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Underwear. And lots of it. Tumbling out of an overpacked suitcase and scattering freely in all directions, the colorful fugitives raced down the dirt road across the perimeter of a cornfield, their destinations in the hands of a tiny renegade windstorm common to the California Central Valley in mid-September. Leaning against an iron corral fifty yards from the front of their mother's house, their bodies angled in much the same way, Mitchell Hawkins and his fifteen year old sister, Katie, a slight replica of her older brother, paused from their work to watch the spectacle unfolding before them.
About one hundred and fifty Holstein cows moved restlessly behind them, oblivious to the stranger who broke into an undignified run to pursue her undergarments. Her cool demeanor cracked as she snagged the fleeing articles, stuffing them—for lack of a better place—into her T-shirt. A trio of heeler pups, free roamers until old enough to work with their parents, pounced on the intruders and wrestled them to the ground.
Mitch watched with veiled interest.
"Here, doggie, doggie. Nice puppy. You don't really want those.'' The dairy's newest tenant tried to coax a paisley unmentionable from the tenacious jaws of one puppy, while not losing sight of another scampering away with something red.
In her initial interview, Phoebe Douglas had been well spoken, polite, impeccably dressed, clearly on her best interview behavior. She smiled profusely, nodding with perky enthusiasm, letting slip that she had spent much of her childhood on a farm, nonproductive though it was. Mitch was impressed, even drawn to her effusive grin. Her handshake was business firm, her nails neatly manicured but not overly long.
He liked that.
It had been a while since Mitch had been in the company of such a woman and even though he didn't have much time to devote to personal interests beyond the farm, a pretty face would provide a nice distraction from the day to day work on the dairy. Maybe, she'd be a good influence on his rather rebellious teenage sister.
Then, he'd given Phoebe a tour of the dairy.
He couldn't keep the pride out of his voice as he walked her through the enterprise that his father had built from nothing. But when he noted midsentence that what he was saying took less precedence over where she was stepping, any camaraderie he felt for her faded. With new eyes, Mitch observed the wrinkle of her finely sculpted nose as they passed the cows and her panic as she frantically waved away a proliferation of small black flies drawn to her expensive perfume. If Phoebe Douglas had indeed been raised on a farm, she retained no love for the life.
He watched her use her ankle to surreptitiously nudge away the boldest of the heeler pups, just eight weeks old, who trod with muddy paws on the fine leather of her toes.
Phoebe gave him a game smile, "So, I'll be sharing the main house with your mother, Bess, and your sister uh ?"
"Katie,'' he supplied. He watched her shoo the pup away more forcefully.
"And she's fourteen?''
"Fifteen.'' When the other pups, encouraged by the success of their brother, clustered around her finely tapered ankles, Mitch couldn't hide his amusement. But then, he took pity on her and scattered the pups in the direction of the four winds with an authoritative command that even caused her to jump.
"Thank you,'' she said gratefully, her very pretty gray, green, gold eyes meeting his directly. Two dark fringes of long eyelashes lifted up.
He studied her for several moments, noting how terribly out of place her pale linen suit looked in relationship to her surroundings.
"I'm not sure why you want to live on the dairy,'' Mitch finally said.
She turned bright red and just for a split second, he saw in a hurried flutter of those long lashes, a desperate child. Then, she shuttered that part of herself, lifting her chin a notch as if to remind herself, more than him, who she was.
"It's not that I want to live on a dairy. But have you priced the rents in San Jose lately?'' she asked bluntly, her hazel eyes shifting away from his. She leaned down, completely absorbed in brushing the mud from her shoe. However, she only succeeded in smearing it, then gazed helplessly at the dark, wet mud on her hand.
"Can't say that I have,'' he admitted, then added with a directive nod of his head. "There's a sink over there, some soap.''
She looked around the barn until she spotted the sink in the corner. "Thanks. Rents are now over $900 for a studio. One-bedrooms are running over twelve hundred,'' she informed him, her voice terse.
Mitch shook his head, speculating. "So the computer industry drives the rents up even in a recession. When the salaries are inflated, everything becomes inflated.''
She glanced at him in surprise. "From housing to cappuccinos to egos,'' she said heavily, as she searched for soap. Finding the well-used bar, she thoroughly washed her hands. Twice. "Some people have resorted to renting floors for about as much as you're asking for a room.''
