by RJ Layer
Getting it right before it’s too late…
Jo Marchal is home again, hoping to mend long-broken fences with her family before time erases that chance forever. She has other, deeply painful reasons for leaving behind her horse breeding and training business and starting over. Ohio’s pastures do look greener the moment she meets Maria West.
Love, marriage and children—Maria West has dreamed of those things, but her life is far from picture perfect picket fences. Developing a friendship with the ruggedly attractive cowgirl Jo is a surprising turn of events…and that’s only the first of many.
Jo sat on the fence enjoying her favorite time of day, wisps of steam rising from her coffee cup as she warmed her hands. She snugged the collar tighter on her jacket. Chilly or not, there was no place she’d rather be, waiting and watching as the first rays of sun broke the horizon while the rest of the world still slumbered away. The only thing that came close to this moment was a star-filled, crystal clear night sky.
She gave a whistle for her oldest mare and best friend, Daisy Mae, and looked around with wistfulness at her sixty-acre horse farm. Mid-April in Kentucky and the daffodils and irises were already in full bloom. New beginnings were in motion. Steam puffed from Daisy’s nostrils as she ambled over, snorted and lifted her head. She repeated the ritual until Jo produced an apple from her pocket. She rubbed Daisy’s head as the horse devoured the goody.
“Well, old girl.” Jo’s breath steamed the brisk air. “Are you ready to see if the grass really is greener on the other side?” Daisy Mae snorted again and rubbed her head against Jo’s thigh as a thank you for the early morning treat. Jo hopped off the fence when Daisy Mae moseyed back out in the pasture.
After dropping her truck at the repair garage, she picked up a Toyota Prius at the rental place and by a quarter past eight was driving the 250 miles to the place her life had begun, contemplating if she were about to come full circle.
She found the property easily, and with thirty minutes to spare, was glad to have time to look around on her own without a pressuring real estate agent. After a stroll around the farm, she climbed up on the fence surrounding the pasture to the south of the rustic frame house. Chewing absently on a piece of wheat, she looked out over the land beyond the homestead.
Finally she saw dust rising from the road in the distance. The approaching car was traveling faster than was wise for the loose road surface, kicking gravel in every direction. She glanced at her watch. It was ten after one. The black Volvo station wagon came to an abrupt halt, sending up a dust cloud like a wind twister in the middle of a riding corral. The vehicle’s paint quickly changed color as the dust settled, and a petite, dark-haired woman emerged from the car waving a folder before her to cut through the fog. Jo jumped down when the woman neared.
She shielded her sunglass-covered eyes. “Can I help you?”
Jo ran a hand through her hair. The woman who materialized from the dust cloud was a vision of beauty, curvy in all the right places. Jo found herself smiling as she stepped toward the woman.
“Ms. West, I presume.”
The woman flipped over the folder in her hand and took a closer look, then cocked her head and looked back at Jo. “The horse breeder.” When she smiled, Jo’s heart raced like a thoroughbred.
Jo extended her hand, nodding nervously. “Yeah, that’s me. Jo Marchal. Sounds like,” she touched an index finger to her nose, “shawl. Marchal. Hi!”
“Jo Marchal,” she repeated before giving Jo a firm, business-like handshake. Her hand was as velvety soft as a horse’s nose. The sensation gave Jo’s heart a little kick.
Jo swallowed. “Let me guess. You were expecting a man in a pickup truck wearing boots with spurs and a cowboy hat.”
She shrugged. “My secretary’s fault.”
When she held out the folder she was carrying, Jo noticed her rings. So it was Mrs. West. She was married.
“She spelled your name like a man’s, so yes, I guess I was expecting a cowboy.”
Jo shoved her hands in her pockets. “And a little thing like you meeting a cowboy out in the country all alone.”
She reached deep into the bag hanging from her shoulder and pulled out a very small caliber handgun. “I’m not alone. I have company.”
“Okay.” Jo whistled as she raised her hands. The woman had moxie. “But actually I am.” The real estate agent eyed Jo over the top of her sunglasses, giving Jo her first glimpse of mesmerizing dark eyes. “A cowboy, ma’am.” She hooked her thumbs in the top of her khaki pants and nodded her head toward the south. “I left the truck, my boots and hat back at the ranch with the horses.”
Jo tipped her head at the real estate agent and she laughed. There was something about this woman. She looked forward to doing business with her. Ms. West fanned her face with the folder, and Jo noticed for the first time it was rather warm for April.
“With a sense of humor, no less.” She stepped past Jo to the shade of a tree along the edge of the drive. “But aren’t you considered a cowgirl?”
Jo shoved her hands back in her pockets and raised a shoulder. “Yes, ma’am. I s’ppose.”
She turned back to face Jo. “That’s what they’d call you down in Texas.” Jo picked up a hint of an accent. She tucked the folder under her arm. “So what would you like to see first, the house or the out buildings and property?”
“Well, Ms. West—”
“Please, call me Maria.”
“Okay then, Maria. I really hate that I dragged you all the way out here.” Maria’s smile vanished. “This place just won’t work for me.”
“You really should at least see the house before you decide. It has all new fixtures…” Maria scrambled into sales mode and Jo let her talk. She liked the sound of Maria’s voice. Plus, she was real easy on the eyes.
When Maria finally took a breath, Jo interrupted. “I have no doubt the house is magnificent. But I’ve already walked around and the out buildings aren’t quite what I need and the fence around both pastures nearest the horse barn are in bad repair. I was hoping for a place more move-in ready.”
“But the house—”
Jo raised her hand to halt another sales pitch. “The house isn’t the problem. Shoot, if it were in serious need of repair I could always bunk in the barn. But I need a place that’s move-in ready for my horses.”
Maria nodded. “So you want horse-ready, not necessarily house-ready.”
Jo laughed. “Yeah, something like that.”
“How quickly do you need this move-in ready farm?”
“Soon as I can find the right place, I s’ppose.” Jo ran a hand through her hair before she could stop herself. She wasn’t sure why Maria made her nervous. “My parents are getting on in years. I want to be closer than a four-hour drive.”
