Peach Picking Pick-Me-Up

In 2014, after a lot of BAD news, I decided to write and serialize a short romance HEAVY on the happy, short on the sad and angsty. Short, sweet, and happy. Plus, peach orchard!

Installment One

“You can’t pick there.”

Leigh startled as a man appeared in the peach tree. Like, actually up in the branches. She stepped a few feet back, looked around at the mostly deserted row of peach trees.

Why had she thought it was a good idea to pick peaches at the little nowhere farm on her lunch break? There’d be another family when she first started, but she couldn’t even hear the shrieks of their children anymore.

It was all green peach trees, gorgeous orange fruit, blue skies, and a man in a tree telling her she couldn’t pick here.

She was in the middle of nowhere at a family U-pick farm, a box half full of peaches clutched in both hands, and a strange man in a tree yelling at her.

Take out the tree, the peaches, and the fresh air she might as well be back at work.

“Sorry, I didn’t mean to scare you,” he grumbled, not sounding all that sorry, but she realized there was a ladder on the other side of the tree as he began climbing down. So, at least he wasn’t just creepy hanging out in the tree.

He skirted the tree and Leigh stepped back, stumbling over some peaches on the ground and landing on her butt. Because, yes, that was her life. Stumbling as a threatening man approached her.

She could tell the man tried really hard not to laugh, and he did manage, but the corners of his mouth quirked up as he held out his hand. “I really didn’t mean to frighten you. My name is Owen Young. I’m one of the owners.”

Owners. Owen Young. She…knew him. Kind of. “I…I’ve talked to you on the phone before.”

He raised an eyebrow, hand still held out as an offer to help her up. She forced herself to take it, not at all sure what to do with the jittery sensation at being palm to palm with…

Well, the guy was tall and hot and not at all what she’d pictured from her work phone calls with him. He wasn’t old. He didn’t have a beer belly or wear overalls. He had curly blonde hair and broad shoulders. The dirty t-shirt and jeans showcased a body that looked very…solid.

Not her picture of a farmer at all. This guy was like a fictional…something. And her hand was limply in his and her butt was probably covered in grass staines and smooshed peach goo.

But he helped her up and she managed to regain control of her hand and pull it away. Offer him a rueful smile and say, “thank you.”

“I’ve talked to you on the phone?” he pressed, studying her face as if that would somehow give him a clue as to who she was.

Only, they’d never met in person. Or talked about his basic horticultural needs. So. “I…I’m a sales rep for Bento’s.”

“Bento’s. Then you’re Leigh, right?”

She nodded, probably a few more times than necessary. That was her Leigh Preston. Sales rep unextraordinaire. But she’d had a soft spot for Owen, because he was one of her customers that never yelled, that never took out his frustration on her.

Of course, on the phone, she’d pictured him like a sweet grandpa. This…this was no sweet grandpa.

“Who are you here with?” he asked, looking around the orchard as if he expected people to pop out of one of the trees much like he had.

“Oh, no one.”

His forehead wrinkled into puzzled lines.

“I just really like…fresh fruit.” And escaping the suffocating air of Bento’s sales room. The yelling of her boss which led to the yelling of the manager which led to her…cowering.

Because, yup, she was a coward. But here, she felt…well, happy. Until this guy had scared the bejeezes out of her.

He was smiling at her goofy statement. Like he had when he’d extended his hand to help her up. Like she was endlessly amusing.

She wasn’t sure that was flattering, but it was better than disdain.

“Is this your first time here?”

“No,” she replied, her face getting hot. “I’ve been out every day this week.” You really don’t have to share every embarrassing factoid of your life, Leigh.

He cocked his head. “That’s a lot of fresh fruit for one person.”

“It’s more the…atmosphere than the fruit. Although, that’s good too.” Unfortunately, her phone alarm started trumpeting into the quiet afternoon. The reminder she had to return to real life instead of her country dream. “I have to go. Back to work.”

“Right. Sure. Hey, those are on the house.”

