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If you can’t take the heat, stay out of Chef Rico Alvarez’s kitchen.
Surrounded by the finest things money can buy, he leads a life of comfort and loneliness, and that suits him just fine – that is, until gardener Eden Stuart runs him off the road with her dilapidated old farm truck. His anger at her recklessness soon gives way to unforgettable attraction.
Despite his awakening love, Rico makes it clear that his body is all he has to offer Eden – it's all she'll ever get from him. "Love without trust is meaningless and nothing more than personal vanity," she tells him. Trust is everything.
Rico knows she's right… but trust is a commodity unaffordable for a man with so much to hide and everything to lose.
Publisher's Note: This steamy contemporary romance includes elements of power exchange.
At eighty-eight years old, James Farley could barely manage to recognize the details of his face in the mirror, let alone judge the quality of the bounty spread before him on the high wooden table. He had adapted, though, and he was quite skilled at calling on the other senses he possessed. Some seemed not to have changed from the days of his youth. His hearing was still sharp, his sense of smell keen, but most remarkable was his sense of touch. If anything, it had heightened over the past few years even as his eyesight had failed him. The responsiveness of his four remaining senses had become sharply honed and he now focused them on the table in front of him.
His thin fingers, misshapen from arthritis, covered the two perfect globes and lifted them to judge their weight. Hefting the left, then the right, back and forth, he tried to decide which was the heaviest. He slowly slid the pad of his thumb over the smooth surface of each, his touch gentle to keep from bruising the flesh under the thin layer of pearlescent skin. Both were equally heavy and felt incredibly full, but there was one test left to judge the most perfect of the pair. Leaning down, he breathed in their fragrance and found it heady and floral. Their scent made his mouth water and as the saliva pooled in the pouches of his cheeks, he worked hard to swallow it. Like a lover at a banquet of beautiful women, the promise of impending pleasure stirred him deeply.
“Do you want to taste one?” Eden asked him. “They’re sweeter than sugar.” Her soft voice disturbed his keen concentration on the treasures he held.
She smiled at Mr. Farley as he tipped his head back, his cloudy eyes searching hers. Despite his advanced age he was still taller than her five-foot-eight-inch frame. He was still vital and strong-minded, and as he stood to his full height, she could imagine how formidable a negotiator he must have been in the boardroom before he retired. His bearing left no doubt that he was still a powerful man.
“I’m not sure they’re ripe,” he said, his own smile beginning to form at the corners of his mouth.
“I’ll tell you what,” Eden teased back. “I’ll give you a sample. If you like it, you buy both.”
“Well,” he thoughtfully considered the deal for a moment, “I buy both melons, and you become my next wife if I like the sample.”
Eden laughed out loud. “You buy both honeydews and I’ll give you a cantaloupe for an extra three dollars.” She reached for the cutting board and her knife. After choosing a pale cream-colored melon from the basket on the vegetable stand, she halved the fruit and began to remove the slippery seeds with the back of the blade. The rich, sweet smell surrounded her as the sound of her knife sliding into the moist cavity vibrated in the air. She put the seeds aside for her chickens and began to slice the ripe fruit.
Mr. Farley continued to tease her. “Eight dollars for all three, if I like the sample,” he offered. “And you at least have a torrid affair with me.”
Eden waved her open palm at her chest and feigned shock. “You, sir, are no gentleman.” She lowered her voice to a conspiratorial whisper, “Nine dollars, and I won’t tell your daughter about the other offer you just made me.” She laughed again and, tossing her blonde ponytail back over her shoulder with the back of her hand, she winked at him.
“I did offer to make an honest woman out of you first,” he said as he reached for the plate stacked high with lime-green slices and chose a shimmering half-moon. The piece was warm from the late summer sun and slick with juice. Its heavenly fragrance claimed his attention.
Here was a man who loved food, Eden thought as she watched him savor the first bite. He closed his eyes to block out the distractions and turned his face up to the sun, then bit into the slice of honeydew, rolling the ripe fruit around in his mouth like it was a rare vintage wine. A tiny droplet of clear nectar seeped from the corner of his mouth and meandered down the side of his chin, and he swiped at it once with the back of his hand before taking another bite off the slice.
