Kneeling between the pale green rows, Clare Harmon gently pressed the roots back in the earth and sighed. They couldn't afford to lose their first spring crop. She'd have to dust the plants and hope for the best.
"Isaac! Do we have any bacteria dust in the shed?"
No answer. She rocked back on her heels, wiping her hands down denim-clad thighs as she looked up for the half-dozen men and boys working the Neighborhood Garden Project this morning. They hung on the chain fence that surrounded the lot, drawn by the commotion across the street and the Channel Five news truck parked by the curb. Clare watched as the camera crew, in jeans and polo shirts, snaked wires across the littered strip of grass. The female correspondent, her frosted bob immobile in the light March wind, checked her makeup one last time before taking up her position along the concrete walk that led to the unimposing bungalow.
Isaac, the project's team boss, snorted. "Man, who do they think's moving in over there? The mayor?"
Another gardener, who should have been unloading strawberry plants, poked him in the side. "Naw. It's Supercop, playing house in the 'hood. Don't you read the paper?"
Until Clare hired him four months ago, Isaac had been living out and sleeping rough. He grinned. "I been sleeping under the paper, man. Don't have time to read it."
That raised a laugh. Stifling her own smile, Clare climbed to her feet. "We've got twenty flats of bare-root strawberries here to get in by two o'clock," she called. "Can I see some action, please?"
Isaac swung around. "Truck ain't brung around yet."
Clare planted her hands on her hips. She'd taken Isaac on right before Christmas, when she'd found him sleeping in her shed. Since then he'd earned both her respect and the position of team boss. Isaac was one of her successes, one justification for her difficult decision to move into this neighborhood. But the satisfaction she felt didn't mean she could let up on him now.
"So, who do you figure is responsible for that?" she asked.
He scratched his head under the navy knit cap he always wore. "Guess I am." Tugging off his gloves, he headed for the driveway.
Satisfied, she nodded. "We need mulch," she told the team. "And the rototiller's broken again, so..."
A groan interrupted her. "That's right," she said cheerfully. "We'll be digging trenches. I'll get it fixed, guys. Promise. As soon as we get some money."
Which wouldn't be any time soon, she thought, striding in search of bacteria dust to infect the worms. The spring crops wouldn't bring in any income for another three weeks, and her corporate angels had financed the project only through the winter.
The first year hadn't been so bad. She'd still had Paul's insurance money then. Dazed with grief and driven by frustration, she simply hadn't worried about the project's finances. She was more practical now.
Too bad the news hounds couldn't be bothered to flush out a few donations, she thought, glancing across the street. But obviously they were baying after some more sensational story. Who cared about one rundown neighborhood in Buchanan, North Carolina?
Paul had, she remembered. And now it was up to his widow to cultivate the deserted lots and abandoned properties of the southeast side. To give at-risk kids a chance to grow and bloom. And to kill the cabbage worms.
Propping open the shed door with a broken pot, she dragged out the sack of dust. Being strong didn't change the fact that she was built like a rake. And a short rake, at that. As she tugged and wrestled with the forty-pound bag, the project's battered green flatbed truck groaned around the corner, signaling Isaac's return with the strawberries.
Clare blotted the sweat from her upper lip with the back of one grimy hand. The immature plants really ought to be unloaded in the shade. She turned to direct Isaac up the drive just as some idiot in an over-size rental truck rumbled up and blocked the way.
She dropped the sack. "Hey!"
The cab door opened and a pair of scuffed black cowboy boots descended on the street. Big boots. Long legs in black jeans followed them down. A dark-haired giant with broad shoulders, a powerful chest and lean, long-boned thighs stepped out from behind the truck door.
Big man. She swallowed. He wore a black T-shirt and a killer smile. Propping a massive forearm in the open window of the truck, he directed the smile her way.
"Problem, sugar?" he drawled.
The gleam in his eyes suggested he didn't give a damn if he caused a problem or not.
Cocky, Clare decided. And tough. With his black eyes and wicked grin, he was also one of the sexiest men she'd ever seen.
She set her jaw. She'd come a long way from the sheltered young wife of a rising legal star. She was used to cocky now, and she could handle tough. She didn't want sexy.
As for calling her sugar...! It might just be a thoughtless Southernism, but Clare's size made her intolerant of large men who used patronizing endearments. She'd worked hard for her crew's acceptance and harder for her own self-respect. This cowboy could take his "sugar" and stick a spoon in it.
She wiped her hands on her back pockets. "You're blocking the drive."
Work stopped on the strawberry trenches.
He didn't move. He glanced up the graveled strip that separated her house from the lot before his dark, dismissive gaze returned to her face.
"I don't see your car," he said.