“No, I couldn’t—“

“Seriously. I was going to bring a few pallets out to you guys next time I picked up something anyway. Take them. Here, I’ll walk with you to the store and tell Mom.”

Mom.

She blinked as he started walking toward the little store area where the cash register was. She scurried after him, the peaches in her boxes rolling around and bumping into each other.

They were going to have bruises, but she didn’t know what else to do but scurry behind the tall ass peach farmer with a stride way, way longer than her 5’2 frame could keep up with.

They reached the store and he waved to the woman behind the counter, made a little gesture to her box of peaches. “On the house,” he called.

The woman—his mom—nodded and winked. So, Leigh waved a thank you with her free hand and then turned to thank Owen, but he kept walking with her. Like, right next to her, all the way to where her little Corolla was parked.

“Again, sorry if I scared you,” he offered as she dug her keys out of her pocket. “We’re just trying to keep people off that side of the orchard while we figure out to do with some Peach Scab.”

“That sounds…gross.”

He chuckled and she found herself smiling at him. Despite the early scare, he was a hard man not to smile at. He was very…genial. She was more of a scampering awkward sort in person.

“You’re not how I pictured you,” he said, shaking his head and taking the box from her when she opened her back door. He settled it onto the floorboard, taking care to make sure it wouldn’t move around as she drove.

“H-how did you picture me?” Why did she always have to stutter in person? She was so much better with a phone to her ear.

He shrugged. “Not quite so jumpy I guess.”

“Oh, well…” She opened her mouth to tell him she’d pictured him as an old guy in overalls, but thought better of it.

“Come back tomorrow. I’ll…give you a tour.” He pushed his hat up on his head, then pulled it off, scratching his fingers through his hair. “I mean, if you want.”

She did want. A tour. To come back. To learn more about the man behind the smile. Maybe to figure out what weird dimension she’d fallen into. “O…kay.”

He probably just wanted to see if he could butter her up into a discount on pesticide or something. And he was totally barking up the wrong tree there.

But maybe she’d get a few more free peaches out of the deal, and a few more smiles from cute peach guy, and hey, it was better than work.

Installment Two

Owen wiped sweaty palms on his jeans before picking up the next pallet of peaches. It was stupid to feel jittery or nervous, but that was kind of his default around pretty women.

Not that said pretty woman was here yet. In fact, they hadn’t even agreed on a time, had they? He’d just told her to come back for a tour—lame—and she’d said okay.

So, had she meant okay and she’d come at lunch? Or after work? Or when? Or had she just said okay to get away from him?

“Why so jumpy?”

Owen jumped, then tried to play it off like an itch. “I’m not jumpy.” He didn’t dare look his mother in the eye, because she’d see right through him, but he knew without looking she was likely hands-on-her-hips staring at him.

“You never work in the store in the afternoons.”

“I know, I just…” He couldn’t lie to his mother. Not that he didn’t try, he was just terrible at it and she always saw through him. “I’m waiting on someone.”

“That girl?”
“She’s not a girl. She’s a rep at Bento’s. I was going to give her a tour and we’re going to talk business.” Which wasn’t a lie. Exactly.

 

“You hate giving people tours. You always make PJ do it.”

“PJ isn’t here, is she?” His little sister had gone off to college halfway across the country and hadn’t come back for the summer. “Besides, it’s a quick tour. No big deal.”

“And has absolutely nothing to do with the fact that she’s young and pretty?”

Owen shrugged. “Sales rep, mom. Not my type.”

“Ha.” She slapped him on the shoulder. “Your, uh, business associate is here.” Mom pointed to the parking lot. A pleasant Friday afternoon had brought a decent crowd, but he spotted Leigh’s car right away.
Or maybe he spotted her right away. It wasn’t something he’d admit to anybody, ever, but meeting her yesterday had been on his mind since. He couldn’t put his finger on it, not even a little, but he’d seen her, spoken with her, and it was as if something inside had clicked.

He tried to rationalize it. In a weird twist of events, she’d been the first person he’d talked to after finding out about his dad’s cancer diagnosis three years ago. She’d called to check on some order, and when he’d randomly mentioned something about organic pesticides, anything to keep his mind off of thinking about what might happen, she hadn’t laughed.

