Archive | October 2014

The Long Way Home, Excerpt

The Long Way Home

by:  Staci Stallings

She had heard nothing but her father’s infuriating voice in her head for two hours when her finger snapped the back stitch button on and then off.  You would think he could at least try to be reasonable… for once in his miserable life.

Carefully cutting the thread away, Ami pulled the lacey material free. The curtains were turning out nicely— even Mrs. Sanders, her home ec teacher, would’ve been pleased. With one more snip she freed it from the thread and held the finished product up next to the chair to inspect her work.

“Good deal.” Pleased, she stood, unfurling the curtain onto her bed where its mate laid. Then she stepped back to examine her handiwork. It was times like this that she believed somehow she was going to make this work. She was going to make it by September, and she would show her father and prove to him he had been wrong about her and her grandfather and this farm the whole time.

“Ami?” Jaxton called from the stairs.

“I’m in here,” she called back, pulling at the material to measure for the tie-backs.

She tried not to notice as he appeared at her door and leaned there. “Well, I’ve got good news, and I’ve got bad news.”

“What’s the good news?” She tipped her head in his direction as she pinned the material together, trying to act like any bad news would be only a little bump she could easily handle.

“Well, I found the last wall.”

“Cool. So, what’s the bad news?”

“The sheet rock’s no good,” he said clearly wishing he didn’t have to be the one to tell her that.

Looking up, she scowled in confusion. “No good? What does that mean?”

“Come see.”

And with that, her feet were moving to go inspect the thing.

“It’s all crumbly,” he said as she stepped past him and headed for the stairs. “It looks like it got wet at some point.”

She didn’t say another word as she climbed the stairs and went into the room to inspect the damage. Horror hit her square. He wasn’t kidding. The floor was covered with white dust and crumbs from the wall. It was worn completely through in one, large place, and in several others it wouldn’t take much to make it fall.

As she stood looking at it, she could hear her father’s lectures, and piece-by-piece her dream began a slow crumble inside her. She closed her eyes to the stinging in the backs of her eyes, pushing back at it with her eyelids and her hand. She should have known. She should just give up now. Why was she even doing this? He was right. She would never be able to make this work.

“I’m not sure the rest is like this,” he said from behind her. “Maybe it was just this one place that got wet.”

However, she shook her head, fighting to keep the tears from spilling over. “Dad said it wasn’t worth it. I should’ve just listened to him.”

It wasn’t said for his benefit. After everything she’d been through, to make it this far and then to have the house crumble from the inside out just ripped the last piece of determination from her. The only thing left was surrender. Surrender to the utter hopelessness of it all.

“But no,” she continued in a mumbled anger, “I didn’t listen, did I?  No, I thought I knew better. I thought I could make it work. What a joke.”

“Ami.” Jaxton’s presence closed the distance between them. “Come on, don’t say that.”

“Why not?” And she spun on him as the anger flashed through her eyes. “Why shouldn’t I?”

But he never so much as blinked. “Because it’s not true, that’s why.”

“Yes, it is,” she said as one tear escaped from the corner of her eye and threaded its way down her cheek. She looked away and swiped at it furiously, hoping he hadn’t seen it, but it was too late. Still, the fury made her come back at him. “Look around you. They might as well knock this place down, and put it out of its misery.”

He put his hands on his beltline and licked his lips as he stared down at her. “You don’t mean that.”

“Yes I do,” she said vehemently. “I do. I was such an idiot to think I could make this work.”

He took one step toward her, and the fury didn’t let her think she should move.

“But it’s probably better, you know,” she said, laughing sarcastically as the tears now wound their way down over her nose, not thwarted or even held back. “It was a stupid idea anyway. Always has been.”

“No, it wasn’t.” With worry in his dark eyes, he took hold of her arm. “Please don’t say that.”

Then her senses came back to her, and she jerked at her arm. “What do you think you’re doing?”

But he held her firmly. “Come here.” Not brooking any argument, he pulled her from the room and down the hallway.

“Where are we going?” she asked as fear overtook the anger. He was so strong, she knew as she followed she wouldn’t be able to fight him off if he had anything other than honorable intentions. “Jaxton!”

However, he never stopped as he pulled her down the hallway and into the library. “I want to show you something.”

“What?” she asked as he opened the door and pulled her across the room to the French doors.

On the other side, he stopped for one second and looked down at her. “This.”

And with that, he flipped the handle and flung the doors open. Never releasing her, he pulled her out onto the balcony.

“What?” she asked again as the anger returned to her voice.

“This. Listen,” he said as he took a deep breath.

“What? I don’t hear anything.” She latched her arms in front of her to hold onto her anger and frustration as he let go of her arm and took a step over to the railing.

“Listen,” he said again, closing his eyes, and peace descend on his face.

In annoyance, Ami shook her head and pushed the beauty of the day and the way he looked enjoying it away from her. “I don’t hear anything.”

“That’s just it. There’s nothing there. Nobody yelling at you or telling you what to do or telling you that you’re doing it wrong. Nothing. Just you and the wind.” A moment and he opened his eyes so his gaze came right down to hers. He was looking right at her then, right into her, and she couldn’t look away. “Don’t you see, Ami? You can’t give up now. People need this.”

However, her spirit held only disgusted anger with the whole horrible idea.

“Can’t you feel it?” he asked as peace found his voice and his movements.

Although she knew exactly what he meant, at that moment, she didn’t want to feel what he was talking about. She wanted to be mad. She wanted to be frustrated. She wanted to give up, and she knew if she let herself feel the peace of that balcony, she would find a way to talk herself out of it.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” She shook her head, pushing the peace away from her just as easily as she brushed away the strand of hair that caught the breeze and ended up in her face.

“Okay, then, here.” Once again he took her hand and led her over to the railing where he put her hand on it gently.  His gaze slid down and rested on her. She felt it thought she never looked up.

“Now close your eyes,” he instructed, and when she moved to protest, he said, “Just do it.”

With a shake of her head, believing she could hang on to the anger no matter what, she closed her eyes.

“Just listen.” He was right beside her, his arm practically around her, and heat she wasn’t sure was from the sun began seeping into her. “Listen to the wind in the trees.”

She pushed the pain in her chest down and squeezed her eyes closed to keep it there. It was a stupid dream, a child’s fantasy.

