Special Fiction Saturday: The Farmer’s Daughter Chapter 32

I posted Chapter 31 yesterday, if you are interested. To catch up with the other chapters click HERE or the top of the page. Also, if the chapter shows up twice here somehow, I apologize. WordPress was giving me a fit last night when I scheduled it.


Chapter 32

They’d been on the road for 90 minutes.

She was restless.

He could tell by how she kept shifting to try to find a more comfortable position and the way her face kept scrunching up like she was thinking deeply.

He knew what she was thinking about, worrying about.

Her father.

The farm.

Hopefully not him.

He pulled off the exit onto the highway. “What’s keeping you awake?”

“Your driving.”

He laughed. “Thanks a lot. I thought I was doing pretty good.”

A tractor trailer roared by them, followed closely by a red convertible with the top down. A man about 50 and a young girl were in the front seat, the wind whipping their hair back.

Molly shuddered and hugged her arms to her. “It is way too cold to have the top down.”

Alex leaned back and propped his wrists on the steering wheel. “So, are you going to keep changing the subject or are you going to tell me what’s really bothering you? Is it your dad? Have you heard anything?”

Molly wrapped her coat around the front of her like it was a blanket and slid down in the seat. “That’s part of it, yes. She called while you were getting dressed. He’s in surgery and the doctor said it could take a few hours. She’s going to call when she knows more.”

He changed lanes, passing a small sedan. He rubbed his unshaven jawline with his chin, trying to keep his thoughts from jumping to the worst when it came to Robert. He probably shouldn’t bring it up, but he was starting to wonder if their conversation in the barn before the accident was bothering her too.

 “Listen, maybe this isn’t the time, but about Jessie —”

She waved at him dismissively. “Jason and I talked. He said you told him about Jessie.”

He glanced at her. “And?”

“And what?”

“And do you believe me?”

She looked at him, catching his eye as he glanced at her then back at the road.

“Yeah. I do.”

“I meant what I said, Molly. All of it. About how long I loved you, how you were the only person I could think of that night.”

He reached over and took her hand in his and she smiled but then nodded toward the steering wheel. “Two hands on the wheel, Stone. This family has enough going on without us driving into another car.”

She reached for her bag as he grinned and put his hand back on the wheel.

“Hey,” she said, sliding his phone out of her purse. “I almost forgot. Jason grabbed your phone when he went to get your clothes. He said you had a couple of missed calls and might want to check them.” She laid it on the seat, but he kept driving, ignoring the phone.

“You don’t want to check your messages?”

He shook his head. “Nope. Doubt it’s anyone I want to talk to.”

“What if it’s your mom or dad? Maybe you’d —”

“I’ll check it later. I’ve got enough on my mind right now. I just want to check on Robert.”

His tone, while not hard, indicated he didn’t want to discuss it further.

Molly shrugged. “Okay, but maybe you should tell your mom you were in the hospital at least?”

He shook his head. “Mom’s not maternal. You know that.” He smirked at her. “I’ve told you a few of those stories.”

She tipped her head forward to capture her hair into her hands and pull it into a ponytail. “Yeah, you have. If you don’t want to call her right now, I understand.” She sighed and sat back against the seat. “I guess all this means we won’t hit that deadline to pay that loan off. We’re not even going to hit the extended one that Bill was able to get for us.”

“We’ll figure something out,” he told her, shifting lanes again. “That farm has been in your family for how many years again?”

She tipped her head, her eyebrows furrowed as she thought about it. “Wow. Good question. I’m not sure really. I mean, the main farm was founded by my great-great grandfather. His brother ran it for a while with my great-grandfather. Then Grandpa’s dad passed it on to him. Grandpa expanded it in the ‘60s and again about 15 years ago.”

Alex whistled. “So, it’s been in your family like 200 years or something.”

Molly nodded. “Yeah, I think so.”

 “That’s amazing. Do you guys know how amazing that is? I mean, I don’t know anything about my family. We don’t have anything in our family that’s been passed down from generation to generation like that. I don’t even know much about my family beyond my maternal grandfather.”

“Honestly, it’s something I’ve taken for granted all these years,” Molly said softly. “Lately, I’ve been wondering if I’ll ever find a life beyond the farm. I keep wondering if this is all I’m meant to do — milking cows and shoveling their poop. It’s weird, before I learned we could lose it, I wanted to walk away from it all.”

Alex shifted gears as he passed a slower moving car. “Do you still want to?”

She slid her hand along the inside edge of the door. “Sometimes.” She looked out the window at farmland fading into more towns with large buildings and housing developments. “But I can’t leave my family, especially now when they need my help the most.”

She pushed her hand back through her hair and propped her arm against the window.

“What about you? I can’t imagine that you ever thought you’d still be working on a farm. Have you ever thought about leaving?”

Alex winced. “Ouch. That’s a loaded question.”

He looked over at her, at her questioning expression, and cleared his throat. “Honestly, yes, I have thought about it. I thought about it after I was here for two years. I thought about it again after I was here for three. Then one day I realized I was in love with the farm. I realized I loved waking up in the morning and smelling freshly cut hay and watching the sun rise while we milked the cows. I even loved milking the cows, despite the fact they totally freaked me out when I first started. I loved knowing we were growing food for the world to eat and for the first time in my life I loved hard work.”

She watched him with a smile as he pulled the truck off the highway, parking at a rest stop. He shifted the truck into park, laid his arm across the back of the seat, and looked at her for a few moments before he spoke again. He trailed the back of his index finger along her jawline.

 “I also looked over one day and saw how beautiful you’d become. Soon, the love of farming wasn’t the only thing keeping me here.”

He tucked a strand of hair that fallen out of her ponytail behind her ear. “I didn’t know if I’d ever get the courage to tell you how I felt, but just being around you was enough.” He slid closer. “For a while anyhow.”

He kissed her mouth briefly, then jerked his head toward the driver’s side. “It’s your turn to drive and my turn to rest. I’m not sure but I think that painkiller messed me up.” He made a face. “I’m rambling way too much about my feelings.”

She tipped her head back and laughed.

“Not as much as last night,” she whispered after he’d climbed out on his way to the passenger side.

***

Alex scrolled through the missed calls on his phone. Three from Sam, two from his mom, a voicemail from his mom, and two voicemails from Sam.

He listened to Sam’s first. “Alex. Where are you? I need to talk to you. Call me when you get a chance.”