Everyone else had.

It was stupid. Supremely stupid, because quite honestly, she was selling him shit and organic was more expensive. She was probably ecstatic from a purely commission-based level.

But, at the time, it had meant something. She had become something of a soothing voice during the darker days of Dad’s chemo. Even though most of what they talked about was cost, invoices, and delivery dates.

He had mentioned his father’s diagnosis when she’d asked why he was taking over Dad’s normal stuff. Over the months, she’d asked how he was doing. She’d sent a card when the prognosis had turned for better. They’d never met, but she’d been a stranger who’d said the right things when he’d needed to hear them.

Of course, he’d never assumed she’d be pretty. Age appropriate. Clumsy. He’d pictured her as some pleasant older lady, maybe a little lonely. Lots of cats.

“Somebody’s smitten,” Mom said in a sing-songy voice, not giving him a chance to argue as she greeted a family who was done with their peach picking.

Maybe he was. Surely it was stupid, but he walked toward Leigh anyway, smile on his face.

“You made it.”

“I, yes. Is that okay? I wasn’t sure when—”

“It’s great,” he said too eagerly, feeling like a total idiot, until her smile widened.

“How’s the Peach scab?”

“Uh, well, hard to tell after one day of treatment.”

“Right. Right.” She clasped her hands together, then released, itched the outside of her nose, then her cheek. “I, um, did some research about the products we have, if you’re interested.”

“Well, we’re trying to move toward organic. Or at least lower our chemical use.”

“Right, yeah, I knew that. Totally get it. I’m not here to…” Her eyebrows drew together as she looked out across the peach orchard, her face all pained awkwardness. “You were going to give me a tour?”

“Yeah. Tour.” He shoved his hands into his pockets wondering what had ever possessed him to offer her a tour. What had ever possessed him to talk to her beyond to tell her to stop picking? He sucked at small talk and flirting talk and all talk that did not involve Peach Scab.

He walked her back around the store, past the employees only gate. He should start his farm spiel, which wasn’t perfected because he usually did force his sister to do these. But trying to come up with something witty was just leading to a whole lot of silence.

“Peaches were tough this year.”

“Because of the scab?”

“Right. Wet summer. We’re doing some heavy duty pruning. That’s why we don’t want people picking over here.”

“Has this always been a U-pick orchard?”

“No, actually. We’ve only been doing this about fifteen years. Dad and my sister love having people around. Mom and I…kind of hate it.” He cringed at how bad that sounded. “I mean, it’s cool seeing the little kids get excited when they pick stuff and pet the animals, but, you know, my favorite time of day is the morning, when no one is here, and it’s just…quiet. Mine.”

He fiddled with his hat, feeling stupid. That wasn’t something a person told a near stranger, although in the weirdest way she didn’t feel like one. Weird because most people felt like strangers to him, with the exception of family and a few lifelong friends, people just didn’t make sense to him.

He glanced at her ready to apologize, but her eyes on the horizon, her mouth curved into a smile. Her profile really was beautiful, like one of those gauzy hipsterish pictures PJ was always taking.

“I think I’d like quiet,” she said, her voice soft, almost wistful. “It sounds…comfortable.”

“It is.”

She continued to ask questions, and he answered them as he showed her around the peach orchard, and then over to the apple orchard.

“We have some of the best apples in the state. A lot of people go to Chickory’s because that’s the big name, but you just wait. You will fall in love with our apples.”

He glanced at her for the first time since she’d talked about quiet sounding comfortable. She was smiling, her cheeks a kind of pink he associated with blushing, but she didn’t say anything else. She just let her fingers trail over a not-quite-ripe Gala apple.

“So, that’s kind of the end of the tour.”

“Oh.”

“But, we can…stand here until you have to go.” Yes, the way to a woman’s heart is standing in an apple orchard.

But she said, “I’d like that,” and everything about the way she earnestly spoke it, looked around as if she were standing in magic, made it seem genuine.

