This week’s chapter is a pretty long one, so brace yourselves. It is also the week where I am announcing that this latest book should be out to read in full this summer, most likely the end of July. And because I like announcements, I am also announcing that the final title of the book will be Harvesting Hope but I will be calling it The Farmers’ Sons here on the blog.
This story may be a little more raw than some of my other stories, but I hope my regular readers know that even if I mention topics such as sex, drugs, suicide, or low self-esteem, I always try my best not to get too descriptive or graphic. I am not someone who will be writing erotica on here, in other words, but the subject matter is a little more gritty than your average clean/Christian fiction.
So, with all that said, here is Chapter 7 of the story and at the end there will be a sneak peek of Chapter 8. If you don’t know, I share these chapters as a work in progress, so there will most likely be typos and plot holes, etc. If you notice them, please feel free to share with me in private or in the comments. Also feel free to share with me your thoughts on the story so far, on the characters, and on where you think the story should go next.
To read Molly’s story from the first book of this series, download a copy on Amazon or read it through Kindle Unlimited. To read the other parts of this story click HERE or find a link at the top of the page.
Ellie winced, curling her legs up against the heating pad pressed against her stomach. A burning pain had started in her lower stomach an hour earlier and was curving around to her back. She’d finally given up and taken ibuprofen. It hadn’t kicked in yet.
Outside, the sun was glistening off the trees where the leaves had come out on the maple tree behind the building. She enjoyed the blooming trees and flowers on her walk home from work, despite the pain that had increased after lunch time.
Was it the stress of the last few weeks causing her pain to be worse? Maybe her condition was simply getting worse. Either way, she prayed for the pain to end soon. She had Bible study in a couple of hours. They were studying Proverbs 31, and she needed to be there, not only to lead the study, but to focus on something other than her deepening depression.
She drifted off into a fitful sleep for 20 minutes before a knock on the door woke her.
Trying to ignore it, she rolled on to her side, facing the back of the couch.
The knocking continued. Then a voice she didn’t want to hear sent an aggravated growl up from her throat.
“El-bell! Are you in there? I have to pee! I held it all the way from Scranton.”
Ellie flung the blanket off her and glared at the door as she walked to it and unlocked it. What is she doing here?
Judi bounded in as soon as she opened the door.
“Oh, my gosh. Thank God.” Judi dragged a suitcase on wheels behind her and walked into the middle of the living room. “I think my bladder is going to burst. Where’s the bathroom?”
Ellie sighed and motioned toward the hallway beyond the kitchen. She shuffled back to the couch and flopped on her face, waiting for her sister to come out and explain why she wasn’t in New York City right now. A few minutes later, she heard her sister’s heels on the laminate floor.
“Whoa. Has the break-up hit you hard or what? You look awful.”
She squeezed her eyes shut, wishing Judi would go away again. “Thanks, Judi.” She spoke into the couch cushion her face was pressed into. “If you must know, I’m having cramps.”
Cupboard doors opened and banged closed. “Got any food? I’m starving. There is like nowhere to stop on the drive down here. Or in town, of course. This place still doesn’t have any good restaurants.”
Ellie tilted her head to one side, still laying on her stomach. “What are you doing here?”
Judi shoved a wheat thin in her mouth. “Wow. That’s rude. I haven’t seen you in over a year and all you want to know is what I’m doing here?”
Ellie sat up and hugged a pillow against her chest. Her sister had just arrived unannounced, but had the audacity to call her rude? Yeah, okay.
Judi should consider herself lucky that Ellie was too tired to yell.
“I’m sorry,” she said, holding back the annoyance she felt. “It’s just that you don’t visit very often, so this is a bit of a surprise.”
Judi poured a glass of iced tea and then started opening the vegetable drawers. “Do you have any lemons? I like lemons with my tea.”
“Bottom drawer, in the back.”
“Where are the knives?”
“Second drawer from the stove.”
“Cupboard next to the fridge.”
Ellie listened to the click of the knife against the cutting board, waiting for her sister to enlighten her with her reason for the unexpected visit. After a few moments Judi sat in the blue plush chair across from Ellie and crossed one bare leg over the other, the hem of her maroon shorts pulling up to her thigh. She took a long drink from the iced tea before speaking.
“I was worried about you, El.” Her foot bounced as she talked. “You sounded so sad on the phone so I took some time off work and come see if I could cheer you up.”
Ellie looked at her sister through narrowed eyes. “You’re still working?”
Judi scowled. “That’s not nice. Yes, I’m working. I’m still at that designer clothing store I told you about.” She placed her glass on the table next to the chair. “Oh! Which reminds me — I have some of the cutest outfits to show you. I get an employee discount. I thought we could try them on and go out to Mooneys or drive up over the state line and find somewhere to show them off.”
Ellie raised an eyebrow. “I hope you don’t mean tonight because I can’t tonight. I have Bible study.”
Judi made a face. “Tell me you are not still leading Bible studies.”
“I am still leading Bible studies, yes.” Ellie tried to keep the aggravation out of her voice, but it wasn’t working. She took a deep breath, let it out slowly, and tried again. “I have a Bible study at 7. You’re welcome to come along.”
Judi scoffed. “No thanks. Sounds boring. A bunch of uptight women sipping tea, highlighting passages in their Bibles, and acting as if they are so perfect and special.”
“Judi, come on. That’s not how it is.” Ellie tossed the pillow aside and walked into the kitchen to make herself a cup of blueberry tea. The cramps were still there but staring to fade to a dull ache. “These are nice women. Real women, talking about real issues. They aren’t fake.”
Judi stretched a leg out and propped her foot on the coffee table. “Real issues, huh? Like what dress to wear to church on Sunday? Or how ashamed they are for noticing how good looking the pastor is? Or maybe they talk about how disgusted they are with all the people who go out and live lives instead of sitting around reading some old book all day.”
A bird chirped from the branch of the cherry tree outside below the kitchen window and Ellie wished she could turn into that bird and fly away. She filled the kettle and sat it on the burner and turned it on. She turned toward Judi and leaned back against the kitchen counter, folding her arms across her chest.
“What happened to make you so angry at Christians, Judi? You never used to be like this.”
Judi sighed. “I’m not angry at Christians. It’s just —” She shrugged. “Some of the women that go to that church seem so stuck up. They act as if they are so perfect.”
The bird chirped again, and Ellie could almost feel herself in flight, gliding above the roofs of the buildings in town, over the courthouse and the library, to the edge of town where the train tracks cut a path between the business and residential districts. If Judi hadn’t been there, she would have closed her eyes, completing the mental journey out of town, across the farmland, down the path of the highway; transporting herself as far away from her current life as possible.
“Some do, yes, but not all. Most of those women are normal, everyday women who just want to learn more about God and how they can trust him during the good and bad times. It really isn’t fair for you to judge them.”
Judi turned in the chair and laid her arms across the back of it, propping her chin on her arm. “Is that what you talk about with these women? Your bad times? Like your bad times with Jason?”
Ellie bristled at the mention of Jason. The anger she felt toward Judi for bringing him up startled her. It was sudden and visceral. She didn’t talk about Jason to anyone but Lucy. Judi didn’t even know why she and Jason had broken up. When she’d asked, Ellie had told her they’d grown apart, and she didn’t want to talk about it. For once, Judi had left it alone.
Ellie turned and set the tea bag in the honeybee mug Molly had given her last year for her birthday. “Have you been home to see Mom and Dad, yet?”
Judi laughed. “I see how it is. Not going to talk to your little sister about the big breakup. Well, fine. You don’t have to. We’ll get you out to some clubs, meet some good-looking men and you’ll forget all about that dirty cow farmer.”
Judi stepped around the island separating the living room and kitchen and hoisted herself up onto the countertop next to the breadbox. “I’ll pop over to the parental units tomorrow. See what’s going on at the old homestead.”
Ellie reached in the cupboard next to the stove and reached for the jar of honey. “Did you even tell them you were coming?”
“Nah. I knew they’d be glad to see me no matter what.” Judi reached into the breadbox and pulled out a piece of the homemade bread Ellie had brought back from her parents Sunday. She bit into it and groaned with pleasure. “Mom’s homemade bread. So good. Makes me almost sad I gave up gluten.” She shoved more of the bread into her mouth, talking with her mouth full. “This one little piece shouldn’t hurt.” She looked down at her hips and patted the left side. “I hope anyhow. I can’t afford to gain weight or I won’t fit into that cute skirt I brought with me.”
She jumped off the counter. “I’m going to go grab my bag. It’s cool if I stay here, right?”
“Yeah, I gue—”
“Cool. I need a shower and a nap. I drove straight through and I’m beat. Have fun at your Bible study.”
Ellie waited for the teakettle to whistle, tapping her foot against the floor, her jaw tight. First, she’d had to deal with Brad, and now she had to deal with Judi. Could this week get any worse? She rolled her eyes.
“Don’t speak it into existence, Ellie Lambert,” she whispered as the teakettle whistled. “You know it can.”
She’d stood in the locker room doorway, dirty blond curls spilling down her back like a luxurious spider web. She pressed one finely manicured hand flat against the door frame, the other curled around her slender hip.
There had been so many nights over the years, especially recently, when Jason closed his eyes and saw her in his mind’s eye, hating himself all over again.
Bright red lipstick highlighted full lips. Dark eyeliner and light blue eye shadow complimented her green eyes.
“Hey, Jason, you’re looking good.” Her gaze had traveled down the length of him and back up again, lingering on his bare chest. She pulled her lower lip between her teeth, a soft purr vibrating in her throat. “Of course, you’re always looking good.”
He’d slid his shirt on, pulling it down with a quick jerk. “Thanks. You look nice too.”
She took a step forward, sliding a hand down a thigh length black mini skirt. “You think so?” She straightened her shoulders, pushing her chest forward, the red fabric of her shirt stretching tight against her slim figure.
“This is a new outfit.”
He nodded, cleared his throat. “Looks great.”
Returning to packing his gear in his locker, he tried to give off the vibe that he wasn’t interested in whatever Lauren was offering. And she was offering a lot. Not so much in words but loud-and-clear in body language.
She was attractive, yes, but Lauren also had a reputation around campus, and it wasn’t a good one.
Her fingertips trailed up his arm as he slammed the locker door closed, swirling a pattern up his shoulder and along the back of his neck. “We’re having a party tonight down at Phi Beta Kappa. I need an escort.” She played with the hair on the back of his head. “Interested?”
He shook his head, wishing her touch didn’t feel so good. “Nah. I’ve got a workout session scheduled.”
Her lips were close to his ear. “The party will be going late. Stop by and join us.” She leaned even closer, her breath hot against his skin. “When you’re done.”
Everything about Lauren was the opposite of Ellie. Ellie’s sweetness was genuine. Lauren’s sweetness was an act, a way to get into the heads of men she’d set her sights on to conquer. At least that’s how he saw her looking back.
No matter how many ways Jason tried to vilify Lauren Phillips, though, he couldn’t. He was the one who had decided to accept her offer to go to those parties, to let her lull him into what he’d hoped would be a pleasure filled distraction from the distorting thoughts that had settled on him at college.
The first kiss, outside his dorm when she’d walked back with him from the gym, had been intense. It had sparked a physical desire in him he’d almost caved in to but had resisted, using the excuse he had a class to get to. It wasn’t a lie, but he knew he was copping out. Any other guy on campus would have accepted her advances and launched a counter-attack of their own.
When Lauren kissed him hard one night after a party at her apartment, his will crumbled around him. Her arms wound around him like a serpent. As she pulled him toward an open bedroom door in her apartment, her hands up under his shirt, he knew he was crossing a boundary he’d set for himself years ago. He hadn’t even cared anymore. He needed something, anything, to drown out the pain of Ellie’s rejection, the doubts about his faith clouding his mind.
For those brief moments he’d forgotten who he was, and it felt amazing.
The guilt set in like a heavy chain around his neck within moments after he’d stumbled through her bedroom door, carrying his shirt and jeans.
The alcohol had blurred his senses. It had all been so rushed. She was dressing before he’d even had time to wrap his mind around what had just happened.
“That was fun.” Her tone was casual as she buttoned her blouse. “We should do it again sometime.”
He’d woke up a few hours later in his dorm room, unable to remember how he got there. Alex stood over him, his expression a mix of concern and confusion.
“Hey, Jase. You okay?”
Jason had moved in with Alex at the beginning of the second semester of his sophomore year to remove himself from the peer pressure of living with a bunch of football players in a frat house downtown. Alex, who he’d met his freshman year during an English Lit class, hadn’t offered him the break from temptation he’d been hoping for.