***

“Let it go,” Jaxton said, watching her, mesmerized by her and the day. She was so incredibly beautiful. “Just let it go, Ami. For once, just breathe and let it go.”

She shook her head vehemently. Once and then harder.

His heart broke for her, for the struggle and the deck that was stacked against her. “Your grandfather gave you this place because he knew you understood,” he said softly. “He knew you’d share this feeling with everyone who came here.”

“But,” she started to protest.

“And he knew that no matter what you wouldn’t give up,” he said, knowing in his heart it was true.

“But,” she started again, just as he reached down and laid his hand on the small of her back. That touch brought her back from keeping the pain down, and she looked up, right through the depths of his eyes. He had never felt anything like that moment.

“Listen to me.” His gaze held hers gently. “It’d be so easy to let everybody else talk you out of this. I guarantee you it’d be a lot easier than trying to make your dream come true. But if you do that, if you let them talk you out of your dreams, you’ll regret it for the rest of your life.”

She shook her head and mashed her lips together. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Yes, you do.” And he knew she did as he was now looking right into her soul. “You think they’re right. You think they know more about what’s possible than you do. Well, they don’t. They don’t understand your dream.”

“And you do?”

A second and he had to admit the truth. “No, I don’t see all of your dream either, but I know if you give up now, you’ll think about this moment forever and wonder what if. What if you hadn’t given up? What if you did what you had to to make this happen?”

“And what if it doesn’t happen anyway?”

“Well, then what have you lost?” He shrugged slightly. “A few months? A little time? If you don’t try, you’ve lost your dream. That’d be a thousand times worse.”

Ami ducked her head to the side, and her gaze fell onto the little grotto below.

“He gave you this place for a reason,” Jaxton said, watching her struggle, feeling it in the depths of his own soul. “He believed in you, Ami. He knew you could do it.”

She shook her head again, sending strands of hair skittering on the breeze.

“And you can,” he said softly, putting his hand once again on her back because that just felt so right to all of him.

Her spoke of exhaustion and defeat. “But there’s so much to do…”

“I’ll help you all I can,” he said solidly.

“Why?” she finally asked, looking up and searching his eyes.

With no hesitation, Jaxton enveloped her with his. “Because I know how many people need what this place can give them,” he said with a soft smile. “Just say you’ll give it to September. If it doesn’t work, at least you tried.”

“But what about you?” she asked slowly, a new worry tripping into her dark eyes. “Don’t you have to go back to Chicago?”

His gaze sank to the planks at their feet as the question raked through him. But then he knew, and he picked his gaze up to meet hers. “Chicago’ll still be there in September. I think I’m standing exactly where I need to be right now.”

Ami exhaled slowly and shook her head. “But there’s so much to do.”

“So, we take it one project at a time,” he said, “one day at a time, and we get done whatever we can.”

“But I don’t have the money to pay you,” she said, the determination to quit waning with each new excuse she found.

“So we’ll just call it payback.”

“For what?”

“For showing me what’s really important,” he said.

Although she couldn’t have known the depth of those words, she nodded. Then she closed her eyes. “Okay. So, what do we do about that sheet rock?”

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The Long Way Home, First Chapter

The Long Way Home

by:  Staci Stallings

Chapter 1

“I wish I could go, John, but the Rothschild account’s taking up so much time these days, I just can’t,” Phillip Anderson said into the phone as his son, Jaxton, sat on the other side of the desk, pen poised, listening. “Yeah, I know it’s important, John, but now’s just not good for me.  Can’t you go? … Yeah, I know…”  He sighed heavily. “Okay. Well, I’ll see what I can do, and I’ll get back to you…Yeah, I will. ‘kay. Bye.”

The phone hit the cradle with a clang, and Phillip shook his more-salt-than-pepper head before looking across the expanse of mahogany desk into the questioning eyes of his son.

“Bad news?” Jaxton asked without really caring.

His father shook his head and sighed again. “It’s your grandfather.”

Jaxton nodded. Grandfather Snyder. More than one conversation about him had bounced across the phone lines from Los Angeles to Chicago during the past three months.

Phillip leaned forward in his chair and squeezed the bridge of his nose with his finger. “That stupid man’s going to kill us all.”

“Mom can’t talk to him?”

“Oh, you know your mother. There’s always something more important than dealing with life,” Phillip said. “And John’s not much better. He thinks someone should go down there and at least make sure the estate’s in order, but you think he’ll go?  He’d sooner go to hell on an ice flow.”

“Somebody in Rayland can’t look it over and make sure everything’s square?”

Phillip sighed and shook his head, looking like his ulcer might be getting the better of him. “It’s Kansas. I’m not sure I trust anybody down there.”

Jaxton nodded his understanding of the situation that had his whole family vexed although sympathy for anyone in the situation came nowhere near his consciousness.

“Too bad Blake isn’t around anymore. He’d be perfect,” Jaxton said absently looking back to his notes, already tiring of the subject. He tapped his pen on his notebook a few times and then moved back to the real reason he was in the office on Memorial Day weekend. “So, what do you think about the Manning books? Did you get a chance to look at them yet?”

***

Over the rolling green of the Kansas Flint Hills, the sky hung in painted color combinations only God could get away with. Periodically the scene outside the balcony doors caught her gaze, and Ami Martin paused to take in its beauty for a moment.

Beyond the nearly full-grown red cedar trees, the land stretched in an endless parade of emerald until it rolled right off the earth’s edge. That land, this house, those trees— together they comprised the only true home she’d ever known. Even now with life devoid of any real family, the safety of those hills enveloped her like a warm hug.

She returned to her task, pulling books off the shelves and stacking them onto the little coffee table. They were a link—  a precious, priceless link to the past, and the sadness in her chest expanded with each volume she took down. How many times had she and her grandfather sat in this very room with the balcony doors opened, reading the works of the great ones? Emerson, Twain, Frost. Even when she couldn’t understand the full depth of the words, her grandfather had seen fit to share them with her.

In this room, she’d learned about life and the pursuit of true happiness. Even now at the tender age of 25, she felt the wisdom of her grandfather’s years wafting through her soul. Although he was a simple farm boy, raised in this very house by the generation before him, she knew in her heart that he had been much more than that.

