The Farmer’s Daughter Excerpt

The Farmer’s Daughter, is up for pre-order now on Amazon and Barnes and Noble.

For blog readers, I am offering the first two chapters free.

Chapter 1

The metaphor of where Molly Tanner was lying in relation to the path her life had taken in the last few months was not lost on her.

Her life was at a messy, foul-smelling, soul-crushing stand still.

And now, as if she needed more proof of that, here she was, lying face down in manure with a cow standing above her looking bored.

During this one day alone, she had faced a tractor that wouldn’t work, a broken pitchfork handle that had cut her hand, rain that wouldn’t stop, rude customers at the family’s country store, and now she was covered from head to toe in manure thanks to a stubborn Jersey cow named Cinnamon.

“Hey! Whatchya laying down for? We’re ready to start the milking!”

She closed her eyes against the voice coming from the barn a few hundred feet up the hill behind her. Pushing herself up out of the mud to her knees, she sat back on her heels.  

Couldn’t Alex Stone see she was in no mood for taunting? Of course, he couldn’t because just like her brother, Alex was incredibly clueless.

Dealing with an annoying brother for her entire life was one thing, but five years ago her older brother Jason had invited his college roommate to come work on the family farm. Now it was like she had two annoying older brothers to deal with.

She stood, setting her jaw tight. She was not about to give Alex the satisfaction of reacting to such obnoxious questions. He knew perfectly well what had happened, and she knew perfectly well that neither he, nor Jason, intended to help her. She could hear their laughter behind her, adding fuel to the fire of indignation already burning.

A dairy cow refusing to go into the barn for milking was not normal, she had been told.

Cinnamon, however, had proven herself to be an unusual dairy cow.

This cow, apparently, had never been told she was supposed to enjoy being milked. This was the third time in less than a week she’d refused to move from the pasture to the barn and today she’d yanked her head back hard enough to rip the rope from Molly’s hand and send her flying into the mud.

If Cinnamon felt any remorse for her obstinance, she wasn’t showing it. She turned her head toward the empty field behind her, chewed her cud, and swished a fly off her backside with a flick of her tail.

Molly glanced over her shoulder, bristling at the sight of Alex smirking, casually leaning against the faded red door of the barn, one leg crossed over the other, thumbs hooked in his belt loops. He raised his hand, nodded, and propped a piece of sweet grass in one corner of his mouth.

She grabbed the rope again, shouting over her shoulder, “If you’re so impatient, then you get this cow moving!”

Tugging on the rope, she silently pleaded for Cinnamon to move, to not give Alex more reason to laugh at her on what was already a miserable day, wrapped up in a miserable week, tacked into the middle of a miserable season of her life.

She had been sure that by now, eight years after graduating high school, she’d be out on her own, experiencing a life farm removed from what she’d grown up in. Instead, here she was  still living on her parents’ farm in rural Pennsylvania, still sleeping in her old room, still having meals cooked for her by her mother, and still, obviously, slogging through manure.

Working on a farm was all she’d ever known and all she’d ever wanted, at least until a few months ago when she’d started to wonder what else life might offer a 26-year-old woman little knowledge of the world other than how to work on a farm and sell produce at her family’s small country store.

She huffed out a frustrated breath at the sound of footsteps thudding in the mud behind her, not even bothering to look over her shoulder and see who it was. She knew who it was. When a masculine hand snatched the rope from hers in one quick move, Cinnamon dutifully dropped her head and walked forward.

Molly scowled as Alex walked away, Cinnamon close at his heels.

“Are you kidding me?! I’ve been trying to get her to move for half an hour!”

Alex looked over his shoulder and smirked. “Ladies like me.”

“You wish,” she mumbled, but she knew it was true.

The ladies did like Alex.

Molly had watched more than one woman follow Alex like a cow looking for her feed. She wasn’t one of them, however.  Sure, she admired his good looks from time to time — well, more than from time to time — more like every day in the barn, but that admiration didn’t mean she planned to tag along after him begging for attention.

Frustration seethed through her as she plodded toward the barn and she stiffened at the amused smile tugging at the corners of her father’s mouth as he walked from the back of the barn, Jason close behind him.

Robert Tanner shook his head and laughed softly. “Cinnamon at it again?”

