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Camden Latimer bumped his Viper off the gravel road he'd been driving for ten miles and ended up on a muddy path. Pulling under a big evergreen tree, he unfolded a map to which he'd taped a sticky note of additional directions. Overhanging branches blocked the steady downpour that had been giving his wiper blades a workout. Cam shut them off while he confirmed that he was still heading toward the Christmas tree farm he'd inherited from his grandfather. Cyrus Latimer had died a few months earlier of a heart problem he'd hidden from Cam.
The rain had turned the dirt road ahead to mud. Cam was no stranger to rain. For the past dozen years he'd been a Miami street cop and had worked in all kinds of weather. But when it rained in Florida the sun came out fifteen minutes later to dry everything. This was his second day in Oregon, and there was no sign of a letup.
Cam knew Christmas trees didn't grow low in the coastal valley. However, all the things Granddad Cy had imparted by phone and e-mail hadn't included the weather or condition of the roads. Cam's Viper, his pride and joy, was low-slung and jet-black. He eyed the muddy road with misgivings while massaging his aching right shoulder. Two weeks after what he hoped was his last surgery on a shattered upper arm, Cam wondered why he'd thought sitting on a porch watching trees grow was a good idea. But he'd sold his beach condo and said goodbye to his cop pals, so it was too late for second thoughts. His inheritance lay at the end of this road, and a new life awaited. A safer life, he hoped.
Putting the Viper back in gear, he stepped on the gas. The powerful engine growled, then roared. Cam felt his back wheels spin, but the car didn't move.
"Dammit!" He grabbed his black leather jacket, popped up the gull-wing doors, a modification he'd paid a mint for, and stepped out into the rain. His Italian loafers sank into the same muck that had the Viper's back tires mired up to their hubcaps. He needed either a miracle or a tow truck. Cam shrugged into his jacket and contemplated the empty road behind himeight miles to the nearest town.
Flipping up his collar, he decided it would be smarter to walk the four miles to his property, mud or no mud. There was a neighbor, he knew, at Snowflake Farma big operation run by a woman Cy often referred to as the tree queen or witch, depending on his mood. Clearly there was no love lost between the two tree growers, but Cam only had Cy's impressions.
Cam squinted through towering firs at an angry gray sky and felt the plop, plop, plop of rain as he set off down the road. He figured he'd have to make nice with the queen snowflake so she'd give him a phone number for the nearest towing service. He'd gone barely ten yards when he heard the welcome sound of a vehicle approaching.
A well-used red pickup rounded the corner ahead of him. Cam moved to the center of the muddy ruts and waved both hands.
The pickup stopped a few yards away, and its driver rolled down a window and called, "Hey, what are you doing on this private back road? Didn't you read the sign back where you left the highway? You're trespassing on Snowflake Christmas Tree Farm property."
Hearing the feminine voice, Cam kept his distance from the truck. "I didn't see a sign. This roadand that's a joke, right?is on a hand-drawn map I have. I'm looking for the Latimer tree farm."
The driver opened her door a crack. "No one's been there in at least two months. Not since Mr. Latimer died. If you're one of his commercial accounts, you'll want to ask in town whether he left anyone in charge."
"That would be me. I've just driven up from Florida. I'm Cy's grandson, Cam, uh, Camden Latimer. Do you happen to know the number of a towing company?" Cam gestured to his disabled car. Granted, he hadn't known his grandfather well, but from what he'd gleaned through their sporadic correspondence, it was typical of the old man to direct Cam down a shortcut belonging to a hostile neighbor. It would be his way of getting the last laugh. "I'm Noelle Hale," the woman said. "I'm sorry for your loss. I manage Snowflake's enterprises next door. As it happens, my truck has a winch. I'll hook it onto your bumper and tow you to more solid ground. Then you can turn around. Drive back to a four-way stop, take a right and follow the main gravel road to where it splits. The right fork leads to Latimer's house. My home, lodge and gift shop are on the left." Shutting herself in the cab again, she aimed the truck straight for Cam, forcing him to jump aside. Even then her tires threw sloppy mud on his pant legs.
