Despite the brilliantly gold, late afternoon sunlight that filtered in through the frosted windows, twenty-three year old Dan Cavanaugh was aware of a growing sense of dejection as he ambled through the big, empty greenhouse. There was a heaviness in his chest that even the familiar scents of clean soil and chlorophyll could not dispel. For five years he had stayed away from home, and in all that time--"Nothing's changed."
He had practically grown up here in his family's Nursery. As a child, the surrounding fields had been his playground; an entire world where he was king of all he surveyed. Later, he'd worked weekends and summers here until he could no longer stand either the sight or the smells, nor endure for even one more minute the constant bickering with his father over every last little detail of the running of the place.
When he left Oberon for college, he vowed he'd never again step foot in this place ... and yet here he was, about to temporarily take over as nursery manager while his parents were off on a long anticipated tour of Europe.
He'd hoped that spending the summer here would give him the chance to figure a few things out. But five minutes had already been long enough for him to make a start. First of all, he now knew that there was no way he could spend the rest of his life locked away in some office or classroom. He needed to work with his hands again. He needed to spend at least part of each day outdoors. And he needed the connection to the earth with which he'd grown up. He'd missed all of that these last five years--more than he'd ever imagined he could.
Unfortunately, his second revelation in about as many minutes was that he could never be truly happy working for somebody else. So unless things around here had changed enough for him to handle coming back on a permanent basis, then he very much feared that he was effectively out of options where his future was concerned.
So far, everything seemed all too depressingly the same.
"What are you doing here?" An unfamiliar female voice startled Dan out of his reverie. He almost jumped in surprise. He thought he was alone. He should have been alone too, damn it--since he'd purposely waited for the end of the day, until the business was closed and he was sure everyone had gone home, before he drove out here, just so he could avoid running into anyone else.
By rights, neither one of us should be here now, he thought, as he spun around to confront the young woman who was regarding him with a cool self-assurance that both amused and intrigued him. She appeared to be about his age, or maybe a few years his junior, and to look at her standing there, hands planted firmly on her very attractive hips, anyone would have supposed she owned the place and that he was the interloper. He suppressed a smile at her arrogance. What am I doing here? Well, he could ask her the same question, couldn't he?
"I said, what are you doing here?" she repeated impatiently, and he did smile then. Well, hallelujah. Perhaps there have been a few changes here, after all.
"Just taking a look around the place." He shrugged and took a good, long look at her while he was at it. Cute. He felt his smile widen in appreciation. Very cute. Very definitely cute. Even with annoyance flashing in the depths of her chocolate brown eyes.
Damp tendrils of dark hair clung to her neck and her face was flushed with heat; no doubt in reaction to the temperatures here in the greenhouse. Still, he couldn't help but suspect that everything about her would always scream heat at him, even if they were both blue with cold and standing in an igloo.
Not that he wasn't fervently grateful for the sultry conditions around them, which he assumed were responsible for the abbreviated outfit she wore. Her bare shoulders rose out of a yellow halter top that seemed barely big enough to contain her full, round breasts, and which brilliantly accentuated the narrowness of her waist. Her cut-off jeans had been slit high enough on the sides to expose an extremely gratifying amount of firm, tanned thigh. So, okay, maybe the scuffed work boots didn't do all that much for him, but, he decided as his glance slid slowly back up the bronze expanse of bare leg, he could easily overlook a little thing like that.
"Well, I'd say you've looked long enough," she remarked dryly when his eyes finally returned to her face. "So now you can go."
She appeared neither discomfited by his blatant inspection, nor overly impressed by either his presence or by what he'd come to believe was his most charming smile. Dan felt somewhat aggrieved. He liked women, and they generally liked him, too. He wasn't used to being so summarily dismissed. Nor did he especially enjoy being ordered out of his own nursery.
He felt his own stubborn temper flare. "Oh, I don't think so," he answered, returning her stare coolly. He folded his arms across his chest and leaned back against one of the tables. "I like it here. I think I'll stay for a while."
"Think again," she snapped, and her voice took on an even more steel-like tone. "Perhaps you're not clear on the concept, but we happen to be closed right now."
He studied her curiously. "I know that. So why are you still here?"
"That's none of your business."
A faint smile tugged at his lips. "Actually, it is, you know."
"Oh, really? How's that?" For a split second he thought her assurance seemed to waver, but annoyance quickly reasserted itself, and she waved away the explanations he'd been about to make. "No. Never mind. I don't care. I just want you out of here. Now."
Dan stared at her for a moment in silence. She was really serious about throwing him out, he realized, and he couldn't for the life of him figure out how she expected to achieve her goal without his active cooperation. "So, you're gonna make me leave?" he asked, just to make sure he was getting things straight.
"Damn right I am," she said, so supremely confident that Dan was almost overwhelmed by the desire to rattle her chain a little. As bad an idea as he'd ever had, since they'd probably end up having to work together all summer; but still ... ooh ... awfully hard to resist.