Teague glanced over as he heard the low whine of a skimmer coming up the long drive through the orchard and vineyards. He turned back to the harvester he’d been trying to repair and shook his head. The machine sat outside the big, double-doored equipment barn and apparently had been there since last night. Not normal practice, but maybe one of the employees left it there if it had stopped running. It certainly wasn’t going anywhere this morning.
The harvester had worked the day before, but today, it wouldn’t start. The laborers were using another harvester so there was no delay in gathering the fruit. What irked him was this was an expensive piece of equipment. Everyone on staff at the farm and winery was briefed on putting up the machinery and reporting a breakdown when it occurred. He’d found lines and cables disconnected, but even with the inner machinery rewired, he couldn’t get a response from the harvester. Either he’d done something wrong or there was some other damage.
Teague wasn’t an expert at fixing machinery. He served as a guard in the Planetary Defense, the PD. The PD protected Darmain’s trade routes and worked space control in cooperation with the Galaxy Coalition. Darmain’s forces, along with the space military of the other planets within the Intuda Galaxy, made up the Coalition’s forces. They protected the planets and natural resources in the space around them.
He’d worked cases on ships coming to and from the planet, piracy in the solar system, and threats from outside planets. The agency focused on protecting the planet and its trade rather than protecting the planet as the organization had done in the past. In early colony days, the PD had been the only policing unit on Darmain.
He stared at the machine. Definitely not an accident, but he had no idea who would damage the harvester or why. Prank or something more?
With only this incident, he couldn’t tell.
On top of that, he couldn’t say if the vandalism had caused the machine to stop working. Everyone who worked at the orchard and winery would have to take steps to make sure the destruction didn’t occur again.
He put down the tool he held and tried to catch sight of the skimmer. The big black bin of the harvester blocked his view. With a shrug, he decided to go see who was on the private drive. He didn’t bother taking the tools back to the organized rack inside the building, although he knew it would probably irritate Berenger. He didn’t plan to leave them out but did want to know if this was someone he, Kassius, or Berenger knew.
He looked at the big machine and then toward the drive. The repair could wait. It wasn’t as if Teague had made much progress on the job. He could fix some things, but this job would probably fall on Berenger’s shoulders. Berenger could fix any vehicle, and did in his shop in Cassid. Today he’d have some work to do after hours. Teague went around the big piece of equipment so he could see through the gap in the trees. As he stood outside of the large gray equipment shed, he had a narrow view of the path to the house.
Teague relaxed as he saw the familiar shape of Samuel’s black Duce pass. He was one of Kassius’s fathers. He’d come to see them for some reason. Teague walked away from the broken equipment and left it without a qualm.
Teague hurried to meet his friend’s father. Samuel climbed out of the Duce as Teague came around the bushes, which lined the fence. After Samuel stepped down from the skimmer, he looked around the area. He spotted Teague and headed straight for him. Teague recognized that determined, angry scowl on Samuel’s face. He’d seen it on the faces of commanding officers before they tore into someone for doing something wrong.
Teague wondered what had put that expression on Samuel’s face. His normally perfect, graying hair looked mussed, as if he was frustrated. Teague knew he should be safe. He hadn’t done anything. Then again, he couldn’t think of what Berenger or Kassius might have done to draw Samuel’s ire.
“Hi, Samuel. How are you?” He smiled at the older man.
“Where are Berenger and Kassius? I intend to speak with all of you.” Samuel glared at Teague. His piercing blue gaze bored into Teague.
“Berenger is still at his shop, and Kassius is in the orchards.” Teague still had no idea what had Samuel so intense, but knew it apparently involved all three of them.
“I’ll talk to you and Kassius, and the two of you can tell Berenger. Let’s go find my son.” Samuel sent him a look that dared him to argue.
Teague shrugged. Samuel wouldn’t talk about whatever bothered him until they found Kassius. He led Samuel into the grove of envia
plums on the east side of the property. Kassius used the dark-orange-skinned fruit in brandies and flavored rum, as well as sold the excess.
“He’s helping with the envia plum harvest,” Teague said as he walked through the rows of trees.
Kassius always oversaw and participated in the harvest, especially the envia plums, which required hand harvesting because of the fruit’s tendency to bruise and crush easily. At times, the fruit got all his attention. Kassius worried over the fruit being bruised, proper harvest time, and the overall taste.