Instead, Alex had talked him into visiting bars, meeting women – meeting Lauren. Part of him could have blamed Alex like he tried to blame Lauren, but none of it had been either of their fault. He’d made his own decisions, and now he had to live with them.
Alex’s reaction to his state of mortification was less than supportive. At least at first.
“You got with Lauren Phillips?” He raised his arms to celebrate. “That girl is hot. She wouldn’t even give me the time of day. What have you got that I don’t?” Alex slapped the back of his hand against Jason’s right bicep. “Oh, yeah…muscles.”
Jason vomited in an empty container from the Chinese restaurant.
Alex made a face. “You’re throwing up after sleeping with a hot woman? Is it the alcohol or do you need to tell me something else? Like maybe you don’t like women? Maybe you like —”
“Alex!” Jason wiped his hand across his mouth, looking for a paper towel to clean himself off. “I like women. I am definitely attracted to women. That’s not it. If it was, I wouldn’t be in this situation right now.”
“What situation? Wait. Didn’t you use —”
“I just mean the whole Lauren situation. Come on, Alex. Don’t make this worse than it is.” Jason sat back, pressing his hands to his face. “I’m not the guy who just jumps in bed with a woman I don’t even know. You know that.”
“You mean like me?”
“That’s not what I meant. I just mean that I wanted to have a connection with the woman I – with whoever I first — I mean…”
Alex shrugged, scooting himself back onto the top of the dresser, his legs hanging down. Jason could tell he didn’t want to talk about his friend’s bedroom experiences, or lack thereof.
“Okay, listen, you made a mistake. That’s all. It’s not the end of the world. Just cut Lauren loose and take some time to think about things. About what you really want. This is college. This where we screw up and learn our lessons, right?”
Jason had definitely learned a lesson from the experience, but he wished he hadn’t had to.
He’d almost lost his football scholarship that year after showing up late to too many practices and showing up more than once with a hangover. He avoided Lauren after their encounter, ignoring her phone calls and telling her he had homework to do that one night she’d pounded on his dorm room door.
“I guess you got what you wanted,” she snapped, arms folded across her chest, standing in the doorway as he tried to close the door. She lifted an eyebrow and smirked. “Or maybe I just got what I wanted.”
It was the last time he’d seen her, other than across the campus from time to time when she was hanging off the arm of one of the other football players.
He had refocused himself for the remainder of that year and for the next year after that. All he wanted was his degree, so he could go home and make sure his family’s business survived. He’d also realized he wanted to go back to Ellie. Along with God she was an anchor for him, and when he’d let go of them both, it had spun his life out of control.
The front door slammed open, bringing Alex and a gust of wind into the room and jostling Jason from his memories.
This was present day Alex, Alex seven years later but in some ways the same ole’ Alex. But hopefully not exactly the same Alex, since he was dating Molly now.
The crash of thunder and rush of pounding rain roared into the living room, quieted only when Alex pushed the door closed, his clothes clinging to him. Sliding his cowboy hat off, he propped it on the hook next to the door, then paused and looked at Jason, sprawled on the couch on his back.
“All the lights are off and you’re listening to sad country music. This can’t be good.”
“It’s not sad music. It’s Chris Ledoux.”
“Who you only listen to when you’re sad.” A crack of thunder rattled the window and lightening lit the sky outside.
Alex winced as he pried his wet button-up shirt off and tossed it toward the laundry room. It landed in the hallway, and Jason hoped he would pick it up this time. “Thinking about Ellie?”
Jason tipped his head back against the arm of the couch, his long legs stretched across the faded grey cushions, one arm laying across his forehead, the other one hanging off the couch.
“Yeah. And Lauren.”
Alex reached up and flicked on the light switch. “Ah, man, no. Not a good combination. You can’t sit here sitting in the dark reflecting on past mistakes. It’s not healthy.”
Jason burped and reached for the can of soda on the coffee table without sitting up. Alex kicked at an empty bag of potato chips on the floor. “Um… this isn’t healthy either. Where are your regular veggie sticks and protein shakes?”
Alex pulled his wet tank top off and walked behind the couch toward the hallway leading to the bathroom. “Listen, I’m going to go get dried off and changed. When I come back, you better tell me what’s up.”
“Will you have your shirt on when you come back? Because I don’t need to see that.”
Alex scoffed and slapped his hand against his bare chest. “Of course, you need to see this. Who doesn’t?”
“You really want me to answer that?”
“Yeah, well —”
“If you say Molly likes to look at that I will get off this couch and mess up your pretty boy face.”
Alex raised his hands in a surrender motion. “Okay. Okay. Calm down, big boy.”
A few moments later, dried off and wearing a fresh t-shirt and pair of jeans, Alex smacked the bottom of Jason’s feet and told him to shove over and sit up. He sat a water bottle on the coffee table and cracked open a can of soda he’d grabbed out of the fridge on the way back to the living room. He took a long drink before sitting where Jason’s feet had been.
“Come on, man. What’s going on? Talk to your old friend Alex while you flush all that junk out of your system with this —” He squinted at the label on the water bottle. “Electrolyte enhanced mineral water. Whatever that is.”
Jason groaned and sat up, picking up the bottle. He leaned his elbows on his knees and sipped the water, staring at the turned off television. In its reflection, he saw a hollow version of himself, eyes heavy and empty.
Rain drops against the metal porch roof out back filled the silence. He rubbed his hand along his jawline, staring at the television until his haggard image blurred. The last three weeks had been full of training sessions for the fire company mixed in between building pens for the goats and planting corn and rye and his regular duties at the farm. His body was screaming a warning that he couldn’t keep this pace up much longer.
Alex cleared his throat, leaned forward, and propped his elbows on his knees. “Listen, Jason, like I said that day Ellie overheard us, I’m sorry for any part I played in you meeting Lauren.”
Jason waved his hand dismissively. “No more apologies, Alex. Like I told you then, my choices got me here, not yours. It wasn’t your fault. I decided to go with you to those bars and parties and I chose to sleep with Lauren, even if alcohol did cloud my judgement.” He pushed his hands into his hair and shook his head again. “If anyone should feel guilty, it’s me for not influencing you in a more positive way. I should be doing that now.”
Alex leaned back again and slid his hands behind his head, grinning. “So, you mean you should be my spiritual guide?”
“Well, maybe, yeah. Someone has to help you. You’re a mess.”
Alex playfully tossed a pillow at Jason’s head. “Thanks, jerk, but we’re talking about you. Not me. So, what are you going to do about Ellie? Molly says you and Ellie talked a few Sundays ago.”
“Talked.” A derisive laugh escaped Jason’s lips. “More like yelled until I was hoarse, and she was bawling.”
Alex tossed the empty soda can toward the recycling bin in the kitchen. It bounced off the edge and rolled across the kitchen floor. “Yeah. Didn’t sound like it went very well.”
Jason swallowed hard, remembering the way Molly had looked at him. It had been almost as bad as the way Ellie looked at him.
“She said she needed time but I’m pretty sure she meant she needed to never see me again.”
Alex shook his head and leaned against his hand, propping his elbow on the arm of the couch. “It doesn’t seem fair. I mean, it’s not like you slept with Lauren when you two were dating. You were broke up.”
“That’s not the point in her mind.” Jason stretched his legs out in front of him, propped his feet up on the coffee table. “The point is, I never told her about it. She feels like I broke her trust.” He closed his eyes, pinched the bridge of his nose between his thumb and forefinger. “And she’s right. I did.”
Alex tipped his head back against the couch, looked up at the ceiling. “The thing is, though, you’re a guy and guys can’t always push their needs aside like women can.”
Jason tilted his face toward Alex, cocking an eyebrow. “Oh, yeah?” He folded his arms across his chest. “You don’t say.”
“Listen, it’s admirable that you and Ellie waited for this special time between each other. It really is, but is it realistic? Like I said, guys have needs. She gets that, right?”
Jason narrowed his eyes, tipped his head to look at Alex, trying to stay calm. “Yes, Alex. Guys do have needs and you’re dating my sister. Anything you need to share with me right now?”
Alex laughed, rolled his tongue inside his cheek, propping his ankle over the opposite knee as he folded his arms over his chest and shook his head. “Let’s not get off topic here —”
“I’m on topic.” Jason watched Alex intently. “Tell me more about how the guy who is dating my sister has needs that need to be met. I’m listening.”
Red spread quickly across Alex’s cheeks and ears. “Listen, I respect Molly.” He cleared his throat and picked at a string on the bottom of his jeans, back to Jason. The smile had faded.
Jason cocked an eyebrow. “Yeah. And?”
Alex held his hand up, palm out. “Hey, remember what I told you after you found out about me and Molly? About things being private between a man and women, even if that woman is your sister? That applies here too.”
Jason wasn’t looking away. Alex cleared his throat again. “But — since I like my face being in one piece, I will tell you that your sister is worth waiting for.” He paused for emphasis, his gaze meeting Jason’s. “In every way. Okay? Now, let’s move this conversation back to your situation with Ellie.”
Jason’s eyes stayed narrowed. “Just because we men have needs, Alex, as you put it, doesn’t mean we have to have those needs met all the time or at the wrong time. There’s something called self-control and I should have had more self-control with Lauren. I’d committed to staying sexually pure for my future wife. It may sound old-fashioned to you, but it was how I felt and how I still feel.”
The teasing disappeared from Alex’s tone. “I get it, Jase. I do. Okay? You’re right. It sounds old-fashioned to me, but it also sounds nice. It just doesn’t seem fair to me you’re losing everything you had with Ellie over a woman like Lauren Phillips.”
Standing and walking across the floor to look out the window, Alex let out a long breath. Raindrops speckled the windowpane. Thunder rumbled in the distance. He turned to face Jason again, leaning back against the door and crossing one leg over the other. “That girl was trouble. I saw her making out with Jake Murray at a party a couple days later. I think she made her way through the entire football team that year. Probably that semester even.”
Jason rubbed his eyes, a stinging ache growing behind them. His chest tightened, and he shook his head. He felt like he was suffocating under the weight of shame-filled memories.
A pounding on the door gave him the chance to quickly pass his hand over his eyes and swallow his emotion. Alex stepped away from the door, turned, and opened it, letting in the sound of the pouring rain.
Molly stood on the porch, breathless. Rain matted her hair to her forehead and face, drenching her clothes. “My truck has a flat up the road and I think Liz is in labor.”
Jason grabbed his hat and jacket. “We’ll take my truck, come on.”
By the time he pulled his truck behind Molly’s, sitting along ditch about a mile from their grandmother’s house, the rain had stopped. Liz was pacing alongside the road, rubbing her protruding belly. She had pulled her long dark brown hair into a tight ponytail and her face was pale.
Alex jumped out first, helping Molly out next. “Should you be walking around like that?”
Liz shrugged and tossed her hands up. “It’s either this or sit in there and hyperventilate.”
Jason glanced in the back of the truck. “The spare is here at least. Your water broke yet?”
Liz rubbed her arms and continued pacing. “If you mean all that water that is supposed to come out before the baby does then no. It’s just cramping right now. Intense cramping. Every ten minutes or so.”
Jason retrieved the jack and spare tire from the truck bed. “If your water hasn’t broken, we’ve got time to change the tire.”
Liz made a face. “When did you become a doctor?”
Kneeling next to the flat tire, Jason grinned. “I’ve watched about a few hundred cows give birth in my lifetime and not much happens until the water breaks.” He stood, pushed his foot down on the jack handle. “I’m sure it’s the same with humans.”
Liz scowled, folding her arms across her chest. “Jason Tanner, did you just compare me to a cow?”
He winked under the brim of his John Deere cap. “If the shoe fits, sweet cheeks.”
Liz kicked mud at him and growled. “If I wasn’t about to give birth, I’d kick your bu —”
“You’re not about to give birth.” Jason loosened a bolt on the tire. “You’re probably just having false labor.”
Liz swung to face Molly. “It’s fine if I bludgeon your brother with the tire iron, right?”
“Not unless you don’t want to get to the hospital,” Molly laughed.
Jason reached into his pocket and tossed the keys at Alex. “Take my truck. I’ll drive Molly’s.”
Liz winced and held on to the side of the truck, breathing slowly. The color in her face had drained again, and she bent over slightly.
“Get going,” Jason said, jerking his head toward his truck. “I’ve helped plenty of cows bring babies into the world, but I have no interest in doing it with a human.”