“You know, weekends are a pretty big deal. We have the animals out, and Saturday night a band comes out and plays and Mom and Dad grill hamburgers and hotdogs. It’s a nice thing to do on a weekend. If you wanted to come. I could…” He could what? He’d already used up the tour excuse.

He swallowed, forcing the words out. Because he was not a coward, and could ask a woman out, instead of stand in uncomfortable silence. “I could buy you a hot dog.”

That peaceful look on her face absolutely faded, and she clasped her hands, which she hadn’t done since she’d first gotten here. “I actually have to go out of town this weekend. Family wedding.”

“Oh, sure.” If the ground could do him a favor and open him up and swallow him whole that would be great. Family wedding seemed like a legit excuse, but he was pretty sure he’d gone too far and made things weird.

“But, I…I was kind of planning on coming back on my lunch break next week, too. Well, for as long as you guys are open. It’s a nice break. I mean, if you’re around or not busy or I could just…pick.”

Or she legitimately had a family wedding? Wow. “I can take time,” he said, probably too quickly. “Maybe we could eat lunch together?”

She looked up from the ground, bottom lip pulled under her top teeth, but the edges of her mouth curved. “Okay.”

“It’s a…date, then.”

“Yeah, a…date.”

They stood there in the middle of his apple orchard smiling at her and he didn’t have a clue what to do next.

Her phone chimed like it had yesterday and she closed her eyes and sighed. “Well, um, back to the salt mines.” She puffed out an awkward laughed then stuck her hand out between them. “Thank you for the tour.”

He blinked at her outstretched hand until he realized she meant for him to shake it. God, he hoped his palms weren’t sweaty.

He enveloped her hand with his. She was soft and slender and it was not a weird thing, like shaking hands usually was. It felt nice. A connection.

He was holding it too long, but…she wasn’t pulling away. She was looking thoughtfully at their idiotically still shaking hands.

She looked up, smiled. “I’ll see you Monday,” she said with a nod, pulling her hand away. A weird loss of warmth.

She started to walk away, but then she stopped, shook her head, and took a stop forward, then sideways, then turned around. She rummaged in her purse, not lifting her gaze even as she pulled out a card and a pen.

She scribbled and then handed it out to him. “Um, that’s my cell phone number. If…you want it.” She closed her eyes again, seemed to be her embarrassed go to. “I’m better on the phone,” she whispered.

He raised his eyebrows at that. “You’re just as good in person.”

She opened her eyes, lips parting as she blinked at him. “I…thanks.” Her phone went off again. “I really have to go.”

“I’ll call you.”

She nodded and turned, but not before her saw her full on grinning, which made him grin too.

Installment Three

I’ll call you.

What did that mean?

Pacing her apartment kitchen, Leigh scowled at her phone. Sunday at four pm. She’d only been home from the wedding an hour, but Owen hadn’t called her like he said he would.

But what had that meant?

She wanted to pretend like she was a bigger person than being depressed over her ten-years-her-junior cousin had gotten married in a perfectly lovely ceremony. She wanted to be totally fine with it, like her older sister—more than happy to be single and free.

She wanted to be fine, but she wasn’t–though it was just as much to do with her singledom as it did her complete lack of…anything. Her whole family was full of passion, art, living life to the fullest. And a shy girl with an office job who didn’t have a clue as to what her passion was didn’t make an ounce of sense to them.

She was a black sheep, and it was lonely when you didn’t have any good reason for being one.

She glared at her phone. The last thing she needed right now was a man who’d said he was going to call and hadn’t. So what did she do? Did she go back tomorrow? Were they still on for lunch? Was she going to ask herself so many unanswerable questions that she jumped out her own apartment window?

The weird thing was, she wanted to go back. Not just because of Owen, but because she felt something at that orchard. A buzzing along her skin, an electricity in the air. Something pulled her to that land, and she wanted to answer that pull.

Whatever foolishness that was.

Frustrated with, well, everything, Leigh grabbed her phone. She would turn it off or blast her music from it or—

The melodic strains of her ringtone interrupted any plans she had. The screen of her phone read Owen Young.

