The chapter is long this week but I’m throwing it up anyhow. Not a ton of people read my fiction or comment so who is going to care? No one. *wink* Sometimes it’s depressing writing into a void and sometimes it is very, very liberating.
Seriously, hope everyone is doing well and to find previous chapters from this story you can click HERE or at the top of the page where I also have links to excerpts from my books that are on sale on Kindle.
The board says they are going to need at least half of the loan paid off by the end of the summer for the bank not to foreclose.”
Bill Eberlin’s words were like a kick in the chest to the Tanner siblings and their spouses.
Half of the more than $50,000 loan paid off in less than three months? With the way the milk market was and the fact the corn was barely growing Robert knew the task was virtually impossible. He slid his hand over Annie’s as she sat in the chair next to him and clutched it tight. She smiled at him, but he saw the worry in her eyes.
The men of the family had kept their word and brought Annie, Hannah, and Lauren into the loop, to be sure the women were aware the full extent of the trouble the family’s business was in. Now they were sitting with him, Walt, and Bert in the sparsely decorated conference room at the Spencer Valley Savings and Loan, trying to find a way to save a business that not only supported them but several other families.
“By the end of the summer?” Bert shook his head. “I just don’t see how that’s possible. Will they accept installments of some kind?”
Bill drummed his fingers on the top of his desk. “They might would have if payments had been made before this ‘come to Jesus’ talk, so to speak. The members of the board are nervous, afraid they won’t get their money back. I think they believe setting a deadline will push you to get this loan paid and show you how important paying this loan back is to them.”
Robert rubbed his hand across his face. “I shouldn’t have dragged my feet on getting this taken care of.”
Walt leaned forward on his elbows on the table.
“You weren’t the only one who should have done something,” he said. “We were overly confident that we could take care of this with last year’s milk prices. The last quarter was much worse than any of us imagined.”
“There is plenty of blame to go around,” Hannah said. “But placing blame isn’t going to help us right now. The best we can hope for is a good growing season and stellar sales at the farm store.”
She leaned back in the plush chair with maroon cushions, arms folded across her chest, a determined expression furrowing her eyebrows.
“It’s not hopeless by any means,” she continued. “Our family has a good thing going, a good business. I know the market isn’t great and the growing season has been garbage this year, but the farm store may be just what will keep the business afloat. Molly and I were talking the other day about some ideas for expanding our inventory, adding home décor and expanding the greenhouse.”
Robert admired his sister’s optimism, but spending more money wasn’t what the family needed to do right now.
“Expansion means investing more money and more money isn’t what we have right now,” he said softly.
“I agree with Hannah.”
Walt’s wife, Lauren, was what Robert called pleasantly plump. She wore her light brown hair shoulder length most of the time, curling the edges toward her face, framing her attractive smile and bright blue eyes. She was soft spoken like her husband and thoughtful like Robert, rarely speaking before she had considered all the options of how her words would be received. Her sudden endorsement of Hannah was an unusual step for her.
She shifted slightly in her seat as she realized all eyes were on her now.
“It’s just, I think we can find a way to expand some of what we offer at the farm store and combining that with any income we receive from the milk and produce, we could reach the end of the summer deadline, or at least part of it. Maybe with a show of good faith the board will work with us.”
She glanced at Walt who smiled at her. Their eyes locked as she continued.
“If God is for us, who shall be against us? If we lose the business then, well, God has another plan for this family.”
A brief silence settled over the room. Lauren didn’t speak often but Annie, for one, was glad she had this time. She had a feeling the rest of the family agreed by the way they were nodding their heads.
Bill, clearing his throat, was the first to speak.
“So, sounds like we have a plan all at least. I’m going to keep talking to the board, keep fighting for them to let you amend the contract, and extend the deadline a little longer and you all get everyone in your circle on board and let me know how it goes.”
Walt laughed softly. “I guess that means we need to let our kids and staff know what’s going on.”
Robert winced. “Ooh boy. That’s not going to be fun.”
“No,” Annie agreed. “But it’s necessary.”
Molly had invited Alex to church more times than he could count. He’d always declined. He knew he wasn’t cut out for church. He’d never been a church person. Good people went to church and while he’d never been the worst person in the world, he’d never really been a good person.
In high school, he’d been a troublemaker, mostly pranks and petty theft and underage drinking. He wasn’t sure where he would have ended up if his grandfather hadn’t bailed him out of jail and put him to work at his car business after his last run-in with the law – stealing a truck from a local used car lot and driving it across the city until he crashed it into a telephone pole when the tire blew.
During college it had been all-night drinking at fraternity parties, but luckily he’d kept himself out of trouble long enough to finish his degree, even though he had had no idea if he even wanted to use degree. He’d tried working computer programming for a full year before he hit rock bottom and Jason picked him up and told him: “Boy, I’m going to sweat that rebellious spirit out of you.”
Alex had sweated a lot over the years, but he wasn’t sure he’d sweated anything out of himself except laziness. He’d sweated while working in the fields, cutting down the hay, bailing it, building barns, spreading manure, shoveling manure, milking cows, feeding cows, running errands, and hauling vegetables and other products to the farm store. He’d learned more about farming, construction, operating a business, and planting produce in the last five years than he’d ever learned about computers during college.
