Eli Cross was about to be in a shit-ton of trouble. But since he wasn’t exactly pioneering new territory by landing himself in hot water, he might as well take it like he usually did—with a shrug and a smile and great big steaming mug of here we go again.
“Have you seriously not loaded any of these crates for tomorrow’s farmers’ market yet?” His brother Owen pinned him with a steely stare as he gestured to the six dozen wood-slatted crates stacked in neat columns against the barn wall. Kind of hard to believe Owen was only five years older than him, what with the whole thirty-two-going-on-grumpy-old-man thing the guy was rocking. For Chrissake, Owen bossed Eli over every last one of their 750 acres even more than their father did, and Tobias Cross had run the farm since his own father had left it to him more than three decades ago.
Not that Eli actually listened to his brother much.
He rolled a slow glance over the obviously empty crates, inhaling a lungful of humid, late-summer air before working up his trademark drawl. “It appears that way.”
Despite his carefree cover, guilt panged low in Eli’s gut, just above the top button on his beat-to-hell-and-back Levi’s. It was true that he hadn’t loaded the crates with produce from the fields and greenhouses like he was supposed to, just like it was true he’d known Owen was expecting him to get the job done. What he had been doing, though, was harvesting as much sweet corn as he could get to before their old man got done repairing the irrigation system in the north fields. Not that their father couldn’t do the work—hell, he was as salty as they came, and Eli would bet good money the man could harvest sweet corn easier than he could spell his own name. But he’d also suffered a not-small bout of heat exhaustion only two months ago. No sense pickin’ a fight with fate. Especially not in the dog days of a Virginia summer, and double especially not when Eli could do the work instead. After all, Owen already thought Eli was a screwup, and Eli had to admit, most of the time, his brother wasn’t wrong. But taking some extra heat to save a little bit of their old man’s pride? Hell, that was worth every last one of Owen’s legendary eye rolls.
“I’ve got a little time to burn,” their middle brother, Hunter, said from his spot in front of the barn door, throwing on the easy-does-it peacekeeper face Eli knew all too well. “I don’t mind helping you load the crates for the farmers’ market, E.”
Owen’s snort killed the offer before it had finished echoing off the wide, wooden walls. “It’s the height of the worst season we’ve seen in a decade, and a Friday afternoon to boot. There’s no such thing as ‘time to burn.’ We’re all up to our eyeteeth trying to get ahead before the weekend kicks off. Except for Eli, of course, who might as well be on vacation.”
For a hot second, Eli was tempted to pop off and tell Owen that he hadn’t exactly been sitting on his ass pontificating about the meaning of life all afternoon. But telling his brother why he was running behind would just be a moot point, because even if Eli forked over the truth now, Owen would still only hear what he wanted—an excuse. Provided he even listened at all.
Yeah. Time to just get good and comfy on the hot seat. It was, after all, the only place at Cross Creek Farm where Eli really belonged.
“It’s cool, Hunt.” Eli lifted his shoulders up and around in a move so well practiced it was probably stamped into his muscle memory for life. “I’ve got this. I’ll just throw the crates in my truck and fill ’em now, nothing doing.”
“No, you won’t.”
Owen’s voice halted Eli midstep on the packed dirt beneath his Red Wings. “I’m sorry?”
“Been hearing that a lot from you lately. Not that it does much good when your work doesn’t get done,” Owen said, and the words sent Eli’s molars together hard enough that his jaw considered crying uncle. But before he could unhinge the thing to deliver the verbal ass-kicking Owen had been gunning for since he’d clapped eyes on the crates in the first place, Hunter stepped in, both hands lifted as if he could literally stuff the tension back with his palms.
“Come on, you two. We’re still trying to bounce back from the crazy weather and both me and Dad being out of commission for part of the summer.” Hunter rolled the shoulder he’d spent most of June rehabbing after going ass over teakettle out of their hayloft. “If we want to get this farm back in the black, you need to be working together. Not trying to knock each other’s fucking blocks off.”
