The Texas Hero’s Homecoming by Charlene Sands

Chapter One

Sam Russell was on a mission. And it just might be riskier than the Ranger missions he’d carried out in Afghanistan. His military instincts still with him, he wasn’t too sure of this outcome, but he’d damn well give it his best shot. There’d be a blockade of course, a force to be reckoned with. Didn’t all things worthwhile have to be hard won?

He got out of his truck, the worn red paint job bleached from Last Stand weather over the years, would never be the same. Neither would he, but first things first. Squinting, he stared across the Texas landscape and steadied his breath. Acres of Messina farmland was going to ruin, wasting away from unintended neglect. Man, he’d never have believed it. The once prosperous Messina Farms, where he’d worked weekends as a teen, was only a shell of what it had once been. His heart slammed against his chest. Sergeant Joe Messina, the man who’d saved his life, had no clue how bad things had gotten. Now that Sam was discharged, he owed this debt to his best friend, to check out the Messina family farm, make sure it was running smoothly.

Clearly it was not.

Sam ran a hand down his face, the memory of Joe’s bravery always with him. The unexpected barrage of bullets, Joe shoving him to the ground, nearly taking a bullet himself to save his life. Sam would’ve been hit for sure, if it hadn’t been for Joe’s quick reactions. They’d been on a secret mission, surrounded by a band of misfit terrorists, the fire fight ugly, yet their unit had managed to hold them off without casualties.

It had been a whew-that-was-close, stone-cold kind of feeling that really rocked a man to his core. Made him sit up and take notice. He was no longer that young man eager to prove his worth as an Army Ranger. His service had been important to him, but after ten years in the army, seven of those years a Ranger, for him, it was time to come home. Settle down. Figure out his future. Before he could do that, he owed Joe this. Hell, he owed Joe much more and he’d do whatever necessary to fix the Messina family farm.

A flash of ink-colored hair caught his eye, the deep rich strands catching the late afternoon light. He sighed. His human blockade came into view, all five-foot-five inches of her and he dug in his heels.

Autumn Messina.

Joe’s little sis.

She walked into the barn, out of sight.

He’d left her as a kid of seventeen. And now ten years later, the girl he’d once known was a woman. And according to Joe, a head-strong, pain-in-the-ass female with brains and beauty to spare.

Sam squeezed his eyes shut. Maybe he hadn’t been fair to Autumn, all those years ago, but now he was back, and it wasn’t like he wanted to start anything with her. No, he just wanted to help them out of a jam. He crossed the yard and stepped into the barn, the crunch of straw under his boots.

“Who’s there?” Autumn swiveled around, her eyes narrowing, pitchfork leveled and ready to pounce.

“It’s me, Sam.”

She faltered back a step, blinking her eyes. “S-Sam?”

“Yeah, it’s me. Hello, Autumn.”

Her Mexican-Irish heritage awarded her olive skin in warm rich tones, a heart-shaped mouth, and striking meadow-green eyes. She was beautiful, even aiming a pitchfork at him.

“What are you doing here?”

“Put the pitchfork down and I’ll tell you. Man, are you always this jumpy?”

She scowled; the face she made not pretty at all. “Everyone’s gone for the day. I didn’t expect an unannounced visitor.” She sighed and leaned against the pitchfork, refusing to give it up. She’d probably like to poke him with it. “I heard you were back in town.”

“Got back yesterday. How’d you know?”

“Last Stand isn’t exactly a metropolis. Word gets around.”

He nodded. He was sorta sucker-punched seeing her again, his emotions all tangled up. Which was strange, because he’d recently been dumped by the woman he’d intended to marry. He’d left the military with plans of settling down. Apparently, Hilary hadn’t been ready, taking up with her ex-boyfriend, rather than starting a life with Sam. He’d been thrown for a loop and hadn’t seen it coming. So, no matter how pretty Autumn was, she would never be on his radar. After his heartbreak with Hilary, he wasn’t looking for any kind of involvement. Especially with Joe’s little sis. No sir. He’d been stung once and it still smarted like the dickens.

