“Come over here, and let me hug you, sweetheart.”
Jillian’s entire body stiffened as her aunt enfolded her in an embrace that smelled suspiciously like goat.
I still can’t believe I’m living on a farm.
Jillian pulled away.
What am I doing back in Orchard Grove?
Connie chuckled, easily hoisting Jillian’s two suitcases toward the attic stairs. “Is this all you packed? I sure hope you didn’t leave anything important back home.”
What was there Jillian could have forgotten? It wasn’t like she’d need anything fancy out here in the middle of nowhere. Only one thing could be worse than living in Orchard Grove with her Aunt Connie, and that was staying in Seattle with her parents.
Connie led her into the tiny attic room that had been the pirate ship, the castle, the theater, and the art studio of Jillian’s childhood years — years of imagination and excitement living so close to Grandma Lucy’s farm.
It wasn’t that long ago really, but for Jillian it may as well have been a lifetime.
“Do you feel all right, hon?” Connie asked with that special, condescending knowing in her voice. “Can I get you anything? A glass of water maybe? You don’t want to get dehydrated.”
Ugh. That’s why Jillian most hated the thought of living here. Hated it almost as much as the idea of staying in Seattle. Hadn’t she known it would happen like this if she came to stay at Safe Anchorage Farm, her aunt fussing and making a big scene?
“I’m fine.” It wasn’t worth jumping straight into an argument her first night here. The long drive over the North Cascades had been tedious enough. Jillian was surprised she made it all the way to the attic without Connie making her memorize and recite a whole bunch of house rules.
She was an adult, but her aunt would always think of her as a child.
Connie stood there, looking helpless. If Jillian had to guess, she’d say her aunt was trying to come up with a way to broach the incredibly awkward subject of what had caused Jillian to get kicked out of her parents’ home in the first place. That or she really had to use the bathroom but didn’t want to appear rude.
Jillian turned her back to her aunt and hoisted her suitcases onto the bed. Some little old ladies collected dolls or trinkets. Here at Connie’s, Grandma Lucy’s prayer shawls and blankets lay in every room. Some grannies baked pies or tended flower gardens. Grandma Lucy spent her days talking to God.
At least Grandma Lucy was asleep. Jillian didn’t know exactly what kind of lecture her grandmother might have in store for her, but tomorrow morning was soon enough to find out.
A goat bleated outside.
“Oh, that’s Peaches. I’m coming, you old thing.” Connie called out as if the goat were a child waiting at the bottom of the stairs and not an animal who was (hopefully) locked up outside in its pen where it belonged. Jillian hadn’t stayed at the Safe Anchorage Farm in years, but she knew enough to expect that bright and early, Connie would come in and invite her to go out and milk the goats, a job that could take over an hour and a half start to finish.
It had been her favorite part of her summers growing up.
Now she was just tired.
Tired and ready to drown her anxieties in dreamless sleep.
Tomorrow would come all too soon, with its share of awkward conversations and forced reunions.
Tonight she was glad for the chance to be alone once Connie bustled out the door, calling to the whining goat as she hurried down the stairs.
It’s not what you think …
I swear I’d never hurt you …
Now look at what you made me do.
Jillian woke up with a start. The old T-shirt she’d been sleeping in clung to her sweaty skin.
She took in a deep, choppy inhale.
Breathe. Everything would be all right if she could simply find her breath.
There. It was back. She felt her cheeks.
Dry. Which meant she’d only been crying in her sleep. Maybe that was progress.
She glanced at the clock. A few minutes after four in the morning. The funny thing was Connie would probably be waking up in an hour to do her morning chores and get a head-start on her day at the farm.
As much as Jillian had loved this place as a child, she was a city girl now. Orchard Grove was no place for her.
Yet here she was.
She sat up in bed, running her hands through her hair to see how knotted it was. She’d been thrashing around so much lately she sometimes woke up and looked like her mom’s honeymoon pictures from the eighties with her hair teased. Why anyone from any decade would voluntarily tangle their own hair was a mystery Jillian would likely never solve.
At least these tangles weren’t too bad. Nothing a few minutes with a brush couldn’t fix. The problem was she’d been too tired last night to unpack, and even in the spring, the attic was cold enough that she hated to think of freeing herself from her pile of Grandma Lucy’s prayer shawls and quilts.
She made a few valiant attempts to fall back to sleep before jumping out of bed and pulling on some sweatpants and socks. She was dying of thirst, which wasn’t too uncommon after these sorts of nightmares.
