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"Did we celebrate Christmas this year?" Meg Corey Chapin asked her still-newish husband, Seth.
He turned from the stove in the kitchen, holding up a coffeepot. "More?"
"Please!" Meg told him.
Seth refilled her cup, topped off his, and sat down across from her at the kitchen table. His dog, Max, a solidly built Golden Retriever, laid a head on his foot and resumed his nap. "Christmas . . . yes, I believe we did. I seem to remember there was a tree, and boxes with paper and ribbons on them, and family members kept popping in. Why are you asking now?"
"Because it all seems like a blur. After the honeymoon, which wasn't exactly normal or typical—not that I'm complaining, and it wasn't our fault that we got stuck solving a murder—we came back and Bree told us she was taking another job and leaving in two weeks, and somehow I haven't gotten things together since. Thank goodness there's nothing that absolutely needs to be done right now in the orchard."
"It's too bad Bree had to leave," Seth agreed.
Bree had been Meg's orchard manager since she'd first arrived in Granford to find she owned an apple orchard and might actually need to make an income from it. When they'd first met, Bree had recently graduated from UMass in nearby Amherst, but she was young, untested, female, and born to Jamaican parents, any of which could have been an impediment to finding a job in agriculture. But she'd come highly recommended by a respected professor at UMass, Christopher Ramsdell, born in Australia, and Meg knew she needed someone to manage the orchard, since she was clueless about it, so she'd agreed to hire Bree. Christopher had been using the orchard as a sort of living demonstration for his students, so he knew it well. Meg had hoped that he had transferred most of that information to Bree, and it turned out that he had.
Meg couldn't afford to pay Bree much. She had thrown in free housing to sweeten the deal, so since her arrival Bree had been living in the Colonial house Meg had acquired along with the orchard. She'd proved to be a good roommate: she had kept to herself, done her share of the cooking and cleaning, and been invaluable to Meg in getting to know her orchard and learning what trees she had and how to harvest, store, and sell the apples. Bree's Achilles' heel was keeping financial records for the orchard, although she was good at tracking what had been done with which trees and what needed to be done from year to year. But Meg could more than compensate on the financial side since most of her professional experience had come from years of working in a Boston bank. They'd made a good team, even after Seth had started spending more and more time at the house, until they had finally married in December, almost two years after Meg had moved to Granford.
And then Bree had left for an internship in Australia, with Meg's blessing. She wanted Bree to succeed and be happy, but it had left her high and dry. Even after two years, there was still a lot she didn't know about growing apples.
"Tell me about it," Meg told Seth. "But Christopher said he had a good candidate to replace her."
"You think she'll come back here?"
"I really don't know. Selfishly I'd like that, but I want her to do well, so I can't exactly stand in her way. We'll have to see how the new person works out."
"You have anything major on your calendar?" Seth asked.
"Not until we need to prune, and that's not urgent—yet. You?"
"A few small clean-up projects, and I suppose I should start drumming up some new business for when the weather warms up."
"You like the old-house projects better?" Meg asked. Seth had been a plumber, running what had been his father's small company, when they'd first met, but his heart lay in house renovation and restoration, mainly for the older buildings in the area, and there were plenty of those.
"Better than what?" he replied. "There aren't a lot of major projects coming down the pike. Well, the town is still wrestling with what to do with the old library, now that the new one is open, but if they can't decide what that building should be, they can't exactly advertise for architects, much less contractors. And there might be a conflict of interest, since I'm a town selectman. You and I both know I'd give them a fair estimate, but we don't want anybody to challenge the process. I'm okay with that."
"And that's the only major project? That suits your particular skills, that is?"
"For now. Most people wait until winter's over to see what work their homes need, so I'm not worried. Besides, you can support me, right?"
"In your dreams! But we'll always have apples to eat. I can plant a garden, and maybe you can trap a muskrat or two in the swamp."
"There aren't a lot of muskrats in Massachusetts, and I think you need a permit to trap them. You want to make a fur coat? I'm not about to shoot anything. How do you feel about eating frogs?"