“Well, I’m here in the flesh. I came to ch—To visit. How’s your father doing?”

“Papa’s okay.” She paused for a second, her eyes meeting his. “He’s probably too tired for visitors right now. Maybe you should come back another day. Or better yet, I’ll tell him you came by and we’ll call it even.”

She gave him the point of her chin.

He studied her. She wasn’t happy to see him, that was for sure. They’d always been close, because of his friendship with Joe. Joe teased that Autumn hero-worshipped Sam, being five years her senior. And damn, Sam should’ve known better than to get involved with her back then. They’d had one night under the stars, and they’d kissed and kissed. Her passion surprised him, the fire in her an ego boost. But he’d sensed it was more than innocent kissing with her. That maybe her hero-worship had reached another level. He shouldn’t have given in to temptation. Joe’s younger sister was off-limits and as soon as his addled brain had remembered that, he’d put a stop to it. She’d been a starry-eyed teen and his rejection that night hurt her. It couldn’t be helped. And now, it seemed she still held a grudge.

“So, what happened here, Autumn? I don’t think Joe knows how bad it is.”

“That’d be Papa’s doing. He didn’t want Joe to worry. He’s proud of my brother and his service to the country.”

She set the pitchfork against the wall and leaned back, crossing her arms over her middle. She looked every bit the farm girl in jeans and a red plaid shirt.

“And so, your father decided to keep it to himself?”

“Something like that. Papa has a lot of pride. He didn’t want Joe coming home, on account of the farm. He didn’t want him to give up on his career. Being a Ranger is what Joe wants, what Papa thinks he was meant to do.”

“And what about you?”

“Me? I’ve been running the farm. As you can see, I’m doing a bang-up job, but it doesn’t matter anymore. We can’t sustain it. It’s been a trial, with drought and disease and lack of funds to replant.”

“Still, I think Joe would want to know about this.”

Joe took off and left me here. You two joined up and off you went.”

“Joe left a prosperous farm in your father’s capable hands. As far as he knows, things are going okay. He always praised you for working alongside your father.”

“I didn’t have much of a choice. My dreams didn’t much matter.”

“You were seventeen. You didn’t have dreams back then.”

Her eyes pierced him. Regret and injury reflected there. “Maybe I did. Maybe I kept what I wanted to myself.”

Her words sliced straight through him. “Autumn, I was always going to join up. You knew that.”

“Somehow, you made me forget that, right here in this barn.” She glanced at the hayloft where brilliant evening stars had twinkled through the four-pane window. The place where he almost made a big mistake with her.

She sighed, her shoulders rising and falling as if she carried the weight of the world. “It doesn’t matter now. It took me years to earn my online bachelor’s degree. I’m teaching now at Honeysuckle Elementary. This is my first semester. I’m making a living, doing something I love. Something I’ve always dreamed of doing. Papa has agreed to sell the place and then we’ll move into town.”

“And Joe doesn’t know any of this?”

“I’ll tell my son, soon enough.” The aged raspy voice came from behind. Sam turned to find Manuel Messina, leaning heavily against the barn wall, braced by a cane.

“Hello, Manny.” Sam strode over to him and put out his hand. “Good to see you, sir.”

Manuel took his hand then pulled him in for a surprise hug. He didn’t think the older man was strong enough, but he held firm and patted Sam on the back. “Ah… good to see you, son. Very good.”

“Papa, there’s a chill in the air. You should go back inside.”

“I’m not so feeble that I can’t make those decisions for myself.”

Autumn pursed her lips, and it took what looked like all her sanity, to keep them sealed. But it didn’t stop her from giving Sam a big fat pout.

He flashed her a wide grin and turned back to her father.

“You’re well?” the older man asked.

