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EXCERPT/Up Close and Personal

Chapter One

From the instant her bedroom’s mango-peach walls glowed with the morning’s first light, Angie Fletcher knew she was about to begin one of those absolutely perfect, I’ll-remember-every-detail-forever days.

She gave Max and Gracie each a head-scratch.  In predictable response the cats purred and snuggled deeper into the extra pillow next to her head.

“Don’t you two know how important today is?” 

Gracie yawned, then rolled onto her back hoping for a belly rub while Max simply opened one eye, just in case a treat was being offered.  Neither seemed particularly interested and didn’t move from their soft throne as Angie climbed out of bed to begin her morning routine.

Gathering her wavy blonde hair into a ponytail, she paused in front of the mirror.  She’d need to act surprised at the staff meeting even though Derek had leaked the news of her promotion two nights ago over their usual Saturday night dinner at The Chart House.

The man never could keep a secret.  A couple of months ago, even news of their engagement had spread through the office before she was able to make an entrance the morning after his proposal.  She’d walked into the staff meeting to applause before she’d even had the chance to strategically position her left hand to show off the big-as-Texas pink diamond solitaire that graced her ring finger.

Gazing at her reflection in the mirror, she widened her eyes and opened her mouth into a perfect “O”.  Fake.  Definitely a certifiably fake expression.  Probably better to just let the moment happen and go with it.

She pulled her ponytail tighter, then tucked an escaped spiral tendril behind one ear.  Her hair had reverted to its normal extremely wavy state, all because of the increased humidity from the tropical storm that had been pounding Baja for the last few days.  If she chose her shorter walking route, though, it should give her enough time to smooth her wild hair into a controlled twist before work.  It would have to do.

Besides, she probably shouldn’t look too ready to step into her new role as KSUN’s community reporter.  A deep sigh escaped before she could catch it, and she wrinkled her nose at herself.

Opening the door of her mirrored medicine cabinet she glanced at the photo she'd taped on the inside of the door.  In the picture she stood next to her best friend, Gretchen, an emerald green background behind them of elephant’s-eye-high field corn.

She’d had the photo enlarged so she could see her friend’s infectious smile each morning, its other purpose to give her a daily “before” image of herself.  The image she’d so successfully changed.  It showed the “old” her, before she’d learned to cover up her freckles to achieve a peaches and cream complexion, before she’d learned how to tame her wild curls into a more sophisticated style.

Every day she transformed herself from farmer’s daughter to California chic.  She had it down to a science.

She smiled at Gretchen’s image, then grabbed a few essentials—applying a quick sweep of foundation powder over her nose and cheeks, and a dab of Peony Pink gloss to her lips.  As a final step, she retrieved a pair of sunglasses to hide her un-lined eyes and un-mascaraed lashes.

Walking through the tiny living room, she found the remote and clicked on the television just in time to hear the KSUN morning weather forecast.  According to Weatherman Will it was already a pleasant sixty-five degrees outside and he told San Diegans to expect pristine air, blue skies with a few moisture-laden clouds to the south, with a high of mid-seventies at the beaches and low eighties inland.

Even Will forecasted a perfect day.  But it was so much more...this was the day she would actually begin living the dream she’d had since she was sixteen.  Finally, at the age of twenty-nine, her life was as perfect as the day promised to be.

Stepping out of her condo, she locked the door behind her and began to stretch her legs.  She took several deep breaths, then added some head rolls to unkink her neck while she stared up at the tops of the tall palm trees waving in the strong winds coming off the ocean.

Will’s forecast had neglected to mention the southwesterly breeze.  She’d tease him about it later.  Will had been at KSUN for his entire career and every day, without fail, he’d put his arm around her in a fatherly way and declare being a meteorologist in San Diego was the easiest job in broadcasting and that he was the luckiest man on the planet to be doing exactly what he wanted to be doing.  Will had been assigned as her “orientation buddy” when she’d first started at the station and they’d been best pals ever since.  When everyone else groaned as silver-haired Will started telling a well worn story, she simply smiled and listened as though it was the first time.

And, unless she was sick, she never missed his on-air appearance in the early hours of the morning.  It was another ritual of her weekday.

After a few more lunges and knee-bends she began her usual morning walk on the day that was destined to go down in her personal history—somewhere in the top five best days ever.

The fuchsia-colored bougainvillea vines draped over tall wooden privacy fences that bordered the beginning of the path was always a treat.  And today was no exception.  She loved her ritual of early morning exercise and had partly selected the condo complex because of the pleasant walkway that surrounded the coastal property.  Her other reason was the attraction to live by the ocean.  To a flat-lander from Illinois, the draw had been irresistible.

She’d been getting up early all her life, and her morning ritual was also a leftover habit from her childhood of getting up with the sun for farm chores.  Regardless, she’d found she functioned much better with it than without it, even though it made for a challenging social life.  Her preferred nine o’clock bedtime had her yawning just as many parties were just warming up, and she’d quickly learned the effectiveness of a late afternoon espresso break.

As she rounded the corner and increased her pace, the fence dropped away to reveal manicured front lawns.  The too-green grass usually made her cringe a little as she invariably heard her father’s voice in her head insisting, These wasteful west-coasters use too much water on silly things like lawns when they should be thinking about growing a few vegetables for a change.

As she quickened her gait to get past the row of houses and shake her father’s voice out of her head, she tripped over a high spot in the sidewalk, falling hard on both knees.  As she fell forward she just managed to keep her hands in front of her to prevent her chin from hitting as well.  The fall jarred her neck sending a sharp pang along her shoulder, and her knees and hands stung with needle pricks from the impact against the rough concrete.

