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These Boots Were Made for Strutting
By Lisa Cach Gemma Halliday Melanie Jackson Dorchester Publishing
Copyright © 2008
Lisa Cach, Gemma Halliday, Melanie Jackson
All right reserved.
Chapter One Kelsey hid behind a goat and spied on her employee.
Plump, fifty-six-year-old Bridget was being dusted with kisses by her husband. He pressed lips to her eyelids as if he were worshipping an idol, both giving and receiving blessings with his touch. He pressed his brow to hers, the two of them joined gazes, and the soft murmurs of their devotion drifted up the weedy slope to Kelsey.
Kelsey sniffled. It was the same routine every morning, corny and excessive, and enough to make her sick with yearning for the same thing in her own life.
The goat, Little Bastard, said, "Nay."
Kelsey wiped her nose on the back of her sleeve. "I can too have that," she whispered. "Someday. If someone as weird as me exists, then there's got to be an equally weird guy out there for me."
"Shut up. Stupid goat."
Little Bastard narrowed his yellow eyes and abruptly moved away. Kelsey lost her balance and plopped onto her butt amidst the thorny brambles, her yelp drawing the eyes of Bridget et homme. Bridget's husband waved uncertainly. Bridget said something to him, and after one more doubting look up the slope to Kelsey, he got back into his ancient, bumper-stickered Volvo and putt-putted off to work. Bridget waved until he was out of sight.
"I will find someone," Kelsey whispered.
Little Bastard, whose tether had stopped him from completing his offended exit, stared at Kelsey over his shoulder.
"I will! He'll be awkward and geeky, just like me. And shy." She painted a mental portrait of her dream mate: pale, unmuscled, a look of concern in his eyes. She saw him in an old T-shirt, camping shorts, and Teva sandals, carrying a canvas grocery bag. They'd go to a farmers' market, and then cook their squash and chard in the kitchen they'd built together out of recycled materials. And when the meal was over and the wine had been drunk-just one glass each, because they liked it for the taste, not the effect-they would slowly undress each other in the moonlight and he would trace his shaking fingertips over her breasts ...
Little Bastard bleated a firm pronouncement of his low opinion of her chances.
Kelsey stared into the caprine eyes. "He's out there, and I'll find him."
The goat shook his head, ears flapping, and turned his attention to the consumption of blackberry vines, every line of his goaty body declaring he was done with her.
Kelsey tore her overalls loose from the thorns and trotted down the slope to Bridget, who was donning work gloves and a sun hat. "Hi," she said, and found herself unable to say more. Bridget had worked for her for five weeks now, and this was the start of their second landscaping project together, but Kelsey was still shy with her, the mere act of speaking to an unfamiliar human scattering the thoughts in her head and filling her with the certainty that, even if by happy chance a word did manage to emerge from her lips, it would be the wrong one.
It didn't help that Kelsey was the twenty-seven-year-old boss of a woman who had grown children.
"What a lovely location!" Bridget said. "I didn't know this little neighborhood even existed, and so close to the city. You could walk to a dozen restaurants from here, but it feels like you're on the edge of the wilderness."
"The property backs onto a park." Kelsey pointed up the hill. "Just over the ridge."
Bridget smiled gently, like a mother humoring a child. "I'm sure it does. Well, that does explain the quiet, doesn't it? But what a strange house to build in the midst of it all!"
Kelsey turned around and looked at the 1930s Art Deco home at the bottom of the slope. It was a long, boxy building in white stucco, with a flat roof. Large windows looked out from the back of the house toward the slope, which had to have been a depressing view for many years, given the wild overgrowth. "The previous owner died here. He was an old man. He lived alone."
"Oh dear, how very sad."
"He built it for his wife. She died before him. Many years before."
"Oh ..." Bridget pursed her lips in concern, then forced a sunny smile. "But the new owners want a garden! It will be good to bring life to this place. Have the new owners moved in?"
Kelsey nodded. "It's a man. Jack Lovgren."
Kelsey shrugged again.
"Didn't you meet with him, go over your landscape design, all that?"
