Joshua Howard arrived in Arizona for his uncle’s funeral, not expecting to become the heir to a large orange grove. But the inheritance came with conditions. He had to live on the grove and work it for a full year. The conditions weren't the worst part, things went from bad to worse when he discovered the grumpy, but incredibly sexy caretaker, Clay.
Clay Masters had lost everything, his engineering job, his husband and even his parents. Now he worked at the groves. His autism meant he struggled to handle the emotional fallout, but the routine and order of the groves helped. He was managing fine until the new owner, Joshua, showed up and sparked an attraction that threw his well-ordered world into chaos.
Misunderstandings and high emotions coupled with blinding attraction make it even more challenging for Joshua and Clay as they work together to save the orange groves. Will they be able to save the groves and explore the feelings developing between them?
I was mad enough that I was seeing red. I’d left Mesa to get away from my problems, even if for just a stinking minute, then Clay showed up and threw the entire mess back in my face. I’d have to deal with Peter later about boundaries, and sharing addresses with people I was avoiding.
I knew better than to react while angry, and at least while sitting at the breakfast table, I had a moment to collect my temper. As soon as we were outside the house, though, the anger rolled over me again. I did the only thing I knew would help, I speed-walked several blocks, only partially aware that Clay was behind me.
Finally, after arriving at a park where only a couple people could be seen walking around, I turned on Clay. “I’m so pissed at you,” I said, although I still wasn’t a hundred percent sure why.
“I know,” he said. “I’m sorry, Joshua.”
“You come all the way here, with the lame excuse that you were going to drop off a letter I’d already told you I didn’t need to see, then you drop the bomb on me that you’re going to quit, just like that. No real excuse, other than you’ve somehow made my life more difficult?”
Clay just stared at the ground, and the genuinely sad look on his face was like water on the angry fire.
I sighed, and sat down on a bench close to where we were standing.
“Clay, why did you really come out here?” I asked, tired of all the strange games the two of us had been playing. He shrugged like a teenager, and although he’d sat next to me, he kept his gaze downcast. “That’s not good enough. You need to come clean. Is this some garbage you and my uncle cooked up?”
He looked up at me, genuinely shocked. “No, nothing like that, Joshua. You have to believe me. I only talked to your uncle about you a few times, and certainly not about this. To be honest, I was as clueless about my part in all of this as you were.”
I looked at him skeptically. “Read the letter,” he said. “That’s the first time I’d heard about what he wanted me to do.”
He pulled the letter out of his back pocket and handed it to me. I sighed, too tired to do anything, but what he said, and I began to read.
As I read the letter that was never intended for me to see, I couldn’t hold back the tears. He had come after me, if what my uncle had said was correct, he cared about me, and I could totally see my father placing every roadblock in my uncle’s path to me, for nothing else than to spite someone who crossed him.
I looked back up at Clay, surprised at how empty I felt. I sighed and stared at the small lake in front of us, a momma duck and several ducklings swam across, which under normal circumstances would’ve made my heart swell.
“Did you drink the whole bottle?” I asked.
“Huh?” Clay responded. “What bottle?”
I handed the letter back to him. “He told you not to drink the whole bottle of Jack.”
Clay looked down at the letter and back up at me. “That’s what you got out of the letter?”
I chuckled. “No, but that’s the least loaded part of it. I’m not sure I know how to digest the rest. I told you I didn’t want to read it.”
Clay shook his head and looked at the ducklings. “At least now you know I wasn’t a part of this mess. I’m a pawn just like you.”
“That doesn’t help. Now the only person I have to blame is a dead man, and Melinda, I guess, but it’s hard to be mad at her.”
Clay chuckled. “You’re telling me. Try coming to terms with the fact she’s your birth mom, and gave you away.”
“You mad about that?” I asked.
“I used to be, but no… she was a kid and had no way of supporting me. My birth father was a drug dealer who was killed two months after being incarcerated. I shudder to think what my childhood would’ve been like if she’d kept me.”
I sighed, no idea what to say, so I said what first came to mind. “I wish my dad had given me up for adoption.”
Clay looked at me, shocked, then looked away. “Did he abuse you?”