“I’m fine. Got here yesterday. I’m staying in town with my sister, Nicole, right now. I need to be here for her wedding. I guess I’m her best man of honor. She’ll be getting hitched in a few weeks.”

“Ah, your little sis is marrying. That is very nice. She found a good man?”

“Yeah, she did. Garrett is a good guy.”

Manny gave his daughter a looking over. “Seems to me there’s more good men in Last Stand, but Autumn hasn’t found a one of them yet.”

“Papa!” Autumn rolled her eyes and marched past both of them, right out of the barn. “Honestly,” she muttered.

“Set another place for dinner, daughter.”

She stopped in mid-stride and swiveled around. “What?”

“You haven’t had supper yet, have you, son?” Manny asked.

“No. No I haven’t.”

“Well, Autumn’s a fine cook and we’ve got enough beef tamales to feed all of Last Stand. You’ll join us?”

Autumn’s fists landed on her hips. The fire in her eyes something to see, even if it was aimed at him. “Papa, he’s probably got other plans.”

“Nope, don’t have any other plans. Thank you very much for the invitation.” He tipped his hat.

Autumn heaved a sigh and spun around.

She wasn’t having a good day. And he was truly sorry about that, but he had a mission to accomplish here. He had to find out more about the farm. He had to see if there was a way to save three generations of hard work and toil, from going under.

Whether pretty, fiery, Autumn Messina wanted him here or not.

*

Autumn stood overthe oven, stalling for time, fussing with tamales that were more than ready to bring to the kitchen table. She had trouble looking into Sam Russell’s amazing blue eyes. They always seemed to dance whenever she was around him, winking at her, suggesting she was something special. That look, those eyes, and the blond hair begging to grow in from his military cut, made her stomach ache. He was still handsome. More so. He was older, had the look of a man who’d seen ugliness in the world. A man who’d come out the other side. When she was a kid, Sam could wrap her around his finger without even knowing it. A kind word, a compliment from him had her following him around like a little puppy. Her crush lasted for years, and that one night they’d shared in the barn, had her thinking it was all worth it. Had her believing he’d felt that overwhelming rush of emotion too. He was worth all the secret anguish she’d endured trying to get him to look at her, not as Joe’s kid sister, not as a child, but as a woman who wanted him.

And then he’d left. Taking her brother with him. Shattering her dreams. She squeezed her eyes closed and counted to three. She’d had this conversation in her head a hundred times. She was tired of it. She’d moved on. Finally. She’d worked the farm all those long years, doing her best to keep her father’s health from declining and running the farm with a small staff, while earning a degree in education.

“Those tamales aren’t going to get any more done,” Papa said in his kindest voice from his seat at the head of the table.

And then Sam was beside her, picking up a bowl of rice. “Can I help?’ he asked in a quiet whisper.

“Looks like you already are.” Damn, she shouldn’t have snapped at him.

It was beyond rude. It was just that… Sam had that effect on her. He made her dizzy. He always had. It boggled her mind that he still did.

“Smells delicious. Looks even better.”

His compliment didn’t nudge her into a better mood. She wasn’t seventeen anymore. “You always loved tamales.”

“I always loved your tamales. And here I am, eating them again with your family.”

She gazed into his eyes, seeing the sparkle, the clear blue that could melt a girl right on the spot.

She bit her lip to keep from thanking him. “Well, then we should eat. Before they get cold.”

“That’s a good idea,” Papa said.

With Sam’s help, they brought the meal to the table. She grabbed a pitcher of lemonade out of the fridge and poured each of them a glass. Sam waited for her to sit, before he did. She shook her head. Whether military or Southern manners, it was an archaic gesture that she secretly enjoyed. She wouldn’t admit that aloud. Not in this day and age. Yet, her brother Joe and Papa, were also culprits in the manners department. So, she couldn’t argue the point.

“Your turn to say grace, Autumn,” Papa said, bowing his head.