She shook her head. "Everything was e-mail and fax. He travels a lot, for work."
Bridget glanced toward the nearest windows, bare of curtains. The dim shapes of packing boxes and a couch could be seen. In a lowered voice she asked, "Is he home?"
"I don't think so." Kelsey privately wondered why the man was bothering with a house and extravagant landscaping when he was home so seldom. Why not buy a condo in a Seattle high-rise, downtown, where he wouldn't have to do any maintenance? He must have more money than sense.
"Then I won't disturb him if I take a peek." Bridget trotted over to the window and pressed her face to the glass, hands cupped round her eyes. "Yes, definitely a bachelor. Why do single men always buy black leather couches? There's some sort of gong hanging on a wood stand. A few cardboard boxes. Nothing much else. Hmm."
Bridget came away from the window. "He doesn't look like a man with roots. He'll sell this place within the year."
"You can tell that from looking at his stuff?"
The older woman slowly nodded. "When you get to be my age, you develop a sense about people. It takes only a few clues to know who you're dealing with."
Embarrassment fluttered in Kelsey's chest, and she looked away. What must Bridget understand about her? "We should get to work clearing the ground. You go up by Isis and dig out any roots. I'll clear the beds along the house." Isis was another of Kelsey's goats; there were six of them at work on the property, chomping weeds and brush.
"Tell me what we're going to do to this yard," Bridget insisted, not moving. "What does our rootless mystery man want? No, let me guess: a big patio with room for a barbecue, a pergola over a hot tub that he'll use three times, and a bit of lawn on which his future neglected dog can relieve itself." The woman giggled.
Kelsey cracked a smile. Bridget shared her loathing for run-of-the-mill suburban backyards, with their bark dust flower beds and random bits of badly pruned shrubbery. "He wants a Northwest version of a Japanese garden, with a waterfall and pond."
"Really?" Hands on hips, Bridget looked again at the house. "Huh! I wouldn't have thought it. Maybe he saw a photo in a magazine somewhere, next to an ad for barbecues."
"He said in an e-mail he likes visiting Japanese gardens. In Japan."
Bridget sniffed, unwilling to accept defeat. "He must be older than I thought." Her expression brightened. "Or maybe he's gay!"
A little while later, after they got to work, Kelsey grunted under her breath as she wrapped her gloved hands around some ivy. The noonday sun beat down. Sweat trickled between her breasts, smashed flat under her athletic bra. "I'll kill you! Just see if I won't! Suffer, you damned life-sucking, rat-harboring fiend! Die! Die!"
With a muscle-wrenching heave, she yanked the ivy from the ground. Dirt flew into her face, and with it beetles, spiders, and glossy white slug eggs. Kelsey spit grit from her lips and wiped her face on the long sleeve of her SPF forty- five shirt. At least her big orange-tinted prescription goggles had kept the mess out of her eyes.
She squinted along the length of the flower bed against the house. Ivy didn't give up easily. A single fragment of root left in the ground would sprout anew. It was the Hydra of gardening.
She tightened her knee pads and got down on all fours, swearing and muttering as she dug and yanked, squishing the odd cutworm or beetle larva as she worked her way down the bed. Snails she tossed into a covered bucket she dragged along with her. There was a strange satisfaction to the destruction she wrought, her gardening wrath acting as a purging fire upon the earth. The beds beneath her hands and trowel became rich, crumbly brown dirt, virgin soil upon which she would later work her creative magic.
It beat an office job. She was no good at working with people. But plants? She and plants understood each other. Unfortunately, landscaping was not the best career choice for a fair- skinned redhead with a family history of skin cancer. It meant covering every inch of skin, which made for hot work even on a gentle spring day like this.
"Oh, you evil devil," she muttered, as a particularly stubborn length of ivy clung to the ground. "You don't think you're going to get away from me, do you? Well, you've got another think coming ..."
