A man knelt in front of the third side of the kiosk, restocking shelves from supplies within a wooden crate. Hunched over the task, his face was averted from Charity, but she could see enough to peg him as a mountain man: unruly hair past the collar of his red plaid shirt, heavy work boots, and huge, beefy hands.
“Excuse me, sir, do you work here?”
Clearly startled, the man jerked her way.
Charity was just as startled by the clear gray eyes staring up at her. The color was fascinating. Gray, with a hint of cool blue undertones. And little flecks of brown for warmth, with a dark rim of gray-blue around the irises. His eyes were so arresting that it took a full moment to absorb the next surprise; the man was much younger than she expected. She made the assumption from his coal black curls, the absence of age lines fanning out from his intriguing eyes, the smooth skin stretched across the apple of his cheeks. The rest of his face was covered in hair: loose bangs, shaggy mustache, bushy beard. All black, with only a stray gray hair mingled in here and there.
Realizing she was gazing down at him, lost in the beauty of his eyes, Charity pulled her thoughts together. “Of course you work here,” she chided herself, forcing her eyes away from his. She glanced down at the box at his feet. “Silly question. So, what can you tell me about this syrup?”
He was slow to answer. “What would you like to know?”
His voice was like thunder. It rumbled slow and deep, rolling out from his massive chest. Charity could have sworn she felt the echo somewhere deep within her own belly. Impossible, though. Her stomach had taken flight.
“Every-Everything.” She pushed the word from a mouth gone suddenly dry.
A smile hiked one side of his mustache. Humor lit the gray eyes with an intriguing light. “Might take a while,” he drawled.
If it meant she could stare into those eyes, listening to the deep rumble of his voice, she had all night. She struggled to find a sensible thought, one she could articulate. “Why-Why are the colors so different? Does it mean one is fresher than the other?”
“All fresh,” he assured her. “This year’s batch.”
He placed the last jug on the shelf and positioned it to his satisfaction. Just when Charity feared the few words were the extent of his answer, he spoke again. “Colors mean the grade of the syrup.”
“So…‘A’ is the best?” she surmised, scrunching her face.
“All are the best. Depends on your tastes.”
Charity began to get frustrated with his short, noncommittal answers. How could she drown herself in the river of his deep voice, if he insisted on pouring it out in tiny sips?
Then he stood, and she forgot all about her frustration. She was overwhelmed with the sheer size of the man. He towered over her, several inches taller than six feet. His chest was broad and thick, a solid wall of muscle and flesh beneath a navy t-shirt tucked neatly into his jeans. The red flannel shirt hung open over the tee, its sleeves rolled up to reveal hair-covered forearms as thick as some women’s calves; not hers, of course, but probably her stepsister’s. For every pound Charity collected, Tanya lacked on her tall, skinny frame. This man easily outweighed Charity by a good hundred pounds, but he was hardly fat. He was like a mountain— big, solid, and strong.
Charity loved a man who could make her feel dainty. She could never buy clothes without trying them on first. She teetered between size large and extra-large, depending on the generosity of fabric round her backside. At five foot seven, she was tall enough to feel awkward, not quite tall enough to feel willowy. On the rare occasion she met a man who dwarfed her, she basked in the rusty feel of femininity.
This giant of a man made her feel feminine, and so much more.
With hands the size of a baseball mitt, he reached for a sampler box behind her. She caught a whiff of wood smoke and natural musk as he leaned in toward her. When her heart rattled crazily in her chest, she didn’t know if it was from awareness or fear; the man, after all, was huge.
He presented an open-sided box, where four glass bottles winked back at her. He pointed to each as he spoke, his fingers long and surprisingly slender, given the size of his palms. “This lightest color is Grade-A Golden, what some call Fancy. It has a light, delicate flavor. This one is Grade-A Amber, a little darker, a little richer.” Caught up in the deep timber of his voice, Charity struggled to pay attention to the actual words. His finger moved along to the third bottle. “Grade-A Dark has a robust flavor. This last one used to be called Grade-B; now it’s Grade-A Very Dark. It is the strongest of all, with a very deep, very rich taste. It’s the one you need for cooking.”
If voices were graded, Charity decided, his would be Grade-A Very Dark. Absolutely delicious. She could imagine cooking up all sorts of delights with a voice like his.
Rather than reveal her innermost thoughts, she asked another question. “What do they do? Cook it longer to make it darker?”
