Chapter Two – DAKOTA


Late afternoon sunshine slanted through the orderly rows of apple trees and turned the plume of dust behind Dakota Ryan’s motorcycle into a golden cloud. Deer leaped over the fences meant to keep them out of the orchard as the bike roared down the dirt path 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 road. Two medium-sized brindle dogs bounded down the stairs, barking and running circles around Dakota.

“Oh, sure. Now you’re here.” He kicked the bike 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 feet tall and a hundred pounds soaking wet. The bags didn’t look heavy, but they were long, and 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 him letting you sell some more 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; the house that should have been his. It hurt too much to even look at it. He’d barely been able to go inside since the death of the man he’d thought of as his grandfather.

Maybe he should have let Tommy adopt him instead of fighting to get declared emancipated. If he had, there wouldn’t have been any question about who the house belonged to. It would have passed down to Dakota automatically.

But Dakota had had enough of being at the mercy of the system. He wasn’t going back into foster care, and he wasn’t going to be dependent on anyone who could let him down ever again.

Although technically the big house wasn’t Dakota’s, he’d spent more time there than he did at his own house. Dakota lived in a smaller house tucked in among the few acres his parents had lived on as tenant farmers for almost twenty years.

They had traded orchard work, eggs, and fresh vegetables to Tommy in exchange for him letting them live rent-free.

When he was sixteen, his adoptive parents had been killed in a car accident. Tommy took Dakota into his home and cared for him. Then, when Dakota had fought to move back into his old house, Tommy had insisted on keeping the same arrangement he’d had with Dakota’s parents.

But Tommy insisted Dakota and his parents were his only family, and he wouldn’t hear of any other options.

And how had Dakota replayed him? By making a mistake that had cost Tommy thousands of dollars.

He’d trusted Kyle, despite everyone’s warnings about the older man. Tommy had told Dakota there was something shifty about Kyle, that he didn’t really trust the man.

But, no. Dakota had been so sure he knew better. He’d talked Tommy into letting Kyle stay.

Kyle had repaid Dakota’s needy, childish faith and Tommy’s trust by stealing from them.

The old man had never even suspected, attributing the drop in income to the unpredictable nature of agriculture instead of malice.

When he’d found out, Dakota had kicked Kyle out, threatening to call the cops if he ever set foot on the property. Too embarrassed to admit his failure to Tommy, Dakota vowed he would replace every cent Kyle had taken.

Now Tommy was dead, too.

That made three families taken from Dakota. The state had taken him away from his biological parents when he was four. After bouncing around foster care for two years, he’d finally been adopted at the age of six. Ten years later, a drunk driver took that family away from him, and a weak blood vessel had robbed him of one of the last two people on earth who loved him.

And now the real cherry on top of the shit-sundae of his life was a lost will robbing him of his home. He cursed again.

“Dakota.” Lori hugged him from behind, pressing her face into his back. “It sucks, I know.” Lori freed her long black hair from the dusty bun. It slithered down her back almost to her waist. “I loved him, too. And this place will always be my real home.”

“I could have done this myself, you know.”

“Yeah, I know. You’re a strong, independent woman who don’t need no man,” she joked. “Too bad. You’re stuck with me.”

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 as well 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 turned in her embrace, lifting her off the ground as he hugged her. “Let’s get rid of this stuff.”

Trying and failing not to think of when he had done the same thing with his parents’ belongings, 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 for the new owner, some distant great-nephew.

“So, did you find anything? Any new stash of papers we missed?” he asked, knowing she would have told him if she had.

She shook her head.

It had been a longshot. 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. Nada.

Dakota wanted badly to believe Tommy had done as he’d said, but something deep in his soul mocked his hope. Once again, Dakota had been let down.

At least he wouldn’t be homeless right away.

Talking through their lawyers, the new owner had agreed to let Dakota stay on the land, at least for the time being. 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 likely.

“Whatever,” he said out loud. “Can you put the dogs in my house 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 to 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. “Go away.”

He saluted her and walked back to his motorcycle.

Straddling the bike, he fired it up, comforted as always by the feel of vibrations and the power underneath him. It was the one purchase he’d allowed himself when his parents’ insurance money had come in. All the rest had gone into paying back his debt. He was almost free of it.

He’d take the bike out for a long ride tomorrow. The farm would live without him for a day, and he needed something to settle him before he met with the new owner.

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

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

Goddamn it. 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 the bike off as Lori threw the truck into park and leaped out of the cab.

Lori bristled, stepping in front of Dakota as the blue truck pulled to a stop in front of them. “Get the fuck out of here, Kyle,” she yelled at the driver venomously.

Completely ignoring her, the man stepped out of the truck. Kyle Miller, ex-orchard manager and Dakota’s ex-boyfriend, looked as gorgeous – and as 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. At least it wouldn’t be a surprise.

“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.”

“I think you’ve done enough around here. 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.

Though Dakota was still working to fix the damage Kyle had done to him and the farm, part of him would probably always be 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 Dakota had kicked him out.

“Two days,” Dakota answered.

“He keeping the trees?” Kyle stuck his hands into the pockets of his tan barn coat.

“I have no idea,” Dakota said.

“If he keeps the trees, he’s going to need a manager. Not a lot of us in town to choose from.”

Dakota’s stomach dropped as Kyle mentioned the one thing Dakota had been trying not to think about. Kyle wasn’t wrong. “That’s his problem. For all I know, he’s going to sell the whole lot to developers and make a mint.”

Kyle looked down the driveway then back to Dakota. He smiled. “Maybe I’ll come by in a few days. Drop off my resume. And if he wants to sell, maybe I’ll make him a real offer.”

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

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

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’ll be sure to tell the new owner all about you.” Dakota smiled coldly.

Kyle’s eyes hardened. “You know you won’t. But if you need a place to crash after he kicks you out, my door is always open to you.”

With a tip of the hat to Lori, he got back into his truck. Tires 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 fifteen acres that had been his home for the last seventeen years. The apple orchard took up about ten of those. Dakota’s tenant farm and house occupied the land closest 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 droughts, 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.

“Kota?” 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.”