Eden smiled at Mr. Farley, though he certainly couldn’t see her through his closed eyes. He was so engrossed in the flavor and texture of the fruit she doubted he was even aware of his surroundings at all. It would be wonderful if all her customers enjoyed the harvest of her labor as much as he obviously did.
“Well, I see you’ve put my father in a trance again,” Susan Farley’s crisp comment came from a few feet away. Not far enough for Eden’s comfort. In all her twenty-eight years, she’d never met a proverbial acorn that had fallen so far from the family tree.
James’s daughter was stunningly beautiful and, as always, perfectly coifed. She had been born with her father’s bearing and aristocratic features, but absolutely none of his good humor and warmth. Her every attempt to get along with the ordinary people was stilted and unnatural, and the resentment at having to try was visible on her airbrushed face. She looked at the trampled earth around the vegetable-laden tables and grimaced. “One would expect country air to smell cleaner.”
Eden worked to hide her smile of satisfaction. She was pleased to see the woman’s discomfort at the sights and odors of a working farm. “Nice to see you, Susan, would you like to try the honeydew?” She held the plate out for the stiff woman, who simply waved her hand in the air, a gesture that clearly explained she couldn’t be bothered. “Let’s go, Dad, I’ll be late for my manicure.”
James handed Eden a new twenty-dollar bill and beamed another smile. “I’ll take four, keep the change, but promise you’ll at least consider my offer.” He winked and turned to head back to his daughter’s silver Mercedes, his arms hugging the four fruits to his chest. As she watched the car pull out of her driveway, she wondered if the man was lonely.
Aunt Sarah had said that James Farley was a powerful businessman in his day, and a wealthy one at that. Eden hadn’t been surprised to hear he was also quite a charmer. What had surprised her was how much Sarah seemed to know about the man, yet when Eden tried to ask why, her beloved aunt closed up tighter than a Quahog clam. Maybe Sarah had hidden feelings for him. Eden didn’t know, and now, sadly, she never would.
Mr. Farley probably had a cook and a housekeeper or two. So why did he make the trip to the outskirts of Glen Ellen to buy produce from her every week?
Her fondness for the man went beyond his patronage of her small farm stand. He radiated warmth and a neighborly friendliness that was only outshone by his positive and upbeat sense of humor. The man was a treasure. His visits to the stand helped to stave off some of the social loneliness that Eden had felt since moving to Glen Ellen. For all his outrageous words, she knew they were all in jest, and she enjoyed their affable banter. Still, there were many produce stores in the Sonoma Valley—so why her farm?
Well, it wasn’t really her farm. The local bank owned more of the property than she did. Even with harvest season almost at its peak, she still had to scrimp and save to be able to pay the mortgage each month.
Maybe the old man had harbored feelings for Sarah, too. Eden felt a pang of regret for them both if it was true. Could it be that he also needed the easy camaraderie their exchanges offered? Certainly a man of his social status had many, many friends, but she offered friendship without strings, and from what Eden had experienced in the upper social classes, everything came with strings attached.
Eden was a city girl, born and bred, and a couple of years ago she never would have pictured herself living and working on a farm. Even if her imagination had stretched that far, she never would have thought it would be in California. She had planned to live her entire life combing the beaches of her beloved Newport. In Rhode Island she’d had a small private practice, a sweet little beach cottage that boasted glorious views of the sea, and a modest social life. She hadn’t found it at all surprising that the wealthy living on the quaint Colonial streets of the ocean side resort town would need so much psychotherapy—for many, theirs was old wealth. With old money came the acceptance of excess as ordinary. Few of the privileged Eden counseled understood that, while the world may seem their oyster, those who inhabited this planet weren’t patient mollusks waiting to be plucked, shucked and sucked down with little more company than a champagne chaser. Relationships needed nurturing, warmth and trust, and those precious commodities were almost unheard of in the society circles that inhabited the upscale tourist town.
Money had never been important to Eden, so she worked a few hours a day and spent the rest of her time lugging her oil paints up and down the pristine beaches that surrounded Aquidneck Island, or along the forested trails and open fields of the bird sanctuary. She’d lost entire afternoons applying swirls of color to her rough textured canvas as she sat on rocky outcroppings like Hangman’s Rock, her eyes dazzled by the deep blue-green of the Atlantic, or by the flashes of shorebirds as they rode the sun-warmed thermals of the ocean breezes. The landscapes were so beautiful that she could even now recall the sights, sounds and smells by closing her eyes and letting her mind wander back home. She could feel the surf—the heartbeat of the island—thrumming through her body. She knew that New England life would always own a part of her soul.
