I almost didn’t post this chapter this week because it will probably be changed, maybe even gutted, before the final publication later this summer. I knew if I didn’t post today, though, I would lose my consecutive posting streak. Today makes eight days straight of posting. Amazing, right? No, it isn’t. I know. My life is sad. *wink*
Seriously, though, it is possible this chapter will change quite a bit before publication. If you would like to catch up and read the previous chapters I have posted here, you can click HERE.
For those who are new here, I post a chapter from a fiction story I am working on every Friday and somewhere down the road I publish the chapters as a full novel on Amazon and Barnes and Noble (and sometimes other digital services).
You can catch the first book in this series on Amazon.
“Come on, Ells Bells.” Judi’s tone was mocking “You can’t be angry at me forever.”
Ellie’s hands tightened on the steering wheel and her jaw tightened. Why did her sister have to be such an immature jerk all the time?
Judi pulled her hair into a ponytail. “I’m going with you to help Dad milk cows. At 4 a.m. This makes up for me not being at the hospital, right? You can lighten up now.”
And you can be quiet now, Judi.
She chose not to respond out loud, instead pushing her foot down on the accelerator to make the trip go faster. She was too tired to deal with Judi.
Fortunately, Judi popped her earbuds in for the rest of the trip. Unfortunately, she sang along to her music loudly and off-key.
There wasn’t any time to talk to Judi once they arrived at the farm and Ellie was grateful for that. Their dad was already in the barn and Jason’s truck was in the driveway. She sent Judi to prepare the feed for the calves. That should keep her busy. And quiet even longer.
Jason had been coming every morning and afternoon since the accident, even though her dad had told him he and Patrick could handle it. As far as she understood from her dad, he was helping with the milking at their farm and then heading back to his farm to help Molly and Alex, putting in a full day on both Tanner’s farms and the farm store, and also going on some calls with the fire department.
Watching him lift a back of feed supplement, his biceps bulging like a body builder’s, she wondered when he found time to sleep. Uttering the words, “we need a break” had been easy on the surface but now, at the sight of his back muscles rippling his T-shirt, she couldn’t deny how hard it was to ignore the physical attraction she’d always had for him. That attraction wasn’t easily severed, no matter the status of their relationship. She turned away quickly, focusing on cleaning the udders of the cows. Her dad followed her, hooking up the milking machines.
She spent the rest of the morning doing her best to avoid Jason. When he brushed past her on his way to the back of the barn to retrieve the scraper for clearing out the stalls, she felt that familiar surge of butterflies in her stomach. Trying her best to ignore it, she kept working and didn’t look up. She couldn’t risk her attraction to him making her forget what he’d done.
A trip to the birthing stalls in the back of the barn should distract her until the milking and stall cleaning was done.
The tiny calf next to its’ mother was still wet in the first stall when she turned the corner.
“Well, hey there Sunflower. Looks like Dad was right. You dropped today, huh?”
She stepped into the stall and the cow rose from her laying position. A quick look at the space between its legs confirmed it was a heifer calf.
“Hey, there, little girl. Guess you’ll be staying with us. Hope you’re a good milker like your mama.”
When Ellie turned, she noticed a tremble in the mother’s legs. She touched the cow’s side, sliding her hand across her stomach and neck. The tremble was spreading. When she touched the cow’s ears and felt how cold they were, she knew the cow was in trouble.
“Hey, girl. It’s okay. We’ll get you some help.”
She stepped out of the stall and called across to the other section of the barn. “Dad, do you still keep the CMPK in the back room?”
Tom leaned over a stall. “Yeah. Whose got milk fever?”
She heard a quiet sigh. “I’ll be back to help.”
Jason’s voice came from somewhere behind her. “I got it, Tom.” She flinched and turned to see him walking toward her, rubbing dirt off his hands onto his jeans. She’d always wondered how he looked so amazing even covered in dirt and cow manure. Today was no different.
She didn’t really want his help, but this was a two-person job. As she ran the bottle of calcium under warm water, she thought about how hard it would have been for her dad to help her get the IV into the cow with his ribs wrapped up. While she would have preferred Jason wasn’t there, she was glad he was now that Sunflower needed treatment.
Jason was waiting with Sunflower, rubbing her neck, when Ellie came back with the bottle of calcium and mineral mixture.
“You want to hold her head or put the IV in?” he asked.
Bumping her hip against Sunflower’s rump to encourage her to enter the recovery stall, she handed Jason the bottle and tubing at the same time. “I’ve got her head.”
“Sure you can hold her?”
Her scowl was his answer.