Her father didn’t see it. He had called his father a stubborn old goat so many times even the tone of those words had been forever etched in Ami’s brain. It seemed odd that the wisdom her grandfather had to offer could’ve skipped an entire generation, but that was exactly what had happened. And that was why she was here at this moment, lovingly removing dust from the old, yellowed pages. She understood what no one else in her family ever had because of her grandfather’s teaching and because no matter what he had always been there for her. Yes, he had been there, even when it wasn’t convenient, even when she was sure it was difficult. She brushed the tendrils of wavy almond-colored hair from her face as tears weaved into and over her heart.

He had stayed. Not even her own mother had done so much. She had left before Ami was two, and her father wasn’t much better. His decision to send her to Rayland wasn’t about making her life more stable— it was about making his less complicated. She pushed that thought away as she ran the cloth over the shelf. Don’t think about him. Not here. Not now.

Yes, her grandfather’s steadfastness had been her one and only lifeline for 24 years, until last Thanksgiving. She pulled the black-bound Emerson anthology from the shelf and ran a loving, sad hand over it. She could almost hear his low baritone lilting over the words.

The sunset beyond the doors blurred as she slowly dropped the volume to the table with the others. The wisdom of Grandpa Martin’s years was now tucked safely in her soul. However, as she pulled another volume off the shelf and ran the cloth over it, she couldn’t help but wonder what his advice would be at this moment.

If she could just hear Grandpa Martin’s assurances that everything would be okay, then somehow she would have the strength to keep fighting. But with the money dwindling and her father calling every other day to ask if she was ready to give up and simply sell the place, her determination to make this work was waning quickly.

She pulled the Poe volume off the next shelf and laughed softly. If only her scariest problems were ravens and casks of amontillado as they had once been tucked safely in the crook of Grandpa Martin’s arm. Yes, this was the only place that had ever been home for her. The others could keep their high-stress lives and their gazillion neighbors. This was where true happiness resided, and whether they agreed or not, this was where she intended to make a home for herself— right here in Rayland, Kansas.

***

“Maybe Jaxton could do it,” Elizabeth Anderson said to her husband as she sat on the side of their bed stroking the beige silk tie on her robe like an anxious cat.

“Jaxton’s got the Manning account.” Phillip shook his head from the sink in the bathroom beyond. “I can’t pull him off that.”

Elizabeth sat silently for a moment. “You know. It’s silly I guess, but I just hate the thought of some stranger pawing through Dad’s books. I mean his heart can’t take a whole lot more right now, you know.”

Coming back into the room, Phillip reached for the remote and flipped on the television though it made no sound. “I know that ‘Lizbet, but what do you want me to do?”

She sighed in exasperation. “I just know Dad. It’d be better coming from family.”

Phillip exhaled, crawled into bed, and patted his wife’s hand. “Well, don’t worry about it tonight. I’ll come up with something.”

Just what that something was, he had no idea.

*          *          *

“Listen, I know you’ve got Manning,” Phillip said the next morning as he sat across the expanse of desk watching his son pace the room in front of him, “but your mother and I discussed it, and we think it’s the only thing that makes sense.”

“Come on, Dad. You can’t be serious.” The trap shadowed Jaxton’s every movement. Why had he felt that coming in on Memorial Day was a good idea again? He should have taken that vacation he was always saying he was going to. Anything to get out of this surreal discussion. “What about Easley?”

“I can get Linda to take it,” Phillip offered.

“Linda?” Jaxton raised a sarcastic eyebrow. “Easley’ll bury her the first day. You know how he feels about women.”

“Then Bob can take it.”

In a slow crawl the room began closing in on Jaxton. “What about Chambers?”

“I can get Leslie to take it.”

“Dawson?” Jaxton turned and pointed at his father. “Now you know I know more about that account than anyone else here.” He was scrambling, clawing for any shred of hope to pull himself back from the hellhole of Rayland.

“Look, I didn’t say I’m happy about this, Jax, but I don’t know what else to do.” Phillip’s voice barely stayed on the light side of demanding. “Mr. Fowler called me again last night— you know, Mr. Fowler, Grandpa’s foreman. He said Grandpa’s going fast— one more setback could take him out for good. We need to get this done before it’s too late. Uncle John can’t go. I can’t go.”

The words hung in the air as Jaxton fumed.

“I don’t know what else to do,” Phillip finally said again, and fatigue laced the words. He waited a moment before adding hopefully, “I really don’t think it’ll take very long. A week or two— tops. And I promise you’ll get all your accounts back the second you walk back through that door. Besides it’s not like you can’t keep in touch. You can bring your fax and your laptop…”

Jaxton put a heavy hand against the wall, set his jaw, and examined the painting hanging there without even seeing it. At one time he could have discoursed for hours about the artist’s subtle brushstrokes and brilliant use of back lighting, but at that moment it was all he could do not to rip the thing from the wall and tear it to shreds.

“So, that’s it then?” he finally asked as bile and anger stuck in his throat. A long pause settled in the room between them.

“Here’s your ticket to Kansas City.” His father pulled a thin sheaf from the desk drawer and slid it across the desk. “Your plane leaves at two. It’s a two-hour trip from Kansas City to Rayland. You can rent a car when you get to…”

Jaxton never heard the rest of the itinerary. His mind was alternating between red hot flashes of anger and trying to figure out the quickest way to get this job done so he could get back to his real life— back to something other than fields full of nothing but dust and old, worthless dreams.

***

Over her sandwich Ami surveyed her to-do list, marking each entry with a one through ten and trying to decide what needed attention most. The pickup sitting in the garage received a one; painting the porch a three; repainting the guests’ rooms a four; cleaning the chicken coop a two. By the time she got to the end of the list, she was already exhausted. There was so much to do. So much to get ready before she could even think about putting her plan into action.

She pulled out her calendar and checkbook and laid them on the table next to the to-do list. September 1, circled in purple, stared back at her. Just the sight took her breath away. She had less than three months to get the place in order, and a rapidly dwindling amount of funds to accomplish that.

Somehow when she had started, the money her grandfather had left her along with the place seemed like plenty, but it didn’t take long for the majority of it to evaporate. It was clear sitting here staring at the numbers that she would have to start watching the budget more closely.

