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Breathe in, breathe out. Repeat, she reminded herself.
Dena Graham had walked by the window earlier, paused, glanced out then walked away. Ten minutes later she did the same thing. Now five minutes after that, curtains slightly drawn back this time, here she was again. "Oh, God, what is wrong with me?" she muttered with her eyes still glued to her secret treasure.
He, whoever he was, was her voyeuristic pleasure. He'd come a few times before and each time she'd watched from the safety of the house. But now, ever vigilant to his body's movements, she out-and-out stared. She just couldn't help herself.
A few weeks ago he'd stopped by and talked with her aunt at length. She still smiled her naughty obsession remembering his stance as they'd spoken. His hands firmly on narrow hips, rear end perfectly rounded, legs taut and firm; he was built and gorgeous. He'd turned at one point and glanced up at her bedroom window. She'd ducked back quickly then realized that there was no way he could possibly see her.
Then, to her lustful pleasure, a week ago he'd returned. He'd stopped by to move some oversize bags of soil into the greenhouse. Then he'd repaired the side fence, which her aunt had accidentally backed into with her small riding lawn mower.
Now here they were again, him outside and her inside looking out.
Unlike the previous times, this time her mouth hung open like a gapping black hole as the palpitations of her heartbeat shifted to a whole new rhythm. Her eyes riveted to every movement and her mouth salivating, she watched with anticipation each time his tool pulled back and slammed forward, hard and piercing. It was as if the force of his body was slamming into hers and she felt every sweet, savoring penetrating blow. Her cotton shirt did little to dissuade the sudden warmth of the stilled air around her that had suddenly heated up another ten degrees.
His body was perfection. Aptly muscled and strong, it was the kind that came with good genes and hard physical labor, not the kind that came from a monthly membership in a swanky urban gym and pseudo pick-up juice bar. Sweet, rich chocolate-brown, his shoulders sparkled with moisture as the hot sun washed over him and every muscle in his back responded to the pull of the hammer. He swung back, her head bobbed up. He swung forward, her breath halted. God help her, she was enjoying every second of her secret voyeuristic fantasy.
"Over four years of nothing and now out of the blue, you show up. Whoever you are, you've got a lot of nerve," she whispered through the glass pane, then shook her head and continued to stare. "Umph, umph, umh."
"What was that, dear?" Ellen asked.
"Nothing," she said, quickly turning away.
"Lord, it's so good to be home. I'll tell you those flower shows are wonderful, but all-in-all there's nothing like coming back home and being with family again," Ellen said as she sliced through the last lemon on the cutting board.
"It's good to have you back, Aunt Ellen," Dena said. "We missed you."
"I missed you and Dillon, too. But that flower show was breathtaking. I don't know when I've seen so many beautiful species of flower. And my friend, Louise Gatesyou've heard me mention Louise, she lives in Virginia on Crescent Islandwell, she had the most incredible peonies, big, colorful and full of life. They were truly a work of art. As a matter of fact she'll be stopping by in a few weeks to bring a few samples. I'm gonna try my hand at greenhouse peonies."
"Oh," Dena said matter-of-factly, finding her attention drawn back to the window again.
"I told her about the new soil mix I formulated for the layered flower bed in the greenhouse. After that fungus and infestation got ahold of my soil I didn't expect to get much, but using that new mix has really changed things." Ellen dropped the sliced lemons into the glass pitcher, added sugar and water then stirred. "Anyway, Louise and maybe a few other members of our ladies' flower club said that they'd stop by for a visit later in the month. I can't wait until she sees the new greenhouse producers."
"Oh," Dena responded absently.
"So how was your week?" Ellen asked as she added the last few lemon slices, mint zest and a peppermint sprig for garnish.
"Oh," Dena repeated.
Ellen looked up, seeing her niece distracted and looking out of the window again. "What on earth are you looking at? You've been at the window for the past twenty minutes."
Dena didn't answer, she couldn't. She'd heard the question, she just couldn't respond. The dryness in her throat wouldn't let her. All of her senses were trained on the single form and awesome power he exuded.
"Aha, yes." Ellen smiled knowingly. "Julian Hamilton. Now that's what you really need," Ellen said as she stood behind her niece and peered through the windowpane.
"This isn't gonna work," Dena suddenly said, dropping the curtain back in place but still staying at the window.
"What isn't going to work?" her aunt asked.
