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by Elisabeth Rose
Description: Sell beloved Eden to a developer? Watch the apple trees bulldozed for hobby farms? 'You'll have to sell, it's inevitable,' states charming and persuasive Adam Henderson. 'I'll give you a good price.' 'Over my dead body,' cries owner, Eve McGregor. Eden was her father's dream and now, all she has in the world. Since his death Eve has struggled to keep the orchard going but the bank is threatening foreclosure and Adam, wealthy, determined and far too attractive, won't take no for an answer. Besieged on all sides how can Eve save Eden? Will Adam convince her the future is more important than the past?
eBook Publisher: Whiskey Creek Press, 2012
eBookwise Release Date: August 2012
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [296 KB]
Reading time: 188-264 min.
"Would you like to taste an apple?" Eve held out the plate of sample apple quarters.
The customer studied her with appraising brown eyes, his lips curved in private amusement. He took a slice of apple and crunched into it. Juice spurted and ran down his chin.
Eve smiled. "Good, isn't it?" What was he doing here? This well-dressed, handsome individual with his expensive foreign car would hardly be accustomed to buying fresh picked fruit at a roadside stall. "Golden Delicious is my favourite."
"Very sweet." Another, broader smile creased attractive lines at the corners of his mouth. He wiped his chin with a handkerchief. Were they initials she glimpsed before he stuffed it back in his pocket? "And very juicy."
Eve compared the concept of monogrammed linen with the handful of paper tissues in her own pocket. Someone had to wash handkerchiefs. Preferably boil them. And iron them. He wouldn't do that himself, this refined hunk of man in the charcoal grey Italian suit; he'd have a launderer. Or a wife. An elegant whippet of a wife who never lifted a packet of laundry detergent in anger.
"Eve McGregor?" He extended his hand towards her.
She nodded and hastily rubbed her own grimy hand on her overalls before taking his clean and manicured fingers. Wonder who buffed those nails? A slave girl? He had the dark good looks of a harem owner, a Persian prince, although would they have such riotous hair? Despite the efforts of a stylist, those curls softened the formality of his appearance, made him look like a naughty boy. Particularly when he grinned like that.
He held her hand firmly, stared disconcertingly straight into her eyes and said, "Adam Henderson."
"Adam?" Eve blinked in astonishment then gave a gurgle of laughter. "I offered you an apple."
He leaned closer. She caught a whiff of delicious male cologne. She was wearing, Eau d'Apple Farm a tangy, fresh fragrance with just a hint of earthiness and tractor oil.
"I know." A low seductive voice. "And I ate it."
Eve put her free hand to her mouth and raised her eyebrows in mock alarm. "Oh no! Our fate is sealed." Desirable as a fate entwined with this man's might be, a joke was as close as it was likely to get. Unfortunately. She could envisage worse things.
He popped the last piece of apple into his mouth with his eyes fixed on hers.
Henderson? The name was vaguely familiar, struck a chord somewhere in the memory banks. She frowned briefly but couldn't pinpoint the reason. The intense gaze made her skin prickle. Was he trying to memorize her face? She turned away to put the plate of apple on the wooden bench. It had been on the tip of her tongue, under the spell of those eyes, to offer him more.
A car pulled up and an elderly couple clambered out. A tan dachshund took the opportunity to leap for freedom, bounce about their feet briefly then shoot through the hedge-lined fence behind Eve's shed and disappear into the orchard. Feeble cries of, "Fritzy, come back," floated after him.
Eve stifled a laugh.
She walked across to the owners who were peering anxiously through the hedge, calling, "Fritzy, Fritzy."
"Come through the shed. He probably won't go far," she said then called to Adam, who was inspecting the apples packed ready for sale. "Sorry, won't be a minute." He waved his arm in a "no problems" gesture.
"I told you to put his lead on, wretched dog," muttered the old fellow as Eve led them past the benches stacked with bags of apples and into the packing area where the pickers unloaded the tractor and Eve operated the grader.
She pushed open the rear door and they stepped into bright, crisp, autumn sunlight. Fritzy had completely disappeared. The orderly rows of trees planted lovingly by her father so many years ago stretched away in all directions, interrupted only by the dirt track leading to the old family house in the centre of the six acre property.