Molly scowled, attempting to wipe mud from her face but only wiping more on it.

Robert jerked his head toward the house. “Why don’t you just head on in and get cleaned off?  The boys can finish up the milking.”

 “I’ll take you up on that offer.” She shook mud off her hands.

Jason carrying a bucket of pig slop, stepped around Robert, and scrunched his nose up as he leaned close to Molly. “You’d better.” He sniffed. You smell like the pigs.”

She shot him a glare as she turned to walk back toward the house.

“And you smell like the gas that comes out of their behinds!” she called over her shoulder.

“Always have to have the last word, don’t you?”

“Yup.”

“Whatever.”

“Whatever back at you.”

Robert interrupted the sibling banter, his tone firm but his eyes sparking with amusement.  “Hey! The last word is mine. Jason, get back to work. Molly, go get cleaned off.”

Walking back toward the house, Molly looked out across the fields of the farm, at the green of the corn starting to peek up from the soil. Soon they’d be harvesting it, if the rain would ever stop.

Beyond the fields was her grandparents’ home and beyond that more fields, more winding dirt roads, more farms, more cows in pastures. A mile to the right was where Jason and Alex lived, in the house that used to belong to her maternal grandparents. Leon and Eleanor Bentley had retired from farming seven years ago and moved into a housing development close to town.

She walked into the chicken coop to look for the eggs she knew her mom needed for the cakes they were baking for the church rummage and bake sale. Chickens scattered around her in a blur of brown, red, and white, squawking their displeasure at being moved aside from their roosts.

The eggs retrieved, she paused outside the chicken coup and watched clouds moving over the top of the hills hugging the Tanner’s 250-acre farm. It looked like they were going to get hit with more rain, which was exactly what they didn’t need. Even under the pall of an oncoming storm, the fields and hillside were beautiful. Molly knew she’d never get sick of this view, of the gorgeous sunrises in the mornings and the sunsets in the evening that cast an orange glow across the fields, making them look almost mystical.

At the sound of laughter, she turned to see her mom standing in the doorway, hands on her hips.

“Good grief, what happened to you?”

Wearing faded blue jeans and a red and white checkered button-up top with her hair pulled back in a ponytail, Annie Tanner looked several years younger than her actual age of 49.

Molly looked down at mud and manure-covered clothes. “Cinnamon happened to me.”

“Again?”

“Of course. That cow hates me.”

“That cow hates everyone. Well, you can’t stand there all day. Bring those eggs into the house and head up for a shower.

Molly sighed and trudged toward the back porch of the farmhouse. “Sorry. I was just admiring the sunset.”

“It’s beautiful,” Annie agreed. “But I need to get those cakes started. A sunset will wait. Mavis Porter won’t.”

Molly inwardly cringed at the mention of Mavis, the woman who had overseen the Spencer Valley Methodist Church rummage sale for 20-years straight. Mavis, with her thin face pursed into a permanent look of disapproval, had a knack for making anyone feel less than.  Molly hoped she wouldn’t be roped into manning the baked goods table again this year. Mavis seemed to think it was ironic to have the fat girl guarding the cakes and cookies. She’d never called Molly fat, but that’s how Molly imagined it, how she saw herself.

“I can’t believe there are any cakes left,” a middle school-aged boy said one year, looking Molly up and down from across the church basement while his friends laughed.

“There were probably even more before she came in,” another boy said. The boys snickered together as they walked away.

Molly had pretended she hadn’t heard them as she counted the change in the money box, but she’d heard every word and never forgot them.

Heading into the house, Molly handed the basket of eggs to Annie and made her way to the upstairs bathroom.

Undressing in front of the mirror over the bathroom sink, she grimaced at the sight. No matter what, she couldn’t seem to get back down to her high school weight. She missed when she was in junior high, thin and limber and not the butt of little boys’ jokes. Drying off in front of the mirror again after her shower, she kept her eyes downcast, hoping to avoid a full view of what her body had become.

While her friend Liz said Molly’s body “curved in all the right places,” she couldn’t see anything right about her curves. All she saw was the extra cushion to her belly, backside, and thighs she’d gained over the years. She pushed her hand back through soft red curls and piled it all on top of her head, holding it in place with one hand. She tilted her head to one side and pursed her lips, taking in the reflection of her face. At least she liked her hair. That was about the only thing she liked about herself. Her eyes were too far apart, too narrow and her face too round, like the rest of her.