Molly took Liz’s hand and slid her arm around her waist. “Lean against me and breathe like we learned in class.”
Liz nodded, a tear escaping from the corner of her eye. Jason looked up to see her look at Molly with glistening eyes. “I don’t think I can do this,” she whispered.
Alex laughed softly as he opened the passenger side door. “A bit late for that.”
He winced as Molly’s fist hit his upper arm. “What? It is.”
Jason chuckled and shook his head. “Better watch it, Alex. Molly doesn’t get angry, she gets even.”
Molly turned her scowl from Alex to Jason, then back to Alex before smiling at Liz and rubbing her back. “Ignore them. Focus on the fact that soon you’ll be holding your baby in your arms.”
Alex placed a hand under Liz’s elbow and helped her into the truck.
Liz’s shoulders noticeably relaxed as she leaned back against the seat, closed her eyes, and took a deep breath. “Stay calm. Have a baby. Beat up Alex and Jason. I can do this.”
Alex laughed and patted her shoulder. “At least you have your priorities straight.”
Chapter 8 Sneek Peak
Jason watched the truck disappear down the road for a moment before turning back to the tire. He worked a bolt loose, saying a quick prayer for Liz. Quick prayers were all the prayers he allowed time for these days. Any longer and his thoughts spiraled out of control.
The crunch of tires on gravel brought his head up. There was little chance he didn’t know whoever was driving by. Everyone knew everyone in this county. When he recognized the old blue pick-up pulling up behind Molly’s truck, his heart sank.
Tom Lambert, his dark brown hair speckled with gray, leaned an arm on the wall of the truck bed.
Here is part two of the chapter I posted yesterday. If you read down to the end you’ll also get a sneak peak of next week’s chapter. If you would like to read the story of Jason’s sister, you can learn more about The Farmer’s Daughter HERE or at the link at the top of the page. If you don’t have a Kindle or Kindle Unlimited, I’ll have options to order digital copies of the book other ways in June. You can also order a print copy on Amazon or Barnes and Noble.
To catch up on the rest of The Farmers’ Sons click HERE.
Jason glanced up at the tops of the trees as he drove, noticing the limbs bending in the wind. Wind and fire. Never a good combination.
He saw the smoke before he saw the fire. Dark clouds rose up in plumes against a backdrop of the blue and green hillside, over the roofs of the homes he passed. When he rounded the corner, he saw flames ripping across Lester Franklin’s side yard and the dry-yellow field next to it. Lester, a truck driver for a local heating oil business, was standing a few inches away from the flames, beating them down with what looked like a wet burlap sack used to store grain.
Cody was already there in his blue Ford pick-up. The fire truck hadn’t arrived yet.
“Controlled burn that got out of control,” Cody called as Jason jumped from his truck. He handed Jason a shovel and a hoe. “Lester was burning some old brush and branches. The grass was dryer than he realized. Let’s try to keep it from going toward the house until the truck gets here. We’ll dig a buffer zone and hope it doesn’t jump it. If it does, we may need to light another fire, but hopefully the guys get here first. If a flame sprouts up in front of you throw some dirt at it or take one of the soaked bags over there and try to beat it back.”
Cody briefly explained the concept of a buffer zone and how to create one, demonstrating it as he began creating a line between the field and yard.
The heat from the flames hit Jason full force as he started digging behind Cody. He dug quickly, hoping the flames would keep their path on the other side of the line. Cody grabbed a stack of sacks and soaked them under the outside spicket then returned to digging the path, beating back the flames with a soaked sack every few minutes.
Twenty minutes later, drenched in sweat, Jason heard the sirens of the fire truck blaring about a mile away at the same moment the wind shifted and sent flames slamming toward him and around him. He stepped back fast but not fast enough to keep the fire from jumping from the ground to his jeans.
Cody was next to him in seconds, patting his palms against Jason’s pants, down near his ankles.
Once flames were no longer slithering up his legs, Jason grabbed one of the sacks as Cody pointed toward the Franklin’s house.
“It’s spreading toward the bush by the back porch!”
The truck pulled into the side yard a few minutes later and blazed toward the back field, siren blaring. Behind it were three more trucks with blue flashing lights on top, volunteers jumping out as soon as their trucks were in park.
“Get the hose and soak the porch!” Cody shouted.
The hose was being rolled out as a smaller truck pulled in behind the larger one.
Brittany Manahan’s arm bumped Jason’s as she pushed past him with the hose. “Hey, rookie, back up before we drown you.” Her arm shot up as she gestured toward the firemen back at the truck. “Let ‘er loose, boys!”
Water shot out across the top of the porch, doused the blazing bush at the same time. Jason moved back to the field where spindly patterns of fire were reaching toward the woods behind the house.
He hit the flames back with the wet sack until the hose from the smaller truck was pulled his way, then grabbed the hose, joining Denny Ward and Jacob Beecher. The three men dragged the hose through the burnt grass toward the flames that still hadn’t been tamed.
By the time the fire was out a half an hour later, Jason’s face and neck were slick with sweat and any skin showing was smeared with soot.
He staggered toward the house with Denny and Jacob, dragging the hose behind them.
“Good job for your first brush fire, Tanner,” Brittany said tossing him a water bottle. “Drink up, I don’t want to have to try to carry your big butt to the ambulance.”
Brittany was a paid EMT for the Tri-County Ambulance service, which covered the county Spencer Valley was in and two others. When she wasn’t riding with the ambulance, she was responding to fires as a volunteer member of the Spencer Valley Fire Department.
Jason caught the bottle, twisting the cap off. “Thanks.”
Brittany tossed her head back, releasing dark curls from a hair tie with one hand and yanking the rest of the strands from where they’d been shoved under the collar of the fire suit.
She drank down half a bottle of her own before focusing her gaze on Jason. She leaned one arm against the trunk of the tree next to her. “You’re a natural at this. You knew what to do without any of us telling you.”
Jason shrugged a shoulder. “Just a quick learner. But Cody did give me some pointers”
Denny walked up to stand under the shade of the tall maple tree with them. He winked at Brittany. “His being built like a Greek god doesn’t hurt any either, does it Brittany?”
There was no mistaking the red that flushed up Brittany’s cheeks, but she didn’t give the men time to harass her about it. “I hadn’t noticed, Denny. Something you need to tell us, or maybe Heather when you get home?”
Heather was Denny’s wife. Jason had graduated with both of them.
“Very funny, Manahan. Don’t try to deflect. You’ve been checking out Tanner since he signed up.”
Brittany tossed her empty water bottle toward Denny, slid the jacket of the fire suit off and turned back toward the rig. “Sounds like maybe you’re deflecting your own obsession with Tanner,” she called over her shoulder.
Denny elbowed Jason in the ribs. He nodded toward Brittany, now across the yard by the truck. “Watch out for that one. She’s a man eater and she’s definitely been checking you out.”
Jason laughed softly, shook his head. He didn’t know if what Denny was saying was true or not, and he didn’t really care.
“Not worried about it.” He took another long drink from the bottle. “I’m steering clear of the opposite sex for a good long while.”
Denny leaned back against the tree they were standing under. “You and Ellie still on the rocks?”
Jason nodded, finishing the water in the bottle, and crushing it in his hand. A cool breeze slid over his skin and he closed his eyes briefly to enjoy it.
Cody walked over, leaned one arm against the tree, and shook his head. He looked at the charred scene around them as he guzzled a bottle of water.
“Last year we had too much rain, this year we could use some more. I’d love a year where we’d get just the right amount of rain.”
Denny and Jason agree with quick nods of their heads.
“It would certainly make farming a lot easier,” Jason commented.
Elizabeth Franklin stepped out on the porch with a tray of lemonade and a plate of cookies. She placed the tray on a small table and cupped her hands around her mouth to call across the yard. “Come on over, guys. Have some refreshments before you head out.”
Cody grinned, patting Jason on the shoulder as they walked. “Volunteers may not get paid in money, but we do get paid in baked goods.”
Jason patted his stomach, still flat, but knew it wouldn’t be much longer if he didn’t stop taking ‘thank you’ gifts of food. He would need a couple extra hours in the gym this next week.
Elizabeth poured glasses of lemonade, waving over the rest of the fire fighters still on scene. “Goodness, boys, that was scary. We can’t thank you enough for saving the woods and the house.” She looked up as Brittany walked over, now out of her fire gear. “Sorry about that hon’. I forgot our fire department has a young lady now. No offense meant.”
Brittany waved her hand dismissively, taking a glass of lemonade with the other hand. “No offense taken, Mrs. Franklin.”
Elizabeth propped a hand on her hip. “Brittany, you know you can call me Elizabeth now. I haven’t been your teacher in ten years.”
Brittany made a face. “I’ll try but I can’t make any promises. Just seems weird.”
Jason laughed. “I didn’t even have you as a teacher and I don’t think even I can call you Elizabeth.”
Gray streaked the older woman’s dark blond strands pulled back in a ponytail. She folded her arms across her chest and looked down at Jason, standing on the ground next to the porch. “That’s right. I never did have you in class, did I? I do remember having Molly. One of my brightest students. How’s she doing these days?”
“Good. Working hard at the country store, managing our website, and of course, still working on the farm.”
Elizabeth pressed her hands against her lower back and stretched back slightly. “She’s not married yet either is she?”
Jason’s chest constricted at the question, though he knew Molly’s former English teacher had no idea she’d struck a painful chord.
“No. Not yet.”
Elizabeth smiled affectionally and winked. “Well, you both better get on it and give Robert and Annie some grandchildren to cuddle. They’re just going to love being grandparents. I know Lester and I do.”
Being reminded of not having children yet at his age, while wondering if he ever would, was making Jason wish that fire had consumed him.
Cody jerked his head toward the trucks after a few more minutes of chatting. “We’d better get these hoses rolled up and the rigs back to the fire house.”
The conversations broke up as the firefighters pulled off their gear and headed back to the trucks or their own vehicles. Jason dragged a hand across his forehead, looked at the black smeared on his skin, and grimaced. It was going to take a lot of soap to get all this off.
Brittany climbed into the passenger side of the larger fire truck and leaned her head out the window. “Hey, Jason, some of the guys and I are going to Mooney’s after we clean up. Wanna join us?”
He shook his head, wiping his hands on his pants. “I’ve got to head back to the farm but thanks for asking.”
He didn’t miss the wink she gave him. “Next time, okay? I’ll buy you a beer.”
He waved as the truck pulled out then winced as he watched the truck head down the dirt road.
Maybe Denny was right. He’d better watch his back with that one.
Standing in the shower fifteen minutes later, after telling his dad he’d be in the barn soon to help with the milking, he let the water run hot down his back. Exhaustion ate away at his strength. He leaned his arm against the wall and his forehead against his arm.
He hoped the water would loosen his muscles and wake him. He still had a farm to help run. When he thought about Elizabeth’s comments about grandchildren, he turned the knob further toward the hot, hoping the water would burn her words out of his mind like it was burning the soot off his body.
“Hey, Jase.” Alex’s voice from the other side of the door made him groan softly. “Any idea where the toolbox went? A hose on the milker broke again.”
While he would have liked to have been able to shower in peace, he couldn’t deny how grateful he was that there was always something to keep his mind off what he didn’t want to think about.
Sneak peek of Chapter 7 for next week:
Ellie winced, curling her legs up against the heating pad pressed against her stomach. A burning pain had started in her lower stomach an hour earlier and was curving around to her back. She’d finally given up and taken ibuprofen. It hadn’t kicked in yet.
Was it the stress of the last few weeks causing her pain to be worse? Maybe her condition was simply getting worse. Either way, she prayed for the pain to end soon. She had Bible study in a couple of hours. They were studying Proverbs 31 and she needed to be there, not only to lead the study, but to focus on something other than her deepening depression.
She drifted off into a fitful sleep for 20 minutes before a knock on the door woke her.
As always this story is a fictional serial which I update every Friday. it is also a work in progress and will be turned into a book once I’ve posted the chapters here on the blog and once it has been edited and maybe even rewritten.
I will share part two of this chapter tomorrow on the blog.
Let me know what you think of the story so far in the comments. What do you think should happen next or what has happened so far? And if you would like to read the first book in this series, you can find it on Kindle Unlimited or order a digital copy on Amazon. You can also order print versions on Amazon or Barnes and Noble.
To catch up on the other chapters of this story click HERE.
Robert set a steaming mug of black coffee on the table in front of Jason and another in front of himself. Sunlight was trying to peek through dark clouds outside and the light in the kitchen cast a warm glow across the wooden table Ned had made 20 years ago.