Scrambling to her feet, Angie twirled around to see if anyone had witnessed her tumble, enormously relieved that no one was in sight.  Odd.  Right about then she’d normally be waving to Tracy and his two cockers, and possibly even Mrs. Zirkle who would be out with her walker if the octogenarian was having a good day.

Grateful for the unexpected solitude, she checked the heels of her hands, picked out a few tiny pieces of coarse sand, then looked down at her knees, staring in amazement at the bad scrapes.

So much for a perfect start to my perfect day.

Instead of continuing on to the beach, Angie reluctantly limped toward home—now she’d need the extra time to treat her wounds before getting ready for work.

“Hellooooo, Angie!”

Wincing from the overly cheerful sound more than from the stabbing pain she felt in her knees as she climbed her front steps, Angie stared at the woman who’d called to her.  Her normally taciturn neighbor—an elderly woman with blue-white hair who didn’t usually make eye contact let alone shout hello at the top of her lungs—was doing toe-touches on her porch, wearing a lime green spandex full-body running suit.

“Hi, Mrs. Randolph.”  Angie nodded at the woman and continued her painful climb, hoping she wouldn’t have to stop and explain her bloody knees.

“I’m starting my new fitness makeover.  I joined the Walkabouts and need to get in shape.  What do you think of my new outfit?  Ordered it off the internet...great, huh?”  The woman turned away to face her front door, leaning forward to put both hands against it, then stretching her legs out behind her to do more warm-ups.

“Really great—and safe—color,” Angie replied, biting her cheeks to keep from grinning at her neighbor’s exuberant self-confidence.  Maybe she’d pitch a story on “seniors and fitness” to Mr. Ethan at the staff meeting.  Mrs. Randolph looked extremely cute for someone seventy-something.

As soon as Angie stepped inside her condo and closed the door behind her she heard the distant ringing of her cell phone and knew she’d never make it in time to answer it.

And besides, she had way too much to do to try and repair the damage her morning walk had already done to her not-so-perfect day.

***

Finally on her way to work, Angie tipped her head a little, glancing into the rearview mirror at her hair, which was getting curlier by the second.  By the time she’d found the antibiotic cream and big enough bandages for her raw, swollen knees, then realized she had to press the pants she’d need to wear to cover her injuries, there’d been no time for damage control on her hair.

After deciding a ponytail wouldn’t do, and she couldn’t seem to find her hairpins, she’d had to settle for a generous spritz of spray gel and a meager attempt to pat her waves into place, hoping everyone would believe she was trying out a new style just for the fun of it.

With any luck there wouldn’t be any on-camera work her first day, and she already had an appointment to get her hair flat-ironed after work today.  By tomorrow, her wild hair would be back to the more appropriate smooth style everyone was used to seeing.

As the traffic started to slow in front of her, she put her earpiece on her ear, then retrieved the message from her cell phone she’d missed earlier.

“Hi, ladybug, it’s your dad…”

She drew her eyebrows together.  He hadn’t called her that since she was five.  And why are you calling me on a Monday morning?  She and her father had always had a little trouble communicating, but since she’d moved away they’d fallen into a comfortable routine of the occasional Sunday evening phone call when he’d call exclusively in the evenings after the rates went down.  She’d given up trying to call him first—he’d always cut the call short saying it would cost too much, never quite understanding or believing she had unlimited long distance on her cell phone.

“...well, weather’s pretty good here.”

No matter what, he started every conversation with the weather.  A farmer’s habit.

“Not as warm as you’ve been having out there, of course.  Your job doing okay?”

Strange.  The second thing out of his mouth was usually him asking when she was coming home.  After almost five years, he still didn’t believe she’d chosen to actually stay in California.

“You doing okay?  If you need anything, you be sure to let me know…there’s something I...well, um...oh, your Aunt Flora said she hasn’t gotten a letter from you in a pretty long spell.  Wouldn’t hurt you to write to her once in a while, you know.  Guess I’ll get goin’.  Bye.”

Angie frowned as she exited her voicemail and unhooked her earpiece.  He sounded kind of strange—a little needy, maybe.  She decided to definitely give him a call after she got home from work.  Her promotion would provide a good excuse to call unexpectedly, so chances were at least reasonably good he wouldn’t get all worked up about her calling him out of the blue.

The traffic light turned green and Angie slowly moved forward, barely getting through the intersection before the light changed again.

“Good grief—what’s with all the traffic?”  She craned her neck to try to see beyond the fire-engine-red convertible in front of her.

She drummed her fingers on the steering wheel.  Running even later than she’d expected on her not-so-perfect morning, and now, with the added traffic jam, there was a very real chance she’d be late for the morning staff meeting.  And she hated being late.

A horn blared from somewhere in the long line of cars in front of her and she glanced at her watch for the umpteenth time, then lowered the window and leaned her head out to see if she could see if there was an accident in the intersection ahead.  There had to be a logical reason for the holdup.

A cheer rose from the head of the line of cars as she eased off the brake, inching forward another car length, her head still leaning out the window to try to see what was happening.

As her car continued to creep forward, she finally saw a man in the median next to the left turn lane.  He was surrounded by four kids as he doled out small plants in pots and what looked like seedlings in starter pots, one to each youngster.  A sagging poster was half-falling off a pole next to him, but she couldn’t make out what it said.