She’d heard more than one sermon over the years about how God “doesn’t create junk,” but she still struggled to love herself, especially when it came to her appearance.

Sometimes she was sure the real reason she’d never sought a life off the farm was because of how she saw herself. How could she face life in a big world when she didn’t even feel comfortable in her small one?   

By the time Molly heard her dad’s truck pull into the driveway next to the house a couple of hours later, three cakes had been baked and were cooling on the dining room table, ready to be added to the six other cakes baked the day before. The smell of red velvet mixed with double chocolate and lemon pound cakes permeated the entire house.

Watching through the window over the sink, Molly saw her dad climb out of the driver’s side of his pickup, more gingerly than he had only a year ago. He’d been up since 4 a.m., overseeing the milking of the cows, the shoveling of manure, preparations for haying season. The last few years had been as physically rough on Robert as it had been emotionally.

Her father’s rusted red Ford needed to be replaced, but it was his pride and joy, a gift from his father when Robert had taken over most of the farm operations 15 years ago. Annie kept urging him to invest in a new one, but each time he had responded, “It gets me where I need to go and when it won’t no more, we’ll talk about replacing.”

Molly knew about trucks that needed work. She was still driving the 1985 Ford her grandfather had been driving up until four years ago when Alzheimer’s had left him unable to drive, work, and barely function.

Alex slid easily out of the passenger side of her dad’s truck. Walking toward the house, he was wearing the same style of faded blue jeans, a dirt-stained white T-shirt under a button-up plaid shirt, and brown work boots just like he wore every day. His dark brown hair was ruffled but not disheveled.

Jason pulled his own truck behind his dad’s, slamming it into park and spitting at the ground as he climbed out.

He lumbered across the yard like an ox, arms held slightly away from his body to accommodate large biceps. He was as big as an ox too, at least around the shoulders and neck. It wasn’t all fat either. Jason lifted heavy hay bales several times a week, worked hard on the farm every day, and then spent every other morning after milking at the gym for a 60-minute workout. Yes, Jason could be gross, but Molly had to admit he could also be sweet, cared deeply for her and the rest of his family, and was proud to help put food on tables across the country.

Molly knew his determination to keep in shape was left over from playing football during high school and college. His coaches had urged him to pursue a professional career and two NFL teams had courted him, but Jason had never wanted a career in football. He’d wanted to come home to the farm, to his cows, his cornfields, and to Ellie, who he’d been dating since his senior year of high school.

When he’d graduated college with a degree in agriculture engineering and economics five years ago, he had done just that — come home. A couple years later, he convinced Alex to come join him.  Molly had heard her mom say more than once she felt like she had gained another son with Alex’s arrival. From day one Alex had been invited to every family meal, to the point that now it was expected he would eat with them, with or without a formal invitation.

“Good day in the fields?” Annie asked after the prayers had been said and the food was on the plates.

Robert took a bite of the chicken breast in front of him. “The John Deere finally broke down.”

Annie poured iced tea into everyone’s glass. “Will John come and look at it?”

 “Jason and I can take care of it in the morning after milking. I hate to spend the money if I know we can fix it here.”

 “Dad forgets I’m not good with the tractors,” Jason said with a grin. “just the trucks, but I’ll see what I can do.”

“I have faith in both of you.” Annie winked. “And in Alex. He’s learned a thing or two about tractors over the years.

Alex laughed softly and shook his head. “Just enough to keep my job, but not enough to give me too much work. We all know I couldn’t handle that.”

Alex could handle plenty of hard work. Molly knew that. She’d seen him do it, day after day. Jason liked to rib his friend about his laziness and Alex playfully agreed, but Alex was a hard worker and knew almost as much about the farm as her dad and brother did, an impressive feat for a city slicker.

Quiet settled over the dining room, the clanking of forks against plates the only sound. There was tension in the air like someone wanted to say something but didn’t know how. Apprehension curled in Molly’s stomach as Robert cleared his throat.

“We got a letter from the co-op today.”

