She opened the door and stepped into the fragrant, humid warmth. Mitchell was working intently over some clay pots arrayed on a waist-high bench. He had a pair of small shears in one hand and a tiny trowel in the other. The pockets of his heavy-duty, dirt-stained apron were filled with gardening implements. He appeared to be totally engrossed in his plants.
“I got your message, Mr. Madison,” she said from the doorway.
Mitchell looked up quickly, gray brows bristling above his fierce, aquiline nose. “There you are. Come in and close the door. It’s cold out there today.”
She stepped farther into the greenhouse, allowing the door to swing shut. “You made it sound urgent. Is something wrong?”
“Shoot and damn, course there’s something wrong.” He put down the shears and the trowel and stripped off his gloves. “I turned this thing over to Sullivan but as far as I can see, he hasn’t done a blame thing to straighten up this mess. Looks like I’ll have to take a hand.”
“First things first. You serious about Gabe or are you just havin’ yourself some fun?”
She came to an abrupt halt. This was going to be worse than she imagined. For an instant she was afraid the thick air would suffocate her. With an effort of will, she managed to resist the temptation to flee back outside.
“I beg your pardon?”
“Don’t play games with me, young woman. You know what I’m talkin’ about here. If you’re fixin’ to break Gabe’s heart, I want to find out now.”
“Me? Break Gabe’s heart?” From out of nowhere, anger surged through her. “What makes you think that’s even a remote possibility?”
Madison gave a muffled snort. “You’ve got him in the palm of your hand and you know it. Question is, what are you gonna do about it?”
“That’s ridiculous. Just because we’re seeing a lot of each other—”
“Seeing each other? Huh. Appears to me that the two of you are doin’ a heck of a lot more than just lookin’ at each other. You think no one would notice if you just up and ran off to Portland together for a night? Shoot and damn, you aren’t even trying to keep things a secret.”
“You know as well as I do that you can’t control gossip here in Eclipse Bay.”
“When I was your age most folks had the common decency to do their foolin’ around out of sight.”
He was genuinely irate, she realized, as if this mess were somehow all her fault. His bad temper only served to inflame her own.
“That’s not what I hear, Mr. Madison. The way my folks tell it, you were more than a little obvious about your fooling around back in the good old days. In fact, Madisons in general are notorious for keeping the gossip mills humming here in Eclipse Bay.”
“Times change. Things are different now.”
“The fact that things are different now doesn’t change the past.”
“We’re talking about Gabe.” Mitchell planted his hands on his hips. “He’s a different kind of Madison.”
“People keep saying that, but how do I know if it’s true?”
“You’re gonna have to take my word for it.”
She smiled coldly. “Now why would I do that?”
“Look, I can see where you might not be able to figure him out. Gabe’s a little complicated.”
“A little complicated. That’s putting it mildly.”
“The important thing here is that I don’t want him hurt. If you’re not serious about him, I want you to break it off now before he gets in any deeper.”
“Just because we’re seeing each other,” she said through her teeth, “it does not necessarily follow that your grandson is in love with me.”
“If the two of you were just bouncing around together in a bed in Portland, that would be one thing. I wouldn’t pay any attention. But Gabe left Madison Commercial to follow you here to Eclipse Bay. That means he’s serious.”
“Good grief, you make it sound like the company’s his wife and I’m the other woman.”
Mitchell nodded. “That’s not too far off, when you think about it.”
“Look, for the record, Gabe did not leave Madison Commercial for me.” She spread her hands. “He’s just taking a little vacation, that’s all.”
“Bullshit. ’Scuse my language. Gabe doesn’t take vacations. Leastways, not monthlong ones. He walked out on M.C. because he lost his head over you. That’s the only explanation.”
“A very romantic notion but that’s not what happened. Furthermore, there are any number of people around these parts and several in my own family who will be only too happy to tell you what they believe is the real reason he took a month off from Madison Commercial.”
“And just what the heck do they figure that real reason is?”
“I’m sure you’ve heard the talk. The gossip in certain quarters is that Gabe wants to marry me in order to get his hands on a large piece of Harte Investments.”
Mitchell stared at her in astonishment. He looked genuinely thunderstruck. “Are you crazy, woman?
Madisons don’t marry for money.”
“Maybe most Madisons don’t marry for money. But everyone has always claimed that Gabe is a different kind of Madison.”
Mitchell snorted. “Not that different.”
“Look, we all know that Madison Commercial is the most important thing in Gabe’s life. It’s his creation. Over the years, he has sacrificed for it, fought for it, nurtured it. Why wouldn’t he be attracted to someone who could add significantly to his empire?”
“If he’d been the type to marry for money, he’d have married Marilyn Thornley all those years ago. Her family has plenty of cash.”
She frowned. “I was under the impression that they broke up because Marilyn ditched him for Thornley, not because Gabe didn’t want to marry her.”
“Shoot and damn. Can’t you figure it out for yerself? They split on accounta Gabe made it clear that Madison Commercial was more important to him than she was. That woman likes to be number one.”
“So do I, Mr. Mitchell.”
“You’re a Harte. You understand about business coming first.”
“No, as a matter of fact, I do not.”
“Sure you do. Look, you know damn well you’ve got Gabe’s full, undivided attention and that means things are dead serious. At least they are for him. What I want to know is, how do you feel about Gabe?