"He's lost!" wailed the woman and sniffled into a pink tissue. "My poor baby."
"You should have put his lead on. You never listen." Crabby old man. Eve was about to reassure them Fritzy wouldn't be far away when an ear shattering whistle from behind them nearly burst her eardrums. The wife clutched her husband's scrawny arm in shock. He let fly a curse and they all three turned in amazement to see Adam Henderson removing his fingers from his mouth with a broad grin on his face.
"He should hear that!" Eve gave a snort of laughter.
"I'll give him another blast just in case," said Adam, and the old lady quickly stuck her fingers in her ears.
Suddenly a little bounding figure appeared, big ears streaming behind in the breeze, little legs pumping as he leapt over the grassy tussocks in an effort to answer the call. The man scooped up the panting, wriggling dog as soon as he was able.
When the trio had departed with their purchase of ten apples, Eve turned to Adam Henderson. "Sorry about that. You were here first. What would you like?"
"No problem," he said calmly. "I'm a patient man. And Fritzy was an emergency."
His eyes seemed to caress her face. Hers wouldn't keep away from his smiling lips. Should have worn her jeans today instead of the bib and brace overalls. Jeans showed off her figure better. Overalls made her look like a sack of potatoes. But when you were picking, sorting and packing apples all day, haute couture was not an issue. And she didn't know this man Adam was coming.
His gaze dropped briefly to her body then back to her face. "I practice every day." The smile widened.
She must look a sight! Mud encrusted elastic-sided boots, navy blue overalls with the rip where she'd caught her leg on the fence, old green hand knitted sweater, dirty hands and nails, hair scraped back into a pony tail to keep it out of the way--regular farm labourer. He was being very polite. He'd probably go straight home and disinfect himself.
Eve felt her cheeks stretching wide in response to his smile, his undivided attention. Grinning stupidly. A half-witted farm labourer now.
"Apples," she blurted.
"Yes, delicious Golden Delicious. One bag please."
A business-like change in tone. He wasn't here to flirt; he was here to buy fruit. She lifted a bag off the bench, her brain functioning again. Have to pack up some more as soon as he left, this Adam Henderson. Why did he introduce himself? No other customers bothered. And he knew her name. She opened her mouth to ask why and how but he said, "Do you work here by yourself?"
She snapped to full attention. A predator? Rapists and murderers came in all shapes and forms. Some of them went to a lot of trouble to case their victims. Sussing out women alone, checking their habits. The really dangerous, crazy ones. The ones in her psychology textbooks. Serial murderers like in the movie she'd watched last week on TV. He'd been handsome and charming. Chatted up his victims then strangled them.
"No. There are two pickers back there. They come in regularly to unload." He didn't need to know she'd laid them both off days ago because she had no money to pay them. Hardly had enough money to feed herself. She gritted her teeth against the reality.
Adam nodded. "But you do the packing and the sorting?"
"Yes." His was casual interest. He wasn't here to harm her, not with those eyes. She'd seen enough crazies in her other, previous career to know that.
She hesitated, nearly told him the truth. Business was terrible. Impossible. In her blackest moments she toyed with selling the place to the orchardist next door, which really meant she was desperate. Her father had had a running, bickering, thirty-year feud with the old devil and the last thing he would have done was hand Eden over to Charlie Sparrow. Or admit failure. But if he hadn't died she wouldn't be here alone.
"So-so. We had a light crop this year because of hail at the wrong time. The Golden Delicious survived and we had a good crop of Jonathans but the Granny Smiths are a write-off." Try as she might she couldn't keep the quiver of despair from her voice.
"Tough." Eve glanced up to find his brown eyes regarding her gravely again. Sympathetic but distant now, uninvolved. Assessing? "Ever think of selling? Farming must be one of the hardest ways to make a living these days."
Was that an idle query from a casually interested passer-by? Or not.
"I grew up here." She met his gaze full on. "My dad planted all these trees." He must have gathered from her expression and the firmness of her voice that nothing more need be said. This was her home and her father's dream. His Eden. Would Adam Henderson understand?
He nodded slowly, his lips pursed.