She felt her way gently down the stairs, each one slightly uneven in the home her grandfather had built by hand. Skipping the one step in the middle that always creaked, she relied on decade-old memories to help her grope her way to the kitchen where she was forced to turn on the light over the sink.
Water. A full, refreshing cup, a trip to the bathroom, and then maybe her brain would decide to drift back to sleep.
But if personal history was anything to rely on, she shouldn’t set her hopes too high.
She reached for one of the crystal glasses. Here at Safe Anchorage, her aunt and grandmother had no concept of plastic or generic. Everything was dainty, costly, and fragile, even back when Jillian had been a clumsy kid who broke her fair share of teacups. Fortunately, Grandma Lucy was a saint in just about every definition of the word and never scolded her for her numerous accidents.
If only other Christians were that forgiving.
Jillian filled up her goblet and drank the water down. That was one thing she could appreciate about life at Safe Anchorage. Fresh, clean well water. She guzzled her first serving and turned on the faucet for a refill.
“I thought you might be awake.” The warbling voice was unmistakable.
She’d hoped to go back to sleep rather than engage in conversation, especially the kind of conversation she knew must be coming up, but Jillian’s heart still quickened slightly at the sound of Grandma Lucy’s voice, her spirit swelling with memories of her summers spent here in Orchard Grove, memories of simple and happy times long before life turned so chaotic.
Her grandmother stepped forward, wrapping her arms around Jillian’s neck, declaring, “You’ve gotten so tall. I can hardly reach you.”
“You say that every time I see you,” Jillian reminded her.
Grandma Lucy smiled. “And each time it’s just as true.”
“Well, I’m done growing now.” Jillian pulled away. There were so many things Grandma Lucy still didn’t know, didn’t realize about the past several years. So much time had passed …
“Did you have a hard time sleeping?” Grandma Lucy asked, and without waiting for Jillian to answer, went on to add, “I had a feeling you were up.”
Of course. Grandma Lucy’s bizarre premonitions and stirrings as she sometimes called them were infamous in these parts. Neither Jillian’s strictly conservative religious upbringing nor her passing knowledge of secular science could explain her grandmother’s uncanny intuition.
Grandma Lucy took her by the hand. For a woman so wrinkled, her skin was remarkably soft.
Maybe all those goat soaps and lotions they made here at Safe Anchorage really worked.
Without another word, Grandma Lucy led Jillian into the farmhouse’s only modern addition, which had served as a greenhouse, a sunroom, and a place to serve guests tea, but was most commonly known as Grandma Lucy’s prayer room. Here Jillian’s grandmother would spend hours a day alternately reading her Bible, talking out loud to God, humming hymns or making up songs to sing to her Creator, and napping in her giant rocking chair.
Ever since she’d solidified her plans to move back to Orchard Grove, Jillian had foreseen this meeting, this conversation right here in this room. Without waiting to be told, she sat in the overstuffed chair across from Grandma Lucy’s famous prayer rocker and waited for whatever lecture or interrogation was coming her way.
Her hands felt clammy, but otherwise she wasn’t nervous. After all, she’d had a week to mentally rehearse the whole conversation, starting with the part where Grandma Lucy told her how worried she was for the state of Jillian’s soul, how she questioned her eternal destiny and prayed for her salvation.
As if what had happened to Jillian was enough to kick her out of the kingdom of heaven for good.
Jillian had practically been raised inside the church, sitting every Sunday, and most other nights of the week, in uncomfortable pews. She was a preacher’s kid, after all. Church had been the one constant in her life.
Until even that was stripped from her.
“Well, now.” Grandma Lucy eased herself into her rocker with a groan. She looked just like she had a decade ago when she’d sit Jillian in this exact same chair to practice memory verses. Grandma Lucy placed her hand on Jillian’s knee, the touch somehow transmitting far more heat than was to be expected on a morning as chilly as this.
She smiled serenely, as if Jillian had been the one to call this meeting and Grandma Lucy was simply waiting patiently for her granddaughter to start the discussion.
Casting nervous glances around the room, Jillian wondered where she should start. How much did Grandma Lucy already know?
And how much more wretched and guilty would she feel after their conversation was over?
“Ricky!” Mom called from the doorway to the garage. “Get out here now, or we’re going to be late.”
Grabbing Mom’s purse, which she’d left on the counter, checking to make sure the car keys were still in his pocket, and adjusting his pants, which were practically falling off since he’d lost his belt, Ricky made his way to the car.
Mom was already in the passenger seat with a sour pucker on her face. “We’ll be late.”