A girl, her black hair done in exotic cornrows, stepped away from the group, holding a potted seedling in her hand as though it were a china teacup.  The girl stared at it as she carried it to the car at the head of the long line, and then handed it to the driver.  She turned away with several bills in her hand and skipped back to the plant-man.  He waved the money in the air then deposited the bills with a flourish into a silver watering can one of the other children held.

Angie’s blood pressure lowered a little.  At least it seemed to be some kind of charity event.  Then she noticed the red flashing of the intersection’s traffic lights; it was this that enabled the kids to approach each car.  The normally busy intersection had turned into a four-way stop.  It was also why the traffic had backed up.

“Well, this could take a while.”  She wondered why she hadn’t heard about the event at the station, though.  It was just the kind of thing they liked to cover.  She’d been diligent about keeping tabs on all the “small town flavor” stories in San Diego’s many neighborhoods, lately, so she’d be well versed for her new position.  Maybe this one was too small.

Angie listened to the happy sounds of the children as they each approached a car and returned with a donation, hip-hip-hooraying as they added cash to the watering can.  The plant-man was also clearly enjoying himself, quite oblivious to the fact that his activity was adding to her now quite imperfect morning.  With the added delay he and the kids were creating, she might as well just accept the fact she was most definitely going to be late.

With a sigh, she rested her arm on the window frame, then tipped her head a little more to better observe the plant-man.  Even from a distance she could see he was wearing honey-colored Tony-Lama-style cowboy boots that most likely cost many times more than the meager amount of money they’d be able to raise handing out seedlings to in-a-hurry commuters.  She wondered what his connection was to the event.

The man seemed tall, even when he was crouched down pulling pots out of the flats at his feet.  When he stood, she guessed he was close to six feet.  He wore a plain white T-shirt tucked into faded jeans; his arms were muscular, and he was broad chested and slim hipped.  He was gorgeous.  From his ease with the children and his unselfconscious manner, she guessed he was the kind of man who had no idea women stared or fawned over him when he wasn’t looking.

When he turned his back toward her, she noticed his blonde hair was pulled back into a ponytail.  Definitely not the corporate type she saw every day at the office.  He exuded natural charm and confidence that came across sexy instead of cocky.

A little closer now, she watched his face light up with each return of a child, and he whooped loudly as he deposited donations into the watering can.  The children danced at his feet, clapping and shrieking in delight.

Then he checked his watch and shooed some of the kids off toward the elementary school Angie knew was down the block.  With only one remaining boy, the plant-man crouched down and handed him a plant.

Now with only one car in front of her, and the event obviously drawing to an end, Angie reached for her Prada bag to retrieve her wallet.  She was a softie for any kid trying to raise money, even if this particular fundraising event was going to cause her to have to sprint from the parking lot to even make the second half of the staff meeting.

“Hey, cowboy…”

Angie looked up at the sound of the sultry voice that came from the redhead in the convertible in front of her.  As Red wiggled her fingers at the plant-man who stood on the median, she ignored the boy at her window ceremoniously presenting a seedling to her.

Angie groaned.  “What are you doing, lady?  Can’t you see you’re breaking the little guy’s heart?”  The boy’s head drooped until his chin rested on his chest.

“Oooh...I see what you’re up to.”  She watched as the plant-man picked up the watering can and walked over to Red’s car to stand next to the boy.

Angie dropped her wallet in her lap and leaned her head farther out the window so she could hear a little better.

“Here you go, darlin’.”  The redhead shifted her sunglasses to the top of her head and dramatically fanned herself with what looked like a twenty-dollar bill.

Plant-man rubbed his chin, and glanced down at the boy.  “Hey, thanks—but you didn’t take Alberto’s plant.”

“’fraid I’m allergic—but I’d take a little kiss from you instead…”  She flashed a smile at plant-man, then finally glanced at Alberto and waved the bill at the boy.

“Oh, that’s so low,” Angie muttered.  “Sure, use the boy to get to the guy.  Now what’s he supposed to do?”  She watched Alberto look up at the plant-man with hopeful eyes.  It was easy to see he wanted the super-sized donation as badly as the redhead wanted the extra attention.

The boy shifted from one foot to the other, then grinned and said, “Please? Please? Please?”

Plant-man reached his hand down to tousle the boy’s hair, then shrugged his consent as he leaned in toward the woman.  The redhead’s smile got even bigger as the plant-man reached for the twenty, then she pulled it away so he had to lean in closer.

Angie stared as the woman put one hand at the back of the man’s neck to bring him closer.  Alberto put a hand over his own mouth, giggled, and looked away.

Angie felt the heat in her cheeks as she watched.  It seemed like the kiss lasted at least five minutes before Red finally pulled away.  Then she held the twenty out to the boy, saying “Here you go, sugar.”  She pulled her sunglasses back to her nose, then drove through the intersection as Alberto and the plant-man returned to their post.

As Angie pulled up to a stop, she noticed the lights had stopped flashing.  Great.  She closed her eyes for a moment and counted to ten.  She was now sitting at the red light clocked to be the longest in the entire city.  Her chances of making it to the staff meeting at all were quickly fading.

She opened her eyes to watch Alberto run toward her.  She forced a friendly smile, then turned her attention to her wallet to retrieve a donation.  By the time she looked up again, plant-man was crouched next to her car holding a six-inch pot that held a miniature rosebush with delicate yellow flowers.

“Hi, we’re raising money for the neighborhood,” Alberto said as he took the pot from the man and held it out to her.