Samuel merely nodded. They arrived at the section where Kassius had his crew harvesting plums. Teague looked over the men and at first didn’t spot Kassius. Then he saw Kassius on the lift near a tree.
“Kassius!” Teague called before Kassius could raise the lift to begin filling another basket.
Kassius turned on the platform of the lift and smiled before he hopped down. He strolled over to meet them. His smile slowly turned to concern. He must have noticed Samuel’s expression. Kassius’s eyes swung to Teague.
“Dad, how are you? Is something wrong?” Kassius took the final two steps between them.
“We have to talk. Let’s walk.” Samuel turned and headed away from the workers in this section of the grove.
Kassius looked at Teague, the question plain in his eyes. Teague shook his head. If he had any idea what made Samuel so intense, he would have told Kassius.
They followed Samuel away from the envia plums and through a gate to a field of berry bushes. The berries weren’t ripe yet, but the round fruit had begun to turn purple. Samuel stopped in the middle of one row of berries.
“Dad, what’s wrong?” Kassius asked.
“You three said no matter how you tried, you couldn’t seem to find Sephanie Lindsey, that she was probably avoiding you. Is that right?” Samuel looked straight at them.
“Yes, I think we said something close to those words.” Teague couldn’t remember the exact phrasing, but they’d been frustrated none of their schedules aligned so they could catch her at work when they knew they could talk to her. This was the first free day Teague had, and chores kept him at the orchard. Every other time, they’d tried to find her at home and work but missed her.
“Well, I thought I’d meet the woman who was avoiding you.” Samuel braced his feet apart and looked at them as if waiting for a reaction. “I know I’ve met her at least once before, but not as the woman who was giving you such problems.”
“Oh damn, what did you say to her?” Kassius lifted his hand and ran it along the back of his neck under his blond hair. It reached past his shoulders and had pulled free of the band confining it. The strands probably snagged on branches as he worked.
Teague clamped his mouth shut. They didn’t need anyone’s help with Sephanie. He took a deep breath to control the urge to tell the older man that. It wasn’t Samuel’s fault they couldn’t manage to start a conversation with her. They had to get close to her to talk, but the opportunity hadn’t been there yet. Everything should fall into place when they could see and touch her.
His memory readily supplied a teasing image of Sephanie. She’d stood beside a table, talking with her brother, one hand on a curved hip. Her red hair hung down her back in a straight fall. Her pale, creamy skin had been highlighted by the deep blue shirt she wore. He could remember letting his gaze trail down to the ample cleavage displayed and lock there.
It wasn’t only her looks or gorgeous figure that drew him. If he hadn’t already been interested in her, her obviously caring personality would have caught his attention. Sephanie had a sweet, compassionate character. She was known for her work in the community, especially with young women. She helped them get jobs and housing or put them into contact with those who could help.
It hadn’t been love at first sight. More like lust, but he was sure something could grow between them. If they could ever get their hands on her.
That was going to happen. He intended to get close to that woman. Her curvy body was made for sex. The first time he’d seen her, it had definitely grabbed his attention and sent blood flowing south.
Teague tore his mind away from her sweet body. He knew Samuel probably hadn’t gone to the bakery she owned with the intention of saying anything to her. Samuel cared, and Teague knew it. Teague only hoped they could finally manage to corner her. The woman had a propensity for disappearing before they arrived.
“Well, she was sitting with her friends at a table, talking. She was so relaxed I became angry. I asked her if she was trying to drive you crazy. Imagine my surprise when she didn’t know you were trying to get in touch with her, other than by holo-comm, much less trying to court her.” Samuel glowered at his son.
“We haven’t been able to get close enough to court her. We’ve been busy. Every time we try to find her, she’s not at her house or her work.” Teague rolled his eyes. “We were trying to be subtle.”
“She thinks the only reason you’re trying to contact her is you want to apologize to her. She’s probably avoiding the calls, because she doesn’t feel like hearing anything about it.” Samuel tapped his hand against his thigh. “And at what point did you start dating Lillie Malone?”
“We’re not dating Lillie Malone, Dad. You know that.” Kassius’s tone lowered. He frowned. His hands clenched, and his body tensed as his annoyance began to show. “Why would we apologize to her?”