Maria jotted down every detail Jo provided. “Where do your parents live?”
“’Bout fifty minutes or so from here, over in Campbell.”
She continued writing. “I can check for other available listings close to Campbell if you have some time.” She motioned to her car.
“This might sound kinda strange, but I don’t want to actually be in, or right around, Campbell. I was thinking more like, close. Say…within an hour’s drive.”
Maria again looked at Jo over the top of her glasses. “Got it, close but not neighbors.”
“Exactly.” Jo gave a thumbs up.
She closed the folder. “So do you have some time today before you drive back to the ranch?”
“I wish I did, but I have an appointment at three.” She hooked a thumb over her shoulder. “In Campbell.”
“I can assure you, Jo Marchal, that I will work diligently to find just the right place you need for you and your horses if you’ll give me the opportunity.”
Jo knew she was sporting a dimpled, full-face grin. “I imagine you will, Ms. West, and I’m counting on it.” She imagined other things about Maria too, then remembered the rings signifying that she was already spoken for. Not that Jo ever needed to be involved with another woman. Not even one as beautiful as Maria West, despite her allure.
“All right.” Jo strode over to the compact rental, Maria following in her shadow. She rummaged in her backpack and came up with a dog-eared business card. “Call me when you’ve got something.” She couldn’t stop herself from admiring Maria’s shapely figure as she handed over the card.
Maria glanced at the card, shaded her eyes and looked up at Jo. “Lazy Daisy Farms.”
Jo tilted her head. “There’s a story there I’d be happy to tell you sometime, but for now,” she peeked at her watch, “I need to get on the road.”
“Of course.” Maria extended her hand, offering Jo another soft touch of her velvety light brown skin. That and her warm smile gave Jo’s heart another little kick. “I’ll call you within a few days.”
“Works for me.” Jo bounced her head. You’d think she had made a date with the woman. She folded her five foot nine frame into the little car and watched while Maria walked back to her own car. Jo thought she looked every bit as good from behind, and she hadn’t looked at a woman like this in a very long time. When Jo drove past, Maria gave a little wave and another dazzling smile. Jo tipped her head.
* * *
She had sufficient time to get to Campbell and drove at a leisurely pace. Arriving too early and having to make polite conversation with her parents was not at the top of her list of favorite things. She’d have preferred to stand around talking to Maria West. Exiting the elevator on the fifth floor of the downtown building minutes before three o’clock, she entered the door marked Hanson, Brewer and Fox. The names sounded like characters from a children’s story. Jo knew that Mr. Brewer and her dad went way back, but the details eluded her at the moment. She stepped up to the receptionist’s desk.
“Jo Marchal. I have an appointment with Mr. Brewer.”
The receptionist nodded. “Yes, please have a seat. Mr. Brewer will be with you shortly.” She looked past Jo to the waiting area.
Jo turned, only then seeing her parents seated in the corner, crowded with chairs and small tables. She joined them, although tentatively, as if someone were behind pushing her.
“Hi, Mom.” Her eyes shifted. “Pops.”
“Jo Lynn,” her mom said, “you look thinner than you did at Christmas. Don’t you eat?”
Her dad looked up, met his daughter’s eyes briefly and returned to the magazine in his lap. Jo sat bedside her mom to avoid feeling scrutinized and prayed the lawyer would summon them quickly. She pulled repeatedly at a loose thread on the fabric arm of the chair and bounced her leg.
Not one to endure long silences her mom said, “They’re calling for a hot dry summer. Will your horses be okay?”
Jo bounced her leg, her mom’s attempt at conversation doing little to ease her tension. She could as easily be having this conversation with a stranger. “They’ll do okay.”
The receptionist opened the door out into the waiting room. “Mr. Brewer is ready to see you.”
“Eileen, Walt.” Brewer gave them a nod and extended his hand to Jo, which he shook with vigor. “Well, my, my. You realize the last time I saw you, Jo Lynn, was a Christmas gathering at your parents when you were barely a teenager.” He released her hand and stepped back. “Look at you now, all grown up and such a pretty one.” He moved behind his massive old wood desk. “You obviously take after your mother.” He motioned them to the chairs in front of his desk. “No offense, Walt.”
Her dad gazed momentarily at her mom and smiled. “None taken, Doug.” He cleared his throat, signaling the lawyer to get down to business. Jo understood her dad’s philosophy that time was money.
“Well, Jo Lynn, I couldn’t tell you this on the phone, but your dad wants you to have power of attorney for any matters requiring his signature in the event he is incapacitated or…” He crossed himself. “God forbid, passes on.”
Jo glanced from the lawyer to her dad, who looked completely indifferent and to her mom, whose eyes glistened with the beginning of tears.
Jo had gotten a call on Monday from Mr. Brewer letting her know she would be receiving some legal documents requiring her signature. He directed her to her parents for an explanation, citing attorney-client privilege. When she called, her mother informed Jo her dad had been feeling bad the last few months and the doctors were running every test under the sun. Jo had only ever known her dad to be healthy and strong, and the thought of him being ill, especially for months, came as a shock. Her mother began to cry when she tried to tell Jo they suspected some kind of a cancer.
Jo had offered the only words of comfort she could think of. “Dad’s a tough ol’ guy and never been sick a day that I know of. Whatever it is, he’ll beat it.”
“From your lips to God’s ears,” her mother had stated.
Once all was said and signed they waited in the lobby for the elevator. Her mom insisted she come by the house for dinner before she made her long drive home. Jo wanted to decline but couldn’t come up with a good excuse. Plus she knew she had to face the changes their lives were about to take. It was time for some kind of reconciliation.
She watched as her parents left the building and got into their ten-year-old Buick. Gleaming in the late afternoon sun like a brand new showroom model, it reminded Jo that her mom had never learned to drive. Unlike mothers of Jo’s friends, Jo’s mom couldn’t drive the car pool, but she made up for the shortcoming in other ways. Hanging at the Marchal house was considered the best, and Jo’s mom treated all her friends like family. Turning the corner and walking the half a block to the rental car, she wondered how her mom would get around should anything happen to her dad. On the drive she considered how many things were about to change in her life besides her address.