“Here you go,” Angie said, “but I don’t really need a plant—I’m on my way to work and...I’m really, really late and...and...well, here.”  She held out a ten-dollar bill.

Keeping her focus on the boy, she tried to ignore the heat still blazing in her cheeks, heat that seemed to have gotten much worse as the plant-man leaned closer.

“But this is our best one,” Alberto insisted, “and you’re our last customer.”

Angie forced herself to take a deep, calming breath before she turned her attention to the plant-man to explain she really, really had to get going. 

His eyes were brown like Alberto’s, but seemed even darker under his light eyebrows.  There were deep laugh crinkles at the corners of his eyes, and his skin was tanned in a healthy, outdoorsy way, she decided, and not in the I’m-from-California-and-I’m-always-tan kind of way she was used to seeing.  His hair was a dozen shades of blonde; rich gold, cream, and a full range of yellows from flaxen to the lightest of browns.

Plant-man maintained his crouched position next to her door while Alberto handed the plant back to him.

“I’ll go get the money can.”  The boy scampered off to retrieve the now unattended watering can filled with the morning’s donations.

“Hey, I’m really sorry about the delay—I bet you thought you were going to have one of those perfect mornings today.  And I’m especially sorry about…well, the woman in front of you.”  He grimaced a little and rolled his eyes.

“No problem,” she lied, staring at his adorable crooked smile.  He seemed genuinely apologetic.  Maybe Red wasn’t his type after all.

Alberto returned to the man’s side, holding the watering can tightly to his chest.  “She’s giving us a ten—you should kiss her like that other lady.”

Angie looked at the boy, then at the plant-man.

He held her stare, and the corners of his mouth curved up a little as he shrugged one shoulder.

“No, wait,” Alberto added, “half a kiss and the plant.”

“Half a kiss?”  Plant-man smiled, then handed her the rose bush, taking the bill.

Angie held the pot and continued to stare at him, feeling a part of herself slipping away as she fell into the depths of his dark eyes, eyes that now seemed to be coming closer and closer…until finally she let out a little sigh and simply let her eyes close…and waited.

He must have turned at the last moment, though, because the next thing she felt was the warmth of his lips on her cheek, warm soft lips that lingered there while she forgot how to breathe.

It was a simple, friendly, chaste kiss.

Half a kiss, at that.

But if half a kiss sent a tsunami of heat through her that pooled in the very core of her, she wondered what in the world a whole kiss would have done.

Her musings were shattered by the blare of a car horn directly behind her and she blinked open her eyes as plant-man’s lips sadly broke contact with her cheek.  The sunlight seemed dazzlingly bright all of a sudden, and a coolness replaced the warmth on her face as a soft breeze dried the wetness that lingered on her skin. 

She breathed.

Angie watched him straighten up, then step back and bring one hand up in a wave.  Then, with a puzzled look on his face, he tipped his head and moved his fingertips to his mouth, just as she realized her own fingers were touching the place where his lips had just been.

The driver behind her leaned on his horn in earnest and Angie moved her gaze to the intersection in front of her and accelerated.

 

Chapter Two

 

Jason Macdonald pulled to a stop in front of his garage, turned off the engine and sat with his hands still gripping the steering wheel, reviewing the many strange moments of his morning.

He hadn’t really intended to meet the demands of the woman in the red convertible, but the look on Alberto’s face had done him in.  As nympho-redhead had shoved her tongue into his mouth during their twenty-dollar kiss, she’d slipped something into the pocket of his T-shirt.  He retrived a card—her business card—and took a look.

Georgia Valentine, Attorney At Law.

San Diego’s most successful attorney for

Litigation & Mediation. Divorce and Paternity.

He shook his head.  Another aggressive career woman.  Been there, done that.  He tore the card in half and stuck it back in his pocket to toss into the recycle bin inside.

It was the blonde after the redhead—their last customer of the morning—that he’d been thinking about all morning.  He’d thought about her while he’d walked Alberto to school after they’d wrapped things up.  He’d thought about her as he’d waited in line to deposit the cash in the bank the neighborhood had chosen for their garden fund.  And he’d thought about her during the entire thirty-mile trek east of the city as he’d made his way home.

Her cheek had felt flower-petal soft and she had smelled of orange blossoms.  More surprisingly, it was the first kiss that had made him feel something since Calida had died.  He wasn’t used to feeling anything, and he liked it that way.

Feelings simply complicated things.  He’d had his one love, and he didn’t expect anything more.  Besides, the blonde, too, was probably some up and coming executive.  Nothing he would be interested in.  Ever.

Her Mercedes S-Class, her Gucci watch, her cream-colored designer pantsuit—all of it pegged her for a lifestyle he had no use for.  Her look was way too familiar, bringing back too many painful memories he’d worked hard over the last four years to suppress.  At thirty-nine he’d accepted his new life and embraced his new goals, and his single lifestyle suited him just fine.

Except her hair.

Her hair hadn’t fit the corporate image the woman obviously worked hard to project.

Her hair had looked like angel hair—gossamer fine, baby waves of a natural honey blonde.  Nope.  Didn’t fit.

Jason grabbed the watering can from the seat next to him and mentally shook away any lingering thoughts as he made his way up the flagstone walkway to his house.

He paused at the front door of the two-story custom log house to glance at the acre adjacent to it.  What had begun as a whim had definitely taken on a life of its own.