Annie spooned more potatoes on Alex’s plate. “How bad are the numbers?”

“Worse I’ve seen in five years.” Robert’s words set a somber tone. “It’s going to hurt a lot of farmers. I think it may even hurt us, despite our move toward organic and expanding the farm store.  Ten more farms in the co-op went out of business this year.”

Molly’s stomach twisted at the thought of more of their friends being forced to sell their farms. She’d attended too many auctions last year, hugged too many farmers’, watched too many farmers weep as their lives were sold to the highest bidder. Thinking about driving past even more empty fields once full of corn and hay left a dull ache in her chest.

Jason’s jaw tightened. “I don’t understand how the buyers can keep getting away with this. It’s like the harder we work, the more we get punished. We make the milk, they raise the prices, and barely pass anything on to us.”

Molly pushed her potatoes around her plate as silence settled over the small group.

Robert propped his elbows on the table, pressed his hands together. “All we can do is keep plugging ahead,” he said softly. “And pray God shows us which direction to take.”

Worry hung in the air thick like tar. Molly looked up from her plate and caught the eye of Jason and then her mom. Each of them knew what the other one was thinking: how much longer would they be able to live this dream of owning and running their own family business?

Jason finished his meal first, crumpled his napkin and tossed it onto his plate. “I’m going to head up to the house for a shower. Ellie and I are heading to Spencer for a movie tonight.”

Ellie Lambert was Jason’s long-time girlfriend. She was sweet, pretty, and utterly devoted to Jason. Ellie was also Molly’s co-worker at the Tanner’s country store on the edge of town. Raised on a dairy farm her entire life like Molly, Ellie had stayed close to home after graduating high school. She had commuted to the local community college for four years, earning a degree in elementary education, which she used at a part-time job at one of the local preschools.

Molly wondered if her brother would ever get the nerve up to ask Ellie to marry him. At the age of 30, neither of them were getting any younger. She could tell he loved Ellie and she knew Ellie adored Jason, though it was hard for Molly to understand anyone swooning over her obnoxious brother. Sometimes Molly wondered if it was the uncertainty of the farm’s future that kept Jason from proposing. Sometimes she wondered if it was that same uncertainty that had left her considering a life outside of farming.

There had to be something better than dragging herself out of bed at 4:30 every morning to milk the cows, working hard all day, and then collapsing in bed at 9 every night, so overwhelmed with exhaustion she didn’t even have a life off the farm. There had to be something better than putting all this hard work in and seeing little return, in so many ways, not just profit.

There simply had to be more to life period.

Molly sighed as she stood and carried her plate to the dishwasher, deep in thought, overwhelmed with a sudden determination to see what life might hold for her beyond the borders of her family’s farm.

***

Alex knew Molly had no idea he was watching her.

She never did.

This time she was too deep in thought, about what he wasn’t sure. Other times she was busy in the barn, or at the store. Even when they were joking with each other she had no idea he was admiring her beautiful smile, her contagious laughter, those dark red curls cascading down her back for a few moments before she caught them up again and hooked them up on top of her head or in a ponytail, whichever way would keep the strands from falling in her face while she worked. Tonight, her curls were loose, hanging down her back, still damp from her shower, the smell of her shampoo overwhelming his senses.

He watched her stand from the table, cross the kitchen to place her dishes into the sink, wondering what had turned that smile into a tight-lipped frown.

She’d had that expression a lot lately. He knew he should probably ask her what she was thinking about but that wasn’t how their relationship worked. They didn’t talk about feelings, unless it was who felt the proudest for having the loudest fart or burp on a particular day.

Even though most of their interactions were surface level, Alex knew a lot about Molly. Probably more than he should since he was nothing more to her than her brother’s best friend, her dad’s employee. He liked learning about her, though; liked being close to her, liked that in so many ways he knew her better than he’d known any woman before.

She was talking to her mom now and her smile had returned, lighting his soul the same way it lit the room.

“Need a ride back to the house before I head out?” Jason’s question broke into his thoughts.

He pulled his eyes away from Molly, hoping Jason wouldn’t follow his gaze and realize he’d been checking out his sister. Alex didn’t feel like nursing a black eye tonight.

He shook his head. “I have my truck. Thanks, though.”

“Heading out?”