No longer wondering why Cy had had a running battle with Ms. Hale, Cam slipped and slid back to his car. Ms. Hale had exited her pickup and was apparently trying to find a place on his nonexistent back bumper to attach the steel cable she'd reeled out.
"You'll have to connect that to the back axle," he said. "Vipers have molded bodies. Hook anywhere else and you'll destroy the skin. Repairs would cost me a fortune."
"I'd say the dealer saw you coming a mile away. This quasi car won't last a month on our roads." She laughed and passed him the hook and cable. "I hope you plan to shimmy under the car and hook on to an axle. Me, I'm going to dinner in town. I don't plan to look like a mud pie."
Getting a better look at her as she stood there in jeans and a fall jacket, Cam realized she was attractive, if you discounted her smart mouth. Russet hair curled in the rain from under the backward ball cap she wore. She had rosy cheeks and warm hazel eyes. Actually, her sassy mouth was pretty appealing, too.
It wasn't until he'd finished his inspection that it dawned on CamMs. Hale was less than impressed by him after her own equally thorough examination. Her attitude ticked him royally. So much so, he mentally relegated his pricey clothes to the trash can. Tossing his leather jacket to his startled neighbor, Cam grabbed the cable out of her hand, then flopped onto his back hard enough to splash her with mud as he slid under the chassis. He made a hitch-and-a-half over the axle and slid out. "Crank her up," he ordered. "We'll see what you've got under the hood of that gutless Sierra."
Noelle smirked and hesitated only long enough to open the Viper's door and toss his fancy jacket on his front seat before she climbed into her pickup and gave it plenty of gas.
Cam waited until she was concentrating on her task before he rotated his bad shoulder, the one he'd hit too hard on the ground just now trying to prove to feisty Ms. Snowflake what a macho jerk he was. Noelle.An appropriate name for a woman peddling Christmas trees.Was it her real name or an alias she'd chosen to be cutesy?
The Viper slid out of the mud with a sucking sound. Cam trailed behind on foot, trying to think what he had in his luggage that he could use to cover his leather upholstery.
He eased himself down to the ground again, this time on sharp gravel, and wiggled under the Viper to detach her cable. "Thanks for the tow," he called as he tossed out the hook. He lay there a moment, hoping she'd wind the damned thing up and be on her way before he had to scoot out. But she didn't budge, so Cam crawled out using his uninjured arm. His view was blocked by a dangling towel.
"To save your upholstery," Noelle said sweetly as he struggled to sit and then stand up.
"Thanks again." Cam accepted the towel and felt bad for misjudging her.
"Your grandfather wasn't exactly what you'd call neighborly. I didn't realize he'd ever been married or that he had a grandson. Have you come to sell his tree farm?"
"Do you know anyone in the market for one?" Cam wiped his hands before raising the custom-installed gull-wing doors. Then he spread the towel over the plush seat of his RT/10 Roadster.
"I might be interested," she said. "Or I should say, my family might be. Snowflake is owned jointly by me, my mom and dad and my two brothers. I'd need to consult with them, of course. The folks live in your neck of the woods. Key West. My brothers, Kent and Sloan, around here. They have private practices in town and they take care of any legal or accounting issues for the farm." Noelle rummaged in the cab of her pickup. She backed out, holding a business card, which she handed to Cam.
The card was pale blue with embossed snowflakes overlaid by Noelle Hale's name in white script, followed by her title: General Manager, Snowflake Christmas Trees. In smaller print was a phone number and a list of services, including wreaths, decorations and lodge rental for weddings, anniversaries and special events.
Cam pocketed the card before it got too soggy, since they were now in the rain. "Don't talk to them about it just yet. First, I'll want to evaluate Cy's holdings. How about if I let you know what I decide when I return the towel?" He slid into the car, pausing to clarify her earlier directions.