“I’ve been thinking of some other avenues for revenue for the business.”
Jason laughed softly, reaching across the table for the creamer. “So that’s what happens when we leave you alone too long.”
“It certainly is.” Robert slid a sheet of paper across the table at him. “We’ve got a group of results from the genetic testing on the jerseys. It looks like we have enough with the A2 gene that we can start producing A2 milk once we build a bottling plant to process it.” He pointed to some figures at the bottom of the page. “That’s going to be the cost which part of the money left over from Alex’s mom will cover the majority of.”
Jason read over the paper. This move would definitely be another source of income for the business if it all came together.
His eyes fell on a few words at the bottom of the page that raised his eyebrows. “Goats? You want to add goats?”
Robert stirred creamer and sugar into his coffee, turning it a light brown. He nodded as he sipped. “The way I figure it,
Robert laughed. “But their milk is. It’s just another product we can add to the inventory of the store. Not to mention, we can make soap from the milk.”
Jason grinned and cocked an eyebrow. “Who’s going to make the soap?”
“Your mom and Molly are interested.”
“Molly? Making soap?”
Robert sighed. “Focus, Jason.”
Jason looked back at the paper again. “What’s this over here?” He squinted. “Should have been a doctor with this handwriting of yours, Dad. Corn maze? You want to set up a corn maze in the Fall?”
Robert sipped his coffee. “Yep. Diversify. Landon Bennett from the Lycoming Farm Bureau is going to put me in touch with a maze designer he’s worked with the last three years.”
Jason rubbed his chin under his bottom lip thoughtfully. “And this brought in some revenue for Landon?”
“Double what he makes in six months with milk sales, but he also added rides, crafts, and set up a pumpkin patch, which we have more than enough space for.”
“Have you talked to Walt yet?”
“Briefly. He agreed we need to get some figures together before we make any decisions. Maybe it won’t be plausible, but at this point I say we try everything and see what sticks. The alternative is —”
“Something we don’t need to think about right now,” Jason said quickly.
Robert set his cup of coffee aside and picked up a pen. He drew an arrow to a figure at the top of the page. “The money from Cecily was an amazing, appreciated boost for us and I think we need to capitalize on the breathing room it gave us.”
Jason nodded. “I agree.”
Robert set his pen aside, folded his arms on the surface of the table. “Now that we’ve got the business talk out of the way, maybe you’d like to talk about some more personal issues.”
Jason shook his head as he stood, the paper in his hand.
He leaned back against the kitchen counter, looking at the paper and taking a long gulp of his coffee. “Nope. I’m good. Plus, we’re not done with business talk. We still need to figure out where and how we’re going to build a shed or barn for the goats you want to buy. Not to mention where to buy the goats. Then there’s the need to get some plans together for the bottling plant. I can talk to Greg Stanton at Stanton Designs about that tomorrow when I’m in town if you want.”
Robert nodded. “We can figure that all out in the next few days. Your Uncle Walt is scoping out some of the space near his barn for the goat barn. We’ll see how that works.” He folded his hands in a triangle in front of him and propped his chin on the tips of his fingers, his eyes narrowing. “Jason, I know things have been rough between you and Ellie. If you need to talk —”
“Dad, I appreciate it, but I’m good. Really.”
“Are you? Really? Because you don’t look good most days. You look pretty beat up. It’s honorable of you to offer to help out the fire department besides everything else you’re doing, but do you think that maybe all of this is just a way to avoid dealing with the situation with Ellie?
Jason shrugged, placed his empty mug in the sink. “It’s not a situation. It’s moving on.”
Robert leaned back, draping an arm over the back of the kitchen chair. “So, the relationship is over?”
Jason shrugged again. “Maybe. I don’t know. It seems to be what she wants.”
“Any reason she wants this?”
Jason slid the paper onto the kitchen table, leaning his palms against the edge of the counter, trying to decide how much he wanted his dad to know. “She thinks she can’t trust me.”
“Did something happen to make her feel this way?”
“Not recently, no.”
“Jase, you know I love you, no matter what. You can tell me what’s going on.”
Jason blew out a breath. “I screwed up, Dad. Okay? I screwed up in college and I never told Ellie. Can we just not talk about this right now?”
Robert didn’t appear to be getting the message. “Okay, well, how did you screw up?”
Jason pressed thumb and forefinger against his nose and closed his eyes.
“Dad, I don’t want to talk about it, okay? I just —” He gestured with his hand, clenched his fist closed. How long was he going to hide his shame from his family? “I was down in college. I started drinking. It didn’t last long, but . . .”
“You fell in with some wrong people?”
Jason smirked. “Well, Alex, for one, but yeah…one person in particular. A woman.”
Robert sat back in his chair. “Ah. I see. And you never told Ellie about this woman and whatever happened between you two?”
Jason nodded. “A few months ago, she overheard me and Alex talking about it. I was going to tell her before that but when I tried to, she thought I was proposing so —”
The squeal from the scanner hooked to Jason’s belt startled them both. Jason twisted the volume knob.
The voice on the scanner broke through the static. “Department 12, brush fire. Corner of Drew Road and Pine Creek Road. Fully involved and spreading.”
Jason stood and reached for his cap. “That’s just up the road. It would be a good training opportunity for me.”
Robert nodded, his mouth pressed into a thin line. “Okay, but be careful and let’s talk about all of this again later.”
Out in his truck, starting the engine, Jason was glad for the excuse to leave. He was tired of talking about his past life, his mistakes, Ellie. He was tired of thinking about them, too. Luckily, he now had a brush fire to fight and later he would have a bottling plant and a goat barn to figure out how to build. Plenty to keep his mind off the thoughts burning painful paths through his heart and mind.
Robert envied how quickly Jason rushed out the front door. He couldn’t do anything quickly anymore. He lumbered like a bear shot with a tranquilizer dart most days, staggering across the pastures like a man 20 years older than he was.
It was amazing Annie still had anything to do with him.
It was a silly thought, grounded in self-pity, he knew it, but the thought was still there. Annie was vibrant, active, beautiful. She deserved more than a hobbling old man.
He winced, standing and placing his empty coffee mug in the sink.
There she was now. He watched her walk across the side yard toward the clothesline.
He listened to her often complain about the wrinkles she was finding, the gray hairs that were cropping up here and there, what she saw as extra skin under her chin. He saw none of those things, though.
To him she was still the 17-year-old girl he’d fallen in love with, the 19-year-old who had given birth to his son and then four years later their daughter. There had been a loss in between, a son they’d named Joseph even though he’d been born at 28 weeks, not old enough to breathe on his own, not strong enough even when the machines breathed for him.
A breeze blew stands of her dark brown hair across her face. She pushed them aside, behind her ear, and propped a clothespin in her mouth.
How was it that the sight of her still sent his heart racing in his chest, his muscles tightening with a desire to hold her close? They hadn’t had a lot of time alone together since the accident and before that he’d been working hard to pay off the loan by the deadline. The last several months had been filled with her waiting on him, especially when he’d first come home and slept in a bed downstairs until his pelvis and leg healed more.
He enjoyed waiting on her instead and had hated not being able to do for himself. Now he could get his own breakfast, his own coffee, do some work around the farm, and take showers without her helping him undress and dress again, though he had to admit that part had been fun in some ways. He smiled, thinking of her helping pulling off his jeans each night and how he’d chased her from the bathroom before she tried to remove anything else.
It was ridiculous, he knew, but somehow he had felt less of a man with his leg all mangled and in a cast. The way he winced from the pain in his pelvis each time he’d moved didn’t make him feel very masculine either. Even with the cast off, he still felt like only half of a man.
Annie hooked a sheet over the line, pushing herself up on the tips of her toes to reach. He grinned, his eyes traveling down her legs, exposed thanks to a pair of denim blue shorts.
Robert’s physical pain was better now, but there were still too many things he couldn’t do that he wanted to, including climbing onto the tractor, lifting heavy objects, dancing with his wife under the stars. Not that he’d danced with Annie under the stars regularly. It had only been that one time, three years ago, after they’d helped on of the pigs give birth and he hadn’t wanted to go back to the house yet.
He’d like to try it again, though. Hopefully soon the pain would be all the way gone and his leg wouldn’t be so stiff. He tried to bend the leg, now free of the lighter cast, and grimaced.
Hopefully then he wouldn’t feel as old and helpless as he did now.
He wondered if his dad had felt this way when age, and later dementia and heart failure, had forced him to slow down. Ned had been cognizant enough before the dementia took over to realize he was losing his mental faculties. They’d talked about it one day sitting on Ned and Franny’s front porch, rocking in the chairs his father had built for him and Franny to rock in when Ned retired.
“I’m not of much use these days, Robert,” Ned had said, his cloudy blue eyes looking out over the yard where chickens scratched at corn and a barn cat rolled in the grass. “Not to you boys. Not to your mom. Not to anyone.”
“Don’t say that, Dad.”
“It’s true. I can’t even remember what I had for breakfast yesterday.”
Robert had laughed. “I don’t even remember what I had for breakfast yesterday.”
Ned shook his head. He hadn’t laughed. “Who’s going to take care of your mom when I don’t know who I am anymore?”
Robert had reached over and done something the Tanner man rarely did. He’d squeezed his father’s hand and looked at him until he looked back.
“We will dad. Your kids and grandkids. And most importantly God will.”
Ned’s eyes glistened. “Do you think I’ll even know who God is when I forget who everyone else is?”
“Yeah.” Robert clutched his dad’s hand tighter. “Yeah. I do. And if you don’t, it doesn’t matter because he knows who you are.”
I totally forgot I was going to post Chapter 3 of The Farmers’ Sons earlier today. So here it is, although late. For those who followed Jason’s story when I originally posted it with Molly’s story some of this will be a bit of a repeat, but it has been reworked some.
To catch up on the rest of story, click HERE or find it under the Fiction Friday header at the top of the page.
You can read Molly’s story on Amazon in ebook form.
Jason loaded another set of weights on the barbells and laid back on the bench, gripping the bar tightly.
Why did I let her think I was going to propose that night?
He grunted under the weight, pushing up until his arms were straight, then slowly lowering the bar again, counting under his breath. His muscles strained under the weight.
I should have never waited so long to talk to her.
He pushed up again.
And when she assumed I had actually intended to propose, I went along with it like a complete idiot.
Down, breathing hard.
Ellie had every right to be angry at him. Not only for his non-proposal but for the secret he’d held on to for so long.
He straightened his arms, set the bar back in its place and lay there on the bench breathing hard.
He came to the gym a few times a week to work off some stress. Lately, though he’d only been finding more stress as his mind raced not only with thoughts of Ellie, but also of keeping the farm running.
When he focused on Ellie, his mind always walked him back to the night he had planned to tell her what he’d should have told her when they’d first started dating again, the night that they got engaged instead.
Seven months earlier
His heart had been racing, his palms damp with sweat. His stomach was tight and nausea spun in his stomach. What had he been thinking? Was he really going to do this tonight? Was he really going to tell his longtime girlfriend about his past and let the chips fall where they may?
He had taken a deep breath and tightened his hands on the steering wheel until his knuckles faded white. Yes, he was. He was doing this because he needed the burden off his shoulders, and he needed to know how Ellie would feel about him after he told her. He couldn’t keep waiting, torturing himself with worry of what might be.
He and Ellie had gone to school together since junior high, but it wasn’t until his junior year he really noticed her, or she had noticed him, or he guess he would say they noticed each other. It was in history class and Mr. Prawley had placed them in a group together to work on a project. Before that they’d seen each other at 4H meetings or when Robert took Jason with him to pick up equipment he’d borrowed from Ellie’s dad Jerry.
Late one night after working on their project about Pennsylvanian history they found themselves laughing about their shared interest in old movies.
“Cary Grant is the epitome of old fashioned suave and charm,” she’d said, pretending to swoon, her hand against her forehead when they watched North by Northwest together at his parents.
He grinned, a teasing glint in his eye. “I agree, but I’m the epitome of modern suave and charm, right?”
She’d tipped her head back and laughed and he wasn’t sure if she was enjoying his humor or mocking him.
“Ginger Rogers was a very underrated actress,” he’d announced after they watched Vivacious Lady at her parents’ house.
“I agree,” she had said and smiled.
Wow. That smile.
That smile that was for him and only him.
It took his breath away.
That smile and her soft, long black hair against that pale skin, those large dark eyes and her sweet round face — what a knockout combination.
