There was a strange man in her yard. Aaliyah looked out the window one more time before she reached over for the phone sitting by her bed to call the police. She was dialing the last digit when she remembered calling the Torres Landscaping Company for a gardener the day before. Putting down the receiver, Lia pulled the curtain back and actually looked to see what the man was doing. As she’d suspected, he was watering her apple tree.
She’d seen many crazies since her parents moved back to Cape Verde. Everyone wanted to see the princess living in the castle. It got old, fast. Breathing a sigh of relief and shrugging on her jacket, she called for Darling, her spunky, albeit inefficient, guard dog.
“How’d you let him get as far as the garden before waking me up,” she asked Darling.
The dog looked up at her and then barking once, started growling at the door as if she had just noticed there was someone outside.
Aaliyah shook her head. “Completely useless…if you weren’t so damn cute…” She walked out the door with Darling behind her to go investigate.
As Lia got closer to the garden, she heard someone – presumably the gardener – mumbling. She rounded the stone arch entrance to the orchard and finally spotted him. “Are you talking to my tree?”
He looked up at her and smiled. “Yeah, trees are living things and all things like to be acknowledged every once and a while, right?” He held out his hand. “Good morning, I’m Antonio. You called for a gardener yesterday and here I am. You are Ms. Shelby, right?”
Aaliyah just smiled and stared. Wow. He is… Hmmm. Wow. Now, she was not the type to swoon and she definitely believed in, I AM WOMAN. HEAR ME ROAR. But this man was beautiful.
“Uh hello, are you okay?” Antonio waved his hand in front of her face.
“What? Oh, yeah. I’m okay. The uh… Sun was in my umm… Eye and I, uh -,” Aaliyah had no idea what she was saying.
He laughed. “It’s alright. Happens to me all the time.”
She blushed furiously and muttered something that sounded like “cops” and “useless dog” and retreated back into the house.
It wasn’t until she was in the kitchen that she realized Antonio had followed her in. Turning around she asked, “So, you’re a gardener?”
I mean, come on! At this rate, she would make a complete fool of herself.
Antonio gave her a funny look. “Yeah, sometimes. I wear many hats. I have a couple of questions for you if you don’t mind.”
Deciding not to open her mouth unless absolutely necessary, Aaliyah nodded.
Sitting at the library that evening, Aaliyah tried reading but all she could think about was Antonio. That man redefined gorgeousness. And he was funny. That morning they had hashed out what landscaping work needed to be done and he’d promised to stop by the next day with some preliminary sketches. By only saying a few words, she had managed not to make too much of a fool of herself – he must have thought she wasn’t very bright.
“Well, better to be thought an idiot than to open my mouth and confirm it,” she muttered.
“You do that a lot don’t you,” a voice asked from behind her.
Aaliyah turned around and saw Antonio standing behind the couch she was sitting on. Trying not to show her surprise, she stood up and put the book aside. “Do what?”
“Mutter to yourself.” He grinned at her.
“Product of being the oldest child of four.” She looked up at him. “Hello again.”
They stood there for a minute before she asked, “What are you doing here?”
“There’s a reading of Kim Berley’s new book, Color Us Different: A Rainbowcy. And you? There you go again.”
Aaliyah caught herself staring. He had the strongest jawline she had ever seen. “I’m sorry, what?”
Antonio chuckled. “Do you always space out when someone talks to you or is it just me?”
She rolled her eyes. This was just ridiculous. She couldn’t even hold a conversation with the man now. At least he hadn’t guessed the real reason she was being a ditz. “I’m sorry. It’s been a really long day and I think I’m just hungry.”
“Well, the reading doesn’t start for another hour, do you want to go grab something to eat?”
Wait. Was he asking her out? “Umm, sure. If you don’t think you’ll miss anything important.”
They decided to go to the diner and grab something quick since he had to be back at the library in an hour.
“So, you have three younger siblings?” Antonio asked between bites of food.
“Yeah, and an older brother, but he passed away when I was very young.”
“I’m sorry to hear that,” he said.
Aaliyah shrugged. “It’s alright, it was a very long time ago and I don’t remember him at all. What about you, any siblings?”
“None that I know of. My parents never had children of their own.” He must have seen the confused look on her face because he added, “I’m adopted.”
“Oh. How old were you when that happened?”
A frown appeared on Antonio’s forehead. “Around four or five. There was a car accident. My birth father died on impact but my mother managed to get me out and to safety. Thank goodness for car seats, right? Anyway, from what I was told she died at the hospital a couple of hours later.”
“I’m so sorry.” Aaliyah didn’t really know what to say to that. To have no memory of her mom or dad? She couldn’t even imagine it.
He shook his head, “No need to be sorry. It was a long time ago and my adoptive parents were amazing. But enough about me, tell me about your family.”
Aaliyah shifted uncomfortably in her seat. She really didn’t like talking about her family and was always wary of people who seemed overtly interested. Whenever she started to explain why she lived in a castle and who her parents were, people automatically made assumptions about her that were mostly untrue.
“They are amazing,” she began. “My parents truly believe that each child deserves the opportunity to receive a good education and have a chance in this world. They love science and technology and have dedicated their lives to increasing resources for educators and organizations that have the same vision and goals as they do.”
Sitting back in her chair, Aaliyah continued. “My brothers are polar opposites of each other. The oldest – he’s just a year younger than me – is so serious. He’s more like our parents than I am. AJ, the younger one, is the epitome of a party animal. I’ve never seen him take anything seriously. Then there’s Kandy. I’m not sure what she’s like. We have a nine-year gap between us and it’s hard to figure her out.”
She stopped speaking as she noticed him staring at her. “What? Do I have something stuck in my teeth?”
“No.” Antonio said, chuckling, “You’re very passionate about your family.”
If he kept this up, Aaliyah would have to ask for a cold compress for her cheeks.
“Well, I’m full.” She made to move from her seat, “You should probably head back to the library for that reading and I should head home and feed Darling.”
“Yeah, my guard dog. You know, the one who did nothing when she knew a strange man had found his way into my garden?”
“Dogs love me. She couldn’t have helped herself if she tried.”
Aaliyah laughed aloud. “It would have been nice if she had at least tried.” Putting her jacket back on, she pulled her wallet out to pay for her meal.
“No. Don’t do that. I got it.” Antonio pushed the hand that held her credit card away, took out his wallet and put down some cash to cover both meals.
She looked at him and wondered, not for the first time tonight, if this could be considered a date. “Thank you,” she said quietly.
He smiled and nodded.
On her way home, Aaliyah made a quick stop at the hardware stop to pick up a manual on how to fix a leaky faucet. Her father was a compulsive tinkerer, too bad she had not inherited that trait.
By the time she got home, all she wanted to do was go to bed. She put the book and her supplies down, promising herself she would do it first thing in the morning and got ready for bed. As she lay down to sleep she glanced over at the manual.
“Oh well, it’s never too late to learn something new.” She smiled as she realized she was muttering again and thought of Antonio as she fell asleep.