Ricky glanced to make sure the garage door was actually open before he backed up. The last time he’d been in this much of a rush, he’d made a thousand-dollar mistake, so he was always careful now to double-check.
Safety before speed, as Mom would say.
Of course, this was the same woman who was at the moment complaining so loudly you’d think they must be half an hour behind schedule.
Well, as much as Mom was griping about it, they weren’t late. There was no reason to worry about traffic in Orchard Grove on a Saturday morning. Ricky would bet his entire paycheck, small as it was, that they’d be at least a few minutes early.
But of course, there was no reason to try to convince Mom of that. All that was left to do was apologize for his tardiness, tell her how hard he’d work not to let something like this happen again, and keep his eyes on the road like a good, conscientious driver.
A courteous driver is a righteous driver, and all that other junk Mom quoted.
She yanked down the visor to block out the morning sun streaming in through the windshield. “What’s it doing so light out today?”
It was less than four minutes later when he pulled in front of the Orchard Grove Family Medical Center and jumped out to open his mother’s door for her. “What time do you think you’ll be done?” he asked.
She let out a loud, noisy sigh as he reached in for her purse.
“I couldn’t tell you, son. You never know with these doctors how long these appointments will take. It could be ten minutes, or maybe he’ll find something wrong and have to spend hours. You better plan to come back around eleven.”
By which he knew she meant no later than quarter ’til.
“I’ll be here.” He hurried ahead to open the door to the medical center. “Want me to walk with you up to the office?”
“I’m not an invalid yet.” She reached out her hand and pressed the elevator button.
Ricky waited until the doors opened, then gave her a quick kiss good-bye. “I’ll just be running a couple errands, so I’ll see you soon. Have a good appointment.”
“I might,” she sighed as she got onto the elevator, “unless he finds out that I have a cyst or the cancer’s returned.”
Ricky didn’t bother to mention that chiropractors probably weren’t in the business of diagnosing cysts or cancer, but then again, what did he know? His mother was a walking medical encyclopedia. She could stub her toe and diagnose herself with colon cancer a minute later.
Stepping outside into the bright sunshine, Ricky smiled. There was something about spring — and having nearly an hour before he had to chauffeur his mother anywhere — that made him feel optimistic.
The feeling you get after you just completed your last homeschool test of the year or when the girl you’re crushing on just agreed to meet you at the prom.
Of course, those were distant memories now. He shouldn’t dwell on them. After all, he had errands to run. This weekend was the third-year anniversary of Mom’s victory over breast cancer, and even though she never said anything outright, she’d left enough hints that Ricky knew she was expecting some special way to honor the occasion. He’d already made reservations for a fancy Sunday lunch tomorrow at the Main Street Hotel, and he wanted to run by the Safe Anchorage gift shop to pick up some of those handmade goat lotions and candles she liked so much as a present.
A godly gentleman should always be considerate, giving, and generous. How many times had Mom crammed those words into his brain until they were permanently branded into his psyche?
Considerate, giving, and generous. Like the son who buys his mother fancy gifts and takes her out for an expensive brunch to celebrate three years cancer-free.
Considerate, giving, and generous. He could recite those words in his sleep. Hadn’t Mom always said that’s what would make him a good husband? However, based on his own pitiful track record in romance, he wasn’t so sure that considerate, giving, and generous were the most sought-after traits in a man.
How about strong, handsome, and muscular? What would be so wrong with that?
“Now remember, the goats can sense when you’re nervous, so it’s important to be calm and gentle.” Connie patted the rump of the spotted Nubian she’d just brought up to the milking stand. “See how she’s kicking? That means she’s feeling a little uncomfortable.”
You and me both, goat, Jillian thought.
It was still early morning, but she was exhausted. She had spent over an hour and a half in the prayer room before Grandma Lucy finally dozed off to sleep, but not before inviting Jillian to pray with her over the dozens of photo albums she kept in a pile next to her prayer chair.
Jillian never understood how that woman could talk so long. Jillian had no problems with the short, simple kind of prayers her family offered around the dinner table, but her version of saying grace was like a child’s crude stick figure and Grandma Lucy’s was a Michelangelo masterpiece.
Maybe Jillian would have turned into a prayer warrior like that. She’d certainly been spiritual enough as a kid that she might have carried that fervor into her adult life if things hadn’t turned out the way they did.
“Don’t hold too low now or you’ll squeeze off the milk.” Connie repositioned Jillian’s hands on the udders. They were milking later than normal since Connie was taking time to walk her through each and every step. Jillian felt about as patient as the swollen goat to get the barn chores over and done with.