It had been years since Jo visited home during the spring. Nothing much seemed different about the brick ranch they had moved into when Jo started high school except the size of the maples that flanked the driveway on either side and shaded the house. The shrubs and flower beds remained unchanged. She took a calming breath as she walked up to the door, knocked lightly and let herself in.
“It’s me,” she announced.
Her dad was sitting in his recliner with the paper in front of his face and her mom emerged from down the hallway a moment later.
“Jo Lynn, I don’t know why you think you need to knock. You are family.” Eileen had changed into a cotton blouse and slacks, and she had traded her heels for flat-soled shoes. Comfortable clothes, as she called them. Jo, dressed similarly, was less than comfortable. Jo found comfort in jeans, a T-shirt or a denim or flannel shirt and, of course, her favorite broken-in cowboy boots. But she had dressed “properly” to meet the lawyer and avoid embarrassing her parents.
Jo followed her mom into the kitchen. “I always knock before going in anyone’s house. It’s a polite habit.” In actuality, Jo hadn’t felt a part of her family for more than a decade. It’s why she stayed away. She leaned in the doorway.
“Something I can help with, Mom?” Eileen poured three glasses of iced tea and handed one to her, nodding toward her father.
“Here’s your tea, Pops.” Jo placed the glass on the table beside his recliner. He neither looked up nor lowered the paper, only grumbling a “thanks.” Back in the kitchen, preferring her mom’s awkward attempt at conversation to her dad’s stone cold silence, she set the table. Her dad said grace and her mom continued her attempt at conversation by asking Jo about her horses, her farm and the people she employed.
Jo became lost in worry about all the things in her life that would be impacted by the changes coming. There was no way to know if a new owner at the farm would take over the horses she boarded and trained and keep on the three guys that regularly worked for her. Over and over so many questions kept rolling around in her mind. The one bright spot, though, in this utter chaos, was her “new” real estate agent.
Her mom wouldn’t let Jo help clean up after dinner, instead shooing her from the kitchen. With feet like lead blocks she dragged herself to the living room and found her dad leaned back in the recliner with his hands crossed on his waist. His eyelids appeared heavy as if ready for sleep.
She took a deep breath. “You look tired, Pops. How you feelin’?”
“I’m fine, and I wish everyone would quit worrying over me. Been up since six is why I’m tired, like anybody else would be.”
It never changed. The tone of his voice reaffirmed for Jo that things would never again be what they had been. She choked back the hurt.
“I’d appreciate it if you and Mom would call me as soon as you know anything about the tests they’ve done.”
“I’m sure it’s nothing for you to be worrying about. It’s probably a bug. You know the Lord takes care of those who take care of themselves.”
His voice was edged with the familiar sharpness, and Jo knew enough to let it be. If she were going to be kept informed, she knew it would be by her mom. She returned to the kitchen where her mom finished the dishwashing.
Jo grabbed a towel and asked, “He won’t tell me anything. Can we talk?”
Eileen nodded and took her sweater from the hook by the back door. “Let’s sit on the patio.”
She joined her mom on the swing. “This is nice. Is it new?”
Her mom rubbed her hand over the wooden arm. “Your father got me this for my last birthday.” Her hand persisted in its motion as if she were summoning a genie from a magical lamp. “He said we should get out here more often and stargaze.” Her eyes misted with tears.
“And do you?”
Eileen looked at the cloudless sky. “It’s been too chilly for him. He gets cold easily these days.”
Jo saw a tear slide down her cheek. Being a poor source of comfort, Jo hoped her mom wouldn’t cry as she had on Monday. “I’m looking for a farm around the area. I’m going to move back up this way. I’ll be closer if you need me for anything.”
She patted Jo’s leg. “You’re a good girl, Jo Lynn.”
Jo welcomed the touch, as small and insignificant as it was. She placed her hand over her mom’s and gave a squeeze. “I’m sure everything’s going to be fine, Mom. He’s a tough old bird.”
Eileen inhaled a sharp breath before a sob escaped. “Oh God, Jo, I don’t know what I’ll do if—” She placed her hand to her mouth.
“Mom, let’s not think like that. There’s no reason to yet.” She took her mom’s hand. “Let’s be positive, like you raised me to be.”
Unlike the way I’ve thought about generally everything in my life for the last few years.
Jo scooted over and slipped her arm around her mom’s shoulders. When Eileen stood abruptly, Jo was fully aware that the fractured relationship still existed.
“I need to check on your father.”
Jo followed back into the house and left almost immediately, saying her good-byes at the door. She was in for a long drive home. Heading up the highway on-ramp, she pushed thoughts of her family crisis out of her mind and called up an image of the lovely Maria West. Jo was sure she would enjoy farm shopping with the attractive Hispanic woman—more than she probably should.
* * *
Maria replayed the meeting with the cowgirl on the drive to her sister-in-law’s house. The sale of a farm the size Jo Marchal had in mind would earn her a nice commission. She was gradually building a nest egg for herself, unbeknownst to her husband. Nothing had changed in their marriage that she’d been able to discern, but his most recent promotion took him away on business more now than ever, and that gave Maria pause.
Kathleen had been kind enough to pick up her son from his school when she’d gotten held up with a client. She knocked before pushing through the door.
“We’re in here,” Kathleen called from the direction of the family room.
“Thanks for rescuing me again.”
Kathleen smiled sweetly. “Sure thing, honey.” She waved a hand. “He’s fine, they’re watching a movie.” Kathleen had three boys of her own, ages six, eight and ten. They accepted their cousin without reservation, despite his slightly darker skin. Kathleen looped her arm through Maria’s. “Come on, let’s have a cup of tea and relax for a few minutes while they’re still occupied.”
She steered Maria to the counter that separated the kitchen and dining room. As Maria slid onto a stool she allowed her shoulders to slump and her purse to drop to the floor.