His Mom: “So, you’re ignoring your mother now, are you? Well, that’s not very nice Alex. I’ve been trying to reach you all week. It would be nice if you’d return a call.”

Sam again.

“Alex. Seriously. Pick up. Don’t ignore me. I need you to call me. It’s about Dad. Call me when you get this.”

Alex slid his finger over the delete button. How many times in the last five years had he received similar messages? And when he’d called his brother had told Alex his dad had moved another woman in, or was selling company stocks, or wanted Alex to come work for him. It was never an emergency but somehow Sam always seemed to think it was.

As for his Mom, she craved attention she’d never earned.

He tossed the phone on the seat of the truck and yawned. He and Molly had spent the day waiting for Robert to come out of surgery. They’d hoped for good news, but had receive a mix of bad and good news. The good news was that Robert’s pelvis had a handful of screws in it, but doctor’s expected him to be able to walk again, hopefully within the next six months. The bad news was that Robert had had a small stroke during surgery and hadn’t woken up yet.

Alex had left Molly, Jason and Annie to have some private time with Robert. He’d told them he planned to take a nap in the truck and he had, for about two hours. Now he was awake, watching the sun set between two tall buildings in the distance. There was a time when being in the city had invigorated him and sent a chill of anticipation shivering through him. There was always something happening in a city.

Now, though, after living five years in almost completely wide-open spaces, the buildings, parking lots, and loud noises made him feeling like the world was closing in on him. He stretched the full length of his body across the front seat and closed his eyes, wishing sleep would come again. If he slept, he didn’t have to think about Robert hooked up to all those wires and tubes in that hospital room. If he slept, he didn’t have to think about the possibility of losing the only man besides his grandfather who had shown him what a real man should be. He laid his arm across his eyes and let out a long breath.

He remembered that one morning he’d stumbled into the barn after a night of drinking. His eyes had been blood shot and his head felt like a bowling ball. Despite trying his best to hide it, he was – completing tasks slower than molasses. Robert had seen right through him. Unlike most employers who might have lectured him and told him to get his act together, Robert had asked him first if he was okay.

Alex had nodded but then clutched at his head when pain seared through it.

“Looks like you have a hangover,” Robert said, wrapping a rope around his hand to hang up in the barn.

“Yeah.”

“You’re not good to anyone in this shape. You were supposed to be on the tractor today and I can’t have you out there without a clear head.”

Robert had jerked his head back toward Alex’s truck, the rope wrapped up tight around his hand now. “Head back to the house and sleep it off. If you feel better this afternoon come back. If not, I’ll see you in the morning.”

More than anger, Alex heard disappointment in Robert’s voice. He’d left without argument, too embarrassed to even try to defend himself. After a few hours of sleep and some food he’d wandered back to the barn and found Robert underneath one of the farm’s trucks, changing the oil.

He stood next to the struck, shifting his feet, his hands in his front jean pockets.

“Feeling better?” Robert had asked.

“Yeah.”

Sliding out from under the truck and standing, Robert wiped his hands on a rag, looking at Alex, appearing to be thinking about what to say next.

“You’re a good, kid, Alex,” he’d finally said. “Polite. Hard worker. I think you’ve got a really bright future doing pretty much whatever you want to do. I know I’m not your dad and maybe I shouldn’t be saying anything, but I hate to see you throw it all away because of alcohol.”

Alex kicked at the dirt with his shoe, looking at the ground. “Yes, sir.”

“I hope you know that I don’t mean to be lecturing you, or telling you what to do,” Robert had continued. “It’s just that I’ve come to care about you and don’t want to see you get hurt.”

The softness in Robert’s voice had startled Alex. His own dad had never talked to him that way. Michael Stone’s idea of a pep talk was to tell Alex to “grow up” or “be a man.” Rather than being concerned about Alex, he was normally concerned about his own reputation or the reputation of his business.

Robert hadn’t only shown Alex what it meant to be good father by how he treated him but also in how he treated his own children. His example of how to be a good husband also fascinated Alex. How he treated Annie was worlds apart from how Alex’s father had treated his Alex’s mother, or any of the women in his life actually.

Alex had walked into the farmhouse one day to tell Robert he’d figured out an issue with the feeder and wished a few moments later he had knocked. He had interrupted a tender moment between Annie and Robert. Thankfully it wasn’t too racy, but it had been enough to make him try to back out slowly so he wouldn’t be seen.

Robert had been standing behind Annie while she cooked lunch, kissing her neck.

“Marrying you was the best thing I ever did, Annie Tanner,” Robert had said softly.

She had laughed and looked over her shoulder at Robert. “Are you saying this because I’m making you homemade chocolate pudding for dinner tonight?”

“No, ma’am. I think that even when you don’t feed me my favorite dessert.”

Alex had started to back away, trying to escape before they saw him, but he ran into the table by the couch and almost knocked over a lamp. The sound of the lamp rattling back into place as Alex caught it and placed it upright gave Alex away and he smiled sheepishly as the couple turned to look at him. Even though he hadn’t seen anything he shouldn’t have, he felt like he had been spying on an intimate moment.

The pair had laughed at him when he stuttered out an apology, assuring him they’d only been chatting. They might have only been chatting, but the fact they did so like a newly married couple, despite being married almost 30 years, made Alex realize not all marriages were like his parents had been — loveless and full of deceit and bitterness.

Rain splattered the windshield in the truck and Alex watched droplets slide down the glass and pool at the bottom.

In the hospital room, Molly, Jason, and Annie had prayed for Robert while he watched uneasily from the other side of the room. At one point Molly had reached for his hand and he’d let her pull him into the circle as they prayed. He closed his eyes, but he didn’t feel comfortable. He didn’t know how to pray or even if he believed there was someone out there or up there to pray to.

Letting out a long breath, he felt emotion catch in his throat. He hadn’t expected that.

“God,” he whispered. “If you’re there, please don’t let Robert die. Don’t take Molly and Jason’s dad from them. Don’t do this to Franny and Annie. They’ve all lost so much already.”

He dragged the back of his hands across his eyes and shook his head.

Well, he’d prayed. He didn’t feel much different, though. It certainly wasn’t like in the movies.

 In fact, he felt a little stupid talking to himself.

He closed his eyes again and let sleep overtake him, hopeful that when he woke up there’d be good news about Robert.

Fiction Friday: The Farmer’s daughter chapter 31

I’m definitely in need of distractions these days and writing and reading is helping some of that. What are you all doing to distract yourself from stress? Let me know in the comments.