Glen Ellen was beautiful too. Dark, rich soil and a moderate climate meant that almost anything would grow here in the lush Sonoma Valley—it was wine country, after all—but Eden hadn’t come for the beauty.
She well remembered the evening she received the call from her aunt’s attorney. Sarah was dying, he’d told her calmly. Eden remembered how she had struggled to keep herself from crying during their conversation. His calmness had seemed eerie to her at first, but she later realized that he was doing his best to help her remain in control long enough to begin to make some important decisions. She still felt grateful for his support during that difficult conversation.
Sarah had been diagnosed with breast cancer a few years earlier, but she had continued to visit Eden every summer in Newport, and she continued to run her family-style farm and produce stand in Glen Ellen. She always seemed so strong and independent, Eden had convinced herself that Sarah would beat the terrible diagnosis, but she had been wrong. When Eden had flown out to help Sarah while she healed from her second surgery, she had been stunned by how frail and compromised Sarah had become.
Her aunt had been Eden’s only remaining relative and she’d adored the woman. It was Sarah who’d helped Eden’s widowed mother, young and alone, take care of her small child, sending money when times were at their leanest. It was Sarah who’d paid Eden’s way through college and graduate school, and Sarah who’d helped Eden make the plans for her mother’s funeral after the tragic car accident that took her from her college-aged daughter. There was no way Eden would let Sarah down.
Eden had packed up her small cottage by the beach and moved to California. Her aunt’s cancer advanced quickly, and Eden became more and more responsible for the farm.
After Sarah’s death, it seemed that Eden had inherited more than the farmhouse, fields, gardens and animals—she’d inherited a new family too.
Hector Gonzales, his wife Maria, and their teenage son Mateo worked the farm. As part of their compensation for the work, they received a salary, the free rent of a single-family house a quarter of a mile away at the edge of the property, and a share of the meat, eggs, produce and other goods the farm produced. Eden didn’t just feel responsible for them all, she owed them. Their love and support of Sarah and herself through the dark days leading up to her aunt’s death had been remarkable, and the four had developed a deep and lasting friendship.
Hector and Mateo took care of the larger livestock. The chickens provided fresh eggs for the table and to sell at the stand. The sheep and goats provided milk, meat and wool. Maria made fresh cheeses from their milk and produced gorgeous woven rugs and other items from the wool she spun and dyed herself. Both helped to keep the business running through the seasons before and after harvest time. They all worked in the fields; tilling, planting, pruning and harvesting—everyone pitched in.
Though the life of a farmer wasn’t what Eden had planned, she found solace in the rhythm of the work and security in the heartiness of the land.
If her life was lacking, it could only be said it was in the arena of love. She’d had no shortage of dates while living in Newport. It was a town built on social engagements—from the seaside restaurants to the small, back alley eateries, from the maze of art galleries to the exclusive clubs—it was amazing anyone living there found the time to sleep or work at all.
Living in Glen Ellen wasn’t all that different for some, after all, the Sonoma Valley encompassed more than just wine. It also meant beautiful scenery, great food, plenty of art and seasonal tourist crowds—it was a more relaxed social atmosphere, but there were opportunities. Still, the heavy workload of the farm prevented Eden from straying away to taste the social offerings of the upscale towns that surrounded her. The closest she’d come to someone making a pass at her was old Mr. Farley.
She briefly wondered if life in Glen Ellen would mean a lifetime of being alone.
Eden loved the barn and even her early morning chores. She was still more asleep than awake when she stumbled over the entry into the cool, dark space. The swallows greeted her arrival by swirling over her head and berating her for entering their family’s nursery. The sweet smell of hay and molasses-coated grain always seemed comforting, and that morning was no exception.
