Orchard, where new love blooms and romance is always in season.
orchard is more than a business. With its blossom-scented air and rows of trees
framed by the majestic Blue Ridge Mountains, it’s her heritage and her future.
But right now, it’s also a headache. Putting a painful breakup behind her, Amy
has come home to help revitalize Fairfield Orchard. She doesn’t have time for
the handsome-distracting-professor who wants to dig into her family’s history
for his research.
Fairfields’ cooperation to make his new book a success. As for Amy-nothing in
his years of academia could have prepared him for their sudden and intense
attraction. He doesn’t want to complicate her life further, especially since
she seems uneasy about him poking around in the past and he knows he’s not the
sort of man built for forever. But some sparks can’t help but grow, and
Jonathan and Amy may just learn that unexpected love can be the sweetest of
Jonathan Gebhart got out of his car and breathed in the crisp air of Fairfield Orchard, ripe with the sweet scent of apple blossoms. In the distance, the Blue Ridge Mountains undulated into the disappearing mists of midmorning, their haze the mysterious blue they were named for. But everywhere else he looked, surrounding this oasis of buildings and a barn, the foothills were covered in the pink and white of blossoming trees, following long lines like the teeth on a comb. Had Thomas Jefferson known what would become of the land when he’d sold it almost two hundred years ago? Jonathan intended to prove it wasn’t what other historians said it was.
He’d driven the half hour west from Charlottesville, Virginia, to Fairfield Orchard, rehearsing his most persuasive speech over and over. He wasn’t known as the most outgoing of guys, but he was passionate about history and hoped that would be enough. But strangely, he didn’t see a soul. A huge old barn that looked well over a hundred years old stood open and deserted. It had a lower level made of stone with its own entrance in the back, and the soaring upper level framed in weathered gray boards was stacked with crates and bins for the autumn harvest. A food shack and small store were obviously closed. There were picnic tables and benches, all positioned to take in the beautiful view of central Virginia during the harvest season. But in the spring, the public grounds were deserted.
Past a copse of towering oak and hickory trees was a dirt lane, which he followed around a curve until he saw a big house with white siding, blue shutters, and a wraparound porch around the original building. A two-story addition had been added to the right side. A battered blue pickup truck was parked nearby. He climbed the front steps, but no one answered the door. Jonathan hadn’t called in advance, assuming that a request like his was better handled in person, but that had obviously been a mistake. There must be a business office or warehouse somewhere else on the grounds.
And then in the first row of apple trees next to the house, he saw a ladder disappearing up inside, and a pair of work boots perched on a rung, their owner partially hidden by branches and blossoms and bright green leaves. He’d done his research, knew that the owner was Bruce Fairfield, a Vietnam vet in his sixties.
“Mr. Fairfield?” Jonathan called as he approached the tree. “Bruce Fairfield?”
Sudden barking startled him, and a dog came up out of the straggly grass growing through a dark loam of what looked like fertilizer around the base of the tree. The medium-sized dog resembled a cross between a German shepherd and a coyote, its pointy ears alert.
“What’s up, Uma?”
The voice from within the tree was far more feminine than “Bruce” should have. The dog sat down and regarded Jonathan, her spotted tongue visible as she panted, her head cocked to the side.
A woman pushed aside a branch and peered down, wreathed in pink and white blossoms, her sandy brown hair pulled into a ponytail beneath a ragged ball cap with the Virginia Cavaliers logo. She had a delicate face with a pointed chin, and a nose splattered with freckles. She was already tan from working outdoors, with eyes clear and deep blue and narrowed with curiosity. She wore a battered winter vest over a plaid shirt with a t-shirt beneath, and a faded pair of jeans with a tear at the knee. She held clippers in one hand.
“What can I do for you?” she asked, then added apologetically, “We’re still closed for the off-season.”
“I know. I’ve come from Charlottesville to speak with the owner.”
Brightly, she said, “I’m one of them.”
That rearranged his conclusion that she was just an employee.
“Hope you don’t mind if I keep working while we talk,” she added.
He blinked as her face disappeared behind the branch she released. Soon, he could hear occasional snipping, and saw a branch drop to the ground. She seemed like she was examining, more than pruning. He was used to talking to students who tried to hide their texting during a lecture, but he couldn’t force this woman to pay attention to him. At least the dog watched him with expectation.