He was calling. Was she supposed to be irritated he hadn’t called sooner or just happy he was calling or…

Well, whatever, she had to answer or she might be forced to call him back. Worse outcome ever. So, she hit Answer and only cringed a little that she sounded like she’d been running a marathon.

“Hi, um, Leigh, this is, um, Owen.”

Her stomach flipped because… He was so cute. Oh, how did she not ruin this? “Hey.”

Silence. Okay, so, hey was not the way to not ruin things. “I…how are you?”

“Good. Good. Is this an okay time? I wasn’t sure with your out of town wedding…”

“Yes! I mean, yes, I got back a few hours ago.”

“Right. Yeah. You had fun?”

She opened her mouth to say of course or some of the pleasantries she’d given her cousin, her family. But that didn’t come out.

“Not really.”

He chuckled. “Yeah, I always think weddings are kind of awkward. All those people you don’t know. Small talk. Ties.”

“I didn’t have to wear a tie, but yeah, that’s… Actually, it’s not even the weddings, it’s just…” She trailed off. Why did she feel compelled to tell him what she’d been thinking about before he called? Why did she feel compelled to spill her guts?

Because you’re tired of trying so hard to keep it all under the surface.

Maybe. Maybe because he was a virtual stranger who knew nothing of her family so it would never get back to them, but it all spewed out of her mouth like an avalanche.

And, at the very least, he pretended he understood. And it spawned an entire conversation about families, from her parents’ artistic endeavors that confused the heck out of her, to Owen’s sister’s choice to go to college far away, to how well his father was doing since his cancer recovery, but that they were all still afraid, still careful with him.

It was like talking with an old friend, only… It was the apple orchard man she barely knew. But, because she was better on the phone, despite him thinking she was pretty good in person—which was still the absolute cutest.

“I have to go. Sunday family dinner, but, um, I’m…looking forward to tomorrow.”

She clutched her phone a little tighter, closed her eyes, because, yeah, she was looking forward to it too. Maybe a little beyond looking forward. Jittery excitement. Too excited to sleep looking forward, like the kid in the old Disney commercial.

“Me too.” Maybe it was a little too emphatic, but as long as she could play it a little cool in person, that was probably not too big of a problem. Besides, he seemed a little shy…like her. Maybe he liked it.

“Bye, Leigh. See you tomorrow.”

“Yes. Bye.” She clicked end.

Tomorrow. An apple orchard and a cute guy. Even the prospect of another day of getting yelled at at work didn’t dull the glittery prospect of tomorrow.

Installment Four

Owen felt a bit like an idiot, but he’d never been smooth when it came to the start of a relationship. First dates were a maze of conversation killers and should there or should there not be touching.

But the phone call with Leigh had helped somewhat. She wasn’t any better on the phone like she’d said that one day. She was great everywhere, but he thought he kind of understood what she meant. When you weren’t face to face, it was easy to talk about things you might not otherwise share.

Her concerns about not having a passion while her family was full of fulfilled and happy people, his and his family’s nervousness over Dad’s recovery. He never would have just…talked about that with a woman he only barely knew.

But it had been easy with the phone. Or maybe it’s just easy with Leigh. The thought made him smile even as he had to wipe his sweaty palms on his dirty jeans.

He should have changed out of his work clothes, but his mother would surely have noticed that. And said something. Which, wasn’t the worst thing in the world, but he just…

“Owen.”

He looked up from the picnic table he’d been fussing with, like some old lady, to see Leigh standing there, a big bag on her shoulder.

He smiled, couldn’t help it, even when he felt stupid around her, he smiled. “Hi.”

“I wasn’t sure…” She stepped forward hesitantly, then put her bag on the table. “I brought some food.”

He cleared his throat, wiped his palms again. “Me too.”

Her lips curved and she pushed some hair behind her ear. She looked a little different than she had last week. She was wearing a flowery skirt instead of non-descript black pants. Her shirt was plane but the neckline sloped down

“You look…” Nice? Beautiful. “Um…” Yeah, he suuuuucked at this. Hard. “Pretty.”

