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Love can take root where you least expect it.
Tyson Yang never imagined that one day he'd be the de facto spokesperson for an illegal community garden. But when the once-rat-infested-but-now-thriving Harlem lot goes up for sale, Ty can't just let all their hard work get plowed under.
Even if he is irresistibly drawn to the lovely but infuriatingly stubborn real estate associate.
Magda Ferrer's family is already convinced this new job will be yet another flop in her small but growing list of career path failures. But her student debt isn't going anywhere, and selling her uncle's historic town house and the lot nearby means a chance to get some breathing room.
Ty is her charming rival, her incorrigible nemesis, the handsome roadblock to her success.
Until one hot Harlem night blurs the hard line drawn between them, and the seeds of possibility in this rocky garden blossom into love¿
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A Sunday in June
This pair was not buying what she had to sell.
Still, they were polite, if somewhat nervous, and they'd made an appointment to see the Strivers' Row brownstone that newly minted real estate associate Magda Ferrer had been trying to move for the last month. Plus, it was no hardship spending this hot June day inside a handsome air-conditioned historical home.
So now she pasted a smile on her face and talked about lintels and linen closets and tried to pay attention to Olly and Darling — the potential buyers — as they moved through the space.
Olly and Darling. They sounded like they were here to solve a mystery. The Body in the Brownstone.
Well, if she wasn't careful she'd walk into the materials left after the last round of renovations, and the mystery here would be how could she have been so absentminded as to get herself killed by tripping on a bucket of plaster tucked into this corner. She smiled once more, gestured toward the elaborately staged dining room, and launched into a story about the parties Olly and Darling would have there.
What she was not talking about was the fact that this home belonged to her mother's late sister's husband, Byron, and that Uncle Byron had been through five brokers at five different firms over the last four years. She didn't mention that each of those brokers had told him to renovate a little and to lower the price a lot, and that he'd renovated a lot and the price was still stuck right up there. He'd taken the house on and off the market, each time in a fit of pique that his brownstone hadn't managed to sell. Buyers didn't like a property that stayed on the market like a pebble that refused to be shaken free of a shoe; it made them ask what was wrong with it even as more attractive places floated out of their grasp. Other brokers didn't like it because they wanted to show their clients a place that they had a chance of moving.
She did not tell Olly and Darling that her uncle's property was earning the reputation among real estate professionals as a white elephant, even though the truth was weighing down every word that came out of her mouth when she showed the townhouse. She kept to her canned history of the building and banished the edge of desperation from her voice. Most of all she tried not to think about how damn much she needed to make this sale.
"Every part of this room has been restored or renovated," she said, touching the statement choker at her throat. "It's just perfect for large family gatherings or intimate dinners. Or even just doing homework with the kids." She glared at the lurid red shade of the overhead light and continued smoothly, "This warm space with this dark wood makes it both welcoming and sophisticated."
Maybe she was laying it on a bit thick, but desperate times called for desperate measures. She was drowning in student debt, and her usual duties of writing up listings, updating the database of her small firm, taking potential clients to see apartments for rent, coordinating staging and photography, and helping her boss, Keith, staff his open houses wasn't going to pay off her loans. When her uncle had, in an uncharacteristic fit of family loyalty, offered her the chance to sell this property, she'd jumped at it even as her misgivings fired when he explained ponderously that he'd decided to take matters into his own hands.
Taking matters into his own hands apparently meant putting them in hers. She did make sure he signed a standard agreement, though he tried to argue that she didn't have to take the full broker's fee because he was essentially giving her the place to sell. He continued to call her almost every day to fuss about renovations or complain that she wasn't bringing enough prospective buyers in. But he'd given her a chance to make some real money — to put a real dent in her debt — and she had to take it, didn't she? Though so many before her had failed and though she'd been thoroughly burned by taking chances before, though Keith, head of the boutique brokerage that employed her, had discouraged her from taking on the sale, worried that the small brokerage's reputation would be dragged down by an eighteen-foot-wide unsellable Harlem townhouse. Though she'd only passed her licensing test mere months ago and was acutely aware of her inexperience.
So here she was, selling her little heart out. She'd learned the history of the house thoroughly. She could talk about schools in the neighborhood, and the nearest grocery stores and subway lines, all of which she relayed to Olly and Darling.
Darling was trailing her hands along the cabinets and Olly was watching her intently, hands jammed in his pockets. They seemed very much in love.
She hoped they could find room in their hearts for this house.
Magda's phone trilled and the doorbell rang almost at the same time. She muttered something about her other appointment — she hadn't expected people to show up on time — and moved to the door even as she answered the phone.
"Got something for you," boss-man Keith yelled into her ear. "Empty lot, zoned for residential."
She could hear talking in the background. He was probably in a coffee shop. Keith did love to bawl into phones in coffee shops. She said, "I've never tried to sell a vacant lot before. Would I need to test for another license?"