"I've tried them once, I think. Kinda like chicken? But not a lot of meat on them." Meg took another sip of her coffee. "So, the bottom line is, there's nothing either one of us has to do today?"
"Looks like it. You have any ideas?"
"I am at a total loss. I don't know what to do with spare time anymore. And I refuse to look at spreadsheets, though I know taxes are looming. Even if I was a financial professional."
"We should discuss our shared finances at some point, you know," Seth said.
"My head knows it, but right now I don't wanna. Very adult of me, isn't it?"
"We could schedule a time. You know, we've got two unrelated businesses to consider, both of which are sole proprietorships, and the details are complicated."
"Seth, my love, you are depressing me. You think I don't know that? Let me ask you this: do we have money in the bank right now, after all the wedding and honeymoon hoo-hah?"
"So that was hoo-hah? Live and learn. Yes, we have some money, and we can cover our bills. But we may never be able to retire."
"That is the farthest thing from my mind at the moment."
Their banter was interrupted by an insistent banging on the front door. "What time is it?" Meg asked. "That much noise this early is seldom good news. And nobody who knows us uses that door."
"So you want me to go, right?" Seth said, smiling.
"If you will, please, sir. I've got your back."
Seth stood up and headed through the dining room and the living room to the front door. Meg didn't move. Please, let it not be a crisis. They'd had more than their share in recent months. She heard the creak of the door opening, and the rumble of male voices. All right, their unexpected caller was male. Salesman? State trooper? Religious fanatic? She couldn't begin to guess. Luckily Seth returned quickly, followed by a twentysomething guy wearing well-worn clothes and a heavy, shapeless coat. He was shorter than Seth—maybe about her height? He could use a haircut, but at least he didn't have one of the scruffy beards that seemed to be popular among his age group.
"Meg, this is Larry Bennett. He says Christopher sent him."
"Hey, hi," the guy said. "Sorry—Christopher said he'd meet me here so we could do the introduction thing. He told me you needed an orchard manager?"
"Ah. Yes, we do," Meg said. "Please, sit down. You want some coffee?"
Larry sat. "Yeah, sure. Please," he added as an afterthought.
"Seth, can you do the honors with the coffee?" Meg asked. "I'm Meg Corey, uh, Chapin. Sorry, Seth, but I'm still getting used to it."
"No problem—I think my ego will survive." He set a mug of coffee in front of Larry and took a seat next to Meg.
"We just got married last month," Meg explained, feeling foolish. "I don't know how much Christopher has told you, but I'll give you the short version while we wait. I kind of inherited this place about two years ago, and when I decided to stay I realized I'd have to make a living from the orchard, if possible. But I had no experience, so Christopher suggested I hire Bree—Briona Stewart—who was one of his students. Did he explain all this?"
"Not a lot. So she's been working here for two years? Why's she leaving?"
"She was offered an internship in Australia, which would be a big plus on her résumé, and I told her she should take it. She left right after New Year's."
"So you need someone to manage the whole thing? What've you got?"
"'Bout fifteen acres of mature trees, and we put in another three acres of new trees last year, mostly heirlooms."
"What do you do for storage?"
"Seth built some refrigerated storage units in the barn when we started, but mostly I sell direct to local markets."
"So no big contracts?"
"No, and I'm not looking for any right now," Meg said, reflecting that this Larry person wasn't exactly making nice with his new employer, although he was asking the right questions. A little rough around the social edges?
Larry turned to Seth. "You—Seth, is it?—you work in the orchard, too?"
"No, I'm a renovator, but I know plumbing. Separate operation, but I use the building next to the barn as my office space."
"Other employees?" Larry turned back to Meg, dismissing Seth abruptly.
"Bree set up a team of pickers for me who come in for the harvest."
"Not for the picking. No, we pick by hand, and move the apples around with our tractor. When there's a drought, which we have had recently, there's a well that supplies the orchard, but we need to install a new pumping system."