She looked down at the tupperware container she was pulling out of her bag, but she was smiling, and biting her lip. And she was pretty. “Thanks.”

“I have homegrown hand-picked peaches. And sandwiches.”

“I brought a salad and some brownies.”

He scooted into a seat on the picnic table and pulled out and fiddled with the things he’d brought, sneaking a few looks at her as she sat across from him. “Looks like we compliment each other.”

Her dark brown eyes met his gaze, but it wasn’t rolled eyes or sympathetic looks for the cheesy guy with the cheesy line.

“I guess so,” she said, smiling and then shyly sliding onto the bench next to him. He’d sort of imagined they’d sit across from each other, but this was better. Way better.

Her shoulder touched his. Sometimes an arm brushed as they reached for different things, or a leg if they shifted. It had an adolescent feel to it, he supposed, but there was also something comfortable about it. There was a warmth and enjoyment that stretched deeper than nervous silences or awkward brushing of hands.

“When did you guys plant these trees?” she asked, waving her hand to encompass the row of freestones in front of them.

“Only about seven years ago. Peach trees don’t last quite as long as the apples, at least fruiting the way we like.”

She looked out at the orchard, a kind of wonder on her face. “That must be really…satisfying. Planting them and making them grow.”

It was a good word for it. It was satisfying to keep the trees growing, fruiting, and as much as it sometimes bothered him to see people trampling through the rows like the trees and peaches meant nothing, he liked to see the way some people truly enjoyed getting away from the supermarkets and cities and picking something they would later eat.

“You know, if you’re done eating and you have time, I can show you my saplings.”

She laughed, the sound swirling around in his chest like music.

“Sorry, just kind of sounded like a euphemism.”

He choked on the last bite of brownie. “Oh, no, I meant…trees.”

Her cheeks had tinged pink, but she was grinning. “Okay, you can show me your trees.”

He rolled his eyes, but they both stood. For a second they stood right next to the picnic table, just facing each other.

He probably shouldn’t. Mom had beat into his brain to be a gentlemen when it came to things like this, but the impulse was too much to ignore. He tilted his head, paused, but she didn’t move away. So, he brushed his mouth against hers. A quick kiss that still managed to make everything a little brighter.

Especially when she smiled. Leaned a little forward, like again would be—

Her phone made its obnoxious beeping sound, and she sighed, closing her eyes. “Ugh.”

Her alarm. She had to go back to work. Ugh was right. “Tomorrow?”

She opened her eyes and nodded and he wanted to reach out and do more than just brush his mouth against hers. Touch the slope of her shoulder, press his mouth to the freckles across her collar bone.

Lots of things. “And maybe we can find a day to have a real date away from the orchard.” Though he was loathe to leave this quiet, private place where she seemed to fit like she’d sprouted from the earth.

“I’d really like that.” The beeping kept going on and she blew out a breath, fluttering her bangs. She readjusted the bag on her shoulder. “I’ll see you tomorrow, Owen.”

“Okay.”

She turned to go, then stopped, much like she had last week. She turned around, all straightened shoulders and determined drawn together eyebrows. “Just so you know. I really like it here. We don’t have to… I mean, this is real enough for me.”

It was a stupid thought, so soon, only knowing bits of pieces of her, but he couldn’t help but wonder if he didn’t just fall in love right then and there.

Installment Five

After three weeks of almost daily lunches, two Saturday night trips to the movies, that had included two very welcome make out sessions in Owen’s car before she said goodnight and headed up to her apartment, alone, Leigh decided enough was enough.

They were going to have sex. End of story.

He would be here any minute, they would order a pizza, and then…she wasn’t going to be too shy this time. Because she wanted to, and she had very little doubt he wanted to.

So.

When the knock sounded on her apartment door she had to bite her lip to keep from grinning and remind herself she could walk to the door—not run.