Sam had been a part of this ritual in her family too, so it seemed natural when he put his head down.

“Dear Lord, thank you for the abundance of food on the table. May you keep Joe and S—, uh, keep all the soldiers safe who are serving our country. Give them strength as you watch over each and every one of them. And please, may you keep watch over our family too. Thank you, dear Lord, for your kindness and grace. Amen.”

She passed along the dish of tamales to Sam. Their fingers touched and heat rose up her neck, his intense stare unwavering. Yes, they’d prayed for him too, every night before dinner. Sam’s smug expression changed to one of astonishment and gratitude. The reflection in his eyes not to be missed. She shrugged and pointed to the food. “Are you gonna eat?”

“Oh, uh, yeah. Thanks.” He dished up a few tamales covered in cheese and passed along the dish to Papa. But his gaze returned to her again, his eyes a heat factory, melting her bones. Why couldn’t he just go away?

The three of them were quiet for a time, digging into the food. Her papa liked to fill his tummy full before starting conversation. Sam understood that as well.

Once the tamales were gobbled up, she rose grabbing for the empty plates. Sam rose too and she shook him off. “No thanks. I can manage,” she told him.

He lowered down and pursed his lips.

Good. Maybe he’d get the message and leave.

“How is my son doing over there?” Papa asked. “I mean, his letters seem to say it’s safe and there is nothing to worry about.”

Sam nodded. “For the most part, that’s true. We were seeing very little action. The missions now are more surveillance based.” He paused, as if searching for the right words. “I mean, every so often, skirmishes do arise, and we’d have to lock them down. But Joe’s smart, a good leader. I was lucky and proud to serve with him for the past few years.”

“Yes, my son is all those things, but a father still worries. I cannot wait until he comes back to the States.”

“There’s a de-escalation in the works. It may not be too long now.”

“But Joe’s never coming home to us. Being a Ranger is his career,” she said. She had to continually point that out so her father wouldn’t get his hopes up. Things were never going to go back to how they were, with her father and Joe working the land, keeping the farm prosperous.

“I know, mi hija bonita. I know. My daughter doesn’t think I face reality,” Papa told Sam. “But I do. I only want my boy out of that godforsaken land. It’s what I pray for every night.”

“I understand. We all want Joe back. When I left, Joe had no idea the farm was in trouble.” Sam glanced at her, and she immediately crossed her arms over her chest. This was none of his business.

“Yes, I know. I have misled my son. The last few times he was home on leave, things were good, so he had no cause to worry. It’s only been the past two seasons where we ran into real trouble. The soil is tired, we had little rain, an unexpected snowfall last winter and my creaky bones started acting up. I couldn’t do the work I love to do. Farming is in my blood, but age and time unfortunately have crept up on me.”

“I’m sorry to hear that. Maybe Joe will have a solution for you, when you tell him.”

“No, no. My Autumn has sacrificed enough for this farm. For me. I cannot ask her to do more than she already has. She has worked hard, running the farm and going to school. And Seth and Alicia, can’t handle any more. They have worked very hard and been very loyal.” Her father sighed. “I’m afraid I’ve faced the truth.”

“Which is?”

“Sell the farm and move into town.”

Sam blinked. “Joe would never want this.”

“Joe is not here,” Autumn said quietly. “I am.” She loved her brother, she really did, but he left to pursue his dream and he had no say now in what happened to Messina Farms. “And I can’t see a way to save the farm. I have an appointment with Blake Charles Realty in two weeks to discuss the sale.”

Her father flinched. She’d told him that she would be in contact with a Realtor, but it was all becoming real now.

“What is it, Manny?” Sam asked pointedly.

“It’s not easy hearing this, but it needs to be done. I only have one wish.” Papa’s dark eyes lowered.

“What is it, Papa?”

“It would make an old man happy to put on one last Messina Farms Fall Festival. We have not missed a year since the farm began. It would do my heart good to see it one more time.”

