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Wingate Manor had never looked so pathetic.
Well, not the actual house. The stone structure built by some wealthy industrialist as a lavish vacation villa in the 1920s stood enduringly solid and sturdy. But the grounds were a disaster.
Connor Wingate stepped out of his BMW, closed the door and winced as his Italian loafers sunk deep into the mud.
"Why did I agree to this?, he asked himself out loud. Because the uncles took care of you when you needed it and it's time to reciprocate.
Connor shut down the voice of his conscience, glanced sideways at the yapping dog with his face pressed against the passenger's window and shook his head. No way was he letting Tobias run free in this muck. he'd be filthy in two seconds flat. Ignoring the animal, he turned his attention back to his surroundings.
Winter had caused much of the damage. The ice storm Uncle Hank had mentioned was probably responsible for felling those big oaks behind the house. He saw evidence that lightning had sheared off a massive pine he'd once climbed.
There were also signs that something combined with gravity had helped sag the flower beds.
But the marks on the spruce trunks in front of him were not caused by weather. Those trunks had been chipped at by an ax.
"A very dull ax," he muttered grimly, aghast at the damage. A small shed stood to one side of the house. The place where his uncles kept a stock of firewood to supply Wingate's charming but voracious fireplaces lay completely barren when it was usually bursting with logs ready to burn.
"It's a mess, isn't it?"
He wheeled around and found himself staring into a pair of almond-shaped hazel eyes fringed by the longest lashes he'd ever seen. He was quite sure they weren't artificial, given that the woman's only makeup was a streak of mud decorating one cheek and a sprig of pine needles perched atop her flattened auburn hair.
"Somebody's been helping themselves to wood while the brothers have been away," she said, lifting a chip from the soaking ground and rubbing it between her fingertips as if she could tell from that who the culprit might be.
Connor took one look at her Goodwill coat and the ancient rubber boots that swallowed her legs to her knees and narrowed his gaze.
"You don't happen to know who would have done such a thing?"
"No idea." She shook her head, glanced right, then left, as if she were assessing the damage. "It looks really bad but it's reparable. If this moisture would ever stop, that is."
The rain droplets became sleet. Connor winced at the sting against his cheek. he'd be in Australia right now if Cecile hadn't
"Does that dog want out?, his visitor asked, head tilted to one side as she studied the drooling beast. "No."
"Oh." She blinked the spiky bangs out of her eyes.
"What's his name?"
"Tobias." He did not want to talk about the dog.
"The Lord is good."
"Tobias. It means the Lord is good." Her eyes twinkled when she grinned. "Names and their meanings are a fascination with me. What's yours?"
"Connor." It slipped out without thinking.
"Hmm. Gaelic. It means high longing, I think."
High longing. Well, that about covered his recent past. Conner huffed out an indignant snort to cover his frustration.
"you're the brothers" nephew."
Clearly the meaning of names wasn't her only gift.
"Great-nephew. Look, Miss, er, Ms.what is your name?"
"I should have introduced myself." She wrinkled her nose and chuckled. "Sorry. Rowena Davis."
This was the landscape designer? Connor choked on his disbelief. She was all of what? Nineteen? Twenty? Maybe a hundred pounds if she stayed out in the rain all night?
This elf was going to cut down trees and carry them away?"
"Don't worry, Mr. Wingate," she said after studying his face for several moments. "I can do the job. That's why Hank and Henry hired me. They know my work."
"I see." The dog had started up a mournful howl that made conversation difficult. On second thought, maybe he should let Tobias out before he wrecked his brand-new car.
Connor turned and opened the door, but before he could step out of the way, Tobias, in his usual blustering way, jumped against him, knocking him to the ground. Mud oozed through Connor's fingers, splatted his coat and began to seep through the seat of his trousers.
The dog licked his face in apology. "Perfect." He shoved the chocolate lab's muddy paws aside and rose, disgusted with everything to do with his life.
The landscaper, on the other hand, seemed to welcome the dog's affection. She knelt, let him swipe his pink tongue across her face as she ruffled his fur and smoothed his ears.
"Oh, you're a beauty. Thank you for the welcome. Do you know how to fetch?, She picked up a stick and tossed it. The dog raced after it, grabbed it in his jaws, but after one last look at his new friend, took off into the bush.
"He doesn't know how to do much except eat and sleep. And run away." Connor stopped, reading her expression. Dog hater. He wasn't, but she couldn't know Cecile had died because of Tobias.
"Does he belong to your children?, she asked sympathetically.
"I'm not married." Struggling for composure, Connor cleared his throat. "Look, Miss Davis."
"Miss Davis," he repeated, wishing he'd waited another day. Or week. Till the rain had stopped. Or until the trees were cleaned up. Until he'd figured out his future and life made sense.
"I realize my uncles made an agreement with you to do the work around Wingate Manor and restore it to its former glory."
She smiled at that, her lips spread wide across her face in a grin that lit chips of gold in the green of her hazel eyes.
"Maybe not glory," she agreed. "But at least I can make it look a whole lot better than it does now. In return for the nursery," she added, her smile disappearing like the sun behind a cloud.
"Nursery?, Connor struggled with that for a few moments. "Oh, you mean that land they bought years ago. Yes, I believe it did used to be a nursery. Don't worry. They told me about your, er, understanding."
Why did she want that hunk of overgrown bush?"