But, well, what was a little quick jog? She opened the door and Owen stood on the other side, tall and handsome. He had on nice jeans and a plain green t-shirt that brought out the color of his eyes and the sun-kissed tone of his skin.

She almost sighed. Instead she moved to the side so he could step in. She opened her mouth in a greeting, but his mouth covered hers before she could.

She laughed against him, wrapping her arms around his neck, those happy little butterflies flapping through her stomach. This time she did sigh.

“Hi,” he finally said, pulling back only a hair, his arms wrapped firmly around her waist.

“Hi,” she returned, grinning up at him. “Are you hungry?”

His arms loosened. “Sure. If you are.”

She had a feeling they were both dancing around the same subject. That subject being can we just go ahead and have sex and then worry about pizza?

She wasn’t hungry at all. “No, I’m g—”

His phone chimed and he frowned. “That’s weird. You’re the only one who ever calls me.” He waved an arm. “I’ll ignore it.” But his frown didn’t stop, and she knew there was still a lot of family worry on his plate.

“Answer it. I’ll order the pizza.” She nodded firmly and walked toward the kitchen. After all, they could eat then have sex. That was a fine enough idea too.

“Hi, Mom. Is everything okay?”

She scrolled through her phone for the pizza place number, watching him out of the corner of her eyes. Then her stomach sank as his frown deepened. And deepened.

“I’m kind of busy.” He paused, his knuckles going white from holding the phone. “Mom if it’s just orchard stuff.” A pause. “It’s that bad? Dad’s trying to—oh f—no I’m not going to swear. I’ll… I’ll see what I can do. Just give me a few and I’ll call back. Bye.”

Any giddiness completely deflated, but she forced herself to smile at him. “Peach emergency?”

“That sounds incredibly lame and impossible, but actually…kind of.” His smile was weak at best.

Disappointment wasn’t surprising, but the jealousy that clutched her heart was. Not jealous of the peaches for his attention—well, maybe a little—but that he’d have something he loved to run to, something he was passionate about to be able to save, that someone would call him and need him for an emergency.

“It’d help to have daylight, but you know, it’s not necessary.” He stepped toward her. “I’ll stay.”

Oh, she wished, but she actually wanted his mind on her when they did this. “No, you should go.”

“Oh, don’t make me go. Not when…” He trailed off, a dull pink appearing on his cheeks. He cleared his throat.

“Go. There’s always next time. And you mentioned your dad…”

He looked so pained she almost laughed. Poor guy, and yet he knew he was going to do the right and responsible thing, because that was who he was. She liked that about him, and it soothed at least a little of the jealousy.

“You know, there is a…second option here.”

“There is?”

He smiled, the way his mouth curved at the corners making her heart do a little twirl in her chest.  She had never known a smile to make her chest ache and swell at the same time, make taking a full breath hard. But his did, and she never wanted him to stop.

Except possibly for kissing and sex.

“You could come home with me. My place is a little dirty, but I have cable and internet. You could putter around until I was done and then…I mean, you could spend the night of you wanted.  Go to work straight from the orchard. If you wanted. You don’t—”

“I’ll grab a few things,” she said, probably too quickly. But she was too excited to care. The chance to spend extra time with him—sex time and otherwise—was, well, something she wanted. More and more.

It was a little scary actually, wanting to spend so much time with a person. Missing them when they were gone. She’d kind of rolled her eyes at that a little when her friends made goo-goo eyes at their significant others.

She wasn’t goo-goo eye stage yet, but she could understand it a little better. The excitement of finding someone who just…fit.

She threw some things she’d need for tomorrow in a bag. Maybe she could take a lesson from her family and just go with the flow. She liked this flow.

So, here she went. When she returned, Owen was frowning at his phone, until he looked up. Then he smiled. And she smiled because, yeah. “Ready?”

He nodded. “You just head straight back to my cabin on the table road, and I’ll meet you there as soon as I’m done, okay?”

“Do I need a key?” she asked following him out of her apartment, stopping to lock up her own door.

“I don’t lock my doors.”

“What!”

