by Laina Villeneuve
Robyn Landry thought her happily-ever-after would start after she retired from the U.S. Coast Guard. Instead, she discovers that her job demands were not the only reason her eight-year relationship was tanking. Struggling to find equilibrium in her life, she leases a horse at a local barn. There she befriends Kristine Owens and her son Caemon. The new setting relieves the sadness she feels at home.
A relative newcomer to rural Arcata, Grace Warren heads grant coordination for the local college’s art department. As new friends encourage her to explore the local arts scene and wilderness, Grace finds herself repeatedly crossing paths with the intensely attractive Robyn. When she discovers Robyn’s woodworking artistry, they seem perfect for each other and Grace easily envisions a future together.
But the decidedly reserved Robyn chafes under Grace’s advice and scrutiny. Why are women always trying to change her? There’s no reason to upend her life yet again—except for a kiss neither of them can forget.
The novel describes Robyn's journey from grief and disappointment, through the joy of new friendships and the uncertainty of potential love. Characters are skillfully drawn, and interweave in a plot with enough realistic problems, local references, and surprising twists to satisfy.
More praise for Laina Villeneuve
GCLS Goldie Awards
Take Only Pictures — Finalist, Lesbian Debut Fiction.
Opportunity sat in the palm of Robyn’s hand.
She’d pulled it from the bowl of small pewter stones that she kept on a low table by her bed. Every morning before she rose, she sifted through the cool stones, each inscribed with a word, mixing them in their shared bowl before selecting one. A second smaller bowl held her choice for contemplation or inspiration throughout her day. She accepted what the bowl gave her.
That wasn’t actually true. She’d grown tired of how often Tears sat in the second bowl and had started avoiding the small stones, shifting her fingers to a second stone if she happened to feel the almost round one between her thumb and forefinger. She wasn’t one to cry and took it as some cosmic suggestion that she might feel better if she did. But she was stubborn, not that there was a stone for that. Promise. Loyalty. Many of the stones reminded her of the commitment she had made to heed their message and inserted themselves into her fingers, bowl and consciousness.
Her decision to lease a horse after more than twenty years away had given her something different to think about each day. Finding another way to invest her energy gave her days new purpose. Instead of reminding her of her failed relationship, they seemed to be pointing Robyn back toward herself.
* * *
Once she arrived at the barn for her morning chores, Robyn ran her hands along the bay mare’s neck before grabbing a brush. She worked her left hand in small circles with the black rubber curry before brushing the dust and hair free with her right, this ritual her meditation. Thinking about this morning’s offering of Opportunity, she wondered if the stones were nudging her to buy this mare she’d been leasing. The barn and the routine that came with it were good for her, an opportunity (there was that word again) to focus her thoughts on the present instead of over-analyzing the past and worrying about her future.
Before these horse chores had pulled her out to the barn, she’d become a hermit, leaving the house only to roam the beaches alone or scour estate and garage sales. She was alongside people but never interacting with them, her eyes keen to find a hidden treasure.
When Barb had first noticed her, talked to her and pulled her out of her shell, she’d felt like it was she who had been pulled from the discards. She had felt valued, polished up and finally seen. Their first years had been full of love, laughter and joy, stones that had once felt wonderful but now mocked her when she saw them in her palm.
She closed her eyes and leaned against Taj’s barrel, feeling her warmth, matching her breathing to the rise and fall beneath her, trying to pinpoint how long things had been cold with Barb. When had they stopped touching? Once, she had always turned to spoon her lover and savor the moments before they separated for the day as she came up to the surface of wakefulness.
But that was back when they had shared Barb’s massive four-poster in the master bedroom that Robyn’s grandparents had shared for sixty-six years. When she and Barb went to bed together, Robyn could convince herself that it was their room. When Barbara started to come to bed hours later, Robyn spent too many nights lying alone comparing the love and respect her grandparents had for each other to her own relationship. She and Barb were such a failure in comparison that she escaped to the loft her papa had built in the attic above the room that was hers each summer. She lay on the simple queen mattress and stared at the stars, telling herself that she didn’t want to disturb Barb’s sleep.
They were barely roommates.
The stones were always reminding her that no relationship is perfect. They had eight years together. That was surely worth something.
But it wasn’t Forgiveness, Loyalty or Promise she’d pulled from her dish of stones today. Not Patience, Courage or Worrier.
Opportunity had come to her.
“Can’t catch me!” a child’s voice boomed in the aisle, breaking the peace of the morning.
“No running, Caemon,” a woman’s voice answered. “We don’t want to spook the horses.”