“Yep. Thanks for dinner, Annie. It was great, as usual.”

“Anytime, Alex.”

Molly turned from the sink and smiled at him, but he saw a weariness there he didn’t like. “See you in the morning.”

He slid his cowboy hat on his head, tipped his head in a quick nod. “Let’s see who makes it there first this time. Guarantee it will be me.”

She cocked an eyebrow, smirked. “Oh really? We’ll see about that, Stone. Challenge accepted.”

He grinned on his way out the door, knowing she’d lose like she always did. She might be a farm girl, used to waking up at 4 a.m. every morning, but she enjoyed sleep too much to be in the barn any earlier than she had to be.

Chapter 2

The Spencer Valley Community Center was the gathering place on Thursday nights for half the town of Spencer, population 3,000. In one conference room, the Spencer Valley Historical Society was meeting to discuss the upcoming history fair and fundraiser. In another room, there was a dance class, ages teen to 90s.

At the end of the hall, choir practice was being held in the main gathering area and in a small conference room behind the kitchen, the Spencer Valley Art Club was holding its weekly gathering for amateurs and experts alike.

Molly was an amateur, which was clear by how the woman she’d been trying to sketch from a magazine ad was now looking like an elephant. She wasn’t even sure why she was attending an art club meeting. She was usually at the community center for agriculture meetings, and, when she had been younger, 4-H. Art really wasn’t her thing. But when her best friend Liz Cranmer had invited her to come, she’d agreed, simply to break up the mind-numbing routine of her life.

While other meetings featured an instructor, a free-sketch session was held on the last Thursday of the month. This meant Molly was free to sketch what she wanted. Sadly, what she saw in her mind was not transferring to the page.

She erased the woman’s nose and an eye and sighed, laying her pencil down on her sketch pad. Stretching her arms upwards, she yawned.

“You okay over there?”

Liz, Molly’s friend since seventh grade, sat across from her at the table, her straight dark brown hair pulled back in a neat ponytail. She wore a short-sleeved bright pink work-out shirt with the symbol of some famous athletic company Molly couldn’t remember the name of emblazoned in the top right corner, and a pair of black yoga pants with a pink stripe that matched the color of the shirt.

“I don’t know what’s wrong with me. I haven’t been able to sleep all week.”

“It’s all that worrying you do.” Liz’s tone was matter-of-fact. “You have too much cortisol in your system.”

Oh, here we go again.

Liz was a self-proclaimed natural health expert. She was also a well-known hypochondriac. A half-filled water bottle with ice water and freshly cut lemons, which she sipped from throughout the class, sat next to her chair.

“I don’t even know what cortisol is.” Molly immediately regretted admitting her lack of knowledge.

“That’s what your adrenals make when you’re stressed. It’s a hormone your body produces to help you—”

“My what?”

“Adrenals. They’re glands that sit on top of your kidneys.”

“Do they help me pee? Because I’m peeing fine.”

The other women, sitting at tables arranged in a semi-circle, were starting to giggle.

Mildred McGee had looked up from her painting. “This should be interesting.”

“No, they don’t help you pee. They help regulate your flight or fight response.”

“By making me pee?”

“They aren’t related to peeing.” Liz huffed impatiently. “Anyhow, you need to buy some supplements to regulate your adrenals. Are you tired all day and wide awake at night?”

Molly sipped coffee from a thermos next to her and shook her head. If Liz wasn’t diagnosing herself with unusual ailments she read about in some magazine or online, she was diagnosing others.

Ginny Jefferies, the town’s librarian, laughed. “Oh, Liz. You’re such a hypochondriac. You’ve been reading too many medical journals again.”

“Well, I didn’t say I had it,” Liz pointed out. “I said Molly did.”

Molly sipped her coffee and sat the thermos back on the floor next to her chair. “I don’t have adrenal issues. I’ve just been thinking too much lately.”

Liz’s eyebrows furrowed and when her head tipped slightly to one side, she looked a lot like the Tanner’s border collie Sheba. “What have you been thinking about?”

“I don’t know. Life in general, I guess. Like what I want to do with mine besides working on the farm or at the farm store.”