"That's right," she reiterated. "This back road is normally chained shut. Teens from town sometimes come up here to park. They probably forgot to close it when they left."
After saying goodbye, Cam turned his car around and wondered whether the tree queen had any personal knowledge of the make-out spot. Cam guessed she was probably close to thirty. No wedding ring. Cops, even ex-cops, noticed stuff like that. He'd also noticed she had nice hands. Unpainted nails, neither too long nor too short. He supposed some physical labor went with managing a tree farm. He'd probably discover how muchif he stayed on.
Last night he'd checked in to a hotel on the highway. In the lounge after dinner, he'd struck up a conversation with two men who'd given him their business cards once they heard he'd inherited a tree farm. Lewis Norman and Murphy Fletcher said they scouted land for local grape growers.
Cam remembered Cy mentioning that many once-prosperous Christmas tree farmers in the area had sold out to vintners. Owning a vineyard appealed to Cam somewhat more than raising, harvesting and selling Christmas trees, so he'd told the two men the same thing he told Noelle Halethat he wanted to look things over, and that he'd be in touch if he decided to sell or convert to grapes.
Other than being wet, the drive along the county highway to his farm was much more pleasant than the back road had been. Here, on either side of the two lanes, stood sheared treesthe kind families decorated for Christmas.
Cam reached the fork in the road Noelle had told him to watch for. He turned right, hoping as Cy's lawyer had promised that the old man's house would have electricity and water ready and waiting. After his adventure in the mud and this rain, he was looking forward to a long, hot shower.
Noelle spent some time on the five-mile drive into Beaver Falls thinking about the stranger who claimed to be Cy Latimer's grandson. In spite of his citified clothes, the guy didn't look soft. He was quite attractive with his short black hair that curled in the rain, and light blue eyes that didn't miss a trick. And those long eyelashes. Why did guys get to-die-for, thick black lashes?
Wait until her best friend, Zoe Blake, and Gwen Fortner, Zoe's part-time helper in the Snowflake shop, got a load of Camden Latimer. Noelle smiled to herself and fluffed hair that had gotten drenched while she'd helped her new neighbor. A neighbor for how long? He owned eight hundred acres to her family's twenty-five hundred. But if he was as crusty as his grandfather had been, a buyout wouldn't be easy. Cy had bickered about parking, seasonal workers and myriad other things. If Cam Latimer was aware of the checkered history between their familiesbeginning when her parents, Barb and Dan, took over Snowflake Farm from her grandpaNoelle figured he'd make a heck of a poker player. Cy would've sold his farm to Lucifer rather than a Hale.
Well, if young Latimer sold, he sold. Noelle didn't have time to concern herself with Cy's grandson. She was approaching her busiest season. One she'd been born to love. Her mom said the fact that Noelle had arrived on Christmas day meant the all-important holiday was embedded in her soul. Everyone in the area knew Noelle would one day run Snowflake Farm. Adding hand-made wreaths and a gift-and-decoration shop had been her contribution to the success of an already thriving enterprise.
Still, for the past few years her parents had made noises suggesting that they'd rather she found a life partner like her brothers, Kent and Sloan, had done, and forget about expanding the business. As if she had time to hunt for Mr. Right. None of the men she'd met and managed to date had expressed any interest in tree farming. That automatically meant Noelle crossed them off her list of prospects. In reality, she told herself, she felt satisfied with her life as it was. Only one thing eluded her. Producing the perfect Christmas tree.
Noelle parked outside her brother Kent's, accounting firm. She gathered up the sales receipts from the gift shop so he could match them with the computer version.
When she walked in, Kent and his wife, Lisa, who worked in his office, both rose and hugged Noelle. Kent took the folder and sat down to thumb through paper-clipped receipts. He unfolded a set of photocopies and glanced at his sister. "This year you entered three trees in the National Christmas Tree Association contest for a grand champion White House tree? I thought Sloan said you entered two."