“I’m sorry to have to call on you so much. They couldn’t tell me where Jack is, only that he couldn’t be reached. I tried his cell and he’s either out of coverage or has it turned off.”
Kathleen sat the teakettle on the stove and readied two mugs before turning to Maria. “Don’t worry about it. The boys love when they get to run out and pick their cousin up and bring him home with them.”
Maria let out a tired breath. “I don’t know what I’d do if I couldn’t count on you.”
“Jack still won’t help with Matt?” Maria shook her head. Kathleen stepped beside her, placing a comforting hand on Maria’s shoulder. “I’m always available to help out if you need me. Please don’t ever hesitate to call. We’re family and I love Matty like one of my own.”
Maria touched her hand. “You’re a godsend. I don’t know how I’d manage without you.”
Kathleen patted her shoulder. “Well, you’re not going to have to find out, so don’t worry about it, honey.”
The kettle whistled, interrupting Maria’s distressing thoughts. When Kathleen slid a mug in front of her, Maria decided to lighten the conversation.
“I met the most unusual woman earlier today.” Blowing on the steaming cup, she took a sip.
Maria nodded. “She’s a horse breeder.” She chuckled. “She reminded me of a Texas cowgirl that someone had forced to get gussied up for the big city.”
“What’s unusual about that?”
Maria felt her cheeks warm. “I got this peculiar feeling that she might have been flirting with me.”
Or maybe I just hoped she was. And why would I hope that a woman flirted with me?
Kathleen’s brows arched sharply. “Really? So she’s gay?”
“How would I know? I mean, I’m not sure I know any gay women.”
Kathleen grinned. “Oh, you probably do, you just don’t know it. Sometimes it’s easy to tell, sometimes not. Does she look butch?”
“Butch?” Maria asked uncomfortably.
“Such the naïve one. You know, does she look masculine or act manly?”
Maria closed her eyes for the briefest moment and saw Jo Marchal in her mind. Her pretty pale eyes and that charming smile. “She looks strong and confident like a Texas cowgirl—or like a female horse breeder, I suppose.” She shrugged.
“Well, did you get any vibes from her?” Maria simply looked at her. “Unusual feelings.”
Maria hid a smile as she remembered the handshake accompanied by butterflies. “I don’t know.”
“Hmm…Maybe I should meet her.”
“Why?” Maria sipped more tea.
“To see if she flirts with you.”
Maria was certain her face registered the embarrassment she was feeling. “I’m sure I imagined it.” And as if on cue to save her further uneasiness, Kathleen’s boys came rushing in with Matt in tow. He hugged his mother’s waist as she kissed the top of his head. “Hey, Matty boy. You ready to go home and have some dinner?” He responded by releasing her waist and taking her hand. With her free hand Maria rested it on Kathleen’s arm. “Thanks for picking him up, Kat, I owe you some sitting time.”
Kathleen gently tapped her hand. “At this rate, honey, you owe me enough for a nice long vacation on some tropical island.” She laughed. “But who’s counting?” Kathleen stood and placed her arm around Maria’s shoulder. “Call anytime you need help with Matt.” She tousled Matt’s hair. “The boys love having him here and he’s no trouble at all.”
Maria smiled at the wonderful friend her sister-in-law had always been. “Thanks again. We’ll do a girls’ night out soon and make the guys watch the kids.”
“Oh please, let’s do. I could use a night without hearing the word ‘Mom’ repeatedly.” Maria’s smiled faded. “I’m sorry, hon. Listen, don’t give up. They’re making progress every day with kids like Matt.”
In the car she watched Matt in the rearview mirror. Her beautiful boy, trapped inside himself by autism. “To hell with Jack,” she muttered, starting the car. As long as she had her son, she didn’t need Jack in her life any more than he appeared to need Matt in his life.
A little after four on Monday Jo headed from the office in the stable to the one in the house. She listened to several voice messages, the last, much to her delight, from Maria West. Maria emailed Jo links on some properties for Jo to take a look at. She played the message a second time to hear Maria’s voice again. When she logged on her computer, she opened the email, which listed a few specifics about one of the properties, contained four links and ended with a note saying that Jo could reply at her convenience. Jo took a look at the properties, then typed a reply letting Maria know the best time to reach her.
Jo’s cell rang around two o’clock Tuesday afternoon with an unknown caller.
“Ms. Marchal, it’s…West. Sorry…your return…yesterday.” Maria West’s voice was broken and garbled. “I…you a number…properties to look—”
“We have a terrible connection. Can I call you back from my land line?”
Jo barely made out, “Sorry, darned…phones, take…look…call…evening.”
She rushed outside in hopes of a better signal, but the call dropped. “Damn,” she cursed under her breath. She hurried back into the stable and told the first hand she saw she’d be up in the house if anyone needed her. She checked her email and found multiple new listings from Maria. She replied to the email and returned to the stable. Jo was expecting a new rider for lessons on her newest boarder, an American quarter horse, which happened to be the twelfth birthday present for a young girl named Kaitlyn from her daddy.
“Darlin’, you’re killing me,” Cecile admonished.
Jo was kicked back in her office with her feet on the desk when the land line rang. “Cil, I’ve got another call. I’ll call you back.” Her feet hit the floor as she grabbed for the other phone before voice mail could pick up. “Hello.”
“Ms. Marchal,” the familiar voice purred. “I apologize for that awful call earlier. I was trying to catch you between my appointments and wasn’t in the best reception area.”
“Jo, please, and it’s quite all right. I imagine you keep very busy doing what you do.”
“Ah, the nature of the real estate business.” She paused. “I see from your emails there are five properties you’re interested in seeing.”
Jo caught herself in a daydream remembering how Maria West had looked so beautiful standing in the afternoon sun last Friday. “Um, yeah.” She realized she sounded like an uneducated hick. “Yes, that’s right.” It was like being a schoolgirl again for Jo trying to make a first date. “What’s your schedule look like?”
“My schedule is what I make it and I don’t have to drive four hours to meet you.”