She jerked her chin to the street where Isaac hung out the window of the project truck, trying to catch their exchange. She couldn't back down. Her team was watching. She kept control on the lot like a lion tamer: Show no fear and, when necessary, crack the whip.
"My truck," she said. "Move it, cowboy."
Matt Dunn eyed the militant pixie before him with amusement. Nobody bossed him. Nobody dared. He needed to unload the truck somewhere, and the media buzzards across the street had blocked access to his new house. When Will, his ex-partner, had called to say he'd be late, Matt had finished loading on his own, straining the healing wound in his thigh and making the muscles in his whole left leg twist in sympathy.
He ignored the pulse throbbing against his bandage to smile at the pixie, his mood unexpectedly lightened. How often did a guy his size get dressed down by Tinkerbell?
"I need a place to park," he said, keeping his tone reasonable. Mild, even. "But I'll pull up while you get your truck in."
"And when I need to get my truck out?"
Lord, she was prickly. "Then I'll get out of your way. Deal?"
She nodded, a quick, decisive movement that tumbled her short, straight hair into her eyes. A redhead, he noted. It figured.
An excited voice rose across the street. "There he is!"
"Detective Sergeant Dunn!"
Matt braced as cameras whirled and microphones bobbed along the curb like long-necked geese. The anchorwoman in a powder blue power suit started purposefully across the narrow street, trailing wires and support personnel behind her. Connie Cameron, Buchanan's own answer to Diane Sawyer. Damn.
Tinkerbell blinked. "What's going on?"
He should've figured he wouldn't get in without a lot of fuss. Mayor Robert Hunt would be delighted by the free publicity his hire-a-hero was generating for Buchanan's new community policing program. Hell, knowing the mayor, he'd probably arranged the coverage himself. It was just Matt's rotten luck that he was going to have to smile and make nice for Camera Connie and her crew when all he wanted to do was drag his carcass to a chair and drown the throbbing in his leg with beer.
He rubbed the back of his neck to relieve the tension building there. "'Meet the Press'?" he suggested wryly.
Her eyes flicked back to his. This time he thought he saw a gleam-of sympathy? of humor?-in the whiskey brown depths. He felt the kick of attraction and took a mental step back. He couldn't afford a distraction right now.
But her voice was cool, almost antagonistic. "Just keep them out of my cabbages."
He grinned at her. "I'll see what I can do."
The bouffant blonde in blue reached them, claiming him with rose-colored talons. "Matthew Dunn, you look wonderful! How's the leg? Do you have a minute?"
"Hello, Connie. Not really. Got to move my truck."
"Oh, no. I'm not letting you get away from me again." She squeezed his arm, smiling for the camera. "Tell me about Mayor Hunt's new community policing program, Matt. Do you really believe it can end the gang activity in our neighborhoods?"
Hell, no. He'd seen too much to believe anything could do that. But he knew better than to say so in front of Connie and her crew. He knew the lengths she would go to for a story, her ability to manufacture a sound bite. The men on the fence listened in, no doubt waiting for him to say something stupid. The little redhead had stepped back and was watching them with grave, assessing eyes.
"Studies have shown that community involvement can be effective in deterring crime," he said carefully. "Mayor Hunt believes it can work here."
"But don't those programs involve cops on the beat?" Connie persevered. "Why choose a detective to launch the program here?"
Good question. Matt himself had requested-argued-for his old place on the street the instant his sick leave was up. But Will's retirement had left him without a partner, and the department doc had nixed his return to regular duty for another three months. So, the chief had jettisoned him into strange waters without Will at his side, leaving him to flounder alone with a bum leg and a hopeless assignment.
Swallowing his frustration, he said easily, "That's really a question you'd have to ask Mayor Hunt."
"What about your credibility in the neighborhood? Do you think your high media profile after the Miller case affected the mayor's decision?"
She should know, Matt reflected bitterly. Channel Five's news van had reached the convenience store almost as soon as the black and whites. He'd never planned on being a hero. He and Will had been coming off shift when they'd stopped for coffee and walked in on a robbery gone bad. The perp had fired at the cashier and snatched a ten-year-old girl by the candy counter. While Matt negotiated with the pin-pupiled junkie for the girl's release, news crews had been interviewing her terrified mother, inflating her kidnapper's ego and desperation along with their five o'clock ratings. The coverage had been the last straw for Will's wife, anxiously watching at home.
Matt took a deep breath. "Like I said, you'd have to ask-"
A horn blared behind them. Matt looked up the street. Tinkerbell, apparently fed up with waiting, had climbed into the cab of the flatbed truck. Stretching to peer through the dusty windshield, she pointed meaningfully at the blocked driveway. He could have kissed her.
