Mia Pruitt ran smack-dab into her sister’s back, causing the pallet full of cabbages she was carrying to drop to the ground. Green spheres bounced against the concrete with a thud and rolled in every direction.
“Damn it, Cara.” At least cabbage was one of the hardier vegetables Mia had for the early-spring market. The drop wouldn’t really damage them.
“Sorry.” But Cara didn’t move. She stood frozen directly in the path between the truck bed and Mia’s stand at the farmers’ market, cabbage strewn about her feet.
Mia looked where Cara’s gaze was transfixed and groaned. “Is he serious? It’s not even fifty degrees. Can’t he wait until July for that crap?”
“Who cares?” Cara fanned her face with her hand. “He can take his shirt off any day he wants. And if he gets cold, I will gladly step in to warm him up.”
Dell Wainwright and his stupid shirtless antics had put a serious dent in their farmers’ market profits last year. Cara didn’t care, but this wasn’t her full-time job. Mia was the one taking over the farm. Mia was the one making this stand into a living. She cared, and she was going to find a way to combat him this year.
Dell might look like a god among men shirtless behind his table full of spring vegetables, but she’d jump around naked in front of everyone before she let him put her out of business. This farmers’ market was the best thing to happen to her share of Pruitt Farms and to her personally. In the past four years she’d been selling here, she had finally learned how to come out of her shell.
In its fifth year, the market had grown to fill up half a mall parking lot. Tables with awnings lined the outer lot. In early spring, there were only two rows, but by midsummer there’d be four. Each booth was made up of a variety of locally sourced items. From her and Dell’s locally grown vegetables to people selling meat, eggs, local and homemade cheeses and honeys and breads, and a few craft and soap stands.
Each year they had more customers, and each year Dell’s stand had directly competed with hers. She’d managed to build up her business to break even and was this close to making it profitable.
Yeah, Dell was not screwing that up. Six-pack abs or no six-pack abs. “Stop drooling and pick up the cabbage.” She gave Cara a nudge with her boot. “He’s the enemy, remember?”
“If the enemy looks like that, I’ll gladly turn myself in. What kind of torture are we talking?”
“If you think that’s gross, you need your eyes checked.” Cara flipped her hair over her shoulder and bent down to pick up the cabbage at her feet. Her eyes never left Dell.
Mia set to unloading the early-spring haul onto the table under the Pruitt Farms tent. Meanwhile, Cara made no bones about watching Dell’s every move.
Cara was always dating or talking about guys she wanted to date or pinning hot celebrity pictures to her Pinterest page. It wasn’t that Mia didn’t appreciate a hot guy. She just didn’t understand obsessing over one.
Probably because twenty-six-year-old virgins didn’t know what they were missing.
Mia set up the pallets, the price signs, made sure everything was just so, and maybe on occasion her gaze drifted to Dell and his broad, tanned shoulders as he hauled his own farm’s offerings from truck to table.
He was still the enemy, but it didn’t mean she couldn’t look.
“So glad to see you girls back this year,” Val greeted them, ever-present clipboard clutched to her chest. “You’re going to stick with us all year, right?”
“Yes, ma’am. Couldn’t kick us out if you wanted.”
Val wasn’t looking at her anymore, though. She was drooling over Dell, right along with Cara. Mia resisted the urge to hurl a cabbage across the aisle. Knowing Dell, he’d probably make a big show out of catching it.
“Uh-huh. Very good. See you next week.” Val wandered off to Dell’s table. In two seconds flat, Dell was making her giggle and blush.
“You can’t stop staring, either.”
“I’m picturing strangling him.” If that picture included wondering what his skin might feel like under her hands it was curiosity, not interest. Or so she told herself, year after shirtless year.
“Hey, whatever floats your boat.”
A group of women descended on Dell’s table. Usually the first hour of the first week of the market was virtually empty, but today had a bit of a crowd. A mainly female crowd.