The front and back yard had been easy.  He’d painstakingly landscaped the front to feature drought-tolerant native plants, then put edible landscaping in the back along with several rows of wooden raised beds now overflowing with seasonal vegetables.  He’d finished by planting fruit trees along the perimeter.  The property was a showcase of plants locals could put on their property or in their gardens, and a perfect small-scale version to show neighborhoods what a community garden could look like.

But the empty space next to the house had kept nagging at him.

Finally he’d given in to the idea of a lavender field.  No real maintenance.  It would seed itself.  He didn’t even have to trim the bushes unless he wanted to harvest the fragrant buds.  He’d planted a dozen types of lavender in circular rows separated by wide, pebbled paths.  He’d built it in a kind of labyrinth that ended with a private hideaway in the very center.  The field symbolized his new way of life.

Relax.  Smell the flowers.  Keep it simple.  Slow down.

And he’d worked diligently to keep this daily mantra going, glad he’d decided to sell the business after Calida had died.  First he’d made sure her parents were taken care of for the remainder of their lives, invested what was left, took a sabbatical cruise for six months, and volunteered a while with Heifer International.  He’d taken himself as far away from the hustle and bustle as he could, concentrating on returning his hands to the soil.

Then he’d sold the penthouse apartment and concentrated on finding the perfect property out in the country, east of San Diego.  A piece of land he could putter around with, maybe grow a few things, and, most of all, enjoy the solitude.

He was done with the fast pace and the stress of owning a wildly successful landscape architecture firm.  Creating his new company, called Green Zone, had given him a perfect way to keep himself just busy enough.

Turning the key in the lock, Jason stepped into the foyer, shoved his keys in his pocket, then hit the play button on the answering machine that sat on an antique gate leg table next to the huge oak staircase that climbed to the second floor.

“Hello, Mr. Macdonald...Derek at KSUN...we still don’t have that final decision for you.  We’ve got a new reporter starting today and, unfortunately, she’ll have to give the final okay about the Up Close and Personal segments.  She’s got some other ideas…and…well, I’ll keep in touch.”

The message ended with a beep and Jason hit replay to make sure he’d heard correctly.

So, yet again, another delay—even though the slick news anchor had already promised Green Zone would be selected for the popular community segments. 

Jason had drawn up plans months ago for the latest neighborhood garden he knew would be perfect for the segments, but had convinced the community to wait to break ground.  The publicity would be critical in helping take the program to the next level, and countless other neighborhoods would directly benefit from the coverage by KSUN.  They’d agreed, but were naturally getting impatient.

He was beyond impatient.

Now there was another person in the mix keeping an entire neighborhood waiting.  And she had other ideas?

He frowned at his reflection in the hall tree mirror, and rubbed the blonde stubble on his chin.  Before he changed his mind, he grabbed a butter-yellow suede shirt off a hook, threw it on over his T-shirt.  Then he walked out the door and to the edge of the lavender field to cut some of the fragrant flowers.  His experience with receptionists who guarded front desks like they were CIA agents had taught him well the importance of walking in with a peace offering.

Using his ever-present pruners he snipped at the base of long stems and soon had an armful of lavender.  He jogged back to the bright green F-150 he’d left in the driveway, carefully laying the bouquet on the passenger seat and climbed in.

He’d find this new reporter and demand she get the filming started once and for all.


 

 

Chapter Three

 

Angie pulled to a stop in a reserved parking space next to the building, grabbed her briefcase and the newly acquired rosebush, hurrying as quickly as her throbbing knees allowed through the lobby toward the conference room.

She pushed open the door and slipped into the empty seat next to Derek.  His father was finishing a PowerPoint presentation of year-to-date ratings and viewer demographics.

Good.  She could at least sneak a copy of the presentation from Mr. Ethan’s secretary later and get completely caught up.

Will waved at her from across the huge cherry wood table, blew her a kiss, then mouthed congratulations.

She smiled back.  Her heart still thumped in her chest from her hurried walk through the building, and her knees were starting to really ache from the strain of her run from the parking lot.

“You’re really late, darling,” Derek whispered in her ear.  “And what happened to your hair?”

“Tell you later…sorry I’m late.”

He leaned in a little closer to her.  “You missed the big announcement.”

A few more co-workers gave Angie the thumbs-up as she straightened up and opened her briefcase to retrieve a pad of paper.

“What’s with the scrawny plant?” Derek asked

Angie looked at the tiny yellow blooms on the rosebush.  Young, a little immature, but definitely not scrawny.  She’d mentally already picked out a spot on a sunny window ledge in her office where she knew it would thrive after she repotted it and gave it a little fertilizer.

“You want me to toss it?” he asked.

She watched as he picked up the pot and dropped it into a nearby wastebasket.  “Wait—”

“You have something to add to the presentation, Ms. Fletcher?”

All eyes turned toward her while Angie looked up at her boss.  He stood with his finger poised in the air above his laptop, ready to change the slide on the screen at the front of the room.

Quickly she scanned the slide that was meant to be used in the evening newscast, then said, “No numbers have been completely verified yet on exactly how many people were affected by the wildfire…and…I think we should hold off one more day so we release an exact figure on the air.”

“Point taken.  Let’s move on, then.  Last on the agenda is the Up Close and Personal spring season.  Ms. Fletcher, do you have a report?”

“Actually, I’m recommending we take another look at two other businesses besides Green Zone.  I’m not convinced it’s our best choice.”

“Hmm…I see.  Let’s say we table the discussion for now?”

“Sure thing.”  She forced a confident smile as her boss clicked off the LCD projector and everyone rose to leave.

