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Arbor Vitae

Abby Graham is uncommonly lovely, happy and content with her life, but when she finds herself a widow just a week before her 40th birthday, the secure world that she thought was permanent is suddenly on very shaky ground. Struggling to work through her grief, she always puts her children’s needs first, leaving little time for herself. Five years later her youngest child leaves for college and Abby decides to kick start a new lease on life by returning to the dating scene, as well as transforming the backyard of her home into an oasis of beauty and tranquility. She hires Clancy O’Connor, a high-spirited young landscape architect who is trying to build a business and hopes to get recommendations from Abby’s upper-class social circle. Clancy develops a serious crush on the beautiful widow before their first meeting is finished. It's a recipe for heartache; even though Abby seems remarkably comfortable with Clancy’s lesbianism, Clancy is unable to imagine that Abby would be willing to take the leap given the differences in their age, class, wealth and lifestyles. As Abby reveals more of herself to Clancy during their many hours of consultation, the connection between them begins to spark. After an evening of small intimacies and shared dreams, the women can no longer fight their mutual desire. Although Abby has her doubts about the future, she and Clancy embark on a torrid love affair…but all too soon a threat develops that could destroy the tentative bond that holds them together.

Chapter One

One word came to mind when Clancy O'Connor pulled her truck up to the address she'd been searching for.

Wow.

Not normally one at a loss for words, the young woman had come upon a place which seemed to have that effect on her. She checked her clipboard again. Yep. This is the place. She hopped out of the pick-up, dusted off her spruce-green cotton shirt, and smoothed out some of the wrinkles in her khaki cargo shorts.

Maybe I should have gone home to change first. Placing her hands on her hips, she frowned. What's up with me? Since when do I care how wrinkled I am? I'm not here to impress this woman with my clothes. Casting a quick glance down, she noticed that she had chosen sedate gray socks which now peeked out of the tops of her dark brown, ankle-length, work boots. Could be worse.

Leaning over so she could see her reflection in the large side-view mirror, she bent from the waist and tried to remove some of the white dust that had settled in her hair. Probably shouldn't spend the morning at the quarry when I'm meeting a new client. Especially one that lives in a place like this! She gave herself a stern look for giving in to negative thoughts. I'm gonna impress this client with my vision - not my image. When she had herself looking as presentable as she could manage, she checked her pocket watch which conveniently hung from a stainless steel carabiner on her wide leather belt. Right on time. I may be dirty, but I'm punctual.

Her heart was beating a little quickly, and she wiped her slightly damp hands on her shorts before taking in a calming breath, then ringing the buzzer on the gate. She rocked back and forth on her heels, trying to bleed off some of her nervous energy, and jumped noticeably when the gate rasped harshly and started to open. Act like you've been to a nice house before!

When she walked through the pedestrian gate, Clancy stood stock-still for a moment, enraptured by the magnificent home. It was her favorite style, an authentic Craftsman. Clad in weather-darkened brown shingles, its exposed rafter ends and knee braces under the long, low eaves gave the home a distinctive and distinguished look. A broad, deep porch ran the width of the house, the overhanging roof supported by massive, river-rock columns. The river-rock also covered the chimney and foundation, esthetically tying the large, rambling home together.

She knew the homeowner would be waiting, so she stopped staring and started walking. Her boots crunched over the leaves littering the macadam, and the profusion of flowers and shrubs calmed her a little by occupying her thoughts as she walked up the long, curving drive. This is the last place that needs a landscape architect. Maybe this isn't the right address. She was so mesmerized by the great variety and the uniqueness of the plants that dotted the property, she nearly collided with the woman standing on the top step of the porch. Clancy stumbled backwards, her foot missed the bottom step, and she was dumped unceremoniously onto her seat.

"Are you all right?" The woman's worried gaze searched Clancy from head to toe, then a pair of strong, sure hands reached for her and slid down from her shoulders to lightly grasp her elbows.

Biting back a curse at her clumsiness, Clancy nodded and tried to get to her feet, but the strong hands held her right where she was. "Are you sure you're all right? You shouldn't move until you're certain."

Her heart was still racing from adrenaline, and Clancy consciously tried to calm herself. "I'm fine. Clumsy and distracted, but fine."

The hands left her arms, and the woman stood, revealing her impressive stature. She looked at least eight feet tall, but Clancy realized that her perspective was skewed by her still sitting on her ass. Once the landscaper was standing, their heights were significantly equalized, and Clancy realized that her prospective client was only a couple of inches taller than she.