Not fair. What’d he do, advertise? Male stripper does Millertown Farmers’ Market.
The group of women laughed and Dell made a big production of picking things up and putting things down and flexing and—ugh—he really was despicable.
“I am not!” Damn it. She totally was. Well, she’d come too far to be flustered by a pair of perfectly toned forearms. She was not the little girl who hyperventilated in the bathroom between classes if a boy even said hi to her.
It had always been a joke anyway. Say hi to Mia Pruitt and watch her self-destruct into a blushing, babbling mess.
Dell wasn’t saying hi to her, joke or no joke, and he most certainly wasn’t a boy. He was an adult man and she was an adult woman. A confident, strong woman no longer the laughingstock of her tiny Missouri farming community.
Every time someone bought a head of broccoli or cabbage from him, they weren’t buying it from her. So, essentially, he was stealing.
Nobody liked thieves no matter how white their teeth were or how charming their grin might be.
“You know what?” Mia dropped the cash box onto the ground next to her chair with a loud crash. “Two can play his little game.” She was done just…taking it. Maybe it was time to fight.
Cara laughed. “What does that mean? You going to take your shirt off?”
“Not exactly.” Mia narrowed her eyes at Dell flirting with a young mom who carried a baby on her hip. Both mom and baby were charmed. Mom bought a bag full of vegetables. Probably wouldn’t eat half of them before they went bad.
Mia might not have muscles and a five o’clock shadow women swooned over, but surely she could do something to undermine Dell’s sex-sells philosophy.
If you couldn’t beat ’em, join ’em. She wasn’t sure how to join them yet, but she would damn well figure it out before next week. She was tired of being the passive taker-of-crap. She was going to act.
* * *
“MIA’S BORING HOLES through your skull with her eyes. Be afraid. Be very afraid.”
Dell waved his brother off. “Please. Mia Pruitt is five foot three of all bark and no bite in a baggy sweatshirt.”
“I don’t know. She takes this farm stuff pretty seriously.” Charlie stacked the last empty pallet on the truck bed. “Wouldn’t want to get in her way. Besides, she’s not bad without the glasses and the frizzy hair. Kind of cute, actually.”
“I’m not worried about Mia.” Dell pulled on a threadbare Mizzou sweatshirt. “I take my farm stuff pretty seriously, too.” He spared her a glance. Cute was probably the right word for her. With her hair straight instead of a frizz of curls and the heavy-framed glasses gone, she no longer resembled Mia, Queen of the Geeks.
But in the baggy shirt and at-least-one-size-too-big jeans, even a sexy mouth and big green eyes couldn’t push her beyond cute.
Charlie laughed. “Yeah, nothing says serious like taking off your shirt and flexing your muscles to sell a few extra cucumbers.”
“Hey, a true businessman does what he has to do.”
Charlie shook his head. “Whatever you tell yourself to sleep at night, man.”
His VP of sales older brother could sneer at the farm and all that went with it as much as he liked, but with Dad making noises about selling instead of passing the farm on to Dell, Dell knew he had to kick ass this market season. That meant whatever tactics necessary, regardless of Charlie’s approval.
If that meant taking off his shirt, so be it. A little harmless flirting and a few extra dollars in his pocket wouldn’t hurt anyone, and it’d help him. Why did people have to assume that meant he was an idiot? He was raking it in.
“Can we hurry this up? I’ve got a lunch date with Emily downtown in, like, an hour.”
Dell nodded and picked up the pace. Choosing a noisy, bustling dinner at a fancy restaurant downtown over the quiet ease of lunch at Moonrise in New Benton was beyond him. But then, the things he didn’t understand about his older brother were too many to count.
Dell folded the awning and was tying it together when a pair of greenish cowboy boots stepped into his vision. He looked up, quirked an eyebrow at Mia.
“Wainwright.” She was almost a foot shorter than he, so she had to tilt her head back when he stood to his full height.
He nodded, tipped the brim of his ball cap. “Pruitt.” Maybe he should have worn a Stetson hat. This felt more like high noon than a friendly greeting.
