“Oh, look, Sarah, there’s one now.”
Sarah Winston’s blond head rose from a perusal of the bucket of white daisies in her hand. “One what, Mother?”
“An eligible man. See, no ring on his left hand.”
Their usual topic of conversation.
“Which could mean he’s gay or doesn’t want to get his ring dirty while he’s working…and lower your voice.”
Her mother might not care who heard them, but she did.
The man in question rose from the pile of fertilizer bags he’d been counting and tossed a fifty-pound bag over one shoulder as if he held nothing more than a sack of cherries.
“No…on both counts.” He glanced back over his shoulder, and grey eyes traveled up and down Sarah’s slender frame then winked. “Actually, I’m available.”
He lumbered off with his burden, calf muscles rippling as he strode to the parking lot.
Sarah’s mother stared after him with wide-eyed admiration. She nodded her head. “Excellent hearing, too.”
“Mother, you’re impossible.”
Meredith Winston gazed back with an air of innocence before wandering down another aisle in the nursery.
The distinct aroma of jasmine wafted past, and Sarah turned to identify the soothing scent. Green and yellow balloons billowed back and forth in the breeze as she stepped over buckets of shrubbery, further evidence of the grand opening at Fairview’s first discount landscaping outlet. Rows and rows of perfectly grown flora offered a multitude of possibilities for prospective customers. For weeks, advertisements and flyers had shown up all over town, and her mother had badgered Sarah about it for days.
She located the jasmine and read the tag. A climbing vine. Now, that might have possibilities. Though her mother sought to landscape an entire estate, Sarah merely desired a pleasing haven in her tiny backyard.
She searched for the ‘eligible man’, hoping to remain as far from him as possible, lest her mother humiliate her further. She caught a glimpse of his tanned expanse leaning against a car, arms crossed over a wide chest clearly displayed by a black tank top as he smiled down at a petite blonde.
The blonde tilted her head on one side and rested a slender hand on his brawny arm.
He laughed at some remark, revealing even white teeth against perfectly bronzed skin. Probably the result of hours in the sun, taking care of plants…which could lead to melanoma if he didn’t watch it.
Sarah whirled away to locate her mother and forget the attractive picture of the smiling man.
She found the errant parent situating pots of annuals around her feet. Her head jerked up at Sarah’s approach.
“What do you think? I know it’s a lot of color, but I want the front entrance to create a bold effect. Did you ask that man on a date?”
“Those flowers are lovely. I think they’ll do fine.”
“Good, I’ll get someone to help us to the car…or maybe they deliver. You didn’t answer my question.”
The woman never gave up when she thought she’d seized upon a good idea, like a bulldog with a bone, a python with a mouse, a lion with a gazelle, only this time, Sarah was the gazelle.
She squared her feet and placed her hands on her hips. “Can we not do this every time we go somewhere? I don’t want a man. And I certainly don’t need some dirty, sweaty…” Her arms rose expressively.
“Gardener, I believe, is the word that’s escaped you,” said a distinctly deep voice behind her.
Sarah glared at her mother. Some type of warning would have been nice, even polite. Was that too much to ask of a parent?
Said parent’s benevolent smile rested on Sarah before turning to the eligible man.
“I’m Meredith Winston. Do you deliver? My husband and I recently built a house, and we need the entire grounds landscaped. I’m afraid I need far too many plants to fit in my little car.” She shamelessly batted her lashes.
Sarah pictured her mother’s navy Lincoln Navigator. By no means a little car.
“Not a problem. We deliver.” His right hand slid out of a grey gardening glove. “Richard Wingate.” He shook hands then turned to Sarah.
Was he offended by her remark?
His steady regard held no rancor as he straightened his fingers and held them up for inspection. “See, no dirt. And I apologize for the sweat. There’s no way to avoid it in this humidity.”
She took the proffered hand in a firm shake. Was it her imagination or had he hung on just a shade too long?
“Sarah Winston. I didn’t mean-”
“Sure you did.” He turned his attention to her mother. “If you’ll come this way, you can complete an order form and set up delivery.”