"Expensive," Larry said.
"Yes, it will be." Meg decided it was time to take charge. After all, she was supposed to be interviewing him, not the other way around. "What's your background?"
"I've got a degree in plant sciences from Cornell. You know about their apple programs, right?"
"I've heard of them, but I haven't visited. It's on my wish list. When did you graduate?"
"A couple of years ago."
"And what have you been doing since?"
"I've taken a bunch of graduate-level agricultural courses at UMass—that's how I met Christopher. There was some grant funding for apple research projects, so I was working on those. I haven't made up my mind if I want to go for a grad degree, but I need a job."
"Have you worked in an orchard before?"
"My folks had one, but they're gone now, and so's the orchard."
"Why do you want this job? We're pretty small, and there's not a lot of room to grow. What can you learn here?"
"Look, I need a paycheck, all right? I know apples, and there are some good ideas I picked up, that I'd like to try out."
"Assuming I'm willing. You'd be working for me, and I need to be part of making any decisions."
Larry looked like he was swallowing a comment, but in the end he said, "Yeah, I get that. But I can bring new ideas to you, right?"
"Of course. I don't pretend to know everything, but I wanted to be clear from the start. I'm willing to listen to you."
Meg sat back and contemplated this Larry person. He was kind of abrasive. Defensive? Or just obnoxious? And young. Still, if he'd been raised with an orchard, he must have more experience than Bree had when she took on the job. And if Christopher vouched for him, he must have something going for him. Where the heck was Christopher, anyway? A knock at the back door answered that question. Meg got up to let Christopher in.
"So sorry I'm late, Meg, my dear. Seth. Ah, I see my young protégée has arrived. How've you been getting on, Larry?"
Larry shrugged. "Okay, I guess."
"Coffee, Christopher?" Seth asked.
"Oh, no, no, thank you. I've had my fill for this morning."
"Have you heard from Bree, Christopher?" Meg asked.
"My contact in Australia informs me that she arrived safely and is quick to learn. I don't expect to hear much more from her. And you?"
"No, but I assume she's busy." Not that Bree owed her any personal contact. They'd moved past an employer-employee relationship, but stopped somewhere short of friends.
"Has Larry seen your property yet?" Christopher changed the subject adroitly.
"Just from the road," Larry said. "We were talking about the job."
"Well, then, I suggest we take a look at the orchard and the relevant facilities," Christopher said, rubbing his hands together.
"I'll leave you to it," Seth said. "I've got some other chores to do."
"Seth, can you feed the goats, please?" Meg asked.
"Sure, no problem. And I'll give Max some exercise, too."
Meg stood up. "Well, then, let's take the tour." They gathered up their coats, and Meg led the way out the back door, followed by Christopher and Larry.
"Ask any questions you want, Larry," Meg said. They stood huddled together in the driveway, shivering in the January wind. Meg pointed. "That's Seth's office space, at the end of the driveway. The barn is obviously the barn. That's where the storage for the apples is."
"Can we take a look at that?" Larry asked.
"Sure." Meg led them to the front of the barn and hauled open one of the big double doors. Inside, she pointed to the apple storage units aligned along one wall. "That's what we've got, the ones Seth built."
"How full are they now?" Larry asked.
"About twenty-five percent, I think. The ones that ripened late or hold well."
"Where were the apples kept before you built these?"
"You'd do better to ask Christopher. I've got a pretty short history here."
Christopher spoke up. "We had no holding facilities here then. The university managed this as an experimental orchard, and while some of the apples were sold commercially, that was not a priority. Some went to the university kitchens, others to local shelters."
"So you were more interested in managing the trees than in optimizing the crop?" Larry asked.
"Yes. That's how I chose to define my mandate," Christopher said. "The sale and marketing aspects were handled by others. In your opinion, young Mr. Bennett, would this division of labor have had an impact on the crop?"
"Maybe. If you'd been interested in producing more apples, or modifying size or resistance, you might have made different choices."