Longing for a simpler life, wealthy businessman Adam Peece buys a cherry orchard in Michigan. Problem is, he has no idea how to run it! So he asks Eva Marsh to teach him the ropes. Cherries are in Eva's blood. Her family owned the orchard for generations before selling it to Adam. But she doesn't trust people easily, especially tall, dark and handsome city slickers. However, one look into Adam's caring eyes convinces her to give the city boy a chance. Could their working relationship blossom into love before season's end?
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Eva placed a tray of cut dough in the oven and then peered out the window. The wind moaned, making snow swirl against a gray January afternoon sky. The weather might not be as horrible as predicted, but it was bad enough to cancel school on a Friday. In northern Michigan that was pretty bad. As she cleaned off her flour-covered workspace at the island counter, a knock at the door made her jump.
Wiping damp hands against the back of her jeans, Eva crossed the kitchen floor and opened the door. A man with blue eyes the color of laser beams stood on the porch.
"Eve Marsh?" He smiled at her. A devastatingly handsome smile.
"It's Eva." Since when did she sound so out of breath?
He held out his hand. "I'm Adam. Adam Peece."
Eva sucked in the gasp ready to escape. She'd accepted the job he'd offered over the phone this very morning.
"Sorry about not calling before dropping by, but I was on my way to the area and made better time than I thought. Last-minute decision."
Regardless of the high opinion her father had for the guy who'd bought the family cherry orchard, one look at Adam Peece and Eva knew he was not the kind of guy she'd trust. He was too polished, too good-looking, and his fingers didn't look as if they'd ever been dirty.
He grinned as he let his hand drop. "Is this a bad time?"
Eva thought briefly about closing the door on him but backed up instead. "Oh, no. Sorry. Come in and let me take your coat."
He shrugged out of an expensive black wool peacoat, revealing snug black jeans topped by a charcoal-gray sweater. He looked as if he'd stepped off the pages of a fashion magazine. His build was slender but obviously well exercised. The sleek boots gave him the decided air of a European jet-setter.
And this guy wanted her to teach him to grow cherries? No way. A downstater like him was bound to ruin the orchard, change it or worsedevelop it.
He stepped farther into the kitchen. "Something smells incredible."
But her roommate, Beth, who sat at the kitchen table with her second-grade lesson plans, popped up to play hostess. "Eva's famous cherry scones. Would you like one with coffee?"
His grin was quick and brilliant, showcasing even white teeth. "Absolutely."
Eva nearly growled at her friend. Peece was bound to stay if they offered him food, but there was no getting around it. She retreated behind the island counter but not before noticing the flash of interest in Adam's eyes when he looked at Beth. A guy would have to be dead not to notice her statuesque friend. "Mr. Peece, this is Beth Ryken, my roommate."
"Nice to meet you." Adam extended his hand.
Beth took it, and her long blond hair fell around her face, making her look even more angelic. "Have a seat."
Eva might have been dazzled at firstit wasn't every day a male-model type stopped in for visitbut she'd gathered her wits. "Mr. Peece"
"Call me Adam." He slipped onto a stool tucked under the island counter's generous overhang.
Eva gave him a weak smile. "Since you're here, I can show you what we'll be working on together in February. Pruning tools, the trees that sort of thing."
"Let him warm up a minute, Eva." Beth gave her a pointed look that said "play nice" as she set down the tray loaded with a coffee service and a plate of scones.
The oven timer buzzed, announcing more scones were done. Eva slipped on her oven mitts. "Excuse me."
"Take your time." Adam poured himself a cup of coffee.
Eva pulled out the cookie sheets and glanced at Beth, who nodded toward their guest. She turned to catch Adam's reaction.
His eyes were closed and a satisfied smile curved his shapely lips. "These are amazing."
His obvious pleasure did funny things to Eva. How could she hold a grudge against a guy who loved her baked goods? Not to mention that she'd agreed to work for him. That should teach her not to accept employment without a face-to-face interview. Not that she had much of a choice after he'd named her wages. She needed the money.
"Made with Marsh cherries," Beth added.
Adam's eyes opened. "Canned?"
Eva set aside her oven mitts. "Dried. They're what's left of last year's pitiful harvest."
"Your father told me about the killing frost last year. Tough loss." Adam stirred cream into his coffee.