"I'll be the broker on it, and you'll just do the showings and so on. It's a good learning experience for you, a chance to earn some money. Sending you the details. It's up near that big place you're trying to off- load on your own, so that'll be convenient for you."
She grimaced. Keith had been against her accepting her uncle's listing, but now it looked like he'd found one advantage to her being uptown: She'd do all the legwork, and he'd swoop in at closing and take his check. Oh well, that was the way it worked.
Magda reached the door and was about to open it when Keith slipped in one last piece of information. "Only problem is that you'll have to get rid of the people using the lot as a community garden."
She yelped a muffled What? but he'd already hung up, and her next potential buyers of the townhouse were right there. There was nothing to do but paste another smile on her face and hold out her hand. "David and Davis? So nice to meet you. I'm Magda."
And I think my boss just screwed me.
The rest of the showing did not improve. David and Davis frowned at the construction materials lying around. "We were hoping it would be in move-in condition," one of them — impossible to tell which — said. They kept talking about how the house was very dark.
David and Davis sounded like an accounting firm. In reality, they were a corporate lawyer and an orthodontist. Still, despite expressing dismay with the ongoing renovations on the building, they bargained the whole time, making remarks about the asking price to test how flexible she'd be.
Meanwhile, Olly and Darling had disappeared, only to be found again in one of the upstairs bathrooms, dusting white streaks from their pert, expensive butts. Magda sincerely hoped that their mess wasn't evidence that they'd wrecked something important, like an entire wall of plumbing.
All four of them left without making an offer. She wouldn't be selling the house today or tomorrow.
She needed to do something that paid off a little more quickly. She sighed and opened up the email Keith had sent her with details on the lot. As he'd noted, she could walk there right now.
She got a dustpan and broom and cleaned up bits of plaster in the bathroom. She had debt from college and graduate school, debt from culinary school, debt from all the things that allowed her to be standing here — a professional woman in a nice suit she'd found in a consignment store — and more invisible debts to her family than she could hope to repay. So she was careful when she went through the house, turning off the lights, making sure the taps were closed, the central air was off. None of this was hers. Everything was borrowed.
When finally she shut the door behind her, she tried to be optimistic. Because that's what she'd been taught. Fine, her showings hadn't gone well, but she had a few scheduled for tomorrow night. And she'd check out this empty lot and figure out how to sell it — it could certainly take a chunk out of her loans, even if it couldn't erase her sense of failure over the past careers she hadn't been able to start.
The air was hot and she took off her suit jacket as she turned left out onto 136th Street and strode past a beauty salon. A car drove past, and she could hear a faint chorus of trumpets playing on a distant stereo — and she could smell something sweet in the air. Flowers, a fence thick with leaves and morning glories. As she walked in through the open gate, a cloud of butterflies flitted up. She looked at the sky and groaned.
Empty lot, my ass.
Because as soon as she'd entered, half a dozen tiny elderly heads had popped up to survey her. This wasn't going to be an easy sale — this was a nightmare.
She was going to have to kick a bunch of aunties out of their fucking fairy-tale meadow.
* * *
Tyson Yang had not expected to see a woman in a prim skirt and neat blouse emerge out of a butterfly cloud at the entrance of the garden. Sure, New York had its fashionistas and oddballs — sometimes it was difficult to tell the difference between the two — but even his own workplace was usually business casual, and accountancy was as stuffy as it came. Plus, it was summer.
They were in a garden.
She seemed too hot — temperaturewise, at least.
Mrs. Espinosa had already dusted off her knees and hopped up to talk to the stranger, her smooth brown face alight with curiosity. He decided to remain where he was, distributing little trowels of fertilizer to Mrs. Hadley's plants while she was in Atlanta visiting her grandkids. She'd written out a feeding and watering schedule for him to follow. It was the opinion of many in the garden that Mrs. Hadley spoiled those plants, although how anyone could spoil a plant was a question that he had not yet had the courage to pose to the ladies of 136th Street Community Garden.
Plus, he was hardly dressed to impress in his dirt- smeared straw hat, holey T-shirt, old cargo pants with their many, many pockets for gloves, and gear.
Maybe she was trying to sell something to Mrs. Espinosa; Ty somehow doubted it was seed packets.
He stood up and moved closer, in case there was trouble.
Mrs. Espinosa was speaking with the woman in Spanish, Mrs. E rapid-fire, the woman more slowly.
The woman smiled, the corners of her liquid eyes crinkled and her rich brown skin glowed. Ty felt himself go very still inside. Maybe he'd stay kneeling and gaze at her forever. That would be nice. The garden needed a statue.
Sharp-eyed Mrs. Espinosa had spotted him. She waved him over. "Ty! Come over here! This single young lady wants to learn more about our community."
