They’re clearly marked: Red, mostly red, yellow, green, and rejects. You will then go to the apple orchard—it’s in the west pasture, along the stream—and begin to pick and sort the ripe fruit. I’ll check your progress every hour on the hour. Do you understand?"
"You want me to pick the apple, check its color, and put it in the barrel of the corresponding type?"
She positively beamed. As if she hadn’t expected him to get it. "Exactly."
"Do you preserve by color?" he asked.
The question seemed to startle her. Her smile faded. "No."
"Sell by color?"
"Then why separate? No other fruit farmer I’ve worked for does that. And I’ve picked apples from coast to coast."
Mariah stiffened at the question. Irritation thinned her lips. "I don’t care what other farms do, Mr. Stone. I have always harvested the fruit here, and that’s how / do it. If you think that will present a problem—"
He laughed and stood up. "Naw, I can do it. I just wondered why I should, but I got my answer."
She eyed him warily. "You did?"
"Sure. Because you like things neat and tidy." He looped his thumbs in the baggy waistband of his jean pants and sauntered toward her. Just in front of her, he stopped, smiling broadly. "No wonder you have such a problem with me."
She tried to back away from him, but the sink held her in place. "Believe me, I have no problem with you, Mr. Stone."
He smiled and leaned closer. So close, he could see the smattering of freckles that dusted her nose like specks of cinnamon. So close, he could see the reddish gold flecks that lightened her brown eyes. "Good, then we should get along just fine."
She didn’t move, just stood there, toe to toe with him. "That’s where you’re wrong, Mr. Stone. We won’t get along at all."
Chapter Five The tree blocked out the warm, early morning sun. Light streamed through the fluttering leaves and dappled the apple-littered grass.
Mad Dog watched Mariah work. She was standing on the bottom rung of a wooden ladder, checking apples for ripeness with the focused intensity of a general on the front line.
There was something about her right now that piqued his interest. Even on that silly, wobbly ladder, she stood as stiff as a marble statue, her chin cocked at a ninety-degree angle.
Restraint, he decided; that’s what caught his attention. He’d never known anyone—especially himself—to show any restraint at all. Everyone he knew, male and female, drank too much, moved too often, and died too young.
Not Mariah Throckmorton. She’d probably never danced or drunk or screwed in her whole life. And she was no spring chicken. She was so damned … fenced in. So controlled. And yet, even with all her rigid discipline, there was sometimes a softness to her that surprised and intrigued him. Like the other night, when he’d seen her staring out the kitchen window at the darkened farm. She’d looked . .. different. For a second there, he’d wondered about her, wondered what kind of woman lay beneath the schoolmarm’s drab brown dresses. She’d looked—absurdly—like a woman who’d had trouble in her life.
He studied her, wondering what she was really like. Could she be the kind of woman with a secret past? Or was she exactly what she appeared to be: a judgmental, iron-hard spinster who didn’t like her routine upset.
The question alone grabbed him. For some strange, illogical reason, she beckoned him. Not with the usual come-hither glances and welcoming br**sts of most of the women he knew, but with something more subtle . .. and infinitely more intriguing.
She was a mystery and a challenge.
He couldn’t help wanting to break through that shield, just once, and see how human she was beneath it. If for no other reason than to see if he could.
Quietly, knowing how much it would irritate Miss Pay-Attention Throckmorton, he laughed.
She turned on him and crossed her arms. "And what, precisely, do you find so amusing, Mr. Stone?"
"I just love watching a woman work, Miss Throckmorton."
She gave him an uppity sniff. "No doubt it’s the novelty of watching anyone work at all, Mr. Stone."
He gave her a slow, lazy smile. She was rising to the bait. She didn’t want to; he could see it in the stiffening of her back, in the way she leaned slightly away from him. But she was responding anyway. "I expect you’re right."
"Now, as I was saying, there’s a chance this tree is ready to be picked." She frowned a bit. "For storage, of course."
She turned, gave him a knowing nod. "Some apples are best when stored for a while."
He gave her a pointed once-over. "That’s true of women, too."
She didn’t flinch, but her gaze hardened. "A fascinating observation, Mr. Stone.
Now I must turn your attention to the work at hand." She peered down at him from her elevated position on the ladder. "You did catch that word, didn’t you?
W-O-R-K. You’ll be doing some today if you want supper tonight. Unless you think it’s time to just move on …"
"Now, Miss Throckmorton, I wouldn’t want to disappoint you."
"Believe me, Mr. Stone, that’s impossible."
He crossed the small field of grass that separated them and came up beside her.
Close. With her on the ladder, they were of equal height. She stiffened, but didn’t draw away, although he was certain she wanted to. "Are you ready to begin working?" she asked, careful to avoid eye contact.
"Yeah, I’m ready." With a sigh, he yanked the shirt over his head and tossed it on the ground.
Her eyes bulged. She looked at his bare chest for a second—maybe two—then quickly looked away. "P-Put your shirt back on, Mr. Stone."