"Family bonds can be strong." He pulled out a slim leather wallet and extracted a fifty dollar note. "But being sentimental is a curse when business is involved. Sometimes you simply have to cut your losses and move on. Can you change this?"
"Business isn't that bad." No, he wouldn't understand. She took the note and turned away. By the look of his clothes and car he wasn't cursed by sentimentality. She, on the other hand, must look the biggest soft touch known to man.
"I just didn't want to leave you short, that's all."
"It's fine." She gave him the change from her biscuit tin cash register, spotting the amused smirk on his face before he hid it.
"Thank you, Eve," he said. "I shall enjoy eating your apples."
"Goodbye." She watched him stride to his car, surprised by the strong pang of disappointment that he hadn't stayed to flirt a while longer. But she couldn't expect a man like that to waste any more of his time on an apple seller. He opened the boot and carefully placed the bag inside, then, with a brief wave, he was gone in a silver blur of expensive automobile.
Eve went to the rear of the shed and started the apple grader. With a small grunt she lifted a heavy wooden crate of apples up to the platform and upended them onto the conveyor belt where they rolled through various sized gaps according to size. She ran five boxes through then stood packing the sorted apples into bags for sale, discarding damaged fruit as she went. Restful stress-free work, the biggest decision being whether an apple was a cooker or an eater. Plenty of time to think or talk. In the old days her father had employed two or three casual workers at crop time and they'd solved the problems of the world while they picked or sorted.
Now she was here on her own, struggling in the face of rising costs, increased competition, a house constantly in need of repair, old machinery, falling income and a bank overdraft ever harder to repay, to the point where she had to meet Mr Peacock, the bank manager, tomorrow morning, "to discuss your situation". Eve knew her situation, and it was dire.
Maybe she should marry money. Women did that all the time. Apparently. At least they did in books and Hollywood and gossip magazines. Perhaps she could ensnare someone like Adam Henderson. But he wasn't a geriatric, soft-in-the-head millionaire and she wasn't a curvaceous gold digger. Eve tied up another bag and lifted it across to the bench. Another half dozen should do it for today.
Handsome Adam Henderson. He was handsome. Very handsome. What would life be like with him? Comfortable and luxurious? Certainly. Exciting? Undoubtedly--especially in bed. She giggled. Good thing he wasn't a mind reader. Although...how did he know her name? Funny about their names. Offering him apple. He thought it was funny too. And her farm was called Eden. Wonder if he knew that? Her parents' little joke. First girl child she was. As it turned out, first and only child.
Adam Henderson. Marry him for his money? And his sex appeal? He had loads of both. Good plan!
Except he was hardly likely to jump at marrying her the way she looked today. Not the best first impression she had to admit. Anyway! She counted her stock pile. Enough. He'll probably never come by again. And he was presumably married already to the whippet.
"You've missed your chance, Evie," she said aloud. "Have to think of something else." Accepting the standing proposal of Brendan, best friend and local vet, was hardly worth considering. Brendan never had any money or if he did he kept it well hidden.
Eve pulled the big doors across the front of the shed and padlocked them securely from the inside. Then she put a bar across and went out the back way, locking that door as well. She carried a bucket of reject apples. The sun was hovering over the hills across the river, sending shafts of red-gold light through the trees and bathing everything in a soft golden glow. Leaves turned brown and yellow were beginning to fall in a soft thick carpet as the trees prepared for the cold winter weather.
She walked slowly, savouring the freshness of the crisp air. The warmth left the day quickly when the sun went down. She headed for the house but continued on past it to the field at the rear. Two faces peered anxiously over the gate. One gave a bellow of greeting; the other snickered softly through velvet nostrils.
"Hello, hello." She flung the apples in a wide arc over the gate onto the tussocky grass and both animals darted away to begin crunching and munching contentedly. Eve leaned on the gate to watch.
Della, the chestnut mare, was getting fat and should be ridden more often but there was no time. Beauty, the cow, was an old aged pensioner living out her remaining days in comfort. She'd earned her retirement after years of producing milk and calves. Eve smiled fondly at them.