"Me, here, now. I can't do this. I thought I could but I can't. When you were away I started thinking, now that your wrist is better and you don't really need us anymore, there's no real reason for Dillon and I to still be here."
"Of course there is, don't be ridiculous. Dillon loves it here and this is where you belong."
"No, Aunt Ellen, not anymore. I think it's time I did something major, so we are going to move to California at the end of summer."
"Yes, Dillon and I already talked about it and he's very excited. So right after his birthday party we're going to move."
"Dena, Dillon is three, he's excited about ants. This is your home. You're just restless. You need something to do besides think all day. I have my plants and flowers, and now Dillon has his morning and afternoon day school.
"What you need is a distraction or maybe a part-time job, something to busy your mind. You're in this house day in and day out. You need to get out and do something productive. And now for starters, do me a favor and take this outside. It's as hot as the devil out there. Go on, it's high time you got out there and met some new people."
Dena moved away quickly as if she hadn't been staring at the man for the past twenty minutes and two months. The instant she saw the pitcher of lemonade and glass on the table, she knew. "Aunt Ellen, I know what you're doing. Stop it.You can't just replace one man with another. They don't just pop up like tissues in a tissue box. It doesn't work like that."
"Of course it does. Child, in my experience, one is as good as another, and if anyone, I should know. Men come along every day, you just have to see the good in them and choose well."
Having been married four times, twice to the same man, Ellen Peyton, a slender, soft-spoken woman with a mane of salt-and-pepper hair, knew a thing or two about men or at least about falling in love.
Now twice a widow, she enjoyed life to the fullest with her plants. Years ago she'd opened and continued to run a small wholesale nursery that catered to a very select clientele. Interior designers, wedding consultants, upscale landscapers and a few high-end garden centers were privileged to carry her plants. With her botanist background she was an award-winning horticulturist who lovingly cultivated everything around her, including her family.
"I loved Forester," Dena said barely over a whisper, "even if he
Ellen reached over and draped her arm around Dena's waist and leaned her head on her shoulder. "Of course you did," she said, easily knowing also that the truth had blurred over the years as it's often wont to do. Death had a way of purging wrongs, creating martyrs and sweetening the bitter truth. She could see that the pain of loss, now just over four years, was still raw. So even now there was no way she could say what she really wanted to say.
"I know you loved him," Ellen added, leaning up to face Dena. "Forester came into your life at a time when you truly needed each other. He was there for you. That's all any woman can ask. But, child, he's been gone for over four years and you need to go on with your life."
"How can I?"
"You take one day at a time, you heal, you find peace and then you go on. But you never forget the good times."
"Do you ever miss having a man around?"
"I have men around here all the time," she said, glancing toward the window.
"You know what I mean," Dena added.
Ellen smiled and winked. "You're never too old to want a man around from time to time. Now, take this outside."
"I didn't come back here for this. Dillon and I just needed a refuge for a while, until I sell the house."
"Well, you were right in coming here. But you need to think of your future."
"I am. As soon as the house is sold, we're moving west."
"And then what?" Ellen asked plainly. "Dillon is going to need a father figure. You need to get back out there and enjoy life. It's been too long already."
"Dillon has me and the memory of Forester."
"Child, Dillon was only a few weeks' conceived when Forester was killed. He's gonna need someone in his life who's real."
Dena whipped around with anger but held her tongue. She didn't need a man in her life. Dillon didn't need a man in his life. They'd be fine just as they were, they had each other.
"And before you say it, yes, I'm the last one to go on about the role of a strong man in a young boy's life. Hell, I've raised your cousins alone most of the time. But having my husbands around wasn't just for my sons, it was for me. I needed companionship, I needed love, and so will you when the time is right."
"But that's just it, Aunt Ellen, I don't. I still have Forester, here, in my heart. He's all I need, at least for right now."
Ellen smiled and shook her head, knowing that a time would come when her niece would set aside her guilt and pain and come back into the world whole. But until then she knew that it was her job to take care of her.
She saw the hope in her great-niece's eyes. "You, child, have your grandmother's spirit, you've just been suppressing it for so long you've forgotten how it feels to set it free. My sister, bless her soul, was free and full of life, and she passed that zeal on to your mother. But when your mother got married, she forgot, just like you did. Marriage doesn't change a person's true nature, it only makes them better or worse."