Louise McGroarty was gently erasing a bird from her sketch with a kneaded eraser. “Molly, honey, you only live once and if you want to see what life is like beyond this town, then you should finish that degree you started all those years ago and see where it takes you. You’re almost 30, kid. It’s beyond time to figure out what you want in life and get on with it.”

Molly cleared her throat. “I’m 26, not almost 30.”

“Twenty-six is the new almost 30.” Louise winked.

“I like living on the farm. It’s what I’m used to. It’s just — ”

“What you’re used to isn’t always what is best for you, honey,” Ginny interrupted.

“Exactly and besides your family, and maybe us wonderful ladies,” Lydia Walmsley smiled as she gestured around the room. “what else is keeping you in this town?

The side door to the community room opened as if on cue, and a quiet hush fell over the room. One-by-one the women looked up from their projects toward the opened door. Molly followed their gazes to a well-tanned and well-toned Alex walking toward her. Wearing his usual pair of dirty faded blue jeans, a stained white t-shirt, and his beat up brown Stetson, he looked like the same ole Alex to her, but based on the expressions on the women’s faces, he was posing on the front of GQ in an expensive leather jacket and ripped jeans.

He paused next to her, lifting the hat off his head. He laid it against his chest and slid his other hand in the front pocket of his jeans. “Hey. Your mom wants to know if you can stop by the store on the way home and pick up some more flour and sugar for the rest of the cakes.”

“You don’t know how to buy flour and sugar?”

He grinned, sliding his hand out of his jeans pocket and pushing his fingers back through his hair. “I’ve got more manly things to do than buy flour and sugar.”

Molly snorted a laugh. “What, like comb your hair or look at yourself in the mirror?”

“Yeah.” He shrugged a shoulder. “Something like that.”

The women were watching her, or, more accurately, Alex, their eyes wide as if Alex were standing shirtless under a waterfall.

“Yes, I’ll pick it up,” she told him. “Now get out of here and go be productive somewhere.”

He lifted his hand in a mock salute. “Sure thing, drill sergeant.” Turning to walk away, he glanced over his shoulder, smirking. “Have fun being artsy, ladies.”

Liz looked at Molly, one eyebrow raised, her back to Alex. “We sure will, Alex.” A smirk was pulling her mouth upward. “You have a good day now.”

Alex slid his cowboy hat back on his head, pulled the brim down to eyebrow level and walked through the doorway. “Oh, I plan to.”

Liz’s smirk was even more obvious as the door clicked closed. “And that, my dear ladies, is what is keeping Molly Tanner in Spencer Valley.”

Several of the women cooed as Molly’s face flushed.

“That could not be further from the truth,” she mumbled, scowling at Liz.

“He’d keep me here.” Maddie Simpson’s full cheeks were bright red, her teasing smile broad. “I’d follow him around like a lost puppy.”

The other women laughed in agreement.

Hannah Barks fanned bountiful cleavage revealed by a black, low-cut v-neck shirt with her hand. “Oh my, Molly, where have you been hiding him?”

“I haven’t.” Molly rolled her eyes. “He’s been working at our farm for the last five years. Of course, unless you live at the local bars or in the barn, you’ve probably never met him.”

“Sounds like someone is trying to pretend she’s not interested,” Allie Jenkins said with a wry smile.

Molly closed her sketchpad. “I’m going to go get those baking supplies for mom so we can avoid the wrath of Mavis.”

“No one escapes the wrath of Mavis.” Ginny snorted, her eyes still on a painting that was clearly frustrating her, based on the pursed lips and furrowed eyebrows.

A few of the other women laughed and nodded in agreement.

Liz shoved her project into her bag. “I’ll follow you.”

Outside in the parking lot, the sun was just setting. Golden light poured across the small town of Spencer, making it look almost picturesque. Molly always thought that if it hadn’t been for several dilapidated, abandoned buildings along Main Street and the empty shoe factory on the edge of town, her hometown could be mistaken for one of those quaint villages in a Hallmark movie.

Many of the homes were well maintained – new siding, matching shutters, the stereotypical white picket fence surrounding the neatly mowed front and back yards. In the center of town, a row of old-fashioned lampposts stood in a row, separating the street into two sides, one going north, the other south.

The less maintained homes were where every book and movie always placed them—on the other side of the train tracks and well out of view of most visitors, who usually looked for the small, unique shops on Main Street instead.