She and Della, together with friends Tanya and Brendan astride their own horses, had roamed far and wide. Coming home on evenings such as this was her favourite time--often she'd pause after unsaddling and breathe deeply, revelling in the autumn scents and what she in hindsight now recognised as the pure, unfettered joy of living in such a paradise. Her father would come to help her fork hay to the animals and they'd walk together to the house, silent in loving companionship.
Eve heaved a sigh, heavy tonight with resignation. She lifted her arms wearily from the top bar of the gate and went to feed herself, stopping at the hen house to collect the three or four eggs her little flock provided each day. The girls had already settled for the night, clucking and muttering softly on their perches as she looted the nests.
She kicked off her boots in the scullery and padded through to the kitchen in thick woolen socks to carefully place the eggs in the china bowl on the bench. She switched on the oven and took the leftover casserole from last night out of the fridge. A dash of water, a lid, and in it went. Now for a shower, hot and long. As the actress said to the bishop.
Eve grinned as she stripped off her filthy clothes and dumped them in the hamper. That was her father's phrase, old fashioned and funny coming in his dry, gentle voice at the most unexpected moments. It was as far as he'd go with smutty talk. "It's all in your mind," he'd say blandly when she remonstrated.
Rosy, red light from the sunset streamed through her bedroom window and she gazed out at the view over the orchard and across the river to the hills. A beautiful pastoral view, or it had been until some developer began selling off acre blocks to hobby farmers. Now the development was growing like a malignant cancer, spreading its evil blight across the once beautiful grazing land. Spoiling her view.
Standing in her underwear, Eve realised with a resentful frown that if one of those residents had binoculars he'd be able to see right into her bedroom. That big two-story place had a perfect line of sight from the upstairs balcony. After years of neighbourlessness she'd have to start remembering to close her curtains. She grabbed a handful of the faded and frayed cotton fabric and yanked it closed against prying eyes. Damn nuisances up there with their money and their attitudes!
Next morning, dressed smartly in a confidence inspiring navy skirt and jacket which dated back to her school teaching days, she coaxed Eric, the VW van, into action and drove the fifteen kilometres into Mittagong. She had no idea what she would say to Mr Peacock. She hoped he would have some brilliant strategy worked out whereby she got to stay on Eden and her overdraft repayments were minimised.
He didn't. He suggested she sell and the sooner the better.
He steepled his hands earnestly and studied her through his rimless spectacles as if she were an interesting specimen of insect. "Repayment Defaultus Feminina"--attractive colouration but unreliable and incapable of survival without the support of the male of the species.
"The developer building across the river would undoubtedly be interested."
Eve's spine straightened in defiance. "Never! I'd never ever sell Eden to someone like that! They'd bulldoze the trees and divide it up into little squares for their horrible houses. They don't care about the land."
"There's also a whisper that BiChem wants to set up a plant in the area--an Australian base. They'd pay well."
"A fertiliser factory? That's appalling! Unthinkable! Is there any other way?" she cried desperately, knowing the answer. Mr Peacock would think he'd just given her the solution.
"I'm sorry. We've extended ourselves further than we should have already, and ultimately you don't have much choice. I can wait until the end of the season. That's June you said? End of the financial year then."
His desk calendar blasted April 10th at her in red letters. She had until June 30th. Eve nodded miserably and shook his hand. It was cold and dry. Hers was clammy.
She wandered out into the main street and stood uncertainly in the sun. There were a few errands to run but she couldn't remember what she'd planned. Her mind could only comprehend one thought. Eden was doomed. She'd failed. Her father's dream was becoming a nightmare. She pressed her fingers tightly against her eyes to prevent the tears flooding down her cheeks.
"Hello. Are you all right?" The voice was familiar. She whipped her hands away as her eyes flew open--Adam Henderson with a slight frown of concern as he gazed down at her. "Come with me."
He placed his hand on her arm and led her firmly along the street to a coffee shop. Eve went with him, unable to summon any sort of resistance, glad to be told what to do for perhaps the first time in her adult life.
"Coffee?" he asked and she managed to nod. He ordered then shepherded her to a booth where they would be partly shielded from curious eyes. Not that there were any, the place was deserted.
Eve wiped her eyes with one of her tissues, summoned a weak smile.