Robyn peeked from her horse’s stall and saw a tall woman and young boy stop at the neighboring stall. Both wore plaid shirts, jeans and boots. They worked on the combination lock of the tack shed together, the youngster keeping up a constant stream of chatter. Robyn’s blue eyes widened in surprise at his loquaciousness. Before either saw her, she ducked back into her stall.
To her, quiet was peace. She’d never been one for a lot of words, always preferring to just listen. In college, she’d been the student who sat in the back without uttering a word all semester. She soaked everything in but never felt the need to participate.
Barb was always pushing her to open up more, but it never went well when she did share what was in her head. So she typically kept her words to herself.
She stilled when the chattering ceased. Curious, she inched toward the door to see if the pair was already leaving.
“You Penapea’s friend?” the tow-headed youngster asked quizzically.
Robyn stepped closer to the door and peered over and into two keen blue eyes. How had he even known she was there?
Seemingly unconcerned by Robyn’s confusion, the boy continued. “My Mommy has a baby in her belly. I have one too. See?” He pulled out a stuffed cat and held it out for her to examine.
“Caemon, come help me with the rake, please. Let’s not bother the nice lady.”
Robyn studied the woman, looking for shared traits with the boy. While their coloring didn’t match, the sharp line of his jaw echoed hers. “He’s no bother,” Robyn surprised herself with her answer, and her words stopped the woman across the aisle. After a moment of hesitation, she approached to stand by the boy, tucking her light brown hair behind her ears.
“Baby Kitty cared of horses, so he tay in here,” Caemon said, bringing her attention back to the boy as he tucked the stuffed animal back under his shirt.
“Baby Kitty is scared,” the boy’s mother translated, walking over to scoop him up into her arms. He promptly grabbed the half-door and pulled both of them to where he could look in to see Robyn’s horse.
“But it doesn’t look like that one is scared,” Robyn observed.
“Of anything,” the woman said. “I’m Kristine, and this is my big boy, Caemon.”
“Caemon Owens-Fisher,” the boy said, puffing out his chest.
Robyn straightened her posture. “I’m Robyn Landy. Pleased to meet you both.” Seeing no baby bulge on the woman in front of her, she guessed that she was talking to Caemon’s other mom.
“I a big helper,” Caemon provided. “I can do the rake and ride in the wheelbarrow. Sometimes I ride the tractor. Do you have a tractor?”
He looked disappointed.
“You no like tractors?”
“Oh, I love tractors, but my garden isn’t big enough to use a tractor.”
“I want to see your garden!” he exclaimed.
“Caemon, we came to see Bean. You’re going to help me clean his stall, remember?”
“I get the rake!” he squealed, wriggling from his mother’s arms.
“How do you keep up?”
“Not very well,” Kristine said. “And my wife’s in the last trimester of number two.”
Robyn was pleased to discover she’d deduced correctly and liked the way Kristine talked about her family so openly. It could be that Kristine already intuited that Robyn herself was “family.” Her short hair could ping people’s gaydar, but then people had often commented that she seemed too feminine to be gay, which Robyn attributed to her Japanese ancestry. Something about the way Kristine carried herself made Robyn suspect that Kristine would have mentioned her wife to anyone she was talking to, gay or straight. Robyn had spent many years wishing she could speak so candidly.
“Mama! The rake tuck, Mama!”
“I’m coming,” Kristine called, but she didn’t leave the stall immediately. She studied the horse behind Robyn. She took a carrot out of her pocket and snapped it in half, immediately capturing the animal’s attention. The mare promptly stepped to the door to take the carrot. Kristine slid her hand along the horse’s jaw and continued to stroke her neck. “Did you buy her?” she asked, her eyes shaded with sadness.
“I’m leasing her. Her owner doesn’t seem ready to sell, and I’m okay with that. It’s been a long time since I’ve been a barn rat. It’s probably good to come back slow.”
Caemon came racing across the barn, noisily dragging the rake he’d found. The horse ducked away from the stall door. “Drop the rake,” Kristine barked.
Caemon froze and followed his mother’s order.
In a softer tone, Kristine explained that they didn’t want to spook the horses.
Wind off the ocean blew wet and cold, forcing Robyn to trudge along with her hood up and head down to keep warm. Most people thought of the beach as warm and welcoming. They had no experience with the shoreline on the Northcoast where rock formations jutted from the cold water and steep cliff faces topped by tenacious evergreens. Some beaches had a wider stretch of sand with ever-shifting dunes. As she walked, she scanned the shore, hoping last night’s storm had kicked up some good wood she could work in her shop.