“Still lowering yourself to stripping for attention?” She crossed her arms over her chest, narrowed her eyes at him. “I thought maybe you’d grown up a bit since last year.”
She had a dusting of light brown freckles across her nose. Kind of weird to notice it now, but then again he’d never spent much time looking at Mia. The girl who’d been the champion of awkward moments in high school, then come back from college quiet and unassuming. Of course, she’d never gotten up in his face and accused him of stripping before.
Dell grinned. That meant she thought he was a threat to her tidy little business. He primed up the charm and the drawl. “Don’t worry, darling. I’m sure there’ll be enough customers to go around. Not everyone is swayed by good looks and charm. Just most people.”
She didn’t cower. She didn’t walk away. She didn’t even dissolve into the Queen of the Geeks she’d been in high school. No, Mia Pruitt grinned at him—which had to be a first, even if she’d grown out of most of her awkwardness since she’d come back from college.
“Oh, I’m not worried. But you should be,” she said. Then she sauntered away with enough confidence that Dell stared after her.
“Whoa.” The saunter. The grin. Even with all her recent changes, he’d never seen that kind of…attitude from Mia before. Was it his imagination, or was it kind of hot?
Charlie slapped him on the back. “Told you not to cross her. Mia isn’t the girl hiding behind the pony at Kelsey’s birthday party anymore, if you hadn’t noticed.”
Dell stared after Mia’s swinging hips. Apparently he hadn’t noticed that at all.
MIA PULLED HER truck into the parking lot at Orscheln and tried not to be irritated by all Dad’s sighing and grumbling. She drove too fast, braked too hard. The one and only place Dad ever criticized her.
Which was why, for the life of her, she couldn’t figure out why he didn’t drive himself. Or stay home.
“If you hate coming to town so much, you don’t have to come. I could always get whatever you need.”
“Have to ask Rick about this new vaccine.”
“You could do that on the phone. I bet Rick even has email.”
Dad harrumphed and got out of the truck. Mia trudged after him. Mostly, she loved spending time with Dad. He’d always been her biggest supporter, and one of the few people she felt understood her.
But going to Orscheln with Dad meant people didn’t get used to her as Mia Pruitt, serious farmer. They still saw the girl who had cried when all the chickens had been sold, or accidentally let all the kittens up for adoption out of their cage because she’d been trying to pet them.
Daughter of the town hermit, the man who refused to talk to anyone except Rick when he came in. Should another employee approach him, he’d turn and walk away. If Rick was out sick, Dad would hop in his truck and go home.
Oh, who was she kidding? Even when she came in without Dad she was a Pruitt, and there was a lot of baggage that went with that.
But she could pretend when she was alone. Pretend she was your average twenty-six-year-old vegetable farmer. Or something.
“I’m going to…look at some plants. You go ahead inside.” It was an excuse, a pathetic one at that, but maybe if she could pretend they hadn’t walked in together…
Mia stared gloomily at some pansies as Dad grunted and went inside. She was being kind of a crap daughter, and that made her feel guilty. Especially having been on the receiving end of the “go ahead inside, I’ll wait out here” line more than once.
“Of all the gin joints in the world, she walked into mine.”
Mia closed her eyes. Apparently today was really going to make her feel as if she was sixteen again. She glanced over her shoulder at Dell. He had his beat-up Cardinals hat on, equally worn jeans and a black T-shirt that did unfair things to showcase the muscles of his arms.
If she was a cat, she’d hiss at him. Instead, she mustered her best fake smile. “You’re wearing a shirt. What a novelty.”
“No shirt, no shoes, no service.” He grinned, and she hated that some part of her reacted to that grin. A weird flopping deep in her stomach; a floaty giddiness around her chest.
Yes, she was sixteen and still an idiot. “You got the quote all wrong, by the way.”