"Abigail Graham," the client said in a smooth, confident voice. "That first step is a doozy."

"Clancy O'Connor," the younger woman answered, shaking Abigail's hand. "I wish it were the steps. It's the stepper. I was looking at your flowers and forgot where I was. Who does your landscaping?"

"Oh, I use a nice young man - Refugio Lopez."

Clancy's eyebrow shot up. "I know Refugio, and he is a nice guy, but he's a 'mow, blow and go' guy. This was done by an artist."

Abigail shrugged, looking charmingly modest. "Oh, I thought you wanted to know who cut the grass. I, uhm … I suppose that I did the design."

"You did this?" Clancy turned and extended her hands, pointing at the lush garden. "And you're calling me for help with your landscape?"

With a laugh that was nearly musical, Abigail inclined her head and asked, "Do you really like it?"

"I love it! It's got everything that most landscape designs lack!"

"Such as?" the older woman asked, not so subtly begging for a compliment.

Warming even more to her subject, Clancy took a few steps and got down on her knees. She lovingly caressed a border of perennial shrubs, annual flowers, and a few bulbs - all clustered together. "Just in this one little patch you've got four seasons of color, six different shades of green, and five heights. There's enough visual interest in just this patch to attract and hold my attention for a good ten minutes! And this is just a tiny, tiny part of the border." She got up and gazed at Abigail with a wide smile. "You've got a real talent here, and I'm being completely honest when I wonder what you could possibly need me for."

Abigail beamed a smile that lit up her whole face, highlighting merrily dancing eyes. "You have no idea how much I needed that little boost today. Thank you."

Clancy cocked her head and took a long look at the woman, noting that she was quite attractive. But lurking right behind the bright eyes and wide smile, Clancy saw a pall of sadness. She was surprised when she felt an urge to boost the woman's spirits. "I do suck up to clients," she revealed, her voice dropping to a conspiratorial whisper, "but in this case, I don't have to."

Still grinning, Abigail said, "I'm gonna take that on faith and believe every word. Come on inside and we can talk."

Abby opened the door, and the younger woman led the way, turning to go to the kitchen when Abigail directed her to. As the landscaper walked in front of her, Abby shook her head and said to herself, She is by far the cutest little lesbian that I think I've ever seen! She let her eyes wander from the short, platinum-blonde hair with its dark roots showing, a style she'd recently noticed on the fatally hip Westside, down to the green safari shirt with the sleeves rolled up to expose tanned, muscular arms. She took in the shorts, where a pair of professional quality sheers and a fluorescent pink tape measure hung from leather holders on a wide belt. Abigail was sure the young woman was more than popular in the lesbian social scene in the San Gabriel Valley.

"I was surprised you didn't pull into the drive," Abigail commented.

Clancy took a few more steps, debating with herself. Truth? Ah, why not? She's already seen you fall on your ass. "I'm not used to working on homes this nice," she admitted, a slightly sheepish look on her face. "I've never even been to a home with a gated entrance, and I didn't know what I was supposed to do."

Abigail looked at the young woman again, charmed by her disarming honesty. "I think the gate is a little ostentatious to tell you the truth. But it does keep door-to-door salespeople from waking me up on a Saturday morning." They reached the kitchen, and she said, "Tell me all about yourself. I'd love to hear about your background."

"There's not much to tell," Clancy said, taking a stool at the breakfast bar. "I've had my license for two years, and I've been busy the whole time, but most of my jobs have been fairly small." She nodded when Abigail produced a pitcher of lemonade and watched the older woman move gracefully around the kitchen. "Honestly, I'm surprised that you found me. Where did you get my number?"

Abigail smiled and set a frosty glass in front of her. "From the Gay and Lesbian Yellow Pages."

She's gay? No way!

Abigail continued, "I make it a rule to support women professionals if I can." Her nose wrinkled in a grin as she added, "You were the only landscape architect in the book. By the way, I loved the little rainbow colored tree in your ad. That's a very cute touch."

"Thanks. I don't use it in all of my ads, since most straight people wouldn't understand the connection. That's my special gay people ad."

"Well, it really caught my eye." Abigail winked and added, "But again, you were the only architect."

Clancy barked out a laugh and said, "That's true, but there're several landscapers and garden designers listed. Did you consider them?"

