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Meg Corey walked to the edge of the orchard, stopping where the land sloped downward to her house below, and turned to study her trees. It was March and just over a year since she had first arrived in Granford to take up residence in a house she’d seen only once before in her life, and she almost laughed now to remember just how naïve she had been at the time. Of course, she had also been kind of stunned by the turns her life had suddenly taken back then: no job, no boyfriend, no place to call home. So Meg had blindly followed her mother’s suggestion to park herself in Granford, a tiny town in western Massachusetts, while she figured out her next move. Her mother, Elizabeth Corey, might even have used the words “find yourself.” Meg hadn’t had the energy either to argue with her mother or to come up with a better idea, so she had moved into the drafty old house, which lacked insulation and adequate heating, in the midst of a cold New England winter. She’d been miserable.
What a difference a year had made! Meg hadn’t even known there was an apple orchard on the property when she arrived, and now it was her livelihood. She could look at it and tell what tasks needed to be done now that it was early spring, before buds and leaves and apples began to form. She’d harvested a decent crop in the fall, despite a rather scary summer hailstorm, and had sold the apples for a profit. They’d had a string of good weather this month and had taken advantage of it to do housekeeping chores in the orchard—picking up the pruned twigs, turning over the soil as soon as it thawed. As Meg watched, Briona Stewart, her young orchard manager and housemate, appeared in the orchard lugging a bundle of prunings from the trees. There was always something to be done: broken limbs had to be propped up or heartlessly sawn off, fertilizer had to be applied before growth began, and there was the cycle of spraying—nontoxic!—to be factored in. Bree added her trimmings to a growing pile; there were people around the area who liked to use apple wood to scent their fires, and if they were willing to pay a couple of bucks for a bundle of discards, who was Meg to argue with them? Last year’s weeds had been cleared away, and everything looked neat and trim. Meg felt an unexpected surge of excitement. What kind of crop could she hope for this year? She still didn’t know her trees well enough to tell; she was still learning to distinguish among the modern stock and the scattered heirloom varieties that were increasing in popularity, at least in this rarified gourmet patch of western Massachusetts. But she had learned so much in only a year!
Meg had also decided she liked living in Granford—certainly well enough to stay for a second year, and maybe even longer. She was beginning to feel like the town, whose population hovered around thirteen hundred people, was home; she’d found friends and neighbors . . . and Seth Chapin, who was both of those and more, although they were both still shy of sticking a label on whatever they shared. She was, she dared to think, happy.
She waved at Bree, who waved back, then Meg turned around to admire her house. It was a sturdy white Colonial with some ramshackle extensions added over the more than two centuries since it had been built by members of the Warren family—her ancestors. Now she knew who who they were, had traced the adze marks on the hand-hewn timbers, and could say, “My great-great . . . grandfather did that, he and his sons.” They’d built to last, and here she was, trying to keep the place intact. Structurally it was sound, but she’d had to replace the plumbing and the heating systems in the past year, and she was going to have to work hard to pay off those charges on her groaning credit card. This year she really had to think about getting the roof replaced, and the trim cried out for a coat of paint. But that would all come after the orchard work.
Originally the house had faced the large barn, presumably with space—or chicken coops or pig pens or privies—between, but since this was New England, some of her forebears had built a series of connecting structures between the house and barn so they could reach the barn without freezing off various essential body parts. Nearest was an open shed, where she and Bree parked their cars and stacked firewood—and junk. Next was a more substantial two-story building that a hundred years earlier had been a carpenter’s shop and which now housed Seth Chapin’s building renovation business. His office was on the second floor, and the first floor—and a portion of the adjoining barn—were filling up with his miscellaneous building supplies and salvage. Seth was definitely a hoarder when it came to architectural bits and pieces, but Meg had to admit that the mantels and doors he picked up from who knows where looked far too good to send to the dump, and she was sure he would find them all a good home eventually.
She spied Seth standing in the middle of the driveway, talking to a woman she didn’t recognize. Meg began to make her way down the hill, watching her footing. A warm March meant mud, and she’d learned better than to come up the hill in anything but sturdy muck boots. That lesson had come after more than one slide on her backside.