Want to catch up on The Farmer’s Daughter? Click HERE or find the link at the top of the page. Also, let me know about typos or your ideas for what you think should happen next in the comments.

***

Chapter 31

In the ambulance Robert had been too weak to talk, but Annie had held his hand and the steady beat of his heartbeat against her palm was reassuring for the duration of the drive to the hospital.

“Where is the blood coming from?” she’d asked Randy Dunham, one of the EMTs and a former classmate of Jason’s.

“Puncture wound to his back,” Randy said. “They’ll be able to see how bad it is when we get to the hospital. We stopped the bleeding as best as we can for now.”

Annie had thanked him, then turned her attention back to Robert, smoothing his hair back off his forehead, praying for him to pull through somehow. The idea of spending the rest of her life without him by her side terrified her.

“Mrs. Tanner?”

Annie was pulled from her thoughts by the voice of the doctor. She stood quickly, her knees weak. She thought she might not be able to stay upright at first. The room shifted slightly around her and she closed her eyes briefly.

“Yes?”

The doctor’s expression was compassionate and that terrified her. She braced her heart for the worst. As if sensing her unsteadiness, he sat on a small couch and patted the seat for her to sit next to him.

“Your husband is stable right now.” The doctor’s voice was soft. “He has a broken leg, a cracked pelvis, a puncture wound to his back that struck his lung and collapsed it. He’s going to need surgery and that leg is going to need more than what we can offer here, so we’re going to life-flight him to Mercy Hospital. Mercy has one of the best orthopedic surgeons in the country working there right now.”

Annie nodded. The doctor kept his eyes focused on her. She was impressed by the compassionate, measured way he spoke to her. She was also surprised by how young he looked, and she realized the older she got the younger doctors had started to look to her

“Unfortunately, he is also bleeding internally.” Annie drew in a sharp breath. “We need to try to find the source of that before we fly him. He’ll have exploratory surgery here tonight to find the bleeding and stop it, and then, if he’s stabilized, we’ll fly him to Mercy first thing in the morning.”

Jason stepped into the waiting room with two cups of coffee. His gaze moved between the doctor and his mom and he recognized the gravity of it all before either of them spoke a word. The doctor looked at Jason, nodded, and then turned his attention back to Annie

“Mrs. Tanner, I don’t want to ask this, but we need to know if Mr. Tanner has a DNR on file, in case we would need it.”

“A DNR?”

Jason sat the coffee cups on the little table next to his mom’s chair. He cleared his throat. “A DNR is a Do Not Resuscitate Order, Mom.”

Tears filled Annie’s eyes, she nodded, and her voice trembled when she spoke. “Oh. I don’t kn— I mean. No. He’s never filled one of those out.”

She clutched the arm of the chair, as if to steady her swirling thoughts.

The doctor nodded and covered her hand with his. “Let’s hope we won’t need it, okay? I don’t expect we will, but I needed to ask.”

Tears spilled down Annie’s cheeks. “Can I see him?”

The doctor squeezed her hand as Jason sat on the chair next to her and laid his hand on her back.

“You can,” the doctor said. “I just want you to be prepared. He’s in rough shape. We’re prepping him for surgery, and he’s already being sedated to help with the pain.”

Annie took a deep breath and let it out again slowly. “I understand.”

And she did understand, but when she stood next to Robert and saw how pale he was, and the tubes and IVs hooked up to him, she thought her legs might give way. She wasn’t about to let herself collapse, though. Not when her husband needed her. Jason’s hand on her elbow strengthened her resolve to stay strong. She swallowed the tears and took Robert’s hand.

“You know, Robert, if you wanted a vacation, all you needed to do was ask.”

His eyes were barely open, but he managed a faint smile.

“Cows,” he whispered. “Milking.”

Annie smoothed his hair back from his forehead. “Walt and Hannah are taking care of the farm. You don’t need to worry about that.”

Robert swallowed hard and coughed. His voice faded to a whisper. “Annie, you’ve been the best part of my life. You and our kids. I need you to know that.”

Annie kissed his forehead. “Just rest. We’ll be here when you get out of surgery.”

“Alex and Jason, they’ll  . . . take care of you . . .”

“Robert Charles, don’t you talk that way. You’re going to be fine.”

“But, if —”

Her voice broke as she slid her hand behind his head and clutched his hair, still damp with blood. “God can’t have you yet. Do you understand me? He can’t.”

A faint smile tugged at Robert’s mouth as his eyelids closed. “That’s up  . . . to God.”

Annie waited until Robert’s bed had been wheeled out of the room, turned, and let Jason hold her against her as the tears fell. She pulled away a few moments later, stared at her hand stained with Robert’s blood and staggered toward the bathroom across the hall. Jason followed close behind, steadying her with a hand under her elbow again as she scrubbed the blood from her skin, sobs shaking her shoulders.

“You can’t have him, yet, God,” she choked out between sobs. “Not yet.”

***

Alex was awake but only barely when Molly found him in the ER exam room. His eyes were glassy, and she wasn’t sure if that was from the blood loss or from whatever fluid was being pumped from the IV bag into his arm. His shirt had already been cut away and the wound was covered with blood-stained bandages loosely stuck in place. The bed was slightly reclined.

The nurse had asked her if she was family when she’d first arrived, and when she’d said he didn’t have any family who lived local, the nurse had nodded in understanding and motioned her back.

“The doctor has examined him, stopped the bleeding, and started an IV with painkillers and an antibiotic,” the nurse told her. “Once that kicks in we’ll start cleaning out the wound and stitching him up.” She leaned toward Molly. “Just a heads up, the meds can make some people a little loopy so don’t take anything he says too seriously.”

He flashed her a weak smile as she reached the side of his bed.

“They gave me the good stuff. Said I would need it when they start cleaning this out.”

A nurse loaded supplies onto a tray on the other side of the bed.

Molly decided their usual barn banter style of talking would keep her from feeling too many emotions. “You look like crap.”

A small smile pulled at the corner of his mouth. “I feel like crap.”

“You won’t be feeling much of anything when that painkiller kicks in,” the doctor said as he walked into the room. He held his hand out to Molly and she shook it. “Doctor Murphy. Feel free to keep talking. I’ve got some stuff to get ready over here so we can start fixing this guy up.”

He started opening drawers and cabinets, pulling out gauze, medical tape, and antibiotic cream.