I knew this would happen if I moved back here.
When she and her family left for Seattle, she’d sworn to never step foot in this wretched part of Washington state again. Of course, having her grandmother living here made it hard to avoid Orchard Grove entirely, but aside from Christmases and other major family events, Jillian was done with this stupid town.
Or at least that’s what she had thought.
Yet another one of life’s unexpected twists. God was probably laughing his head off.
At least she was away from her parents, but in some ways she’d just traded in one set of conservative, judgmental guardians for another.
Grandma Lucy hadn’t talked about what brought Jillian back to Safe Anchorage Farm this morning in the prayer room. She didn’t give the lecture Jillian had prepared for, but what did that matter? Even if she didn’t say how disappointed she was, Jillian knew it anyway.
As if she were the first pastor’s kid who ever fell off the deep end. Some people were so stupid and arrogant. Closed-minded fools who lived in a world where children were sold into slavery, teens were dying from drug overdoses, terrorists were strapping bombs to themselves and blowing up crowded buses filled with innocent civilians, and folks acted as if one tiny indiscretion was enough to send the entire world to its destruction.
So Jillian had started dating someone she shouldn’t have. The way her parents treated it, she would have been better off joining the Taliban as long as she kept herself pure in the process.
Ridiculous. Here she was, a grown adult in the twenty-first century, and her parents were so scandalized they sent her off to an entirely different part of the state. It wasn’t like they were living in Victorian England where girls were quietly and conveniently put away in situations like this. It wasn’t like Jillian was the first or the last pastor’s daughter to find herself pregnant out of wedlock.
But conservative Christianity was her birthright, as much a part of her biological makeup as her strawberry blonde hair or her sunophobic complexion. She couldn’t cut that part of her upbringing out of her any more than she could scrub off the small freckles that spotted her cheekbones. Her parents acted as if her departure from the faith happened the moment she decided to date that no-good-loser-turned-boyfriend-turned-ex-boyfriend-turned-stalker.
As if she could have known the kind of person he was back then.
As if the moment she agreed to dance with him when she went out with her friends, God removed his Holy Spirit from her, branded her a backslidden believer beyond any hope of redemption, and condemned her soul to hell.
“I think she’s dry now. We better get her down and keep moving along.” Connie gave a half-hearted chuckle. “It might be lunchtime before we’re done.”
Jillian sat on the milking stool while her aunt got the spotted Nubian down and led forward a large goat with an almost pinkish coat. “Say good-morning to Peaches.”
Did her aunt expect her to remember each and every one of their dozens of goats’ names? Did she seriously think Jillian cared?
“Peaches is a sweet one. Uncle Dennis sometimes calls her my puppy goat because she’ll follow me around the entire yard if I let her, just like she was a dog.” She patted the animal gently between the ears and crooned sweetly to her in a babyish voice.
Jillian sighed as she washed the udder. At least Peaches wasn’t as skittish as the Nubian had been.
Connie handed her a new pail. “I’m going to take what we’ve already got into the house and be right back. Just holler if you need anything, but I’m sure Peaches won’t give you any trouble at all. She’s a good girl, isn’t she? Isn’t she?” Connie puckered up her lips and brought her face so close to the goat’s, for a moment Jillian thought she was going to kiss it.
No wonder her aunt always smelled like goats.
Connie bustled out of the barn, a pail of milk swinging from each hand.
Her back aching from hunching over, Jillian leaned her head against the animal’s slightly swollen belly.
“All right, Peaches,” she whispered, wondering how long it would be until she started baby-talking to the goats just like her aunt. “Let’s see what you’ve got for us today.”
Ricky always enjoyed the drive out to Baxter Loop, or at least he enjoyed it when he had the car entirely to himself.
He turned the radio onto scan, listened to two full cycles, and finally ended up on the oldies station Mom always listened to anyway.
What kind of gift should he find for his mom? She always liked the things from the Safe Anchorage gift shop, but he’d already given her four scented candles and two new goat milk lotions for her birthday last month.
Oh, well. If Connie was there this morning, she’d help him pick out something appropriate, and if it was one of the other workers instead, he could always browse through all the jewelry.
His mom was always asking him when he’d find a girl to date, but if having a girlfriend was even half as expensive as taking care of his mother, at his current pay scale he could afford to date once he hit fifty and might consider getting married when he was a senior citizen.