“Not physically, although he gave me a few spankings that might have gotten him in trouble if social services had known. Mostly, to him, I wasn’t even worth hitting. I was a pesky parasite that he was stuck with. Anyway, this isn’t about me. I asked you why you came out, why you really came out. I deserve a straight answer, Clay.”
He laughed, but there was a bitter tone to it. “I’m pretty sure you really don’t want my answer,” he replied. “Trust me, my honesty will not make this any easier!”
I think I already knew enough about what he was interested in. I leaned over before I could talk myself out of it, and kissed him gently on the cheek. “I’m attracted to you too. It’s inconvenient, and it’s tricky, and probably inappropriate, but if that’s what’s on your mind, then let’s get it out in the open… and now is the best time, while we’re on neutral ground.”
“I kissed you like an idiot ass already, so there’s no surprise, but it was sure a surprise to me, Joshua.
I haven’t kissed another man since my husband died. I thought all that was over for me.”
I looked at him, somewhat taken aback. “You’re what, thirty-nine? How can that be over?”
“You’re a jerk. I’m thirty-one. I met my husband at university while going for my Ph.D., I don’t look thirty-nine years old!”
I chuckled. “I see you’re a bit vain, that’s good to know.”
“I’m only a few years older than you. I’m not a freaking daddy, for god’s sake.”
“You sort of are.” I laughed. The banter seemed to be helping ease some of the tension.
Then it clicked that he’d said they’d met while pursuing a Ph.D. “You are Dr. Clay Masters?” I asked, letting the shock wash over me.
Clay sighed and nodded. “Not many people know that about me, at least not in Mesa.”
“Does Melinda know?” I asked.
He shook his head. “I haven’t told her, or anyone.”
“Dang, Clay, why are you such a closed book?”
Clay stared at the water for a long time. “It’s really hard for me to talk about, and I left that life behind me. I…” he stopped talking, and when I looked back at him, he looked green around the edges.
“Wow, you really are weirded out talking about yourself, you know, that’s sort of messed up, right?”
He shook his head and stood up.
“What the crap? You are not going to walk away,” I said, the anger coming back. “Sit down and fess up. What is going on with you?”
Instead of sitting, Clay began pacing around me. “I’m not sure I can…” he said, and before I knew it, he was over at the edge of the pond, puking his guts out.
“Um,” I said, as I put my hand on his back, “It’s that bad?”
He nodded and stood up. “I haven’t…” he hesitated and spat, obviously trying to rid himself of the rest of the sick. “I don’t talk about this stuff. I haven’t talked, and…”
He looked like he was going to be sick again, and so I stopped him. “Okay, I get it, this is hard on you. You don’t have to tell me about your past, but I need to understand what’s going on between us. Can you explain that much, at least?”
He nodded. “Let’s walk back to your friend’s house. I need a moment to get myself together.”
We walked quietly past the beautiful Victorian homes, and when we got back to Trevor and Peter’s place, Clay excused himself. Taking his bag, he went into the downstairs powder room.
“What’s going on?” Peter asked me.
“Beats me, the guy’s screwed up about something.”
“I see that. Trevor has Luka up in the attic room, and Doris has gone back to her place, so you two have this level to yourself. Let us know if you need anything.”
I stood up and thanked Peter for understanding. “It’s okay… remember you were here while we were going through our own drama, it’s our turn to support you.”
Just the thought of the nightmare Trevor’s parents had put them through when Luka was little, made my stomach hurt.
“I’d have thought you’d never want to think about that again,” I said.
Peter frowned. “It’s part of our life together, as Whitney Houston said, ‘You can’t run from yourself, there’s nowhere to hide’.”
“That’s your drag song, right?”
“Dang, I really do tell you too much,” Peter said, before sprinting up the stairs, laughing.
Clay came out shortly after, looking significantly less green than when he went in.
I enjoyed this book, the love story was sweet, the characters interesting, and relationships felt authentic. I particularly liked the historical aspects of the story-I had no idea that there used to be numerous orange groves in Mesa! (Not sure if there still are?) I liked the spunkiness of the main character and his refusal to accept his uncle’s demands, and his creativity in solving the issues facing the grove. Recommended!
Full disclosure: I was given a free copy of this book in advance of publication on the condition that I publish a review. However, I have KU and found the blurb interesting, so I would have gotten the title for free and read it anyway.