Alex fought to keep his eyes open. “Robert. . . how is he?”

Molly shook her head. “I don’t know yet. Jason went to find Mom and I came to find you.”

“Go,” he whispered. “Be with your dad.”

Molly sighed. “I can’t leave you here alone with that hole in your side, you big loser. I’m the only family you’ve got around here.”

Alex laughed softly then winced. “Don’t make me laugh.”

She tried not to look too closely at the bandage, red seeping through it. “What happened anyhow?”

“I tried to get the tractor off your dad. He told me not to. Didn’t listen. The board broke.”

“Hmmm, yes. I’ve also learned my lesson the hard way when I don’t listen to my dad.”

Alex winced again, trying to push himself up on the bed.

“Molly —”

Molly pressed her hands against Alex’s shoulders. “Um, no. Lay back.”

He fell back against the bed, and exhaled a frustrated sigh, his eyelids heavy.

“We need to talk.”

“We’ll talk later. After you’re fixed up.”

He grabbed her wrist gently. “I didn’t sleep with her, Molly.”

The nurse paused in her journey out of the room and looked back over her shoulder with wide eyes. Molly wished the nurse would keep walking and Alex would stop talking.

“Rest Alex.”

She glanced at the nurse, shooting her a glare. The nurse nodded apologetically and stepped out of the room.

“I didn’t sleep with her,” he repeated softly, so softly she barely heard him. His eyes were closing again.

She squeezed his hand. “I know. We’ll talk more when you’re a little more with it. Okay?”

He nodded weakly. “I’m really glad I never did drugs. Getting drunk was bad enough. This stuff is seriously messing with my mind.”

She laughed softly and shook her head. His eyes drifted closed and she breathed a sigh of relief, glad the painkiller had finally kicked in. Her hand was still holding his and his fingers had tightened around it. She smiled and rubbed the top of his hand with her other hand.

There was something so different about seeing him this way, peaceful and vulnerable versus his joking and teasing in the barn. Sitting with him now reminded him more of that day at the overlook when he kissed her, how his obnoxious façade had fallen, and she had seen a seriousness and sincerity in him she’d never seen before.

Suddenly he mumbled something, and she jumped slightly. She leaned closer to try to understand him, her cheek grazing his as she tilted her head.

His breath was warm against her ear, his lips grazing it, as he spoke. “Molly, I’m scared.”

“To get stitches?”

He tried to shake his head. “No. Of you.”

She smiled, amused at how out of it he obviously was.

“I’m a very intimidating person, I know. I think the painkiller is sending you for a loop.”

He tried to open his eyes, but he was clearly losing the battle. They fluttered closed again. “I’ve never seen my future as clearly as I do when I’m with you.”

“Okay, bud. You really need to —”

“I see babies.”

She pulled her head back and looked at him, then laughed, wondering where this conversation was going. “Did you mean, ‘I see dead people?’”

If he’d been more alert, she knew he would have laughed at her reference to a movie they’d watched together a couple of years ago with Jason and Ellie. They joked about it often in the barn, making the line a running joke between them. Instead of laughing, he grew quiet and she thought he was asleep.

“I’m going to marry you someday, Molly Tanner,” he whispered a few seconds later, his eyes still closed. She leaned down again. “I know it. I’ve known if for a long time, even before I kissed you that day on the overlook. I didn’t want to admit it because it scares me. I never thought I’d get married.”

He took a deep breath, and she could tell he was fighting to keep his eyes open again. She wanted to make another joke, but the tone of his voice was serious. Too serious. She swallowed hard as he spoke again, his lips grazing her skin just below her ear.

“When I kissed you that night in the barn, I saw a baby on your hip and one hugging your leg and you were standing on the porch of Ned and Franny’s house. There was a dog in the yard and cats in the barn. I don’t like cats, but they were there. Do you like cats?”

He didn’t wait for her to answer. His voice was starting to slur. “My truck was there, and your mom and dad were in the backyard. Your mom was watching your dad push a kid on a tire swing. The fields were full of corn and Jason was riding a tractor in the distance. And Ellie was there too . . . She was . . . standing in the front yard with an apple pie and . . .” his eyes closed. “A big belly.”

When he didn’t speak again, she let out the breath she realized she’d been holding. His skin was warm against her lips as she kissed his forehead.

She looked up and saw the same nurse who had been eavesdropping earlier watching her with wide eyes. She guessed the nurse to be a few years younger than her. Her name tag read Mackenzie.

“Oh my gosh. That was, seriously, so romantic.” Mackenzie gushed like the schoolgirl she probably was. “I would just die to have a man say something like that to me.”

Molly scoffed even though nervous butterflies were buzzing in her stomach. “He was under the influence of drugs. I doubt he’ll remember any of this later.”

Dr. Murphy pulled a rubber glove on and smirked. “Honestly, I find a lot of people speak the truth when they’re under sedation.”

“Oh really?” Molly’s tone was doubtful.

“Sure. Didn’t you ever hear about spies being drugged so the government can find out the truth? Like a truth serum.”

“Yes, but he’s on painkillers, not a truth serum.”

Dr. Murphy shrugged. “If you say so.”

Molly looked at Alex, then back at the doctor. “Does anyone remember what they said when they wake up?”

The doctor smiled. “Sometimes.” He pulled antiseptic from the drawer under the tray next to the bed to clean the wound. “Even if he doesn’t, he seems to be a man who knows what he wants. Or at least his subconscious knows.”

He nodded toward the curtain. “Unless you’ve got a strong stomach, you might want to sit in that chair over there while I do this.”

Molly lifted a shoulder in a quick shrug. “I’m a farm girl. I can handle it.”

But when the bandages came off and she saw the deep gash in Alex’s side, she couldn’t handle it.

She took three steps back and steadied herself against the wall, sliding her hand along it slowly until she found the chair. She tipped her head back, closed her eyes and willed the room to stop spinning. Watching someone she loved being sewn back together was a lot different than watching the vet sew the belly of a mama pig closed after they’d delivered a litter of over-sized piglets.

If she couldn’t handle seeing Alex injured without becoming woozy, she knew she’d be a mess when she saw her dad.

Fiction Friday: The Farmer’s Daughter Chapter 27

I was going to make this a break week, but I decided I’d share this chapter, even though I have a lot of reworking I want to do with it in the end. To catch up on the rest of the story click HERE.