"No. I wanted an architect. The job I want to have done is complex. The person I hire has to have the proper training and credentials."

Clancy looked at the woman carefully, letting her mind settle around the information she was learning about Abigail. The tall, thin woman looked fit and healthy, and Clancy guessed that she participated in some regular form of exercise. Her hair was short, and colored in an attractive salt and pepper, with pepper still winning the war. An unlined, tanned face, with a strong jaw and deep-set blue eyes made for a terrifically attractive package, and Clancy felt her heartbeat pick up again as she wondered if the woman was partnered. Deciding to go for broke, she tried to ask the question without being too obvious. "So, do you live alone?" she asked, nearly biting her tongue as the words tumbled out. You're not in a bar, you idiot! I thought you were gonna be subtle? Why don't you just ask her what her sign is and be done with it?

Another flash of pain washed across Abigail's face, and Clancy mentally kicked herself once again. The strong chin tilted down, and Abigail's eyes stared blankly towards the floor for just a moment. "Yes, I suppose I do live alone," she said quietly. She shook her head briefly, and Clancy was stunned to see a few tears slide down her cheek. Abigail wiped at them angrily, muttering, "I'm sorry. I've had a very tough weekend." She looked into Clancy's gray eyes and saw nothing but warm concern and found herself allowing some of her hurt to spill forth. "Yesterday was my birthday, and I'd been fantasizing that my daughter would come home and surprise me." She shook her head and muttered. "Silly."

"Where does she live?" Clancy asked gently.

"The poor thing is a freshman at UC Santa Cruz. She has finals soon, and I would've been upset with her if she'd spent the whole weekend traveling down here." Giving Clancy a slightly embarrassed glance, she said, "I set myself and my daughter up in a no-win situation. She wanted to come home, but I told her not to. She really pressed me, but I held firm. But then I kept imagining that she'd come anyway." She bit her lip to try to keep her emotions under control. "I've never been alone on my birthday. It was … much harder than I thought it'd be."

Clancy spared a quick look at Abigail's ring finger. The left hand was bare of adornment, and the landscaper tentatively asked, "Are you … single?"

With a sad smile, Abigail nodded. "My husband died five years ago … this week. Every year I've focused on the fact that it will be easier the next year. I thought that I'd be free of the grief by now." She shook her head slightly and said, "I'm not."

"Were you together long?" Clancy asked, forcing herself to get over her mild disappointment that the woman obviously wasn't a lesbian.

"Twenty years. We had twenty wonderful years together, and I have two wonderful children who constantly remind me of the love we shared." She looked away again and whispered hoarsely, "Sometimes all of that just isn't enough."

"I can't imagine," Clancy said. "It must be wonderful to have loved someone so much - but so hard to go on alone."

"It is," Abigail agreed. "I wouldn't trade the years we had together for anything on earth, but the devastation is much greater than I could've imagined." She sighed deeply and leaned over to wipe her eyes with her hands. When her body shifted, Clancy saw a simple gold band on a thin gold chain fall from her yellow and blue print blouse. Abigail tucked it back in and pasted on a wan smile. "You probably think that I'm unstable, but I swear you're the first complete stranger I've ever unburdened myself to. There's something about you that makes me babble away. Do you have this effect on everyone?"

Clancy shrugged and returned the smile. "I like talking to people. Always have. I used to spend my weekends in my mom's floral shop, chatting away with the customers."

"Ah, is that where you developed your love of flowers?"

"Yeah. I suppose so. Little did I know that all of those weekends would pay off some day."

"I'd be happy to sit in the kitchen and gab all day," Abigail said, "but I'm sure you have other appointments. Shall we take a look at the project I'm thinking of?"

"Sure. I blocked out three hours, so we're doing fine on time."

Abigail shot her a warm grin and said, "You must like to talk if you block your time so generously."

"Well, the first meeting is the most important one, so I like to spend as much time as possible to get to know both the project and the client. If you like me, and we can reach an agreement on the project, that's half the battle."

"We're halfway there already," Abigail said, and Clancy grinned with genuine pleasure at the thought that this lovely woman already liked her.

When Abigail opened the double French doors in the rear of the kitchen, a pair of dogs raced into the room like twin bolts of lightning. Ignoring their owner, they made their way to Clancy, tails wagging so quickly they were mere blurs. Clancy immediately sank to the floor, exclaiming in delight, "What do we have here?"