"Sorry," she murmured, and sniffed. Her already unstable heart fluttered at the genuine concern on his face. He had the most wonderful brown eyes, soft and tender, like dark chocolate with their surround of black lashes and the firm arching eyebrows. He smiled and her heart flip-flopped again.
"I almost didn't recognise you," he said then added, "Sorry, I mean out of context. I associate you with apples, Eve." His teeth were even and white in his smiling mouth.
She had to smile back. Literally. Her lips curved themselves of their own accord. The waitress put their coffee on the table. Eve picked up her teaspoon and stirred in sugar to avoid the half-wit look again. At least this time she was clean and presentable, hair brushed and wearing make-up. With any luck he wouldn't notice her farm girl hands. That crazy idea popped into her head again as he sat there looking so capable and dependable and watching her stir her coffee. How could she put it?
Marry me and pay my debts? Bit abrupt, maybe.
Why should he care? He only met her yesterday for five minutes, flirted and bought a bag of apples.
"Need help?" The sudden accuracy of his query startled her.
"No, I think I'm beyond help." She laughed so he would think she was joking but it sounded forced and phony. She picked up her coffee. "Thanks, though."
"Have you lived here long?"
"I grew up here but only came back three years ago to help my father. He died recently, quite suddenly, of a heart attack. I went away to study and work, you know..." She trailed off. It sounded pathetic and inconsequential.
"I'm sorry about your father," he said quietly. Then, "I never really knew mine."
It was a bald statement, the way he said it. A hint of regret perhaps but more a fact, as though not knowing his father didn't matter. But it must. He just didn't realise. His expression forbad enquiry. The dark eyes kept any secrets well hidden.
"I had to come back," she said to cover the awkward pause. "I'm an only child and--it's so beautiful here."
"Couldn't keep away," he suggested with a fleeting smile. "What did you study?"
"Psychology." She bent her head over her coffee again.
"Interesting. Didn't want to practice?"
"I did. I was a high school counselor for eight years." She studied him through narrowed eyes. Yesterday's gentle probing flashed into her mind. "Why all the questions?"
He shrugged. "Sorry. Just making conversation."
Of course he was! Eve bit her lip. He was being friendly and polite and going out of his way to assist a virtual stranger. Some people were like that naturally. But somehow Adam didn't strike her as one of those. He struck her, even in her present state, as someone who always had a purpose for his actions.
"No, I'm sorry," she said. "That was rude of me and you've been very kind."
"You seemed upset."
"I'm all right now. I had an unpleasant...a shock."
"The bank can do that to you." The smile was sympathetic but his eyes had that cool, assessing look of yesterday. The warmth had gone.
Eve drained her coffee. "I really must go. Thank you very much for being so kind." She edged out of the booth. Far too easy to sit and wallow in the attention of this exceptionally attractive man but she couldn't afford to. Fantasizing about marrying him wouldn't pay the bank.
He paid the bill and followed her to the door.
"We must do it again sometime."
Eve blushed, to her extreme annoyance. "Do you live around here?" she asked as they stepped out on to the footpath. She noticed for the first time he wasn't wearing a business suit today. It made him look different too, khaki slacks and a black ribbed sweater. Not work casual, designer casual like in the up-market clothing advertisements with those impossibly handsome men posing with an axe and a neat stack of firewood or a tent and a campfire. Perfect teeth, not a hair out of place or a speck of dirt to be seen. Totally unrealistic. From another world.
"Yes, I've moved in across the river from you. The new estate."
"Oh." Eve couldn't raise a smile at that news despite his obvious pleasure at taking up residence. "Hobby farms." City slickers playing at being farmers and commuting to their high paying jobs each day. That fitted. Explained the clothes and no real farmer had manicured nails like his. "Those developers would love to get their hands on my place."
He smiled, unfazed by or oblivious to her bitterness. "Yes, I can imagine. Would you sell?"
"Never in a million years!" The words flashed out like grapeshot. She managed a grimace-like twist of the lips which may have fooled him into thinking she was smiling, joking even. "Well, I do have to go. Thank you," she muttered, turning away.
"Apples to sell."
"Yes." She looked back. He held out his hand and she took it, his fingers closing over hers, warm and comforting.