My novella Quarantined will be on Amazon and Kindle Unlimited Oct. 20.





Alex felt the tension in the barn the entire morning. Robert moved around him, completing chores, without actually looking at him other than a curt nod when he had first walked in. Jason, thankfully, didn’t seem to notice Robert’s cold demeanor toward him.

Alex tried to ignore the tension but as the morning went on, frustration swelled inside him until he couldn’t hold it in any longer.

When Jason left to cut more corn stalks down Alex took a deep breath, tossed the dirty rag on top of a bucket, and walked to where Robert was inspecting a hoof of one of the cows. Standing above him, he propped his hands on his hips and cleared his throat.

“Robert, I think we need to talk.”

Robert didn’t look up from the cow. “Ah. So it’s Robert today is it?”

Alex closed his eyes briefly and took a deep breath. “Sir, with all due respect Molly is a grown woman. She’s nearly 27 and she can make up her own mind about who she wants to be involved with romantically.”

Robert stood and reached for the tube of ointment on the shelf behind him, still not looking at Alex. He kneeled down again by the cow. “How long has this been going on, Alex? I mean, you’ve been here five years …”

“No, sir. Not the whole time. We’ve just been getting closer in the last few months. I mean, my feelings for her started to change three years ago but I tried to ignore them. I was able to, for the most part and we became friends.”

Robert cleaned out the cow’s foot and applied the ointment, not responding.

Alex stood and watched him, his hands still on his hips. “Okay. Well, I guess I said all I needed to. So —”

“She’s been hurt before.”

Alex scoffed. “Yeah, by an immature boy.”

Robert stood and looked at Alex pointedly. “There are such things as immature men too, Alex.”

Alex felt heat in his face and looked away, focusing on the cows in the pasture.

“I don’t feel that’s me anymore, sir. You’ve been around me five years. You’ve seen me grow and, I hope, improve as a man. I don’t intend to hurt Molly.”

Robert nodded. “Yeah. Well, no one intends to hurt a woman.”

“I won’t hurt, Molly, Robert.”

“We always hurt people we love, without meaning to.”

“I won’t hurt her like Ben did.”

Robert replaced the ointment on the shelf and turned toward Alex, folding his arms across his chest.

“Just make sure you don’t.” He rubbed his chin for a few moments, looking at Alex. “I think a lot of you, Alex. You know that. You’re like a member of the family. But Molly? she’s my baby girl.”

The roar of the tractor passing by interrupted the conversation for a few moments and Alex slid his hands in the front pockets of his jeans.

“I understand,” he said as the tractor continued toward the lower field. “I want to protect Molly too, sir. I truly do.”

Robert unfolded his arms and turned to pick up a bucket of feed for the chickens. He walked toward the doorway, stopped, and looked back over his shoulder. “Does Jason know?”

“No sir, not yet. I mean Molly barely knows at this point how I feel about her. We just wanted to be sure we knew where this was going before we said anything.

Robert laughed and shook his head. “And where is it going?”

The color on Alex’s face could only be described as pure crimson. He cleared his throat and looked at the ground. “It’s . . . uh . . . yeah, it’s going well. That’s all I know at this point.”

A tilted smile crossed Robert’s mouth. “Telling Jason should be fun for you.

Alex shrugged. “I’m not worried. He’ll be fine.”

Robert picked up the buckets again and continued toward the door. “That’s his baby sister you were kissing. I’m not sure “fine” is how he will be.”

Alex’s smile faded into a worried expression as he turned back toward a stall and reached for a pitchfork. He’d have to tell Jason about him and Molly at some point.

He rubbed his hand along his jaw and chin, thought about how much he liked not having a shattered jaw, and decided he’d think more about how he’d break it to his best friend he was in a relationship with his little sister.

***

Annie heard the screen door slam shut from the front of the house. She twisted slightly from the counter where she was peeling potatoes for lunch.

Her husband shuffled into the kitchen and sat in a chair with a heavy sigh.

Leaning forward he leaned his arms on his knees and rubbed his hands across his face. He’d been working hard, and she was worried about him. She knew if he asked him if she was okay, he’d say he was fine, but she could tell he wasn’t fine. Not at all. He was exhausted, stressed, and overwhelmed.

“We need to talk,” he said after a few moments.

She turned and pressed her palms against the edge of the counter, leaning back against it. “About?”

He leaned against his hand, his mouth set tight. “About Alex Stone and our daughter.”

Annie nodded, a slight smile tugging at her mouth. “Oh. That.”

Robert’s head jerked up and he looked at her with a raised eyebrow. “Excuse me? ‘Oh. That.’? You sound like you already know about this.”

“I sound like I knew about it because I did,” Annie said with a brief shrug.

“What do you mean you knew?”

“Your mom asked me two weeks ago if you knew yet. She’d seen them kissing in the field out back and was concerned but she asked me not to say anything to Molly. She figured Molly would talk to us eventually.”

Robert stood and rubbed his hand across his forehead, pacing from one side of the kitchen to the other.

“In the field? Out back?” He shook his head, hands on his hips as he paced. “Is there anywhere they won’t make out?”

Annie laughed. “Robert, stop pacing. You’ll raise your blood pressure.” She turned around and started filling the pot of potatoes with water. “I don’t know that it was a make out session per say. It was just a kiss that I know of. Anyhow, I told Franny you didn’t know yet, but that I would keep an eye on things.”

Robert stopped pacing and looked at his wife. “So, you’ve been keeping an eye on things but didn’t think you should fill me in on it?”

“I didn’t want to get you too worked up unless there was something to get worked up about.”

“You don’t think there is something to get worked up about?”

Annie shrugged sitting the pot on the back burner on the stove. “I hope there isn’t. I mean, we’ve raised Molly well and I think she’s responsible enough not to do anything too crazy.”

Robert scoffed. “Oh yeah? Well, I caught them making out in our barn last night. In the middle of the night. I think that’s a bit crazy, don’t you?”

Annie frowned, eyebrows furrowed. “Were they clothed?”

Robert’s mouth dropped open as he stared at his wife. “Were they clothed? Yes, they were clothed, but what difference does it make? Plenty of things can be done with clothes on.”

Annie smirked and trailed her hand up her husband’s arm. “We know that firsthand, don’t we, Robert Tanner?”

Red spread across Robert’s cheeks and ears. “Annie, don’t change the subject here. What are we going to do about this?”