He shrugged. “Okay then.”
Ellie climbed over the metal fencing, stroked Sunflower’s head for a few seconds. Then she threaded the rope attached to the cow’s harness through the fence slats, winding the rope around the top bar and pulling tight until Sunflower’s head was pulled up and to the side, exposing her neck.
“Got it?” Jason had already knelt down, the needle in his hand, ready to insert it.
She nodded and he tapped along the cow’s neck with a finger, searching for the main vein.
Sunflower jerked her head when he tried to put it in. The needle grazed her neck. Blood hit the floor and Jason’s shoes.
“She didn’t like that.” He grimaced. “Tighten that rope so she stays still.”
Ellie’s jaw tightened. “It is tight.”
“Not tight enough.” Jason’s voice was about as tight as her jaw. “She’s going to jerk that head back and I’m going to hit the wrong vein. If you can’t handle it then you can put the needle in, and I’ll hold her head.”
“I can handle it, Jason,” she snapped. “I’ve done it plenty times before, you know that.”
Jason held a hand up. “Okay. Sorry.” His words had softened, but his tone hadn’t. “Calm down. Let’s just get this taken care of. She’s looking more unsteady by the moment. I don’t want to risk her dropping down.”
Ellie jerked the rope against the top rail of the fence, pulling the cows head even higher. Reaching around she patted the cow’s head. She didn’t want to take her frustration with Jason out on the cow, who already wasn’t feeling well.
The needle punctured the neck and Jason straightened. “Got it.” He lifted the bottle and tubing up to let the liquid drip down. “She should be feeling better soon. Keep the rope tight.”
“Yes, sir, bossman,” Ellie hissed through clench teeth.
Jason raised an eyebrow. “Excuse me?”
Jason looked at her over the extended arm as he held the bottle. “I’m just trying to help here, El. I’m here for your dad, not you, so you can check the attitude.”
His words clipped out at her fast and tight. Not even her anger at him could distract her from the flecks of brown in his green irises. She clenched her jaw again, her lips pressed in a thin line as she held the rope tight and turned her head away, keeping her eyes focused on the sun rising above the horizon.
Five minutes later the bottle was empty, and Jason slid the IV out. “Done.” He glared at Ellie, wrapping the IV hose around the empty bottle. “You’re free to go, my lady.”
She glared back but when he lifted his shirt to wipe the sweat off his brow, she saw the skin just above the edge of his jeans and an involuntary rush of delight coursed through her. Goosebumps slid across her skin and her heartrate increased.
When he walked past her, she smelled the musky scent of his aftershave and her stomach flip-flopped. Why couldn’t her brain remind the rest of her body she was angry at him?
“Tom, if you don’t need anything else from me, I’m going to head out.”
Tom leaned back against the wall by the barn door, one arm wrapped around his middle. Ellie wondered when he’d last taken his painkillers.
“No problem, Jason. You’ve been a great help. The girls can finish up.”
Jason nodded, glancing at Ellie. “I’m sure they can. I can head over this afternoon for the milking if you like.”
Didn’t he have an entire farming enterprise to help run? Why did he keep volunteering to help her dad?
“I’ll be here,” she said. “We should be fine.”
Jason tipped his head and kept walking. “Alright then.” His tone was cold.
Ellie walked to the doorway and watched him pull away, emotions jockeying for position. In the end, sadness won over and clutched at her throat, squeezing tight. It’s not like she could blame Jason for being angry. Even she knew she wasn’t exactly being fair about all this. He’d apologized repeatedly, asked to sit down and talk to her, and when she’d repelled all his efforts, he’d given her space. Was it his fault that now she was interpreting his accommodating her as indifference to what he’d done and how it had affected her?
A high-pitched whistle sounded in the barn behind her. “Daaaang, El. You could have cut the tension in here with a knife.” Judi’s laugh grated on her nerves like fingernails on a chalkboard. “The only question is if it was angry tension or,” Judi lowered her eyelids and voice seductively. “Sexual tension.”
Tom cleared his throat. “That’s enough, Judi. Did you finishing feeding the calves?”
Judi folded her arms across her chest and rolled her eyes. “Almost but I have eight more. Come on, El. Help your little sister out. Melanie’s taking me to a restaurant in Kirkwood for lunch and I need to hurry up and get this done so I can get a shower.”
Help her out? Sure, why not? It wasn’t like Ellie hadn’t already done most of the work anyhow while Judi complained about the feed not mixing and the mud oozing around her boots. Anyone who didn’t know Judi would have thought she hadn’t grown up on a farm.