“Because you three managed to sabotage your relationship with her before it ever began.” Samuel glared at both of them. “On top of that, you’ve been seen around the city more than once with Lillie, at the least, in your company. Even Sephanie’s friends think you’re dating Lillie.”
Teague shook his head and tried to make sense of what Samuel had told them. How could they have damaged their relationship with Sephanie when it had barely begun? As for Lillie, the woman gave new meaning to “persistent” and apparently did whatever her father told her. She’d shown up in several places they’d been and invited herself to sit with them. She’d asked to dance with them.
“How did we manage to sabotage our relationship?” Teague shifted on his feet restlessly. Kassius’s father seemed to have gotten so much information from Sephanie, while they couldn’t catch her at work or on the holo-comm. “You never said why we’d apologize.”
“Your mouths ran off when she was near enough to hear at her café. I think while you were at her bakery during the time her brother was threatened. I’m sure you didn’t mean the words in the way she perceived them. She did take offense. She tried to hide it, but she was hurt.” Samuel’s eyes swung from one to the other as he waited for a response.
“Our mouths… What did we say? I can’t remember saying anything that would cause her any pain.” Teague frowned as he tried to think what she might have heard.
“Do you remember talking with one another and one of you telling the others something to the effect of you were ready to end the job of watching over her and you had better things to do?” Samuel’s stern gaze bore into them.
Teague closed his eyes as he remembered. It was the last time they’d seen her. Someone had threatened her brother, Cooper, a fellow guard in the PD. The threat had spread to his family. They’d been at Sephanie’s shop, watching over her. That day they’d been talking among themselves.
Teague hadn’t meant they had better things to do than watch over her. Yes, he remembered that, but it had been part of a larger conversation started before they came to her shop. Even though they were in public, he hadn’t thought about how that might sound to someone hearing it. He wanted the danger to be over so they could begin to build a relationship with her.
They couldn’t do it while watching over her. It was hard enough to sit in her bakery and try to be unobtrusive guards. They’d lose what little objectivity they had if they were involved with her. She’d been so vulnerable in that shop. They’d longed to take her away and keep her out of sight from the moment they’d learned of the possible danger to her.
“So she thinks we’re dating Lillie and we had better things to do than watch over her. She thought we considered it a waste of time.” Teague’s eyes widened as realization hit him. That explained the cold attitude he’d received from Cooper, but why the man hadn’t taken a swing at him was beyond him. He didn’t have a sister, but he did have female cousins. If someone had said something similar about one of his cousins, he’d have been tempted to do worse than take a swing.
“Damn, we’ll have to make sure she knows we weren’t talking about her. Not in the way she obviously thought. We hoped to get that damn mess out of the way so we could focus on convincing her to be our woman. No wonder she didn’t answer our call.” Kassius thrust a hand through his hair.
“I don’t think she’ll believe you at first. I also don’t imagine she’s been waiting around for you. So if you still intend to get her attention, it might be a good idea to start now.” Samuel turned on his heel and stalked away from them.
Teague didn’t know where to begin. If she hadn’t hidden from them before, she might this time. He couldn’t imagine her conversation with Samuel had been comfortable.
“Damn.” Teague thought about what she could be doing if she wasn’t waiting for them. She’d better not be dating someone.
“I know. He’s done this with my mom. She rips into him, but it doesn’t stop him.” Kassius drew in a deep breath. “I always thought she overreacted, but now? No.”
“I wasn’t talking about that. He cares and that’s good, but I’m glad my mother’s not here. Or my father, for that matter. They would have done worse. They might have decided to appropriate her for us if they thought we were moving too slowly.” Teague grinned. His parents were entertainers and had traveled for most of his life. The only stable home he’d had was with his grandparents. With all the moving around they did, sometimes his family took the most expeditious route rather than the strictly legal one.
“Then what were you cursing about?” Kassius began heading back to the envia plum grove.
“What your father said about her not waiting. She might have been dating while we were busy here.” Teague felt nervous about that. They couldn’t lose her. Not even if he had to resort to less-than-legal methods himself.
Kassius frowned. “Oh fuck, yeah, if that’s happening, we need to stop it. We’ll talk to Berenger and find her as soon as possible.”