The cadence of Maria’s voice told Jo she must be wearing the killer smile that she had seen when they met and she couldn’t stop her own smile. “How’s Friday again?” She knew whenever she left the farm the hands would take the opportunity to ease off a bit, but at least at the end of the week, most of the work would be done.
“I can do Friday. What time?”
“What time do you need me there?”
After a momentary pause, Maria said, “Well, I wouldn’t ask you to meet me as early as nine since that would require you having to get up before the chickens.”
Jo heard the faint accent again and guessed again she might be a Texas gal. She laughed. “I’d only have to get up an hour earlier. I can do nine o’clock if you want.”
“You get up that early every morning?”
“In any case, let’s say ten on Friday, and you won’t have to get up any earlier than usual.”
“Works for me.”
They discussed exactly where they’d meet. The second Jo hung up she was again reminded she’d soon be leaving her homestead and starting over. She walked to the chair on the front porch and sat down for a moment. She wanted to enjoy every minute she had left at the old place.
* * *
Thursday before turning in, Jo pressed creases in a fairly new pair of jeans and the wrinkles out of a denim shirt. She wasn’t sure why she wanted to impress Maria West tomorrow. She just did.
The drive was no less boring than last week’s, but definitely more comfortable in her Super Duty Ford truck. Today wasn’t going to be a round trip. She planned to spend the night in southern Ohio, at a motel possibly, if her mom didn’t invite her to stay with them. She picked out Maria’s little black station wagon right away and pulled in a few spaces over from it. Maria didn’t notice Jo until she walked up to her car door.
She scampered out of the car. “Good morning!”
“That it is.” Jo grinned.
“I found a couple more properties you may want to look at.” She extended a file folder to Jo. “I think we can fit in the time if you’re interested.”
“I don’t s’ppose we’d have time for a cup of coffee, would we?” Jo raised the file. “I can take a look at these and take a little break from the windshield time I’m doing today.”
“Sure, of course.” Maria reached back in the car for her purse. “There’s a coffee shop here in the shopping center.” She led the way across the parking lot to a quaint little place situated between a hardware store and a drycleaner’s.
“I suppose the last thing you want to do right now is sit in the car.” At Jo’s nod Maria continued, “We don’t have any time constraints today, unless you do. You can take a look at those,” she indicated the file in Jo’s hand, “and I’ll adjust the route if we need to. We’re basically going to drive in a big circle.”
Once seated, Jo flipped open the folder and assessed the two farms. When she looked up and met Maria’s dark eyes, the intensity in them caused her breath to catch. Jo sat unable to formulate any words for several long moments.
She finally cleared her throat and tried her voice. “I was thinking I probably should have said something before. These properties are all relatively large, acreage wise, but I’d be most interested in the ones that have surrounding land that could be potentially acquired in the future. My long term goal is to establish a kind of dude ranch. You know, a place for horse enthusiasts to escape to where there are hundreds of acres to ride and camp out in the country.” Jo took a quick drink of her coffee. “I’m sorry. I should have mentioned that.”
Maria waved her hand. “Not a problem. These are all quite rural, but I’ll have my office check on them before we waste time driving to them.” She pushed out of the booth. “I’ll be right back.”
Jo focused on the information before her. When Maria returned, she pulled one of the listings. “We can cross this one off. It won’t meet your future needs. So, that leaves us with six locations and even as spread out as they are, we should have plenty of time to get to all of them. Whenever you’re ready to go.”
Jo drained her cup. “Let me hit the bathroom.”
“I’ll meet you outside.”
Maria was standing with a map spread over the hood of her car when Jo emerged. Sliding her sunglasses in place so it wouldn’t be obvious she was scrutinizing the cowgirl, she noted Jo’s confident stride. Today Jo was dressed somewhat boyishly, although Maria still wouldn’t immediately label her as gay. She folded the map and opened her car door.
“I’ll drive and bring you back when we’re done.”
Jo put on her own sunglasses and grabbed her backpack from behind her truck seat.
Maria grinned. “You really do drive a pickup truck.” She started the car. “So, where are the boots and hat?” She pulled them into the morning traffic.
“Still back at the ranch with the horses. I didn’t want to overwhelm you with too much at once.” Jo gave her a wink.
Maria felt the warmth in her cheeks, thankful her skin tone made a blush hard to detect. “So you really are a cowgirl?”
Jo mimicked tipping a hat. “Yes, ma’am. Right down to the spurs on my boots.”
When Maria laughed, Jo felt warm all over. And wow, not only was Maria West gorgeous, but her perfume was making Jo’s head swim. The best part was that she could make Maria laugh and smile.
She slung her backpack into the back seat, noticing as she did the booster seat installed there. “Got yourself a little one, I see.”
“I have a six-year-old named Matthew. We call him Matt.” She said little more, redirecting the conversation with question after question about horses and horse farms.
Jo talked about boarding horses and teaching youngsters how to ride, whether for fun or competition, and how she was getting away from breeding. They grabbed lunch at a little family-owned diner in a small town after their third stop but were quickly on the road again, making it to the last property around three. It was by far the largest, in the best shape and of course the most costly of the places they had seen.
Jo pulled herself up to stand on the pasture fence and scan the open field. She closed her eyes, deeply inhaling the fresh air. It wasn’t hard to envision her horses running in these pastures. The sudden ringing of Maria’s cell phone shattered her daydream.
Maria walked back toward the car as she talked on her phone. Jo was only able to hear parts of her side of the conversation, but she gathered it had something to do with her son. Eventually she rejoined Jo at the fence.
“Everything okay with your son?” Maria’s smile was forced when she nodded. She was noticeably distracted. Jo detected worry. “I think I’ve seen enough for one day.” Climbing off the fence she followed Maria to the car. “I’ve got plenty to think about now. I appreciate you driving all over creation.”
Yep. Definitely distracted since that call.
Seated in the car, Jo said, “Look, this is none of my business, so you’re welcome to tell me to take a hike, but you seem terribly troubled since that darned call you got. Is there something going on you need to deal with? ‘Cause I would certainly understand if there was.”