"These," Abigail said, "are the result of a suggestion my grief counselor made. She thought that bringing some new life into the house would help us get through some of the rough patches. We picked them up three years ago - also this week," she added. "My counselor thought it would give us a boost to get through the anniversary of my husband's death." Speaking in an excited voice, she said, "We've got to have a celebration, girls!"

At the sound of her voice, the dogs started jumping, then spinning around in tight circles. Both women laughed at their exuberance, and when the pups heard Clancy's laugh, they set upon her with a vengeance.

"What kind of dogs are they?" Clancy asked, giggling as her face was licked in a mad frenzy.

"They're Portuguese Water Dogs," Abigail said. "I can make them stop if you mind."

"Not a bit. I love dogs." She looked at the pair and saw some vague similarity, and wondered aloud, "Are they related?"

"They're from the same litter," Abigail said. "Artemis here is a black and white parti-color with a wavy coat, and Athena is a black and white with a curly coat."

"Cute names," Clancy said. "Are you the goddess of the Amazons, puppy?" She tickled Artemis under the chin and laughed when Athena pushed her way past her sister to get some special attention.

"My daughter had a brief fascination with mythology," Abby said. "I put my foot down at Aphrodite for this one." She indicated the curlier dog. "I knew it would devolve into a nickname, and there was no way I was going to call the poor thing Aphro. Besides, I think Athena suits her better."

"They're adorable," Clancy said, sputtering as Athena gave her a wet lick right on the lips. "Friendly, too!"

"Yes," Abigail said, chuckling softly. "They're Portuguese dogs, but they love to French kiss."

"I've been out with women who weren't as skilled," Clancy said, getting to her feet with some difficulty. She heard the words come out of her mouth and visibly cringed. "Sorry," she mumbled. "That was …"

"Nonsense," Abby said. "I assumed you were gay when I called you, Clancy. It certainly doesn't bother me to have you refer to being with women." She saw the dogs begin to get too rambunctious, and she said in a firm voice, "Girls … leave Clancy alone for a moment. Down!" Both dogs gave her a quick look to ascertain her sincerity, and when they saw she meant business, they sat down right at Clancy's feet, waiting for permission to nibble on her again.

"Okay," Clancy said, looking slightly uncomfortable. To shift attention away from herself she bent to give each dog a pat on the head. "Well-mannered dogs."

"You have to have a firm hand with Porties, or they'll run the house. Oh … I hope you don't mind if I call you Clancy," she added. "I didn't even think to ask."

"Of course not. Do you like to be called Abigail?"

"Actually, why don't you call me Abby? All of my friends do."

"Okay, Abby. Let's take a look at this project."

They walked outside, and Abby pointed to a steeply rising slope and the old, faded, stockade fence running along the property line. "I want to have that fence taken down and put up a stucco wall."

"Okay, that's not too big a job," the architect said. "I'll just climb up and take a look." The hill was so steep that Clancy had to hold on to a few sturdy trees to get to the top, and she walked along the property line for a few minutes, getting a feel for the space.

When she came back down, Abby looked up at the fence and said wistfully, "I'd love to be able to put up a nice, short wooden fence, just tall enough to keep the dogs in. But a young family has moved in up there, and their kids stand at the fence and drive the dogs absolutely mad. It didn't bother me too much at first, since they hear them barking more than I do, but I saw a little hand sticking through a gap in the fence the other day, feeding the dogs God-knows-what, and I decided I had to do something."

"Have you talked to the parents?"

"No," Abby said, shaking her head. "I want to have good relations with them - so I'd rather just eliminate the problem."

They spent a solid hour discussing what Abby thought she needed, and Clancy took notes the entire time, scribbling drawings and short sentences in a large, rubber-covered notepad. Clancy saw Abby's curious glance and patted the day-glo orange book. "I work in the rain a lot. This keeps everything nice and dry."

"Looking at the way you dress, and the tools you carry, makes me have confidence in you," Abby said.

Grinning broadly, Clancy said, "I take my work very seriously, Abby. I haven't had any big commissions yet, but I will. I treat each project like it's my own house - I care."

"I can see that," the older woman said, noting the sincerity in Clancy's unflinching gaze.

The architect spent the next half-hour taking careful measurements with Abby eventually offering to help by taking notes for her. When she was finished, Clancy dusted herself off and said, "I'll work up a plan and get back to you by the end of next week. Does that sound good?"

"Perfect."