“It’s, ‘Of all the gin joints, in all the towns, in all the world, she walks into mine.’ If you’re going to quote something, it should at least be the right something.”
“I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
“Figures,” she muttered, turning her attention back to the plants. She had no use for flowers. She lived in an apartment in town, and even if she lived at the farm, she’d certainly plant something she could sell the produce of.
Dell did not seem to take the hint, still standing uncomfortably behind her. Uncomfortably because…well. He made her uncomfortable. Because he was a butt, that was why.
“Are you following me?” she asked, trying to sound bored. Succeeding, too, if she did say so herself.
“It’s a small town, sugar.”
She would not be irritated by the cocky way he drawled sugar. She would also not be…other things at the way his voice was all gravelly and sure of himself. Not hot. Not even cute.
“And yet, how many times have I run into you here before? I do these errands every Tuesday morning.”
“Well, if you see me again, then you’ll know I’m following you. For today, it’s just an unfortunate coincidence.”
Unfortunate. Yeah. She certainly got no secret thrill out of seeing him outside the market. Please. She hoped to never see him outside the market. She didn’t even want to see him at the market.
“But while we’re here, together, on this beautiful day, why don’t you tell me what you’ve got up your sleeve so you don’t embarrass yourself at the market Saturday?”
She glanced at him again, giving him a condescending look she’d been practicing in the mirror. “First of all, we’re not together.”
“I’m standing here. You’re standing there right in touching distance. We’re talking. Together enough from where I’m at.”
“Why don’t you stand out of touching distance?” Because words like touching made her even more uncomfortable than she already was. How could she pretend to be calm and collected when she had to think about…touching?
She had the petty desire to give him a little push, but that would be silly and childish…and probably put her in contact with muscles she’d prefer to only fantasize about.
Except, no fantasizing.
“I don’t know why you have reason to be so antagonistic with me, Mia. Fair competition and all that. Jealousy isn’t an attractive quality.”
She rolled her eyes. “The day I worry about being attractive to you is the day I go brain-dead.” Jitters multiplied in her stomach. This was getting…weird. “Besides, if it’s fair competition, you don’t need to worry about what I’ve got up my sleeve.”
“I’m just trying to look out for you. You’ve built quite a new rep for yourself.”
She was not a violent person, but something about him made her visualize doing a lot of it. Unfortunately that also meant visualizing touching him. In a way that wasn’t all…violent. “The day Dell Wainwright is looking out for my well-being is the day I start taking my shirt off at the market.”
His eyes drifted to her chest, an almost considering look on his face. She crossed her arms over herself, the heat of embarrassment mixing with a different kind of heat.
“Go away, Dell. I am trying to do actual work here. I’m guessing you wouldn’t know what that’s like.”
There was a beat of silence, a moment of triumph that she’d shut him up, and then a twist of…something not so nice in her stomach.
“Naw, I just sit around my farm twiddling my thumbs.” He stepped away from her, a weird energy in the tense shoulders and the hard line of his mouth. “See you ’round, Pruitt.”
Mia frowned after him. She had no idea why she felt…kind of guilty and like a jerk. She hadn’t said anything too terrible to him, certainly not any worse than him calling her Queen of the Geeks.
So the weird twist in her stomach was out of place, and Dell was out of place for making her feel it. She was about to stomp into the store, but Dad’s voice sounded from behind her.
“That boy bothering you?”
Mia snorted, couldn’t help it. She turned to Dad, who’d obviously come out of the feed exit. It was nice Dad felt protective, but she did not need to be protected. Or comforted. Not anymore. “First of all, Dell Wainwright isn’t a boy any more than I’m a girl.”
“Second, I’m not… That stuff doesn’t bother me anymore.” Possibly because it wasn’t the same. Going toe-to-toe with Dell was less like being made fun of, being called names. It was more like battle. One she was more than equipped to fight.
It was weirdly invigorating. It made her feel capable and strong. If she could take on Mr. Prom King, she could take on anyone. If she could ignore the random bouts of misplaced guilt. Which she would.