Sighing as she brushed back the strands of hair that had escaped from the loose braids cascading down her shoulders, she slid the to-do list into the calendar and closed the checkbook. Sitting here worrying about it wasn’t getting anything finished any faster. She carried her lunch dishes to the sink and ran water on them. The dishes could wait; the pickup couldn’t.

***

Jaxton had only been to Rayland twice in his lifetime, and he hadn’t been overly excited about the trip either time. But this time was worse. He’d been building a client list for six years, and to be told that someone else could just take it over with no questions asked made his blood boil. Reaching up, he ran his hand over the hard-gelled sticks of brown hair lying perfectly on his head. Leslie’ll never be able to handle Paul Chambers. He’ll go to Franklin & Capshaw so fast it’ll make Dad’s head spin.

Then he snorted. It’d serve his father right if Chambers did move it. How many times had he said, “You take care of your customer before you take care of anything else”?  That lesson had been practically hammered into Jaxton’s head, but apparently that meant until you get in a bind, then the customers can fend for themselves.

He swiped at the right turn signal of the new red sports car angrily. The car was supposed to make him feel better, but it wasn’t working. His father had said, “Spare no expense.” It was a pay-off, and Jaxton knew it. How dare they send him to do what they should be doing.  He didn’t even know his grandfather for Pete’s sake. He was as much of a stranger as anyone else his father could’ve sent.

The tires kicked up dust billows behind him. If anything happens to my accounts, heads are going to roll. I’m not the president’s son for nothing. Bob’d better not screw up, or I’ll personally hand him his walking papers.

That was just all there was to it.

***

Ami crawled into the cab of the pickup and hit the starter for the third time.

“Rrrennerrr. Rrrennerr. Rrrenner.” The pickup engine sounded like a sick dog, and exasperation escaped from her throat in a low growl. Three days and $60 down the drain and still all she got was Rrrennerrr. Rrrennerr. Rrrennerr. How many times had she watched her grandfather do this?  How many times?  Apparently not enough.

“Stupid thing.” She hit the steering wheel as the sickening sound continued. Finally letting it go, she raked both hands onto her head and squinted into the problem. “Okay, Ami, you’ve got to think. The battery’s got to be good I just changed it. The cables are connected. What else could be wrong?”

Getting out of the driver’s seat, she went around to the front, mentally checking every cable she’d already checked ten times. Carefully she leaned over the hood of the pickup and examined the maze of wires and metal. She traced the battery cable away from the starter. There was a trick to this, and Grandfather knew it. All she had to do was figure out what that trick was, and she was home free. But the trip from here to home free was looking more and more impassable by the second.

***

Jaxton had always prided himself for being able to find any address in Chicago— no matter how bad the directions were, but after driving up and down identical farm roads for 45 minutes, he knew he was lost. In fact, if he’d been forced to give directions back to the main highway at that moment, he’d have been in major trouble.

“Whose stupid idea was this anyway?” he asked, the frustration pouring out of him as he turned into a tree-lined driveway.

The farmhouse just beyond the trees looked like it was about a hundred years old as did every other building on the place, and as he killed the engine and looked around, he wondered if anyone even lived here anymore. In fact, the thought crossed his mind that the whole place would probably be better off if a wrecking ball just took it out of its misery.

Slowly he crawled from the car and stretched as his legs and back reminded him how long he’d actually been behind that wheel. He took a deep breath, smoothed his tie, and shook his head at just how far he’d fallen in such a short time. As he climbed the steps up to the front door, he couldn’t help but notice that the whole place was covered with chipped white paint, and the wooden porch boards creaked and groaned as he crossed the porch threshold and knocked. Putting his fists on his hip where his slacks met his belt, he arched his neck and waited, looked around and waited some more. He knocked once more.

When no one appeared, he backed up and peeked through the window. He could vaguely make out a sofa and a chair sitting by the far wall, but as for people, he saw no one.

“Well, so much for that idea.” He shrugged to the ceiling of the porch as he stepped back down onto the cracked sidewalk. He really should’ve known he couldn’t get that lucky. This whole rotten day was just another notch to add to his whole rotten life. Letting the anger and bitterness take hold, he rubbed his hand over the five-o’clock shadow that had shown up two hours early. It must be the stress.

“Yes, Dad. Whatever you say, Dad,” he said, the sarcasm dripping from each word. But just as he reached for the car door handle, his ears picked up something he hadn’t noticed before. Music.

Curious but fighting back the hope, he turned and headed for the sound.

***

“Okay, baby,” Ami warned as she lay under the front fender, wrench in hand. “If this doesn’t help, I’m afraid we’re going to have to give you last rites.”

***

The graying boards were clearly visible under the peeling red paint of the old garage, and Jaxton could see the decrepit green pickup sitting forlornly in the middle of it. Some old farmer’s. How backward can these people be? Man, I wouldn’t be caught dead in something like that.

The tune on the radio reminded him of hoe down music although he’d never actually been to a hoe down in his life. He looked around the small expanse, but there was no sign of anyone— only the small radio sitting on the workbench crackling something about a broken heart.

“GRRRRRHHH!”

Before Jaxton could react to the sound, a wrench flew out from underneath the pickup and hit the cinderblock wall next to his foot with a clang. Instantly he jumped out of the way although another couple of inches and the thing would have nailed him before he saw it coming. For one, brief moment his head said he should run— just get out of there before the farmer had a chance to turn that wrench on him, but then he thought better of the crazy thought. All he needed was some information. Surely that wasn’t such a bad thing.

“Uh-hmm.” Jaxton cleared his throat, hoping to get the old man’s attention. “Umm, excuse me, Sir. Sir?” He rapped a knuckle on the side of the pickup in case the old farmer hadn’t heard him and leaned down as if to see under the vehicle.

***

Heart, body, and soul Ami froze the instant she heard the voice. Her mind spun through who it might be and what they might want. She wasn’t expecting anyone, and people didn’t just show up on her doorstep for no reason. After all she lived more than a mile from the highway.  Quickly she looked out from under the metal pickup body, and all she could see was a pair of black slacks ending in a set of shiny black shoes.

“Sir?” the voice said again, and she fought to gather what was left of her nerves from around her.

“Hmm. Yeah.” She cleared her throat and rolled slowly out on the creeper before sitting up and pulling herself up from the floor. “Something I can help you with?”

