Trisha Eaton's eyes flew open, the familiar cold sweat lacing her body, remnants of fear clinging to sunrise. Eyes wide, she surveyed her bedroom, probing for signs of disruption. As usual, there were none. Majorly pissed off, she slumped back on the mattress and allowed just a moment to compose herself.
Nothing's wrong. It wasn't real.
As she did when she was young, she used familiarity to calm her. But her eyes darted to the window first. The window. Had she left the drapes open again? She filtered the night before through her mind and scrubbed her face with her hands. No, she had closed them. Which meant the dreams were intensifying again.
Daylight had broken and there was work to be done. There wasn't time to dawdle over childish nightmares, no matter how frightening. No matter how many times they came in the dead of night while she was alone, defenseless. The apples needed tending.
Without bothering for cosmetics, she threw her long hair into a haphazard ponytail, irked her hands were still shaking, and got dressed. After lacing her tan hiking boots, she headed downstairs, the clunk of her soles resounding on the hardwood floors.
Yes! The aroma of salvation.
"Oh, Nancy, you made coffee." She stretched the word "coffee" out as if praying to a higher power while rounding the banister and entering the kitchen. "Thank you, thank you." She couldn't function without her blast of morning caffeine.
The housekeeper smirked out of the left corner of her mouth. Her midnight hair was graying at the temples and at her nape where she had it wrapped in a tight bun. There wasn't a time Trisha could remember her wearing it down.
"Have I ever forgotten coffee, chica, in the eight years I've been here?"
Eight years. Had it been that long since Nancy Hernandez and her husband Eduardo came to work for her? She never really saw them as employees. They were friends, as well as the nine other men who lived on her spread. She cared about them, every single one, like an extended version of her family. They had breakfast together every morning and dinner every evening. They didn't eat in the kitchen, but in the massive dining room through the swinging door behind Trisha. Nancy cooked as if it were for royalty and her food tasted just as decadent. She kept Trisha's house and life in order.
"You let me sleep in," Trisha answered instead.
"Yes, and you needed it." Nancy sat across from her at the kitchenette table and blew gently on the herbal tea cupped in her hands. "You still have circles under your eyes."
Trisha shrugged and let the scalding coffee slide down her throat. She had selective hearing down to an art. Wincing, she set the coffee down to cool a bit. "Did the boys eat?"
"About an hour ago. They're out starting the soil testing for the fertilizer."
Trisha downed another gulp of coffee and swiftly rose. "I told them yesterday to wait for me. Did they start on the east side?"
Nancy gripped her wrist and tugged her back into her chair with a plop. "Drink your coffee, eat a muffin, then you go. They won't start without you. They were just preparing."
She bit sportingly into a banana nut muffin. How did that pop right up in front of her anyway? It was really good. "You work for me, you know." She grinned around her baked goodness.
Nancy stood, hands fisting on her rounded hips as she glared down her nose at her. "Mmhm, and what good it'll do me if you don't take care of yourself."
Walking across the kitchen, Nancy began loading the dishwasher with the breakfast mess without further fuss.
"Your mother called. She wanted to know if you gained any weight on what she calls your 'too skinny bones'." Nancy's face hinted at amusement, but her voice was laced with concern.
"That's ridiculous. You don't gain weight on bones, you--"
Nancy cleared her throat from across the long narrow kitchen. Her forehead creased, displaying every bit of her fifty-five years and telling Trisha she wasn't amused. "I told her you were fine. She said to remind you they'll be here in two weeks."
"I miss them."
Trisha's parents had adopted her at the tender age of three and this orchard had been her home ever since. When they left it to her and retired to Florida, she swore she went through withdrawal. She'd never been without them. Their unvarying love and support was in no way lacking. Not for one moment growing up had they made her believe she wasn't their own. Her father showed her everything there was to know about growing apples, the physical brunt work of it, and the satisfaction of her hands deep in the soil. Her mother taught her every which way to bake the apples, not that she paid much attention. Trisha didn't cook. It was because of them she became the independent woman she was today, minus the cooking expertise.
When she looked up, Nancy was leaning against the counter and analyzing her face with a deep groove of concern between her brows.
Shoot. "I ate my muffin. Can I go now?" She beamed innocently at her housekeeper, masking her embarrassment.
Nancy sighed and waved her hand in dismissal. "Go then."
