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The lilac bush seemed as if it was about to swallow up the front steps. Its untamed boughs drooping heavily with fragile, dew-laden lavender blossoms, it filled the cool Saturday morning air with a glorious, sweet scent.
Dana Brantley, a lethal-looking pair of hedge clippers in her gloved hands, regarded the overgrown branches with dismay. Somewhere behind that bush was a small screened-in porch. With some strategic pruning, she could sit on that porch and watch storm clouds play tag down the Potomac River. She could watch silvery streaks of dawn shimmer on the smooth water. Those possibilities had been among the primary attractions of the house when she'd first seen it a few weeks earlier. Goodness knows, the place hadn't had many other obvious assets.
True, that enticing screened-in porch sagged; its weathered wooden planks had already been worn down by hundreds of sandy, bare feet. The yard was overgrown with weeds that reached as high as the few remaining upright boards in the picket fence. The cottage's dulled yellow paint was peeling, and the shutters tilted precariously. The air inside the four cluttered rooms was musty from years of disuse. The stove was an unreliable relic from another era, the refrigerator door hung loosely on one rusty hinge and the plumbing sputtered and groaned like an aging malcontent.
Despite all that, Dana had loved it on sight, with the same unreasoning affection that made one choose the sad-eyed runt in a litter of playful puppies. She especially liked the creaking wicker furniture with cushions covered in a fading flower print, the brass bed, even with its lumpy mattress, and the high-backed rocking chair on the front porch. After years of glass and chrome sterility, they were comfortable-looking in a delightfully shabby, well-used sort of way.
The real estate agent had apologized profusely for the condition of the place, had even suggested that they move on to other, more modern alternatives, but Dana had been too absorbed by the endless possibilities to heed the woman's urgings. Not only was the price right for her meager savings, but this was an abandoned house that could be slowly, lovingly restored and filled with light and sound. It would be a symbol of the life she was trying to put back together in a style far removed from that of her previous twenty-nine years. She knew it was a ridiculously sentimental attitude and she'd forced herself to act sensibly by making an absurdly low, very businesslike offer. To her amazement and deep-down delight it had been accepted with alacrity.
Dana turned now, cast a lingering look at the white-capped waves on the gray-green river and lifted the hedge clippers. She took a determined step toward the lilac bush, then made the mistake of inhaling deeply. She closed her eyes and sighed blissfully, then shrugged in resignation. She couldn't do it. She could not cut back one single branch. The pruning would simply have to wait until later, after the blooms faded.
In the meantime, she'd continue using the back door. At least she could get onto the porch from inside the house and her view wasn't entirely blocked. If she pulled the rocker to the far corner, she might be able to see a tiny sliver of the water and a glimpse of the Maryland shore on the opposite side. She'd probably catch a better breeze on the corner anyway, she thought optimistically. It was just one of the many small pleasures she had since leaving Manhattan and settling in Virginia.
River Glen was a quiet, sleepy town of seven thousand nestled along the Potomac. She'd visited a lot of places during her search for a job, but this one had drawn her in some indefinable way. With its endless stretches of green lawns and its mix of unpretentious, pastel-painted summer cottages, impressive old brick Colonial homes and modern ranch-style architecture, it was the antithesis of New York's intimidating mass of skyscrapers. It had a pace that soothed rather than grated and an atmosphere of unrelenting calm and continuity. The town, as much as the job offer, had convinced her this was exactly what she needed.
Four weeks earlier Dana had moved into her ramshackle cottage and the next day she'd started her job as River Glen's first librarian in five years. All in all, it had been a satisfying month with no regrets and no time for lingering memories.
Already she'd painted the cottage a sparkling white, scrubbed the layers of grime from the windows, matched wits with the stove and the plumbing and replaced the mattress. When she tired of being confined to the house, she had cut the overgrown lawn, weeded the flower gardens and discovered beds of tulips and daffodils ready to burst forth with blossoms. She'd even put in a small tomato patch in the backyard.
To her surprise, after a lifetime surrounded by concrete, she found that the scent of newly-turned earth, even the feel of the rich dirt clinging damply to her skin, had acted like a balm. Now, more than ever, she was glad she'd chosen springtime to settle here. All these growing things reminded her in a very graphic way of new beginnings.
"Better be careful," a low, distinctly sexy voice, laced with humor, warned from out of nowhere, startling Dana just as she reached out to pluck a lilac from the bush. She hadn't heard footsteps. She certainly hadn't heard a car drive up. On guard, she whirled around, the clippers held out protectively in front of her, and discovered a blue pickup at the edge of the lawn, its owner grinning at her from behind the wheel.
"I heard that lilac bush ate the last owner," he added very seriously.
Her brown eyes narrowed watchfully. She instinctively backed up a step, then another as the stranger climbed out of his truck and started toward her with long, easy strides.
Dana had met a number of townspeople since her arrival, but not this man. She would have remembered the overpowering masculinity of the rugged, tanned face with its stubborn, square jaw and the laugh lines that spread like delicate webs from the corners of his eyes. She would have remembered the trembling nervousness he set off inside her.
"Who are you?" she asked, trying to hide her uneasiness but clinging defensively to the hedge clippers nonetheless. It was one thing to know the adage that in a small town there were no strangers, but quite another to be confronted unexpectedly with a virile, powerful specimen like this in your own front yard. She figured the hedge clippers made them an almost even match, which was both a reassuring and a daunting thought.
