Heartland Romance

Chapter 1

“That’s fine. You don’t need to be here during business hours. You know I’ll leave it outside by the back door between the trash cans, and you can pick it up anytime.”

Elias Emerson shoved a hand in his pocket and looked out the one-way glass from his office into the retail part of his farm equipment store.

He said a few more words into the phone before hanging up.

Several customers were being taken care of by the cashier on duty, and off to the side, through the open door into the big shop, he could see several more employees working on fixing things like the driveshaft that he had just been talking to Neil Richardson about.

Business was booming. He was almost debt-free. He helped out occasionally on his family’s farm, and his life was going better than he ever could have pictured it.

He should be completely satisfied.

“I just booked three more repairs for next week. If we get any more in, you’re going to have to decide whether you want to pay your guys overtime or whether you want to push them off to the following week. That’s the State Corn Festival.”

Behind him, his best friend and not exactly business partner, Catherine Connolly, sat at her desk, her hair neatly pulled back away from her face, her attire not exactly New York City fancy but not Prairie Rose, Iowa casual, either.

Not that he usually noticed what she wore. She was just there.

“Let’s do overtime. We’re coming into the busy season, and there are sure to be more calls coming in. When it’s time to harvest, you lose money for every minute that you sit around waiting on equipment breakdowns.”

“I thought that’s what you’d say.” Catherine typed a few things into the computer in front of her and then made a note on the pad of paper beside her.

Catherine managed an online equipment sales company for a well-known brand name machinery outlet, and she had all of her warranty work sent to his shop. Technically, she could pretty much work from home, but it did help him that they worked in the same building. While they didn’t work for each other, and their businesses were separate, there was so much overlap that sometimes it was hard to tell one from the other.

Catherine looked up, her brows drawn together. “Speaking of the Corn Festival, are we still taking your niece with us?”

“As far as I know. Braxton hasn’t said anything different. And with Krista ready to have the baby any time, I don’t think they’re going to make the two-hour drive.”

Catherine smiled, and Elias figured it was all because of Arianne.

She and Arianne, his niece, had a great rapport, and Arianne loved spending time with Catherine. During the summer when school was out, Arianne was often in the office. Catherine had even set up a little desk for her and brought in one of her old laptops from home. He’d thought it was all for play, but Catherine and Arianne had shocked him when they informed him that Arianne was actually helping Catherine with her business. For real.

“That’s great. Now that Krista is around, we probably don’t have to worry about reminding Braxton to make sure she has a preapproved excused absence from school. I’m sure Krista will take care of it.”

Elias hadn’t considered that, but Catherine was probably right. He hated to admit it, but she usually was.

“Hey, boss.” A voice came from the doorway, and Elias turned. There’d been something nagging at the back of his head, and as he looked at Catherine, he felt like he could almost catch whatever it was, but it was gone as soon as he’d heard the voice, and he shifted his focus to the door, stuffing down the irritation he felt.

He hated having the feeling that he was missing something.

“Just wanted to let you know I was grabbing lunch in the back,” Perry said as he stuck his head in the door, nodding and smiling at Catherine before turning his gaze back to Elias.

Elias nodded. “When you come back in, I have some deliveries that need to be shelved if things slow down this afternoon.”

“You got it, boss,” Perry said, giving him a nod before ducking back out, grabbing his sack lunch, and heading toward the back door where there was a picnic table and garbage can set up.

Catherine didn’t do too much with the guys out front, since her sales business was all online, and her head had gone back down as her fingers flew over the keyboard while Elias talked.

“Gram’s having dinner this evening. I assumed you were coming,” he said, remembering that he was supposed to ask her two weeks ago and he never had.

It didn’t matter; Catherine was never doing anything anyway.

“I am. Actually, I was talking to Gram last week, and she mentioned it. I’m going over immediately after work to give her a hand.”

“Oh. Do you want me to go along?” Normally, they did everything together. He’d just kind of been assuming that he’d take her. He supposed they’d been friends for so long they’d become the kind of friends who didn’t really need to have big, long discussions but felt comfortable with each other and had developed a routine from which they seldom deviated.

It felt comfortable, and he liked that. He didn’t like that she was doing something different, although it seemed silly to mention it.

“I was gonna drive to her house straight after work.” She lifted a shoulder without lifting her eyes from her computer, her fingers still flying over the keys.

Something felt off. But he brushed the feeling aside and strode over to his desk. He had a few things he needed to work on. He also wanted to carry the boxes from the back room where they’d been delivered and put them in the store where he wanted the displays set up.

“Maybe after we’re done eating this evening, you’ll have some time to talk to me. I have something I need to tell you.” Catherine’s voice was matter-of-fact, and she didn’t look up until her sentence was over, almost as though she didn’t want to see his reaction.

“You can’t tell me now?” he asked, lifting his hands and looking around the room. If they shut the door, the office was private.

“I can, but I would prefer to wait until we have privacy and aren’t at work.”

Even though Catherine and he had worked together for more than a decade, since before they had gotten out of high school really, he didn’t always understand her. After all, she was a female, and females baffled him, as his long and storied dating history obviously showed.

Maybe that’s what the disquiet was. That subtle annoyance. Whether it was because he wanted a family or because he felt like maybe there was a part of his life where he’d been a failure since he’d been unable to find a life partner, he wasn’t exactly sure.

Not that his brothers had been any more successful. Braxton was the only one who had married, and although Krista was living in Iowa now, no one would really consider Braxton’s marriage successful.

At least not the first part of it. Braxton seemed to be doing a good job of turning everything around.

Maybe that’s what was making him antsy. Seeing Braxton conquer the whole matching up and getting married thing maybe made him want to try again.

As he shuffled through the papers on his desk, he tried to put those thoughts out of his mind. Prairie Rose wasn’t exactly a hotbed of available single women, not to mention he’d already dated most of them. Unsuccessfully.

He was too serious. Too unemotional. Too analytical. Too literal. Too driven. Too involved in his work. Too unable to figure out what the Sam Hill a woman wanted and how to keep her happy.

He hadn’t ever been in a relationship where he hadn’t felt like a puppet on a string, constantly trying to dance to whatever tune the woman was playing and feeling completely clueless and totally unable to figure even the simplest things out.

He’d had a couple relationships that lasted longer than a year, but that was probably more because neither he nor the woman that he was with wanted to break things off, not because they were so madly in love with each other that they couldn’t bear to.

Maybe that was his problem. He was too unemotional to fall in love.

Not that he’d ever heard of anybody with such a problem, but, really, that almost had to be it.

It wasn’t a problem he was going to solve today though, so he paused while sorting the papers on his desk and looked over at Catherine. “When Neil comes back in, you want to go out and eat lunch?”

She looked up, and maybe it was just this weird feeling he’d been having, but she seemed almost preoccupied or maybe concerned. But she nodded as he’d expected her to. In fact, he didn’t typically even ask. Just, when everyone else had eaten, they grabbed their lunch and went together. In the winter, they’d usually eat in the office with the door closed.

Nothing new, nothing exciting. Catherine was as dependable as an old metal-wheeled tractor. She was the one thing in his life he didn’t have to worry about.