Eva clenched her teeth. If only they'd had a bumper crop, it might have made a difference. Instead, Peece had swooped in like a bird of prey sighting a quick kill. He bought up the orchard, enabling her parents to pay off their past-due mortgage and commercial note. Even after leaving the farmhouse to her and giving her brothers money, her folks had enough left over to retire modestly in the Florida Keys. Making everyone happy.
Eva shook off the thought. "They're your cherries now, so you can process them however you like."
A moment of awkward silence hung in the air.
And Beth chose that moment to leave. "I have papers to grade, so I'll leave you two to discuss business. Nice to meet you, Adam."
He gave her a wide smile. "You, too."
Eva swallowed the urge to ask Beth to stay. Adam Peece made her nervous. But then so did most men close enough to her twenty-five years of age.
She eyed Adam as he reached for another scone. "Your father said you'd taken the sale hard. I hope we can get beyond that working together."
Eva pursed her lips to stop the sarcastic retort poised for takeoff. Who was he to commiserate? She felt the corner of her eye twitch as she stared him down. Pretty hard to do when his attention was wrapped up in what he was eating.
"What else are in these?" He held up half a scone and examined it.
"Wow. They're really good."
She knew real appreciation when she heard it, but she hadn't expected to be warmed by it. "Now then, Mr. Peece, did you have some questions about the upcoming season? Questions about our conversation this morning?"
His laser blues locked on to her, trapping her. "My father is Mr. Peece. I'm Adam."
Eva looked away. She didn't feel comfortable using his first name. It sounded ridiculous considering hers. Adam and Eva. Cute. Calling him Adam rang so informal and friendly. He'd have to earn her respect and friendship before she doled it out.
"Look, Peece, this isn't easy for me. Working for you on my family's farm. It's going to take some getting used to." Tracing the rim of her grandmother's plate with her fingertip, she glanced up at him to gauge his reaction. Would he take offense?
No. In his eyes she read understanding.
Adam smiled at Eva. He liked the way she used his last name. From her it sounded saucy, even though he knew she used it to show that she meant business. He'd expected some reservation from her but not this stark vulnerability underneath a brave front that bordered on cockiness.
Adam leaned back, hooking his knee with both hands. "Working with people, I've gotten used to a lot of smoke blowing. Thanks for being honest with me. I'll be honest, too. I don't want to make this any harder for you. I've got an employment contract for you in the car instead of that fax I sent. After we sign off, I'd like to walk around the orchard on my own."
He'd rushed over here from his town house intent on seeing his land in the dead of winter. He'd seen the lights on in the kitchen of the farmhouse and known he should meet Eva in person. He couldn't wait to get started, discuss the seasonal duties, the whole process. He couldn't afford to waste time. He had one season, this season, to prove himself to his father.
"Okay. No problem." Her eyes matched the copper-brown color of her hair and he thought they'd softened toward him. A little.
Adam knew women hit the salons, but Eva Marsh didn't strike him as one of them. She didn't wear a trace of makeup that he could see. She didn't need to. She was small, reaching all of maybe five foot two. And awfully cute wearing an apron covered with embroidered cherries and a smudge of flour on her cheek.
He took a sip of his coffee before he brushed off that flour. "Your father mentioned something about you starting a bed-and-breakfast. When do you plan to do that?"
Eva's mouth had thinned, the softness gone. "For now, that's on hold."
Adam took another bite of his scone. Too bad Eva wasn't as sweet as her baked goods. "Your dad's the reason I hired you. Bob Marsh said you were the best person for the job."
Eva looked straight through him as if measuring him and then finding him lacking. He'd seen that look a million times from his dad, but it still pinched. He wasn't going to let Eva's wariness stop him from learning everything he could from her. With God's help, he wasn't going to let anything stop him from making this work.
Adam nodded. "With the orchard right here, maybe you can do both."
"I'll keep that in mind." Again the impatient glare before looking down at the plate of scones.
The dark fringe of her eyelashes curled against the swell of her cheeks. She had seriously long lashes and a few light freckles on her nose. Then she looked him square in the eye. "Look, I don't mean to be so touchy, but it's been a rough day. My bank shot down my loan application. I need this job and I'll do my best as your farm manager."