Autumn blinked. Named for the fall season, she’d often shared her birthday with the weekend long festival, and it was always a very special time. If she could pull it off, it would be an honorable farewell for the farm and the workers who’d been so dedicated. She blinked, her mind spinning. It would take some hard work, especially now that she was teaching, but she’d find a way. It wouldn’t make up for losing the farm, but it would bring her father great joy to do this for the community one last time. “Papa, I think I can manage that. It won’t be easy, but I agree we should do what we can this season.”

“I’ll help,” Sam said immediately. “I’ll make sure to get it done.”

“You?” She’d almost forgotten Sam was in the room.

“Yeah, me. Are you forgetting I used to work here on the weekends? I know how things run and whatever I’ve forgotten, I’m sure you’d gladly point out to me.”

“Hmph.” The last thing she wanted was Sam hanging around the farm. He still made her nerves tingle, still made her heart race. She wanted no part of those feelings anymore. She had enough on her plate, thank you very much. “I think we can manage without you.”

“So just you and Alicia and Seth are gonna pull this off in what? Less than two weeks?”

“Well, uh… I’ll figure out something.”

“You’ll figure it out, Autumn, with Sam’s help. He’s offered and it would be rude to refuse him,” Papa said.

“That’s right. I have nothing but time right now, except when duty calls for Nic’s wedding. And that’s only gonna take a little time.”

“It’s settled then,” Papa said. “Thank you, Sam.”

“You’re welcome. I’m glad to help out.”

She turned her back on the two men and began loading the dishwasher. They’d ganged up on her. Now, not only would she have to perform a speedy miracle getting the festival in shape, she had to do it working alongside Sam. She wasn’t ready for that. She hated that she needed his help. There was no doubt he’d be an asset, but Lord, her emotions were already tied up in knots, having to sell the farm, disappoint her father, and pretend that she wasn’t greatly affected by either.

“Autumn, why don’t you serve Sam some of your delicious pie,” Papa said, rising slowly, gripping the edge of the table for support. “And I will say good night now.” He walked over to her, gave her a kiss on the cheek and whispered, “You be nice to him now.”

Her teeth ground together. She wasn’t ready to be alone with Sam. She didn’t think she ever would be again and now, thanks to her father’s kind heart, she would have to dish him up pumpkin pie. She filled her lungs and then smiled for her father. “Good night, Papa. Let me know if you need anything.”

“Just a good night’s sleep is all I need. Good night, Sam.”

“’Night,” he said.

Her father left the room and she swiveled around to Sam’s hopeful expression.

“I’m not about to refuse pie.”

“No, you wouldn’t.”

“Why would I? You make it fresh from your own pumpkins. It’s the best pie around. Shar-Pies is a close second. But if you repeat that, I’ll deny it.”

“Stop doing that, Sam.”

He jerked his head up, his eyes sharp on her. “What am I doing?”

“Complimenting me. Being charming.”

“You think I’m charming?”

“Well, no. Not on your life. But you’re trying and not doing a very good job.”

Sam’s shoulders fell and he shook his head. “Autumn, you always did have a vivid imagination.”

“Sam, don’t pretend to know me. You don’t.”

“That’s fair. I don’t. Not anymore.”

This conversation was going nowhere. She grabbed the pie tin from the fridge, set it on the table and cut Sam a generous piece. She remembered how much he enjoyed pie. One time, he and Joe polished off an entire pie by themselves, and Joe blamed it on their dog, Lupe. But it didn’t fool anyone. Everyone knew who the culprits were and, back then, she wouldn’t have ratted them out. No way. She was their loyal follower.

She shoved the dish toward him. “Here you go.”

She turned around to reheat coffee from this morning. Her father liked to drink it all day long.

“Aren’t you going to have some with me?” he asked.

She shook her head. “If I had pie every time I served it to someone, I’d be as big as this house.”