"Goodbye, Eve. Take care." He was smiling and she couldn't help smiling in return. Properly this time. Her hand appeared to be stuck in his.
His face split into a wide grin and when he squeezed her hand slightly before letting it go Eve just knew her own grin was a stupid one.
Nevertheless, she drove home with a leaden lump of despair in her stomach. No quantity of smiles from a handsome man could negate the effect of the bank's ultimatum. Paradise Lost. There must be some way of saving her home. Maybe she should cultivate that Adam Henderson thing. He wasn't wearing a ring. Said "I've moved in", not we. He seemed to like her. But that was a long way short of reasons or willingness to marry no matter how sexy she found him.
Would she go that far for a piece of land?
Not just a piece of land. Eden was all she had in the world.
"You're mad," she scolded herself, "to even think of such a thing!" Adam Henderson was no innocent bunny. He was a man who would make his own choices in his own time. And how on earth would she go about seducing him when she had no real reason to assume he was the slightest bit interested in her? He was polite and kind and making friends with his neighbours. That's all. She'd make a complete fool of herself.
She approached the turn-off to the new development and on impulse swung Eric on to the access road to see just how good a view they had of her place. A large sign proclaimed the name of the blight on the landscape and she realised why Adam's name had seemed familiar. She must have read it in the local paper. It leapt out at her now. Very familiar!
Adam Henderson--Paradise Estates. The name on the big ugly sign on the big ugly housing development with the slogan Buy an acre of Paradise
Adam was the developer. Adam owned the whole lot. It was his idea. And he wanted to expand, according to Mr Peacock. Expand across the river to her orchard. No wonder he was being so nice! Adam was the serpent, the underhand, sneaky snake in the grass.
Adam bit into one of the apples he'd bought from Eve yesterday. It tasted like grapes, sweet and very juicy, redolent of autumn with a delicate reminder of summer's ripeness. Her favourite, she said. He swung the car towards Paradise Estates.
She had a good spot down there on the river--permanent water, level ground, good sun, but protected from the strongest winter gales by the ridge to the west. Six acres of prime land--and she was in trouble. Adam swallowed and licked his lips, took another bite, changed gears smoothly. All this land had terrific potential and most of the existing owners were fighting losing battles. All he had to do was wait and watch and make an offer when the time was right. Several were already seriously considering, with pens poised over sale contracts.
He hadn't expected the owner of such a well-established orchard to give it up with a smile and a thank-you for a handful of cash but he couldn't wait too long. Unfortunately he wasn't the only one interested in buying. BiChem were sniffing about and Eden was their perfect site for all the same reasons, but he'd be damned if he'd let a fertiliser factory erupt like a great ugly boil in the middle of his estates. The value of the whole area would plummet. He'd be out millions.
Luckily Eve wouldn't be amenable to any offers of the financial kind at the moment. The light of battle shone in her eyes even through the tears at the mention of developers, let alone a factory. But she'd change her mind when it came down to cold, hard cash. Not many people could resist that.
Adam smiled. She might be amenable to offers of another kind--there was no mistaking the look in those deep blue eyes, universal that look--and she needed help on the place. Perhaps friendly, practical assistance coupled with charm would sway things his way when the crunch came. As it inevitably would. He finished the apple and tossed the core out the window.
Seething, Eve drove on until she overlooked her orchard. The two storey house she could see from her bedroom was up on the side of the hill on a larger block which stretched right down to the river. They had a bird's eye view of everything she did--her house and garage, the toolshed, the apple shed facing the road to Mittagong, Della and Beauty grazing peacefully, the hayshed, the stable, the river in the foreground marking her western boundary. Everything. Beyond Eden, bordering her on the other two sides and following the natural curve of the river, was Charlie Sparrow's. "Sparrow's Fart" her father used to call the neighbouring property.
If Henderson got both places the whole valley would be turned into Adam's Paradise. Eden was right in the middle. But tough old Charlie would never sell. He'd been here longer than her father and loved his land with a passion. She had to give the cranky old devil that.
She wrenched Eric into an awkward three point turn and roared back along the way she'd come. Over her dead body would Eden become part of a subdivision. Adam Henderson could charm his way to hell as far as she was concerned. He'd be casting his seed on stony ground. And the idea of a factory was so horrendous as to be a joke.
