Alex put the sportscar into gear and turned down the rutted lane leading from the Jackson family’s log house to the orchard’s packing shed. The windows were rolled down, letting in the heat of summer, and the sound of grasshoppers in the long grass at the edges of the orchards was deafening.
Emma sat next to him, a silver metal case on her lap, her long red braids hanging over the front of her coveralls. “What’s your game, Alex? Have you ever worked a day of manual labor in your life?”
“You’d be surprised.” He refused to take offense at her tone, choosing to keep it light. Beneath their antagonistic banter a tension hummed that with another woman he would call sexual. “Do you have a thing against men in sports cars?”
“Don’t be silly. Seriously, why are you pretending you’re going to pick cherries? Is this a bet, or some frat boy prank? You look too old to be part of a fraternity.”
“What’s your beef? I’m a friend of the family’s.” Briefly he had to concentrate, placing both hands on the wheel to negotiate a large puddle. “Are you Linda and Robert’s daughter or niece?” God, he hoped they weren’t related.
“Nope. Emma Stanhope, long-time neighbor. Which you would know if you really were a friend of the family.” She twisted her metal case so he could read the stamped faded black letters, Montana Agricultural Department. “I’m here to sample for fruit flies.”
“Hence the colorful outdoor wear.” She was not unattractive, if you liked that girl-next-door type and could ignore the coveralls. Which he couldn’t. And he really didn’t need anyone asking pointed questions about his motives for being in Cherry Lake. “Are you always so suspicious of strangers? Is that the small town friendliness I’ve heard so much about?”
Her small pointed chin jerked up. “I’m protective of people I care about. We get all sorts coming through for the cherry harvest. Backpackers, students and professional farm workers, mostly. But I’ve never seen a man sign up who manicures their nails.”
Damn. He curled his fingers into his palm. Manicures weren’t normally part of his grooming routine but someone had given it to him as an early birthday present and he’d thought what the hell. Last time he’d fall for that nonsense.
He glanced at her short blunt nails resting atop the sampling case. “I’d say it takes a manicure buff to know one but clearly that’s not the case here.”
“Smirk all you like,” she said airily. “I’ll have the last laugh when you come crying because you broke a nail climbing the ladder.”
He smothered a laugh. She was actually amusing to spar with, not that he’d let her know he was enjoying himself. That would spoil the fun.
Then her sharp green gaze raked his profile. “Which family member did you say you were friends with again?”
“I didn’t.” In a few days he’d have talked to his father and everything would be out in the open. Or else his father wouldn’t acknowledge him publicly. In that case he would drive back to the coast, a soon-to-be-forgotten mystery to the inhabitants of Cherry Lake. He nodded at her sampling case. “Is there a disease problem?”
“Fruit flies have been spotted in a neighboring orchard. Will says he hasn’t seen any in his trees but I’m checking anyway. Last thing they need is an infestation.”
“That would make for bad press.”
“It would make for a failed crop and no harvest.” She slanted him a curious glance, her voice softening. “Have you had any experience with cherries?”
“No,” he admitted. “I work in marketing. I’m on vacation and felt like doing something completely different.”
“Okay, I’ll buy that. Maybe. Is that an accent I detect?”
“I’m originally from Canada, just north of here, in Castlegar, British Columbia.”
“I have a cousin in Vancouver. Maybe you know her, Sylvia Davies?”
“Right, because there are so few of us Canucks that we all know each other. Even though Castlegar is hundreds of miles from Vancouver. Even though Vancouver has a population of roughly two and a half million people. Even though I live and work in Seattle.”
Her easy laugh was devoid of embarrassment and ended on a distinct but charming snort. “Okay, so it was a long shot. It’s that small town mentality. We never quite get used to not knowing everyone.” She paused then added, “Do you know Robert and Linda’s kids, Will, Taylor and Jodi?”
His grip tightened around the wheel as he schooled his face not to reveal the shock. Three half-siblings he’d never met, never even knew about. How old were they? What did they do? What did they look like? He didn’t dare meet her gaze. “What do you think?” he drawled when he’d recovered slightly. “You’re not nosy at all, are you?”
“I’m a scientist. We’re curious by nature. Why is that nosy? I’m making conversation.”