The tracks were mainly used to transport cars to and from the railcar repair station now. The repair center was the last remnant of the railroad company that once employed most of the town, over 100 years ago. It had helped to facilitate the town’s growth, along with farming and the local medical center. When train transportation became less prominent, its demise was also what led the town down a path of economic decline.

Across from the community center was St. Peter and Paul’s Catholic Church; one of many churches in town. Molly looked up at the building. A tall cross, illuminated from behind, had been adhered to the front of the stone structure, near the middle of the bell tower. In front of it was a statue of Mary, and in front of that was a bouquet of fresh flowers that someone must have placed there earlier in the day.

The small farming community was host to a variety of small churches, representing a variety of Christian denominations. While Molly had always admired the stunning architecture and stained-glass windows of the Catholic Church, her family had attended Grace Community, a non-denominational church on the other side of town, for most of her life.

“So, are you really thinking of leaving the farm?” Liz asked after she had finished chatting with the ladies and met Molly in the parking lot.

“I don’t know.” Molly sighed, kicking at pebbles on the ground as she walked. “I like helping dad and mom with the farm. I like working at the farm store, and I even like collecting the eggs from those cranky hens.  On some days I can’t see myself doing anything else, but on other days – I don’t know. I just want something different.”

Liz flipped a strand of straight dark hair off her shoulder. “I hear you. Change is good. Why do you think I left my job at the school district? I needed something more exciting than answering phones and scheduling the superintendent’s meetings.”

“You work at a health food store,” Molly said with a laugh. “Is that really more exciting?”

Liz tilted her head and smiled. “Sometimes it is, yes. Last week a woman came in and asked if the crystals we have would help her realign her chakra. I don’t even know what a chakra is. I just told her it was possible the pink ones in the case would do what she needed and decided not to tell her I had no idea.”

When they reached their vehicles, Liz unlocked hers and tossed her bag into the passenger seat. She leaned back against the closed door.

“You know, you don’t have to leave the farm. Maybe you could just move out of your parents’ house and move in with me. It would give you a little freedom away from your parents’, but you can still stay involved with the farm.”

Liz had moved out of her parents’ house after graduating. She had attended the­ community college an hour away for business, but dropped out before finishing, declaring the business world to be too uptight for her. She called Molly her “drop out buddy.”

Molly liked Liz’s parents, but she understood why Liz had felt like she had to break away from them. Frank and Marge Cramner were well known in the community. Frank was the president of the local natural gas company and Marge was in charge of all the Bible studies at Encounter­ Church, the largest church in a three-county area and Spencer Valley’s own “mega church,” for lack of a better term. Their prominence in the community placed a lot of pressure on Liz to live up to their standards, which was hard to do.

Liz’s older sister Tiffany had bolted from her childhood home similarly, right after high school when she married Clint Jefferies, Ginny’s son. Tiffany lived three states away now and seemed to give birth to a new child every year. Molly couldn’t remember how many she had now, but she thought it might be five. Liz didn’t like to talk about her sister. They’d been complete opposites growing up and were even further apart now that Tiffany was a mother and following in their mother’s footsteps by leading Bible studies, heading up the local homeschooling group, and baking pies on a weekly basis for the local homeless shelter.

  “She’s so perfect it’s like you can see the halo over her head,” Liz once said when Molly asked how she was doing.

Liz had quickly changed the conversation to some actor’s new haircut she’d seen in a magazine.

 Molly unlocked her truck door, sat her bag on the passenger side seat, closed the door and leaned against it. “You know, moving in with you isn’t a bad idea, actually. It would give me a change of scenery and a little break from farm life. I’ll think about it.”

Liz’s mouth was tilting in a teasing smirk, and Molly knew that meant something off the wall was coming out of her mouth next.

“The only thing is you might not see as much of Alex. Would you be okay with that?”

Molly cocked an eyebrow upward. “Really, Liz?”

 “You have to admit, Molly, he is very easy on the eyes.”

Molly made a face. “Yeah, but not always on the ears. He’s obnoxious. When he and Jason are together it’s like obnoxious times a thousand.”