The homeowner started to walk her out, and when they got to the front porch, Clancy stood and stared out at the landscape, trying to take it all in. "If I lived here, I'd never get a thing done. I'd sit right on one of these comfy-looking chairs and let the world roll by while I watched my flowers grow."

"You know," Abby said, "that's exactly what I did on my birthday. I sat here most of the day, reflecting and letting the plants remind me of the cyclical nature of living things."

"Don't you have any other family, Abby? Any friends you could have spent the day with?"

Abby smiled at the woman, touched by her concern. "Oh, sure, I have a lot of friends. And I could have spent the whole day with them. I did agree to have dinner with several of my buddies, but I wanted some time alone."

"To think?"

"Exactly," she said. "I didn't use to be so introspective, but since my husband died, I spend more time than I probably should thinking about life … and death."

Giving the woman a smile, Clancy found herself saying, "It's good to spend time thinking about life 'cause we have a lot of power to make our lives better. But don't spend too much time thinking about death. It'll take care of itself."

Looking at the young woman for a few moments, Abby cocked her head and asked, "How are we doing on time?"

Taking a peek at her pocket watch, Clancy said, "I've got over an hour until my next appointment. Why?"

"How about joining me for lunch? We could sit out here and enjoy the plants."

"Lunch? Really?"

"Yeah. I'd love to spend some time with someone who appreciates the work I've done here. Most people just look at it and say, 'Nice lawn.'"

"You're on," Clancy said. "I could easily spend an hour talking about the fabulous drift of delphiniums you have on the little rise over by that beautiful ficus." She narrowed her eyes and said, "You created that rise, didn't you? Nice touch. I love to contour a flat expanse of lawn. It makes all of the difference in the world."

"You're my kinda woman," Abby said. Her face lit up in a smile that erased ten years. "Have a seat while I go make up a fruit and cheese platter." She paused and asked, "You do eat cheese, don't you?"

"Any kind, any time," Clancy said, settling down to take in the setting.

The hour passed far too soon, and Clancy stood and brushed some crumbs from her shirt. "That was one of the nicest lunch hours I've had since I started working. I normally stop for a taco or a hamburger - if I have time to stop at all."

"Call me the next time you're in the neighborhood," Abby said. "I'd love the company."

Laughing, Clancy said, "I'm not in the neighborhood very often, but I'd gladly go out of my way to do this again."

Abby stood and started to walk Clancy to her truck, both dogs trotting along companionably as they walked down the long drive. "Now, next time, pull up to the gate and give a honk. I've got a closed circuit camera so I can see who's waiting." As they approached the truck, the older woman chuckled slightly and said, "I think I'll be able to recognize you. You're the only person I know with a screaming yellow truck."

"She's my baby." Placing her hand lovingly on the top rail of the bed, Clancy said, "My first big purchase."

"It's lovely," Abby said, taking pleasure from the obvious pride that Clancy exhibited. She noted the neat cursive lettering on the door that read, "Clancy O'Connor Landscape Architect", and listed a phone number and website address. She felt a brief stab of longing to be young and just starting out like this young woman was, but she brushed the feelings aside and extended her hand. "It was a pleasure to meet you, Clancy. I look forward to working together."

I guess I got the job, the younger woman marveled. Unless I screw up the drawings or the quote! The pressure is on!

Clancy was sitting at her drafting table, chewing on the end of a drawing pencil, graph paper stuck to every horizontal surface. Her roommate, Michael, came up behind her and placed a hand on her shoulder, making her jump several inches. "Shit! I hate it when you scare me like that!"

"I swear that I don't try to sneak up on you," the man protested. "You just concentrate so hard that you don't hear me come in."

"What are you doing home this early anyway?" she asked absently, her attention already split between him and her drawings.

"It's 8:15," he said. "That's not early."

She grabbed her watch and tilted it so she could see the face. "You're shitting me!"

"Nope. What are you working on, anyway? You've been tied to that chair every night this week."

"I'm doing the plans for that woman that lives on the Arroyo," she mumbled, a little embarrassed to have spent as much time on the plans as she had.

"You're working hard enough to re-landscape the Rose Bowl," he said. "What's up with this job?"

She sighed, and rubbed her weary eyes with the back of a hand. "This is the biggest job I've ever had, Michael. This woman's obviously wealthy, and I bet she's got a lot of connections. There are a lot of people out there who'd probably love to hire me if they knew about me. I just haven't had a way to get a toehold with the movers and shakers. This woman might help me get there."