“My name is Dr. Jonathan Gebhart, and I’m an associate professor of history at the University of Virginia, with a specialty in colonial history, particularly Thomas Jefferson.”
She gave a snort of laughter. “Of course.”
He stiffened. “Of course?”
“Thomas Jefferson founded the university, right?”
Did anyone from the area not know that?
“I hear he might as well still be alive,” she continued, “the way some people refer to him. I guess you’re one of the worshippers.”
“If you consider historians worshippers,” he said dryly.
She peeked out from behind a branch and gave him an amused smile. “I didn’t mean to offend, but you caught me on a bad day. I’m trying to remember my pruning skills. It’s been a while, and it’s not exactly the season for it.”
“May I ask to whom I’m speaking?”
Her smile widened. “My, don’t you have a pretty way of talking. I’m Amy Fairfield.”
“Daughter of the owner?”
“Technically one of the new owners, remember?”
She disappeared behind a branch again and continued pruning. Bees buzzed about her, alighting delicately on blossoms, but she ignored them.
“It’s all a mess right now, of course,” she continued. “My parents have just retired and left to have the time of their lives in the RV they always dreamed of.” She peeked at him again. “Don’t get me wrong, I’m happy for them, but they caught the whole family off guard, and now everyone has to decide who’s coming back when, taking leaves of absence or quitting their jobs altogether, so we can keep the orchard going. And though I always worked weekends in the fall, it’s been a long time since I was involved in the spring.” She wrinkled her nose. “Way more than you wanted to hear, sorry.”
And then she became silent as she examined her work critically. Her family problems were none of his business, though his curiosity began to formulate questions that he tamped back down.
“I’m here to ask a favor of you.” He paused, but she didn’t reappear. Taking a deep breath, he said, “I’m writing a book on the land Thomas Jefferson owned, and how selling it changed the course of Albemarle County and Virginia itself. As you know, your ancestors purchased this land from him.”
“You have an incredible inheritance here. One of our founding fathers walked this very land.”
“I know that, too. But he walked a lot of land around here. I spent the last thirteen years in Charlottesville, sometimes running campus trails. I’m sure I walked lots of places TJ walked.”
TJ? Though he corrected his students when they were so disrespectful, he found himself amused by Amy’s irreverence. He well knew that Jefferson wasn’t a saint, simply a flawed, though brilliant man.
But there were more important things on the line, like the book he needed to finish for his tenure portfolio. Without tenure, he could lose the career he’d worked so hard for, be let go from UVA. But even more important was his big hypothesis, the one that could turn his book into a bestseller and give him the prestigious career he’d always dreamed of.
“So what do I have to do with TJ?” Amy asked.
“I’d like your family’s permission to interview them and look through the historical records you’ve kept through the years.”
“Historical records?” she echoed. “Don’t you find that stuff at courthouses or online?”
“You cannot find family Bibles or original land deeds so easily, not to mention family stories passed down through generations.” He glanced at the house again, knowing it was far too recently built, and hoping Google hadn’t misled him. “I believe there’s an older house than this?”
“Yep, but we’ve closed it up to keep people from getting hurt.”
A headache started to form. “Is it in disrepair?” He hoped Amy Fairfield and her family appreciated their own history.
“Not really, but no one is living there now, and we don’t want vandals disturbing it.”
The pressure between his eyes eased. “You get many vandals out here?”
“I didn’t think so, but I’m not the one who made the decision. My father was. And then he left, leaving it to my siblings and me to continue family tradition—whether some of us wanted to or not,” she added dryly.
He wasn’t sure where she fit in on that spectrum, but it wasn’t his concern. “Can I reach your father by phone or email?”
“Sure, but maybe you’d rather talk to my grandfather.”
He smiled with relief. The elderly had a better grasp of the importance of the past. “Do you think he’d speak with me?”
Amy spread the branches and gave him a long look from head to toe. He felt an odd connection, her gaze almost a physical touch. He was baffled to experience an awareness of her as a woman, when he could barely tell she was one beneath her farmer’s garb. Those vivid blue eyes studied him as if judging him. He’d been judged and found wanting before, and he wouldn’t go through that again.