Maria stared blankly for several minutes before she spoke. “It’s my son. He’s having a difficult time at school today.” She gave a long sigh. “But my sister-in-law is going to pick him up.” She started the car and headed out to the road.
Jo wasn’t fooled by Maria’s attempt at calm. Something was eating at her, so she persisted. “So, your boy—he’s in some trouble at school?”
Maria shook her head. “Not really trouble. He attends a special school. My son is autistic.”
Wow! That was as unexpected as a horses’ kick. She knew nothing about kids with autism, but she gathered from Maria’s current mood it must be tough to deal with.
“So where do you live?”
Maria gave a sideways glance. “In Midland.”
“How far are we?”
“About twenty-five minutes away.”
“And your sister-in-law,” Jo asked, “she lives there too?”
Jo shifted in her seat. “We should swing by there then so you can check on him before you drive me back.”
Maria glanced over again. “It’s not really en route. It’s out of the way.”
“Ah, that’s all right.” Jo grinned. “I’m not in a big hurry. Just gotta stop by the folks for a bit.”
“Really, it’s not necessary. I’ll be heading back to pick him up after I drop you off.”
Jo cocked her head. “Yeah, but you could be seeing him sooner instead of later.” She noticed that Maria checked the clock. “I say we stop now so you can surprise the little guy.” Maria’s expression brightened. “Like I said, I’m not in any hurry.” So not in any hurry.
“Are you sure?”
“Heck yeah, absolutely. My folks aren’t even expecting me. Thought I’d surprise them, you know.”
“I’ll run in real quick. Thank you for your understanding.”
Jo waved her hand. “Oh sure. Hey, when we’re troubled we all want our moms. Too bad all moms aren’t like you, Maria West.
They pulled into the drive of a modest-looking home on the far north side of town. “Would you like to come in for the restroom or something to drink?”
“I’m good.” But for some reason, Jo was strangely curious to meet Maria’s son. “I wouldn’t mind meeting your boy.”
Maria turned to look at her. “I don’t know how much you know about autism, but my Matt isn’t very social.”
“Okay, good to know.” Jo shrugged. “That makes two of us.”
Kathleen looked surprised when she opened the door. “I wasn’t expecting you this early.”
Maria stepped inside. “We were sort of passing by so I wanted to check on him.” Kathleen’s eyes settled on Jo behind her. Maria touched her arm. “I’m sorry, Kat, this is a client of mine, Jo Marchal.” She looked at Jo. “My sister-in-law, Kathleen.”
Jo had already sized up the petite blonde. She extended her hand. “Nice to meet you.”
Kathleen accepted Jo’s handshake. “Nice to meet you too.” She eyed Maria. “They’re in the family room.”
“I’ll be back to get him once I drop Ms. Marchal off.”
They entered a large comfortable room where four boys of various sizes sat watching a children’s movie on the big TV screen. Jo didn’t miss the smile that warmed Maria’s face. One of the boys nudged and pointed. Matt looked up, then got up and came toward them. He tightly circled his arms around Maria’s waist.
“Hey, sweetie, are you okay?” Maria asked softly and kissed the top of his head.
The tender moment touched Jo somewhere deep inside. It’d been such a long time ago that Jo and her mom had shared any similar kind of closeness.
“I have to go back to work for a little bit, but I’ll be back to take you home. Okay?” The boy didn’t move or make a sound. Maria stroked his hair and looked over at Jo. “My son, Matthew.” Jo nodded and smiled. “Can you say hello to our guest, Matt?” Again he remained motionless and silent and Jo saw a flicker of pain in Maria’s eyes. Maria kissed his dark curls. “Okay, sweetie, I’ll be back soon.” She had to release his arms from her waist.
“Does he like riding in the car?” Jo asked.
Maria looked puzzled. “He doesn’t dislike it. Why?”
“Why don’t you bring him along? I mean, we’re just driving back to my truck.”
“I don’t usually—”
“Ah heck with all that proper business stuff. I don’t mind, and if he don’t mind and wants to be with you, I say let’s bring him along.”
Maria ruffled Matt’s hair. “Would you like to go for a ride in the car with me and this nice lady, Matt?”
He responded by taking hold of Maria’s hand.
Jo grinned. “I take it that’s a ‘yes.’”
“Okay, big guy, let’s get going.”
Kathleen silently watched the exchange. “Thanks again.” Maria directed to Kathleen.
“No problem, hon, whenever you need me call.”
Jo looked at Kathleen. “Nice to meet you.”
Kathleen smiled at Jo. “You too. Good luck with the house hunting.”
“Actually it’s a farm I’m looking for, but thanks.”
Jo pulled open the door for Maria and her son. Kathleen didn’t miss the gesture, and Jo didn’t miss Kathleen mouthing the words “call me” to Maria. Maria strapped Matt in his seat and slid behind the wheel.
“He’s usually very good in the car. Thank you for allowing me this comfort.”
Jo looked at the boy in the back seat, staring out the window. “Hey, the way I see it, he’s already got it tougher than most kids.” She directed her eyes to Maria. “It’s no hardship for me.”
Maria smiled over at her. “You’re the biggest hearted cowgirl I’ve ever met.”
“Thanks.” Jo laughed. “Believe it or not, that is the number one attribute all cowgirls strive for.” When Maria laughed, the sound warmed Jo inside like nothing else ever had.
Jo sat in her truck watching as Maria drove away, waiting until her station wagon was out of sight before trying her parents’ number. Her mom finally answered after six or seven rings, Jo lost count.
“Mom, is everything okay?”
Jo sighed. “It’s…well, it took you so long to answer.”
“I was out tending to my flowers and didn’t know your father was snoring in his recliner. Is everything all right with you?”
“Sure, Mom. I thought I’d stop by if it’s okay.”
She made a “tsk” sound. “Jo Lynn, now you know you can stop by anytime. Do you have plans for your dinner?”
“I was going to get something on the way.”
“We’re having vegetable soup. I’ll set a place for you. You forget about that fast stuff that passes for food and come on by.”
“I’ll be there in a bit, Mom.”