Owen chuckled as he walked over to his truck. “We live in the middle of nowhere. I mean, I lock them during the day when people are picking, but Mom or Dad would notice if someone who wasn’t me drove onto the property. It’s fenced.”

“Then they’ll notice me.”

“I’ll tell them you’re coming. And you can feel free to lock the doors if you want. I have a key.” He grinned, and even though she wanted to lecture him about locking his doors, much like she would have lectured her parents for never locking theirs, his grin melted those words right away.

She hit the unlock button on her key fob, but before she could open her mouth to offer a goodbye for now, Owen was pulling her to him, his mouth finding hers, and she sighed into it.

“It really is an emergency,” he muttered against her mouth.

“I know. So, hurry up and fly to the rescue so we can…eat. I’m…starving.”

Owen laughed, releasing her. “Oh, I’m so glad we’re better at kissing than talking.” He pulled his truck door open. “You are about to witness the quickest peach tree save in the history of peach tree saving.”

“Is there a history of that?”

He shook his head. “Just follow me.” He slid into the driver’s seat as she opened her car door. “Hey, wait, do you want to help?”

“Help?”

“Yeah, it’s just some stuff to help move the water off the roots. It’s messy and dirty and you don’t have to, but I know you like—”

“I’d love to!” It was true. She loved listening to him talk about the orchard, about his work. Helping him would be even more…special. So, she drove behind him the almost forty minutes it took back to Young.

He had her park by his cabin, and then they trekked out to the field that was flooding, meeting Owen’s mom. Leigh could feel the older woman’s speculative glance, Leigh didn’t exactly mind. It wasn’t threatening, just considering.

And it went away as they got to work. Wrapping the trunks, trying to reroute some of the water. By the time they were done they were both dirty and she was definitely achey, but it was a good kind. The kind that meant you’d done something.

“Thank you for interrupting your plans. Both of you,” his mother said. “Would you like to come up to the house for some pie.”

“Um, you know we haven’t even had dinner. I’m going to make Leigh…” He looked at her as if drawing a blank.

“We were going to make dinner together,” Leigh offered, feeling a little blindsided herself. How was she supposed to talk to Owen’s mom when all she wanted to do was get her son back to his place?

“All right, I’ll let you two go then.” She waved and trekked back to the big house.

Owen took her hand and led her to his cabin on the other side of the orchard. The sun was nothing but a little sliver of orange on the horizon and everything smelled like earth and peaches.

She was in heaven.

“You were a natural,” he offered into the steady whine of insects that surrounded them.

“It was…fun. Ish. I know it probably wasn’t fun for you, but…”

“There’s some fun to it. I mean, it sucks if all that work is for nothing, but it’s good to get in there and feel like you…tried.”

Leigh nodded. “I loved it,” she confessed, feeling silly. But he only held her hand tighter.

“Good.”

They stopped in front of his cabin and he pointed up at the sky, dotted with a million stars. The moon a tiny sliver above the rows of trees.

“Clear sky is what we need for a very long time.”

“I’ll wish on a star for it then.”

He chuckled, but didn’t make a move to take her inside and get washed up. Instead he stood, holding tight to her hand, staring up at the stars.

“I know it’s soon. But I…” He was quiet for a long time, and she held her breath. Because what else could be too soon except the strange exhilaration she felt every time she was with him? The giddiness to see him again, the comfort and ease she felt with him.

“I think maybe I could…be falling in love with you.”

The earnestness in his voice, the nerves in the way he fidgeted, the words…they all echoed inside of her, a half that fit hers and made it whole.

She flung herself on him, arms around his neck, squeezing hard and awkward, but it didn’t matter. Not in this moment. “I love you too,” she breathed into his ear.

He chuckled and held onto her as tightly as she held onto him. “Are you sure it’s not just the orchard?” he whispered

She laughed against his neck. “Only like twenty-five percent.”

When he pulled back and looked her in the eye, moonlight reflecting in his eyes, the smell of peaches and earth around them, she knew she was exactly where she was meant to be. She’d found her place.

And when he kissed her, she knew there’d never be another place just like it.

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