He’d taken her to the movies twice, dinner once, lunch three times and attended youth group with her every Wednesday for four months before he’d finally worked up the courage to kiss her. And now, here he was working up the courage to ask her to marry him, but first he had to tell her about what had happened during the break they’d taken when they’d both been in college – at two different colleges.
Those two years in college when he’d been without her, when she had decided they should take a break from dating and see “how things developed” as she had said, were the loneliest and most confusing two years of his life. He’d felt like a ship out at sea without a compass. Returning home from college, to the farm and to her had anchored him again. He couldn’t even imagine losing that anchor again.
God, please don’t let me lose her.
He caught sight of movement out of the corner of his eye and turned his head to see her stepping off the front porch, down the steps, watching him as she walked. Her smile was broad, captivating. His breath caught in his throat, his eyes followed the length of her body as she walked, and he chewed his lower lip hungerly. Even after all these years her beauty still took his breath away.
His voice fell into a whisper; he barely realized he was talking out loud. “Oh God, I can’t —”
“Hey.” She slid into the truck seat and had her arms around his neck and her mouth on his before he could finish asking God for strength. Once she was in his arms, his mind was clouded by her kiss. She smelled of lilac and vanilla scented shampoo. She curled her fingers in his hair and held his head down to hers.
“We should probably head out to the restaurant,” she said breathlessly a few moments later. She tipped her head to one side, her hand against his chest, and winked. “Before we go too far.”
Jason cleared his throat and nodded. “Right. Of course.”
He grinned as he turned back to the steering wheel and she hooked her seatbelt. “But it wasn’t as if things were going to get too far with us parked outside your parent’s house. Not before your dad shot me.”
Ellie laughed. “Jason, Daddy wouldn’t shoot you.”
He pulled the truck out of the driveway, onto the dirt road. “I beg to differ.”
Ellie shook her head. “He loves you. You know that.”
“But he wouldn’t like me making out with you in my truck.”
“No, probably not.” She shrugged, folded her hands in her lap, and looked out the windshield. “Unless we were married, of course.”
Jason swallowed hard.
There it was.
The one word hovering in his mind 24/7, waking him up at night, giving him near panic attacks daily. And she’d just said it. Because it was probably on her mind too.
“Right.” He pushed his foot on the accelerator, willing his truck to move them faster toward the restaurant where they could talk about the food, the weather, the farm, anything but marriage.
The drove in silence for a few moments, farmland and trees and open fields blurring into green and yellow out the window.
Hurry up, truck.
“Are you ever going to ask me to marry you?”
Jason’s hand jerked on the steering wheel. The truck swerved over the center line and then back into the right lane. Ellie gasped and clutched her hand around Jason’s bicep as he regained control of the truck.
Her voice trembled when she spoke. “Oh gosh. Sorry. I just — I shouldn’t have blurted it out like that, but I knew if I didn’t say something now, I would lose my courage.”
Jason slowed the truck down and pulled off into an empty parking lot in front of an abandoned convenience store. He slid the gear into park and turned to look at Ellie.
Was she reading his mind? They’d been together so long he wouldn’t be surprised.
His eyebrows knit together. “What would make you ask that right now?”
“I — I don’t know. I just —” Tears rimmed her eyes. “I’m sorry, Jason. Are you angry?”
Jason shook his head. “No. Not at all. I’m sorry.” He reached over and took her hand in his. The frightened expression on her face sent stabbing guilt shuddering through him. He let go of her hand and cupped his palm against her face.
“It’s not that at all. It’s just that I was actually going to talk to you about that tonight and I was surprised that it was on your mind too.”
A tear slipped down Ellie’s cheek and his heart ached even more. He swiped at it with the palm of his thumb.
“Of course, it’s on my mind, Jason. I’ve wanted to marry you since high school. I love you and want to spend the rest of my life with you. I want to have your children. But sometimes I feel like you don’t want any of that at all.”
“No, El, that’s not true. I do want that. All of it.”
“Then why aren’t you asking me to marry you?”
“I — well, I was going to —”
Ellie’s eyes grew wide, and her eyebrows shot up. “Oh! Were you going to ask me tonight and I totally ruined your plans?”
“Well, I —”
“Oh, Jason! I’m so sorry! I ruined your plan.”
“No, that’s okay. It’s just —”
Her mouth was on his again before he could explain. The expression of sheer delight on her face when she pulled back, her arms still around his neck, sent warmth bursting through his chest.
“You know I don’t need a big fancy proposal. All I want is you. Of course, I’d say ‘yes’ no matter how you asked.”
She was kissing him again and he was forgetting what he’d been going to say. Her body was so warm and solid against his and her lips so soft. Her hands were in his hair again; he couldn’t focus. Slowly his thoughts began to clear and that’s when the panic set in.
Wait a minute. Did she think he had just proposed, and she was saying yes?
She peppered his cheek and neck with kisses. “Oh, Jason! I’m so excited! I’ve been waiting for this moment for years!”
Yes, she did think he’d just proposed, and she was saying ‘yes’.
“I know. I have been too, but I —”
She cut his sentence short again. “Are you okay? I’m so sorry I ruined the surprise.”
“No, it’s okay, I mean — It’s just that I —”
Her large brown eyes were watching him with hopeful expectation, with joy, with complete and utter adoration. There was no way he could tell her about his past now; ruin her night completely.
“I don’t have a ring,” he blurted.
She tipped her head back and laughed. “I don’t care about a ring, silly! We can worry about that later, or not at all. You know I don’t care about stuff like that.”
“But it’s a symbol and it’s important, El. I should get you a ring.”
Ellie kissed him gently and shook her head. “Later. I just want us to enjoy this moment together for now.”
Jason swallowed hard. He wanted to enjoy the moment too, but he knew he couldn’t keep his secret forever. Ellie needed to know sooner rather than later. He wouldn’t tell her tonight, though. He’d already made his mind up about that. They would go to dinner, celebrate their engagement and then later, another day, he’d tell her what she needed to know and let her make up her own mind about whether she still wanted to spend the rest of her life with him.
Only, that had never happened. She’d overheard him talking to Alex and that’s when the manure, so to speak, had hit the fan.
A deep voice startled Jason from his thoughts and he recognized it immediately as belonging to Cody Bracken— Spencer’s fire chief.
“Jason. Bud. You okay?”
Jason sat up, barely missing smacking his forehead on the metal bar. “Yeah. Sorry. Have you been standing there long?”
Cody laughed, tossed his duffle bag on the floor next to the wall. “A few seconds. Saying your name. You were totally gone, though. Got a lot on your mind?”
Jason guzzled the rest of the water from his sports bottle and shoved it in his bag. “Yeah. You could say that.”
Pulling off his sweatshirt, Cody unloaded a couple of the weights off the barbells Jason had been using. “I don’t have the muscle mass you do.” He winked. “Need to talk about anything?”
Jason shook his head. “Nah, but thanks.”
He stood and Cody wiped the bench with a towel. “Don’t want your sweaty germs.” He elbowed Jason playfully in the ribs. “Seriously, you got a minute?”
Jason wasn’t in any hurry to get back to the farm and talking to Cody would take his mind off Ellie for a few minutes at least. “Sure.”
“I don’t want to add anything else to your plate, but we had a meeting of the fire company the other night and we were talking about the need for more volunteers. Your name came up, along with some other men around town.” Cody sat on the bench and leaned forward, propping his elbows on his knees. “As you know, we are an all-volunteer company, other than my position. It’s been tough the last couple of years to find volunteers and we’re in need of some younger, strong men to at least be trained in case we need some additional hands in an emergency. I told the board I see you at the gym sometimes, so I’d ask you if you’d be interested.” He grinned. “So, would you?”
Jason leaned back against the wall and pushed his hand back through his hair. “I am interested but things have been pretty busy with the business lately, so I don’t know if I would really be available much.”
Cody nodded. “I understand. This wouldn’t have to be a full-time commitment by any means. We’d just like some guys to be trained in case they’re needed. At the most you’d be committing to, well, 100 hours of training, but it’s broken up into a few week nights and a couple of weekends over the next few months. Once your training is complete you can hold on to the certification and we’d call you only when we are short men. You’d only respond when you’re able to.”
Jason rubbed his hand along the scruff growing along his chin and jawline. Shoving training into his regular chores on the farm and work at the farm store would be tough, but it would also be the perfect way to distract himself from constantly focusing on the situation with Ellie.
“Think about it,” Cody said. “You can let me know later if it —”
“I’ll give it a try.”
Cody raised his eyebrows. “You’re sure? I don’t want to add more to your plate. I know how tough the farms around here have had it.”
Jason shook his head. “No. It will be fine. If I start and it gets to be too much, I’ll let you know, but I’d love to be able to help out my community. My uncle had a fire on his farm a couple years back and you guys were a big help. Consider this my way of paying you back.”
Cody reached out his hand and Jason took it. “Thanks, Jason. We appreciate it. I’ll give you a call when we have the first training session scheduled. Probably about two weeks.”
Climbing into his truck, Jason wasn’t sure he truly wanted to split his time between farming and fire fighter training, but again, the more he could shove into his days, the less time he had to think about Ellie.
For those who are new here, this is a story in progress. To catch up with previous chapters, click HERE.
Even now, five months later, he struggled to remember what had happened.
The pain had been blinding, the fear of certain death all consuming. Darkness encroached across his vision like a hungry specter. When he came to his face was soaked and when he looked up, a barrage of tiny pellets fell at him from the sky, slicing through the clouds.
Forever tethered to Robert’s recollections of that day would be the memories of Alex frantically calling his name; Jason’s eyes full of terror as he kneeled next to him.
Everything within him told him he was going to die. Each breath sent a thousand shards of agonizing pain ripping through his chest, but he had to make Jason understand how much he loved him.
“Jason. . .”
Jason shook his head. “Don’t talk, Dad. Rest.”
He’d gripped Jason’s hand as tight as his weakened state would allow him, urging him to listen.
“Jason. I love you.”
Jason’s eyes glistened. “I love you too, Dad.”
Standing at his bedroom window now, watching the sunrise paint purple and pink across the horizon, he closed his eyes against the memories. Letting out a deep breath he opened his eyes, leaned on the window frame, and looked out over the side yard, toward the barn, Jason’s truck already parked there. It took a team to keep Tanner Enterprises running. The business consisted of four separate farms growing a variety of produce and products to sell to suppliers and in the family’s farm store. Robert and his brother Walt had handled managing the farming side of it for the past four years since their father Ned had retired. After Ned passed away last year, only a couple of years after retirement, Jason had begun stepping into a leadership role even more.
In the months before the accident, after his father died, Robert had considered telling Walt it was time to let it all go, that he didn’t have it in him anymore. That feeling had been the strongest when the bank had called in the loan last spring. He’d known they didn’t, and wouldn’t, have the money to pay it off. Now, though, he was grateful for it all – even the tough days – and not only because Alex’s mom, the wife of a wealthy entrepreneur, had helped pay off the loan that could have ended it all.
Even with the loan paid off the farm was struggling, but there were opportunities on the horizon that would help if they could get the permits and the funding.
“You’ve got that crease in your brow again.”
Annie’s arms wove through his, her hands stretching across his bare chest. Her kiss was warm against his skin, between his shoulder blades and the warmth of it slid throughout him, making him wish he didn’t have work to do in the barn.
“What’re you thinking about?” Her voice whispered concern.
“The accident. The future of the farm. Jason.” He lifted her hand, kissed the top of it. “The usual culprits.”
“The accident is in the past, we’re working on the future of the farm, and Jason —” She moved to his side, manuevered herself in front of him, sliding her arms around his waist. “He’s going to be okay. He and Ellie will work things out.”
A tractor started up outside. Jason had always had a strong work ethic, but Robert knew that wasn’t what was driving him now. “He’s trying to bury himself in work.”
Annie laid her cheek against her husband’s shoulder as he wound his fingers in her hair. “I know.”
“It’s not going to work. It didn’t when I tried it after Dad died.”
The growl of a truck engine cut into the quiet of the morning. Molly had pulled in, probably more anxious to see Alex than start milking the cows. Robert laughed softly. “I can’t believe she’s still driving that old truck.”
Annie leaned her head back and looked at him, cocking an eyebrow. “Well, isn’t that the pot calling the kettle black, considering you’re still driving your dad’s old clunker.”
“Yeah, but Dad had that truck before he even had mine.” They laughed together.
She kissed him softly on the mouth. “She loves it. It’s the last reminder she has of him.”