As they walked toward the front of the property, his voice trailed back. “Do you need someone to do the planting?”
How did Sarah get herself into these situations? Entirely her mother’s fault. Not content to badger her at home about finding a husband, she had to debase her in public. Well, not any more. If she didn’t promise never to mention eligible men again, Sarah was through going out in public with her.
She stalked back to the car, formulating possible apologies. I’m blind in one eye and didn’t see you. I make regular donations to the dirty, sweaty gardeners’ fund because I like dirt. I have a severe condition known as interfering mother and often lose my self-respect.
When she reached the Escalade, she realized she didn’t have the keys and slumped against the side of the car.
Thank goodness, they’d arrived early that morning. Already, her sleeveless white shell clung to her back from the humidity. She dug her sandaled toe in the gravel of the parking lot while she watched other customers wander through the green foliage and colorful flowers of the nursery.
Several minutes later, her mother approached with Richard in tow. Two enormous green ferns hung from his hands.
“Sarah, darling, have you ever seen such an impressive specimen?”
The ferns or the man?
Meredith unlocked the back of the RV. “They’ll look spectacular on the columns. You know…at the front gate.”
Sarah made a noncommittal sound and watched Richard as he placed the plants in the back. How did she apologize for calling him dirty and sweaty?
At the sound of the engine starting, she glanced around. Her mother sat in the front seat, oblivious to Sarah’s discomfiture.
When Richard slammed the hatch down, Sarah stepped to the rear.
“I’m sorry if you found my remarks offensive.”
“How would anyone take them?”
“That’s not what I meant. I mean…they weren’t directed at you personally.”
“No, they were meant for all the other dirty, sweaty gardeners in the world.”
A wisp of hair fell over his forehead as he leaned against the car. He took his time crossing his arms across his chest. The action made Sarah very aware of his male physique. He smiled, and kind thoughts formed in her head…until he opened his mouth.
“I’ll make this easy for you, Sarah. Your mother said you have trouble meeting men.”
She sent murderous looks to the front of the car. “I do not…”
He placed one immaculately clean finger over her mouth. “Shh, I’m talking now…you’re listening. I understand your mother cramps your style, so I’d like to give you another chance ’cause I think you’re kinda cute. How ’bout I pick you up tomorrow night at six? There’s a Cary Grant marathon at the theater. We could catch a quick bite beforehand, or we could just eat junk at the show…whichever you prefer.”
His handsome face smiled confidently down at her. A good slap would bring him down to size, but she wasn’t the type, and he really hadn’t done anything untoward. Considering Sarah’s disparaging remarks, he was acting rather charitably.
Sarah peered through the back of the car, but her mother remained out of sight.
“Did Meredith tell you I was going to that marathon?”
“What makes you think I’d want to go with you or that I don’t already have a date?”
Sarah stared past him for several seconds, needing to maintain a small show of indifference. It was pathetic to have her mother set up dates for her.
“Do I what?”
“I know you don’t have a date, so…you wanna go with me? You owe me, you know. It will show you don’t really have anything against dirty, sweaty gardeners.”
“All right. You can pick me up at…”
“I’ve got your address. Your mother said you’d say yes.”
“Will you always interrupt when I try to say something?”
He grinned at her, cocking his head to the side. “We’ll have to see. Tomorrow, then.”
She gaped after him as he loped off without a backward glance. He really did have nice…jeans.
Sarah climbed in the car beside her mother and fixed her eyes out the window while Meredith pulled into traffic.
“That went well.” Her mother positively glowed with satisfaction, grinning as if she’d won a lottery.
“Both of us. I got what I wanted, and you got what you wanted.”
“Tell me again, Mother. What is it I want?”
“A man, of course.” She laughed. “And Richard is a real man. Your father will like him.”
Sarah ignored that. She ignored a lot of things her mother said. “Just so I’ll know…what have you told him?”
“Not much. You’re an only child, a little spoiled, but you recognize a good thing when you see it…only it takes a while because you’re cautious.”