He was so close, he could see the tiny pulse beating frantically in her throat. She was afraid. He could see it in her eyes, in the sudden flaring of her nostrils. But she didn’t try to move, didn’t back against the ladder. She looked him square in the eyes.
Afraid… of him. Mad Dog felt an unfamiliar stirring of shame. Silence stretched between them. From somewhere came the chattering cadence of a small bird. A breeze came up, rippling her heavy skirts.
He wanted to say he was sorry, but the words stuck in his throat. Instead, he picked up his shirt and put it on.
He heard her sigh of relief.
"So," he said, "what do you want me to do out here?"
She stared at him for a heartbeat longer, a small, frightened frown lingering in the corner of her mouth. Then she tilted her chin and turned toward the ladder. "You reach for the apple like this, and take hold of it with your thumb and middle finger. It comes off with a gentle twisting motion. Ripe fruit parts easily from the stem. If you have to try too hard, let it go. It’s not ripe."
"Sorta like sex," he said without thinking.
She jerked back as if she’d been struck.
He winced. "I didn’t mean to say that—"
Slowly she turned to him. Her face was as cold as carved marble, and there was no hint of emotion in her eyes at all. "I’m sure you find yourself very amusing, Mr.
Stone. No doubt whores from here to Abilene think of you as God. But here in Lonesome Creek, things are a little different."
"Really? How’s that?"
She ignored him and plucked the apple. Tasting it, she nodded. "It’s ripe, Mr.
Stone. You may pick the tree."
An hour later, Mariah was finally ready to begin the laundry. She dumped the last bucketful of boiling water into the metal washer. Steam spiraled upward, pelted her face as she added the soap. A film formed on the surface. Gradually the water turned a dull, opaque gray.
She pulled a heap of petticoats, undergarments, and shirts from the wicker laundry basket at her feet. One by one, she dropped the garments into the soapy water.
As she waited for the blob of white to submerge, she glanced toward the orchard.
Mad Dog was about sixty feet away from her, half-buried in the big apple tree. He’d been working steadily for the last two hours.
It was the first time she’d actually watched him work, and she had to admit, she was surprised.
But then, everything he did surprised her. It surprised her that he was here at all, and it downright floored her that he stayed. A man like him never stayed on a nowhere little farm like this for three days. Hadn’t she learned that truth the hard way?
He moved away from the tree, saw her staring at him, and he waved.
Without thinking, Mariah waved back.
Her hand froze in midair when she realized what she’d done. She yanked her hand back down and plunged it in her apron pocket.
What was it about Mad Dog Stone that pushed so easily past her defenses and made her respond?
She shuddered at the memory of what had happened in the orchard. Things had been going along well, she thought. She had instructed him clearly in what was expected from him, had kept her distance, had even ig nored some of his taunting remarks. All in all, she’d been sticking to her decision fairly well.
Then he’d taken off his shirt.
She swallowed hard, even now feeling a little queasy at the remembrance.
She shouldn’t have looked at his nak*d skin, should have torn her gaze away.
But she hadn’t been able to move. She’d felt frozen, trapped like a rabbit beneath the searing, unerring eye of the hawk. Her breathing quickened, became a painful thumping in her ears.
God help her, in that minute, that second, she’d wanted to touch him, to feel the wiry softness of his hair and the tanned smoothness of his skin.
She forced the image away and grabbed the paddle. Gripping it hard enough to stop the shaking in her fingers, she rammed the fabric bubble of her petticoat beneath the water.
Somehow, Mad Dog Stone brought out her old self, the one she’d spent years trying to demolish.
She felt a suffocating wave of despair at the realization. It wasn’t fair. She’d worked hard to suppress that passionate side of herself, binding up her fiery emotions so tightly, she’d almost forgotten their existence.
Until Mad Dog Stone reminded her with a simple wave or a casual remark. Or a bare chest.
Why? she wondered, but it was a feeble, empty question. She knew why.
The truth was painfully obvious—even to her. She hadn’t really suppressed her passionate nature, after all. It had simply lain dormant at this peaceful farm, waiting for a challenge to draw it forth. And Mad Dog Stone, drifter, vagabond, good-for-nothing vagrant, challenged her.
Sighing tiredly, she reached down for the last item in the laundry basket. A dirty gray shirt lay in a lonely heap at the bottom.
Reluctantly she picked it up. The coarse fabric felt rough against her fingers. Its sweaty, masculine scent mingled with the humid fragrance of the steam and curled, thick and heavy, around her. She couldn’t seem to help herself. She closed her eyes and held the shirt close, inhaling the sharp, unfamiliar scent of it. It had been so long since anything foreign, anything unexpected, had come into her life, and she couldn’t totally deny how it made her feel.
For a hazy, unreal moment, she felt as if she were part of a dream. As if the man working on her property were her man. For a second—just a second—she forgot the pain and humiliation in her past and imagined a future she’d never even let herself consider. A future in which she was something other than a crazy old spinster hiding out from scandal.
"You gonna smell all my laundry?"