"Aunt Ellen, this isn't about Mom, Dad or Grandma, it's about me and how I feel. I know what I'm doing for Dillon and me. We need a new life away from here."
"Child, just take this out to that man. He's been working for near about two hours straight in that hot sun without as much as a sip of water. I'm not asking you to marry the man, just take him a pitcher of lemonade."
Dena looked at her aunt then shook her head. Stubbornness obviously ran in their family. When her aunt put her mind to something, that was all there was. Usually soft-spoken and composed, there was no arguing the fact once she made up her mind.
She had a heart of gold and was a tender touch that'd been known to save a stray cat in the middle of a raging thunderstorm. She was always helping others and trying to fix thingssinks, stoves, cars, and now, apparently, her niece's life. Unfortunately most of her fixes were made worse. So as such, Dena took the pitcher and walked outside, knowing that this was just another disaster waiting to happen.
Damned if I didn't do it again. Julian Hamilton pulled back and with one fierce, penetrating swing slammed hard, using every ounce of strength he could muster. The fury and anger that had built up inside came out each time the sledgehammer met the solid cinder-block wall. He must have been crazy from the beginning.
He remembered his brother's warnings in a quote that would go down in his mental history. Do you have wedding bells in your pants?
But he'd done it anyway. He'd married then divorced less than a year later; the first of several romantic mistakes that nearly cost him everything, including his sanity.
The latest being the constant phone calls from his ex-wife. Although he hadn't actually hadn't spoken to her, she made a point of relaying her intentions. Unfortunately her intentions were getting back into his life.
He gritted his teeth harder. Damn. He just needed to stay as far away from women as possible. Every time he invited a woman into his life, he wound up neck-deep in drama.
Enter Stephanie Hall, his ex-wife, married just one year before she'd left him as soon as her child's father came back into the picture. A child he hadn't even known she'd had until after they'd returned from the honeymoon.
He'd been furious, then devastated. But since the adoption had not been finalized yet, he'd had no claim on the child he had grown to love. That was the beginning of a trend of disastrous relationships. Slam.
With both gloved hands securely fastened on the handle, he swung again. The heaviness of the metal head, the long swinging range of motion and the surging anger increased the momentum's impact. The more he thought about it, the higher the hammer arched, requiring added control on his part.
Next there was Jessie Bennett, his ex-fiancée of only seven months, whom he hadn't seen in a year until the day she'd stood before a judge and swore through a stream of crocodile tears that the child she carried in her arms was his. She'd wanted palimony and child support. Thank God for whoever invented the DNA paternity test. Last he heard, three tests later and she was still trying to figure out who the father was. Slam.
And finally his ex-girlfriend, Kellie Howard. Beautiful, bright and befuddled, she'd carried enough baggage to fill a super oil tanker. Her split and splintered personality issues had him completely confused. On any given day he had no idea who was going to walk through the door: a sweet, adoring woman or a satanic shrew. Either way, enough was enough.
He needed to listen to his older brother, Darius; he had the right idea. He always said that women were trouble and beautiful women were trouble times two. And beautiful women with children were completely off the radar. All they wanted was a father for another man's child and one was as good as any other.
Disciplined and self-controlled, Julian nodded to focus harder. Every muscle in his body screamed but he didn't care, he'd worry about that later. Right now all he needed to do was to release this pent-up energy. And knowing only two ways to do it, he chose the one least likely to land him before a family court judge. Slam.
The release of tension and anxiety was working. He stepped back, preparing for another swing just as his phone rang. He knew exactly who it was even without looking. She'd been calling him all morning and all morning he'd been ignoring her. Slam. "What is with these crazy women?"
With a stretched, swinging arch, he drew the hammer back once more. A split second later he heard a shriek and instantly stopped. The hammer, weighing just over ten pounds, suddenly lurched downward in midair, wrenching and twisting his arm as gravity took over. Plummeting to the ground, it seemed to weigh a ton. The last thing he'd expected was a scream in answer to his rhetorical rant. He turned, looked down. His jaw dropped open at seeing a woman lying at his boots.
Breathless, Julian dropped the hammer and hurriedly bent down over her. His long legs straddled her body, giving him full view to assess any injuries. "Don't move," he ordered, resting his hand on her shoulder as she began struggling to get up. "Are you okay?" he asked with ardent concern, fearful of a mass concussion or head trauma.