Another quirk of his mustache told her he was smiling again. “We have no control over the grading. Cook every batch the same. The later in the season, the darker the grade.”
“You’re a syrup maker?” she asked in surprise. She noted the way he seldom used personal pronouns to refer to himself.
“Called a sugarmaker.” Not only did humor look attractive in his eyes, it sounded wonderful in his voice. It made that deep voice even richer, mellower.
Fascinated by the sound, she forgot to be embarrassed by her blunder. “Sorry,” she murmured in distraction.
“You’re not from around here.” It was a statement, but the question lingered in his gaze; he wanted to know more about her.
“No, I’m from Maryland.”
The man nodded, as if storing away the information for later use. Charity was a bit disappointed when he changed the subject back to syrup. “So what grade would you like?”
“I’m not sure. What goes good with frozen waffles?” She pointed to the basket dangling from her arm.
“Personally, never touch the things. But I’d probably say Golden.” Again, he reached around her. Was it her imagination, or did he lean a bit closer than necessary? This time, though, there was no denying the origin of her hyped up heart rate. She was definitely not afraid. His hand hovered over the pint jug. “Will this be big enough?”
She saw the silent question in his gray eyes. Are you married?
“Just me,” she confirmed.
“Start with this one,” he suggested. He took a half-pint in the shape of a leaf and pressed it into her hands. When his fingers brushed against hers, Charity knew she was blushing, but for the life of her, she could not pull away.
“What’s the difference in glass and plastic?” She worked hard at making her voice sound normal, but it came out almost breathless.
“Glass is forever.”
“I thought that was diamonds.” She was out of practice, but she hoped the witty comeback served as flirting.
His gray gaze darted to her empty ring finger. “Plastic eventually breaks down.”
“I doubt this will last long enough for that,” she predicted, slipping the glass container into her basket. She motioned to the jar of maple cream she had abandoned when she first saw his eyes. “What can you tell me about maple cream?”
“Pure maple syrup, heated, cooled, and whipped. Best thing you’ve ever tasted in your life.” Even as he said the words, his eyes dropped to her lips. The involuntary movement obviously embarrassed him, but it warmed Charity’s heart. The mountain man was flirting with her!
“What-What do you put it on?” She tried to defuse the moment and the look of chagrin in his gorgeous eyes.
She thought he was being cocky. “I thought as much,” she said dryly. “What food do you put it on?”
He shrugged his massive shoulders. “Makes anything better. Some folks call it maple butter. Bake it on butternut squash. Stir it into oatmeal. Eat it on pancakes and rolls. I like it with just a spoon.”
She eyed the small jar again. “And it’s just maple syrup, nothing else?”
“Not ‘just’. Takes a gallon of syrup to make about a dozen of those jars. Takes about forty gallons of sap to make the gallon of syrup. That’s about three decent sized trees; more, if they’re small.”
The numbers were shocking. “That’s all a tree makes?”
“Depends on the weather. Need cold nights and warm days to get even that.”
“I had no idea,” Charity murmured. She had a new appreciation for the delicious sweetness.
Another man walked up from behind, slapping the bearded giant on the back with a friendly greeting. “Tarn, thought that was you! Never heard you say so much at one time, though. Thought my hearing was going. How you doing, young man?” Peering around his massive chest, an older man in faded overalls grinned when he saw Charity. “Ah, I see what had your tongue rattling. A pretty gal will do it every time.”
The giant’s cheeks flushed a deep red. At least, the visible portion of them did, the rest hidden behind facial hair. A similar color appeared in Charity’s face.
She saw the opportunity to flee and took it. “Uhm, thanks for all your help,” she said, swiping the jar of maple cream from the shelf as she whirled to go. Part of her hoped for a clean escape, the other part hoped he would stop her.
He didn’t. The older man started up a conversation with the sugarmaker as Charity hurried to the register. As the cashier rang up her purchases, a familiar deep voice rumbled across the way. “Marge, the maple cream is on me. My treat.”
Charity’s eyes flew back to the bearded man. She could tell he was uncomfortable with all the extra eyes upon him, but he ignored the others as his gray gaze settled on hers. “Welcome to Vermont,” he said quietly.
She was afraid her smile was giddy, but it reflected the way she felt. “Thanks.”
He nodded, but this time, both sides of his mustache lifted.
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