As usual, Hunter wasn’t wrong. But of course, Owen’s heels were dug in good and hard. “No one wants to make up for this weak season more than I do,” Owen said, a frown marking his darkly stubbled face. “But you and Dad and I can’t work together with Eli when he won’t work at all.”
Oh, for Chrissake . . . “I just told you I’d load the crates,” Eli pointed out.
“When, exactly?” Owen shot back. “The farmers’ market opens up at seven tomorrow morning, all the way in Camden Valley, which means the truck’s gotta be loaded in time to roll out of here by five. We’ve got maybe two more hours of good daylight to get these crates filled and ready to go.”
Eli looked out the double-wide barn door, measuring the slant of the sunlight with a glance. “I know how much daylight we’ve got left.”
Which sucked, because in this particular case, Owen happened to be right. Eli would have to put the pedal to the floorboards in order to get all the produce prepped and packed for transport before he lost enough daylight to do the job, and even then, he’d probably have to grab some floodlights in order to finish. Not that he’d give Owen the satisfaction of saying so.
His brother arched one dark-brown brow high enough for it to disappear beneath the hair tumbling over his forehead, and shit, looked like Owen didn’t need the out-loud satisfaction to keep pushing. “Then you know at this point, it’s a two-person job.”
“I’m good for the help,” Hunter said, but the buffer bounced off Owen like a pebble hitting a tractor tire.
“Thank God somebody is.” He pivoted on the heels of his work boots, beelining directly for the crates. “Let’s get these up to the greenhouse, Hunt. Between me and you, we should be able to fill ’em fast enough to get you home for dinner with Emerson.”
Shock merged with all the irritation pumping through Eli’s veins. “And what is it you want me to do, then?”
Owen paused before saying, “We need baling twine for the hay in the east field. The co-op’s open for another hour.”
Freaking stellar. He’d just been reduced to errand boy. Shit couldn’t get any worse. “Fine,” Eli said, although he slapped the word with enough of an edge that it came off like a different F-word altogether. At least the trip into town would buy him some space so he could get his no-big-deal attitude back into place.
“And stay out of trouble, would you?” Owen called after him, the words making Eli’s muscles tense beneath his work-damp T-shirt. “The last thing we need around here after the season we’ve had is more heartache.”
“Kiss my heartache,” Eli mumbled, stowing the words under his breath as he gave Owen the rest of his back. Walking the rest of the way to his dust-covered pickup, he gripped the door handle hard enough to make his knuckles protest before yanking the door open and pulling himself into the driver’s seat. A fresh sheen of sweat formed beneath the brim of his work-worn baseball hat, and Eli adjusted the thing against the glaring, late-afternoon sunlight.
He reeled in a deep breath, but still, his frustration lingered like the smell of old, stale smoke. He might not have an all-work ethic like Owen or feel like he’d been born to farm like Hunter and their old man, but he wasn’t a degenerate. He did his share on the farm—maybe not as often or as hard as everyone else, but he still knew how to put in a long day just like the rest of them.
Man, the days had felt as if they’d each lasted a week lately. And the labor was the least of the hardship.
After all, hard work was a whole lot easier if you were actually meant for what you were doing.
Eli’s chin snapped up, the thought jamming his chest chock-full of don’t go there before he mashed down on it completely. Yeah, he might be the odd man out at Cross Creek, and yeah again, tensions were at an all-time high from all the unforeseen circumstances they’d been fielding lately and the slower-than-usual business they’d seen as a result. But he’d been born and bred on Cross Creek soil, just like his brothers, his father, and his grandfather besides. He’d never even set so much as a baby toe outside the state of Virginia, for God’s sake.
He couldn’t exactly tell anyone he knew he didn’t belong there. And he sure as hell couldn’t tell anyone where his true, fire-in-the-belly passion lay.
Not when it was far, far easier to just grin, do the bare minimum at the farm, and cover the rest up.
Eli turned the key in the ignition, sending the F-150’s engine into a low rumble. All of this scrapping between him and Owen was just making him stupid. What Eli really needed was to forget about his brother’s sky-high expectations and just go through the motions of getting back to normal.