“Did it occur to you that he’s a total stranger and might be a maniac?”
“Nonsense. I’m an excellent judge of character. Didn’t I tell you that Brad fellow was out for your job?”
“What else did you tell him? Not that…please, not that.”
“I had to explain your strange aversion to men, didn’t I?”
Sarah leaned back and closed her eyes. “Of course.” She sighed dramatically.
“Don’t be such a drama queen.”
That…from the supreme empress of drama.
Minutes passed before her mother tried another tack. “Didn’t you think he was attractive? Did you see his arms when he picked up that bag? He must exercise.”
“Yeah, he’d get quite a work-out lifting cow manure all day.”
“I don’t think that’s all he does. Anyway, he’s taller than you, has gorgeous grey eyes…did you notice?” Her mother glanced at her and sighed. “His physique is enviable. He attends church regularly. And for some strange reason, he seemed to like you even though you were most insulting. There’s nothing wrong with a man that works in the dirt. At least, he won’t steal your job.”
Sarah let her mother prattle on. Once the tide set its course, there was no stopping it. And though she wouldn’t admit it, Richard was attractive…in a rugged sort of way. She’d always been susceptible to guys with black, wavy hair and brown eyes. But those compassionate grey eyes…that had been a surprise. It gave him a…noble look.
Ridiculous. Now she’s got me doing it. A noble gardener.
She tuned into her mother’s one-sided dialogue.
“…and that tan! He must stay outdoors all the time.”
“A sure way to get skin cancer.”
“You haven’t got a romantic bone in your body.”
“Romance is for dewy-eyed young secretaries who don’t care if the male executives are stealing her ideas in the name of love.”
Her mother frowned at her. “You’re much too young to be a cynic.”
“Better a cynic than a fool.”
And that was the end of that.
The following morning Sarah’s phone rang early.
Since Sarah had quit her job, she called every morning, making sure Sarah didn’t become a bum.
“Good morning, Mother. You know it’s only seven? Not too late for a person without a job to sleep. Daddy does it all the time.”
“Don’t be ridiculous. Your father’s been up and out in the yard for some time. He’s deciding where he wants all the greenery I ordered from that gardener. Why don’t you come over for a dip in the pool? You can show me again how to test the water for chemicals.”
“All right, but I can’t understand why you don’t just hire a pool man. They’ll clean it for you and adjust the chemicals.”
“And then what would your father do all summer? Hurry up. I’ve got coffee and danish.”
Sarah hung up the phone and rolled out of bed. Her mother might be exasperating at times, but she remained ever cheerful. And that encouraged Sarah. The last few months would have been tough without the support of her parents.
In less than thirty minutes, she had reached their gated community. She punched in the code and waited as the gate rolled away. Really, anybody could obtain a code. What was the point?
As Sarah drove down the winding cobblestone driveway of her parents’ new abode, she caught sight of her father in a lawn chair. He held a pencil and a wide sheet of what appeared to be graphing paper. Plans for the landscaping, no doubt.
She waved, and he slid out of his chair to stroll toward her blue mustang.
“Hi, Sweetie! Come to help us with the pool, I hear.”
She climbed out and kissed her father on the cheek. “That’s just an excuse to get me here, and you know it. All she has to do is read the directions from the testing packet, but it’s easier if I do it for her.”
They walked arm-in-arm to the back of the house. Her dark-haired mother sat at an umbrella-covered table, scribbling furiously. The vibrant turquoise of the umbrella and the vivid blues of the pool created an ideal backdrop for her hot pink swimsuit.
“Hello, Mom.” She leaned in to kiss her cheek. “You look great! That umbrella table is perfect beside the pool. When’d you get it?”
“Thank you, dear. I don’t remember. Look at this. I think I’ve figured out the layout for the back. What do you think?”
She held out another sheet of graph paper covered with landscaping sketches and notes.