Well, that went over like a lead balloon.

Derek joined his father at the front of the room while she put the pad inside her briefcase and then leaned toward the nearby wastebasket to retrieve the plant. She tamped down the soil that had loosened when Derek dropped it, still feeling a little irritated Derek had assumed she didn’t want the tiny rosebush.

Derek and his father both glanced her way as she got up from the table and walked gingerly toward the door.

Derek caught up with her halfway down the hall.  “I’ve got to go return a phone call.”

Angie frowned at him.  He hadn’t missed their Monday morning cup of cappuccino since they’d become an “item” last year.

“And lunch is off too.  Hair appointment.”

“I think it looks fine,” she said, staring at his perfectly coifed hair.

“Zeke says it’s looking a little shaggy on-camera, so he adjusted some appointments to squeeze me in over the noon hour.”  He shrugged his apology before he pivoted to head back toward his own plush office down the hall.

She couldn’t decide if Derek was acting strange or if her perception was tweaked as a result of her weird morning.  A morning that had given her a pounding tension headache that rivaled the pain in her knees, a morning spoiled in every way.

And what was that little discussion between Derek and his father after the meeting broke up?  And that look they’d given her?  Had to be about Green Zone.  It didn’t matter.  She had no intention of tramping around in freshly fertilized soil to talk about the greening of inner city neighborhoods.  Not when Cassondra could easily cover Green Zone in one of her noontime All About Town pieces.  Sure, the business warranted some KSUN airtime, it just wasn’t what she wanted for her special spring segment.

She’d worked too hard to stay as far away as she could from anything remotely like down-on-the-farm stories.  She’d be using her stint as community reporter to groom a nice path toward a regular field reporter assignment, where she really belonged, covering serious news and not doing fluff pieces.  Then, if all went as planned, she’d end up an evening anchor in a couple of years.

She’d just have to convince Derek to back her up.  And he would once she explained her reasoning that Green Zone belonged in Cassondra’s segment and not hers.

On her way to her office, Angie paused at the reception desk to pick up her messages.  She waved at Claire, who was busy on the phone, then turned to walk away.  Just as she did, she felt both bandages lift free from her knees and fall out the bottom of her pant legs.  When she stooped down to retrieve them, fresh pain shot down both shins.

With difficulty, she rose to her feet and tossed the bloody evidence of her horrible morning into the trashcan in the lobby.

As she limped toward her office, she groaned out loud as she read the first one.  Zeke had called to apologize that he needed to cancel her hair appointment so he could get Derek in for an emergency cut, but he could squeeze her in tomorrow night instead.  Obviously, Derek’s hair came first.

Next was a message from a “Ms. X” who said not to bother to call her any more.

Darn it.  She’d been counting on the scoop to elevate her hard-news potential.  Her plan had been to add another serious news story to her résumé.  No one else had been able to get close to the woman whose politician brother was about to go to court.

The third one was from her father, but he’d left no message.

Angie stopped and leaned against the wall for a moment, checking the time noted on the slip.  Five minutes after he’d called her at home.  Could something really be wrong?  He’d never told her the result of his annual physical…could that be it?  She felt her stomach knot-up in response.

On the last message, Claire had written that a man had called asking if the new Up Close and Personal reporter was there because he was on his way in to see her.  A mean-looking frowny face had been drawn at the bottom, Claire’s depiction of the man’s attitude.

Was her world falling apart or did it just feel that way?  Her father had called twice in one day.  Her career felt like it was teetering in the wrong direction.  Her future husband and her boss were ticked off at her, and she was pretty sure her knees were about to bleed through her Armani slacks.

When she finally dropped into her chair, Angie put the messages and the plant on her desk, placed her briefcase on the floor, toed out of her new Sergio Rossi taupe leather sandals, and pulled both pant legs up to her thighs.  She flipped her wastebasket on end and propped her feet on it to take a look at her wounds.

“Jeez, Angie, what happened?”

Angie shook her head without looking up at the sound of Claire’s voice.  She knew it was the receptionist’s morning break time and, with any luck, maybe she was going on a coffee run, which would be lovely since Derek had blown off their cappuccino date.  Maybe Claire could get her a tall coffee and some fresh Band-Aids while she was at it.  “Claire, don’t even ask.  It’s been a morning.”

Angie scrutinized her knees, which seemed a lot worse.  “And don’t send that cranky guy back here.  Just tell him I’m busy.  I’m gone.  Whatever.”

It was then that Angie glanced up just enough to notice another pair of shoes parked next to Claire’s perky red-sequined platforms.  A pair of honey-colored, definitely Tony Lama elephant skin...at-least-four-hundred-dollar...cowboy boots.

Angie closed her eyes, certain she had to be seeing things.  This isn’t happening.  When she opened them again, only the Tony Lamas were there.  Slowly she lifted her head, forcing a cheerful smile and trying desperately to think of something intelligent to say.

But as she prepared to look at the man standing in front of her, he had already lowered himself to one knee and was staring at her legs.

“Did you ice them?”

Angie chewed on her lower lip as unwanted tears sprung to her eyes.  It was the last straw.  Total embarrassment washed over her and she started to jerk her legs off the overturned wastebasket.

But before she could, she felt the rough palms of his hands against her ankles, preventing her from moving.

“I’ll take that as a no.”  She watched as he released one of his hands to reach into his shirt pocket, retrieving a small tin, then looked at her.  “May I?”

As she stared into his eyes, any words she might have said were stuck somewhere between her brain and her lips.  At least she’d managed to keep any tears from escaping.