Her small flock of sheep and goats began calling to her as she approached their large pen. Pressing up against the welded wire fence, they crowded close to nuzzle Eden in their never-ending search for treats. She had to hold the shallow feed bucket over her head as she unlatched the gate with one hand and entered their pen to avoid getting mowed down in all the excitement. Chunks of apples, carrots, sweet potatoes and melons filled her bucket and the animals knew the routine well. It was no charming nursery-rhyme moment, her lusty flock could smell the treasures in her bucket and they pushed, prodded and crowded against her in an attempt to get to the snacks first. Her sugary offerings probably didn’t sweeten their milk, as the old wives’ tale suggested, but it sure did sweeten their already sappy dispositions. Eden laughed out loud at their antics even as she felt her toes growing numb from the stampede of hooves on her own clog-shod feet.
“You spoil them,” Mateo said, his amused voice piercing her sleep-fogged brain. “It wouldn’t be so hard for you to cull the flock each fall if you stopped mothering them.” The legs of his faded jeans were flecked with sawdust, testament to his work ethic at such an early hour. He twirled the wooden handle of the manure rake in the palm of one large hand as he grinned at her from where he leaned against the side of the open stall door across the aisle.
“I just can’t help it, they’re all so adorable,” she replied, gazing into the warm brown eyes of one of her favorite goats. It bleated in response to her individualized attention and she handed over a large chunk of bright-orange potato. “I’m going into town to make a run to the bank. We need more change for the stand. Do you guys need anything while I’m there?”
“Ya tenemos todo que necesitamos,” Mateo replied in Spanish.
Eden smiled at him. “We have everything we need.” She spoke the words out loud as she mulled them over in her still sleepy brain.
“Your Spanish is improving,” Mateo complimented her. “You’re a fast learner.”
“You’re a good teacher,” she replied but she was too distracted by his words to carry the conversation further. Eden knew there was something missing from her life. She knew there was more that she needed. What? she whispered to herself. Romance, her brain whispered back, the love of a strong man. She worked to shake off the reminder of needs she had no way of meeting at this time in her life and turned her attention back to the young man before her.
At seventeen, Mateo was always content, in fact, she couldn’t ever remember the boy complaining about anything. His mother and father shared his same sunny disposition, a fact she was eternally grateful for. “I’d better get going if I want to be back by the time the stand opens.”
He nodded as he pushed the wheelbarrow closer to the pen and picked up the stall rake to muck out the enclosure—just another one of his morning chores before leaving for school.
The Gonzales family emigrated to California when Mateo was a boy, but he had been old enough to remember how hard his whole family had worked in his native Mexico, and how little they’d received in return for that labor. His gratitude for the life he and his parents had now was apparent in his work ethic and his schoolwork. Eden had no doubt that he would be graduating at the top of his class next summer.
With her handbag and a light sweater already in the pickup truck, and her keys in the ignition, Eden remembered she needed to pick up another watering station for the chicken house while she was in town. She needed to get the make and model of the water system first or risk buying the wrong part so, with a sigh, she dug around in her bag for a piece of scrap paper and a pen and headed down the path behind the barn to the chicken house.
Seventy-five hens produced about five hundred eggs a week, forty-two dozen eggs to sell at the stand. Any that didn’t sell, Eden and the farmhands shared. The four hundred or so dollars in sales a month wasn’t going to pay the mortgage, but it was mostly profit. Thank heavens chicken feed was inexpensive and supplementing their feed with the produce that was past its prime for selling and kitchen scraps also helped to lower their feed bill. Eden had to look at all the alternatives to make this work for everyone, and some months were more of a challenge than others, but they all worked together to make ends meet.
Most of the hens were out in the fenced pens, enjoying the warmth of the early morning sun and scratching at the cracked corn Maria had scattered on the ground. It was an old but useful trick to get the chickens to leave their nests and make gathering eggs easier. Four ornery roosters ensured the eggs were fertile and that the next generation of chicks could be raised without buying new stock. They strutted around and squawked at each other to get the attention of the flock, but for all their flash, the hens seemed unimpressed. Spreading their wings and puffing up their chests like men at a roadside bar, the roosters danced and displayed their lovely plumage in a vain attempt to impress the ladies. Noisy skirmishes were taking place as the hens all tried to get dibs on any insects that happened to be unlucky enough to take a shortcut through the pen. Chickens are like people, Eden thought, there is always a firmly established pecking order and the same individuals always seem to land near the bottom of the pile. Still, these were lucky birds. Eden remembered touring a commercial egg farm once as a schoolgirl and shuddered at the memory of all those birds in tiny cages and squalid conditions. Maria kept these feathered egg-laying machines well fed and in a meticulously clean environment. Happy, healthy hens produced healthy food and happy customers—Eden had high standards for the products they sold and it kept her business growing.