***

“Oh,” Jaxton said with a hard swallow, thrown totally off-guard when he caught a glimpse of the grease-stained beauty who’d just stood up in front of the pickup. Gray tank top, denim shorts, and a face that was at once young and heart-stopping, she was the epitome backwoods country, and for one second too long, Jaxton forgot he was supposed to be asking for directions. “Um.” Where had all the words gone? And why were the only ones he could find telling him embarrassing jokes about farmer’s daughters and Daisy Duke shorts? “Uh. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean… I thought… I’m sorry.”

***

“’S okay,” Ami said quickly wiping the grease from her hands and coming around to the side of the pickup. She wanted to tug on her tank top, but she didn’t dare let him think she was nervous, so instead she worked on removing the grease from her fingers. At the fender she regarded him as she leaned there.

“Umm… I… I was looking for the owner,” the guy that looked like a GQ model said. He had slightly wavy dark brown hair clipped and cut just so, a multi-hued blue striped tie over a crisp light blue button down. In fact, he looked like he’d just stepped out of a board room from a million-dollar deal.

Still, Ami fought not to notice or to let the intimidation of his presence rattle her. She brushed one strand of hair back off her face. “That would be me.” Although she tried, it wasn’t easy to act like this was an everyday occurrence as she extended her still-stained hand to the Armani-suited man standing in her garage, but she did a passing job of it just the same.

“Oh, I’m sorry,” he said again as he extended his own hand. When she looked at him and tilted her head with a half-confused smile, he tried to clarify that statement even as he retrieved his hand. “I mean I’m not sorry you own the place. I’m sorry I didn’t realize…”

Ami smiled then, knowing the best defense was a good, strong, full-on offense. “You’re not from around here, are you?”

***

Her smile, framed by those deep dimples, was dancing circles around Jaxton’s heart as his brainwaves zipped and zinged in disparate directions. “Umm, no. I’m not. How can you tell?”

“Your shoes.” She pointed at his feet before returning to the front of the pickup. “They’re too shiny to be a farm boy’s.”

He looked down at his shoes but never saw them, and when he looked up again, the only thing his mind could concentrate on was the curve of her face under the wisps of hair trailing down the two braids. Gorgeous did not do her justice.

***

“Well, Sir, I have a full set of Encyclopedias, and I’m not in the market for insurance or a vacuum cleaner,” Ami said as casually as she could, and she slammed the hood for punctuation. The pickup would have to wait. Right now, her main priority was figuring out exactly what this guy was doing in her garage, and then getting him out of there as fast as possible.

“Oh, I’m not selling anything,” he said as she moved over to the workbench. Having tools within reach if he tried anything was a very good idea. “I was just looking for the Snyder farm, but I… I seem to have gotten lost.”

She turned an inquisitive, confused and concerned gaze on him. “The Snyder farm?”

***

“Yeah.” Jaxton hesitated. For some reason the tone in her voice and the look in her eye made his nerves jump to attention, and the mere thought that this farm girl was getting to him unnerved him further. He smoothed his tie down as if to emphasize his station in life compared to hers. “Umm, I’m Mr. Snyder’s grandson. I was supposed to come help him, but I can’t do that if I can’t find him.”

It was supposed to be a joke, but it thudded like a lead brick on the dusty floor between them.

“Oh.” Her eyes narrowed as she nodded knowingly, and her smile disappeared as she turned back to the workbench. “Well, if Mr. Snyder’s your grandfather, seems to me you should know how to get to his farm.”

“Yeah… well, it’s been a few years since I’ve been around here, and I wasn’t driving at the time,” he said, running out of steam mid-excuse.

Her brown braids twisted side-to-side with her head as she worked cleaning and replacing the tools. For his part, Jaxton was left trying desperately to keep his mind away from the long, tanned legs curving below the denim shorts that were making thinking straight increasingly difficult.

“So, you’re from California then?” she asked, straightening the tools on the wall, her back to him as if she wasn’t interrogating him. However, he felt every syllable of the challenge.

“No, Chicago.” He ripped his mind away from the gentle curve where her tank top met her shorts. “Why?”

***

“Just wondering,” Ami said, but wondering was the last thing on her mind. Next to her grandfather, Mr. Snyder was the only person on the planet who’d ever believed in her, and she wasn’t about to sic this shiny-shoed, tie-wearing, smooth-talking shark on him without checking out his story first. “So, your mom…”

“Elizabeth,” he supplied as if he sensed he was being quizzed.

“She sent you down here?”

“Yeah.”

“Uh-huh.” She nodded again as she replaced a wrench on the wall. “And why didn’t she come?”

The guy shifted feet. “She’s busy.”

“Must be awful important to be too busy to come see her dad,” she mumbled not altogether to herself.

“Well, she said she might come later.” He shrugged as if they were talking about the weather, not a whole family abandoning their father. “But Grandpa needed someone now.”

“I see,” she said, thinking of all the times she had been witness to Mr. Snyder’s talks with her own grandfather. She knew more about Mr. Snyder’s family than she did about her own, and she didn’t like a single one of them. “And this is important now— why?”

***

“Oh, well, I don’t know if you know it, but my grandpa had a heart attack a few months ago,” Jaxton said as his mind suddenly caught up with the conversation, and immediately asked him why he felt the need to justify his visit to a total stranger. “This was the first chance we’ve had to come and see him.”

“I see,” she said again slowly and the angelic quality of her voice had been replaced by ice. That tone was beginning to grate his nerves as he ripped his gaze from her and glued it to the old pickup.

“Look, I really didn’t mean to bother you,” he finally said, and his annoyance with the whole situation screamed through every word. “I’ll just drive back to town and see if someone there can help me.”

***

She heard him turn to leave and then start out.

“Go out to the road and turn right.” Ami turned and surveyed him coldly, wrench in hand and arms crossed at her chest. “About two miles down the road off to the left, you’ll see the Snyder place. It’s the one with the trees. You can’t miss it.”

***

He fought not to bristle under the scrutiny of the almond-eyed she-beast. “Thank you.”

And these people think city people are unfriendly, he thought as the anger rose to his clenched fists.

“No problem,” she said, and she turned back to her workbench without another look.