Annie smiled as she stepped closer to him, pushing her fingers through his hair. “I think the subject is a pleasant one to change to really.” She kissed his forehead. “But as for Alex and Molly, we’re not going to do anything for now. Molly is a grown woman. I’m glad to talk to her about being careful, about making sure she knows what she’s doing. I’ll even talk to her about how we raised her to delay a sexual relationship until she’s married, but I’m not going to tell her she can’t see Alex, if that’s what you’re saying.”

Robert sighed. “I don’t know what I’m saying. I don’t even know what I think about all this or how I feel. Alex is like one of the family, but . . .”

Annie looped her arms around Robert’s neck. “But you’re worried because we know he’s had some drinking issues and may have dated a few women who had ‘questionable’ backgrounds for lack of a better term.”

Robert nodded. “Yes, Annie. I am worried. I mean he says he loves her, and she says she loves him, but emotions are such confusing things and maybe he only loves the idea of her or maybe he’s using her to —”

“People can change, Robert. We’ve watched Alex change a lot in the last five years. He told you he loves our daughter?”

Robert rubbed a hand across his eyes and held it there for a few moments. “Yes. He said he’s fallen in love with her.”

He looked at his wife — whose head was tipped and whose face held that expression women get when watching a scene in a movie where the hero professes his love for the heroine — and groaned.

“Don’t look like that. Not about our little girl.”

Annie laughed softly, holding her arms out in a gesture indicating innocence. “What do you mean?”

Robert grimaced. “You’re acting like it’s all sweet and romantic.”

The way his wife tipped her head back and laughed sent his eyes rolling to the ceiling.

“But it is romantic,” she insisted sliding her arms around his neck again as he sat on the edge of the kitchen table. She pressed her forehead against his. “How about we take this issue to the only one who can protect our little girl. Okay?”

He sighed and nodded.

 “Pray, Robert,” she whispered.

Robert’s arms slid around his wife’s waist and he closed his eyes to focus on the desires of his heart for his daughter and even for Alex. His muscles relaxed as he began to pray out loud for the protection of Molly, of her heart, of her sweet, gentle spirit, and of her physical body.

“Amen,” Annie said when he was done.

She looked down at him and he realized the anxiety he’d been feeling had left him. His wife’s dark green eyes captivated him, making him forget, at least briefly, about his worry for Molly.

Annie leaned close until her mouth was close to his ear. “The kids aren’t here right now,” she whispered.

“No, they’re not.”

“You came in for a lunch break, right?”

An amused grin tugged at the corners of his mouth. “Yes.”

Her lips grazed his earlobe as she spoke and desire sizzled through him. “Is it only food that you’re hungry for?”

He pushed her hair off her neck and pressed his mouth against her bare skin. “You know it’s not.”

He grabbed her mouth with his, his hands slipping to her waist as he gently pulled her against him.

When Annie pulled her mouth from his several moments later, he was breathing hard. She stepped back from him, slid her hand down to take his, and walked toward the stairs, tugging gently to indicate she wanted him to follow her. “Come on, Robert Charles. Let me help you get your mind off some things this afternoon.”

He followed his wife willingly, smiling broadly, feeling less like an almost 50-year old man and more like a newly married 19-year old, his concern for Molly at least temporarily forgotten.

Fiction Friday: “A New Beginning” Chapter 15

I just wanted to take a moment to thank all those who have been following A New Beginning, whether you comment or not. I know I tease those who comment sometimes (like joking with those who “complained” about there being cliffhangers) but I hope it’s never misunderstood how much I appreciate your likes, comments and even views. Writing is an escape for me. Much like photography and blogging, it has been a lifeline for me during my most depressed or stressful times in life. The fact that others are enjoying what I’m writing means more to me than many of you will ever know.  The fact that others tell me they actually care about what I’m writing is an added bonus.

You can find more about the first book about Blanche at the link at the top of the page, along with an excerpt. It is available on Kindle and Kindle Unlimited.

If you have read it there and liked it, I’d love if you leave me a review or share it with others on your blog or social media. For those who read the story when it was on the blog, I did add to it, change a few things and tighten a few others. I even changed the first paragraph to allow for an immediate jump into the action.


Light, Shadows & Magic (2)Chapter 15

The sound of the phone ringing downstairs woke me from a sound sleep. I stared at the clock, groggy and disoriented.

2 p.m. I’d slept through half the day.

“Blanche! Are you awake honey?” Mama called from the bottom of the stairs.

“Am I downstairs?” I mumbled to myself. “Then I’m not awake.”

“Yes!” I called, trying to sound cheerful. “Just now.”

“Thomas from the paper is on the phone.”

I stumbled down the stairs, completely uninterested in talking to anyone, let alone Thomas Fairchild, after the day and night I’d had the day before.

“Hey, Robbins. I hear you had an exciting day yesterday.”

“Yes. How did you hear?”

“I’m a journalist. I know all.” Thomas laughed. “Seriously, I overheard Emmy’s mom at the post office this morning. I wanted to know if you’d let me interview you for a story I’m working on it. It’s going to tie in with our coverage of Sam being shot.”

Interview me? Why me?

“Uh…. I don’t think so. I’m not really….”

“You’re the happy part of the story, Blanche,” Thomas interrupted. “The inspirational, heart-wrenching part. The part that breaks up the depressing news in the paper. The part that sells papers, as Stanley would say.”

“Listen, Thomas, I just woke up, I was up all night and I haven’t even checked in to see how Sam or Emmy are yet . . .”

“I called the hospital this morning,” Thomas said. “Emmy and the baby are great and Sam is in stable condition after the surgery. So how about you meet me at the Twilight Rose Café down the street from the hospital and then go check on them? We’ll discuss the story and see if you want to be a part of it or not.”

I sighed and rubbed my eyes. Apparently, nothing I said was going to deter Thomas from pursuing an interview with me. Stanley hadn’t changed from calling him his “cub reporter” to his “bulldog reporter” for nothing.

“I’ll meet you at 3:30 at the café,” I said with a yawn.

When I reached the café, Thomas was sitting at a table in the back corner of the café, wearing a polo shirt and a pair of khaki pants, scribbling away in a notebook and sipping coffee from a paper cup. He looked like a stereotypical newspaper reporter: handsome, well-dressed and preoccupied with the story he was after. His blond hair was cut slightly shorter than the first time I had met him but still left enough bangs so he still had to flip his head back to move them out of his eyes.