 “Some of the best relationships start with one person thinking the other one is obnoxious.” Liz moved back and forth in a kind of dance. “All the best romance novels and movies start out that way.”

Her dance didn’t sway Molly. “And those are tropes. This is real life.”

 “You lack imagination, my dear friend.”

Molly raised her arm and looked at an imaginary watch. “Oh, my. Look at the time. Don’t you have a cat to go feed?”

Liz sighed as she turned to slide into the front seat of her car. “Go ahead, Molly Tanner. Chase away your best friend who is only trying to get you a life. ”

Molly waved her hand close to her friend’s face. “Bye, Liz. Will I see you at the ladies’ group Tuesday?”

Liz laughed and pushed Molly’s hand away. “I don’t know.  I might have to work. Linda has been out sick this week.”

Linda Wilcox was Liz’s boss and the owner of Nature’s Best Health Food Store. Molly thought that for someone who touted healthy living and eating, she sure was sick a lot.

“Well, I hope you can come. We’re studying Esther this week.”

“Again?” Liz rolled her eyes. “Oh my gosh, I get it. Esther was wonderful, and we should all be like Esther.”

Molly laughed, shook her head. “There are a lot of good lessons in her story, but, no, we can’t all be like her. Plus, I’m sure she wasn’t perfect. We’re only hearing one story of her life.”

Liz started her car. “I know, like how social media only show the highlights of someone’s life. Puuuhleeease, Audra Flannery, we know you’ve had plastic surgery. You can stop posting those photos of you in a bikini on the beach in Hawaii. Anyhow,” She waved at Molly again. “I’ll see what I can do. Drive home safe, lady. And for God’s sake, don’t let Mavis rope you into manning that bake sale table again.”

She turned the air conditioner on high as Molly turned to walk to the driver’s side of her own car. “Hey, Molly, why don’t you come work out with me at the gym one day? You can work on getting yourself in shape so Alex will be even easier to catch”

“Excuse me?” Molly opened the door to the truck. “Who says I even want to catch him? If I do, I’ll probably just throw him back.”

Molly slid behind the steering wheel before Liz could respond, pulling the door closed. As she watched Liz laugh and drive away, she thought about how uncomfortable she’d felt with Liz’s suggestion that she “get in shape.” First, it reminded her how out of shape she really was. Second, she didn’t like the idea of having to change her appearance to gain the attention of a man. And lastly, it was the man Liz had suggested she catch that made her even more uncomfortable. 

Molly had definitely found her mind wandering more than once to Alex, but she had never thought about trying to “win him over” or “catch him.” Alex was — well, Alex. He was simply there. Her brother’s best friend, her dad and uncle’s employee, her co-worker, for lack of a better word.

He was attractive, easy to talk to and fun to be around, but Molly knew he would never be anything more than those things to her. There was no way he would ever be interested in someone like her; someone who weighed more than she should, didn’t p­ay much attention to her feminine side, and who spent more time contemplating life than actually living it.

She wasn’t his type by a long shot. He dated tall, skinny blonds, meeting them at the local bars and sometimes a club 30-miles north. Molly had once watched him pull out of the driveway of the house with a pretty blond in the passenger seat of his truck, the woman laughing and flipping her hair back off her shoulder, then reaching over to touch his shoulder. She probably had the brain capacity of a fly, but that was the type of women Alex seemed to like.

Passing the town limits, she relaxed as fields of hay and red clover rose around her. Her thoughts shifted from Alex to the ladies’ group and how it had been helping her study the Bible more. She still had a long way to go before she felt as “spiritual” as some women in the group who seemed to trust God in every step of their lives, but she felt more equipped to handle life than she had five years ago when she had cared for her grandfather.

She knew she should have been praying more about what God wanted for her life, but she had prayed when her grandfather’s health had taken a turn for the worse and she’d never heard an answer. Why would God give her an answer now? And even if he gave her an answer, how would he give it?

She knew answers from God weren’t like an audible voice from the clouds, but she wished they were. It would make life so much easier. She had been seeking answers about her next step in life for the last few years and, yet, here she was, still feeling stuck in a deep, boring, frustrating rut with no clear direction. She didn’t know if leaving the farm was what she needed to get out of it, but she knew she needed some kind of change and she hoped that change would come sooner rather than later.