Inside his house, behind a window left ajar for air and a blackout curtain pulled tight against the light, Jack Lovgren thrashed in his bedsheets. Half-asleep and jet-lagged, he struggled to make sense of the female voice muttering murderous obscenities. He was in Japan, his dreaming brain told him. The voice was an angry oba-san, one of those fearsome older Japanese women who pushed their way through life. She was mad at him for wearing his shoes on the tatami, the woven mats that made up the floors of traditional Japanese houses, and now she was chasing him down the street, swinging a broom.
"You slimy piece of-"
Was she swearing at him in English?
Jack peeled open a raw eyeball. He wasn't in the middle of a narrow Tokyo street. He was somewhere dark and unfamiliar, and the cursing voice was coming from behind a backlit curtain.
He stumbled from his bed, angry at the disruption. He'd barely slept for three days, and now that he was finally enjoying some hard-earned rest, some witch started ranting in his ear. "For God's sake, woman, will you shut up?" he yelled and, grabbing the edge of the curtain, yanked it open.
Retina-searing sunlight hit his wincing eyes, and he shut them fully. The witch's cursing was cut off by a shriek that vibrated his ear drums.
"Shut up! For the love of God, shut up!"
The shrieking abruptly stopped.
Jack carefully opened his eyes a slit. On the other side of the window, kneeling in a flower bed with her dirty face three feet from his hips, was a woman in a French legionnaire's hat and enormous orange-tinted goggles. The buggy eyes behind the goggles were fixed firmly to his crotch.
His naked crotch.
"Shit!" He grabbed the curtain and pulled it over his privates. "Who the hell are you? What the hell's going on?"
"Are you okay?" a distant female voice called, followed by what he could have sworn was bleating. He squinted up the slope. Was that a goat?
"F-fine!" the goggled woman called over her shoulder. "I'm fine!"
"Who. Are. You?" Jack demanded. And why was there a goat? Was he still asleep? He must be asleep. Why was he dreaming about a goat?
"Who?" he asked, even as the name rang a distant bell. He should know who that was, shouldn't he? He looked out at the half- denuded slope, not recognizing it. Where was he? Not Japan, obviously. He turned and looked at the room.
That was his bed frame and sheet set. His clock was on the bedside table. His lamp.
The fog of sleep finally cleared. "Shit. This is my house."
The gaping woman in front of him was the landscaper he'd hired based on a coworker's recommendation. He'd been so busy, he'd approved her plans and fees with barely a thought, and then scratched her existence from his mind.
"Er. Sorry," he said. "Will you excuse me?"
She nodded, and he yanked the curtains shut.
Great! Just great. What a fabulous first impression, Jack.
He dug his last pair of clean underwear out of his suitcase and pulled them on. He tore open a cardboard box and dumped it on the floor, pawing through the clothes until he found jeans and a T-shirt.
Way to set up a positive working relationship. You gave her something to talk about at her next barbecue, didn't you?
Pants on and personal jewels safely stowed behind two layers of clothing, he paused and blew out a breath. An image popped to mind: Kelsey's eyes, huge behind her tinted goggles, fixed on his crotch. He chuckled.
Forget the stories she would tell her friends: He couldn't wait to tell his own.
He went back to the window and listened from behind the closed curtain. The volume of her voice was down, but she was at it again, muttering curses and threatening dismemberment. He twitched the edge of the curtain aside and peered out. She was digging like a terrier after a rabbit, and looked ready to take a vine between her teeth and shake it to death. When it came free of the ground she flipped it over in front of her and plucked three snails off its leaves, then dragged a bucket closer and dropped them in, one by one, thunk thunk thunk. She stared into the bucket, grinning.
"Yesss, eat up, my pretties!" she cackled. "Eat! Eat!"
An odd duck, this one. He should probably go out and talk to her. Introduce himself. Make sure she wasn't freaked out or anything by his yelling at her and waving his morning wood in her face. The last thing he wanted was to go through the bother of hiring a new landscaper.
She didn't look freaked out. He shrugged and let the curtain drop. He'd make some coffee first.