Mrs. E wasn't even trying to be subtle.
He brushed himself off, aware that his hands were dirty and his face, too, probably. He took off his hat and resisted the urge to run his hands through his hair.
"Magda, this handsome boy here is Ty. My knees aren't what they used to be or I'd show you around."
She twinkled and then skipped off merrily, bum knees and all.
"So, were you thinking of joining the wait list for a plot, or just general volunteering? Plenty of ways to get in the muck."
Muck. Well, that was extremely suave. He suppressed a wince.
"I was curious about the garden itself, what kinds of things you do, how long it's been around."
"I think it was an empty lot for a long time and Mrs. Espinosa and Mrs. Freeman started planting some herbs and flowers, leaving buckets to collect rainwater, that kind of thing." He glossed over the part where it had been overrun by rats, and the fact that they'd hauled nearly a hundred pounds of broken glass, cans, shoes, underwear, condoms, needles and other choice bits of city waste out. "And now it's the clean, modern operation you see here."
She laughed, glancing around at Mrs. Freeman and Mr. Serra squabbling over seeds, at Mrs. Espinosa, who was avidly watching Magda and Ty. She gave them a thumbs-up.
The laugh seemed to break up some of the tension around the woman's eyes. "Does Mrs., uh ..."
"Espinosa, Mrs. E."
"Yes, does she get some sort of prize for setting you up? She seems really determined."
"I'm beginning to wonder what she thinks will happen."
"Maybe you'll have to cart her around forever in a wheelbarrow decorated with flowers culled from the garden."
"That's part of my regular duties here." Magda laughed again.
Okay, maybe this could be good. Maybe he wouldn't be so averse to making friends if pretty, vivid women with beautiful curls and overly formal suits kept wandering into Mrs. E's clutches. "So, uh, a lot of people like to grow tomatoes here, peppers, squash. We have rainwater barrels, but also we've got an agreement with the co-op next door to use their hose to water the garden. Compost heap over there. That solar panel over there was built by the kids at the Jessie Fauset High School and they maintain their plot over there.
"We have a schedule on Google calendars. Nothing strict but we keep track of the plots now and someone has to lock up the storage shed at night and unlock it in the morning."
"Where's your plot?"
"Oh, well, I'm not an actual member. I just kind of help out with everyone else's stuff sometimes — if I have time. Don't want to be tied down to the land. Gotta keep my on-the-go lifestyle."
Luckily, she hadn't seemed to notice his babbling. "That's funny that you say you're not really a member because Mrs. E described you as important to the whole operation."
"She's trying to talk me up."
"So how did you end up working here?"
"I live down the street. And one day, a couple of years ago, I saw Mrs. E struggling to pull her shopping cart out of here. It looked a lot different back then." That was the understatement of the world. "At some point, there had probably been a fence, but that had been mostly vandalized and torn down 'til it was just raggedy dangerous-looking wire. Mrs. E. had loaded her cart full of trash and she was trying to pull it through even more garbage. So I helped her get it out of here and dispose of all of it and that was how it all started."
"So you're not only a member. You're a founding member."
"I'd hardly call myself that. I like hanging around." She cocked her head.
But they didn't know each other. She didn't need to hear all of his shit, and explaining it to her implied exactly the kind of intimacy he wanted to avoid.
Maybe she understood that, too, because she changed the subject. "From the sounds of it — and the looks of it, too — this garden has really improved the neighborhood."
"It's always been a great place to live. But an empty lot can become a dumping ground, and dangerous if kids start to get into it at night. I don't think I ever gave much thought to it before I started coming here, but now that I have, I see these spaces like this all around and I think about what they could be. How welcoming and beautiful they could be. But it's not even about that. I've met so many more of my neighbors just by coming here and being here."
"They've kind of adopted you."
She kept watching him as if trying to figure him out, and for some reason her scrutiny made him blush.
He ducked his head. "They certainly keep trying."
Ty had enough to deal with emotionally when it came to his own fractured family — he wasn't about to allow the gardeners to get too close, no matter how many welcoming lures they sent out. Not that this stranger needed to know that. The garden was his place to relax, haul some dirt, make pleasant conversation. That was it.
He said abruptly, "So, I believe we have plots available, volunteer hours if you'd prefer that. What are you most interested in doing here?"
She was definitely not meeting his eyes now. Had he been too curt? She fiddled with the strap of her bag before finally looking him full in the face. "Actually, I'm not really looking to join, per se."
"Oh, okay. That's no problem —" He was blushing again. What the hell?
"It sounds wonderful, but —"
"No, it's okay. It's not like I've really committed —"
"That's not it. It's because I'm here to help sell it. I'm here to try to sell the lot."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Open House"
Copyright © 2019 Ruby Lang.
Excerpted by permission of Harlequin Enterprises Limited.
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