“Hey, there, hero,” he said as I approached his table, motioning to the chair across from him. “You look pretty good for someone who was up all night.”

I yawned as I sat down and looked at him through bleary eyes. “I’m barely functioning,” I said.

“So, listen, I know you don’t want to let me interview you, but people love these heartfelt stories. It’s a nice break from the hard, sad news and politics. And besides, you owe me. I got you that job writing feature stories for us.”

I laughed. “I haven’t even decided if I’m going to take that job.”

Thomas waved to the woman behind the counter. “Hey, Annie, a cup of coffee for my friend here and a couple of raspberry scones.”

“I don’t really drink coffee.”

“Yeah, but you need some,” Thomas said. “And you’re going to take that job. The world – or at least our little area of it – needs Blanche Robbins writing stories for them. They may not know it yet, but they do.”

The waitress placed two scones and a mug of coffee in front of me. She wore her dark hair in a tight ponytail and her full lips were highlighted with bright red lipstick. A blue sweater and short black skirt fit nicely on her slender form.

“Thanks, Annie,” Thomas said with a wink.

I glanced at the waitress and suddenly realized I knew her. It was Annie Tanner, a mother of three who had gotten pregnant in high school and married Billy Tanner, much to the disapproval of the ladies in my sewing circle.

I watched Thomas’ eyes follow Annie as she walked away. He grinned at me. “She’s nice to look at at the end of a workday. Or the beginning. Or even in the middle.”

I rolled my eyes. “She’s the mother of three and married you know.”

Thomas shrugged and poured creamer in his coffee as he smirked at me. “Doesn’t mean I can’t admire what I can not have.”

He broke a piece of his scone off. “You know I enjoy watching you when you leave too.”

I felt my face grow warm and looked at the top of the table. “Thomas, I am much too tired for your teasing today.”

“I’m not teasing,” Thomas said. “And, hey, maybe we can count this as that date I asked you out on a couple years ago.”

“Uh, no we can’t.”

Thomas sighed. “You’re no fun, Blanche. Fine, no date. But at least make this trip worth my while and agree to let me interview you and tell the community a heart-lifting story that could have been a tragedy.”

I relented to the interview, anything that would let me return home to my family and my bed quicker.

“Just don’t make me sound like some hero, Thomas. I just did what I had to do,” I said as he pulled out his notepad and pen.

Thomas grinned. “I’m pretty sure that’s what all heroes say. ‘I just did what I had to do.’

I rolled my eyes and tossed a napkin at him playfully.

When the interview was done, I asked Thomas if the paper had been told anything about the man who shot Sam.

“Yeah, some guy in a junkyard up in the corner of the county close to the New York state border. Sam was trying to bring him in for burglary. Coward shot Sam from behind and took off. The cops are looking for him today. I’ll be heading up to the barracks later today to see what else I can find out. Derrick is working on the story too.”

He leaned back and draped his arm over the back of the chair. “So, what’s your story, Blanche? Is reporting something you’ve always wanted to do?”

I sipped the coffee and winced. I hated coffee. Why did I keep letting men tell me I needed it?

“No. I don’t really want to be a reporter. I just like to write.”

“Well, you’ll have to do a little researching and reporting for any writing you do, so this job will be good training for that.” Thomas grinned again. His grin was getting on my nerves and I wasn’t sure if it was my lack of sleep or just him.

I looked at the coffee, stirring in creamer and sugar, wishing I was at home and asleep in bed.

“My main job is being a mom, Thomas. Not writing. You do know I’m a mom right?”

Thomas was still grinning as he sipped his coffee. “I’ve read your columns, Blanche. I know you’re a mother.

“So, tell me, Thomas, how did you even get into reporting? Is it something you always wanted to do?”

Thomas broke off another piece of the scone, tipped his head back and dropped it in his mouth. “Yeah. I mean, I haven’t always wanted to do it. When I was five I wanted to be a firefighter, but I guess you could say it’s something I’ve wanted to do for a long time. I always imagined myself somewhere with a lot higher circulation, though. Maybe national. I started in Philadelphia, interned at the city paper there, but didn’t get offered a job. Uncle Stanley offered me a job here for some experience, so here I am.”

“Stanley’s your uncle?”

“Yeah, but he doesn’t like to tell a lot of people, so it doesn’t look like he’s playing favorites,” Thomas said.

I picked up the scone, realizing how hungry I actually was.

“So, your uncle,” I said, realizing this might be my chance to learn a little more about the man who wanted to date Marion. “Was he ever married before?”

Thomas leaned forward slightly, letting out a breath leaning his elbows on the table. For once his gestures lacked the cocky swagger. His expression was hard to read as he looked up at me.

“Yeah,” he said softly, tapping the eraser end of the pencil on the tabletop, his expression somewhat distant. “He was. To my Aunt Margaret. She was my dad’s sister.” He cleared his throat. “She died when I was about 12. Cancer. I was very close to her. It was hard on the whole family, of course, but . . . yeah..well, anyhow, Stanley was shattered. A year or so after she passed he was looking for a way out of town, saw this job advertised in the papers back home and grabbed the chance to try to run away from the memories.”

He swallowed hard and coughed softly.

It was the first time since I’d met Thomas that I’d seen him look serious about anything.

“Anyhow,” he said, twirling the pencil on the table. “It’s been nice knowing someone in the business who can help me learn the ropes and it’s been nice to be around Uncle Stanley again too.”

He shrugged. “Plus, I’ve grown to like this tiny county and the people in it.”

He smiled and winked, the cocky attitude I was familiar with returning for a supporting role to his more serious tone. “Including you. Even if you won’t go out with me.”

I leaned back, studying Thomas for a moment as he ate the rest of the scone and sipped his coffee. I wondered if I had misjudged him the last couple of years I’d known him. Maybe he wasn’t the one-dimensional, arrogant, flirting playboy I’d thought he was.

“Hey,” he said, looking over my shoulder. “Speak of the devil. Someone else must have had the same idea about meeting here today.”

I turned to see Stanley and Marion sitting down at a table near the entrance. Marion looked nervous, her hair pulled back and pinned up on top of her head. The blue dress she wore fit modestly on her slender form and matched nicely with the stylish black heels. I smiled as I saw she’d taken my advice on the outfit and the hairstyle.

“Good for Uncle Stanley,” Thomas said, softly chuckling. “It’s about time he got back on the dating scene.”

I turned back around and took another bite of my scone.