The evening mirrored last Friday. Her dad showed no interest in talking with her, so she again sat out back in the swing with her mom.
“Any word from the doctor?”
Her mom gave a push and set the swing in motion. “We have an appointment on Monday. They’re waiting on the results of one more test. You know how they are, all secretive.”
“I’m sure they want to be accurate with their findings. I wished you’d told me about the appointment. I could be here with you.”
She tapped Jo’s hand. “Oh, Jo, you don’t need to be here.” Eileen forced a smile. “They’re probably going to tell us the only thing wrong with your father is he’s hard-headed and stubborn.”
“No news there,” Jo muttered under her breath.
Her mom looked over. “Pardon?”
Jo hoped she hadn’t heard. “Uh, you’ll let me know what’s up after you’ve been there.”
“Of course, dear.”
Jo gave the swing a push. “I looked at several farms today, all within about an hour from here.”
“I think the Pierson place is up for sale. You know where that is, don’t you? Right outside of town on Route 60.”
“Yes, I know where it is, but it’s too small for what I need.”
“They always used to have horses. You remember your father used to take you out there sometimes on Saturday afternoons to ride? You were, what, about ten or so.”
The memory brought a smile. “I think I was older. It was right before high school.”
She remembered exactly when it was. It had been the summer after she’d attended summer camp. And as it turned out, summer camp became one of the best summers she’d ever had.
Jo had had a few crushes before, but for lack of a better understanding, she’d assumed it was something normal girls experienced but didn’t speak of. Jo fell in love the first day with one of the camp counselors. At least she thought so at the age of thirteen. Judy King was pretty. She always wore her long brown hair pulled back in a ponytail and had a fit, athletic body. Jo’s heart would do little flip flops whenever she was around. She was also the riding instructor, so Jo fell in love with not only women that summer but horses too. She participated in everything she could that pertained to horses to be around Judy King.
One of those things was grooming the horses. That’s where Jo met Debbie. Debbie was a really quiet girl and kept to herself. But she knew a lot about horses. She lived about sixty miles away from Jo and had her own horse. She promised to teach Jo everything she knew. Little did she know that Debbie would teach her so much more. She was fourteen and they became good friends the first week. By the third week, Jo was spending more time with Debbie than anyone. Jo felt especially comfortable around her and they could talk about everything.
Three days before camp was to end, she and Debbie were brushing down the last horse in the old barn. Everyone else had run off to take a dip in the lake before dinner. Without warning Debbie reached over and took hold of Jo’s free hand.
“I’m gonna miss you so much when we have to leave, Jo.”
Jo stopped and turned to look at her. There was something in Debbie’s eyes Jo had never seen before. She felt hypnotized. They stood in silence for the longest time. To break the trance-like stare, Debbie reached up and stroked her fingertips over Jo’s cheek. Jo’s legs became rubber bands. When she didn’t flinch or move away, Debbie leaned in and lightly touched her lips to Jo’s. A sensation rushed through Jo’s body that took her breath away.
Debbie leaned back. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have done that,” she said softly.
Jo swallowed and looked down at her feet. “It’s okay,” she whispered.
Debbie raised her chin. “You’re so cute. I couldn’t not do that.” She searched Jo’s eyes, but Jo said nothing. “I want to kiss you again.”
Jo’s cheeks flushed with heat. She nodded. She couldn’t say no. Their next kiss lasted longer, and when Debbie pulled away, Jo’s heart was pounding fiercely. Jo only waited a second before she leaned in to press her lips to Debbie’s. Warmth flooded her body from the contact and Jo realized that’s what she wanted to feel every day—forever. Another long minute later they separated.
Debbie smiled. “Wow! Cute and a good kisser.” Jo’s cheeks burned hot. “Have you kissed girls before?” Jo shook her head. “Me either, but I really like it.”
The tiniest smile curled Jo’s lips. “Me too.”
They heard the barn door creak and quickly moved apart.
Judy King approached. “Don’t you girls want to take a swim before dinner?” She patted the horse’s neck. “I think ol’ Duke is ready to retire for the day.”
As Judy led the horse to his stall, Jo and Debbie smiled knowingly at each other, then raced from the barn to get into their suits.
For the next two and a half days the girls were inseparable and would sneak off to steal every moment alone they could. The heartbreak of the whole experience, of course, came the day they had to part. Jo never forgot the feeling of their last hug.
Debbie wrapped her arms tightly around her. “I’m going to miss you so much,” she whispered.
Jo didn’t think she’d ever felt more completely loved than she did in Debbie’s arms. Choked with emotion, she barely managed to say, “I’m gonna miss you too.”
Jo had never forgotten the desire she’d felt that summer. To this day she was still searching for it.
“Jo Lynn. What’s wrong?”
Jo hadn’t heard a word she’d been saying. “What?”
“You got all glassy-eyed and didn’t answer.” She put the backs of her fingers to Jo’s cheek. “You’re not coming down with something are you?”
Jo shook her head. “I’m fine, Mom.”
“Well, you didn’t look fine just now. Why don’t you stay the night instead of driving all the way back home? I’ll worry if you do.”
Jo searched her mom’s eyes for something more than simple hospitality.
“The bed’s made up in your old room like always. You’re welcome to stay.”
“Thanks, Mom, I think I will. Are you sure Dad won’t mind?”
“Tsk…What can he say? I invited you and you’re staying.” She pushed up from the swing. “Speaking of, I should go check on him.” She pulled her sweater across her chest. “Do you want anything?”
A cold beer or two would be good right now. “No thanks, Mom, I’m fine.”
Eileen turned toward the door. “Don’t stay out too long. It’s been getting chilly in the evenings.”
Jo nodded, but her mom was already through the door.
Maria had Matt settled in bed when she called Kathleen at nine thirty, hoping she already had her brood wrestled down for the night.
“Are you free now?”
Kathleen sighed. “Yes. I’ve put up my feet and I’m enjoying some wine. How’s Matt?”
“He’s been perfectly fine all evening. I don’t know what could have happened to him at school. I can’t even speculate about what might have agitated him.”
