The second floor apartment in the brownstone building, Gina had decided, was everything she’d hoped for. True, the walls almost groaned with embarrassment under the peeling wallpaper, circa 1960. And the possibly beige carpets were decidedly threadbare. And the glass-fronted cupboards in the mini-kitchen swung open every time a truck rumbled by. But the apartment had atmosphere (Gina wasn’t counting the garlic scents drifting down the exterior corridor), and above all, it had a crazy large front room – perfect for designing, cutting and sewing. She hoped that the frenetic pace and harsh lines of the city wouldn’t dampen her inspiration. But if she wanted a career, New York was the place to be.
With a little hard work, the apartment’s flaws would all be fixable. The lines were lovely – and to Gina’s eyes, the lines were the underpinning of beauty. She was all about beauty. With her carefully hoarded nest egg, Gina was determined to take the fashion world by storm.
But today, there wasn’t a lot of beauty in her life, she thought ruefully. The shower in the dirt-cheap motel hadn’t worked and she was still grimy and rumpled from the long drive from Minnesota. But she was here at last.
With careful attention, she maneuvered the rental truck into the alleyway behind the brownstone. It was too close for comfort.
“I need some wide open plains,” she muttered nervously. The truck hit a pot hole, bounced, and with a curse, she realized the fender had smacked open a gate in one of the high board fences. Maybe no one would notice?
For a few seconds, Gina rested her forehead on the steering wheel. “It could be worse,” she told herself. “I could be stuck on the highway…I could be stuck at home! And I will deal with the big, bad city…and its justifiably angry inhabitants.”
Swinging down from the cab, Gina squeezed herself between the truck and the fence. Fumbling with anxiety and the day’s heat, she tried to pull the gate closed and muttered curses on trucks, narrow laneways, and old latches. Instead of fastening, the gate swung inward.
Gina gasped. Before her lay a garden, as luscious and alive and hidden as was possible in the dusty caves of the old buildings. Her eyes drank in the drifting scents and rioting color. Unable to help herself, feeling like she had been given water in the desert, she simply walked in. Her sneakers made no indentation on the moss-lined path winding among flowers and shrubs. A fern-hugged fountain gurgled invitingly; exhausted by the drive and thrilled with unexpected beauty, Gina sank onto a stone bench facing it.
As her eyes strayed over the color and contrasts, she began picturing the same colors on drapes of fabric, imagined a whole line of garden-inspired garments to contrast with the cold, sterile fashions that were in vogue this season. The life and growth around her dazzled…and inspired.
It was then that she saw him. A man, tall, broad-shouldered and almost Italian looking, leaned on a shovel and with a sardonic smile, watched her. Smothering the squeak that rose in her throat, Gina jumped up, ineffectively trying to wipe the sweat off her forehead with the back of her arm. For someone supposedly in the business of beauty, she was a disaster.
“Um…sorry,” Gina stumbled. “I’m trying to move in…”
The man’s eyes, intensely brown, lit up with laughter. “I don’t remember advertising for a roommate.”
With the heat rushing up her neck and cheeks, Gina decided she had better come clean. “No…I’m sorry. I’m just moving in next door and I was trying to get my truck to where I could unload my belongings. I…um…bumped open your gate...and then I saw this.” She gestured around and her face lit up. “Beautiful. Unbelievably beautiful. And I never expected it. Not here.”
“One of the city’s best-kept secrets.” He propped his shovel against a tree winding upwards against the wall and came forward, hand extended. “I’m Dave Marcus, clearly your next door neighbor.”
Gina wiped her hand on her jeans and clasped his. So warm and firm with callouses giving a sense of strength. For a moment she simply stood, electricity seeming to jolt up her arm, into her heart. Their eyes held a few seconds longer than necessary, and then she broke away. He stared down at her, eyes warm but expression hard to read.
“So, neighbor,” he said finally. “Do you need a little help moving your belongings?”
“I should say no,” Gina confessed, “but I only have three hours before the truck has to go back, and maybe I’m a little bit desperate.”
Dave laughed. “And here I am, short on my damsel in distress quota for the week. It was meant to be.”
With the summer heat and dust causing rivulets to run down their faces and backs, they got Gina’s bed, dresser and precious cutting table and sewing machines up to the second floor apartment. When she forced open the bedroom shutters, Gina saw that her window overlooked Dave’s garden.
“This is so perfect,” she breathed.
“Yes,” he murmured behind her.
She turned and looked up into his face. Again, that jolt of electricity ran between them, a thrill as intense as inspiration and beauty. More than simple attraction…much more.
He cleared his throat. “I happen to have a very nice Chianti that needs to be tasted…and there are some fine take out restaurants around here. Can I interest you in dinner…in a welcome to the neighborhood way?”
“Yes,” Gina said. Breathe, dummy, she told herself.
Dave grinned. “Then I’ll see you around seven?”
The truck returned, the shower blissfully functional, Gina ransacked her suitcases for her favorite dress – classy but casual. And, she admitted to herself, pretty darn sexy in a subtle way. It was her best creation so far.
At two minutes to seven, she rang Dave’s door. It opened promptly as though he had been waiting for her.
“I thought you might enjoy eating in the garden,” he said, leading her down the long, perfectly appointed hallway. His kitchen was a masterpiece of design, and through the French doors, the garden with its colors and scents formed a living backdrop of sensual pleasure.
The table on the flagstone patio was already set with linens, wineglasses, and a selection of take-out food containers.
Gina laughed in pure delight.
“Another evening,” Dave said, taking her hand gently, “I’ll cook a feast for you.”
Gina squeezed his hand in return and gazed around her. When Dave uncorked the waiting bottle and poured the wine into her glass, she held it up. “To new neighbors,” she toasted.
“And to the promise of so much more,” Dave replied.
A breeze stirred the foliage, a bird chirruped a song, and Gina sat back, feeling that she had at last come home.