Until their next argument, anyway. Then it would be rinse and repeat all over again, and dammit, he needed more than a little distance to get his mind right.
He needed Shakespeare.
Eli angled his truck over the two-lane road leading into Millhaven proper, tapping the touch screen on the F-150’s sound system until A Midsummer Night’s Dream started rolling through the speakers. Yeah, he knew the Shakespeare thing was weird—enough so that he went to great lengths to hide it from his brothers and his buddies and pretty much anyone with a pulse. Most folks around Millhaven were content to blow off steam the old-fashioned way, with a cold beer or hot sex, and Eli had to admit, he wasn’t unhappy to go that route, either. But when shit got really critical, the best way for him to get right side up again was to hit the classics. Shakespeare. Twain. Hemingway. He’d loved to read since middle school. And writing? Even freaking better.
Fire, meet belly.
The trip into town was short but scenic, and Eli’s truck ate up the dozen or so miles of sun-drenched farmland in about as many minutes. The two-lane ribbon of faded asphalt became Town Street about a half mile from downtown, which was probably a misnomer, although with the highly limited travel in Eli’s past, he couldn’t really say with any authority. But the neatly kept cobblestone walkway lining the four blocks of “downtown” Millhaven had always seemed right nice to him, even if they weren’t fancy. The town had the essentials—The Corner Market, Clementine’s Diner (Best. Cheeseburger. Ever.), Doc Sanders’s office, and the fire station, plus a handful more businesses to round out the bunch. The farming co-op sat smack in the middle of things on the corner of the second block, and Eli was careful to switch his sound system over to the local country station before pulling within earshot of the place.
“Freaking great.” A sour taste filled his mouth at the sight of the dusty, rusty Chevy Silverado parked front and center by the co-op’s main entrance. While under normal circumstances Eli had no problem engaging in the ongoing pissing contest he’d had going with Greyson Whittaker since about puberty, he so wasn’t in the mood to tangle with the only son of Cross Creek Farm’s biggest rival today. Maybe he’d get lucky and Greyson would be in the back, placing an order for feed or fertilizer. Better still, maybe the stars would align, and the guy would just sense Eli’s utterly shitastic mood and leave him be for once.
Or maybe Greyson would be leaning against the front counter with a toothpick tucked into one corner of his mouth while the other side kicked up into a smirk that broadcast very bad things on the immediate horizon, and shit, shit, shit. Eli needed this like he needed a prostate exam with a tax-audit chaser.
His heart kicked at his sternum as he lifted his chin at Billy Masterson behind the counter, ignoring Greyson altogether. “Hey, Billy. I need to grab a half dozen bales of Poly Baler.”
“Sure thing, Eli,” Billy said, shifting a nonsubtle glance at Greyson before turning toward the computer system set up behind the counter. “So how’s it going?”
It was a bit of a loaded question, coming from Masterson. The guy was cool enough, but he also had a thing for lighting up the small-town grapevine like a fifty-foot spruce on Christmas Eve.
“Alright,” Eli said, jamming a thumb through the belt loop of his jeans. Greyson’s smirk felt like an army of hornets buzzing over him, just waiting for an excuse to attack, and yeah, today had officially hit the redline on his Suck-o-Meter. “You want me to pull around back to help load them?”
“Hang on a sec.” Billy’s brows lowered for just a second beneath the brim of his John Deere baseball cap before his expression grew uneasy. “Did you want to put these on Cross Creek’s line of credit?”
Hell of a weird question. They’d used the farm’s account at the co-op for the past . . . well, ever, as far as Eli knew. “Yeah. Why?”
“Because it looks like y’all have reached your limit. There’s a hold on your account until the balance is paid off.”
Eli’s pulse hopscotched through his veins. That couldn’t possibly be right. The Cross men might be way better farmers than number crunchers, but no way would they have missed something as big as paying off their co-op tab.
