When billionaire Declan Grant decides his estate's enormous garden needs taming, he hires idealistic horticulturalist Shelley Fairhill to take on the challenge. Since losing his wife, Declan has adjusted to a life of self-imposed isolationhe wants Shelley to tackle the weeds, then leave.
But as Shelley gradually restores order and unexpected beauty to his garden, her caring nature also begins to thaw the ice encasing Declan's heart. Can he let Shelley's light in and finally let his second chance at love blossom?
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Shelley Fairhill had walked by the grand old mansion on Bellevue Street at least twenty times before she finally screwed up enough courage to press the old-fashioned buzzer embedded in the sandstone gatepost. Even then, with her hand on the ornate wrought-iron gate, she quailed before pushing it open.
The early twentieth-century house was handsome with peaked roofs and an ornate turret but it was almost overwhelmed by the voracious growth of a once beautiful garden gone wild. It distressed her horticulturalist's heart to see the out-of-con-trol roses, plants stunted and starved of light by rampant vines, and unpruned shrubs grown unchecked into trees.
This was Sydney on a bright winter's afternoon with shafts of sunlight slanting through the undergrowth but there was an element of eeriness to the house, of secrets undisturbed.
In spite of the sunlight, Shelley shivered. But she had to do this.
It wasn't just that she was looking for extra worksomehow she had felt compelled by this garden since the day she'd first become aware of it when she'd got lost on her way to the railway station.
The buzzer sounded and the gate clicked a release. She pushed it open with a less than steady hand. Over the last weeks, as she'd walked past the house in the posh inner-eastern suburb of Darling Point, she'd wondered about who lived there. Her imagination had gifted her visions of a broken-hearted old woman who had locked herself away from the world when her fiancé had been killed at war. Or a crabby, Scrooge-like old man cut off from all who loved him.
The reality of the person who opened the door to her was so different her throat tightened and the professional words of greeting she had rehearsed froze unsaid.
Her reaction wasn't just because the man who filled the doorframe with his impressive height and broad shoulders was youngaround thirty, she guessed. Not much older than her, in fact. It was because he was so heart-stoppingly good-looking.
A guy this hot, this movie-star handsome, with his black hair, chiselled face and deep blue eyes, hadn't entered into her imaginings for a single second. Yes, he seemed dark and forbiddingbut not in the haunted-house way she had expected.
His hair lacked recent acquaintance with a comb, his jaw was two days shy of a razor and his black roll-neck sweater and sweatpants looked as though he'd slept in them. The effect was extraordinarily attractive in a don't-give-a-damn kind of way. His dark scowl was what made him seem intimidating.
She cleared her throat to free her voice but he spoke before she got a chance to open her mouth.
'Where's the parcel?' His voice was deep, his tone abrupt.
'Wh-what parcel?' she stuttered.
He frowned. 'The motherboard.'
She stared blankly at him.
He shook his head impatiently, gestured with his hands. 'Computer parts. The delivery I was expecting.'
Shelley was so shocked at his abrupt tone, she glanced down at her empty hands as if expecting a parcel to materialise. Which was crazy insane.
'You you think I'm a courier?' she stuttered.
'Obviously,' he said. She didn't like the edge of sarcasm to the word.
But she supposed her uniform of khaki trousers, industrial boots and a shirt embroidered with the logo of the garden design company she worked for could be misconstrued as courier garb. 'I'm not a courier. I'
'I wouldn't have let you in the gate if I'd known that,' he said. 'Whatever you're selling, I'm not buying.'
Shelley was taken aback by his rudeness. But she refused to let herself get flustered. A cranky old man or eccentric old woman might have given her worse.
'I'm not selling anything. Well, except myself.' That didn't sound right. 'I'm a horticulturalist.' She indicated the garden with a wave of her hand. 'You obviously need a gardener. I'm offering my services.'
He frowned again. 'I don't need a gardener. I like the place exactly as it is.'
'But it's a mess. Such a shame. There's a beautiful garden under there somewhere. It's choking itself to death.' She couldn't keep the note of indignation from her voice. To her, plants were living things that deserved love and care.
His dark brows rose. 'And what business is that of yours?'
'It's none of my business. But it it upsets me to see the garden like that when it could look so different. I I thought I could help restore it to what it should be. My rates are very reasonable.'
For a long moment her gaze met his and she saw something in his eyes that might have been regret before the shutters went down. He raked both hands through his hair in what seemed to be a well-worn path.
'I don't need help,' he said. 'You've wasted your time.' His tone was dismissive and he turned to go back inside.
