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And now, as if she needed more proof of that, here she was, lying facedown in manure with a stubborn Jersey cow named Cinnamon standing above her.
“Hey! Whatchya laying down for? We’re ready to start the milking!”
Closing her eyes against the voice coming from the barn a few hundred feet up the hill behind her, she pushed herself up out of the mud and 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.
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 far 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.
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.
She plodded through the open door of the barn, frustration seething through her. Looking up, 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. “Of course she is.”
Her dad 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.”
She shook mud off her hands. “I’ll take you up on that offer.”
Jason carrying a bucket of pig slop, stepped around Robert, and scrunched his nose up as he leaned close to Molly. He sniffed. “You’d better. 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?”
“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.”
“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 was 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.
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.”
“Yep. Thanks for dinner, Annie. It was great, as usual.”
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.