Again Adam nodded while something protective stirred deep inside him. He'd erase that furrow in her brow if he could. "Good. I'm looking forward to learning everything I can from you about this orchard. I want our working relationship to be open and relaxed. I'm going to ask you a ton of questions, but I'm committed to an entire season of getting my hands dirty."
She didn't look like she believed him. "It takes more than one season."
"I'm sure it does." After one season, he'd know if acting on his childhood dream was the right direction after so many failed attempts to find his niche. This time his father had thrown down the gauntlet. Success meant Adam could finally walk away from Peece Canning Company. Fail, and he'd lose it all.
Eva brushed a loose strand of her stick-straight hair off her forehead. The rest was tied into a messy ponytail. "Well, I guess we'll have to see how it goes then, won't we?"
Adam knew that was his cue to go get the contract and wrap up this meeting, but he felt an odd urge to stay. Eva's cluttered kitchen was warm and smelled good. It reminded him of his grandparents' farmhouse where he'd spent summers as a kid. That had been the only place where his mom used to bake. The only place he'd ever felt as if he truly belonged.
Adam knew better than to overstay his welcome. When it came to women, Adam never stayed. Not long anyway. "True. Thanks, Eva. It was nice to finally meet you." He hooked his thumb toward the porch. "If you don't mind, I'll get our contract and then take that walk."
He extended his hand.
This time she took it, but when he noticed the softness of her skin, she pulled back. "The snow's deep out there. You're likely to mess up those slick leather boots."
"Thanks, but I have more." He reached for another scone. "Mind if I take one for the road?"
Eva gave him a hint of a smile that revealed a dimple in her left cheek. She was impossibly cute. A real farm girl.
Adam shrugged into his coat, wondering why he didn't want to leave when Eva Marsh clearly wanted him gone. He went to the door and opened it. Snow spilled in from a good two-foot drift. The snowfall had grown heavier and the wind whipped. "Uh, Eva? I don't think I'm going anywhere."
Eva didn't know what to do with Adam Peece, but she let him stay and watch her bake more scones. He might not be a big man, but he still managed to fill the kitchen with his presence. His classic, defined features begged admiration, and she'd looked her fair share.
After they'd signed two copies of their employment contract, they discussed the first pruning chores of the season. Then Beth had joined them for a quick dinner of leftover lasagna and salad, but Adam still asked a million questions about growing up on a fruit farm. His manners were polished but relaxed and he'd charmed them both.
When he politely excused himself from the table to take a phone call on his cell, Beth leaned forward and whispered, "I think he likes you, Eva."
She rolled her eyes. "Oh, please."
"I'm serious. He keeps checking you out."
"Right." He was probably judging her like she'd taken stock of him. It wasn't as if she was anything to look at wearing an oversize sweatshirt the color of mud.
Beth smiled. "You're lucky he's too short for me, or I might be interested. He's totally yummy with all that dark hair."
"Too long." Eva didn't want to admit that his hair looked good even though he wore it longer than she liked. She'd always gone for the clean-cut, jock types.
"You're crazy," Beth said with a giggle.
Adam entered the kitchen, cutting off their whispers.
"Did you let your girlfriend know where you are?" Beth asked.
Eva shook her head. Her roommate didn't have a subtle bone in her body. Raised by an indulgent mother and a police officer dad, Beth's practical streak leaned toward saying whatever popped into her head.
Adam laughed as he slipped back into his chair. "I don't have a girlfriend. But I'm supposed to meet up with some friends to ski tonight. My family has a town house at Star Mountain."
Of course he did. That was the place to ski, even though it was almost an hour south. She should have pegged him a skier. Eva had never liked the party atmosphere of most slopes, but Adam probably fit right in. His manner might be easygoing, but she sensed intensity simmering beneath that carefree charm.
When Adam aimed his attention on her, Eva felt him tune in as if she were the only woman in the world. It was a heady feeling. And it was no wonder he'd been considered one of Detroit's most eligible bachelors.
She'd searched on Google Adam Peece's name. As heir to the Peece canning kingdom, Adam got around. In the Detroit society columns he'd been linked with models and wealthy downstate socialites and was even rumored to have dated the daughter of a Hollywood actor. Contrary to what her roommate thought, Eva knew a guy like Adam wouldn't give her a passing glance.
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