Jaxton’s gaze fused to her for one more moment as he seriously thought about telling her just where she could put her judgments, but with a shake of his head, he forced his gaze down to the dust-covered floor. His chest might explode at any second with the rage clawing through him. Who was this person, this girl, to question him anyway?  What had he done that was so wrong?  He was just following orders— trying to be the good son. He kicked the wrench and sent it flying back into the cinderblock wall with a clang before stomping out of the garage.

She had no right to make him feel like a jerk. It wasn’t his fault his family didn’t come to visit. There was nothing to do here anyway. Situated a million miles from nowhere, Rayland was the most boring, backward place on the whole earth, and the second he got the estate in order, he was gone.

***

It took next to nothing for Ami to hear the car roar out of the driveway, and she wondered with easy loathing which one he was. It’d been more than ten years, but she still remembered the last time Mr. Snyder’s family had come to visit. They’d all sat around complaining because it was hot and whining about how boring everything was.

She could still hear them mimicking the townspeople and joking about how backward their grandfather was. Most of all she could hear them saying how they couldn’t wait to get back to Chicago and “reality.”

It was true she’d hated them then, but she hated them even more now. Mr. Snyder had never been anything but kind to her and her family. When her grandfather had died, it was Mr. Snyder who tended the trees and kept them alive. It was Mr. Snyder who had encouraged her to take what her grandfather had given her and chase her dream. It was Mr. Snyder who showed up every day for the first month she was here just to check on her.

She was sure his visits would have continued, but then the heart attack had almost taken him out two months before. There was no way to count the hours she’d spent at the hospital sitting by his bedside, reading to him, and assuring him that his family would be there soon. But her assurances had made little difference to him. He said more than once that she was the only real family he had left and that the others were just waiting for him to die so they could split up the inheritance.

Even thinking about it now made her head pound and her heart ache. It was the same way her grandfather had felt, and regardless of how accurate it was, it still made her furious. The two most incredible men in her life, and everyone else thought they were trash.

The anger in her reached a boiling point, and she yanked the hedge trimmer from the wall. In this state she knew she would make the pickup problem worse, but she couldn’t do too much damage to the hedges. After all they could always grow back.

***

Who does she think she is to talk to me like that? No one. Not one person had ever treated him like that in his entire life. They wouldn’t dare. With a single flick of his little finger, he could squash any person he wanted to. He was Jaxton Anderson, and no one treated Jaxton Anderson like that and got away with it— least of all some greasy, conceited, little farm girl a single rung up from trailer trash.

As he turned into the driveway of the next farmhouse, he couldn’t help but notice with a hint of pride that this one looked much better than hers. It was still old, and it couldn’t compare to the houses he was used to, but at least it didn’t look like it was about to fall down.

He parked the car and crawled out as his nerves shifted from the monologue detailing each of her faults to screaming that maybe this wasn’t such a good idea. With each step he took, they told him to just get back in the car and go home. However, he had come this far— even braving the wild she-beast, and he wasn’t going to back down now. Pulling his pride back up to him, he stepped onto the front porch, lifted his hand, and knocked.

One moment became two, and then he looked around and listened for any sign of life. When he heard none, he reached up and knocked again just as a sickening feeling hit him. What if his grandfather had already died?  What if he was lying inside somewhere waiting for someone to find him? What if…?

The squeak of the door brought him back to reality, and he turned and found himself staring into the eyes of a grandfather he hadn’t seen in fifteen years.

“Hi, Grandpa.” He fought to smile warmly, but it never quite made it that far. “How are you?”

“Well, I’ll be tarred and feathered.” The old man shook his head as he pushed the screen door open. “Jaxton? Is that you, Son?”

“Umm, yes, Sir, it is,” he said, fighting the hesitation and having no idea what to do next. Why couldn’t his eyes hold on the old man’s? He’d never had this eye contact problem before, now he couldn’t seem to get it together.

“Well, I thought they were pulling my leg when they said you wanted to come see me, but here you are.”

“Here I am.” Jaxton attempted another smile, wondering which brilliant person had lied to the old man.

“Come on in. I was just making out next week’s work schedule,” his grandfather said, waving a hand over the papers scattered across the coffee table. “Here, have a seat. You want something to drink— water? Tea? I might even have a Coke left if you want one.”

“Oh. No, thanks. I’m… I’m fine,” Jaxton said uncomfortably as he felt the old man’s eyes appraise him like a piece of junk at a garage sale. He swallowed hard and attempted another smile, which got no farther than its predecessors.

Shifting his weight to the other foot, Jaxton stole a glance at the old couch waiting for him, and he cringed as a decade’s worth of dust jeered up at him. So this was what his life had degenerated to. He took a deep breath and folded himself carefully onto the plaid nylon hoping he wouldn’t have to breathe again before he got up.

With supreme patience he waited for his grandfather to resume his seat in the cracked brown recliner chair before he plunged ahead purposely keeping his mind off the dingy surroundings. “So, how are you?”

“Oh, I’m fine. ‘Course I’ll be better once I get this wheat harvest out of the way,” his grandfather said, looking back at the papers lining the table. “You’d think it’d get easier after all these years, but it ain’t getting no easier. Just harder and harder to find anybody who’ll do an honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay.”

Jaxton nodded as if he saw the gravity of the situation. “I can imagine.”

Then like magic, his grandfather’s face brightened. “But Ed says we should make 80 bushels this year. That’s about the best I’ve ever seen. ‘Course, it’s still a month out, so anything’s possible.”

“Yeah, I’m sure it is,” Jaxton said, hoping he didn’t sound short but knowing he did. He could feel the dust from the couch creeping up onto his suit, and it was doing very bad things to his patience and his nerves.

“So, how’s your mom? Staying busy?” his grandfather asked, and his voice regained the heaviness.

“She is.” Jaxton forced his mind away from the dust and attempted another smile. “She says, ‘Hello.’”

Silence filled the room then as Jaxton fought to keep his body still. He didn’t want to disturb the dirt any more than was absolutely necessary.

“I guess your dad’s business’s good,” his grandfather finally said.

“Oh, yeah. Pretty good.” Jaxton rubbed his hands together, fighting to breathe and stay seated.

His grandfather surveyed him with curiosity. “You’re working with him now. Aren’t you?”