The Tanner family had influenced him in almost every aspect of his life, but so far he hadn’t agreed to attend church with any of them. He’d watched them live their faith out every day and that was enough for him. The idea of sitting in a church wasn’t one he relished. Sitting in a hard pew, wearing a stiff shirt and tie and shoes too tight on his feet while a man stood in the pulpit and told him all he’d done wrong with his life did not sound like his idea of fun.
Molly had talked to him about church this morning in the barn, about how a friend of the family was singing a solo, about how the music always made her feel relaxed and at peace. He’d listened to her while hooking the cows into their stall, trying not to laugh at the excited way she talked about a place that seemed so boring to him. Listening to her talk about church, though, didn’t make it sound so bad. Sitting next to her, even on a hard pew, didn’t sound so bad either. Still, he wasn’t interested in tagging along.
“You sure you don’t want to go?” Molly asked as he climbed into his truck.
“Yep, but have fun,” he said with a smile, touching his finger to the edge of his cowboy hat.
He pulled the truck out of the drive and looked in his rearview mirror at Molly walking back toward the farmhouse, wondering if it was wrong to admire the appearance of a pretty Christian girl on a Sunday morning.
Ten minutes later he pulled into the Bradley farm to pick up extra fencing they’d offered Robert the week before to help fix a space of broken fence in the lower pasture.
The Bradley’s 7-year old son Daniel sat on an old rusting milk can by the barn door.
“Hey there, Mr. Stone.”
Alex paused, narrowed his eyes and tipped his head back so he was looking down his nose at the little boy.
“Daniel. Little dude. What did I tell you about calling me Mr. Stone?”
Daniel grinned, a piece of sweet grass in the corner of one mouth. “You said don’t call you that. It makes you feel old.”
“That’s right,” Alex laughed, holding his hand out for a high five. Daniel returned the high five and jumped off the milk can.
“Come on Alex,” Daniel said with a mature jerk of his head.
“Dad said to show you to the fencing back here.”
Alex followed Daniel, amazed, as always at his maturity at such a young age. The first time he’d met him a year ago he’d walked up to Alex and Robert, stuck out his hand and announced “Welcome to our farm. Follow me and I’ll show you the milking room.”
Four-feet tall, dark brown hair and freckles spread across his cheeks and nose, Alex always thought he looked like he walked out of one of those books by that writer his teacher made him read in sixth grade. The Farmer Boy or something.
“Fencing is there, wire is there and Dad says you can have the nails that went with it too.”
Alex nodded and reached for the fence posts and the barbed wire. “Thanks, bud. How’s farmin’ life treatin’ you?”
“Treatin’ me just fine,” Daniel said, leaning back against the wall of the barn, one foot crossing the other, hands in his pocket. “We had a calf last night. ‘Nother bull. Gotta sell it in a few weeks. Can’t give us milk and we already got a bull.”
Alex chuckled as he stacked the posts. As usual, Daniel was giving the run down like he was the parent, instead of the child.
“Were you there for the birth?” Alex asked.
“Yup. It was gross.”
Alex laughed. “But pretty cool to see new life come into the world, right?”
Daniel shrugged and spit the rest of the grass at the ground. “Yeah. Guess so.”
Alex heard Patrick Bradley’s voice boom across the yard to the barn.
“Daniel! Come on up to the house. It’s time to get ready for church.”
“Be right there, Dad! Just helping Alex get the fencin’.”
“Hey, Patrick!” Alex shouted back.
He looked at Daniel and nodded toward the house. “Go on and get ready for church. I can finish here. Thanks for showing me where it was.”
Daniel shoved his hands in his overall pockets and turned toward the house then back to Alex again. “Don’t you go to church, Alex?”
Alex shook his head, tossing the last of the posts in the pile. “Nope.”
“Why not? Don’t you believe in God?”
Alex shrugged. “Yeah, I guess so.”
“So why don’t you wanna go to church?”
Alex lifted some of the posts and started walking toward his truck. “Just not my thing, kid. You go with your family and enjoy it, though, okay?”
Daniel walked behind him, furrowed eyebrows highlighting a thoughtful expression as he rubbed his chin. “I guess it’s okay if you don’t go to church. Mama says God’s not in the buildin’. He’s all around us so you could just talk to God no matter where you are, right?”
Alex tossed the posts into the back of the pick-up, turned and looked down at Daniel, ruffling his hair. “You know what, Daniel Bradley? You’re one smart kid.”
Daniel grinned, one of his bottom front teeth missing. “My mama tells me that all the time.”
“Well, she’s right. Now, head on in and get ready like your dad said. I’ll see you another day, okay?”
Alex watched Daniel run to the house and laughed to himself. If he’d been as smart at 29 as that kid was at seven he had a feeling he wouldn’t have had made as many mistakes as he had in life.
After breakfast in town, Alex headed back to the farm, windows down in the truck, music turned up. He glanced at the Tanner’s church on his way by, slowing down when he noticed Molly out front talking to someone hidden by a tree. Her reddish-brown curls spilled down her back, loose, unlike when she worked in the barn and secured it in a ponytail or under a baseball cap. She was wearing a light pink shirt that highlighted her curves and a flowing black skirt.