"Living room floors.'' Her voice was tinged with forced humor. "You supply your own sleeping bag.'' She found a small clean rag and with considerable effort, dabbed at her shoes. She looked up. "Well, at least, I'm not there yet. Even if I have to drive four hours a day.''
Silenced by her honesty, Mitch found himself liking her again. Obviously, she needed a place to stay as much as he needed a tenant.
She straightened and asked point blank, "So, can I have the room?''
With no better offers or, more accurately, no other offers, Mitch shrugged and said, "Sure.''
Phoebe immediately dug into her purse and produced a cashier's check for first and last months' rent plus a generous deposit that he hadn't even requested.
"What's the possibility of me getting the room that has the bay window?'' she inquired, her voice purely business now. Back in character, she flashed a winning smile.
"Bay window?'' Mitch frowned, then looked at her in shock. "Katie's room?''
"It's bigger, with more light,'' she explained.
"I don't think—''
"I'll pay more.'' She produced yet another cashier's check.
Even with the checks in his hand, enough to get new tires on the truck and furnish Katie with some practical school shoes, a winter coat and maybe a new outfit, Mitch harbored serious misgivings about what he had just done. It was nuts to uproot his sister, his very moody—to put it nicely—sister, for a stranger who would probably go crazy in the isolation of Los Banos. Although the small town boasted a state-of-the-art skate park for the youngsters, it lacked many of the amenities urban dwellers might expect—not one indoor mall. It just got its first multiplex movie theater. Life on one of the three hundred and fifty odd family-owned dairies scattered across the sprawling county was even more isolated. He doubted Phoebe Douglas would last even a month. But his truck needed new tires and Katie needed shoes. The next day, he cashed the checks.
Now, Mitch watched Phoebe strategically study the towering corn silage mound covered by neat rows of old tires. She stared at a pair of boy shorts that had blown up like a parachute and dangled just out of reach. He shot a glance at Katie, whose narrowed blue eyes and tight lips told him all he needed to know about his young sister's feelings.
"I hope it falls on her,'' Katie muttered bitterly, her voice filled with hormonal angst. "Then I can get my room back.''
Mitch turned his gaze back to Phoebe, who was still trying to snag her undergarment. Finally, after a quick look around her, she jumped and took an inefficient swipe at it. Twice. The pups barked at the entertainment. Even Blue, their father, came to investigate, sniffing inquisitively around her feet. Triumphant on her third try, she stuffed the shorts down her shirt and continued her hunt, curious pups at her heels.
At the edge of the drainage ditch, Phoebe crouched down, her position precarious as she plucked three items out of the murky water, shaking them out, scattering her canine audience with the spray. Then, she scrambled across the trench into the cornfield, the stalks towering over her, their golden tops shimmering with the breeze and the sun. She hopped over another ditch and disappeared from view.
"Well, you're out of luck, kid,'' Mitch said evenly, alert as Phoebe shot out of the cornfield, shaking her head violently, her honey colored hair wisping out from the elegant French braid. She flailed at her shoulder blades in a vigorous attempt to fend off some flying creature.
Mitch laughed out loud.
When she whirled to identify the laughter, he quickly knelt, pretending to examine a section of laminated wire he and Katie had just restrung. He glanced up again as their renter walked wearily back to her car, a late model Lexus complete with gold accents. He pushed his cap up and used his sleeve to wipe the sweat off his forehead and then settled the cap down again.
"It won't be so bad,'' he reassured Katie, squinting against the September sun right into his sister's dour expression.
"It's going to be awful,'' Katie snorted.
"She's got a ton of clothes.'' Jealousy tinged her voice as the nearest cow nudged at her. Distractedly, she patted the Holstein between its eyes as she stared at the woman, now laying the suitcase across her trunk.
Mitch sighed and tightened a bolt with a grunt, shifting his gaze away from his sister, her tone pricking at him as she scuffed the toes of her worn tennis shoes. They watched as Phoebe pulled out the bottom of her T-shirt and dumped the bras and panties back into the suitcase. Then she quickly shut the lid and hurried into the house, glancing over her shoulder at them with an embarrassed smile.
"Why does someone even need all that underwear anyway?'' Katie muttered, her eyes fixed on a fragile piece of rose silk fluttering their way. She kicked dust at it.
Mitch leaned over to retrieve the little scrap of material and shoved it in his shirt pocket. It hadn't helped that their renter had taken so long to move in. She had taken the keys a month ago when he had accepted her checks. He grimaced as he remembered how they had only given Katie a day to vacate the room she'd grown up in.