1 – DAKOTA – I want nothing to do with all the things you made me think I am

 

Late afternoon sunshine slanted through the orderly lines of apple trees and turned the plume of dust behind Dakota Ryan’s motorcycle into a golden cloud. Deer leaped over the fences as the bike roared down the dirt paths between the trees.

Gravel and dust shot into the air as Dakota skidded the bike to a stop at the front porch of the big white farmhouse at the end of the drive. Two brindled mid-sized dogs bounded down the stairs barking and running circles around Dakota.

“Oh, sure. Now you’re here.” He kicked the stand down and dismounted. The dogs jumped up on him, and he scratched them both behind their ears. “Do you know how many deer I saw in the orchard? You guys suck. I’m giving you back to the shelter.”

“I don’t think they believe you,” his sister Lori said, coming out of the big house holding two garbage bags.

Dakota pushed back his sandy blond curls with both hands. Too short to pull back and too long to tame, it was going to be a mass of knots by the time this day was over. “They should. I’m serious. No freeloaders on the farm.”

Lori was barely five foot tall and a hundred pounds soaking wet. The bags didn’t look heavy, but they dragged on the wooden porch.

“Gimme,” he said, taking them out of her hands. They were surprisingly light, and he frowned as he realized they were full of clothing. “Lori,” he said, fingers tightening around the green plastic.

“Don’t Lori me,” she said. “Someone had to do it, and you weren’t going to. The new owner is going to be here the day after tomorrow, and you said you’d sort through Tommy’s stuff in exchange for the apples.” She pointed at the bulging pannier bags on either side of his motorcycle. “I assume those are full of apples?”

Dakota narrowed his eyes and glared at her. “Fuck that guy, and fuck his deal.” He turned away from the house. It hurt too much to even look at it. He’d barely been able to go into it since the death of the man he’d thought of as his grandfather. The house that should have been his.

“Dakota. It sucks, I know.” Lori freed her long black hair from the dusty bun. It slithered most of the way down her back. “I loved him, too.” Lori wasn’t Dakota’s biological sister, but they’d been fostered together on the farm for a couple of years. His parents would have adopted her, too, if her deadbeat mother hadn’t convinced some judge that she’d finally gotten her act together. Spoiler alert: she hadn’t.

“I know. Fuck it. I’m not going to think about it.” He followed Lori to her pickup and tossed the bags in the back with the rest of the stuff for the thrift store. They’d left anything of value the new owner, some distant great-nephew, might want.

“So, did you find anything? Any new papers we missed?”

She shook her head.

It had been a long shot. They’d combed through every inch of the house looking for the new will Tommy had sworn he’d drawn up leaving the house and the orchard to Dakota. Nothing. But Dakota believed Tommy implicitly. If he said he had done it, he had. It had to be somewhere.

At least he wouldn’t be homeless right away.

Talking through their lawyers, the guy had agreed to let Dakota stay at least for the time being. Dakota and his parents lived and farmed a portion of Tommy’s land rent-free in exchange for helping Tommy out with anything and everything related to the orchard. Dakota had moved into the ramshackle house when he’d been adopted by his foster parents at the age of six. It was all he knew of home. If the bastard tried to kick him off some day, Dakota didn’t know what he’d do. Burn the house down. Salt the earth. Cry and beg, more probably.

“Whatever,” he said out loud. “Can you put the dogs in my yard before you go?”

“No problem. You going to be okay?”

He gave her a wry smile. “Aren’t I always?”

Hands on her hips, she tilted her head and stared up at him. “It’s okay be scared.”

Hell no. He wasn’t going down that road. “I’m not scared. I can take care of myself. I’ll be okay.”

“I’m staying over with you tonight. Are you taking the apples to the co-op?”

“Yeah. Figured I’d pick up some stuff. Anything you want?”

“Grab some cheese and something for dessert. And be back by seven for dinner.”

“Yes, Mom.” He bent down and kissed her on the top of her head the way he knew pissed her off.

She smacked him away. “Go away.”

He saluted her and walked back to his motorcycle. He pulled on his leather jacket and shoved the helmet on his head for the ride into town.

Straddling the bike, he fired it up, comforted as always by the feel of vibrations and the power underneath him. He’d go for a long ride tomorrow. The farm would live without him for a day, and he needed something before he met with the new owner.

He sighed, resting his head between the handlebars for a long second. Then, with a deep breath, he pulled himself together and followed Lori’s truck down the long drive.