They studied the scene while Meredith peered over their shoulders. She reached between them and stabbed at the paper. “See, I don’t want any of the trees close to the pool. I so hate dragging for leaves, and they clog the filter.”
“Great,” Sarah’s father said decisively. “Let’s eat.”
They spent a companionable few minutes together then Sarah dipped in the pool. Her father returned to the front of the house and his plan for the lawn. Her mother cast a critical eye her way.
“Sarah, dear, did you remember your sunblock? I’ve got some if you need it.
“I’m covered, thanks. When do you want me to show you how to use the chemicals?”
Sarah slid off the over-sized green rubber float she’d been lounging on and swam underwater to the shallow end of the pool.
As she climbed the steps, water dripped in her eyes, blinding her. “Could you hand me a towel, please?”
She squinted and shook more water out of her short blond hair.
A familiar masculine voice brought her eyes popping open.
“Will this do? Your mother stepped into the house to get me a cup of coffee.” Richard Wingate smiled down at her.
“Fine, thank you.” Sarah grabbed the towel and draped it around her body, silently heaping complaints on her mother’s small frame.
What should she do now? If he intended to sit and have coffee with her mother then Sarah wouldn’t be showing her how to test the pool water. But if Sarah climbed back in the pool, he would think she was avoiding him.
She certainly didn’t want to lie on a pool float in her bikini while some stranger ogled her. She never wore a two-piece in public, but she felt safe in the privacy of her parent’s backyard. Until now.
Why hadn’t her mother mentioned the landscaping crew?
Hah! Because I wouldn’t have come.
After ensuring that she had securely covered her unmentionables, she sat in a wrought iron seat across from him.
“Good morning. Richard, isn’t it?”
The corner of his mouth jerked in a smile. He must be nervous. “You can call me Rick. Nearly everyone does.”
Sarah nodded. She felt a little nervous herself. What was taking her mother so long?
“Rick. Would you like some danish?” She lifted the lid of the serving tray.
“No, thank you, I’ve eaten. Lovely view,” he added, smiling again before turning to the pool.
“Uh, yes. Dad always wanted one of those pools with a rough-hewn surface around the water…boulders and a waterfall. You can slide right down the boulders into the pool, and there’s a short tunnel to swim through under that little island.”
Great. She was babbling just like her mother, but she couldn’t seem to stop herself. Was this what it felt like to be Meredith Winston? She groaned inwardly.
“Sounds like fun. Have you tried it?”
“Yes, I’ve enjoyed it. I’ll go see what’s taking Mother so long.” She pushed back her chair.
The door opened, and Rick smiled across the table at Sarah as if they shared a secret.
Her mother handed him a cup then poured out. “Would you like more coffee, Sarah? I made a fresh pot.”
She agreed because it would give her something to do with her hands.
Meredith beamed at them both. “Don’t you love it out here, Rick? I was afraid it would be too hot, but there’s a nice breeze this morning, and the umbrella helps a lot.”
“Very pleasant.” Rick leaned back, sipping his coffee. “If you hang a lattice ceiling around the exterior of the pool you could install ceiling fans. That would cool the patio even more.”
“I hadn’t thought about putting a ceiling over the patio. But lattice would be open. What do you think, Sarah? Do you think Daddy would like that?”
“Probably, do you want me to get him?”
“If you don’t mind, dear.”
Sarah retrieved her father then slid into the pool to avoid further contact with Rick. He remained at the table with her parents for quite a while. Soft voices and laughter drifted across to Sarah as she swam laps around the pool.
If he didn’t leave soon, she would exhaust herself, and she didn’t want to climb out again in front of him.
When her legs became too tired to paddle, she grabbed her float and lay on her stomach with her hips and legs dangling. With the warm sun on her back and the water cool against her legs, it was enough to make one drowsy. This really was the life. If only she never had to work again. But she liked work…interesting work, that is.
A shadow fell across her face. “Hey, don’t fall asleep like that.” Rick crouched at the side of the pool. Piercing grey eyes peered down at her.
“I’m not sleeping.”