The old man’s gaze felt like a python wrapping around Jaxton’s chest. “Yeah. I’ve been there about six years now.”

Mr. Snyder sighed and shook his head. “Time sure gets by fast these days. Seems like just yesterday when you and Blake came down for the summer. How long ago’s that been anyway?”

Jaxton looked around the room, searching for some comfortable place to put his gaze. There wasn’t one.

“Fifteen years,” he heard his voice say. It sounded rotten, but it felt worse.

“Fifteen, huh?” his grandfather said slowly, and the room was once again engulfed in a long, uncomfortable silence. “Time sure gets away.”

Jaxton nodded, unsure of what else to do or say.  He chanced a hesitant glance at his host sitting in the shadows as the fading sunlight played through the folds of the curtains. From the looks of the old man, Jaxton didn’t have a moment to waste.

“Tell you what.” Mr. Snyder suddenly vaulted himself out of the chair. “Why don’t you bring your bags in, and I’ll go make us some supper?”

“Oh, I’m not that hungry.” Jaxton stumbled to his feet quickly. Unconsciously, his hand smoothed the front of his tie.

“Nonsense. You just flew all the way here from Chicago. Of course you’re hungry. But don’t worry.” His grandfather smiled. “I’ve got just the thing.”

“Well, if you’re sure…” Uncertainty swathed the statement as the old man crossed past him to the kitchen.

“You can have the room at the top of the stairs.” His grandfather pointed up the narrow staircase. “Why don’t you go on up and get settled?  I’ll call you when it’s ready.”

***

Ami wondered what was going on at the Snyder Farm as she started washing the dishes. By now she would’ve thrown that obnoxious jerk off the place. What right did he have to show up like this anyway? It was obvious he was only here to assess how long it would be before the farm changed hands. A shiver crawled up her spine at the very thought. Surely Mr. Snyder would see right through him and send him packing. Surely…

***

With his handkerchief, Jaxton wiped the layer of dust off the dresser top and carefully set his fax machine in front of the mirror he could see no reflection from. As soon as the requisite family time with his grandfather was over, he was going to get back up here and get some real work done.

Cord in hand, he sat on his heel to plug it in but stopped cold. Slowly he turned and surveyed the room, looking for a plug just as a sick feeling hit the pit of his stomach. There wasn’t a single phone jack to be seen anywhere. How was he going to get any work done with no phone jack?

“Supper!” his grandfather’s voice cut into the fury rising in him.

“Oh, you’re so going to pay for this one, Dad,” he mumbled to the empty room as he dropped the cord and crossed to the door. There wasn’t anything he could do about it now, but he vowed to find a way out of this forced imprisonment as soon as he returned.

His feet tromped their way down the stairs, and with each step the anger in his chest grew until he felt like he might explode when he stepped into the kitchen.

“Chicken rice casserole.” His grandfather glanced up as he set the steaming pan on the table. “Best food in Kansas.”

Jaxton took one whiff, and in spite of his anger, his mouth began to water. “It smells delicious.”

He sat down at the opposite side of the table as his grandfather handed him a plateful.

“It does more than smell delicious, my boy,” Mr. Snyder said, filling his own plate and sitting down across from Jaxton who already had a forkful headed for his mouth. “Shall we say grace?”

“Oh, umm, yeah.” Jaxton set his fork down with a reluctant clink. He bowed his head and listened as the older man said the prayers he hadn’t heard in years. It was truly incredible how backward his grandfather was.

“…Amen,” his grandfather said.

“Amen,” Jaxton echoed, and this time he waited for his grandfather to start eating first.

They ate in silence for the first few minutes. The thought crossed Jaxton’s mind that his grandfather was right, this was about the best food he’d ever eaten. It was so good in fact, that for a moment he forgot about all the complications in his life and just enjoyed eating.

Besides the meals he’d eaten alone in his apartment, this had to be the quietest meal he’d ever had. Even in his apartment, sirens were always going off somewhere below him, and the sounds of the traffic were always right outside his kitchen window.

As the thoughts of Chicago, home, and normalcy invaded the silence around him, he quickly decided that now was as good a time as any to start the process he’d come to finish.

“So, how’s the farm?” he asked as nonchalantly as possible between bites. “You said the harvest should be good this year?”

“Ed thinks The Old Camdon place will be ready in three weeks,” his grandfather said, brightening to the subject.

“Ed?” Jaxton asked as he took another bite.

“Fowler,” his grandfather supplied. “Been my right hand man for more years now than I care to count. Anyway he said the boys from upstate should be here ready to harvest on the 15th so long as we don’t get any rain the week before.”

Jaxton nodded for no reason other than to keep the old man talking. “And how many people did you say you’ve got working out here?”

“There’s just the four of us for now,” his grandfather said. “Me and Ed. And then Chris Delvin and Steve Porter. I’m hoping to hire some school kids during the summer, but you never know.”

“Oh,” Jaxton said. “And Chris and Steve?”

“They’re a couple of guys who used to work for Murphey Gray.”

“And he doesn’t need them?”

“Not any more— he lost the farm a few years back.”

“Lost it?”

“The bank took over– sold the land right out from under them,” his grandfather said with a sympathetic shake of his head. “It’s not uncommon these days. Everything’s getting too big. The little guys just can’t compete.”

“So, what happened to Murphey?”

“He moved to Emporia and started selling fertilizer, but his workers were left with nothing. Chris and Steve had worked out there since they were little fellas, but by the time the place sold, they both had young families to think of and no real desire to move away from here. I hated to see them have to leave Rayland— especially with the little ones already established in the school. Besides with only 253 people, we need every person we can hang on to.”

“I’ll bet,” Jaxton said barely disguising the condescension in his voice.

“So, how’s that chow?” his grandfather asked without any indication he was about to change the subject.

“Oh.”  Jaxton looked down at the empty plate in front of him. “Excellent. I didn’t know you could cook.”

He reached over and put a second helping on his plate— having never realized just how hungry he actually was. The next two bites were in his mouth before the plate was even on the table again.

“’s not me,” his grandfather said with a smile. “Ami brought it over.”

“Ami?” Jaxton asked absently as he forked another bite into his mouth.

