***The Enchanted Orchards, Excerpt***
Leaving the orchard trail, I slipped in between the trees for a shortcut. The heady, ripened smell of the peaches was a good distraction for me. I found myself wanting to abandon the entire day, of having to see Rocky, dishing out meals and napkins, or even going back home at all. I abruptly had the urge to stay right where I was, to lie down on the earth and feel the warm ground beneath me and see the sunshine above me. Spending the afternoon watching beams of sunshine tangle with the orchard branches sounded blissful and much more appealing than what I really had going on.
The soft sound of the creek told me I was close and I proceeded to walk towards the noise until I came upon the west part of the fencing. For some reason, I stopped myself before stepping out of the cover of the trees. Quietly, I moved a thin branch aside and peered out through the canopy of leaves. And then I saw him.
My breath caught in my chest. It was like a picture right out of a magazine, too perfect to be real. Lying with his back to the ground, Rocky had his arms behind his neck and a black cowboy hat tipped over his face, shielding him from the sun. He appeared to be napping, with his chest rising and falling in a slow, steady rhythm. Of course he wore no shirt, and the light poured onto his bronzed skin at just the right angle, illuminating his taut, defined stomach. My observations had been right at church; he had definitely progressed into full blown man in the time he’d been away.
My belly was in knots as I realized I had to go and wake him. For that, I felt utterly ridiculous and hopeless. Yeah, so I still had a crush on him. In fact, I was sort of besotted. But so what? That didn’t mean I had to like it. In fact, I pretty much resented the way I felt about him.
Frowning at myself, I strolled out of the trees. Quickly, I remembered to smooth my hair back down. There really was no reason to look disheveled, after all. Fancy wouldn’t have to know.
When my hair felt tame enough, I inhaled the sweet, peach scented air for a dose of strength and approached him. Standing over him, I looked down and found that he was even more impressive up close. With a strangled breath, I glanced away and focused on the fence, the creek, the sky, anything but him until I was sure there would be no admiration and longing oozing out of my pores. It least not any that he could see.
Then I gathered up my wits. “Sleeping on the job?”
He shifted at the sound of my voice and lifted the hat slightly to reveal his face. I gazed down at his brown eyes; they always seemed to favor a caramel color in the sunlight. The expression he dawned at the sight of me caught me off guard.
I knew in that moment, Rocky was not seeing the scrawny, awkward, tomboy he had grown up with. By the leisurely look he cast up and down the length of my body, I knew he was seeing something else entirely.
Drawing away from his gaze, I kicked at the dirt and hoped to hell I wasn’t blushing.
“Am I dreaming?” he asked.
I laughed in response, empty and morose. “It’s too damn hot to be a dream. A dream at this temperature would be a nightmare if anything.” A trickle of sweat down my collar bone emphasized that point.
“So you come to take me up on my offer, then?”
I frowned. “Offer?”
“About helping you.”
“Actually no,” I said stiffly. “Where’s Jeb? I see ya’ll repaired most the fence.”
“So you came to see Jeb?” His lips curved into a teasing smile.
I sighed. “I came to tell ya’ll that lunch is ready at the sugar shack. Fancy wrangled me into helping her out with serving some gumbo today. She doesn’t want to start dishing it up till ya’ll are there.”
I knew I came off sounding a little curt and though that really hadn’t been my intention, it was no real surprise either. You always said I get mean when I am uncomfortable. Right now, standing over a shirtless Rocky, all chiseled glory in the sun, I was immensely uncomfortable.
“Jeb should be back anytime.” Replacing the cowboy hat back over his face, he returned to his former resting state, like he hadn’t a single care in the world.
I don’t know why but I stood there for a moment, waiting. I was expecting him to say something further, to not just let the conversation end so abruptly. He didn’t. A little disappointed, though I did not want to admit it to myself, I turned to quietly storm off back into the orchards. But his hand gripped around my ankle just as I stepped away. With him firmly holding me in place, I looked down, my brow arched in question.
“Wait.” He sat up, letting his hat fall to the ground. “Wait with me. We can all walk back together.”
When I gave a nod, he let go of my ankle and patted the ground next to him, inviting me sit down.
As appealing as it would have been to be so close, I chose to create more distance, and stepped back, leaning myself against the newly repaired fence.
“That’s a better view anyway,” he winked.