How could it be him?

Odds were astronomical in a city the size of San Diego against running into the handsome plant-man again, let alone within an hour on this horrible Monday morning.

“It’s just an herbal salve,” he explained.  And taking her silence for permission, he used his little finger to dab some of the ointment onto her knees.

“Ow!”

He looked up at her, his eyebrows pulling together.  “Should I stop?”

A little voice in her head whispered, “No, don’t ever stop.”  What was it about this man, and more specifically, this man’s touch?  She shuddered, then forced her best business smile to her lips.  “I’m fine.  Sorry.  Low pain threshold.”  He looked away, but not before she noticed the change in his eyes.  There was something painful there, something dark.

“These are pretty nasty abrasions; the salve should help soothe the pain in a minute or two.  You should really keep your legs up for a while if you can.”  He stood, slipping the tin back into his shirt pocket.

Not caring if the salve stained her slacks, she dropped her feet to the floor and stepped back into her shoes and stood up, stretching her five-foot frame as tall as she could.  She didn’t intend to have him baby her.  She felt ridiculous enough.  “I’m Angie Fletcher.”  She stuck out her hand, waiting for him to get to his feet.

His hand swallowed hers and he grasped it firmly, holding onto it a few seconds longer than necessary.  His dry, callused hand felt familiar, somehow.  Then she identified the feeling.  It was the hand of someone who worked with his hands, probably outside—a dramatic contrast to the smooth, cool, moisturied skin of Derek’s hands.  No, this man’s hands were used to physical labor and not opposed to getting dirty to get the job done.

“Jason Ryan Macdonald,” he said as he finally let go.  “I’m here to pick a fight with you.”

Angie drew her brows together as she stared up at him.

“I understand you’re the new reporter for the Up Close and Personal segments, and the latest roadblock to getting filming started on Green Zone.”

Plant-man was Mr. Green Zone?  Angie swallowed hard.  “It’s nothing personal, Mr. Macdonald.  It’s normal for the new reporter to come in with other ideas that seem better suited—”

“To what?”

“Excuse me?”

“Better suited to what?  Your career?  Your image?  Don’t like the idea of walking around in your Italian shoes looking at compost piles and drip irrigation?”

“Look.  Every Up Close and Personal reporter puts his or her stamp on the show.  I’m considering your business along with a couple others.”

Jason deepened his glare.  Then he started to pace the floor in front of her desk, looking like he was about to blow a gasket, looking like he definitely wasn’t used to hearing the word no.

“Not personal?”  His voice had risen a notch.  “Of course it’s personal.  I’ve put an entire neighborhood on hold waiting for something that has been all but promised to me already.  You enter the picture delaying things and now I’m not supposed to take it personally?”

Before Angie could begin to try to calm him down, the cavalry arrived.  Derek walked in, made a beeline straight to her, and gave her a light peck on the cheek.  Then he turned and extended his hand to Jason, who’d stopped his pacing and now stood in front of her desk.

Jason’s hands stayed defiantly on his hips, his glare now shifting from her to Derek.

“I’m Derek Ethan.”

“Jason Macdonald from Green Zone.”

“Ah, yes—we’ve spoken on the phone.  I see you’ve met our new Up Close and Personal reporter.”

Jason continued to ignore Derek’s extended hand and, instead, crossed his arms against his chest.  He stood tree-straight, and looked like a man with his heels dug in and ready for battle.

“I’m sure Ms. Fletcher will give her nod of approval on Green Zone—”

“Actually,” Angie interrupted, “I just explained to Mr. Macdonald that I haven’t finished exploring all the alternatives—”

“—because I’ve just come from the station manager’s office.”  Derek paused to make sure she’d heard him.  “And he has just given his full approval.”

Angie stared at Derek as he put his arm around Jason’s shoulder and ushered him toward the door.

“I’ll take you back to reception and someone will take down your availability.  Ms. Fletcher will get back to you with the filming schedule later today.”

Angie watched the two men go through the doorway, both acting as though she’d become invisible.  At the last moment, Jason turned his head to look back at her and winked in what could only be smug satisfaction.

Angie walked a few steps after them and slammed the door, then turned and leaned against it.

Wonderful.  Now she’d be stuck with Green Zone—and plant-man—whether she liked it or not.

The truth was, she really couldn’t afford to choose this hill to die on.  And, to make matters worse, deep down, if she was really being honest with herself, Green Zone really was a perfect fit for the Up Close and Personal extended seasonal segments.

With a resigned sigh escaping her lips, she knew the outcome already.  She’d swallow her pride and be a team player, like always.  But she’d make darned sure she would be the one to make the next selection.  And it would be something really over-the-top-serious so she could balance out the fluff-piece the Green Zone coverage was sure to be.

There was a soft knock on the door behind her.  Probably Derek coming back to apologize.

Angie opened the door, her game face on.  But it wasn’t Derek.  Claire stood behind a giant bunch of fresh-cut lavender in a crystal vase.

“These are for you.”

Angie frowned.  That was odd.  The flowers Derek had delivered each month weren’t due for another week.

She followed Claire to her desk and then leaned her nose into the long stems, breathing in the fragrance.  “It’s the first nice thing that’s happened all day.”

“You think he’s cute?”

“Hmm?”

“The Green Zone guy.  Jason Ryan Macdonald—I love a man with three names...always means something special, don’t you think?”

“Hush, I’m enjoying my flowers.”

“You think he’s my type?”