"I hope it works for you, baby," he said, ruffling his hand through her short hair.

"Thanks," she said, placing her hand atop his and giving it a pat. "I know you're my biggest fan."

"Is this mover and shaker … available?" Michael asked.

"Yes … kinda … and she's just my type."

"Oh, Lord, don't tell me," he said, rolling his eyes. "Does she have all of her own teeth?"

She slapped at him playfully. "I don't like them old! She's mature," she sniffed.

"She's old," he decided. "Come on … how old is she?"

"I'm not sure, but she's got a daughter in college." She shrugged at Michael's raised eyebrow and said, "I know you think it's a neurosis, but I happen to prefer women who've seen the world and know what they want from it."

"You," he teased, tweaking her nose, "prefer women who've seen the Second World War. But I still love you."

"I love you too, Michael. And I think Abby might have seen the Viet Nam war, but that's as far as I'll go. She might be, oh … thirty-nine or forty. I'm sure she's younger than my parents."

"Oh, that's reassuring," he said, laughing. "Now take your nose out of those drawings and join me for a quick dinner."

She rubbed her empty stomach and said, "I didn't have lunch today. Good thing I've got a few spare pounds to carry me over."

He looked at her critically. "You've got a few spare muscles, but other than that, you can't afford to lose an ounce." He started to walk into the kitchen, then stopped to say, "You said she was kinda available. What's that mean?"

"She probably thinks she's straight," Clancy said, wrinkling up her nose. "But she's a widow so she's clearly available."

"Oh, God," he moaned. "Why don't you make things tough, Clance? Turning an old widow into a lesbian who's hot for you is just too easy!"

Clancy sat at the circular kitchen table, nervously smoothing out her plans. She had the drawings facing herself, not yet ready to share them with Abby. Clearing her throat, she began. "I've drawn a few different ideas, and I've written up an estimate for each of them. Ready to take a look?"

"I am," Abby said, her excitement obvious. "Let's see what you've got."

Clancy turned the first drawing around and showed Abby the wall just as the homeowner had envisioned it. "Here's the stucco wall," she said. "Nothing fancy, but very functional."

"This looks just fine," Abby said. "I can plant some climbing plants, and in a few years, it won't look so stark. What's the estimate?"

"I could do this for around $17,500 - painted, of course."

Raising an eyebrow, Abby paused for a moment, then nodded. "Okay, what else do you have?"

"Even though you said you wanted a plain wall, I thought a big expanse of white stucco could look awfully harsh. So I added this nice ceramic tile cap. Every ten feet, I put in a window of four glass blocks," she noted. "That way the kids and the dogs can see each other, but not touch each other. I thought it would look best to have the same ceramic tiles as the cap bracket the glass blocks, just to finish it off."

Abby was staring at the design, studying it intently. "Well, first off, let me compliment you on the drawing. It's so lifelike, I could believe it was a photograph."

Clancy shrugged and said, "I like to draw. I considered art school, but one day I realized that the only things I ever drew were trees and plants. Being a landscape architect allows me to merge all of my interests." She gave Abby an endearing grin and said, "Well, not all of them - but most of them."

Abby shook her head thinking, I can't believe how cute she is. I want to pinch that adorable little cheek!

Clancy cleared her throat and tapped her pencil on the drawing. "What do you think of the design?"

"Inspired," Abby said. "The details you've added prevent it from looking like a big monolith."

"That's the idea," Clancy said, her excitement growing. "You have a lot of property here, and this large a stucco wall could look a little fortress-like."

Abby shuddered. "That's the last thing I want. How much would this cost?"

"With all of the details, this would run you about $20,000 if you don't go crazy on the tiles." She held her breath, hoping that the price wasn't more than Abby was willing to spend.

"Are you quite sure of that, Clancy?" the older woman asked, gazing into the architect's eyes with a curious look on her face.

Oh, shit! Oh, shit! I've already got it pared down to the point where I'll be lucky to break even! "Uhm … yeah, I'm pretty sure … but I could look at it again and see if I can get the price down …"

Abby held up a hand to stop her. "Either you're seriously underbidding, or the other architect I consulted was very overpriced. He gave me a quote of $25,000 - and that was for plain stucco - unpainted," she added.

Clancy's face flushed, and she felt herself searching for words. "I … I …"

"Clancy," Abby said, her voice low and quiet, "how much profit did you factor into your quote?"