I tried not to react to that or at the least appear unaffected. “He’d better be real quick. Them boy’s aint going to be too keen on waiting for their food.”
Rocky shrugged. “They’ll be fine. And he won’t be much longer. Besides, this gives us a chance to finish that conversation we were having.”
“What’s left to talk about?”
“Me helping you.”
I chewed my lip to keep from saying something I might regret. Why did he have to keep bringing this up? Annoyed, I let out a groan, hoping to indicate my irritation about the subject to him. “No thanks.”
His gaze bored into mine. “I’m going to wear you down on this. You have to know that.”
I mustered up some grit and jut my chin out, even as my knees were rapidly growing weaker. “Don’t count on it.”
“I can be a good friend to you Fern, if you’ll let me.”
I noted the change of tone in his voice. He was serious and he wanted me to know it. Unable to form words, I kept silent all but for a quick, tentative smile. When I was sure he was going to press further, I waved my hand to stop him. “Can we just talk about something else, please?”
He mulled that over. It was obvious he did not want to drop it, but he gave me an acknowledging shrug anyway. Still, I knew this was something that would come up again. I probably should have felt grateful that he cared so much. Wasn’t I fading away into invisibility like Mama and Daddy? Didn’t I need someone to notice and to care? And who better than the boy I’d harbored a crush for my entire childhood?
“What would you like to talk about instead?” There was a playful edge to his voice now.
I suddenly felt apprehensive in a new way. “I don’t know.”
“Alright, I’ll pick. You got a boyfriend?”
“What?” I blanched.
His lips twitched in amusement. “You know, someone your sweet on, makes your heart thump real hard in your chest. You got anyone like that?”
“I’m pretty sure that is none of your business, Rocky Lee.”
“Were friends, aren’t we?”
“Maybe. Yeah. So?”
“I got a right to know who my competition is.”
This time there was no stopping the heated red flush that overcame my cheeks. It felt like my head would burst into flames. I gave a flustered little laugh and tried my best to pretend like he was just a silly boy that did not make it hard for me to breathe sometimes. “You know um,” I said, pulling words where I could, “you’re sitting in redbugs. They are all up in that dirt.”
“Changing the topic again?”
“Just pointing out a hazard, though you really should already know this. Guess you’ve gone and turned into a Yankee doodle city boy.”
He snorted, brushing off the dirt from his back. “You’re mistaken.”
I crossed my arms. “Oh yeah? Well I bet you look like you have chicken pox tomorrow.”
“Chiggers aint bothered me since I was six.”
“Sure. Do you remember how to get rid of the bites, or have you forgotten that too?”
“Darlin’, if you’re so concerned, why don’t you come down here and check me for bugs yourself?” His eyes glittered with challenge. He was daring me.
Of course that was out of the question, but then there was something on his back that did manage to catch my attention, and before I knew it, I was crouched down next to him on the ground. I gasped in surprise as I realized what it was.
“You got a tattoo!” Incredulous, I leaned in for a closer look. Just above his right shoulder blade there was the outline of an eagle with its wings spread out in flight. Curious, I began tracing a finger along the intricate detailing of the wings, recalling how Rocky had always been enamored with the elusive birds as a kid. Absently, I wondered how old Rocky was when he got it, and if he had any more, and where they might be if so. But my thoughts were jarred back to the present when he looked over his shoulder at me. Suddenly, his face was very close to mine and out of some unexplained law of gravity, my eyes fell to his mouth.
The urge to kiss him was more than tempting.
Abruptly, I retracted my hand, abashed that I had touched him and probably revealed too much. Then again, it was not going to take a whole lot of perception to see that I was acting like a twitter pated fool.
Rocky smirked, as though sensing my uneasiness. I wanted to move, to stand up and run straight back to the sugar shack or possibly hide out in the orchards until my humiliation ceased. But I was immobile, frozen in place like a deer in headlights. Except in this instance, the headlights were a hypnotizing pair of big brown eyes.
His smile began to fade and his expression became thoughtful, his dark eyebrows drawing together. I was vaguely aware of my own countenance until his eyes deepened with such intensity that I knew my lips trembled. He drew closer to me and I could feel his breath on my face, like spices and syrup. My heart raced when his eyes cast down to my mouth. He moistened his lips and every thought and fear fled my mind. Sunlight glimmered between us and he leaned in. My eyes closed.