“Is Jack home?”
It didn’t matter if Jack was home or not. He refused to have anything to do with Matt, and of late, she felt more and more like his housekeeper than his wife. He’d become distant. She wasn’t sure if it was his job or something worse, like an affair, because he never seemed to want to talk either. It was Maria’s turn to sigh.
“No. He left yesterday for a business conference. He won’t be back until late Sunday.”
“Well, listen, sweetie, if you need me to watch Matt so you can grocery shop or anything this weekend, let me know.”
“Thanks, Kat. You’re my guardian angel, you know.”
Kathleen giggled. “Angel, right, that’s me. Do you suppose you could convince my boys of this and that they should treat me with great reverence?”
Maria loved that Kathleen could always lighten her mood and make her laugh.
“So—” Kathleen hesitated. “Did you sell a farm today and earn a big commission?”
“Not today, but I hope to soon.” And be less reliant on her husband.
“Oh, I’m sure you will.”
“I like your confidence in me.”
“The gal that was with you today, she’s the one from last week?”
“Yes. Do you think your speculation about her is correct?” Maria asked, unsure why it mattered.
Kathleen paused. “I’m no expert mind you, but from what I saw she seemed interested in you.”
“That’s absurd.” Maria laughed.
“No, I don’t think it is. I watched how she looked at you. And…well…when Matt hugged you, I thought she was going to hug you both.”
“Oh Kat, that’s ridiculous.”
“Maria, I think this cowgirl just might be smitten with you.”
Maria couldn’t believe she couldn’t see it. “She knows I have a child. Surely she would also know that I’m married.”
“Oh, honey.” Kathleen sipped her wine. “You’re a very attractive woman.”
“Oh and now you’re flirting with me?” Maria’s cheeks suddenly felt hot at the thought of a woman flirting with her.
Kathleen chuckled. “Gee, even if I was, I don’t think I would have any time or the energy to follow through. Sorry.”
“Is that the wine talking?”
“Probably, or me thinking about something more than being the mother of three.”
“Would you ever do that—be with a woman?”
“Lord no! I was kidding. I’m strictly a man-loving woman. How else could I manage living with four of them? I know you and Jack have been together a long time, but be careful around this woman, Maria.”
Maria cringed. She wasn’t born in the Middle Ages. She knew how gay women were stereotyped, and Jo Marchal just didn’t fit with that image.
“I heard you, and don’t worry, Kat. I don’t intend to complicate my marriage with an affair and certainly not with a woman. Listen, I’ll let you go. I’m beat. Too much driving today.”
“Call me if you need help this weekend.”
“Thanks, Kat, I will.”
As she tidied her home office to wrap up her day, Maria looked at the card attached to the horse farm file. Jo Marchal might be a lesbian, as Kathleen suspected, but there was no way she had any romantic interest in Maria. She opened the file to the note with two more properties listed. She’d send the email in the morning. She turned off the light, quietly peeked in at her son and went to bed.
Jo didn’t sleep well in her old bed. Despite her restless sleep, she woke precisely at five and was having coffee at the kitchen table when her dad came in at six thirty. He poured his own coffee and sat down.
“You’re up early, Pops.”
“Don’t make good sense to sleep your life away,” he said, his voice gravelly.
“I’d have to agree with you.” She might as well be having coffee with a stranger. Why was it so hard to talk to him? They’d been like buddies when Jo was young.
He took a drink and cleared his throat. “You’re still planning to move up this way?”
“I looked at several nice properties yesterday.”
“Market’s just starting to rebound right now. You ought to get a good price on something.”
“True, but I’ll probably end up paying for it when selling my place.”
He nodded. “Suppose so.” And with that, the conversation died. They sat in silence until Eileen joined them at seven.
Jo didn’t stay for breakfast, making an excuse about an appointment. She entered the light highway traffic around seven thirty. All she wanted was to be on her farm.
Jo arrived home to an email from Maria—she had found two more properties. She sat looking at the info and pictures of the biggest, most expensive one she’d already seen. It wasn’t much over an hour’s drive to her folks, which was doable. And it was less than a half hour from where Maria West lived. She could deny it all she wanted, but Jo knew she’d developed a bit of a crush on the married mom. Well, Maria wouldn’t be the first unattainable woman she’d felt this way about.
She spent the remainder of the day helping the guys muck out stalls and out in the pasture with her horses. When she finally made it back to her office, she was thrilled to have a voice mail from Maria asking if she’d received the email and was interested in seeing either one of the other properties.
Following a late dinner Jo settled out on the porch, debating whether to call Maria back so late. Long moments of back and forth passed before she decided to go for it.
After Maria’s warm greeting, Jo said, “Hope I’m not calling too late.”
“No, I was doing a little work on the computer.”
“Well, I figured I should let you know I got the email. Both places sound like what I’m looking for, but I’m not sure how soon I’ll be getting back up that way.”
“I understand. You’ve got my number, call me.”
“And what shall I call you?”
Maria chuckled. “You’re quite amusing, Jo Marchal. Do you have any interest in the properties you looked at yesterday?”
“Possibly, but I’ve got to get a few things in order down here before I can get too serious about picking my new place.” Plus she needed to know the outcome of her dad’s tests before totally uprooting herself. She knew she was already leaning heavily toward one place, but she was enjoying the attention Maria was bestowing on her.
“Well, of course you do.” Jo thought she could listen to the sound of Maria’s voice forever. “If you have any questions at all or need any further information, please let me know.”
“That’s exactly what I plan to do.”
Glad that she had found the courage to call, Jo leaned her head back and soaked in the country quiet. Eyes closed, she played through the clips of Maria West she had stored in her mind.
Maria considered Kathleen’s appraisal of Jo Marchal and decided the cowgirl’s sexuality didn’t change her opinion of the woman she was getting a glimpse of. Jo made her laugh and forget the difficulties in her own life, and she wanted more people in her life besides Kathleen who could do that. Heaven knows Jack had barely given her a reason to even smile in longer than she could remember.