“If you stay out here too long, you will, and I wouldn’t want you to burn. We’ve got a date tonight, and I’m looking forward to it.”
Sarah opened one eye. “I’m wearing sunblock.”
“With skin that fair, it won’t matter.”
She lifted her head until both eyes confronted him. “What’s the matter with fair skin? Just because I won’t have skin like leather before I’m forty…”
“Whoa…I happen to like your fair skin.” He stood. “See you tonight, Sarah. Dress casual.”
Sarah’s heart beat way too fast for comfort. What a curious effect he had on her equilibrium. What was so appealing about Rick? Thus far, he’d been amusing and very patient with her mother. That spoke mountains about his character.
Later, over lunch, Meredith brought up the subject.
“Sarah, I think Rick has a crush on you. Did you see the way he looks at her, Robert?”
“What?” her father asked with a distracted air as he bit into a ham sandwich. “Oh, yes, he seems a nice young man.”
“Mom, why are you throwing me at this guy? We don’t know anything about him. He might not even be a Christian.”
“You know I would never expect you to go out with a heathen. That was the first question I asked.”
Sarah laughed. “I bet he thought you were a nut case.”
“He didn’t seem to think it unreasonable. I simply said, ‘My daughter needs a nice man to take her out. She’s been cooped up for a while after an unfortunate relationship. Are you a Christian, because she would never consider you, otherwise.’ And he said he was. So there. You’re perfectly safe.”
“I don’t know.”
Her mother’s shrewd eyes bored into her as she proffered a bag of sweet potato chips. “He’s getting to you, isn’t he? I thought he’d be your type.”
“Meredith, leave Sarah alone,” her father said, jabbing at a pickle. “She met the man yesterday. She’ll know soon enough if she’s going to like him.”
Which ended that discussion. Meredith rarely argued with her husband and never in front of Sarah. For the remainder of the meal, they discussed improvements to the grounds. Because Rick had arrived with a crew of four men, they managed to work wonders in a short time.
After lunch, Sarah swam one more time to work off the calories her mother had piled on her plate. She made several hard laps then drifted gracefully to cool down. Unfathomable grey eyes floated through her mind. The man was a hunk, and nice, too.
Sarah dove underwater and swam to the end of the pool. It was time she drove home. When she reached the steps, she arched her head so the water would fall down her back instead of in her face. At the sound of Rick’s voice, she nearly lost her grip on the railing.
“Has anyone ever told you you’re beautiful?”
“I bet you say that to all the girls…especially in bikinis.”
He squinted and looked up at the sky as if contemplating the idea. “No one under fifty ever qualified.”
“Who qualifies over?”
Sarah reached for her towel. “If she’s anything like my mother, I’m sure she appreciates the comment.”
“Your mother is one of a kind,” he laughed. “Come to think of it, she’s beautiful, too. Must run in the family.”
“I’ll tell her you think so.”
“I can manage my own compliments, thank you.” He followed her to the table.
“I thought you were working in the front yard today. I don’t usually traipse around in a bikini in front of strange men.”
“I appreciate your modesty, but I knew the view back here would be better.”
“You came to leer?”
“To express admiration.” He leaned against the back of a chair. “Really, I just wanted a chance to talk before tonight, but you’re so cute when you’re trying to keep me from leering.”
“Well, if you’ll excuse me. I’m going home now. Someone doesn’t want me to get too much sun.”
“It’s nice to meet a woman who pays attention when you tell her something.”
Sarah made a face at him and bounded into the house to tell her parents goodbye.
By that evening, she regretted her impulsive decision to accompany Richard Wingate to the movies. Though she enjoyed bandying words with him, he acted like a battering ram against her carefully constructed defenses. Unfortunately, if she didn’t go with him, she wouldn’t see the movie marathon, something she’d anticipated for weeks.
She rummaged through her closet. He’d said casual, but that could mean jeans with a T-shirt or a little cotton sundress.
She chose the sundress, decidedly more feminine.
Why did that matter? Never mind. Most men appreciate a date that looks like a woman.