“I interrupting something?” Jeb’s loud southern drawl pulled me from the moment like a pitcher of ice cold water over my head.
I sprung to my feet in an instant, backing several clumsy steps away from Rocky. I had been in such a daze I wasn’t sure if our lips had even touched. Judging by the frown on his face, they hadn’t.
Ignoring his sullen glower, I turned my attention to Jeb -whom I owed big time. Because I hadn’t really wanted to kiss Rocky, had I? No, I had, I really, really had. But I was thankful we hadn’t because that would have made things ten times more complicating than they already were.
“I was just looking at Rocky’s tattoo,” I blurted out, sounding a bit more hysterical than I would have liked. Jeb opened his mouth to disagree but I stopped him with a penetrating glare.
Obvious amusement flashed across his face. “Sure thing, cupcake.” Reaching into a paper bag that he was carrying, he pulled out a six pack of beer and tossed one of the cans to Rocky.
“I would say about time but then you never were a good one for timing,” Rocky groaned in complaint. Standing up to his full height, he dusted the dirt from his jeans and stretched his long, lean body. I kept my eyes diverted, still reeling with humiliation on what might have happened had we not been interrupted.
“Beer? You went on a beer run?” I asked Jeb, grasping at any bit of meaningless nonsense as a distraction.
He gave me a cocky grin. “Oh sorry, did you want one?”
I huffed. “It’s ya’lls butts on the line when Elmer’s fence ends up being more crooked than it was in the first place.”
Jeb shrugged carelessly and opened a beer. The pop of the aluminum and the fizzing noise was out of place in the quiet of the orchards. I was feeling a little out of place too. Rocky’s gaze was on me but I refused to look. Nervous and anxious, I was scratching my arm and it did not even itch.
“Alright,” I announced, having had enough of the uncomfortable awkwardness. “I’m heading back.”
I brushed past Jeb and he grunted a laugh. “Right behind you, princess."
My legs moved as fast as they could without full on sprinting. Rocky was going to have the impression I was a big tease or coward. And maybe that would be for the best.
By the time I reached the sugar shack, I was no longer embarrassed. Instead, I was grumpy, dehydrated, and confused.
“Well, good lord, there you are,” Fancy said as I walked in. She was preoccupied slicing thick pieces of watermelon and arranging them onto a platter. “What in heaven’s sake took so long?”
I reached for a jug of sweet tea out of the cooler and helped myself to a full cup, guzzling it down before answering. “Thanks to you,” I explained, “Rocky almost kissed me.”
Fancy nearly cut herself with the knife as she slapped her thigh in excitement. If it were not for the three inch heels she was wearing, I was sure she would have been jumping up and down with glee. You’d think she’d won the lottery or something. Then, as if my words registered in a new way, she stilled, her brow furrowing. “What do you mean almost?”
“Jeb showed up just in the nick of time.”
“Oh that Jebadiah,” she grumbled. “And if he hadn’t shown up, then what?”
I paused. “Well then I suppose he would have kissed me.”
“Ah realize that honey. Mah question is, would you have kissed him back?”
“I guess so.”
“You guess so?”
“Geez, Fance, I don’t know.”
“You don’t know?”
I grabbed an empty paper cup and crushed it in my hand in a display of frustration. “Hell, I just don’t know, for Pete’s sake stop asking me questions,” I hissed.
Her mouth settled into a grim line. “Lord, child you are testy today. You need yourself a drink. Something strong and bitter, that’s for damn sure.”
“I don’t need a drink,” I argued. “I just need…something but I don’t know what.” My shoulders slumped and I heaved a heavy, hopeless sigh.
Fancy set the watermelon knife aside, temporarily halting her work, and grabbed my shoulders. She gently shook me. “Oh Fern girl, Ah know exactly what you need. If only you would just let it happen.”
I frowned, doubtful. “And that would be, what?”
She looked away, inhaled deeply, and smiled up towards the ceiling. When her eyes found mine again, she looked magically ten years younger. “Young lady, you need yourself a summer romance.”
I stifled a snort. “That’s your great advice? I’ve heard better things from that old man that sits outside the hardware store. ”
Not to be distracted, she garnered a determined expression. “Trust me,” she pleaded. “You’re young. You have not even felt the sting of heartbreak yet. This could be a new and wonderful time for you with more excitement, passion, and adventure than you can possibly imagine. Let it happen. Let life be, Fern.”
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