She was going to take him on and win, and the more he poked at her, the more he’d find she didn’t roll over and hide anymore.
“Let’s go home.”
It was tempting. Tempting to put off what she’d come for so she wouldn’t have to run into Dell in the aisles, but not tempting enough to agree to.
“You can wait in the car if you want. But I have a few things that need picking up.” Because she was not a wimp. Not anymore.
* * *
DELL HEFTED THE tarps he needed onto the dolly, trying to ignore the fact he could see Mia at the end of the aisle doing the same.
He’d been kind of a dick, and it wasn’t his proudest moment, but she’d sure landed the knockout punch.
I’m guessing you wouldn’t know what that’s like.
As if farmwork could ever be anything but hard. As if he didn’t work his ass off every day trying to compete with her.
Her very fine ass.
Yeah, he didn’t want to be noticing things like that. So she wasn’t a social mess anymore? It didn’t mean he had any right or reason to be attracted to her. He didn’t have time to be distracted by stuff like that. Not with Dad breathing down his neck for profits. Proof that his ideas could stand the test of time.
Dell looked down at the tarps. It was another expense he didn’t need, but if he started cutting corners it would affect his crops. With both the weekly farmers’ market and five families getting community-supported agriculture portions from him, he didn’t have the option of risking product.
Life sure had been easier when he didn’t care about this stuff. No one and nothing depending on him. Then again, if he hadn’t been quite so laid-back, perhaps he wouldn’t be in this position now.
If he’d been like Mia and gone to a tough school and worked hard and come back with all As, would it have mattered?
There was no answer for that. Nothing he could do to change what had happened. All he could do was focus on the present and the future and doing everything in his power to make Dad sell the farm to him.
Mia Pruitt was a competitor and distraction he would not let get in his way. He started rolling his dolly toward the cash register, realizing belatedly she was doing the same and they were now in line. Mia right in front of him.
So much for not being a distraction. Her baggy sweatshirt was pushed up to her elbows, revealing elegant forearms and delicate wrists. At least they looked that way, until she hefted a sack of sand as if it weighed nothing.
Her gaze landed on him and she rolled her eyes. “Oh, for heaven’s sake,” she said under her breath, tossing her sack of tarps on the conveyor belt.
“You’re telling me.” He crossed his arms, determined not to say anything else to her. Karl rang up her purchases and she stared resolutely at her dolly.
Karl rattled off a price and Mia dug a credit card out of her back pocket, and even while he was expressly ignoring her, it was kind of hard to ignore her ass.
Yes, he was a dick.
She blew out a breath, fidgeted as the ancient machine slowly printed out a receipt. Finally, she spoke. Because as much as she’d changed, there were still pieces of the old Mia in there.
“For what it’s worth, I…” She raised her chin and looked him straight in the eye. Pretty green eyes. “I’m sorry,” she said resolutely.
He was taken completely off guard, so much so he could make only a kind of “Huh?” sound.
“Holy moly, why am I doing this?” she muttered, snatching the receipt from Karl. She glanced at Dell, expression full of self-disgust. “I have my issues with how you sell stuff, and I’m going to use everything in my arsenal to beat you, but…I don’t want to insult you in the process. It doesn’t feel good to me.”
“Are you insinuating it feels good to me?”
Her brows drew together. “No! I’m trying to be nice and apologize. Leave it to you to make that complicated.”
“Leave it to me? Isn’t that an insult?”
She grabbed the handle of her rolling tray. “Dell, you are the most annoying man I have ever met.”
He had to work really hard not to smile. Something about riling her up was way too enjoyable. “Also an insult.”
“Go to hell.” She smiled faux-sweetly. “Please. Now it’s an insult, but at least I’m being polite about it.” Much like at the market last week, she sauntered away.
It made no sense he was smiling after her. Then again, he was beginning to think nothing about Mia Pruitt made any damn sense.