Ten minutes later he had a cup in his hand and was congratulating himself for having had the foresight to unpack the machine and coffee canister before taking off on his trip. A box of semistale Cheerios and three cans of chili were the only food in the house, though. The chili had been with him since the late nineties, toted from home to home like a talisman against hunger. He hated canned chili, and hoped never to eat it. Today wasn't going to be the day he broke down, either. He could more easily survive without breakfast than without his morning caffeine.
He glanced at the clock on the micro wave. Make that afternoon caffeine.
Through the window he saw Kelsey go by, pushing a wheelbarrow heaped with greenery. She looked busy. He'd talk to her after he checked his messages.
Kelsey worked with fervor, powered by embarrassment and anxiety. At any moment Jack Lovgren would emerge from his house and say something to her, and she would have no idea how to respond. His penis loomed above her in her mind's eye, bold and thick and staring her down with its narrow eye. It was a pink- skinned cobra, freezing her with its gaze. One wrong move and it would ...
It would ...
She didn't know what she thought it would do. What could it have done? It couldn't even have poked her in the eye, not with her goggles on. She imagined the end of it, pressed against her goggle lens like a lamprey, futilely sucking with its open mouth.
Still, there'd been something deeply threatening about that bobbing bludgeon, not least because the man behind it had been yelling at her.
The encounter had left her with only a vague impression of Lovgren's face. She had a fair memory of his lightly haired, well- defined chest, and narrow hips. His package, however, glowed in her brain like an image on a high- definition plasma screen.
What was the proper response to having a penis waved in one's face? she wondered. Pretend nothing had happened? Make a joke? She was no good at jokes. Any minute now he'd come out and say something apologetic, she'd fumble for words, he'd think she was offended, she'd be unable to explain that no, it was her, she was incapable of normal social interaction, and discomfort and awkwardness would follow them forever after.
She'd better think of a joke, something light and witty. Or maybe naughty and knowing? She patted her cheeks and shook her head, anticipating the disaster to follow.
As the afternoon wore on and Jack did not emerge, Kelsey's tension pulled ever tighter. After much deep thinking, she'd come up with what she was pretty sure was a funny joke. She'd worked it over in her mind, refined it, practiced it on Little Bastard, and now she wanted to use it. But every passing minute brought the possibility that she'd forget some crucial element of the joke before she could unfurl it for Lovgren and ease the tension.
She finished clearing the flower bed and went to help Bridget and the goats on the slope. She could see Lovgren in his kitchen, sitting on a bar stool at the island, working on his laptop. Nothing about his posture said he was sparing a thought for her or what had occurred.
Pique pinched at her, small at first, then growing as the hours passed. Was the event so inconsequential-was she so inconsequential-that there was no need for so much as a word between them?
Apparently. She was the hired help, after all. A manual laborer.
Kelsey paused in her work to stare at Lovgren, now on the phone, gesturing as he paced and talked. Manual laborer or no, if she looked like her sister, Holly, she bet that he'd have been outside hours ago, chatting and making nice.
Kelsey knew she was invisible to men. Always had been, always would be.
"He is a good-looking man, I'll give him that," Bridget said, following Kelsey's gaze with her own. "If you like that type."
"I don't," Kelsey said reflexively, although it was like saying she didn't like blancmange. She'd never tried it.
"I knew he wouldn't appeal to you. He looks high-strung, doesn't he?"
In his kitchen, Jack took the phone away from his ear and mock strangled it, his face twisted in frustration.
"One of those aggressive, acquisitive types. They're well and good for a certain type of woman, but I think you'd want someone a little more sensitive."
Kelsey wrinkled her brow. A sensitive guy? Geeky, yes. Sensitive? She didn't want a girly man, weeping at imagined affronts. She wanted a guy on whose shoulder she would do the crying. She shrugged.
"Maybe." Jack had the phone back to his ear and his face tilted toward the ceiling as if asking for divine intervention.
"My husband Derald works with someone I think might be right for you."
Kelsey tore her gaze away from Jack.
Excerpted from These Boots Were Made for Strutting by Lisa Cach Gemma Halliday Melanie Jackson Copyright © 2008 by Lisa Cach, Gemma Halliday, Melanie Jackson. Excerpted by permission.
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