"The thing is, Connor, your uncles and I made that agreement last summer. Before I'd seen all this damage." She glanced around, frowned. "I should warn you that the job may cost more than I'd originally estimated. The ice storm was bad enough, but all this hacking"
"How much more?, he asked. Suspicion feathered its way across his nerves in a warning he'd made a fortune listening to. If she thought she was going to soak two old men who were recovering from an accident she was in for a second thought.
"I don't know yet. I've poked around a bit. Those terraces don't look stable. The bottom layers of bricks are crumbling. They've been repaired piecemeal, shored up for a lot of years but"
"Look," he interrupted as the wind whipped through his wet pants. "We're both going to catch cold if we stand in this sleet, chattering. Maybe you could conduct your assessment and give me the overrun figures. Then I'll decide whether or not we'll go ahead."
She stared at him for several moments while her eyes brewed a storm, turned to green daggers. When she spoke frost edged her words. Her voice was low, determined and showed not the slightest hint of apology.
"Make no mistake, Mr. Wingate. This project is going ahead. I turned down a year's worth of designing to come here. Your uncles and I signed a contract. It's too late for you to back out now."
They'd signed something? Even after he'd warned them to let him handle things? Connor shoved his hands into his pockets but refused to show his frustration in any other way. He was here now. he'd protect their interests.
"I've already begun pruning," she told him. "If the weather clears up I'll be back on-site tomorrow morning with a helper to continue. But the grounds are too wet to work. I'll have to hold off on the flower beds until they dry out."
"Fine." He turned to leave.
The dog came racing up, flopping down at her feet. She glanced down.
"I'm going to have some heavy equipment in here. The dog can't be loose for that. If you could construct a pen or keep him inside, he'd be a lot safer."
"Fine. Anything else?, He lifted one eyebrow as a wet drop slid down his neck.
Connor waited, shifted. When she didn't speak he fixed her with a glare. "Well?"
"Could you lose the attitude?, she asked quietly. "I'm not here to harm you or ruin Wingate Manor. I'm here to make it look fantastic. It's going to take some time and a whole lot of work but you can rest assured that I will get the job done to your satisfaction."
"Before June 1?, he demanded. "There's a large wedding reception scheduled here that night. My uncles want the place to be in shape by then."
"It will be."
Connor had his doubts about that, but now was neither the time nor the place to second-guess the old boys'decisions. he'd let her go at it for a couple of days, wait for her to admit it was too big a job and then he'd find someone else. Someone who looked able to lift a fallen tree, not dance across the trunk. "Fine." He turned away, put one foot toward the house.
"Just one more thing."
Ensuring his sigh was loud enough for her to hear, he turned back. One look at her expressive face and he wished he hadn't. His bad attitude wasn't her fault. He struggled to change his tone. "What is it?"
"I've also begun work at the nursery. If you see lights up there, it's me. The power's on and I've moved into the house." Her lips lifted but nobody would have called it a smile. "Don't worry, Mr. Wingate, the electric bill's in my name."
She bent, patted the dog's head, then walked away, her boots slogging through the mud with an ease he envied.
"I wasn't going to"
She gave no sign that she'd heard a thing. Connor gave up, closed his eyes and exhaled.When he opened them she was gone and only Tobias stood looking at him as if he'd lost his senses.
"I probably have," he admitted as he headed for the house. As expected, Tobias was filthy.And not averse to sharing the mud. Connor was halfway up the steps when he noticed just how much of it the animal was plastering over his uncles' pristine white stairs. Tobias couldn't possibly be allowed inside.
Connor grumbled, turned and squished his way back to the car for the leash. Of course Tobias took forever to heel. Only when Connor was soaked and dirtier than he'd been before, if that was even possible, did the dog finally stand to attention so the leash could be snapped onto his collar.
"You need a bath," Connor told him, tying the leash to a rail at the side of the house. "But I need one more. Stay here and I'll come back and clean you up in a while. Then we'll talk about dinner."
His hands were frozen, his backside was sopping and his head ached like fury. Connor felt no compunction when the dog let out a woof of argument.
By the time he'd turned on the water, lit the water heater, got the furnace up to seventy and shed his clothes, the place was warm enough to take a shower. Only after he emerged from it did he realize his suitcase was still in the car.
Whatever humor Connor had begun the morning with had long since dissipated. No way was he putting those filthy garments back on. Instead, he dug through his uncles'belongings, scrounged up a pair of pants six inches too large around the middle and six inches too short on the legs, a flannel shirt with seven different buttons and a pair of wooly socks that did nothing for fashion but kept his feet and ankles warm.
Two pairs of rubber boots sat at the back door. Resigned to wearing the odious footwear, Connor slipped on one of them, squinching his toes to fit. Then he went to find the dog.
Tobias was gone, the leash dangling on the ground. "I should have known," Connor grunted, trudging back toward the house. "If it weren't for bad luck"
A rumble overhead warned him the day wasn't going to get better anytime soon. He hauled himself inside as the heavens unleashed a mixture of snow, rain and sleet, and caught a glimpse of his reflection in the hall mirror.
"Dogs know how to take shelter," he told it. "Animals have a sixth sense about self-preservation."
Animals that have resided inside posh New York apartments for their entire lives? A picture of Cecile's face chiding, sadwavered through his mind.
Guilt was a terrible thing. And right now it had a choke hold on him.