. Edwards, not Mr. Grayson," my rescuer said.
"My name's Grayson Edwards. Gray Edwards."
"You're named after a color." As an artist I liked that idea, though gray wasn't the color I would have chosen for him. Nothing so soft, so muted. Black maybe. Strong and powerful. Or Green, a deep, forest shade. Too bad I'd never been asked my opinion. I looked at Gray Edwards. Like he'd ever want my opinion.
What if I were named after a color? I could be Rose Volente or Violet Volente. The thought made me grin.
"I am not named after a color." There was enough pique in his voice to indicate he'd dealt with this comment before.
"Grayson is my mother's maiden name."
Mom's maiden name was Rasmussen. Thank goodness she had realized there wasn't any possibility of a first name for her only daughter to be found there. Suddenly Anna looked very good indeed.
"As I was saying before you interrupted." he said.
I frowned at him. I'd hardly classify my comment about his name as an interruption. He frowned back.
"this is my project." He waved his hand, tablet and all. I understood he meant not the living room in which we were standing but Freedom's Chase with its mini-mansions under construction, each house all but overflowing its mere quarteracre lot. There'd never be much call for a lawn service around here. There weren't any lawns.
"If you fall and kill yourself," he said, "your survivors will doubtless sue me for all I'm worth." He looked as put upon as if the suit were already in progress.
Thinking he needed to lighten up a bit, I asked oh-sosweetly, "And you're worth how much, Edward? Just so I can tell the family an amount to ask for if the unthinkable comes to pass."
He stared at me, dark eyes narrowed. "Cute."
I grinned. "Thank you."
He shook his head and reluctantly grinned back. My heart went pitter-pat as if I were sixteen, and the star quarterback had deigned to smile at me.
"Will you be much longer?" He glanced at his watch. "It's eight o'clock. Past time to go home." He practically vibrated with impatience.
I turned to the fabric, carefully lifting the beautiful, pricey Tuscan Vine. The large clusters of aubergine grapes, the green leaves and the brown vines were embroidered on cream silk. I loved the pattern. I glanced at him over my shoulder. "I'm not sure how long I'll be. It depends on whether I have the peace and quiet I need to do my job."
"Ha-ha," he said.
I searched for and found the top edge of the drapery. "You don't have to wait for me, you know." I pointed to the other long windows. "I managed to hang those all by myself. I'm sure I can manage this one, too."
He flicked a glance at the windows I indicated. As he did, the sofa caught his eye. "The couch is purple!" He sounded offended.
"Aubergine," I corrected, glad I wasn't the one who had picked the color. The interior designer who had subbed out the windows to me had made that selection. I decided not to mention that I thought it went well with the grapes in Tuscan Vine and the purple in the Sinclair plaid on the slipper chairs.
"It's purple. Bright purple."
"It's not bright purple," I said patiently. "It's aubergine." He sniffed, walked to it, and ran his hand over the seat.
"Taffeta? Taffeta is for dresses, not sofas." He suddenly looked uncertain. "Like evening gowns, right?" At my surprised expression, he said, "I have four sisters."
"Huh," I said eloquently. "I have four brothers. I'm youngest."
"Oldest. And you can call purple aubergine until you're blue in the face, but it's still purple."
"Deep purple. Eggplant. In fact aubergine is the French word for eggplant."
"Semantics. And you need to pack up. I'm not leaving until everything is locked up tight. We've had some nighttime thieves recently, and I'm not taking a chance with this model home."
I stopped fussing with Tuscan Vine and its clusters of grapes. "You've had thieves?"
"Storage shed broken into, tools taken, nails, lumber. Nothing has been vandalized, nor has anything of great value or quantity been taken. Still, I've hired a night guard to patrol the development."
I frowned. "I saw a man walking around one of the houses on the next street." If he was the thief, that would explain his skulking air, and if he was the guard, I guess he was sneaking around trying to catch people.
Gray stiffened. "The guard doesn't come on until midnight. When did you see this man and at what house?"
"I was watching him when you startled me. And that house." I pointed out the back window.
He walked over and looked. He immediately relaxed. "It's all right. The Ryders bought that house, and Dorothy Ryder comes out practically every day to see how the work is progressing. Drives my men crazy. Ken must have decided to come with her today, so they came later, after work and dinner."
Relieved, I nodded. Thank goodness I hadn't called anyone.
Gray turned from the window and sat in one of the plump armchairs covered in Scalamandré's plum Bali pattern, and began ticking mysterious things off the lists on his tablet. His cell rang, and he silenced it, checking the readout. He made another note on his pad.
He looked good in the chair.
Of course, that was solely because the chair looked good. The whole house was being done in fabulous fabrics from Scalamandré, the high-end company that did one-of-a-kind orders for clients like the White House and limited quantities of hand-loomed fabrics for the wealthy. I'd never cut and sewn such expensive material in my life and probably never would again. I calculated over and over to be certain of my measurements, and every time I cut, I hyperventilated. The thought of ruining material worth three to four hundred dollars a yard tended to do that to a person.
While Gray checked things off on his list, I repositioned my ladder.
He looked up suddenly. "Our first official Open House is Saturday." He nodded toward the partially draped window. "You will be finished by Saturday?"
"I will be finished by Saturday," I agreed. "Absolutely."
"Today's Tuesday. You only have three working days left."