Alex concentrated on navigating between the puddles. His headache, never far away all day, was back. Emma was right. He was being too defensive. Only people with something to hide didn’t like answering questions. Which was crazy. He’d done nothing wrong.
Rows of cherry trees spread out east and south and seemed to grow right up to the foothills of the towering snow-capped mountains about fifty miles east. If his mother and father had never split up when he was a kid he might have grown up here. This could have been Alex’s home and the orchard his property one day. It was an odd feeling to think his life might have turned out so differently. But maybe it wouldn’t have. He’d left the tiny town of Castlegar for the big city, first Vancouver and then Seattle. He might have done the same if he’d grown up here.
He pulled into the yard of the packing shed and parked behind a shiny red HiLux. Time to put an end to the question and answer session. He was no spider who liked to prey on weaker beings and Emma didn’t seem at all timid but he thought he knew just how to make Miss Muffet turn tail and run. Twisting in his seat, he leaned a little closer and let his gaze drift down to the open top button of her blouse beneath the bulky overalls. “I’m curious, too. What do girls wear under their coveralls?”
Pink flooded her cheeks but she met his bogus flirtation with a scathing glance. “Maybe those crude lines work on women where you come from but here in Cherry Lake we’re a little more subtle.”
“Ouch, that’s harsh.” He pretended to be stung by her words. Really he was pleased she’d thrown his shit back at him. And frankly he was fascinated by the sun throwing fiery sparks off her hair and the gleam in her emerald eyes. His taste ran to willowy blondes, cool and detached but hot in bed. What was it about this freckle-faced girl-next-door that made him sit up and take notice? And Emma did have freckles, a smattering of them straddling her nose, almost invisible beneath her tan. He wanted to trace them with a fingertip, joining the dots and then sweep that burning hair behind her ear and see just how soft her skin was there.
For a split second, her features softened under his gaze and her lips parted, showing a thin line of white teeth above a full bottom lip and a pink tongue. The tension between them shifted like smoke and the antagonism became overtly sexual. He moved closer, only a fraction of an inch, but it was enough to break the spell.
With a startled blink Emma snapped out of it, her lips clamping together. She grabbed her sampling case and wrenched her door open. “Will’s in the shed. I’ll introduce you and then I have to get going.”
Alex leaned back in the red leather bucket seat and took a moment to recover his composure. He’d run through too many emotions in one day for a hungover thirty-year-old. He knew himself too well not to realize that shooting the shit with Emma, while amusing, had been a delaying tactic. Now he had to come face to face with his half-brother.
Slowly he got out and followed Emma across the dirt yard to the shed. He considered himself capable of handling most tricky situations but this was unprecedented. Up until this moment he’d been in almost a dream state, not really sure what he was doing, or why. Now it was all becoming very real. Part of him was excited to meet his half-brother. Part of him was resentful that he was metaphorically the poor relation, the outcast.
None of that was Will’s fault, of course. But his ruse about looking for a picking job meant he had to tamp down the emotional impact of this encounter. If he wanted to be hired he’d better play nice.
A tall sandy-haired man wearing a blue denim shirt, Wranglers and a straw cowboy hat dented in the crown came out of the shed. Holy hell. This “kid” looked to be about his age. How was that even possible? What kind of dog was his dad anyway? Had Robert been two-timing his mom?
“Emma, good to see you!” Will gave her a warm hug. “Thanks for coming.”
“No problem,” she said. "I’m in town on vacation, anyway. You know me, I never miss the cherry festival. Sucks about the rain delaying everything.”
“No kidding. We had to get the helicopters in yesterday to dry out the fruit.” Will’s glance shifted to Alex.
“This is Alex.” Emma made an offhand gesture. “He’s come to pick.”
“Hi, I’m Will Jackson.” Will extended a hand in a firm strong handshake.
“Alex Chernoff.” His father’s eyes, a lighter brown in color but the same shape, stared disconcertingly out of his half-brother’s open, friendly face. As with Linda, there was no flicker of recognition at his name. Clearly his father hadn’t ’fessed up to his other family about Alex and his mom. But then, neither had Robert ever said anything to Alex about Will even though he’d visited for a few years after he’d moved out.
What kind of double life had his dad led?