A deep chuckle rose from his throat. “I guess then, you don’t eat much of it, because you look fine to me.”

“Fine?” She turned from the coffeepot and glared at him.

“Better than fine, Autumn.” He gave her body a once-over, approval gleaming in his eyes. Darn, he was charming. And she didn’t like it. Not one bit. “Not nearly as big as this house.”

She tossed a dish towel at him. He caught it just before it smacked him in the face. “Still have a temper, I see,” he said, folding the dish towel and setting it aside.

“Maybe you just bring out the bad side of me.”

“Maybe, I do. But we have to work together now, so try to control yourself.”

“You see? It’s when you say stuff like that, that gets me… ugh.” She poured his coffee. “Never mind.”

Sam chuckled again and dug into the pie. Seeing him sitting at the table, just like before, when he was younger, made her heart ache. She turned from him. Why did he come here? Why did he have to impose himself into their lives again? She’d suffered enough, in those earlier years. He had no idea how he’d ruined her that one night. She didn’t look at another man for two years, much less date one. She’d sheltered herself, bitter over him, over having to run the farm, when the two things she’d wanted most seemed far out of reach. Sam and teaching. Teaching and Sam. That was all she’d wanted in life.

Well, at least she’d attained one dream. One goal. She’d failed the farm, and that would always stay with her. In the process, she’d broken her father’s heart. She knew it, even if Papa wouldn’t voice the words. She’d tried her best and failed. Teaching had become a necessity, to keep food on the table and the farmhouse from falling to ruin. She’d only been teaching six weeks, since the fall school year began, and it had been the best six weeks of her life.

“So, maybe we should start making plans,” Sam said, sipping the coffee that was probably bitter by now, without even flinching. Soldiers were used to bitter coffee. It was less about taste and more about caffeine. To keep them alert and aware of their surroundings while out on patrol. Any coffee works, as long as it’s hot and strong, her brother would say.

“You’re not talking about working on the festival tonight, are you?”

“Why not? We need to jump on this. Get a good start.”

She stood over him, arms crossed, weighing her options. He was right. There was little time. If only he hadn’t taken her by surprise by showing up here uninvited. She was still processing it. Still coming to terms with seeing him again. She’d always thought, if and when the time came to see him again, she’d feel nothing, or at least she’d be immune. But here she was, her emotions taking hold, as bitter as the coffee he just gulped down.

She walked to the oak desk nestled in the kitchen alcove and grabbed a pen and paper. This rustic farmhouse had served them well over the years. She’d grown up here, with her folks and Joe. Memories flooded her mind constantly. She worked hard to shove them away. Keep the hurting to a minimum. “Maybe, we just jot some ideas down.”

She took a seat facing him.

“Where to start?” he asked.

“Well, we need to harvest the pumpkins. There’s a crop of about five acres of nice big pumpkins out there. Plenty for the festival.”

“I’ll help Alicia and Seth with that.”

She wrote that down. “Most of the cornfields stopped yielding. But we can try to make a small corn maze.”

“That sounds ambitious. Maybe we try something easier first.”

“We always build an A-frame pumpkin house. It’s a pretty simple design and we save the wood in the barn every year, take it down in pieces. It wouldn’t be hard to reconstruct.”

“I remember. The shelves box in the pumpkins, so they have their own little space. The kids loved going in and out.” Sam smiled, a killer that tore her up inside. “You’d cry when your father would take it down.”

“Yeah, when I was ten,” she said. “I stopped crying over that house long ago.”

“Seems to me you were always crying about something.”

“Was not,” she shot back.

“Was.”

“Was not.”

“It’s not a bad thing,” Sam said. “You were a sentimental kid.”

He was right. She was sentimental. As a kid, she had dear feelings and she’d cry, but no more than any other young motherless child. Katherine Messina died when Autumn was seven and she had only a few memories of her mama. But the ones she did have were wonderful and she clung to them for dear life. Her mama teaching her how to make tamales. Her mama reading to her and singing sweet Irish lullabies to her at night.