“I know.” His lips grazed hers as he spoke and then he slid his hands behind her head, up into her hair. Her mouth under his was exactly what he needed to take his mind off it all. Jason, Molly and Alex could start the milking without him. He hadn’t been much help anyhow since the accident, a fact that irritated him beyond belief.
Laying in the hospital room, staring at his broken and bruised body day after day, he’d known it might be months, maybe even a year before he would be able to work normally on the farm again. What terrified him even more had been the thought that he wouldn’t be able to care for Annie the way he always had. The idea of her consumed with worry over him and the farm, knowing she’d take the burden of filling in the void he would leave on her shoulders, had tightened his chest more than once during his hospital stay.
He’d wanted to protect her from the hard moments of life since he’d first really paid attention to her that day at her father’s farm, watching her stack hay bales as easily as any man. He’d seen her before, of course. Their families had been neighbors their entire lives. They had been in the same class at school. Until that day, though, he’d never really noticed her. Not the way he noticed her that day.
They’d both been 17 and she didn’t look like she needed protecting, but a deeply ingrained desire to do it anyhow had bubbled up in him, spilling over the day he’d softly kissed her in the hayloft of her father’s barn.
He knew he couldn’t always protect her.
He hadn’t been able to shield her from the pain when they’d lost their infant daughter between Jason and Molly, from the reoccurring fear of losing the farm, from the death of his father, who she’d always been close to, or from the aftermath of his accident.
When he couldn’t protect her, though, he’d been there to walk beside her, hold her close, show her how much he needed her, as much as he needed the air in his lungs.
Her hands slid up his chest, across his shoulders, the kiss deepening, making him forget they were almost 51 now. A pounding on the door startled them both.
“Dad? You awake yet?”
Their lips parted and Robert groaned, pressing his forehead against hers. “It would be nice if we could experience at least a few days of empty nest syndrome.”
Annie buried her face against his shoulder and laughed.
He called over his shoulder, “Yes, Molly. I’m awake. What’s up?”
“The pump is broken again, and Jason says you’re the only one who knows how to fix it.”
Robert tipped his head back, focused on the crack stretching across the ceiling, reminding him he still hadn’t picked up the supples to tackle that project. “Yeah. Okay. I’ll be right there.”
“I hated to bother you but —”
“I know. We can’t milk the cows without it.”
Robert kissed Annie’s neck. “We’ll pick this up later.”
“I certainly hope so,” she said, reaching behind him for her robe.
He limped to the dresser to search for a shirt and jeans, hating that Annie had to see him this way, like a crippled old man.
“Isn’t Liz due soon?”
Annie tied her robe closed, much to his disappointment. “Two weeks.”
He pulled the shirt over his head, his eyebrow furrowing. “You think Molly is prepared for living in a tiny apartment with a crying newborn and a weepy new mother?”
Molly had left the farm a couple of months earlier and moved into an apartment in town with her friend Liz, who was facing an unplanned pregnancy.
Annie yawned and tossed her clothes over her shoulder, reaching for the doorknob.
“I doubt it, but she promised Liz she’d be there for her and I’m proud of her for standing by her friend.”
Robert laughed, sliding past her through the doorway. “I am too, but I wonder how many times we’ll find her curled up in the truck taking a nap.”
Outside the front door, a chill in the air greeted him and sent goosebumps up his arm. He paused on the top step of the back door, drawing a deep breath, his head tipped back. He smelled the hay in the barn, the perennials along the side of the house beginning to bloom, soil being warmed by the rising sun.
Looking out across the pasture his eyes fell on the sparkle of sunlight off the dew on the grass, then shifted toward the barn where he heard laughter from his children and Alex, the man who had become like another son to him.
If any good had come from the accident, it had been that it had shown him what really mattered in life. Even if they lost the farm, lost everything material, life would be worth living as long as he had his family. He was eternally grateful for it all – even the hardships that came with recovering and running a farm while he felt like half a man.
Soon, he’d be able to work even harder next to Jason to protect what generations of Tanners had built, attempt to shield it from economic downturns, changing markets, and fickle consumers.
He winced at each step down the stairs.
Soon, but not yet.
Alcott, Angelou, Austen, Barrie, Bronte, Blume . . .
Ellie’s fingers slid over the spines of the books on her bookshelf until she came to the Cs.
“C is for Christie.”
She slid the book back in its place and stood up, stepping back to admire her handiwork.
All three shelves of books completely organized, in alphabetical order. Just the way she liked it.
Contentment settled over her like a warm blanket. At least she could control one thing in her life.
While all other aspects of her life swirled around her in blistering chaos, this one place, her new apartment above Missy Fowler’s hair salon, offered her a reprieve from it all, a place where she controlled what was out of place and what wasn’t.
It was how she’d always soothed her soul – enacting control over her physical environment when her emotional environment was off kilter and impervious to her influence. Even as a child her toys, clothes, and books were organized neatly and perfectly in her room while her younger sister Judi’s were scattered across the floor like they’d been caught up in a tornado and deposited there.
Judi, now spelled with an “i”, of course. Her real name was Judy with a “y” but in an attempt to, in Ellie’s mind, stand apart from others, she’d started spelling her name with an “i” in junior high school. It irritated Ellie that everyone, including her parents, catered to Judi, going along with the ridiculous spelling, like they went along with every other eccentric, off- the- wall thing Judi did.
She looked at the clock above the television, realized she was running late, and snatched her purse and cellphone from the small table by the door. Moving from her parents’ farmhouse to this apartment had a number of advantages, one being she was a five minute walk from Little Lambs Daycare, her main job now that she’d resigned from her second job the Tanner’s small country store.
Walking into the sunlight on Front Street she mentally contrasted the difference between living in town and on her family’s farm, beyond the closer distance to work. Living in town was busier, for one, but not as busy as a big city, which was nice. There was the lack of feeling pressured to get up at 4:30 a.m. with her parents and help with the milking, despite the fact they had two young men who already helped. Then there were the most beneficial differences — living alone, having time to herself, and not having to chance passing Jason on the small dirt road leading from her family’s farm while driving to work.
She paused in front of the mirror when she reached the front lobby of the daycare.
Slacks with no scuff marks and no wrinkles. Check.
New shirt, freshly ironed. Check.
Hair neatly combed. Check.
And a new haircut to boot. She lightly touched the edges of the shorter crop, admired again how it fell along her jawline, yet, briefly mourned her decision to lop off the hair she’d grown down past her lower back since she’d been a teenager.
She still didn’t know what had come over her that day in Missy’s shop.
“Cut it off.”
Missy looked at her through her reflection in the mirror with raised eyebrows. “Excuse me?”
She needed a change, to step away from the life she’d always known. She was stuck in a rut, spinning her wheels. She’d already decided she needed a break from who she’d always been with Jason. Now it was time to change the rest of her life. Starting with her hair.
“Cut if off,” she’d repeated.
Missy cleared her throat, picked up the scissors, then paused and looked at Ellie with a doubtful expression. “Ellie, are you sure? Your hair has always been long.”
“I need something fresh, Missy. Don’t worry. I won’t sue you if I hate it. I’ll just let it grow long again. Let’s go. Start cutting.”
Ellie sighed at the memory but also at herself for checking herself in the mirror. Why did she feel the need to be so well dressed and put together for a group of 4 and 5-year-olds? Maybe it was because she actually was uptight, like Judi always said. Uptight, snooty, too-perfect, or whatever term Judi could describe her to prove that Judi was the fun sister and Ellie was the boring one.
She sighed again, hooking her hair behind her ears.
She wasn’t being fair to her sister. It wasn’t likely Judi was trying to prove anything about their differences. She probably didn’t even care; the same way she didn’t care about most things.
It was Ellie who was stuck on the fact that Judi had always been more carefree, while Ellie felt like she had been born a little old lady. A little old lady who made lists planning out her life, organized her books in alphabetical order, and who’s clothes were hung by style and color coordination in her closet.
She flipped her hair from behind her ears, deciding it looked better that way, cocked an eyebrow as she inspected her shirt again and touched up her lipstick. It was the same color of lipstick she’d worn the night Jason had not-actually proposed to her. She shuddered at the memory. It had been the night she had thought her life had gotten back on track and she’d been able to write, “marriage and children” back onto that list she’d written out in high school. A few weeks later she was scribbling the list out all over again.
“Hi, Miss Ellie!”
The sweet little voice coupled with bright green eyes under a shock of red hair pulled her from her thoughts.
“Hey, there, Timmy.” She leaned forward on knees slightly bent to bring herself down more to Timmy Murray’s level. “How are you this morning?”
“Mommy says I’m constipated.”
“Oh.” Ellie made a face. “Well, that’s not very good. Is your belly hurting?”
Timmy shrugged. “Nope. Just can’t poop. What are we doing at playtime today?”
Ellie held a laugh back. She didn’t want Timmy to think it was funny he couldn’t “poop.”
“It’s a surprise. You’ll have to wait and see.”
Timmy rolled his eyes. “Why do big people always make us wait for everythin’?”
Once again Ellie marveled at the verbal capability of this particular 4-year-old as she took his hand and led him into the classroom.
“Timmy, there you are.”
Ellie’s friend and co-worker Lucy O’Neil patted the table in front of Timmy’s chair. “Remember, we don’t leave the room unless we’re given permission.”
“I saw Miss Ellie and thought I should say ‘hello’.”
Lucy winked at Ellie, flipping a dark brown curl back over her shoulder.
“You still need to ask permission, bud.” She patted Timmy gently on his shoulder and motioned him toward the center of the room. “Okay, let’s all get into our good morning circle to share about our weekend and then Miss Ellie will read to us from a new book called ‘Sleep, Big Bear, Sleep.’ Can anyone tell me what the book might be about?”
“Teddy bears!” Lily Jenkins shouted out.
Lily thought every story was about teddy bears.
Lucy winked. “Well, we will have to see, won’t we? Everyone find your place on the circle and get ready so we can find out, okay?”
Lucy straightened and huffed out a quiet breath as the children filed from their chairs and gathered on the rug. She wore a weary smile as she leaned back against the edge of the desk.
“Welcome back from the weekend, Miss Ellie. Was it a good one?”
Ellie placed her bag on the desk and took a sip of the tea in her mug. A mix of honey and lemon hit her taste buds. Time to sugar-coat the depression. “It was. Yours?”
Lucy rolled her eyes. “Long. My mother-in-law came to visit. I mean, don’t get me wrong. I love Margaret, but everything is thrown off when she’s there. The kids don’t want to go to bed, she bakes all these cookies and they’re all on a sugar high . . .”
Ellie’s chest constricted.
She’d gotten used to her friends talking about their children, but today it only seemed to highlight the fact she was the only one of her friends who didn’t have children to talk about. Well, there was Molly, of course, but she didn’t talk to Molly about children much, or her hope for them. Talking to her about wanting to have babies with her brother would have been awkward all around. Of course, she didn’t have to worry about that conversation anymore. She hadn’t actually spoke to Molly more than to say ‘hello’ at church since her breakup with Jason.
That’s what it was, right? A breakup. They were broken up. That yelling session in the church parking lot had sealed that deal. That’s what she’d wanted. Right?
“…but it was a nice weekend overall. Mary Anne went home this morning and I have to admit that it is a little lonely without her. The kids loved her bedtime stories. . . Hey, you okay?”
Ellie looked up, reaching across the desk for the book. Time to change the subject before Lucy asked too many questions about how she really was feeling. “I am, but if I don’t start reading soon, those kids are going to get themselves into even more trouble.” She winked and gently nudged Lucy’s arm on her way to the center of the room.
“Brittany, hands to yourself. No, I don’t care if Matthew sat in your spot. Choose another spot.”
She sat herself in the chair in front of the kids and opened the book. “So, everyone, are we ready for a new book with a new character? A loveable bear I have a feeling is going to become a favorite.”
“Yeah!” All their little voices blended together.
“Okay, well, this story starts — ”
A sigh. “Yes, Timmy?”
“How come you aren’t married?”
A catch in her chest. “Timmy, honey, it’s story time, not question-and-answer time.”
“My mommy says you’re old enough to be married, but you aren’t.”
A tightening jaw. “Well, Timmy, your mommy —“
Lucy cleared her throat and clapped her hands quickly. “Let’s focus on story time, Timmy, okay?”
Ellie shot Lucy a grateful smile. She really hadn’t been sure what was going to come out of her mouth. She looked at Timmy and winked.
“I’m sure Timmy understands it’s time to use our ears for listening and not our mouth for talking now. Right, Timmy?”
Timmy nodded and stuck his thumb in his mouth, eyes wide.