It took her a minute or two to reach the two of them, and they were so engrossed in what looked like a rather heated conversation that they didn’t even notice her approach. She hesitated to interrupt but then reminded herself that they were standing on her property and she had every right to be there. “Hi, Seth,” she called out from a few feet away.
Their conversation stopped abruptly, and both turned to look at her. Meg had been right: she didn’t know the woman. She was closer to forty than thirty, and if it had been another era Meg would have labeled her a hippie who had wandered down from Vermont: her clothes were an odd mix of whimsical and practical, and her long fair hair was held back by a faded bandanna. Meg noticed that under her long cotton skirt, the woman also wore muck boots much like Meg’s own. She looked peeved at having been interrupted.
“Hi, Meg,” Seth answered. He didn’t seem anywhere near as rattled as the woman, but it took a lot to rattle Seth Chapin. “Do you know Joyce Truesdell? Joyce, this is Meg Corey—she owns this place.”
“I don’t think we’ve met. Hi, Joyce—I’d shake, but my hands are kind of dirty.”
Joyce smiled reluctantly. “So are mine—probably worse. I’m a dairy farmer. Let’s take it as a given.” Having observed the social conventions, Joyce turned back to Seth. “Look, Seth, this is my livelihood. If that land is making my cows sick, it’s on the town’s head. I’ve got the results of the blood work already, and I sent soil samples off to the lab at the university for testing at the same time, and I expect those results any day now. If I find out that the land is tainted, when you and the town swore it was fine, you’re going to hear about it.”
“Joyce, I know you’re upset,” Seth said patiently, “but I swear, this is the first I’ve heard about your problem. Let me do some research and I’ll get back to you in a couple of days. You know as well as I do that the town records are stashed all over town, and it may take me awhile to track down what we need to look at. But I will get back to you, one way or the other. The town must have pulled the records when they leased the land to you. I’ll find them.”
Joyce sighed. “I know you will—you’re one of the few people I can trust to keep his word. I know this isn’t your fault, but it’s so damn frustrating. Just when I think I’m getting a little bit ahead, something starts making my cows sick! I can’t seem to catch a break. Remind me again why I got into this business?”
“Because you like milk?” Seth joked.
“I like cows. They don’t talk back,” Joyce responded. “Call me when you know anything. Nice to meet you, Meg—I’ve been meaning to introduce myself for a while, but I never seem to have any free time.”
“I know the problem. Good to meet you, too, Joyce.”
Joyce stomped off to her aged pickup truck. The door had a logo on it, something with a cow. Silently, Meg and Seth watched Joyce pull away.
“What was that about?” Meg finally asked.
“If you offer me a cup of coffee, I’ll tell you all about it. It’s not hush-hush. If anything, it’s a public matter, involving her land, or rather, the land she leases from the town.”
“Coffee I can do. I might even have some cookies, if Bree hasn’t eaten them all. But she does work hard, so I guess she earns them. She certainly burns it off.”
Meg led Seth through the back door into the kitchen and put a kettle on to boil. Seth dropped into one of the chairs at the well-scrubbed round oak table in the middle of the room. “How’re things coming?” he asked.
“Looking good, I think, and Bree agrees. The trees held up pretty well over the winter, even with all the snow we had. She’s doing an inventory now, but she didn’t seem too worried. Sometime in here I’m going to have to decide if I want to expand—if I put in new trees now, it’s still going to be a few years before they bear.”
The kettle boiled, and Meg set about putting ground coffee in her French press and adding the water. When the coffee was ready, she filled two mugs and sat down across from Seth. “So, what’s Joyce’s story? I don’t think I’ve seen her around before, not that I get out all that much myself.”
“She runs a small dairy operation, maybe thirty or forty head, on the north side of town, just before the ridge this side of Amherst. She grazes all her cattle on the pastures there. It’s really a labor of love for her. She used to be a federal dairy inspector, but she decided that she’d rather be a producer than a bureaucrat, so she and her husband Ethan bought a nice piece of land, with a house and milking barn. She sells organic raw milk and makes some cheese. The regulations for selling raw milk—and calling it organic—are pretty specific, but she knows the ropes.” He stopped to take a swallow of coffee.