Curious, she peered over his shoulder but the room behind him was in darkness. No wonder with all those out-of-control plants blocking out the light.
Her bravado was just about used up. But she pulled out the business card she had tucked into her shirt pocket so it would be easy to retrieve. 'My card. In case you change your mind,' she said. It was her personal card, not for the company she worked for. If she was to achieve her dream of visiting the great gardens of the world, she needed the extra income moonlighting bought her.
He looked at her card without seeming to read it. For a moment she thought he might hand it back to her or tear it up. But he kept it in his hand. The man was rude, but perhaps not rude enough to do that. Most likely he would bin it when he got inside.
Nothing ventured, nothing gained. Her grandmother's words came back to her. At least she'd tried.
'Close the gate behind you when you leave,' the man said, in a voice so cool it was as if he'd thrown a bucket of icy water over her enthusiasm for the garden.
'Sure,' she said through gritted teeth, knowing she would have to fight an impulse to slam it.
As she walked back down the path she snatched the opportunity to look around her to see more of the garden than she'd been able to see over the fence. Up closer it was even more choked by weeds and overgrowth than she'd thought. But it was all she'd ever see of it now.
Strange, strange man, she mused.
Strange, but also strangely attractive. The dark hair, the dark clothes, those brooding blue eyes. He was as compelling as the garden itself. And as mysterious. Maybe he didn't own the house. Maybe he was a movie star or someone who wanted to be incognito. Maybe he was a criminal. Or someone under a witness protection plan. She hadn't lived long enough in Sydney to hear any local gossip about him. But why did it matter? She wouldn't be seeing him again.
She looked like a female warrior. Declan watched the gardener stride down the pathway towards the gate. Her long, thick plait of honey-coloured hair fell to her waist and swayed with barely repressed indignation. She was tall, five ten easily, even in those heavy-duty, elastic-sided work boots. The rolled-up sleeves of the khaki shirt revealed tanned, toned arms; the man-style trousers concealed but hinted at shapely curves and long legs. She looked strong, vigorous, all womanin spite of the way she dressed. Not what he thought of as a gardener. He glanced down at her cardShelley Fairhill.
The old-fashioned name seemed appropriate for a lover of flowers, all soft focus and spring sunbeams. But the woman behind the name seemed more like the fantasy warrior heroine in the video games that had brought him his first million when he was just eighteenthe assassin Princess Alana, all kick-butt strength, glistening angel wings and exaggerated curves born of his adolescent yearnings. With her deadly bow and arrow Alana had fought many hard-won battles in the fantasy world he had created as a refuge from a miserable childhood.
He could see in this gardener something of the action woman who had kept on making him millions. Billions when he'd sold Alana out. Right now Shelley Fairhill was all tense muscles and compressed angstseething, he imagined, with unspoken retorts. He could tell by the set of her shoulders the effort she made not to slam the gate off its hingeshe had no doubt with her muscles she could do that with ease. Instead she closed it with exaggerated care. And not for a second did she turn that golden head back to him.
Who would blame her? He'd rejected her pitch for employment in a manner that had stopped just short of rudeness. But Shelley Fairhill should never have breached that gate. He'd only buzzed it open in a moment of distraction. He'd been working for thirty-six hours straight. The gate was kept locked for a reason. He did not want intruders, especially a tall, lithe warrior woman like her, crossing the boundaries of his property. And he liked the garden the way it wasone day the plants might grow over completely and bury the house in darkness like a fortress. He wanted to be left alone.
Still, she was undeniably strikingnot just in physique but in colouring with her blond hair and warm brown eyes. He couldn't help a moment of regret torn painfully from the barricades he had built up against feelingbarricades like thorn-studded vines that twined ever tighter around his heart stifling all emotion, all hope.
Because when he'd first seen her on his front doorstep for a single, heart-stopping moment he'd forgotten those barriers and the painful reasons they were there. All he'd been aware of was that he was a man and she was a beautiful woman. He could not allow that boy-meets-girl feeling to exist even for seconds.
For a long moment he looked at the closed gate, the out-of-control tendrils of some climbing plant waving long, predatory fingers from the arch on top of it, before he turned to slouch back inside.
Declan Grant. Shelley puzzled over the signature on the text that had just pinged into her smartphone.
Contact me immediately re work on garden.
She couldn't place the name. But the abrupt, peremptory tone of the text gave her a clue to his identity.
For two weeks, she had pushed the neglected garden and its bad-manneredthough disturbingly good-lookingowner to the back of her mind. His reaction to her straightforward offer of help had taken the sheen off her delight in imagining how the garden could blossom if restored.