So far, the offerings were beautiful pieces but either much too big or small and splintered. She had found a manageable chunk that wasn’t the redwood or madrone that typically washed up. Based on ocean currents it was likely lumber lost from a Japanese freighter. She looked forward to getting it back to her shop to clean it up and determine whether it was mahogany.
She walked the full length of Clam Beach, stopping at a huge redwood stump she’d had her eye on for some time. She rubbed her gloved hand across it. Even with more of the stump freed by the latest storm, she knew that she could not roll it without help, and she had no one to ask. It would have to be cut into pieces to work it, and she’d hate to make the choice of how to cut it up out on the beach before she could get a look at it from all sides.
The stone she’d warmed in her palm that morning had given her a good feeling for the day, but this work was beyond her. Maybe if she hitched it to a horse. She turned and scanned the beach. A few walkers stayed close to the waves on the more firmly-packed sand. There were no horses on the beach today. Not like the one she had seen galloping effortlessly along the shore months before which had reminded her of her childhood promise to herself. It had prompted her to visit the bulletin board at the barn she frequented for manure for her compost, to look for a horse to lease.
She’d been in the fourth grade when she convinced her parents to let her take riding lessons. Saturdays, they would drop her at the barn in the morning, and she’d spend the entire day with her beloved animals. Most of the riders at the barn were around the same age, and they all laughed at the old ladies.
Old. Robyn laughed at herself. More than a few years into her forties, many of the women she remembered were probably years younger. She saw herself in them now when she brushed down Taj, returning to riding after too many years away. As a youngster, she had promised herself that she would always have a horse. She would never lose sight of something that grounded her so well.
Yet she’d sold her childhood horse when she went away to college and forgot all about riding while she served in the coast guard. No horses at sea. But then she’d seen the horse and rider on the beach and remembered the unbridled joy she had felt at that breakneck gallop, as if she could outrun any problem.
Could Taj help her outrun the problem she found herself in now? She twisted the band on her left ring finger, wondering what Barb thought of when she looked at its mate on her hand. Two female figures curved, arms above their heads to grasp a garnet. Barb had found them at the North Country Fair, and they were perfect.
They had been for eight years. Most of those years…Some of them? She was so tired of living unhappily ever after. When had being with Barb become such hard work? More importantly, when had she begun to look at it as work she was not capable of handling?
She looked out to the horizon where gray met gray, the line between water and air obscured by the low-hanging clouds and mist. Her answer was not out here in the cold. It wasn’t in the warmth of the barn either. Taj helped with her friendly nicker and the way she butted at her pockets for hidden carrots. The mare had raised her spirits considerably, but now she could see how far she had fallen. The cold gray had never affected her. It had always felt invigorating, inviting hard work to warm her.
But lately it had invited the darkest of solutions into her thoughts. It would be so easy to crawl away from the cold and just sleep, sleep past all the fights and worse, the silence that hung about them.
She looked back at the stump. Something beautiful waited to be born from it, but it was going to take a hell of a lot of work.
But not today. She slung her adz over her shoulder. On some large hunks of wood she used the ax-like blade to clean sandy grit away so she could saw the wood into manageable pieces to carry off the beach. With this stump, she couldn’t see enough of it to know where to start. “Don’t go anywhere,” she said, rubbing the sandy surface again. “I’ll figure out a way to get you home.”
Speaking to a piece of wood throughout the process of finding it through finishing it wasn’t unusual for her. But these words brought her pause realizing that she was trying to figure out a way to get herself back home too.
“I give Taj carrot?” Caemon asked. “Where Penapea?”
Kristine gave the other half of her carrot to Caemon and lifted him, and he expertly fed it to the horse. “Robyn is taking care of Taj while Penelope gets better, Sweet. Let’s go give some carrots to Bean before he gets jealous.” She squeezed him tightly before setting him down. Robyn caught her swiping a tear from her face as she stood and offered a smile. “Hope to see you again.”
“Likewise.” Robyn watched Kristine follow Caemon back to their horse’s stall. She wondered again about the arrangement she had with Taj Mahal’s owner, Eleanor. Though Eleanor had seemed as at home in the barn as anyone, she was clearly relieved when Robyn had decided to lease the horse. Robyn had already puzzled over whether the horse might have belonged to Eleanor’s child, but she hadn’t said anything about a Penelope or what she was recovering from.
Robyn quickly saddled and bridled the horse in her stall, waving to Kristine and Caemon as she led Taj out, surprised when the mare started heading toward Bean’s stall. Giving Taj a tug, she turned her toward the arena, feeling Kristine’s steady gaze on them as they made their way down the barn aisle.