Noelle tore up one form. "Two is right. A grand fir I planted eight years ago with the contest in mind, and a nine-year-old Fraser. I scratched the Douglas. It had flaws. I'll bet money the Fraser will earn a second look from the committee. It's gorgeous."
"Noelle, why do you keep entering that silly contest?" Lisa asked, frowning at her sister-in-law. "You were heartbroken when you thought you had a winner, but then they chose a white fir from Maine instead."
"Save your breath, Lisa," Kent said. "Noelle's wanted to produce a tree for the First Family since she was ten and saw all the hoopla on TV."
Noelle defended herself. "You can't buy the kind of lasting PR that comes with a winning tree. But we've been over this before. Come on, let's go eat. And not another word about this. It's Snowflake Farm's turn to win. I can feel it in my bones."
They walked the short distance to the café, and the subject turned from the contest to news of Camden Latimer, Noelle's new neighbor.
Cam had no doubt he was on the right road once he reached the fork his neighbor had mentioned. Noelle Hale's sign was a huge snowflake with arrows directing visitors to a gift shop, lodge and tree barn. His grandfather's lane was marked by a small wooden sign that read Latimer Trees. Cam knew Cy hadn't dealt with the touchy-feely end of selling Christmas trees; instead, he'd shipped truckloads of cut trees to commercial customers who sold them at urban tree lots.
The Viper's undercarriage scraped gravel even though Cam geared down to climb the knoll. Another point for the snow queen. If he didn't unload the tree farm he'd either have to grade the lane or sell the Viper.
The house came into view, and Cam whistled through his teeth. The log cabin was bigger than he'd expected. He thought again about the grandfather he hadn't really known. Overall, the Latimers were a dysfunctional, disconnected family. Cam had been shocked when Cy had first contacted him five years ago. Now he figured that must've been when the old boy had learned he had a bad ticker. If there'd been any hint that his granddad was living on borrowed time, Cam would've made a point of visitingeven though he'd never been invited.
He regretted not attending the funeral. The timing had been terrible. A formal letter from a law firm notifying him of his grand-father's death had arrived mere days after Cam had been shot in a Miami back alley. The letter had left him brooding for weeks about living and dying alone. The letter had also informed Cam that his grandfather had had a will and that he'd prearranged a funeral and cremation.
That was a damned sad commentary on a life. Cam didn't want that said of him. He knew he needed to change direction, but now, he wasn't sure he'd made the right choice. In this remote locale, there wasn't much hope of finding anyone to connect with. In Miami, he'd at least had dates. There'd even been two women he'd stuck with for as long as a year each. Both had wanted him to quit being a street cop. Now that he had, they were married to safe, boring men. Perhaps that had helped him decide to move on.
Doubts surfaced again as Cam exited from his car and let himself into the house. Maybe he should sell out to Ms. Snowflake. What if he couldn't handle living here in the wild?
The interior barely felt lived in. The living room had a stone fireplace and navy blue, overstuffed furniture. The house was so eerily quiet Cam wished he owned a dog. The lawyer had told him there'd be instructions for him in Cy's office. Sure enough, a box of folders sat on a big mahogany desk with a note addressed to Cam. The folders contained information about the business, including typed notes for each phase of the operation. It was plain that Cy had expected Cam to carry on.
Cam had kidded with his cop buddies about coming here to sit on his back porch and do nothing but watch trees grow. All bullshit. Cam had always needed to keep busy. He carried the folders upstairs to the main bedroom, which he decided to use as his own.
After a blessedly hot shower, he went to bed to read up on what needed to be done first. Final shearing. Cutting trees. Baling them before shipping. Stifling a yawn, Cam set the box aside and promised himself that in the morning he'd go out and see firsthand what was what at Latimer Trees.