It could have been simpler. Susannah Peters, his best friend since they were toddlers and his longtime crush, had recently gotten married to some missionary from the East Coast. Ricky had been more than a little disappointed — devastated might be a better word for it — but his reaction wasn’t nearly so vehement as his mom’s or her friends from the Women’s Missionary League. In their minds, it was bad enough Susannah chose to marry less than a year after her mother’s death. It was even worse to marry someone she’d met in that nebulous, shady region known in some seedy circles as online.
Ricky was happy for Susannah, who from the time they were both twelve years old and attended the same junior high winter retreat wanted nothing else but to become a missionary. Secretly Ricky had always hoped he might be able to change her mind and convince her to settle down in Orchard Grove, but there was no denying that she and her new husband were perfect for each other.
It was after Susannah’s wedding that his mother grew even more insistent and pestered him about finding a girlfriend.
“It’s a pity about that Peters girl.” From the moment Susannah announced her engagement to a man no one at Orchard Grove Bible Church had ever heard of, Susannah had become nothing more than that Peters girl.
“It’s a pity she didn’t realize what a fine, godly husband you would make,” Mom sighed dramatically. “Well, it’s her loss, not yours.”
Which never made much sense to Ricky since Susannah was the one happily married and he was the one still single.
He pulled up in front of the Safe Anchorage Farm gift shop. It was early enough that there were no other vehicles here. He’d probably be Connie’s first customer of the day, and if he was lucky she’d have some cinnamon rolls or other tasty treats left over from breakfast.
He got out of the car, nearly losing his balance when his arm got stuck in the seatbelt, and checked his watch to make sure he still had plenty of time to shop for his gift and still make it back to the chiropractor’s in time to pick up Mom.
Either her aunt was right and there was something special about this goat, or Jillian was already starting to lose her mind after less than a full weekend in Orchard Grove.
“You’re a pretty thing, aren’t you?” She stroked Peaches’ side. Her fur wasn’t soft — as far as Jillian knew, there was no such thing as a fluffy goat — but her body was warm, and Jillian could almost swear the animal would wag her tail when Jillian rubbed a certain spot. The milking had gone well, but Jillian didn’t know how to get her out of the stand.
“Are you itchy?” She scratched gently, and Peaches swayed her back half. The motion reminded Jillian of the way Grandma Lucy would shut her eyes and rock her body back and forth in the throes of her prayerful passion.
“That feels good, doesn’t it?” She couldn’t remember if Peaches was one of the goats her aunt told her was pregnant or not. “You got a baby in there making you uncomfortable, pretty mama?”
She shook her head, envisioning herself at her aunt Connie’s age, coming out here every morning and sweet-talking to all the animals.
I’ve got to get back to the city.
As soon as she stopped scratching, Peaches stomped her foot and let out a snort of complaint. Jillian held onto the milk pail, afraid the goat might knock it over.
“Okay, okay. I’m sorry. I’ll pet you some more, you spoiled little thing.”
“Hey, that’s no way to talk to your favorite animal, is it?”
The voice from the barn entrance startled her. “Oh!” Her quick movement spooked the goat. Peaches kicked the pail and sent warm goat milk spilling onto Jillian’s lap and running down her legs.
“I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to do that. I thought you were Connie.”
“Do I sound like Connie?” It was hard to say which was more irritating, the warm milk soaking into her jeans or the fact that someone had overheard her talking to one of the animals like some crazy goat lady.
She stood up with a half turn, straightening up the pail — as if there had been any milk in there left to salvage.
“I’m so sorry,” The tall, lanky intruder started unbuttoning his flannel overshirt. “Here, I don’t have any towels, but you can use this. I had no idea Connie hired someone to do her milking.”
Jillian wasn’t exactly sure how a single flannel shirt was supposed to help her clean up, but she dragged it across her legs for show and handed it back to him. “She didn’t hire me. I’m her niece, and she was just teaching me how to do it.”
The stranger had his head cocked to the side and was staring at her. Great. She knew exactly what was coming next.
“Jillian? Is that really you?”
If there was any possible way she could have denied it, she would have. “Yeah. Who are you?”
“It’s me.” he stared at her expectantly. “Me,” he repeated as if she hadn’t heard his unhelpful declaration the first time. “Ricky Fields.”
“Oh.” What else was there for her to say?
“You don’t remember me, do you?”
“No, I remember you just fine. You’re that guy from church.” It was as safe an answer as any.
“Yeah. That’s me.”
“Ricky, did you say?”
His expression dropped. “You really don’t remember me.”
She shrugged. “It was a long time ago.”
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