Before Eli could say so, though, Greyson butted in with a snort. “Jesus, Cross. Haven’t you got anyone over there at that two-bit operation to run your books for you?”
“Shut up, Greyson.” The adrenaline pumping through Eli’s body was putting a hard limit on his creativity, but at least the directive got his point across.
Unfortunately, Greyson didn’t budge, his dark eyes turning junkyard-dog mean as he narrowed them on Eli. “Who’s gonna make me? You?”
Billy’s stare went wide, moving back and forth between Eli and Greyson as if he were watching a testosterone-soaked tennis match, and Eli struggled to pull a breath past his tightening lungs. His laid-back attitude only stretched so far. He needed to get Greyson out of his face so he could fix the misunderstanding with Billy, get the baling twine he’d errand-boyed himself out here for, and get the hell out of Dodge before the last of his patience hit the skids.
Knotting his arms over his chest, Eli fixed Greyson with the most bored up-and-down he could possibly muster. “Your village called. They’re missing their idiot, so why don’t you run along home.”
“That’s rich, coming from someone who can’t even keep his books straight.” Greyson paused to raise one black brow. “Or is it more than just the books? Don’t tell me there’s trouble in paradise over there at precious Cross Creek Farm.”
The words made a direct hit in the center of Eli’s sternum. “Everything’s fine at Cross Creek,” he snapped.
But dammit, the response came out too sharp and too fast, and for as big of a dick as Greyson Whittaker was, he sadly wasn’t stupid. “Bullshit.”
“What did you say?” Eli asked, his heart thundering in his ears as he clung to the last thin thread of his control.
“I said bullshit.” Greyson took just enough of a step forward over the linoleum to back up the taunt in his voice. “I see what everyone else around here sees. The crap weather might be affecting all of us, but with the way you Cross boys have been droppin’ like flies and can’t pay your bills now on top of it . . . I’m calling you out. I think your business is going under.”
Eli’s composure vanished in a white-hot instant, all the tension of the day, the week—hell, the entire fucking season—cranking his jaw and turning his hands into fists. He was in Greyson’s dance space before his brain had fully registered the movement of his legs, but not even the sight of Billy’s shock in his peripheral vision or the fact that Greyson actually met him halfway for a chest bump could make him stand down.
“You’re as dumb as you look,” Eli bit out, each syllable more bitter than the last.
“Put your money where your mouth is and prove it, asshole.”
Shock replaced the tiniest bit of the anger pulsing through Eli’s veins, and Greyson took full advantage of the pause to tack on, “I’ll bet you all the money on that tab of yours that Whittaker Hollow brings in more business than Cross Creek between now and Fall Fling.”
Whoa. The challenge was a hell of a step up from their normal shit slinging. Millhaven’s town-wide harvest celebration was second only to the Watermelon Festival that kicked off the summer season, and Eli’s old man had five grand on the farm’s line of credit. But far be it for him to balk if Greyson wanted to let his attitude write the check that would pay it off.
Still . . . “Like I’m going to trust you to give up honest numbers,” Eli said. Integrity had never been Greyson’s strong suit, and the Whittakers had been trying to best Cross Creek Farm for frigging decades. No way would Greyson take the honesty path if he thought that was in his reach. Which it wasn’t, but—
“My mom could be the judge,” Billy offered. “She does both y’all’s business taxes anyway, right?”
Both Eli and Greyson turned to look at the guy, whose mother was the only accountant in Millhaven.
“Yeah,” they said simultaneously.
Billy nodded, his head moving up and down on his beefy neck. “So she could figure out which farm brings in more revenue over the next four weeks without disclosing any business details, and she’s impartial.”
“Perfect,” Greyson drawled, squaring his shoulders and settling himself right back in Eli’s face. “So what do you say, Cross? Are you ready to prove once and for all which one of us has the better farm?”
Adrenaline, impulse, and something a whole lot deeper that Eli couldn’t name pushed the words out of his mouth before he could think twice.
“Hope you’ve been saving your pennies, Whittaker, because I’m about to take them. You’ve got yourself a deal.”