Angie turned away from the lavender to look at the barely-twenty Claire who wore a red leather mini-skirt, matching cropped jacket that barely covered her midriff, spiked black hair, and a nose ring.  “Might have to tame down a little for him.”

Claire sighed.  “Too old for me?”

“Nah—well, maybe.”  She’d guessed Jason might be somewhere in his thirties, though it was hard to say for sure.

“Oh, well.  Makes for nice eye-candy—and he should look good on camera.”

Angie had to agree.  He would.  He had that all-American look that men paid good money to hair stylists and personal trainers to achieve.  All the buffed-out men she’d met in San Diego either went to the gym like addicts, or had a personal trainer.  She’d quickly determined men here were nowhere near in as good a shape as the boys she’d chummed with back home.

Here, most of the men worked hardest after work instead of at work.  But that was fine.  She’d grown to like the guy friends she’d met at her own gym, some of whom were eager to give her image tips.  They’d been crucial in helping her make her own transformation.

And when she’d finally landed a job working at KSUN, Derek had immediately taken an interest in her, helping her further update her look and her wardrobe.  Even at the beginning she knew he was the perfect choice for her—nothing wrong with finding someone to fall in love with who understood her goals and desires.

She was absolutely convinced if everyone would learn to take a step back when it came to relationships—realizing marriage was more like the ultimate merger—there would be a lot less divorcing and extra-marital affairs.  Courtship was highly overrated, in her opinion, and she was glad Derek understood her so well.  He was romantic enough, and showed it in reliable, predictable ways.  He was a perfect match.

“I wonder how he figured out how much I loved lavender,” Angie murmured as she turned back to the bouquet, squeezing some of the flowerheads to release more fragrance.  Maybe she’d dry them and make some sachets for gifts.

“Jason?” Claire asked.

“No—Derek, silly.”

“No, what I’m saying is, Jason brought them.”

Angie pulled her face away from the flowers and turned toward Claire only to see Derek walk in, sending the receptionist scurrying back to her post.

“Hey, what’s with the weeds?” Derek asked, then sneezed.

To him they would look like weeds, she realized, compared to the beautifully exotic flower arrangements he had delivered to her the first Monday of each month.  Last month’s had been a single, perfect hibiscus surrounded by geometrically bent horsetail reeds.  It had been exquisite...fragrance-free...but exquisite.  His allergies, he’d explained when she’d finally asked about his penchant toward non-fragrant flowers.

Which was why he’d never stayed at her apartment.  Too many plants, too much cat dander.  It was a dilemma they’d yet to discuss as their wedding plans had begun.  She was counting on Derek’s easy-going manner to concede to the idea of Max and Gracie making the move with her into the new downtown condo he’d picked out that was currently in escrow.  She figured weekly cat baths and daily combing would take care of the problem and he’d grow to at least accept her cats.  She didn’t expect him to feel any kind of strong emotion for them, of course, but was confident he’d see things her way in the end.

“You okay with the Green Zone decision?” he asked, fishing a pressed handkerchief out of his breast pocket.

“Sure.  I can live with a day of filming.”

“Actually…”  He blew his nose and returned the handkerchief to his pocket.

She didn’t like the sound in his voice or the way his dark eyebrows were wiggling.  It was his one annoying habit.  When he had a surprise to tell her, his eyebrows wriggled like two carefully trimmed and groomed caterpillars.  She’d learned to look away so she wouldn’t laugh or make a face.

“Go on,” she prompted as she blinked a few times to avoid staring at the dancing eyebrows.

“Dad thought we’d really focus on Green Zone for the spring season; do lots of filming to get before and after shots in the garden.  You know, kids working in the fertile soil, time-lapse shots of plants growing, that sort of thing.”

“I see.”

“You’re angry.”  He stepped backward, putting some distance between himself and the lavender.

Angie took in a deep calming breath.  “I was just looking forward to being in on the process, that’s all.”

“It’ll be a great series, darling.  Probably earn you some awards.  Dad is assuming you’ll agree.”

“When does he want me to get started?”

“Right away.  Mr. Macdonald left his availability at the front desk and he’s opening up his schedule completely to you.  He’s breaking ground, I think is how he put it, on Saturday in the neighborhood we want to cover.”

“But Saturday’s our appointment with the caterer—”

“I know, I know.  I’ll give you a full report Saturday night.  Chart House at eight—we’ll talk about it then, okay?”

“Okay.”  She should be glad.  He was handling things like the perfect fiancé should.  And, more importantly, he was demonstrating he valued her role as a professional.

“Come here,” he said, holding out his arms to her.  When she walked to him, he pulled her in for a quick, perfunctory hug.  Between the earlier kiss and the hug, Derek had shown more public displays of affection than she’d ever gotten from him at the office.  He was really trying, she knew, to please her.

He pushed her away from his chest and placed a wet kiss right on the spot Jason had kissed.

“Now,” he said as he released her and took a step toward the door, “I’m sure you’ll end up liking the Green Zone project as you spend more time with Mr. Macdonald.”

“You’re probably right.”  Angie brought her fingertips to the spot Derek had kissed. No zing.  No heat.

“I usually am, darling.  Gotta scoot.  Enjoy the rest of your day.”

Angie returned to her desk and touched the pale blooms of the lavender stems, leaning in close once more to breathe in the sweet aroma.

And now she’d be spending big chunks of time with a man who’d given her half a kiss that morning that made her poor sore knees weak just remembering it.

END OF EXCERPT

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