“HOW BADLY DO you want to beat Dell at the farmers’ market?”
Mia looked up from the row of carrot seeds she was planting. Mia’s youngest sister stood with Kenzie, Dell’s little sister. Anna and Kenzie had been inseparable since kindergarten and Mia had never once felt weird about that.
“The jerk told my parents he caught me making out in the barn. I want him to burn,” Kenzie said vehemently, clutching a book to her chest.
“It’s nothing all that bad,” Anna explained, always the cool head wherever she went. “We just have some pictures of him, and we came up with this idea where you could post on the farmers’ market page that you have pictures of the Naked Farmer in his underwear if people came to your booth Saturday morning or whatever. It would get you some extra customers, no doubt.”
“You have pictures of Dell in his underwear?” Mia squeaked. “Not that I…” She closed her eyes against the embarrassed flush spreading up her neck. “I have no idea what you two are trying to accomplish here.”
Kenzie opened up the book, revealing old photos in an album. Mia squinted. “Is that Dell?”
“Yes. In diapers. Underwear. It’s a little harmless embarrassment.”
Mia finally stood, trying to clap some of the dirt off her hands. The same uncomfortable twisting in her gut she’d felt yesterday at the store lodged itself there. “I’m not really into embarrassing anyone. I’ve kind of had my share of that, and it isn’t fun.”
“He walks around that market shirtless. Do you really think a few pictures from when he was a kid are going to embarrass him? I swear, he’s embarrass-proof. And being-a-decent-human-being-proof.”
Anna rolled her eyes. “Kenzie is overreacting.”
“Jacob said we shouldn’t go to prom together anymore!”
“You know he’ll change his mind.”
Mia tried to make sense of two seventeen-year-olds talking about things way beyond any experience she’d had in high school, but it was useless. Boys and prom might as well have been foreign words to her.
“The point is,” Anna said matter-of-factly, “Dell thinks he can beat you with the shirtless stuff. So play a little dirty.”
Mia had no idea why she was blushing again. “I’m sure our normal tactics are fine.”
Kenzie blew out a frustrated breath. “I told you,” she muttered to Anna. “Dell was right. She has no backbone.”
Anna gave her a sympathetic look. “She’s kind of right. That’s not always a bad thing, but if you want to beat Dell you’re going to have to be a little meaner.”
“I don’t want to be mean. He’s not being mean to me.” Not really. It was nothing like high school, not when she could dish it back out.
Anna shrugged. “If he’s telling Kenzie you have no backbone, he isn’t exactly being nice. Regardless, if you’re not willing to go after him a bit, he’s always going to win.”
“This isn’t win-lose. It’s…sell. Sell enough to be profitable. That has nothing to do with Dell.”
Anna let out a belabored sigh. “Let’s go back to the house, Kenzie. We’ll work up some other revenge.”
The two teens huffed off together, heads huddled, obviously discussing Mia’s failings as a competitor.
Mia frowned and went back to her carrot seeds. The whole thing was stupid. More of the teasing and tricks she’d had to deal with when she’d been in high school. She was far more mature and worldly than Anna and Kenzie now. She did not need to feel peer-pressured into fighting dirty.
There was that annoying blush at the word dirty again. “I do not need to win, or be mean in the process,” she said, combining the seeds with the sand and carefully spreading the mixture into the row she’d already tilled. “This isn’t cutthroat business. It’s just…vegetables.”
She rocked back onto her heels. Cara always got on her when she caught her talking to herself. Or her vegetables. It was a habit. A habit of a lonely girl. She wasn’t that girl anymore.
Dell was right. She has no backbone.
Mia scowled at that. She had a backbone. Being a nice person was not being backboneless. And if he thought her apologizing to him yesterday was lack of backbone…he obviously didn’t know what being a decent human being was all about.
But he was clearly going to beat her in profits again, decency or not.
Mia got to her feet. She needed advice, and she already knew what Anna had to say. Cara would no doubt take the cutthroat side. So her only hope at getting a little reassurance was Dad. If she could get a few words out of him.