Ellie took a deep breath and plunged forward with the book, hoping to make it through the day without any more close calls of verbal slapping down of children. It wasn’t their fault she was an almost 30-year-old woman who wasn’t married, didn’t have children, and had never told her now ex-fiance that she might not be able to even have children.
Lucy cornered her at lunchtime.
“That question from Timmy seemed to unsettle you a little. You okay?”
She nodded, tucking her shirt in, and brushing crumbs left over from her sandwich off the tabletop and into her hand.
“I am. Or will be.”
“So, it’s final? You and Jason — you’re finished?”
Ellie dug into her yogurt and stared into it. She would love to sink into the creamy smoothness of her coconut cream Greek yogurt right now and pretend her life wasn’t in complete, partially self-induced chaos.
Lucy leaned close. “Ellie Lambert, I can see it all over your face. Something happened this weekend. You’re not going to leave me in the dark, are you? Your very best friend in the whole wide world besides Trudy, who doesn’t count since she abandoned us.”
Ellie sipped her lemon water and laughed. “Trudy didn’t abandon us. She got married. It wasn’t her fault Brett got transferred to Detroit.”
Lucy rolled her eyes, popping the last bite of her carrot in her mouth. “It was more like she was sentenced to Detroit. Anyhow, what happened this weekend? Hurry.” She nodded toward the children giggling at their lunch table a few feet away. “The natives are getting restless.”
Ellie poured the crumbs into the waste basket behind her desk. “Jason and I had it out this weekend.”
Lucy winced. “Oh.”
“In the church parking lot.”
Lucy’s eyes widened and her eyebrows darted up. “Oh wow. Like in front of everyone?”
Ellie shook her head. “Church had already started.”
Lemons swirled in her water, bumping against heart shaped ice cubes. She drank lemon water every day. How predictable. Like most of her life, except her love life, of course.
“You already said ‘wow’, Lucy.”
“But — wow. Outside of church. So, what did he say?”
Wasn’t it time for recess? It must be time for recess. No. There was still ten more minutes until recess. Great.
“A lot. None of it good. Not that it was my proudest moment either.”
Lucy was enraptured, her chin propped on her folded hands as if watching the climax of a horror film. In a way, she was.
“Did he say he wanted to break up, or did you?”
Ellie shrugged a shoulder, tracing a line of condensation dripping down the side of her water bottle, avoiding Lucy’s probing gaze. “I guess I did.”
I definitely did. Just admit it.
“I told him we needed I break. That I needed a break to make some decisions.”
“And have you? Made some decisions?”
She shook her head, sipped from the water bottle.
Lucy let out a breath as if she’d been holding it for the entire conversation. “Whoa, El, this is big stuff. I’m so sorry your weekend was so awful. Why didn’t you call me?”
Ellie leaned over and picked up her maroon lunch bag, shoving the water bottle inside. “I was pretty certain you had heard more than enough of my drama to last you a life time. Plus, I needed time to think, to figure out how I feel about all of this, how I feel about my life without Jason.”
Lucy crumbled the wrapper from her sandwich and tossed it basketball superstar style at the trash can. It bounced off the side of the can and rolled across the floor under the desk. “Is that what you want? Really? To be without Jason?”
Ellie retrieved the wrapper and tossed it into the trash can. Was it what she wanted? Really? She didn’t even know how to answer that. Thankfully she didn’t have to.
“Miss Ellie, Brenda says her booger is bigger than mine. Make her stop.”
Without turning toward the sound of the whining voice, Ellie pressed her hand against her eyes, the other hand on her hip. “Lucy, is Timmy holding a booger on his finger right now?”
The sharp intake of breath alerted Ellie to the answer before Lucy even said the words, “Unfortunately, yes.”
The rest of the conversation about Ellie’s floundering love life would have to wait. She reached for a handful of tissues and turned to address the Great Booger Debate, trying her best, again, not to laugh.
Chapter 2 of The Farmers’ Sons isn’t ready yet so I’m sharing something I started a few weeks ago. I’m not sure where I’m going with this one but it’s based on a secondary character in A New Beginning and it’s all I have so far.
That social worker said it wouldn’t hurt to have that baby. She lied. It hurt like that place Mama said I was gonna go for getting pregnant in the first place. I never felt so much pain and thought I was going to die. They wanted me to hold the baby, but I didn’t want to. He weren’t mine anyhow. He belonged to those people I’d met at the agency and he was squawking and hollering; all red and squishy and ugly. I told them to take it away and let those people who were going to be her parents deal with it.
I don’t remember much after that. I slept for hours and hours. Everything in my body hurt and I was so weak I could barely stand. When I opened my eyes, it was dark, and I knew I had to get out of there. I didn’t want to watch that social worker give that baby to those people. It was weird. Having something growing in you for nine months is weird. Pushing it out your private area while you scream is weird. Giving that baby to people you only met once is weird too.
It’s all as weird as what that man did to me that left that baby in my belly in the first place.
The nurses didn’t even hear me leave.
The social worker weren’t even there.
Wasn’t. That social worker said I’m supposed to say wasn’t instead of weren’t.
What do I know? Mama stopped making me go to school in third grade after she married that man who hit me a couple times before Mama kicked him out. She didn’t kick him out because he hit me. She kicked him out because he stole her booze money.
My clothes were in a drawer by the bed at the hospital and I changed into them quickly but cried because it hurt so bad all over. The area where that baby came from hurt the worse. Blood ran down my leg and I wiped it away. I had to get out of there.
I walked a long way to get to Mama. Thought I wouldn’t make it. My stomach ached from hunger and my body screamed for sleep. I could barely lift my hand to pound on the door to her apartment.
“How did you even find me?”
She spat her words at me after I’d finally managed to slam my fist against the paint chipped metal a few times.
“Mama, I’m tired and hungry.”
“What do you want me to do about it? Didn’t those social workers feed you anything?”
Don’t call me Mama. You know I don’t like that. You’re bleeding all over the hallway. You have that baby yet?”
I nodded weakly and winced when her hand encircled my upper arm and she ripped me forward into the dark apartment.
“Get in here and stop bleeding on my rug.”
She shoved me down the hallway toward the living room and I collapsed on the couch, clutching at the musty smelling cushions as the room began to spin.
I thought I’d die there. It seemed like days before there were voices at the door and strong arms lifting me. Maybe it was days. I don’t really remember.
It was the last time I saw Mama and now I’m living here in this place with a bunch of trees and empty fields and a stream like I saw a picture of once in a book.
I don’t know what life will be like now, but anything has got to be better than where I come from.
Chapter 1 beginning
That baby was squawking again. Lily Parker rolled over and looked at the ceiling, the room lit only by the light of the moon.
Why didn’t that baby just shut up already?
She was sick of listening to it.
She could never figure out why people wanted babies. They were loud, smelly, and couldn’t do nothing for themselves.
She hadn’t wanted that baby.
All she’d wanted was the stuff that made her feel good, made her forget about Mama and how she hated her.
If it hadn’t been for that, she’d have never let that man do what he did to her.
How was she supposed to know she’d end up with a baby in her? No one had ever told her how babies was made.
She heard Edith’s footsteps in the hallway, going down the stairs, then back up again a few minutes later.
Edith’s voice was groggy. “I’m warming the bottle. Hold him until I get back.”
Warm it quieter, Lily thought, rolling to her side, pulling the covers up over her shoulder.
Maybe she should have been taking care of that baby, but she didn’t know how.
She wanted Edith to be that baby’s mama, even though she wasn’t the one who’d birthed it.
Lily didn’t like calling her Edith. She thought she should call her Mrs. Sickler like she used to call her teachers before Mama stopped sending her to school. Edith said she didn’t have to call her Mrs., though, so she didn’t. Jimmy told her to call him Jimmy so that’s what she called him.
She closed her eyes tight against the screaming.
“Make it stop already,” she grumbled, pressing her palms against her ears.
Babies were so dumb anyhow. She was never going to have one. Not for real. Not one she had to care for. Not ever.
So, I have restarted The Farmers Sons (name subject to change). I mean trashed the other chapters and started all over. I have not, however, trashed the prologue. Not yet anyhow. I will most likely try to figure out how to add it to later to the story, but probably will not have Jason be a volunteer fire fighter. He won’t have time for that with trying to run the farm with his family, while Robert is recovering.
The previous draft was steering the story in a direction far away from how I imagined Jason and Ellie’s story going and it also needed tighter writing. This next draft will still include some of the elements of the previous versions.
For anyone who is new here, I share a chapter from the (almost) first draft of a novel I am working on each Friday. The chapter will most likely have typos, grammatical errors, missing comas, and even plot holes and it’s not the final version of the novel that I release at a later date.
I share the stories and publish the novels for fun so feel free to comment. The first book in this series is also available for sale on Amazon, B&N, Smashwords and various other sites. You can find more info about that HERE.
The sun cut across the barren field, slicing it in half, leaving one side to the darkness, the other to the light. A similar scene played out inside Jason Tanner. A metaphorical sun worked hard to push back the darkness, leaving him split in the middle, one part dark, one part light; one part hope, the other part hopeless.
Bitter coffee burned at the edges of his exhaustion but did nothing to clear the fog in his mind. How many days had it been? Nine? Maybe ten since he’d slept more than five hours a night, waking before dawn, stumbling to his pickup, driving to the barn, fingers numb from cold, watching his breath puff misty white around him.
This morning was no different, other than he’d actually remembered to brew himself a pot of coffee. He had poured half into his thermos and left the other half for Alex. They’d both need a few more pots to get through this week, this day even.
Alex stepped next to him on the farmhouse front porch, mug in hand. “This coffee is awful.”
Jason winced, not from the insult but in agreement as the sludge slid down his throat. “The worse it is, the more it will wake us up.”
Alex sipped coffee from his mug, scowling at Jason over the edge. “Is that like ‘what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger?’”
If there was any consolation to where Jason found himself it was that he wasn’t alone in the weariness that had seeped into his marrow in the last five months.
He looked at it in the eyes of each of them — his sister, his best friend, his mother, his uncle, and most of all his father, sitting helpless in a chair on the porch each morning, his eyes completing tasks his body couldn’t, not yet anyway.
He tightened the lid to the thermos, jerked his head behind him toward the kitchen. “Fill the other thermos and let’s get going. The cows don’t care how tired we are.”
Alex grunted. “I’m not sure I want to drink anymore of this. Maybe I can use it to clean the rust off that old tractor behind the barn instead.”
They climbed into separate pickups, pulling up to the barn, one behind the other. Molly stood in the doorway, leaning against the frame, waiting for one of them more than the other. She looked through Jason and he had a feeling she wouldn’t have even noticed if he hadn’t been there.
Alex’s arms slid around her waist and pulled her close, a sight Jason still wasn’t comfortable with. He wasn’t sure he’d ever get used to his little sister and his best friend dating each other, but he’d been too tired since his father’s accident to let it bother him much more than sending a shudder of disgust through him from time to time.
“Save that for later.” His tone denoted a touch of teasing, spun together with genuine aggravation. “We’re behind schedule.”
They locked eyes, small smiles playing at the corners of their lips. It was obvious they were ignoring him. He’d have to start the milking without them. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Alex pull Molly closer and lower his mouth to hers. Revulsion tinged with jealousy swirled in his stomach. Revulsion over Alex kissing his little sister right there, outside the barn door where Jason had to see it; jealousy because he wished he was holding Ellie the same way. He didn’t know if she’d ever let him hold her that way again.
Several agonizing moments of listening to smooches and laughter later, Alex playfully bumped him in the arm on his way to gather the feed. “It’s never too late for a sweet kiss from your sister, buddy.”
His teasing did nothing to make Jason feel less uncomfortable. “Dude, seriously. Stop that. I don’t even want to know.”
There were moments he regretted convincing Alex to move up to the farm, like right now, bogged down with thoughts of Alex kissing Molly. Most days, though, Alex was like family, as much as a brother as he was a best friend.
His dad’s voice came from behind him. “Are we ready for the big release?”
He’d never get used to seeing his dad leaning on that cane and hoped soon he wouldn’t need it.
“Yep. Just finished up.”
It was an annual tradition for the family to release the cows into the pasture from the barn where they’d been sheltered from the cold weather of winter. It was also a tradition for them to do it together. Jason wasn’t surprised his dad didn’t plan to miss it, making his way to the barn with Jason’s mom beside him.
Robert Tanner tipped his head toward his daughter. “Molly, do the honors.”