Sam understood that. And whenever she would cry, he’d take the time to stop what he was doing to talk to her. Make her feel better. He didn’t know what his kindness had done to her. Autumn loved her brother, but her hero-worship had all gone to Sergeant Sam Russell, the man sitting at her table, coming back to civilian life, and helping her family out of a crisis.

“Let’s get back on track,” she said, looking at her notepad. There was no use dwelling on the past. “We’ll sell our pumpkins and sunflowers, but each child will get to pick one for free.”

“Good idea. What about candy apples? I used to love the ones dipped in chocolate,” Sam said.

She wrote that down. “Chocolate apples.”

“And pumpkin carving?”

“Of course.” She wrote that down as well. “And maybe a pie-eating contest.”

“And tractor hayrides.”

“And a haystack photo area.” She continued to jot down.

“Face painting?” Sam questioned.

“Of course. Pumpkin and sunflowers are my specialty.”

She smiled, imagining those young faces all painted up, excited children running around the farm for the last time. This would be a lot of work, but there was certain satisfaction in planning this for her father, for the entire town.

“I might get some volunteers to help the day of. The older children at Honeysuckle have been known to pitch in.”

“Nic’s always talking about her kids. Her kindergarten students. What grade do you teach?”

“Second. I’ve only been there a short time, but I’ve already bonded with my students. Even the troublemakers.”

“You have troublemakers?”

“A few boys, mostly. They know how to push the girls’ buttons. But I’ve got their number. I know who to keep an eye on. Sometimes, I think the girls actually like the teasing and pestering, though. They complain a bit too eagerly.”

“Fickle females.”

“Sounds like you have experience.”

“I grew up with a little sister, remember. Nic used to love getting me in trouble, but if the punishment was too harsh, she’d feel bad and defend me to my parents. I never could figure it out.”

“Your sis had a conscience. She wanted to tattle on you, but she really didn’t want you to pay for it. It’s a sibling rivalry thing. Joe and I had it too. Did you… was there any other experience?” Autumn asked.

“Are you asking if I have a girl?”

“No! That’s not what I’m asking. It’s none of my business. I mean… I don’t care.”

“Autumn.” Sam stared at her, his eyes so deep, so blue. Sinkable eyes. Laughing eyes that revealed he knew what she was asking without having to voice it.

But her curiosity was killing her. Did he have a girlfriend? Was he involved with a woman now? And why was she allowing her mind to go there? Why couldn’t she just stick to business?

“I had someone. I thought it was serious. I was serious. But it didn’t work out.”

Her breath hitched. Sam had loved someone. He’d been hurt. She derived no satisfaction in that. She was like those girls in her class, at one time wanting revenge, wanting him to suffer as much as she had, but when it came right down to it, not really.

She couldn’t imagine a woman not wanting Sam. And why hadn’t her brother mentioned it to her?

“What about you?” Sam asked, looking her dead in the eye.

“Me?” She hadn’t expected him to toss the question back to her. “I, uh, no. I haven’t had time to date lately.”

Their gazes held and seconds ticked by. Finally, she rose from her seat. “I think we’re good for now. At least we have a plan. I’ll get started on it tomorrow.”

Sam rose too, his manners not allowing anything else. “Are you kicking me out?”

“Sam.”

“Just kidding, Autumn. Thanks for the pie. I’ll see myself out. See you tomorrow.”

“You’re, uh, welcome,” she said much too late. He’d already exited the house.

Yet, he was coming back tomorrow. And probably the next day, and day after that.

He was committed to helping Messina Farms.

And all she had to do was stay focused and keep a safe distance from the guy who was back home, didn’t have a girl, and was going to save their family farm. At least temporarily.

Sure, she could do it.

And pigs could fly.