She trudged across her fields, making a mental note to stake the east tomatoes a little better. Dad was in his barn, studying one of the cows Mia knew had been sick. Dad had his beat-up spiral notebook in one hand, thoughtfully scribbling a few notes down.
Surely Dad of all people would agree with her. He hated conflict more than he loved his cows.
“Carrots coming along?”
Mia nodded as she took a spot next to him. “Yup. Sassy doing better?”
Mia stared at the cow for a bit, trying to work out a way to ask without bringing Dell into the equation. There was no doubt her father would immediately bristle at the mention of a member of the male species, no matter how innocently.
“Do you think I have a backbone?” she asked, deciding the best route with Dad was to go for straightforward.
“Like, if there’s a problem or a conflict, do I stand up for things?”
Dad continued to frown at her. “This one of those things where you and your sisters ask me a question and there’s no right answer except you all getting mad at me?”
“No, I’m serious. Do you think I have the backbone needed to be a businesswoman? To run my business successfully?”
“You’re an excellent farmer, daughter.”
Which was ignoring the question and made her feel sulky. But she didn’t back down because she wanted to know. She needed to know what to do. “I’m talking about the business side of things.”
Dad scratched a hand over his beard, then looked longingly at his cows outside the barn, but she wanted his opinion. She needed to know if even her father thought she was being the fool here.
“You keep an eye on your finances, and you make smart choices, and…”
“I’m a softie wimp.”
“Aw, now, Mia.” Dad clasped her shoulder, and if Dad was offering physical affection she was a sad case. Which meant she had to work harder to be…ruthless. Even if it felt kind of crappy.
The end justified the means and all that. That was what business—even farming business—was all about, maybe.
“You’ll be fine. You’re a good girl. It’ll all work out.”
But she didn’t want to be fine or good; she wanted to be successful. She wanted a business that could sustain her for the rest of her life. She wanted profits and the confidence she’d built over the past five years.
So with a goodbye to Dad, she headed for the house and Kenzie’s book of pictures.
* * *
“WHAT’S ALL THAT ABOUT?”
Dell frowned at the group of giggling women in front of Mia’s stand. This was definitely not the norm. Especially for a forty-degree drizzly Saturday morning. But there were at least ten women with umbrellas and rain boots surrounding Pruitt Farms’ stand, and the laughter kept building.
“Sneak over and check it out.”
Charlie rolled his eyes. “Yeah, I’m sure there’s a lot of cutthroat sabotage at the farmers’ market. She stole the secret patent to grow broccoli. Oh. Wait.”
“Bite me.” Dell pushed Charlie away from the truck. “Stop being useless for once and find out what that’s all about.”
“I’m not useless. I only waste my Saturday mornings here to keep Mom off my back about karmic payment and family support and blah, blah, blah.”
“Yeah, well, do some supporting.” Dell shoved Charlie again. With a long, belabored sigh, Charlie walked over to the Pruitt side of the aisle.
A couple stopped by Dell’s booth, obviously new to the market. Dell chatted them up, trying to keep his head in the game instead of across the aisle.
The couple left with some radishes and Charlie meandered back to their stand. He looked as if he fit more in with the customers in his dark jeans, sweater and some kind of loafer shoes. His brother, the yuppie.
Didn’t make an ounce of sense to Dell, and probably never would. When Charlie didn’t offer anything, Dell nudged him. “So?”
Charlie shrugged. “She said check the market’s Facebook page.”
“Facebook page? That’s her grand plan? Give me your phone.”
Charlie rolled his eyes. “You even know how to use my phone?”
No, but did it take a rocket scientist to figure out? When he held out his hand, Charlie slapped the phone into his palm. Dell swiped his thumb across the bottom of the screen then stared. Shit. He didn’t know how to use a damn smartphone. All he saw was a bunch of squares with stock or finance in the title. “How do I get to Facebook?”