Sucking in a breath of chilly humid air, Trisha glanced around her land with pride. Early spring was her favorite time of the year, and their busiest. The apple trees were in their early blooming stage and everything about the world was fresh. A new beginning after the bitter Wisconsin winter. There was still a bite in late March, not hitting warmer temperatures until closer to early May.
Trisha approached the guys near the main shed on her four-wheeler and cut the engine. The boys, as she called them-though five out of the ten of them were older than her-were pulling out the small spades and strips to begin testing the soil.
Eduardo, her foreman and Nancy's husband, met her at the open door to the shed. "Lazy here finally woke up, I see." He winked with an affable grin, as if she slept late everyday. His shoulder-length black hair was pulled back with a rubber band and his round cheeks were pink from the chill.
So they were going to trade barbs, were they? Grinning, she dismounted the four-wheeler where he towered over her five-five frame. "Be quiet, old man. Shouldn't you be out having hip surgery or something?"
"Old man? I'll show you old man," he countered while flexing his bicep. "That look old to you, Trish?"
She rolled her eyes fondly and shook her head. "No comment. We ready to start testing?"
"Yep." He turned, playtime over, as she trailed him into the shed.
The metal structure was half the size of a football field and held most of the equipment. Each tree would require about seven pounds of fertilizer, so several trailers were needed to carry the bags. The soil should be tested every three years to ensure proper pH. However, Trisha didn't take any chances. She tested every year.
Her best friend, Brad Johnson, pulled out of the shed first with her other good friend, Chuck Harrison, riding shot gun. Brad and Chuck were polar opposites. Where Brad said little unless to argue, Chuck was always telling a joke and belting out an enormous laugh from deep within his equally enormous belly. It astounded her how they remained close friends through the years when they should have killed each other by now.
"You want to start on the east side?" Brad asked her over the hum of the motor, puffs of frost expelling with the words. Strands of chocolate brown hair were poking out the bottom of his knit hat. After nodding, they took off to wait for the others in the field.
"He's crabby today," Eduardo commented.
She shrugged. "He's crabby every day."
"We need oil for a couple of the trucks. You want me to have Nancy pick some up when she shops?"
"No, it's Chuck's birthday next week. I have to pick up a gift in town anyway." She glanced over to where the guys disappeared. "Let's start testing and, when it's underway, I'll go."
Eduardo's two-way radio crackled to life. "Eduardo," Andrew's voice shot through the speaker. "Send Trish over to row twenty. We have a problem."
"What are they doing on the west side? I told them to start on the east," she barked, already mounting her four-wheeler and starting the ignition. She sped off without waiting for a response, Eduardo close behind.
When she arrived minutes later, the men were standing around staring at a fallen tree. Trisha dismounted and rushed to them. "What happened? Is everyone okay?"
They all nodded but no one spoke. She knelt next to the tree. Row twenty was the last chain on the west side of her orchard, the one most exposed to the elements. If there were fallen branches, it was usually on this end. Another two hundred feet west was a dense wooded area. Beyond that, the abandoned Drake house.
Trisha swallowed and looked up. The tree had gone down right in front of the back path to the abandoned house. The one that had haunted her nightmares since she was a kid. Neither the house nor the path could be seen past the woods.
Glaring back down at the tree, her gut turned to ice. There were no signs of rotting. Hack marks from an axe could be seen from even an untrained eye. She stood. "I asked what happened."
Andrew, another man she went to school with as a kid, shifted his feet. "Mike and I were heading east to start work now that you were awake. We found this."
"No one saw anything?" she asked. They shook their heads.
"You think it was lightning, Trish?" Chuck's wide eyes landed on her. "There doesn't seem to be any sign of the trunk being rotten, though."
"We haven't had lightning in two weeks-"
Before she could say any more, Brad cut her off. "What is that?" He pointed to the ground near the top of the massive tree. He walked over to a suspicious white object and removed a piece of paper from under a branch.
As Brad paled, Eduardo glanced over his shoulder to look at the paper. "All right, everyone, back to work. We'll take care of this."
The men muttered and shuffled to their ATVs. Once they were gone, Trisha looked at Eduardo and then Brad. "What is it? What's wrong?"
Eduardo turned the paper around for her to see. Typed in plain red text was: "I've been watching. Stay away."