He pulled next to her, ready to wave goodbye when his path was blocked by a light blue pickup pulling around the blind curve.

God damn it, Dakota cursed. Just what he needed.

Lori slammed her truck to a halt. “Oh, great,” she said out the window, yelling over the noise of their engines. “Speaking of assholes.”

“Lori,” Dakota said trying to head off the inevitable fight. He turned off the bike as Lori threw the truck into park and leaped out of the cab.

Lori bristled, stepping in front of Dakota as the truck pulled to a stop in front of them.

“Get the fuck out of here, Kyle,” she yelled venomously.

Completely ignoring her, Kyle stepped out of the truck, looking as gorgeous and smug as ever. He was all lanky muscles, auburn hair, and deep blue eyes with the beginnings of crow’s feet around them.

His worn cowboy boots hit the ground with a soft crunch. His faded blue jeans wrapped around his thighs and draped over the boots. “Nice to see you, too, Lori.” He tipped his hat to her.

“Fuck off,” Lori growled.

Dakota held back a sigh and crossed his arms over his chest. Truthfully, he was glad Lori was there to keep him from doing something stupid. Like let Kyle fuck him again. Despite their history, he was so beat down and tired right now that if Kyle offered to take care of Dakota tonight, he just might let him and deal with the fallout afterwards.

“What are you doing here, Kyle?” he asked trying to keep his voice as neutral as possible.

Kyle held his hands up. “I just came to see if you needed any help cleaning up. I know it’s the last day, and it’s a lot of work.”

“We’re good, thanks.”

Kyle looked him up and down slowly, his eyes hungry. “You look good.”

Dakota felt a brief flare of pride. He ruthlessly stomped it down. Damn it. Why did it still matter to him what Kyle thought? Kyle was old news. Old, bad news. Dakota was still working to fix the damage Kyle had done to him. And yet part of him was still pathetically grateful for the man’s approval. He stared at Kyle silently, unwilling to risk opening his mouth.

“When’s the new owner coming?” Kyle asked, eyes scanning the orchard he had managed for five years before Tommy had fired him over the way he treated Dakota.

“Two days,” Dakota answered.

“He keeping the trees?” Kyle stuck his hands into the pockets of his tan barn coat. For all his narcissistic control issues, he had been a good orchard manager.

“I don’t know,” Dakota said.

“He’s going to need a manager if he does.”

Dakota’s stomach dropped as Kyle mentioned the one thing Dakota had been trying not to think about. He wasn’t wrong. “That’s his problem.”

Kyle looked down the driveway then back to Dakota. He smiled. “Maybe I’ll come by in a few days. Drop off my resume.”

“You set one fucking foot on this property, you asshole, and I’m calling the cops,” Lori said taking a step towards him.

Kyle held up his hands and backed up slowly, laughing. “Call off your, puppy, Koda.”

Dakota put a hand on Lori’s shoulder and shook his head. She narrowed her eyes at him but stopped walking. She crossed her arms across her chest, mirroring Dakota’s pose.

“Just leave, Kyle. Don’t bother coming back. I can tell the new owner all about you.” Dakota smiled coldly.

Kyle’s eyes hardened. “You know you won’t.” With a tip of the hat to Lori, he got back into his truck. Kicking up dust and gravel, he made a sharp three-point turn and sped down the driveway.

“All that asshole needs is a mustache to twirl,” Dakota tried to joke. The attempt fell flat even to his own ears.

“He needs to be hit by a car,” Lori said then instantly turned to Dakota, hand over her mouth and eyes wide. “I’m so sorry!”

Dakota took a look around the ten acres that had been his home for the last seventeen years. The apple orchard took up about half that space. Dakota’s tenant farm and house occupied an acre closer to the road; you had to pass it to get to the big house and the trees in the back.

Not just his home, this land was his heart and soul. He loved it all, from the view of the Rocky Mountains towering behind the foothills, to the cottonwoods lining the creek.

Sure, Tommy had owned the land, but Dakota and his parents had fought side by side with him through it all. Through drought, floods, and spring snowstorms that snapped the branches off the flowering trees.

Now with Tommy dead and a mysterious nephew inheriting it all, Dakota had no idea where he stood.

“Koda?” Lori asked. “What do you think? What’s going to happen with this place, with our house?”

He shook his head. “I don’t know. But I guess we’ll find out soon enough.”

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