“Give it back, moron.”
“Just because I don’t know how to use a smartphone doesn’t mean I’m a moron.” Dell handed the phone back to his brother and shoved his hands into his pockets. He wasn’t some dumb farmer. He had his ag degree from Mizzou.
But it was no MBA from Wash U in big brother’s eyes. Or Dad’s. No one seemed to want to let him live down the fact he’d been wait-listed, either, all because of his crap-ass standardized test scores. Who cared about those stupid tests anyway?
His family, that was who. Oh, and his girlfriend at the time, who’d dumped him for someone who could “intellectually stimulate” her.
He hadn’t had a clue what that meant at eighteen. He had even less of a clue what it meant now.
More giggling echoed across the aisle and Dell hunched his shoulders, glaring at Charlie. “Hurry up.”
Charlie waved him off. “Nothing on Mia’s page.”
“Well, what the hell are they laughing at, man?”
Charlie started laughing. Pretty soon he was laughing so hard he was slapping his knee.
“What the hell?”
Charlie passed the phone to him, and Dell squinted over the Millertown Farmers’ Market page. The last comment was from Mia Pruitt.
“Pruitt Farms has an extraspecial treat this week, ladies. If you want to see pictures of our intrepid Naked Farmer, Dell Wainwright, in his underwear, do I have the goods for you. Stop by from eight to nine Saturday morning for a peek!”
Dell shoved the phone at his brother so fast Charlie nearly dropped it, but Dell barely registered Charlie’s cursing because he’d already hopped the table and stalked over to the crowd of women. “Pruitt, you’re dead.”
The giggling didn’t stop, but it did become more hushed as the sea parted, so he was standing face-to-face with Mia, only her table of goods—many of those goods in the bags of the women who normally bought from him—between them.
“Well, howdy, Dell,” she drawled, flipping closed a family album. Wait a second. His mother’s family album.
“Where the hell’d you get that?”
“You look awfully cute in diapers, honey,” Deirdre, one of his regular customers, said, giving his arm a pat.
It took every ounce of salesman in him not to shrug her off or growl at Mia. “Hand it over.” She held it out and he snatched it from her hands.
“Careful. Your mother will kill you if you tear one of her pictures,” Mia said sweetly. “And Deirdre’s right, you do look awfully cute in nothing but your underwear.”
He forced himself to grin. “Aw, sugar, don’t be upset just because you’ve never seen me in my underwear.”
She tried to grab the album back. But Dell was too quick. He flipped through the thick pages. There were indeed pictures of him in his underwear. Of course, he was under the age of eight in every single one of them.
“I particularly like the bare-butt one in cowboy boots. Adorable.” Val pointed to the picture on the upper-left corner. He resisted the urge to slam it shut on her fingers.
“How did you get this?”
Mia smiled, flashing perfectly straight teeth. “Some secrets are meant to be kept.”
“Trust me when I say I could get any little secret out of you I wanted.”
Mia rolled her eyes. “Just because you’re hot doesn’t mean I’m going to— I mean…” Some of her bravado faded as her cheeks went pink. “You can’t charm me.”
But he kept waiting. Everyone they’d gone to high school with knew the key to unraveling any of Mia’s attempts at social interaction was simply to wait. In silence.
“Oh, screw you. I got it from Kenzie. Have you forgotten our baby sisters are best friends? And she wasn’t too happy with you apparently.”
Damn it, Kenzie. “I’ll kill her.”
“You seem really obsessed with killing women today, Dell.” Old Mia was gone, replaced by this surprisingly quick-on-her-feet, good-with-a-comeback version. Even knowing she’d gotten a little bit better with people hadn’t prepared him for this, or the comment that came next.
“Perhaps you should seek therapy.”
Dell shoved the album under his arm. “Don’t think this is over.” He pointed his finger at her, ignoring that she looked sexy with her hands on her hips. As he stalked away, Mia’s laughter followed him.
She was going to pay. Big-time.
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