“Fine.” Ellie stomped through the barn door and turned toward the calf enclosures. “Let’s add another thing to my list of chores since you’re morning has been full of such arduous effort.”
Judi made a face as she followed her sister. “There you go with the big words again. Making sure you let us all know you’re the smartest one in the room. Or should I say the barn.”
Ellie ignored her sister’s jab. She didn’t have the mental energy for it after her verbal sparing with Jason. Judi followed her, though, and wouldn’t let up. She was like a dog with a bone now, or like that vindictive swan who had followed Ellie around the pond, screeching and flapping its wings after Ellie accidentally disturbed it while it was nesting.
“Seriously, El. What’s with you and Jason anyhow? If looks could kill he’d be six feet under by now.”
Ellie picked up a feeding bottle and tuned Judi out. As if she was going to tell her sister what had actually happened, how she felt betrayed because Jason had given to someone else what Ellie had always wanted for herself — his first sexual experience. Even saying it to herself sounded ridiculous. What kind of never-ending mocking would she endure from Judi if she admitted it out loud?
Judi didn’t subscribe to the same values Ellie did. She marched to the beat of her own drummer and though they’d never discussed it, Ellie guessed by comments Judi had made in the past that saving herself for marriage wasn’t on Judi’s list of priorities.
“Okay.” Judi tightened the band holding her ponytail in place. “Don’t tell me. If you want to be a childless spinster for the rest of your life, what do I care?”
Ellie’s stomach tightened, a wave of nausea overtaking her. Why couldn’t Judi leave well enough alone? Why did she have to bring children into it? She had a knack for finding Ellie’s vulnerable spot and thrusting comments at her like daggers, clearly thirsty for the fatal blow.
Ellie looked up from the calf she was feeding, eyes flashing. “What are you doing here, Judi?”
Judi smirked, picking up a bottle. “Whatever do you mean, dear sister? I’m feeding calves. Helping our father. Being responsible. Making you happy.”
Her snarky responses weren’t soothing Ellie’s already bristling attitude.
“No.” Ellie snapped the word out, looking over her shoulder. “Why are you here? Back in Spencer again? Shouldn’t you be in the city eating at fancy restaurants, club hopping, and pretending your life is better than everyone else’s?”
Judi averted her gaze but kept the smirk in place. “What? You don’t like having your baby sister here in person for you to look down on? Would you prefer I leave so you can have all the attention like normal and abhor me from a distance instead?”
The bottle made a loud sucking noise as Ellie yanked the nipple from the calf’s mouth, preparing to face Judi and offer her a retort. Milk dripped down the calf’s chin, though, and she bawled out a pathetic cry until Ellie popped the nipple back in.
“Yeah, like I’m the one always craving for attention.” Ellie kept her back to Judi. “I don’t know why I even bother talking to you. All you ever do is blame me for your inability to function as an actual adult. Grab that other bottle and start feeding the calves on the other side or we’ll never get done.”
Judi snatched up the other bottle and snorted a derisive laugh. “You know all about blaming, don’t you, El-bell? Like how you’re blaming Jason for your breakup when it’s probably something you did — like refusing to put out unless he proposed.”
Ellie dropped the bottle. The sting of the slap startled her as much as it did Judi. Judi gasped in a sharp breath, her expression emanating shock for a split second before it morphed into amusement.
Ellie looked at her hand as if it was a part of someone else’s body. The mark on Judi’s cheek blazed bright red. The tears that streaked her face didn’t come from pain but laughter.
“Wow.” She looked proud of herself. She could barely speak between the laughter. “Pushed the right button that time, didn’t I? Looks like Elizabeth Alexandria isn’t so perfect after all.”
Ellie clenched her burning hand tight at her side and pivoted quickly, stomping back toward the house, heart pounding. Judi’s mocking laugh haunted her the entire way.
“Are you girls done?” her mom called from the kitchen. “I made you pancakes and bacon and those muffins you —”
Ellie slammed the bathroom door closed, drowning out her mother’s perky greeting. She slid down the door, and dropped her head in her hands, her body shaking with sobs.
Stupid Judi. Why had she let her get to her like that? She’d been trying to pick a fight with Ellie since she’d arrived two weeks ago, and she had just given her what she wanted.
Confrontation and fights thrilled Judi, made her feel alive, sent adrenaline rushing through her veins like a skydiver every time they opened the door of the plane and jumped into open air. Judi was addicted to drama the same way she was addicted to avoiding being an adult. Ellie had just given her the drug. There was no way it was going to satiate her, either. She’d be back for more, at Ellie’s expense, there was no doubt about that.