At home Eve changed into overalls and knitted jumper, stuck her feet into her work boots and headed for the apple shed. It had taken the best part of the morning to discover from Mr Peacock what she already knew and goodness knows how many customers she'd lost. She had Steve, the local greengrocer's, order to prepare as well. Then she'd have to do more picking. She desperately needed help, she knew that. Even one pair of inexperienced hands would make a difference, but a helper was a luxury she couldn't afford.
By mid-afternoon she'd almost run out of apples. Eve looked at her watch. Too early to close and there'd been a steady stream of customers. She'd have to put up the "Serve yourself" sign, leave only a small amount of cash for change and pick as fast as she could. She threw a tarpaulin over Steve's ten boxes and climbed onto the tractor.
She worked fast but it still took over two hours to load up the pallet and drive into the shed. As she switched off the noisy engine she caught a glimpse of people carrying bags of apples out to their cars. She hurried through to catch them.
"Everything all right?" she called as she reached the front of the shed. Two faces turned towards her from beside a large, red and shiny four-wheel drive vehicle. Straight off the hobby farm. When you live on the land you need a gigantic bush basher like that. As if. Battered Eric had always been adequate for her and her father.
"Yes, thank you," replied a young woman holding a baby.
Her friend said, "Oh absolutely, thanks. We've been well taken care of." They both giggled. Eve smiled, about to reply when a car door slammed and a man appeared from the opposite side of the vehicle.
"There you are, ladies," he said. "Come again soon."
Adam Henderson! Serving her customers! Flirting with her customers by the looks on their faces. She waited, fuming, until the women had packed themselves and their baby into the monster and driven off.
"What the hell are you doing here?" she demanded.
"There's gratitude! You're lucky I stopped by. Not everyone's as honest as you seem to think." He put his hands on his hips and frowned at her like a stern father. "Where were you anyway?"
"Picking. How long have you been here?"
He checked his watch. "About forty-five minutes. I quite enjoyed it. Very restful. You've just about run out though. I had to poke around out the back to find some more." His self satisfied smile faded as he saw the horrified look on her face.
She ran back to the tarpaulin and pulled it aside. He followed.
"How many cases?" She counted rapidly. Six. Counted again. Only four missing. Was that right?
"Four, I think. Problem?"
"They were for the greengrocer, Steve. He'll be here any minute." As she spoke Eve switched on the grader and strode to the tractor to unload a case. She hoisted it up and upended it on to the conveyor belt.
"Sorry," he said. "I didn't know."
"No. Well, why would you? It's not your business, is it?" yelled Eve over the roar of the grader. "Run another case through and keep going until I say stop."
To her surprise Adam did as he was told. She watched him covertly as he lifted the boxes effortlessly off the tractor and stacked them in the shed. Strong thigh muscles flexed and rippled under the expensive wool fabric of his trousers when he bent for the last case on the tray. Very nice rear view especially when he... She looked away quickly as he turned, heat prickling her neck.
Adam tipped the apples slowly down the chute, making sure they ran smoothly along the belt without overflowing or clogging in logjams. His eyes were focused on the task, his face stern in concentration. Eve smirked to herself. Hair flopped untidily across his forehead and he had a dirty mark on his pristine sweater. Those perfect hands would be stained and grimy. Served him right.
A half hour later he said, "There aren't any more, boss."
"Help me, then." Now he'd make hasty excuses and escape. When he didn't, but hovered, watching her work, she tossed him a pair of cotton gloves and explained the reject principles and how Steve wanted a certain sized apple.
"These are too small," he said holding up a hand with the glove jammed halfway down his palm. He wiggled his fingers. "I'll have to go bare."
He held Eve's gaze but she refused to smile. The man was impossible--not taking her seriously, teasing when she was working flat out because of his mistake, trying to flirt when it was obvious she had neither the time nor the inclination.
They stood side by side sorting and packing and Eve's indignation gradually faded as his continued presence began to overpower her senses. Every now and then he would reach across and his arm would nudge hers leaving a little electric tingle on her skin even through the layers of wool.