“So what was she complaining about? And why did she come to you? Apart from your recognized role as Granford’s own Mr. Fixit, not to mention an elected selectman.” She smiled at him.
Seth grinned back. “A couple of years ago Joyce decided she wanted to expand the operation, give herself a little more cushion, without adding staff and facilities. So she came to the town and leased some pasturage that the town owns, and she spent a year improving the field, mostly getting rid of weeds and invasive plants and adding some good feed grass, before turning any cows loose on it. She was thinking long term and she did it right, plus the town gave her a good rate for it, since we weren’t using the land anyway. So, a couple of weeks ago she let out some of her cows for the first time—you should see a herd of cows the first time they get out into a field in the spring! They frolic, there’s no other word for it—and anyway, they’d only been out a couple of days when some of them started getting sick, and one died, so she pulled them off the field. She came to me to complain, since I’m on the town’s board of selectmen, and I can’t say that I blame her.”
“That’s a shame. Any idea what the problem is?”
“Not at the moment. The land hasn’t been used for anything for decades, and even though you think I know everything there is to know about Granford, I haven’t memorized the history of each plot of land here. I wasn’t just stalling when I told her that I’d have to do some digging before I could tell her anything about the history of that parcel.”
“You said the records are scattered all over? Not at town hall?”
He smiled ruefully. “You’ve seen town hall—it used to be a mansion for some people from Boston who came out summers to enjoy the country air. It was never intended to be a municipal building. There are a lot of files shoved into the basement, which at least is dry, but I have a feeling that what I need to check goes back quite a ways. We’ve put the archived documents wherever we can find space, much like the Historical Society does. It’ll take me a few days to track down whatever went on with that field. Since the town owns it, there must be some kind of story behind it.”
“Have you known Joyce long?” Meg asked, getting up to freshen her cup. “You want more coffee?”
“Please.” Seth held out his mug as Meg poured. “Not that long. Neither she nor her husband grew up around here, but she knows the area pretty well. She did her homework when she picked her location, and she’s got a good local reputation for her milk. You’ve probably eaten some of her cheese at Gran’s.”
“I’ll have to ask Nicky the next time I’m in the restaurant.”
“Speaking of using land, have you considered my offer?”
“I’d be happy to let you use some of my land to expand your orchard.”
Meg had been putting off giving Seth an answer because she was torn. In part it was a business decision: did it make financial sense for her to expand? If so, how much? It had taken awhile to get the numbers assembled and to review them with Bree, and the answer had been a tentative “yes” to the expansion. But the more complicated issue was, did she want to enter into that kind of commitment with Seth? She’d only just started to really feel like they were dating . . . using his land for a long-range purpose felt akin to making a public statement that they were together for the long haul. And although Meg was cautiously optimistic about the relationship, she wasn’t quite ready to make that kind of declaration. Still, whether or not to expand the orchard was something she would have to decide soon, before the window for planting closed.
“Let me get back to you on that, okay?”
Seth eyed her a minute before he shrugged and said, “Okay. It’s up to you, and I have no other plans for the land. But I’d like to see it put to good use.”
Was he disappointed? “Let me talk to Bree about it, now that we know what’s survived the winter. So, anything else going on?” she said to change the subject.
“There’s the Spring Fling this weekend.”
“Oh, that’s right—you were a little preoccupied around this time last year. It’s a party that we hold each year to celebrate the arrival of spring, since by now everybody’s usually got a serious case of cabin fever. It’s not fancy—we hold it in the high school gym—but we’ve got a good local cover band who plays the kind of stuff most people like, and there’s food and dancing, and raffles and prizes. Half the town turns out. Will you come?”
“Are you asking me to be your date?” Meg tried to keep a straight face.
“Of course. But my mother may tag along to chaperone.”
“Well, then, I guess it’s a good thing I like your mother.”