The more she'd thought about him, the more she'd seethed. He hadn't given her even half a chance to explain what she could do. She'd stopped walking that way to the railway station at Edgecliff from the apartment in nearby Double Bay she shared with her sister. And drove the long way around to avoid it when she was in the car. All because of the man she suspected was Declan Grant.
Her immediate thought was to delete the text. She wanted nothing to do with Mr Tall, Dark and Gloomy; couldn't imagine working with him in any kind of harmony. Her finger hovered over the keypad, ready to dispatch his message into the cyber wilderness.
She would kill to work on that garden.
Shelley stared at the phone for a long moment. She was at work, planting a hedge to exact specifications in a new apartment complex on the north shore. By the time she crossed the Sydney Harbour Bridge to get back to the east side it would be dark. Ideally she didn't want to meet that man in the shadowy gloom of a July winter nightfall. But she was intrigued. And she didn't want him to change his mind.
She texted back.
This evening, Friday, six p.m.
Then to be sure Declan Grant really was the black-haired guy with the black scowl:
Please confirm address.
The return text confirmed the address on Bel-levue Street.
I'll be there, she texted back.
With the winter evening closing in, Shelley walked confidently up the pathway to the house, even though it was shrouded in shadow from the overgrown trees. The first thing she would do if she got this gig would be to recommend a series of solar-powered LED lights that would come on automatically to light a visitor's path to the front door. Maybe he wanted to discourage visitors by keeping them in the dark.
She braced herself to deal with Declan Grant. To be polite. Even if he wasn't. She wanted to work on this garden. She had to sell herself as the best person for the job, undercut other gardeners' quotes if need be. She practised the words in her head.
But when Declan opened the door, all her rehearsed words froze at the sight of his outstretched handand the shock of his unexpected smile.
Okay, so it wasn't a warm, welcoming smile. It was more a polite smile. A professional, em-ployer-greeting-a-candidate smile that didn't quite reach his eyes. Even so, it lifted his face from grouch to gorgeous. Heavens, the man was handsome. If his lean face with the high cheekbones and cleft in his chin didn't turn a woman's head his broad shoulders and impressive height surely would.
She stared for a moment too long before she took his proffered hand, his hard warm gripand was suddenly self-consciously aware of her own work-callused hands. And her inappropriate clothes.
He was attractivebut that didn't mean she was attracted to him. Apart from the fact he was a total stranger and a potential employer, she liked to think she was immune to the appeal of very good-looking men. Her heart-crushing experience with Steve had ensured that. Too-handsome men had it too easy with womenand then found it too easy to destroy their hearts.
No. It was not attraction, just a surge of innate feminine feeling that made her wish she'd taken more care with her appearance for this meeting with Declan Grant.
After work, on a whirlwind visit back to the tiny apartment in Double Bay, she'd quickly showered and changed. Then swapped one set of gardening gear for anotherkhaki trousers, boots and a plain shirt without any place of employment logo on the pockets. When she'd told her sister she was going to see the potential client in the mysterious overgrown garden in Darling Point, Lynne had been horrified.
'You're not going out to a job interview looking like that,' Lynne had said. 'What will any potential employer think of you?'
'I'm a gardener, not a business person,' Shelley had retorted. 'I'm hardly going to dress in a suit and high heels or pile on scads of make-up. These clothes are clean and they're what I wear to work. I hope I look like a serious gardener.'
Now she regretted it. Not the lack of suit and high heels. But jeans and a jacket with smart boots might have been more suitable than the khaki trousers and shirt. This was a very wealthy part of Sydney where appearances were likely to count. Even for a gardener.
She'd got in the habit of dressing down in her maledominated work world. Gardening was strong, physical work. She'd had to prove herself as good asbetter thanher male co-workers. Especially when she had long blond hair and a very female shape that she did not want to draw attention to.
But Declan looked so sophisticated in his fine-knit black sweater and black jeans, clean-shaven, hair brushed back from his forehead, she could only gawk and feel self-conscious. Yes, her clean but old khaki work clothes put her at a definite disadvantage. Not that he seemed to notice. In fact she got the impression he was purposely not looking at her.
'Let's discuss the garden,' he said, turning to lead her into the hallway that had seemed so dark behind him in daylight.
She tried to keep her cool, not to gasp at the splendour of the entrance hall. The ornate staircase. The huge chandelier that came down from the floors above to light up the marble-tiled floor. Somehow she'd expected the inside of the house to be as run-down and derelict as the garden. Not so. It had obviously been restored and with a lot of money thrown at it.