She was relieved to step through the open door of the chicken house into its cool, quiet interior, but what she heard brought her up short. The gasping breaths of lovers deeply involved with each other pulsated through the air. She stood statue-still as she waited for her eyes to adjust to the shadows within, and as her sight focused, the pair came sharply into view. Against the far wall, Hector and Maria were clasped together, illuminated by a bright shaft of light streaming in through the wire-covered window. His dark head was bent low as he suckled at his wife’s bare breasts, first one side, then the other as his work-worn hands cupped both heavy globes from underneath to position each one for his individualized attention. From across the room Eden could see the glistening wetness left on her areolas and nipples as his mouth moved back and forth.
Eden could feel her own body reacting to the eroticism of their movements and the sounds of their pleasure. Their seductive pairing brought heat and an electric sizzle to the small nub of her clitoris. She could feel the dampness seeping into her own panties as moist heat radiated from between her legs. She knew she should quietly leave her friends to their private moments but her own need surged upward, keeping her feet pinned to the floor and her eyes glued to the unfolding scene.
As Eden watched, frozen in the shadows, Hector’s hand traced the indentation of Maria’s small waist and slid down to pull up the hem of her skirt. His insistent fingers traveled over the softly curving mound of her pubis and peeled the crotch of her serviceable white panties to one side to gain access to her most sensitive places. She threw back her head and begged him not to stop touching her. Bending one sleek leg, she tried to spread herself to give him greater access to her body, and Hector’s free arm went around her hips to steady her as her control continued to slip away.
Eden almost whimpered in need as she watched Hector’s steely hard forearm pump his hand up and down over his wife’s spread pussy. Maria’s breathing was rough and halting and soon, too soon, her high keening moans filled the room as she came against her husband’s hand.
For long minutes, Hector continued to gently finger Maria’s damp curls as she regained her breath.
Eden stood in the shadows, trying to quiet her ragged breathing. She continued to watch with erotic curiosity as Maria turned her attention to her husband. Her hands worked at the hard bulge in the front of Hector’s jeans, quickly freeing his cock. His newly released member bounced up in the sure hands of his wife and she dropped to her knees and took him fully into her mouth. Her long dark hair fell softly around her shoulders. Her dark eyes searched her husband’s while she deep-throated his turgid flesh. Sliding slowly out to the tip, nipping and sucking the bulbous end, then moving her deep rosy mouth back again to its base, picking up speed as she stroked his taut rod with her full lips and tongue. Hector’s panting breaths turned to masculine sounds of guttural need.
He moaned low in his throat and grasped his wife’s head firmly with both hands as he began to push harder and faster into her mouth. He glided in and out with such abandon that Eden wondered how the woman was able to breathe between his rapid thrusts. She imagined that it was her mouth receiving the silky shaft of her own lover, and she knew that getting air would be the last thing on her lists of concerns in such a sensual moment too.
Hector pulled his rigid cock from his wife’s mouth and pushed Maria’s dark skirt hem up around her narrow waist. Her shapely, caramel-toned legs wrapped tightly around Hector’s middle as he lifted her with his wiry arms and penetrated her welcoming crevice. The dust motes danced around their joined bodies as they worked together. Eden could see the muscles of his naked buttocks from where his jeans had slipped down with his efforts. Pale, cream-colored skin encased the well-shaped half-moons and darkened mysteriously near the center cleft. The bunched muscles tensed and relaxed as he rhythmically pushed up and into his wife again and again. Maria moaned loudly and mumbled to him in Spanish as he grunted his encouragement into the soft flesh where her shoulder met her neck. Her small hands clawed at Hector’s back as her passion climbed higher. Maria’s toes pointed and her legs tensed as she neared orgasm again. She was using the strength of her thighs and calves to pull her husband closer and deeper with each thrust. Maria’s moans signaled more urgency.
Eden couldn’t remember ever sharing such raw passion during lovemaking—a fact that both intrigued her and stung her pride. As Maria’s voice began to ascend to a high, keening moan again, Eden stepped back out the door, feeling both embarrassed and a little guilty at her own state of arousal after seeing the intimate moments of her friends. She hurried to her pickup and drove out of the driveway toward town.