“I can’t speak for Grandpa, Jon, but—”
“Jonathan.” He withheld a grimace, knowing that he shouldn’t be correcting her when he needed her help.
“Sorry. I don’t know if now’s the best time to be stirring things up. The orchard … well, we have a lot of work to do this summer, and it’ll be time for the harvest before you know it. I just started working here again a couple days ago. How about next winter?”
“I can’t wait until next winter,” he said patiently. “This is the last section of the book, and I have to submit it by this fall to even have it ready in time for my tenure review next year. You do know what tenure is.”
Those dark blue eyes narrowed, and she cocked her head. “Gee, maybe you better spell the word for me.”
He briefly closed his eyes, knowing he was making things worse. “Forgive me.”
He took a step toward her, trying to find the right words. He startled the dog, who jumped up and hit the ladder, which began to fall sideways. Amy let out a yelp and grabbed a branch even as the ladder crashed through several branches and hit the ground. Her feet struggled to find a thick enough branch to support her, and Jonathan reached for her. She was still too high to grab around the waist, but when he ducked under a thin branch and stepped beneath her, her toes brushed his shoulders.
“Step right on me,” he urged.
For a moment, he thought she would refuse, but at last she let herself drop a bit, and her big muddy work boots settled on his shoulders. She wasn’t even that heavy, and he realized she was probably smaller than he’d imagined, being half-hidden by the tree and wearing layers of warm clothing.
“If I was still a cheerleader,” she said, “I’d have a spotter to help me jump.”
At least she didn’t sound upset with him. He needed her goodwill. “I’ll squat, and you should be able to jump easily.”
“You forget, I’m still in between all these branches.”
“I’ll go straight down, and you be careful.” He sank slowly onto his haunches.
Using the tree for balance, she swung away from him and landed lightly on the ground. Still bent over, he came out from beneath the tree and practically ran right into her. Straightening, he stared down at her and she stared up, not six inches away from each other.
“You’re taller than I thought,” she said.
“And you’re shorter.”
“I am,” she said ruefully.
Though smiling, she backed away as if he was contagious. To his surprise, he regretted that.
“I made a mess of your jacket,” she pointed out.
He looked down at his shoulders. “It’s just dirt. It’ll come clean.”
She flashed that teasing smile again, and he realized she might be flirting with him. The thought was surprising, a little disorienting.
“You’d say anything to get my cooperation,” she said.
He looked into those intelligent blue eyes, and imagined many a man would. He would, too—for his research. Right now, it had to come before anything else. “Your cooperation is crucial. I have a theory that Jefferson might have escaped to here during the American Revolution, instead of to his land to the south.”
She tilted her head. “But he didn’t have a house here.”
He widened his eyes in surprise. “No, he didn’t. You know more about TJ than you let on.”
He’d thought to put her at ease with a lighthearted tone, but those intriguing eyes suddenly seemed to shutter. He decided right then that going into detail about his research might put her off.
“No, I don’t know all that much,” she said, looking away.
“I’ll be conducting research at the library at Monticello, and also here, if you’ll permit it. I need to find proof that I’m right. Can I count on your cooperation?”
“I’ll think about it.”
She was already retrieving the clippers and righting the ladder. He tried to help, but she gave him a distracted smile.
“I can do it. This is my job now, you know.”
“What did you do before?”
He could see her as a friendly, outgoing saleswoman. “Did you always mean to come back to the orchard?” he asked, curious.
“Interesting question. I don’t really know. As for your request, why don’t you come back tomorrow, and I’ll give you my answer.”
And she maneuvered the ladder back into the tree and climbed up, disappearing within the spring blossoms until he could only see those muddy boots. He turned and strode back to his car.
Emma Cane grew
up reading and soon discovered that she liked to write passionate stories of
teenagers in space. Her love of “passionate stories” has never gone away,
although today she concentrates on the heartwarming characters of Valentine
Valley and Fairfield Orchard.
her three children are grown, Emma loves spending time crocheting and singing
(although not necessarily at the same time), and hiking and snowshoeing
alongside her husband Jim and their rambunctious dog Uma.
writes USA Today bestselling historical romances under the
name Gayle Callen.