Molly smiled and nodded to the person she was talking to. When Alex slowed down and pulled his truck into a parking spot further down the street, he could see through his side mirror that the other person was Ben.
Ben motioned toward a bench in front of the church and sat down. Molly sat next to him as he spoke. At first her expression was serious, then a smile crossed her mouth. She nodded again, speaking to Ben and reached across and laid her hand on his.
What are you even doing, Alex? You’re looking like a stalker right now.
He rolled his eyes. No. You don’t look like one. You’re being one right now.
Molly smiled and laughed again.
Ben smiled and laughed too.
They seemed to be enjoying themselves. Alex noticed the way Ben was sitting close to Molly, touching her arm lightly as they spoke, the way she wasn’t moving away from him, instead watching him intently, clearly engaged in the conversation and maybe also engaged in admiring him.
Jealousy hit Alex hard in the center of the chest. Jealousy and another feeling he couldn’t exactly put his finger on. Maybe disappointment mixed with anger, mixed with a hard realization that he’d been a fool thinking he’d ever be good enough for someone like Molly. Uninterested in sitting and watching their happy reunion any longer, he shifted the truck into gear and gently pulled onto the road, back toward the farm, cursing under his breath.
Jason Tanner pulled his dirty shirt and jeans off and tossed them toward the laundry basket on his way to the bathroom for a shower. It had been a long day, a long week, and that whole thing with Molly a few days before hadn’t helped his mood at all either. He had no idea what nerve he had touched when he offered his sister a cookie but it had left him bewildered and annoyed. He’d been so annoyed he hadn’t even addressed it with her yet, choosing instead not to poke an angry bear.
Women were so confusing. How did offering someone a cookie translate to “You’re fat.”? And how was he supposed to know that Molly was upset about her weight? He knew she’d been working out with Liz and eating a lot of grass-like foods, but he thought it was because she wanted to get healthier, not because she thought she was fat. She never seemed to let it bother her before. She was funny, confident, joked around in the barn and at work at the farm store. She never seemed down or depressed. At least that he’d noticed.
Of course, he was a guy and it had been pointed out to him more than once by El, Molly and a few other women in his life, that he was a bit oblivious at times.
Molly wasn’t fat anyhow. Sure, she’d gained weight over the years, but she looked fine. What was she so worried about anyhow?
He turned the shower on, washing the dirt, grime and sweat from the day away. Today had been tough and pretty weird but that day earlier in the week with Grandma had been even weirder. Had he actually struck a deal with his grandmother to propose to El? He knew his grandmother would hold up her end of the deal too; anything to get him to follow through on his end.
He didn’t know why he was so worried about it anyhow. He’d wanted to propose to Ellie for a couple of years. He could just never seem to get his courage up and then life, and their relationship, would continue on and he’d push it to the side again. He liked the way things were between them now; date nights, road trips to antique stores, church on Sunday, long walks in the woods behind her parents’ house, movie nights.
Of course, there was that one downside that Alex had harassed him about. The whole ‘waiting for marriage’ thing. He definitely struggled with that one, not so much in respecting Ellie’s wishes, because he did respect them, but with the waiting. Like Ellie, he’d been brought up to wait for physical connection beyond kissing until marriage, but there was no denying it, waiting was hard. Very hard. Especially since every time he was near Ellie a barely controlled desire roared inside him and he often had to step back before he tried to push their kisses further.
They’d come close to going all the way more than once but one of them had always stopped it, reminding each other they wanted to save that special moment for their wedding night. Then they’d have the familiar long talk about making sure they had enough money in the bank before they got married, so they could pay for the wedding (since both their parents were farmers and strapped for money) and since they wanted to be able to buy their own house and be financially secure when they were married.
It wasn’t that Jason had never “been with”, for lack of a better term, another woman. He had. Once. In college. With someone he hadn’t cared about. He had met her at a party and thought he wanted to be someone different than he’d been at home. It wasn’t a pleasant memory for him and he’d tried to push it out of his mind for years. The memory carried with it an overwhelming guilt that he’d sacrificed his personal morals for an experience that was rushed and impersonal.
He and Ellie hadn’t been dating at the time and though he hated that it sounded like an excuse, Jason had been restless, lonely, lost. He felt like that night was his rock bottom moment; a wake up call to what kind of man he really wanted to be.
He’d never told Ellie, but, of course, she’d never asked either.
Jason shut the shower off and reached for a towel, rubbing it against his face, water dripping onto the floor. Maybe that was why he hadn’t proposed to her yet. He hadn’t been honest with her and deep down he knew he needed to be open and completely honest with her if they were going to get married, letting her decide for herself if she still wanted to be with him, to start a life with him, despite the fact he’d withheld part of his past from her.
He groaned into the towel. He had to bite the bullet, no matter what, though, not just because of the deal with his grandmother, but because he needed to know if Ellie would accept him despite his failings. God, he hoped she would because he couldn’t imagine his life without her.