Harlequin Romance – August 2015
Beauty and the reclusive billionaire…
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 isolation—he 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-control 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 work—somehow 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 young—around 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 forbidding—but 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.