The cows were already standing at the gate, anxiously sniffing the cool spring air. They surged forward within seconds after Molly pulled back the gate and stepped aside.
She affectionally patted a couple on their rumps as they passed. “Get on out there, girls.”
Jason propped his arms across the top bar of the fence, watching the young heifers kicking up their legs, bumping into each other, mouths open, stretched into almost human looking smiles. It was his favorite time of year, letting them loose from their six months inside the barns, six months of being protected from wind and rain, cold and snow.
Robert leaned on the cane with both hands. “Now, that’s a sight I like to see.”
Jason nodded in silent agreement. “It was always Grandpa’s favorite time of year too, other than harvesting the sweet corn.”
Robert laughed softly. “Yeah, he did like his sweet corn.”
Annie Tanner propped a hand on her husband’s shoulder, watching the cows spread out across the hillside. “More like addicted to it.”
Jason pulled his eyes from the joyful scene in the pasture, leaning back against the fence, gesturing at his dad’s leg. “So, two weeks and that cast will be all the way off, huh, old man?”
Robert cocked an eyebrow, folding his arms across his chest. “What’s with you and Alex calling me old man? You both know I could kick your rear ends across this pasture even with a broken leg.”
A broken leg? More like a shattered leg when a tractor had tipped on it four months ago.
“We rarely have survivors when a tractor falls on a farmer.”
The words from the doctor had been chilling but accurate. Eerily accurate. Somehow Robert Tanner survived what so many other farmers hadn’t, thanks to the stump of an old maple tree left from when Ned Tanner cut it down five years before. Jason was grateful time had gotten away from them and they had never got around to pulling the stump from the ground.
Besides the shattered femur, Robert had also had a cracked pelvis, a puncture wound to his back, a collapsed lung, and internal bleeding. It was the bleeding that had led to a minor stroke during surgery and a six-week coma. The cracked pelvis was proving the most difficult to heal physically. Robert’s loss of independence had been the hardest to heal emotionally.
Jason grinned at his dad. “Looking forward to you pulling your weight around here again.” The smile broadened. “Old man.”
Robert lifted a hand from the cane and playfully punched his son in a muscular bicep. “Go clean those stalls out, little boy. Do it right or this old man will show you a thing or two about what it means to be a real man.”
Jason laughed and tapped his dad gently on the shoulder as he walked by.
You’ve already shown me what it means to be a real man, he wanted to say, but didn’t. He didn’t have time for sentimental pauses in his day. There was too much work to do, too many stalls to clean out, too many hours to spend distracting himself from the hole Ellie had carved in his heart two days earlier outside the church.
The sight of her standing outside the sanctuary talking to her friend Lucy had taken his breath away. She’d cut her hair short. Gone were the dark, straight strands that had fallen down her back in a long braid since he had known her. Her hair was still straight but hit just below her ears now. curved along the smooth, delicate line of her jaw..
He ached to reach out, trace that line with his fingertips, slide his hand behind her head and kiss away the distance between them.
The open laughter she’d been sharing with Lucy a few seconds earlier faded the moment her eyes met his. She looked away immediately, but in that brief moment he’d watched her face transform from cautious joy to closed down indifference.
He should have taken it as a sign to continue into the sanctuary and leave her alone. Unfortunately, he’d never been good at listening to others, or to his own intuition.
He slid his eyes from her to Lucy, now standing in awkward silence, her head tipped toward the floor. “Good morning, Lucy. Having a nice weekend?”
Lucy glanced up, flashed a tight smile. “Yes. I am. You?”
“It’s been okay.”
What was he going to say? It’s been torture, miserable, like being stranded in the middle of a raging sea during a storm without a lifeboat? It was true, but it wasn’t exactly the pre-church banter most people engaged in. Not to mention it was none of Lucy’s business how his weekend had really been. He had a feeling she was part of the problem, part of the reason Ellie had been ignoring his calls.
Lucy’s hazel eyes darted to Ellie, then back to Jason. She let out a quick, quiet breath, chasing it with, “Well, I’m going to go find a seat, so . . . yeah.” She leaned her head close to Ellie, her hand on her forearm, as if they were sharing a secret. It was futile. Jason still heard her, her whisper echoing in the now empty lobby. “You going to be okay?”
Ellie nodded, flashed a quick, obviously tense smile. “I’ll meet you inside.”
Lucy nodded back, looked at Jason, opened her mouth to say something, then closed it again. She looked away, turning her attention to Frank Troutman standing in the entryway with the bulletins. Frank smiled, handed Lucy a bulletin, and she cast one more look at Ellie over her shoulder before going inside.
Ellie bent her ankle back and forth, looked past him out into the parking lot, both hands hugging her Bible to her chest like a shield against him.
“I miss you.”
The words flew out of him before he even realized he was saying them out loud.
Something flashed in her eyes.
An emotion he couldn’t read.
He couldn’t read her. At all. He wasn’t used to that, to her closing herself off to him.
Her hands hugged the Bible closer against her.
“I miss you too.”
The words were what he’d wanted to hear, but not in the monotone, emotionless way she said it. Her voice was detached, a thousand miles away from meaning anything. Her gaze moved from side to side, focusing anywhere but on him.
She’d never talked to him in that tone, at least not before the afternoon she’d overheard him talking to Alex.
The memory of that moment had sent a chill straight through him. He felt the same heaviness as that day, the same all-consuming desire to pull her close; to tell her again how sorry he was, how wrong he was to wait so long to tell her the truth.
“The service is about to start.” Her voice silenced his internal dialogue. “We’ll talk later, okay?”
He grabbed on to her words. “When will we talk? I’ve been trying to talk to you for almost four months.”
A muscle in her jaw jumped. Her eyes met his, darkened emotion smoldering there. “I said I needed time, Jason.”
“I know what you said but — “
“We need a break, Jason, okay?”
“We’ve been taking a break.”
“I need a break. A long break.”
He could hear the strain in her voice, the struggle to keep her tone low and even. The doors to the sanctuary closed as the worship team started the music. She gestured curtly toward the glass doors leading outside and darted past him, shoving the front doors open. He followed, taking a step back when she swiveled to face him, eyes flashing. There was no mistaking her emotion now.
It was pure rage.
Let her be angry.
He wanted answers, and he wasn’t waiting anymore to get them.
“How long of a break? A few days? A couple of weeks? Months? Permanently?”
She raised her hand, palm out, against the assault of questions, peppering at her like bullets out of a howitzer.
“I don’t know. Stop asking me.” Each word snapped out of her like sharped-edge glass cutting at his skin.
She closed her eyes, took a deep breath, and let it out again. Her expression had softened when she met his gaze again.
“I don’t know who I am anymore, Jason. Who I ever was, really. I built my identity around you, around us, for so long and now . . .”
The wall was up again. Her tone flat as she lowered her gaze to the asphalt of the parking lot. “You’re not who I thought I was. Nothing feels the same. I don’t feel the same. I need to see what life is like without you for a while, decide if —”
He didn’t even try to hide his anger. “Decide what? Is this like college again? When you wanted a break? Whatever that meant.”
“I didn’t want a break. You wanted the break, Jason.”
Her recollection skills were clearly lacking. He scoffed, pointed his finger at her accusingly. “No. You said we should take a break and figure out if we were supposed to be together. That if we missed each other, that would tell us what we needed to know. I didn’t want a break, Ellie. You did. You were the one who couldn’t make up you mind. And now you can’t again. Apparently, I’m the only one of us that doesn’t have to ask if we’re meant to be together. I know we’re supposed to be together.”
Her cheeks flushed. “I only suggested the break, Jason.” She folded her arms tight across her chest. “You were the one who seemed thrilled with the idea. Obviously you didn’t miss me that much or you wouldn’t have — ”
“No.” The rumbling timbre of his protest echoed across the parking lot. “No way. That is not fair. I told you what happened. I told you how I thought you didn’t want me. How lonely and messed up I was in college. I told you how upset I was after that night, how I — .”
Her words spilled over his, drowning them out. She tossed her arms to the side. “You told me all that seven years after the fact. Seven years, Jason. I mean, if you hid that from me, what else did you hide from me? What else are you hiding from me now?”
Jason shook his head, hands on hips, looked at the black surface under his feet to calm the storm raging inside him. An ant climbed toward a crack in the asphalt, running along an uneven line of tar. He focused on it, on the freedom it had, and for a split second considered stomping the life out of it to keep it from having the freedom he couldn’t. He lifted his eyes back to hers, releasing the ant from his judgment, killing his own peace with what he said next.
“There’s nothing else, Ellie, but if you don’t feel you can trust me then fine.” His voice trembled under the effort to rein in the rage. “Take your break or whatever it is you’re calling it. Throw away everything we’ve had together for the last ten years. Walk away. If that’s what you want, do it.”
A breeze caught her hair, whipped a few strands across her face. She didn’t push them away. “Jason, don’t be a jerk. How did you think I was going to take all this? Finding out the man I thought saved himself for me was sleeping around in college behind my back?”
He tossed his arms up, slammed them down against his legs. “I wasn’t doing anything behind your back. You’d broke up with me. And I wasn’t sleeping around!” His voice thundered. He took two steps toward her and held up a shaking finger a few inches from her face. “It was one mistake. One stupid mistake. I told you that.”
She met his rage, gaze for gaze, harsh words for harsh words, slapping his hand away from her. “If it was so stupid, why didn’t you tell me when we started dating again? Why did you wait?”
He stepped back, laughed darkly. “What like how you told me about going out with my cousin? Oh wait. You didn’t tell me about that. I found that out from Brad.”
He didn’t miss the fleeting flash of surprise in her eyes before a facade of calm concealed it. She regarded him with a well-practiced poker face, saying nothing.
He didn’t back down. “Yeah. That’s right. You had secrets too, so maybe I should be worried about what you’re not telling me.”
She suddenly gulped back a sob, tears filling her eyes. When she stepped back from him she raised her arm in front of her face, as if to protect herself, as if he’d physically slapped her. In one quick move she pivoted, her back to him, walking swiftly across the parking lot toward her car. He chased after her, reached out, grasped her around her upper arm.
The growl in her voice when she wrenched free stunned him. “Don’t touch me.”
She sucked in a ragged breath, swiped the back of her hand across her tear soaked face, and worked at the key in the door of her car, her entire body trembling.
Panic curled up into his throat, threatening to choke the air out of him. His head felt like a hot-air balloon and the earth intangible around him. “Ellie, we can work this out. Don’t do this.”
She wouldn’t look at him. The lock clicked open, and she slid the key out, flung the door open. Her grief-stricken expression as she looked at him from the driver’s seat dissolved his anger into desolation.
“I don’t think we can, Jason. I really don’t. It’s like I don’t even know you, like everything you are, that we were, was a lie.”
The slam of the door reverberated in his ears long after she closed the door and sped away. He didn’t know how long he stood there, his mind numb from a conversation that had reeled out control.
When he turned toward the church, he saw Molly ashen faced, arms hugged around her as if to protect her from the truth she’d overheard, the truth of who her older brother really was.
I don’t have an excerpt from The Farmer’s Son this week because I am working on a section and haven’t quite finished it yet. I do however, want to remind blog readers that The Farmer’s Daughter is available for sale on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and Smashwords. Ebooks are available on Smashwords, Barnes&Noble and Amazon. A print version is currently only on Amazon until I figure out how to design the back cover for B&N.
I would like to send a couple of free copies to readers who supported me while writing it so if you are interested please let me know in the comments and then send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org and I will send an ebook copy to you.
To catch up on what I’ve shared with The Farmer’s Son, click HERE.
I don’t have a new series to start for Fiction Friday, but I did write a very short beginning to the book in the series that will be about Liz and her journey dealing with an unexpected life change.
I won’t be sharing it here yet. I probably won’t start a new serial fiction story until the new year.
The working title for Liz’s story is The Secrets We Hold.
Guilt twisted in the center of Liz Cranmer’s chest. She’d lied to her best friend.
Not exactly lied.
Simply left some details unspoken.
Still, Molly had left the hospital thinking she knew everything about why Liz had swallowed half a bottle of painkillers.
There was so much Molly didn’t know, so much Liz didn’t want her to know.
Part of Liz wished panic hadn’t led her to call for an ambulance.
Liz had let Gabe charm her again, the alcohol letting her believe him when he said he was sorry for how he’d hurt her.
“It was my fault,” she’d told Molly.
And it was. Everything that had happened that night and everything she was facing now was her fault. She’d screwed up. Again. Like she always did.
And now her life would never be the same.