She kept her eyes on the apples but his hands were constantly in her line of sight; his body loomed beside her. She glanced at her own hands encased in thick, graceless gardening gloves but her eyes returned to Adam's. His bare fingers ran constantly over the fruit--almost caressing, careful but forceful, selecting, rubbing, polishing. Mesmerising. Eve swallowed as she imagined those hands running over her bare skin, caressing and fondling. And those arms. He'd pulled his sleeves up to reveal a dusting of dark hair on well muscled tanned wrists and forearms. She frowned, furious at herself. Anyone would think she was a sex-starved maniac ogling the help a la Lady Chatterley. She yanked up the sleeves of her jumper and ran her gloved finger clumsily around the neckline to release some pent-up body heat.
"Hot work, huh?"
Her eyes flashed to his face. He was grinning at her. A trickle of perspiration ran down her forehead. Eve scraped her forearm across her face which must be a virtual warning beacon by now. She heaved a newly filled case off the grader and turned her back on him, praying the cool air wafting in from the open front of the shed would lower her core temperature to something approaching normal.
"Are we allowed to eat the stock?"
Eve nodded. He picked out an apple and crunched into the flesh with strong white teeth.
"Nothing like a fresh apple, is there?" There she was, fascinated by his mouth again, eyes riveted as he bit and chewed.
"Nope," he agreed between swallows. "I used to pinch them when I was a kid."
Eve couldn't squash the smile this time. "I bet you were a handful for your Mum."
His expression changed instantly, as though a shutter had dropped. "I didn't know her." He walked to the open shed door to hurl his apple core across the road, stood for a few moments staring out into the distance towards the hills.
Eve, watching the still figure, pondered the reaction to her innocent remark. Had his mother died when he was little or had the parents separated early on as had hers? Her own mother died years ago. He'd said yesterday he didn't know his father. Who'd raised the small boy? She couldn't ask. Not yet. But the answers might well provide an insight into Adam Henderson, useful in her defence against him. Because weapons she would need. Any weapons she could lay her hands on to resist him. That much was evident. He'd be ruthless as a shark underneath the charm and the sexy package.
Customers interrupted but with two workers they filled the four cases with time to spare and emptied the grader as well of all the apples she'd picked that afternoon. Steve collected his order near dark. When his truck roared off into the gathering dusk Eve switched on the lights.
"Do you stay open all night?" Adam asked.
"No but if people want to buy and I've got the apples..." She shrugged.
"No one's here now," he said. "Quick. Shut the doors."
He grinned at her but she resisted the almost irresistible and walked by him to bring in her "Apples for Sale" sign. She pulled the doors shut but paused before locking them. Was he leaving? His car was parked out there in the gathering gloom. No glorious sunset tonight. Too many clouds had collected.
"Why did you come this afternoon?" she asked suddenly. It only just occurred to her, after the flurry of activity, to ask.
"To see if you would give me a job. And you did."
"I did not!"
"It felt like work to me." He stretched his arms with interlaced fingers over his head then flexed his back.
Her eyes strayed to his broad chest as it strained against the fabric of his jumper, then hastily away before he caught her. If he had even the slightest inkling of how much his body attracted her she'd be torn to shreds. Unfortunately he seemed to notice everything. She had to keep herself under control.
"But I can't give you a job," she said, emphasising each word.
"Why not? There's plenty of work. Too much for you. And you don't have anyone picking, do you?"
Eve quailed under his relentless gaze. She couldn't lie again. She floundered. It was too preposterous. He wanted something, that was for sure, but it wasn't a job. He didn't need a job; he owned half the local countryside.
"Why would you want a job?"
"I'm on holidays. I get bored doing nothing." The answer tripped easily off his tongue.
Eve stared at him. Call his bluff? God knows she needed the help and he was a good worker. That manicurist would be working overtime by the time she'd finished with him. Plus something about him...the way he smiled at her...she wanted...no, stop it! Don't get into that!
But could she him allow him such proximity to her property? He wanted Eden, she had no doubt whatsoever. But she didn't have to sell, ever, no matter what he wanted. That really was the bottom line. All she had to do was say no when he finally got around to making an offer. And keep on saying no.