“Yeah. You remember Ami, Hank Martin’s granddaughter. She lives just east of here. You probably passed her place on your way in.”

Instantly the food in Jaxton’s mouth rotted. He dropped his fork and pushed the plate away trying not to look at the food or spit the foul tasting stuff out of his mouth. With Herculean effort he swallowed that bite and took a long drink of water.

“I can’t believe you don’t remember her,” his grandfather continued. “You met her when you were here the last time.”

Jaxton tried to recall the meeting his grandfather was describing, but nothing other than the disgusting plate of food staring back at him from the table was getting through to his brain.

“I wish I had a granddaughter like her,” his grandfather rambled on. “Such a sweet girl.”

Sweet? Jaxton thought as the rage from the preceding 18 hours crowded back in on him. I can think of a word for her, and it certainly isn’t sweet. But he pushed that thought down and smiled what he hoped was politely.

“Not that I’d trade you boys, of course. But sometimes it’d be nice…”  His grandfather’s words trailed into silence before he looked back across at Jaxton’s plate. “You full?”

“Uh, yeah.” Jaxton fought to erase the picture of her from his mind. Why was that so hard? “I’ve got some work I need to get done— umm, that is, if you don’t mind.”

“Course I don’t mind.” The old man shrugged. “I’m sure your father’s got you working on all his biggest accounts.”

“Yeah,” Jaxton said half-heartedly feeling sorry for himself again for a split second and then reflexively pushing that down.  He had business to do, and he was going to get it done. Putting his hand on the hard sticks of gelled hair, he worked to get the next question out diplomatically. “Umm, I noticed there isn’t a phone line in my room. Where might I find one?”

His grandfather let out a little snort. “Only phone I got ’s right there.” He pointed to the old dial around phone on the wall.

Jaxton’s eyes widened at the thought. “You’re kidding.”

“Only one. But you’re welcome to it,” his grandfather said, reaching for Jaxton’s plate. “You finished with this?”

“Uh. Yeah,” Jaxton said as he tried to figure out how to plug both his laptop and the fax machine into the same outlet. If, in fact, he could actually get to the outlet, he thought getting up to look at the phone more closely. It looked about a hundred years old, and the ingrained dirt on it made it appear brown although Jaxton was sure it had been white at some point.

He wished he could take out his handkerchief to pick up the receiver without his grandfather noticing, but the old man was still standing at the table scraping the food off the plates and watching him intently. Slowly he inspected the phone from as many angles as possible, and then he sighed and looked at his watch. 9:30.

He was too tired to deal with this tonight. Maybe if he went to bed now and gave it a few hours, when he woke up again, this would all be one big nightmare, and he’d be back in Chicago headed in to work.

“I think I’m going to call it a night,” he said, trying to keep the sigh out of his voice.

“So soon?”  His grandfather took the plates to the sink. “Thought you had work to do.”

“I can do it tomorrow.” Fatigue hit him for real then. “It’s been a long day.”

“I can imagine.” His grandfather nodded with sympathy. “Well, there’s towels in the cabinet in the bathroom upstairs. If they aren’t clean enough, let me know. Nobody’s been up there in a few years, so there’s no telling what it looks like by now.”

“I’m sure I’ll be fine,” Jaxton said, wanting only to escape the kitchen and be alone. “Well, I guess I’ll see you in the morning.”

“Yeah.” His grandfather smiled but never quite met Jaxton’s gaze. “Have a good night.”

“You too.”  Jaxton crossed past the old man being careful not to touch him. Once around the corner, he fled up the stairs.

“I just need a nice shower and some sleep.” In his room, he yanked his suitcase from the floor and without thinking, dropped it onto the bed, which immediately sent a noxious dust cloud wafting into the air.

Ugh. Dust. Everything’s in this house is so disgusting. Clicking the suitcase latches open in frustration, Jaxton yanked his Yale sweats out and slammed it closed again. Instantly he choked on the fresh dust cloud. Now I know why we never visited. These people should really get a life— and a maid.

He stalked into the bathroom and reached for the light, but nothing to this point had prepared him for the sight of that bathroom. Immediately all-out nausea closed in on him. Moldy rust formed a path down the back of the sink, which rose on a pedestal from the decaying tile floor. As he looked at it, all he wanted to do was run— far and fast. How had he gotten talked into this? Why him? Why not Blake? Or Uncle John? Or his father?

“What did I do to deserve this?” he asked in disgust.

On unsteady legs he forced himself to step into the bathroom knowing what was coming would be even worse. Reluctantly he glanced into the toilet, and the same nasty molded stains stared back at him.

“Ugh.” He covered his nose and backed away. “When was the last time anybody cleaned this place?”

Fearful of what he would find, he squinted at the shower curtain. “Oh, this can’t be good.”

He took a deep breath to steel the churning of his stomach as he reached for the curtain. The sight of the tub— mold crawling up the back wall and sickening green slime covering the portion of the curtain he held in his hand disintegrated the last of his resolve. Without another thought, he dropped the curtain and fled from the bathroom not even bothering to turn off the light.

***

Ami had spent the entire afternoon trying to forget about the stranger from Chicago. If only she didn’t feel such loyalty to Mr. Snyder, she could’ve easily dismissed him from her mind. But inevitably as he had for the last two months, Mr. Snyder crossed her mind again, and instantly a picture of the shiny shoes flashed through her mind.

What a jerk! What a total, unmitigated jerk! How can anybody be that callous? That calculating? He could’ve at least waited until the body was cold before moving in to divide the spoils. She shook her head to clear the intrusive thoughts away, but they weren’t going anywhere.

“I could call,” she said to the empty chair across from her as she sat in the living room, an open, un-read book on her lap. “Just to make sure supper was all right.”

Then she shook her head vehemently. As much as she wanted to check on Mr. S, the last thing she wanted to do was appear interested in the jerk who happened to be his grandson. Tomorrow she would call, or maybe if she biked out past the South Quarter she’d get lucky enough to catch Mr. S there. She needed to bring him another casserole anyway, and she was sure the jerk from the big city would do everything he could to avoid the fields.

She could get the full story then. Now she needed some sleep.

“Dear God,” she prayed silently on her way to her room, “please take care of Mr. S. I think he needs Your help more now than when he was in the hospital. Be by his side and protect him from all evil. Amen.”

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