Why do I insist on telling this woman the truth? "I wasn't gonna make much on the job," she admitted. Looking into Abby's eyes, she told her everything. "Making a profit isn't the most important thing to me on this job. Doing such good work that you'll tell all of your friends about me is what matters. I need more jobs like this, Abby, and I hope that you'll help me get them."

Abby nodded briefly, accepting the explanation for the moment. "Show me what else you have hidden there."

With a definite gleam in her eyes, Clancy pulled out the next design. "This one occurred to me when I spent some time considering the entire property. You didn't happen to notice me hanging out by the gate earlier in the week, did you?" she asked, grinning charmingly.

"No, but I'm miffed that you didn't tell me you were coming. I would've loved to have had lunch with you again."

"It was about 6:00 a.m., Abby. I wanted to see your yard when the dew was still on the grass. That's my favorite time of day, and it's when everything looks the softest."

"Something else we have in common," Abby said. "I usually sit on the back patio in the morning. Listening to the birds perks up my whole day."

Clancy realized she was giving the woman a very goofy grin, and she forced herself to get back to business. "I really like this design, but it's a much more expensive option." She turned the drawing around, pointing out the neat river rock pattern. "This mirrors the columns you have coming up the front stairs, and the short wall in the front yard," she said. "It ties the entire property together - and softens the line of demarcation between the front and the back."

"Nice," Abby said, trailing the tip of her finger lightly over the various elements of the drawing. "Very nice," she added, when she met Clancy's sparkling gray eyes.

"This one will almost double the price," Clancy added, wincing a little as she made the statement.

Abby nodded and grasped the edge of the paper, lifting it just an inch. "I see more under there. If you're saving it for last, it must be your favorite."

"This is a pipe dream," Clancy said, "but I couldn't resist drawing it. I was thinking about what you said about the kids and how the dogs went a little nuts with them. Then I figured that the noise of the kids alone might be more than you wanted to hear."

"I've tried to keep my 'Old Lady Graham' image well-hidden," Abby admitted, "but there're times I want to stand on the back patio and scream, 'SHUT UP, YOU LITTLE MONSTERS!'"

Clancy laughed at the image of the elegant, refined woman doing just that. "Would you have a rolling pin in your hand?"

"Or a broom," Abby decided, joining in with her laugh.

"Well, this last idea would drown out the sounds of the pitter patter of little feet," Clancy said. She unveiled the drawing, smiling when she heard a delighted purr come from Abby's lips.

"Oh, Clancy," she moaned, "this is fabulous." In the drawing, the river rock wall gave way to a number of large boulders piled atop one another. The boulders eventually leveled out to create a small pool about halfway down the hill. The overflow from the small pond cascaded down the rest of the way to pour into the swimming pool. Abby found herself mesmerized by the drawing, her eyes lingering on the stream of blue water that splashed into the pool, creating a series of ripples that skimmed across the glassy surface. "I've always wanted to live by the water," she sighed. "It never dawned on me that I could have the water come to me." She made eye contact with the young woman and said, "This is the one I want. How much will it cost me?"

Clancy swallowed and said, "The absolute best I can do is $75,000."

Abby nodded, her lower lip sticking out for a moment. "How long will it take you?"

"Hard to say. Probably most of the summer. I wouldn't count on much privacy this season."

"I wouldn't mind that, but I know that Hayley, my daughter, is planning on lying by the pool all summer. I hate to take that away from her."

"Well, if you're not in a hurry, we could really take our time," Clancy said. "We could wait until we had all of the boulders picked out and make sure we were ready to go before we broke ground."

"That could work," Abby said. "I could clear out a space on the side of the house, and we could store everything there. Then we could start work closer to the end of the summer."

"That'd be great for me," Clancy said. "I'm much busier in the summer than I am in the fall."

Abby fixed her with her steady gaze again and asked, "How much profit for you in this job?"

"None," she mumbled, staring down at the table.

"We have a deal," Abby said, "as long as you add in your usual fee for your services."

"What?"

"You heard me," Abby said. "I want you to be personally involved, and you won't be able to do that if you're scrounging for cash. I promise I'll give you as many recommendations as you can handle, but I won't be able to live with myself if you're out there working for nothing. That's my final offer."

Clancy let out a very relieved breath and extended her hand. With a smile as wide as her lips could handle, she said, "You've got a deal."

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