The man, tall and whipcord lean, paused halfway up the walk and shoved his hands into the pockets of his jeans. If he was taken aback by her unfriendliness, there was no sign of it on his face. His smile never wavered and his voice lowered to an even more soothing timbre, as if to prove he was no threat to her.
Nick Verone." When that drew no response, he added, "Tony's father."
Dana drew in a sharp breath. The name, of course, had registered at once. It was plastered on the side of just about every construction trailer in the county. It was also the signature on her paycheck. She was a town employee. Nicholas Verone was the elected treasurer, a man reputed to have political aspirations on a far grander scale, perhaps the state legislature, perhaps even Washington.
He was admired for his integrity, respected for his success and, since the death of his wife three years earlier, targeted by every matchmaker in town. She'd been hearing about him since her first day on the job. Down at town hall, the kindly clerk, a gleam in her periwinkle-blue eyes, had taken one good look at Dana and begun scheming to arrange a meeting. To Betsy Markham's very evident maternal frustration, Dana had repeatedly declined.
The connection to Tony, however, was what mattered this morning. Turning her wary frown into a faint tentative smile of welcome, she saw the resemblance now, the same hazel eyes that were bright and inquisitive and filled with warmth and humor, the same unruly brown hair that no brush would ever tame. While at ten years old Tony was an impish charmer, his father had a quiet, far more dangerous allure. The sigh of relief she'd felt on learning his identity caught somewhere in her throat and set off a different reaction entirely.
Ingrained caution and natural curiosity warred, making her tone abrupt as she asked, "What are you doing here?"
Nick Verone still didn't seem the least bit offended by her inhospitable attitude. In fact, he seemed amused by it. "Tony mentioned your roof was leaking. I had some time today and I thought maybe I could check it out for you."
Dana grimaced. She was going to have to remember to watch her tongue around Tony. She'd been alert to Betsy Markham's straightforward matchmaking tactics, but she'd never once suspected that Tony might decide to get in on the conspiracy to find his father a mate. Then again, maybe Tony had only been trying to repay her for helping him with his history lesson on the Civil War. At her urging, he'd finally decided not to try to persuade the teacher that the South had actually won.
"Well, we should have," he'd grumbled, his jaw set every bit as stubbornly as she imagined his father's could be. In the end, though, Tony had stuck to the facts and returned proudly a week later to show her the B minus on his test paper, the highest history grade he'd ever received.
At the moment, though, with Nick Verone waiting patiently in front of her, it hardly seemed to matter what Tony's motivation had been. She had to send the man on his way. His presence was making her palms sweat.
"Thanks, anyway," she said, giving him a smile she hoped seemed suitably appreciative. "But I've already made arrangements for a contractor to come by next week."
Instead of daunting him, her announcement drew a scowl. "I hope you didn't call Billy Watson."
Dana swallowed guiltily and said with a touch of defiance, "What if I did?"
"He'll charge you an arm and a leg and he won't get the job done."
"Haven't you heard that it's bad business to knock the competition?"
"Billy's not my competition. For that matter, calling him a contractor is a stretch of the imagination. He's a scoundrel out to make a quick buck so he can finance his next binge. Everybody around here knows that and I can't imagine anyone recommending him. Why did you call him in the first place?"
She'd called Billy Watson because he was the only other contractoror handyman, for that mattershe'd been able to find when water had started dripping through her roof in five different places during the first of April's pounding spring showers. All of Betsy's unsolicited praise for Nick Verone had set off warning bells inside her head. She'd known intuitively that asking him to take a look at her roof would be asking for trouble. His presence now and its impact on her heartbeat were proof enough that she'd been right. To any woman determinedly seeking solitude, this aggressive, incredibly sexy man was a threat.
She stared into Nick's eyes, noted the expectant gleam and decided that wasn't an explanation she should offer. He was the kind of man who'd make entirely too much out of such a candid response.
"You're a very busy man, Mr. Verone," she said instead. "I assumed Billy Watson could get here sooner."
Nick's grin widened, dipping slightly on the left side to make it beguilingly crooked. A less determined woman might fall for that smile, but Dana tried very hard to ignore it.
"I'm here now," he pointed out, rocking back and forth on the balls of his feet, his fingers still jammed into the pockets of his jeans in a way that called attention to their fit across his flat stomach and lean hips.
"Mr. Watson promised to be here Monday morning first thing. That's plenty soon enough."
"And if it rains between now and then?"
"I'll put out the pots and pans again."
Nick only barely resisted the urge to chuckle. He'd heard the dismissal in Dana's New York-accented voice and read the wariness in her eyes. It was the look a lot of people had when first confronted with small-town friendliness after a lifetime in big cities. They assumed every neighborly act would come with a price tag. It took time to convince them otherwise. Oddly enough, he found that in Dana's case he wanted to see to her enlightenment personally. There was something about this slender, overly-cautious woman that touched a responsive chord deep inside him.
Besides, he loved River Glen. He'd grown up here and he'd witnessedin fact, he'd been a part ofits slow evolution from a slightly shabby summer resort past its prime into a year-round community with a future. The more people like Dana Brantley who settled here, the faster changes would come.