“Do you know the woman?” he asked. “I’ve seen her around but not sure I’ve ever met her.”

“She’s my former mother-in-law.”

“Really?”

“Yep. My ex’s long-suffering mother and I’m very happy to see her out enjoying life again. Her husband died a few years ago. My ex doesn’t have any contact with her and her other son rarely stops in to see her even though he lives a couple counties away.”

I decided not to mention my initial misgivings about her going on a date with Stanley.

“I hope they find some joy together,” Thomas said, watching them. “Even if it’s just in getting back out into the world again.”

I looked over Thomas’ shoulder. “Is that a back door? Maybe we can sneak out before they see us. I don’t want to make them feel uncomfortable.”

“Yeah,” Thomas said following my gaze. “I think it is and that’s a good idea. Come on, I’ll pay and we’ll sneak out. Let the old folks have a little privacy.”

I squinted against the sunlight outside, my eyes heavy, from never fully waking up. I wasn’t as familiar with the town of Sawyer as I was with Dalton and I looked down the street at picturesque shops and a row of old fashion gas street lamps lining Main Street, feeling as if I had stepped back in time in some ways.

“Want to take a walk before you head over to check on Emmy and Sam?” Thomas asked. “There’s a spot by the river I think you’d like.”

We buttoned our coats, pulled on our hats and started to walk.

The walkway along the river paralleled Main Street and took us down under the large bridge that crossed the Susquehanna River and brought visitors to Sawyer from the main highway to the main part of town. Flowers, trees, and well-kept hedges had been planted along the walkway and even with the flowers not in bloom the landscaping was eye-catching.

“I don’t think I’ve ever walked this way,” I said. “I didn’t even know this view was here.”

Thomas winked, sipping the coffee he’d carried with him from the shop. “That’s why I’m here – to help you explore the beauty that is around you.” He gestured his arms out over the view of the river. “Look upon the beauty that is our lovely county, nestled here in the rolling green hills of Pennsylvania or as some call those hills – ‘the Endless Mountains’.”

“I know what these mountains are called, Thomas,” I said. “I’ve lived here all my life you know.”

“Ah, yes,” he said, sitting on a wooden bench and leaning back. “Are you sure that’s something you want to announce to the world? That you’ve always lived in one place and never explored life outside your tiny bubble?”

He patted the bench next to him and I sat on the end of the bench and watched a hawk fly over the water toward the opposite shore.

“I haven’t always lived here,” I said. “I was gone for a few years at least.”

“Oh yeah?”

“I lived in New York state for a while with my ex.”

“I heard before that you had an ex,” Thomas said. “So, tell me about this ex. What kind of man left you to raise your little boy by yourself? I know I seem like a huge flirt who shuns responsibility but even I know that’s a garbage move.”

I shook my head, knowing I didn’t want to talk about Hank, that I was tired of talking and thinking about Hank.

“We were just too young.”

I could feel Thomas’ eyes on me. “He really hurt you, didn’t he?”

I leaned back on the bench and nodded. “Yeah. In more ways than one.”

Thomas sighed and sipped from the coffee cup.

“I moved up here after I caught my girlfriend cheating on me,” he said bluntly.

He laughed softly, shaking his head. “Man, she did a number on me. We shared everything, dated since 10th grade. She was sweet, beautiful, and smart. I never thought  . . . well, anyhow. We were young too. Maybe I was just too cocky, ignored her too much during college. I don’t know. I never expected her to run off with my best friend but when she did it woke me up pretty good.”

He leaned forward, propping his elbows on his knees. “Maybe you’ve figured out by now my cocky attitude is a cover up in some ways.”

I smirked. “What, like underneath it all you’re a sweet, hurt little boy?”

I immediately regretted the comment, knowing the lack of sleep was only heightening my tendency to be snarky.

Thomas winced. “Ouch. You’re savage today, aren’t you?”

“Sorry. I – you just joke a lot and I was just – sorry.”

Thomas grinned and blew a kiss at me. “No worries. I like a savage woman.”

“Thomas. . .”

He tipped his head back and laughed, his nose crinkling.

“I love flirting with you. You resist it so strongly. It’s fun to watch you squirm. Seriously, though, most of this really is a cover. I’m not as smarmy as I seem and I don’t really pursue women the way I pretend. I’m good with being single right now. Maybe someday – but for now? I’m focusing on my career, on writing a book, and on getting to know nice people in this county like you.”

I watched him warily but didn’t see the normal swagger in his body language, the playful grin normally there. His expression was serious, his mannerisms relaxed and friendly.

“Don’t take this the wrong way but do you find it hard to let people in?” Thomas asked. He leaned back against the bench again, stretching his arm across the back of it.

“Because honestly,” he said, before I could answer the question. “I do. I don’t like the idea of opening myself up, only to be hurt. I’d have to imagine that’s even harder for you and what you’ve probably been through.”

I watched the hawk land on the spindly branch of a tree and wondered how vulnerable I truly wanted to be with a man I’d only ever known to be flippant and flirty before today. I cleared my throat.

“Yes,” I said finally. “It is hard. And it’s scary but it’s even harder for me because I have Jackson to protect.”

“Ah, yeah,” Thomas said with a quick nod. “That would be a challenge. Keeping a wall around yourself is one thing but you and your child? That’s an entirely different ball game. Like, you can keep yourself all locked up inside, but the danger of causing your son to be afraid to love too? I wouldn’t want that responsibility at all.”

I scowled at Thomas. “Well, thanks. I hadn’t thought of it that way before.”

Thomas laughed softly, cleared his throat and stood. “So, anyhooo…maybe we should head back up to our cars and you should go see Emmy and Sam before I stick my foot in my mouth again.”

Thomas opened the door to Daddy’s Olds for me when we reached the street. “Think about that job, okay, Blanche?” he said. “I think you’d be good at it. Truly.”

“I’ll think about it,” I said, sliding behind the steering wheel.

He closed the door and peered through the window. “Good. And thank you for the walk.” My muscles tensed as he leaned through the window and kissed my cheek.

He leaned back slightly and looked me in the eye. “Don’t be afraid to live again, Blanche. Don’t let that jerk take that away from you. From what I’ve heard and what you said today, he doesn’t deserve to have that power over you.”

Driving down the street toward the hospital, I knew Thomas was right. Hank Hakes was still living in my head, still controlling me from the inside. I had to find a way to take that control back, live life without the fear of being hurt the same way I’d been hurt by Hank.