"Sorry," he told the reporter. "Gotta move my truck."
He winced getting in, and then smiled into his rearview mirror as the tiny redhead maneuvered her battered vehicle around and into the graveled strip. How could she see over the dashboard and reach the pedals at the same time? The movement of the two trucks along the narrow street displaced the camera crew and threatened the sides of the shiny white news van. Matt reversed, bumping over coiled cable. Instead of parking along the curb, he pulled in the drive, behind the flatbed.
The little driver was waiting for him when he stepped down. He grinned at her. Whether she knew it or not, she'd done him a favor.
"Thanks for the space."
She quirked a slim red eyebrow. "You looked like you needed some."
So she did know, Matt thought in appreciation. He held out his hand. "Matt Dunn."
She wiped her palm on the back of her jeans before she offered it. Her hand was small and delicate, with surprising calluses along the palm and crescents of dirt under the nails. The contrast intrigued him. The woman intrigued him.
He shook his head, bemused by the direction his thoughts had taken. Maybe things hadn't worked out with his previous girlfriends, but at least they'd all been lookers. Tinkerbell was not his type. Too thin. And yet he found his eyes tracing the shape of her breasts under the plain white T-shirt she wore.
"Clare Harmon." Coloring faintly, she retrieved her hand from his clasp and glanced behind him at the moving truck. "Welcome to the neighborhood."
He was surprised. In spite of her work-worn denim, Clare Harmon didn't look like she belonged around here. He could more easily imagine her playing tennis in one of the fancy new subdivisions just outside Buchanan, or sipping a latte in the reconstructed shopping district downtown. It was the educated Yankee accent, he decided. The orthodontically perfect teeth. The straight little nose, and the way she tipped back her head to look down it. Idly, he wondered if she maintained that bright and well-brought-up attitude in bed.
"You live around here?"
"Live and work." She nodded from the small double-story house that bordered one side of the drive to the fenced lot on the other. "I run the Neighborhood Garden Project."
A do-gooder, Matt recognized, dismayed. Somebody should have told him. Warned him. He felt like he'd just whistled at a nun. Nice girls had no place in a neighborhood like this. And he had neither the time nor the inclination to mess with some pretty little girl next door. Hadn't a string of soured relationships taught him anything? He didn't have what it took to keep a woman happy, especially not some red-haired social reformer.
Besides, her presence across the street could complicate his new assignment. He was here to ride herd on the bad guys, not baby sit a debutante with time on her hands.
He took a step back.
Clare registered his withdrawal without understanding its cause. "We won't bother you," she assured him. "This is really one of our smallest lots. I've only got two crews working it, and the afternoon shift is mostly moms who take payment in kind. Fruits and vegetables in season." He was looking at her as if she'd just announced they made ritual blood sacrifices to the moon. "You have something against vegetables?"
"They're all right," he answered slowly. "In their place."
She had the uneasy feeling they were communicating in code and she'd misplaced the phrase book. Maybe her very awareness of the man was messing up her signals. After three long years without her feminine radar registering so much as a blip, his masculine charge lit her screens like incoming missiles over the desert.
She told herself to ignore it. "You sound like a meat-and-potatoes man," she said lightly.
The killer smile glimmered again. "Let's say vegetables weren't a big part of meals when I was growing up. Unless you're willing to count the Mad Irish Revenge on Peas."
She hadn't expected humor from a guy who looked like a martial arts movie poster. "The what?"
"Boiled until gray," he explained. "My dad's suspicious of anything green on the dinner table."
Clare felt herself smiling. "How does he feel about cabbages?"
He glanced over her head. "That's what you grow here?"
She nodded, relieved to get back to business. "The cool season vegetables went in at the beginning of the month. Broccoli, spinach, cabbage..." She laughed at his grimace.
"You wait. You might develop a taste for it."
His gaze flickered briefly to her mouth before he shook his head once in negation.
Dismissal. "Thanks for letting me pull in your drive. Let me clear off that crew across the street and I'll be out of your way."
"All right," Clare said. "Need help?"
"No." His smile blazed briefly. "No, thanks."
Frowning, she watched him walk to the back of the truck and across the narrow road.
What she'd taken as a swagger was actually a limp. He stopped by the open window of the news van, exchanging a few words with the driver. She saw his teeth flash in a grin and the van roll forward. The blond correspondent detained him for a few minutes and then patted his arm, wrapping up for the camera.
He hadn't needed her intervention, Clare thought, faintly chagrinned. He didn't need her help. That was fine with her. She'd redefined herself as a woman with a mission. She didn't have time to waste on a macho man with an attitude problem. She had strawberry plants to unload.